The turtle dove has been in steep decline during the last century.
The Phoenix and the turtle was written in 1601 to go in an anthology entitled Love’s Martyr. All the works in the anthology have the theme of the two birds.
Essentially the phoenix is married to the turtle dove. The pair love each other so completely that they grow like one another over the duration of their relationship. But times are changing. The pair die and when they die true love dies along with them – there will be no one as virtuous or in love as them ever again. They have been married but chaste – so they leave no children. They are buried and a variety of other birds come to mourn at the funeral. It is the end of a golden age.
There are lots of different interpretations and arguments which this post has no intention of covering. Suffice it to say each bird is the subject of academic speculation. It doesn’t help that Love’s Martyr is dedicated to Sir John Salusbury – a fairly obscure personage. In which case he logically should be the phoenix and his wife Ursula the dove. In any event there wasn’t a great deal of chastity involved as they had ten children. And let’s not get into the whole who was Shakespeare thing!
The phoenix is often, but not always, seen as straight forward enough – Elizabeth I was linked to the phoenix on more than one occasion. Most famously in 1575 Elizabeth featured in two portraits by Nicholas Hilliard. In one she is holding a pelican pendant – pinched from Catholic iconography- Elizabeth is stating that she is the mother of her nation and that like the pelican which wounds itself to feeds its young so she has made a great sacrifice for her people – i.e. her unwed state. The Phoenix Portrait pictured at the start of this post is a reminder that Elizabeth is unique and that having been consumed by the flames the phoenix arises from the ashes. This could be a reference to the near disaster of her mother’s fall from favour and the dangers she faced during the reign of Mary I. It could also reference the idea that the people of England should not fear for the future because a) the phoenix lives for 500 years before going up in smoke and b) just as the phoenix regenerates so the Crown will be reborn. Unfortunately in 1601 it was clear that Elizabeth wasn’t going to last much longer and there was the small issue of who would succeed her.
Which brings us neatly to the other birds in the poem, the mourners. One of them, the “bird of the loudest lay,” could very well be James VI of Scotland whilst the crow is often interpreted as being Shakespeare himself. Essentially its important to have some understanding of bird lore before attempting the allegorical meaning behind the poem. And many scholars take the view that it really is not the point of the poem to try and decipher the bird code at all. It could simply be that Shakespeare was effectively whistling very loudly whilst writing about the intangibility of true love and trying to distance himself from the Earl of Essex’s Rebellion. He must have been very aware of the possibility he would be associated with treason given that on the 7th February 1601 his players performed Richard II (and that didn’t end well for the monarch in question). Shakespeare was paid forty shillings by some of the earl’s supporters, the Earl rose in rebellion the following day with 300 supporters and marched on London – the play was some kind of signal- but Londoners didn’t take the hint. Shakespeare must have spent some time afterwards checking that his head was still on his shoulders.
So – let us get on to the turtle dove who is after all supposed to be the centre of this post. In Tudor times the turtle dove represented fidelity. If Elizabeth is the phoenix who then is the dove? Robert Devereux the 2nd earl of Essex remains a popular choice. The idea gained popularity in the 1960s with the analysis of William Matchett. Although, quite frankly, how rushing off to fight the Spanish in 1586 without permission, getting married without Elizabeth’s approval, referencing the queen’s “crooked carcass,” arriving back from Ireland uninvited, unannounced and bursting into the royal bedchamber before finally revolting and getting oneself beheaded could be described as fidelity is another matter entirely. One view is that the phoenix and the turtle dove have burned out their love for one another. It is then argued that Shakespeare was not writing a straight forward poem at all. He was doing something very dangerous – he was writing a pro Essex poem which basically turns the earl into a hero in the aftermath of his failed rising and subsequent execution on 26th February 1601.
And yes – there are many more theories about who the turtle dove might be but I think it’s time to move away from the topic as I could go around ever decreasing circles for some considerable time.
Incidentally Salusbury was knighted for his part in the suppression of Essex’s rebellion whilst his brother got himself executed in 1586 for supporting Mary Queen of Scots.
Bednarz, J. Shakespeare and the Truth of Love: The Mystery of ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’