Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shakespeare, Hamlet and "The Cocke Crows"

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Today is the 451st anniversary of his birth!

In the last two years I have tried to do something special for the Bard’s birthday.

Two years ago, I encouraged you to make a Shakespeare Wish.

Last year, I solved the final pieces to the puzzle of the meaning of Shylock’s name. Yes, “Shylock” means “Shakespeare.”

This year, I have something very special to present to you.

Lately, I have been fascinated by Shakespeare’s fascination with birds.

Yes, birds.

The first reason is because Shakespeare’s name would have sounded like Shags-bird if spoken in his Early Modern English accent.

The second reason is because I recently solved the meaning of the name Malvolio, from Twelfth Night — who is constantly referred to as a stupid “gull” — which loosely translates as a “bird that can’t fly.”

Stephen Fry as Malvolio, with Mark Rylance as Olivia

So, this has become a very interesting area of investigation for me.

According to one Shakespearean researcher, Amanda Mabillard, Shakespeare wrote more about birds than any other poet.

It reminded me of the fact that a rival Elizabethan playwright, Robert Greene, insulted Shakespeare as “an upstart crow.”

It also reminds me of the wonderful researcher/blogger Sylvia Morris, who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon. 

She has written some very nice pieces (here, here, and here) about Shakespeare’s fascination with birds. She also seems to enjoy bird watching herself. 

From what she has written about bird-watching, it would seem that there is a long history of bird-watching in Stratford, and it would seem that Shakespeare had an unusually deep understanding and appreciation for birds.

Why would they fascinate him so much?

Perhaps it is because he loved Ovid, particularly his Metamorphoses, in which humans transform into animals — like “Nyctimene, Changed to an owl for her dark sins.”

Nyctimene “is so ashamed of herself that she will not be seen by daylight.”

Minerva transforms Nyctimene into an owl, Johann Wilhem Bauer, 1641

I can easily imagine William Shakespeare, seeing and watching birds every day of his life. With his observant and creative mind, he probably saw human characteristics in birds, and saw people who acted like birds.

And since he lived in such a rural area, before the modern world which has disrupted so much of the natural world and behaviour of birds, he would have heard birds. A lot. Like a rooster crowing at dawn.

I know nothing about birds, but I know enough that the morning belongs to them. I can hear them chirping and singing very loudly.

400 years ago, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, he would have seen, watched and heard birds in a way that most of us do not any longer.

He may have wondered to himself if the world was not in fact made for birds, and humans were just guests.

During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, she was famous for her Phoenix portrait, and Pelican portrait. 

The Phoenix Portrait, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1575

The Pelican Portrait, attributed to Hilliard, 1575

Shakespeare’s own Phoenix and the Turtle poem also compares her to the mythical bird that “symbolizes rebirth and chastity.”

The pelican symbolizes “self-sacrifice.”

In other words, Shakespeare lived in a time that was steeped in symbolism, especially regarding animals, including birds.

Not long ago, I explored the meaning of the name Portia, from The Merchant of Venice, and found that the name is derived from the Latin “porcus” or “porcius” which means “pig.”

So, was Shakespeare’s Portia good and merciful, or was she a gluttonous pig?

I recently saw a marvelous production of Merchant, where the actress Valerie Dowdle played Portia as a greedy diva. It works a lot better than Portia as a good princess.

With these thoughts in mind, I started looking at the plays for references to birds.

Immediately, Hamlet caught my eye.

In the first scene, the word “cock” meaning “rooster” is mentioned 4 times.

Shakespeare only used this word 31 times in his plays.

He used this same word 7 times in Hamlet.

The first time the word is written in Hamlet is in the very first scene, when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears:

“The cocke crows”

From the Olivier film of Hamlet

It struck me that this may be the one and only time in any Shakespeare play where he wrote — not as dialogue, but as a stage direction — a bird making a sound.

Is there another play where he wrote stage direction for a bird call?

Arguably the most famous bird in any Shakespeare play is in Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth hears the “owl scream” while Macbeth murders King Duncan.

But Shakespeare did not write any stage direction for the owl’s scream.

This suggests that there is may have not been a screaming owl. What if she heard a bird that was not there?

After all, earlier she says: “The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements.”

So, what does she mean when she speaks of birds?

Does she just likes to speak of birds, or is it something else?

In this dark psychological thriller, is she perhaps hearing bird sounds in her head in a dissociative manner similar to seeing blood stains on her hands that are not there — and similar to Macbeth’s seeing a dagger that is not there?

So, in Hamlet, why did Shakespeare include a rooster crow at all?

He could have left out any bird whatsoever.

Why was it important to have the Ghost appear at this time of the morning, the dawn, when the sun is about to appear?

Wouldn’t it make sense to have him appear at midnight? Or even a little later, when it is the darkest time of night, in the very dead of the night?

In the very beginning of Hamlet, Shakespeare seems to have created a riddle. He is challenging his audience to solve a puzzle.

Also, to make the puzzle even more challenging, when the play first begins, the clock has just “struck twelve” — midnight.

And then not long after that, about 130 lines later, a rooster crows -- marking dawn!

Of course, roosters can and do crow whenever they want, but that is in the real world. 

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not the real world. Shakespeare is in command of the story, and it would appear that he decided to include the cock crow for a specific reason.

What makes this mystery a little more deeper is the fact that the word “cock” can also mean “God.”

Ophelia Goes Mad by Walter Paget

In fact, later in the play, Ophelia sings:

Indeed, la, without an oath, I'll make an end on't:
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

“By cock” means “By God.”

“By Gis” means “By Jesus.”

In this moment, Ophelia is clearly mad, and even makes a bawdy pun at God’s expense, but it would seem that Shakespeare is drawing our attention to other meanings for this word.

Only one other time did Shakespeare use the word “cock” to mean “God.” In The Taming of the Shrew “Cock’s passion” refers to God.

Therefore, did Shakespeare want us to think of God when “The cocke crows?”

What religious significance does Shakespeare’s rooster have?

The first thing I think of is Peter’s denial of Jesus.

The Denial of Saint Peter, by Caravaggio, 1610

It is one of the most famous stories in the entire Bible, and would have been a very common subject in Elizabethan sermons. It was also the subject of much Renaissance art, such as Caravaggio's painting, above, which was painted only 9 years after Hamlet.

During the Last Supper, Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows.

In the 1599 Geneva Bible: “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before thou hast thrice denied that thou knewest me.”

There might be many reasons why Shakespeare included a rooster in Hamlet.

But it would seem that the most logical reason was because when Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus talk about “the crowing of the cock” during a scene in which a Ghost is on stage, Shakespeare wanted his Elizabethan audience to think of Jesus, who was executed and who rose again.

But why?

When I wrote my version of Hamlet, I discovered how very political the play was when it was first written.

When we watch the play today, we don’t consider what it meant politically, in its original historical context. 

It’s a fascinating tragic drama, and has some of the greatest characters in literature and theatre. But that is just one level to the play.

My versions of Hamlet, Richard III and Merchant of Venice reveal the other levels to the plays.

When Shakespeare wrote and performed Hamlet for the first time in history, in late 1601, it was only a few months after the greatest political threat that Queen Elizabeth I faced in her long reign — the Essex Rebellion.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Her royal "favourite" the Earl of Essex, with 300 of some of the finest young men in the country, had tried to overthrow the queen and her court.

For his punishment, Essex was executed.

Essex had been Shakespeare’s friend and artistic patron. We don’t know how close they were, but it would seem that Shakespeare had been writing plays on behalf of and to politically promote Essex for almost his entire career to that point.

Essex appears again and again in Shakespeare’s plays — as Prince Hal and later as King Henry V, as Benedick, as Berowne, etc.


For many people, those people who knew him personally, and the public which adored this dashing, and heroic young man, Essex was the obvious heir to the queen, who in 1601 was 67 years old. 

By 1601, it was clear that her reign would not last much longer, and Shakespeare was like many people who believed that Essex, had he become a king, would “have proved most royally.”

After Essex was executed, the queen would “sit in the dark, and sometimes with shedding tears to bewail Essex" — like Nyctimene who was “so ashamed of herself that she will not be seen by daylight.”

Queen Elizabeth I, around 1601

In other words, night was falling on Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and Essex had represented the dawn of a new golden age.

But then he was executed.

I have a theory that Shakespeare, in his grief and fear and doubt about the future, channeled all that energy into writing Hamlet and performed it for the first time on the anniversary of Essex’s birth — 10 November.

If Essex could not have a public funeral, then Shakespeare's play would celebrate his life and his death, and serve as a funeral rite of sorts.

The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602-3

So, why did Shakespeare put “The cocke crows” at the begging of the play?

Was Shakespeare creating an association in the mind of the audience between Essex and Jesus?

Jesus was resurrected. Shakespeare could not have meant that Essex would be physically resurrected.

But in the form of the Hamlet play that Shakespeare had written and was now performing, Essex would have a life beyond the grave.

Perhaps Shakespeare hoped that generations of audiences would remember Essex as they watched this play that would “Speak loudly for him.”

What do you think?


David B. Schajer

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