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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Shakespeare Snared


What was Shakespeare’s fascination with birdlime?

Birdlime is a sticky substance which is spread on twigs and branches to catch birds.

A bird caught in birdlime

In his fantastic biography of Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd observes that the playwright was “preoccupied with the liming of birds” and that “he responds eloquently to the idea of being checked or free flight being hampered; the picture of a bird struggling to be free impressed itself upon him.”

Shakespeare refers to birdlime and birds caught in birdlime often in his plays.

Ackroyd refers to two examples: when Claudius prays on his knees in Hamlet and cries “O limed soul… struggling to be free” and the bush “limed” for the Duchess of Gloucester in Henry VI Part 2.

But there are many more examples.

In Two Gentleman of Verona, Proteus advises Thurio: 

PROTEUS
As much as I can do, I will effect:
But you, Sir Thurio, are not sharp enough;
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rhymes
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows.

In All’s Well That Ends Well, Mariana warns Diana not to get trapped by men:

MARIANA
I know that knave; hang him! one Parolles: a
filthy officer he is in those suggestions for the
young earl. Beware of them, Diana; their promises,
enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these engines of
lust, are not the things they go under: many a maid
hath been seduced by them; and the misery is,
example, that so terrible shows in the wreck of
maidenhood, cannot for all that dissuade succession,
but that they are limed with the twigs that threaten
them.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Ursula and Hero plot to trap Beatrice, and make her fall in love with Benedick:

URSULA
She's limed, I warrant you: we have caught her, madam.

In Twelfth Night -- which is full of bird references, especially "gull" -- Malvolio declares that “I have limed her” as he fools himself into thinking that he has caught Olivia.

In Macbeth, Lady Macduff refers to her son as a bird:

LADY MACDUFF
Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.

In The Tempest, Trinculo tells Caliban to put lime on his fingers, to make him a better thief.

In Othello, Iago says he can’t think of anything to say because his thoughts are sticky like birdlime.

In Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare writes “Birds never limed no secret bushes fear.”

A birdwatcher gathers twigs to catch birds with lime

I think it is important to consider all of the ways in which Shakespeare creates the image of a bird caught.

It is curious that most of the time he uses the image in regards to love and falling in love, or catching someone as if catching a bird.

But I think there is more to it than that.

As I have written before, Shakespeare was fascinated by birds.

I wrote about the rooster crowing in Hamlet - here.

I wrote about how Shakespeare may have been a lecherous "sparrow" - here.

He wrote about them constantly, and arguably used bird allusions more than any other poet.

As a boy growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, he must have seen birds every day of his life, and perhaps had a keen interest in them — watching them, and observing their behaviour.

And very likely, he saw birds caught in lime, and how they struggled in vain to free themselves.

I have to think that this sight did not please him.

Even as a schoolboy, he read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This book, more than most, had a great influence on his imagination.

He was probably thrilled by the stories about humans turning into animals and animals into humans. Ovid was presenting a nature where there is little difference between animals and humans.

Cygnus (on the right)
metamorphoses into a swan

Perhaps from the time he was a boy, he may have thought of himself as a bird. 

After all, the name Shakespeare would have been spelled many ways, including Shaxbeard, and Shagspur, and so forth.

That means that his name could have been spelled and pronounced like Shagspeare, or maybe even Shagsbird. 

I don’t know if he ever saw a shag bird, also known as a cormorant, but he knew well enough that it was a bird that eats greedily. From the Bible he would have learned that the cormorant is considered an “unclean” bird.

A European Shag

The (now obsolete) word “cormorous” means greedy, insatiable, ravenous. 

Shakespeare uses the word “cormorant” in four plays, as a synonym for “voracious.”

Therefore, the shag bird, or cormorant, had a hold on his imagination. I think it was, for lack of a better description, the animal he most thought of to describe himself.

It is curious that in Ackroyd’s book, he describes how Shakespeare borrowed from other writers, imitated their style, and so forth. As Ackroyd writes, Shakespeare “was indeed a great cormorant of other writers’ words.”

Ackroyd also accurately describes how Shakespeare, in addition to everything else he did, would have occasionally acted as a money-lender and money-broker.

When he wrote The Merchant of Venice, which I consider the most personal play he ever wrote, he invented the name Shylock, for the Jewish money-lender.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock

The name Shylock is from the Hebrew word “shalach” which means “cormorant” — and therefore a “shag.”

It would seem that the name “Shylock” really means “Shags-bird” which means “Shakespeare.”

Shylock means Shakespeare. (more here)

I propose that Shylock is Shakespeare’s self-portrait.

To further support this theory, it is helpful to look at another discovery I made about the character Malvolio, from Twelfth Night.

Katherine Duncan-Jones, in her wonderful book, Ungentle Shakespeare, makes a entirely convincing argument that Shakespeare was the first actor to perform the role of Malvolio in early 1602. It can be argued that he wrote the role just for himself and no other actor.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio
and Mark Rylance as Olivia

Why did he write this role for himself? Because it was meant as a self-deprecating joke based on his Coat of Arms.

When we look at Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms — which he designed himself — at the top is a falcon with its wings not close to the body, nor fully extended, but rather in the middle. This position of the wings is called "shaking."

This bird is shaking with a spear in his talons: Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Coat of Arms

It is a bird that is about to take flight, but is not flying yet.

Doesn’t it also look like a bird caught in birdlime?

Doesn't the spear look like a birdlime twig?

I think that the name “Malvolio” should be translated as “bad flight” because Shakespeare, in early 1602, was at a low point in his life. He had endured many of the worst months of his life, after one of his artistic patrons was executed, and the other was still in the Tower.

In early 1602, he was uncertain where his life would lead him, and even if he had a future as a playwright any longer.

In other words, he was a bird that was stuck on the ground, and was not flying free in the air.

At this moment in his life, he probably felt like a bird snared by birdlime.

Cheers,




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