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TOPIC: Background information (Phoenix & Turtle)

Background information (Phoenix & Turtle) 8 years 1 week ago #140

The Phoenix and the Turtle is an allegorical poem about the death of ideal love by William Shakespeare.

It was first published in 1601 as a supplement to a long poem by Robert Chester, entitled Love's Martyr. The full title of Chester's book explains the content:

Love's Martyr: or Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. A Poeme enterlaced with much varietie and raritie; now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato Caeliano, by Robert Chester. With the true legend of famous King Arthur the last of the nine Worthies, being the first Essay of a new Brytish Poet: collected out of diuerse Authenticall Records. To these are added some new compositions of seuerall moderne Writers whose names are subscribed to their seuerall workes, vpon the first subiect viz. the Phoenix and Turtle.

The "turtle" in the title is the turtle dove, not the shelled reptile. Chester prefaced his poem with a short dedication addressed to the phoenix and turtle-dove, traditional emblems of devoted love:

Phoenix of beautie, beauteous, Bird of any
To thee I do entitle all my labour,
More precious in mine eye by far then many
That feedst all earthly sences with thy savour:
Accept my home-writ praises of thy loue,
And kind acceptance of thy Turtle-doue


Chester's main poem is a long allegory, incorporating the story of King Arthur, in which the relationship between the birds is explored, and its symbolism articulated. It is followed by a brief collection short poems by the "least and chiefest of our moderne writers, with their names sub-scribed to their particular workes". These include, in addition to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston and the anonymous "Vatum Chorus" and "Ignotus". All use the same imagery.

Various interpretations have been offered for the subject matter of Shakespeare's poem. One theory places it as an allegorical celebration of the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and his wife Ursula Stanley, to whom Chester dedicated the book. Salusbury was a courtier at the court of Elizabeth I, and was a member of the powerful Salusbury Family of Wales. A difficulty with this view is the fact that the couple are known to have had ten children, but the poem refers to their relationship as a childless "married chastity". This "error" is corrected elsewhere in the collection. It may suggest that Shakespeare was misinformed about the couple, or that he simply took the theme of the phoenix and turtle-dove to explore the idea of perfect unity, as he was also to do in his sonnets.

In addition to an allegory of an ideal marriage, the poem can be seen as an elucidation of the relationship between truth and beauty, or of fulfilled love. Shakespeare introduces a number of other birds, drawing on earlier literature about the "parliament of birds", to portray the death of the lovers as the loss of an ideal that can only be lamented.
Last Edit: 2 years 8 months ago by William Shakespeare.
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