William Shakespeare: The Phoenix and Turtle
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a charming poem, but hard to fully fathom.

Per Bevington:  Published in 1601 in a collection of poems called "Love's Martyr: Or, Rosalins Complaint" by Robert Chester. It contains various poetic exercises about the phoenix and the turtle by multiple writers of the day. The phoenix is the legendary bird which is consumed in flame and reborn in its own ashes.. The turtle is the turtledove, emblem of pure constancy in affection. The poem portrays their mystical oneness, the joining of their two spirits into one. Uses pre tetrameter quatrains and triplets.


A variety of birds are assembling to celebrate funeral rites for the deceased phoenix and turtle[dove]. Let the loudest bird [?nightingale] sit on the unique Arabian tree in which the phoenix builds its nest and sings the lay to call the birds together. 5 The screech owl, a prognosticator of death, should stay away. 10 Birds of prey should also stay away, other than the eagle. 17 The swan in white can sing the requiem. 17 The crow will also attend. 21 The anthem commences, love and constancy has died with their deaths. 25 They loved as a couple but had the essence of one, "two distincts, division none". The concept of numbers [one versus two] was meaningless for them. 29 There was no distance between their hearts. 33 Between them love did shine, they belonged to each other. 37 Their selves were merged. 41 Reason was confounded by their paradoxical union, and cried that with them love seemed reasonable but reason seemed unreasonable. Reason makes the following funeral song (lamentation):

Threnos: Beauty, truth (constancy in love) and rarity are enclosed in the urn of cinders. 56 For all eternity the phoenix and turtle will rest. 59 They left no posterity, consistent, with their mystical trothplight. 62 With their burial true fidelity and beauty has gone away. 65 Those who are true or fair should sigh a prayer for these dead birds.