Birds of Shakespeare: The barnacle goose

Barnacle Goose
Painting by Missy Dunaway. Click the image to see the painting key.

Join artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species.

Each month we’ll feature a new bird from her Birds of Shakespeare series on Shakespeare & Beyond, beginning today with the barnacle goose. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website BirdsofShakespeare.com.


Shipwreck in The Tempest
John Gerard speculated that barnacle geese were born from driftwood that originated from shipwrecks. How fitting that the barnacle goose’s singular mention in Shakespeare’s work appears in The Tempest, a play which begins with a shipwreck.

The word “goose” appears twenty-nine times in Shakespeare’s works. However, only one mention of “barnacles” can confidently be attributed to the barnacle goose,[i] found in The Tempest. Caliban warns Stephano and Trinculo to be quiet and move quickly, or they risk being discovered by the powerful magician, Prospero, who could turn them “to barnacles, or to apes.”

The Tempest; Act IV, Scene 1, line 244

Caliban: I will have none on’t: we shall lose our time,
And all be turn’d to barnacles, or to apes
With foreheads villanous low.

Apes are a straightforward symbol of transformation for today’s audience because they allude to human evolution. However, Shakespeare’s choice to link apes with transformation is coincidental foreshadowing, as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution would not appear for another two hundred and fifty years with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

On the other hand, the barnacle goose was an unmistakable symbol of metamorphosis for a seventeenth-century audience. The barnacle goose breeds and raises its young in Greenland and the arctic, so its reproductive process was mysterious. Each year, the geese flew south to descend upon northern Scotland, Ireland, and the British Isles, inspiring ideas of how the species repopulated.

The sixteenth-century Italian mathematician Gerolamo Cardano argued that the birds dropped their eggs into the ocean, and the waves whisked them into seafoam, which turned into barnacles, then geese.[ii] Others proposed the geese started their life journey as the downy buds of the willow tree.[iii] A riddle in the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon codex, Exeter Book of Riddles, suggested the geese were born from driftwood. The latter theories may be credited with giving the barnacle goose the alternative name of “tree goose.”[iv]

Exeter Book of Riddles, Riddle 10

My nose was in narrowness, beneath the water,
a flood underflowing, sunk deep in the ocean’s current,
and I sprung forth in my swimming,
covered over by waves, near those ones
sailing in wood, by my body.
I keep a quick spirit, when I come
from the embraces of waves and wood,
in black garments—some of my bangles
were white, when the breeze heaves me up,
pulsing with life, the wind from the waves,
after that it bears me widely across the seal’s bath.
Say what I am called. [v]

Tree geese in Topographia Hiberniae
An illustration of the “tree geese” found in the margins of Topographia Hibernia by Gerald of Wales, c 1196-1223. Scan found in the Digitised Manuscripts collection of the British Library – Royal MS 13 B VIII

The English herbalist John Gerard echoes the riddle’s answer in The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). Gerard even includes a compelling, although fabricated, eye-witness account of handling the goslings after watching them evolve from rotten wood:

There is a small Island in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders, wherein are found the broken pieces of old and bruised ships, some whereof have beene cast thither by shipwracke, and also the trunks and bodies with the branches of old and rotten trees, cast up there likewise; whereon is found a certaine spume or froth that in time breedeth unto certaine shells, in shape like those of the Muskle… which in time commeth to the shape and forme of a Bird: when it is perfectly formed the shell gapeth open, and the first thing that appeareth is the fore-said lace or string; next come the legs of the bird hanging out, and as it growth greater it openeth the shell by degrees, til at length it is all come forth, and hangeth onely by the bill… that which I have seene with mine eies, and handled with mine hands, I dare confidently avouch, and boldly put down for verity.[vi]

According to Gerard, the barnacle goose came from rotten driftwood, which “breedeth” into a small crustacean like a mussel, which grows into a gosling. He describes explicitly gooseneck barnacles, named after the same myth. If one accepts the lateral logic of the early modern era and engages their imagination, one can appreciate why naturalists connected these two unlikely animals. They share a striking amount of aesthetic similarities—at least, as many as one could hope for between a crustacean and a goose.

Gooseneck barnacles cluster by the thousands, tethered to the rocky coastlines of northern England and Scotland. Aside from inhabiting the same geographic location and coastal habitat, these barnacles have a distinctive goose-like neck, or peduncle, that allows the rock-bound creature to float with the tides, suspended in the water. A fibrous, feather-like arm scoops forward debris and plankton for food.[vii] The base of the peduncle, where it meets the barnacle shell, has a black and white scalloped pattern that is not so different from the patterning displayed on the goose’s breasts and flanks.

Not all early modern naturalists accepted Gerard’s account, including Pierre Belon, a contemporary of Gerard who ridiculed his barnacle goose observations.[viii] Other scientific minds shared Belon’s skepticism, and yet the belief was well-accepted enough that the fowl was considered a proper meal during Lent because it was part fish and not born from flesh.[ix] Although the theory’s validity died, the myth lives on as a primary example of the ancient and medieval concept of “spontaneous generation”—the belief that living things could come from non-living matter.


ENDNOTES

[i] Schmidt, A., Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, 3rd ed, (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 78, 486.

[ii] Buckeridge, J., and Watts, R., “Illuminating our World: An Essay on the Unraveling of the Species Problem, with Assistance from a Barnacle and a Goose,” Humanities, Earth & Oceanic Systems Group, RMIT University, Melbourne, October 15, 2012.

[iii] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 247-256.

[iv] Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Norton Anthology. 2nd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W Norton, 2008. 3106. Print.

[v] Chambers, R. W., Max Förster, and Robin Flower. 1933. The Exeter book of Old English poetry. London: Printed and Pub. for the dean and chapter of Exeter cathedral by P. Lund, Humphries & Co., Ltd.

[vi] Gerard, J. Gerard’s Herbal. Studio Editions Ltd. (Guernsey: The Guernsey Press Co Ltd., 1994), Pg. 283-284.

[vii] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, 253-255.

[viii] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, 253-255.

[ix] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 68-69.