With the golden eagle, we continue following 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. 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.
The eagle soars throughout Shakespeare’s world, Renaissance literature, and beyond. James Edmund Harting speculates in The Birds of Shakespeare (1871) that the golden eagle is likely the only eagle species of which Shakespeare was aware.[i] If this is true, all 41 occurrences of the word “eagle” may be attributed to Aquila chrysaetos. Cymbeline holds the title for most eagle references with a count of 12 and employs all its aliases: “Roman eagle,” “Jove’s bird,” “holy eagle,” and “royal bird.”
Harting tells us that the Assyrians first embraced eagle iconography, which the Persians adopted, then passed on to the Romans.[ii] Today, the eagle is a national symbol for the United States, Scotland, Poland, Mexico, Nigeria, Ghana, Romania, and many others. For centuries, golden eagles have been used for falconry in the Eurasian steppes and the Altai Mountains where contemporary Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and China converge—a tradition that continues today.[iii] In Elizabethan England, golden eagles were perceived as too wild, powerful, and free to be tamed by human hands.[iv]
The eagle is an enduring symbol of strength and power because these qualities are exhibited in its natural behavior. It is one of the largest predatory birds in the world, with a lifespan of 23 years in the wild.[v] Its longevity reached mythical proportions in Renaissance folklore, which Shakespeare alludes to:
Timon of Athens (Act IV, Scene 3, Line 250)
APEMANTUS: Will these moist trees,
That have outlived the eagle, page thy heels,
And skip where thou point’st out?
When examining the eagle’s role in Shakespeare’s world, it helps to understand Renaissance attitudes toward humans and animals—a topic masterfully explored in Rebecca Anne Bach’s book, Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature: Shakespeare, Descartes, and Animal Studies (2020). Humans and animals lived side-by-side and were unified under the broad term “creatures” because God created all things.[vi] Any individual creature could rise above its born position through advanced intellect, morality, or proximity to God.[vii]
While beasts were pinned to the ground by four legs, birds were untethered and could carry themselves to the heavens. The bird closest to God was the one perceived to fly the highest: the eagle. For centuries, people believed that the eagle could gaze directly into the sun and fly to the heavens.[viii] It is depicted as Jove’s companion in Roman mythology and Zeus’s companion in Greek mythology. The tie between the golden eagle and Jove is so strong that Shakespeare refers to it as “Jove’s bird” and “the Roman eagle.”
Cymbeline (Act IV, Scene 2, Line 424)
SOOTHSAYER: I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged
From the spongy south to this part of the west,
There vanished in the sunbeams, which portends—
Unless my sins abuse my divination—
Success to th’ Roman host.
Like its master, the eagle takes on God-like qualities in Shakespeare’s landscape. It has an all-seeing, omniscient view over the world—the perfect position to judge men. Jove (also known as Jupiter) is often depicted astride an eagle in the sky, as seen in this stage direction from the final act of Cymbeline:
Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon
an eagle. He throws a thunderbolt. The Ghosts fall on
(Act V, Scene 4, Line 94)
The eagle’s religious associations make it the perfect emblem for the military and nobility. An army that portrayed the eagle’s image visually asserted that God was on its side. In Shakespeare, the eagle appears throughout the history plays, especially in military language and battle scenes. Characters use eagle terms to describe strong, masculine warriors and noblemen.[ix] In life, simple to ornate depictions of eagles were found in military clothing and artillery, painted onto tiles inside noble homes and castles, or gilded onto religious accessories.
Illustrations of various objects bearing an image of the eagle: a ceramic tile[x], a nobility wax seal[xi], and a floor tile from a noble home[xii]. Objects found in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collections.
As the paradigm of strength, the eagle is often used to illustrate power struggles and imbalances. In several Elizabethan folktales, the eagle is usurped by a smaller, clever creature.[xiii] In one such story, the bird kingdom holds a competition to determine the avian king. Birds compete to see who can fly the highest to win the title. The eagle soars above the rest, but unbeknownst to him, a tiny wren hitches a ride on his back and jumps above him at the last minute to win the crown.[xiv] Shakespeare uses the diminutive wren as a foil and unlikely challenge to the mighty eagle:
Richard III (Act I, Scene 3, Line 71)
RICHARD: I cannot tell. The world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.
One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a beetle who rolls an eagle egg out of its nest.[xv] In Cymbeline, Shakespeare draws from this fable to remind us that sometimes the simpler creature can still come out on top:
Cymbeline (Act III, Scene 3, Line 21)
BELARIUS [as Morgan]: And often, to our comfort, shall we find
The sharded beetle in a safer hold
Than is the full-winged eagle.
For every bird I research, I come across a fascinating piece of Renaissance folklore that is not mentioned by Shakespeare but is too good to omit. Like most myths swirling around the eagle, this belief starts with a true behavior. The golden eagle builds gigantic nests and adds to their immense size each year with large branches and even shed antlers.[xvi] Over the years, the inside of the nest accumulates years-old molted feathers decimated by mites. These ragged feathers are the origin of a curious legend that golden eagles have acidic feathers that endanger their helpless, downy offspring.[xvii] To protect the eaglets from the corrosive feathers, the parents bring the mythical eagle stone, or “aetites,” to nullify the acidity of the feathers.[xviii] I have included one aetites stone and a molted, mite-infested feather in my painting.
[i] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871).
[ii] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871).
[iii] Thomas, Claire. “On Horseback Among the Eagle Hunters and Herders of the Mongolian Altai.” The New York Times. 9 June 2021. (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/travel/mongolia-eagle-hunters.html, accessed on 28 June 2022).
[iv] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871).
[v] Robinson, R.A. (2005) BirdFacts: profiles of birds occurring in Britain & Ireland. BTO, Thetford (http://www.bto.org/birdfacts, accessed on 28 June 2022).
[vi] Bach, Rebecca Ann. Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature. New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 3.
[vii] Bach, Rebecca Ann. Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature. New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 12.
[viii] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871).
[ix] Bach, Rebecca Ann. Birds and Other Creatures in Renaissance Literature. New York: Routledge, 2018, p. 42.
[x] Tile. 13th century or 14th century. [Ceramics]. At: Victoria and Albert Museum. 5655-1901. (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O278325/tile-unknown/)
[xi] Seal Matrix. Ca. 1388-1393. [Metalwork]. Victoria and Albert Museum. 743-1904. (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O102690/seal-matrix-seal-unknown/)
[xii] Floor Tile. Ca. 1270-1300. [Ceramics]. At: Victoria and Albert Museum. 1310-1892. (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O86209/floor-tile-wessex-school/)
[xiii] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 76-77.
[xiv] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 76-77.
[xv] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 76-77.
[xvi] Hisget, Tony. “Golden Eagle.” National Park Service. 21 May 2021. (https://www.nps.gov/places/000/golden-eagle.htm#:~:text=Nests%20are%20huge%2C%20averaging%20some,feet%20tall%2C%208.5%20feet%20wide, accessed on 28 June 2022).
[xvii] Phipson, E., Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time, Facsimile ed., (Glastonbury: The Lost Library, 1883), p. 233.
[xviii] Phipson, E., Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time, Facsimile ed., (Glastonbury: The Lost Library, 1883), p. 233.