Birds of Shakespeare: The great cormorant

Fauna: 2 Great cormorants; prey: 2 capelins, 2 cunners, 2 mummichogs, 2 rock gunnels, 45 sand lances, 2 sculpins Objects: 7 Great cormorant eggs, 6 great cormorant feathers
Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) by Missy Dunaway
30×22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

With the cormorant, 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.


Great cormorants ((Phalacrocorax carbo) are slim and scraggly underwater hunters. They are frequently observed perched upright by the seaside, drying their outstretched wings in the breeze. They are adept swimmers who use their stiff tail feathers as a rudder and their wings as oars. Most of their bodies are submerged when swimming above water, leaving only their thin neck and head visible, resembling a snake.

Cormorant
The strange-looking cormorant was known as a foreteller of evil and doom. Illustration by Ulisse Aldrovandi, created between 1599 – 1603. Folger Shakespeare Library

Considering its ghoulish appearance, it’s no wonder that the cormorant was traditionally portrayed as a bird of doom and foreteller of evil.[1] However, by the sixteenth century, the cormorant’s reputation shifted, and the skilled underwater hunter became a symbol of insatiable hunger and gluttony.[2]

Shakespeare cleverly employs both interpretations in Troilus and Cressida to conjure a sinister image of conflict:

Troilus and Cressida (Act II, Scene 2, Line 2)

PRIAM: Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:
“Deliver Helen, and all damage else—
As honor, loss of time, travel, expense,
Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed
In hot digestion of this cormorant war—
Shall be struck off.”—Hector, what say you to ’t?

It seems that Shakespeare is using “cormorant” as an adjective to describe a never-ending war against an insatiable enemy. John of Gaunt also uses the word “cormorant” to describe greed in Richard II:

Richard II (Act II, Scene 1, Line 42)

GAUNT: With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder;
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

title page with a picture of a cormorant
The cormorant slightly shifted from a bad omen to a representation of greed, demonstrated in John Taylor’s 1622 story, “The Water-Cormorant His Complaint: Against a Brood of Land-Cormorants.” Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s greedy cormorant is mirrored in other seventeenth-century stories, suggesting its symbolism was well-known. In the 1622 text, “The Water-Cormorant His Complaint: Against a Brood of Land-Cormorants,” John Taylor writes from the perspective of various characters who are greedier than the cormorant, including a drunkard, cutpurse, extortioner, jailor, and lawyer:

The Cormorant is not easily induced to affability, nor I to flattery.
His best seruice is harsh and vnsociable, so is my style. His biting is sharpe and piercing, so is my phrase. His throat is wide and spacious, my subiect is spacious. His co­lour is blacke, I discouer deeds of darknesse. He grubs and spuddles for his prey in muddy holes and obscure cauerns, my Muse ferrits base debaushed wretches in their swinish dens.[3]

The cormorant indeed eats a vast amount of fish, but they are so proficient at hunting that it only takes twenty minutes to collect a day’s worth of sustenance. The Sui dynasty of China (581–618 ce) was the first to capitalize on the cormorant’s talent and intellect by training cormorants for fishing. This practice was later repeated by James I.[4]

Despite his evident passion for falconry, another sport featuring trained birds, Shakespeare never alludes to fishing with cormorants. He was likely aware of this amusing (albeit short-lived) trend in England, as his lifespan overlapped with James I.[5] Instead, he keeps it simple and uses the cormorant only to allude to appetite and greed.[6]

fish
The cormorant is so proficient at hunting, it was trained for fishing in China’s Sui dynasty and later by James I. In this painting detail, we find some of the great cormorant’s favorite prey. From left to right: sculpin, capelin, and rock gunnel with sand lances throughout.

[1] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 35.

[2] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 35.

[3] Taylor, John. “The Water-Cormorant His Complaint: Against a Brood of Land-Cormorants.” London : Printed by George Eld, 1622. Folger Shakespeare Library.

[4] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 260.

[5] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 260.

[6] Phipson, Emma. Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time. (Glastonbury, UK: Kegan Paul, 1883).