Shakespeare and hawking

Shakespeare, Smith, and hawking

Shakespeare loved birds.  As Caroline Spurgeon notes in her classic work on Shakespeare’s Imagery, of the many animals that Shakespeare mentions, it’s birds that he refers to most often:  “Of the large animal group, the outstanding point is the great number drawn from birds.  If we except the human body, . . . Shakespeare’s images from birds form by far the largest section drawn from any single class of objects.”  In her list of the many images he derived from birds, she notes “the soaring of the eagle and of the hawk, the ‘fell swoop’ of the kite . . . the confident flight of the falcon, ‘towering in her pride of place . . . .’” (48-9. Although Spurgeon’s book is online at, these pages on birds are not included.)

In Chapter III where she compares Shakespeare’s imagery with that of other writers, she notes: “He has more images of riding and of bird-snaring and falconry than of any other forms of outdoor sport, and in both these groups there is evidence of personal experience” (30-1).  She notes his use of falconry terms in describing Macbeth’s guilty anguish, “Come seeling night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day” (3.2); seeling being the falconer’s term for covering, or scarfing up, the eyes of a bird to keep her quiet on the perch or on the fist until it’s time to fly.

Few of us today are as steeped in bird lore, particularly in hawking, as was Shakespeare.  In ancient times, a form of hunting for small game, by his time hawking had become a sport reserved for gentlemen and the nobility, largely because it required the expense of having a falconer on staff and a fully equipped mews (outbuilding) for the birds.  (Where the Stratford woolman’s son might have picked up this kind of knowledge has not yet been demonstrated.)

For us, there’s a blog, The Birds of Shakespeare, that can tell us something about the peregrine falcon, the particular “hawk” Shakespeare had in mind.  These essays by Sir Archibald Geike, a 19th-century Scottish geologist, President of the Royal Geological Society among other honours, and clearly a lover of birds and of Shakespeare, were eventually published in book form in 1916.  Click on home at the bottom of the essay on the falcon, to find a list of all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare, with a little essay on each.  Geike does much more justice to the subject than I can. (Knowing nothing of Oxford and his childhood on the Thames, he can be forgiven his occasional reference to Stratford.)

Shakespeare and the “haggard hawk”

Many have noted Shakespeare’s fondness for the metaphor that compares a fickle woman to a “haggard hawk.”  It appears in Othello (3.3), in Much Ado (3.1), and most notably in Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruccio demonstrates how to tame a shrewish bride with the same methods used for training a falcon: denying food, sleep, etc..  Shakespeare invariably refers to hawks as “she,” because it is the female, or peregrine falcon, that’s used for hunting, since the female is bigger, stronger and faster than the male.  Haggard is the falconer’s term for a bird whose training came too late, leaving her inclined to take off on her own, ignoring his whistle to return, and so causing him hours of worried effort, perhaps losing her altogether to the wild.

Although “haggard hawk” as a term is found in other works of the period, no one but Shakespeare used it consistently as a metaphor for a wayward woman.  That is, no one but the Earl of Oxford, whose early poems show the same comparisons in almost the exact same terms, as J.T. Looney points out in Shakespeare Identified (139-40): #F “haggard”:

Shakespeare uses it five times, and out of these no less than four are when he uses the word as a figure of speech in referring to fickleness or indiscipline in women.  In Othello it is used identically  as in the poem by de Vere, meaning a woman who “flies from man to man.

If I do find her haggard,
Though that her jesses, were my dear heart strings,
I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind
To play at fortune. (3.3)

Even the sentiment and idea are exactly the same as in de Vere’s poem:

Like haggards wild they range,
These gentle birds that fly from man to man,
Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist
And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list?

In the same poem he speaks of making “a disport” of “training them to our lure,” which is quite suggestive of this from Taming of the Shrew: “For then she never looks upon her lure.  Another way I have to man my haggard, to make her come and know her keeper’s call.” (4.1)

Again de Vere speaks of the subtle oaths, the fawning and flattering by which men “train them to their lure” in exactly the same vein as that in which Hero in Much Ado says:  “Then go we near her, that her ear lose nothing of the false sweet bait that we lay for it.  I know her spirits are as coy and wild as haggards of the rock” (3.1).  In making this comparison we have not had before us a large number of instances out of which it was possible to select a few that happened to be similar.  What we have in this instance is, as a matter of fact, a complete accordance at all points in the use of an unusual word and figure of speech. Indeed if we make a piece of patchwork of all the passages in Shakespeare in which the word haggard occurs we can virtually reconstruct de Vere’s single poem on “Women.”

Where would Oxford have gotten this image, that was so dear to him, and to Shakespeare, that it appears almost unchanged in their various works?

Smith and hawking

From age four to eight or nine, Edward de Vere lived with Sir Thomas Smith in his manor Ankerwycke on the bank of the Thames, across from the vast wetlands or water meadow known as Runnymede.  Such marshes were then and still are home to hundreds of water birds of all sorts, among them several mentioned by Shakespeare (and Geike). With falcons, they would have been able, by standing on dry land on their own shore, to hunt these birds: ducks, geese, grebes, cormorants, without having to get their feet wet in the marshy reeds of the bird-infested wetlands.

That Smith was fond of hawking is shown in several of his letters (Dewar 78, 192).  This means that, like most men in his position, he would have had a mews for the birds and a falconer as a permanent member of his staff.  Thus, as a boy, Oxford had proximity to at least two men, and probably more, who were steeped in the lore of falconry, and so had personal experience of hunting waterbirds and small animals, more particularly rabbits (the eternal bane of the gardener) with a hawk perched on his wrist.  He knew how to hurl her off, watching her swift climb and dizzying descent, in which falcons have been known to achieve  an astonishing speed of over four miles per minute!  A feat that, as one who was fascinated by motion (as Spurgeon notes), would surely have impressed the budding Shakespeare.

If that’s who Oxford was, he may have gotten not only the experience of hawking from Smith, but the metaphor as well.  Smith was uncomfortable with women.  As Dewar puts it, using Smith’s own terms: “He simply did not like women very much.  They were tiresome, ‘wayward,’ their pleasures were ‘frivolous’, they have no discretion” (Smith 172).  He found it difficult to deal with Queen Elizabeth (as his letters and other records show), and equally with his own wife (203-07).

In works included by Strype at the end of his biography, Smith uses hawk metaphors twice.  In Part IV of his Orations for and against the Queen’s marriage, wherein he argues against marriage to a foreigner, listing in order their negative traits, he writes:  “The Italians be so jealous that almost every private man there doth not think himself sure of his wife except he keep her close in a mew, as here in England men keep their hawks.” (233).  It’s clear the comparison had occurred to him, probably more than once.

5 thoughts on “Shakespeare and hawking

  1. I am no expert on falconry, and only repeat what I’ve read in books and articles by people who are, and who tend to dismiss the Book of St. Albans as unreliable. Hunting would certainly have been restricted by the size of the falcon allowed; female peregrines, the largest and strongest falcons and so able to capture the largest birds and animals, were reserved for male members of the upper nobility. Whether or not a person used the bird allowed for his or her social level, the care and feeding of such birds would have restricted it to those who could afford it. Perhaps the confusion is resolved by understanding that noble households held persons of all age and degree, many of whom may have been allowed to join the master’s hunting parties.

    In any case, the point of this essay is that Sir Thomas Smith left records showing that he enjoyed falconry; Oxford spent 8 of his growing years with Smith; Shakespeare was knowlegable about falconry; ergo to wit . . . .

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