The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare: Summary and Analysis

The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare is an allegorical poem and is regarded as one of the vague poems of English literature. Because of its obscure content, many contradictory interpretations are found about the poem. Many critics agree that this poem is the first published metaphysical poem.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

This poem is an elegy in the sense that it is a mourning poem on the death of the famous Phoenix and his faithful lover Turtle dove.  In the poem, the birds become one in love and die together in a fire. When the poem begins, many birds are called for the funeral procession of the dead loving birds. For that funeral, some birds are not summoned such as the ‘brutal scream owl’ (Stanza 2) and ‘fowls of tyrant wing’ (Stanza 3). But the eagle, a ‘feathered king’ (Stanza 3) is invited, and a swan is given the responsibility to act as ‘the priest in surplice white’ (Stanza 4).

The poem moves on further describing the loving relationships of phoenix and the turtle dove. Their love is strong and pure that they have become one and even longer distances cannot do any separation. Though their physical bodies are miles away, they are united in the soul. Still being so true to love and faithful to each other, they cannot be one is the bitter truth for them. They faced the dismay in love and the tragic end.

The rest of the five stanzas are the lamentation of the birds gathered there for the funeral of the great lovers. Though they cannot be one while living, they unite after death and even the death cannot get the victory over them in terms of separating. As their love is not physical, but spiritual, they did not leave any descendants. The poem ends with a sad note that their death has brought the loss of truth and beauty on that day and the supporter of truth and beauty should do a funeral prayer for their souls.

The symbolic or allegorical meaning of "The Phoenix and the Turtle" is open to interpretation. It is believed that the birds represent Queen Elizabeth I and the Second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. Devereux had distinguished himself in a military campaign in The Netherlands against the Spanish in 1586 and went on to become a favorite of the queen. But he provoked her anger when he took part in a Portugal campaign without her consent and then, in 1590, married the widow of writer Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586). However, he regained her favor after leading an English force against France in 1591 and enhanced his position at court by uncovering an alleged murder plot against the queen in 1594. But after he participated in further military exploits against the Spanish in 1596 and 1597, he fell in disfavor because of his unruliness and ambition, and on one occasion the queen even slapped him. On a campaign against rebels in Ireland, he suffered a defeat and made an objectionable treaty. Consequently, Elizabeth stripped him of his estates and political offices. In 1601, he led a failed uprising against the queen and was executed for treason in the Tower of London. Interpreted against this background, the poem could mean that the love between Elizabeth and Essex simply burned itself out, like the phoenix and the dove in the poem.