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Friday, February 02, 2007

Renaissance Pigeon Post

So, it turns out that Shakespeare was obsessed with pigeons. Most of them fly by pretty quickly. Hamlet calls himself "pigeon-livered" (2.2.573) -- a slightly less memorable phrase than "what a rogue and peasant slave am I?" or "what's he to Hecuba?" In Merchant, Salerio has some convoluted expression about the relative speed of "Venus' pigeons" when in heat (2.6.7). In Love's Labor's Lost Costard calls Moth a "pigeon egg of discretion," an expression that's really only tangentially related to pigeons themselves (5.1.71), though it seems to have brought these fine birds to Shakespeare's attention, since in the next scene Biron dismisses Boyet with the remark,

This fellow pecks up wit as pigeons pease,
And utters it again when God doth please. (5.2.316-7)

Something like that thought seems to have hung around in Shakespeare's mind until As You Like It, when a pigeon eating again becomes a trope for poor wit: when Rosalind spots Le Beau arriving "With his mouth full of news," Celia responds, "Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young" (1.2.89-91). So the pigeon, I guess, is associated with a kind of interpretive incompetence, pecking here and there for little bits which are then subsequently regurgitated for the benefit of others, but without being properly digested or internalized. Not at all like somebody combing Shakespeare search engines for references to pigeons, in order to write a blog post.

But maybe the weirdest pigeon-related scene occurs in a weird play, Titus Andronicus 4.3, in which Titus is ostensibly bonkers, shooting arrows (how do you do that with one hand?) up to the gods -- but actually, as we see in the next scene, into Saturninus' court. As he's doing this, someone else arrives on the scene:

"Enter the Clown with a basket and two pigeons in it."

Poor clown. He's just coming along with a little bribe to settle a conflict between his uncle and one of Saturninus's men, but then gets caught up in Titus's madness: Titus gives him a letter to deliver along with the pigeons, telling him that it's a supplication and that he'll be rewarded for delivering it. But in the next scene, when the clown turns up in court and hands the letter to Saturninus, he's sent off to be hanged.

No word on what happened to the pigeons. But I'm guessing they were already in a bad way.

  • At 2/02/2007 09:26:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    a slightly less memorable phrase than "what a rogue and peasant slave am I?" or "what's he to Hecuba?"

    Er, maybe that's not so memorable after all:

    "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba"

    Not to be a snot and all.


  • At 2/02/2007 09:28:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    P.S. This post is hilarious. Pigeon eating and interpretive incompetence is brilliant.


  • At 2/02/2007 10:39:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    But if we're going to get all persnickity:

    Q2: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to her"

    Q1,F: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba"

    Man, blog posts might put Notes and Queries out of business. I almost commented on Truewit's post with a question about what a Renaissance pigeon post would look like, and here we are. Love this reading of pigeons in Shakespeare, which I'll surely use the next time I come upon a pigeon reference in class ('cause I'm that kind of teacher).


  • At 2/02/2007 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    this is why I don't quote from memory. especially in front of these pedants!


  • At 2/02/2007 12:55:00 PM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Isn't there a reference in Romeo & Juliet to staying the plague by strapping pigeons to the affected areas? Maybe I'm thinking Duchess of Malfi... Will check...


  • At 2/02/2007 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Good memory, bdh.

    Duchess of Malfi: Bosola: "I would sooner eat a dead pigeon taken from the soles of the feet of one sick of the plague, than kiss one of you fasting" (2.1.38-40).

    As John Russell Brown tell us in a note, a broadsheet Remedies Against the Plague "told how the rump of a cock, pullet, or chicken should be bared and held to the plague-sore until the creature died; this should be repeated 'so long as any doe die,' for when all the poison is 'drawn forth' the bird will live."

    I imagine it can't be that easy to hold multiple live birds against a plague-sore, waiting for each one either to live or die. I wonder how long it would take for such a bird to give up the ghost?


  • At 2/02/2007 02:17:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    You know, when I was writing the post I remember thinking, "that can't quite be right, but maybe nobody'll call me on it." And it wasn't right -- but somebody did call me on it.

    Simplicius, that plague thing is amazing. Ah, early modern medicine. Good for so many ridiculous stories to make bored students laugh. Nervously. (Like when I explain the business about "mummy" when we're talking about Othello's handkerchief).


  • At 2/02/2007 11:13:00 PM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    For those interested in the source JR Brown is referring to (since he doesn't actually give it), it's T[homas] C[artwright], An hospitall for the diseased (1579; STC 4304). It was really popular, going into a number of editions right up to 1638.


  • At 2/11/2007 02:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    It's like he's George Costanza...


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