Shakespeare’s poem now known as “The Phoenix and Turtle” (or as “The Phoenix and the Turtle”) appears to be his only occasional poem. It was first printed without any title as one of a handful of additional poems in Robert Chester’s 1601 Loves Martyr or, Rosalins Complaint. Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue, in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle. At the end of Chester’s long poem we find Shakespeare’s contribution above his name, “William Shake-speare”; included with it, besides some anonymous pieces, are poems by three other contemporary dramatists and poets: John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson. These poems are collected after a title page that reads “Hereafter Follow Diverse Poeticall Essaies on the former Subiect; viz: the Turtle and Phoenix. Done by the best and chiefest of our moderne writers, with their names subscribed to their particular workes: neuer before extant. And (now first) consecrated by them all generally, to the loue and merite of the true-noble Knight, Sir Iohn Salisburie.”
In the classical tradition, the phoenix is a mythological creature that is unique and that consumes itself in fire from the ashes of which another phoenix is born; because it regenerates in this way, it is not characterized as either male or female (although Shakespeare does make her female in Sonnet 19). Ordinarily, too, the turtledove, the symbol of constancy, is female, as it is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls and in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare, in making the phoenix female and giving her a male consort in the turtledove, thus seems to begin with Chester’s version of the phoenix myth.
The great beauty of Shakespeare’s poem has often been thought to lie in its rigorous economy of expression. However, it is just this feature that also gives rise to the great variety of interpretations to which the poem has been subject. It has not even been clear to all readers that it is a single poem. Some few have read its final five stanzas, titled “Threnos” (a dirge), as an independent poem. There has been widespread disagreement about whether Shakespeare presents his phoenix as dying, together with the turtledove, in a fire from which a new phoenix is born, or he presents the couple dying without necessarily producing offspring. Since the poem refers to them as “leaving no posterity,” the latter possibility seems the more persuasive.
Readers have also diverged over the significance of the poem’s action. Some have read the poem as a celebration of the physical union in love of the phoenix and turtle. Others prefer a mystical reading in which the phoenix and turtle transcend the material world to become one as they approach a Christian heaven, from which they may or may not return. Others who favor transcendence offer a philosophical, often Neoplatonic, reading of the poem. There are also those who have attempted to link the birds to particular historical personages, Queen Elizabeth and the earl of Essex being particular favorites, though such historical interpretations of the poem no longer command wide assent.
The poem is divided into three principal sections. The first five stanzas may be called the “session,” or sitting, a word from the poem itself that describes the assembling of the birds to sing the second section, called the “anthem,” or song. This second section, of eight stanzas, celebrates the love of the phoenix and turtle in a series of paradoxes, or apparent contradictions, that sometimes use philosophical and theological language to describe the indescribable—two becoming one through their love. Finally, at the end of the anthem we are introduced to an allegorical figure called Reason who is the author of the third and last part of the poem, the “Threnos.” In this beautiful poem, many readers find the last part, written with extreme economy in tercets, the most beautiful.