Word of the Day: Crow

July 4, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

In 1592, Robert Greene provided what many now take to be crucial evidence of Shakespeare’s rise to fame in the London theatre scene when he mentioned, in his Groats-worth of Witte that

…there is an upstart Crow, beautiful with our feathers, that his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke vierse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceite the onely Shake-scene in a countrey..”

There is much to be discussed here, but – noting only that “Johannes fac totum” means something like ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ (‘Johnny-do-it-all’) – I shall concentrate specifically on the now famous description of Shakespeare as an “upstart Crow”. In particular, I shall reveal how Shakespeare himself uses the word, both to illuminate Greene’s insult and, as ever, to explore the myriad-mindedness of our playwright.

There are fifty uses of the word “crow” in the plays and poems, but not all of them refer to the bird. For example, neither Friar Lawrence nor Antipholus of Ephesus make use of avian assistance to break down, respectively, the door of the Capulet monument or that of their own house, but rather demand what we now call a ‘crow-bar’, so named for its resemblance either to the bird’s beak or talons.

When the crow does appear in Shakespeare’s writing, it is not to its beak nor its talons but, as with Greene, to its feathers that reference is often made. Punning, for example, on the senses of crow as bird and bar, Dromio asks his master if he wants “A crow without feather” to break down the door of his house in Ephesus. Elsewhere, the blackness of the crows’ plumage is made to carry a whole range of meaning: its “sable” places it amongst the “mourners” of the Phoenix and the Turtle, and Autolycus sells “Cypreis black as e’er was crow” to the rustics of The Winter’s Tale. “Our feathers” that Greene accuses Shakespeare of stealing, are thus to be taken as something that covers a colouring strongly associated with not just death and mourning, but more nastily, both ugliness (for Romeo, Juliet is a beautiful dove amongst crows) and corruption (the rapist Tarquin is compared to a “crow” in Lucrece).

Corruption and blackness is not just limited to moral depravity, but also disease: the crow’s colour fits its larcenous activities, and Shakespeare repeatedly portrays the crow as a battlefield scavenger. York boasts that he has made Clifford “prey for carrion kites and crows” in Henry VI part II, Grandpré describes the birds hovering over the English forces at Agincourt in Henry V, and Pandarus invokes them on the battlefield of Troy in Troilus and Cressida. Although such a portrayal of the crow as scavenger fits Greene’s purposes in calling Shakespeare an “upstart Crow”, aligning him with both the repulsive and the unromantic elements of martial society, the fact that Greene claims that Shakespeare has stolen his and others’ feathers also portrays Greene as one of the crows’ habitual targets, namely carrion. Of course, this is not to Greene’s purpose, but the extension of the metaphor seems a neat defence of the bard if not the bird.

It is in The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare uses the bird for more moral ends, illustrating this time Portia’s support for a judgment that takes into account all mitigating circumstances. Such a use of the crow, although dependent on less flattering representations for the power of its reversal, is nevertheless proof of Shakespeare’s inventiveness. These lines take the symbolism of the crow, evident elsewhere in the plays and poems, and viciously employed by Greene, and then add to it in a new and unexpected way: the point that the crow is only criticised when heard (“attended”) is, one is tempted to say, a response to Greene, whose angry slur is also praise of Shakespeare, since it proves his rise through the cultural echelons of his day.

PORTIA The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended; and I think
The nightingale, if she should sing by day,
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!

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