Missy Dunaway

Birds of Shakespeare: Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Carbo), 2022 (1/75)

Limited Edition Giclee Print

30 x 22 in

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Painting Key

 

Fauna: 2 Great cormorants; prey: 2 rock gunnels, 2 capelins, 2 cunners, 2 mummichogs, 45 sand lances, 2 sculpins

Objects: 7 Great cormorant eggs, 6 great cormorant feathers

 

Literary Guide


Occurrences in text: 4 | Name as it appears in text: “cormorant”

 

Plays: Coriolanus, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Troilus and Cressida

 

Cormorants are slim and scraggly underwater hunters. They are frequently observed perched upright by the seaside, drying their outstretched wings in the breeze. They are adept underwater swimmers who use their stiff tail feathers as a rudder and their wings as oars. Most of their bodies are submerged when swimming above water, leaving only their thin neck and head visible, resembling a snake.

 

Considering its thin, dark, ghoulish appearance, it’s no wonder that the cormorant was traditionally portrayed as a bird of doom and foreteller of evil.2 However, by the sixteenth century, the cormorant's reputation shifted and the skilled underwater hunter became a symbol of insatiable hunger and gluttony.3

 

Shakespeare cunningly employs both interpretations in Troilus and Cressida’s “cormorant wars” that conjure a sinister, overpowering image of conflict:

 

Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene 2, Line

 

Priam: After so many hours, lives, speeches spent, Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:

 

'Deliver Helen, and all damage else—
As honour, loss of time, travail, expense,
Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed In hot digestion of this cormorant war—
Shall be struck off.' Hector, what say you to't?

 

It is true that the cormorant eats a vast amount of fish, but they are so proficient that it only takes twenty minutes to collect a day's worth of sustenance. The Sui dynasty of China (581–618 ce) was the first to capitalize on the cormorant's talent and intellect by training them for fishing, a practice later repeated by James I.4

 

Despite his evident passion for falconry, another hunting sport featuring trained birds, Shakespeare never alludes to the method of fishing with cormorants. He was likely aware of this amusing (albeit short-lived) trend in England, as his lifespan overlapped with James I.5 Instead, he keeps it simple and uses the cormorant only to allude to appetite and greed.6

 

Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, Line 713

 

John of Gaunt: Methinks I am a prophet new inspired And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short; He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder: Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

Endnotes

 

[1] BirdLife International. 2019. Phalacrocorax carbo (amended version of 2018 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T22696792A155523636.


[2] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 35.


[3] Greenoak, F., All The Birds of the Air, 2nd ed, (Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), 35.

 

[4] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 260.

 

[5] Harting, J., The Birds of Shakespeare, (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 260.

 

[6] Phipson, Emma. Animal Lore of Shakespeare’s Time. (Glastonbury, UK: Kegan Paul, 1883).