A close reading: William Shakespeare's “The Phoenix and Turtle”

Donald T Rodrigues, University of Rhode Island


A close reading of William Shakespeare's 1601 lyric "The Phoenix and Turtle" reveals that Aristotelian principles of logic and identity are nakedly articulated in the poem, and that these principles perform a vital role in conceptualizing the intellectual paradoxes into which we are thrust in the poem's anthem. It will be argued that the logic used in the anthem to explain the death of the poem's protagonist, the Phoenix-Turtle, is deductive or syllogistic in nature. This changes in "Threnos," a separately titled section of the poem, where a logic based on inductive observation takes hold of Reason's speech. Reason has not merely or simply "doubled"; it has become, in "Threnos," something other than what it was before. I take this transition itself—the moment at which Reason's speech splits the poem in two—to be the central dramatic act of the poem, reinforced by the poem's original typographical context. Shakespeare's choice to implicate "Reason" in this love tragedy indicates his familiarity with certain aspects of intellectual history that are not often discussed in conjunction with this poem. I will argue that one must consult the intellectual history of the period to comes to terms with this poem's unusual difficulty, and will demonstrate that scholars have overlooked a crucial corpus of historical evidence when evaluating what this poem achieves.

Subject Area

Logic|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Donald T Rodrigues, "A close reading: William Shakespeare's “The Phoenix and Turtle”" (2011). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI1494874.