Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Winter by William Shakespeare

It being Wednesday, it's time again for a bit of the Bard. I'm not 100% certain I'll manage a post next Wednesday, since we'll be travelling home from Arizona at that point, so this may be our last Wednesday with Shakespeare entry until 2010. We shall see.

Today's choice is in honor of it officially being winter now. Also because quite a lot of houses around here are hung with actual icicles, and not just Christmas lights that simulate them, since we had that mondo snow storm over the weekend. This poem is actually a song that Shakespeare wrote to end Love's Labour's Lost, one of the plays we looked at during Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. The play ends with two songs - one called Summer, the other Winter. More on their meaning can be found in this post about the poetry within that play, although I've snagged some of my own commentary for use after the poem.

by William Shakespeare

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel* the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw**
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

*keel: cool
**saw: maxim or proverb, probably referring to a sermon

The song has the following structure: iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), using the rhyme scheme of ABABCC, followed by a short "chorus" composed of bird noise followed by a rhymed couplet (in Shakespeare's time, "note" and "pot" rhymed, you see).

"Winter", when parsed, talks about the shepherd's cold hands, the need for firewood, how messy the roads are, and illness, all while Joan cools the pot. But it's also about matrimony. More specifically, it represents a kind of black humor about matrimony, as does the Summer song, since both songs are about cuckoldry. Here's why I say that:

A word about the significance of the birds:

Summer mentions cuckoos and Winter the horned owl. BOTH of those birds were associated with cuckoldry in Elizabethan times: the cuckoo because his name sounds a bit like the word "cuckold", and the horned owl because of the association between horns and cuckolds (a jealous husband was sometimes called a "horned owl"). Both birds can be symbols of either the trapped (the cuckolded husband) or the trapper (their unfaithful wives). The cuckoo's call taunts the married man, labelling him as a cuckold (also, cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, so a married man cannot be certain which "cuckoo" layed its "egg" in that man's "nest"); the owl cries "tu-whit" or "to it", a sort of sexual exhortation, and the bird's name was used to refer to prostitutes as well as to refer (in the "horned owl" variant) to a cuckolded husband. So both songs are about birds that are associated with cuckoldry, a common fear among men back in that time, and a common thing of which to make sport in comic plays. Especially a comic play that was set up to be a marriage play, but that ends with an indefinite situation in which the pairs are waiting for a year (or in the case of Don Armado, three years), with the men essentially on probation of sorts until they get together.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! I am studying the Concert set of Dominick Argento's Six Elizabethan songs to which he included Shakespeare's Winter as the third work.. this was very helpful :).. I am headed to Winnipeg shortly to work towards my first year for a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance... I finally understand this piece thanks to your thorough explanation of the birds and how it was significant in the Elizabethan times!