While many of Shakespeare's more popular plays contain readily apparent themes which an audience can easily relate to, the pastorals seem more elusive, are less popular, and are produced less often. It is difficult to feel sympathy for a group of characters who find refuge in nature, such as in "As You Like It". "When icicles hang by the wall" at first glance seems similarly quaint, reminding me more of a fairy tale or fable than a piece of great literature. But there is the secret, rarely are these quaint fables actually what they seem.
In today's world, at least in America, we live in little or no fear when we ridicule the government or speak out against "progress". But the pastoral gave those less fortunate a venue to play with questions "which verged on a philosophical subversion of traditional religious themes in poetry" (Strand and Boland, 208).
With that in mind, possible interpretations for these plays and smaller pastorals like "When icicles hang by the wall" begin to open up. In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter. They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold. But at the same time the owl watches them, singing his "merry note". A question comes to mind, who or what does the owl represent?
The owl appears frequently in Shakespeare. A blog post entitled "The Birds of Shakespeare" points makes several observations about the bard's use of the owl (http://birdsofbard.blogspot.com/2005/11/owl.html).
For example, as Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
"Hark! - Peace!Also, prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar is was reported:
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night." [Macbeth - II, 2]
"The bird of night did sit,Further, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Puck says:
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking." [Julius Caesar - I, 3]
"Now the wasted brands do glow,Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use in "When icicles hang . . . " may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as listed in the piece. Also apparent is the owl's disregard for their situations, singing his merry song in spite of their toils.
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud." [A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1]
Given the double-meaning of early pastorals, since Strand and Boland cite the pastoral as "one of the true intellectual engines of poetry" (207), the owl could easily represent the wealthy, the officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man's trials. Whatever the meaning, the use of such imagery within the seemingly-innocent pastoral is often overlooked and this misunderstanding of the form has contributed to the way many of us fail to take it too seriously.