Woodcut of a harpy


This elaborate woodcut shows a harpy wearing a feathered hat. It was produced in 1582 by the German Melchior Lorck as part of a series of book illustrations.

A harpy is a rapacious mythical monster of Greek and Roman origin, with the head of a human and the wings and claws of a bird. It is sometimes described as the demonic spirit of the storm, a ‘snatcher’ that kidnaps evil people from the earth or steals food from under their noses.

Shakespeare’s magical and metaphorical harpies: The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing

In Act 3, Scene 3 of The Tempest, the airy spirit Ariel appears theatrically disguised ‘like a harpy’. He ‘claps his wings upon the table’ to make Prospero’s magical banquet vanish ‘with a quaint device’. These precise stage directions suggest some form of stage trickery, perhaps using a false table top which could be tripped by a boy underneath, while the harpy's wings covered the disappearing food.

The term ‘harpy’ is also used metaphorically to refer to an annoying, unscrupulous woman. In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick sees the sharp-tongued Beatrice approaching and exclaims to the Prince, Don Pedro, that he would go to ‘the world’s end … rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy’ (2.1.264–71).

Full title:
16th-century woodcut of a harpy
1582, Germany
Print / Illustration / Image
Melchior Lorck
© Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum Standard Terms of Use
Held by
The British Museum

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