Bird Imagery in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ – Part 1

This is a paper I wrote in college for a class on the works of Shakespeare. As a side note, the Professor for this class was one of the best I had. You could go into his class hating English and literature and come out with at least an enjoyment of it. His love for teaching was infectious. This assignment gave me a deeper appreciation of this great play, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

Macbeth is a tale of witches, murder mysteries, secrecy, and superstition. Most of the story revolves around the supernatural and forces untouchable. Yet some of these superstitions are hidden in the feathers of more aloft creatures, creatures found frequently in the pages of Shakespeare’s play, yet often remaining unnoticed in the greater scope of the tale. As Spurgeon writes on Shakespeare’s animal imagery, “Of the large animal group, the outstanding point is the great number drawn from birds. … Shakespeare’s images from bids form by far the largest section.” (48). Birds in Shakespeare’s Macbeth have a surprisingly important role in the nature of the play. They are not placed as a description mentioned by happenstance, rather, the birds are often used to characterize a person or give more meaning to a scene’s atmosphere.

Some of these birds are terrible omens, their presence bringing about the worst of calamities. Others are a sign of prosperity and peace. In addition to the actual naming of birds, there are also many tangential references to them. The use of fly and flight occur eleven times, wing three, and the word bird appears six times. Macbeth’s final lines state that he cannot fly, as if he was a bird snared (5.7.1). The imagery of the bird is used well by Shakespeare as it is both poetically beautiful and culturally significant. Yet to the modern-day reader, these birds infer little meaning besides name, shape, and perhaps color if the reader is well-versed in bird species. Thus, explaining the symbolism and omens behind the birds that Shakespeare uses is important to understanding an underlying message of the play. Shakespeare uses birds as symbols to represent the ambiance of a situation and describe the nature of the characters in his play Macbeth which, knowing what they symbolize, gives the reader an added depth of understanding of the play. 

Throughout Macbeth, there are many general references to birds. Most of these uses are in connection to flight, as in fleeing from a place. The first occurrence is at the time of Banquo’s murder when he tells his son, “Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!” (3.3.17). The next event is when Lennox tells another lord that some messenger needs to “fly” to England to report the evils befalling the land (3.6.45-49). After her husband’s flight, Lady Macduff questions Ross as to why her husband had to “fly the land,” an action she calls madness (4.2.1, 3). Macbeth, frustrated with reports of the Lords who have abandoned him, brashly says, “let them fly all.” (5.3.1). The last use of the word fly is when Macbeth relates just how trapped he is when he asserts, “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly” (5.7.1).

Flight is used as well in reference not only to a person fleeing but to Banquo’s “soul’s flight” to its resting place (3.1.140-141). There is also a reference of a bat’s flight to the witch Hecate in order to fulfill its evil duty (3.2.43-44). Duncan uses the beautiful word wing to say how repayment for good deeds is slow compared to how quickly Macbeth does them (1.4.16-18). The crow “wings” to its home in the “rooky wood,” leaving the night and evil tidings to the owl (3.2.50-51). The scene involving Lady Macduff and her son involves birds; in fact, Lady Macduff calls her little son a bird once, and he to himself twice (4.2). This scene also mentions ways to trap a bird, such as nets, lime, pitfalls, and gin (4.2.34-35). The last use of the word bird is in an indirect reference to the owl as an “obscure bird” and to the martlet, both of which shall be discussed along with another direct naming below (2.3.59; 1.6.7). 

This first use of a specific aviary description is in the opening act of the play. The battle is winding down, the generals are talking to their King, and the success of one great man is being discussed. Macbeth, a general along with Macduff and Banquo, is described by a messenger to his King as being a noble bird: an eagle (1.2.34-35). The eagle is a large predatory bird, territorial and fierce in nature. Such a description is fitting for Macbeth, who was only defending his country. The messenger giving the account mentions that just when the battle was soon to be won, new enemy recruits came against Macbeth, Banquo, and their men. When asked if this “dismay’d” the captains, the messenger replies with a joke saying, “As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion.” (1.2.34-35). Obviously, a lion would not be scared of a rabbit, and neither would an eagle be to a tiny sparrow. Macbeth, symbolized as an eagle, is thus shown to be both noble and fierce. Macdonwald, on the other hand, is described as just the opposite. He is a common sparrow, a tiny bird of little notice; harmless, peaceful, and more of an irritation than a worrisome creature to a man who had a fighting spirit like Macbeth. 

Soon after this initial use, the sparrow is mentioned again and described with a similarly harmless nature. King Duncan, who is approaching the castle with Banquo, comments on the “pleasant air” surrounding it. So too, Banquo observes the serene scene about him and comments on how it is warm and filled with little birds called martlets (1.6.3-8). These little birds are a variety of sparrow and, as previously mentioned, are harmless. In fact, Banquo remarks that they are “temple-haunting,” that is, birds which make their homes among temples, perhaps referencing the Psalmist who says that swallows and sparrows make their nests amongst God’s temple, commending the air around the home to be peaceful, for these birds only nest where “the air is delicate” (Holy Bible: NIV, Psa. 1.3; 1.6.3-8). This observation of the peaceful-nesting bird announces at the entrance of Macbeth’s castle that this place is one of safety and life. The air, too, that Duncan mentions could also be a reference to their birds that fill it, which he notes “nimbly and sweetly recommends itself” (1.6.2). These birds are used as a symbol of the peace and safety found in this dwelling. They symbolize even life itself, as the bird only makes its “procreant cradle” where the air is harmless (1.6.8). 

Yet life will not be found here, and these martlets’ presence may be deceptive as many other characters in the play. Another name for martlet is martin, which during “the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a kind of slang term for a ‘dupe’ was ‘martin'” (Spurgeon 188-9). Thus, Shakespeare probably intended his readers to see past the bird’s innocent nature and foresee the deception coming (Spurgeon 188). Only lines before the reference to the martin, a messenger of death came to this place and forecast the deaths of those men just speaking. Lady Macbeth, who just finished reading the message from her husband, is informed by a servant that King Duncan will soon be at her home to rest. The bird she chooses to name the messenger is a raven (1.5.38-40). According to Hazlitt, in his book Faiths and Folklore of the British Iles, the raven is a messenger of terrible things, a bad omen, and a forewarner of death (Hazlitt 507). He quotes another when he says, “by ravens both publick and private calamities and death have been portended” (Hazlitt 507). Again he states, “Private men have been forewarned of their death by ravens, …a messenger of death”, naming one such man forewarned as being Cicero (Hazlitt 507). Hazlitt even goes as far to say that “the croaking of a raven” is included among “omens” and that if one “hears a raven croak from the next roof, he at once should make his will” (Hazlitt 508).

Thus this raven in Macbeth, by croaking his hoarse message to his mistress, brings the dispatch of death for the King. The very presence of a raven itself is a warning that some great calamity will happen, and only words after gaining the knowledge of her enemy’s imminent arrival, the Lady Macbeth contrives a plan that will bring about the downfall of her King (1.5). Shakespeare displays his knowledge of commonly held superstitions of that time in using such symbols within his writing. The people would have known that this bird was a messenger of death. And as the play unfolds, that omen is found to be accurate. 

Another, yet smaller, bird of prey is used by Shakespeare as well: a kite. This bird is a variety of falcon – a small, swift bird. Macbeth mentions it first when talking to the ghost of Banquo when he says, “Our graves must send / Those we bury back, our monuments/ Shall be the maws of kites.” (1.7.71-72). These lines show the flesh-eating nature of a kite with Macbeth even going so far as to say that they will eat the flesh of people, their bellies becoming the graves of men. But later in the play, Macduff uses a kite as representative of the character of Macbeth. Distraught over his wife and children’s deaths, he calls Macbeth a “hell-kite” (4.3.218). While no such bird truly exists, the use of hell verbally exaggerates Macduff’s anger towards Macbeth and intensifies the destructive nature of Macbeth. Macduff says just after renaming Macbeth that this “hell-kite” murdered his family “at one fell swoop” (4.3.220). Such wording creates an image of a great bird of prey swooping down with its great wings, quickly moving to catch some unsuspecting creature to feast upon. Once again, this gives reference back to Macbeth’s use of kites saying that “our monuments/ shall be the maws of kites,” for the graves of the Macduffs shall be wherever the mouth of Macbeth proclaims them (3.4.71-72). 

Previous to the revelation of the death of his family, Macduff’s lady appears on stage while talking to her son, whom she calls a bird (4.2). She is currently, and rightly so, feeling abandoned by her Lord. She refers to herself as a wren who, though a tiny bird, “will fight” (4.2.8-11). The wren, as described in Hazlitt’s books, was known as a “little King” or simply “king” by the Greeks and Spaniards, respectively (Hazlitt 665-6). The Latins, Danish, and Italians referred to the bird as “king,” “fowl king,” and “little king” as well (Hazlitt 665-6). Therefore, Macduff must be kingly, or at least noble, in nature to be the mate of a wren. Hazlitt also makes mention that the wren “though of such diminutive bulk, harasses the eagle, who holds sway over all other birds” (Hazlitt 665-6). Many other cultures also title this little bird with kingly statues, and even the druids, the natives of the Isles, deem the little wren as “king of all the birds” (Hazlitt 665-6).

Initially, Macbeth was described as a great eagle that was not bothered by little birds, such as sparrows. But here, it is shown that culturally some little birds are an annoyance to what is typically considered the ruler of the birds. The cultural references show the reality of the play’s situation. This eagle appears to be more than a little agitated by such a small bird, for he goes to kill them. Furthermore, Macbeth’s bird of character changes from an eagle to an owl, the bird that Lady Macduff titles him and whom she shall soon fight against (4.2.11). As Macduff later finds out, all of his “pretty chickens and their dam” were killed by Macbeth (4.3.219-220). Apparently, some little birds do get caught in the “net” and “lime” (4.2.34).

Continued in Part 2

One thought on “Bird Imagery in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Bird Imagery in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ – Part 2 – Madelyn Rose Craig

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