Continued from Part 1
The presence of some birds in Macbeth does not directly characterize people, but instead, their presence could mean the revealing of what people are. This is because some birds can speak. After learning of Banquo’s death and being visited by the ghost of his murdered friend, Macbeth worries that some natural truth-teller will bear witness of his crimes (3.4.122-125). Besides the possibility of stones, trees, or prophets to reveal his secrets, he fears that three little birds will open their maws and let him out. They are the magpie, the chough, and the rook. All three of these birds are known to be chatters or having the capability of repeating actual words. The chough, of the family of crows and rooks, is known by its chatter (Chough). In fact, to label someone as a chough would be to call them a chatterer (Chough). Evidently, this revealer of tales is not a bird that Macbeth wants near him.
In the same way, a magpie also alerts others by its talk that someone is near (Hazlitt 383). Its chattering is also considered an omen but with mixed results; those who have something to hide should avoid them (Hazlitt 383). Macbeth in this scene says that all of these birds reveal “the secret’st man of blood” (3.4.125). He may be trying to avoid having blame placed on him, but he is the secret man of blood who just finished talking to his murdered friend’s ghost (3.4.125). It is here that he realizes that it is not just the spiritual but the natural world that has the power to speak up about his wrongdoings.
Out of all fourteen birds mentioned in Macbeth, the owl is the most frequent. This is a very particular bird. The fowl takes on many names but always the same role: that of ill omen. Within Macbeth, the owl is called a “fatal bellman,” an “obscure bird,” and “night’s black agent” (2.2.3, 60; 3.2.53). It is said to kill a hawk when it normally feasts on mice, which would show a changing of nature in the bird, and consequently, in Macbeth (2.4.11-13). The raptor bird makes war against the wren and swiftly brings about her death (4.2.11). The owl makes its first entrance with the death of King Duncan (2.2.3). In the previous scene, Macbeth remarks that a bell invites him to kill his King; the following scene contains Lady Macbeth, who calls the owl the “fatal bellman, / Which gives the sternest good-night” (2.2.3-4).
The owl has been a decidedly bad omen since the time of the Romans, and specifically the “screech-owl at midnight” (Hazlitt 469). On the other hand, the Greeks associated the owl with wisdom (Angell 72). Perhaps the Macbeths’ fear of the owl’s presence has to do with the fact that the owl is wise and knows what they have done. Although the owl was a symbol for wisdom, its presence also meant that some fatal occurrence would happen, which is why the “ancients held owls in the utmost abhorrence” (Hazlitt 468). Much like the raven, it seemed to bring death along with it. Thus, that is why Lady Macbeth likens the shriek of the owl to that of the bellman’s bell. Just as the bells ring in the hour of rest, so too the “sternest good-night” the owl gives is, in fact, the call of death’s sleep. The owl in Macbeth is called “night’s black agent,” which Pliny called the “funeral owl and monster of the night” (3.2.53; Hazlitt 468). Just before Macbeth comes to visit them, the witches are creating some sort of horridness in their cauldron with many baneful ingredients. One such ingredient is the wing of an owlet – a baby owl (4.1.17). Even before that, the harpier cries, which has been suggested to be a witch turned owl (Angell 77; 4.1.3).
Thus owls are in every way a symbol of evil in this play and foretellers of destruction. While Lady Macduff is lamenting the loss of her Lord, she calls Macbeth an owl that will come in and attack her “nest” (4.2.10-11). The interesting fact is that there is such a thing as an eagle owl (Hazlitt 468). Before, Macbeth was called an eagle, then later an owl. At some point, he was both. When precisely he changed species is of less concern, but the fact is that he did. Now his very presence is no longer a noble and safe, but instead, one that is a bad omen, bringing destruction along with it.
To anyone unfamiliar with bird folklore and are not specifically looking for such creatures, the birds in Macbeth are quickly overlooked due to the greater scope of the story. However, their presence brings a greater depth that would otherwise be lost if the reader did not know their significance to the people of Shakespeare’s time. Imagery, symbolism, and characterization are only appreciated as they are understood. Over the entire span of the play, there are fourteen birds mentioned in Macbeth, each with their own symbolic meanings and additive properties. Without them, the play would carry its story but would not have the same depth of meaning. In the same way, without knowing what their histories, the birds that Shakespeare uses would be as unnoticeable as any filler word in a sentence. Out of all the animals he uses, Shakespeare references birds the most, and their presence is not accidental (Spurgeon 48). Thus, understanding what these birds mean symbolically, superstitiously, or relationally is essential to a reading of Macbeth. Shakespeare used each of these birds for a reason, and to overlook them would disadvantage the reader who is trying to understand the play.
Angell, Tony. The House of Owls. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015. 72. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
“Chough.” 1. a.-b. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1933. 385. Print.
Hazlitt, W C. Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles. Vol. II. New York: Benjamin Bloom, Inc., 1965. 382-83, 468-470,507-8. II vols. Print.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984. 326. Print.
Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. “Macbeth.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. 48, 188-89. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse at some of my older writing!
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig