“From Virtue to Villain, Eagle to Hell-Kite: Macbeth’s Disruption of Nature as Represented by Birds”

A sample of academic writing within my major at Middlebury College:

From Virtue to Villain, Eagle to Hell-Kite:
Macbeth’s Disruption of Nature as Represented by Birds

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth sociopolitical culture is heavily intertwined with the natural world. In various works Shakespeare suggests that while out of human control, nature provides a mirror for man’s self-analysis and represents the stability or lack thereof in society. Hence, Macbeth’s murdering King Duncan is not a solely political act, but reverberates in nature as well, as evidenced by the ensuing imbalance in the weather, physical landscape, and animal behavior – particularly of birds. While Shakespeare’s love of ornithology is manifest in the 64 bird species present in over 606 occurrences throughout his works,[1] his use of birds to deepen sociopolitical commentary is remarkable in Macbeth. Informed by birds’ historical and literary symbolism, Shakespeare employs ample bird imagery to illustrate how the Macbeths’ attempt to dethrone the ‘rightful’ king transgresses their society’s ideology of nature, where the ‘natural’ depends on an orderly, divinely sanctioned, stable monarchy and personal adherence to birth-given social, familial, and gender roles.

During King James I’s monarchy, when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, natural order in Scotland depended on the stability, benevolence, and protection of a ‘divinely sanctioned’ monarch. According to the ‘Great Chain of Being’ theory still widely held in Shakespeare’s day, God designated an ordered system for both nature and mankind in which every creature and person had an fixed place. King James I sanctioned the “divine right of kings,” assuring that any opposition to the king was an attack on God himself.[2] Macbeth was written in 1606, one year after the Gunpowder Plot in which Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up James and his parliament and were in turn brutally executed.[3] Given this historical context, many believe Shakespeare, a devout friend and great beneficiary of King James I, wrote Macbeth to flatter and please his patron, as a warning against usurping the monarchy and disrupting natural order. While Macbeth can also be read as Shakespeare’s attempt to question and critique this entire ideology of nature, what matters in the context of this essay is that, either way, nature in Macbeth’s is defined by the king’s unchallenged sovereignty and citizens’ adherence to predetermined social roles.

From first introduction, Macbeth’s association with birds establishes a power dynamic to be later debased. Macbeth’s “rightful” societal role as general is established when the Captain explains how, against the Scott’s Irish nemesis Macdonwald, Macbeth “Like valor’s minion carved out his passage/Till he faced the slave… Till he unseamed him from nave to th’ chops/And fixed his head on our battlements.”[4] After defeating the Irish in the name of King Duncan (he then symbolically places Macdonwald’s head on Duncan’s castle walls), Duncan labels him a “valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!” (I.ii. 24). Duncan’s kindred praise of Macbeth (the highest possible honor) in the wake of his nation’s just-secured stability establishes that natural order is sustained when Macbeth enacts his social responsibility to support, not challenge, the king. When Duncan then asks if Macbeth and Banquo were not dismayed in battle the Captain responds, “As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion,”[5] communicating that just as easily as an eagle defeats a sparrow, Macbeth defeats the unexpected Norwegian attack. The eagle, known as the “King of the Birds” historically symbolizes strength, authority, power and protection and is attributed to those of great ingenuity and distinction.[6] Thus, Macbeth’s initial alignment with the eagle links his societal prestige with his efforts to maintain natural order by leading troops in defense of Duncan’s kingdom. More, the eagle is intimately associated with the Greek god Zeus, and considered “an inseparable companion and attribute of the Father of Gods and Men,” that serves as Zeus’ personal messenger.[7] Hence, Macbeth’s identification with the eagle ensues that by nature he is to Duncan like the eagle is to Zeus; he is a tremendously valuable asset to the king, but is critically subsidiary and expected to support and augment Duncan’s power.

As Macbeth’s intentions shift from loyalty to betrayal of King Duncan, Shakespeare’s use of bird imagery also shifts to reflect Macbeth’s betrayal of nature. The witches’ prophesy in Act 1 Scene 3 is a turning point for Macbeth as he cannot rationalize their repeated “Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!…that shalt be King hereafter!”,[8] for “to be King/Stands not within the prospect of belief,/No more than to be Cawdor.”[9] Macbeth’s instinctual disbelief in his ability to become king or usurp the Thane of Cawdor reflects his culture’s conditioning him to perceive his, and the king’s, sociopolitical statuses as fixed. However, the etymology of “Thane of Cawdor” foreshadows Macbeth’s decline. As one critic explains, “A caw is the sound rooks and crows make, creating a strong association with these birds and the title of Thane of Cawdor.”[10] More, crows are associated with the Greek god Apollo who turned the crow’s feathers black in retaliation for it’s failing to report Apollo’s lover’s affair to him, permanently labeling the crow a traitor.[11] Hence, upon first identification with the title Thane of Cawdor (I.iii.88), Macbeth is associated with the crow and foreshadowed to disrupt nature and become a traitor. Macbeth’s affiliation with the crow is advanced in Scene 3 when he asserts Banquo will be murdered at nightfall and imagines the night coming on: “Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood./Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,/Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.”[12] Here Macbeth projects himself on nature: like the crow, he is one of night’s black agents surreptitiously hunting prey (Banquo) in an act even he, at least subconsciously, understands is bad and unnatural, as this hunt is established as the corollary of the “good things of day.” By murdering Banquo, Macbeth’s transition from association with an eagle to a crow evidences his descent from nobility to traitorous.

Shakespeare’s use of birds to herald the Macbeths’ developing violation of nature is amplified when King Duncan comes to visit Macbeth’s castle. Upon realizing the king is coming Lady Macbeth immediately states, “The raven himself if hoarse,/That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/Under my battlements.”[13] The raven, a large black crow, is commonly a sign of death, darkness and ill omen, hence its croak greeting Duncan’s arrival can be seen as nature’s foreshadowing the destruction he will face. Yet importantly, Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in which she requests that spirits “unsex”[14] her and “Stop up th’ passage to remorse,/that no compunctious visitings of nature/Shake [her] fell purpose”[15] directly follows this raven reference. By attempting to reject her gender, social role as a submissive wife, and human instinct toward remorse so to murder Duncan, Lady Macbeth breaches her culture’s notion of “natural.” Hence, the ill omened raven’s croak appears to be nature’s voicing disdain for Lady Macbeth’s attempt to transgress her predetermined social roles; in this sense, her perception of the croak as solely Duncan’s death sentence becomes ironic as she is unaware of her equally brutal fate for violating natural order.

In a similar vane, upon arriving Duncan and Banquo ironically remark on the castle’s natural beauty, while inside nature is being grossly violated as the Macbeths’ morality deteriorates. When Duncan states how sweet the air is Banquo agrees, “the temple-haunting martlet, does approve/By his loved mansionry that the heaven’s breath/Smells wooingly here.”[16] Banquo and the king observe beauty and good riddance in nature, as embodied by this summer bird’s making nest on the Macbeth’s battlements, because their intentions align with their culture’s natural order – Duncan fulfills his duty as a benevolent monarch by visiting to pay respect for Macbeth’s military accomplishments (I.vi.11-14, 29-30). However, Duncan’s trust in his monarchy’s stability blinds him from nature’s coded message through the martlet. The martlet is an imaginary bird known to never land and is “perceived as being swift and elegant, and is a device for someone prompt and ready in the dispatch of his business. It signifies nobility acquired through bravery, prowess or intelligence.”[17] However the martlet is also a bird with no legs and is thus a profoundly unnatural presence at the castle.[18] When the martlet appears Macbeth is in a state of transition between the natural (adherence to social order) and unnatural (disrupting order by murdering the king) as he is simultaneously (and contradictorily) plotting Duncan’s murder and receiving the king to celebrate his brave military prowess. The martlet acutely symbolizes this “inbetweenness” as it too signifies both acquired nobility and unnaturalness. Yet the unusual martlet’s presence indicates that nature is already disrupted by the Macbeths’ mere planning to kill Duncan, and thus “lends to highlight the impact that even a man’s thoughts can have on the natural order and foreshadow the enormous violations of nature that Macbeth later causes.”[19]

More than other birds in Macbeth, the owl explicitly depicts how Macbeth’s murdering the king grossly violates his culture’s ideology of nature. Directly after Macbeth kills Duncan, Lady Macbeth remarks, “It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman/Which gives the stren’st good-night”[20] and later says she heard the owl “scream.”[21] Both “scream” and “shriek” are defined as a shrill, piercing, or wild cries expressive of terror or pain.[22] Thus one can interpret the owl’s shriek and scream after Macbeth completes the murder as nature’s vocalizing terror, offense and rejection of Macbeth’s violation of natural order. Soon after this shriek a grand storm occurs and Lennox explains how “the obscure bird/Clamored the livelong night. Some say the earth was feverous and did shake.”[23] The earth, the foremost symbol of nature, literally embodies illness as it shakes with feverish symptoms to physically compliment and augment the obscure bird’s (the owl’s) vocal rejection of Macbeth’s action.

More, the owl is frequently associated with the Greek goddess Athena and thus adopts her symbolism of wisdom, knowledge, and rationality. This symbolism is critical when the Old Man and Ross are discussing the unnaturalness of both Duncan’s murder and the solar eclipse that follows (the natural world, extended to celestial bodies, is disturbed by Macbeth’s action (II.iv.6-11)) and the Old Man states, “On Tuesday last/A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,/Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.”[24] The falcon’s “pride of place” is it’s highest flight point, and the owl, which usually hunts mice on the ground, flew up instead of down to kill the falcon, a traditionally superior bird of prey and a royal companion. Here nature clearly symbolizes the human life as King Duncan is the falcon and Macbeth, once a noble eagle, is the murderous owl. The owl’s abnormal hunting of the falcon in flight represents how Macbeth’s infringing on the king’s divine right to rule has disrupted the natural world by reversing the food chain and normal animal behavior. More, while the owl normally symbolizes wisdom and rational, a complete reversal of it’s predatory habits can be extended to a reversal of its symbolic associations. Through this disturbed owl, Macbeth is too associated with the corollary of the owl’s natural symbolism: a lack of wisdom and rational, thus advancing Shakespeare’s critique of Macbeth’s violation of nature. This notion is extended when Lady Macduff speaks about her husband’s flight to England and states, “He wants the natural touch. For the poor wren…will fight,/Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.”[25] Evidently Macbeth’s actions too disrupt natural order as it relates to familial obligations as Macduff no longer enacts his natural instinct to protect his family from violence, i.e. Macbeth, or the “the owl.”[26] More, whereas Macbeth and Macduff initially represent the owl’s righteousness as noble military leaders, Macbeth’s flight, in which “all is the fear and nothing is the love,/As little is the wisdom, where the flight/So runs against all reason,”[27] mirrors the owl’s inability to hunt naturally. Like the owl, Macduff loses his capacity to reason or act wisely after Macbeth attempts to usurp power, evidencing how Macbeth imbalances both his surrounding sociopolitical and natural environments.

Macbeth’s tragic descent is confirmed through bird imagery when Macduff finally learns Macbeth has slain his family. Macduff mourns, “All my pretty ones?…O hell-kite! All?/What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/At one fell swoop.”[28] Where Macbeth is first characterized as an eagle, the noblest bird referenced in Macbeth, after repeatedly disturbing his society’s natural order Macbeth is ultimately represented by a “hell-kite,” a rapacious bird of prey of infernal breed[29] – the most evil bird in Macbeth, also defined as a “cruel or loathsome person or thing.”[30] More, the imagery of Macbeth’s gruesome hunt in “one fell swoop” represents the severity of his figurative fall from high esteem to despised villainy through the iniquitous and highly unnatural attack on innocence, as embodied by Macduff’s wife and child, his “pretty chickens.” While alternate interpretations certainly exist, Shakespeare’s representation of Macbeth with increasingly negative bird imagery – from eagle to crow to raven to martlet to owl to hell-kite – evidences the severe influence of his usurpation of power on the natural world as well as his culture’s political, familial and social structures.

Reference Footnotes:

[1] Acobas, Pierre. “Shakespeare’s Ornithology.” Shakespeare’s Ornithology. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.

[2] “Macbeth: Background.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.

[3] Ibid

[4] Shakespeare, I.ii.19-23

[5] Shakespeare, I.ii.35

[6] “Eagle.” Symbolism Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.

[7] The Eagle of Zeus. George E. Mylonas. The Classical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 5 (Feb., 1946), pp. 203-207

Published by: The Classical Association of the Middle West and South.

[8] Shakespeare, I.iii.49-50

[9] Shakespeare, I.iii. 73-75

[10] Kyra. “Macbeth and the Natural Order.” Literatured RSS. N.p. 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 May 2014.

[11] Ibid Weichart,

[12] Shakespeare, III.ii.53

[13] Shakespere, I.v.39

[14] Shakespeare, I.v.39

[15] Shakespeare, I.v.43-44

[16] Shakespeare, I.vi.4-6

[17] “The Martlet Bird.” Pembroke House The Martlet Bird Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.

[18] Ibid

[19] Weichert, 1

[20] Shakespeare, II.ii.3-4

[21] Shakespeare, II.ii.15

[22] “shriek, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 8 May 2014.

“scream, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 8 May 2014.

[23] Shakespeare, II.ii.55-57

[24] Shakespeare, II.iv.11-13

[25] Shakespeare, IV.ii.9-11

[26] Weichert, 1

[27] Shakespeare, IV.ii.12-14

[28] Shakespeare, IV.iii.216-219

[29] “Macbeth 1969 Glossary.” Long Wharf Theatre. N.p. n. d. Web. 11 May 2014.

[30] “hell, n. and int.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 11 May 2014.

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