When it comes down to it, humans are mammals, and there are some animalistic traits that every mammal shares. The story of Macbeth by Shakespeare includes a theme that is the epitome of a trait that all mammals share, weak versus strong. Through the use of metaphors including birds, the symbolism of Macbeth as an owl throughout the story, and the juxtaposition between birds, weak versus strong is represented by the motif of birds in Macbeth. Birds are incorporated into other literary elements that Shakespeare utilizes, showing the true depth of his writing.
Metaphors allow the reader to paint a picture of written words referencing images that they are familiar with. Like any other animal, there is a hierarchy of strength and therefore power for birds. The metaphors that Shakespeare incorporates into Macbeth including birds allow the reader to reference their experience with strong birds fighting to create an image of what the humans in the story might have been fighting like. A captain describes how valiantly Macbeth fought in the battles in the beginning of the story, saying that he was “as sparrows eagles”, which paints a picture of a valiant and strong eagle fighting a small, meek sparrow (1.2.35-42). However, later in the story, when Macbeth’s position shifts and he is no longer perceived as a noble soldier but rather as a tyrannical ruler preying on those he controls, birds are used in a metaphor again to illustrate a changed image of Macbeth.
“A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,” representing honor and innocence, “was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed,” illustrating an evil bird using its strength to overpower and kill an innocent bird (2.4.11-14).Sometimes, a reader does not glean the true meaning of an object in a story until after it has been illustrated throughout the entirety of the work of literature. Throughout the uses of birds in Macbeth, including the imagery and metaphors, a pattern occurs where a powerful owl is preying on weaker birds, and by the end of the story the reader comes to realize that the owl is a representation of Macbeth and the acts he is committing. The owl referenced during the murder of Duncan, is described as an “obscure bird” that “clamored the livelong night” as he “heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death” (2.3.49-56).
The owl in this scene is a symbol for Macbeth discovering what he is capable of, and what new powers he receives when he utilizes his newfound strength against others. One example of how he uses his recent strength was when he decided to have everyone in Macduff’s castle unnecessarily murdered. In this scene Lady Macduff is expressing her anger toward her husband, but also reveals characteristics of Macbeth when she states that her husband is not equal to “the most diminutive of birds,” which “will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl” (4.2.6-14). Macbeth being represented by the owl in this context depicts him as a villain that is so hungry for control that he will go to such extremes as to attack a weak, defenseless bird and it’s young.
Sometimes it is equally as important to illustrate the weak side of a relationship as the strong side because then the contrast between the weak and the strong is magnified for the reader. In Macbeth, Shakespeare utilizes this juxtaposition to make the theme of strong versus weak even more apparent by inserting some descriptions of birds that appear weak to make the acts done by the stronger birds even more horrific. The day before Duncan’s murder where a powerful, evil owl was present, Banquo and Duncan comment on the sweet, innocent birds at Macbeth’s castle, “this guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet, does approve…that the heaven’s breath smells wooingly here” this illustrates their vulnerability and unawareness to the upcoming strike by Macbeth, making his actions seem even worse.
When Lady Macduff tells her son that “thou’dst never fear the net nor lime, the pitfall nor the gin,” he responds with a question of why he should because “poor birds they are not set for”, meaning that because he would be such a weak bird, hunters would have no want for him (4.2.36-37). Just after making this point, the defenseless son of Macduff is murdered by the king Macbeth, making the reader question what kind of tyrant Macbeth has come to be.
The use of birds in Macbeth by Shakespeare is used to develop the theme of weak versus strong when they are used in metaphors, when Macbeth is represented by a bird throughout the story, and by the juxtaposition of the weak and strong birds. The acts committed by the characters aroused emotions in the audience because they were not so unrealistic that the audience could not relate to them, they represented the mammal in humans, the animal inside of all of us that we attempt to constrain. Birds are essential to create this unsettling feeling because their rustic, animal-like nature is no unlike the animalistic traits we try to hide, which allows the reader or audience to relate with the motif.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 4 January 2017
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