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Birds


The Sergeant tells King Duncan how, just at the moment when Macbeth's forces defeated Macdonwald's rebels, the Norwegian king attacked the Scots. King Duncan asks if this new attack dismayed Macbeth and Banquo. The Sergeant, making a tough-guy joke, says "Yes / As sparrows [dismay] eagles, or the hare the lion" (1.2.34-35). [Scene Summary]


Immediately after Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter about the witches' prophecies, a messenger come with the news that King Duncan is coming to spend the night at her castle. After the messenger has left, the first thing Lady Macbeth says is, "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements" (1.5.38-40). The raven is a bird of ill omen, and Lady Macbeth means that the raven is hoarse from saying again and again that King Duncan must die. [Scene Summary]


When King Duncan comes to Macbeth's castle, he remarks how sweet the air is. Banquo agrees, and adds:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.   (1.6.3-8)
A "martlet" is a kind of swallow, who is "temple-haunting" because it likes to build its nests high on the walls of tall buildings. ("Haunting" doesn't have any ghostly connotations.) When Lady Macbeth heard that King Duncan was coming for the night, she imagined a raven under her battlements, foretelling the death of the King. Instead, as the King looks up to those battlements, he sees swallows gliding to and fro on the breath of heaven. [Scene Summary]


While Macbeth goes to murder King Duncan, Lady Macbeth waits and listens very carefully. In the following passage, she hears something, then tells herself to be quiet and decides that she heard a screech owl: "Hark! Peace! / It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, / Which gives the stern'st good-night. He is about it" (2.2.2-4). The cry of a screech owl was thought to announce a death, and a "fatal bellman" was a night watchman who rang a bell to call a prisoner to his hanging. Lady Macbeth is glad to hear the cry of the screech owl, because it means that Macbeth is murdering King Duncan. [Scene Summary]


As Macduff is going in to say good morning to King Duncan, Lennox tells Macbeth about the rough night. Chimneys were blown down, lamentings and screams were heard in the air, and "the obscure bird / Clamour'd the livelong night" (2.3.60-61). The owl is the "obscure bird," because it flies in the night and can't be seen. Perhaps that owl was the same one that Lady Macbeth heard when Macbeth was killing King Duncan. Just after Lennox finishes this speech, Macduff comes rushing in with the news that King Duncan has been murdered. [Scene Summary]


The morning after the murder of King Duncan, Ross and an Old Man are discussing the other unnatural things that have been happening. One of them is described by the Old Man: On Tuesday last / A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd" (2.4.11-13). The falcon's "pride of place" is the highest point of its flight. And the owl, which usually catches mice on the ground, went up instead of down, and killed a falcon. Also, a falcon is a day creature, and a royal companion, while the owl is an untamable bird of night and death. If things in nature stands for things in human life, King Duncan was the falcon, and Macbeth the owl. [Scene Summary]


After he has arranged for the murder of Banquo, Macbeth boasts to his wife that a terrible deed will be done which will solve their problems. The deed is to be done at nightfall, and Macbeth imagines the night coming on: Light thickens; and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood: / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; / While night's black agents to their preys do rouse" (3.2.53). "Night's black agents" are all things that hunt and kill in the dark, including birds of prey. [Scene Summary]


After the first appearance of the Ghost of Banquo, Macbeth says "If charnel-houses and our graves must send / Those that we bury back, our monuments / Shall be the maws of kites" (3.4.70-72). "Monuments," like "charnel-houses" and "graves," are the places where the dead belong. "Kites" are hawks, and their "maws" are their entire eating apparatuses -- beaks, gullets, and stomachs. An ancient fear was that a person who was not properly buried would have his bones picked clean by birds. Macbeth thinks that the dead ought to stay where they belong; if the graves are going to send the bodies back, the kites, with their maws full of human flesh, are going to be the only real graves. [Scene Summary]

Later in the same scene, after Macbeth has finally driven away the Ghost of Banquo, he reflects that a murder will always be discovered, sometimes in strange ways: "Stones have been known to move and trees to speak; / Augurs and understood relations have / By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret'st man of blood" (3.4.122-125). Magot-pies (magpies), choughs (jackdaws), and rooks are all birds that can be taught to speak a few words. And of course, Macbeth himself is a secret man of blood, a murderer. [Scene Summary]


In her shock at learning that her husband has fled from Scotland, Lady Macduff accuses her husband of running away because he is afraid. She thinks he should have stayed to protect his family, and she says, "He loves us not; / He wants [lacks] the natural touch: for the poor wren, / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, / Her young ones in her nest, against the owl" (4.2.8-11). [Scene Summary]

A little later in the same scene, Lady Macduff tries to make light of the situation by pretending to believe that things are worse than they really are. She says to her son, "Sirrah, your father's dead; / And what will you do now? How will you live?" (4.2.30-31). The boy answers, "As birds do, mother" (4.2.32), and when she asks if that means he will eat worms and flies, he replies "With what I get, I mean; and so do they" (4.2.33). What the birds get is provided by God, as Jesus said: "Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them" (Matt. 6:26). Lady Macduff comments, "Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime" (4.2.34). "The net" and "lime" (birdlime, a sticky substance) were the two most common ways of catching birds, but this boy -- his mother says -- is so innocent or stupid that he wouldn't fear either one. The boy is unfazed. He take the word "poor" to mean "little," and says that poor birds are too little to be trapped. [Scene Summary]


When Ross tells Macduff of the slaughter of his wife and children, Macduff cries out in passionate grief: All my pretty ones? / Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? / What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?" (4.3.217-220). The "hell-kite" is Macbeth, who has killed all the "pretty chickens" in one murderous dive ("fell swoop"). [Scene Summary]

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