Throughout the entirety of MacBeth, Shakespeare works in a cunning and subtle ‘bird theme’. Often birds are used to represent a sequence of events, or characters from the play; we meet this time and time again. I think that you’ll see what I mean after reading the following points, on the more obvious examples in the play.
Act 4, Scene 2; almost this entire scene is taken up by Lady MacDuff and her son talking about, and comparing themselves to different types of birds. He, as a child calls himself a “thrush”, this is an obvious reference to his size, as he is still small in stature, much like the thrush is in comparison with other birds. The thrush is a very quick bird, which matches the young MacDuff’s quick wit. He says that he is like a Thrush in the way that he will “do with what he gets”, his mother then warns him of all of the dangers a small bird must face to survive, appropriate as MacDuff had become MacBeth’s enemy, and even as they spoke assassins were riding to kill them both.
Earlier in Act 2, Scene 4, some people are talking about all of the strange things that have been occurring in the world since MacBeth murdered the King. The Old Man says, “On Tuesday last, a falcon towering in her pride of place was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed”. This is a reversal in nature, and in those times that is exactly what the murder of a king by anyone’s hand but God’s would have seemed like- a reversal in all things natural. Duncan (the former King of Scotland) is represented by the falcon, such a noble bird to be killed by a mere owl, the owl represents MacBeth, who was once a loyal and trust worthy servant to the King.
This is the more obvious translation of this passage, however I have another theory as to what it may mean. The falcon, though a noble bird is surely out ranked by a few other birds? The falcon is referred to as “she”, so I think that it might represent Lady MacBeth, with the mousing owl still as MacBeth himself. The owl’s act of killing the falcon could represent Lady MacBeth’s loss on power over MacBeth as he declines into madness.
All through the play birds are used, ravens, eagles, falcons, sparrows, owls, usually to represent a person, but sometimes for pure dramatic effect. For example Act 2, Scene 2 “an owl shrieks” in the middle of Lady MacBeth’s speech. Birds are never put on the side of good or evil; they are merely neutral bystanders, much like the rest of nature. No living birds are mentioned when the three witches are on stage, the only reference to one is a part of their potion, a “howlet’s wing” is used in the infamous “[Hubble-Bubble” potion.
William Shakespeare uses this ‘bird theme to good effect throughout the play, creating subtle comparisons with what is happening to the characters in the play to what is happening with birds in the wild.
Please note that anything in Italics is taken from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, thank-you.