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“Seven for a secret never to be


Apart from James Edmund Harting2 and Archibald Geikie3, very few

people have tried to capitalize on the ornithological wealth of

Shakespeare’s writings. Not only is the play filled with allusions to birds

and bird-related activities but at a subliminal level, the image of flight

comes back in numerous incarnations. Owing to its brevity, the tension

in Macbeth is built by the speed and emotional portent of these flight

imageries. Our paper will mainly focus on the various allusions to birds

occurring in the play, their actual characteristics (if Shakespeare has

noted an unnatural behavior among them) and finally, the complete

absence of birds from the fifth act of the play. We are not trying to

write another Ornithology of Shakespeare’s plays, we are simply

focusing on their multiple roles in this play.

Ornithology or the zoological discipline of the study of birds had

developed considerably uptil Shakespeare’s times. Each civilization

around the globe boasts of one or the other illustrated text on the

distribution of avian species in its region and information about their

habitats and information about patterns of bird migration, moulting,

egg laying and life spans. Cultures around the world have rich

most of the ornithological records were prepared by dangerously trapping the birds. These texts might have been read by Shakespeare. . Optical instruments being hitherto unavailable. many factual errors are noticed in all the major Greek and Roman bird studies.C. with many names being onomatopoeic. The important ornithological texts to emerge in Europe from 1500-1650 are Pierre Belons Book of Birds. and its earliest written records can be traced back to those of Sargon II of Mesopotamia (the seminal De arte venandi cum avibus by Frederick II of Hauhenstaufen came out much later. Ulisse Aldrovandi’s ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII and William Turner’s Historia Avium.vocabularies related to birds. using lime nets or trammels. Traditional bird names are often based on detailed knowledge of the behaviour. in 1240)(wikipedia). Falconry occupies such an important position in the language of Shakespeare’s plays. as suggested by the ornithologist James Edmund Harting(Harting). Historia animalium is considered by many as the first study in Western culture to account for what we observe in nature. many still in use. Until the scientific developments of the Renaissance. Traditional knowledge may also involve the use of birds in folk medicine and knowledge of these practices are passed on through oral traditions Aristotle’s fourth century B.

and a greater accuracy in his statements. he was a genuine naturalist. it is always with competent if not with exclusive knowledge. possessing a good memory. Apart from the consideration that a poet may be expected. . Shakespeare had a good practical knowledge of Falconry. exclusive of the various species which were hawked at and killed. and the beautiful metaphors to be met with throughout the Plays. Shakespeare has gone further. Thirdly. Shakespeare does signal some of the evolutionary changes occurring towards the end of the sixteenth century (Dooley). Interestingly. and gathered a large amount of information from his own practical observations. Firstly. and most important of all. and. almost of necessity. many wild birds.Alexander Pope has expressed the opinion that whatever object of nature or branch of science Shakespeare either speaks of or describes. and displays a greater knowledge of ornithology. was enabled subsequently to express in verse ideas which had been suggested by older authors. almost of necessity. may be said to owe their origin mainly to three causes. Secondly. to invoke the birds of song. a pastime which. being much in vogue in his day. Shakespeare’s accurate observations on this subject. he was a great reader. than is generally the case with poets. brought under his notice. the apt allusions.

falcon. vulture. this would be as follows- a) Diurnal birds of prey-eagle. e) Diminutive bird. With the Romans. g) Birds trapped using bird-lime and nets.raven. Shakespeare doesn’t employ this omen more than once in the play. d) Harbingers of fate. we have borrowed his hierarchy of birds (in Shakespeare’s plays) and would proceed through our list of seven in the prescribed order. choughs. Curiously enough.maggot pies. b) The obscure bird which clamour’d the livelong night –owl c) Scavengers or carrion feeders. crow.Paying homage to Harting’s seminal treatise. the majestic magnanimity of the eagle king and its political connotations. kite. goose. Eagle. the flight. In Macbeth. The only instance of its usage deals with a joking reference to the invincible Macbeth and Banquo being harried by the Norwegian forces: . All the elements of Shakespeare's eagle imagery when gathered: the sun. martlet. sparrow f) Birds under domestication-chicken. muscular strength and powerful flight. not always devoid of threat. rook.We begin our hierarchy with the king of birds. the majestic diurnal bird of prey renowned for its large size. the eagle is the emblem of the empire and the omen of victory (as evident from plays like Julius Caesar and Cymbeline).wren.

With furbish'd arms and new supplies of men Began a fresh assault. For the most part. was thinking about a bird he may have encountered. Duncan Dismay'd not this Our captains. or which his contemporaries were familiar with. Whereas serfs form the lowest rung of the feudal order. As sparrows eagles. The feudal order that was coming into existence in Duncan’s times had its inherent weaknesses.ii. or the hare the lion. Macbeth and Banquo? Sergeant Yes.Sergeant […]But the Norweyan lord surveying vantage. It is the largest bird of prey to be found on the British Isles. while writing these lines. Once abundant. It would be too simplistic to infer that the dominance of evil in the play suppresses any over-usage of a positive imagery like the imperial eagle. we might see an interesting parallel of the theme of reversal of values(Knights). (I . it lives on carrion and is sometimes called the Sea Eagle as it scavenges mainly along the coast. sparrows or such diminutive birds stand in a similar relation to the . If we ponder on the hierarchical order of birds. 31-35) If Shakesperare. the last wild British pair bred on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in 1916. we can only hypothesize that is was the White-tailed Eagle. leading to revolt and expulsion of the lord or lord-like figure.

In Macbeth. and not a vulture which does not prey on living animals. The sparrows frightening the eagles might be read as an example of dramatic irony. to devour so many As will to greatness dedicate themselves. Macbeth’s felony is indirectly linked with that of the vulture.golden eagle. Vulture. (IV. The confusion in this myth between the vulture and the eagle must come from the translations of the earlier versions from the Greek and Latin. But fear not yet To take upon you what is yours: you may Convey your pleasures in a spacious plenty. the time you may so hoodwink. 67-76) In this “testing” scene between Malcom and Macduff. MACDUFF Boundless intemperance In nature is a tyranny.The vulture is mainly used by Shakespeare in relation to the Promethean myth. where Prometheus tied to Caucasus has his immortal liver eaten endlessly by an eagle. And yet seem cold. We have willing dames enough: there cannot be That vulture in you. iii. it hath been The untimely emptying of the happy throne And fall of many kings. Finding it so inclined. However this linkage is not . the reference to a vulture’s insatiable appetite is linked with the tyrant’s unquenchable desire for evil deeds.

in common with other rapacious birds. such as . This practice of employing birds of prey like owls and kites to control the rodent population of a residential area. opportunistic birds. In the following reference. 216-219) The dual attitude of the populace towards this bird of prey might remind us of the modern debate over the use of violence. of rejecting or disgorging the undigested portions of its food. murdering the weak and helpless wife and children of Macduff:. iii. had been vogue in Scotland at the historical time of Macbeth. all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop? (IV. and this behavior acted against their favor. Kite-The kite would have been familiar to Londoners as a scavenger on the rubbish heaps around town. The habit which the kite has. Though the birds would have been doing the townsfolk a favour by removing carrion and other dead matter.between the supposedly legitimate violence of the state and the supposedly illegitimate violence of those who dissent or oppose its authority. Macbeth might be a vulture of sedition.unidirectional in nature. All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What. MACDUFF He has no children. These kites also hunted down the poultry birds of their owners. Macbeth is the human manifestation of the hell-kite. gnawing away the foundations of the prevalent political order. they were reviled as evil.

Macbeth thinks that the dead ought to stay where they belong. Falcon-Shakespeare’s plays abound with references to falconry. but the Scottish play is an exception to the rule. are going to be the only real graves. Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd. Macbeth says: " If charnel-houses and our graves must send Those that we bury back. 10-13) .bones and fur. if the graves are going to send the bodies back. Even like the deed that's done. was apparently well known to Shakespeare. Here the falcon plays a more thematic role of demonstrating the unnatural order prevailing in Macbeth’s reign. towering in her pride of place. The towering falcon being hunted down by the unsuspecting owl is an omen of fiendish usurpation of power. the kites. 70-73). our monuments Shall be the maws of kites." (IV. in the shape of pellets. (II. After the first appearance of the Ghost of Banquo. iv. iii. Old Man 'Tis unnatural. A falcon. On Tuesday last. with their maws full of human flesh. An ancient fear was that a person who was not properly buried would have his bones picked clean by birds.

Owl. through the midst of a storm.” [3rd Henry VI] and the predatory habits of the “mousing owl.” [Macbeth] When Lady Macbeth.” Among its mysterious relationships. the owl was believed to be connected with some of the machinations of witchcraft. Perhaps that owl was the same one that Lady Macbeth heard when Macbeth was killing King Duncan. hears a sound.” Her husband. Just after Lennox finishes this . too. she exclaims in anxious suspense: “Hark! – Peace! It was the owl that shriek’d." because it flies in the night and can't be seen. It will be remembered that the miscellaneous ingredients which went to the making of the hell-broth of Macbeth’s “midnight hags” included “a lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing.” Next morning before the fatal news had become known it was reported that. emerges to her with the eager question “Didst though not hear a noise?”.” The owl is the "obscure bird. to which she replies. after he has done the deed.The bard has noted “the night owl’s lazy flight. “The obscure bird Clamour’d the livelong night. the fatal bellman Which gives the stern’st good-night. alone and on the alert for the perpetration of the murder. “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.

However. Crows.(wikipedia). Another reason for this distinction is that while crows are typically highly social animals. At cemeteries. In mythology and folklore as a whole. few if any individual mythologies or folklores make such a distinction. often feature in European legends or mythology as portents or harbingers of doom or death. whereas ravens tend more often to be associated with the negative (physical) aspect of death.A group of crows is called a flock or a murder. crows tend to be symbolic more of the spiritual aspect of death. Macduff comes rushing in with the news that King Duncan has been murdered. even though carrion there is no more available (and probably less attainable) than any road or field. ravens don't seem to congregate in large numbers anywhere but: 1. because of their dark plumage. In occult circles. Near carrion where they meet seemingly by chance. unnerving calls. and especially ravens. or 2. and tendency to eat carrion (including those of humans). Crow. or the transition of the spirit into the afterlife. distinctions are sometimes made between crows and ravens. They are commonly thought to circle above scenes of death such as battles. where large numbers sometimes live together. and there are ample exceptions.speech. .

The raven is a bird of ill omen. owls) come to be accepted as birds of ill omen? Among other texts. v. Raven. rooks- . choughs.4 Magpies. We would like to argue that they didn’t pay close attention to the actual specie of crow(Corvus coronix) inhabiting the mountains. The bird’s plumage exhibits a gradient of colors from black to white. After the messenger has left. crows. the first thing Lady Macbeth says: The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements (I. Ovid’s Metamorphoses might have shaped the popular perception of these birds in Elizabethan times. . forests and castles of Scotland. 38-40). a messenger come with the news that King Duncan is coming to spend the night at her castle. Why did these birds(ravens.Commentators on the play have attributed the color of the crow contributing to the general dark atmosphere of Macbeth.Immediately after Lady Macbeth reads her husband's letter about the witches' prophecies. and Lady Macbeth means that the raven is hoarse from saying again and again that King Duncan must die.

And of course. This is supposed to make the assumption that there are in fact two birds. through the British Isles it is generally considered unlucky to view a single magpie. In Scotland and Northern Ireland one should salute – and preferably greet the bird or ask after the health of the absent Mrs. and thus ward off the bad luck (one for sorrow) and change it into good (two for joy). They are not there today. as the belief is that the bird carries a drop of the devils blood under their tongue (Tidemann and Gosler). iv. after Macbeth has finally driven away the Ghost of Banquo. and rooks are all birds that can be taught to speak a few words. 122-125). would have been present at Dover. choughs (jackdaws). Maggot-pies (magpies).In Act III Scene iv. Magpie. and so steps are taken to ward off such bad luck. he reflects that a murder will always be discovered. a bird favoring sea cliffs. a murderer. the chough. Augurs and understood relations have By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret'st man of blood (III. sometimes in strange ways: Stones have been known to move and trees to speak. In Shakespeare’s time. Macbeth himself is a secret man of blood. whilst in the majority of England one should wave or doff ones hat. nor have they . In Scotland the sighting of a lone bird near a house window signals an impending death. The majority of folklore revolves around the seeing of a single bird.

against the owl. The eagle outflew all other birds. but he was beaten by a small bird who had hidden in his plumage. The most diminutive of birds. The bird who could fly to the highest altitude would be made king. Wren. Thus Shakespeare chronicles the decline of the chough. will fight. the reversal of the natural hierarchy is at the basis of the metaphor and vividly expresses Richard’s state of mind: The world is grown so bad That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch. ii.been for centuries.Wrens are mainly small and inconspicuous. lives closer to man and has the habit of defending its territory noisily: for the poor wren. a name associated with a legend of an election of the “king of birds”. 9-14) In Richard III. Otherwise the behavior of the bird described by Shakespeare leaves no doubt concerning its name. These birds have short wings and they cannot see at night. The Wren. though not much bigger than the Goldcrest. The wren is also known as kuningilin “kinglet” in Old High German. Her young ones in her nest. As little is the wisdom. except for their loud and often complex songs. where the flight So runs against all reason. All is the fear and nothing is the love. (IV. . Since every jack became a gentleman.

frieze. But as Mars is reduced to a diminutive and to a bird. I have observ’d The air is delicate. between war and procreation. that the heaven’s breath Smells wooingly here: no jutty. But the .haunt”. As a symbolic projection. 70-73) Martlet- Duncan This castle hath a pleasant seat. iii. between haunting and breeding. and procreant cradle: Where they most breed and haunt. Buttress. the passage refers to Macbeth’s castle and may thus be construed as a comment on Macbeth. 1-10) There is a contrast between harsh and sweet terms. between the heavy images of protective architecture and the light images of summer and nature. (I. in which we hear the name of the war-god.There’s many a gentle person made a jack. does approve. so the language in general tries to sweeten and lighten the terms of danger without fully succeeding. nor coign of vantage. The guest of summer is a martlet. “the air is delicate” trembles between its summery and precarious senses. By his loved mansionry. the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses. Banquo This guest of summer. Banquo once again directs attention away from himself and toward his colleague. (I. The temple-haunting martlet. but this bird Hath made his pendent bed. vi. “Breed” gives way to “.

a royal image used later by Macduff (“the Lord’s anointed Temple.”).contrast evokes more directly the protective and gentle sides of Duncan as source of blood and milk. Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach. Which pries not to th’interior. This is evident in The Merchant of Venice where Prince of Arragon(who has to choose which casket to open. 26-30) . but are in fact dangerous provides Shakespeare with an illustration “to emphasize the irony of the deceptiveness of appearances”. explains that he does not belong to: Arragon [. Who is the war-bird who makes his home as a kind of parasite in Macbeth’s castle and Duncan’s kingship? Who has a bed hanging from either or both where he hides and watches from his secure coign of vantage? Who will soon rise to haunt Macbeth? From whose procreant cradle will the future kings of Scotland emerge?(Berger) This habit of building its nest in places which look inviting. Even in the force and road of casualty. (II. and furthermore the words tend to make the castle converge with the loved mansionry of a temple where heaven’s breath smells wooingly. but like the martlet Builds in the weather on the outward wall.. ix..] the fool multitude that choose by show.

a guest who is to be ‘fooled’ or deceived.In each case a guest arrives. And what will you do now? How will you live? Son . bat-fowling. bird-lime. Duncan to be foully murdered by his thane and kinsman. she tries to make light of the situation by pretending to believe that things are worse than they really are. bird-bolts. In Act IV Scene ii of the play when Lady Macduff comes to terms with the Macduff’s sudden fleeing. it will be interesting to glance at the methods which were formerly practised for catching them. Springes. Prince of Arragon to find a fool’s head instead of his bride. These methods were many and various in kind. and birding. Prince of Arragon or Duncan. and the word is so used by Greene and Fletcher (Spurgeon).all these devices are mentioned by Shakespeare. A possible reason for the connection in Shakespeare’s mind between the house martin and someone who is fooled or duped is that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a kind of slang term for a ‘dupe’ was ‘martin’. your father's dead. She says to her son: LADY MACDUFF Sirrah. gins. Chickens and Birds in General- While on the subject of small birds in general. and song birds in particular.

I mean. The imagery of birds is largely absent in this act. LADY MACDUFF so innocent or stupid that he wouldn't fear either one. a sticky substance) being the two most common ways of catching birds. and so do they. In Act V of Macbeth. but this boy -. ii. he has an inkling of Fortune letting him down and moreover. Even as he gets ready to meet Malcolm’s forces in battle. One might say it is because the dramatist has brought to life everything that the birds signified till the last act.As birds do. with worms and flies? Son With what I get. The boy is unfazed. it is the sadness related to his alienation from family and friends.5 LADY MACDUFF Poor bird! thou'ldst never fear the net nor lime.his mother says -. He takes the word "poor" to mean "little. and this line seems to be a reflection of Macbeth’s inner thoughts. (IV." and says that poor birds are too little to be trapped. 30-37) "The net" and "lime" (birdlime. The goose look has been variously interpreted to mean a sad countenance. mother. . the only mention of a bird is the goose look. The pitfall nor the gin. borne on the face of Macbeth’s servant. Son Why should I. mother? Poor birds they are not set for.


For further elucidation of this point.S. Three for a girl. nor gather into barns.10 November 1924).Z. and part of that anger was directed at the crow. was a Scottish geologist and writer.S. British Animals extinct within Historic Times (1880) and A Catalogue of Books Ancient and Modern relating to Falconry (1891). 5 According to Ovid's Metamorphoses.” 2 James Edmund Harting. when the crow told the god Apollo that his lover Coronis was cheating on him with a mortal. neither do they reap. yet your heavenly Father feedeth them" (Matthew. OM.1 NOTES This is a line from the Magpie rhyme. KCB. Author of The Ornithology of Shakespeare(1871). Two for joy. as Jesus said: "Behold the fowls of the air. see Ovid. PRS. he became very angry..6:26). 4 What the birds get is provided by God. Seven for a secret never to be told. Member Of The British Ornithologists’ Union.. FRSE (28 December 1835 . In Britain and Ireland a widespread traditional rhyme records the myth (it is not clear whether it has been seriously believed) that seeing magpies predicts the future. Four for a boy. F. F. for they sow not. Ostriches and Ostrich Farming (1877). in classical mythology. Six for gold. Five for silver. The Birds of Middlesex (1866). The first seven lines are as follows- “One for sorrow. . 3 Sir Archibald Geikie. depending on how many are seen.L. Rambles in Search of Shells (1876). whose feathers he turned from white to black.

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