Fair is Fowl
As one of the very first lines of Macbeth by William Shakespeare makes clear, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”(I, i, 12-13). Contradictions exist throughout the play in numerous motifs and symbols, including birds. What birds represent in literature varies; they can mean a journey, freedom, positive omen, and everything humans quest to understand. In Macbeth they can mean different things depending on the kind of bird, one sees less menacing birds appear around the mention of children, and birds of prey are referred to around the time of bad tidings.
Although birds may be interpreted as symbols of freedom and innocence, their roles in Macbeth are often the harbingers of death and destruction, as lady Macbeth sees the raven under her battlements, and an obscure bird shrieks the whole night of Duncan’s murder. Thus they come to embody and symbolize death and destruction. Birds that are not predators symbolize innocence, more specifically childhood. One could say that fowl are fair. Lady Macduff is aghast when she hears the news about her husband leaving Scotland. She tells her son that his father is dead, and asks what he will do.
He replies he will live “as birds do, mother”(IV. ii. 32). Lady Macduff then comments that he will not fear any kinds of traps, like an innocent bird unaware of its predators and trappers. Banquo and his son Fleance are on their way to Macbeth’s castle for a feast when a group of three murderers ambush the two. While Banquo tries to fend them off he exclaims, “Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly”(III, iii, 17). What he says obviously compares Fleance to a bird, telling him to fly and be free from violence, thus innocent.
When Macduff hears about the news of Macbeth killing his “pretty chickens and their dam, At one fell swoop”(IV, iii, 224-225), he calls Macbeth a “hell-kite”(IV, iii, 223). These lines are very dense when it comes to the symbolism of birds in Macbeth. One line establishes birds as horrible things capable of slaughtering a whole family, and in the very next line Macduff compares his children to pretty chickens. Based on all of these examples, reason is given to the argument that small birds and domestic fowl represent innocence and freedom.
Birds of prey are signs of death and destruction. When one thinks of the birds of Great Britain often what comes to mind are ravens, owls, etc. These are very dark and menacing birds that are often affiliated with Halloween. After a messenger comes to deliver the news of Duncan’s visit to their castle, Lady Macbeth sees ravens under her battlements. This is a clear omen of Duncan’s demise later that night. The morning after the fatal night of Duncan’s murder, Lennox complains to Macbeth about an obscure bird “that Clamour’d the livelong night”(II, iii, 61).
Subsequently the news is delivered of the king being dead. The shrieking of the bird is supposed to represent Duncan’s murder, since they happen at the same time. In addition, that very night an old man saw an owl kill a hawk in flight, an apparent allegory of the death of the king (the falcon) at the hands of Macbeth (the owl). When Macbeth notices Banquo’s ghost at his own feast, his wife tries to put some sense into him, but he says, “If charnel-houses and our graves must send Those that we bury back, our monuments Shall be the maws of kites”(IV, iii, 70-72).
This means that if graves can’t hold the dead, people must have to rest their dead in the stomachs of birds. From all of this proof, we can derive that the flying menace symbolizes death and destruction in Macbeth. Birds of a less carnivorous sort symbolize the innocence and freedom of childhood, and raptorial birds represent doom. Many of the play’s older characters compare children to birds, and Macbeth to a bird of prey. Throughout literature, birds can represent a good omen, a bad omen, freedom, death, victory, etc. The different meanings of birds are among of the many contradictions that exist within the text of Macbeth.