Shakespeare frequently uses nature imagery, and Macbeth, especially, is full of animal symbolism. Nature, in general, plays a significant role in the play. Each time the witches appear, they are accompanied by lightning and thunder. When Macbeth decides to murder Duncan, the human world is thrown into disorder. The natural world follows suit and strange events begin to occur. The weather becomes stormy and animals wild,
“Duncan’s horses (a thing most strange and certain),
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.”
Nature parallels the chaos in the human world. There are three important animal symbols, in particular, in the play: the cat, the raven or crow, and the owl.
The black cat may be the one animal most closely associated with superstition. During the persecution of practicers of witchcraft, and in medieval Europe, black cats were considered demonic animals or even demons in disguise. Women who owned cats were assumed to be witches using the animals for witchcraft. One of the witches’ familiars in Macbeth is called “grimalkin,” an archaic term for “cat.” The Scottish legend of the grimalkin featured an evil, magical cat living in the highlands. The term itself is a combination of “grey,” the animal’s color, and “malkin,” a term which unsurprisingly meant “low-class woman.” While Black cats most often appear in folklore as bad omens, some cultures consider them signs of good luck. In Welsh folklore, black cats can predict the weather. In Ancient Egypt, they were even seen as holy creatures and the goddesses Bastet and Sekhmet took the form of cats.
Cats appear often in paintings of Biblical scenes. According to The Guardian, Ghirlandaio’s painting of the last supper features a cat, sitting at the feet of Judas as “a symbol of betrayal and a sign of the devil’s presence at Christ’s last meal.”
Ravens have traditionally represented chaos and death. In many cultures, they act as messengers from the afterlife or between the supernatural and the natural worlds. In Norse mythology, the ravens Huginn and Muninn brought messages to Odin, and in Japanese Shintoism, the crow is the messenger of the gods. The “Morrígan” was a goddess of war from Celtic mythology who appeared as a crow. She was also the keeper of fate and prophecy. Ravens and crows have been associated with death in countless ancient mythologies. One possible explanation for this could be the scavenging of dead bodies.
“The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan”
Because ravens are bad omens, the raven’s being hoarse signifies an abundance of bad news. Lady Macbeth interprets this cawing as a prediction of Duncan’s death but later, in act three, the crow reappears. Macbeth is tormented by the guilt of his murder. He has seen Duncan’s ghost and fears that “blood will have blood.” Macbeth also believes in the “augures,” or predictions, of the black bird. However, this time it is clear that the prediction is about him:
“Augures and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs (crows) and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood.”
The owl is a symbol of death and is used in many instances to portray evil and darkness. During the Middle Ages, owls were seen as evil helpers of witches. In folklore, owls are often representations of wisdom. It was thought their shrieks were bad omens, warning of future events. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, is regularly associated with an owl. In many of the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, the owl symbolizes both knowledge and evil.
Bosch’s work famously depicted Hell, and in his representations, “knowledge” served as a reminder of mankind’s fall from grace in Genesis.
In Macbeth, the sound of the owl’s shriek marks the death of Duncan, alarming Lady Macbeth that her husband has already committed the deed. On the night Macbeth murders Duncan, Lady Macbeth is first alerted by the owl,
“It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the sternest good-night”
Then, in act two, the Old Man remarks,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.”
Falcons are much larger than owls, which normally go after smaller rodents and insects. An owl killing such a large predator symbolizes Macbeth’s killing of the more powerful king. The owl represents Macbeth and the falcon represents Duncan. When Macbeth hears the prophecy that he will become king, he decides to actively pursue it. Instead of letting this happen honorably, he and Lady Macbeth decide to tempt fate. The animals in Macbeth represent how unnatural it is to have knowledge of the future.
“The Devil’s Advocate.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Aug. 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/aug/10/shopping.homes.
Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Greenwood Press, 2008.
Lewis, Anthony J. “The Dog, Lion, and Wolf in Shakespeare’s Descriptions of Night.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 66, no. 1, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1971, pp. 1–10, https://doi.org/10.2307/3722462.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Owen, Elias. Welsh Folk-Lore: a Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales. Project Gutenberg, 2006.