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Animal Symbolism in Macbeth
[author: Sara Bufo - postdate: 2006-11-04]


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, animals are often mentioned and have a symbolic meaning. In my opinion, three of the most important animals of the play are the owl, the serpent and the wolf.

Owls are creatures of the night. Therefore, they are closely connected to darkness and have always been associated with death.
It was thought their shrieks anticipated bad happenings. As a matter of fact, the night of Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth quotes “It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman, Which gives the stern’st good-night”. In this sentence, the owl announces Duncan’s death. As a consequence, it already knows what will happen. Therefore, this animal is connected to the supernatural world and to the three witches, because it “has more than human knowledge”.
What’s more, the owl is also mentioned by the Old man: ‘Tis unnatural, Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place, Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed”.Owls don’t usually hunt falcons, because falcons are much bigger than owls. This sentence has a deep symbolic meaning: the falcon represents Duncan, while the owl represents Macbeth. As a matter of fact, Macbeth kills a person that is much more important and powerful than him.

One of the most famous quotes of Lady Macbeth is “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it”. With this sentence, the evil woman invites her husband to appear loyal and innocent but to act in a totally different way. The “serpent under it” symbolises transformation. As a matter of fact, snakes shed their skins.
What’s more, they have always been considered closely connected to evil: a snake persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of Eden's garden and even in today’s Harry Potter the snake is the symbol of the evil team of the school.
Serpents aren’t just evil, but they also slither. This is another reason for which Macbeth is compared to a snake: he has to slither out of the innocent flower after Duncan is murdered and gain the throne without invoking suspicions.
Macbeth also mentions a snake when he speaks about Banquo: "We have scorched the snake, not killed it. She'll remain close and be herself whilst our poor malice remains in danger of her former tooth.” In this sentence, the snake symbolises a situation of danger. As a matter of fact, Macbeth is afraid of Banquo and thinks he may destroy everything he has obtained.

The wolf is another important symbol of the play. It is mentioned by the three witches in one of their most famous speeches: “Witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered Murder, Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf Who howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace, With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design Moves like a ghost”. In this sentence, the wolf is associated with Duncan’s murder. As a matter of fact, in the same way as wolves hunt in packs, Macbeth and his wife “hunt” Duncan together. Wolves are also symbols of greed and cruelty. In the past, wolves were considered responsible for the loss of sheep and tragic events. In the play, they are associated to Macbeth and his evil deeds.