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Macbeth Glossary
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman (2.2.5-6)

The Bellman of London. Thomas Dekker (1616). In Renaissance England the hoot of an owl flying over one's house was an evil omen, and meant impending death for someone inside. Shakespeare refers to the owl as the "fatal bellman" because it was the bellman's job to ring the parish bell when a person in the town was near death. "This was called the "passing bell," and was a signal for all hearers to pray for the dying person. After the death, there would be one short peal [chime]; from its sound the hearers could tell whether the deceased was male or female" (Singman, Jeffrey. Daily Life in Elizabethan England. Westport. Greenwood Press. 1995. p.53). In the play, of course, the owl "shriek'd" for King Duncan.

I am reminded of the famous line by Shakespeare's contemporary, John Donne, who wrote: "never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.)

Back to Macbeth (2.2)


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How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Macbeth Glossary. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) <
/macbeth/macbethglossary/macbeth1_1/macbethglos_owlshriek.html >.