Any owl, Strigidae family, Chouettes et Hiboux.

Screech-owl: probably the Barn Owl Tyto alba, Chouette effraie.

36 occurrences (21 owl, 2 owls, 1 owls', 4 screech-owl, 2 screech-owls, 2 night-owl, 1 night-owls, 1 night-owl's, 1 owlet, 1 howlet's)

There are six species of nocturnal birds of prey in Britain. Shakespeare's "screech-owl" must be the barn owl that shrieks and hisses and snores! This species, as its name indicates, lives close to man, and it is not surprising judging from the various noises it produces that it gave rise to many superstitions. "The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots" (MND 2 2 6) must be among the "hooting species": either the long-eared Owl Asio otus, Hibou moyen-duc; or the Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus, Hibou brachyote; but more probably the Tawny Owl Strix aluco, Chouette hulotte (Chat-huant).

A quotation from Macbeth sets the tone:

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,

Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

(MAC 4 1 13-19)

The owl is in good company among the ingredients of the "hell-broth" of the three witches. This gives a precise idea of the place of the owl in Elizabethan folklore. SEAGER quoting Batman uppon Bartholomew (Bk. 12 § 5), describes its place in Elizabethan natural history.

The owl is a wild bird charged with feathers, but she is always with holden with sloth, and is feeble to fly, and dwelleth by graves by day and by night, and in chimes. And diviners tell that they betoken evil; for if the owl be seen in a city, it signifieth destruction and waste. The chough fighteth with the owl and taketh the owl's eggs, and eateth them by day, and the owl eateth the chough's eggs by night. The crying of the owl by night tokeneth death. The owl is fed with dirt and with other unclean things.

This theme is not new, Chaucer in The Parlement of Foulys (l. 343), says: "The oule ek, that of deth the bode bryngeth". In Shakespeare's work, nine quotations are devoted to this: "Thou ominous and fearful owl of death" (1H6 4 2 15) for example. But again it is in Macbeth, during and after Duncan's murder, that this owl image takes its full dimension.



It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman,

(2 2 3, emphasis added)


I have done the deed. - Didst thou not hear a noise?


I heard the owl scream, and the crickets cry.

Did not you speak?



(2 2 14-6, idem)


The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,

Lamentings heard i'th' air; strange screams of death,

And, prophesying with accents terrible

Of dire combustion, and confus'd events,

New hatch'd to th' woeful time, the obscure bird

Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth

Was feverous, and did shake.


'Twas a rough night.

(2 3 53-60, idem)

In Hamlet, Shakespeare's reference is much more obscure:

They say the owl was a baker's daughter.

(4 5 42)

In the notes of his edition (p. 532), Harold JENKINS, explains that:

A folk-tale of which there are several versions tells how, when Christ asked for bread, the baker's daughter took care that he should not be given too much and was thereupon turned into an owl. [...]

What we may certainly perceive is that the associations of the mournful bird are appropriate for Ophelia. A widespread belief is that the owl sings only in winter (e.g. Owl and Nightingale, II. 411-16); and hence, contrasting with the cuckoo (cf. LLL V. ii. 878-9) and notoriously with the nightingale, birds of the mating season, it is readily regarded as mourning the death of love, as Ophelia's songs do now. [...]

Baker's daughters were traditionally women of ill repute: the Marian martyr John Bradford said of Philip of Spain that 'he must have three or four in one night ... not of ladies and gentle-women, but of baker's daughters, and such poor whores' (Strype, Eccles. Memorials, 1822, iii (pt 2), 352). Hence their identification of the owl as having been a baker's daughter may connect the end of love with the loss of chastity, recalling what Hamlet has said about the transformation of honesty (III. i. 111-2) and leading on to Ophelia next song.

But even if we must be aware of what Harold JENKINS said himself about "the fanciful explanations in which commentators too readily indulge" the elements he provides us with are typical of those linked with bird imagery: an ancient story, mythological or religious, contrasting species and a hint at the psychology of the characters.