From the cave walls of Neanderthals to today’s modern literature, animals and their behaviors are used to appeal to a human’s inherently primal nature. Therefore, there are common animal symbols throughout the world, used as blueprints to understand the meaning of the artwork, whether it be cave paintings or Shakespeare. These animal symbols are a sub-category of what are called archetypes. The term ‘archetype’ comes from the Latin word ‘archetypum’ which literally means “the original pattern from which copies are made”. Psychologist Carl Jung defined archetypes in his research as “forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all 1over the earth” (Harper). Animal archetypes are seen in all famous Shakespeare plays, but they are extremely prominent in Hamlet and Macbeth. These repetitive animal symbols trigger archetypal memories in all readers; improving the comprehension of the play and adding dimension to the plot.
In both plays, this bestial symbolism – and what it means – clearly define a predator-prey relationship between the characters. In Macbeth, the first predators are both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and their prey is King Duncan. When Lady Macbeth is given the news that King Duncan was to come to her castle for the night, she prophesies that “The raven himself is hoarse/ That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan/ Under my battlements” (1.5.35-7). According to Celtic mythology, ravens are known to be closely linked to battle in a negative way, due to the fact that they are the scavengers who feed off of dead bodies after a battle. This hints that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will profit from the death of King Duncan while also implying that his death will be unavoidable. Ravens also stand for powerful secrets and intelligence, indicating that the crime could never be predicted by anyone except Macbeth or Lady Macbeth (Venefica). The play Macbeth has characters who are constantly the predator or always the prey. In contrast, Hamlet has two characters, King Claudius and Hamlet, who seem to continually switch roles. Claudius begins at the top of the food chain (after killing King Hamlet) but is reduced to prey when Hamlet finds out that Claudius killed his father. Immediately after Hamlet learned the circumstances of his father’s death, Marcellus summoned him by saying “Hillo, ho, ho, my lord,” this is how a falconer would call his bird. Falcons are known to be war-like creatures with legendary focus, so by implying that Hamlet is a falcon, Shakespeare has given his character a purpose; to seek revenge on Claudius (Venefica). Falcons eat snakes, so it is logical that Hamlet could ‘prey’ on Claudius, as he often referred to as a snake. When Claudius found out that Hamlet knew his secret, they were both elevated to predator status, trying to outsmart each other and succeed in the others’ demise. Since both are equally matched predators and alerted to the each other’s ‘hunt’, either both had to die or both had to live.
While predator-prey relationships are generally confined to a small group of characters, all belong to a bigger entity. Human beings are, on the most fundamental level, bestial in their social structure. Therefore the characters’ pack-like mentalities in Hamlet and Macbeth are both realistic and relatable. In both plays an unnatural and unprecedented change in this social order proves devastating because as Aristotle has said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human”. These organized ‘packs’ are defined by a natural hierarchy going in this order: at the top is the alpha male2 or female, then beta male or female, subordinates and omega (Wolf). The alpha male of Hamlet is King Hamlet. The false alpha male is King Claudius. By poisoning King Hamlet, Claudius has severely destabilized the natural order and only Hamlet can restore the balance.