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Macbeth- Symbolism And Imagery Essay, Research Paper


In “Macbeth” William Shakespeare employs his skills in imagery and symbolism. The landscape of “Macbeth” reveals the contours of the title character’s psychological turmoil. Churning with self-doubt about his determination, his ability to connect word and act, and his sexual potency, Macbeth is a man at the mercy of his environment. The inability to sleep is symbolic of a tormented soul and represents a character’s control over their lives. The imagery of darkness in Act 4 is used to describe the agents of disorder. Within “Macbeth” Shakespeare demonstrates imagery and symbolism through Macbeth’s self-doubt, his inability to connect word and act, sexual potency, sleep, and darkness.

On the heath of Scotland at the opening of the play, the wind whips over the barren ground and lightening leaps down from the sky around the subjected, weak man who will come to kill a king. Radical change is effected in Macbeth’s character over the course of the play; he is driven from subordinate confusion to tyrannical insanity. The fluidity of his own psyche is reflected in the fluidity with which the characters around him take up dynamics that reflect his inner fears and worries. Macbeth’s relationship to the witches in Act 1 Scene 3 and his wife in Act 1 Scene 7 especially resonate with his inner psychic state. Both relations reveal important currents of Macbeth’s diseased mind.

The witches in Act 1 Scene 3 create a dynamic which flatters Macbeth in an attempt to convince him to kill Duncan. They flatter him in two ways. First, the witches greet Macbeth as a superior, “all hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee Thane of Glamis.” (1.3.46). This honorific salutation, “hail,” is reserved for the great leaders of men, not subordinates like Macbeth; who at this point in the play is only a vassal of King Duncan. The only other instance in which one of the characters in the play is greeted by “hail” is when Malcolm takes power at the end of the play after Macbeth’s head is chopped off (5.8.78). Never outside of Act 1 Scene 3 is it used to refer to Macbeth. The witches greeting to Macbeth also flatters him by differentiating him from his peer Banquo. While Banquo at this point in the play is an equal of Macbeth, Banquo is not greeted at all. The witches do not even refer to Banquo until halfway through the scene; after he begs them to prophesize about his future.

In Act 1 Scene 7 Lady Macbeth cuts Macbeth down in order to convince him to kill Duncan. She insults him in two ways. First, she attacks his masculinity. She tells Macbeth that he is not actually a man when Macbeth tells her that he doesn’t want to kill Duncan: “What beast was’t then / That made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man.” (1.7.47- 49). Lady Macbeth equates masculinity with the ability to be violent; thus her attack resonates not only with Macbeth’s fears about sexuality, but also about his inability to act. The effectiveness of her words is revealed when Lady Macbeth’s words are echoed in his own mind and he begs Lady Macbeth to stop harassing him, “Prithee, peace.” (1.7.45). Macbeth’s insecurities about his ability to commit murder is fascinating because it is almost a mirror of Lady Macbeth’s own self-hatred in Act 1 Scene 5, when she herself begs to be unsexed so she can no longer feel remorse.

Lady Macbeth’s second way of insulting Macbeth is to tell him that he doesn’t keep his word. Lady Macbeth claims that Macbeth has broken his word to kill Duncan. To Lady Macbeth, the inability to keep one’s word is an affront. She tells Macbeth that she in contrast would keep her word. In order to illustrate this point she says that even if she said she would take a baby and, “have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn / As you have done to this.” (1.3.57-59). Loyalty to one’s word, thus, becomes contrasted to loyalty to one’s king. By splitting his loyalty, Lady Macbeth exacerbates Macbeth’s fears about his relationship to Duncan and to his words that already exist as seeds in his mind. Thus Lady Macbeth’s insulting Macbeth reveals the same dysfunctional trends in Macbeth’s mind as Macbeth’s insulting the witches (and them praising him); these trends of self-hatred and self-doubt lead him to kill Duncan, and to his ultimate fall.

Before the witches prophesied to Macbeth they vowed to whip up a storm and destroy the ship of a sailor. Interestingly the witches do not say that they want to murder the sailor. Instead, they plan to destroy his sleep, “I will drain him dry as hay / Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid / He shall live a man forbid” (1.3.17-20). For the witches, the inability to sleep is symbolic of a tormented soul. The man who can not sleep lives in chaos, night is day and day is night. To the characters in “Macbeth” sleep is the, “chief nourisher in life’s feast” (2.2.37) without it one becomes mad. Characters invoke the word sleep as a symbol of order. But in the play sleep is also a complicated term because it represents a character’s control over their lives. When characters can’t control their sleeping habits they have entered into the realm of chaos where the fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Macbeth, his arms soaked in blood after murdering Duncan, turns to Lady Macbeth. Surprisingly, some of his first words to Lady Macbeth are, “Macbeth does murder sleep–the innocent sleep / Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care” (2.2.34-35). Macbeth’s first admonition that his decision to murder Duncan has destroyed him, is his recognition that he will no longer be able to sleep. Racked by guilt, Macbeth instantly recognizes that the order around him is turned upside down. Macbeth’s rule is of darkness for Scotland and inner turmoil for himself. Ross, speaking to an old man, describes Macbeth’s Scotland by saying, “Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame / That darkness does the face of earth entomb” (2.4.7-8). Macbeth like the owl both hunts and rules by the shadow of night; and like the owl he can not sleep at night. He is a creature of chaos.

Lady Macbeth’s sleep is representative of the portrayal of a woman’s place in the play “Macbeth.” As a woman, her guilty conscience makes her sleep. Her madness makes her benign. Lady Macbeth is the prototype of the madwoman in the attic who lives in a state of semi-sleep, mumbling to herself, and washing her hands. She poses no threat to anyone but herself. Her madness makes her less dangerous then when she was in control of her senses. In contrast, the inner chaos of Macbeth causes him to be awake. His madness makes him dangerous. His inability to sleep causes his mind to grow more bloody and his rule over Scotland more treacherous. Macbeth’s madness is characteristically masculine. In his madness he achieves the thickening of the blood that Lady Macbeth wishes for. Macbeth becomes emboldened and more violent, he becomes more awake. In contrast, Lady Macbeth undergoes a feminine transformation as madness makes her sleep and more docile. In her madness she becomes profoundly female, even adopting stereotypical female habits like washing and being concerned about the spots of blood. She becomes a docile creature who instead of being unsexed has been castrated of her aggression. The word sleep is manifested not only by Macbeth’s inability to sleep but also in Lady Macbeth’s benign existence at the end of the play.

Darkness in our society is indicate of evil. For instance, a black cat, a dark night, and a dark place are all symbolic of debauchery. Authors use these symbols to describe an evil character or setting. William Shakespeare employs the imagery of darkness in Act 4 of his play “Macbeth” to describe the agents of disorder. The witches, Macbeth, and Scotland are all described as dark because they represent the agents of chaos.

The witches in the first scene of Act 4 are depicted as agents of chaos because of the dark domain around them. The witches meet in a dark cave. The cave is an appropriate setting for the witches because caves tend to represent the under-world and hell, creating a feeling of evil. The witches appearance, “secret, black, and midnight hags” (4.1.47) also indicates their evil nature. The witches dark meeting place and dark appearance all emphasize their destructive nature.

Macbeth in Act 4: consulted with the witches, murdered Macduff’s family, and continued to create chaos in Scotland. Macbeth in Act 4 is described as an agent of disorder, “untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered” (4.3.104). The language in Act 1 that described Macbeth has changed from “noble” and “kind” to the diction of Act 4 which describes Macbeth as “black Macbeth” and a “tyrant.” The castle that Macbeth lives in, Dunsanine, is also indicate of darkness. Dunsanine is similar to the word dungeon, a dark and dirty place. In Act 4 Macbeth is an agent of disorder, he murders and he consults witches, because of this he is described using dark imagery.

Scotland under the rule of Macbeth is described as, “shrouded in darkness.” Scotland in Act 4 has fallen off the “Chain of Being” and is now occupied with the forces of chaos and disorder; it is filled with “sighs, and groans, and shrieks, that rend the air” (4.3.168). Scotland is described by Macduff as, “O Nation Miserable” (4.3.103). All these descriptions of Scotland portray the country as a place where the agents of darkness have shrouded the land.

The agents of chaos and disorder were symbolized by darkness in Act 4. The witches were described as, “dark as midnight”; Macbeth was described as, “devilish and dark”; and Scotland was described as “dying.” The imagery of darkness also plays an important role in character development. Macbeth in Act 1 was an agent of order and thus was described with words such as “noble” and “loyal,” but when Macbeth became an agent of disorder he was described with words such as “dark” and “devilish.” This same character development is true for Scotland which in Act 1 was described as the land of light; but in Act 4, when it became the land of evil, it was described with diction such as dark and grave like.

Throughout “Macbeth” the tools of imagery and symbolism are shown through Macbeth’s self doubt, his inability to connect word and act, sexual potency, sleep, and darkness. The reversal of Macbeth’s role through the play is a reflection of his tormented mind. By means of his interaction with the witches placing him in a superior role and with his wife in an inferior, insulted positioning. Sleep is portrayed as the “chief nourisher in life’s feast” (2.2.37) and the man who can not sleep becomes mad. Also, darkness is symbolic of the agents of chaos and disorder. Within William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” one can truly perceive a man’s struggle with life and the conflicts it produces.


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