Imagery in Macbeth

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William Shakespeare frequently utilizes imagery in his plays during the 16th century. This is a common practice that authors adopt to evoke emotions from their readers or audience. Being a proficient writer, Shakespeare heavily incorporates imagery in the majority of his works. Macbeth, one of his renowned plays, is no different. In fact, Macbeth consists of multiple instances of imagery and symbolism that enhance the theme and provide more intricacy to the underlying meaning in the play.

In Shakespeare’s play, clothing and the appearance of characters are used extensively to enhance the theme of deception. Once Macbeth becomes king, his role is compared to ill-fitting clothes that do not conform properly. This is depicted through the line, “New honours come upon him, Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould, But with the aid of use” (I, iii). Lady Macbeth advises Macbeth to “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” (I, v), highlighting how Shakespeare employs the characters’ appearance to further exemplify the deceit that has occurred.

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Within the text, Shakespeare employs various symbols and motifs to convey the theme of appearance versus reality. One such symbol is the image of a flower, which represents innocence. In contrast, the snake serves as a common metaphor for evil. Macbeth himself acknowledges this dichotomy when he states, “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I, v), using his own appearance to mask the darkness within. He reiterates this notion in Act III, Scene v, when he tells Lady Macbeth that they must disguise their true intentions behind innocent facades, even though they have already perpetrated numerous murders.

Besides relying on character appearances, Shakespeare also employs biblical references to symbolize the events unfolding in the play. One such reference can be found in Malcolm’s statement to Donalbain after Duncan’s death: “To show as unfelt sorrow is an office Which the false man does easy” (II, iii). Here, Malcolm suggests that deceitful individuals can easily feign sorrow. Additionally, the playwright makes a biblical allusion to Lucifer, the fallen angel, through the words “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell” (IV, iii).

Within the play Macbeth, Shakespeare draws a comparison between Macbeth and Lucifer, emphasizing how they both started off as righteous individuals but ultimately succumbed to evil in order to fulfill their personal desires. Throughout the play, Shakespeare utilizes imagery that involves light and darkness to symbolize various themes, including the conflict between good and evil. In the early stages of the play, the witches plan for their rendezvous to occur “at the set of sun” (I, i). In this particular instance, Shakespeare employs the setting of nightfall as a metaphor for the transition from goodness to wickedness. Later on, Banquo declares to Macbeth that the witches are “instruments of darkness” (I, iii).

The concept of darkness in Macbeth symbolizes evil. Lady Macbeth seeks the cover of “thick night” to avoid suspicion before committing murder (I, v). In Act II, Scene i, Banquo notices that the heavens are darkened, indicating that Macbeth’s sinister deeds are being concealed. Shakespeare employs light to represent the victory of righteousness over wickedness as Macbeth’s downfall becomes evident. Macbeth expresses his weariness with the sun as his demise becomes inevitable.

The sunrise symbolizes the temporary triumph of evil, with the ultimate victory always belonging to good. Shakespeare heavily employs sleep imagery as a literary device in Macbeth. In Act I, Scene iii, the witches cruelly scheme to punish the sailor’s wife by robbing her husband of sleep. “Sleep shall neither night nor day hang upon his pent house lid”. This foreshadows the sleepless fate that awaits Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they embrace evil. Starting from Duncan’s murder, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle with insomnia throughout the play.

The punishment for murder is sleep deprivation, according to Banquo. He says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, And yet I would not sleep” (II, i). Banquo is attempting to resist temptation by refusing to sleep. In Macbeth, blood is often used as a symbol of guilt and betrayal. Shakespeare uses blood as a powerful metaphor with both positive and negative meanings throughout the play. At the beginning, Duncan asks, “What bloody man is that?” when he sees the injured sergeant (I, ii).

In this example, blood serves as a symbol of courage and represents the man’s selflessness and willingness to die for his country. The sergeant later mentions that Macbeth’s sword was “covered in blood” (I, ii), highlighting Macbeth’s bravery in battle and his killing of his enemies. This act is seen as courageous by the characters in the play who take great pride in their country. As the plot unfolds, Shakespeare starts depicting blood as a more negative symbol. Lady Macbeth requests the spirits to make her blood thick (II, ii).

Lady Macbeth expresses her desire to become desensitized to the overwhelming guilt she is currently experiencing. She later tries to alleviate her guilt by smearing the blood on the servants, saying, “Smear the sleepy grooms with blood” and “If he does bleed, I’ll paint the faces of the grooms with it, making it seem like their guilt” (III, iv). She believes that by transferring the blood onto the servants, she will free herself from guilt. The clearest representation of blood imagery occurs when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and exclaims, “Out damned spot! Out I say! One, two, then it’s time to do it; hell is murky.”

Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it when none can call out power to account? Yet who have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (V, i). Lady Macbeth cannot wash away the guilt from her hands, symbolizing her inability to overcome her guilty conscience. Similarly, the blood represents the goodness within the king. In the final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth, Macduff exclaims, “I have no words, my voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out. (V, viii). Shakespeare utilizes blood as a positive image once again when Macduff allies himself with goodness by killing Macbeth. This act of bloodshed is seen as a positive event for which Macduff is congratulated. Alongside blood symbolism, nature imagery appears continuously in Macbeth. In Act I, Scene iii, Banquo asks the Witches to “look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not.” The metaphor of seeds growing represents opportunities that will arise and later becomes a recurring theme in the play.

In Act V, Scene ii, Lennox describes Macbeth and his followers as “weeds”. As mentioned earlier, Lady Macbeth instructs Macbeth to appear like a flower in order to hide the deceitful snake within (I, v). Both the flower and the snake are commonly found in nature, with the flower representing innocence and the snake symbolizing betrayal. Shakespeare also uses other animal references throughout the play. The sergeant compares Macbeth and Banquo’s actions to those of an eagle and a lion after their victorious battle (I, ii). Macbeth uses various examples of imagery to convey emotions to both the reader and the audience.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare employs clothing and other symbols of concealment to exemplify the concealment of guilt and deceit. The contrast between light and darkness serves as a widely recognized allegory for the conflict between good and evil – a concept skillfully utilized by Shakespeare throughout the play to magnify the internal struggles faced by the characters and their surroundings. The sleeplessness suffered by multiple characters in Macbeth symbolizes the burden of guilt resulting from their wicked deeds.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare effectively uses extensive imagery and symbolism to compare people and their actions to various things found in nature. Just like the contrast between light and dark, blood is universally accepted as symbolizing both positive and negative aspects. Additionally, different animals and items of nature are regarded as symbols for various character attributes. By exploiting these symbols, Shakespeare successfully incites the desired emotional response in both the reader and audience.

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Imagery in Macbeth. (2018, Feb 28). Retrieved from

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