ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Symbolism in Macbeth

Updated on April 21, 2013
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

Shakespeare’s plays are rife with all forms of metalanguage, generating the centuries long phenomenon of provoking a simultaneous shudder of joy from teachers and a cacophony of groans from students. In combining the archaic language with this abundance of literary themes and techniques, it’s no wonder that students all around the globe have been intimidated over and over again by the works of the famous bard. What students often don’t seem to realise, however, is that beneath the layers of symbolism and metaphor lies a genuinely fascinating tale that, although perhaps rendered somewhat irritating by the drone of whoever is attempting to read it out in a classroom, is enthralling, captivating, and actually relatively simple to write on due to the abundance of ideas explored. In nowhere is this truer than in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, where the ideas of madness, corruption, betrayal and lust for power are amplified through the prolific use of symbolism and motifs. So what exactly constitutes a symbol in Macbeth? Let’s find out!

  • Blood: With such a violent context it’s no surprise that blood occupies a rather large portion of the play, but were you aware of it’s symbolic characteristics? If you thought that Macbeth was off his rocker when he questioned the ability of ‘all great Neptune’s ocean’ to wash the blood ‘clean from [his] hand,’ you’re not far wrong, after all, a small amount of water washes blood off fine, so an entire ocean would do the job rather well. Shakespeare, however, utilises the lines to establish a juxtaposition between the purity of water and the corruption that blood has come to symbolise. Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s deranged desperation, ‘Out, damned spot,’ is not a lamentation over her acne at a time before the invention of suitable treatments, but rather a desire to rid herself of the blood on her body. Again, despite constant hand washing, Lady Macbeth feels that the blood is perpetually stained upon her, as it comes to symbolise the indelible mark of guilt, instilled into the characters through their ruthless murders. This guilt cannot be washed away, certainly not by the purity of water, and its appearance is used particularly in conjunction with Lady Macbeth’s decline into insanity.

  • Weather: This is an extremely common symbol throughout all forms of literary work, and is of great importance in Macbeth. Think of the eerie setting that accompanies the witches’ prophecies upon the heath. Would it feel quite so ominous without the thunder and lightening? Would it foreshadow the treachery that is to occur quite as well? Similarly, the unnatural events that occur subsequent to the king’s murder, including the falcon that is killed by a ‘mousing owl’ and the anomaly of Duncan’s horses turning and eating each other, reflects the disorder of the world now that the Great Chain of Being, headed by God who appoints the king, has collapsed under the weight of betrayal. These strange natural phenomena parallel the corruption of the natural order, symbolising political and moral distress.

The dagger is an important symbol
The dagger is an important symbol | Source
  • The Dagger: This hallucination appears to provide further proof of Macbeth’s increasing madness. His attempts to grasp it seem even more ridiculous, as we find ourselves angrily shouting at him to come to his senses and recognise the hallucinatory nature of the object. ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ he asks shakily. Yes, well no, not really, it’s a hallucination that symbolises the throne. Hanging tantalisingly in the air, much like the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth is powerless to grasp the authority that it promises, yet it seems to whisper alluringly to him, driving him to murder the king. Just as he metaphorically takes hold of the dagger and commits the murder, so he secures the throne and the position of kingship that accompanies it. The dagger is therefore a vision of his own treachery and corruption, whilst simultaneously seeming to symbolise the power of the throne.
  • Dead Children: Well, Macbeth is a tragedy, and you can’t get much more tragic than this, so I suppose it’s fitting. Images of dead babies litter the play almost as frequently as blood, with them appearing in the witches’ cauldron and prophesising to Macbeth. Furthermore, the ruthless murder of McDuff’s children, orchestrated by Macbeth in order to retain his power, signifies complete corruption, highlighting the extent of his brutality. Additionally, the images of dead children seem to reinforce the already established notion that Macbeth’s royal lineage will end with his rule as, despite his fervent efforts, it becomes clear that his reign is tapering to the point of total brutality and annihilation.

Whilst there are other motifs and symbols that run throughout the play, these four are certainly some of the most prolific and important, building upon the ideas of corruption, betrayal, guilt, power, and madness that permeate the entire story. Although symbols like these are not necessary to enjoy the play as a literary work and are often what contributes to students’ fear of confronting the material, they are, once explored, relatively easy. They also shed light on important ideas within the plot, and in fact greatly simplify the task of formally writing about the play, rendering the study of them quite beneficial, even if not desirable.

If you found this interesting check out some other Hubs about Shakespeare's works:

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)