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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.

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