Macbeth - Symbols


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Throughout Shakespeare’s Macbeth, numerous symbols are used. Many of these depict characters’ actions and appearances, emotions, and events that have happened previously in the play. Although there are many symbols used all through the play, there are three important groups of symbols that are used most regularly. These are blood, sleep and animals, which all have different representations.

Blood is an important symbol that is used continuously in the play. In the beginning of the play, blood is something which represents courage and bravery. Those who fought and created blood were thought to be heroic. However, towards the end of the play, blood has become something which everyone fears, it is evil, and symbolises guilt and murder. An example of this can be found in act three, scene four, starting at line one hundred and twenty-three:

Macbeth:     It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?

The first line signifies that those who are involved in bloody crimes, will someday become victims of them. It is saying that people are always punished at some time in their lives for their wrong doings. The statement also signifies that murder and violence are something that Macbeth is very familiar with. Using blood as a symbol in this passage makes it somehow more emotional and gets its point across while making the viewer or reader think. The symbol of blood is used extremely well all throughout the play.

Sleep is another of the important symbols used in the play. Sleep signifies the nature and essence of a person, and is something which is very peaceful and innocent. Sleep begins in this way in Macbeth, but as the play progresses, it becomes something that people fear. The characters don’t feel safe to sleep, as they are afraid that they will become victims of death if they do. An example that demonstrates this can be found in act two, scene two, from line thirty-four onwards:

Macbeth:     Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep” – the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast ---

Lady Mac:     What do you mean?

Macbeth:     Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house:

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“Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more: Macbeth shall sleep no more”

This passage is about the way that Macbeth has murdered sleep. He has killed an innocent man whilst he was asleep, and now it is something for all to fear. It also describes how Macbeth has murdered his own innocence as well as Lady Macbeth’s. Their innocence is represented by sleep, and as their innocence has been murdered, they will no longer be able to sleep. It makes them realise how important sleep is, and it signifies that sleep now portrays fear and death. This is why the symbol of sleep is so important and effective in the play.

The third important symbol used all through Macbeth is animals. Many different types of animal symbols are used throughout the play, and many of them represent people. They represent the occurrences and personalities of the characters, with the animal representing the deeds that they have done, the way they look or their behaviour. Some of the animal symbols also represent death and bad happenings. A good example of this can be found in act two, scene two, on line three:

Lady Mac:     … It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. …

The owl is an important symbol in this play. In this instance, the owl’s call, portending death, is like the town crier’s call to a condemned man. This means that the owl is a sign death. Also it indicates that the owl can see everything that is happening, but the people involved cannot. Another good reference to an owl can be found in act two, scene four, from line ten:

Old man:     ‘Tis unnatural,
          Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow’ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed

In this reference, the falcon represents Duncan, and the owl represents Macbeth. It explains how Macbeth killed the defenceless Duncan, and how it was an unnatural thing to occur. The symbol represents something of an unnatural nature, as it suggests that the owl usually hunts mice, but on this occasion it hunted something far more powerful even than itself. This is true, as Macbeth killed Duncan, who was king, whilst his rank was well below this. These examples show how effectively animal symbols have been used in the play.

Evidently, symbols are of great importance in the play. This is due to the fact that the effect is greater using symbols than it would be if it were written plainly for all to see. It makes the viewer or reader think about what is happening, making it more interesting, and reinforcing ideas that have been addressed in previous parts of the play. The use of the three main types of symbols, blood, sleep and animals, ties ideas together, and at the same time shows the differing attitudes to particular issues as the play progresses. This is why Shakespeare has used symbols in his great tragedy, Macbeth.


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