Imagery of Snakes in Macbeth

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In the biblical book of Genesis, Eve is tempted by a serpent to commit an ungodly act of eating a forbidden fruit. As a result of the snake's temptation, Eve eats the fruit, resulting in the presence of worldwide sin and the downfall of perfection. From this story of Adam and Eve, the figure of the snake has become generally associated with temptation, evil, and cynicism. William Shakespeare employs this symbolic imagery of snakes in Macbeth, to enhance the story of the rise and fall of Macbeth's power. For poetic and playwright purposes, Shakespeare uses serpentine imagery to reveal the malevolence of characters, and portray the threatening position of the throne, all while provoking a heightened emotion of fear and tragedy from the audience.

The first image of the snake is revealed during the initial arrival of evil. In act one, scene five, Lady Macbeth cries out for evil to fulfill her, so that she can posses the power to commit acts of treason. She describes this process as "unsexing" herself. "Come to my woman's breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers" (1.5.48-49). In ancient history it was believed that the venom of serpents was produced from their gall1. The process of "unsexing" herself could, as a result, be perceived as a metaphorical transformation into a snakelike creature.

The "unsexing" process is an important part of the evil and complexity that Shakespeare was attempting to develop throughout the story, in order to invoke emotion from the audience. This "unsexing" process not only brings about a theme of witchcraft, but it also introduces a complex situation that the character must face: whether or not to give up good and loyalty for personal ambition. This decision is one that p...

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The imagery of snakes throughout the story of Macbeth contributes to the mood and poetic prose of Shakespeare. Yet more importantly, the snake is a symbolic figure for malevolence and treachery. Shakespeare uses the "snake" to enhance the quality of his characters, and provide insight into their malevolence. The serpentine image also provokes emotion. As the story of Macbeth is a tragedy, the snake images provide a dark contrasting mood to the play, designed to heighten the sense of fear from the audience. People are generally afraid snakes, and Shakespeare uses this object as a tool to relate certain fears of the characters to the audience. Shakespeare is able to develop his characters while capturing the emotion of his audience all by his use of serpentine imagery.

Works cited

1. Oxford English Dictionary. Search: gall.
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