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Patterns of Imagery in Macbeth
Shakespeare's Macbeth is full of different types of imagery. Many
of these images are themes that run throughout the entire play at different
times. Five of these images are nature, paradoxes, manhood, masks and
light vs. darkness.
"Thunder and lightning." This is the description of the scene
before Act I, Scene i, Line 1. The thunder and lightning represent
disturbances in nature. Most people do not think of a great day being
filled with thunder and lightning. The witches are surrounded by a shroud
of thunder and lightning. Also, the first witch asks in Line 2 about the
meeting with Macbeth, "In thunder, lightning, or in rain?" The meeting
will also be filled with these disturbances. The witches are also
surrounded by more unpleasant kinds of weather: "Hover through the fog and
filthy air" (Line 11). The weather might personify the witches, meaning
that the witches themselves are disturbances, though not limited to nature.
The bad weather also might mean that the witches are bad or foul ("filthy
In Act II, Scene i, it is a dark night. Fleance says, "The moon is
down" (Line 2), and Banquo says, "Their (Heaven's) candles are all out
(there are no stars in the sky)." (Line 5) Darkness evokes feelings of
evilness, of a disturbance in nature on this fateful night. It creates a
perfect scene for the baneful murders.
Another disturbance in nature comes from Macbeth's mouth, "Now o'er
the one half-world / Nature seems dead" (Lines 49 - 50). This statement
might mean that everywhere he looks, the world seems dead (there is no
hope). It might also give him the idea that the murder he is about to
commit will have repercussions spreading far. The doctor says in Act V,
Scene i, Line 10, "A great perturbation in nature," while talking about
Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking. This is just another example of how nature is
disturbed by human doings, placing emphases on mankind (following the
The witches' chorus on Act I, Scene i, Line 10: "Fair is foul, and
foul is fair," is a paradox. It is also a prophecy, where one thing seems
like another (the characters of the play), or about how things will change
through the story (again the characters). Being so early in the play, it
is a good "grabber" for the reader. Since it isn't a simple statement, it
makes the reader think about the line to find some meaning for themselves.
It is easier to grasp a meaning of this line further along in the book.
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This theme is subtle, but not with out meaning. It is referred to
again and again throughout the play, adding new lines, or analyzing
characters and events using the theme.
The first thing that Macbeth says when he enters Scene iii (Line
38) is, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen." It is not likely that
when the witches said "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," during Scene I,
they were just referring to the condition of the day when they meet Macbeth.
There is much more, that will be seen later throughout the play.
"Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,"
says Lady Macbeth (Act I, Scene v, Lines 41 - 42). She wishes to be like a
man. Why? What does Lady Macbeth envision a man as being like? "And fill
me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty! Make thick my
blood, / Stop up th' access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctions
visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose, not keep peace between / Th'
effect and it!" (Lines 43 - 48). She wants to be like this so that she
will be able to plan the murder of Duncan. She does not believe that
Macbeth will be able to do it because he is "…too full o' the milk of human
kindness." (Act I, Scene v, Line 18)
To help convince Macbeth not to call the murder off, Lady Macbeth
questions his manhood. She says, "When you durst do it, then you were a
man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the
man" (Act I, Scene vii, Lines 49 - 51). Upon hearing this speech, Macbeth
finally decides that he will go along with the murder after all.
Another example of manhood being a theme in Macbeth is Macduff
during Act IV, Scene iii. While Malcolm implores him to "dispute it like a
man ("it" being the loss of his wife and children)" (Line 220), Macduff
says that he must also "feel it as a man" (Line 221), which changes the
image of a man given above by Lady Macbeth. While she portrays men as
being cruel and cold-hearted, Macduff shows that a man is cruel and cold
when he needs to be, but feels just as intensely as he acts.
In Act I, Scene v, as Lady Macbeth talks to Macbeth, she gives him
"Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: like th' innocent flower,
But be the serpent under 't."
- Lines 65 - 67.
Or, in other words, put on a poker face so no one will suspect us
(be foul though seem fair, as the witches put it in scene one). Throughout
the play, many characters put on metaphorical masks to hide their true
nature, thoughts, or feelings.
In Act I, Scene vi, Lady Macbeth puts on her mask. She says (Lines
14 - 20) that the service and hospitality are nothing "Against those honors
deep and broad wherewith / Your Majesty loads our house . . ." She easily
keeps any suspicion away from herself and Macbeth.
"…look the innocent flower / But be the serpent under 't." (Act I,
Scene v, Lines 67-68) She is saying that Macbeth must hide his intention
of killing Duncan. Lady Macbeth might also be referring to herself, that
she is the serpent under Macbeth, and that he is the mask, or screen, which
diverts attention from Lady Macbeth.
Banquo sees through Macbeth's masks. In Act III, Scene i, Banquo
puts up his own masks. He is almost sure that Macbeth is the murderer, but
he hides his suspicions while he idly talks to him. The masks aren't
always limited to uses of evil.
Light vs. Dark:
Much of this play is filled with the struggle between light and
darkness (symbolizing Macbeth-- he asks for darkness to hide his desires in
Act I, and then darkness shrouds the night of the murder). The light in
the first two acts is King Duncan, but the struggle favored the darkness.
This struggle occurs in every act of the play.
Also, in Act V, Scene vii, Macduff enters and says, "If thou
[Macbeth] be'st slain and with no stroke of mine,/My wife and children's
ghosts will haunt me still" (Lines 15 - 16). Macduff can't rest until he
gets revenge on the killer of his family, something Malcolm and Fleance
(whose fathers are also killed by Macbeth) don't say.
Macduff is the hero of the play. He is the light that will soon
come to a final climactic battle with the dark (Macbeth). There is also
religious meaning to this: God against the devil, Macbeth being the devil
(He couldn't say "Amen" in Act II). This theme has been used in many
contemporary stories; it's an epic battle of good vs. evil.