Symbolism in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”
- Date:Jun 26, 2019
“Macbeth” is a tragedy play by Shakespeare, which is uniquely named after the villain of the story whose tragic life the playwright portrays. Macbeth is one of the generals fighting for the Scottish King named Duncan. The play unfolds as the victorious Macbeth falls prey to the prophecies of three witches who tell him that he will be the future king of Scotland. The real catastrophe occurs when he narrates all this to his wife who convinces him to murder Duncan to get to the throne as soon as possible. The plot is woven through a series of symbols and images that are essential to the play’s setting. It opens with the witches’ scene and darkness all around. The dark hours are always associated with the evil which is about to take place. The symbol of blood and the disturbing weather emerge from the darkness and plague Macbeth and his surroundings.
As the play opens, three witches appear on the scene asking as to whether their next meeting would be in “thunder, lightning, or in rain?” Hence from the very beginning, the symbol of darkness is introduced with only a few lines later, Macbeth is also mentioned. This is a foreshadowing of the events that will take place in the play. Darkness is always associated with evil and wickedness. Shakespeare employs these images to reveal the tools of disorder and the evil on which the character acts upon. The witches are the very first instruments which lead to disorder and havoc. Their appearance of witches is described by Macbeth himself as secretive and black: “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!” (Macbeth Act IV.i) but yet he believes in their prophecy. Even Banquo, who is with Macbeth at the time when the witches prophesize about them, speaks of them as: “The instruments of darkness tell us truths, /Win us with honest trifles, to betrays /In deepest consequence” (Macbeth Act I.i). He recognizes that the consequences of evil are severe.
Besides the evil enchantments of the witches, the night also signifies evil dynamics, so much so, that the murder of Duncan, King of Scotland, also occurs at night by Macbeth. In the darkness, Macbeth is able to hide his crime and instead accuses the guards of committing such a grave sin. From here onwards, there are a series of crimes committed by Macbeth as malevolence takes over the whole self of Macbeth. Once Macbeth restores himself as the king, even Scotland is pronounced as a place of obscurity. His restoration envelopes the whole country into “sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air /Are made, not markd; where violent sorrow seems /A modern ecstasy; the dead mans knell…” as claimed by Macduff (Macbeth Act IV.iii).
The images of darkness and the loss of blood along with thunder and lightning, elevate the component of evil in the play introducing the feeling of eeriness throughout. The symbol of blood that is scattered everywhere is seen when the play opens with the battle between Scotland and Norway. This is described by the wounded captain in traumatizing terms: “…Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, /Or memorise another Golgotha, /I cannot tell— /But I am faint, my gashes cry for help” (Macbeth Act I.ii). But in this scene, Macbeth is praised for his bravery. His quality later changes into an evil force which he uses against his own people who trusted him. Blood also eventually symbolizes the guilt of Macbeth since he is unable to reverse his monstrous deeds. After the first act of evil that he performs by killing Duncan, Macbeth cries, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (Macbeth Act II.i).
The symbolism employed in Macbeth represents all the negative elements of life which usually associate with the villain or evil vigor. It was Shakespeare’s intent to portray Macbeth as that kind of character who constituted fear, guilt, wrath, cowardice and misery in the name of acquiring power. Lady Macbeth, besides the witches, was the leading vice who compelled Macbeth to act upon her wishes. Shakespeare could have chosen Duncan as the evil character whom Macbeth takes over. But he showed how his greatness as a warrior in the battle field is seized from him just because he believed in the prophecies of the witches who were never to be trusted. The unnatural occurrences in realm of ordinary life that accompany the evil also reflect the corrupt situation at the political front. Hence, symbolism plays a vital role in the play “Macbeth”.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.