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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


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

air") creatures.

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

Humanistic philosophy).

The Paradox:

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.

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

specific instructions:

"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.