Macbeth is a play densely packed with imagery. Images of blood, sleep, disease, darkness, animals and clothing abound. Explore the use of this imagery and comment on its relevance to the themes of the play and the dramatic presentation of characters and settings.
Imagery in Macbeth can be categorised into different groups, representing the different recurring themes such as disguise and guilt. The use of imagery can imply various meanings, which help the audience to better understand the characters and their roles. Shakespeare suggests ideas about the behaviour of man using imagery, and also conveys simple messages such as the triumph of good over evil.
The tangle between darkness and light throughout the play clearly represents the battle between good and evil. Eventually good conquers, in the slaughter of Macbeth, who; with Lady Macbeth and the witches, represent evil. Many of the most important negative events in the play take place under the cover of darkness, such as Duncan and Banquo’s murders, Macbeth’s visits to the witches and Lady Macbeth’s illness. There are many contrasts between the evil and good aspects of the play e.g. Macbeth is an evil king: Duncan is a good king.
Lady Macbeth allows herself to be easily swayed by the predictions of the witches; the suggestion of Macbeth being king pleases her, although she knows he does not have the courage to proactively seek his goal. In order for the pair of them to be able to carry out the murder of Duncan, she summons evil:
“Come, thick night And pall thee in the dimmest smoke of hell, That my keen knife sees not the wound it makes” Act one, Scene five. Lady Macbeth appeals for her deeds to be secret, and for the blind courage to act. She knows she is committing evil, and wants “the dimmest smoke of hell” to conceal her.
“By th’ clock ’tis day And yet dark night strangles the travelling. Ist night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, That darkness does the face of earth entomb When living light should kiss it?” Line seven, Act two, Scene four. Here Ross is talking after the death of Duncan, the balance of good and evil has been upset. He explains that although it should be light because of the hour, it is still dark, and wonders if this is because night has enveloped day, or whether the night’s events have cast a shadow over it.
The repetition of references to do with dark and light throughout the play remind the audience how evil Macbeth becomes, and begs the question, would Macbeth have been evil, if he were not influenced by his wife or the witches, how far did they contribute toward his actions.
In order to represent guilt, Shakespeare uses blood. Eventually the blood spot she imagines on her hand, or her guilt for Duncan’s murder drives Lady Macbeth mad. Both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have traumatic experiences involving blood and guilt following their various acts. After Banquo is slain, Macbeth imagines him standing nearby at a banquet, shaking is blood-soaked hair at Macbeth.
Macbeth’s guilt begins when he kills Duncan: “Will all great Neptune’s wash this blood clean from my hand? The multitudinous seas incardine” line sixty-three, Act two, Scene two. Macbeth feels he may easily rid himself of the evidence, but the guilt that he has cast upon himself will never be lifted from him. The use of the word “multitudinous” helps to create a sense of vastness and emphasise the fact he has committed treason.
When the two guards are discovered, Lennox says; “Their hands and faces all badged with blood” line ninety-eight, Act two, Scene three. Shakespeare uses the blood as a badge, a distinguishing mark, to show the audience the couple are murderers. Guilt is passed between Lady Macbeth and her husband symbolically, using Duncan’s blood, and the daggers.
Macbeth becomes despairing of his situation as the play continues. This is obvious when he says “I am in blood stepp’d in so far, that should I wade no more, Returning were us treacherous as go ‘oer.” Act three, Scene five, Line sixty-three. Macbeth is discontented, because in order to achieve happiness, or be at peace, would involve as much violation of faith; the same amount of lies and suffering, as it did to get as far as he had.
Sleep is an important feature in the play because it represents peace, or lack of knowledge. Neither Lady Macbeth nor Macbeth find any refuge in sleep after they kill Duncan, because they have committed an evil act. Macbeth wishes he were Duncan after his murder, perhaps because he wishes he had not received the knowledge or prophecies from the witches, and regrets murdering Duncan.
When Macbeth kills Duncan, he imagines a voice saying “Sleep no more: Macbeth hath murdered sleep” Line thirty-eight, Act two, Scene two. Macbeth has murdered an innocent soul and hence shall never be at peace; he is hounded by torment and guilt and begins to drive himself mad.
Lady Macbeth also discovers she may find no peace either. Towards her demise, the doctor says, “A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching”. Line eight, Act five, Scene one.
Duncan’s death is a disturbance in nature; the breaking of the chain of being and disruption of divine choosing has caused Lady Macbeth to never receive the benefit of sleep, or to be at peace. The Macebth’s lack of sleep or peace shows the audience the consequences of their actions, and that their’ actions have not in fact benefited them.
Animal imagery is used throughout the play to represent order and chaos or the hunter and prey. Shakespeare uses the food chain and the order of being, the divinely appointed king at the top, to show power and the correct structure of life.
Macbeth heckles Banquo’s ghost, and says; “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear, I the arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hycran tiger” Act three, Scene four, Line one hundred. He wishes the hallucination or spirit to take any form but that of Banquo. He chooses hunters at the top of the food chain or chain of being, where he has placed himself, amongst the prime killers or predators.
Macbeth disturbing the chain of being disrupts harmony in the heavens; chaos in the human world is reflected in nature. For example, on the night of Duncan’s murder, his horses, prior described as minions of their race, break free and turn savage.
“And Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain, Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, Contending ‘gainst obedience as they would make war with mankind” line fourteen, Act two, Scene four.
Macduff’s family are referred to with a great use of bird imagery, using word such as “hen”, “nest”, “egg” and a range of hunting bird names. They are murdered, and thus are seen as prey. Often birds such as owls or ravens are commented on when or during an act of treachery of evil doing.
Animal imagery is used throughout the play, associating the prey animals with the weak characters, or those who become victims, and the hunting animals as savage, representing the realisations of the murderers or evildoers.
Clothing imagery is used to represent hiding and disguise throughout the play. It is used to indicate characters are not content within their role, either as they wish to be more important, or because they have been thrust into an alien title. Macbeth reacts to being greeted as thane of Cawdor by saying “Why do you dress me in borrew’d robes?” because he did not know the previous thane had died. He is unsure; here he has not yet become deceitful and dangerous. When Macbeth and Banquo discus their’ first meeting with the witches, Banquo says of Macbeth’s new title; “Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould. But with the aid of use.”
Line one hundred and forty four, Act one, Scene three. Banquo tells Macbeth that he needs to become used to having his new title, it could also mean that Macbeth was not intended to be king, and without outside interference, would not become so. A similar point is made when Ross says, “Lest our old robes sit easier than our new” Act two, Scene four, Line thirty-seven. Ross means that all in his company must be wary, as their old roles may be safer and more desirable than the newer, and the old roles may turn out to be better suited and more inclined to see the bearers being genuine. The characters which represent good are more wary of their new titles, and appear to seem more comfortable in roles they deserve, as opposed to those which fall upon them because of deaths. The appearance of the characters opposes reality.
Imagery of sickness and disease in the play denote the demise of Scotland under Macbeth’s reign. Macbeth has ruled badly, and many of the characters refer to the wounds he inflicts upon it. “It weeps, it bleeds, each day a new gash is added to her wounds.” Malcolm, who is associated with health and growth, rather than sickness and harm like Macbeth, finally cure the country of “the evil” a common name for tuberculosis, a debilitating, excruciating disease, which he sees as having a grip over Scotland. Macbeth has the capability to kill Duncan, but without the desire engendered within him, would have lacked the courage to carry out the deed. The witches influence him, but it is difficult to say whether; without their encouragement, he would have had any motive.
If the audience were to read or watch the play, and ignore all imagery, the play would still make sense. However, the meanings and representation inferred by the imagery Shakespeare has used, allows more to be understood about the play, and the time in which it was written. For instance slang names for illnesses such as tuberculosis, and strong religious beliefs such as the belief in the divine right of kings.