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Macbeth’s Images and Imagery

Macbeth’s Imagery

William Shakespeare in the tragedy Macbeth very skillfully uses imagery to support other aspects of the drama, especially the theme. In this essay let us examine the imagery, including literary critical comment.

Roger Warren comments in Shakespeare Survey 30 , regarding Trervor Nunn’s direction of Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974-75, on opposing imagery used to support the opposing notions of purity and black magic:

Much of the approach and detail was carried over, particularly the clash between religious purity and black magic. Purity was embodied by Duncan, very infirm (in 1974 he was blind), dressed in white and accompanied by church organ music, set against the black magic of the witches, who even chanted ‘Double, double to the Dies Irae. (283)

L.C. Knights in the essay “Macbeth” explains the supporting role which imagery plays in Macbeth’s descent into darkness:

To listen to the witches, it is suggested, is like eating “the insane root, That takes the reason prisoner” (I.iii.84-5); for Macbeth, in the moment of temptation, “function,” or intellectual activity, is “smother’d in surmise”; and everywhere the imagery of darkness suggests not only the absence or withdrawal of light but – “light thickens” – the presence of something positively oppressive and impeding. (101)

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye shows how the playwright uses imagery to reinforce the theme:

This theme is at its clearest where we are most in sympathy with the nemesis. Thus at the end of Macbeth, after the proclamation “the time is free,” and of promises to make reparations of Macbeth’s tyranny “Which would be planted newly with the time,” there will be a renewal not only of time but of the whole rhythm of nature symbolized by the word “measure,” which includes both the music of the spheres and the dispensing of human justice [. . .]. (94-95)

In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson interprets the imagery of Macbeth:

Macbeth is a play in which the poetic atmosphere is very important; so important, indeed, that some recent commentators give the impression that this atmosphere, as created by the imagery of the play, is its determining quality. For those who pay most attention to these powerful atmospheric suggestions, this is doubtless true. Mr. Kenneth Muir, in his introduction to the play

Images and Imagery in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Imagery in Macbeth

In Shakespeare’s tragic play, Macbeth, the use of imagery is connected with character development as well as theme throughout the play.

From the beginning of the play the image of darkness is introduced. Darkness was called upon by Banquo, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Banquo, in his aside to Macbeth says,

But tis strange and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, /the instruments of darkness tell us truths, /win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence (I.ii.131-135).

Banquo shows he is immediately aware that the witches are associated with darkness. He chooses not to act on the witches’ prophecies, but to be wary and reluctant. He is not ready to involve himself with the witches, since he sees them as a dark force. However, Macbeth is on opportunist and the image of darkness reveals his deepest, darkest desires. This is shown in Macbeth’s aside,

The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step/ On which I must fall down or else o’ver-leap, / For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;/ Let not light see my black and deep desires” (I.iv.55-58).

It becomes apparent that it bothered Macbeth a great deal to hear that Malcolm was named successor to King Duncan. In response, Macbeth calls on darkness to hide his evil thoughts. Lady Macbeth also conjures up the forces of darkness to ensure the heavens don’t see her having these thoughts,

Come, thick night, /And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, /That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, / N’or heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, /To cry, “Hold, hold” (I.v.53-57!

By the end of Act I, we can see that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have…

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…er fit in and was never comfortable with a role he obtained by evil means.

Shakespeare’s images are not only connected to his characters and theme but also are woven into a moral message. Shakespeare is warning his audience to refrain from getting caught up in the pool of blood and darkness. One will never be satisfied with his achievements if he obtains them by unholy means. Self-gratification comes from the honest pursuit of worthwhile goals.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, Toronto: Harcourt Brace and Company, Inc, 1988.

Webster, Noah, New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Rockville House Publishers, Inc, 1965.

“Shakespeare’s Use of Imagery.” 1997: 1-4. Prestige Web. Internet. 10 Dec. 2001.

“Symbolism in Macbeth.” 1996: 1-3. Stanford Online Archives. Internet. 10 Dec. 2001.

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