The Imagery in ‘Macbeth’

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Imagery in literature is an author’s use of evocative and descriptive language to add depth to their work in order to draw more emotion from the reader or audience. William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English Language and the world’s greatest dramatist makes heavy use of imagery in most of his works. Macbeth, one of his most renowned plays, is no exception to this. Macbeth implements umpteen examples of imagery and symbolism in order to build up the theme and add depth to the underlying subtext within the play. Shakespeare applies the imagery of clothing, darkness and blood in an exceptional manner to describe his play. Each of these is an important symbol used throughout the play. They add to a complete understanding of the play as a whole.

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Shakespeare embarks upon Macbeth’s journey of ambition, rage and paranoia eloquently taking his readers through his five acts. Shakespeare frequently used clothing and the appearance of the character to augment the deception that took place throughout the play. The story begins with Macbeth and Banquo encountering three witches who are described as, “Wither’d and so wild in their attire, that looks like the inhabitants o’ the earth.” (Act I scene III). This vivid description allows readers to tap into their imagination and visualize the characters.

Clothing displays that Macbeth is trying to conceal the evil inside and his own guilt from others. Shakespeare accentuates the contrast between Macbeth’s true emotions and what he displays to others in an attempt to hide his emotions. In act I scene III, Banquo says, “New honors come upon him, like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold but with aid of use.” By this Banquo meant Macbeth’s new title as King is compared to new clothes that don’t fit properly. In act I scene v Lady Macbeth advises her husband, “Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” By this, she means that Macbeth should appear to be innocent to belie his devious and murderous plans. Later during this conversation Macbeth makes a statement, “ False face must hide what the false heart doth know”. Again, Shakespeare makes use of the character’s appearance in order to hide the evil inside of them. After King Duncan is murdered, Malcolm tells Donalbain, “ To show as unfelt sorrow is an office, which the false man does easy ”( Act II scene III ). Malcolm is saying that it is easy for a liar to pretend to feel sorrow when in reality he actually feels none.

Blood represents several different symbols throughout the play. In the beginning, blood represents honour. Later, blood seems to show treachery. At the end of the play Shakespeare uses blood to show Macbeth’s guilt for all his evil and greedy acts. The first reference of blood occurs in act I scene II, where King Duncan sees an injured soldier and says, “ What bloody man is that ?” The King was referring to the brave messenger who had just returned from war. Soon after, the bloody captain praises Macbeth’s deeds in the battle, saying that he held his sword “Which smoked with bloody execution” meaning that Macbeth’s bravery was shown by his sword covered in the hot blood of the enemy.

After at first symbolizing bravery, blood soon becomes an image representing treachery and treason. In act I scene V, when Lady Macbeth is trying to gather enough courage to have King Duncan killed, she cries out to the spirits saying, “ make thick my blood,” meaning she wanted to try and be as remorseless as possible so that she could perform this deceitful deed. In act II scene II, Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to, “smear these sleepy grooms with blood”. Lady Macbeth wanted to shift the blame of King Duncan’s murder onto the others as she knew blood was an evidence of treason. Throughout act II, whenever a character speaks of King Duncan’s murder, they always refer to it as the bloody deed or the bloody murder, showing that blood has taken on the meaning of treason. In addition to treason, blood also represents guilt and remorse in act two. Shortly after he has killed Duncan, Macbeth asks himself, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (Act II scene II) Which meant that he is deeply disturbed by his awful deed. Throughout this play, the meaning of blood has changed along with Macbeth’s emotions blood has symbolized ideas from honour to treachery, and then guilt. It is very fitting that blood is a dominant symbol in this play.

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses imagery involving light and darkness to symbolize various concepts, such as the struggle between good and evil. Early on in the play, the witches arrange for their meeting to take place “at the set of sun” (Act I scene I). In this example, Shakespeare uses nightfall as a metaphor for the end of righteousness and a dawn of evil. Banquo later states to Macbeth that the witches are “instruments of darkness” (Act I scene III).

Darkness is used in both a natural and metaphorical sense and symbolizes many things such as death, bewilderment and evil. Some very crucial scenes where great evil is done, happen under the cover of night, in a naturally dark environment. It is dark when Macbeth has the vision of a dagger, Duncan and Banquo are both murdered under cover of darkness, and Lady Macbeth sleepwalks in the middle of the night even though she has a fear of darkness. Darkness is used to cover up guilty crimes, and to accentuate the sense of danger. Duncan is first murdered while he sleeps.

Shakespeare uses light to represent the triumph of the righteous over the sinister. “I gin to be wary of the sun” (Act V scene V) is what Macbeth says after his demise becomes inevitable.

The sun rising represents how it may be possible for evil to temporarily gain an advantage, but in the end good will always win. Shakespeare makes extensive use of sleep as a tool of imagery in Macbeth. In Act I scene III, the witches spitefully plan to punish the sailor’s wife by depriving her husband of sleep. “Sleep shall neither night nor day hangs upon his penthouse lid”. This is also foreshadowing what will happen to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after they turn to evil. As soon as Duncan is killed, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both cannot sleep throughout the play. Their punishment for murder is sleep deprivation.

Shakespeare uses clothing and other images of concealment to illustrate the hiding of people’s guilt and deception. The contrast of light and darkness is almost universally accepted as a parable for the struggle between good and evil. Shakespeare uses this concept throughout Macbeth to amplify the struggles that took place both within the characters and in the environment as well. The lack of sleep experienced by various characters in the play is representative of the guilt that they have burdened themselves with by committing such evil acts.

Like the contrast of light and dark, blood is also universally accepted as different types of symbols, some of which are positive, and some of which are negative. Shakespeare’s lavish use of imagery is truly apparent in Macbeth. His extensive use of imagery and symbolism were most definitely effective in instigating the desired emotional response of both the reader and the audience.

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The Imagery in 'Macbeth'. (2021, Jan 05). Retrieved March 22, 2023 , from

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