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. Nature: “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 and 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.
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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 the meaning of this line further along in the book. This theme is subtle, but not without 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. Manhood: “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 the access and passage to remorse, / That no compunctions visitings of nature / Shake my fell purpose, nor keep the 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 like 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.
Masks: 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 the 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 honours deep and broad wherewith / You’re 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 favoured the darkness. This struggle occurs in every act of the play. Also, in Act V, Scene vii, Macduff enters and says, “If thou [Macbeth] best 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.
- Berube, Allan. Macbeth and Images. New York: Collier Macmillan Canada Inc., 1990.
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