A common strength found amongst all of Shakespeare’s work is the effective use of imagery. In MacBeth a wide variety of similes, metaphors, symbols and descriptive language have contributed to the realism of the text. Imagery is the use of descriptive expressions, such as similes, metaphors and symbols, to enhance the picture a reader builds in their mind. Yet the use of imagery can be interpreted differently according to any reader’s context, hence opportunities for multiple readings can be found throughout the text. Also the varying levels of imagery from older to more modern texts influence how an audience from this generation may react to the imagery of MacBeth.
Imagery is a technique used to create an image in the mind of a reader. The image is created through use of descriptive language, similes, metaphors and symbols. Shakespeare is well known for making effective use of similes and metaphors. The simile; “Death lies upon her like an untimely frost.” and the metaphor; “Juliet is the sun.” are examples of imagery from the well known Shakespearean text, Romeo and Juliet. Good use of Imagery adds to the depth of a character and creates comparisons that an audience can relate to.
It is therefore understandable that imagery is targeted at a particular audience. Take the commonly used metaphor “Surf the web”. A century or two ago this would have held no meaning to any member of society. Similarly, metaphors used in texts a century or two ago are sometimes misinterpreted or simply not understood by modern audiences. Consider the second line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one.
“Find we a time for frighted
Peace to pant.”
It makes little sense to us and we quickly disregard it. In fact the metaphor is trying to establish “Peace” as a physical person who is frightened. King Henry, who speaks the metaphor, wants “Peace” to stop running and catch it’s breath. It doesn’t appear to be much of a metaphor, but the idea of running after an ever-elusive goal appears often in Henry IV part one. We can also use this to our advantage and use imagery to get a better idea of the text and its writer’s context. Using this idea we cannot only identify how imagery is used in MacBeth, but also why.
MacBeth, the last of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies (the others being King Lear, Hamlet and Othello), has long been a reference tool for analysing Shakespeare’s extensive use of imagery. With use of descriptive language, symbols, metaphors and similes, Shakespeare has used imagery to add to the dramatic characterisation on MacBeth’s characters. We find our best example by focusing on Lady MacBeth. In the first act, before the murder of the King, MacBeth begins to question his vow to kill Duncan. Lady MacBeth is insulted and responds dramatically.
“…I have given suck and know
How tender is to love the babe that milk’s me;
I would while it was smiling in my face
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brain’s out, had I so sworn as you
Have to this.”
This is a passage often differently interpreted. Clearly Lady MacBeth is mocking MacBeth’s cowardice, and in doing so has she spoken truth or metaphor? Further into the play MacDuff shouts:
“He has no children.”
Freud claims that what is meant by MacDuff is that “Only because he himself is childless (MacBeth) could he murder my children.” (Some character-types Met With In Psycho-analytical Work, 1916). This gives credit to the idea that Lady MacBeth used a metaphor to highlight MacBeth’s cowardice. It also becomes apparent that Lady MacBeth may be delirious and we begin to wonder whether she is mentally stable or not.
We find another good example of imagery in analysing the clothes worn by MacBeth. Whilst literally we are unable to “see” what MacBeth wears just by reading the text, there are plenty of suggestions through use of clever imagery. There is a recurring idea that MacBeth’s new robes don’t fit, that he is wearing robes borrowed from someone bigger, grander then he. It is a symbol representing that MacBeth’s new honours sit ill upon him. This is initially noticed shortly after the first appearance of the witches, just as MacBeth is being told he is now the Thane of Cawdor.
“The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrow’d robes?”
It is however most strongly represented in the final act when Angus speaks what is on everyone’s mind, changing the notion of “borrowed” to “stolen”.
“… now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.”
Not only is this a symbol of MacBeth’s unjust actions, but it has also been written as a simile, giving credit to the effect of well used imagery in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.
The imagery Shakespeare has used in MacBeth not only adds to its creative plot, but also pulls the audience into relating with the characters. The extensive use of metaphors allows the audience to draw parallel’s between their own experiences and the text. The unique aspect of MacBeth is that it takes one more step from realism and creates a kind of ‘over dramatic’ realism.
Freud wrote that MacBeth was a “dreamlike representation of Elizabeth I presumed guilt over the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotts.” Even if this was an influential event in the writing of MacBeth, I do believe that Shakespeare was merely creating an entertaining form of dramatic realism. This would have been something new to the audience’s of Shakespeare’s plays. A play seeming real, yet at the same time to fantastical to believe. But does this fascination still hold true for audiences today?
Modern film is well known for its strong portrayal of blood and violence. They are imagery techniques that can be found in almost any film nowadays. You may well say that the violence and imagery of blood in MacBeth was unusually graphic for a 17th century play, and you would be right. Audiences were shocked by how much killing and bloodshed was written into the play. Freud writes that MacBeth possessed a “distinctive atmosphere, with recurrent references to darkness.” As early as the 18th century people had begun to theorize on the darkness of the play, that would one day lead to arguments on its imagery of blood.
It is in this generation, where blood and violence are almost considered a necessity in films, that we look deeper into the imagery of blood in MacBeth. It has been thoroughly agreed upon that MacBeth was Shakespeare’s darkest play, but when we look for bloodshed on stage we find only the insignificant killings are actually viewed by the audience, and any murder that was a crucial point in the story, or under taken by MacBeth in person, happens off stage. This could be said to ‘disappoint’ modern audiences whilst the original viewers of the play would have been no less stunned.
So was it a ploy on Shakespeare’s behalf, in an attempt to keep the audience’s pity for MacBeth alive? Or was it simply unthinkable to show so much more bloodshed on stage. The audience would have reached the limitation of their surprise; surely a few more deaths would not have affected them too much. However they would instead have viewed MacBeth as a monster, and lose their pity for him, had they been forced to see him kill with his own hands. Instead the audience is able to decide for themselves whose fault the bloodshed was and who deserves their pity. So it must have been an ingenious idea on Shakespeare’s behalf.
This leads us right back to where we started. If there were reason’s other then society’s expectations for not showing all the murders, why does the text ‘disappoint’ modern audiences? Let’s consider the classic protagonist verus antagonist film or at least one where the protagonist kills the antagonist. We do not miss any of the action, no matter how violent it is. It is all shown on the screen and we would expect nothing less. Yet we do not feel remorse or pity for our hero because we believe he is killing the antagonist with a just reason. On the other hand, MacBeth may be a ‘tragic hero’ but we do not see the justice behind his motives. It can therefore be concluded that modern audiences care not for the reasons behind a character’s actions, but simply whether the character is a protagonist or an antagonist.
An audience of a film, whose characters are neither good nor bad, will soon lose interest in the story because they are not interested in making this distinction for themselves; a film should be a mindless escape from reality. For this reason modern writers are more inclined to make that choice for the audience. When we watch Star Wars we know Luke is the protagonist and Darth Vader the antagonist. But when we read MacBeth we are unsure of which MacBeth is. A modern interpretation of the story of MacBeth would show MacBeth killing Duncan for unjust reasons, and the audience would be able to clearly perceive MacBeth as the antagonist. So Shakespeare has done something that has been very rarely duplicated. He has written a play where after the conclusion of the play there are still open arguments left for the individual to answer.
MacBeth may have been the third shortest play written by Shakespeare, but it set new standards for dramatic texts and has since influenced the entire concept of drama. Shakespeare’s use of imagery in the text set it apart from other dramas and it is constantly used as a reference tool for analysing Shakespeare’s imagery techniques. It may just be that modern audiences cannot comprehend the depth of MacBeth and its dramatic characterisations, or that they have forgotten how to think whist reading a text. Either way, with its enhanced meaning due to predominant use of imagery, MacBeth is clearly one of Shakespeare’s greatest pieces.
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
Freud, Sigmund, Some character-types Met With In Psycho-analytical Work (1916)
Obson and Wells, The Oxford companion to Shakespeare (2001)
Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet (1596) and Henry IV part one (1598)
Spurgeon, Caroline, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us (1989)
Imagery in Macbeth Kyle Hoath