Notes on Symbolism & Imagery in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

As a characteristic feature of Shakespeare, the play Macbeth is full of fundamental symbolisms and dense imageries. The thematic concerns of the play such as guilt, the difference between appearances and their realities, supernaturalism and evil are shown through extended usage of symbolism and imagery. 

Whenever blood is evoked in the play as a symbol, it tells us of the guilt. The series of events which starts unfolding after the murder of Duncan is full of blood. Macbeth taking a leap of imagination compares his guilt’s intensity to such an extent that he says even Neptune’s ocean can’t wash away the blood from his hand.

Blood also becomes a symbol of fear when Macbeth says after Banquo’s ghost is gone that “blood will have blood.” When both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth despair over their incapacity to wash the blood from their hands, it symbolises their inability to get over the guilt which haunts their conscience. 

Finally, Macbeth realises that he can’t retreat from the misdeeds he has begun and uses the image of blood to say, “I am in blood stepp’d so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Shakespeare uses the convention of light and darkness to symbolise good and evil respectively. The three witches in a prophetic manner say that they’ll meet again with “the set of sun” and soon we see that the murder of Duncan happens.

Macbeth himself uses the imagery of stars and their light for his inner conflict when he says, “stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.” When Lady Macbeth starts disintegrating under the weight of her guilt, she enters the scene holding a candle.

It symbolises her flickering hope against the evil she has evoked beyond her control. Every time something evil is done, there comes a hint of light being blown out such as the murder of Duncan and presumed suicide of Lady Macbeth.

When Macbeth murders Duncan, his conscience is haunted at the very moment. Sleep symbolises clear conscience which keeps one peaceful. In the play, Shakespeare also equates sleep with death. Sleep symbolises renewal when Macbeth says that sleep is “the death of each day’s life,” and “great nature’s second course.” 

Macbeth has a very fertile imagination. Apart from his contribution, the play is otherwise full of significant imageries. When Macbeth ascends to the throne, his unworthiness is displayed through the imagery of clothing like “new honors come upon him like strange garments, cleave not to their mould but with the aid of use.

In a series of bloody imageries, the vision of dagger comes to Macbeth which shows his free-floating guilt. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth use the imagery of water whenever they try to think of the possibility of purifying them of their evil crimes. 

The supernatural presence of the three witches is symbolised by the climate in which they appear, the kind of weather which creates a very sombre and fearful feeling. Across the play, such symbols and imagery create the overall tone which is tragic and forbidding.