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Figurative language in Macbeth
juliet fieldon 31 July 2013
Transcript of Figurative language in Macbeth
Simile: The comparison of two elements, where each maintains its own identity.
For example: ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’ Here a person is compared to a flower in a way that suggests they have certain features in common, such as beauty, fragility, and so on.
Metaphor: The merging of two elements or ideas, where one is used to modify the meaning of the other.
For example: ‘The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’ Here the image of the moon in a cloudy night sky is merged with that of a sailing ship on stormy seas, so that some characteristics of the latter are transferred to the former.
Imagery: Mental pictures that are conjured up when something is described. The descriptions may be direct or they may make use of various literary devices such as similes and metaphors.
Light and darkness
Darkness indicates something bad is about to happen; light is associated with life and God. Here's a look at some specifics:
From the first, the cover of night is invoked whenever anything terrible is going to happen. Lady Macbeth, for example, asks "thick night" to come with the "smoke of hell," so her knife won't see the wound it makes in the peacefully sleeping King (1.5.3). The literal darkness corresponds to the evil or "dark" act she plans to commit.
Simile from Macbeth explained
"The sleeping and the dead Are but as pictures. 'Tis the eye of childhood That fears a painted devil." --Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 52-4: Lady Macbeth to her husband about killing those who are asleep Lady Macbeth's comparison of the sleeping and the dead to "pictures" exemplifies her extraordinary courage and calm state of mind after the murder. Lady Macbeth should supposedly be faint-hearted because she is a woman; in reality, however, she and her husband have switched roles.
Examples from Macbeth – the witches
"Fair is foul and foul is fair."--Act 1, Scene 1, Line 10: Part of the witches' conversation This phrase is a metaphor that describes the state of affairs within Macbeth and without in Scotland. Evil and sinister things have taken the place of all that is good and just. Macbeth is a tyrannous ruler who consorts with witches and "murders" sleep; the kind and venerable King Duncan and Banquo are brutally killed. In the midst of all of this, Inverness becomes a living hell for its inhabitants while Macbeth and his wife suffer from delusions and paranoia
"And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,The instruments of darkness tell us truths."--Act 1, Scene 3, Lines 123-4: Banquo to Macbeth about the witches The comparison of the witches to "instruments of darkness" reveals their truly foul nature. Shakespeare is implying through Banquo that the honeyed prophecies of the weird sisters will only bring about Macbeth's downfall. In addition, since Macbeth listens to the witches, he can be considered an "instrument of darkness" himself.
".that but this blow Might be the be-all and end-all here,But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We'd jump the life to come." --Act 1, Scene 7, Lines 4-7: Macbeth to himself about King Duncan's impending deathMacbeth compares his indecision about killing Duncan to being on the bank of a river. It is implied that this is the River Styx, the river that in Greek mythology that the damned had to cross over to enter hell. Macbeth is thus likening his murderous thoughts to a damned soul. He says that if it were sure that King Duncan's death would have no dire consequences, Macbeth would gladly "jump" (cross) the river (Styx) for the "life to come" (hell) in return for mortal pleasure.
Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, beginning with the opening battle between the Scots and the Norwegian invaders, which is described in harrowing terms by the wounded captain in Act I, scene ii. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embark upon their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolize their guilt, and they begin to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that cannot be washed clean.
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” Macbeth cries after he has killed Duncan, even as his wife scolds him and says that a little water will do the job (II.ii.58–59). Later, though, she comes to share his horrified sense of being stained: “Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks as she wanders through the halls of their castle near the close of the play (V.i.30–34). Blood symbolizes the guilt that sits like a permanent stain on the consciences of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one that hounds them to their graves.
Nature and Weather
As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth’s grotesque murder spree is accompanied by a number of unnatural occurrences in the natural realm. From the thunder and lightning that accompany the witches’ appearances to the terrible storms that rage on the night of Duncan’s murder, these violations of the natural order reflect corruption in the moral and political orders.
After King Duncan is murdered by Macbeth, we learn from the Old Man and Ross that some strange and "unnatural" things have been going on. Even though it's the middle of the day, the "dark night strangles the traveling lamp," which literally means that darkness fills the sky and chokes out the sun, i.e. an eclipse (2.4.1). This could be an allusion to the way the king's life has been extinguished (kings are often associated with the sun's power) and his power usurped by "darkness" (Macbeth).
In this case, nature itself becomes a symbol for the political struggle. That makes sense, if you think that kingship in the play is shown to be part of the natural order, something handed down from God. And that's not all. We also learn that an owl was seen killing a falcon and Duncan's horses went wild and began eating each other (2.4.2-5). Clearly, nature is out of whack. Owls are supposed to prey on mice —not go around eating larger birds of prey like falcons. And Duncan's horses? Once tame, they "broke their stalls […] contending 'gainst obedience" just before they ate each other (2.4.5).
It sounds like all of nature is in a state of rebellion, bucking their natural roles and "contending" against the natural order, just like Macbeth has upset the natural order of things by killing the king.
And then, when she calls for the murderous spirits to prevent "heaven" from "peep[ing] through the blanket of the dark to cry 'Hold, Hold!'" she implies that light (here associated with God, heaven, and goodness) offers protection from evil and is the only thing that could stop her from murdering Duncan (1.5.3). So, it's no surprise to us that, when Lady Macbeth starts going crazy, she insists on always having a candle or, "light" about her (5.1.4). We get the impression that she thinks the light is going to protect her against the evil forces she summoned… but no such luck.
Light and dark
Macbeth responds to the news of Lady Macbeth's suicide by proclaiming "out, out brief candle" (5.5.3), turning the candle's flame has become a metaphor for her short life and sudden death. Similarly, Banquo's torchlight (the one that illuminates him just enough so his murderers can see what they're doing) is also snuffed out the moment he's killed (3.3.5). And both of these incidents recall an event from the evening King Duncan is murdered —Lennox reports that the fire in his chimney was mysteriously "blown" out (2.3.3).
Clothes are functioning symbolically to represent these people's stations in life—earned, or stolen.
When Macbeth first hears that he's been named the Thane of Cawdor, he asks Angus why he is being dressed in "borrowed" robes (1.3.7). Macbeth doesn't literally mean that he's going to wear the old thane's hand-me-down clothing. Here, "robes" is a metaphor for the title (Thane of Cawdor) that Macbeth doesn't think belongs to him. And later, Angus says that Macbeth's kingly "title" is ill-fitting and hangs on him rather loosely, "like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief" (5.2.2).
Angus isn't accusing Macbeth of stealing and wearing the old king's favorite jacket, he's accusing Macbeth of stealing the king's power (by killing him) and then parading around with the king's title, which doesn't seem to suit him at all. Famous literary critic Cleanth Brooks has something to say about that image:
The crucial point of the comparison, it seems to me, lies not in the smallness of the man and the largeness of the robes, but rather in the fact that—whether the man be large or small—these are not his garments; in Macbeth's case they are actually stolen garments. Macbeth is uncomfortable in them because he is continually conscious of the fact that they do not belong to him. There is a further point, and it is one of the utmost importance; the oldest symbol for the hypocrite is that of a man who cloaks his true nature under a disguise.