Macbeth, a Play for our Time.
The Irony and Symbolism
Such is the genius and so great is the scope of Shakespeare’s writings that there can be little doubt that a common perception is one of an imaginative mind concocting stories. In fact Shakespeare had many sources and much of his work was based on historical fact.
Holinshed chronicled in the sixteenth century, the histories of England, Scotland and Ireland, and it is from the Historie of Scotland that Shakespeare built significant parts of this drama. For example, the murder of King Duff and the insomnia born of guilt over the murder of a nephew suffered by King Kenneth are a matter of historical record. Each is clearly incorporated into the drama and so is the way in which King Kenneth was influenced by his wife to sponsor the murder. The historical record contains the belief of Macbeth in the prophecies of three wild women soothsayers who reinforced his ambitions for the throne; records Banquho’s (sic) role, the subsequent murder of King Duncan and Macbeth’s paranoia concerning MacDuff. (sic) The play Macbeth, first published in 1623, wove these separate histories into a coherent whole. No doubt Shakespeare pleaded poetic license. The result is timeless.
Macbeth, is a story of a man who’s ambitions have brought him to commit treason and murder. Visions of power grew within his head until his thirst for power causes him to lose that very source of his ambition to the blade of Macduff’s sword. It is the ironic and symbolic elements such as this in the play which contribute to much of the acceptance the work has enjoyed for centuries.
Three forms of irony may be found in the play, Macbeth: Dramatic irony, being the difference between what the audience knows and what a character knows to be true; Verbal Irony, being a difference between what is said and what is meant; and Situational Irony, a difference between what happens and what is expected to happen. I will attempt to show examples of each of these forms of irony and explain their relevance to the characters and the plot.
There are many examples of dramatic irony in the play which we might discuss. A major example is where Lennox asks Macbeth whether the king is to leave Macbeth’s castle for home,
Lennox: Goes the king hence today?
Macbeth: He does: he did appoint so. (II,iii,54-54)
Obviously Macbeth is lying through his teeth, for the audience was fully aware that he planned to murder King Duncan that night. But if one takes Macbeth’s reply literally, Duncan did plan to leave the castle the next day; there is no lie to be found in that.
One can look back on the porter’s hidden truths at the beginning of the scene,
Porter: Knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the other devil’s name! Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O! come in, equivocator. (II,iii,7-11)
Macbeth is playing the part of the equivocator again; equivocation being a form of double talk in which a remark is considered true if it could be argued as true from one viewpoint.
One of my favorite examples of dramatic irony is the porter scene in Act II,iii because of the hidden truths the stuporous drunk revealed. The porter acts the part of the porter at hell-gate in line 2,
Porter: If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.
and continues to dramatize through line 17,
Porter: But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further…
After the king’s murder is discovered, it is almost comedic the way Lady Macbeth responds to the announcement of King Duncan’s murder. First she enters in mock confusion questioning,
Lady Macbeth: What’s the business, That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley
The sleepers of the house? speak, speak! (II,iii,84-86)
One can imagine the actor portraying Lady Macbeth embellishing her performance almost to be point at which it might be called over-acting. Then with Macduff’s reply refusing to tell her what has happened for The repetition in a woman’s ear Would murder as it fell, one can not help but ignore the serious tone of the scene to laugh at the irony of his choice of words. The lady then plays her innocence more by replying in alarm to Macduff’s telling Banquo of the murder,
Lady Macbeth: Woe, alas! What in our house? (II,iii,92)
Possibly the most enjoyed form of irony in the play is verbal. For example, the exit of Macbeth at his final visit to the weird sisters where the first witch wryly comments on Macbeth’s forgetting to thank them with,
First Witch: That this great king may kindly say
Our duties did his welcome pay. (IV,i,132)
Another example in the speech in which Lennox ponders the strange evens which have unfolded since the banquet,
Lennox: And the right-valiant Banquo walk’d too late;
Whom, you may say, if ‘t please you, Fleance kill’d For Fleance fled… (III,vi,5)
The irony in this line is perfectly completed by the inclusion of an almost humourous example of alliteration at it’s end.
The work is filled with many examples of situational irony, such as the mysterious appearance of a third murderer in Act III, Scene III. It seems a strange chance that such a mysterious element happens in the third scene of the third act when one considers the symbolic meaning of the number three to the play. I will discuss the significance of this number later. However the best example of situational irony in Macbeth is without doubt the way in which the strange sisters’ prophecies unfold. Macbeth was given the illusion of being immortal when he was told by the second apparition that he would no man of woman born shall harm him (IV,i,80). This illusion was amplified with the third apparition’s promise:
Third Apparition: Macbeth shall never be vanquish’d be until Great Birham Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him. (IV,i,92)
Shakespeare has, in this case, not only surprised the characters with the outcome of these prophecies, but also the audience, the difference being that Macbeth believed he was to be victorious but the audience knew his failure to be inevitable – they just did not know how it was to come about.
The cumulative irony is that of the weird sisters telling the inquirer exactly what he wished to hear. All his ambitions are reinforced by this universal trick of soothsayers which strongly predisposes the hearer towards total belief. That this belief leads to the sense of invulnerability which in fact makes him vulnerable, is the ultimate irony.
Shakespeare used clothing both symbolically and as a vehicle of character definition. Clothes were often used in Macbeth’s case to symbolize his titles.
Symbolic clothing is identified when Ross tells Macbeth of his new title Thane of Cawdor when Macbeth does not know of the Thane’s treason,
Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me in Borrow’d robes? (I, III,108)
Symbols using clothing such as borrowed robes, disguises and cross-dressing are found in several plays where they betray a range of situations from sheer mischievousness to dark, treasonable or murderous plots. The symbol appears again when Banquo and Macbeth are discussing whether the witches’ prophecy about Macbeth becoming king will come true as well, New honours come upon him, Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold But with the aid of use. (I,III,144) Later, when Macbeth shares the news of his promotion with Lady Macbeth, he speaks with a clothing metaphor again, Golden opinions from all sorts of people, Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, Not case aside so soon. (I,vii,33-34) Again it is mentioned in (V,ii,21) by Angus, Nothing in love; now does he feel his title Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe Upon a dwarfish thief.
Blood as a symbol in the play assumes many different meanings as the story progresses, ranging from virtuous honour to the guilt of murder.
The first reference to blood occurs in (I,ii,1) when Duncan meets the bleeding sergeant and remarks, What bloody man is that? The man is bleeding after having fought to protect the noble Malcolm, which makes the blood a symbol of honour. Blood symbolizes another virtuous trait when it appears again in the sergeant’s description of Macbeth’s victorious fight with Macdonwald, Disdaining fortune, with his brandish’d steel, Which smok’d with bloody execution. (I,ii,17)
Duncan’s blood on the Macbeths’ hands is symbol of the evil crime they committed, the guilt of which cannot be washed away. Pontius Pilate is the supreme example of the futility of the symbolic act of ‘washing the hands’ to expunge guilt. History will forever hold him guilty. Macbeth’s curse, Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red. (II,iii,61) The symbol was also used earlier as Lady Macbeth tries to blame of the murder on the sleeping grooms, …smear the sleepy grooms with blood. (II,II,49) Lady Macbeth’s remark on her entry shorty after that A little water clears us of this deed; How easy it is then! shows that she has less immediate guilt for the crime, where Macbeth’s conscience is eating away at him, or that she has not yet absorbed the enormity of the deed. The same symbol of evil deeds not being washed away is brought out again in (V,II,17) where Angus says, Now does he feel His secret murders sticking on his hands; The bloody hand appears again when Lady Macbeth has the waking dreams in which she curses,
Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out I say! …
Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? (V,i,38-43)
What! will these hands ne’er be clean? (V,i,46)
Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh! (V,i,52)
The guilt of Duncan’s murder, although more present in Macbeth at first, has grown in Lady Macbeth until she began having the same insane visions of her hands getting bloodier and bloodier not ever coming clean.
Another symbol in the play is the number three. In Shakespeare’s time, the number three was considered unlucky and the people, being quite superstitious, watched plays with witchcraft, murder, and ghosts much the same as we watch horror movies today. It might be interesting to enquire why today the number three is considered lucky and ten plus three unlucky. Considering this, one notices immediately the fact that there are three witches, the weird sisters, of the play.
The first scene of Act IV contains a number of references to the number three.
First Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew.d (1)
Second Witch: Thrice and once the hedge-pig whin’d (2)
First Witch: Days and nights hast thirty-one (7)
First Witch: Pour in sow’s blood, that hath eaten
Her nine farrow; (65)
All of these examples refer to the number three, or nine, which is three multiplied with itself. The final example of the number three used in the fourth act with Macbeth’s second visit to the weird sisters. There are three apparitions, which call Macbeth’s name three times before they speak.
The number three also came up in other contexts.
Porter: … drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things. (II,iii,23)
On the surface, the porter’s statement may seem like nonsense from a drunken fool, giving the play a break from the dark nature of the act, but there is more to it. In this scene, Shakespeare is reminding us through his combination of the number three and drinking that drunkenness plays a major role in the events of the act that unfold. For example,
Lady Macbeth: That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold,
What hath quench’d them hath given me fire. (II,ii,1-2)
The symbolism in the play includes that of light and darkness. Macbeth’s insomnia resulting from guilt and Lady Macbeth’s nocturnal excursions while asleep are examples. Macbeth was unable to hide in the dark from the horrors of his deeds and he was haunted by the fear of discovery. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, was afraid of the dark and was using the light in an attempt to dispel her demons.
Doctor: How came she by that light?
Gentlewoman: Why, it stood by her: she has light by her continually; ’tis her command. (V,i,24-25)
Shakespeare uses sunlight and darkness in contrast to intensify our understanding of his guilt.
Old Man: Threescore and ten I can remember well;
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
Ross: Ah! good father,
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it? (II,iv,1-10)
The darkness of the deed overshadowed the very sun itself.
Shakespeare’s birds symbolize the good and evil characters his plays in much the same was as his use of light and darkness symbolizes these traits. He used the martlet and the wren to symbolize good, and the raven, owl, and hell-kite (IV,iii,217) to symbolize evil.
In the fifth scene of the first act, where news is brought to Lady Macbeth that the king is coming, it is not by chance that she uses the symbol of a raven to describe the messenger, The raven himself is hoarse That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan. (I,v,37) Not only is the sound of a raven’s call thought to bring death, but the raven itself symbolizes death, blackness and evil.
The next scene, scene six, where King Duncan arrives, contains a contrast to the evil raven. The king expresses his liking for Macbeth’s castle, Banquo speaks of him as a temple-haunting martlet (I,vi,4-10) The martlet is a species of swallow which often nests in the steeples of churches. We also note the irony of the description of Macbeth’s castle as being similar to a church where such evil deeds are to be committed.
The owl is definitely the most present feathered symbol in the play. This bird of the night appears many times in the play as an omen of death and evil like the raven, but also as a predator which lives by night. This provides yet another example of darkness as evil. Lady Macbeth’s lines hint at the evil deeds which are to follow.
Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. (II,ii,3)
I heard the owl scream… (II,ii,16)
Lennox talks of an obscure bird (II,iii,60) in his description of his troubled sleep. It would be most likely a night bird, probably again, the owl. In Ross’s conversation with the old man in Act II, Scene 4, the old man mentions A falcon, towering in her pride of place, Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d, which suggests the bird of ill-omen has finally stuck. The owl makes a reappearance later in the fourth act where, left defenseless by Macduff,
Lady Macduff: …for the poor wren
The most diminutive of birds, will fight –
Her young ones in her next – against the owl. (IV,ii,9-11)
Shakespeare was if nothing else, a moralist and many or most of his works contained a moral to be heard and noted. For example, The Merchant of Venice and the consequences of greed; Twelfth Night and the foolishness of ambition and virtue as its own reward; Romeo and Juliet and the tragic costs of enmity; The Taming of the Shrew and (in those days) the virtues of obedience, to name but a few. Macbeth is no exception. It is an example of lust for power and the destruction that follows in its wake. We have many contemporary examples of this in world dictators, military juntas and corporate criminals. So Macbeth can be seen as having contemporary significance.
We may now ask why the works of Shakespeare enjoy an undiminishing acceptance in most countries of the world and an aura of immortality. It is perhaps because we see in Shakespeare the mirror of the human condition with which we may all identify and gain a sense that in some strange way his plays belong to us.