Macbeth Act I: Symbolism and Imagery

Scene Observations
As this play starts off in a dark, ominous atmosphere, there was a number of striking symbolic images that was present and emphasized throughout different scenes that further established the tone of this play. Seeing that Macbeth is a tragedy, one would expect the symbolism in the play to also be that of dark, gloomy and depressing and evidently act one started off with a menacing, ominous weather motif of thunder, lightning and rain spoken by the three witches.

As the story escalates throughout the scenes, one of the most noticeable symbolic images is one of animals and nature. Starting with the symbolic images, the most prominent would be the imagery of birds. Notice that the imagery of bird seems to also have appeared in the novels that we previously read, seemingly to be a frequent motif author’s use. Bird imagery is present in scene II when Shakespeare compares the two main characters of this tragedy, Macbeth and Banquo with the predator – prey relationship birds of prey have and other fellow predatory animals. Comparing Macbeth and Banquo with eagles and lions portraying their victory in the war. Further bird imagery was mentioned in scene V where Lady Macbeth hears news of the King visiting their castle and sees this as the perfect chance to carry out the murder. Here, Shakespeare used the raven, where often cases are associated with sinister, omens and most importantly – deaths, most likely used to forewarn readers of the murder that would take place in that household. Lastly, is the mention of a temple-haunting marlet by Banquo. However, this act does not close with only a mention of birds, in scene V is also a symbolic image of serpents. Knowing the characteristics of a serpent, it is regularly viewed as a sneaky, witty, evil reptile. In this particular scene, Lady Macbeth uses the imagery of serpents to portray the act of striking the king when the appropriate time comes.

Other than the bird/animal imagery that is present in this act, the symbolic images of nature are also emphasized, particularly related to Banquo, as he is the one that often delivers these symbolisms. As readers, it would be safe to assume that nature and Banquo holds a close relationship with each other in the play. He refers to nature for the first time when he and Macbeth are questioning the witches about their prophecies; he mentions “seeds of time” and whether which “grain”, presumably either himself or Macbeth, would grow and which wouldn’t. We see the imagery of nature further emphasized in scene V between the dialogue of Duncan (king) and Banquo. This time, both the king and Banquo use the imagery of nature – gardening. Duncan started the comparison of placing Macbeth, like a plant, where is can harvest and grow in terms of honor; and Banquo ends the gardening metaphor stating that the harvest would be the king’s. Placing so much emphasis on the relation of nature with Banquo in the first act of the play seems to me to reflect upon Banquo’s status in the play. The witches have once said that Banquo would be the king of all kings, possessing the wisdom and nature of leadership. I think this reflects with the nature metaphors because nature is like the start of all that is on earth, it carries the knowledge and wisdom of all things – just like how Banquo is supposed to be.

Another aspect of imagery evident and appearing frequently in this act, especially associated with Lady Macbeth, is child/infant imagery. One might first think of gentle, parental love and tenderness. However, we have to remember that this play is a tragedy, one filled with an ominous atmosphere, violence and gore. The child/infant imagery portrayed by Lady Macbeth is certainly not one of tenderness and compassion. Rather, the infantry that is depicted in Lady Macbeth’s speeches are wretched and horrific. She firstly declares that Macbeth is “too full of the milk of human kindness” – where kindness and milk should be used in a positive aspect, she twists the meaning behind it so it brings a negative connotation. Further in the text, Lady Macbeth makes a brave and bold statement asking to replace her milk [tenderness] with gall [bitterness], as if to give up her womanhood in exchange of power and status. Nearing the end of Act I, Lady Macbeth further adds bloodshed and violence to metaphors – she states that if she had sworn so boldly, even if it were an innocent suckling infant at her breasts, she would still detach herself from the baby and kill it. These metaphors all build up to reveal Lady Macbeth’s true nature, cold-blooded and aggressive.

Lastly, although this symbolic image might not be as apparent as the ones mentioned above, it is still present within the text. This last symbolic image is the mention of clothing, often connected to honor and reputation. This symbolic image is first mentioned by Macbeth, when he asks Rosse not to “dress him in borrowed robes” – where clothing (robes) are a poetic parallel to the honors. Further mentioned by Banquo declaring the new honors upon Macbeth are like strange garments (clothing mentioned once again). The last reference to clothing is near the end of the act, where both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate the image of clothing to one’s reputation.


Act Analysis

The overall atmosphere established by the sets of images are mostly sided to the dark, violent and depressing side. Since the play is a tragedy itself, one wouldn’t expect the images to be portrayed in a optimistic and positive light. Rather, especially the bird and child/infant imagery, further establishes itself to aid the dark and ominous beginning the play adapted with the weather motif of thunder, lightning and rain.

“I had given suck, and know how tender t’s is to love the baby that milks me: I would, while it is smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this” (Act I, Scene VII, Line 54 – 59)


This quote by Lady Macbeth, other than portraying the brutal and cold-blooded image of killing an innocent, smiling infant, I think plays a great role in the murder of the king (future). As we’ve seen in the previous pages, Macbeth was just in his own dilemma of either deciding to murder the king or not; and at then end, he comes up with the conclusion that since the king have given him much honors and trust, he shouldn’t betray him. Seeing as Macbeth have already made up his mind, if it wasn’t for Lady Macbeth’s further encouragement, moreover using stimulating metaphors to stress her ambition, Macbeth probably would not have chosen to change his mind. Therefore, might have not lead to Macbeth’s own death at the end of the play.

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