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Symbolism in Macbeth: Darkness as a Representation of Immorality

By Edited Jun 28, 2016 0 0

   In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s classic story of betrayal, there is a pervasive use of darkness to illustrate sinister actions and the moral repercussions of those committing them. Darkness appears in both the setting of the scenes as well as in the dialogues of the characters, which makes it more prevalent to better implicate the element as a thematic symbol in the story.

   Darkness itself is a recognized symbol of evil. It is in darkness that we realize the things that seemed very clear and understandable in the light are now distorted into something much more threatening. Without the light we can no longer see people’s true actions, which build how you understand them, so you can’t see the truth of their characters either. Macbeth himself can most easily depict this considering his deceitful nature throughout the play. Outwardly he appears to be the perfect soldier, loyal and protective of his king as one should be, but his inner ambition leads him down a dark path to lies and bloodshed.

            The murders, being the most sinister actions, always occur at night except for the storming of Lady Macduff’s castle, where the setting does not distinguish this to be so. Duncan’s murder uses the element of darkness paralleled with unnatural events in the weather and actions of animals. As the old man explains to Ross “’tis unnatural, even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last, a flacon, tow’ring in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed” to which Ross responds “And Duncan’s horses – a thing most strange and certain – beauteous and swift, the minions of their race, turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make a war with mankind.” These events coincide with the murder of King Duncan, which is in itself, like the events, a perversion of life’s natural order. We also notice that his death occurs right as a bell rings, this could be the chime of the bell tolling the hour of midnight, when the night is at its darkest.

   Banquo’s murder, though not as dramatic as Duncan’s, also could be considered an unnatural event, but less so since this course has already been set in motion with the first murder. By murdering Duncan, Macbeth is fulfilling the witch’s prophecy and sending himself down the path of destiny leading to their other predictions, Banquo’s death is part of this since it sends Fleance to make the alliance with the other king and eventually bring the attack on Macbeth’s castle. Macbeth sends the murderers and orders them to wait until nightfall to strike and along with the cover of night to commit the act far away from the castle to hide him from blame.

            The massacre of Macduff’s family is not specifically distinguished as occurring at night but this much can be inferred based on the pattern of the prior killings. Macduff’s family is also the first act of evil for which Macbeth appears to have no shame or remorse. This could be explained by his seeming loss of sanity during this part of the play.

   Macbeth and Lady Macbeth always wait to strike until after darkness has fallen and can hide their actions from others. But one could also add that darkness allows them to hide their actions from themselves, since they cannot bear the real immorality of them. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have passages where they admit to using darkness to keep themselves from feeling the real guilt. For Macbeth, this occurs when he first realizes how he has to fulfill the prophecy “stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be, which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” He wants to commit the murder letting only his hand be aware so that he may stay pure in mind. Lady Macbeth, as sinister as she appears, also concedes she needs “thick night” so that her “keen knife see not the wound it makes.” This passage actually may foreshadow Lady Macbeth’s eventual breakdown since it reveals she is not as morally cold and unfeeling as she wants Macbeth (and the audience) to believe.

Macbeth, on the other hand, does not attempt to hide his emotional turbulence occurring in horrific hallucinations even before he commits the murder. He describes a floating dagger with the “handle towards his hand” leading him “the way that he was going” as if it were further prophecy from the witches. Looking a second time Macbeth now sees blood on the dagger; “and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, which was not so before.” It is also at this instance that he mentions the witches seeming to acknowledge that he would never have been led to this action had it not been for their prophecy. Directly after, while Lady Macbeth is celebrating their close victory, Macbeth is very aware of the chaos he has brought upon them, the break in the natural order, hearing a voice cry “ ‘sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’ – the innocent sleep…great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”  He knows that he will never be able to be fully refreshed from sleep as all others are with this action maiming his conscience, so by murdering Duncan he has murdered his own sleep. This is the first of the hallucinations leading to Macbeth’s utter lunacy by the end of the play.

   This occurs again after Banquo’s murder, though this time Macbeth was only indirectly responsible, which one would assume makes him feel more detached. Unfortunately for Macbeth, murdering Banquo is far more traumatic, perhaps because Banquo epitomizes everything that goes against Macbeth’s unchecked ambition; “…his royalty of nature reigns that which would be feared. ‘Tis much he dares, and to that dauntless temper of his mind he hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor to act in safety.” When the news of Banquo’s death is returned to him, instead of feeling more secure Macbeth feels the chilling presence of Banquo and proceeds to fall into fits of madness upon seeing his bloody corpse sitting in his throne. Later, after calming down, he asks Lady Macbeth what time of the night it is, as if he feels the light will bring some reprieve for his mind. She responds “almost at odds with morning, which is which.” It’s becoming harder to see the difference between the day and the night as the lines also blur between darkness and chaos holding the kingdom, and light and goodness approaching.

   By the end of the play, Macbeth has completely lost his grasp on reality, with the misleading prophecies of the witches becoming unveiled, he sees his destruction is close at hand. The things he believed to definitely be impossible were now coming to pass. As Birnam wood marches on his castle, an overwhelming feeling of failure comes over him. This is most evident in his monologue about life’s meaning in response to Lady Macbeth’s suicide; “she should have died hereafter…Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He feels that life is completely insignificant and meaningless, perhaps to justify his own vile actions. Though there are no further mentions of hallucinations at this point, it seems he is letting his blind ambition rule him completely. He holds the power of the king and his ambition requires that he keep that power no matter what. His ambition itself is like darkness because it keeps him from seeing the real evil of his actions and the warp of his character from loyal, courageous soldier, to traitorous murderer. It won’t let him comprehend his failure causing him to push onward in a fruitless battle against inevitability. 

   Similarly, Lady Macbeth’s downfall is a direct cause of her original ambition for her husband. She first appears to be much stronger than Macbeth, using his masculinity against him as further motivation, but after this initial behavior we see she lacks the same ambition that drives Macbeth to further evil. She first admits to herself her regret in an aside seen only by the audience, “naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is go without content. ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” In fact Macbeth also admits this saying “Better be with the dead, whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.” Despite this Lady Macbeth still has to argue with him over the murder of Banquo. This is the first sign of her weakness as she breaks down under the guilt of what she’s done. At this point it is clearly evident that she also has “murdered her sleep.” Her servant finds her and when observed by the doctor appears to be trying to wash herself clean of the murders, muttering about the “damned spots” of blood. Similarly to Duncan’s murder, this act of being active while being asleep is described as “a great perturbation in nature.” Her actions and Macbeth’s actions were the initial causes of chaos, which now has begun to affect her with its repercussions. “Foul wisp’rings are abroad; Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.” As Macbeth finds, there is no way to “pluck from memory a rooted sorrow” or “raze out the written troubles of the brain with some sweet oblivious antidote.” The doctor explains Lady Macbeth’s only hope is to heal herself; this we see, is impossible. The sickness of her heart forces a confession to her sins just as the light of her bedside candle breaks through the darkness of the night.

   In fact it is not only in this instance that we see light as a symbol of revelation and goodness. Macbeth in most cases is given brief glimmers of light, representing an alternative to darkness. Without his ambition Macbeth is not in any way evil: he has the potential to it the same as anyone else, but he is most basically good. Even after he commits evil acts he still sees, and ignores, which could lead back to the purity he has lost. It is obvious that the witches themselves are great symbols of evil. They brew the unnatural events with their prophecies and send righteous men into diseased states rooted in their aspirations. With them appears a storm, perhaps symbolizing the conflict their victims have between their righteous and sinister halves. Banquo recognizes this immediately telling Macbeth “oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.” Macbeth knows this even referring to them as “evil, midnight hags.” He fails to notice, however, that in every meeting with the witches, there is a distinct flash of light, attempting to awake him to his actions. Though this is never explicitly expressed, it is implied because of the sound of the thunder. With thunder, and most importantly before it, there is lightning, a brief blaze of light in the midst of even the most terrible, black, storm. And just as quickly as lightning vanishes the sky, Macbeth abandons his virtuous nature in favor of power. Additionally instances of light seem to appear directly before Macbeth makes decisions concerning his morality. During his contemplation over Duncan, torches surround Macbeth, but as his decision sways towards that of evil, he leaves the light. Later, we also see him accompanied by a servant holding a torch who he leaves to commit the deed, having committed himself completely to the darkness. 

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