Macbeth: Symbolism Essay

Macbeth is probably the best known of William Shakespeare’s plays. It is the shortest of his tomes. The story goes like this, Macbeth and his friend win a battle for the King, stumble upon three witches in a cave who tell Macbeth his future. He learns the first prophecy is true before he leaves the company of the witches. He tells his wife the story when he returns home and her ambition leads her to goad Macbeth into killing the King and framing his guards for the deed. The afraid he will lose the crown he just gained he proceeds to send servants to kill his friend and his friends son. The servants kill Banquo the friend but fail to murder his son. Macbeth is slowly losing his hold on the kingdom and at a royal feast swears he sees Banquo’s ghost and he starts raving. Terrified he seeks out the counsel of the three witches again. The witches tell him he is to beware Macduff, he is incapable of being harmed by any man of woman and Birnam Wood comes to the castle.

Macbeth feels secure after this because he knows all men are born of women and forests do not move. While this is going on Lady Macbeth is starting to feel her guilt and is sleepwalking in the night. Finally the guilt becomes too much for her and she kills herself. Macbeth learns of her death while preparing for the English and Prince Malcolm (Duncan’s son) to attack. Macbeth learns that the shields that the English are carrying are made from Birnam Wood and Birnam Wood is indeed coming to the castle fulfilling the first part of the prophecy. While on the battle field Macbeth encounters Macduff who states he was “not born of woman” but was instead “untimely ripped” from his mother. Macbeth continued to fight until Macduff beheaded him, knowing he was doomed.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is full of symbolism, however the underlying theme through out is murder. This play shows dark and light, good and evil. Blood is used to symbolize guilt. Purification is shown with water specifically within murder scenes. Sleep is used to symbolize innocence.

Dark and light are mirrors of evil and good, guilt and innocence. In the time that Macbeth was written the king was likened to the sun and sunset was a symbol of death or overthrow. The quotes “When shall we three meet again . . . ” and “That will be ere the set of sun.” foreshadow the king’s death. This idea of light and dark follow though the play. Macbeths decent into evil can be seen in “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Almost all the dark parts of the play happen under the cloak of night. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, the appearance of the witches and murders all take place at night. Light symbolizes all that is good, noble and moral. The three witches are known as the “midnight hags”. Lady Macbeth begs the night to hide her movement from heaven. When Lady Macbeth finally loses her grip on sanity, she insists on taking a candle with her as a form of protection. When Macbeth becomes king day and night merge into one.

The next symbol is blood. The image of blood plays a large role in Duncan’s murder. Blood represents both guilt and shame. Macbeth feels tainted by the blood on his hands. He was terrified that returning to the scene of the crime to smear the guards would deepen his part in the plot. Water on the flipside was thought to be purifying and also played a large part in this play. It signaled the removal of guilt. Lady Macbeth comments to Macbeth after the death of Duncan “A little water clears us of the deed.” Later as Lady Macbeths guilt starts to tear at her she repeatedly rubs her hands together, symbolizing washing her hands, wanting to clean the blood off her hands. Banquo’s ghost appears before Macbeth in the banquet hall with “gory locks” Blood is used to show Macbeth’s acceptance of his own guilt. He relays to Lady Macbeth, “I am in blood / Step’t in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.

Sleep is used to symbolize innocence and purity. The line “Macbeth does murder sleep” is used to show that sleep is innocent. He continues to compare sleep to a bath again showing sleep as a symbol of innocence and water as a symbol of purity. Macbeth convinces himself that when he killed the king in his sleep, he killed sleep itself. Macbeth suffers from nightmares when he sends agents to kill Banquo. Lady Macbeths conscience causes her to sleepwalk, reliving the actions of Duncan’s death.

Macbeth is undone by the main ideas of this play, namely ambition and its consequences. By the end of the play Macbeth is devoid of morality. There are two main factors that set Macbeth on his path, his meeting with the witches and his wife. This unchecked ambition leads to Macbeths beheading by Macduff and Lady Macbeths decent into madness and her final act of suicide. Macbeth does a one eighty from feeling guilty to being a ruthless murderer and lady Macbeth goes from more aggressive to ridden with guilt.


  • Frey, Angelica. “‘Macbeth’: Themes and Symbols.” ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2019,

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