The Imagery of Macbeth
Who can contest the statement that William Shakespeare in the tragedy Macbeth very skillfully uses imagery to strengthen the theme and other aspects of the play? In this paper we explore the imagery in all its dimensions.
L.C. Knights in the essay "Macbeth" explains the supporting role which imagery plays in Macbeth's descent into darkness:
To listen to the witches, it is suggested, is like eating "the insane root, That takes the reason prisoner" (I.iii.84-5); for Macbeth, in the moment of temptation, "function," or intellectual activity, is "smother'd in surmise"; and everywhere the imagery of darkness suggests not only the absence or withdrawal of light but - "light thickens" - the presence of something positively oppressive and impeding. (101)
In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye shows how the playwright uses imagery to reinforce the theme:
This theme is at its clearest where we are most in sympathy with the nemesis. Thus at the end of Macbeth, after the proclamation "the time is free," and of promises to make reparations of Macbeth's tyranny "Which would be planted newly with the time," there will be a renewal not only of time but of the whole rhythm of nature symbolized by the word "measure," which includes both the music of the spheres and the dispensing of human justice [. . .]. (94-95)
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson interprets the imagery of Macbeth:
Macbeth is a play in which the poetic atmosphere is very important; so important, indeed, that some recent commentators give the impression that this atmosphere, as created by the imagery of the play, is its determining quality. For those who pay most attention to these powerful atmospheric suggestions, this is doubtless true. Mr. Kenneth Muir, in his introduction to the play - which does not, by the way, interpret it simply from this point of view - aptly describes the cumulative effect of the imagery: "The contrast between light and darkness is part of a general antithesis between good and evil, devils and angels, evil and grace, hell and heaven . . . and the disease images of IV, iii and in the last act clearly reflect both the evil which is a disease, and Macbeth himself who is the disease from which his country suffers."(67-68)
Roger Warren comments in Shakespeare Survey 30 , regarding Trervor Nunn's direction of Macbeth at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974-75, on opposing imagery used to support the opposing notions of purity and black magic:
Much of the approach and detail was carried over, particularly the clash between religious purity and black magic. Purity was embodied by Duncan, very infirm (in 1974 he was blind), dressed in white and accompanied by church organ music, set against the black magic of the witches, who even chanted 'Double, double to the Dies Irae. (283)
The Tragedy of Macbeth...