Tag Archives: imagery

Imagery in Macbeth (2)

This post is going to discuss BOTH language and imagery, rather than just pure imagery (which is limited to metaphors and similes, with a bit of symbolism thrown in for good measure). Taking into account the reasons why Shakespeare used poetic imagery while writing his dialogue (if you haven’t read Imagery in Macbeth part 1, click here) have a look at the quotes below, which are roughly grouped together by theme / image type. Also bear in mind that his use of language is broader than his use of ‘imagery’ and includes techniques like repetition, dramatic irony, allusion, symbolism, rhetorical questions etc.

Ask yourself what the IMPACT of each quote is on you:

  • does it help you to understand a character better?
  • does it create a particular atmosphere? (taking the place of special effects – lightning, fake blood, smoke machine, sound effects?)
  • does it emphasise one of the major themes in the play? how does it add to your understanding of this theme?
  • is the language / image itself just really clever, striking, memorable, profound, dramatic, disturbing, upsetting, ironic?

Obviously in an exam you’d only have the opportunity to discuss a fraction of the quotes I’ve included below. I’ve got scene references for some but not all of them!


  1. Fair is foul and foul is fair | Hover through the fog and filthy air” (augmenting earlier references to thunder, lightning and rain).
  2. Though his bark cannot be lost | Yet it shall be tempest tossed” Witches
  3. You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so” Banquo
  4. If you can look into the seeds of time | and say which grain will go and which will not | Speak to me then” Banquo
  5. Is this a dagger which I see before me | the handle towards my hand?
  6. Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,  And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full  of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood; stop up the access and passage to remorse……… ………… Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry ‘Hold, hold!‘ ” All of this is part of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in response to the news that Duncan will be paying a visit to her home (nice lady eh?)
  7.  “Never shake thy gory locks at me” Macbeth to Banquo’s ghost.
  8. This is the very painting of your fear” Lady Macbeth to her husband.
  9. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”. Witches (4.1.1)

Images of disguise and concealment (appearance vs reality):

  1. Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t” Lady Macbeth, 1, 5
  2. False face must hide what the false heart doth know” Macbeth, 1,7
  3. There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The near in blood, the nearer bloody” Donalbain 2, 3.
  4. Macbeth tells the murderers he hires to kill Banquo and Fleance that he is
  5. Masking the business from the common eye for sundry weighty reasons” 3,1
  6. He tells Lady Macbeth that they must “make our faces vizards to our hearts, disguising what they are” 3,2
  7. He admits “there’s not a one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d” 3,4
  8. The mask comes off when he resolves “henceforth the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand” 4,1

Clothing Imagery:

  1. The Thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” Macbeth, 1,3
  2. I have bought Golden opinions from all sorts of people, Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, Not cast aside so soon” Macbeth, 1,7
  3. Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” Lady Macbeth to Macbeth 1,7
  4. Adieu! Lest our old robes sit easier than our new” Macduff to Ross, 2,4
  5. Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief” Angus, 5,2

Blood Imagery:

  1. What bloody man is that?” Duncan, 1,3
  2. He unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops and fixed his head upon our battlements” Injured soldier 1,3
  3. I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, for it must seem their guilt” Lady Macbeth
  4. Will all great Neptune’s oceans wash clear this blood from my hand? No this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine making the green one red” Macbeth
  5. A little water clears us of this deed” Lady Macbeth
  6. Here lay Duncan, his silver skin laced with his golden blood” Macbeth, ironically, explaining his murder of the grooms.
  7. Blood will have blood” Macbeth
  8. I am in blood stepp’d in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” Macbeth
  9. My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already” Macbeth
  10. Out out damned spot” Lady Macbeth
  11. Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Lady Macbeth
  12. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” Lady Macbeth
Nature / Weather / Animal Imagery:
  1. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” Macbeth
  2. “I have given suck, and know
    How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
    I would, while it was 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”  Lady Macbeth
  3. “The night has been unruly… lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death…some say the earth was feverous and did shake” Lennox
  4. “His gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature” Macbeth
  5. “By the clock tis day and yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp” Ross
  6. “A falcon was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed” Duncan’s horses: “Tis said they ate each other” Old Man
  7. “They have tied me to a stake: I cannot fly | But bear like I must fight the course” Macbeth












Imagery in Macbeth (1)

Shakespeare’s tragedies, although they are plays, are written as a form of poetry. They contain lots of rhyme, lots of imagery and a rhythm called iambic pentameter. Basically this is a sentence made up of ten syllables. The second syllable is stressed each time so the rhythm becomes:

di|DUM  di|DUM     di|DUM  di|Dum  di|DUM

In|sooth  I | know   not |why       I | am    so| sad

It | wear ies | me        you | say       it |wear ies | you

If it doesn’t rhyme it’s known as ‘blank verse’. If it does rhyme then it’s just plain old iambic pentameter, occasionally with extra syllables or odd stresses here and there. Here’s an example from Macbeth:

“Hear it not Duncan; for it is a knell 

  That summons thee to heaven or to hell”

Anyway, the basic point is that Shakespeare had all of his characters speak in a very vivid and poetic way.

So why did he do it?

  1. Some critics have suggested that he was trying to make up for the fact that he didn’t have any special effects – lighting, smoke machines, sound effects. This makes sense if you consider that when the witches appear they set the scene saying they will meet again “in thunder, lightening or in rain” as they “hover through the fog and filthy air“. Thus vivid imagery is used to create atmosphere.
  2. A second reason he wrote poetically was because he was a poet and he wanted to show off. Word play was very popular back in the day, it was a way of showing off how clever you were.
  3. Thirdly, this may seem obvious to the point of it being completely stupid for me to even mention it, but this was an era with no photos, no TV, no cinema, no screens. Basically no moving images. The only static images were paintings and only rich people could afford them. Although artists had managed to develop perspective in their paintings during the renaissance (from about 1400 onwards), they didn’t have photocopiers and when Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s the printing press was still a pretty expensive way to create books and pass on knowledge. Plus most people were still illiterate (they couldn’t read or write). So for the regular pleb on the street their only access to images was in their dreams or in the theatre. The only way you could plant images in someone’s head (outside of SHOWING them the thing in person) was by creating pictures using words. So people who could create vivid imagery using words were like OMG a really really big deal. Basically they were Gods. We don’t have the same respect for wordsmiths these days because if you want to show people something you can take a photo, or search google images, or film it on your phone, or make a movie. You get the idea.
  4. Finally, Shakespeare used images to illustrate his themes and to help his audience to understand his characters better.
Those are the main reasons why Shakespeare wrote his plays using dramatic, vivid and memorable imagery. There may be more reasons but I’m not a Shakespearean expert I’m just lil old me and that’s all I’ve got!