Tag Archives: leaving cert english

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!




In a recent blog post I commented that for me, the major difference between mood and atmosphere comes down to this: a mood exists primarily within a person; an atmosphere exists primarily in a place.

Now it’s time to turn my attention to tone. The first thing that springs to mind for most people is ‘tone of voice’. You can tell how a person is feeling by the way they say something, how loud or soft their voice is, how fast or slow they speak, by the words they choose and of course if you’re in the same room as the speaker you tune in to their body language and facial expression as well.

Tone in writing is a more complicated beast.

You are trying to figure out the writer’s attitude and feelings towards the topic at hand but the clues to figuring out how they feel are often more subtle than spoken language and the reader must establish the tone without the help of body language, facial expressions, volume and speed of delivery.

So let’s do a little experiment.

Imagine the school receives a phone-call from a parent complaining about some aspect of my teaching. I decide to reply in writing. I have almost endless options open to me in terms of the tone I adopt when I reply – and for the record I don’t buy into the notion that text messages inherently have no tone. They can capture your feelings if you are careful enough when you compose them!

Now look at several potential replies below. To protect the anonymity of my fictional accuser I’ll just refer to them as ‘parent’!

1. Dear Parent,

I wish to apologise unreservedly for accusing your daughter of cheating. I realise that she is a diligent student who simply wished to have the ‘right’ answer, hence her decision to pass off internet research as her own work. However, if she wishes to improve her mastery of this subject and her overall literacy, in future she will need to use this material to write her own responses rather than relying entirely on other people’s expertise.


Ms. O’Connor


2. Dear Parent,

I am writing in response to your recent complaint that I unfairly accused your daughter of cheating. To be precise I accused your daughter of plagiarism as the homework assignment she submitted two weeks late was copied word for word off the internet. All it takes is a simple google search with one sentence of such plagiarised material to reveal the truth, which is that your daughter did in fact cheat. I suggest in future you spend more time assisting your daughter with her homework and less time phoning our school with baseless complaints which are a waste of my time.

Yours etc,

Ms. O’Connor


3. Dear Parent,

Following your recent communication with school management about your daughter’s homework, I wish to arrange a meeting with you, your daughter and if possible your partner to discuss this issue. I realise that not everyone understands the seriousness of plagiarism but I believe this is an important issue that all of our students need to understand, particularly in this era of ubiquitous content freely available online. 

Yours faithfully,

Ms. O’Connor


4. Dear Parent,

Following consultation with my union and their legal representatives, I will not be responding personally to your complaint about my teaching. However, my solicitor will be in contact shortly in relation to slanderous comments made by you in the comments section of our school’s website and on facebook.

I look forward to resolving this matter fully,

Ms. O’Connor

Now ask yourself, what tone have I adopted in each fake letter? Belligerent? Rude? Arrogant? Apologetic? Conciliatory? Defensive? Aggressive? Patronising? Are some of the letters a combination of different tones? Why did I use different methods of signing off in each example? If this really did happen, which tone should I adopt?

Being aware of your tone is really really important in life, no matter who you are or what job you do. If you come across as arrogant and belligerent people simply won’t like you as a person. On the other hand if you assume that you are always the one in the wrong when conflict arises then people may simply walk all over you!

The important thing is to tune in to your own tone particularly when writing because once it’s published you can’t take it back. Be self-aware and perhaps even get someone else to look over your work before submitting it into the public domain. The fact is other people do make judgements about you based on the tone you adopt both in spoken and written communication so the better you become at identifying and controlling tone the better.

Here’s a link to a very good powerpoint with various examples of different tones in writing:








Mood & Atmosphere

Recently an emailer asked me to discuss the difference between tone, mood, atmosphere. Interestingly from my perspective they also included the term attitude which I’ve always thought of as something completely separate. Tone is such a complex issue I’ll devote an entire blog post to it but mood, atmosphere and attitude should be easy enough to disentangle so here goes.

Let’s start with mood and atmosphere. To my mind, mood most commonly refers to your internal feelings – “I’m in the mood to see a movie” “Don’t talk to me, I’m in a foul mood“. Atmosphere, on the other hand,  exists in a place – “There was a terrible atmosphere at the meeting” “The atmosphere in the control room was fraught with anxiety, taut as a wire-spring, coiled like a viper”. 

It’s easier to remember this distinction when you consider that ‘atmosphere’ is also the term used to describe the “gaseous envelope which surrounds the earth” – in other words, atmosphere is IN THE AIR whereas your mood is IN YOUR BEING.

The main reason people get confused is because we tend to use the words mood and atmosphere interchangeably, particularly in conversation. Consider this example however:

You’re sauntering down the corridor at school. You’ve just won €1000 and what’s more, it’s Friday! Woo hoo! Nothing can destroy the glorious mood you’re in. You walk into the classroom and stop dead in your tracks. Whispered mutterings break the silence but your classmates are all sitting still in their seats, glancing uneasily at the teacher whose skin is blanched porcelain white, pale complexion broken only by a streak of deep red blood across her forehead.  You don’t know what’s going on but this awful atmosphere had just slapped you in the face and your great mood has dissipated completely. Now there’s a ball of anxiety in your stomach. What the hell is going on?

In the real world when mood meets atmosphere and they clash (good mood, bad atmosphere or vice-versa) it’s difficult for the two to co-exist independently of each other. It’s much more likely that they will influence each other – that your bad mood will be lightened and may even disappear if you enter a place with a jovial lighthearted atmosphere. By contrast a good mood can be destroyed by a really negative atmosphere in a room, as demonstrated above.

However, the depth and root cause of your mood has a huge impact on whether or not the atmosphere will significantly alter how you feel. If you are clinically depressed it’s difficult to feel happy or hopeful about anything no matter how wonderful the atmosphere is in your home / place of work. In fact, you may find being surrounded by lighthearted banter very difficult because you feel so out of place in that environment. On the contrary, if you have just received fantastic news then you may be able to withstand a horrendous atmosphere by just tuning out your surroundings and focusing on your own inner happiness and joy.

So where does attitude enter the equation? Your attitude is the way you view something; it’s a combination of what you think about something and how you feel about it. In forming an attitude you will probably combine an evaluation of the facts with a gut instinct. Some people change their attitude towards people, music, ideas, organisations etc… as often as they change their clothes. Others become very entrenched in their attitudes and will not change their fixed attitudes no matter how much evidence and persuasion is employed to change their mind.

If we return to the example above, let’s say you find out that…

A girl in your class lost it completely, punched the wall (hence the blood) and stormed out of the class. The teacher got blood on her face when she was cleaning the wall. Your attitude to the whole thing is that you hope the girl is OK, you hope the teacher is OK, you think maybe there was something else going on that no-one really understands and you hope there isn’t a whole load of random speculation on facebook this evening because that’s all this girl needs right now. You decide you’ll send her a text offering your support later on. Your good mood returns gradually and you start to plan ways to spend your windfall.

However, what if the circumstances were different? What if you find out that…

… Your best friend collapsed, hit his head on the corner of a table on the way down, had a seizure and is now on life support in hospital. You are devastated. You leave school immediately fighting back the tears. Your attitude is one of complete disbelief. How could this have happened? Will he be OK? You need to find out more. All thoughts of Friday and your windfall have disappeared. Jesus Christ, please let him survive. 

In other words. context is everything. Mood, atmosphere and attitude. Interconnected but each individuals in their own right.

Hope that helps!











10 Q’s – Macbeth

To really get to grips with Macbeth’s character you must form your own personal opinions. Use these 10 questions to get to grips with how YOU feel about his personality. Remember there is no RIGHT interpretation there are only opinions backed up with quotes / examples.
  1. Valiant soldier or violent schemer at the beginning?
  2. Which factor is most influential: (a) Witches & their prophesy? (b) Vaulting ambition? (c) Lady Macbeth?
  3. Immediate & overpowering remorse – what’s that about?
  4. Why is he obsessed with killing Banquo? (oh yeah, and Fleance too)
  5. Has he completely lost it in the Banquet scene? (do you think the Ghost is real or imaginary?)
  6. How does he justify his decision to proceed down the path of evil?
  7. He visits the Witches for a second time. Why? How does he react?
  8. Explain his decision to murder Lady Macduff & children (increasingly erratic & illogical behaviour)
  9. What last vestiges of humanity, conscience, nobility, bravery do we see?
  10. Is he nothing more than a “dead butcher” or do we the audience feel differently about him at the end?
Helen Gardner describes Macbeth’s transformation as a path to damnation beginning at one extreme and ending at the other: “From a brave and loyal general, to a treacherous murderer, to a hirer of assassins, to an employer of spies, to a butcher, to a coward, to a thing with no feeling for anything but itself, to a monster and a hell-hound.
Personally I think this is a little simplistic.
Brave and loyal general” – yet even at the beginning there are disturbing undercurrents to his personality.
Treacherous murderer” – yes he’s a murderer, but one who is crippled by remorse.
A coward” – he refuses to surrender but only because he believes that to surrender would be cowardly.
A thing with no feeling for anything but itself” – why then is he so profoundly suicidal when he receives news of his wife’s death?
A hell-hound” – why does he try to avoid a fight with Macduff? Why do we still feel pity for him?
Anyway, it just goes to show, each person who sees the play brings a different interpretation of his character away with them.