Light and Darkness in Macbeth

8 August 2016

Shakespearean literature is often characterised by imagery. William Shakespeare uses this technique in order to give hidden deeper meanings to his pieces, as we can see in the play Macbeth. As a matter of fact, in this tragedy the audience can find many different types of imagery: plant, animal, sleep, clothing and so forth. Most of these images are associated with a human characteristic; the imagery of light and darkness is no exception.

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The symbols of light and darkness in Macbeth are used to illustrate the contrasts between good and evil, to explain the actions of the protagonists, and are associated with sight and blindness to emphasize drama. Being two contrasting elements, the characteristics associated with light and darkness are also opposite; light is related to innocence, truth and purity, while darkness is associated with corruption, cruelty and guilt. In Macbeth, there are many different references to these two elements, and each one is connected to certain symbols which take the form of animals, plants, day, and night.

Ultimately, light and darkness represent good and evil. In the first scenes of Act I, the imagery of light is used when King Duncan names Malcolm as his successor and commends Macbeth for his bravery in battle by comparing them to stars, “… signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers” (1. 4. 41-12). Duncan explains that he will award those who are virtuous and dutiful to him, because they deserve it. Because of these good qualities, namely honour and devotion, the person will shine like a star, since light is seen as good.

Macbeth, however, already begins to ignore these values, “…Stars, hide your fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires ;”( 1. 4. 50-52) In this case, light represents goodness and honesty. Macbeth does not want his morals to interfere with his inner ambitions. His conscience warns him not to commit the regicide, but Macbeth’s ambition and Lady Macbeth’s power of persuasion are strong, and they defeat his morality. Evil, his ‘black and deep desires’, is begin to take control of him. Light and darkness are also used to illustrate life and death.

On the evening King Duncan is murdered, Lennox reports that the fire in his chimney was mysteriously “blown” out (2. 3. 3); the fire represented the King’s life. It is also strangely dark on the morning after the night of King Duncan’s murder, and Ross says to the Old Man, “by the clock, ‘tis day, / And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp” (2. 4. 6-7). This signifies the start of darkness taking over Scotland, but can also be seen as a metaphor for Duncan’s life being ‘strangled’ by Macbeth, ‘the dark night’.

Another example of darkness overtaking light occurs when Banquo’s torchlight (the one that illuminates him just enough so his murderers can see what they’re doing) is snuffed out the moment he is killed (3. 3. 5). Lastly, Macbeth responds to the news of Lady Macbeth’s suicide by proclaiming “out, out brief candle” (5. 5. 3), using the candle’s flame as a metaphor for her short life and sudden death. The image of the candle is used to show how vulnerable life is. It does not last for a long time and it is easily blown out.

Macbeth learns this at a very high cost: his tragic end. The association of light and darkness does not only contrast and illustrate, but it is also used predominately by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, to foreshadow and describe their actions and feelings. Darkness is evidently used much more than light, and when light is mentioned, it is usually snuffed out or overtaken by darkness. This first occurs when Lady Macbeth asks “thick night” to come with the “smoke of hell,” so that her knife will not see the wound it makes in the peacefully sleeping King.

She also calls for murderous spirits to prevent “heaven” from “peep[ing] through the blanket of the dark to cry ‘Hold, Hold! ‘” she implies that light (here associated with God, heaven, and goodness) offers protection from evil and is the only thing that can stop her from murdering Duncan (1. 5. 10-16). Later in the play, the audience can see that Macbeth does the same. After he has made the arrangements for the murder of Banquo, Macbeth tells the murderers that  “Fleance his son, that keeps him company, Whose absence is no less material to me

Than is his father’s, must embrace the fate Of that dark hour” (3. 1. 134-137). The hour will be “dark” both literally and metaphorically. Literally, Banquo and Fleance will be riding after dark, and that’s when they will be ambushed. Metaphorically, the hour will be dark because that’s when they will meet the final darkness of death. Macbeth is asking the night to take away Banquo’s life, because Banquo makes Macbeth “pale” with fear, “Come, sealing night, Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day; And with thy bloody and invisible hand Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond

Which keeps me pale! ” (3. 2. 50) In scenes after the Ghost of Banquo has ruined Macbeth’s banquet Macbeth asks his wife “What is the night? ” She answers, “Almost at odds with morning, which is which” (3. 4. 125-126). Then Macbeth states his intention to continue his bloody course of action, and says, “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand; / which must be acted ere they may be scann’d” (3. 4. 138-39). Through these evil deeds, it is evident that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize the fact that darkness easily overtakes light.

When one puts a bowl over a lit candle, its light is no longer seen. In the same way that sight and light, and blindness and darkness are used together in this analogy, Shakespeare uses these symbols together to amplify the themes certain scenes. When Macbeth is imagining what would happen if he was to kill King Duncan, he says that  “… Pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed Upon the sightless couriers of the air, Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, That tears shall drown the wind”.

Here, “the sightless couriers of the air” are the winds, imagined as invisible (“sightless”) horses. This elaborate metaphor suggests that pity for King Duncan will be like that kind of wind that blows so hard that it brings tears to your eyes. Another example is when Macbeth sees the illusion of the eight kings escorted by Banquo. As soon as Macbeth sees this, he wishes he that he could stop looking, but cannot. When he sees the first king, he says to him, “Thy crown does sear mine eye-balls” , yet he keeps looking.

By the time the fourth one appears, he says, “Start, eyes! ” (4. 1. 116), as though he could command his own eyes to jump (“start”) out of his head and make him blind. Like Macbeth, Lady Macbeth also has something that she does not want to see in her sleepwalking scene. She enters the scene holding a candle, and when the doctor asks her gentlewoman how the lady happens to have the candle, the gentlewoman replies, “Why, it stood by her: she has light by her continually; ’tis her command”.

 The doctor then points out, “You see, her eyes are open” (5. 1. 24), and the gentlewoman replies, “Ay, but their sense is shut” (5. 1. 25). Thus we see that Lady Macbeth, who eagerly awaited the dark hour of King Duncan’s murder, is now afraid of the dark, and though her eyes are open, she can see only her own memories of murder. Shakespeare uses the symbols of sight and blindness to emphasize the theme of guilt by personifying the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Much of this play is filled with the struggle between light and darkness, the epic battle of good versus evil, and the theme is enforced by recurring images and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relation to them. It is, however, the precision of Shakespeare’s’ imagery, which creates clear and vivid mental pictures, that gives his writing its unique style and quality. Shakespeare teaches an important lesson through these symbols: that if we let darkness into our lives it will take over the light unless we make an effort to change.

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