One of the main reasons reading and studying Shakespeare is such fun is identifying the symbols and motifs he uses to underscore the events which are unfolding on the stage (or page).  These are often introduced subtly, to slowly inform our understanding of the motivations of the characters and the effects their actions have on their personal growth and their surroundings.  In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses symbols and motifs to demonstrate how the themes of corruption, masculinity and ambition can warp the natural world and skew characters’ moral compasses; making them act in unnatural ways.
Motifs are used to develop the themes of the play.  They are most frequently represented through figures of speech and contrasts in how the ‘good’ characters reflect on events compared to how the ‘wicked’ characters do.  One of the major motifs is the idea of violence. Although most of the deaths occur offstage, the audience is not spared descriptions of the slaughter.  Shakespeare uses violence (in the form of Duncan’s battle against the heinous invaders at the start of the play and Macbeth’s battle against Macduff at the end) to enclose the play – echoing the theme that violence seems inevitable when power is involved.  The gruesome murders of a number of characters echoes this motif.  It is impossible to ignore the violence of the play.

Another motif is the notion of prophecy.  If something is prophesised, how much control does a person have over the inevitability of the prophecy coming true?  The weird sisters, who are instrumental in Macbeth’s rise (and fall), speak the words that Macbeth longs to hear.  How self-fulfilling the prophecies are is up to audience to deconstruct.  Macbeth does not rely on time to determine the accuracy of the prophecies, rather he uses the prophecies as a means to explain his corrupt ambition, and later he actively tries to subvert them.  The weird sisters appear to talk in riddles – what they say is not necessarily what they mean.

Macbeth is also rich in symbolic imagery.  Symbols, like motifs, serve to enrich our understanding of the effect the events have on the characters – they often represent somewhat abstract concepts.

It is impossible to read Macbeth without identifying the symbol of blood, as the play is steeped in it.  Blood represents life and the act of murder.  It also serves to symbolise Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s guilt – as Lady Macbeth becomes more unhinged by what she has been party to, blood comes to represent her sin – she sees it on her hands and is unable to wash it away:
“Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (Act 5, sc i, 30-34)
Macbeth also refers to blood in reference to his crimes:
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” (Act 2, sc ii, 58-59)

Shakespeare uses the weather and nature to reflect the destruction of the natural order that occurs after Macbeth conspires to take the throne.  By referencing light (symbolising goodness, truth, life and righteousness) and dark (symbolising death, evil and destruction).
“Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires…” (Act 1 sc iv, 50-51)
“Is’t night’s predominance or day’s shame that darkness does the face of earth entomb when living light should kiss it?” (Act 2 sc iii, 7-10)
“The night has been unruly.  Where we lay, our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say, lamenting heard i’the air, strange screams of death…” (Act 2 sc iii, 51-53)

Unpacking imagery in Shakespeare allows us to gain a deeper insight into characters’ motivations and their hidden desires.

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