‘Symbolism is the language of the Mysteries. By symbols, men have ever sought to communicate to each other those thoughts which transcend the limitations of language.’ – Manly Hall, a Canadian-born author. In other words, Hall states that symbols can convey ideas words cannot. The famous playwright, William Shakespeare, uses many symbols in his plays; he uses symbols to convey a deeper meaning, which helps the plot and character development. One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Macbeth, is about a once noble and fearless warrior striving to protect his country. He later becomes a corrupt and evil ruler after being awarded for his duties with a little bit of power. Shakespeare uses symbolization to help develop Macbeth into the corrupt, evil ruler he becomes. Shakespeare uses symbols such as hallucinations, settings, and paranoia/insanity to greatly help with the plot and character development.
To begin with, Shakespeare uses hallucinations as a symbol to hint at a cause, which then leads to plot development as well as character development. The hallucinations Macbeth sees have a cause: guilt. A passage that supports this idea is, ‘Oh that’s nonsense! This is just one of the hallucinations you always get when you’re afraid’ (Shakespeare 38). The hallucinations are caused by guilt because Macbeth starts to see hallucinations just before he murders King Duncan and after he murders Banquo. The hallucination he sees are a dagger, which Macbeth uses to kill King Duncan, and Banquo’s ghost, which appears after Macbeth is informed that Banquo has been killed. Both hallucinations are because of guilt. Macbeth experiences guilt before murdering King Duncan because Duncan trusts and respects Macbeth. Banquo is Macbeth’s best friend yet Macbeth hires three murderers to kill him because Banquo’s sons would become kings after Macbeth. To alter the prophecy of Banquo’s descendants becoming nobility, Macbeth decides to kill Banquo and his son. Macbeth experiences excessive guilt because he kills two people very close to him. Moving on, the hallucinations develop the plot by adding depth to it. The following passage said by Macbeth when seeing the first hallucination made the play more interesting: ‘Or are you nothing but a dagger created by the mind, a hallucination from my fevered brain?’ (17). This statement shows how Macbeth dreads the thought of killing King Duncan. He feels guilty just by thinking about it and passed the hallucination off as nothing more than a thought. This passage adds depth to the story because Macbeth knows that killing the king is morally unjust, but decides to do it anyway after being pressured by his wife. The hallucinations also help develop Macbeth as a character. Ross speaks of Macbeth by saying, “Some say he’s insane. Those who know him call it brave anger. One thing certain, he’s out of control’ (63). Ross shows that Macbeth has become paranoid due to the hallucinations, showing character development as Macbeth was seen as a brave and fearless warrior prior to becoming king. However, after seeing the hallucinations he becomes paranoid that something bad is going to happen and prepares for war. Macbeth’s hallucinations are a symbol of guilt used by Shakespeare to add depth to the plot and show character development by showing how Macbeth’s personality changes.
Moving on, the change in settings reflect upon Macbeth’s personality. The settings shift from a light and bright space to a darker and more ominous space, which shows how the plot and characters are developed based on the setting. To start, the lighting is a symbol of good and evil. It is clear that before Macbeth became king he was in lighter settings, such as in the battle during the day. After Macbeth hires murderers to kill Banquo, he says, ‘The sky’s getting dark… [Macbeth] bad deeds force you to commit more bad deeds. So please, come with me’ (34). It is clear that he Macbeth’s character changes based on the setting of the novel; bright lighting was present before Macbeth became king, and darker lighting was present when Macbeth becomes corrupt. Moving on, the change in setting helps emphasize Macbeth’s transition to evil, which helps the plot become more interesting. Young Siward states that ‘the devil himself couldn’t say a name [he] hate[s] more’ (69). Macbeth’s change has been noticed by everyone. He is seen as a saviour and loved by everyone prior to becoming king but is hated after he becomes evil. Seeing Macbeth go from the most liked to the most hated helps give the story a better plot. Macbeth’s shift into darker settings also helps him develop as a character. Macbeth shows how evil affects his personality and morals when saying to a messenger, “If you’re lying I’ll hang you alive from a tree till you die of hunger” (68). Prior to becoming a tyrant, Macbeth was defending Scotland and protecting the people; his intentions were good. After Macbeth switched settings, Macbeth’s morals change and he begins to treat people differently. Macbeth kills the people he had once saved before. In conclusion, the slightest change in setting signifies the change from good to evil. As Macbeth becomes more evil he becomes more paranoid and insane.
Finally, Macbeth’s paranoia and insanity are the results of the hallucinations he experiences. They cause him to go insane. Macbeth’s paranoia and insanity add more meaning to the plot and also help Macbeth transform into an evil villain. Macbeth’s paranoia and insanity are caused by the hallucinations he witnesses. After becoming king, Macbeth hosts a feast at his castle. He sees Banquo’s ghost and tells him to ‘get out of here, you horrible ghost, your hallucinations get out!” (40).This causes everyone at the feast to believe he is insane, which makes him become isolated and, eventually, more insane and paranoid. Macbeth believes that people are plotting against him so he becomes more paranoid and scared. His paranoia and insanity are beneficial to the plot as it adds in a factor that made his actions unpredictable. For example, in the play Macbeth tells the murderers he hires to ‘kill both Banquo and his son Fleance’ (32). The reason Macbeth ordering the death of Banquo is unpredictable is because Banquo was his best friend. This makes the plot more mysterious and appealing. Finally, Macbeth’s paranoia and insanity helps shed light on Macbeth’s true feelings about certain subjects For instance, Macbeth asks the witches how he will die, to which they say, “No man born from a woman will ever defeat you” (63). This passage helps with character development because Macbeth’s paranoia makes him seek out the witches to ensure his fate as king. As Macbeth becomes more evil, he becomes more fearful and less confident, the complete opposite prior to him becoming king. Macbeth’s paranoia makes him seek the witches which ensure him that he won’t die from someone born of a woman. This shows character development because it raises his confidence and makes him less paranoid. Ultimately, Macbeth’s insanity and paranoia are some of the symbols that play a major role in Macbeth in terms of importance to the plot and character development.
In summary, William Shakespeare uses hallucinations, light and dark settings, and Macbeth’s insanity and paranoia as symbols for plot and character development. Symbols are used as a way for the author to implement more details without using more words; they have a deeper meaning that cannot be conveyed as efficiently through words. Symbols have been used in literature because they’re simple to use, but convey without excessive information they will only become more frequent and more complex.
- Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Macbeth.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2005. Web. 18 Dec. 2019.