Macbeth

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Visions and Hallucinations Symbol Analysis

Visions and Hallucinations Symbol Icon
A number of times in Macbeth, Macbeth sees or hears strange things: the floating dagger, the voice that says he's murdering sleep, and Banquo's ghost. As Macbeth himself wonders about the dagger, are these sights and sounds supernatural visions or figments of his guilty imagination? The play contains no definitive answer, which is itself a kind of answer: they're both. Macbeth is a man at war with himself, his innate honor battling his ambition. Just as nature goes haywire when the normal natural order is ruptured, Macbeth's own mind does the same when it is forced to fight against itself.

Visions and Hallucinations Quotes in Macbeth

The Macbeth quotes below all refer to the symbol of Visions and Hallucinations. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Ambition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Macbeth published in 2003.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Related Characters: Weird Sisters (speaker)
Related Symbols: Visions and Hallucinations
Page Number: 1.1.12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

In the play’s opening scene, three witches gather in a storm and discuss their upcoming meeting with Macbeth. Together they chant these lines about the moral uncertainty and decay in Scotland.

That “fair is foul” means that what seems genuine is in fact evil, while “foul is fair” inversely means that what appears negative is actually positive. Thus the witches point out the fickle quality of appearances—a recurring theme throughout the tragedy—contending that foul and fair things can easily be mistaken for each other. This line is an example of the rhetorical device chiasmus: when elements of a text are arranged in the form ABBA. Here, “A” is “fair” and “B” is “foul.” Chiasmus can have many different meanings depending on the circumstance, but here it gives a rhythmic quality to the text and points out a paradox between two terms.

The image of “fog and filthy air” similarly foreshadows how the senses will be muddled in the text, preventing characters from accurately perceiving what would be fair or foul. More generally, this image showcases how symbols and ethics will become mixed up in the tragedy. As supernatural creatures, the witches themselves seem decrepit and “foul” at times—but their prophecies are also accurate, which would make them “fair.” Thus these lines do not only make a distinction between false appearance and honest reality, but rather question the very ability to determine the moral goodness of any such reality.

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Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee;
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Related Characters: Macbeth (speaker)
Related Symbols: Visions and Hallucinations
Page Number: 2.1.44-53
Explanation and Analysis:

After discussing the witches with Banquo, Macbeth is left alone to contemplate his impending murder. He then sees a dagger in the air and wonders to what extent it is real or hallucinated.

A primarily psychological analysis would see in these lines the first signs of Macbeth’s insanity. His inability to distinguish between a physical and imaginary dagger does not prevent him from hoping to “clutch” either one. When he can't clutch it, he notes that it is impossible to “have” the vision and yet that he can still “see” it, and is confused why his sense of touch and vision seem to inexplicably not accord. Characteristically, Macbeth remains acutely aware of the conditions of his sanity, observing that his “heat-oppressed brain” may be responsible for creating the illusion. Yet after noting how his mind may be addled, he once more reiterates the “palpable” quality of the dagger, comparing it to his own physical sword.

Beyond introducing the idea that Macbeth may be acting out of madness, this passage develops the theme of appearance versus reality. Macbeth may be fixating on a false vision, but the vision actually reveals to him a truth—for it is a portent of the murder to come. In a sense, then, the “foul” vision is actually “fair” in that it is an accurate representation of reality. And when Macbeth does “draw” his own sword, he implies that even a hallucination may have a causal effect on his own actions. Shakespeare thus presents false visions not as figments of the imagination but as capable of inducing changes to reality itself.

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Visions and Hallucinations Symbol Timeline in Macbeth

The timeline below shows where the symbol Visions and Hallucinations appears in Macbeth. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 2, scene 1
Ambition Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
Alone, Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air. He can't grasp it, and can't decide whether it's a phantom... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
Fate Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
...seat at the table. When Lennox gestures at a seat, saying it's empty, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost sitting there. Macbeth alone can see the ghost. He astonishes the thanes by shouting at... (full context)
Nature and the Unnatural Theme Icon
The ghost reappears and Macbeth, terrified, starts shouting at it. Lady Macbeth tries to play down her husband's... (full context)