Macbeth

by

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Allusions 8 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Roman Mythology:

Macbeth was first performed in 1606, during the reign of a deeply Christian English king, and it takes place in the 11th century, long after Christianity became the primary faith of Scotland, but the play is still brimming with references to pagan religion. Although the original inhabitants of Scotland presumably followed Celtic paganism, people of Shakespeare's time were less familiar with the Celts than they were with Latin and Greek and culture, so most of the allusions in Macbeth are to Greek and Roman mythology.

In Act 1, Scene 2, characters make reference to multiple Roman goddesses: 

Captain: And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
Showed like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion, carved out his passage

In this passage, the captain asserts that Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fortune, aided Macdonwald's rebel forces as if she were his "whore." But Macbeth, who the captain characterizes as a champion of Nerio, the goddess of valor, was able to defy Fortuna and defeat Macdonwald.

Later in the same scene, Ross also insinuates that Macbeth has the power of the gods on his side:

Ross: Norway himself, with terrible numbers,
Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,
The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,
Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof,
Confronted him with self-comparisons

Bellona, the ancient Roman goddess of war, was sometimes associated with Nerio, who herself was viewed as the partner of the war god Mars in some cult practices. By describing Macbeth as "Bellona's bridegroom," Ross directly compares him to the mythological god of war.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth alludes to the Roman god of the sea and fears that even the power of a deity will not absolve him of his guilt:

Macbeth: Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff invokes the name of the mythical Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone:

Macduff: Approach the chamber and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.

The sight of Duncan's murder, Macduff implies, is ghastly enough to petrify onlookers.

At multiple points throughout the play, when Macbeth describes nightfall, he mentions Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of darkness and witchcraft. Hecate actually appears in Act 3, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in which she is depicted as the Weird Sisters' somewhat irritable mistress, but these are unlikely to have been authored by Shakespeare and were likely added later by the playwright Thomas Middleton.

During Hecate's monologue in Act 3, Scene 5, she orders the Weird Sisters to meet her "at the pit of Acheron." In Greek mythology, the river Acheron is depicted as the entrance to the underworld. This is not the play's only reference to the realm of Hades—in Act 5, Scene 10, Macduff alludes to Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guards the gates of the underworld, when he refers to Macbeth as a "hellhound."

Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Act 1, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Explanation and Analysis—Serpents:

Images of serpents appear several times throughout Macbeth. In some instances, this motif seems to represent the theme of treachery, but Shakespeare also uses it to symbolize the concept of lineage.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to play the part of the gracious host when Duncan arrives at Inverness:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t

In this passage, Lady Macbeth alludes to the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Macbeth, she argues, must behave in a similarly treacherous manner.

In act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth worries that Banquo will betray him and uses the image of the snake to symbolize danger and treachery:

Macbeth: We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
She'll close and be herself whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

Macbeth fears that, in killing Duncan, he has only removed one of many threats that jeopardize his status as king. As long as Banquo still lives, Macbeth has only injured the snake, not killed it outright, so he remains in danger of its venomous fangs.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth likens Banquo and his son Fleance to serpents :

Macbeth: There the grown serpent lies. The worm that's fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for th' present.

Macbeth's use of snake imagery in this passage is interesting because, in many cultures, snakes are considered a symbol of fertility. Macbeth's jealousy of Banquo stems from the fact that, while Banquo has fathered a son and is prophesied to be the ancestor of kings, Macbeth is apparently incapable of bearing children. By likening Banquo to a serpent, a phallic symbol representative of fertility, Macbeth demonstrates his envy of Banquo's masculine reproductive ability.

Snakes have also historically been associated with healing. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses used a staff topped with a copper serpent to heal those afflicted by snake bites, and the Greek physician Asclepius carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it, which has become a symbol of modern medicine. At numerous points throughout Macbeth, characters refer to a metaphorical disease that seems to be afflicting Scotland, with Macbeth as the source. It is fitting, then, that Banquo—whose descendants become the rightful kings of Scotland and "heal" the country of its turbulent past—is identified with serpents.

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Act 1, scene 7
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Explanation and Analysis—Literary Allusions:

Macbeth contains several literary allusions. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth makes a reference to the proverb of the cat that wished to eat fish but refused to wet its feet:

Lady Macbeth: Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

Lady Macbeth's reference is anachronistic, since the proverb, attributed to 16th-century English playwright John Heywood, would certainly not have been known to the population of medieval Scotland. This reference is also Macbeth's only allusion to a specific work of literature (other than its biblical allusions). Other literary allusions come in the form of general references to theater and the nature of storytelling.

In Act 2, Scene 4, for example, Ross compares the earth to a stage and life to an act of theatrical performance:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage.

In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth echoes Ross's words by portraying humans as "players" and the world as a stage:

Macbeth: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this passage, Shakespeare draws a parallel between the act of living and the act of reading. Time, like a word or a sentence, is composed of "syllables," and life, as Macbeth suggests in his usage of the alliterative phrase "petty pace," can be as repetitive and monotonous as language. Shakespeare even alludes to his own role as a playwright by depicting God as a storyteller narrating the "tale" of life.

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Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Historical Allusions:

Upper-class men of Shakespeare's time were often educated in Greek and Latin, and Macbeth contains several allusions to Roman history that this portion of his audience would have appreciated. In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth makes a reference to an event that catalyzed the creation of the Roman Republic:

Macbeth: [A]nd withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, also known as Tarquin the Proud, became king of Rome in 534 BCE after assassinating his predecessor, Servius Tullius. Like Macbeth, he did so at the urging of his wife and became known as a tyrannical monarch who often had his political opponents put to death.

In this passage, Macbeth is actually making a reference to Tarquin's son Sextus, who famously raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia in her own bed. By personifying murder as a man who walks "with Tarquin's ravishing strides," Macbeth suggests that the murder of Duncan, like the rape of Lucretia by Sextus, is an act of violation that scorns the rules of hospitality.

Macbeth's allusion to this event is also an instance of foreshadowing. Lucretia's rape and subsequent suicide so outraged the people of Rome that it led to the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman Republic. Like Tarquin, Macbeth is ultimately overthrown, and the ascension of Malcolm to the throne marks a change in the nature of Scottish rule characterized by a new alliance with England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Macbeth compares himself to the Roman general Mark Antony and Banquo to Julius Caesar:

Macbeth: There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked, as it is said
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.

After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Mark Antony butted heads with Caesar's adopted son Octavian. In 31 BCE, Octavian declared war against Antony's lover, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and declared Antony a traitor. After his forces were defeated in battle, Antony committed suicide, and Octavian became emperor of Rome.

This passage is also a self-reference to Antony and Cleopatra, another play by Shakespeare, in which a soothsayer predicts that Mark Antony's fortunes will be less than Julius Caesar's. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth predict, in quite similar fashion, that Banquo will be both lesser and greater than Macbeth.

Both these prophecies prove true. Although Julius Caesar is assassinated, his heir becomes the emperor of Rome, while Antony is disgraced. Despite the fact that Macbeth has him murdered, Banquo's descendants still become kings of Scotland, and Macbeth dies in ignominy.

In Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth seeks to distance himself from Antony and from other Roman generals who famously committed suicide:

Macbeth: Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword?

Cato the Younger was a Roman senator who killed himself rather than ask for a pardon from Caesar, and Marcus Junius Brutus, the Roman statesman who famously aided in Caesar's assassination of Caesar, took his own life after being defeated by Caesar's successor. His story parallels that of Macbeth, who kills Duncan but is later defeated by forces under the command of Duncan's son. Like Brutus, who decided to die by suicide rather than live under Octavian's rule, Macbeth refuses to serve Malcolm and instead chooses to die in battle, insisting that he won't "yield / to kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet."

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Explanation and Analysis—Murder:

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth personifies murder as an old man who moves stealthily at night, ultimately making an allusion to an infamous Roman rapist named Sextus Tarquinius:

Macbeth: [A]nd withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his
    design
Moves like a ghost.

By personifying murder, Macbeth is attempting to distance himself from the crime he is about to commit—if old man murder is also responsible for the death of Duncan, then Macbeth will not have to shoulder the blame alone.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff likens Duncan's body to a sacred temple and personifies murder as a thief:

Macduff: Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building.

This use of personification illustrates Macduff's utter shock and disbelief at what has just occurred. Duncan was such a well-loved and saintly individual that Macduff cannot imagine that any human individual could be capable of killing him. The act, therefore, must have been carried out by murder incarnate. By describing Duncan's body as a holy space, Macduff characterizes his murder as a crime against God that could only have been committed by a most sacrilegious individual.

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Act 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Roman Mythology:

Macbeth was first performed in 1606, during the reign of a deeply Christian English king, and it takes place in the 11th century, long after Christianity became the primary faith of Scotland, but the play is still brimming with references to pagan religion. Although the original inhabitants of Scotland presumably followed Celtic paganism, people of Shakespeare's time were less familiar with the Celts than they were with Latin and Greek and culture, so most of the allusions in Macbeth are to Greek and Roman mythology.

In Act 1, Scene 2, characters make reference to multiple Roman goddesses: 

Captain: And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
Showed like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion, carved out his passage

In this passage, the captain asserts that Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fortune, aided Macdonwald's rebel forces as if she were his "whore." But Macbeth, who the captain characterizes as a champion of Nerio, the goddess of valor, was able to defy Fortuna and defeat Macdonwald.

Later in the same scene, Ross also insinuates that Macbeth has the power of the gods on his side:

Ross: Norway himself, with terrible numbers,
Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,
The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,
Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof,
Confronted him with self-comparisons

Bellona, the ancient Roman goddess of war, was sometimes associated with Nerio, who herself was viewed as the partner of the war god Mars in some cult practices. By describing Macbeth as "Bellona's bridegroom," Ross directly compares him to the mythological god of war.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth alludes to the Roman god of the sea and fears that even the power of a deity will not absolve him of his guilt:

Macbeth: Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff invokes the name of the mythical Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone:

Macduff: Approach the chamber and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.

The sight of Duncan's murder, Macduff implies, is ghastly enough to petrify onlookers.

At multiple points throughout the play, when Macbeth describes nightfall, he mentions Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of darkness and witchcraft. Hecate actually appears in Act 3, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in which she is depicted as the Weird Sisters' somewhat irritable mistress, but these are unlikely to have been authored by Shakespeare and were likely added later by the playwright Thomas Middleton.

During Hecate's monologue in Act 3, Scene 5, she orders the Weird Sisters to meet her "at the pit of Acheron." In Greek mythology, the river Acheron is depicted as the entrance to the underworld. This is not the play's only reference to the realm of Hades—in Act 5, Scene 10, Macduff alludes to Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guards the gates of the underworld, when he refers to Macbeth as a "hellhound."

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Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Explanation and Analysis—Water:

Water is mentioned frequently in Macbeth, often in relation to blood, and it's used as a motif that represents the permanence of guilt.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth ponders whether an entire ocean would be capable of washing Duncan's blood off his hands: 

Macbeth: Will all great Neptune's ocean wash the blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

His belief that the blood on his hands could turn an entire ocean red emphasizes the immensity of the guilt he feels. What's more, references to hand-washing are possibly an allusion to Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands before ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. But while Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent and executed him due to public pressure, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in full command of their actions, which they know are morally wrong. And while Pilate's hand-washing was symbolic, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must physically scrub the blood from their hands. Lady Macbeth is initially confident that Duncan's blood, and therefore her guilt, can be easily washed away:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

This confidence proves to be ironic, since, in Act 5, Scene 1, she cannot erase the hallucinatory blood from her hands no matter how obsessively she washes them:

Lady Macbeth: What, will these hands ne'er be clean?

Although water is capable of washing away blood, then, it cannot do the same for guilt.

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Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Roman Mythology:

Macbeth was first performed in 1606, during the reign of a deeply Christian English king, and it takes place in the 11th century, long after Christianity became the primary faith of Scotland, but the play is still brimming with references to pagan religion. Although the original inhabitants of Scotland presumably followed Celtic paganism, people of Shakespeare's time were less familiar with the Celts than they were with Latin and Greek and culture, so most of the allusions in Macbeth are to Greek and Roman mythology.

In Act 1, Scene 2, characters make reference to multiple Roman goddesses: 

Captain: And Fortune, on his damnèd quarrel smiling,
Showed like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion, carved out his passage

In this passage, the captain asserts that Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and fortune, aided Macdonwald's rebel forces as if she were his "whore." But Macbeth, who the captain characterizes as a champion of Nerio, the goddess of valor, was able to defy Fortuna and defeat Macdonwald.

Later in the same scene, Ross also insinuates that Macbeth has the power of the gods on his side:

Ross: Norway himself, with terrible numbers,
Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,
The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict,
Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof,
Confronted him with self-comparisons

Bellona, the ancient Roman goddess of war, was sometimes associated with Nerio, who herself was viewed as the partner of the war god Mars in some cult practices. By describing Macbeth as "Bellona's bridegroom," Ross directly compares him to the mythological god of war.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth alludes to the Roman god of the sea and fears that even the power of a deity will not absolve him of his guilt:

Macbeth: Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?

And in Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff invokes the name of the mythical Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone:

Macduff: Approach the chamber and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.

The sight of Duncan's murder, Macduff implies, is ghastly enough to petrify onlookers.

At multiple points throughout the play, when Macbeth describes nightfall, he mentions Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of darkness and witchcraft. Hecate actually appears in Act 3, Scene 5 and Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth, in which she is depicted as the Weird Sisters' somewhat irritable mistress, but these are unlikely to have been authored by Shakespeare and were likely added later by the playwright Thomas Middleton.

During Hecate's monologue in Act 3, Scene 5, she orders the Weird Sisters to meet her "at the pit of Acheron." In Greek mythology, the river Acheron is depicted as the entrance to the underworld. This is not the play's only reference to the realm of Hades—in Act 5, Scene 10, Macduff alludes to Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guards the gates of the underworld, when he refers to Macbeth as a "hellhound."

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Explanation and Analysis—Political Allusions:

Shakespeare's Macbeth is set in 11th-century Scotland, but at several points throughout the play, characters make anachronistic references to 17th-century political events. In Act 2, Scene 3, the porter at Macbeth's castle gate envisions himself as the doorman at the entrance to hell and pretends to welcome the souls of the damned into the underworld:

Porter: Here's a farmer that hanged himself on th' expectation of plenty... Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake yet could not equivocate to heaven.

The characters the drunken porter invents might seem random, but they're actually an allusion to a 1605 assassination attempt against James I that came to be known as The Gunpowder Plot. A group of English Catholics, exasperated after decades of religious persecution from the Protestant monarchy, smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the House of Lords. They planned to detonate the explosives while James I was present for the State Opening of Parliament, but the plot was discovered, and many conspirators were subsequently tried and executed for treason.

One of the individuals executed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot was a Jesuit priest named Henry Garnet. Garnet had prior knowledge of the assassination plot, but since that information had been obtained during confession, religious law prohibited him from speaking out. After the plot failed, Garnet went into hiding, but he was eventually arrested, tried, and executed. During his trial, Garnet was criticized for his use of equivocation, a doctrine in moral theology that recognizes justice as more important than truth. Garnet was known by several aliases, one of which was "Farmer," so it is likely that both the farmer and the equivocator that the porter mentions are references to him.

Act 4, Scene 1 contains another allusion to 17th-century English politics. Macbeth asks the Weird Sisters whether Banquo's descendants will ever sit on the throne of Scotland, and in response, the witches show him a vision of eight kings:

Macbeth: And yet the eighth appears who bears a glass
Which shows me many more, and some I see
That twofold balls and treble scepters carry.

In 1527, Scottish historian Hector Boece published his History of the Scottish People, in which he claimed that a fictional Scottish nobleman named Banquo was the ancestor of House Stuart, the royal house that ascended to the Scottish throne in 1371. Shakespeare buys into this myth in Macbeth—the eight kings that Macbeth sees represent the eight Stuart monarchs who ruled Scotland between 1371 and 1567, starting with Robert II and ending with Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the mother of James I. The "twofold balls" are a reference to the Sovereign's Orb, which is given to a new monarch during their coronation. The fact that one of the kings is holding two of these orbs is a reference to the fact that James I was coronated twice—once in Scotland in 1567 and again in England in 1603. The "treble scepters" is a reference to the Sovereign's Scepter, another piece of coronation regalia. The presence of three scepters is an allusion to James I's status as king of three countries: England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Explanation and Analysis—Murder:

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth personifies murder as an old man who moves stealthily at night, ultimately making an allusion to an infamous Roman rapist named Sextus Tarquinius:

Macbeth: [A]nd withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his
    design
Moves like a ghost.

By personifying murder, Macbeth is attempting to distance himself from the crime he is about to commit—if old man murder is also responsible for the death of Duncan, then Macbeth will not have to shoulder the blame alone.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff likens Duncan's body to a sacred temple and personifies murder as a thief:

Macduff: Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building.

This use of personification illustrates Macduff's utter shock and disbelief at what has just occurred. Duncan was such a well-loved and saintly individual that Macduff cannot imagine that any human individual could be capable of killing him. The act, therefore, must have been carried out by murder incarnate. By describing Duncan's body as a holy space, Macduff characterizes his murder as a crime against God that could only have been committed by a most sacrilegious individual.

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Act 2, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Literary Allusions:

Macbeth contains several literary allusions. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth makes a reference to the proverb of the cat that wished to eat fish but refused to wet its feet:

Lady Macbeth: Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

Lady Macbeth's reference is anachronistic, since the proverb, attributed to 16th-century English playwright John Heywood, would certainly not have been known to the population of medieval Scotland. This reference is also Macbeth's only allusion to a specific work of literature (other than its biblical allusions). Other literary allusions come in the form of general references to theater and the nature of storytelling.

In Act 2, Scene 4, for example, Ross compares the earth to a stage and life to an act of theatrical performance:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage.

In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth echoes Ross's words by portraying humans as "players" and the world as a stage:

Macbeth: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this passage, Shakespeare draws a parallel between the act of living and the act of reading. Time, like a word or a sentence, is composed of "syllables," and life, as Macbeth suggests in his usage of the alliterative phrase "petty pace," can be as repetitive and monotonous as language. Shakespeare even alludes to his own role as a playwright by depicting God as a storyteller narrating the "tale" of life.

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Act 3, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Historical Allusions:

Upper-class men of Shakespeare's time were often educated in Greek and Latin, and Macbeth contains several allusions to Roman history that this portion of his audience would have appreciated. In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth makes a reference to an event that catalyzed the creation of the Roman Republic:

Macbeth: [A]nd withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, also known as Tarquin the Proud, became king of Rome in 534 BCE after assassinating his predecessor, Servius Tullius. Like Macbeth, he did so at the urging of his wife and became known as a tyrannical monarch who often had his political opponents put to death.

In this passage, Macbeth is actually making a reference to Tarquin's son Sextus, who famously raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia in her own bed. By personifying murder as a man who walks "with Tarquin's ravishing strides," Macbeth suggests that the murder of Duncan, like the rape of Lucretia by Sextus, is an act of violation that scorns the rules of hospitality.

Macbeth's allusion to this event is also an instance of foreshadowing. Lucretia's rape and subsequent suicide so outraged the people of Rome that it led to the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman Republic. Like Tarquin, Macbeth is ultimately overthrown, and the ascension of Malcolm to the throne marks a change in the nature of Scottish rule characterized by a new alliance with England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Macbeth compares himself to the Roman general Mark Antony and Banquo to Julius Caesar:

Macbeth: There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked, as it is said
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.

After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Mark Antony butted heads with Caesar's adopted son Octavian. In 31 BCE, Octavian declared war against Antony's lover, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and declared Antony a traitor. After his forces were defeated in battle, Antony committed suicide, and Octavian became emperor of Rome.

This passage is also a self-reference to Antony and Cleopatra, another play by Shakespeare, in which a soothsayer predicts that Mark Antony's fortunes will be less than Julius Caesar's. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth predict, in quite similar fashion, that Banquo will be both lesser and greater than Macbeth.

Both these prophecies prove true. Although Julius Caesar is assassinated, his heir becomes the emperor of Rome, while Antony is disgraced. Despite the fact that Macbeth has him murdered, Banquo's descendants still become kings of Scotland, and Macbeth dies in ignominy.

In Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth seeks to distance himself from Antony and from other Roman generals who famously committed suicide:

Macbeth: Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword?

Cato the Younger was a Roman senator who killed himself rather than ask for a pardon from Caesar, and Marcus Junius Brutus, the Roman statesman who famously aided in Caesar's assassination of Caesar, took his own life after being defeated by Caesar's successor. His story parallels that of Macbeth, who kills Duncan but is later defeated by forces under the command of Duncan's son. Like Brutus, who decided to die by suicide rather than live under Octavian's rule, Macbeth refuses to serve Malcolm and instead chooses to die in battle, insisting that he won't "yield / to kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet."

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Act 3, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Serpents:

Images of serpents appear several times throughout Macbeth. In some instances, this motif seems to represent the theme of treachery, but Shakespeare also uses it to symbolize the concept of lineage.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to play the part of the gracious host when Duncan arrives at Inverness:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t

In this passage, Lady Macbeth alludes to the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Macbeth, she argues, must behave in a similarly treacherous manner.

In act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth worries that Banquo will betray him and uses the image of the snake to symbolize danger and treachery:

Macbeth: We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
She'll close and be herself whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

Macbeth fears that, in killing Duncan, he has only removed one of many threats that jeopardize his status as king. As long as Banquo still lives, Macbeth has only injured the snake, not killed it outright, so he remains in danger of its venomous fangs.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth likens Banquo and his son Fleance to serpents :

Macbeth: There the grown serpent lies. The worm that's fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for th' present.

Macbeth's use of snake imagery in this passage is interesting because, in many cultures, snakes are considered a symbol of fertility. Macbeth's jealousy of Banquo stems from the fact that, while Banquo has fathered a son and is prophesied to be the ancestor of kings, Macbeth is apparently incapable of bearing children. By likening Banquo to a serpent, a phallic symbol representative of fertility, Macbeth demonstrates his envy of Banquo's masculine reproductive ability.

Snakes have also historically been associated with healing. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses used a staff topped with a copper serpent to heal those afflicted by snake bites, and the Greek physician Asclepius carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it, which has become a symbol of modern medicine. At numerous points throughout Macbeth, characters refer to a metaphorical disease that seems to be afflicting Scotland, with Macbeth as the source. It is fitting, then, that Banquo—whose descendants become the rightful kings of Scotland and "heal" the country of its turbulent past—is identified with serpents.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Serpents:

Images of serpents appear several times throughout Macbeth. In some instances, this motif seems to represent the theme of treachery, but Shakespeare also uses it to symbolize the concept of lineage.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages Macbeth to play the part of the gracious host when Duncan arrives at Inverness:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t

In this passage, Lady Macbeth alludes to the biblical serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Macbeth, she argues, must behave in a similarly treacherous manner.

In act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth worries that Banquo will betray him and uses the image of the snake to symbolize danger and treachery:

Macbeth: We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
She'll close and be herself whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

Macbeth fears that, in killing Duncan, he has only removed one of many threats that jeopardize his status as king. As long as Banquo still lives, Macbeth has only injured the snake, not killed it outright, so he remains in danger of its venomous fangs.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth likens Banquo and his son Fleance to serpents :

Macbeth: There the grown serpent lies. The worm that's fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed,
No teeth for th' present.

Macbeth's use of snake imagery in this passage is interesting because, in many cultures, snakes are considered a symbol of fertility. Macbeth's jealousy of Banquo stems from the fact that, while Banquo has fathered a son and is prophesied to be the ancestor of kings, Macbeth is apparently incapable of bearing children. By likening Banquo to a serpent, a phallic symbol representative of fertility, Macbeth demonstrates his envy of Banquo's masculine reproductive ability.

Snakes have also historically been associated with healing. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses used a staff topped with a copper serpent to heal those afflicted by snake bites, and the Greek physician Asclepius carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it, which has become a symbol of modern medicine. At numerous points throughout Macbeth, characters refer to a metaphorical disease that seems to be afflicting Scotland, with Macbeth as the source. It is fitting, then, that Banquo—whose descendants become the rightful kings of Scotland and "heal" the country of its turbulent past—is identified with serpents.

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Act 4, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Political Allusions:

Shakespeare's Macbeth is set in 11th-century Scotland, but at several points throughout the play, characters make anachronistic references to 17th-century political events. In Act 2, Scene 3, the porter at Macbeth's castle gate envisions himself as the doorman at the entrance to hell and pretends to welcome the souls of the damned into the underworld:

Porter: Here's a farmer that hanged himself on th' expectation of plenty... Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake yet could not equivocate to heaven.

The characters the drunken porter invents might seem random, but they're actually an allusion to a 1605 assassination attempt against James I that came to be known as The Gunpowder Plot. A group of English Catholics, exasperated after decades of religious persecution from the Protestant monarchy, smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the House of Lords. They planned to detonate the explosives while James I was present for the State Opening of Parliament, but the plot was discovered, and many conspirators were subsequently tried and executed for treason.

One of the individuals executed in connection with the Gunpowder Plot was a Jesuit priest named Henry Garnet. Garnet had prior knowledge of the assassination plot, but since that information had been obtained during confession, religious law prohibited him from speaking out. After the plot failed, Garnet went into hiding, but he was eventually arrested, tried, and executed. During his trial, Garnet was criticized for his use of equivocation, a doctrine in moral theology that recognizes justice as more important than truth. Garnet was known by several aliases, one of which was "Farmer," so it is likely that both the farmer and the equivocator that the porter mentions are references to him.

Act 4, Scene 1 contains another allusion to 17th-century English politics. Macbeth asks the Weird Sisters whether Banquo's descendants will ever sit on the throne of Scotland, and in response, the witches show him a vision of eight kings:

Macbeth: And yet the eighth appears who bears a glass
Which shows me many more, and some I see
That twofold balls and treble scepters carry.

In 1527, Scottish historian Hector Boece published his History of the Scottish People, in which he claimed that a fictional Scottish nobleman named Banquo was the ancestor of House Stuart, the royal house that ascended to the Scottish throne in 1371. Shakespeare buys into this myth in Macbeth—the eight kings that Macbeth sees represent the eight Stuart monarchs who ruled Scotland between 1371 and 1567, starting with Robert II and ending with Mary, Queen of Scots, who was the mother of James I. The "twofold balls" are a reference to the Sovereign's Orb, which is given to a new monarch during their coronation. The fact that one of the kings is holding two of these orbs is a reference to the fact that James I was coronated twice—once in Scotland in 1567 and again in England in 1603. The "treble scepters" is a reference to the Sovereign's Scepter, another piece of coronation regalia. The presence of three scepters is an allusion to James I's status as king of three countries: England, Scotland, and Ireland. 

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Act 4, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

King James I, who in 1603 became the primary patron of Shakespeare's theater company, is well known for commissioning a new translation of the Bible. Perhaps as a nod to his benefactor's interest in Christian theology, Shakespeare's Macbeth contains numerous biblical allusions.

Some lines in the play directly paraphrase passages in the Bible. "The near in blood, / The nearer bloody" alludes to Matthew 10.36: "And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household." Macduff's son's proclamation that he will live "As birds do" refers to Matthew 6.26: "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them." Even Macbeth's statement about "dusty death" is a reference to Genesis 3.19: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." 

Many allusions are to Christ, like this one in Act 1, Scene 2:

Captain: Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha

In the Bible, Golgotha was a location outside Jerusalem referred to as the "Place of a Skull," where Jesus was said to be crucified. By alluding to this site, the captain foreshadows the unholy and murderous acts that Macbeth will later commit.

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7 uses the imagery of angels to emphasize Duncan's holiness:

Macbeth: [H]is virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off

Lady Macbeth's line in Act 2, Scene 2 compares Duncan to Christ and herself to Pontius Pilate:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

Pilate was a Roman official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ultimately condemned him to crucifixion. The Bible has Pilate wash his hands before giving the order, symbolically absolving himself of guilt. Like Pilate, Lady Macbeth must wash her hands to remove evidence of the deed she has committed.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm draws a parallel between himself and the "Lamb of God," a title that the Bible gives to Jesus:

Malcolm: To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

While Duncan and Malcolm are both associated with Christ, Macbeth is identified with Satan. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to behave as treacherously as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tempted Eve and brought about the fall of humankind:

Lady Macbeth: Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

The gatekeeper of Macbeth's castle at Inverness imagines himself as the porter of hell, which would make "Beelzebub"—or Satan—his employer. Macbeth later laments that he has given his soul "to the common enemy of man," i.e. the devil.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm observes that, just as Macbeth was the most esteemed of Duncan's thanes, Satan was once the greatest of God's angels:

Malcolm: Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.

Malcolm calls Macbeth "Devilish," while Macduff refers to him as the "fiend of Scotland."

Macbeth also contains several references to the apocalypse, when, according to Christian doctrine, the dead will resurrect to face final judgement before God. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macduff emphasizes the horror of Duncan's murder by alluding to doomsday:

Macduff: Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm, Banquo,
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror.

All these biblical allusions, especially those that associate Malcolm with Christ and Macbeth with the devil, elevate Macbeth from an earthly tragedy to an epic battle between good and evil.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Water:

Water is mentioned frequently in Macbeth, often in relation to blood, and it's used as a motif that represents the permanence of guilt.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth ponders whether an entire ocean would be capable of washing Duncan's blood off his hands: 

Macbeth: Will all great Neptune's ocean wash the blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

His belief that the blood on his hands could turn an entire ocean red emphasizes the immensity of the guilt he feels. What's more, references to hand-washing are possibly an allusion to Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands before ordering the crucifixion of Jesus. But while Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent and executed him due to public pressure, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are in full command of their actions, which they know are morally wrong. And while Pilate's hand-washing was symbolic, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth must physically scrub the blood from their hands. Lady Macbeth is initially confident that Duncan's blood, and therefore her guilt, can be easily washed away:

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed.

This confidence proves to be ironic, since, in Act 5, Scene 1, she cannot erase the hallucinatory blood from her hands no matter how obsessively she washes them:

Lady Macbeth: What, will these hands ne'er be clean?

Although water is capable of washing away blood, then, it cannot do the same for guilt.

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Act 5, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Literary Allusions:

Macbeth contains several literary allusions. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth makes a reference to the proverb of the cat that wished to eat fish but refused to wet its feet:

Lady Macbeth: Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

Lady Macbeth's reference is anachronistic, since the proverb, attributed to 16th-century English playwright John Heywood, would certainly not have been known to the population of medieval Scotland. This reference is also Macbeth's only allusion to a specific work of literature (other than its biblical allusions). Other literary allusions come in the form of general references to theater and the nature of storytelling.

In Act 2, Scene 4, for example, Ross compares the earth to a stage and life to an act of theatrical performance:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage.

In Act 5, Scene 5, Macbeth echoes Ross's words by portraying humans as "players" and the world as a stage:

Macbeth: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this passage, Shakespeare draws a parallel between the act of living and the act of reading. Time, like a word or a sentence, is composed of "syllables," and life, as Macbeth suggests in his usage of the alliterative phrase "petty pace," can be as repetitive and monotonous as language. Shakespeare even alludes to his own role as a playwright by depicting God as a storyteller narrating the "tale" of life.

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Act 5, scene 10
Explanation and Analysis—Historical Allusions:

Upper-class men of Shakespeare's time were often educated in Greek and Latin, and Macbeth contains several allusions to Roman history that this portion of his audience would have appreciated. In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth makes a reference to an event that catalyzed the creation of the Roman Republic:

Macbeth: [A]nd withered murder,
Alarumed by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, also known as Tarquin the Proud, became king of Rome in 534 BCE after assassinating his predecessor, Servius Tullius. Like Macbeth, he did so at the urging of his wife and became known as a tyrannical monarch who often had his political opponents put to death.

In this passage, Macbeth is actually making a reference to Tarquin's son Sextus, who famously raped a Roman noblewoman named Lucretia in her own bed. By personifying murder as a man who walks "with Tarquin's ravishing strides," Macbeth suggests that the murder of Duncan, like the rape of Lucretia by Sextus, is an act of violation that scorns the rules of hospitality.

Macbeth's allusion to this event is also an instance of foreshadowing. Lucretia's rape and subsequent suicide so outraged the people of Rome that it led to the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman Republic. Like Tarquin, Macbeth is ultimately overthrown, and the ascension of Malcolm to the throne marks a change in the nature of Scottish rule characterized by a new alliance with England.

In Act 3, Scene 1, Macbeth compares himself to the Roman general Mark Antony and Banquo to Julius Caesar:

Macbeth: There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked, as it is said
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.

After Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, Mark Antony butted heads with Caesar's adopted son Octavian. In 31 BCE, Octavian declared war against Antony's lover, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and declared Antony a traitor. After his forces were defeated in battle, Antony committed suicide, and Octavian became emperor of Rome.

This passage is also a self-reference to Antony and Cleopatra, another play by Shakespeare, in which a soothsayer predicts that Mark Antony's fortunes will be less than Julius Caesar's. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth predict, in quite similar fashion, that Banquo will be both lesser and greater than Macbeth.

Both these prophecies prove true. Although Julius Caesar is assassinated, his heir becomes the emperor of Rome, while Antony is disgraced. Despite the fact that Macbeth has him murdered, Banquo's descendants still become kings of Scotland, and Macbeth dies in ignominy.

In Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth seeks to distance himself from Antony and from other Roman generals who famously committed suicide:

Macbeth: Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword?

Cato the Younger was a Roman senator who killed himself rather than ask for a pardon from Caesar, and Marcus Junius Brutus, the Roman statesman who famously aided in Caesar's assassination of Caesar, took his own life after being defeated by Caesar's successor. His story parallels that of Macbeth, who kills Duncan but is later defeated by forces under the command of Duncan's son. Like Brutus, who decided to die by suicide rather than live under Octavian's rule, Macbeth refuses to serve Malcolm and instead chooses to die in battle, insisting that he won't "yield / to kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet."

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