Macbeth

by

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Imagery 4 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Act 1, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Act 1, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

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Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Act 1, scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Act 1, scene 6
Explanation and Analysis—Delicate Air:

In Act 1, Scene 6, Shakespeare employs olfactory imagery to describe Macbeth's castle at Inverness. Duncan and Banquo, oblivious to the fact that the castle will soon become the site of a violent murder, comment on the excellent quality of the air:

Duncan: This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have
    observed,
The air is delicate.

This passage is highly ironic, since the pleasant odor that Duncan and Banquo spend so much time discussing is later replaced by the stench of blood. In what may be a subtle instance of foreshadowing, their commentary contrasts sharply with Lady Macbeth's line in Act 5, Scene 1:

Lady Macbeth: Here’s the smell of the blood still. All
the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand.

It is also ironic that so many martlets have decided to build their nests in the walls of Macbeth's castle. Martlets, also called martins, are small birds in the swallow family that often roost in the walls of tall buildings or, as Banquo mentions, in church steeples. The presence of these church-dwelling birds, along with Banquo's use of the phrase "heaven's breath" gives the atmosphere of Inverness a holy quality. This sacred appearance is especially ironic given the fact that, in the previous scene, Lady Macbeth encouraged her husband to "Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it"—that is, to behave like the treacherous snake in the Garden of Eden.

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Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Explanation and Analysis—A Dagger of the Mind:

Macbeth's soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 1 demonstrates his feelings of guilt and self-loathing and foreshadows the madness that will consume him and Lady Macbeth in the aftermath of Duncan's murder.

This soliloquy includes various types of sensory imagery. Macbeth's senses become muddled, and he struggles to determine whether the dagger that he sees pointing the way to Duncan's chamber is real or illusory:

Macbeth: 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-oppressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.

This confusion of visual and tactile imagery echoes the Weird Sisters' claim in Act 1, Scene 1 that "Fair is foul and foul is fair." Although the dagger appears to be "fair" or real, the fact that Macbeth cannot touch it makes him suspicious that his guilt and anxiety about Duncan's murder are causing him to hallucinate:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And, on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

In addition to this uncertainty regarding the reliability of his senses, Macbeth also worries that the ground itself, having heard him entering Duncan's chamber, will be able to reveal his crime to the world:

Macbeth: Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabouts

Macbeth's paranoia regarding sound foreshadows the moment in Act 2, Scene 2, when he thinks he hears a voice say "Sleep no more!"

The soliloquy also contains several allusions to mythology and history, which help demonstrate how Macbeth views the act he is about to commit. Macbeth references Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of witchcraft, as well as the Roman prince Sextus Tarquinius:

Macbeth: Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s off’rings, and 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.

The reference to Hecate suggests that Macbeth views the murder of Duncan as an act that, like witchcraft, goes against the natural order of things. By mentioning Sextus Tarquinius, who famously raped a Roman noblewoman, Macbeth also suggests that the murder of Duncan is an act of defilement as morally repugnant as sexual assault.

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Act 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 3, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Act 4, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Delicate Air:

In Act 1, Scene 6, Shakespeare employs olfactory imagery to describe Macbeth's castle at Inverness. Duncan and Banquo, oblivious to the fact that the castle will soon become the site of a violent murder, comment on the excellent quality of the air:

Duncan: This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have
    observed,
The air is delicate.

This passage is highly ironic, since the pleasant odor that Duncan and Banquo spend so much time discussing is later replaced by the stench of blood. In what may be a subtle instance of foreshadowing, their commentary contrasts sharply with Lady Macbeth's line in Act 5, Scene 1:

Lady Macbeth: Here’s the smell of the blood still. All
the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand.

It is also ironic that so many martlets have decided to build their nests in the walls of Macbeth's castle. Martlets, also called martins, are small birds in the swallow family that often roost in the walls of tall buildings or, as Banquo mentions, in church steeples. The presence of these church-dwelling birds, along with Banquo's use of the phrase "heaven's breath" gives the atmosphere of Inverness a holy quality. This sacred appearance is especially ironic given the fact that, in the previous scene, Lady Macbeth encouraged her husband to "Look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it"—that is, to behave like the treacherous snake in the Garden of Eden.

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Explanation and Analysis—Muddled Senses:

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses a wide variety of sensory imagery, and there are numerous references to eyes, ears, tongues, and hands. But Macbeth focuses mainly on the idea that human senses can, obscured by "fog and filthy air," become unreliable. Throughout the play, senses variously become divorced from one another or are combined in strange ways, and a recurring motif is the inability of the senses to truly distinguish between reality and illusion.

The idea that a person cannot always trust their senses is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo questions whether the Weird Sisters are real or illusory:

Banquo: Are you fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly you show?

In Act 1, Scene 4, Macbeth hopes that his eye will not see what his hand does, since he is ashamed of the deeds he must commit if he wishes to become king:

Macbeth: The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth feels a similar sense of guilt, and in Act 1, Scene 5, she calls on night to conceal her activities to the point where she herself will be unable to perceive them:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes

In Act 1, Scene 6, Duncan and Banquo's olfactory senses prove to be unreliable. Both men comment on the sweet and delicate nature of the air surrounding Inverness, unaware that terrible events will soon occur there. Shakespeare uses tactile and gustatory imagery to describe the feeling and taste of the air:

Duncan: The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth's sees a vision of a bloody dagger. The image appears "palpable," but he cannot touch it, leading him to wonder whether his eyes or his hands are deceiving him:

Macbeth: Mine eyes are made the fools o’ th’ other senses
Or else worth all the rest.

In Act 2, Scene 2, after he murders Duncan, Macbeth begins to experience auditory hallucinations as well:

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep"

This time, Macbeth is less able to distinguish between reality and illusion, and he begins to focus obsessively on the voice, which he starts to regard as real.

By the time Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost in Act 3, Scene 4, he no longer has the wherewithal to question his senses, even though Lady Macbeth attempts to convince him that Banquo's ghost is merely a stress-induced illusion:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan.

Later, though, Lady Macbeth herself begins to suffer from visual and olfactory hallucinations. In Act 5, Scene 1, she not only sees blood staining her hands, but she also believes she can smell it:

Lady Macbeth: Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Even though Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's senses are unreliable, the visions they experience have palpable impacts on their physical and mental health.

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Act 5, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

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Act 5, scene 11
Explanation and Analysis—Seeds and Roots:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of seeds and roots to illustrate themes of kingship and lineage. Duncan's use of imagery in Act 1, Scene 4, for example, suggests that he views Scotland as a kind of vast garden, with himself as the caretaker: 

Duncan: I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.

Malcolm echoes his father's wording when he first addresses the Scottish lords as their king in Act 5, Scene 11:

Malcolm: What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time

While Duncan and Malcolm seek to cultivate loyal subjects and make their country flourish, Macbeth is characterized as an inadequate caretaker. In Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm laments that Scotland "sinks beneath the yoke," likening Macbeth to a plowman who overburdens his oxen. In Act 5, Scene 2, Lennox uses plant imagery to draw a sharp contrast between Malcolm and Macbeth's approaches to rule:

Lennox: Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

While Malcolm represents life and prosperity, Macbeth is a bothersome interloper who threatens to choke out the plants growing in the garden that is Scotland.

Shakespeare also associates seeds and roots with the theme of lineage. The play's first mention of seeds comes in Act 1, Scene 3, when Banquo speaks to the witches:

Banquo: If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not

The Weird Sisters respond by prophesying that Banquo's children will be kings, linking the image of growing grain to patrilineal inheritance. Banquo continues this motif in Act 3, Scene 1 by imagining himself as the "root and father" of a thriving family tree. Later in the same scene, Macbeth echoes this figurative language to express the jealousy he feels toward his friend. While Banquo has a son and is prophesied to become the ancestor of many kings, Macbeth has no children to carry on his name or his bloodline:

Macbeth: Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my grip,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.

Macbeth bitterly remarks that he has not committed the ultimate act treason for his own sake but to make "the seeds of Banquo kings." This comment, along with his preoccupation with his own "barren scepter," indicates that Macbeth feels threatened and also emasculated by Banquo's superior reproductive ability.

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