Macbeth

by

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Motifs 13 key examples

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Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Act 1, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Sleep(lessness):

In Act 1, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters discuss their plan to curse a sailor with sleeplessness:

First Witch: Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid.

He shall live a man forbid.

Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine,

Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

This passage foreshadows the fact that, over the course of the play, numerous characters will have their sleep disturbed. The images of sleep and sleeplessness appear multiple times throughout Macbeth, and this motif is used to represent the themes of guilt and the unnatural.

Shakespeare associates sleep with mental and physical vulnerability. In Act 2, Scene 1, Banquo's body yearns for sleep, but his encounter with the witches has made it difficult for him to rest. Although he is able to suppress his ambition while he is awake, he worries that treacherous thoughts will enter his mind while he sleeps: 

Banquo: A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose.

Sleep may make a person's mind susceptible to corruption, but it also makes their body vulnerable to violence. Duncan's guards fail to protect their master and are easily framed for his murder because Lady Macbeth has drugged them into unconsciousness, and Duncan is unable to fight back or raise an alarm because Macbeth kills him while he is sleeping.

Sleeping, then, always carries with it the possibility of danger. In Act 2, Scene 3, after he has discovered the dead Duncan, Macduff even refers to sleep as "death's counterfeit."

But although sleep is associated with vulnerability, it also represents peace and healing. In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies sleep as a caretaker that alleviates both mental and physical ailments. He worries that, by murdering Duncan, he has cursed himself to never again reap those benefits: 

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Lady Macbeth refers to sleep as "the season of all natures," characterizing it as something that, despite the vulnerability it requires, is necessary if one wishes to be a healthy, functioning individual. But the unnatural acts that she and her husband have committed make it impossible to sleep. Macbeth suffers from "terrible dreams," Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nightly, and the Scottish thanes find it difficult to rest. In Act 3, Scene 6, a Scottish lord expresses hope that a successful English invasion will once more allow the people of Scotland to sleep peacefully:

Lord: [W]e may again

Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,

Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,

Do faithful homage, and receive free honors,

All which we pine for now.

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—Prophecies:

Macbeth is a play that explores the nature of free will and fate, so it should come as no surprise that prophecies appear frequently in the text. Although the play leaves it ambiguous as to whether these prophecies merely predict the future or actually shape it, they always foreshadow what is to come.

The motif of prophecy is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when the Weird Sister's refer to Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and tell him that he shall become king.

Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

Macbeth, of course, does eventually become king, but it is unclear whether this event was actually fated to occur. Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor without any action on his part, but he needs to kill Duncan in order to become king, suggesting that him hearing the prophecy has changed the course of events.

Banquo is skeptical of the witches' prophecies and warns Macbeth not to take them too literally:

Banquo: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s
In deepest consequence.

This warning foreshadows a moment later in the play, when Macbeth fails to notice the ambiguity of the Weird Sisters' other prophecies.

In Act 4, Scene 1, and apparition summoned by the witches foreshadows the fact that Macduff will be the one to kill Macbeth:

First Apparition: Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!
Beware the Thane of Fife!

Another apparition foreshadows that fact that Macduff, who was born via caesarean section, will be able to kill Macbeth:

Second Apparition: Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Macbeth erroneously believes that this prophecy means he is invincible, when it actually foreshadows the fact that Macduff was not born of woman. Otherwise, why would Macbeth have cause to beware the Thane of Fife?

A third apparition foreshadows the fact that the English army will use branches Birnam Wood to conceal their numbers:

Third Apparition: Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

Ignoring Banquo's earlier warning, Macbeth believes that the events described in the prophecy are impossible. He interprets the prophecy literally and fails to consider that it may have a figurative meaning.

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Explanation and Analysis—(Un)natural Happenings:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of the unnatural to emphasize the connection between politics and the environment.

Shakespeare first introduces this motif in Act 1, Scene 3, in which he establishes the Weird Sisters as supernatural beings. After encountering the witches, Banquo and Macbeth remark that the states of matter seem to have become confused, with earth behaving like water and solid appearing to convert to gas:

Banquo: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Macbeth: Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted,
As breath into the wind. 

The witches' unnatural characteristics foreshadow the events that occur in the wake of their prophecy. When Macbeth murders Duncan, who is both his kinsman and his monarch, as well a guest in his home, he violates multiple social and political customs. His act is unnatural in numerous senses of the word, and nature itself, as Lennox describes in Act 2, Scene 3, reacts accordingly:

Lennox: The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of
    death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Following Duncan's murder, there is a total eclipse of the sun, a mousing owl kills a falcon, and Duncan's horses turn wild and devour each other. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross and an old man discuss how these strange events seem to mirror the unnatural nature of Duncan's murder:

Old Man: ’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done.

There are two ways to interpret these bizarre events. On one hand, there is some textual evidence to suggest that the Weird Sisters have placed some type of curse on Macbeth and on Scotland as a whole. Early in the play, the witches plot to summon winds to harass a ship captain, establishing that they are able to influence the weather, and Macbeth states in Act 4, Scene 1 that he believes them to be capable of other acts of chaos and destruction:

Macbeth: Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down

This explanation aligns with the play's historical context. When storms threatened his ship during a voyage from Denmark to Scotland, James I became convinced that witches were responsible and subsequently helped oversee the brutal North Berwick witch trials. James I was so concerned with the threat of witchcraft that, in 1597, he published a comprehensive dissertation on black magic titled Daemonologie. Several rituals and incantations that Shakespeare attributes to the Weird Sisters are drawn directly from this book.

Another explanation is that these unnatural events are a kind of divine retribution. James I was a strong believer in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch's right to rule is derived from divine authority. In his 1598 treatise The True Law of Free Monarchies, James I defended this doctrine, arguing that kings, having been appointed by God, are not subject to mortal laws. Macbeth, who becomes king through treachery and murder rather than divine appointment, is illegitimate, and it's possible that God is making his displeasure known by throwing nature into chaos.

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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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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 4
Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

The motif of light and dark appears frequently throughout Macbeth, reinforcing the play's grim mood and highlighting themes of guilt, religion, and the supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 4, for instance, Macbeth resolves to hide his treacherous ambitions. He associates these desires with darkness and characterizes light as a supernatural "seeing" force that threatens to scrutinize his thoughts and intentions:

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth personifies light as an enemy force that can uncover and even prevent evil acts and commands night to conceal her deeds:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

The word "heaven" suggests that Lady Macbeth's sentiments are somehow religious, and the overall implication of this passage is that, without the cover of darkness, she would be unable to carry out Duncan's murder. If God or heaven were to observe the act, guilt would overwhelm her and stay her hand. She therefore requires darkness to hide her actions from God and from herself.

Lady Macbeth's wish is fulfilled in Act 2, Scene 1, when Banquo comments on the lack of starlight:

Banquo: There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out.

The unusual darkness of the night foreshadows Duncan's murder, which is followed by an extended solar eclipse. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross reasons that the lack of sun is a sign that God is displeased with the unnatural act that has taken place. He personifies both night and day, characterizing night as a strangler and musing that day may be hiding because it is ashamed of mankind:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?

The association between God and guilt is reflective of the religious environment of 17th-century England. The Church of England had split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VII, but it retained several aspects of Catholic doctrine, including the belief in original sin, which holds that humans have an inherently sinful nature for which they must strive to atone. Martin Luther, who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, equated original sin with desire.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies night as a falconer sewing up the eyes of day:

Macbeth: Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on night as if it were some kind of mystical patron, and they often do so while summoning or entreating other supernatural forces like spirits and witches. While light has holy connotations, darkness is associated with magic and the unnatural. When Macbeth calls on night to sew up the eyes of day, he symbolically aligns himself with the forces of darkness and against God.

When Macbeth was first performed, the official religion of England regarded desire as evidence of humankind's inherent guilt and maintained that repentance and acceptance of God was the key to absolution. Macbeth—a protagonist who conceals his guilt, submits to his basest desires, and rejects God—would have seemed especially chilling to an audience of this era.

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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—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

The motif of light and dark appears frequently throughout Macbeth, reinforcing the play's grim mood and highlighting themes of guilt, religion, and the supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 4, for instance, Macbeth resolves to hide his treacherous ambitions. He associates these desires with darkness and characterizes light as a supernatural "seeing" force that threatens to scrutinize his thoughts and intentions:

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth personifies light as an enemy force that can uncover and even prevent evil acts and commands night to conceal her deeds:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

The word "heaven" suggests that Lady Macbeth's sentiments are somehow religious, and the overall implication of this passage is that, without the cover of darkness, she would be unable to carry out Duncan's murder. If God or heaven were to observe the act, guilt would overwhelm her and stay her hand. She therefore requires darkness to hide her actions from God and from herself.

Lady Macbeth's wish is fulfilled in Act 2, Scene 1, when Banquo comments on the lack of starlight:

Banquo: There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out.

The unusual darkness of the night foreshadows Duncan's murder, which is followed by an extended solar eclipse. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross reasons that the lack of sun is a sign that God is displeased with the unnatural act that has taken place. He personifies both night and day, characterizing night as a strangler and musing that day may be hiding because it is ashamed of mankind:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?

The association between God and guilt is reflective of the religious environment of 17th-century England. The Church of England had split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VII, but it retained several aspects of Catholic doctrine, including the belief in original sin, which holds that humans have an inherently sinful nature for which they must strive to atone. Martin Luther, who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, equated original sin with desire.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies night as a falconer sewing up the eyes of day:

Macbeth: Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on night as if it were some kind of mystical patron, and they often do so while summoning or entreating other supernatural forces like spirits and witches. While light has holy connotations, darkness is associated with magic and the unnatural. When Macbeth calls on night to sew up the eyes of day, he symbolically aligns himself with the forces of darkness and against God.

When Macbeth was first performed, the official religion of England regarded desire as evidence of humankind's inherent guilt and maintained that repentance and acceptance of God was the key to absolution. Macbeth—a protagonist who conceals his guilt, submits to his basest desires, and rejects God—would have seemed especially chilling to an audience of this era.

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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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Explanation and Analysis—Milk and Blood:

In Macbeth, milk and blood are both motifs that combine to represent the upholding and sundering of kinship bonds. At one point, Malcolm refers to the "sweet milk of concord," and when milk is mentioned, it is often associated with motherhood and used to symbolize compassion, family, and unity. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth will be unable to commit an act as ruthless as murder because he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," metaphorically linking milk to feelings of care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth again refers to milk when she calls on supernatural forces to purge her of her femininity:

Lady Macbeth: Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall

In other words, Lady Macbeth wishes to trade her feminine and nurturing qualities for something more destructive. In Act 1, Scene 7, she shows just how far she is willing to go:

Lady Macbeth: I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, [...]

Although Lady Macbeth is aware of how fulfilling motherhood can be, she claims that she is willing to kill her own child for the sake of ambition.

While milk is associated with the bond between mother and child, blood is used to represent kinship bonds between men. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macbeth uses a metaphor to refer to Duncan's and his sons' bloodline as a "fountain" that has been "stopped":

Macbeth: The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped; the very source of it is stopped.

Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Macduff's children, who should have continued their father's bloodline, so this metaphor underscores the idea of interruption—by killing Macduff's children, he has stopped the flow of Duncan's bloodline. As a result, in Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth considers himself to be metaphorically stained with Macduff's blood:

Macbeth: My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Since Macbeth has no children of his own, blood from his perspective comes to represent violence rather than kinship bonds. In Act 4, Scene 1, he refers to acts of violence as his "firstborn," since he has no heirs to carry on his bloodline:

Macbeth: From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.

By transforming blood from a symbol of kinship to a symbol of mere violence, Shakespeare seems to be commenting that, by purging himself of his feminine "milk of human kindness," Macbeth has also lost his masculine generative force.

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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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Explanation and Analysis—False Appearances:

When the Weird Sisters speak their famous line—"Fair is foul and foul is fair"—in Act 1, Scene 1, they introduce the idea that not everything in Scotland is as it seems. This motif of false and deceptive appearances persists throughout Macbeth, and the tension between how things appear and how they really are means that the play is often deeply ironic.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Duncan laments the fact that one cannot divine a person's intentions just by looking at them:

Duncan: There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.

The Thane of Cawdor appeared to be an honorable and loyal thane, but this appearance disguised a traitorous nature.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth for his expression, which betrays his thoughts, and counsels him to play the part of the gracious host:

Lady Macbeth: Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

Just as the "pleasant seat" of Inverness conceals the devious machinations of its mistress, Macbeth's welcoming behavior disguises his murderous intentions.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth further instructs her husband to make a spectacle of his grief following Duncan's murder so that no one will suspect that he is responsible:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

Macbeth responds with a play on the word "false," which can be synonymous with "dishonest" in the sense of a fake or artificial appearance or in the sense of a treacherous heart: 

Macbeth: Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth
    know.

In Act 2, Scene 3, following the discovery of Duncan's murder, Malcolm correctly observes that one or more of the thanes may be faking his grief:

Malcolm: To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy

In response, Donalbain expresses concern that he and his brother are no longer safe in Scotland, noting that the pretense of loyalty can hide treacherous intentions:

Donalbain: Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Later on in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle to conceal their guilt and paranoia. In Act 3, Scene 2, they encourage each other to put on a show for the visiting thanes:

Lady Macbeth: Sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial
Among your guests tonight.

Macbeth: So shall I, love,
And so I pray be you. Let your remembrance
Apply to Banquo; present him eminence
Both with eye and tongue: unsafe the while that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

By the end of the play, all these false appearances have fallen apart. Just as the Thane of Cawdor's treachery eventually came to light, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's crimes are revealed, and they are punished for their duplicity.

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Act 1, scene 6
Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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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 7
Explanation and Analysis—Milk and Blood:

In Macbeth, milk and blood are both motifs that combine to represent the upholding and sundering of kinship bonds. At one point, Malcolm refers to the "sweet milk of concord," and when milk is mentioned, it is often associated with motherhood and used to symbolize compassion, family, and unity. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth will be unable to commit an act as ruthless as murder because he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," metaphorically linking milk to feelings of care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth again refers to milk when she calls on supernatural forces to purge her of her femininity:

Lady Macbeth: Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall

In other words, Lady Macbeth wishes to trade her feminine and nurturing qualities for something more destructive. In Act 1, Scene 7, she shows just how far she is willing to go:

Lady Macbeth: I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, [...]

Although Lady Macbeth is aware of how fulfilling motherhood can be, she claims that she is willing to kill her own child for the sake of ambition.

While milk is associated with the bond between mother and child, blood is used to represent kinship bonds between men. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macbeth uses a metaphor to refer to Duncan's and his sons' bloodline as a "fountain" that has been "stopped":

Macbeth: The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped; the very source of it is stopped.

Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Macduff's children, who should have continued their father's bloodline, so this metaphor underscores the idea of interruption—by killing Macduff's children, he has stopped the flow of Duncan's bloodline. As a result, in Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth considers himself to be metaphorically stained with Macduff's blood:

Macbeth: My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Since Macbeth has no children of his own, blood from his perspective comes to represent violence rather than kinship bonds. In Act 4, Scene 1, he refers to acts of violence as his "firstborn," since he has no heirs to carry on his bloodline:

Macbeth: From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.

By transforming blood from a symbol of kinship to a symbol of mere violence, Shakespeare seems to be commenting that, by purging himself of his feminine "milk of human kindness," Macbeth has also lost his masculine generative force.

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Explanation and Analysis—Disease and Medicine:

Macbeth is filled with references to both physical and psychological illness. The motif of disease often represents the inner turmoil of characters warped by ambition, while the motif of medicine is associated with political order.

Throughout Macbeth, drunkenness is a common source of illness. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth criticizes Macbeth's reluctance to murder Duncan by comparing him to a drunkard who, upon waking up with a hangover, regrets the actions of the night before:

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth hallucinates the image of a bloody dagger and wonders if his inability to accurately perceive reality is the result of some kind of mental disturbance:

Macbeth: Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Following Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth attributes Macbeth's auditory hallucinations to mental distress and chastises him for being "brainsickly," and Macbeth later explains his reaction to seeing Banquo's ghost by claiming to have a "strange infirmity." As the doctor in Act 5, Scene 1 observes, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's ambition have driven them to the point of psychological illness:

Doctor: Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the doctor explains to Macbeth that, while earthly medicine can cure physical ailments, it cannot treat emotional disturbances:

Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient Must minister to himself.

Although medicine may not be able to cure Lady Macbeth's psychological illness, it may be able to treat the metaphorical disease that afflicts Scotland. Macbeth personifies Scotland as a person suffering from illness and asks the doctor to diagnose the ailment and devise an antidote:

Macbeth: If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.—Pull ’t off, I say.—
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

While Macbeth perceives the English invasion as the source of Scotland's troubles, other characters view Macbeth himself as the disease. Malcolm invades Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, who in Act 4, Scene 3 is revealed to have supernatural healing powers, implying that his rule, unlike Macbeth's, is divinely sanctioned. Regardless of who or what is considered to be plaguing Scotland, though, the play clearly leans heavily on the motif of disease to metaphorically illustrate the ways in which the country is suffering.

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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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Explanation and Analysis—False Appearances:

When the Weird Sisters speak their famous line—"Fair is foul and foul is fair"—in Act 1, Scene 1, they introduce the idea that not everything in Scotland is as it seems. This motif of false and deceptive appearances persists throughout Macbeth, and the tension between how things appear and how they really are means that the play is often deeply ironic.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Duncan laments the fact that one cannot divine a person's intentions just by looking at them:

Duncan: There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.

The Thane of Cawdor appeared to be an honorable and loyal thane, but this appearance disguised a traitorous nature.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth for his expression, which betrays his thoughts, and counsels him to play the part of the gracious host:

Lady Macbeth: Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

Just as the "pleasant seat" of Inverness conceals the devious machinations of its mistress, Macbeth's welcoming behavior disguises his murderous intentions.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth further instructs her husband to make a spectacle of his grief following Duncan's murder so that no one will suspect that he is responsible:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

Macbeth responds with a play on the word "false," which can be synonymous with "dishonest" in the sense of a fake or artificial appearance or in the sense of a treacherous heart: 

Macbeth: Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth
    know.

In Act 2, Scene 3, following the discovery of Duncan's murder, Malcolm correctly observes that one or more of the thanes may be faking his grief:

Malcolm: To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy

In response, Donalbain expresses concern that he and his brother are no longer safe in Scotland, noting that the pretense of loyalty can hide treacherous intentions:

Donalbain: Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Later on in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle to conceal their guilt and paranoia. In Act 3, Scene 2, they encourage each other to put on a show for the visiting thanes:

Lady Macbeth: Sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial
Among your guests tonight.

Macbeth: So shall I, love,
And so I pray be you. Let your remembrance
Apply to Banquo; present him eminence
Both with eye and tongue: unsafe the while that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

By the end of the play, all these false appearances have fallen apart. Just as the Thane of Cawdor's treachery eventually came to light, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's crimes are revealed, and they are punished for their duplicity.

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Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Sleep(lessness):

In Act 1, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters discuss their plan to curse a sailor with sleeplessness:

First Witch: Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid.

He shall live a man forbid.

Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine,

Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

This passage foreshadows the fact that, over the course of the play, numerous characters will have their sleep disturbed. The images of sleep and sleeplessness appear multiple times throughout Macbeth, and this motif is used to represent the themes of guilt and the unnatural.

Shakespeare associates sleep with mental and physical vulnerability. In Act 2, Scene 1, Banquo's body yearns for sleep, but his encounter with the witches has made it difficult for him to rest. Although he is able to suppress his ambition while he is awake, he worries that treacherous thoughts will enter his mind while he sleeps: 

Banquo: A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose.

Sleep may make a person's mind susceptible to corruption, but it also makes their body vulnerable to violence. Duncan's guards fail to protect their master and are easily framed for his murder because Lady Macbeth has drugged them into unconsciousness, and Duncan is unable to fight back or raise an alarm because Macbeth kills him while he is sleeping.

Sleeping, then, always carries with it the possibility of danger. In Act 2, Scene 3, after he has discovered the dead Duncan, Macduff even refers to sleep as "death's counterfeit."

But although sleep is associated with vulnerability, it also represents peace and healing. In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies sleep as a caretaker that alleviates both mental and physical ailments. He worries that, by murdering Duncan, he has cursed himself to never again reap those benefits: 

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Lady Macbeth refers to sleep as "the season of all natures," characterizing it as something that, despite the vulnerability it requires, is necessary if one wishes to be a healthy, functioning individual. But the unnatural acts that she and her husband have committed make it impossible to sleep. Macbeth suffers from "terrible dreams," Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nightly, and the Scottish thanes find it difficult to rest. In Act 3, Scene 6, a Scottish lord expresses hope that a successful English invasion will once more allow the people of Scotland to sleep peacefully:

Lord: [W]e may again

Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,

Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,

Do faithful homage, and receive free honors,

All which we pine for now.

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Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

The motif of light and dark appears frequently throughout Macbeth, reinforcing the play's grim mood and highlighting themes of guilt, religion, and the supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 4, for instance, Macbeth resolves to hide his treacherous ambitions. He associates these desires with darkness and characterizes light as a supernatural "seeing" force that threatens to scrutinize his thoughts and intentions:

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth personifies light as an enemy force that can uncover and even prevent evil acts and commands night to conceal her deeds:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

The word "heaven" suggests that Lady Macbeth's sentiments are somehow religious, and the overall implication of this passage is that, without the cover of darkness, she would be unable to carry out Duncan's murder. If God or heaven were to observe the act, guilt would overwhelm her and stay her hand. She therefore requires darkness to hide her actions from God and from herself.

Lady Macbeth's wish is fulfilled in Act 2, Scene 1, when Banquo comments on the lack of starlight:

Banquo: There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out.

The unusual darkness of the night foreshadows Duncan's murder, which is followed by an extended solar eclipse. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross reasons that the lack of sun is a sign that God is displeased with the unnatural act that has taken place. He personifies both night and day, characterizing night as a strangler and musing that day may be hiding because it is ashamed of mankind:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?

The association between God and guilt is reflective of the religious environment of 17th-century England. The Church of England had split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VII, but it retained several aspects of Catholic doctrine, including the belief in original sin, which holds that humans have an inherently sinful nature for which they must strive to atone. Martin Luther, who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, equated original sin with desire.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies night as a falconer sewing up the eyes of day:

Macbeth: Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on night as if it were some kind of mystical patron, and they often do so while summoning or entreating other supernatural forces like spirits and witches. While light has holy connotations, darkness is associated with magic and the unnatural. When Macbeth calls on night to sew up the eyes of day, he symbolically aligns himself with the forces of darkness and against God.

When Macbeth was first performed, the official religion of England regarded desire as evidence of humankind's inherent guilt and maintained that repentance and acceptance of God was the key to absolution. Macbeth—a protagonist who conceals his guilt, submits to his basest desires, and rejects God—would have seemed especially chilling to an audience of this era.

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Explanation and Analysis—Disease and Medicine:

Macbeth is filled with references to both physical and psychological illness. The motif of disease often represents the inner turmoil of characters warped by ambition, while the motif of medicine is associated with political order.

Throughout Macbeth, drunkenness is a common source of illness. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth criticizes Macbeth's reluctance to murder Duncan by comparing him to a drunkard who, upon waking up with a hangover, regrets the actions of the night before:

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth hallucinates the image of a bloody dagger and wonders if his inability to accurately perceive reality is the result of some kind of mental disturbance:

Macbeth: Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Following Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth attributes Macbeth's auditory hallucinations to mental distress and chastises him for being "brainsickly," and Macbeth later explains his reaction to seeing Banquo's ghost by claiming to have a "strange infirmity." As the doctor in Act 5, Scene 1 observes, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's ambition have driven them to the point of psychological illness:

Doctor: Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the doctor explains to Macbeth that, while earthly medicine can cure physical ailments, it cannot treat emotional disturbances:

Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient Must minister to himself.

Although medicine may not be able to cure Lady Macbeth's psychological illness, it may be able to treat the metaphorical disease that afflicts Scotland. Macbeth personifies Scotland as a person suffering from illness and asks the doctor to diagnose the ailment and devise an antidote:

Macbeth: If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.—Pull ’t off, I say.—
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

While Macbeth perceives the English invasion as the source of Scotland's troubles, other characters view Macbeth himself as the disease. Malcolm invades Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, who in Act 4, Scene 3 is revealed to have supernatural healing powers, implying that his rule, unlike Macbeth's, is divinely sanctioned. Regardless of who or what is considered to be plaguing Scotland, though, the play clearly leans heavily on the motif of disease to metaphorically illustrate the ways in which the country is suffering.

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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 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Sleep(lessness):

In Act 1, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters discuss their plan to curse a sailor with sleeplessness:

First Witch: Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid.

He shall live a man forbid.

Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine,

Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

This passage foreshadows the fact that, over the course of the play, numerous characters will have their sleep disturbed. The images of sleep and sleeplessness appear multiple times throughout Macbeth, and this motif is used to represent the themes of guilt and the unnatural.

Shakespeare associates sleep with mental and physical vulnerability. In Act 2, Scene 1, Banquo's body yearns for sleep, but his encounter with the witches has made it difficult for him to rest. Although he is able to suppress his ambition while he is awake, he worries that treacherous thoughts will enter his mind while he sleeps: 

Banquo: A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose.

Sleep may make a person's mind susceptible to corruption, but it also makes their body vulnerable to violence. Duncan's guards fail to protect their master and are easily framed for his murder because Lady Macbeth has drugged them into unconsciousness, and Duncan is unable to fight back or raise an alarm because Macbeth kills him while he is sleeping.

Sleeping, then, always carries with it the possibility of danger. In Act 2, Scene 3, after he has discovered the dead Duncan, Macduff even refers to sleep as "death's counterfeit."

But although sleep is associated with vulnerability, it also represents peace and healing. In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies sleep as a caretaker that alleviates both mental and physical ailments. He worries that, by murdering Duncan, he has cursed himself to never again reap those benefits: 

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Lady Macbeth refers to sleep as "the season of all natures," characterizing it as something that, despite the vulnerability it requires, is necessary if one wishes to be a healthy, functioning individual. But the unnatural acts that she and her husband have committed make it impossible to sleep. Macbeth suffers from "terrible dreams," Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nightly, and the Scottish thanes find it difficult to rest. In Act 3, Scene 6, a Scottish lord expresses hope that a successful English invasion will once more allow the people of Scotland to sleep peacefully:

Lord: [W]e may again

Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,

Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,

Do faithful homage, and receive free honors,

All which we pine for now.

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Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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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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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 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Milk and Blood:

In Macbeth, milk and blood are both motifs that combine to represent the upholding and sundering of kinship bonds. At one point, Malcolm refers to the "sweet milk of concord," and when milk is mentioned, it is often associated with motherhood and used to symbolize compassion, family, and unity. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth will be unable to commit an act as ruthless as murder because he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," metaphorically linking milk to feelings of care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth again refers to milk when she calls on supernatural forces to purge her of her femininity:

Lady Macbeth: Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall

In other words, Lady Macbeth wishes to trade her feminine and nurturing qualities for something more destructive. In Act 1, Scene 7, she shows just how far she is willing to go:

Lady Macbeth: I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, [...]

Although Lady Macbeth is aware of how fulfilling motherhood can be, she claims that she is willing to kill her own child for the sake of ambition.

While milk is associated with the bond between mother and child, blood is used to represent kinship bonds between men. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macbeth uses a metaphor to refer to Duncan's and his sons' bloodline as a "fountain" that has been "stopped":

Macbeth: The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped; the very source of it is stopped.

Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Macduff's children, who should have continued their father's bloodline, so this metaphor underscores the idea of interruption—by killing Macduff's children, he has stopped the flow of Duncan's bloodline. As a result, in Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth considers himself to be metaphorically stained with Macduff's blood:

Macbeth: My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Since Macbeth has no children of his own, blood from his perspective comes to represent violence rather than kinship bonds. In Act 4, Scene 1, he refers to acts of violence as his "firstborn," since he has no heirs to carry on his bloodline:

Macbeth: From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.

By transforming blood from a symbol of kinship to a symbol of mere violence, Shakespeare seems to be commenting that, by purging himself of his feminine "milk of human kindness," Macbeth has also lost his masculine generative force.

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Explanation and Analysis—(Un)natural Happenings:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of the unnatural to emphasize the connection between politics and the environment.

Shakespeare first introduces this motif in Act 1, Scene 3, in which he establishes the Weird Sisters as supernatural beings. After encountering the witches, Banquo and Macbeth remark that the states of matter seem to have become confused, with earth behaving like water and solid appearing to convert to gas:

Banquo: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Macbeth: Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted,
As breath into the wind. 

The witches' unnatural characteristics foreshadow the events that occur in the wake of their prophecy. When Macbeth murders Duncan, who is both his kinsman and his monarch, as well a guest in his home, he violates multiple social and political customs. His act is unnatural in numerous senses of the word, and nature itself, as Lennox describes in Act 2, Scene 3, reacts accordingly:

Lennox: The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of
    death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Following Duncan's murder, there is a total eclipse of the sun, a mousing owl kills a falcon, and Duncan's horses turn wild and devour each other. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross and an old man discuss how these strange events seem to mirror the unnatural nature of Duncan's murder:

Old Man: ’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done.

There are two ways to interpret these bizarre events. On one hand, there is some textual evidence to suggest that the Weird Sisters have placed some type of curse on Macbeth and on Scotland as a whole. Early in the play, the witches plot to summon winds to harass a ship captain, establishing that they are able to influence the weather, and Macbeth states in Act 4, Scene 1 that he believes them to be capable of other acts of chaos and destruction:

Macbeth: Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down

This explanation aligns with the play's historical context. When storms threatened his ship during a voyage from Denmark to Scotland, James I became convinced that witches were responsible and subsequently helped oversee the brutal North Berwick witch trials. James I was so concerned with the threat of witchcraft that, in 1597, he published a comprehensive dissertation on black magic titled Daemonologie. Several rituals and incantations that Shakespeare attributes to the Weird Sisters are drawn directly from this book.

Another explanation is that these unnatural events are a kind of divine retribution. James I was a strong believer in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch's right to rule is derived from divine authority. In his 1598 treatise The True Law of Free Monarchies, James I defended this doctrine, arguing that kings, having been appointed by God, are not subject to mortal laws. Macbeth, who becomes king through treachery and murder rather than divine appointment, is illegitimate, and it's possible that God is making his displeasure known by throwing nature into chaos.

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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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Explanation and Analysis—False Appearances:

When the Weird Sisters speak their famous line—"Fair is foul and foul is fair"—in Act 1, Scene 1, they introduce the idea that not everything in Scotland is as it seems. This motif of false and deceptive appearances persists throughout Macbeth, and the tension between how things appear and how they really are means that the play is often deeply ironic.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Duncan laments the fact that one cannot divine a person's intentions just by looking at them:

Duncan: There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.

The Thane of Cawdor appeared to be an honorable and loyal thane, but this appearance disguised a traitorous nature.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth for his expression, which betrays his thoughts, and counsels him to play the part of the gracious host:

Lady Macbeth: Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

Just as the "pleasant seat" of Inverness conceals the devious machinations of its mistress, Macbeth's welcoming behavior disguises his murderous intentions.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth further instructs her husband to make a spectacle of his grief following Duncan's murder so that no one will suspect that he is responsible:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

Macbeth responds with a play on the word "false," which can be synonymous with "dishonest" in the sense of a fake or artificial appearance or in the sense of a treacherous heart: 

Macbeth: Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth
    know.

In Act 2, Scene 3, following the discovery of Duncan's murder, Malcolm correctly observes that one or more of the thanes may be faking his grief:

Malcolm: To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy

In response, Donalbain expresses concern that he and his brother are no longer safe in Scotland, noting that the pretense of loyalty can hide treacherous intentions:

Donalbain: Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Later on in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle to conceal their guilt and paranoia. In Act 3, Scene 2, they encourage each other to put on a show for the visiting thanes:

Lady Macbeth: Sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial
Among your guests tonight.

Macbeth: So shall I, love,
And so I pray be you. Let your remembrance
Apply to Banquo; present him eminence
Both with eye and tongue: unsafe the while that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

By the end of the play, all these false appearances have fallen apart. Just as the Thane of Cawdor's treachery eventually came to light, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's crimes are revealed, and they are punished for their duplicity.

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Act 2, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

The motif of light and dark appears frequently throughout Macbeth, reinforcing the play's grim mood and highlighting themes of guilt, religion, and the supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 4, for instance, Macbeth resolves to hide his treacherous ambitions. He associates these desires with darkness and characterizes light as a supernatural "seeing" force that threatens to scrutinize his thoughts and intentions:

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth personifies light as an enemy force that can uncover and even prevent evil acts and commands night to conceal her deeds:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

The word "heaven" suggests that Lady Macbeth's sentiments are somehow religious, and the overall implication of this passage is that, without the cover of darkness, she would be unable to carry out Duncan's murder. If God or heaven were to observe the act, guilt would overwhelm her and stay her hand. She therefore requires darkness to hide her actions from God and from herself.

Lady Macbeth's wish is fulfilled in Act 2, Scene 1, when Banquo comments on the lack of starlight:

Banquo: There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out.

The unusual darkness of the night foreshadows Duncan's murder, which is followed by an extended solar eclipse. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross reasons that the lack of sun is a sign that God is displeased with the unnatural act that has taken place. He personifies both night and day, characterizing night as a strangler and musing that day may be hiding because it is ashamed of mankind:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?

The association between God and guilt is reflective of the religious environment of 17th-century England. The Church of England had split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VII, but it retained several aspects of Catholic doctrine, including the belief in original sin, which holds that humans have an inherently sinful nature for which they must strive to atone. Martin Luther, who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, equated original sin with desire.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies night as a falconer sewing up the eyes of day:

Macbeth: Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on night as if it were some kind of mystical patron, and they often do so while summoning or entreating other supernatural forces like spirits and witches. While light has holy connotations, darkness is associated with magic and the unnatural. When Macbeth calls on night to sew up the eyes of day, he symbolically aligns himself with the forces of darkness and against God.

When Macbeth was first performed, the official religion of England regarded desire as evidence of humankind's inherent guilt and maintained that repentance and acceptance of God was the key to absolution. Macbeth—a protagonist who conceals his guilt, submits to his basest desires, and rejects God—would have seemed especially chilling to an audience of this era.

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Explanation and Analysis—(Un)natural Happenings:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of the unnatural to emphasize the connection between politics and the environment.

Shakespeare first introduces this motif in Act 1, Scene 3, in which he establishes the Weird Sisters as supernatural beings. After encountering the witches, Banquo and Macbeth remark that the states of matter seem to have become confused, with earth behaving like water and solid appearing to convert to gas:

Banquo: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Macbeth: Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted,
As breath into the wind. 

The witches' unnatural characteristics foreshadow the events that occur in the wake of their prophecy. When Macbeth murders Duncan, who is both his kinsman and his monarch, as well a guest in his home, he violates multiple social and political customs. His act is unnatural in numerous senses of the word, and nature itself, as Lennox describes in Act 2, Scene 3, reacts accordingly:

Lennox: The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of
    death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Following Duncan's murder, there is a total eclipse of the sun, a mousing owl kills a falcon, and Duncan's horses turn wild and devour each other. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross and an old man discuss how these strange events seem to mirror the unnatural nature of Duncan's murder:

Old Man: ’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done.

There are two ways to interpret these bizarre events. On one hand, there is some textual evidence to suggest that the Weird Sisters have placed some type of curse on Macbeth and on Scotland as a whole. Early in the play, the witches plot to summon winds to harass a ship captain, establishing that they are able to influence the weather, and Macbeth states in Act 4, Scene 1 that he believes them to be capable of other acts of chaos and destruction:

Macbeth: Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down

This explanation aligns with the play's historical context. When storms threatened his ship during a voyage from Denmark to Scotland, James I became convinced that witches were responsible and subsequently helped oversee the brutal North Berwick witch trials. James I was so concerned with the threat of witchcraft that, in 1597, he published a comprehensive dissertation on black magic titled Daemonologie. Several rituals and incantations that Shakespeare attributes to the Weird Sisters are drawn directly from this book.

Another explanation is that these unnatural events are a kind of divine retribution. James I was a strong believer in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch's right to rule is derived from divine authority. In his 1598 treatise The True Law of Free Monarchies, James I defended this doctrine, arguing that kings, having been appointed by God, are not subject to mortal laws. Macbeth, who becomes king through treachery and murder rather than divine appointment, is illegitimate, and it's possible that God is making his displeasure known by throwing nature into chaos.

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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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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 2
Explanation and Analysis—Light and Dark:

The motif of light and dark appears frequently throughout Macbeth, reinforcing the play's grim mood and highlighting themes of guilt, religion, and the supernatural. In Act 1, Scene 4, for instance, Macbeth resolves to hide his treacherous ambitions. He associates these desires with darkness and characterizes light as a supernatural "seeing" force that threatens to scrutinize his thoughts and intentions:

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth personifies light as an enemy force that can uncover and even prevent evil acts and commands night to conceal her deeds:

Lady Macbeth: Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

The word "heaven" suggests that Lady Macbeth's sentiments are somehow religious, and the overall implication of this passage is that, without the cover of darkness, she would be unable to carry out Duncan's murder. If God or heaven were to observe the act, guilt would overwhelm her and stay her hand. She therefore requires darkness to hide her actions from God and from herself.

Lady Macbeth's wish is fulfilled in Act 2, Scene 1, when Banquo comments on the lack of starlight:

Banquo: There’s husbandry in heaven;
Their candles are all out.

The unusual darkness of the night foreshadows Duncan's murder, which is followed by an extended solar eclipse. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross reasons that the lack of sun is a sign that God is displeased with the unnatural act that has taken place. He personifies both night and day, characterizing night as a strangler and musing that day may be hiding because it is ashamed of mankind:

Ross: Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp.
Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?

The association between God and guilt is reflective of the religious environment of 17th-century England. The Church of England had split from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VII, but it retained several aspects of Catholic doctrine, including the belief in original sin, which holds that humans have an inherently sinful nature for which they must strive to atone. Martin Luther, who was a driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, equated original sin with desire.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies night as a falconer sewing up the eyes of day:

Macbeth: Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day

Throughout the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call on night as if it were some kind of mystical patron, and they often do so while summoning or entreating other supernatural forces like spirits and witches. While light has holy connotations, darkness is associated with magic and the unnatural. When Macbeth calls on night to sew up the eyes of day, he symbolically aligns himself with the forces of darkness and against God.

When Macbeth was first performed, the official religion of England regarded desire as evidence of humankind's inherent guilt and maintained that repentance and acceptance of God was the key to absolution. Macbeth—a protagonist who conceals his guilt, submits to his basest desires, and rejects God—would have seemed especially chilling to an audience of this era.

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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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Explanation and Analysis—False Appearances:

When the Weird Sisters speak their famous line—"Fair is foul and foul is fair"—in Act 1, Scene 1, they introduce the idea that not everything in Scotland is as it seems. This motif of false and deceptive appearances persists throughout Macbeth, and the tension between how things appear and how they really are means that the play is often deeply ironic.

In Act 2, Scene 4, Duncan laments the fact that one cannot divine a person's intentions just by looking at them:

Duncan: There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.

The Thane of Cawdor appeared to be an honorable and loyal thane, but this appearance disguised a traitorous nature.

In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth for his expression, which betrays his thoughts, and counsels him to play the part of the gracious host:

Lady Macbeth: Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent
    flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.

Just as the "pleasant seat" of Inverness conceals the devious machinations of its mistress, Macbeth's welcoming behavior disguises his murderous intentions.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth further instructs her husband to make a spectacle of his grief following Duncan's murder so that no one will suspect that he is responsible:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

Macbeth responds with a play on the word "false," which can be synonymous with "dishonest" in the sense of a fake or artificial appearance or in the sense of a treacherous heart: 

Macbeth: Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth
    know.

In Act 2, Scene 3, following the discovery of Duncan's murder, Malcolm correctly observes that one or more of the thanes may be faking his grief:

Malcolm: To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy

In response, Donalbain expresses concern that he and his brother are no longer safe in Scotland, noting that the pretense of loyalty can hide treacherous intentions:

Donalbain: Where we are,
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.

Later on in the play, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle to conceal their guilt and paranoia. In Act 3, Scene 2, they encourage each other to put on a show for the visiting thanes:

Lady Macbeth: Sleek o’er your rugged looks. Be bright and jovial
Among your guests tonight.

Macbeth: So shall I, love,
And so I pray be you. Let your remembrance
Apply to Banquo; present him eminence
Both with eye and tongue: unsafe the while that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams
And make our faces vizards to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

By the end of the play, all these false appearances have fallen apart. Just as the Thane of Cawdor's treachery eventually came to light, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's crimes are revealed, and they are punished for their duplicity.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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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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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 3, scene 6
Explanation and Analysis—Sleep(lessness):

In Act 1, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters discuss their plan to curse a sailor with sleeplessness:

First Witch: Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his penthouse lid.

He shall live a man forbid.

Weary sev’nnights, nine times nine,

Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

This passage foreshadows the fact that, over the course of the play, numerous characters will have their sleep disturbed. The images of sleep and sleeplessness appear multiple times throughout Macbeth, and this motif is used to represent the themes of guilt and the unnatural.

Shakespeare associates sleep with mental and physical vulnerability. In Act 2, Scene 1, Banquo's body yearns for sleep, but his encounter with the witches has made it difficult for him to rest. Although he is able to suppress his ambition while he is awake, he worries that treacherous thoughts will enter his mind while he sleeps: 

Banquo: A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursèd thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose.

Sleep may make a person's mind susceptible to corruption, but it also makes their body vulnerable to violence. Duncan's guards fail to protect their master and are easily framed for his murder because Lady Macbeth has drugged them into unconsciousness, and Duncan is unable to fight back or raise an alarm because Macbeth kills him while he is sleeping.

Sleeping, then, always carries with it the possibility of danger. In Act 2, Scene 3, after he has discovered the dead Duncan, Macduff even refers to sleep as "death's counterfeit."

But although sleep is associated with vulnerability, it also represents peace and healing. In Act 2, Scene 2, Macbeth personifies sleep as a caretaker that alleviates both mental and physical ailments. He worries that, by murdering Duncan, he has cursed himself to never again reap those benefits: 

Macbeth: Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep"—the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Lady Macbeth refers to sleep as "the season of all natures," characterizing it as something that, despite the vulnerability it requires, is necessary if one wishes to be a healthy, functioning individual. But the unnatural acts that she and her husband have committed make it impossible to sleep. Macbeth suffers from "terrible dreams," Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nightly, and the Scottish thanes find it difficult to rest. In Act 3, Scene 6, a Scottish lord expresses hope that a successful English invasion will once more allow the people of Scotland to sleep peacefully:

Lord: [W]e may again

Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,

Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,

Do faithful homage, and receive free honors,

All which we pine for now.

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Act 4, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Milk and Blood:

In Macbeth, milk and blood are both motifs that combine to represent the upholding and sundering of kinship bonds. At one point, Malcolm refers to the "sweet milk of concord," and when milk is mentioned, it is often associated with motherhood and used to symbolize compassion, family, and unity. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth will be unable to commit an act as ruthless as murder because he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," metaphorically linking milk to feelings of care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth again refers to milk when she calls on supernatural forces to purge her of her femininity:

Lady Macbeth: Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall

In other words, Lady Macbeth wishes to trade her feminine and nurturing qualities for something more destructive. In Act 1, Scene 7, she shows just how far she is willing to go:

Lady Macbeth: I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, [...]

Although Lady Macbeth is aware of how fulfilling motherhood can be, she claims that she is willing to kill her own child for the sake of ambition.

While milk is associated with the bond between mother and child, blood is used to represent kinship bonds between men. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macbeth uses a metaphor to refer to Duncan's and his sons' bloodline as a "fountain" that has been "stopped":

Macbeth: The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped; the very source of it is stopped.

Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Macduff's children, who should have continued their father's bloodline, so this metaphor underscores the idea of interruption—by killing Macduff's children, he has stopped the flow of Duncan's bloodline. As a result, in Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth considers himself to be metaphorically stained with Macduff's blood:

Macbeth: My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Since Macbeth has no children of his own, blood from his perspective comes to represent violence rather than kinship bonds. In Act 4, Scene 1, he refers to acts of violence as his "firstborn," since he has no heirs to carry on his bloodline:

Macbeth: From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.

By transforming blood from a symbol of kinship to a symbol of mere violence, Shakespeare seems to be commenting that, by purging himself of his feminine "milk of human kindness," Macbeth has also lost his masculine generative force.

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Explanation and Analysis—Prophecies:

Macbeth is a play that explores the nature of free will and fate, so it should come as no surprise that prophecies appear frequently in the text. Although the play leaves it ambiguous as to whether these prophecies merely predict the future or actually shape it, they always foreshadow what is to come.

The motif of prophecy is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, when the Weird Sister's refer to Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and tell him that he shall become king.

Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!

Macbeth, of course, does eventually become king, but it is unclear whether this event was actually fated to occur. Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor without any action on his part, but he needs to kill Duncan in order to become king, suggesting that him hearing the prophecy has changed the course of events.

Banquo is skeptical of the witches' prophecies and warns Macbeth not to take them too literally:

Banquo: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s
In deepest consequence.

This warning foreshadows a moment later in the play, when Macbeth fails to notice the ambiguity of the Weird Sisters' other prophecies.

In Act 4, Scene 1, and apparition summoned by the witches foreshadows the fact that Macduff will be the one to kill Macbeth:

First Apparition: Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!
Beware the Thane of Fife!

Another apparition foreshadows that fact that Macduff, who was born via caesarean section, will be able to kill Macbeth:

Second Apparition: Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Macbeth erroneously believes that this prophecy means he is invincible, when it actually foreshadows the fact that Macduff was not born of woman. Otherwise, why would Macbeth have cause to beware the Thane of Fife?

A third apparition foreshadows the fact that the English army will use branches Birnam Wood to conceal their numbers:

Third Apparition: Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.

Ignoring Banquo's earlier warning, Macbeth believes that the events described in the prophecy are impossible. He interprets the prophecy literally and fails to consider that it may have a figurative meaning.

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Explanation and Analysis—(Un)natural Happenings:

Throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of the unnatural to emphasize the connection between politics and the environment.

Shakespeare first introduces this motif in Act 1, Scene 3, in which he establishes the Weird Sisters as supernatural beings. After encountering the witches, Banquo and Macbeth remark that the states of matter seem to have become confused, with earth behaving like water and solid appearing to convert to gas:

Banquo: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Macbeth: Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted,
As breath into the wind. 

The witches' unnatural characteristics foreshadow the events that occur in the wake of their prophecy. When Macbeth murders Duncan, who is both his kinsman and his monarch, as well a guest in his home, he violates multiple social and political customs. His act is unnatural in numerous senses of the word, and nature itself, as Lennox describes in Act 2, Scene 3, reacts accordingly:

Lennox: The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of
    death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamored the livelong night. Some say the Earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Following Duncan's murder, there is a total eclipse of the sun, a mousing owl kills a falcon, and Duncan's horses turn wild and devour each other. In Act 2, Scene 4, Ross and an old man discuss how these strange events seem to mirror the unnatural nature of Duncan's murder:

Old Man: ’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done.

There are two ways to interpret these bizarre events. On one hand, there is some textual evidence to suggest that the Weird Sisters have placed some type of curse on Macbeth and on Scotland as a whole. Early in the play, the witches plot to summon winds to harass a ship captain, establishing that they are able to influence the weather, and Macbeth states in Act 4, Scene 1 that he believes them to be capable of other acts of chaos and destruction:

Macbeth: Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down

This explanation aligns with the play's historical context. When storms threatened his ship during a voyage from Denmark to Scotland, James I became convinced that witches were responsible and subsequently helped oversee the brutal North Berwick witch trials. James I was so concerned with the threat of witchcraft that, in 1597, he published a comprehensive dissertation on black magic titled Daemonologie. Several rituals and incantations that Shakespeare attributes to the Weird Sisters are drawn directly from this book.

Another explanation is that these unnatural events are a kind of divine retribution. James I was a strong believer in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch's right to rule is derived from divine authority. In his 1598 treatise The True Law of Free Monarchies, James I defended this doctrine, arguing that kings, having been appointed by God, are not subject to mortal laws. Macbeth, who becomes king through treachery and murder rather than divine appointment, is illegitimate, and it's possible that God is making his displeasure known by throwing nature into chaos.

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Act 4, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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Act 4, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Birds:

Birds are mentioned multiple times throughout Macbeth and serve several different purposes. The presence of different types of birds is often used to set the mood of a scene, characters are compared to birds to emphasize certain character traits, and birds function as a motif to represent the theme of the unnatural.

In Act 1, Scene 6, the presence of martlets at Macbeth's Inverness castle create a welcoming and mildly sacred atmosphere, which proves deceptive later when awful deeds are carried out within the castle walls:

Banquo: This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here.

Despite the previously welcoming atmosphere created by the mention of birds, Duncan is murdered in Act 2, Scene 2, and the hooting of owls creates an ominous and gloomy atmosphere. 

Lady Macbeth: It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives stern'st good-night.

At multiple points throughout the play, birds are metaphorically used to highlight different aspects of a character's personality. While male characters are often compared to birds of prey, women are characterized as domestic birds. When Lady Macbeth asks her husband about his plans to kill Banquo, he dismisses her questions while referring to her as "dearest chuck," a variant of the word "chick." This term of endearment comes off as patronizing—despite the ruthlessness that she demonstrated earlier in the play, Macbeth still regards his wife as a dainty, domesticated bird who has no business interfering with the affairs of larger creatures.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff compares Macbeth to a predatory bird and his wife and children to chickens in order to emphasize Macbeth's cruelty:

Macduff: O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
In one fell swoop?

Throughout Macbeth, birds are also used as a symbol of magic and divination. In Act 1, Scene 5, the cry of a raven presages the death of Duncan:

Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

And in Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth worries that someone will uncover his crime by divining it in the flight pattern of birds:

Macbeth: Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought
    forth
The secret'st man of blood.

Birds are also more generally used to contrast the natural with the unnatural. In Act 2, Scene 4, the unnatural nature of Duncan's death at the hands of Macbeth is reflected in the behavior of local birds:

Old Man: 'Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that's done. On Tuesday last
A falcon, tow'ring in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And in Act 4, Scene 2, Lady Macduff uses a bird metaphor to criticize her husband:

Lady Macduff: He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch; for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

Macduff's act of abandonment, she argues, is unnatural, since even nature's smallest bird will fight an owl in order to protect its children.

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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—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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Explanation and Analysis—Disease and Medicine:

Macbeth is filled with references to both physical and psychological illness. The motif of disease often represents the inner turmoil of characters warped by ambition, while the motif of medicine is associated with political order.

Throughout Macbeth, drunkenness is a common source of illness. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth criticizes Macbeth's reluctance to murder Duncan by comparing him to a drunkard who, upon waking up with a hangover, regrets the actions of the night before:

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth hallucinates the image of a bloody dagger and wonders if his inability to accurately perceive reality is the result of some kind of mental disturbance:

Macbeth: Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Following Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth attributes Macbeth's auditory hallucinations to mental distress and chastises him for being "brainsickly," and Macbeth later explains his reaction to seeing Banquo's ghost by claiming to have a "strange infirmity." As the doctor in Act 5, Scene 1 observes, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's ambition have driven them to the point of psychological illness:

Doctor: Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the doctor explains to Macbeth that, while earthly medicine can cure physical ailments, it cannot treat emotional disturbances:

Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient Must minister to himself.

Although medicine may not be able to cure Lady Macbeth's psychological illness, it may be able to treat the metaphorical disease that afflicts Scotland. Macbeth personifies Scotland as a person suffering from illness and asks the doctor to diagnose the ailment and devise an antidote:

Macbeth: If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.—Pull ’t off, I say.—
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

While Macbeth perceives the English invasion as the source of Scotland's troubles, other characters view Macbeth himself as the disease. Malcolm invades Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, who in Act 4, Scene 3 is revealed to have supernatural healing powers, implying that his rule, unlike Macbeth's, is divinely sanctioned. Regardless of who or what is considered to be plaguing Scotland, though, the play clearly leans heavily on the motif of disease to metaphorically illustrate the ways in which the country is suffering.

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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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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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Act 5, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Disease and Medicine:

Macbeth is filled with references to both physical and psychological illness. The motif of disease often represents the inner turmoil of characters warped by ambition, while the motif of medicine is associated with political order.

Throughout Macbeth, drunkenness is a common source of illness. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth criticizes Macbeth's reluctance to murder Duncan by comparing him to a drunkard who, upon waking up with a hangover, regrets the actions of the night before:

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth hallucinates the image of a bloody dagger and wonders if his inability to accurately perceive reality is the result of some kind of mental disturbance:

Macbeth: Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Following Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth attributes Macbeth's auditory hallucinations to mental distress and chastises him for being "brainsickly," and Macbeth later explains his reaction to seeing Banquo's ghost by claiming to have a "strange infirmity." As the doctor in Act 5, Scene 1 observes, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's ambition have driven them to the point of psychological illness:

Doctor: Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the doctor explains to Macbeth that, while earthly medicine can cure physical ailments, it cannot treat emotional disturbances:

Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient Must minister to himself.

Although medicine may not be able to cure Lady Macbeth's psychological illness, it may be able to treat the metaphorical disease that afflicts Scotland. Macbeth personifies Scotland as a person suffering from illness and asks the doctor to diagnose the ailment and devise an antidote:

Macbeth: If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.—Pull ’t off, I say.—
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

While Macbeth perceives the English invasion as the source of Scotland's troubles, other characters view Macbeth himself as the disease. Malcolm invades Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, who in Act 4, Scene 3 is revealed to have supernatural healing powers, implying that his rule, unlike Macbeth's, is divinely sanctioned. Regardless of who or what is considered to be plaguing Scotland, though, the play clearly leans heavily on the motif of disease to metaphorically illustrate the ways in which the country is suffering.

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Explanation and Analysis—Strange Garments:

At multiple points throughout Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the motif of clothing to explore themes of power and masculinity. 

In Act 1, Scene 3, Ross and Angus address Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth, disturbed that the Weird Sisters' prophecy seems to have been fulfilled, insists that the title does not belong to him:

Macbeth: The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Macbeth's metaphor implies that he views titles of political authority as items of clothing that can be worn, removed, and exchanged. Banquo reinforces this notion by remarking that new responsibilities, like new clothes, may fit uncomfortably at first:

Banquo: New honors come upon him,
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold
But with the aid of use.

In Act 1, Scene 7, Macbeth reasons that the honors Duncan has bestowed on him should be "worn" while still new. Lady Macbeth retorts with a clothing metaphor of her own, criticizing Macbeth for his cowardice, and likening his earlier willingness to kill Duncan to a drunkard's clothes:

Macbeth: He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself?

Following the discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Banquo advises the thanes to get dressed before any further discussion takes place:  

Banquo: And when we have our naked frailties hid,
That suffer in exposure, let us meet

Banquo's comment about "naked frailties" likens emotional vulnerability to a state of physical undress. Macbeth orders the thanes to "briefly put on manly readiness," suggesting that he views both courage and masculinity as costumes that can be taken off as easily as they are put on. 

After Duncan's death, Macbeth goes to be invested at Scone, where he is dressed in coronation robes and crowned to symbolize his transition from thane to king. In Act 2, Scene 4, Macduff uses yet another clothing metaphor to suggest that this transition may not go smoothly:

Macduff: Adieu,
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new.

As the play continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that Macbeth is ill-suited to the role and title of king. In Act 5, Scene 2, Cathness uses the metaphor of a belt to imply that Macbeth has lost control of his country:

Cathness: He cannot buckle his distempered cause
Within the belt of rule.

Angus responds by likening Macbeth to a dwarf wearing a giant's robe: 

Angus: Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

Like a man wearing clothes that are too large for him, Macbeth is unable to handle the massive responsibility of ruling Scotland. Duncan, a "giant," was able to do it, but Angus suggests that Macbeth is a "dwarf" who cannot hope to wear his predecessor's robe.

As the invading English troops draw near, Macbeth grows increasingly vulnerable. In Act 5, Scene 3, he demands that Seyton bring him his armor, even though it is not yet needed. At this point, Macbeth is still convinced that the Weird Sisters' prophecies make him invincible, so he has no need to protect his physical body—instead, the armor provides him with a sense of emotional security.

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Act 5, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Disease and Medicine:

Macbeth is filled with references to both physical and psychological illness. The motif of disease often represents the inner turmoil of characters warped by ambition, while the motif of medicine is associated with political order.

Throughout Macbeth, drunkenness is a common source of illness. In Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth criticizes Macbeth's reluctance to murder Duncan by comparing him to a drunkard who, upon waking up with a hangover, regrets the actions of the night before:

Lady Macbeth: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?

In Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth hallucinates the image of a bloody dagger and wonders if his inability to accurately perceive reality is the result of some kind of mental disturbance:

Macbeth: Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Following Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth attributes Macbeth's auditory hallucinations to mental distress and chastises him for being "brainsickly," and Macbeth later explains his reaction to seeing Banquo's ghost by claiming to have a "strange infirmity." As the doctor in Act 5, Scene 1 observes, the consequences of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's ambition have driven them to the point of psychological illness:

Doctor: Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the doctor explains to Macbeth that, while earthly medicine can cure physical ailments, it cannot treat emotional disturbances:

Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient Must minister to himself.

Although medicine may not be able to cure Lady Macbeth's psychological illness, it may be able to treat the metaphorical disease that afflicts Scotland. Macbeth personifies Scotland as a person suffering from illness and asks the doctor to diagnose the ailment and devise an antidote:

Macbeth: If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.—Pull ’t off, I say.—
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

While Macbeth perceives the English invasion as the source of Scotland's troubles, other characters view Macbeth himself as the disease. Malcolm invades Scotland with the help of Edward the Confessor, who in Act 4, Scene 3 is revealed to have supernatural healing powers, implying that his rule, unlike Macbeth's, is divinely sanctioned. Regardless of who or what is considered to be plaguing Scotland, though, the play clearly leans heavily on the motif of disease to metaphorically illustrate the ways in which the country is suffering.

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Act 5, scene 10
Explanation and Analysis—Milk and Blood:

In Macbeth, milk and blood are both motifs that combine to represent the upholding and sundering of kinship bonds. At one point, Malcolm refers to the "sweet milk of concord," and when milk is mentioned, it is often associated with motherhood and used to symbolize compassion, family, and unity. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth fears that Macbeth will be unable to commit an act as ruthless as murder because he is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness," metaphorically linking milk to feelings of care and compassion for others. Lady Macbeth again refers to milk when she calls on supernatural forces to purge her of her femininity:

Lady Macbeth: Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall

In other words, Lady Macbeth wishes to trade her feminine and nurturing qualities for something more destructive. In Act 1, Scene 7, she shows just how far she is willing to go:

Lady Macbeth: I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, [...]

Although Lady Macbeth is aware of how fulfilling motherhood can be, she claims that she is willing to kill her own child for the sake of ambition.

While milk is associated with the bond between mother and child, blood is used to represent kinship bonds between men. In Act 2, Scene 3, Macbeth uses a metaphor to refer to Duncan's and his sons' bloodline as a "fountain" that has been "stopped":

Macbeth: The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped; the very source of it is stopped.

Macbeth is responsible for the murder of Macduff's children, who should have continued their father's bloodline, so this metaphor underscores the idea of interruption—by killing Macduff's children, he has stopped the flow of Duncan's bloodline. As a result, in Act 5, Scene 10, Macbeth considers himself to be metaphorically stained with Macduff's blood:

Macbeth: My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Since Macbeth has no children of his own, blood from his perspective comes to represent violence rather than kinship bonds. In Act 4, Scene 1, he refers to acts of violence as his "firstborn," since he has no heirs to carry on his bloodline:

Macbeth: From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand.

By transforming blood from a symbol of kinship to a symbol of mere violence, Shakespeare seems to be commenting that, by purging himself of his feminine "milk of human kindness," Macbeth has also lost his masculine generative force.

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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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