Let’s get scared for Halloween. I really want to get into the spirit of a real Halloween. I’m really tired of driving down my street year after year and seeing enormous nylon inflatable ghosts and pumpkins. Seriously, how scary is this image?
I must possess an ancient Celtic heart and soul because I want my All Hallows Eve to be like an ancient Samhain and meet and greet the ghosts and spirits that have returned from the dead and walk with them. I want to flit about the blurred boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead and dance around sacred bonfires in a real ancient costume (not as a sexy pussycat or sexy witch, c’mon!). Doesn’t that sound more fun?
If I can’t or don’t do any of the above I want to at the very least get scared out of my wits by watching a scary movie or reading a scary story. For me, I like to kick it old school and read my favorite Shakespeare horror story.
This story really puts me in the mood and I have made it a private tradition to read it sometime during the month of October. If you ever read this story you will know that there are powerful and complex and varied images in Macbeth that take you to the dark world of the story. You must put yourself in a mindset that as you read the story you must place your current reality on the back burner and suspend it for reclaiming at a later time. When I read the story, I savor the feelings and descriptive scenarios and delve my imagination into the darkness and become an invisible spectre in the heart of the story. It is delicious.
Let me point out some symbology to look for if you want to read Macbeth. These images and symbols will draw you in and really make you appreciate this Shakespearean horror story. The following is from an essay I wrote years ago for a graduate class and thought it would help you appreciate this story as I do.
There is subtle and repeated imagery that — as a reader — you can appreciate and look for when reading the play. Various forms of imagery and symbolism are apparent in Macbeth. Four constant images in the play are those of animals, light, sound, and blood.
The images of animals play an important role in the reader’s imagination. Creatures fierce and unpleasant augment the imagery of evil. Macbeth compares his evil thoughts to a nest of scorpions as his conscience bothers him: “O, full of scorpions is my mind” (III.ii.36). For King Duncan, Lady Macbeth will appear, “th’ innocent flower,/But be the serpent under’t” (I.v.66) letting the reader know that in this play, “fair is foul” (I.i.11) and things are not what they seem. Animal images are strong as Macbeth is plagued by visions of Banquo’s ghost: “Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,/the arm’d rhinoceros, or th’ Hyrcan tiger” (III.iv.99-100). A nervous Macbeth would have preferred the apparition to be that of an animal rather than a constant reminder of his ambition. The image of a bird of prey eating chickens is very strong when Macduff learns his family has been slaughtered: “O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens” (IV.iii.217-18). The image of Macbeth as a raptor signifies his transformation from a man with a conscience to a creature with only a killer instinct. By the end of the play, Shakespeare compares Macbeth to a bear tied at the stake fighting savagely to the end: “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,/But bear-like I must fight the course.” (V.vii.1) Macbeth has become an unrepentant courageous creature when compared to a bear.
Light and Darkness
Light and darkness are constant images in the play. Light stands for life, goodness, and virtue; and darkness stands for evil and death: “Angels are bright: (IV.iii.22) and the witches are “secret, black and midnight hags” (IV.i.48). The irony of this is that Malcolm attributes the diseased state of Scotland to the evil of “black Macbeth” (IV.iii.52). Another good image of light and darkness occurs with Macbeth’s invocation to darkness in III.ii.46-53. Shakespeare informs the reader that only in darkness can evil deeds be done; and Lady Macbeth also invokes the darkness for the same reasons: “Come, thick night…That the keen knife see not the wound it makes” (I.v.51-53). It’s interesting that by the end of the play, Lady Macbeth cannot bear to b without light and “has light by her continually” (V.i.22). Good imagery of light occurs when Fleance holds a flaring torch before him and looks up to the dark sky muttering, “There’s husbandry in heaven, Their candles are all out” (II.i.4). The scene is set for treachery and murder with Fleance’s statement. A foreshadowing. By the end of the play Macbeth is “a-weary of the sun” (V.v.48) and is ready to succumb to death.
The imagery of sound is my favorite part of the play. Sounds can virtually be heard. The reverberation and imagery of sounds echoing over vast regions are just an example of Shakespeare’s mastery of words. The auditory imagery in I.vii.19-24 of angels pleading over sounding trumpets becomes more powerful as they stride “the blast” and “blow the horrid deed in every eye, that tears shall drown the wind”. With this line, the reader’s imagination — my imagination — pictures a reverberating sound being broadcast throughout a vast space. A deafening sound. The auditory image over vast regions occurs again when Macduff cries, “New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows/Strike heaven on the face, th’t it resounds/As if it felt with Scotland and yell’d out” (IV.iii.4) Shakespeare gives us vivid pictures of overwhelming distant sounds and “reverberations” of evil deeds.
Shakespeare’s auditory imagery of evil deeds can be heard through the use of animal references. Animal sounds are augmented by the use of words such as “hoarse” and “croak”: “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan” (I.v.38-39). The cacophony of animals can be heard as Macbeth is “Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,/ whose howl’s his watch” (II.i.53-54); and Lady Macbeth declares that she, “heard the owl scream and the crickets cry” (II.ii.14-15). With a good imagination (as I have), the reader can appreciate the animal sounds in the play: because they are the informants of death.
Ok, this wouldn’t be a horror story without the imagery of blood which is rampant throughout the play. The imaginary knife dripping with blood in Macbeth’s hand is “a false creation” (I.vi.38), but it was made real by my very imaginative mind. At this point, Macbeth’s conscience is bothering him as he is about to kill Duncan. The imagery of blood as well as the use of the word “blood” is prevalent throughout the play. Shakespeare’s most profound imagery of blood comes when Macbeth wonders whether, “all great Neptune’s ocean [can] wash [the] blood/Clean from [his] hand” (II.ii.57-58). Macbeth is paralyzed with horror from what he has done. The disorder that spreads throughout a whole society is best depicted with Macduff’s image of a bleeding Scotland: “Bleed, bleed, poor country!” (IV.iii.32). As you read the play, you will see that the feeling of horror, fear and pain increases by the constant and recurring images of blood. Macbeth said it best when he stated, “I am in blood” (III.iv.135). Call me crazy, but this is my favorite line in the whole play and I love when I get to that part and always say out loud, “I AM IN BLOOD!” The simplicity of this line describes the imagery of a Macbeth immersed/or washed in a bloody quicksand. By this time, he sees what he has become and is under no illusions about having ventured into the murky world of evil and all it entails.
In my opinion, Macbeth, profoundly illustrates Shakespeare’s mastery of visual and auditory imagery. The emotions and feelings you will experience while reading this play will be appreciated due to the subtle and repeated imagery of animals, light, sound, and blood. I encourage you to read this with relish and look for these images and I hope you will appreciate this story as I do.
So, draw your drapes from all those corny inflatables, and read the play which has everything scary. It has blood lust, evil, murder, portends, and witches. A really good recipe for a good start to Halloween.
Macbeth is by far my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. There are so many other aspects of this play that I did not get into but wanted to give the ideas of what I love to look for when I read this story with fresh eyes and with anticipation year after year.
The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. All references to the text of the play are to this edition