What are some good examples of metaphors and similes in Macbeth?

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literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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William Shakespeare's tragic play Macbeth is filled with metaphors and similes. To begin, one must be sure that he or she understand what a metaphor and a simile is (in order to identify them within the play).

Metaphor: A metaphor is a very strong comparison. This comparison is made by stating that one object can be defined as another through making a direct statement. Essentially, a metaphor is a comparison between two things where the words "like" and/or "as" is not used.


A general example of metaphor use in the play is found when clothing references are made. Many times, clothing is used to allude to something very different than actual clothes.

The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrow'd robes? (1.3.108-109)

Here, Macbeth is comparing the title of Cawdor to a robe. Macbeth is not wearing the robe a thane would wear. Therefore, he cannot understand why one would address him by the title.

An example of a more direct metaphor is found in Act 3 (scene 4).

There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled. (32)

Here, Macbeth is comparing Banquo to a serpent (or snake, given his mistrust of him) and Banquo's son, Fleance, to a worm (something which hides underground until the right circumstances arise to emerge).

Simile: A simile is a weaker comparison. The use of the words "like" or "as" deem the comparison to be a little less direct than a metaphor.


One example of a simile can be found in Act 1 (scene 2).

As two spent swimmers that do cling together (10).

Here, a comparison is made between men fighting in battle to swimmers who have spent all of their energy swimming. Both are tired from their "work."

Another example of a simile is found in the same act and scene, this time in lines 16 and 17.

And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore, but all's too weak.

This time, the simile exists in the comparison made between fortune and the whore of a rebel.

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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The play is rich in metaphors and similes, the technical structure of which is more than adequately defined by the educators above. I will focus on some of the metaphors and similes in the play.

In Act 1, scene 2, Malcolm asks a returning sergeant about the state of the battle. The soldier uses an apt simile to describe the situation:

"Doubtful it stood;
 As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
 And choke their art."

He means that the outcome of the battle was uncertain, just as indefinable as the fate of two exhausted swimmers who hang onto each other for support,  preventing one another from fully using their abilities and saving themselves, would be. And, in another simile:

"And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore"

In this instance, fortune is compared to "a rebel's whore" emphasising the fact that MacDonwald had achieved some kind of advantage and that he had been favoured by fate who had entered the fray, as much as an immoral woman, who, without any qualms or restrictions, would rush to support and defend her rebellious partner. 

In the same description, the sergeant also uses various metaphors, such as:

"his brandish'd steel,
which smoked with bloody execution,"

The metaphor compares Macbeth's sword to an instrument which releases vapour caused by the heat of battle as it executes its purpose, which in this example, is to kill those at whom it is directed.

An added example of a simile is: 

"Like valour's minion carved out his passage."

Macbeth's fierce fighting has induced the sergeant into comparing him to a favourite of Courage. He was fearless and literally cut a path through his enemies.

In Act 3, scene 1, Macbeth uses a double metaphor when he comments in a sloliquy:

"Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown"

He is referring to the witches' prediction that he will not bear any heirs. The word "fruitless" conveys the idea of barrenness and "crown" refers to the title of king. Macbeth will therefor not have anyone to continue his line and bear his title and his name. Further descriptions such as "barren sceptre" and "unlineal hand" extend and reinforce the metaphor in this instance.

 In Act 5, scene 3, Macbeth, in a brief soliloquy, says the following:

"... my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;"

In this metaphor, Macbeth is comparing his situation to that of an object which has deteriorated and is dying away. The "yellow leaf" emphasises this decay - just as leaves start decaying during autumn in preparation for winter, has his life now fallen into decay. Macbeth now realises that the game is almost up.

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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In Macbeth, William Shakespeare creates a character who falls victim to his wife’s insidious influence and his own down-spiraling moral disintegration. He is a master in the use of language to create bold and meaningful characters and plots.

As with any writer, one of Shakespeare’s favorite tools is the metaphor. Metaphors create meaning by comparing one thing to another for the purpose of adding insight to the reader’s (or listener’s) perception.

In Macbeth, the most crucial scene--the murder of King Duncan, is not even presented on stage. Instead, the audience watches as events lead up to the murder, and then the characters' reactions and developments following the murder.

Immediately prior to killing King Duncan, Macbeth, who is tortured with the thought of what he is about to do, utters the following line:

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.

Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.

In these lines, Shakespeare creates a metaphor by comparing the sound of a bell (that Lady Macbeth has used to signal him) to a knell, which is usually associated as a warning, often by bell (hence the term we often hear, “death knell”). Macbeth is saying that Duncan will soon be on his way to heaven or hell, because he is about to be murdered. Some say that Macbeth is using the bell as an excuse to go ahead with the murder. 

A little later in the same scene, Shakespeare creates a simile to help express Macbeth's state of mind. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are talking. Macbeth is already beginning to show signs of regret and fear, and Lady Macbeth wants to strengthen him. When she notices he still has the bloody daggers he used to kill Duncan, she tell him to return them before he gets caught. Then they have the following exchange:


I’ll go no more.

I am afraid to think what I have done;

Look on ’t again I dare not.

Lady Macbeth:

Infirm of purpose!

Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead

Are but as pictures.

Lady Macbeth uses a simile when she compares the sleeping guards and the dead Duncan to “pictures.” This conveys the idea that they are harmless and should not be feared by Macbeth. The use of the connective word “as” makes this comparison a simile instead of a metaphor, which does not use a connective word (like, as, than) in a comparison.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Macbeth is full of metaphors and similes. Good examples are to be found in one soliloquy where Macbeth is debating with himself about killing Duncan in Act 1, Scene 7.

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

This is an extremely complex set of similes and metaphors, but bound to make a good impression if quoted and explicated in a student's essay. Duncan's virtues will plead like angels (one simile) and pity like a naked new-born babe, striding the blast, (another simile) or (like) heaven's cherubin horsed upon the sightless couriers of the air (a third simile, since "like" is implied)...etc. The angels (or cherubin) riding on the winds as if they are riding invisible horses is evidently a metaphor.

Simpler figures of speech are found near the end of the play, in Act 5, Scene 5.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

There are three metaphors in this famous soliloquy. Life is a walking shadow. Life is an actor who only has an hour on the stage. Life is a tale told by an idiot. It would seem that life is a walking shadow because each living person is carrying a lighted candle which casts his shadow but which inevitably burns out because it is a brief candle, or a short candle, which burns down quickly. William Faulkner used "sound and fury" as the title of one of his novels, The Sound and the Fury. If an idiot were to make up a story it would probably be full of characters acting and interacting in all sorts of ways, but there would be no sense to the story, no point, no cause and effect. Macbeth is saying that people are all behaving senselessly because in the long run there is no meaning or purpose to life. 

More metaphors and similes are to be found by clicking on the reference link below.

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junebug614 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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Similes and metaphors are pieces of figurative language that help the reader make connections. Both compare two unlike things in order to help the reader make meaning, but one uses "like" or "as" in its comparison (simile), and one does not (metaphor). Macbeth, and Shakespeare in general, is full of similes and metaphors that assist the reader in really understanding to what degree a description is.  I'll start with some examples of metaphors:

"There's nothing serious in mortality. All is but toys." - Macbeth (II. Sc. iii)

Here, Macbeth is comparing life and its activities to toys, or trivial matters. This is after he's killed Duncan and also functions as a bit of dramatic irony, as no other characters know that he's killed the king. It helps us understand that Macbeth feels powerless now, after this terrible sin he's committed. 

Later in this speech, he says, "The wine of life is drawn and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of."  (II. Sc. iii) Here, he's comparing life to a bottle of wine that is emptied, and all that's left are the dregs at the bottom. He says this when he's lamenting the death of Duncan, but the reader should also detect the genuine sadness he feels at the end of his own life - the figurative ending when he killed Duncan. 

"The bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell." (II Sc. i) Here, Macbeth compares the bell indicating that Lady Macbeth's preparations are finished to a funeral knell for Duncan. The bell tells him it's time to go kill Duncan, so he compares it to a funeral bell. 

Similes, like metaphors, compare two unlike things, but they use the words "like" or "as" in the comparison. Similes seem to be easier for students to discuss, probably because they are easier to locate in a text. Again, similes help the reader really understand what is happening and to what degree by providing some comparison of something not in the text. Here are some examples:

"The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures." (II Sn.ii) Lady Macbeth says this to Macbeth when he refuses to re-enter Duncan's chambers after he's killed him. She states that they are nothing to be afraid of. 

"Dismayed this not our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?

Yes, as sparrows eagles or the hare the lion" (I Sn.ii)

Here, Duncan asked if the captains Macbeth and Duncan were surprised by the enemy on the battlefield, and the captain compares their surprise to that of an eagles feels at a sparrow or a lion at a hare. The two were so far above the enemy that they were not surprised at all.  


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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Early in the play Macbeth is still conflicted about whether or not to pursue the killing of King Duncan. As his wife tries to cajole and manipulate him into assassinating the king, Macbeth actually has a moment of rebelliousness and tells her that he will not do it. Then Lady Macbeth utters some of the most shocking lines in the play to demonstrate her fidelity to him. Here she is speaking about an imaginary child: 

I would, while it was smiling in my face

Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn

As you have done to this.

Lady Macbeth, who does not even have a child, is speaking metaphorically to prove to Macbeth how willing she is to keep her word to him. This violent image convinces Macbeth to follow his wife’s desires and go through with the killing of Duncan.

Macbeth’s inner turmoil over his desire to kill Duncan to gain the throne is expressed in this metaphor:

Stars, hide your fires

Let not light see my black and deep desires.

Here, he is using a dramatic element called the “apostrophe.” An apostrophe occurs when an actor addresses someone or something that is not on stage. In this case, he is actually speaking to the stars. He wants to keep his desires hidden. Obviously, he does not expect the stars to hear him or to suddenly become animate and begin acting on his instructions. This makes the statement a metaphor—it is not literally true; it is figuratively true.


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