In William Shakespeare's play Macbeth, how does the diction and imagery of Macbeth's dagger speech relate to another part of the speech, particularly with respect to Macbeth's changing attitudes and perceptions?
In Act II, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the title character, who is planning to kill his own king, imagines that he sees a dagger before his eyes. The diction and imagery that Macbeth uses in speaking about the dagger are intriguing for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Macbeth at first imagines that he sees the dagger with its handle pointing toward his hand. In other words, it is almost as if the imagined dagger is presenting itself to him, almost enticing him to use it. At this point the dagger seems almost alluring rather than seeming a threat.
- When Macbeth reaches for the dagger, he cannot grasp it – a significant moment in which the whole issue of appearance vs. reality is a crucial theme.
- At one point Macbeth asks whether the dagger may simply be
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
This is an important question in a play that is significantly concerned with human psychology – with the ways the mind may shape our vision of the world and may even play tricks on us.
- Macebth says that the dagger encourages him to proceed as he had been planning, but perhaps the dagger is merely a projection of his own subconscious desires.
- Earlier the dagger had seemed almost to offer itself to Macbeth; later, however, he comments that he now sees on its
blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.
Now, in the other words, the dagger symbolizes not something inviting and appealing but something revolting and disgusting. His perception of the imagined dagger has now changed. Earlier he had perceived it almost as presenting itself to him, clean and unsullied; now he perceives it as it will be after Duncan has been murdered. In other words, earlier the dagger had functioned almost as a symbol of temptation; now it functions as a symbol of the bloody consequences of the deed Macbeth is contemplating.