In Macbeth, how does Shakespeare use violent imagery and figurative language to portray Macbeth's change to a larger-than-life character?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Macbeth, I believe the author uses violent imagery and figurative language to show the transformation that takes place in our tragic hero.

At the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a valiant soldier in defense of Duncan. His King and other soldiers praise Macbeth's efforts on the battlefield for Scotland. He is immediately presented to the audience as a man of strength, courage and conviction.

Aristotle defines a tragic hero has a great man with a tragic flaw: and Macbeth admits to his flaw—"vaulting" ambition...ambition that drives him to want and have more.

At the beginning, part of Macbeth wants to be king, but part of him wants to enjoy the praise and rewards from Duncan, his friend and King—a man who Macbeth genuinely cares for. However, the witches and Lady Macbeth find the crack in Macbeth's honorable nature and feed poison through it until Macbeth changes, driven by his ambition.

The violent imagery is seen when Macbeth returns from Duncan's murder with the bloody daggers clenched in his hands.

Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth's fearfulness over the blood he has shed:

Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there. Go carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood. (II.ii.48-50)

The violence is witnessed again when Macbeth kills the King's grooms so they cannot deny their part in the King's murder: Macbeth says he killed them because he was so overcome by grief for Duncan's death. Then Macbeth sends murders to assassinate his best friend Banquo, and Banquo's ghost haunts Macbeth at the banquet.

When the banquet hall clears, Lady Macbeth asks after Macduff who did not appear though he was invited. Macbeth explains that he will summon him again; and he then plans to seek out the witches again. He admits that he is so covered in the guilt of bloodshed, that it is just as easy to move forward than it would be to try to fix what he has done. Macbeth says:

I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (III.iv.138-140)

When Macbeth admits that killing is difficult only because he is still too new at it, it seems that the transformation is nearly complete.

My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use: / We are yet but young in the deed. (III.iv.144-146)

The final act of violence and cruelty is when Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff's wife and children. The witches' second set of predictions don't give Macbeth any reason to fear Macduff, but he slaughters the man's family anyway.

With violent imagery and figurative language, Shakespeare allows the audience to witness the transformation of a hero into a monster.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The renowned critic Harold Bloom writes of Macbeth:

Macbeth is most "a tragedy of blood," not just in its murders but in the ultimate implications of Macbeth's imagination itself being bloody.  The usurper Macbeth moves in a consistent phantasmagoria of blood:  blood is the prime constituent of his imagination.  He sees that what opposes him is blood in one aspect--call it nature in the sense that he opposes nature--and this opposing force thrusts him into shedding more blood.  "It will have blood, they say:  blood will have blood."

Macbeth speaks these words after confronting Banquo's ghost.  And, it is at this point that Macbeth continues his bloody path of "vaulting ambition" following his illusions and dreams against nature.  In Act I, for instance, the sergeant describes how brutally Macbeth slay the treacherous Thane of Cawdor,

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,(20)
Like valor's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.(25) (1.2.)

These bloody images prevail throughout the play with daggers, swords, and bloody hands. After Macbeth's heart turns so to darkness in his murder of Duncan, Shakespear employs comic relief with the Porter and his images of the great equivocator and others to intensify the horror in contrast.

Along with these images, there is also the phantasmagoric realm of witchcraft and images of bats, tongue of dog, lizard's legs, gall of goats, and such effect Macbeth's enlargement as a character. In a grandiose move, he defies the predictions of the three sisters and has Banquo killed and sends his murderers to pursue Fleance.  And, then he wears a "vizard" to disguise his heart to his guests:  "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" (3.2.36).  Finally, he challenges a forest that moves:

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,(35)
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield! Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!” (5.8.)
Phantasmagoria of blood, conjurings of witches, acts against nature--all such images create a "larger-than-life" character in Macbeth.




harry7459 | Student


  1. Lady Macbeth plots to kill the king
  2. Macbeth kills the king
  3. Macbeth hires murders to kill Banquo
  4. Murderers kill Banquo
  5. Macbeth hires murderer's to kill Macduff's family
  6. Murderers kill Macduff's family
  7. Macbeth murders Duncan's guards
  8. Macduff kills Macbeth
  9. Macduff cuts Macbeths head off           


William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play renowned for its violence. As the play begins, bloodshed is already described on a battlefield. During this time, the captain had graphically described how Macbeth had sliced an enemy soldier in half, beheading the man and claiming his head as a prize. At the start of the play Macbeth is depicted to be a very loyal, honest and a noble person. As the play carries on, however, it shows Macbeth is actually a power hungry man who is willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the throne. This obsession comes mainly from the three witches' prophecies and Lady Macbeth's eagerness for her husband to become king. This fuelled Macbeth’s ambition to kill the king, which is one of the most important scenes where violence is exposed. Following the murder of King Duncan, Macbeth slowly regrets his deeds and drives him to become suspicious of everyone around him. In turn, this madness drove him to hire murderers to dispose Banquo. He soon started to lose his sanity after seeing Banquo's ghost and had visited the witches. Because of this, Macbeth's immediate response to Macduff's opposition was to kill his benefactors, to the point where he would slay Macduff's family in cold blood. Towards the end of the play, Macbeth was slain by Malcolm, as prophesied by the witches.