MacbethSome of the major symbols in the play; Owl, Sleep, Night/Darkness, and Snake Explain the meaning of each symbol (Interpretation of Symbol) with reference from the text (Supporting...


Some of the major symbols in the play; Owl, Sleep, Night/Darkness, and Snake Explain the meaning of each symbol (Interpretation of Symbol) with reference from the text (Supporting Evidence),  Note the act and scene to please. Identify two more symbols in Macbeth and explain them.


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tresvivace eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The owl, a symbol of night and darkness, also represents Macbeth in the reference to the owl (Macbeth) killing the falcon (Duncan): “A falcon, towering in her pride of place, / Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd" (2.4.11-13)

Night and darkness are symbolic throughout the play and represent night and evil, especially the shrouding of evil deeds at night and the pleas that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth make to the powers of darkness.  One example is seen as early as Act I, Scene 4: “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.”  In this passage Macbeth calls upon the spirits of darkness and evil to blot out the stars so that the evil he plans to do (killing Duncan) is hidden. You need only page through the script to find many more richly symbolic examples of night and darkness.

Sleep is a powerful symbol and motif throughout the play, especially in Act II, Scene 2 just after Macbeth has murdered Duncan:

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!                      Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast,--

Sleep in this passage represents innocence, relaxation, a bath that eases the pains of hard labor, peace of mind, and more—all of which will be denied to Macbeth since he must endure the guilt of having murdered the king.  Later, in Act V, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth cries during her famous sleepwalking scene that she, too, is denied the peace of sleep.

Snakes universally represent evil (the serpent in the Bible) and in Macbeth we see the witches using snakes.  We also see Lady Macbeth associate the snake/serpent with the evil she is entreating Macbeth to perform: Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't (1.5.74-5).  In other words, she tells him, look innocent on the outside, but be as evil as the serpent inside.

You asked for two more examples of symbolism.  An excellent example is the washing of hands, both in Act II, Scene 2:

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood                           Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

The washing of hands, which Macbeth says even the entire ocean can’t do, symbolizes the cleansing of guilt, later echoed in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Act V, Scene 1:  “What, will these hands ne'er be clean?”

Another symbol of night and darkness is the raven, mentioned frequently with the owl (Act II, Scene 2).