"Stars, hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desire..." What is the significance of the imagery used in these lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth?
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Macbeth speaks these lines (in an aside, meaning the other characters can't hear him) in the fourth scene of Act One. He has just learned that Malcolm is to be Prince of Cumberland, which makes him the heir to the throne after Duncan. Macbeth, having had his ambition stoked by the witches' prophecy, clearly wishes to become king, and the imagery of these lines, by characterizing these desires as "black," clearly demonstrates that he recognizes that, in order to achieve the throne, he will have to commit deeds that are contrary to his sense of right and wrong. In short, he wishes to keep his desires under wraps, revealing them to nobody, both because he realizes they are evil and because he of course would have an interest in keeping such a plot secret. This line reveals the depth of Macbeth's ambition even as it demonstrates the inner conflict this ambition unleashes.
Macbeth is disheartened on hearing King Duncan appoint his eldest, Malcolm, 'Prince of Cumberland'. This means that Malcolm is heir to Duncan's throne. Macbeth had been informed by the weird sisters (the witches) that he would become Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. The first prophecy had become true, which meant, in Macbeth's mind, that the second should, obviously, also be realised. However, since Malcolm has been appointed rightful heir, Macbeth has to overturn the natural order in order to achieve his ambition. He has been overwhelmed by the witches' prophecy and therefore believes that it should come true.
He therefore calls upon the heavens to (figuratively) envelop the world in darkness.That it should be so black that none can witness his 'black and deep desires'. The obvious implication is that Macbeth at this point has decided that the only manner in which he will achieve his ambition would be through criminal means. He therefore has to plot an evil plan to get the throne and,thus, no one should be aware of what he is plotting/thinking.
It is significant that Macbeth should call upon the stars 'to hide their fires' since light is associated with goodness whilst the 'dark' is associated with evil and destruction - exactly what Macbeth intends doing.
Macbeth has wanted to be king of Scotland even before meeting the Three Witches and has been discussing the matter with his wife. In order to become king he knows he must assassinate Duncan. But that would not automatically make him king, since there are two sons in line of succession ahead of him. Shakespeare did not want to deal with the problem of how Macbeth could solve that problem, but it should be obvious that he would have to kill the two sons sooner or later. There was no better time to do so than on the same night he killed their father, but this would be an exceedingly complicated business. Shakespeare just wanted to avoid dealing with it for numerous reasons:
- It would have weakened the dramatic impact of the murder of Duncan if Shakespeare had tried to show Macbeth going from room to room and killing Duncan, Malcolm, and Donalbain. Less is more. One murder is more effective than three. Three would be very difficult to show onstage. Besides, as it turned out, it was better for Malcolm and Donalbain to flee and be accused of having bribed the grooms to kill their father.
- Shakespeare did not want to lose all audience sympathy for Macbeth, his tragic hero. It looks bad enough for Macbeth to be killing the King, but it would look terrible for him to kill two young boys in their sleep.
- It would have been very difficult for Macbeth to kill Malcolm and Donalbain. It turns out that he didn't even know which chamber Donalbain was sleeping in. Either one of them might wake up and start struggling and shouting for help. He could be caught red-handed.
- Macbeth didn't seem to have nerve enough to commit three cold-blooded murders. He was so shaken by what he did to Duncan that he couldn't bear to think about what he had done and was afraid to go back and replace the grooms' daggers. His wife had to do that for him. This looks both good and bad for Macbeth, since it makes him look weak but also makes him look more human.
- In a pregnant scene between Macbeth and Banquo just before Macbeth goes off to murder Duncan, Macbeth seems to be sounding Banquo out about helping him kill the king and his two sons. "If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis, / It shall make honor for you." Banquo knows what he wants and turns him down flatly. "So I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchised and allegiance clear, / I shall be counseled." If Banquo had agreed to become a co-conspirator, the two sons might not have survived that night.
- Shakespeare himself did not know what Macbeth was going to do about the two sons. Shakespeare had enough to worry about with writing the dazzling scenes just before and after Duncan's murder. He decided to worry about the two boys when he came to them. Shakespeare relied on his great genius and dependable poetic inspiration. He has a character say in another play: "There is no virtue like necessity." Shakespeare knew he could paint himself into a corner and then paint a door or window to escape through. So he leaves a very ambiguous hint for his audience that Macbeth has plans to take care of Malcolm and Donalbain--somehow in the future, maybe that very night.
Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires
The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Macbeth might have planned to kill Malcolm and Donalbain right after killing their father. But three things prevented him from doing so--if that was what he had planned. He thought he heard a voice crying "Sleep no more! Macbeth doth murder sleep," etc. He says the voice was loud enough to wake up all the house. Furthermore, he has lost his nerve after the bloody murder of Duncan. And then there is that dreadful, ominous knocking at the gate which goes on and on and finally forces him to give up the plan of pretending to be asleep and go down to find out why nobody is opening the gate. This will end up forcing him to be present at the scene of the crime when Macduff discovers the King's body and wakes up the entire castle with the alarm bell.
The audience will not know for some time whether Malcolm and Donalbain are alive or dead. When they finally appear in answer to Macduff's summons the audience will realize that they are still alive. It is noteworthy that Shakespeare has them arrive on the scene last of all. The playwright is probably keeping the audience in suspense. When Macbeth returns to his bedchamber holding two bloody daggers, the intention probably was to make the audience think, at least for a few moments, that he has committed two more murders. Otherwise, why bring those daggers? Maybe Shakespeare wanted to suggest that Macbeth had taken the daggers from Duncan's chamber with the intention of killing the two sons but was forced to give up the idea because of that imaginary voice crying "Sleep no more to all the house."
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