What kinds of symbolism may be found in the following quote from Macbeth? "Here lay Duncan, / His silver skin laced with his golden blood."  

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In act 2, scene 3 of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff arrives at Macbeth's castle on the order of King Duncan to meet with him early in the morning.

MACDUFF: Is the King stirring, worthy Thane?

MACBETH: Not yet.

MACDUFF: He did command me to call timely on him; I...

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In act 2, scene 3 of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff arrives at Macbeth's castle on the order of King Duncan to meet with him early in the morning.

MACDUFF: Is the King stirring, worthy Thane?

MACBETH: Not yet.

MACDUFF: He did command me to call timely on him;
I have almost slipp'd the hour.

MACBETH: I'll bring you to him. [2.3.42-46]

Macbeth calmly shows Macduff the way to Duncan's rooms.

MACBETH: This is the door. [2.3.42-50]

Macduff enters Duncan's rooms and returns to the courtyard after a moment, and without actually saying so, he announces Duncan's murder.

MACDUFF: Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon. Do not bid me speak;
See, and then speak yourselves. [2.3.76-78]

Macbeth and Lennox hurry off to take a look at Duncan while Macduff raises the alarm.

In a dramatic turn of events, and remarkable change of attitude, Macbeth shows no hesitation to go back to the scene of his crime, where just a few hours ago he absolutely refused to go after he murdered Duncan.

LADY MACBETH: Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there. Go carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

MACBETH: I'll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on't again I dare not. [2.2.61-66]

Macbeth and Lennox return with Ross, who they must have met on the way to or from Duncan's rooms. Ross's usual role in the play is that of a messenger, but in this scene he says and does nothing, which raises the question as to why he's there.

On their return, Macbeth starts acting, in order to shift any possible suspicion from himself.

MACBETH: Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of. [2.3.99-104]

Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, appear in the courtyard.

DONALBAIN: What is amiss?

MACBETH: You are, and do not know't:
The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopp'd; the very source of it is stopp'd. [2.3.105-108]

Contrast Macbeth's avoidance of a direct answer to Donalbain's question with Macduff's straightforward declarative sentence.

MACDUFF: Your royal father's murdered. [2.3.109]

Macbeth can't bring himself to say that Duncan has been murdered. Perhaps he's afraid that he'll betray himself in voice or action.

A little later, however, he has no trouble telling everybody what he did to Duncan's guards.

MACBETH: O, yet I do repent me of my fury,
That I did kill them. [2.3.117-118]

Macduff questions him about that, and Macbeth, still acting his heart out, explains what drove him to kill the guards, and his rationalization for killing them.

MACBETH: Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man:
The expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser reason. [2.3.120-123]

Macbeth says that he was so caught up in the moment that he didn't think about what he was doing when he violently killed the guards. At least that's what he says, but we suspect that Macbeth knew exactly what he was doing.

MACBETH: Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood,
And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance. [2.3.123-126]

Macbeth is painting a picture of the death scene that he refused to look at the night before.

In terms of symbolism, Duncan's "silver skin" might relate to his purity of soul, the whiteness of his skin in contrast the blood, or it might refer more obliquely to his age—his silver years represented by his silver hair.

It was common in Shakespeare's time for the blood of royalty to be thought of as "golden," which could also be used to describe the blood of powerful people, heroes, and saints.

MACBETH: . . . there, the murderers,
Steep'd in the colors of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech'd with gore. [2.3.126-128]

Lennox had just offered his opinion that Duncan's guards are the murderers—"those of his chamber, as it seems, had done't." Note Macduff's use of "seems." Macbeth now offers unequivocal confirmation that that the guards are the murderers—"there, the murderers."

MACBETH; Who could refrain,
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make's love known? [2.3.128-130]

Macbeth asks who could see such a bloody death scene and not have the courage to do something about it

Lady Macbeth promptly faints . . .

LADY MACBETH: Help me hence, ho! [2.3.131]

. . . either at the thought of Duncan's bloody death or because her husband is talking too much and she doesn't want anybody to question the circumstances of Duncan's death too closely or to ask about the daggers, which she carefully smeared with blood ("Unmannerly breech'd with gore) and placed on the guards's bodies while they slept.

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The quote suggests through its diction that King Duncan was an extraordinary man, as well as an extraordinary monarch. The words "silver" and "golden" have connotations not just of royalty, but of that which is precious and rare. Before killing Duncan, Macbeth acknowledged Duncan's goodness:

. . . 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;

Macbeth continues, predicting that Duncan's murder will evoke such great pity in his subjects "[t]hat tears shall drown the wind."

The fact that it is Macbeth himself who describes Duncan's body in this way is enormously ironic and psychologically complex. The dramatic irony is clear; only Macbeth and Lady Macbeth know the truth of Duncan's murder, while the others are still in the dark as to what Macbeth has done. By speaking of Duncan in such worshipful words, Macbeth diverts suspicion away from himself. On a deeper level, however, Macbeth speaks the truth of his own feelings. He genuinely had admired Duncan, even though his selfish ambition was stronger than his love and loyalty.

 

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