What is the symbolic significance of the dagger in Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1, line 33-39?
"Is that a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me cluth thee. I have thee not, and yet I see these still. Are thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding but from the heat-oppressed brain?"
My thought is the symbolic significance is that Macbeth feels torn between guilt and temptation about the murder of Duncan. I do not think that Macbeth has had a psychotic break or is eager to carry out his plot against Duncan or wonders if the dagger is real.(Although he does wonder if the dagger is real, I do not believe that is the symbolic significance in this passage)
Macbeth, as you say, has not had a psychotic break in this passage. He recognizes that the dagger is a vision and that the dagger is not actually present.
The significance seems to have to do with the ideas of fixation and fear. Symbolically, the vision of the dagger represents three things:
- most simply - the act of murder
- the inevitability of the murder of Duncan
- the complex relationship of Macbeth to the idea of the murder (an idea that is not entirely his own yet which leads to an act that is)
As you suggest, Macbeth is afraid to carry out his plan, yet he cannot get the idea out of his mind. This premonition of the murder weapon might also suggest that Macbeth will be overwhelmed by the deed (or perhaps is already emotionally overwhelmed by the very idea of the murder he is about to commi)t. He has no power over his own thinking regarding the act.
The vision of the dagger inviting Macbeth to kill Duncan is indeed symbolic. First of all, it can be said that this invisible dagger is the embodiment of Macbeth's guilty conscience. We may view this invisible dagger as a warning sign; Macbeth's conscience attempts to turn Macbeth's attention to what he is about to commit. So, we may understand this scene as the one in which Macbeth is warned of what he is to do and the horror which is to follow afterwards:
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use...
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.
So, his guilty conscience attempts to caution him and describe to him what ensues.
Second of all, Macbeth does understand that this vision may be the result of "the heat-oppressed brain," which means he is aware that the dagger may only be an illusion. However, in spite of that realization, the dagger has an enormous impact on him, and Macbeth feels greatly disturbed.
Last of all, we should understand that the bloody dagger foreshadows the death of Duncan and the beginning of Macbeth's moral demise.
"Is this a dagger that I see before me, handle toward my hand . ." says it all. The dagger is a symbolic, poetic image, expressing Macbeth's inner questioning, which is,"Is this thing that I am about to do an action called for by divine destiny, ('handle toward my hand"), or is that all a figure of my imagination, born of lust for power and no more.This leads directly into the point of no return for Macbeth, and he knows it. So brilliant, this play! Thanks for the great question!
Macbeth is having a type of hallucination where he finds the presence of a dagger though it does ot actually exist. It is merely the creation of his imagination. He is obsessed with the idea of killing Duncan and this dagger clearly brings out the inner moral dilemma of the hero.