Where do images of forbidden desire and violence appear in Macbeth?

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hoskinsp eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the themes of desire and violence are intimately intertwined.  Indeed, there is almost a perverse passion for evil in the play, as many of the gruesome images are saturated with sexual desire. 

The play opens on a dismal scene with thunder and lightning creating an ominous tone that pervades the subsequent acts, and the first image the audience receives of Macbeth is particularly gruesome.  In Act 1 Scene 2, the Captain describes Macbeth as a violent warrior:

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—

Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked with bloody execution,

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 unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,

And fixed his head upon our battlements (I. ii. 16-23).

The audience is introduced to Macbeth through the image of dismemberment. Macbeth has disemboweled and beheaded Macdonwald, but the diction of “brave,” “brandished steel,” and “valor” suggest this image is to be glorified.  Further, Duncan in hearing this account, exclaims, “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!” (I. ii. 24). Thus, violent acts are valorized and aggrandized.  This is supported by the metaphor, “So well thy words become thee as thy wounds; / They smack of honor both” (I. ii. 43-44). Here, Duncan speaks to the Captain and asserts that his words, like his wounds, bring him honor. 

The linking of violence and desire gains further visibility when Ross describes the defeat of the Thane of Cawdor by Macbeth.  He states, “The thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict, / Till that Bellona’s bridegroom, lapped in proof, / Confronted him with self-comparisons, / Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm” (I. ii. 53-56).  In this quote, Macbeth is metaphorically referred to as a “bridegroom” of war, a description that carries both violent and sexual connotations. 

In one of the most prominent scenes of the play, Macbeth, through an aside, comments on both forbidden desire and violence in addressing the prophecy of the witches.  He delivers the following lines:

Two truths are told,

As happy prologues to the swelling act

Of the imperial theme. (to ROSS and ANGUS) I thank you, gentlemen.

(aside) This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success,

Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings. (I. iii. 130-142)

In this scene, Macbeth refers to the temptation of power as a “supernatural soliciting,” suggesting his urge to become king is a deep-rooted desire.  Yet, this desire is forbidden, as evidenced by the line, “Cannot be ill, cannot be good.” He understands that he can only become king if Duncan is murdered, again linking his desire with violence.  This is upheld in the vivid imagery of “doth unfix my hair,” and “make my seated heart knock at my ribs.” Macbeth not only imagines the violence he intends to inflict upon Duncan, his physical nature becomes greatly disturbed. 

In Act 1 Scene 4, Macbeth in another aside, states, “Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (I. iv. 52-53).  In this apostrophe, the addressing of an inanimate object, Macbeth begs for his forbidden desires to not be made known.  Further, the image of “black and deep desires,” lends an evil connotation to this yearning.  This image gains more significance in the context of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7 when she parallels sexual action with murderous action.  When Macbeth expresses hesitation at carrying out the violent murder, Lady Macbeth urges him through erotic language to go through with it:

Was the hope drunk

Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely? From this time

Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and valor

As thou art in desire?  (I. vii. 35-41)

Here, Lady Macbeth accuses Macbeth of losing his manhood, and urges him to act on his forbidden desire in violent terms.  She expressly asks him if he is afraid to act the way in which he desires. To this accusation, Macbeth responds, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (I. vii. 47-48).  Macbeth claims a true man would surely act on these urges, again linking desire and violence, but more importantly, linking the two themes through sexual undertones that emphasize the intimacy of violence and desire.  In conclusion, Macbeth is a play where forbidden desire leads to violent acts.