Macbeth Significant Allusions
by William Shakespeare

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Significant Allusions

Humanism and the Early Modern Renaissance: Shakespeare wrote in the late 16th, early 17th century when humanism was a dominant philosophical ideology in England. The humanism cultural movement turned away from medieval, religious scholasticism to revive ancient Greek and Roman literature—which focused on human thoughts, feelings, and motivations rather than divine or supernatural matters. Many of the allusions in Macbeth reference Greek and Roman mythology and figureheads, despite its inclusion of supernatural elements: 

  • Bellona (act 1, scene 2): Bellona is the Roman goddess of war, and Macbeth is said to be like her husband, suggesting that he is gifted in battle. 
  • Tarquin and Lucrece (act 2, scene 1): In Roman mythology, Roman Prince Tarquin rapes Lucrece, a woman married to Collantine, a soldier. Lucrece commits suicide because she has broken her vows to her husband. Her death incited revolt that led to the banishment of the monarchy and the establishment of the Roman Republic. The reference to Tarquin’s “ravishing strides” allude to his stealthily creeping to Lucrece’s chamber in the middle of the night, where he was careful to wake no one. 
  • Neptune (act 2, scene 2): Neptune is the Roman God of the sea, which is his domain. Because he is a god, Neptune is said to control the ocean and its waves. 
  • Oedipus (act 2, scene 2): Oedipus is character from Greek tragedy who murders his father and marries his mother because he tries to escape his fate, which has been prophesied. Due to intense guilt over fulfilling the prophecy, he stabs out his own eyes. Macbeth alludes to do doing the same as punishment for killing Duncan
  • Hecate (act 2, scene 2; act 3, scene 5; act 4, scene 1): As the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and necromancy, Hecate is appropriately mentioned in conjunction with approaching night, a time when nefarious acts would likely occur (act 2). She also appears directly to the witches, chastising them for not keeping her informed of what they’re telling Macbeth. She predicts Macbeth’s personal failing that will be his undoing—his overconfidence (act 3). Again she returns to praise the witches’ efforts as they sing around the cauldron, showing their supernatural power (act 4). 
  • Gorgon (act 2, scene 3): A Gorgon was a monster with hair made of snakes whose stare could turn a person to stone. Macduff claims that the sight of the king’s body will freeze a person in their tracks with shock, not unlike a Gorgon’s stare. 
  • Mark Antony and Caesar (act 3, scene 1): Julius Caesar defeated Antony in civil wars throughout the Roman Empire. Macbeth compares himself to Antony, whom he views as lesser, and Banquo’s potential to Caesar, who overshadowed Antony’s accomplishments. 
  • Acheron (act 3, scene 5): Also called the “river of woe” in Greek mythology, Acheron was one of the five rivers of the underworld. It’s an appropriate place for the witches to meet with Hecate, their hellish...

(The entire section is 735 words.)