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Metaphor in Macbeth

Metaphor Examples in Macbeth:

Act I - Scene II

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"Bellona's bridegroom..."   (Act I - Scene II)

Bellona is the Roman goddess of war, making her bridegroom the god of war. The Thane of Ross uses this metaphor to praise Macbeth's unsurpassed skill on the battlefield as he confronted the Norwegian forces.

"I have begun to plant thee, and will labor To make thee full of growing...."   (Act I - Scene IV)

Duncan uses the language of farming—"plant," "labor," "growing"—to metaphorically describe his "harvest" of loyal subjects, a result of his attentive actions.

"But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we'll not fail...."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Lady Macbeth tells her husband to shore up his courage and hold it to him by using a metaphor that refers to the notch on a cross-bow that holds the taut string before firing. Lady Macbeth's metaphor is ironic because it draws a connection between Macbeth's act of selfish ambition and a soldier stringing a bow. Soldiers act on behalf of the king and country, while Macbeth acts on his own accord. In this way, Lady Macbeth not only tells him to "tighten" his courage so that they don't fail, she metaphorically elevates the purpose for his courage and justifies their actions.

"Was the hope drunk Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since?..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

In another clothing metaphor that extends from and builds on Macbeth's previous comments, Lady Macbeth accuses him of a lack of resolution to carry out the plan. Here, "hope" initially refers to Macbeth as a person drunk with the idea of success, and then becomes the robe that Macbeth has dressed himself in that has become pale and weak.

"I have no spur(25) To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Macbeth is using horseback riding as a metaphor when he says he has no spur to prick the sides of his intent. Where he says, "...but only Vaulting ambition," he evidently is thinking of the image of a man who intends to leap onto a horse but vaults so high that he goes clear over the horse's saddle and falls to the ground on the other side. The word "side" is left out because Macbeth's soliloquy is interrupted by his wife, but the audience should understand the missing word because of all that went before it, beginning with "I have no spur." A man who did such a thing would look foolish, and Macbeth is apparently thinking that it is foolhardy to be plotting an assassination when he has no real need of further advancement and no just reason for wanting to replace the existing monarch. The alternative to being foolish is to be wise, and Macbeth is thinking that his better wisdom is telling him to abort this whole assassination plot.

"Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, Not cast aside so soon..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

As stated earlier in the play, references to clothing are often metaphors for titles and ranks. Macbeth does not wish to go through with the plan to murder Duncan and take the title of king. He was only recently given the title of Thane of Cawdor, and wants to embrace it—and the accompanying respect—for a while. 

"There's husbandry in heaven,(5) Their candles are all out...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Banquo might be making a joke to amuse his son to state how dark it is: Heaven is trying to be economical ("there's husbandry") with their lights (candles). This also contains an interesting idea—that the lights in the sky are all candles used by the inhabitants of heaven to light their homes.

"All by the name of dogs...."   (Act III - Scene I)

Macbeth uses an extended metaphor to show his cautious appraisal of the murderers and to fully gauge the kind of men they are. His comparison of men and dogs reveals his belief that men, like dogs, are not created equally and have very different attributes.

"a fruitless crown..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Macbeth bitterly states that even though he is king, the witches have given him a "fruitless crown" and an "barren sceptre." Both of these phrases are metaphors for Macbeth's inability to produce children to be his heirs, represent his feelings of inadequacy, and demonstrate why Macbeth fears Banquo and Banquo's children.

"full of scorpions is my mind..."   (Act III - Scene II)

That is, dangerous and threatening thoughts plague Macbeth's mind and the fact that Banquo and Fleance live is a constant reminder of the witches' prophesy.

"As birds do, Mother...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Lady Macduff's son jokingly answers her question with a simile which his mother then continues this idea of her son as a bird with an extended metaphor. His response of "With what I get, I mean; and so do they" means that he will get by however he can. Their witty repartee reveals a fond and loving relationship and makes the end of the scene all the more tragic.

"a devil more damn'd In evils to top Macbeth...."   (Act IV - Scene III)

Notice how Macduff and Malcolm both refer to Macbeth as black, evil, and a devil. Shakespeare likely used these particular words for the express purpose of giving the rebellion against Macbeth a moral and religious component. Macbeth is not just a bad king; he is an agent of the devil. This means that Malcolm and Macduff have God and righteousness on their side.

"buckle..."   (Act V - Scene II)

Caithness uses this metaphor to describe Macbeth losing control of his forces. "Buckle" here refers to the rule or control he has over his party, and since he cannot buckle his metaphorical belt, he cannot possible rule over his discontented army.

"They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, But bear-like I must fight the course...."   (Act V - Scene VII)

Bear-baiting was an Elizabethan "sport" or pastime in which a bear was tied to a stake and harassed by dogs. Macbeth uses this metaphor to describe his own condition: he finds it impossible to escape from the superior number of enemies and compares himself to the baited bear. Despite this, he continues to fight against all odds, holding faith in the witches' other prophesy that said no man born of woman may harm Macbeth.

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