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Macbeth | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the symbols in William Shakespeare's play Macbeth.

Macbeth | Symbols



Blood represents the guilt Macbeth and Lady Macbeth share. When Macbeth returns from killing Duncan, his hands are covered with blood, which marks his actions. Lady Macbeth also stains her hands when she returns the daggers to the scene of the crime. For her, the symbolism becomes more permanent, as she hallucinates blood on her hands during the throes of her madness later in the play.


Ghosts represent the way past actions come back to haunt the present and future, as when Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost seated at the banquet table. It is unclear whether the ghost is actually Banquo or a figment of Macbeth's guilt-ridden imagination. Later, when Banquo's ghost appears again, this time with the witches, he is leading a line of kings—his descendants—which demonstrates that his death will give rise to future monarchs who will rule Scotland.


The storms that rage in Macbeth—whenever the witches appear and on the night Duncan is murdered—are symbols of Scotland's unrest, both politically and socially. They also display Shakespeare's belief in "the great chain of being," a symbiotic relationship between a divinely appointed ruler, the people, and all of nature. Shakespeare uses storms and other natural disasters in Macbeth and other plays (Julius Caesar, for example) to foreshadow adverse actions planned against a ruler.

The thunder and lightning that accompany the witches' meetings reflect their intentions regarding Macbeth. Their predictions do Macbeth no favors, and his adherence to them leads to his own demise.

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