here are 13 metaphors from Macbeth analysed.


1. I (v) "milk"

Ordinary daily, non "poetic" language is full of metaphor. Often we do not notice because they have become so "normal" - in fact in English we call them "sleeping metaphors", such as "get over" a disappointment ( similarly in Italian "superare") or "to see red" = be angry.

Why did Shakespeare use metaphor so much? The people who went to his plays were from all walks of life. Common language and dialects are colourful and physical with relatively little abstract concepts. Take as an example :

"Too full of the milk of human kindness"  If you try and "translate" what that single word "milk" (used by Lady Macbeth), you will need a very lot of words. Such metaphor is a lightning quick communication of a complex, packed idea, and is easily understood; intuitively by ordinary people.

2. I. (v) "pour my spirits" etcWith "pour" you feel Lady Macbeth's excitement and frenzy of anticipation, and the words "golden round", which stands for the "regal crown", coveys much better than "crown", what desire she feels to WEAR that crown -GOLDEN and AROUND her head.

3. I.(v) thick nightHow much more this tells us of what :Lady Macbeth wants from night. "thick" so that heaven cannot see the murder. (instead of the neutral verb "see" there is "peep", that means a kind of spying into other people's secret activities). Thick night will hide her.

4. I.(vii) pity like a new born babe…This is personification/ simile. In Shakespeare there are often these multiple images

"Pity" ("babe") "stride" (babies can't stride) and then the nightmare imagery (suitable to Macbeth's state of mind) changes to "cherubim" on "horses", and both babe and cherubim will "BLOW the deed" (not report it) and then as a result, a kind of nightmare flood of "tears will drown the wind" (that has been blowing "the deed in every ear")! Crazy stuff but WOW!.and of course Macbeth IS out of his mind!

5. I. (vii) bought golden opinions….worn. Beautiful image that calls up the "good" part of Macbeth. He likes these "golden opinions" He likes being liked, and his next image carries over "bought" because you buy clothes, which should be worn in the newest gloss". Again think how laborious all these "thoughts" would be if translated into abstract, rational vocabulary. They are also psychological illustrative of the character.

6. I.(vii) hope drunk….dressedHow suitable is the word "drunk" to describe a foolish sort of "hope", where we are prone to just hope stupidly for what we want. Then Lady Macbeth doubles her scorn by suggesting that Macbeth had just "dressed" himself with hope: dress being something you easily put on or take off: not serious.

7.I.(vii) screw your courage"Screw", like all metaphor is physical/ pictorial, and because of this is very effective in including emotional content to an idea. Lady Macbeth is accusing her husband of such weak courage that he needs to "screw it on" to a mere "sticking place".(and a background anticipation is that this "sticking" will be in blood, (that is sticky)

8. II.(i) Neptune's oceanThis is not strictly speaking a metaphor. It is a kind of extended nightmare about how much water he will need to clean his hands of blood. Like "pity" a "naked babe" this is a submerged simile that breeds other images. So it might go like this:

"I need so much water that it would be LIKE using the ocean", but then his guilt imagines that even the ocean has not enough water, so that it (green) will be incarnadined by the blood. You can see how metaphor is really a form of very quick, telescoped simile that has extra ideas stuffed in!.

9.  V.(v) supped full..What is a meal: a time of enjoyment, conversation, relaxation, life giving nutrition?

No, for Macbeth can only remember in the silence, his crimes. "I have supped full of horrors". Like so many Macbeth images - this is an authentic living nightmare!

10. V.(i) Foul whisperingspillows How much more the word "abroad" (=in giro) conveys than "people are repeating rumours". The whisperings become personifications. The second image is also a kind of submerged, telescoped simile. It might go like this; "just LIKE infected sores (=ferite) "discharge puss, SO TOO, these ill minds "discharge" (=sleep talk) their diseased thoughts to their "deaf" "pillows". How well the doctor describes Macbeth's horror film Scotland! Puss from infected minds, discharging infection into pillows that cannot understand, though ears like those of the doctor or gentlewoman may hear!

11.  V. (v) tomorrow ..syllable …candle…player….tale…idiot

At the base of this famous passage is the simile "time is LIKE a thief that creeps up on us unaware". But Macbeth calls time's steps, a "petty pace" (=miserevole), because its "petty pace" merely leads meaninglessly to the last "syllable" of recorded time. Then there follows the compressed version of the full simile "life is brief LIKE a candle" Shakespeare's use of metaphor is part of a lightening speed of thought - his, and ours as we listen. "Out, out brief candle" doesn't need all the padding of a simile's ("life is LIKE a candle's flame"), but from the telescoped simile another connected idea springs up: candles throw shadows as they "gutter", and this shadow idea suggest the popular idea of actors are LIKE shadows/ imitations of real men, so we arrive at; "a poor player", and then from the idea of the actor's brief part, the idea passes to the story enacted, which is LIKE life - a "tale(story) told by an idiot" "signifying nothing".

12. V.(iii) the sere, the yellow leaf. Instead of the simile the end of "my life is LIKE the final stages of autumn", we have this telescoped simile: "my way of life has fallen into the sere (=dried up), the yellow leaf". Humans ARE leaves, not LIKE leaves in Shakespeare's metaphors! (see final note)

13.  V.(iii) diseasedpluck…rooted…..raze out….written troubles……cleanse…. stuffedsweet antidote……..weighsNotice how physical these words are which describe Lady Macbeth's hidden agony. Such strenuous word use by Shakespeare lies behind: the beauty, quick intelligibility and tight-packed quality of his thought. There is also this sympathetic love and empathy in his imagery that even touches a Macbeth!