The Serpentine Symbolism in Macbeth
The snake has long been used as a symbol of sly subtlety. A serpent’s presence has been characterized by cunning cynicism dating as far back as biblical times, when the snake persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of Eden’s garden. Even the phrase “snake in the grass” expresses hidden threat. Shakespeare uses this treacherous reptile in Macbeth to convey the same evil. In his poetic prose, Shakespeare may not speak of a character’s malevolence directly; rather, he alludes to it through serpentine imagery. I analyzed four images of this type in Macbeth. What is their purpose, and what do they signify? A deep undercurrent of meaning flows beneath each image.
In act one, scene five, Lady Macbeth tries to instill invisible evil into herself and her husband in preparation for Duncan’s murder. She asks for supernatural unsexing, for a thickening of her blood that will “stop up th’ access and passage to remorse.” She fears her husband is too weak to murder Duncan, which she believes is Macbeth’s only path to the crown. After tauntingly questioning her husband’s manhood, she convinces him to follow her gory plan and gives him instructions to do so.
“To beguile the time, look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue. Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.”
She says that to succeed, they must feign mediocrity amongst their guests, concealing their sinister desires. Appearing normal will not invoke suspicions. The serpent Lady Macbeth speaks of is the evil ambition Macbeth has, craftily slithering out of the shade of the virtuous flower when the deed is to be done. This image is used in a traditional manner, denoting mischief and concealment. It represents Macbeth’s hidden ambitions and his wife’s plans. This is the first example of an extensive amount of scheming that will occur in an effort to cover the bloody truths of Macbeth’s rise to the throne. It also follows the theme of appearance versus reality- “fair is foul and foul is fair.” What Duncan thinks to have “a pleasant seat” is actually the poisonous serpent underneath, waiting till nighttime to prey on its docile victim.
Macbeth expresses his suspicions about Banquo and Duncan’s murder in act three, scene two. When Lady Macbeth says “things without all remedy should be without regard,” he disagrees.
“We have scorched the snake, not killed it. She’ll remain close and be herself whilst our poor malice remains in danger of her former tooth.”
Here, the snake is a metaphor for the obstacles impeding his rise to power. He says they have merely injured these hindrances, not eliminated them. In time, they’ll reassemble just as strong, while Macbeth and his wife will be vulnerable to them again. He feels his work is not yet done, and hires murderers for Banquo to finish it. The “former tooth” of the snake Macbeth fears will get revenge on him foreshadows the remainder of his life. Upon scorching Duncan, Macbeth sets off his devilish ambitions and begins butchering his way through a downward spiral. His scorching of the snake ultimately leads to he and his wife’s painful demises and a loss of all he had gained.
The “snake” Macbeth was apprehensive about earlier is eliminated by the murderers when they kill Banquo in act three, scene four. Macbeth thought that his impediments would dissipate with the General; instead, they remain in Fleances’ escape. About the incidents, Macbeth says:
“There the grown serpent lies. The worm that’s fled hath nature that in time will venom breed, no teeth for th’ present.”
The “serpent” that has plagued him is lying still in a ditch, certainly not a bother to him any more. He is now troubled by its spawn, the presently innocent “worm” that he knows will become a danger in time. Even after more bloodshed, Macbeth is not free of the weighty snake. Fleance will mature into a threat, fathering a son that will begin the seven generations of Scottish kings Macbeth wanted to kill off. A final serpentine image is used in act four, scene one. The Weird Sisters initiate their brew with a “fillet of a fenny snake.” The serpent, along with many other animalian ingredients, is used to show vileness. It is not a particularly significant image in the full play, yet in this scene it precedes twenty-six lines of further ingredients. Heading the filthy brew with a swamp snake, easily the most loathsome of all animals, the Witches set the revolting tone of their potion.
If a picture tells a thousand words, consider the importance of an image upon a play as short as Macbeth. Shakespeare colorizes his play with contrasting dark images of snakes. They are placed evenly throughout the play, serving various purposes. The four examples of serpentine imagery in Macbeth illustrate the theme of appearance versus reality, foreshadow coming events, and set the tone of passages, all the while maintaining the deceptive finesse that characterizes the snake in all literary works.
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