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The opposition of light and dark as symbols for life and death is the foundation upon which much of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is built. Darkness in our society is indicative of many symbols of evil. For instance, a black cat, dark night, and dark place are all ominous symbols. Light, as it is used in Macbeth, often seems to be indicative of truth or life. The contrast between light and dark in Macbeth can best be seen through the dialogue of the characters and the ambiance of scenes in the play.
The characters in Macbeth make several references to light and darkness throughout the play. For example in Act 1 Macbeth says, “Stars, hide your fires; let not see my black and deep desires…” (Bevington pgs.632-633). Macbeth does not want the light, or his goodness, to see that he wants to murder King Duncan in order to receive the crown. Later on in that same act, Lady Macbeth cries out, “Come, thick night, and pall the in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, nor the heaven peep through the blanket of the dark” (Bevington pg. 635). Lady Macbeth does not want anyone to see what she will do, and she also does not want to see it herself. The darkness, or evil, will cover her deed, and the light, or goodness, will not see it. These statements by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth illustrate the contrasting views between light and darkness. Both characters want the darkness of their evil to be hidden from the goodness and truth of the light. The distinction between light and darkness is further developed as the play progresses.
For instance, in Act 4 Malcolm declares, “Angels are bright still, thought the brightest star fell” (Bevington pg. 686). He is referring to Macbeth’s original virtue before he murdered King Duncan, and how after he committed the crime, he lost his virtue and his star fell. In Act 5 while Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, the Gentlewoman is questioned about why Lady Macbeth was sleepwalking with a light, and she states, ” Why, it stood by her. She has light by / her continually. ‘Tis her command.” (Bevington pg. 695). This scene indicates that Lady Macbeth is afraid of the dark because she doesn’t want to be bothered by the dead that can appear as ghosts to haunt her in the night. Lastly, in Act 5 Macbeth admits, “I gin to be aweary of the sun”. (Bevington pg.704). This may be a reflection of his awareness that Good (the sun) is gaining the upper hand in its struggle with Evil. The dialogue spoken by the characters greatly demonstrates the contrast between light and darkness, but Shakespeare also utilizes atmosphere to broaden the notion.
The use of light and dark imagery bring a heavy tone to the play. It is used to portray an image of a desolate, deranged place, full of tumult and disorder. Images of night and darkness are often used at times in the play when a death has occurred, or some other evil action has taken place. Examples of this are the many appearances of the witches and the murders that occur. The witches are the main sources of evil within the play. When the witches are in an act, storm or the darkness of the woods constantly accompanies them. In the first scene of the play, the witches are depicted as agents of evil because of the dark domain around them. The weather is described as thunder and lightning. Then, in acts 1, 3, and 4, the scenes featuring the witches have the element of thunder in them. Darkness is again associated with evil when Macbeth describes the witches’ appearance as “secret, black, and midnight hags”.
The imagery of light and darkness plays an important role in the scenes wherein murders occur. For example, in Act 2 while Fleance and Banquo are discussing the conditions of the night, Fleance states, “The moon is down.” and Banqo replies, “There is husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out.” (Bevington, pg. 641). In this exchange the reader learns that the moon is down and the night is starless. This is exactly the kind of night that Macbeth wanted because he thought it might conceal his guilt that he was feeling and make him brave to kill Duncan. Soon after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, Ross reveals that the “Traveling lamp”, which is the sun, should be lighting the new day, and speculates that the night is stronger than the day, or that the day is ashamed of itself. Given that the sun did not rise, it can be surmised that the goodness of the light could not be shed on such a sinister and bloody murder scene. Later on in Act 3 the relationship between light and life is again presented. Under the veil of the darkness of the night, the murders make out a light, being held by Banquo before they murder him. This light, which Banquo holds, represents the life that the murders have extinguished.
The concept of light in Macbeth is predominantly associated with goodness. For example, the day before Macbeth’s final battle, the light of the day is the major factor that foretells the outcome. When discussing the impending battle, Siward says to Macduff, “The day almost itself professes yours, / And little is to do” (Bevington pg 706). This means that by having the battle during the day, Macduff has the powers of light and his goodness on his side. Also, in a number of Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s lines, they request that the darkness cover their evil deeds so that the light will not see them. This suggests that they do not want the decency of the light to lay eyes on their detestable actions.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare made the majority of evil actions occur during the night in order to attest to the fact that evilness is correlated with darkness. Conversely, Shakespeare linked the aspect of light with a certain goodness or truth. These elements combine to contrast the features of the distinction between light and darkness in the play.