- Play titles: Macbeth, Othello, Richard III (comparative study).
- Author: William Shakespeare
- Respective publication dates: 1623 (First Folio), 1622 Quarto, 1597 Quarto edition.
- Respective page counts: 52, 74, 81
The Tragedy of Macbeth depicts the ruthless pursuit of power, and the consequential price to be paid. All commences when Macbeth, who is a loyal subject of Scotland’s King Duncan, meets a band of witches who prophesize his ascension to greatness. Buoyed up by this good omen, Lady Macbeth endeavours to transform the mumblings of these three, weird sisters into a golden-crowned reality for her husband. Only King Duncan stands in the way, so he is bloodily dispatched in his sleep while lodging with his treacherous hosts. However, the evil deed will haunt Macbeth and his wife and lead to their separate dooms. Having begun the quest, this husband and wife soon realise that they have set in motion a horrible cascade of bloodshed. Macbeth, fearing even his closest allies, orders the execution of his friend Banquo, and of Banquo’s young son too. Lady Macbeth begins to imagine that her hands are still wet with blood, and she descends into madness prior to her suspected suicide. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shorter works, but it proves an intense theatrical experience due to the mix of political treachery and supernatural influences. Key themes in this work are ambition, conscience, the supernatural, and fate.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is about a Black, military hero who lives in the Venetian Republic of the Middle Ages. Othello’s adoptive city desperately needs his leadership skills when the Turks invade Cyprus, which at that time was an outpost of Venetian territory. By virtue of Othello’s military service and fine standing in the community, he gains the hand of the beautiful Desdemona who is the daughter of Brabanzio, a nobleman. However, Othello’s racial background is constantly viewed as an impediment to his full acceptance by the Venetian community. It is Othello’s friend Iago, either prompted by suspicions of his own wife’s unfaithfulness or possibly due to Othello’s recent military promotion, who seeks to utterly destroy Othello. In fact, there is never a clearly stated motivation for the cruel acts performed by Iago. The play charts how Iago sets doubts in the mind of Othello about Desdemona’s faithfulness, hinting that she may be having an affair with Cassio. These suspicions grow and churn in Othello’s mind until finally, in a fit of rage, he murders his wife and then kills himself out of guilt. Shakespeare has Iago, the villain of the story, expertly expose and contribute to a world of racial prejudice, sexual jealousy, and career competitiveness. A malign rumour poisons the mind of an otherwise great man and tragedy ensues. Core themes of this play include sexuality, friendship, jealousy, revenge, and race.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Third tells the tale of one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters, the physically deformed and menacing Richard III. In the wake of the War of the Roses, Richard’s brother Edward has been anointed king, but Richard covets the crown for himself. First, Richard plots so that his other brother George is imprisoned in the Tower of London on false charges and later executed, and this precipitates the death of Edward who was already in poor health. The way is now fortuitously clear for Richard to rule, except for Edward’s young sons and heirs, Prince Edward and Richard, Duke of York. On Richard’s command, a man named James Tyrrel is given the gruesome task of executing the children. In the meantime, Richard ‘romances’ Lady Anne whom he soon marries, but hastily has her killed when he sets his sights elsewhere. Edward then tries to woo his cousin, Princess Elizabeth, in his final push to solidify his power. However, Henry Earl of Richmond raises an army in France and returns to England to challenge Richard who has become highly unpopular with the people of the kingdom. At the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is finally killed. This play is a fascinating study of the psychology of a true villain, made more engrossing with supernatural elements like the ghosts of Richard’s many victims as well as the potent curses of old Queen Margaret. Themes central to the play are physical deformity, Machiavellianism, the supernatural, ambition, and power.
Ways to access the texts: reading/listening/watching.
If you would like to read multiple Shakespearean text on one creditable website, then The Folger Shakespeare is an excellent choice. Needless to say, these texts can be sourced via countless other websites.
Audiobook versions of the plays are also widely available. For example, there are professional audiobook versions of all three plays available on the Internet Archive.
If you find Shakespearean English a trudge, as many modern readers do, and you prefer films then luckily there are good options. For example, the 1971 film version of Macbeth, also named Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis is an excellent adaptation. There have been at least two other major films of the play in recent years. The selection and quality of film versions of the other two plays are not quite as stellar. Laurence Olivier directed and starred in the 1955 movie named Richard III and it is a competent, loyal portrayal. Lastly, Othello directed by Oliver Parker and starring Laurence Fishburne is one of the best-known, cinematic versions of that play.
Why read/watch/listen to the plays?
Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III are all fine examples of Shakespeare’s dramatic skills. A one-line summation of each play is provided here in order to differentiate the works for as yet undecided readers.
Macbeth – A young, blood-thirsty, power couple achieve their wildest dreams by seizing the throne of Scotland only to find that victory quickly sours when gained by false means.
Othello – A dark-skinned hero wins the love of a fair beauty but falls prey to the machinations of his best friend who is finally unmasked as the worst of foes.
Richard III – A deformed, bitter, megalomaniac, sets about butchering anyone who stands between him and the English Crown, only to be rattled by ghostly visitations the night before he dies in dishonour on the battlefield.
However, since this post is not the usual single-play analysis but a comparative study, one should look to the interesting links between the plays. The essay which follows is on the subject of Shakespeare’s use of metaphor and how even the same metaphor may be used to different effect in all three works.
Shared Metaphors in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth.
Through the use of metaphor, Shakespeare largely designed his characters both physically and psychologically. In defence of such a bold statement, one may assert that a plain literal description often lacks nuance and depth whereas figurative language offers a complex set of connotations. M. H. Abrams writes that figurative language “is a conspicuous departure from what users of a language apprehend as the standard meaning of words, or else the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect” (96). Indeed, Shakespeare manages to enfeeble or empower characters in unexpected ways through descriptive techniques. The physical bodies and the complex minds of the central characters in a play are often the keys to one’s understanding of why the stories unfold as they do. The use of figurative language, especially metaphor, allows attention to the guided onto specific aspects of characters. In this essay, I will look at some shared metaphors in three of Shakespeare’s well known plays, namely Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. By analysing the same metaphor in different contexts, one gains insight into Shakespeare’s genius but also the core role of figurative language in bringing a character to life. A standard definition of metaphor is provided by Abrams – “In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison” (97). For the dramatic personas of Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, Shakespeare highlights through metaphor the respective issues of the female body, deformity, and skin colour. Furthermore, we learn a great deal of the mental workings of these powerful, fictional figures from the descriptions they incur from Shakespeare’s pen.
In his famous 1955 essay entitled “Metaphor”, Max Black gives a comprehensive explanation of how, in his view, metaphor works. He asserts that metaphor is not merely artistic decoration, but that it is a case of creative interaction between two ideas. This breaks with several traditional schools of thought, for example, Black writes that “Any view which holds that a metaphorical expression is used in place of some equivalent literal expression, I shall call a substitution view of metaphor” (279). He goes on to state that “If a writer holds that a metaphor consists in the presentation of the underlying analogy or similarity, he will be taking what I shall call a comparison view of metaphor” (283). He wholly rejects both of these theories of metaphor. Instead, Black follows the ideas of I. A. Richards whom he quotes as follows, “In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction” (285). However, Black did not simply reuse the ideas from Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but as Abrams writes, “the philosopher Max Black refined and greatly expanded Richard’s treatment [of metaphor]” (155). If one applies Black’s theory of metaphor to Shakespeare’s characters, where the exact same metaphorical terms are often repeated, one begins to understand why they nonetheless remain impressively creative.
It is helpful to cover the mechanics of Black’s ideas on metaphor since, as already stated, there are different theories of this particular trope. For example, if one makes up a metaphor like ‘that little boy is a monkey” then it is possible to classify the most important parts of the sentence. Abrams gives us the typically accepted language, like “the name tenor for the subject” (97) which is the ‘little boy’ from my example, and “the name vehicle for the metaphorical term itself” (97) which is ‘monkey’ here. Black alters these terms since he calls the metaphorical term/vehicle the “subsidiary subject” (287) and that which is being described as the “principal subject” (286), rather than the tenor. Black writes that, “we can say that the principal subject is ‘seen through’ the metaphorical expression” (288). Furthermore, Black argues that the interaction between the principal subject and the subsidiary subject is a two-way street so both are changed in the concoction rather than the traditional view of the metaphor being applied unilaterally to something.
Three quite distinct Shakespearean characters, Richard III, Othello, and Lady Macbeth wield great power through their aesthetic presentations. The metaphorical language used to describe them overlaps in many respects, yet without diluting the force of their individual portrayals. To use the words of Max Black, “the metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject” (292). It is important to reiterate that the interaction of the subsidiary subject (the metaphorical term) with the principal subject is what creates the distinctive meaning. For example, the made to measure, almost organic potential of metaphorical description can be witnessed in Shakespeare’s application of the word ‘devil’ to these three characters. The ‘principal subject’ in each of the following cases will be the character, while the subsidiary subject is the devil, who brings certain connotations to bear on the character, dependent largely on the context. The results, despite one’s normal expectations, are never commonplace.
First, let us take the shocking scene depicting Richard the Third’s interaction with Lady Anne as he begins to woo her – over the body of her dead husband. Anne immediately protests, saying, “foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not” (1.2.50) and in the context we understand that Richard’s identity as the dead man’s murderer makes his presence as unholy as the devil’s. Anne further chastises Richard as “thou lump of foul deformity” (1.2.55) making clear that he is also as ugly and misshapen as any devil from Hell. Now, in order to appreciate the flexibility of this single metaphor, one may contrast the above scene with the words of the maid Emilia to Othello on her mistress’s death, “oh, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” (5.2.128). The maid’s words express not only the evident mismatch of the lovers in life, but the prospective separate dwellings of each in the afterlife. The emphasis is not so much on Desdemona’s murder but the sense that Othello is even more the black devil than Emilia already believed him to be. Emilia is establishing a link between race and inevitable evil deeds by using the black devil as the encapsulating metaphor. In yet another formulation, Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to, “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / of direst cruelty!” (1.5.40-41). She retains her own outwardly serene, feminine appearance but implores the forces of darkness to make her as cruel as the devil himself on the inside. Lady Macbeth’s transformation is complete when Macbeth says that he will boldly look upon that, “which might appall the devil!” (3.4.61), however, he grows pale at the sight of Banquo’s ghost but he notes that his wife can, “keep the natural ruby of your cheeks” (3.4.117). Her transformation to devil is already complete in her husband’s eyes. This is the most complex of the three examples since Shakespeare never directly calls Lady Macbeth a devil but more interestingly allows her to be seen as such by the man who loves her. It is Macbeth’s own overwhelming guilt that reveals to him his wife’s horrible metamorphose to devil. In each instance the metaphor foregrounds specific devilish traits, acting as a form of filter upon the full panoply of possible, devilish connotations. Lady Macbeth remains fair of face, but she adopts a metallic brashness and is revealed as foul of soul, Richard the Third’s deformity and matching unholy character is foregrounded, and Othello’s colour is emphasized as a mark of ever-potential evil and a sign of his proper abode in death. What’s more, the devil that one used to imagine as the standard, evil one, is altered by the comparisons too!
On the other hand, one may protest that the final meaning of each metaphorical use of devil is quite arbitrary. For example, my reading of the devilish characteristics highlighted by the metaphor may be challenged by another reader. To decipher this, one first needs to look at how metaphors’ meanings are selected. Black writes that “Imagine some layman required to say, without taking special thought, those things he held to be true about wolves; the set of statements resulting would approximate to what I am here calling the system of commonplaces associated with the word ‘wolf’” (287). We are dealing with the metaphor of ‘devil’ rather than ‘wolf’ but the same idea applies. Black writes that “the important thing for the metaphor’s effectiveness is not that the commonplaces shall be true, but that they should be readily and freely evoked” (287). So, when we see the word devil used as a metaphor, there are immediate devilish characteristics to choose from (the system of commonplaces) and we each apply those deemed appropriate to the subject. In the given examples, Lady Macbeth is unlikely to be considered as ugly as the devil, nor Othello as cut-throat as the devil, nor Richard as subtle as the devil. The reader’s role is clearly pivotal in the final selection and correctly so, but the devilish attributes also need to fit, like puzzle pieces. However, an author may certainly influence our choices, as Black relates below.
“Reference to “associated commonplaces” will fit the commonest cases where the author simply plays upon the stock of common knowledge (and common misinformation) presumably shared by the reader and himself. But in a poem, or a piece of sustained prose, the writer can establish a novel pattern of implications for the literal uses of the key expressions, prior to using them as vehicles for his metaphors.” (290).
An author can, in effect, prime a reader to choose certain associated commonplaces for a particular metaphor. The metaphor of devil is indeed used by Shakespeare multiple times in each of the plays being discussed, and crucially prior to the examples already discussed. For example, the first time Lady Anne refers to Richard as a devil is as follows – “mortal eyes cannot endure the devil. — / Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell” (1.2.46-47). The focus is on Richard’s ugliness which offends the eyes and as a ‘minister of hell’ he is seen as a member of Hell’s government who is on a diplomatic mission, away from his natural, horrid abode. This indeed establishes our thoughts, and guides how we interpret Anne’s later uses of devil as a metaphor. In Othello, Iago tells Brabanzio – “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise! / … Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.97-100). The prurient emphasis here is on the copulation of the dark-skinned Othello with the fair Desdemona and the presumed evil thereby initiated. Emilia’s later use of the devil metaphor acts as a confirmation that all warnings were correct. In Macbeth, when Banquo realises that the witches’ prophecy is coming to pass, he says “What, can the devil speak true?” (1.3.108). This example needs to be understood tangentially, since one has to first appreciate the close alignment of Lady Macbeth with the sexless witches whose grotesque depictions embody their moral ugliness, something that Lady Macbeth hides. Banquo’s focus is on the devil’s deceptive nature, the father of all lies, and this is also how one needs to understand Lady Macbeth when she graciously welcomes King Duncan to her home because she already knows that she plans to murder him. In each case, the multiple uses of the same metaphor in the same play does indeed strongly influences how we interpret that metaphor and thereby we fall upon a sustained meaning.
While the devil metaphor is fascinating in its malleability, there is also a distinctive richness and allure to the other figurative descriptions of each character. Richard III is variously labelled a “foul toad,” “bottled spider,” “hell-hound,” and “bloody boar.” Othello’s monikers are predominantly linked to his colour, race, and supposed nature, such as “thick lips” “old black ram,” “Barbary horse,” and “sooty bosom.” Lady Macbeth’s deceitful, feminine façade is communicated in the “innocent flower …serpent” metaphor. One could reasonably argue that these various descriptions also influence the devil metaphor. When Shakespeare uses terms like hell-hound, old black ram, and serpent, then he is consciously using terms which all have satanic connotations, but this is more of an interesting aside than a core focus here. Of central interest is that the resulting physical imagery of each character has an inherent power. It is helpful to consider some academic writings interpreting how the imagery operates within the aforementioned plays since such analyses also shed additional light on Shakespeare’s metaphors.
Joel Elliot Slotkin asserts that in Richard III, there is the use of “sinister aesthetics” (5) which he describes as the valorising of “the dark and hideous as admirable poetic subjects” (5). Slotkin explores our attraction to evil depictions and especially the allure of Richard’s “narcissistic pride in his ugliness” (5). When Richard has won the hand of Lady Anne in marriage, he admits his own powers to have been little more than, “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (1.2.223). The importance of Richard’s depiction is summarized in the statement “his ugliness is an aesthetic attribute that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, Richard artfully crafts false appearances of goodness” (Slotkin 10). Richard’s character remains tantalizingly seductive because his aesthetic qualities, mostly achieved through metaphor, extract an admiring reaction from the reader that sharply contradicts a proper moralistic reaction. The artistry of his physical representation brings pleasure, and this is heightened by witnessing how the character uses his physicality as part of his diabolical power.
In Othello’s case, his skin colour proves to be a distraction from his qualities, and therefore a loss of power. Phyllis Natalie Braxton writes about the typical Elizabethan’s idea of a Black African or Moor, stating that contemporary “pernicious notions about blacks were assigned to Iago’s character in the play. This is evident in Iago’s skill to prey on underlying fears, like when he tells Desdemona’s father, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”’ While Braxton contemplates the idea that Shakespeare is highlighting the problems of a Black man in white society, or the plight of the ‘Other’, she ultimately rejects that either of these is a core message of the play. As Othello achieves both high office and the respect of many of his peers, it seems to Braxton that such an interpretation is ultimately not supportable. She focuses instead on the metaphor of Othello becoming a fly in Iago’s web. While intricate in its justification, Braxton’s essay discounts much textual proof of the constant suppositions about Othello’s character which are based chiefly on his race and colour. It is doubtless that the depiction of Othello preys on and manipulates ideas about the Black man, revealing him to be powerless to the constant attrition of prejudice enacted by Iago.
Lady Macbeth, though she receives hardly any physical description, maintains our imaginative attention through a few key metaphors. Stephanie Chamberlain writes about the importance of patrilineage and the power of maternal agency in Macbeth. She homes in on the imagery of Lady Macbeth nursing and also the theme of infanticide. Chamberlain asserts that Lady Macbeth “attempts to seize a masculine power to further Macbeth’s political goals” (72). The author also quotes Dympna Callaghan who wrote, “in Macbeth, the Kingdom of Darkness is unequivocally female, unequivocally matriarchal” (79). Lady Macbeth would hypothetically sacrifice her own child, ending Macbeth’s possibility of patrilineage, to expediently seize an obviously temporary power that was at hand. The predominant and obviously distorted image of motherhood is provided when Lady Macbeth says, “come to my woman’s breasts, / and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (1.5.45-46). This is very much in keeping with the image of the devil we take her to be in reality.
It is evident that Shakespeare uses a diverse system of metaphor to reflect the true characters of his key players. As Max Black writes of the contrast between plain literal description and metaphor, “the literal paraphrase inevitably says too much – and with the wrong emphasis” (293). Metaphor works differently because the ultimate meaning is reliant on the guidance of the text, and the mind of the reader. According to Black, “Metaphorical statement is not a substitute for a formal comparison or any other kind of literal statement, but has its own distinctive capacities and achievements” (284) and he ventures to assert that “It would be more illuminating in some of these cases to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing” (284-285). This latter statement is not appropriate for the devil metaphor since Richard III and Lady Macbeth are easily associated with evil and Othello’s skin colour means that he easily falls prey to prejudicial comparisons to a devil. However, the following metaphors can indeed be seen to ‘create the similarity’ as Black phrases it.
The second intriguing metaphor that Shakespeare uses is that of flowers. Probably the most striking and memorable example is Lady Macbeth’s use of such a metaphor when giving Machiavellian advice to her husband – “look like th’innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t” (1.6.63-64). The advice forms a character portrait of Lady Macbeth herself thereby exposing her duplicitous nature. When King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle he says, “fair and noble hostess, / we are your guests tonight” (1.6.23-24). It is under the cover of darkness, when the nocturnal serpent awakens, that Duncan’s assessment of his fair and noble hostess is shattered. Lady Macbeth’s famous quote incorporates simile (look like) and metaphor (but be) in a way that highlights the contrast between mere comparison versus the power of metaphor which is figurative language that transforms. Richard the Third’s own use of a floral metaphor is in keeping with the constant reshaping of his image through rhetoric. He snidely remarks to his nephew, “small herbs have grace, great weeds grow apace” (2.4.13) which is an ironic compliment to his own stunted stature. One should note that this is “an implicit metaphor, [because] the tenor is not itself specified, but only implied” (Abrams 97). Richard’s mother, The Duchess of York interjects with a pointed remark, saying, “if this were a true rule, then he should be gracious” (2.4.20). Richard employs a flattering, floral metaphor to shape how he is perceived by others in spite of the reality of his ugliness, whereas Lady Macbeth relies on her fair appearance to hide her hellish motives and sums this up in potent advice. In each instance, the natural physical attributes of the character are worked superbly to their advantage. In Othello’s case, his dark skin is considered by others a partial negation of his good qualities. It is his race and supposed temperament that are hinted at by the use of figurative language consisting of fruit and flowers. For example, the handkerchief embroidered with strawberries which Othello gives to Desdemona, is seemingly enchanted. Othello explains, “there’s magic in the web of it” (3.4.66) because a sibyl sewed it, and as a consequence, it is purported to have the power to preserve love. It is this air of the mysterious and the sensual that is played upon by Iago who suggests, “the food that to him [Othello] now is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida” (1.3.336). The coloquintida is a family of flower used as a purgative and therefore suggests that Othello will become bored with Desdemona as soon as his sexual appetite is satiated. In this case, the fruit of the handkerchief communicates Othello’s exoticism and his necessity to charm love on account of his perceived racial impediment, whereas the purgative flowers communicate his supposed sexual temperament.
In considering the body’s power, it is helpful to delve into the preoccupation of Shakespearean characters, or those around them, with creating and protecting a hereditary line. It is through their progeny that these characters may create new images of themselves who will inherit a crown or title. In the context of the chosen plays, progeny and motherhood take on an increased relevance. Once again, metaphorical descriptions give tremendous insight into the characters and their families.
Othello is depicted as a fine and noble warrior, yet his colour detracts from his value in the eyes of his adopted community. It is both the Moor’s supposed sexual appetite along with traditional connotations of mohammedanism and slavery that inform his reception. Iago preys on the visceral fears of Brabanzio, when he shouts from the street, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (1.1.108). The metaphor of Barbary horse suggests Berber/Barbarian along with the crude reduction of Othello’s love to an animalistic instinct to copulate. Iago is seeking to sabotage Othello’s marriage and therefore any chance of him gaining a secure foothold in Venetian society. The power of Othello materializes in other peoples’ fears of his mixed-race children. Iago reveals a potent taboo with a tactless but effective metaphor. In the end, the family line of Othello ends tragically with Othello!
Richard III’s mother, the Duchess of York, rejects her son by describing the result of her childbirth with Richard as an abomination. She says, “O my accursed womb, the bed of death, a Cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world” (4.1.48). Similar to how Iago imagines Othello’s future children as tainted and animalistic, Richard’s mother employs a metaphor that transforms her child to a cockatrice – a beast of legend that is both snake and cock. It is therefore unsurprising that the duchess sees nothing of herself in her murderous offspring, proven by her disparaging comparison of Richard with her two lost sons, “And I for comfort have but one false glass” (2.2.52). The natural delight of a mother in her child is distorted, undermined, and turned into a grotesque parody. The metaphor of a womb being the ‘bed of death’ is repeated in Richard’s perverse attempts to court Elizabeth’s daughter, having already killed her other children. He says, “but in your daughter’s womb I bury them, where in the nest of spicery, they shall breed selves of themselves to your recomforture” (4.4.340). Richard is offering Elizabeth and her daughter a chance to live, rather than die by refusing him! This strategic marriage will further secure Richard’s position as king and lead to a potential heir to the throne. The diabolical terms in which he phrases this marriage proposal can only be matched by Lady Macbeth’s depiction of parenthood and its subservience to political ambition.
Lady Macbeth is rarely associated with motherhood, yet her status as a mother seems most likely given her utterance, “I have given suck and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.54-55). One may assume that the child died and thereby died Macbeth’s only heir. In the absence of any living progeny, Lady Macbeth is willing to resort to the basest tactics to secure whatever power is within reach. In an inversion of stereotypical gender roles, Lady Macbeth worries about her husband’s lack of steely ambition – “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (1.5.14-16). She suffers from no such compunction and shatters any illusion that she has compassion or physical warmth when she professes that, rather than go back on a promise to seize power, a promise her husband indeed made to her, she would have preferred to murder her own child.
“I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this” (1.7.56-58).
Lady Macbeth evokes the body of a nursing mother only to transform it into a nightmarish image of infanticide. There is a strange but effective clash of the maternal body with monstrosity in the selected quotes. Most readers would consider ‘the milk of human kindness’ to be as dead a metaphor as ‘the leg of a table’, however, Lady Macbeth’s emphasis on breast milk revives the metaphorical phrase. The boy who died (his boneless gums) signals the end of Macbeth’s hopes of patrilineage and this prompts his wife to dispense with moralistic concerns given the apparent lack of a succeeding generation. The death of the real child, most likely from natural causes, may be linked to the warped immorality of Lady Macbeth’s later, wild ambitions.
In this exploration of the contemplation of progeny through metaphor, one witnesses the wide scope of connotation possible. Shakespeare’s depiction of bodies informs the reader in numerous ways about the key traits of his characters. Max Black states that “Aristotle ascribes the use of metaphor to delight in learning” (281). The metaphor not only draws our attention to a particular aspect of the character, but one gains enjoyment in creating the meaning from the stock of connotations/system of associations that the metaphorical term can bring to the principal subject. Richard the Third’s deformed body is a source of power and he is presented in such grotesque yet poetic terms that one cannot doubt but that he wields this power. Othello is doomed by his skin colour, with Iago acting as the two-faced figure who orchestrates his downfall. However, Othello’s body delivers such a potent message of male sexuality that one cannot ignore it for a moment. Lady Macbeth seizes a power which is ultimately beyond her control, as if her departure from the accepted norms of womanhood is too much of an aberration and so she must pay a price. But it is only through the power of metaphor that we learn to appreciate the depth of these characters.
To conclude this exploration of metaphors from a selection of Shakespeare’s plays, one needs to pose and then answer just a few questions. First, what is the relevance, if any, of a shared metaphor in multiple plays? The answer is primarily creativity, namely how Shakespeare brings different shades of meaning to precisely the same metaphorical word or phrase in different contexts. This is the ultimate proof that backs up the key points of Black, and I. A. Richards before him. The devil is not just the king of Hell, but becomes something quite different when Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, all respectively try on his mask. Additionally, not only does the metaphor illuminate the characters portrayal but we never really think of the devil in the same way again since he is now tainted by murderous mothers, racism, and physical deformity. Black’s interpretation goes as follows; “I take Richards to be saying that for the metaphor to work the reader must remain aware of the extension of meaning – must attend to both the old and the new meanings together” (286). In short, metaphor creates something uniquely meaningful in most situations. Of course, repeated metaphors are a special case where comparisons are somewhat easier, but one-off metaphors are also invaluable. Shakespeare uses a specific type of figurative language, namely metaphor, to express things that cannot be expressed in other ways or at least not in such a concentrated manner.
This brings one naturally to a second question – isn’t metaphorical language just a florid alternative to plain, literal description? Black gives a defence against such a view, writing that “Metaphor plugs the gaps in the literal vocabulary (or, at least, supplies the want of convenient abbreviations). So viewed, metaphor is a species of catachresis … the use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary” (280). He then sums up the general view (which he disagrees with) as – “Except in cases where a metaphor is a catachresis that remedies some temporary imperfection of literal language, the purpose of metaphor is to entertain and divert” (282). This harks back to the similarity view of metaphor where “a metaphor serves mainly to enhance the rhetorical force and stylistic vividness and pleasantness of a discourse” (Abrams 155). Black mostly rejects any consideration of a reader’s response, most especially any attention to eliciting pleasure from really ‘getting’ a metaphor. This, I believe is a mistake, since the pleasure of deciphering metaphors is indeed like “unravelling a riddle” (Black 280). Shakespeare’s plays are finely constructed, especially the metaphorical language, and one’s joy in listening to that language is what helps bring each character and story to life. In this essay I have attempted to scrutinize a few of the metaphors used by Shakespeare under the lens of Black’s ‘interaction view’ simply to show how special metaphor is, and how one may savour Shakespeare’s use of it.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Heinle & Heinle, 1999.
Black, Max. “Metaphor.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 55, 1955, pp. 273-294.
Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, 1990, pp.1-17.
Chamberlain, Stephanie. “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England.” College Literature, Vol. 32, No.3, 2005, pp.72-91.
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