Serpentine Imagery in Shakespeare's 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...
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