AQA LITB3 PPQ – JUNE 2012 – ‘Write about the significance of darkness and concealment in Macbeth’

In Macbeth both darkness and concealment are essential to play and its descent into tragedy, as metaphorical darkness is used most obviously in relation to death and as an element of characterisation, conveying the evil nature and immorality of both the Macbeths and the witches. Concealment is used to a similar avail, characterising Macbeth as a gothic double, yet it is more likely that darkness and concealment are at their most significant when they are used in conjunction with one another, dealing directly with the debate regarding the source of Macbeth’s corruption.

Both Macbeth  and Lady Macbeth evidently utilise literal darkness to conceal their depraved actions from others and as a mode by which they can protect their consciences. As Macbeth calls upon the ‘selling night [to] scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ in a similar fashion to Lady Macbeth’s bid for ‘thick night [to] pall [her] in dunnest smoke,’ both characters essentially profess a desire to disguise their acts ‘that be which the eye fears’ in order to avoid any ethical or divine scrutiny that would prompt them to ‘hold’ and terminate their plans to commit ‘murthers too terrible for the ear’. Thus, it is utilised as a structural device that allows the crises of the play to occur.

Yet, interpreting darkness only it its literal sense is less integral to the reading of Macbeth as a gothic text, as though it acknowledges the significance of metaphorical associations with evil, immorality and death these are certainly underplayed. Shakespeare’s use of the semantic field of ‘night’s predominance’ following Macbeth’s murder of Duncan infers such a connection between darkness and evil, recognising its all-consuming power and ability to prevail, ‘strangle’ and ‘entomb’ benign ‘living light’. Therefore, perhaps figurative darkness, shown through the antithesis of darkness and light , is used to greater effect in characterising ‘Black Macbeth’ as an archetypal gothic protagonist, particularly in his soliloquy preceding Duncan’s death. He reveals his innermost ‘black and deep desires’ and his depraved conscious wish for these to overcome their very antithesis – ‘any signs of nobleness, [which] like stars, shall shine on all deservers’. As he requests for darkness and the ‘stars [to] hide [their] fires,’ he essentially declares his wish to be stripped of all morality so that he is able to commit his bloody deeds.

Furthermore, as themes of depravity and a lack of morality are evidently deal with more appropriately though symbolism, Shakespeare’s contrasting use of light and dark imagery throughout the play details the consequences of straying from moral principles. Shakespeare’s use of the motif of the ‘taper’ as the play approaches its denouement potentially indicates Lady Macbeth’s ascent back to morality. Unconsciously speaking in disorderly prose, she progresses ‘to [have] light by her continually,’ living in fear of the dark and ‘[murky hell]’ that she has previously allowed to control and ‘tend on [her] mortal thoughts’.

Metaphorical darkness is also significant in its association with the excessive ‘dusty death’ that appears to overshadow the entire play, providing a commentary on the brevity life. As Banquo is murdered in darkness, as shown through the stage directions as ‘murderer 1 strikes out the light,’ his life is extinguished similarly to the ‘brief candle’ of Lady Macbeth’s. As Macbeth realises the futility of his ambition and that his life is ‘but a walking shadow,’ it could be interpreted that such symbolism is essential to the play’s classification as a tragedy and its protagonist’s resignation in his own life that he has ‘lived too long’ immorally.

However, perhaps concealment alone is used to a more significant degree in characterising Macbeth as a gothic protagonist, as dissimilarly to the subjective interpretations of symbolism,  soliloquies and asides prove directly Macbeth’s dishonesty and resulting role in the play as a gothic double. His ability to ‘make [his] face [a] vizard to [his] heart, disguising what [it is]’ affirms this view, as the mask-like disguise of his uncivilised thoughts exposes his earlier claim to ‘speak [his] free heart’ to Banquo to be one that is entirely untrue, as he does not divulge the ‘wicked dreams’ that he is plagued by after his meeting with the witches. Yet, as such secrecy develops to be progressively more sinister throughout the play, as Macbeth surpasses his wife’s intervention, telling her to ‘be innocent of the knowledge’ that he is to murder Banquo, it is clear that he is concealing evil deeds that gradually become more ‘black and deep’ in nature. As duplicitous ‘false face’ is used to cover the dark and depraved acts of murder that are essential to the plot, evidently, the two concepts are more significant when used in combination, detailing Macbeth’s corruption.

Therefore, the witches, who are indisputably evil ‘instruments of darkness,’ concealing truth by the means of equivocation, are of greatest significance in Macbeth, as they arguably corrupt his ‘noble stature’ and render it to be ‘foul,’ inciting the whole basis for the play in their chiasmus ‘fair is foul and foul is fair/ hover through the fog and filthy air,’ as the imagery used here echoes this notion of moral contamination. Contextually, the witches would have been perceived as agents of the devil, and by adopting ambiguous language, they ‘palter with [Macbeth] in riddles and affairs of death’ and as a result he is ‘drawn into his confusion’ by their riddles, perhaps committing regicide due to their intervention. Though there is some debate as to whether Macbeth is solely at fault for his regression, ‘burn[ing] in desire’ to become King by his own account, the notion that the witches  ‘trade and traffic’ with him, exploiting him and lead him to his demise, essentially frames the narrative of the whole play – they are there to ‘meet with Macbeth’ and corrupt him from the very exposition. As this is such a central topic of discussion regarding the play, it can indeed be perceived as the most significant example of darkness and concealment.


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