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Macbeth: Serpentine Imagery
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 thesnake persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of Eden’s garden. Even the phrase “snake in the grass” expresses latency. Shakespeare uses this treacherous reptile in Macbeth to convey the same evil. Inhis poetic prose, Shakespeare may not speak of a character’s malevolence directly; rather, he alludes to it through serpentine imagery. Macbeth contains four separate images of this type. What istheir 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 inpreparation 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 murderDuncan, 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.

“Tobeguile 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 ‘t.”

She says that to succeed, they must feignmediocrity 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 slitheringout 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 hiswife’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...
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