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Allusions in Macbeth: Examples & Significance

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  • 0:01 Allusions
  • 0:57 Mythical Allusions in Macbeth
  • 3:44 Biblical Allusions
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Instructor
Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Allusions are used by authors as metaphors or similes. In his play 'Macbeth,' William Shakespeare uses many allusions to add description. In this lesson, we will define allusion and then focus on the mythological and biblical allusions used by Shakespeare.

Allusions

Have you ever called someone a Scrooge? Have you ever felt like the weight of the world was on your shoulders? Or have you had a moment where you thought you were a real Einstein? In all of these examples, you were experiencing a moment of allusion.

An allusion is an indirect reference to an historical person or event. An allusion does not give details about the person or event being referenced because the subject being alluded to is familiar enough to the audience that they would recognize it. An author would use an allusion as a metaphor or simile to make a comparison between his character and the historical person or event. Many allusions made in literature are about other writings or characters.

Throughout his writings, William Shakespeare used allusions as a literary element. His play Macbeth contains several mythical and biblical allusions that show Macbeth's character and his fear of judgment as he gives into his ambition.

Mythical Allusions in Macbeth

One of the most common comparisons made by Shakespeare were allusions to mythology, or a collection of myths.

In Act I, Scene II, Ross arrives to deliver the news of Macbeth's victory in battle to King Duncan. He describes Macbeth storming into Norway, '…till that Bellona's bridegroom, lapp'd in proof, Confronted him with self-comparisons.'

Shakespeare's audience would have recognized Bellona, the Roman goddess of war, and understood that Macbeth was a hero with godlike qualities. This moment is important in the play because King Duncan decides to name Macbeth Thane of Cawdor, which begins to fulfill the witches' prophecy.

A second allusion to mythology is found in Act II, Scene I. As Macbeth waits for the sign to kill King Duncan, he delivers his bloody dagger monologue. In the monologue he says, 'witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate's offerings.'

Hecate, the daughter of Zeus in Roman mythology, was a magician who guarded over magic and taught witchcraft. In the play, Macbeth believes that the three witches have made their offerings to Hecate with him. Later in the monologue, Macbeth says, 'With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design.' In this line, Macbeth is comparing himself to the Roman ruler Tarquin, who raped and murdered his cousin's wife, Lucretia, in the fifth century B.C. Like Tarquin, Macbeth is preparing himself to attack and take from a virtuous person. When Macbeth does act, he begins to lose his own virtue.

After Macbeth kills King Duncan, he looks at his hands and says, 'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?' Neptune was the Roman god of fresh water. Macbeth is asking if Neptune's waters would be enough for the blood to come clean from his hands.

Another mythological allusion is found in Act III, Scene II. As Macbeth worries that Banquo may know too much about the witches' predictions, he is reassured by Lady Macbeth that Banquo and his son Fleance can be killed. In response he says, 'ere to black Hecate's summons.' Macbeth plans to kill Banquo when Hecate summons the night. Like his earlier comparison to the witches sacrificing for Hecate, Macbeth too is fulfilling his sacrifice to the witches and protecting his rule as king.

Finally, the last scene of the play contains one of the most powerful mythological allusions. As Macduff confronts Macbeth he says to him, 'Turn hell hound, turn.' The term 'hell hound' refers to Cerberus, the Greek guard of the underworld. Macduff is saying that Macbeth has taken the crown, has guarded it with evil, but it will now be taken back from him.

Biblical Allusions

Shakespeare also uses many biblical allusions in Macbeth. There are plenty of allusions made to biblical scriptures that Shakespeare's audience would have known. However, let's look at some of the more recognizable biblical allusions made about Macbeth.

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Additional Activities

Macbeth Allusions

Discussion/Comprehension Questions

For this activity, you will further your understanding of Shakespeare's use of allusions in Macbeth through critical analysis. Make sure to answer all of the questions completely and thoroughly. It is also important to use specific details from the text whenever possible to support your answers.

Questions

  1. Why does Shakespeare use allusions? What is the overall effect of an allusion?
  2. In your opinion, which of Shakespeare's Biblical allusions from Macbeth is most effective? Explain your answer.
  3. Which mythological allusion do you believe is the most obvious? Explain.
  4. Besides the allusions mentioned, name at least one other allusion from Macbeth. Explain the allusion.
  5. Do you think Shakespeare's allusions from Macbeth are easy to recognize? Why or why not?

Possible Answers

  1. Shakespeare commonly used allusions to compare a person to a well-known person, event, or story. Through the use of allusion, readers are better able to understand the severity of an event or scene.
  2. Answers will vary. One may say that the allusion about Judas is particularly effective because there is perhaps no greater betrayal in history than when Judas betrayed Jesus.
  3. Answers will vary. Students will probably say that the most obvious mythological allusion is the one they are most familiar with.
  4. Shakespeare also includes an allusion to another one of his plays, Antony and Cleopatra. In Macbeth, the protagonist states that his future plans will be repealed just like "Mark Antony's was by Caesar."
  5. Answers will vary. Some may say that it depends on one's education. A non-religious person may not recognize the Biblical allusions. Also, if one is unfamiliar with mythology, it would be difficult for that person to recognize Shakespeare's mythological allusions.

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