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Symbolism in Shakespeare's Works

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2228 words Published: 30th May 2017

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Friar Lawrence remarks that every plant, herb, and stone has its own special properties, and that nothing exists in nature that cannot be put to both good and bad uses(Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008). Later on, Friar Lawrence's words prove to be correct. The sleeping potion he gives Juliet is made not to make her die but only appear to be dead, but through circumstances beyond the Friar's control, the potion does result in Romeo's suicide. From this example, we can see that human beings tend to cause death even if they don't intend on doing so. Similarly, Romeo blames society for the apothecary's criminal selling of poison. Poison symbolizes human society's proclivity to poison good things and make them deadly, just as the pointless Capulet-Montague feud turns Romeo and Juliet's love to poison. After all, this play doesn't have an evil villain, it has people whose good qualities are turned to poison by the world they live in.


By flicking his thumbnail from behind his upper teeth, Samson begins a fight between the Montagues and Capulets. This is an insulting gesture known as thumb-biting. He only did that because he wants to get into a fight with the Montagues but doesn't want to be accused of triggering the fight by making an insult. Because of his fearfulness, he settles for being annoying rather than being challenging. The thumb-biting here shows how stupid and foolish the whole Capulet/Montague feud is, even as an essentially meaningless gesture, and the foolishness of violence in general.


It is symbolized as religious worship. Romeo calls Juliet a "saint" and implies that he'd really like to "worship" her body. Not only that, but Romeo's "hand" would be "blessed" if it touched the divine Juliet's. Eventually, Juliet picks up on this "religion of love" conceit (a conceit is just an elaborate metaphor) and declares that Romeo is "the god of [her] idolatry"(Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008).


The main example of the sex/death connection in the play is when Capulet sees Juliet's dead body and says "death" has "lain with" (slept with) Juliet: "See, there she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him. Death is my son-in-law, death is my heir". "Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber offers one of the most interesting insights when she notes that even the way that Romeo and Juliet each literally die carries symbolic sexual meaning. Romeo drinks his poison from a goblet, a traditional symbol of female sexuality (woman's womb). Juliet, in contrast, stabs herself with Romeo's dagger - a traditional symbol of male sexuality. Symbolically, Romeo and Juliet combine physical death and sexual climax" (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008). Naturally, sex acts between men and women are supposed to result in the creation of life. Yet, in this play, the opposite happens.


Skull :

The skull represents death and the afterlife. At the graveyard, Hamlet picks up the skull of Yorick and starts to talk to it; he questions death, and what happens after. He eventually realizes that no matter what kind of life a person may lead, they will all die and end up in the same place after death, as mere dust. He then questions the importance of being important while alive, and the importance of being alive in general("Important symbols", 2012) He talks about how a person like Yorick could end up in the same state as Alexander the Great, when he says,

"as thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam , and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel"

Ophelia's Flowers:

Ophelia has gone mad. She enters the scene with different types of flowers. She gives these flowers to different people, where each type represents something.

First, she gives the rosemary to Laertes, which is a symbol of remembrance.

She also gives him pansies, as they represent a symbol of thoughts - particularly thoughts of love. Although she gives both to Laertes, Ophelia most likely has Hamlet in her mind when she says, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember; and there is pansies, that's for thoughts."

She then gives fennel and columbines to King Claudius. Fennel represents flattery, and columbines represent having no faith in marriage. They were both given to Claudius because of his marriage and betrayal.

"Then, Ophelia gives daisies to both King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, which represent deceit and lies, because they both lied to the public and betrayed King Hamlet.

Finally, violets are a symbol of faith and many people believe Ophelia gives these to Horatio because at this point, he is the only one that she still has faith in. Also, although Ophelia does not realize it, Horatio is the only person Hamlet still trusts and has faith in as well" ( "Importance of", 2012)

Poison :

Poison plays a big role in Hamlet. It is a symbol of betrayal, corruption, deceit, revenge and death. Hamlet follows the apparition of his father, King Hamlet, and learns the entire story of how he was killed by Claudius. King Hamlet says,"…Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole/ With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, /And in the porches of my ears did pour…" .

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When Claudius kills King Hamlet by pouring poison into his ears, it demonstrates how the need for power can lead to corruption. In this case, the need for power is what made Claudius poison his own brother. Later, when they were planning on killing Hamlet, Laertes and Claudius decide to use poison. When the poison actually comes into play, it ends up killing Queen Gertrude (thus betrayal), and eventually leads to the death of Laertes, King Claudius and Hamlet. In other words this shows how the excessive love of power can lead to negative consequences, this reminds us of the main theme in macbeth


Light and darkness:

When something bad is going to happen, darkness is brought up. Lady Macbeth, for example, asks "thick night" to come with the "smoke of hell," so her knife might not see the wound it makes in the peacefully sleeping King. The literal darkness Lady Macbeth talks about seems to relate to the evil or "dark" act she plans to commit.

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When Lady Macbeth calls for the murderous spirits to prevent "heaven" from "peep[ing] through the blanket of the dark to cry 'Hold, Hold!'" she implies that light (here associated with God, heaven, and goodness) offers protection from evil and is the only thing that could stop her from murdering Duncan. So, it makes sense that when Lady Macbeth descends to madness, she insists on always having a candle or, "light" with her as if the light might protect her against the evil forces she herself summoned in Act I, scene v. However, the candlelight doesn't seem to have done her any good, for she is too far gone and commits suicide.

Interestingly enough, Macbeth responds to the news of Lady Macbeth's suicide by proclaiming "out, out brief candle". Now, the candle's flame has become a like a symbol for her short life and sudden death. Similarly, Banquo's torchlight (the one that illuminates him just enough so his murderers can see what they're doing) is also extinguished the moment he's killed. Also, on the evening when King Duncan is murdered, Lennox reports that the fire in his chimney was mysteriously "blown" out.

Eight kings:

When Macbeth visits the witches and demands to know whether or not Banquo's heirs will become kings, they summon a vision of eight kings, the last of which holds a mirror that reflects on many more such kings. Macbeth is really unhappy about the fact that these are Banquo's heirs. It's important to note that one of the kings in the mirror happens to be holding two orbs and is a symbolic representation of King James I of England (a.k.a. King James VI of Scotland), who traced his derivation back to Banquo. At James's coronation ceremony in England (1603), he held two orbs (one representing England and the other representing Scotland). We can't dismiss the fact that King James was a major patron of Shakespeare, and that the Bard here shows his debt of gratitude to the King by exploring his Scottish roots and confirming the derivation of an English king.

Bloody daggers and hands:

Blood is mentioned a lot in this play. Blood as a result of actual wounds is almost ubiquitous, from the bleeding Captain in the beginning to Macbeth's bleeding head at the end. However, it's the imagined blood that arguably has the biggest effect as a symbol. When Macbeth considers murdering King Duncan, he sees a floating "dagger of the mind" that points him in the direction of the sleeping king's room. While Macbeth wonders if his mind is messing with him, the dagger becomes covered in imaginary blood, which anticipates the way that very real daggers will be tainted when Macbeth murders King Duncan.

It's still not clear where the images come from. It could be the witches or Macbeth's imagination or maybe its Macbeth being tempted to follow or warned not to pursue the hallucination. Eventually, imagined blood starts to symbolize guilt for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. After he murders Duncan, Macbeth supposes that even "Great Neptune's ocean" could not wash away his stain of guilt. This is obviously in response to Lady Macbeth's command that Macbeth "go get some water / and wash this filthy witness" from his hands. The idea that water alone couldn't cleanse the pair after such vulgar intentions seems laughable, especially when Lady Macbeth famously curses the imaginary "spot" of blood she can't seem to wash from her guilty hands. After Macbeth kills his friend Banquo, who returns as a ghost, Macbeth announces that "blood will beget blood", and his image of wading in a river of blood sums up the lesson: once you've gone far enough in spilling it, you might just as well keep on going. LADy Macbeth is trying to wash the blood off her hands and even when its washed off the guilt isn't

Dead children:

You may have noticed this play is filled with dead babies and slain children. The witches throw into their cauldron a "finger of birth-strangled babe" and then summon an apparition of a bloody child that says Macbeth will not be harmed by any man "of woman born". Also, Fleance witnesses his father's murder before nearly being killed himself, Macbeth kills Young Siward, and also Macduff's young son, his "pretty chicken," is called an "egg" before he's murdered.

If we think about it, the play seems fixated on what happens when family lines are extinguished, which is probably what Macbeth has in mind when he orders that his enemies' children be killed. His willingness to murder children is a clear sign that he's passed the point of no return. We can trace all of this back to Macbeth's anger that Banquo's "children shall be kings" and Macbeth's children will not. Recall the way he deplores that, when the witches predicted he would be king, they placed a "fruitless crown" on his head and a "barren scepter" in his hands.

When Macbeth kills Duncan and takes the crown, Malcolm is denied "the due of birth." At the end of the play, order is rebuilt with the promise of Malcolm being crowned as the rightful king. Also, we know that Banquo's line will rule for generations to come. So, it's rather fitting that, in the end, Macbeth is killed by a man who was "untimely ripped" from his mother's womb. (Macduff, who turns out to be the guy who is not "of woman born." He was delivered through cesarean section, which doesn't count as being "born" in this play.)

In conclusion, we can say that Shakespeare included a lot of symbolism throughout his plays which portrayed Shakespeare's life, time period, and messages he wished to get across to his audience. Most of these symbols are timeless, because they represent human nature that is the same in all eras of time.

Work cited

The Modern Language Review , Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1947), pp. 9-23 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3716953

St. Rosemary Educational Institution. "Important Symbols in Hamlet." http://schoolworkhelper.net/. St. Rosemary Educational Institution, Last Update: 2012. Web. Retrieved on: Sunday 16th December 2012. http://schoolworkhelper.net/important-symbols-in-hamlet/.

Shmoop Editorial Team. "Love as Religious Worship in Romeo and Juliet" Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Shmoop Editorial Team. (November 11, 2008).Plants and Poison in Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from http://www.shmoop.com/romeo-and-juliet/plants-poison-symbol.html

Shmoop Editorial Team. (November 11, 2008).Sex and Death in Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from http://www.shmoop.com/romeo-and-juliet/sex-death-symbol.html

Shmoop Editorial Team. (November 11, 2008).Thumb Biting in Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from http://www.shmoop.com/romeo-and-juliet/thumb-biting-symbol.html


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