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William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest English writers of all time. His works have transcended time, age and culture and even made it on to the silver screen to reach a new generation of media lovers. Aside from his diverse range of genres and plots and a knack for creating deep, believable characters, it is the richness and colour of the writing itself that makes Shakespeare’s literature what it is. Part of that stems from the symbolism that he uses intensively throughout all of his writing.In order to gain as broad a perspective as possible on Shakespeare’s use of symbolism, this paper draws on plays from three different genres. Macbeth is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies and takes us deep into a world of ambition, magic and betrayal. The quintessential romance, which has graced the stages of theatres the world over, time and again, is Romeo and Juliet, a tale of star-crossed lovers. And representing Shakespeare’s selection of witty comedies is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light-hearted fairy story filled with ridiculous mix ups with the funniest results.An overview of some of the dominant symbolism in each of these plays will broaden our understanding of how richly and extensively Shakespeare makes use of symbolism. The paper will then conclude with some general observations regarding symbolism in Shakespeare’s work as a whole, extrapolated from the initial discourse.MacbethPerhaps one of the most extensively-used symbols in this tragedy is blood. Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, right from the opening battle between the Scots and the Norwegian invaders – described in graphic detail by the wounded captain in Act I, scene ii. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolize their immense guilt, as they start to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that can never be washed clean. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” Macbeth cries after he has murdered Duncan, even as his wife reprimands him, saying that a little water will do the job (II.ii.58–59). Later, however, she comes to share his sense of being stained: “Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” she asks as she walks through their castle near the close of the play (V.i.30–34).As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth’s journey to darkness and evil is accompanied by a series of unnatural occurrences occurring in the natural realm. From the thunder and lightning that mark the entry of the witches to the terrible storms that rage when Duncan is murdered, these are violations of the natural order and reflect corruption and disorder in the moral and political spheres.Another recurrent symbol in this play is the Babe. Two of the witches’ apparitions are babes – one crowned and one bloodied – representing the future that Macbeth would like to but cannot control. (Grosz and Wendler, 2006 p.95) This analogy brings an emotional and meaningful aspect to that future and is used again in: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe … Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye.”Plant symbolism is a final and prevalent symbol that bears mentioning. The metaphors in the following quotes are rudimentary and easy to interpret: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which ones will grow and which will not”, “I have begun to plant thee and will labor to make thee full of growing” and “my way of life has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf.” Again, this imagery ties in with an unchangeable or predestined future and complements the natural themes and elements of the play.Romeo and JulietThe very opening lines of this play present us with one of Shakespeare’s favourite symbols. The “star-crossed lovers” and other references to astrology are the author’s way of handling the theme of fate. He carries this symbol into other aspects of the lovers’ story such as when Romeo watches Juliet on the balcony and says, “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, Having some business, do entreat her eyes, To twinkle in their spheres till they return,” and again when Juliet awaits Romeo’s return after Tybalt has been killed, she says, “And, when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars,And he will make the face of heaven so fine.”Romeo and Juliet is filled with a myriad small symbols all pertaining to the dominant themes of love versus hate and fate as well as various independent symbols that appear to be simply for the literary enrichment of the play. One such example is Queen Mab. In Act I, scene iv, Mercutio delivers a lengthy oration about the fairy Queen Mab, who rides through each night on a tiny wagon bringing dreams to those who sleep. The dreams she brings, however, bring out the worst in the dreamers and serve to confirm them in the vices, such as greed, violence, or lust, to which they are addicted. This metaphor emphasizes two points. Firstly how fanciful and therefore removed from reality dreams are and, secondly, by making Mab and her carriage so minute, the magnitude of real life is stressed. Through this analogy, Mercutio suggests that the desires and fantasies of man are as nonsensical and fragile as Mab, as well as being inherently corrupting. This viewpoint contrasts starkly with the nature of Romeo and Juliet’s love, which they perceive as real and ennobling.Smaller symbols that tie more closely to the love and fate themes of the play include the torch that Romeo carries at the banquet in Act I, and the lark and the nightingale, which represent past and future, dark and light, love and hate. (McDonald, 2000) The poison that ends the lives of the lovers is symbolic of the hate between the two families, a hate that has, in effect, killed their children and the constant references to day and night are also, representative of love and hate. There is enough symbolism in Romeo and Juliet to warrant an entire essay. This brief overview serves only as a highlight.A Midsummer Night’s DreamAn altogether lighter piece of writing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is equally as rich in symbolism. One of the key elements in this tale is the love potion used by the fairies to wreak havoc on the lives and hearts of the characters throughout Acts II, III, and IV. Because the fairies are careless with the potion, the situation of the young Athenians becomes increasingly chaotic and confusing and Titania is hilariously humiliated. The love potion thus becomes a symbol of the unreasoning, erratic, fickle and powerful nature of love.It may seem unusual for a comedy to be set in a forest at night, however, Shakespeare uses the night to symbolize darkness and a state of blindness. It denotes fairies and magic, madness and mischief. The moon, which is attributed with affecting human behavior throughout the play, is the sole source of light and grants the lovers a small opportunity to see each other. Shakespeare associates the moon with love. At the start of the play, Theseus is impatiently awaiting his marriage to Hippolyta. He says, “four happy days bring in another moon: but me thinks how slow this old moon wanes!” He also likens the moon to a bow, used by Cupid o send his arrow: “And then the moon, like to a silver bow new bent in heaven, shall behold the night of our solemnities.”The play-within-a-play that comprises most of Act V, scene i is used to represent, in a condensed format, some of the seminal ideas and themes of the main plot. Because the troupe of craftsmen are such bumbling actors, their play satirizes the melodramatic Athenian lovers, which has the effect of giving the play a joyful and comedic ending. The craftsmen’s play is thus a symbol in itself, representing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.One aspect of symbolism present in this play is more-often-than-not left out of the school text books. There is much in the way of sexual innuendo throughout the work, and floral symbolism is used to signify female sexuality. (Grosz and Wendler, 2006 p.500) Oberon speaks of “Cupid’s flower” and “Dian’s bud” as an antidote to “love-in-idleness.” Later in the same passage he says, “The bolt of Cupid fell upon a little Western flower.”ConclusionMany a student has lamented having to wade their way through what can be perceived as highly stylized rhetoric in the course of studying Shakespeare’s work. It is, however, when his works come to the stage that the richness and melodrama of the language find their true place. In the context of the theatre of his time, Shakespeare’s imagery-laden prose makes sense. In an era uncluttered by media and consumerism, Shakespeare’s original audience wanted to revel in his plays. His words needed to create for them what our directors, set designers and special effects teams create for us today. It is through symbolism that author’s are able to create pictures in the minds of readers and elicit the emotional responses they desire to their writing.Seen in this context, the intensive use of symbolism in Shakespeare’s works makes sense and becomes an integral part of the legendary plays and poetry. He has stood the test of time, and, some critics may argue, has redefined the way people understand human nature.‘A laughing stock.’ ‘A sorry sight.’ ‘All that glitters is not gold.’ ‘In a pickle.’ ‘Mum’s the word.’ Not only has Shakespeare left us with countless chilling, nail-biting, hysterical or heartwarming tales, but his language – so rich in metaphors and imagery – has left us with an immense contribution to the English language we use today.

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