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B: Background on the leitmotif of nature in Macbeth
Some of the most prevalent categories of nature imagery that recur throughout the play are weather, plants, and animals.
· The witches are inextricably associated with stormy weather. They open the play with the question “When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain,” and their every subsequent appearance is accompanied with bad weather.
· Scotland is an intensely foggy place in Shakespeare’s imagination. From the opening descriptions of the battle to the witches’ incantations, there is a pervasive sense of an inability to see things clearly
· “Unnatural” weather comes up again and again, and serves as a reflection of unnatural and dark doings perpetuated by humankind. Both Macbeth and the witches reference weather that is simultaneously foul and fair.
· Plant imagery in the play is associated with human growth; specifically, a person’s rise to power. Both Duncan and Banquo use planting/growing language when describing political ascent (Duncan: “I have begun to plant thee and will labor/To make thee full of growing” (I.iv); Banquo: “If you can look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grow and which will not/Speak, then, to me, who neither beg nor fear/Your favors nor your fate” (I.iii)).
· Birnam Wood is the ultimate plant/power metaphor. Macbeth feels secure in his power because the witches’ prophecy – “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him” (IV.i) – seems impossible. But when human horribleness rends the natural order so much that a forest can move, anything can happen. Birnam Wood’s march, brought about by the felling of a forest, is the ultimate endpoint of a society that has sinned against nature so strongly.
· Snakes and serpents appear when someone is plotting or sneaking. Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to “look like th’ innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t” (I.v). Macbeth refers to Banquo as a serpent – the hidden threat – whose son, Fleance, will grow from the worm to an even bigger danger (“There the grown serpent lies. The worm that’s fled/Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (III.iv)).
· Birds appear so regularly that at times Banquo almost seems like an amateur ornithologist. Lady Macbeth summons ravens and owls that symbolize death, while Banquo points out gentle martlets that make nests. The falcoln, nature’s hunter, gets eaten by a much smaller mousing owl – an unnatural act that reflects on the unnatural deeds that have been done; specifically, Macbeth’s murder of Duncan.
· Macbeth compares himself to bears and horses, fierce and attacking animals that lash out in desperation. Others describe him as, variously, a dog (hell-hound) and a mousing owl.
· Ross and the Porter also mention horses, remarking on rumors that Duncan’s horses ate each other after he was murdered.