Macbeth and the Clothes that Make the Man

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In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, Shakespeare uses clothes as a metaphor throughout the play. The symbolism of clothing helped emphasize the change of power in Scotland, the change of opinions, and how the new change did not “fit” properly. From Macbeth being “dressed” with a new title as Thane of Cawdor, to Lady Macbeth pointing out Macbeth’s changed attitude towards killing Duncan while he dresses, through the other character’s perspective of Macbeth as king, the imagery of clothing is everywhere.
Through out Act I, Scene III, the imagery of clothing is predominant and shows a change in title. As soon as Angus tells Macbeth that Macbeth has a new title as Thane of Cawdor, he says, “The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” (1. 3. 110-111). He simply cannot believe that the prophecy that the three witches had predicted had come true and he questions his new title. When Angus explains why Macbeth is receiving this new title, he also, unintentionally, foreshadows Macbeth’s future:

Who was the thane lives yet,

But under heavy judgment bears that life

Which he deserves to lose. . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But treasons capital, confessed and proved,

Have overthrown him. (1. 3. 112-114, 117-118)
When Macbeth receives his new garments, he also receives the previous Thane of Cawdor’s traits. The change of Macbeth into “borrowed robes” starts Macbeth’s change into a murdering monster.

The instant Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor, he cannot stop thinking about killing Duncan so he can become king. Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, plan to kill Duncan; however, Macbeth comes to a point where he realizes his thinking is madness, and he cannot kill Duncan. He tries to convince Lady Macbeth of his new thinking by giving her “three quite different reasons for not going ahead with it, reasons which he hopes may appeal to her” (Spurgeon 128). He suggests that maybe they should not do this for they were just given “Gold opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon” (1. 7. 33-35). Macbeth suggests that their new title should be worn like clothes that have a new gloss, or “superficial lustre” (OED). Lady Macbeth, greedy for power, will not hear of her husband’s change of opinion. She quickly rebuts by saying “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself?” (1. 7. 36-37). She starts criticizing Macbeth for quickly changing his opinion just as quickly as he changed his clothes. Lady Macbeth quickly wins the argument and convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan. This scene of the play shows that by Macbeth simply changing his clothes, he changes his mind and his state of being. After he kills Duncan, Macbeth rapidly changes into a control, power-hungry, mad man.
Even though Macbeth at first feels as if he has murdered the “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care” (2. 2. 35), the sleep that straightens out the “entangled” (OED) sleave of care, he quickly gets over it just as quickly as he changes his “borrowed robes”. From the moment he becomes king, he starts to lose control and respect of the people in his kingdom. Right before the English troops attack Dunsinane, Caithness and Angus talk about Macbeth’s tyrannical reign. Caithness comments about how Macbeth has lost so much control that Macbeth”… cannot buckle his distempered cause / Within the belt of rule” (5. 2. 15-16). Angus agrees with Caithness, by saying that Macbeth’s title “Hangs loose about him, like a giant’s robe / upon a dwarfish thief” (5. 2. 21-22). Angus and Caithness both realize how Macbeth does not “fit” properly in his “borrowed robes”. They see that the title of being king is too much for him and that he should have his title taken away.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s use of clothing imagery in Macbeth helps symbolize the changes happening within the play. The emphasis of clothing throughout the play shows the audience how important and big all these changes are. Even though the changing of clothing is important on the stage, the changing of clothing in this play is more important than ever before.





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