What Does Water Symbolize in Macbeth?

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What Does Water Symbolize in Macbeth?

William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, is a play filled with rich symbolism, and one recurring symbol that stands out is water. Throughout the play, water is used to represent various themes and emotions, providing deeper insights into the characters’ motivations and actions. In this blog post, we will explore the powerful symbolism of water in Macbeth and its significance in the narrative.

The Power of Ambiguity

Water’s fluid nature makes it an ideal symbol for the ambiguities present in Macbeth. Just as water can take on different forms, from gentle rain to destructive floods, the characters in the play also showcase contrasting qualities. Macbeth himself illustrates this duality as he goes through a transformation from a loyal, honorable soldier to a ruthless, bloodthirsty king.

The symbolism of water begins in Act 1, Scene 3, when the three witches meet Macbeth and Banquo on a heath. They hail Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor and future king, arousing his ambitious desires. However, the witches’ prophecies are enigmatic and veiled in confusion, just like the ripples on the surface of a pond. The murky water mirrors Macbeth’s clouded judgment and growing moral ambiguity.

Water’s Cleansing and Purifying Properties

In several instances, water is associated with purification and cleansing. After Macbeth murders King Duncan, he is overwhelmed by guilt and burdened by his actions. Lady Macbeth tries to alleviate his guilt, telling him, “A little water clears us of this deed” (2.2.65). However, this statement proves to be ironic as no amount of water can truly cleanse Macbeth’s conscience.

Furthermore, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks and compulsively washes her hands, trying to rid herself of the metaphorical bloodstains that haunt her. She cries, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” (5.1.30), emphasizing her desperate need for purification. However, water’s inability to cleanse or absolve the guilt is highlighted when Lady Macbeth concludes, “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” (5.1.41).

Drowning and Submersion

Water’s omnipresent symbolism throughout Macbeth takes a darker turn when it is associated with drowning and submersion. In Act 5, Scene 1, Lady Macbeth’s death is foreshadowed by her sleepwalking scene. As she confesses to her role in the murders, she tries to wash away her guilt by constantly wiping her hands. However, her subconscious mind knows she is drowning in her guilt, and her sleepwalking is symbolic of being submerged in the depths of her own actions.

Furthermore, when Macbeth learns of his wife’s death, he laments her passing with haunting words, “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word. / Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” (5.5.17-19). The word “tomorrow” echoes the fleeting nature of life, just like water slipping through fingers. It symbolizes the end of everything, including Macbeth’s own downfall.

The Stormy Seas

Water symbolism is evident in Act 1, Scene 3, when the witches chant, “Fair is foul and foul is fair. / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12). These lines allude to the turbulent and unpredictable nature of water, subtly foreshadowing the chaos and destruction that will ensue. Just as a stormy sea can wreak havoc, Macbeth’s pursuit of power leads to a storm of violence and bloodshed.

Moreover, in Act 5, Scene 8, Macbeth’s adversaries, led by Malcolm, gain strength as they march towards Dunsinane Castle. The army conceals their numbers by camouflaging themselves with branches from Birnam Wood. Malcolm declares, “Let every soldier hew him down a bough / And bear’t before him. Thereby shall we shadow / The numbers of our host” (5.7.5-7). This imagery of nature disguising the soldiers mirrors the deceptive tranquility of calm waters hiding treacherous undercurrents.


The symbolism of water in Macbeth is multifaceted and profoundly impacts the play’s themes and characters. Its ambiguous nature mirrors the characters’ conflicting qualities, while its purifying properties highlight their moral struggles. The motif of drowning and submersion signify the characters’ eventual demise, while stormy seas foreshadow the chaos brought about by their actions. Shakespeare skillfully uses water as a powerful symbol, adding depth and complexity to Macbeth’s tragic tale.

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What Does Water Symbolize in Macbeth?