In Literature class I was assigned an essay assignment in which we were supposed to choose one text that we had read that year and complete a literary analysis. This is when you take both in-text information and historical facts and use it to synthesize a conclusion about the book. Mine was on Macbeth and how the dagger symbolized his character.
There is something about a dagger that affects peoples’ minds in a way that is different from other weapons. Many authors have referred to the dastardly and grievous characteristics of this killing tool. It’s symbolic value can be utilized by many different aspects of a story. Shakespeare’s decision in using this weapon was because of what it symbolizes and represents, and many different interpretations can be drawn as to why Macbeth envisioned a dagger and not another weapon of the era. The easiest of the these interpretations is that the dagger portrays betrayal and silent execution, and Macbeth foresees the oncoming act of sabotage. Another exegesis is that the dagger was used to represent how the act was so easily carried out, and that since anyone could have done it the murder was inevitable, with most of the blame falling on Duncan himself. Another view is that the dagger represents Macbeth’s desire for power; that power is what he sees, but in the form of this weapon. All three of these rationales give extra insight to what Shakespeare meant when he wrote Macbeth.
Macbeth, while planning to kill Duncan, recognizes his own treachery, and perhaps his mind portrayed a dagger because of this. Many famous pieces of literature have used the dagger as a symbol for deceit, but it was Charles Dickens who first coined the term “cloak and dagger.” In Tales of the Riots of ‘eighty he wrote, “If I had a dagger within these fingers and he was within my reach, I would strike him dead, even now!” In literature, daggers are often associated with night operations and sneaky saboteurs. A dagger is small, and can be concealed in a cloak or pocket, and getting it into a secure place is not as difficult as with other weapons. Its place in the world of arms will always be the silent killer, and Macbeth was committing a silent murder. Macbeth’s mind chose a dagger because of his guilty conscience. Whether or not a dagger would be used to killed Duncan is irrelevant, but the dagger’s showing of itself in a vision shows the reader how Macbeth himself feels about the act.
Another view postulates that the dagger represents the inevitability of Duncan’s murder and a major flaw in Duncan’s character. Apart from being a weapon, people used daggers as knives: tools for cutting rope and meat. It provided two purposes: utility and protection. The dagger was the handgun of the medieval world. Commoners were allowed daggers on their persons as a form of security. The dagger was not designed as a confrontational device but as a secondary defense. (Vail) Because of its supposed harmlessness, medieval laws allowed for very loose distribution of the weapon. (Underwood) Anyone could get their hands on one. If a lowly commoner could acquire a dagger, what was to stop anyone from going to Duncan in his sleeping and killing him? Maybe Macbeth envisioned a dagger so the reader could easily understand that the murder of Duncan was a repercussion of his own carelessness and complete faith in his subjects. This flaw is reiterated earlier when Duncan makes the ironic mistake of feeling secure inside Macbeth’s castle. He was going to his death but he would have never suspected that one of his kin would do such a thing. Thus the dagger points to more of a flaw in Duncan than a flaw in Macbeth.
The dagger could have also been a symbol for the power that Macbeth desires. Although most commonly associated with sabotage, the dagger also represents power in many art mediums and cultures. In the story of Macbeth, the protagonistic thane is torn between killing his best friend, and gaining the ultimate title in Scotland. What he truly desires is the position of king, not the killing of Duncan, so perhaps the dagger is only a stand-in for the amorphous idea of ruling the country. Along history, many rulers and cultures have used daggers as symbols of power and wealth. The Egyptian pharaohs possessed ornate daggers of rare gold and iron that were buried with them in their tombs. These daggers portrayed the immense wealth and power of the owner. (Darnell) The Minoan people of the Aegean Sea were some of the first people to make daggers with metal. The common tools and daggers owned by citizens were made of brass, but the higher classes owned bronze and iron daggers. (Hogan) Even in modern times certain militaries around the world use the dagger as a symbol of rank, and many generals wear dress daggers, known as stilettos, which show that they are in command. (Rosignoli) In this case Macbeth envisions a dagger as an emblem of power because it is what he desires and how he must obtain it.
When one thinks of a dagger the mind immediately jumps to deceit and treachery, but perhaps Shakespeare meant more than that when he wrote Macbeth and added the scene of the ethereal dagger. Maybe he was referencing Macbeth’s guilt about the planned murder of Duncan, and using the dagger as a symbol of betrayal to get the message across. Or perhaps he was in fact characterizing Duncan, by showing the reader that anyone could have and would have committed the murder of the king, putting Duncan at fault for his own demise. Maybe he just used a dagger because he couldn’t visually describe power, and he needed Macbeth to create what he desired in his mind in order to fulfill his vision of a complete story. All three of these propositions give an extra point of view to what Macbeth really means. The symbolism of the dagger is an important part of the story not only because of the plot, but because of the way it paints the characters in its bloody light.