Right now I want to help a bigger public than usual to understand literature, rather than try to add to what other professors know about William Shakespeare, symbol, and metaphor. For you high school and college and undergraduate students finding this blog, the easy way to cite this post and avoid plagiarism is right here:
If you say, "Bullshit, I'm not curious," you're using a metaphor to call a statement excrement. If you say, "It's too complicated, so I'll probably never get it," you're using one too: the metaphor that knowledge is something you can "get," as if it were some new shoes. And you probably shouldn't believe either of these quotations, because they don't give you much credit, and metaphor is never literally true.
My specific interest today is how metaphor interacts with symbol. You know what a symbol is, but I'm going to explain a little more about it, starting with Shakespeare's character Macbeth when he says (or when Patrick Stewart says it, playing Macbeth),
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more… (V.v.24-26)
The first line here is a metaphor: life is a walking shadow. It’s an explicit metaphor because it spells out the basic formula for metaphor, A = B (life = walking shadow), which I learned from Trevor Whittock in his book Metaphor and Film. (There’s no harm in saying where you learned something.) Shakespeare follows up with an implicit metaphor: life = an actor (the "player... upon the stage"). It’s implicit because he doesn’t say “is” in that metaphor. Why does he need two metaphors to explain life?
One answer, a short one, is that life’s not easy to understand. Another is that an actor walking in the spotlight on stage will cast a walking shadow, so Shakespeare is not so much adding a metaphor as he is extending the first metaphor.
Let's return, then, to "life = walking shadow," A = B. Another way of explaining the formula for metaphor is to say, “this is that” (Frye 11) which I learned (as you already saw in the parenthesis) from Northrop Frye. The equal sign from above is equivalent to “is,” and that’s why we understand metaphor as an expression of shared identity instead of similarity. You probably heard that metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use like or as. This explanation isn’t bad, but it’s not good, because comparison is what similes assert. Metaphors assert identity: that two things are the same thing. The verbs “to be” and “is” refer to being, and being is essential to identity.
The verbs and the equal sign also suggest how specific metaphor is, compared to symbols, which usually have a bigger variety of meanings.
But there's also a difference between a symbol and the category of symbolism (things that stand for something else). The category includes metaphor (because the A stands for B). Symbolism includes symbol itself. If you wonder how a category can contain itself, think of your parents. They are symbolism, and you are their child, symbol. But you also have a cousin called metaphor, and another called synecdoche, and another called metonymy. They’re all in the same family and can often be mistaken for each other, but they’re all different.
So, the first line I quoted is a metaphor that contains a symbol: the shadow. How you could ever be the child of your cousin is way beyond my understanding of biology, so this is probably where metaphor breaks down—where, if you push it far enough, it doesn't make sense any more. But up to that point, metaphors can make sense.
Let’s just focus on the symbol of the shadow. According to an often consulted book called A Glossary of Literary Terms, symbols can be traditional (also known as public or conventional, among other synonyms) or personal (or private or invented) (“symbol” 358), and as a traditional symbol the shadow is easily understood. It means death, transience, guilt—usually negative things.
Here's Shakespeare's twist on it. No one interpreting a shadow is likely to say it means “life,” but Shakespeare does—"Life's but a walking shadow"—and metaphor is the device that enables him to be so creative with a symbol. He also makes it walk, which animates the reference to death so that the symbol is not so gloomy (unless, of course, it's the Grim Reaper).
You might argue with me here, pointing out that the soliloquy is really depressing by the end, when Macbeth says that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V.v.26-27). Agreed: that’s dark. But, guess what? Shakespeare is dead, but lots of actors have cast a shadow on the stage or movie screen since he died, and many of them are saying his lines. That’s life! And when you notice how deft Shakespeare is with symbol and metaphor, you’ll probably agree that his words are signifying something, not nothing.
Still, why would he use the word “idiot” to describe actors? He implies here that not only actors but also the people who write their lines are not only stupid but also wordy. (Wordy like the preceding sentence!) He is basically criticizing himself; it’s self-deprecation. But, funnily, not many of us think that of Shakespeare. He was very smart, and he knew it. Interpreted with this self-deprecation in mind, Macbeth’s gloomy speech can also be understood as a joke. Tragedy and comedy combined!
Like that idea? Here are two final, slightly more advanced, ways of thinking about it.
First, the joke in this metaphor is also what could be called self-reflexive metaphor or theatrical metaphor; he wrote it about himself and his experience in theatre. I mention it because Shakespeare popularized a whole tradition of how we understand the self (the actor on the stage) through theatrical metaphors.
Second, think about liking. Think about all the “likes” on websites and social media that are there because a corporation wants to track our desires and simplify our expressions and interactions. Liking is about desire and about connection; fundamentally, it is the expression of a felt similarity between you and what you like: you like panda cubs because you value cuteness. This way of thinking is what similes are for.
Metaphors are for when you are so obsessed with pandas that you feel as if you share an identity with them. You want to go live in a forest in China with them and protect them from hunters; your empathy is that powerful. Shakespeare wrote so often about actors and pretending to be other people that he was probably obsessed with them and, of course, acting was part of his career. Often, we relate to others through metaphor because we identify with them, as I learned from Diana Fuss in Identification Papers, a book my friend Mike Lee recommended.
When you think of it, metaphor is probably more meaningful than any of us expected. It's about life, your identity, and how you relate to others on the "stage" of the world, which you can affect through your performances, just like your favourite actors and musicians affect the world. And when you know more about metaphor, it reveals hidden or extra meanings about writers and their literature and culture, including their language, which might also be your language.
If you're curious now, check out a book called Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. You'll be surprised by how much of what we think is metaphor at work in our minds, without our knowing it.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Shakespeare’s Symbol within Metaphor.” Publicly Interested, 14 July 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com. (This post is the first in which I've switched from previous MLA formatting guidelines to those in the 8th edition, which is, sadly, going to make me reformat this whole site.)
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.