Shakespeare uses religious imagery throughout the play, and specifically in Act II to emphasise how morally wrong Macbeth and his wife’s actions were and to project how prominent religion was in this era and how its traditions are influential and affect individual characters.
In Scene I Shakespeare introduces the religious imagery by referring to the stars: ‘There’s husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out’. By using personification to imply that there is someone ‘managing’ heaven as the stars are all shining that brightly tonight, Shakespeare presents the idea that the world has a director who is in control of not only natural things, but is morally conscious also and will punish those who do wrong. Furthermore, ‘Merciful powers’ implies that Banquo is calling on supernatural beings, specifically angels, to protect himself from ‘demons’, yet we are aware that later on in the play, when he is killed by Macbeth, his life is vulnerable, whether he had asked for divine protection or not. This gives an impression to the audience that religion is an ironic aspect of the play as those who are dependent on it are often let down and Shakespeare seems to be questioning his own belief in a ‘higher power’. This is shown again in Act II Scene II when the guards who were supposed to be protecting Duncan, having been made unconscious by drink given to them by Lady Macbeth, upon waking again ‘did say their prayers’. This is satirical as these guards then have Duncan’s death blamed on them by the Macbeths and are murdered, despite having just asked God for forgiveness of their sins.
Additionally, in Act II Scene I, Macbeth, having murdered Duncan, says ‘it is a knell, / That summons thee to heaven or to hell.’ This suggests that although the audience have had little inference that Duncan has done anything which would warrant the extremity of hell, there is a possibility that he could have been deserving of such a punishment. Alternatively, Shakespeare could potentially be emphasising Macbeth’s desperation to try and justify the crime he has just committed. By highlighting the theme of judgment - ‘to heaven or to hell’ - when Macbeth first begins his catastrophic quest for power, Shakespeare is foreseeing the difficulty Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to have later in the play when it comes to evaluating their own characters and the ways they have achieved their supremacy.
Moreover, in Act II Scene II, the audience bear witness to Macbeth trying to come to terms with his crimes when the guards were praying, and struggling to ask for forgiveness from God. Through Macbeth’s inability to forgive himself for what he has done, we are shown that he is starting to struggle with the concept of being unable to hide his deceit from God: ‘I could not say “Amen”… But wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”? I had most need of blessing, and “Amen / Stuck in my throat.’ Macbeth is aware that if he still wants to go to heaven once he is dead he must have God’s forgiveness, and yet he is so overwhelmed by guilt that he cannot bring himself to ask for it.
Similarly, Lady Macbeth says to her husband in Act II Scene III: ‘Go get some water / And wash this filthy witness from your hand.’ This is a direct reference to Pontius Pilate, who after he has been pressured by the crowd to order the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, ‘washes his hands’ of the deed to demonstrate that he is not entirely guilty. Shakespeare is comparing Macbeth’s crime to that of Pilate’s, as both were responsible for the death of an innocent man but were not willing to accept the full onus. This is repeated later in scene when Lady Macbeth says again ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ This could also be a reference to baptism and the importance in the church of being cleansed of all sins.
Macbeth could be compared to another religious character when Lady Macbeth says ‘fears a painted devil’ or when the