The passage is an excerpt from an 1823 essay on Macbeth by Thomas De Quincey:

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

I know "reflect on" means "To consider or think back on something," but I think this meaning doesn't fit here in the above passage.

Can we equate "reflect back upon" with "produce in"? I mean, "it [the knocking] produced in the murderer a peculiar sense of awfulness..."? Does it have anything to do with the writer feeling sympathy for the murderer?

  • 2
    More literally, reflect is what a mirror does. De Quincey says that the knocking, although it happens in the play after the murder, always affected the way he felt about the murder; it 'shone' certain feelings back upon it. Aug 21, 2019 at 8:33
  • @KateBunting Shone certain feelings back upon "the murder" or "the murderer"? The passage seems to suggest the latter, doesn't it?
    – BeatsMe
    Aug 21, 2019 at 8:42
  • Hi , Im a new user in the first throes of interest with the site, it took me so long to form my answer that a better one was in place by the time i had posted. May I please ask @Kate Bunting ; why was your succinct answer placed in the comments and not into the answer area?
    – user356866
    Aug 21, 2019 at 8:46
  • I assumed that murderer was a misprint for murder. @user356866 I didn't have a particular reason except that I just posted my immediate thoughts rather than a reasoned answer. Aug 21, 2019 at 9:01

2 Answers 2



1: to prevent passage of and cause to change direction a mirror reflects light
2: to give back or exhibit as an image, likeness, or outline : MIRROR
the clouds were reflected in the water
3: to bring or cast as a result
his attitude reflects little credit on his judgment
4: to make manifest or apparent : SHOW
the painting reflects his artistic vision
the pulse reflects the condition of the heart
6: to bend or fold back
7archaic : to turn into or away from a course : DEFLECT
intransitive verb

There a lot of meanings there to consider. The problem with 5 is that is requires a sentient subject, and knocking on the gates is not something that one normally treats as capable of thought. I think it's more likely somethings along the lines of 3 is meant.


The meaning does fit well with the passage. The meaning is that the simple act of knocking caused the murderer to seem awful and solemn to the author and that the author could not understand why for some time.

The author could have used other expressions; "cast the murderer in a solemn light" or "illuminated an awful facet of the murderer", "showed the murderer to be a particularly awful character" , "caused me to feel he was very bad"

If there is no light to illuminate , nothing can be seen , that is to say nothing can be comprehended. As an example of this we may say;

"The blood on his hands sheds light upon who was responsible, this light reflects back upon the character of those who know the facts but remain silent"

but that does not really flow so we would normally say;

"The blood on his hands shows who was responsible, and reflects the character of those who know the facts but remain silent"

  • I don't think the writer means the knocking made him feel Macbeth was an evil murderer. Actually, I've read a number of critical ideas on the essay, which put an emphasis on the author feeling sympathy (not hatred) for the murderer.
    – BeatsMe
    Aug 21, 2019 at 9:05

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