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Literary Devices in Macbeth

Wordplay and Double Meaning: Shakespeare was a master of wordplay, double entendres, punning, and dramatic irony. Macbeth is no exception; the play is rife with literary devices and double-meaning. Shakespeare allows his audience insight into the deeper mental state of certain characters through the use of soliloquies.

Tragedy, Tone, and the Supernatural: The play follows the classic trajectory of the tragic hero: a once-heroic figure is stripped of power and reputation because of an inherent tragic flaw. Shakespeare employs supernatural elements including prophecy, hallucination, and witchcraft to create an ominous tone throughout the play. These supernatural elements are enhanced by fantastical language and imagery.

Literary Devices Examples in Macbeth:

Act I - Scene I

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"There to meet with Macbeth..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Shakespeare uses this short scene to introduce these three characters and to inform the audience that they will reappear for an important meeting with the central character, Macbeth. Additionally, Shakespeare uses them in the opening to create a startling effect and a feeling of foreboding around the coming play.

"Fair is foul..."   (Act I - Scene I)

This is an example of a paradox, something which seems impossible, yet is realistically plausible. The meaning behind this quote lies in the idea that things which seem good (fair) are bad (foul), and things which seem bad (foul) are actually good (fair). 

"Aside.] Two truths are told, As happy prologues to the swelling act Of the imperial theme!..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Speaking to himself, Macbeth considers how the first two predictions of the witches are true and thinks of them as building up to the final reward of being King. With the use of the [Aside] stage action, Shakespeare allows Macbeth to have a kind of soliloquy even in the presence of others, which in turn gives the audience insight into the state of Macbeth's mind.

"Why do you dress me In borrow'd robes?..."   (Act I - Scene III)

This kind of reference to clothing appears throughout the play. Metaphorically, clothing references refer to the titles that people have, such as Thane or King. Here, Macbeth does not understand why Ross and Angus refer to him as the Thane of Cawdor, as he believes another holds that title.

"The temple-haunting martlet..."   (Act I - Scene VI)

Martlets, or martins, are small birds related to swallows. Banquo indicates that this summer bird is attracted to Macbeth's castle and has chosen to make its nest on it. Banquo describes a quiet and idyllic summer day, which contrasts later with the storm that comes when Macbeth commits the foul deed.

"I have no spur(25) To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on the other—..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Macbeth uses this metaphor to compare his ambition to a horse rider who falls when he jumps higher than he is able. In these lines Macbeth recognizes that he has no other reason to kill Duncan than his own ambition. This blatant recognition of his dangerous ambition makes Macbeth's eventual murder of Duncan ironic.

"Know you not he has?..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

This brief exchange reveals how much Macbeth loves Duncan: he cannot sit in the same room with the man he is planning to murder. Lady Macbeth's reply indicates that Duncan obviously loves Macbeth because he has always been an honest and honorable man. Macbeth is in an unfamiliar role that he is uncomfortable playing. Shakespeare uses moments like this to maintain a degree of sympathy for Macbeth, since the tragedy of the play is his downfall.

"And pity, like a naked new-born babe..."   (Act I - Scene VII)

Macbeth’s foretelling the future consequences of assassinating King Duncan should be compared with Marc Antony's soliloquy in Julius Caesar, act III, scene I. In both, Shakespeare summarizes what actually happens by using the future tense rather than the past tense. Both Macbeth and Antony predict what will happen as consequences of wicked violence. This is a shorthand way for Shakespeare to cover years of chaotic historical events in single speeches rather than attempting to dramatize or describe them onstage.

"when we can..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Notice here how Macbeth somewhat uses the royal "we" in this passage and refers to himself in the plural. In doing so, he speaks as if he were already crowned king.

"Infirm of purpose!..."   (Act II - Scene II)

By "infirm" Lady Macbeth uses the antiquated understanding of the word: not firm, or unstable. In a previous scene, Lady Macbeth told Macbeth that they could not fail if he shored up his courage. However, with this line, Lady Macbeth recognizes that he was not as firm as she wanted him to be, and thus they are in danger of being caught.

"I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Shakespeare wants both husband and wife smeared with blood. Naturally Lady Macbeth will return with bloody hands and some blood on her garment after smearing the faces of two men with Duncan's blood. In doing this, Shakespeare creates the illusion that the audience has witnessed a horrible murder without showing it on stage.

"I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Without the ability to conjure complex sound effects for his stage, Shakespeare often uses dialogue to describe to the audience what the characters are hearing. Here, the “scream” of the owl and the “cries” of the crickets describe nature speaking out against Duncan’s murder. His murder and the removal of his kingship upset the natural order.

"Knock, knock! Who's there, in th’ other devil's name?..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Knocking is a motif throughout Macbeth. After Macbeth and his wife complete their hideous murder, they hear a knock within that causes them to immediately fear and begins their slow descent into guilty madness. The Porter imagines Hell's Gate and unwittingly invokes two symbols. First, Macbeth's castle begins to resemble hell as he has committed a hideous crime. Second, the Porter reminds the audience that bad deeds, such as murder and suicide, are met with punishment in hell. This foreshadows not only Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's coming end, but the promise of punishment in the afterlife for their ambition. It is unclear whether or not this line was the basis for the modern Knock, Knock joke.

"Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,(120) Loyal and neutral, in a moment?..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Compare this short speech with Macbeth's earlier one in lines 99-104. Whereas earlier he appeared genuine, here the word choice and poor imagery help to illustrate Macbeth's hypocrisy.

"’Twas a rough night...."   (Act II - Scene III)

Even though they're talking about the weather, Macbeth's statement here is a perfect example of understatement. For him, the weather is of little concern considering the kind of "rough night" Macbeth has just had.

"the lie,..."   (Act II - Scene III)

The Porter makes a pun here. The word lie, as in "lie down," sounds the same as the word lye which means "urine." The humor is in the idea that too much drink makes someone fall asleep and possibly wet themselves.

"[The same.]..."   (Act II - Scene III)

As Macbeth and his wife leave the courtyard, the scene doesn't change. The porter, slowly wakened by the knocking from his drunken sleep, makes his way to the door. His speech helps move the time along as Macbeth cleans his hands and tries to pretend that he was asleep while Duncan was murdered.

"I know this is a joyful trouble to you..."   (Act II - Scene III)

Macduff thinks Macbeth is being cold and angry because he woke him up with his knocking. This line about "a joyful trouble to you" is dripping with sarcasm. Macduff is also daring Macbeth to complain about having to open his gate for a man on the King's business. However, his sarcasm is wasted on Macbeth because the man is almost in a trance, consumed with mixed emotions.

"According to the gift which bounteous nature..."   (Act III - Scene I)

Macbeth continues his extended metaphor to provide more meaning for his comparison: Some dogs have special qualities given to them by nature, and Macbeth hopes that these murderers also have gifts that will allow them to best carry out the murder.

"What's done is done...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Lady Macbeth uses this speech to calm Macbeth's guilty conscious. However, her flippant response to Macbeth's worries, essentially there's no changing what has happened so forget about it, comes back to haunt her when she begins to feel pangs of guilt. Her "what's done is done" later transforms into "what's done cannot be undone," as Lady Macbeth becomes overrun with guilt.

"to gain our peace, have sent to peace..."   (Act III - Scene II)

In a way very characteristic of his style, Shakespeare plays on the word "peace" by putting two instances close together with multiple meanings. The first instance refers to the satisfaction of Macbeth's desire for power that he had hoped to gain by killing Duncan; and the latter instance refers to the peace of death.

"They assault Banquo...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Shakespeare has the murder of Banquo shown onstage as opposed to not showing Macbeth murder Duncan earlier in the play. The choice to show this death likely revolves around how this scene represents a turning point, and Shakespeare also wanted the audience to know that Banquo is truly dead—especially considering the visions that Macbeth has after he learns what happened.

"Enter three Murderers..."   (Act III - Scene III)

One of the possible reasons why Shakespeare includes a third murderer in this scene as a way to ensure that dialogue takes place. Without the Third Murderer, it's possible that the other two would wait in silence for Banquo and Fleance. However, with the third, the audience is able to experience the scene in a more complete and engaging way.

"our high-placed Macbeth..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

While saying his own name here might be a little awkward, the presence of "our" indicates that this phrase is another use of the "royal we," and Macbeth freely resorts to this egotistical language having heard what he considers to be good news from the apparitions.

" Double, double, toil and trouble;(10) Fire burn and cauldron bubble..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

As the witches brew a potion in the cauldron, they repeat this chant as a kind of evil spell. Interestingly, Shakespeare uses tetrameter (four beats per line) instead of iambic pentameter for the witches' spell. This incantation, the cauldron, and the evil atmosphere all credit Shakespeare with the creation of the Western conception of a typical witch.

"It is an accustomed action with her, to seem(25) thus washing her hands...."   (Act V - Scene I)

This is an example of Shakespeare including directions to the actors through dialogue rather than stage directions. Lady Macbeth appears to be continuously washing her hands. Ironically, in act II scene II, she tells her husband: "A little water clears us of this deed." Here she is months later still unable to get her hands—or her conscience—sufficiently clean.

"Bring it after me...."   (Act V - Scene III)

Since Macbeth called for his armor, several parts of his dialogue have alluded to stage action: "Come, put mine armor on"; "Come, sir, dispatch";"Pull't off, I say." In addition to providing stage directions in dialogue, Shakespeare also helps craft a scene illustrating how restless Macbeth is.

"SEYTON:..."   (Act V - Scene III)

The character of Seyton exists primarily to convey information to Macbeth (and to the audience). Seyton seems like a cool customer who is unflappable in his dealings with Macbeth—who is acting more and more like a homicidal lunatic. Seyton seems loyal but not sympathetic and his impeccable coolness serves as a contrast to the frantic behavior and wild utterances of his royal master.

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