Macbeth

by: William Shakespeare

Style

Some of the most celebrated language in Macbeth can be found in the speeches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both of whom begin the play speaking in an energetic and fluent style, but end the play with more halting and cryptic language. Macbeth’s first soliloquy has a strong sense of forward momentum, made possible in part by the lack of line-end punctuation and in part by Shakespeare’s use of alliteration, consonance, and assonance:

If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.2–7)

In this speech Macbeth considers the moral and pragmatic challenges that might emerge as a result of his plot to assassinate Duncan. Yet despite the complexity of his considerations and hesitations, Macbeth’s speech has an energetic quality that makes him seem more sure of his plan than his words otherwise indicate. Later in this scene, as Macbeth’s hesitancy grows, Lady Macbeth echoes his earlier surety. She tells her husband that she would never break her promise to him, no matter how foul:

I would, while [the babe] was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7.56–59)

Though this passage exhibits less wordplay and musicality than Macbeth’s, it demonstrates a similar fluency and forward momentum that, in turn, indicates a sense of certainty. In spite of all possible hesitations, the Macbeths’ language makes Duncan's murder seem inevitable.

Near the play’s end, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth increasingly lose touch with reality, their style of speaking grows more and more halting and cryptic. In the first scene of Act 5, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks anxiously. A doctor and a gentlewoman look on as, in her dreams, she relives the night of Duncan's assassination and attempts to wash her hands of his blood: "Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One, two. Why, then / ’tis time to do 't. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie!" (5.1.31–32). In just two brief lines Lady Macbeth makes six distinct utterances, indicating that her mind wanders quickly between recollections of the fateful night and thoughts on her own damnation. Macbeth’s speech upon hearing of his wife’s death has a similar quality:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5.18–22)

Although less dense and cryptic than Lady Macbeth’s speech, these lines also feature the use of repetition to indicate ruminations on the inevitability of his wife’s (and his own) death. Just as their early style of speaking indicates the inevitability of Duncan's murder, so too does their later style of speaking indicate the inevitability of their own punishment.

Another of the play’s major stylistic features appears in the language of the witches, who tend to speak in paradoxical riddles that defy clear meaning. The witches utter prophecy, and their language, so full of apparent contradiction, makes it nearly impossible to use for actually predicting the future. After Macbeth seeks out the witches in Act 4, he obsesses over their claim that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80–81). These words confound Macbeth. Since every man must be born by a woman, he convinces himself that he must be untouchable—only to discover too late that Macduff was not born but “was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped” (5.8.15–16). The kind of confusion created by the witches’ riddling style reflects the play's broader concern with equivocal speech—that is, language that is ambiguous and difficult to decipher. Such language poses a great threat throughout the play, and in the final act Macbeth himself forbids further equivocation. When Macduff admits he had a caesarian birth, Macbeth replies:

Accursèd be that tongue that tells me so. . . .
And be these juggling fiends no more believed
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope. (5.8.17–20)

Frustrated with the endless “double sense” that plays tricks on (i.e., “palters with”) him, Macbeth denounces all equivocal speech that breaks its own promises.

Prose Versus Verse

Macbeth contains a fairly small amount of prose compared to most of Shakespeare’s other plays. Where prose is used, it tends to distinguish characters with more humble origins from characters of noble background, to indicate sections of the play where the purpose is to deliver information, or to suggest the onset of mental illness. In Act 1, Scene 5, the letter from her husband that Lady Macbeth reads out loud is written in prose. Macbeth describes the witches by writing that “When I burned in desire to question them further, they made themselves air, into which they vanished” (1.5.3-4). The letter is meant to inform his wife about Macbeth’s encounter with the witches, and prose allows for this information to be communicated clearly and directly. The prose format of the letter creates contrast when Lady Macbeth launches into her soliloquy in verse, signaling the boundary between the information she has received and her reaction to it.

In Act 2, Scene 3, the porter speaks in prose, which indicates his lack of sophistication and education, but also the bare truth of his words. Considering the placement of this section in the play, coming directly after the intense psychological drama surrounding the murder of Duncan, the prose also signals a transition to a more relaxed tone for a brief interlude before the murder is discovered and the tension is renewed. A similar effect is at play in Act 4, Scene 2, where Lady Macduff and her young son speak to each other in prose, plainly discussing Macduff’s death and what they should do. In both cases, the use of prose rather than verse lessens the gap between audience and actors. Since both scenes take place right before moments of violence, the creation of a relatable atmosphere heightens the impact and juxtaposition when the audience is plunged back into a world of mayhem.

The final use of prose appears in Act 5, Scene 1, where the doctor and a gentlewoman discuss Lady Macbeth’s madness. When Lady Macbeth speaks in this scene, she speaks in fragmented and incoherent prose, saying, “come, come, come. Give me your hand. What’s done/ cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!” This repetitive, nonsense speech contrasts with the elegant and persuasive rhetoric she used when speaking in verse earlier in the play. Similar to Hamlet, in Macbeth characters suffering from madness use prose rather than verse, perhaps to signal they lack the wit to use more elegantly constructed speech, or to signal that due to their madness, their status has now been reduced. Since this scene captures how much Lady Macbeth has declined from her previous majesty and strength, the move from verse to prose captures how her guilt and suffering have caused her to become a shadow of her former self.