Students will identify the function of personification in Macbeth’s famous “Is this a dagger” soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and explain how and why personification is used to create action in the scene. This lesson should be completed after reading Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 2, scene 1.
1. Students will identify examples of personification in Act 2, scene 1, of Macbeth.
2. Students will identify how personification functions in that section of the text.
3. Students will analyze the purpose and function of personification.
Abstractions, by definition, are difficult for students to comprehend. Since the purpose of literature in all its forms is, ultimately, to convey some abstract concept about the human condition in a meaningful manner, writers often employ literary and poetic devices that make the intangible qualities of life’s experience concrete and relatable to the audience. Abstract concepts like love, jealousy, fear, and hate have a myriad of complex and nuanced characteristics. In order to clearly convey these concepts, writers often rely on comparisons in the form of figurative language.
Prior to passing out the Personification Worksheet ask volunteers to define personification and encourage students to write the definitions in their notebooks. Then pass out the worksheet and, as a class, read the definition:
Personification is a figure of speech in which human qualities are attributed to an animal, object, or idea. Personification is often used in order to project a character’s fears and concerns onto the outside world.
Discuss the student-generated definitions in comparison with the definition on the worksheet.
Next, have the class generate some examples of personification and/or provide some examples from earlier scenes in Macbeth, such as in the following exchange between Duncan and Banquo at the opening of Act 1, scene 6:
This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.
(No Fear: 1.6.3–10)
One of the easiest ways for students to identify personification is to look for verbs associated with nouns and pronouns that do not normally act on their own. In the above example, the air (italicized) recommends itself (bolded) to the character’s senses. Recommending is an action normally associated not with the air but with people. Explain to students that giving the air the ability to recommend is personification. Shakespeare’s purpose in this example is to bring life to Macbeth’s castle and demonstrate how Duncan, ironically, feels comfortable there.
Possessive cases can also signal the presence of personification. For example, see the italicized text in Banquo's quote above. Banquo describes “that the heaven’s breath / Smells wooingly here.” Since ownership of anything is a human trait, these lines also represent an example of personification. In this case, Banquo makes another comparison that also, ironically, demonstrates the pleasant nature of Macbeth’s castle.
Read Act 2, scene 1, with the class, focusing on Macbeth’s soliloquy at the end of the scene. Review the soliloquy with the students so that they understand the meaning and purpose of the scene.
Have students complete the worksheet in pairs.
After students complete the worksheet, have small groups of two or three pairs compare their responses. Then assign one question from the worksheet to each group and have them present their responses to the class. Have the listening students provide feedback and additional details for each group response, and then discuss each response as a class.
Have students work in small groups of three or four to complete the worksheet. Review students’ answers as a class after they respond to each question. This breaks up the work and helps to make sure students are on the right track before moving on.
Open the activity up to additional types of figurative language other than personification. Encourage students to look for related instances of figurative language in the soliloquy that help to convey Macbeth’s insecurity. For example, Macbeth describes the dagger’s purpose, stating, “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes.” This metaphoric image of the bloody dagger can be discussed in relation to how it sets up the personification in the line.