Imagine how dull a Shakespearean play would be without the ingenious literary devices and techniques that contribute so much to the fulfillment of its reader or viewer. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, is a tragedy that combines fact and legend to tell the story of an eleventh century king. Shakespeare uses numerous types of literary techniques to make this tragic play more appealing. Three literary devices that Shakespeare uses to make Macbeth more interesting and effective are irony, symbolism, and imagery. One technique that Shakespeare uses is irony.
Verbal irony is when a character says one thing but means the opposite. When a reader understands the irony of what a character is saying, then he can truly understand the nature and intentions of the character. An example of verbal irony is when Macbeth says to Banquo, “Tonight we hold a solemn supper, sir,/ And I’ll request your presence” (Macbeth 3. 1. 13-14). The reader soon discovers that Banquo never makes it to the banquet because he is brutally murdered by order of Macbeth. Shakespeare also uses situation irony. This occurs when the results of an action or event are different than what is expected.
An example of situation irony occurs when Macduff talks to Malcolm and discusses the tragedies that are taking place in Scotland. Without knowing that his own family has been slain Macduff says, ” Each new morn/ New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows/ Strike heaven on the face” (4. 3. 4-6). Ironically, Macduff comments about widows, while he is completely unaware that he is a widower himself. Irony, a key element to a tragic play like Macbeth, has the ability to make the tragic hero appear more villainous or the down-fall seem even more tragic.
The second type of literary device that Shakespeare uses in Macbeth is symbolism. The predominant symbol is blood and is used as an effective method to describe the theme of the play. Not only does blood symbolize bravery, it is also a means of showing treachery and treason and probably most importantly, guilt. One example of bravery occurs when the captain says, “For brave Macbeth? well he deserves that name–/Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,/Which smoked with bloody execution”(1. 2. 16-18). Soon after this blood changes into a representation of treachery and treason.
Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to “Make thick my blood,/ Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse” (1. 5. 43-44). She asks the spirits to take away compassion and make her remorseless for the actions she is about to take. Also, when Ross asks, “Is’t known who did this more than bloody deed? ” (2. 4. 22), he tries to figure out who performed the disloyal act of murdering the king. Blood is also used many times to express the guilt-ridden consciences of the characters. For instance, Macbeth says, “What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine own eyes! /
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash the blood/ Clean from my hand? ” (2. 3. 58-60). Macbeth obviously feels guilty for killing Duncan in cold blood. Later in the play, Lady Macbeth reveals her guilt while sleepwalking. She walks through the castle carrying a candle. She often sits the candle down and begins to rub her hands as if she is trying to wash them. In her somber state, she cries out:
What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our pow’r to accompt? Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him? (5. 1. 38-41). Lady Macbeth feels as though she cannot wipe clean her blood stained hands.
This is a bit ironic since earlier she told Macbeth, “A little water clears us of this deed” (2. 2. 66). Lady Macbeth has many dreams and fantasies about blood, which shows that she cannot clear her conscience of this brutal act. Another literary technique that is used in Macbeth is word imagery. Word imagery is a term for a metaphor, a comparison that does not use the words “like” or “as”. One of the best examples of this is clothing imagery. For instance, Ross tells Macbeth that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, and Macbeth says, “The Thane of Cawdor lives.
Why do you dress me in/ Borrowed robes? ” (1. 3. 108-109). Macbeth asks why Ross is telling him this. This title is like new clothes to him, but this title and these clothes should still belong to the former Thane of Cawdor. Another example of clothing imagery occurs when Macbeth tells his wife that he has second thoughts of killing Duncan. He says, “I have bought/
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,/ Which would be worn now in their newest gloss” (1. 7. 32-34). Lady Macbeth thinks he is being irrational. Macbeth knows that he is the center of attention now because he saved the country.
He also knows that if he kills Duncan everyone would be more interested in the death of their king than in their hero, Macbeth. Shakespeare’s work reveals that he knew how to make a play a work of art. Through his use of irony, symbolism, and imagery he is able to grab the reader or the viewer’s attention and keep it.
These elements have contributed to the endurance of his works for centuries, and they will help it to endure for centuries to come. Without the use of these techniques, Macbeth would not be the tragic play that it is. This play would lack very important methods that help idealize the characters in the play.