Literary Devices

by Shakespere's Macbeth

What is a Literary Device?

Literary devices are used by writers to deliver an overall message or information in a way the reader or audience can understand. They are used in various ways for various reasons---most importantly, to be studied and analyzed.


"It's a metaphor, see..." - Augustus Waters, The Fault in Our Stars

It's simply a comparison! While similes use words such as "like" or "as" to make a comparison, metaphors creatively make a comparison without having to do so. They are created in reference of a person, place, animal or object that have a similar characteristic, to provide the reader a visual image and representation of the overall message.

"Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?" 1.3.116

  • He uses this metaphor to show Macbeth's first part prophecy unfolding, the beginning of MB's road of ambition
  • Macbeth is confused and innocent; he doesn't know how and why everything is happening
  • He knows his place and what his true role is, no matter what the witches say
  • Macbeth is curious but the audience still doesn't know his true ambitious character until he has an aside
  • This shows Macbeth as a very honest, transparent and true man. As the play progresses, MB become the opposite
  • He later wants to become the King, although there is already a King and an upcoming King
  • He wants to stay King although he knows Banquo's sons will become King---something he is not, dressing himself "in borrowed clothes"

"Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves shall never tremble./ Or be alive again and to the desert with thy sword/ If trembling inhabit then, protest me/ The baby of a girl." 3.4.121-125

  • This is the climax of the play
  • Shakespeare wanted to provide a visual image of Macbeth's fears and worries; his guilt! His craziness and frustration is being revealed to his friends---later on, his friends get suspicious, having a turning point in the play.
  • He compares himself to his nerves going out of control, like his mind going out of control as he sees Banquo's ghost.
  • He admits he is a "baby" because he is fearful--this is the beginning of his impulsive decisions and obvious guilt through his words and actions; this is the start of his mask coming off.
"Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing." 5.5.24-29

  • In the end, the true thoughts of Macbeth giving up is revealed---the downfall of his ambition
  • His comparison of life being meaningless shows the downfall of his relationship with his wife and his own life
  • The point in the play when Macbeth overall realizes his mistakes
  • He wouldn't have said this in the beginning of the play or in the middle of the play when he was fighting so hard for his life in battle, or killing others to become King
  • Macbeth was trying so hard to survive so he may leave a name in history or leave a legacy for his future sons (why he tried kill Fleance), but he now says the opposite
  • Shakespeare uses this comparison to show that life is quick and meaningless to Macbeth, how his own life was quick, he tried to make it meaningful but couldn't.

Dramatic Irony

This happens when information was revealed to the audience from the previous scenes but withheld from one or more characters. It gives the audience an omniscient feeling; of knowing something that the characters themselves do not know. As a result, the audience will be craving to know more about what will happen that can be so dramatic when the irony was realized by the characters.

Dramatic Irony was used in a handful of lines in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Such as these gave way for the said omniscient feeling and made the audience get hooked on effectively:

ACT I Scene IV: Lines 51-92
(The Witches hailed Macbeth “…thane of Cawdor!” while Macbeth still knows that he is only Thane of Glamis)

Dramatic Irony: In previous scenes, after the defeat of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor by the hands of Macbeth himself, King Duncan praised so highly of him and in his delight, decided to give Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor. It was only after Macbeth and Banquo had an audience with the Witches that they received the news about this.

Significance: This is where Macbeth starts to believe what the Witches had prophesied about him. He will start believing so much in the entirety of the play to the point that he will base his actions on the Witches’ powers.

ACT I Scene VI: Lines 1-3
(King Duncan went to Inverness to celebrate Macbeth’s promotion of becoming Thane of Cawdor and while looking around the surroundings of Macbeth’s castle, he said,
"This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses.”

Dramatic Irony: It’s a trap! The audience knows that “pleasant” is the complete opposite of what King Duncan will be getting that night. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are already planning on how are they going to fulfill the rest of the Witches’ prophesies of Macbeth becoming King by killing King Duncan in his sleep.

Significance: This scene shows the theme of the whole play which is appearance versus reality that was denoted in a lot of lines of different characters.

ACT IV Scene III: Lines 197-202

(“Macduff: How does my wife?

Ross: Why, well.

Macduff: And all my children?

Ross: Well, too.

Macduff: The tyrant [Macbeth] has not battered their peace?

Ross: No, they were well at peace when I did leave them.”)

Dramatic Irony: From the previous scene, Macbeth had already commanded to kill anyone that is related to Macduff and Ross already knows everything about this. Meanwhile, in this scene, Macduff still doesn’t have any idea about what happened to his family.

Significance: This is where Macduff resolved to bring revenge to Macbeth for his family after grieving for them.

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It is an artistic representation of a deeper and more meaningful idea.

Shakespeare made a handful of scenes where characters have visions and hallucinations may it be true or not. But one thing is for sure: these hallucinations represent deeper meanings.

(ACT II, Scene 1; ACT III, Scene 4)

Symbol: Floating Dagger

ACT II Scene I: Lines 41-69

"Macbeth: Is this a dagger, which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still..."

Symbolizes: In this particular scene, Macbeth sees a bloody dagger in front of him and he realizes it that he is only imagining it when he cannot feel it. This symbolizes Macbeth’s ambition of power driven by the Witches’ prophesies and his wife, Lady Macbeth, questioning his manliness. He is so obsessed of his ambition of power that he is willing to kill and he is starting to see things.

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(ACT I, Scene 2; ACT II, Scene 2; ACT III, Scene 4; ACT V, Scene 1)

Symbol: Lady Macbeth washing her hands while sleepwalking

ACT V Scene I
"Lady Macbeth: ...The Thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?
What, will these hands never be clean? No more of that, my lord, no more of that. You mar all with this starting..."

Symbolizes: In Shakespeare's Macbeth, blood is used to represent guilt. This symbolizes Lady Macbeth’s downfall. Her strong façade has long been crumbled and trashed as her own guilt and conscience already ate her. Shakespeare also exposed in this moment that everyone has their flaws however we strive to look strong and brave.

(ACT II, Scenes 1&2; ACT III, Scene 2; ACT V, Scene 1)

Symbol: Sleep

ACT II Scene II: Lines 50-51

"Macbeth: Still it cried, 'Sleep no more!' to all the house.

'Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor

Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.'"

Symbolizes: In this part, Macbeth thought that he heard a voice say as such the ones above. Sleep represents peace of mind, contentment, innocence, calm, and purity. The voice said, "Sleep no more! Macbeth does murdered sleep..." (2.2.43-44) and thus, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had not slept peacefully since. Macbeth began having nightmares and Lady Macbeth began to sleepwalk.


is either indicative phrases or words that sets the stage for the reader on how the story will eventually unfold. It also gives a hint on future important events; it's used to suggest an upcoming outcome to the story.

1. The witches and their Prophecies in Act 1

The witches meet up with Macbeth and Banquo after the battle is over and they tell Macbeth the 3 Prophecies (or predictions about what to come): (Act 1, Scene 3)

  1. Thane of Glamis: He already is the Thane of Glamis.
  2. Thane of Cawdor: Foreshadows the title that he eventually receives, in scene 3 of Act 1, once the Thane if Cawdor was executed. Once this was fulfilled it foreshadows that the next prophecy must and will eventually come true.
  3. King hereafter: This foreshadows what Macbeth will eventually be, but as well as all the actions and deeds (Killing the King) that must occur in order for this to happen. This is eventually achieved through the murder of the king, guilt, and evil.

Significance: Shakespeare uses these prophecies as a form of foreshadowing in the beginning to set the stage of what Macbeth is trying to and eventually will achieve. It gives the audience an idea of what Macbeth and later his wife will ambitiously achieve. This gives the audience a hint of what is about to to occur in the story and on future events (the murder of the king)

2." These deeds must not be though/ After these ways. So, it will make us mad." 2.2.41-42 -Lady Macbeth

  • Lady Macbeth Macbeth tells this to Macbeth after the murder of King Duncan to calm him down since he was feeling heavy emotions of guilt and anxiety. Shows her tough outer appearance.

  • Foreshadows Lady Macbeth's feelings later on in the play. Later on she eventually goes mad and starts to feel guilt. Lady Macbeth starts sleepwalking and talking in her sleep about the murders, Act 5 Scene 1, showing she had officially gone mad from overthinking the murders. She also eventually commits suicide.

  • Also foreshadows Macbeth later on in the play, he sees the ghost of Banquo after he gave orders to murder him, Act 3 Scene 4, shows that he is also becoming mad by overthinking.


Shakespeare uses this example of foreshadowing at this point in the play to give a hint on how Lady Macbeth and Macbeth's characters will unfold later on in the play. Foreshadows how they will eventually go mad from overthinking the murders, and also foreshadows Lady Macbeth's not so tough character later on in the play.

3. "A little water clears us of this deed." 2.2.80 Lady Macbeth

  • Lady Macbeth tells this to Macbeth after they murdered King Duncan. She says this so he will stop feeling guilty and scared.
  • This shows her dominance over Macbeth and how much "stronger" she is than him during the murder.
  • Foreshadows that water cannot clean everything.
  • This foreshadows how she later on feels guilty and how water can't clean her hands.
  • later on in the play when she sleepwalks, the doctor and gentlewoman catch her doing the motion of washing her hands and saying "Here's the smell of the blood still./ All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." 5.1.43-44 This goes against what she said, because she is still not cleared of the deed with water since she can still feel the guilt.
  • Though the actual blood was cleaned off, the actual deed is not gone, it remains in her conscience.


Shakespeare uses this example of foreshadowing at this point in the play give the audience the hint that Lady Macbeth is not as strong as she seems, which leads to the outcome of her sleep walking and talking about how water can't clean her hands.



“Don’t be such a Scrooge!” “You can be the Romeo to my Juliet.”

Some of these phrases may be familiar to you in everyday speech. What you may not have realized is that these are examples of allusion.

An Allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. It does not necessarily explain in detail the person or thing it is referring to. Instead, allusions are created by the writer, expecting the readers to grasp the importance of what he/she is trying to say. (Sort of like an inside joke with you and the writer!)


Allusions are still very popular in literature and film of modern day! Have you ever watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? J.K. Rowling used many forms of allusion in her books that transferred into the movies.

If you remember the movie, you may recognize a three-headed, ferocious guard dog named Fluffy. In Greek mythology, Cerberus was a three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld. Cool, eh?


“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand?” (2.2. 72-73)

  • Shakespeare refers back to Greek mythology as "Neptune" was the roman god of the oceans.
  • He is also known as the God of Earthquakes.
  • Neptune had a reputation for having a violent temper. Tempests and earthquakes were a reflection of his violent rage.
  • Macbeth is asking if all the Neptune’s water would be enough to wash off the blood off his hands. Macbeth is feeling guilty as he had just killed King Duncan.
  • Shakespeare refers to Neptune to show the strength of Macbeth’s emotions. This helps the audience comprehend how guilty Macbeth truly felt.
  • Something even as strong as the power of a God, still would not be able to cure Macbeth of this ruthless deed.
  • This allusion allows Shakespeare to add depth to what he is trying to convey without rambling on for a long time.


“Till that Bellona's bridegroom, lapped in proof,

Confronted him with self-comparisons.” (1.2. 61-62)

  • Ross arrives to a camp near Forres to deliver the news of Macbeth’s victory in battle to king Duncan.
  • Shakespeare refers to the historical significance of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war.
  • She is known for being closely associated the Mars, the Roman god of war. Mars in known as being her companion or husband, which is who Ross is comparing Macbeth to.
  • Shakespeare uses this allusion to describe how well honoured Macbeth was at the beginning of the play. He was seen as valiant, brave and noble to all which is clear as Ross compared him to the God of war.
  • In Shakespearean time, the audience would have grasped this allusion and understood that Macbeth was a hero with godlike qualities.
  • Acts as an easy way for the audience to better understand the personality of the characters.


“Why should I play the roman fool and die

On mine own sword?” (5.8. 1-2)

  • Macbeth asks himself this question before his final encounter with Macduff. Even though his odds are slim, he refuses to commit suicide.
  • Shakespeare is referencing the “Roman Fool,” an old tale about a soldier.
  • For the Romans, killing yourself with your own sword was a death that was nobler than being taken captive and tortured by your enemy. Many high-ranking officers would choose to commit suicide.
  • Macbeth calls them fools, as he believes the Romans were idiotic for thinking suicide would be more dignified than fighting in war.
  • Shakespeare uses this allusion in order to draw attention from the audience.
  • The audience would make a connection with Shakespeare's reference, due to their prior knowledge on the topic.
  • An idea seems irrelevant until one is able to connect with what the writer is trying to say, therefore capturing their attention.

Poem in the Eyes of Macbeth

My name is Macbeth, and in the end i reach my death.

I assure thats no hyperbole, Macduff beheads me quite brutally HYPERBOLE

So when the witches presented me the imagery,

That I would be king for all eternity.

From Burhnam Wood to Dunsinane IMAGERY

There was no way, but to life they came.

But at the end of the day... I started the foul play.

It just might be cliche, but the bad guy never gets his way. CLICHE

The serpent I was, as my wife told me,

but the trick that came, from those ugly old three... METAPHOR

told me...

I was protected from all men including thee.

I wish I was, like in deaths counterfeit,

but alas I am dead for crimes they wont acquit. SIMILIE

As time walked across, and my tyranny grew

My heart closed its doors and let no one through. PERSONIFICATION

On that night I killed Duncan,

I should have known when the sky had sunken,

and how the atmosphere was grey... PATHETIC FALLACY

That the plan we had made would not be the right way.

And for my wife, who had no problem with murder,

Succumbed to the guilt, after the doctor misheard her. IRONY

But for me Macbeth, the last step is death,

all hail macbeth, is what i wanted in my last breath.

Literary Photography

These photos depict each of the literary devices mentioned above, used in Macbeth. They provide a visual representation of the imagery and creativity Shakespeare used through his writing.They represent:

  1. The first picture is Macbeth's metaphor: comparing life to an angry idiot speaking nonsense, meaningless and insignificant.
  2. The second photo is dramatic irony--- a young boy who is innocent and happy, while as we, the audience know that there is evil coming towards him in the near future.
  3. Symbolism is depicted here as blood is used countless times in the play representing guilt, fury, anxiousness, death, etc.
  4. The fourth picture represents allusion. A pointed finger is used to show how Shakespeare always "points" or makes reference to historical events or people.
  5. The last picture depicts foreshadowing in the play. It shows how there are hidden messages or hints in the play that leads to the overall death of Macbeth.
Literary Devices

Literary Devices: Video (:32- 2:30)

This video speaks in depth of the literary devices and gives good examples to further understand them.

  • Informative
  • Fun
  • Gives examples
  • Good way to remember and understand