Verse and Prose in Macbeth
Many students find Shakespeare difficult to read and understand. They often ask whether or not the Elizabethans really spoke the way Shakespeare’s characters do. The answer is, of course, no. Shakespeare writes using a poetic form known as blank verse. This produces an elevated style, which would have been very different from everyday speech during the Elizabethan period.
Furthermore, the blank verse contains a rhythm pattern known as iambic pentameter. What this means is that most lines contain five feet (pentameter) and each foot contains an unstressed and a stressed syllable (an iamb). In other words, as Shakespeare wrote, playing in the back of his mind was a rhythm pattern that would sound like:
da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA
In terms of stressed and unstressed syllables, Macbeth’s first line in the play would look like this:
So FOUL and FAIR a DAY i HAVE not SEEN.
There are also approximately 150 lines of prose in this play. Prose contrasts strongly with the elevated style of blank verse. Persons of noble birth speak in verse and servants and members of the lower classes usually speak in prose. Letters and documents, scenes of comic relief, and scenes involving madness are usually written in prose.
The Appeal of Macbeth
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. Perhaps this is because of its length. At 2107 lines, it is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. (Hamlet, by the way, is 3924 lines long.)
Macbeth is also one of Shakespeare’s most violent tragedies. There are over 100 references to bloodshed in this play, and the number of dead bodies that are carried off the stage is truly staggering.
The Witches also add an element to the play that has contributed to its popularity. We, like the Elizabethans, continue to be intrigued by witchcraft and magic. We see in the play Macbeth a contemporary morality play warning us of the dangers of trafficking with “the instruments of darkness.”
Macbeth is set in 11th century Scotland, and much of the play occurs at night. This helps to make the atmosphere more menacing.
Fogs, mists, and wild storms add to this atmosphere, as Shakespeare uses a lot of pathetic fallacy in this play. Every time you see a reference to the weather, think about why Shakespeare is doing this.
Additionally, several of the characters names refer to the places in Scotland that they govern (thanes). Have a look at this map to see where some of these characters come from.
Macbeth contains four main types of imagery: blood, darkness, animal, and clothing. Each type is meant to bring out a different feeling in you - or connect to different ideas.
Keep track of these images as you read through the play. When do they occur? What is happening? What do you picture in your mind? What ideas can the images be connected to?
Of all Shakespeare’s characters, Macbeth speaks the greatest proportion of his lines alone, in a soliloquy or an aside. This lack of interaction with other characters is very significant in the kind of drama which usually relies upon dialogue to move the action forward.
Firstly, this solitary speech produces a strong sense of Macbeth’s isolation, especially later in the action, where he is virtually speaking alone even though there may be silent servants on-stage (e.g. 5.5).
Secondly, it makes Macbeth a very internal character, whose inner life creates a kind of action in the mind. His private speeches use vivid and moving images, and develop powerful inner experiences at different points in the play. Macbeth’s soliloquies are some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s speeches, and the ones by which we remember Macbeth.
Thirdly, because Macbeth speaks so much alone on-stage, to the audience as much as to himself, we are given privileged access to his inner experiences, and develop a very strong private relationship of our own with him. We may feel that we know him better than the other characters do, or at least know the feelings underlying his actions.
We relate more closely to Macbeth than any other characters, because of his soliloquies and asides.
Consider the following questions. Write your responses down, then discuss your answers with a partner.
- Define the term ambition in your own words.
- Think of people/characters who are/were ambitious. Have their ambitions led to a positive or negative result? Can ambitions be destructive? Explain.
- What is your understanding of the phrase "the end justifies the means"? Give an example which you would agree with and disagree with this philosophy.
- How do you deal with your fears? What are some of the effects that fear has on people?
- Describe what you think are examples of evil behaviour.
- Explain what you think an ideal marriage would be.
- What do you want most from life? What are you prepared to do to attain it?
Themes and Motifs
There are many themes and motifs explored throughout Macbeth, but some of the main ones to look for are:
- Appearance versus reality
- Good versus evil
- Order versus disorder
- The unnatural / supernatural
- Corruption of power
- Trust and betrayal
- Human conscience
- Fate and free will
- Masculinity versus femininity
- Hubris / Overconfidence