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Study Guide: Macbeth: Language

The Elizabethans were an audience of listeners. They would say, ‘I’m going to hear a play,’ not ‘I’m going to see a play.’ The Elizabethan audience would pick up on words and their various meanings that we wouldn’t. 

Marjorie Garber, Shakespearean Scholar

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The content in the following boxes on  Figures of Speech in Macbeth is taken from Shakespeare, William, Macbeth: With an Introduction and NotesEd. K Deighton, London: Macmillan and Company, 1896, on Shakespeare Online<> 


Simile (Lat. similis, like) is a comparison between two things.

"This is the sergeant

Who like a good and hardy soldier fought

'Gainst my captivity." I. ii. 3-5.

"Doubtful it stood;

As two spent swimmers, that do cling together

And choke their art." I. ii. 7-9.

"As thick as hail came post with post." I. iii. 97.

"But like a man he died." V. viii. 43.


Apostrophe (Gr. apo, aside; strepho, I turn) is a figure in which a person or thing is addressed. The speaker 'turns aside' from his main theme to address some person or thing.

"Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts," etc. I. v. 38-48.

"Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell," etc. I. v. 48-52.

"Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still," etc. II. i. 34-47.


Antithesis (Gr. anti, against; tithemi, I place) is a figure by which words or sentences are placed in direct contrast. 

"So foul and fair a day I have not seen." I. iii. 38.

"Look like the innocent flower.
But be the serpent under 't.
" I. v. 63, 64. 

"False face must hide what the false heart doth know. I. vii. 82. 

"It cannot be call'd our mother, but our grave." IV. iii. 166. 


Alliteration is the frequent recurrence of the same initial letter or sound. The following are a few of the examples to be found in this play: 

"Where the Norwegian banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold." I. ii. 49. 

"And yet wouldst wrongly win." I. v. 20. 

"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well." III. ii. 23.

"I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined." III. iv. 24. 

"To doff their dire distresses." IV. iii. 188. 

"And so his knell is knoll'd." V. viii. 60. 


Metaphor (Gr. meta, change; phero, I carry) is a figure of substitution; one thing is put for, or said to be, another. Metaphor is a simile with the words like or as omitted.

"Kind gentlemen, your pains,

Are register'd, where every day I turn

The leaf to read them." I. iii. 150, 151.

"I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss." I. vii. 32-34. Read more...


Euphemism (Gr. eu well; phemi, I speak) is a figure by which a harsh or offensive idea is stated in an inoffensive manner.

"He that's coming

Must be provided for: and you shall put

This night's great business into my despatch." I. v. 64-66.

(This is Lady Macbeth's way of speaking of the intended murder.)

"Is he dispatch'd?" III. iv. 15.

(This is Macbeth's way of speaking of Banquo's murder.)


 Irony (Gr. eiron, a dissembler) is a figure of disguise: it is a mode of expression in which the meaning is contrary to the words.

"Was not that nobly done? Ay, and wisely too; 
For 'twould have angered any heart alive 
To hear the men deny't." III. vi 14-16. 
(All the first part of the speech of Lennox — III. vi. 1-20 — is ironical.)

Macd. "How does my wife? 
Ross. Why, well.
Macd. And all my children?
Ross. Well too. 


Personification (Lat. persona, a mask, a person) is a figure in which lifeless things are spoken of as persons.

"My gashes cry for help." I. ii. 41.

"I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;

It weeps, it bleeds. IV. iii 39-40.

"Our castle's strength

Will laugh a siege to scorn." V. v. 2, 3.


Hyperbole (Gr. hyper, over; batto, I throw) is a figure by which things are represented as being greater or less than they really are. Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement.

"What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this hand will rather. The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red." II. i. 123-127.

"Thy crown does scar mine eye-balls." IV. i. 113.

"Let us seek out some desolate shade, and there,

Weep our sad bosoms empty." IV. iii. 1, 2.

"This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues." IV. iii. 11.


Metonymy (Gr. meta, change; onoma, a name) is a figure which substitutes the name of one thing for the name of another with which it is in some way connected.

"That trusted home 
Might yet enkindle you unto the crown." I. iii. 121. 
(Here 'the crown' is used for the office it represents, namely that of king.)

"A little water clears us of this deed." II. i. 130. 
(Here 'deed' is substituted for blood, a result of the deed.) 

 "I drink to the general joy o' the whole table." III. iv. 89. 
(Here 'table' is used for those seated at the table.) 

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