Figures of Speech in Macbeth
From Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Deighton.
I. Figures of Resemblance.
1. Simile (Lat. similis, like) is a comparison between two
"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.
2. 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.
[Here Macbeth speaks of his memory as a book.]
"I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss." I. vii. 32-34.
[Here the golden opinions are spoken of as articles of apparel.]
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage." V. v. 25, 26.
"They have tied me to a stake." V. vii. 1.
[Macbeth here speaks of himself as a bear ready to be
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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
"Is he dispatch'd?" III. iv. 15.
(This is Macbeth's way of speaking of Banquo's murder.)
II. Figures of Contrast.
1. 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.
Be call'd our mother, but our grave." IV. iii. 166.
2. 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.
Macd. The tyrant has not batter'd at their peace?
Ross. No; they were well at peace when I did leave 'em." IV. iii. 176-179.
Macbeth's speech (III. iv. 40-43) is ironical, but the irony was
soon turned against the speaker.
III. Figure of Association.
1. 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.)
Other examples are 'the golden round' for royalty, I. v. 26; 'steel' for the dagger or sword, III. ii. 24; 'blood' for murderous deeds, III. v. 136; 'England' for the King of England, IV.
IV. 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.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth: With an Introduction and Notes. Ed. Kenneth Deighton. London: Macmillan and Company. 1896. Shakespeare Online. 10 Sept. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/figuresmacbeth.html >.
Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
Entertainment in Elizabethan England
London's First Public Playhouse
Shakespeare Hits the Big Time
Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?
Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
An Elizabethan Christmas
Clothing in Elizabethan England
Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
Going to a Play in Elizabethan London
Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
Publishing in Elizabethan England
Religion in Shakespeare's England
Shakespeare's Pathos - Portrayals of Sleep
Shakespeare's Metaphors and Similes
The Shakespeare Sisterhood - A Gallery
Worst Diseases in Shakespeare's London
On Dramatic Irony
"One of the most effective of dramatic devices is the use of "irony." The essential idea of "irony" is double dealing, as when some speech has a double meaning -- the obvious one which all perceive -- and the cryptic which only certain of the hearers understand. And "irony" of fate or circumstances is a sort of double dealing by which Destiny substitutes for what we might expect just the opposite, the unexpected, thing." [A. W. Verity]. Read on...
More to Explore
Macbeth: The Complete Play with Commentary
The Metre of Macbeth: Blank Verse and Rhymed Lines
Macbeth Character Introduction
Biblical Metaphors in Macbeth (Biblical)
Macbeth, Duncan and Shakespeare's Changes
King James I and Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth
Contemporary References to King James I in Macbeth
The Royal Patent that Changed Shakespeare's Life
A Comparison of Macbeth and Hamlet
The Effect of Lady Macbeth's Death on Macbeth
The Curse of Macbeth
Shakespeare's Sources for Macbeth
Explanatory Notes for Lady Macbeth's Soliloquy (1.5)
The Psychoanalysis of Lady Macbeth (Sleepwalking Scene)
On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth
Is Lady Macbeth's Swoon Real?
Explanatory Notes for the Witches' Chants (4.1)
Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 1 and 2)
Macbeth Plot Summary (Acts 3, 4 and 5)
How to Stage a Production of Macbeth (Scene Suggestions)
Elizabethan Use of Mummified Flesh
Three Apparitions in Macbeth
Supernatural Solicitings in Shakespeare
Shakespeare on Omens
Soliloquy Analysis: If it were done when 'tis done (1.7.1-29)
Soliloquy Analysis: Is this a dagger (2.1.33-61)
Soliloquy Analysis: To be thus is nothing (3.1.47-71)
Soliloquy Analysis: She should have died hereafter (5.5.17-28)
Macbeth Q & A
Essay Topics on Macbeth
Aesthetic Examination Questions on Macbeth
What is Tragic Irony?
Stages of Plot Development in Macbeth
Time Analysis of the Action in Macbeth
Macbeth Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
Quotations from Macbeth (Full)
Top 10 Quotations from Macbeth
Shakespeare's Workmanship: Crafting a Sympathetic Macbeth
Origin of the Weird Sisters
Temptation, Sin, Retribution: Lecture Notes on Macbeth
Untie the winds: Exploring the Witches' Control Over Nature in Macbeth
Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
Why Shakespeare is so Important
Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers