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"Strange things I have in head, that will to hand": echoes of sound and sense in Macbeth.

Dramatic poetry begins in a sensuous apprehension through the ear.

Coburn Freer (8)

The renowned pianist Artur Schnabel, when asked what was "great" music, replied that great music is music that is "better than it can be performed." His remark seems aptly parallel to the literary arts in that great literature is literature that is better than it can be read. Literary criticism, whatever may be the theoretical framework upon which the criticism is based, is still the "reading" of literature, and the great works of literature, no matter how closely read, always have something more, often something better, to reward our efforts. Indeed, in the critical reading of most dramatic literature, we face the added complication that though we can read a play as "literature," the play itself was conceived as a performance text.(1) Most of the studies on the language of Shakespeare's plays have been essentially textual ones, however, ones based not on the sound of the enacted spoken word, but rather on the contemplation of the printed word in the text. Yet drama, above all verse drama, is the spoken word, or, more accurately, heightened spoken language for acting. Madeleine Doran opens her book Shakespeare's Dramatic Language with the observation that "those of us who make our roomy home in Shakespeare never cease to wonder at his artistry" (3). A major part of this artistry, she asserts, is how each of the plays "has a distinctive quality, something peculiar to that play alone - a quality that is not altogether attributable to differences in plot, theme, character, and setting, but something that feels different, or that sounds different to our ears" (3). That distinctive quality, she concludes, "would seem to be in the style" (4). Later she adds, "When we know the plays intimately, . . . we are apt to be struck by the remarkable way in which no play sounds quite like another" (25). But Doran's study focuses on the relation of style and language "to situation, and, especially, to the fable as a whole" (4) in a number of Shakespeare's plays. While my study does not ignore either character or situation, my focus attempts to follow the lines of language, the lines of dramatic verse used in a verse drama.(2)

Nearly all of Shakespeare's plays are distinguished by their own particular linguistic texture. The different language of each play creates its own unique tonal fabric. Most editors' introductions to individual plays contain passing references to this auditory phenomenon, but they usually just briefly mention it in a generalized or abstract way as part of a transition to more traditional critical aspects. Although that which creates the linguistic style of each play is one of the least studied aspects of Shakespeare's works, it is one certainly not less deserving of study than the themes, images, and characters that the language also creates.(3) In his study of Shakespeare's meter, George T. Wright discusses how devices of sound can enhance the underlying meanings of a passage. "In any stretch of verse in which we feel a significant correspondence between the meanings and the sounds, some such devices . . . are probably at play and can, if we like, be singled out as contributing to the whole sound and sense of the passage" (235). In a footnote he continues:

What we probably mean when we say that a device of sound reinforces the meaning of the words is that it intensifies the saying of those words, and that this more intense saying invests their literal meaning with a heightened emotional significance which the words of themselves would not bear. (319n3)

Because the effects of the sound of words on their meaning are an intrinsic part of how a verse line is constructed, a study of these effects should lead to a better understanding of the construction of verse-drama as a whole and, consequently, to a better understanding of at least one aspect of that elusive idea mentioned by Doran - how the "style" of a drama is created. As Baxter says, "The analysis of style in drama is a way of cultivating attentive reading, of increasing fidelity to the author's intention as that is realized in language" (196).

Macbeth is a play of shadows and echoes, of ambivalence and equivocation in words and in actions. For these reasons, it provides an excellent example for the study of the enacted spoken textures of language in a play. Of it Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch has said, "The whole play, as if it were a dark corridor of Inverness Castle, resounds with . . . echoes,"(4) and Mahood calls it "a tragedy of equivocation" (130). Many have written about the semantic ambiguities that abound in Macbeth, of the equivocations and the double ironies that are fundamental to the play's meaning. But these semantic dualities find phonological equivalents throughout the play as well. Shakespeare has dressed this play in strange garments of words. Their particular sounds and the relationship of these sounds he has created cleave to their thematic form. The style of the language in Macbeth, in short, is itself a phonological and poetical support to the play's organizing structural principles and themes. In his discussion of the need to rethink, or rehear, the poetics in poetic drama, Freer suggests a way to approach Macbeth. He discusses the interrelatedness of speeches in drama and in particular the different ways reverberatory effects can be effected through verse speeches.

Because our understanding of one speech in drama is conditioned by our understanding of the speeches around it, we can often hear the rhythms and accents of one speech within another. . . . This sort of echoing need not be simply lexical (a repeated word or phrase), or imagistic (a common metaphor), or discursive (the repetition of similar ideas); instead it may involve, in addition to these, repeated and varied patterns of rhythm, secondary sounds (alliteration, assonance, or consonance), or syntax. (25)

Indeed, patterns of sound in Macbeth often seem to do what Wright has suggested; they reinforce the meanings of the words, intensify the saying of them, heighten their emotional significance, and often invest the words with ironic subtleties. Acting singly or in combination, many verbal effects are at work to create the tonal fabric of Macbeth. Three groups of verbal effects are particularly important: alliterative consonances, complex alliterations, and a group of other figures of echo and repetition.(5) In performance, of course, these effects overlap and flow and blend in ways which the audience will probably apprehend more than comprehend, but apperception is one of the ways the artistic effect of stage language works. These effects are, to be sure, not unique to Macbeth, but the enormous quantity and the interlinking quality of their usage here create effects special to this play.


Of all the poetic devices discussed in this study, the one that seems most particular to Macbeth and ubiquitous in the play is alliterative consonance. The term alliterative consonance is used here to designate words, usually stressed and monosyllabic, that have similar initial and terminal sounds but internal vowel sounds that differ,(6) as below where it links the word before the caesura (head) with the terminal word of the verse (hand):

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand.(7) (3.4.140)

Besides the general echoic effect by which it links words, alliterative consonance in Macbeth seems to create important links in meaning, symbolism, and imagery. The head/hand passage, which occurs after Banquo's ghost has disrupted Macbeth's banquet, reveals how Shakespeare uses alliterative consonance to link sound and sense. Here, now in great perturbation, Macbeth has determined to revisit the Weird Sisters the next day. With the line that follows forming a rhyme that closes the speech, the entire couplet is

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.

By this point in the play, Shakespeare has already made the head and the hand powerful images having several sets of meaning and serving to link Macbeth and his Lady as dearest partners in greatness. The most immediate thing in hand for Macbeth, the problem of the uneasy state of his kingship, has just been greatly disturbed by Banquo's ghost, most likely a creation of Macbeth's head. Now he will visit the Weird Sisters, and in doing so he again will try to take his destiny into his own hands. Macbeth is changing from a man of a highly imaginative mind that once hindered his taking action to a man who can do the most horrid deed with no conscience or remorse about it. Following the visit to the Weird Sisters in 4.1, Macbeth becomes, generally speaking, a man of the hand, and a bloody hand it becomes indeed. This change he affirms in the lines, "From this moment / The firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand" (4.1.146-48). By contrast, the deeds of Lady Macbeth have never been washed clean from her head, and the next (and last) time we see her she has gone mad, obsessed with a world within her head that nightly revisits the scene of her bloody deeds, the whole contrast being symbolically manifested by her hallucinating the blood on her hands, blood that can never be washed away. From the deed she has willed to hand, strange things indeed she now has in her head.

In Macbeth, alliterative consonance may function in other ways. Enhanced by the alliteration from the first line, it may link the terminal words of two lines of verse and create a near rhyme. In the following, the couplet-like effect of the near rhyme links the sounds and the sense:

I have lived long enough. My way of life Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf. (5.3.22-23)

Macbeth's life of striving for greatness, as he himself now realizes, has blossomed into no more than a withered leaf. Similarly, Shakespeare uses alliterative consonance to link other meaningful issues, as when Macbeth speaks to the vanishing witches and asks two parting questions, the first ("Whence . . . this intelligence?") being framed in rhyme, the second (why, way) in alliterative consonance. Both unanswered questions will plague Macbeth throughout the play.

Say from whence You owe this strange intelligence, or why Upon this blasted heath you stop our way. (1.3.75-77)

Sometimes, however, where the resonating sounds only faintly echo because of syntactical distance, as below, the action of a verb (strike) nonetheless echoes the deed of a noun (stroke):

If thou be'st slain, and with no stroke of mine, My wife and children's ghosts will haunt me still. I cannot strike at wretched kerns. (5.7.16-18)

Such faint, but effective linking of sound and sense may also occur where an affix (-ly) alters what would otherwise be a true alliterative consonance (seat, sweet):

This castle has a pleasant seat. The air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses. (1.6.1-3)

In this ironic description of the heavenliness of Macbeth's castle, Shakespeare uses more alliterative consonance (bird, bed, breed) to link Banquo's observations on the sweet birds breeding in their beds. The alliterative consonance is enhanced by the alliterative and homophonic sounds of the first syllable of buttress and the word but. Both the alliterating syllables and the alliterative consonance receive stress in the verse line:

No jutty, frieze, Buttress, nor coign of vantage but this bird Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle. Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed The air is delicate. (1.6.6-10)

But in more complex passages, Shakespeare uses sets of alliterative consonance to overlap, spread out over several lines, as in the following, where repeated words and alliteration echo throughout and emphasize the consonance of sound and sense:

What I believe, I'll wail; What know, believe; and what I can redress, As I shall find the time to friend, I will. What you have spoke it may be so, perchance. This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, Was once thought honest. You have loved him well.

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell; Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, Yet grace must still look so. (4.3.8-13, 23-25)

Malcolm, speaking here to Macduff, will find a friend both in time and in Macduff. Thus, as Macbeth finds an enemy in the consequences of time and particularly in Macduff, so Macduff exclaims, "The time is free" (5.8.55), after he cuts off Macbeth's head. The sequence wail - will - well not only creates near rhymes like those discussed above, but also links sounds to important senses. The grace . . . grace pair in lines 24 and 25, especially if the second grace carries the common reference to a king, likewise links sound to sense. In the apparent diaphora, the use of grace in two ways, once for denoting the particular individual and again for designating the qualifies connoted by that individual, Shakespeare suggests that Macbeth is king, but any use of grace in regard to him is surely ironic.

In all these cases, the effect of the sounds whispers through the verse lines, creating echoes of sense as well as of sounds. Those words linked by alliterative consonance are often the key words in the overall meaning of the lines and seem to need special emphasis, but not with a verbal stress in itself (beyond the natural one in the verse line). In other words, the alliterative consonance, as well as some of the complex alliterations discussed below, seems at the least to emphasize certain key ideas not otherwise specifically stressed. We may observe these effects elsewhere in Macbeth.

Act 1 scene 3 offers Macbeth's first entrance, as well as his first encounter with the Witches and their ambiguous and equivocal language. What follows in the tragedy is born of the reverberations of Macbeth's thoughts in 1.3. Those reverberations find in this scene a general counterpart in a particularly rich echoic language enhanced by alliterative consonance, some near alliterative consonance, and normal alliteration.

How far is't called to Forres? - What are these, So withered and so wild in their attire . . . (1.3.39-40)

My noble partner You greet with present grace and great prediction Of noble having . . . (1.3.54-56)

Kind gentlemen, your pains Are regist'red where every day I turn The leaf to read them. (1.3.152-54)

Macbeth's first line in the play, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38), echoes the themes of fair and foul from the Witches' chorus in the opening scene of the play. Now they are linked by alliterative consonance to both the problem of understanding the fair-foul equivocation and its consequence - fear:

Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear Things that do sound so fair? (1.3.51-52)

The stuttering hiss, moreover, of the alliterating s's (sir, start, seem, sound) seems to underscore further the themes of fear and fair. Later, likewise, Shakespeare uses alliterative consonance thematically. When Banquo conveys the king's praise to Macbeth for his hospitality, the host modestly disclaims the praise, talking of defects, that is, deficiencies of supplies and free generosity. But Macbeth's will is towards murder; though his will is free it is defective, and though all seems well, all is not well. The alliterative consonance (will, well) suggests the theme in their phonetic likeness and subtle difference:

MACBETH. Being unprepared, Our will became the servant to defect, Which else should free have wrought. BANQUO. All's well. (2.1.17-20)

In the speeches of Shakespeare's characters, comparisons are often drawn between words and deeds. Alliterative consonance can serve to emphasize these comparisons. At the beginning of Macbeth 1.2, in a single line, the king links the noble captain's words and deeds through a triple alliteration and an alliterative consonance.

So well thy words become thee as thy wounds. (1.2.43)

In 1.5, Lady Macbeth, speaking in apostrophe to her husband, criticizes him for being "too full o' the milk of human kindness" (17) and continues by linking two qualities she sees will interfere with her husband's willingness to act:

What thou wouldst highly, That wouldst thou holily. (20-21)

From the same speech, another echo comes through alliterative consonance when she calls upon spirits to unsex her,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty! (42-43)

and for her milk to fill her full of gall.(8) The highly from line 20 finds an echo in the next scene, when Duncan ironically praises Macbeth before Lady Macbeth, finding his love for Macbeth in just that way for which she had previously criticized him: "We love him highly, / And shall continue our graces towards him" (1.6.29-30). Also in 1.5, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth first appear together on stage. There, Macbeth is reticent about committing himself to his wife's plans of regicide, but Lady Macbeth will prevail. She dominates Macbeth's will, bringing him in accord with what she wants him to do. As they close the scene, the passive consent of Macbeth and the active dominance of Lady Macbeth resonate softly in their speech. As Macbeth's life is linked to his dearest partner in greatness, so his speech is linked to hers by alliteration and alliterative consonance as well as by rhyme:

LADY. . . . to all our nights and days to come Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.

MACBETH. We will speak further.

LADY. Only look up clear. To alter favor ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me. (1.5.69-73)

To "look up clear," that is, to give the appearance of being untroubled and innocent when they are really guilty, finds an ironic echo later when the innocent guards are gilt in blood to make others not see the truly guilty, the alliteration of the g's further emphasizing the connections between the two words and the grooms:

If he do bleed, I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal, For it must seem their guilt. (2.2.59-61)(9)

Then later, in trying to set the blame for the murder upon the sleeping guards, Macbeth links the deed, a breach in nature, with the guards' daggers, breeched with gore. The meaning of the second breech as "covering over" is linked to the entire "cover up" that is going on in the scene:

And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature For ruin's wasteful entrance: there the murderers, Steeped in the colors of their trade, their daggers Unmannerly breeched with gore. (2.3.115-18)

Shakespeare uses the echoing of key words and ideas through alliterative consonance when Macbeth and his Lady make plans to murder the king and frame the guards. In the second stressed syllable of verses three lines apart, alliterative consonance serves to link and emphasize the main points of the plan that is being conceived. The main points of their plan are to mark with blood the drugged guards, thus putting the blame upon them, to make a show of grief and clamor, thus removing potential suspicion from them, and to mock the occasion by deceiving everyone. The way they share these verbs in their alternate lines further shows their unity in the plan:

MACBETH. Will it not be received When we have marked with blood those sleepy two Of his own chamber and used their very daggers, That they have done't?

LADY. Who dares receive it other, As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar Upon his death?

MACBETH. I am settled, and bend up Each corporal agent to this terrible feat. Away, and mock the time with fairest show. False face must hide what the false heart doth show. (1.7.75-83)

At the beginning of that same scene, 1.7, Macbeth has a soliloquy in which he contemplates with growing horror the deed he is about to do and wishes that the one action of killing the king would be the end of all things foul and the beginning of all things fair:

If th' assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success . . . (1.7.2-4)

Lawrence Danson finds the alliterative consonance on surcease/success a striking example of the interplay of sound and sense:

The desperateness of the attempt is reflected in the sounds of the line, as "success" seems virtually to leap out before "surcease" has died away - as Macbeth tries to make "surcease be success." That struggle [with fate and future] is reflected in the sounds and rhythms of his speeches. (131)

The murder of the king occurs in the next scene, 2.1. After Banquo exits, Macbeth uses alliterative consonance in speaking to his servant:

Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready, She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed. (2.1.32-33)

The dagger soliloquy follows immediately, and the innocent meanings of the words bid/bed become ominous. Macbeth says to this dagger of his guilty mind, "Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going" (43), as the vision of the dagger bids Macbeth to follow as it leads to Duncan's bed. Then, as Macbeth envisions the heinous deed he is about to perform, he links by alliterative consonance the instrument of the deed and its gory consequences: "And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood" (47). After the murder, when Malcolm and Donalbain decide to flee, Macbeth tries to use their flight as proof of their being guilty of the murder. But the true purpose of their flight, their shifting away, is to be safe from a bloody and potentially harmful situation, from the bloody shaft that's shot. Shakespeare emphasizes these points by polyptoton (blood, bloody) and alliterative consonance (shaft, shot, shift, and perhaps also safest):

DONALBAIN. Where we are There's daggers in men's smiles; the nea'er in blood, The nearer bloody.

MALCOLM. This murderous shaft that's shot Hath not yet lighted, and our safest way Is to avoid the aim. Therefore to horse, And let us not be dainty of leave-taking But shift away. (2.3.141-147)


Simple alliteration of two words is such a normal part of English that it is often hard to tell if the alliterations are intended for an effect or merely coincidental. But complex alliterations, such as three or more alliterating words or two sets of alliterating words, are less common and presumably are effects consciously employed. As several examples above have already shown, such complex alliteration is very common in Macbeth, and the words alliterating are often related in grammatical or rhythmic ways so that the alliteration helps to underscore the semantic and thematic content. The next five examples show more of the ways Shakespeare uses complex alliteration in Macbeth.

In the first example, we find three stressed-syllable alliterations (and a fourth unstressed) in one line:

And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers (1.5.48)

Next, Shakespeare extends a triple alliteration over two lines:

Go get some water And wash this filthy witness from your hand. (2.2.50-51)

Thirdly, in a triple alliteration on consecutive words, one of the alliterations is an unstressed syllable in the middle:

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me (2.1.6)

In another example, we find two pairs of alliterations on stressed syllables in one line, with a third pair if one counts the unstressed and stressed can come (though one might read it as a spondee) and with an echo from devil to evil:

Not in the legions Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned In evils to top Macbeth. (4.3.56-58)

Finally, we find a triple alliteration of stressed and unstressed syllables on w, combined with possibly another triple alliteration on the sibilants:

Thou sure and firm-set earth, Hear not my steps which way they walk. (2.1.57-58)

While alliteration of this type does create echoes in the sound, more important, it often subtly links key words and ideas together in a line. As with all effects of poetic language, the interplay between the phonology and the semantics is never subject to proof, but certainly it is very suggestive in these examples, as in the last, where the alliterated s's and w's seem to create an atmosphere of soft and secretive whispering that the words and the situation convey. In the second example above, because the triple alliteration emphasizes the words water, wash, witness, it foregrounds important themes. Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan, for instance, believes her guilt and sin will be cleared away simply by washing: "A little water clears us of this deed" (2.2.71). The water does wash away the superficial witness of their deeds, at least for the moment, but because it cannot wash away the witness of the soul, Lady Macbeth goes mad from her guilt. In her last scene, then, the water, the washing, and the witnessing are all revealed symbolically in her madness. When the Gentlewoman reports to the Doctor that "it is an accustomed action with her to seem thus washing her hands" (5.1.27-28), they now become the external witnesses to the mad actions of Lady Macbeth.

Other examples illustrate the remarkable range of complex alliteration found in Macbeth. At times the alliteration seems humorously to enhance the meaning of the content or the action involved. For example, in the following passage both initial and terminal s, sh, and z sounds seem to hiss and buzz fantastically in Macbeth's mind as he tries to shake his fantastical thoughts from his head:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of mind that function Is smothered in surmise and nothing is But what is not. (1.3.140-43)

And the king, having ridden hard to Macbeth's castle and coursed him at his heels, seems to be trying to catch his breath as he hastily huffs out his h's:

And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him To his home before us. (1.6.23-24)(10)

Or perhaps the Doctor, unable to minister to "a mind diseased," can only mumble his muted astonishment concerning Lady Macbeth:

My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight. (5.1.78)


Still other language devices of echo and repetition are found throughout Macbeth. Several of these devices seem to fit into the categories of grammatical and rhetorical figures that all Elizabethan schoolboys studied assiduously and that were consciously employed by any writer in the Renaissance.(11) But other devices used in Macbeth often are not easily categorized, even within the scores of figures recognized in the logic and rhetoric texts of the late sixteenth century. Yet all of the examples given below continue to show a pattern of words and phrases that echo one another in sound and reinforce one another in sense. Indeed, as Sister Miriam Joseph says, "With figures of repetition, Shakespeare weaves a haunting harmony of sound" (289).

Polyptoton is one common figure of repetition. It uses repeated words derived from the same root and thus often emphasizes an idea because it echoes cognate words. For instance, when Macbeth tries to feel more assured of his future, he says:

But yet I'll make assurance double sure, And take a bond of fate. (4.1.83-84)

In another example, an inner pair of near alliterative consonances seem framed by an outer pair of words making a polyptoton. In it, as the horror in Macbeth's mind echoes through his thoughts, the effect is verbally echoed as he contemplates a suggestion:

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, Against the use of nature? Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings. (1.3.136-39)

In yet another example, Shakespeare uses polyptoton and a triple alliteration, with a third word (come) that is etymologically unrelated, but nonetheless closely echoes the related pair:

So from that spring whence comfort seems to come Discomfort swells. (1.2.27-28)

A few lines later, what the Captain speaks of as doubled is tripled:

As cannons overcharged with double cracks So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe. (1.2.37-38)

This example also seems to illustrate the playfulness with which Shakespeare often uses polyptoton. As Sister Joseph puts it, "This figure is used rather for the sake of the sound, which is pleasing in itself, even while it enhances the meaning" (83), as in the following near alliterative consonance:

And so, his knell is knolled. (5.8.50)

In another example that seems similar, the key words (prosperous, prospect) are not cognate. The passage occurs when Macbeth, speaking to the Witches, tries to interpret what he has just been told:

The Thane of Cawdor lives A prosperous gentleman; and to be king Stands not within the prospect of belief. (1.3.72-74)

In the repeated sounds, Macbeth will later realize the agony and the irony as he prospers in that very prospect gently connected here.

After committing murder, Macbeth realizes that he is just that - a murderer. One is what one does: "To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself" (2.2.77). Macbeth's use of ploce, creating an echo by word repetition, finds a parallel in another figure, synonymia, the iterative use of different words having approximately the same meaning. For example, when the news of the king's murder first breaks, Macbeth informs Malcolm and Donalbain that their father is dead. Four of the nouns used are essentially synonymous and, moreover, combine with a reiterated verb at the end of each clause (an epistrophe):

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped. (2.3.100-01)

Spoken by the murderer himself, this reiteration seems to act as a circumlocution to soften the basic brutal fact of the matter, which is stated bluntly by the bluff Macduff in the very next line: "Your royal father's murdered." Synonymia occurs again when Macbeth, distressed at Fleance's escape later, exclaims that he "else had been perfect . . . / As broad and general as the casing air" (3.4.21, 23). But because Macbeth is encased, not free, he uses synonymia in the next lines to emphasize this fact:

But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in To saucy doubts and fears. (24-25)

In this same scene, Macbeth also uses diacope, a figure in which the same word is used first as a modifier and then as a nominal. To express his determination to revisit those who initiated the confusion that has made his life worse and worse, Macbeth says:

More shall they speak, for now I am bent to know By the worst means the worst. (135-36)

As some of the previous examples have already shown, many of these separate effects come together within a larger unit of several phrases or clauses to give echoic effects through chiasmus, anaphora, ploce, and other figures within a larger speech structure.(12) In 1.4, for instance, Macbeth, afraid that his evil thoughts might be evident to others, produces a chiasmus with alliterative consonance ("Let not light"), anaphora ("Let . . . let"), diacope, and alliteration, all emphasizing words - light, eye, and see - that are part of a group of iterative images of light and dark and seeing found throughout the play:

Let not light see my black and deep desires. The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (51-53)

Sound and thematic sense likewise echo through another example from the preceding scene. While Banquo comments on the honors that have already come to Macbeth, Macbeth muses in an aside on honors that might be yet to come:

MACBETH. If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me Without my stir.

BANQUO. New honors come upon him Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold But with the aid of use.

MACBETH. Came what come may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day. (1.3.145-49)

Macbeth certainly wants the hour for his honors to come - and not just by chance. The underlying theme of chance or fortune versus will is echoed in "chance-chance," an anaphora, a figure that also occurs here in the proverbial "come what come may." Theme and irony both seem to echo through the following lines, in which ploce and pronouns play off one another. Duncan speaks to Lady Macbeth about love and thanks her for the "trouble" of hosting his visit:

The love that follows us sometimes is our trouble Which still we thank as love. Herein I teach you How you shall bid God 'ild us for your pains, And thank us for your trouble. (1.6.11-14)

The king, indeed, will teach her pains and trouble that will yield her double double toil and trouble, an idea ironically repeated by Lady Macbeth (with diacope and synonymia) in the sequential overlapping verse lines:

All our service In every point twice done, and then done double. (14-15)(13)

In 1.4 we find several other examples of figures of repetition worth considering because different effects mix together. Outwardly seeming a most loyal thane and kinsman to his liege, Macbeth has already entertained thoughts of regicide in the previous scene and now in 1.4 greets the king. As Macbeth receives praise from the king for the honorable deeds he has already done, the thoughts of more deeds soon to be done are undoubtedly reverberating in Macbeth's mind. What is truly due to the king is the duty that Macbeth will not do. The ironic reverberations in the thoughts of service and loyalty, of love and honor and duty, ring with homophonic sounds and complex cross-echoings among the words:

DUNCAN. Only I have left to say, More is thy due than more than all can pay.

MACBETH. The service and the loyalty I owe, In doing it, pays itself. Your Highness' part Is to receive our duties, and our duties Are to your throne and state children and servants, Which do but what they should by doing everything Safe toward your love and honor. (1.4.20-27)

To push the interpretation just a bit further, while Macbeth states that what he should do are deeds that are safe towards the King's love and honor, already in his mind are deeds that are anything save (as "except") that which is safe towards the King's love and honor. This possible play on words is enhanced by the verse line itself, for it has safe at the beginning of the line following the doing, thus making it more like an unstressed commenting "except"-phrase rather than a stressed post- modifier of everything. In the very next lines, while Duncan unfolds his praises for "noble Banquo," his phrases likewise enfold one another:

That hast no less deserved nor must be known No less to have done so, let me infold thee And hold thee to my heart. (30-32)

Then, at the end of the scene, the king, who exits towards the banquet after which he will be murdered, links Banquo to Macbeth's "commendations"; Banquo's turn will come later, both to be murdered and to appear at Macbeth's banquet.

True, worthy Banquo. He is full so valiant, And in his commendations I am fed; It is a banquet to me. (54-56)

Whether Banquo as a "banquet" is a true diaphora here, the repetition certainly offers a good paronomasia approximating that figure.

Themes of doing and deeds that link the dearest partners in greatness are linked in this example by ploce and near alliterative consonance:

MACBETH. There shall be done A deed of dreadful note.

LADY. What's to be done?

MACBETH. Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, Till thou applaud the deed. (3.2.46-49)(14)

Because the word done is itself an example of those words that echo throughout the play, this passage could also serve as another example for the head/hand discussion earlier.(15) Here, Macbeth says, in effect, to pay no heed until the hand has acted. But the word done also links this scene, where Macbeth is this time trying to hide another bloody deed from his lady's knowledge, with the mad scene of Lady Macbeth where, unable to wash away the hand's blood that lives in her head, she says (using polyptoton) in her fateful penultimate line in the play, "What's done cannot be undone" (5.1.66).

There are many rewards to be found not only from our rereading of Shakespeare's plays, but also from our relistening to them, our being aware that the plays were conceived for a dramatic delivery in heightened spoken language for acting.(16) We are reminded from several sources that whereas the Elizabethans went "to hear a play," most of us today say we go "to see a play." My study of the language of Macbeth has tried to show some ways in which we might relisten to the language of this play, by putting our mind's ear to the effects of the enacted spoken word. Doran refers to these effects as "the kinds of ways in which Shakespeare writes to the ear" ("The Macbeth Music" 154). These patterns, Doran says,

give an undertone of sound to the thought. Macbeth, to be fully apprehended in all its somber beauty, must be heard with the ear, both outer and inner. It is the language of the play, echoing, varying, rich with overtones and undertones, which takes us to the very inwardness of horror, and, finally, to a great sadness. (160-61)

We, the readers of drama, need to remember the nature of a dramatic text and to read with our ears as well as our eyes.


1 I am not attempting here to argue the merits of a stage-centered approach to dramatic texts as opposed to a text-centered approach, the so-called "stage-page" debate. Recently the "stage" approach seems to be gaining more critical attention under the rubrics of "performance criticism" and of "teaching Shakespeare through performance." This article, though essentially a performance-oriented approach, is not taking a polemic stance. For a broad view of the debate, see George T. Wright's "An Almost Oral Art." An important observation he makes is that

Shakespeare's apparently faint interest in publishing his plays suggests that his art worked mainly from the stage and that the language we find in the plays, though he wrote it and though some or many or most of his actors learned their lines largely from written scripts, had its primary reality for actors and audiences as sounded words. (161)

For an interesting discussion of Shakespeare's language, but one exemplifying the "page" approach, as its title suggests, see S. S. Hussey.

2 This is exactly the approach cogently argued for by Coburn Freer throughout The Poetics of Jacobean Drama. Freer takes to task those readers and critics of verse drama who try to take the dramatic components out of the verse or the verse out of the dramatic components, who reduce the verse lines to statistical data, and who interpret the verse in an "impressionistic" way, where regardless of the critical approach the interpretation becomes "an artistic outlet for the critic" (4). I have raised this point below in discussing Sitwell's book. Freer writes, "Accepting readily the premise that poetic drama asks us to create a world, we have produced studies of imagery that are subtle and definitive, and we need to explore the verbal music of this drama with as deep a concern for pattern and development" (12).

3 A study that also focuses on verbal effects in Macbeth is Madeleine Doran's "The Macbeth Music," although her focus is quite different from mine.

What makes a play musical as a whole is not easy to define. The effect must depend in part on how much our ear is struck by the varying cadences of the blank verse, the verbal recurrences and echoes in the language, and in part on the whole shaping of the play - its returning themes, its interplay of voices. (153)

Doran also emphasizes the important interaction of all the verbal elements in creating the style of the play: "But if the plot [of Macbeth] is simple, the style is not. Every clearly observable element in it - vocabulary, imagery, syntax, figure, phrasing - is intricately interwoven with every other. It is a masterpiece both of compression and of suggestiveness" (154).

4 Quoted in Sitwell 31. Overall the analysis of Macbeth in Sitwell's book, or of any of the other plays discussed there, is far too subjective, with a concentration on effects of assonance in particular, an especially difficult point considering the difference in vowel sounds between Shakespeare's time and now (which she does acknowledge, however). In one passage, vowel sounds are "discordant" or "dissonant"; in another passage we have "Dull and rusty vowels, thickened m's and unshaping s's" (37). Of lines 2.3.76-81 ("Ring the alarum bell . . ."), where Macduff has first discovered the murder of Duncan and then raises the cry of alarm, Sitwell writes that these words "have a strange echoing sound like that of a boulder being thrown into deep water" (43). Such analyses of sounds are metaphoric and "poetic," but not analytically useful.

5 Spurgeon finds echo and reverberation to be a group, next to the human voice itself, of special interest to Shakespeare. In particular, she finds one of the primary images or ideas in Macbeth to be "the reverberation of sound echoing over vast regions, even into the limitless spaces beyond the confines of the world" (327). She also notes that echoing sound "always interested Shakespeare" (327), but it was not until after 1600 that Shakespeare used this same idea of reverberation and reflection to illustrate subtle and philosophical thought. "In Macbeth, the peculiar quality of echoing and re-echoing sound is used to emphasize, in the most highly imaginative and impressive way . . . the incalculable and boundless effects of evil in the nature of one man" (328). Margie Rauls examines the imagery, first categorized by Spurgeon, of echo and reverberation in Macbeth. Although her terminology is unclear, she concludes that "the basic and the elaborate sound images coexist with those that are fundamental, serving as a complement to their more intricately woven counterparts" (372).

6 As Percy G. Adams discusses in detail, there is much long-standing disagreement on the term and concept of consonance. But in line with conventional agreement (such as it is), the term is used here to designate the similarity of terminal consonant sounds in a word, a sort of terminal alliteration. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics begins its article on consonance by stating that the term "has been used interchangeably in prosody with a wide variety of terms intended to designate certain phonic echoes" (236). "Phonic echoes" in Macbeth is precisely the focus of this study, and for lack of a more precise or widely used term, alliterative consonance seems to be the best choice. T. V. F. Brogan gives further support to the use of this term. In his annotation of R. J. Schoeck's "Alliterative Assonance in Harley MS. 2253," Brogan writes, "Schoeck's term is a misnomer: the technique is actually 'alliterative consonance'; the first and last segments of the rhyming CVC syllable are identical, while the vowel changes: e.g. killed, cold" (571). For a discussion of the related concept of "pararhyme" in Macbeth, see Francis Fergusson.

7 All quotations are from Bevington's The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th edition. Emphases are added in the quotations to highlight the words or sounds creating the effect discussed.

8 Sitwell says that "full is a darkened dissonance to fill" (35). Presumably she considers the back vowels to be "darker," and perhaps harsher, than front vowels. The idea is at least appropriate here, since Lady Macbeth's dark and harsh purpose is to change "milk" (with its front vowel) into "gall" (with its back vowel).

9 I think this example and the following one are both paronomasias. There is a serious joke being played on the guards, and the language seems to make a serious pun in return. In discussing Shakespeare's generally swiftly flowing style of punning, Spurgeon notes, "This method of swift evolution by way of association and suggestion is a marked feature of Shakespeare's style in metaphor, and especially of his middle and later style, from about 1594 onwards, and it is one in which he differs from most, if not all of his contemporaries" ("Imagery" 263).

10 I agree with a colleague's friendly criticism of this example, that many of the h's here would not be heard as such, and certainly the meter will probably elide the his in the second line. But I think the example is still interesting and not without an undertone of humor.

11 For a detailed study of how the Elizabethan rhetoricians classified, and how Shakespeare employed, the myriad figures of speech, see Sister Miriam Joseph. In this section I am particularly indebted to her work.

12 So also are there patterns of recurrence in the language. In these returns to significant words, Shakespeare employs sound to give subtle emphasis to sense. The aural means he uses in the language are repetition of words and phrases[,] . . . repetition of letters or syllables as in alliteration and assonance, and with variation, as in paronomasia; rhythmic balance in pairs or sequences of speeches; and the chiming of sounds, as in rhyme. (Doran 156)

13 For a detailed structural analysis of this and other passages of antithesis in Macbeth, see Duthie. Antithesis as a structural and rhetoric device in Macbeth has been discussed in several articles, including Kenneth Muir's introduction to the play in the New Arden edition, where he calls antithesis "one of the predominant characteristics of the general style of the play" (xxxiii).

14 Adams (34) cites this passage in its larger context as part of his discussion to show that "poets through the centuries have known or sensed much of what scholars are now revealing as fact about sound symbolism." Adams asserts that Shakespeare "has whole passages in which the sounds combine to help with the total effect."

15 Mahood's insightful reading of done in 1.7.1-2 (136-38) led me to reconsider, and rehear, how often the word is used in the play, in at least a dozen significant examples that not only add one more echoic effect to the language of the play, but also act thematically in the same way that iterative imagery adds to theme.

16 Furthermore, since to some degree Shakespeare wrote each principal role for a particular actor whose appearance, abilities, habits, and voice he knew intimately, the lines can be said to have been conceived even with a particular actor's sound in mind.

Works Cited

Adams, Percy G. Graces of Harmony: Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance in Eighteenth-Century British Poetry. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1977.

Baxter, John. "Macbeth: Style and Form." Shakespeare's Poetic Styles, Verse into Drama. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. 196-220.

Brogan, T. V. F. English Versification 1570-1980: A Reference Guide with a Global Appendix. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Danson, Lawrence. Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Doran, Madeleine. "The Macbeth Music." Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 153-73.

-----. Shakespeare's Dramatic Language. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1976.

Duthie, G. "Antithesis in Macbeth." Shakespeare Survey 19 (1970): 25-33.

Fairchild, A. H. R. "A Note on Macbeth." Philological Quarterly 4 (1925): 348-50.

Fergusson, Francis. "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action." English Institute Essays (1951): 31-43.

Freer, Coburn. The Poetics of Jacobean Drama. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Hussey, S. S. The Literary Language of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. London: Longman, 1992.

Joseph, Sister Miriam. Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language. New York: Columbia UP, 1947.

Mahood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen, 1957.

Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Rauls, Margie "The Image of Echo and Reverberation in Macbeth." College Language Association Journal 32 (1989): 361-72.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 4th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

-----. New Arden Macbeth. Ed. Kenneth Muir. London: 1951.

Sitwell, Edith. Poet's Notebook 1950. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Spurgeon, Caroline "The Imagery in the Sir Thomas More Fragment." Review of English Studies 6 (1930): 257-70.

----- Shakespeare's Imagery, and What It Tells Us. Cambridge: The University P, 1935.

Wickham, Glynne. "Hell-Castle and Its Door-Keeper." Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 68-74

Wright, George T. "An Almost Oral Art: Shakespeare's Language on Stage and Page." Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 159-69.

-----. Shakespeare's Metrical Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Paul Pellikka is assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His research interests have centered mostly on medieval English drama, Middle English stylistics, and the Renaissance transformation of medieval literary and dramatic concepts. He has an article forthcoming in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching on teaching Shakespeare through performance, and is completing a textbook on teaching modern English grammar using an old-fashioned technique.
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Title Annotation:play by William Shakespeare
Author:Pellikha, Paul
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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