Shakespeare uses figurative language as he speaks with metaphors, similes and personification. Recognizing when his characters are speaking figuratively helps in understanding the play.
In the following text Macbeth compares the danger he and his wife are in to a serpent.
“We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
She’ll close and be herself whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.”
— Macbeth 3.2.15
Symbols are used throughout Shakespeare’s plays. For example in Macbeth, they talk of how dark it has become, owls prey where once it was light. Continuing with the bird image Shakespeare builds a wonderful symbol with the death of Lady Macduff.
Before her death she complains about her husband leaving:
“Wisdom! To leave his wife, to leave his babes,
His mansion and his titles in a place
From whence himself does fly? He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch. For the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love,
As little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason.”
— Lady Macduff 4.2.6
As she talks to her son about her husband being gone:
“How will you live?”
— Lady Macduff 4.2.31
“As birds do, Mother?”
— Son 4.2.32
As the murderers attack them, one man calls Macduff’s son an egg and a fry (a small bird) as he is killed.
“What, you egg? Young fry of treachery!”
— First Murderer 4.2.78
The symbol continues as Macduff hears of the death of his family:
“My wife kill’d too? All my pretty ones.
Did you say all?—O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?”
— Macduff 4.3.216
By using a bird and her flock, Shakespeare creates a powerful image. When the symbol is understood, the line makes more sense. A hell-kite (kites are scavenging birds) killing Macduff’s chicks and their dam (mothering hen)
In one fell swoop (fell means scalping and swoop is a flying attack.) The image fully conveys the attack and the helplessness of the victims. A person can better understand it, when they understand the symbol.
Shakespeare’s Language: Prose vs. Verse
Many students—and adults, for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse.
Prose is the form of speech used by common, and often comic, people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audiences would recognize the speech as their language. When a character in a play speaks in prose, you know that he is a lower class member of society. These are characters such as criminals, servants, and pages. However, sometimes important characters can speak in prose. For example, the majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with the middle-class. The following section is from the porter in Macbeth. He is a servant in the castle and therefore speaks like the lower class do.
An Example of Prose
“Faith sir, we were carousing till the second cock: and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things… Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance...”
— The Porter 2.3.24
Most of Shakespeare’s characters speak in what is called “blank verse.” It contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on every other syllable, beginning with the second one. The rhythm of this pattern of speech is often compared to a beating heart. Examine this line from Lady Macduff.
“What had he done to make him fly the land?”
Place the words with syllabic count:
1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8 9-10
Replace the words with a ‘da’ sound to hear the heart beat:
da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA
Now put the emphasis on the words themselves:
What-HAD he-DONE to-MAKE him-FLY the-LAND
An Example of Verse
“Then live, Macduff. What need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. What is this…”
— Macbeth 4.1.85
Breaking the Rules
For the most part Shakespearean verse is written in iambic pentameter, but in special cases he breaks his own rules. The Witches in Macbeth have one of the most famous speeches in the show and it is written in trochaic tetrameter. A trochee is the exact opposite of an iamb. Instead of following the unstressed-stressed (da-DUM) pattern it goes stressed-unstressed. (DUM-da) And a tetrameter is eight syllables per line. So what we end up with is a chant that sounds eerily different from everything else in the show.
“Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
— The Witches 4.1.10
Shakespeare does this to add another clue that the witches are not like anyone else in the show. Because they rarely had rehearsals for his plays he had to write clues like this into the speeches for the actors.