Does anyone have any tips on effectively understanding the language in Macbeth by William Shakespeare?I am having trouble understanding Macbeth by William Shakespeare. I am having A LOT of trouble...

Does anyone have any tips on effectively understanding the language in Macbeth by William Shakespeare?

I am having trouble understanding Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

I am having A LOT of trouble following along with what is happening.

I have a little over a month to understand this, and during this time I will not be seeing a teacher, so is literally my last hope!

Thanks for reading this, I hope I will gain some knowledge from some friendly people out there!

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here is my advice to better understand Shakespeare's Macbeth (or any of his plays).

NOTE: is sounds like you are really doing a lot on your own to try to grasp material that often confuses folks. This is what I suggest.

If the play was showing locally, I would tell you to see it. Because we are so visually focused, and because plays are SO much better on stage than paper, seeing it would really help, but if this is not an option, I would rent/watch Macbeth (1971) by Roman Polanski. (It's rated higher than the 2006 version.)

If you do, you must make sure you do not depend only on the movie. Hollywood plays havoc with Shakespeare's work. But if you know what the movie is about, studying the play will come easier to you.

My advice to students when reading Macbeth is to make sure you have your own copy (you do). With a pencil, read a speech or a page, and jot notes in the margin about the main ideas in that section. Work in smaller "chunks" rather than sitting down to the whole thing at once. If you don't understand it, take a break and continue. If you can do an hour at a time, that's good. Chip away at it, but don't put it off.

Don't read before you go to bed. This is a sure way to put yourself to sleep because you're struggling with it.

You might also try reading the side-by-side translation provided by eNotes. I have found that of all the translations out there for Shakespeare's plays (and there are MANY) each translation is different. The meaning should generally be the same, but the language employed is often different, and one may be easier than another.

Another piece of advice—try to see if this works: take someone's speech, maybe a small paragraph, and see what happens if you mix the order up a little. (Example below.)

This is why: Shakespeare often writes counting out syllables to create a rhythm. (It's poetry, in many places: and it's actually very appealing the the ear, if read correctly.)

Shakespeare is also manipulating the word order in each line because he is often using a rhyme scheme, where the last word of one line rhymes with another line (often every other line).

Lastly, do NOT stop reading at the end of a line unless there is end punctuation: a period or semi-colon, question mark, etc. Stopping at the end of each line chops the statement into pieces that don't make sense.  (With commas, only pause.) For example.

In Act I, scene iii, Banquo gives Macbeth good advice about using caution in believing the witches:

But 'tis strange;

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray 's  >>> (  's = us)

In deepest consequence.   (lines 122-126)

"But 'tis strange" means: it's strange. (That's pretty easy.)

"And oftentimes" means: sometimes.

Now, change the word order: The instruments of darkness tell us truths and win us with honest trifles to betray us in deepest consequence. This means...

Evil tells us little truths to win our confidence, but betrays us in serious situations, where there is a lot to lose.

(Consequence means: "significance; importance."  The line means being betrayed over something important, like losing one's soul for murdering a king, which Macbeth does: he kills Duncan.)

Breaking it down helps, and looking up words is important. Some words you can figure out on your own; and pay attention to footnotes, if there are any.

If you follow these suggestions, it should be a big help. Good luck.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ditto on finding an annotated edition.  Of course, here at enotes these are on sale.  In addition, there are summaries, explanations of theme, character, etc. on enotes.  And, don't forget that there is an etext under the Macbeth Study Guides that provides the Modern English translation. 

Generally, it is a good idea to read a summary of the play before reading the lines because then the reader has a general idea about the plot of the play and can focus on the lines and their meanings more easily. 

mitchrich4199 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I also find that listening to the play along with reading it is a great way to understand it, because you can hear the inflection and the emotion of it. is a great website from which you can download mp3 versions of most of Shakespeare's works along with many others. This was one of the key ways that I learned how to read Shakespeare. Coupled with all of the above advice, you should do really well!


pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To me, there are two possible things you could do.  First, you might want to find one of the editions of the play that has all sorts of annotations -- where there are definitions of outdated words and explanations of phrases down at the bottom of each page.  Other than that, your best bet is one of the many modern translations, as discussed in the previous post.

srmitchell | Student

One more tip for you: when you approach a long sentence in Shakespeare, begin by finding the subject and the verb. Think about diagramming sentences -- Shakespeare's language is full of phrases and subordinate/dependent clauses. Once you've found a sentence's subject and verb, you can use the to find the basic thought. All those other phrases and clauses are there to  illustrate, to deepen, and to support that basic thought.

For example, consider Sonnet CXLVII:

"My reason, the physician to my love, angry that his prescriptions are not kept, hath left me."

First, find the subject. In this one, that's not too hard, because it's right at the beginning of the sentence: "reason." Next, find the verb. "Hath" is a dead give-away, because it is the Elizabethan version of "has," which you probably know is a verb. The verb here is "hath left," meaning "has left." So the simple version of the sentence, without any phrases or clauses getting in the way, is:

"My reason hath left me."

Now you can look at the words in between the subject and the verb, and add those in to the overall meaning of the sentence.