How does Shakespeare, in his play Macbeth, use the linguistic resources of his particular time and place to communicate universal ideas?
Although many thinkers today would challenge the notion that “universal ideas” exist, other thinkers (especially those interested in the common traits of the human brain) might challenge the challenge. Assuming, then, that the concept of “universal ideas” deserves some benefit of the doubt, we can ask which “universal ideas” appear (for example) in Act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and how those ideas are expressed in forms of language typical of Shakespeare’s time.
In Act 2, scene 2, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss the murder of King Duncan. The most obvious feature of the language of this scene is that Shakespeare is writing mostly in iambic pentameter meter – that is, in lines consisting of ten syllables in which the even syllables are usually accented. Iambic pentameter meter is a characteristic feature of many of Shakespeare’s plays, and in fact Shakespeare helped popularize the use of iambic pentameter by later playwrights. Few playwrights today, however, write in such meter, or indeed in any meter at all. Thus, the use of iambic pentameter meter in a play is one feature of Macbeth that makes it characteristic of its period. Whatever “universal ideas” this play expresses, it often expresses them in ten-syllable blank verse lines in which the even syllables are often stressed.
Later in this scene, Macbeth, feeling a desire to wash his bloody hands, wonders,
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.57-60)
Shakespeare seems to have been the first writer in English to use “incarnadine” as a verb, and in that way as in so many others Macbeth is a product of its era. The English Renaissance was a time of great experimentation with the English language, particularly by Shakespeare himself, who coined, altered, or adapted many words. Thus, whatever “universal truths” Shakespeare expresses in his works will sometimes be expressed in language whose inventiveness was typical of its times.
Finally, another trait of style typical of Shakespeare’s era can also be seen in the quotation just cited – specifically in the reference to Neptune. Writers in the English Renaissance were far more likely to allude to classical Greek and Roman myths than has been true of writers since the nineteenth century. Thus, when Macbeth expresses his sense of guilty pollution here, he does so in language that is not only in some ways highly original (as with “incarnadine”) but also in language that is in some ways highly traditional (as in the reference to Neptune).