In Act IV, scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, how might one explain the effects of one literary device?

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One literary technique used very prominently in Act VI, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is the technique known as anaphora, when a series of adjacent phrases, clauses, or sentences begin with the same word or words.  Early in the scene, for instance, Malcolm says to Macduff,

What I believe I'll wail, 
What know believe, and what I can redress, 
As I shall find the time to friend, I will. 

Anaphora is used here in the strong emphasis on the repeated word “what.” The use of anaphora is accentuated even further thanks to alliteration in other words – alliteration that echoes the “w” sound of “what” in such other words as “wail” and “will.” These words, in turn, display even further alliteration in their repetition of “l” sounds, sounds that also occur in “I’ll” and “shall.”  In short, this brief passage is brimming with interesting sound effects.

What are some of the psychological implications and emotive effects of Malcolm’s use of anaphora?  In answering that question, one might claim the following:

  • The anaphora here makes Malcolm sound extremely determined and emphatic.
  • The anaphora also makes Malcolm sound highly logical and rational in his thinking.
  • The anaphora also makes Malcolm sound eloquent and self-assured in speech.
  • The anaphora also helps emphasize, through contrast, the interrupting, qualifying phrase (“As I shall find time to friend”), so that Malcolm does not sound merely cocky or arrogant. The interrupting phrase implies how particular circumstances may affect his plans. His concession that he will need to adjust to such circumstances implies his humility as well as his wisdom.
  • The anaphora helps make Malcolm sound, quite literally, like a man of few words who knows his mind entirely and intends not merely to think or to speak but to act.

SOMETHING EXTRA: In the second half of the twentieth century, the approach to literature known as “formalism” (often also called the “new criticism”) came under heated attack from other adherents of other schools and approaches. Critics of formalism often asserted that formalism was ahistorical, unhistorical, or even anti-historical.  In other words, these critics claimed that formalists ignored how literature was or could be interpreted during its own time. Thus, formalists were alleged to read Shakespeare’s works in ways that were not historically appropriate.

In fact, however, formalism was merely a twentieth-century version of rhetorical criticism, and rhetoric was one of the chief interests of writers and readers during Shakespeare’s age.  Thus, to pay attention to such matters as anaphora, alliteration, assonance, etc., is not to be unhistorical at all – quite the opposite. Shakespeare himself took a keen interest in rhetoric and is, perhaps, the supreme master in the English language of the rhetorical “tropes” (such as metaphors and similes) and “schemes” (such as rhyme and meter) that are of such keen interest to formalist critics.  

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