Personification In Macbeth

What are some examples of personification in Macbeth by William Shakespeare? Why are these examples interesting and what do they add to the play as a whole?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous answer does list some of the most memorable examples of personification in Macbeth by William Shakespeare, though of course you also asked for some commentary regarding their significance in the play. Personification is giving human qualities or characteristics to things which are not living or not human, and there are many examples in this play.

Lady Macbeth is quite a dramatic and memorable woman, and the things she says are often rather outrageous, which is in keeping with her personality. In Act I of the play, she has just read the letter her husband sent her about the witches' predictions and says this:

Stars, hide your fires!

Let not light see my black and deep desires.

This is an excellent example of personification because the imagery is as dramatic as the intent. She is asking the stars to do the impossible, to hide her ambition (her "black and deep desires") from the rest of the world. Of course a star is a grand and powerful object compared to a mere mortal, yet Lady Macbeth presumes to command them to obey her will. Even more, she is asking them to be complicit (participatory) in her deception and change the entire pattern of the world (make dark what is supposed to be light) just for her. 

It seems like an outrageous request, and her arrogance is rather astonishing. In the end, of course, no one but her husband does see this awful ambition in her eyes, so perhaps the stars did cooperate, though obviously not literally. This example of personification serves to show the size and scope of her ambition--only the stars are capable of hiding it.

Macbeth is a rather larger-than-life character, as well, making him the perfect match for Lady Macbeth. He is ferocious in battle, loyal to his king (at least until he wasn't), and a good enough actor to fool nearly everyone after Duncan's death. (Banquo is only suspicious because of the predictions.) 

Despite his valor in battle and his clear, overriding ambition, In Act II he is moved by guilt over what he and his wife are planning to do to Macbeth. In scene ii he has to go finish the job his wife was supposed to do, and when he returns from killing Duncan he is distraught:

Me thought I heard a voice cry "Sleep no more!

Macbeth doth Murder sleep"--the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,

The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,

Chief nourisher in life's feast--

Sleep is personified several ways here. 

First, sleep is something that can be murdered, as Macbeth thought he heard someone say he has murdered it. Of course it is only his own guilt playing tricks on his mind, but the idea that Macbeth has murdered sleep is a great personification here. Sleep is representative of peaceful rest, and Macbeth has, indeed, killed that for Duncan.

Second, sleep is personified here as something that can heal the body by doing things a person can do. It knits up all the loose ends of worry and care into a neat edge or hem, it provides the balm (soothing ointment) which can heal "hurt minds" and it provides nourishment for every man's life. Obviously sleep is inanimate and can do none of these things on a literal level, but when it is personified, sleep is able to provide healing and peace--something Macbeth will not be able to find from this moment on in the play.

Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As has already been stated, personification is a literary device in which, as Dr. Wheeler phrases it, "abstractions, animals, ideas, and inanimate objects are given human character, traits, abilities or reactions" (Dr. Wheeler, "Literary Terms and Definitions: P"). Dr. Wheeler gives us an example from Sylvia Plath's poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree" in which Plath describes the moon as having a "face in its on right" (Dr. Wheeler). Definitely many examples of personification can be found all throughout Shakespeare. Several more examples can be found in even the first act alone.

One example can be seen immediately after the three witches disappear after having given Macbeth and Banquo their prophecy that Macbeth shall become both Thane of Cawdor and king. The witches vanish so mysteriously and suddenly that both Banquo and Macbeth stand amazed. Banquo is the first to speak of their amazement when he compares the witches' disappearance to bubbles, saying that the earth possesses bubbles that disappear, just like bubbles in water disappear. Since he is describing the earth as having ownership, he is also describing the earth as having a human characteristic, as we see in his lines:

The earth hath bubbles as the
water has,
And these are them. Wither
are they vanish'd? (I.iii.)

This use of personification to describe the mysterious disappearance of the witches is important in that the supernatural is a dominant theme in Macbeth. One major question in Macbeth is whether or not we are guided by our own personal choices or by things like fate and the supernatural. The presence of the witches and their mysterious disappearance helps set up the supernatural aspect of the theme.

A second example of personification can be found in this same scene (I.iii) when Banquo responds, "What, can the devil speak true?" Banquo says this in reaction Ross, who has just informed both Banquo and Macbeth that Ross has been sent by the king to bring Macbeth to the king and call Macbeth Thane of Cawdor. Calling Macbeth Thane of Cawdor is a fulfillment of the witches' first prophecy. This is a perfect example of personification because the devil has become understood as an abstraction of evil; the devil has also become understood as a being but specifically a being with only one character trait--the trait of being evil. Hence, to ask if the devil has spoken the truth is a means of personifying the devil with the human ability to both understand and speak truth, which is not something the devil is typically capable of. This example of personification is significant because, again, it captures the theme of the supernatural but also captures a second theme--the theme concerning the significance of prophecy and predestination. Other major questions that arise from Macbeth concern the influence of prophecy, particularly, the questions can be raised, did Macbeth fall as a man because he was prophesied to fall as part of his predestination? Or did he fall simply because he heard the prophecy and then made his own personal choices?

durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth is a centuries old account of what unchecked ambition, greed and total self-absorption can do to a person. It has a modern ring to it because so many people today are unaware of reality, living in their own version of it and unable to cope when challenged by either good or bad fortune. Macbeth, himself, has the same problem. He has succeeded in battle and is being lauded by his peers and even his king and yet he still manages to twist the circumstances and ruin several lives in the process.

We first meet Macbeth in unusual circumstances and, without delay, the plot begins to develop. Banquo is clearly affected by the vision of the witches and talks to Macbeth of "The insane root That takes the reason prisoner."(I.iii.84-85) This quote basically sums up how all measure of logic will be ignored in Macbeth, with disastrous consequences. It's importance becomes obvious later as Lady Macbeth goes insane and Macbeth's visions become increasingly absurd.

After his initial panic at having murdered Duncan, Macbeth has a false confidence so much so that he intends to have Banquo murdered and seems quite proud that his has orchestrated this without Lady Macbeth's assistance. He thinks she will be so proud of him and "applaud the deed" and calls upon night- as if a person- to "Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, And with thy bloody and invisible hand Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond Which keeps me pale."(III.ii.46-50) He is aware that Banquo remains a threat, which admittedly scares him but he does not stop to think of the consequence of murdering Banquo. This quote reveals Macbeth's irrational thoughts and inability to see the whole picture. From his great achievements and obvious strategic prowess on the battlefield, he is now unable to think beyond each individual act.   

This also reinforces one of the famous instances of personification as Macbeth laments Lady Macbeth's death: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage..."(V.v.24-25) He believes that Lady Macbeth was not allowed to reach her full potential and is saddened by the futility of life. This is full of irony as it seems Macbeth still does not recognize his own part in her downfall.

There is a thread to all of these quotes which audiences would have and still do appreciate which is why they contribute to the play as a whole. There is a serious lesson to be learnt in leading a life of selfishness and conceit.  

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Throughout Shakespeare's Macbeth there is the realm of the phantasmagoric--a constant and complex shifting of reality and the supernatural, things seen and unseen that lend this tragedy its richness. Certainly, instances of personification serve to enhance this preternatural realm inhabited by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Early in the drama, such instances occur:

  • As the bleeding Captain who fought to protect Malcom describes the battle, he speaks of "The multiplying villainies of nature [a human trait given to nature]/Do swarm upon him (1.2.)
  • When King Duncan, and other noblemen enter the palace at Forres, Macbeth and Banquo,return from their encounter with the "weird sisters." King Duncan praises Macbeth and expresses his gratitude for Macbeth's valor on the battlefield: "...thou are so far before,/That swiftest wing of recompense [this metaphor includes personification as it attributes gratitude as possessing the animal trait of wings] is slow..." (1.4.) 
  • From Lady Macbeth's famous soliloquy, there is the line in which she bemoans Macbeth's nature which is "too full o'th'milk of human kindness" [the attribute of kindness is given human/animal ability to produce milk] (1.5)
  • Perhaps one of the most-quoted phrases from the play, "Vaulting ambition"[ambition can leap] (1.7) exemplifies personification as the abstract quality of ambition is given the ability to leap and overcome other desires or compunctions.
  • Also in his soliloquy of scene 7, Macbeth precedes his observation of his overriding ambition by observing that he has "no spur/To prick the sides of my intent" [his intentions are personified as the sides of a horse that can be spurred to perform another action] (1.7)
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act II Scene I we find this double personification:

and wither'd Murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch,

Murder is depicted as the lord of a castle, and the wolf as a human sentinel who calls at regular intervals like a night watchman.

Two personifications are to be found in the following lines from Macbeth's soliloquy in Act I Scene VII

that his virtues
Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, 

Duncan't virtues are likened to angels and pity is likened to a naked infant exposed to the strong, cold winds.

Later in Act I Scene VII, when Macbeth tells his wife he will not go through with the murder, she asks:

What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?

luannw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

  Act 1, sc. 4,  ll. 58-59, Lady Macbeth: "Stars, hide your fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires."

Act 2, sc.2., l. 53, Macbeth: "Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care."    

Act 2, sc. 3, ll. 143-144, Donalbaine: "Where our fate, hidden in an auger hole, / May rush and seize us."

Act 3, sc. 4, l. 156, Macbeth: "Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;"   

Act 4, sc. 3, l. 235, Ross: "Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,"

Act 5, sc. 5, ll. 24-25, Macbeth: "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death."