What are three or more literary devices used in Lady Macbeth's "unsex me here" speech in Macbeth, act 1, scene 5?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most obvious device in the soliloquy is apostrophe, in which Lady Macbeth directly addresses and calls on these extra-human "spirits" and "ministers," as well as the "thick night," she believes have the power to give her the qualities needed to commit murder—or at least to spur Macbeth to do...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The most obvious device in the soliloquy is apostrophe, in which Lady Macbeth directly addresses and calls on these extra-human "spirits" and "ministers," as well as the "thick night," she believes have the power to give her the qualities needed to commit murder—or at least to spur Macbeth to do so. Why, one might ask, are these apostrophes necessary when it is quite obvious Lady Macbeth isn't the nicest person in the world? Clearly, Shakespeare is depicting a paradox in her character. The conventional view of Lady Macbeth as an evil woman is in some sense belied by this passage. She is more than conscious of her milder qualities, which she attributes to her femininity:

... unsex me here

And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty!

Personification is the device of attributing human characteristics to inanimate things, as in:

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry "Hold, hold!"

Heaven is thus attributed with the power of sight and speech—unless it is considered a metaphor of God.

This last point brings up the question of whether Lady Macbeth believes in a Divinity, in God. One would think that a person having the need to rhapsodize in this manner must believe in something, but if so the central device that informs the whole soliloquy is irony. Lady Macbeth would obviously not be half as interesting a person without this apparent contradiction in her character between cruelty and regret. The culmination of the paradox established here is the unresolved guilt that causes her to go crazy and, evidently, to commit suicide.

The soliloquy is also an example of hyperbole. Her pleadings and apostrophizing are exaggerated, almost an instance of "protesting too much." This is a typical device of Shakespeare. It's part of his style, and accounts for much of the visceral effect his verse has on us, that his language is extravagant and unrestrained. The most dislikable characters in the Shakespeare canon have a tendency to speak in a manner that is elevated and florid, even by the standards of his time. And this, too, contributes to the irony of the passage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Literary devices are methods used by a writer to convey his or her message clearly. A literary device enhances the author's writing and provides the reader deeper insight into the feelings, moods and conditions in a literary work. It also adds to the drama and suspense and assists in plot development. Clever use of literary devices enhances one's reading experience and enriches the pleasure of viewing a play.

Shakespeare employs a number of these devices in the extract.

The raven in the opening line is used as a symbol or metaphor for death. In this regard, an association is created between the bird and dying. Since ravens are scavengers and feed on carrion it is easy to understand the connection. The birds are deemed harbingers of death and their appearance bring up images of death and dying. Lady Macbeth's reference in this instance makes it clear that the raven has cried out and announced Duncan's death many times over and is, therefore, hoarse. She is accentuating the fact that Duncan's time is up. He should die soon. 

Lady Macbeth uses apostrophe when she calls on the spirits dwelling in her mind to unsex her. In apostrophe, an idea, intangible object or dead person is addressed as if it were alive. By using the apostrophe, Lady Macbeth is emphasizing her desperation to kill Duncan. She wants all her feminine qualities removed so that she may become harsh and remorseless enough to kill him. It is quite ironic that she feels the need to call on the assistance of supernatural forces since it is pertinently evident that she has more than enough malice to commit the deed without any help. Her desperate request, however, does add to the drama. 

Shakespeare uses juxtaposition in Lady Macbeth's plea to the spirits. There is a clear contrast between what Lady Macbeth wants to become and the nurturing and caring feminine qualities she, as a woman, naturally has. She wants to be made dreadfully cruel and completely remorseless in opposition to having feelings of care and affection. Obviously, being cold and ruthless would make committing the nefarious deed she is plotting so much easier.

The use of personification also adds to the dramatic quality of Lady Macbeth's request. In such an instance, human qualities are attributed to something non-human. She asks that heaven should not peep through the dark and cry out at her to refrain from committing her evil. Heaven is a symbol for good and the contrast between her planned malice and the forces of virtue further emphasizes just how much ambition has turned her into a creature of infamy. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

  • Animal Imagery: "The raven himself is hoarse"
  • Sound Imagery: "That croaks"
  • Death Imagery: "the fatal entrance of Duncan"
  • Foreshadowing: "the fatal entrance of Duncan Under my battlements."
  • Apostrophe: "Come, you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts," AND "Come, thick night,"
  • Bodily Fluids Imagery: "And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood," AND "Come to my woman's breasts, And take my milk for gall,"
  • Alliteration: "murdering ministers,"
  • Darkness Imagery: "Come, thick night,"
  • Hell Imagery: "And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,"
  • Knife Imagery: "That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,"
  • Time Imagery: "Thy letters have transported me beyond This ignorant present, and I feel now The future in the instant"
  • Personification: "Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark To cry, “Hold, hold!” AND "You wait on nature's mischief!"
  • Epithets: "Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!"
  • Caesura: "Under my battlements. Come, you spirits"
  • End-stop: "Stop up the access and passage to remorse,"
  • Enjambment:

"hake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team