What is a literary device in Macbeth, Act I, scene 2, and how is it used?

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Macbeth opens to an ominous sight as the three witches' actions and behavior forewarn the audience, amidst the thunder and lightning, that "fair is foul, and foul is fair," (I.i.10). Act I, scene ii introduces King Duncan, who will become Macbeth's primary target and the main obstacle to Macbeth's path to becoming king, although Macbeth will remove him and any other perceived threat along the way.

Literary devices or terms add depth to any text. They also allow for interpretation; therefore, giving the audience a broader visual image. Malcolm uses simile to reinforce the sergeant or captain's bravery when he saves Malcolm. Malcolm says "...like a good and hardy soldier," (4). Although he is already a soldier anyway, Malcolm has made this comparison to suggest that the captain has exceeded expectations by going to great lengths to save Malcolm himself.

The sergeant or captain makes use of simile when he makes a comparison between the tired soldiers and "two spent swimmers that do cling together," (8), suggesting that the soldiers are more than merely tired, being confused and even helpless. Simile is also used when the sergeant extols Macbeth's virtues as he, "Like valor's minion, carved out his passage..."(19) Macbeth is to be emulated, setting an example, having learnt from "valor" itself. Simile and the other devices used in this scene contribute to the intense situation which is developing. 

iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare's skillful use of literary devices, especially figurative language, is one of the most important factors contributing to the playwright's enduring popularity. Macbeth, Act 1, scene 2 exhibits many classic examples of figurative language, and one of the most masterful literary devices in the passage can be found in one of the Sergeant's rich similes:

As whence the sun 'gins his reflection

Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders


So from that spring whence comfort seem'd to 


Discomfort swells. (25-28)

This simile compares Macbeth's heroic defense against Macdonwald's forces to a brief sun break in a tempestuous storm. Just as the sun can momentarily put a stop to "shipwrecking storms and direful thunders," so too does Macbeth's valor provide respite on the battlefield (at least, as we see later on in the scene, until reinforcements arrive to oppose him).

This simile works as a brilliant literary device, as it adds an extra layer of description and emotion to the scene. By comparing Macbeth's military exploits to stormy weather broken by a ray of sunshine, Shakespeare evocatively brings to life an important plot point using poetic language. In this way, the playwright avoids actually staging a critical action sequence while still exciting the audience.

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Act 1, Scene 2, from Macbeth is rich in figurative language. 


"And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, showed like a rebel's whore; but at all's too weak" (14-15).  Shakespeare personifies fortune, giving it human-like attributes of quarreling and smiling.  The emotions ascribed to Fortune portray 'him' to be contrary, leaving the reader to understand that not only does fate have a role in the play, but also shows itself to be fickle.


"For brave Macbeth...disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel which smoked with bloody execution" (16-18).    Shakespeare uses descriptive details that appeal to the audience's emotions and imaginations.  Duncan's captain describes Macbeth as "disdaining fortune," which later proves to be ironic since one of Macbeth's tragic flaws is his ambition.  The description of Macbeth's sword as an instrument of execution foreshadows later murderous events in the play.