What are the literary devices used in Macbeth's dagger speech?

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The literary devices that Shakespeare uses in the "dagger speech" in act 2, scene 1, of Macbeth, aren't limited to the devices that Shakespeare employs within the speech—alliteration, apostrophe, paradox, and allusions to Hecate and Tarquin, for example—but apply to the overall structure of the soliloquy ...

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The literary devices that Shakespeare uses in the "dagger speech" in act 2, scene 1, of Macbeth, aren't limited to the devices that Shakespeare employs within the speech—alliteration, apostrophe, paradox, and allusions to Hecate and Tarquin, for example—but apply to the overall structure of the soliloquy as well:

MACBETH. Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,
She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed.

Exit Servant.

Macbeth has arranged with Lady Macbeth that she will ring a bell as a signal that she's completed her part of the plan to murder King Duncan, which is to get Duncan's guards so drunk that they fall asleep, then put their daggers where Macbeth can find them so he can use the guard's daggers to kill Duncan.

The servant exits, leaving Macbeth alone, anxiously waiting for the bell to sound.

The following "dagger speech" is structured in iambic pentameter, but Shakespeare molds the flow of the words to fit the content, tone, and mood of the speech, and, incidentally, to suggest how the actor portraying Macbeth should say the lines, and to provide stage directions for the actor as well:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?

Shakespeare creates an image in the mind of the audience (and in the mind of the actor playing Macbeth) that draws the audience instantly into the speech. The audience "sees" the dagger, perhaps at arm's length in front of Macbeth, the handle pointing in Macbeth's direction.

Shakespeare also imparts a sense of uncertainty with the feminine ending (the unstressed syllable) at the end of the first line:

Come let me clutch thee.

Here, Shakespeare uses single-syllable words to slow down the flow of the speech (a technique that Shakespeare uses quite often in his plays), as Macbeth slowly reaches for the dagger, as the words themselves imply. Another feminine ending ("thee") implies some uncertainty in Macbeth's thoughts and action:

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Macbeth is confused. He reaches out for the dagger, but it isn't really there, and he stops to think about it in single-syllable words as he looks at his hand—"I have thee not"—and then looks back at the dagger—"and yet I see thee still."

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

The words flow quickly, with the use of enjambment, as Macbeth considers what he thinks he's seeing. Shakespeare poses the same question to the audience.

He also poses a question to the actor playing Macbeth. Is the soliloquy projected inward, or does the motivation for the speech come from outside Macbeth? In other words, does Macbeth see the dagger only in his mind, or is it a hallucination, a phantom dagger, placed in front of him by a supernatural force—the witches, perhaps?

I see thee yet

Single-syllable words to slow down the speech as Macbeth looks up at the dagger again.

...in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.

Macbeth slowly pulls out his own dagger. The line has only three feet (iambic trimeter), which draws attention to it.

The line also draws Macbeth from "a dagger of the mind" back to reality (the real dagger in his hand) and back to the reality of his situation:

Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,(50)
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest.

Macbeth is thinking to himself, his mind wandering a little until he's drawn back to the vision of the dagger yet again, the image of which has become prophetic:

I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.

There's no such thing.

A definitive, declarative sentence of four, single-syllable words. Macbeth takes charge of his overactive imagination:

It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.

He puts the dagger out of his mind. It's an illusion. It doesn't exist. He can't think about it anymore.

For the rest of the speech, until the bell rings, Macbeth engages in loose word and image association related to the task that very shortly will be at hand.

A bell rings.

I go, and it is done: the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.

The time has come. Macbeth has made up his mind to go through with it, with only a slight hesitation at the feminine ending of the first line.

As Shakespeare often does, he ends the scene with a rhymed couplet, here slightly altered in the meter of the first line of the couplet to give a sense of incompleteness to the scene and to lead the audience, and Macbeth, to what happens next.

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The unease Macbeth has as he sees a vision of a bloody dagger on the eve of killing Duncan foreshadows Macbeth's bloody future. He will be haunted now by the need for violence, which the bloody dagger symbolizes. The bloody dagger is a literary device: a concrete and memorable symbol or representation of the violent path on which Macbeth is embarking.

Near the end of this soliloquy, a literary device in which an actor who is alone speaks his thoughts aloud to the audience, Macbeth grows more poetic. The passage is below:

..wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.

The repeated "w" sounds at the beginning of words in close proximity are alliterative: they put the emphasis on words with evil connotations: wicked, witchcraft, wither'd, wolf . . . showing Macbeth's darkened state of mind.

Hecate is an allusion or reference to the head of the witches. Although Macbeth will never know it, she will play a strong role in his demise. All in all, this speech creates a mood of anxiety and foreboding, communicating Macbeth's uneasy and frightened emotional state.

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We can find Macbeth's famous dagger speech in Act 2 Scene I. Macbeth starts out his speech by referencing a dagger, which he sees in the confused recesses of his tortured mind. He addresses this dagger as if it were a person. We call this literary device apostrophe.

Macbeth's soliloquy typifies the conversation of a man in a heightened, psychotic state; his perceptions vacillate between reality and fantasy. Those in the late stages of psychosis often exhibit erratic patterns of speech, as does Macbeth in his soliloquy. After stating that the dagger is so real he can almost reach out and grab it, he proceeds to question whether the dagger is just a figment of his grand imagination.  He thinks he sees the dagger calling him to the place he originally intended to go, to do the things he originally intended to do. In his delusion of paranoia, he eventually decides that the dagger is sending him secret messages that only he can understand. After all, he sees 'gouts of blood' on the handle and blade that weren't there before.

Another example of apostrophe in the speech comes later when Macbeth addresses the 'sure and firm-set earth,' telling the ground not to advertise his path towards Duncan. He wants the earth to assist him in his mission by not divulging his whereabouts, in case his desired purpose is thwarted.

There are two allusions in this speech; Macbeth talks about 'Pale Hecate's offerings' and 'Tarquin's ravishing strides.' Allusions are brief and indirect references to things, people, or ideas with cultural, political, or historical significance. Hecate is a Greek goddess often associated with the underworld, ghosts, witches, and magic. The reference to 'withered murder' (here, murder is personified as a man ready to do his foul deed) moving quietly like Tarquin leads us to ponder the rape of Lucretia. As Tarquin's rape of Lucretia cost him his kingdom, so does Macbeth's eventual murder of Duncan. A fitting reference!

These allusions are part of the imagery (or mental images) utilized by Shakespeare to show us the state of Macbeth's mind as he contemplates murdering Duncan. The imagery encompasses ghosts, witches, imaginary daggers, and general evil under the cover of night, instilling dread in the reader.

 

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