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 ...
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.
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.