clean is used in a position where contemporary usage would require a
form like entirely, and easy is used for “easily” in:
Let’s not consort with them.
To show an unfelt sorrow is an office
Which the false man does easy.
(II, iii, 137-38)
They could also be used as nouns, as in:
If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have
old turning the key.
(II, iii, 1-2)
In this instance, old is the equivalent of “frequent opportunity.”
MACBETH: CHANGES IN MEANING OF WORDS
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be
illustrated by the fact that chip extended its meaning from a small
piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in
Shakespeare’s plays still exist today but their meanings have
changed. The “astonishment” in:
and when he reads
Thy personal venture in the rebels’ fight,
His wonders and his praises do contend.
(I, iii, 90-92)
Or, more fundamental, earnest meant “token of an agreement” (I, iii,
104), line meant “strengthen” (I, iii, 112), missives meant
“messengers” (I, v, 6), illness meant “wickedness” (I, v, 20), and
sightless meant “invisible”:
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief.
(I, v, 50-51)
MACBETH: VOCABULARY LOSS
Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded
from the language. In the past leman meant “sweetheart” and sooth
meant “truth.” The following words used in Macbeth are no longer
current in English but their meaning can usually be gauged from the
context in which they occur.
PADDOCK (I, i, 9): toad
MASTERDOM (I, v, 70): mastery
FAVOUR (I, v, 72): countenance, face
JUTTY (I, vi, 6): part of a building
IN COMPT (I, vi, 26): subject to account
TRAMMEL UP (I, vii, 3): entangle
AFEARD (I, vii, 39): afraid
LIMBECK (I, vii, 68): skull, container of the brain
DUDGEON (II, i, 46): handle
SLEAVE (II, ii, 36): silk thread, silk
GOOSE (II, iii, 15): smoothing iron
AVOUCH (III, i, 119): justify
ECSTASY (III, ii, 22): fit
SEELING (III, ii, 46): blinding
LATED (III, iii, 6): belated
TRENCHED (III, iv,, 26): cut
FLAWS (III, iv, 62): sudden gusts
OWE (III, iv, 112): own
DRAB (IV, i, 31): prostitute
SWEATEN (IV, i, 65): irregularly formed
GIN (IV, ii, 35): snare
FOISONS (IV, iii, 88): abundant harvests
TEEMS (IV, iii, 176): brings forth
MATED (V, i, 75): confused
Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in these three main ways.
1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did, as
when Lady Macbeth asks “Know you not, he has?” (I, vii, 30). Today
we would say, “Do you not know that he has?” Another instance occurs
when Macbeth tells Banquo “I think not of them” (II, i, 21); modern
usage demands, “I do not think of them.”
Shakespeare had the option of using the following two forms, whereas
contemporary usage permits only the a forms:
Is the king going? Goes the king?
Did the king go? Went the king?
You do not look well You look not well
You did not look well You looked not well
2. A number of past participles and past-tense forms are used that
would be ungrammatical today. Among these are: forbid for
“forbidden,” as in: “He shall live a man forbid” (I, iii, 21); holp
for “helped,” as in: “And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath
holp him” (I, v, 23); eat for “ate,” as in:
‘Tis said they eat each other. They did so,
to th’ amazement of mine
eyes” (II, iv, 18)
3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with thou and with he/she/it:
As thou art in desire? Would’st thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
(I, vii, 41-42)
Hath he asked for me?
(I, vii, 30)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun–thou–which
could be used in addressing a person who was one’s equal or social
inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:
“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (I, iii, 70), but it
could also be used to indicate respect, as when Lady Macbeth told
Your servants ever
Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt.
To make their audit at your Highness’ pleasure,
Still to return your own.
(I, vi, 25-28)
Frequently, a person in power used thou to a child or a subordinate
but was addressed you in return, as when Lady Macduff spoke to her
Lady Macduff: Now, God help thee, poor monkey!
But how wilt thou do for a father?
Son: If he were dead, you’d weep for him.
If you would not, it were a good sign
that I should quickly have a new father.
(IV, ii, 57-61)
But if thou was used inappropriately, it might be offensive. One of
the witches uses thou in addressing Macbeth to underline the fact
that Macbeth has, by his murders, reduced himself to their level:
Say if th’ hadst rather hear it from our mouths,
Or from our masters?
(IV, i, 62-63)
One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. Duncan uses the
royal plural we to stress the honor he is bestowing on Lady Macbeth
by staying with her:
Fair and noble hostess,
We are your guest tonight.
(I, vi, 24-25)
But he uses I to stress his debt to Macbeth for winning the battle:
O worthiest cousin!
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me
(I, iv, 14-16)
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they
are today, and so we find several uses in Macbeth that would have to
be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are on for “to” in:
“The victory fell on us” (I, ii, 59); with for “by” in: “Thence to
be wrenched with an unlineal hand” (III, i, 62); for for “on account
of” in: “For certain friends that are both his and mine” (III, i,
120); and at… and for “from… to” in:
You know your own degrees; sit down:
At first and last, the hearty welcome.
(III, iv, 1-2)
MACBETH: MULTIPLE NEGATION
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and
regards such utterances as “I haven’t none” as nonstandard.
Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when
Macduff found the King dead:
O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee.
(II, iii, 66-67)
And Macbeth says:
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
(III, ii, 24-26)
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE I
Imagine that you are sitting in a theater waiting to see a play about
a man named Macbeth. As the play begins lightning flashes, and
instead of seeing this Macbeth, you see three weird-looking women.
They must be witches; they are chanting spells. After making plans
to meet Macbeth, they leave.
That’s the whole scene-ten lines! Look at what Shakespeare
accomplishes with this opening. By beginning the play with the
witches instead of starting with Macbeth, he makes it clear that
something wicked is going to happen. When we hear more about Macbeth
and finally see him, we have to wonder why the three witches have
business with him. So this scene establishes the mood of the play.
NOTE: Always read a scene in Shakespeare first to find out what
happens and what the characters say to each other. Then read it
again to see what you can learn not from what they say but how they
say it. In other words, examine Shakespeare’s use of language. For
example: The witches say “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (line 10).
That line is like a riddle; it seems like nonsense but you can see it
means something. Different versions of the same idea turn up all
through the play. One thing the line is saying is that nothing in
the play will be what it seems to be. And it is also letting you
know, right away, that in Macbeth’s Scotland everything is going to
be confused and perverted.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE II
Lightning, thunder, and witches give way in this scene to blood,
soldiers, and fighting. We still do not meet Macbeth, but we learn
more about him.
What happens is simple: King Duncan, too old to fight, wants to know
how his army is doing. A wounded soldier tells him. We learn that
the Scottish soldiers are fighting two enemies at once: rebels from
their own country and invaders from Norway.
The main thing we learn from this “bloody captain” is that Macbeth is
a hero. The battle was awful but Macbeth was fearless, fighting his
way through the enemy and literally cutting the rebel leader in half.
King Duncan is suitably impressed. We also hear for the first time
about Macbeth’s fellow-captain, Banquo, who is described as being
just as brave as Macbeth.
The Thane of Ross arrives with a new report: the Thane of Cawdor is
a traitor, but King Duncan’s army has won. Duncan is upset that the
Thane of Cawdor, whom he trusted, is a traitor. At the same time, he
is very moved by Macbeth’s bravery. He orders Cawdor’s execution and
rewards Macbeth by making him the new Thane of Cawdor. The Thanes of
Ross and Angus leave to tell Macbeth.
NOTE: A lot of what you find out in this scene is
“exposition”–information you have to have so you will know who
people are and what has been happening before the play starts. Have
you ever seen a play or movie in which somebody comes on and, for no
apparent reason, starts telling who is who and what is going on?
That is bad exposition. Look how skillfully Shakespeare gets his
information across. By bringing on a bloody soldier, he dramatizes
the offstage battle. Even without the words, you can tell how bad
the fighting must have been. By keeping Duncan in the dark,
Shakespeare justifies having the soldier give his report.
The theme of honor is introduced in this scene. Duncan says the
bloody soldier’s words and wounds both “smack of honor” (line 45).
Macbeth is described as “brave” and “worthy,” and he gets his reward.
You can see that honor is very important to these people.
MACBETH: ACT I, SCENE III
In this scene we finally meet Macbeth. Macbeth encounters the
witches, who tempt him with the idea of becoming king.
MACBETH: LINES 1-37
We learn more about the nature of the witches. They talk among
themselves about the nasty things they have been doing. One has been
passing the time killing swine (pigs), another has been plotting
revenge on a sailor’s wife who refused to give her a chestnut.
Listening to them, we get the impression that a lot of bad things
that happen to people and are called bad luck are actually caused by
MACBETH: LINES 37-87
Now we have heard that Macbeth is brave and worthy, but we also know
that these evil creatures want to meet with him. We are ready to
meet Macbeth himself, and in he comes with Banquo.
Look at the first thing he says: “So foul and fair a day I have not
seen” (line 37). That sounds like what the witches said in Scene i!
Is Shakespeare suggesting that Macbeth is not what he seems to be–a
brave and loyal thane? You do not know yet, but you begin to wonder.
The witches predict what the future holds for Macbeth and Banquo.
Macbeth, who is Thane of Glamis, will be Thane of Cawdor. That comes
as a surprise to Macbeth, but not to us, of course. They also say he
will be king one day. They tell Banquo he will be father to a line
of kings, though he will never be one himself.
NOTE: We can learn something about Macbeth by studying the different
ways he and Banquo respond to these predictions. Banquo asks
Macbeth, “why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound
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