Macbeth’s Irony Macbeth’s Irony There can be no argument that William Shakespeare’s genius and gift of poetic writing is present in Macbeth. In addition, Shakespeare makes use of many outside sources for his work, pulling from political and historical events. Nearly all of Macbeth has a basis in historical fact. Holinshed chronicled in the sixteenth century the histories of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is from the Historie of Scotland that Shakespeare builds the significance of this popular tragedy.
The historical record contains the belief of Macbeth in the prophecies of three weird sisters, soothsayers who reinforce his ambitions for the throne; records Banquo’s role; presents the subsequent murder of King Duncan; and reveals Macbeth’s paranoia concerning Macduff. The play weaves these separate histories into a coherent whole. Macbeth is the story of a man whose ambitions have brought him to commit treason and murder. There is irony and symbolism in the play, which contribute to the acceptance of this masterpiece. Three forms of irony are evident in Macbeth: dramatic irony, being the difference between what the audience sees and what the characters believe to be true; verbal irony, the difference between what is said and what is meant; and situational irony, the difference between what actually happens and what is expected.
A theatergoer witnessing a performance of Macbeth may develop presumptions about what is actually true and what is actually a truth. When it is contrary to what the character in the play believes to be true, a dramatic irony occurs. This is evident when Lennox asks Macbeth whether the king is to leave Macbeth’s castle for home: 1 Len. Goes the king hence to-day? Macb. He does; he did appoint so. (Macbeth.
II, iii, 54-55) Obviously, Macbeth is consciously lying, for the audience is fully aware of his plans to murder King Duncan that night. With Macbeth’s reply interpreted literally, the viewer is convinced Duncan does intend to leave the castle the next day. Therein lies the truth. Looking back at the opening of this scene, hidden truths of the porter are exposed: Port. Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.
O, come in, equivocator. (Macbeth. II. iii. 7-11) Macbeth is playing the part of the equivocator again, equivocation being a form of double talk in which a remark considered true could be argued as truth from one viewpoint.
One significant example of dramatic irony is again evident in the porter scene in Act II, scene iii, because of the masked reality the stuporous drunk reveals. The porter plays the part of porter at Hell-Gate in lines 1-3: Port. If a man were porter at Hell-Gate, he should have old turning the key. He continues to dramatize through line 16: Port. But this place is too cold for hell.
I’ll devil-porter it no further. With the king’s murder discovered, it is nearly comedic when Lady Macbeth responds to the announcement of King Duncan’s murder. She first enters in mock confusion, questioning: Lady M. What’s the business, That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley The sleepers of the house? Speak, speak! (Macbeth. II, iii, 81-83) This scene could be directed in such a way to have the actor portraying Lady Macbeth embellish her performance to the point of dramatically emoting. Then, upon hearing Macduff refuse to tell her what has happened for The repetition in a woman’s ear/Would murder as it fell (Macbeth.
II, iii, 85-86) the viewer cannot help ignoring the serious tone of the scene and laughing at the irony in his choice of words. The lady then plays her innocence once more by replying in alarm to Macduff’s telling Banquo of the murder: Lady M. Woe, alas! What in our house? (Macbeth. II, iii, 86-87) The most enjoyable form of irony in this play is verbal. Verbal irony is specifically when a person says that which is contrary to fact in order to make a point rather than to deceive. Sarcasm is one type of verbal irony.
However, there are many. On the exit of Macbeth’s final visit to the weird sisters, the first witch wryly comments on Macbeth’s forgetting to thank them: 1. Witch. That this great king may kindly say Our duties did his welcome pay. (Macbeth.
IV, I, 131-132) Verbal irony is also present in Lennox’s speech as he ponders what has strangely unfolded since the banquet: Len. And the right valiant Banquo walk’d too late, Whom you may say (if’t please you) Fleance kill’d, For Fleance fled. (Macbeth. III, vi, 5-7) The irony in the line Lennox delivers is perfectly complete by the inclusion of an almost humorous use of alliteration at its end. It should be noted that the strongest representation of verbal irony occurs in the scene involving the three witches, Macbeth, and Banquo.
Banquo nearly begs the witches for a prophetic glance into his own future and their response is revealed in a three-fold irony: 1. Witch. Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. 2. Witch.
Not so happy, yet much happier. 3. Witch. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none. (Macbeth.
I. iii. 65-68) Often times among soothsayers, prophets, and seers there lays an element of vagueness and double-talk. The witches are without exception in their scenes. Aside from dramatic and verbal forms of irony, situational irony is present in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There is the mysterious appearance of a third murderer in Act III, scene iii.
This occurrence is not unusual when considering Shakespeare’s use of the symbolic number three throughout the play. The strongest evidence of situational irony is unmistakably the way in which the strange sisters’ prophecies unfold. Macbeth is given the illusion of immortality when the second apparition tells him that he will not fall to harm. This illusion is amplified with the third apparition’s promise: 3. App. Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.
(Macbeth. IV, I, 92-94) Shakespeare, in this case, is not only surprising the characters with the outcome of these prophesies, but also the audience. Macbeth believes he is to be victorious, but the audience knows his failure will be inevitable. However, the viewers are oblivious of the outcome. The cumulative irony is that of the weird sisters telling Macbeth exactly what he wishes to hear.
All his ambitions reinforced by this universal trick of soothsayers, strongly predispose the listener toward total belief. Macbeth’s belief leads to his invulnerability, resulting in ultimate irony. It is important to look at the varying levels of irony within William Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Macbeth. The evidence of that irony is incontrovertible. What characters in the play believe and theatergoers see to be true is the result of dramatic irony.
When characters in the play deliver lines with double meanings this is irony presented verbally. With situational irony, what actually happens and what is expected to happen results in the desired effect. While expanding upon the irony of Macbeth, an obvious symbolism is clearly presented. On the irony and symbolism of the play, alone, entire volumes of essays are constructed. Internet web sites, Cliffs and Monarch Notes, and the public library offer reliable sources to further information on the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.
Shakespeare is, if nothing else, a moralist. His work contains lessons in morality to be reviewed and noted. In Macbeth, it is lust for power leading to destruction. Many contemporary examples of this are evident in world dictators, military juntas, and corporate criminals. Macbeth has contemporary significance.
In the mirror of Shakespeare, the human condition is an honest reflection of vulnerability. Works Cited Bradley, A.C. (1912) Shakespearean Tragedy. Pp. 468-469 Evans, Tobin, eds.
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Holinshed, R. (1587) Historie of Scotland. (2nd ed.) Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. Paul, Henry N.
(1950) The Royal Play of Macbeth. Pp. 213-217 Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Total Study Edition. (1990) Coles Editorial Board.
Shakespeare Web. Queries from genuinely interested students. Internet. Online. The Tragedy of Macbeth New Haven. Yale University Press.
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