In Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Macbeth’, ambition is the driving force behind the downfall of the main character, Macbeth. Macbeth is given the knowledge from supernatural creatures that he will be Thane of Cawdor, King and that Banquo will be the father to future Kings. This information acts like a pebble and creates a ripple effect that fuels Macbeth’s burning desire for power and to be King, whatever the cost. But as we have seen countless times in history, too much power can corrupt a man and become the thing that ruins them.  ” All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton.  This quote does well to explain the capabilities of power, able to corrupt a man, like in Shakespeare’s play. This essay will be about the language conventions that Shakespeare uses to show Macbeth’s degenerating mind and corrupted mental state as a result from his ambition.

Dramatic Irony is when the audience knows something the character does not, this gives them the knowledge but not the power to act on it. It is often used to make the audience feel involved in the play. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to show Macbeth’s mental deterioration, he cannot recognize the tricks his mind is playing, but the audience can. An example of this is when Macbeth is on his way to murder Duncan, the current King in his sleep. He believes he can see a dagger, floating in the air before him. It reaches towards him but he cannot touch it or feel it. Macbeth questions his sense of sight, perhaps the only time in the play where he may believe he is imagining things and he questions his morals.        “To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation”.      I’ve interpreted that the audience cannot see the dagger and knows Macbeth is not mentally stable. The audience doesn’t want Macbeth to kill Duncan but we cannot stop him or warn Duncan.   Macbeth says     “There’s no such thing ,It is the bloody business which informs Thus to mine eyes”.    which means there is no such thing, he is imagining the dagger, and he says the murder he was about to commit has deceived his sight. His mental state and conscience at this time is stable enough to realize the truth behind his visions, but he is so succumbed to the idea of becoming King that he follows through on the dreadful act, that will, along with other things, plague his mind.

In Shakespeare’s works, metaphors are used to convey an idea that isn’t literal or possible, that the audience will understand. Shakespeare likes to use this convention to imply that one thing is another. In Act 3, Scene 2, Shakespeare makes reference to Banquo being a snake that is scorched. Macbeth says: “We have scorched the snake, not killed it.” This is said to Lady Macbeth about Banquo’s murder and Fleance’s escape. By comparing Banquo to a snake he is letting the audience imagine a snake that has been wounded, but not killed, Banquo is dead but the threat of Fleance becoming King is still there. In Greek Mythology, there is a figure, Hydra, that is often represented as a snake, and if one head is cut off, three more will grow in its place. I believe this idea of a mythological figure like Hydra links to how Fleance is a threat amongst others that will only grow stronger as Macbeth’s ambition grows. Shakespeare used this metaphor to invoke the imagination of the audience. Shakespeare also makes another comparison in Act 3, Scene 2 that implies his mind is full of scorpions. “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! Thou know’st that Banquo, and his son Fleance, lives”. Macbeth is stating that his mind is full of evilness, he has killed Duncan and Banquo and will continue to kill to maintain his throne. “Thou know’st that Banquo, and his son Fleance, lives” implies that as long as Fleance lives he will have a mind full of scorpions which represents his evil thoughts. This line can be seen as a way for Macbeth to show how he himself feels like his mind is failing him and degenerating, full of thoughts that he would once not think, but now are normal to him.

In Act 3 Scene 4, dramatic irony is used to show Macbeth’s unstable mental state. Shakespeare has skillfully used dramatic irony here to compel the audience to question whether a ghost is truly at the banquet like Macbeth says, or whether Macbeth has truly lost his mind and is hallucinating the bloody apparition of Banquo.  Macbeth says ” Thou canst not say I did it/ Never shake thy gory locks at me……Prithee, see there! behold! Look!”     Here, Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in the seat his friends gesture for Macbeth to sit in and he shouts to Banquo that he cannot say he did it (murdered Banquo).  The ghost is only seen by Macbeth, isolating him, which would strike fear in any man and cause you to question the stability of your own mind. Macbeth tries to show Lady Macbeth where Banquo is but it is a futile attempt. He then says “Avaunt, and quit my sight!”, meaning go away and leave my sight (directed at Banquo).   Banquo is only targeting Macbeth because they were once good friends and there was no honor in his murder, he wants Macbeth to be filled with guilt for the crime he has committed and the consequences because of it. Ghosts are often depicted as people who have died with unfinished business or of foul play and Banquo is a clear accusation at Macbeth’s evil actions. The audience and characters surrounding Macbeth will both be thinking Macbeth has lost his mind, but to him, he truly believes that he can see this ghost and is not crazy. Shakespeare has used the idea of Banquo reappearing shortly after being murdered to suggest that Macbeth has lost or is losing his sanity, thus making him imagine and see things that aren’t possible.  Macbeth then goes on to say, ” When now I think you can behold such sight/ And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks/ When mine is blanched with fear”. He is questioning the people at the banquet on how they can look so normal ( not afraid) at the sight of Banquo’s blood covered ghost when Macbeth is full of fear, and we as the audience know it is because Banquos ghost is only visible to the guilty Macbeth, and not to the guests or audience

In the last Act of Macbeth, Macbeth’s mind has truly become corrupt by the ambition he had to secure his position as King. He has sacrificed his mind whilst trying to eliminate certain ‘threats’. This is shown by the iambic pentameter of his speech being interrupted by a weak foot and the language choice Shakespeare uses. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The iambic rhythm is the rhythm that the English language naturally follows, and was the way of speaking in the Elizabeathen era, when Shakespeare was writing plays, thus it was adopted into plays in a pentameter with five iambs in a line. This is called iambic pentameter. In Shakespeare’s plays, iambic pentameter was predominant in the noble and high-class people to symbolize their high culture, education and their status in society, whereas commoners speech in ‘ plays is not in iambic pentameter to signify their low status in society, because they don’t have the literacy skills of a noble. Often, In Shakespeare’s plays,  when nobles speak without iambic pentameter it is because they are either drunk or losing their minds. In our case, for Macbeth, it is the latter. In Macbeth’s soliloquy ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow’ it is noticeable when a weak foot is present. For example in the line ‘To the last syllable of recorded time’  the ending is a weak foot, which interrupts the natural flow of his speech. This is because his mind is faltering and the simplest of things like speaking in iambic pentameter is failing him.

Shakespeare also uses metaphors and repetition to emphasize Macbeth’s loss of sanity in the soliloquy. An example of these language techniques is in Act 5, Scene 5. Macbeth is preparing for war with Malcolm, he has realized the apparitions prophecies were tricks and have fooled him into having too much security in his position as King. Just after this realization,  he is told that Lady Macbeth has died. His soliloquy that follows is a very powerful and sad way in which Macbeth expresses the despair he feels towards life.  “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” is the starting line and the repetition is used to emphasize how time is inescapable. “Creeps in this petty pace”. Shakespeare uses a metaphor here to compare time to a predatory creature that creeps towards him. Macbeth is acting paranoid as if time is out to get him. “To the last syllable of recorded time”. Shakespeare has purposefully used this line to compare time to a syllable that passes, as if our lives are a script and his is coming to an end. When Macbeth says “…..The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!”  he is emphasizing his death will be empty, and by becoming dust, he will not be apart of the afterlife, which as King and God’s appointed is a massive lack of faith in God, which religious believers would call despair. The word brief is used to emphasize how life can be short and fragile, like a candles flame can so easily be extinguished, so can a life. This is making reference to Lady Macbeth’s death but also to the ongoing fear that Macbeth can now be killed, because the witches other prophecies were proven to be tricks. In this soliloquy, Macbeth’s speech has been interrupted and Shakespeare used other literary devices to show his despair and insanity that has been caused by the things he has done to become King, all leading back to ambition.


In this exploration of Macbeth, I discussed how Shakespeare used dramatic irony, metaphors, repetition and the interruption of iambic pentameter by weak foots to show the mental state of Macbeth. All of these literary devices compliment each other and merge to make a beautifully skilled piece of art called Macbeth, which to this very day, thousands of years later, still has relevance and importance. To conclude, In Shakespeare’s brilliant play Macbeth, ambition takes us on a journey with the main character Macbeth, following Macbeth’s ambition for power and security in himself which drives him to commit crimes and in the process, corrupts his own mind so that he becomes a shadow of the once brave, valiant, loyal friend and soldier that he was before the witches prophecies. Macbeth was consumed by his ambition which ultimately corrupted his mind and caused him to lose his friends, honor, and his wife, all for a position in society. Along with this, Scotland fell into great turmoil and became a land of civil war and in fear of it’s bloodthirsty ruler.  Macbeth is an example of how ambition is a dangerous force to reckon with and one that man should not give in to, because it holds the power to have fatal consequences if given the chance.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. In Paragraph 1, Am i explaining dramatic irony well enough, and does my example link to dramatic irony?

    • Hi Brianna, yes, your paragraph does explore dramatic irony well, and your examples provide excellent and relevant detail. I’d encourage you to look even more deeply into why Shakespeare might have used dramatic irony here – think perhaps of it in terms of a mechanism that allows the audience to have a special insight.


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