Language

Learning to speak Shakespeare

Shakespeare is renowned for his language. It may seem difficult at first, but once you crack the code, you will discover the richness of it. Shakespeare is particularly fond of images and double-meanings, which demands that his audience or readers stay on their toes.

Another characteristic of the language in Shakespeare’s works is that it is used as a marker of both status and state of mind for the characters. This means that you will be able to make some important analytical points about the play by understanding how each character speaks. In the following, we take you through the metre, tone, and use of pronouns and verbs in Macbeth.

Metre: prose and verse

The style of language in Shakespeare’s plays is a mixture of prose and verse. Prose is what we would call ordinary language, whereas verse is characterised by a specific metrical rhythm (although you should note that the metre in Macbeth is often fairly irregular). Sometimes verse includes rhyme. It is important to understand the importance of language in Shakespeare: how a character speaks reflects the character’s place in the social hierarchy as well as the character’s current state of mind.

Prose is generally a sign of low social status, which is why we see non-nobles or commoners speak this way. It may also be used for comical purposes. For example, in Act 2, Scene 3, the hung-over working-class porter speaks using prose and dark humour. We also typically find prose in letters: Macbeth’s letter to his wife in Act 1, Scene 5 is one example. Finally, prose may be a sign of madness, which is the reason we see Lady Macbeth using fragmented and incoherent prose when her guilty conscience makes her sleepwalk (Act 5, Scene 1). Up until now, she has been speaking beautifully in upper-class blank verse (defined below), so this change is important: her mental breakdown is mirrored in the breakdown of her language.

Verse signals high social status. Macbeth is a play about the Scottish upper class and most of the characters are noblemen or royalty, which is why almost all the characters speak in verse. Verse i...

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