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.
Bradley, A.C. (1912) Shakespearean Tragedy. Pp. 468-469 Evans, Tobin, eds.
(1997) The Riverside Shakespeare. (2nd ed.) Macbeth. Boston. New York. Houghton
Mifflin Company. 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. 1954.