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Macbeth - Language

This GCSE English Literature quiz is about language in William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The language of this play, like its themes, is dark and violent, with frequent references to blood, death, treason, fate and guilt. Observe the language as characters wrestle with their consciences, test the loyalties of others and attempt to persuade people into action.

Macbeth is concerned with deceit, treason, and the difference between appearance and reality. Language is one of the means through which deception is carried out, as well as providing the means through which these themes are discussed. You will need to question the underlying meaning of the language, remembering that words can be used to disguise and that misunderstandings can arise through making assumptions, too. Macbeth understands the witches’ prophecies to promise more than they do, misinterpreting their literal meaning.

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Analysing language in a text

Pay attention to words and phrases which are repeated throughout the play. In which scenes and by which characters are they used? Does this repeated language help you to understand the themes of the play? One very useful revision technique is to collect examples of vocabulary related to the different themes. Think about the language assigned to each character as you list your examples and consider how the language adds to characterisation.

Authors choose their words with great skill. Shakespeare, of course, is famous for this! Beyond the literal meaning of the language used lie a number of symbolic meanings and associations. Shades and layers of meaning are conveyed through the use of literary devices such as metaphor, simile and personification.

Always pay close attention to the language of the texts you study. Look beyond the most obvious surface meaning in order to become aware of the subtext. Try to be alert to the subtle effects, in addition to those which are immediately noticeable. Authors use language with precision. You, too, should spend time and care on the language. Practise working on the multiple meanings contained in a text’s language; this will help you to understand texts better.

Answer the questions below to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect our interpretation of Macbeth

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  1. "He unseamed him from the nave to th'chops." What is implied by the use of the word "unseamed"?
    The short speech in which Macbeth is first presented pains a gruesome image of a man's body being ripped open as a garment might be torn at the seam from top to bottom
  2. The weïrd sisters, hand in hand,
    Posters of the sea and land,
    Thus do go, about, about,
    Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
    And thrice again, to make up nine.
    Which elements of the language used in these lines create the feel of a magical charm?
    The witches are performing magic; their words and movements are intended to create the spell which will punish the "Master of the Tiger"
  3. What is meant by the word "weïrd"?
    "Weïrd" derives from the Old English "wyrd", meaning fate
  4. MACBETH: When now to think you can behold such sights
    And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks
    When mine is blanched with fear.
    Macbeth is surprised by his wife's calmness. What does he contrast here?
    Macbeth does not understand that his wife cannot see Banquo's ghost. He is surprised to see that she is not pale with shock as he knows himself to be
  5. GENTLEWOMAN: I would not have such a heart in my bosom, for the dignity of the whole body.
    What is meant by "dignity" here?
    Macbeth presents many examples of false appearances. Here the gentlewoman considers the difference between Lady Macbeth's status as queen and the guilty conscience from which she clearly suffers
  6. MACBETH: Now, if you have a station in the file
    Not i'th'worst rank of manhood, say't,
    And I will put that business in your bosoms
    Whose execution takes your enemy off.
    What does Macbeth equate with manhood in these lines?
    Speaking to the murderers, Macbeth questions their manhood, implying that they will win his approval by proving themselves willing to murder an enemy, not in battle, but by waylaying him
  7. Macbeth says to the murderers, "Your spirits shine through you." This language is an example of which of the following?
    The murderers seem to be exactly what they are, unlike Macbeth and his wife, who aim to appear as powerful and gracious rulers and try to disguise their intentions
  8. MACDUFF: O nation miserable!
    With an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptred,
    When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?
    Which of these words refer to Macbeth's style of government?
    The sceptre, the symbol of the King's rule, is bloody because of the violence Macbeth has used to gain and to maintain the throne
  9. MACDUFF: All my pretty ones?
    Did you say all? O hell-kite. All?
    What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam
    At one fell swoop?
    What imagery does Shakespeare employ in these lines?
    Macbeth is compared to a kite, a bird of prey, while Macduff's wife and children represent helpless prey (chickens)
  10. Before he defeats Macbeth, Macduff tells him to yield, if he will not fight, and "live to be the show and gaze o'th'time". What is meant by this line?
    Macduff pictures Macbeth as being mounted on a pole in warning to others, with a painted sign to explain his crime. It is likely that Macbeth's head will be mounted on a pole after his defeat

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