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What’s black and white and red all over? The newspaper, get it? I used to love jokes like these when I was a little kid. Actually I still love them now. In fact I used to go to the library and dig out joke books to look up and try to trick my parents with. Who new that at such a young age, I was practicing a literally technique that Shakespeare had been using for years.
In this episode we’re going to take a look at how Shakespeare uses verbal irony in act four, and what message he’s trying to communicate to us with that.
Act IV is really the turning point in Macbeth, because it’s here that we see Macbeth really descend into his madness. Much of this is prompted by the prophecies of the witches, so we’ve got a second set of prophecies here.
Let’s take some time to talk about the major events that happened. Like I said, the first major event that happens is the reappearance of some Apparitions. Then we have an attack at Macduff’s castles and finally the tide begins to turn.
In the beginning of Act IV, we see the witches return. There’s a little bit of a different power dynamic here. What we see Macbeth say to them is, "Even till destruction sicken, answer me/ to what I ask you." Instead of Macbeth presenting himself to hear the predications of the witches, he instead demands answers from them. In return, the witches show him four Apparitions, and we’re going to talk about those later in the episode.
The next important event is the attack of Macduff’s, castle and this really reveals that Macbeth is descending into madness. This is the first act of violence that we see perpetrated for really no reason at all. Macbeth says, “The castle of Macduff I will surprise/ Seize upon Fife get to the edge of the sword/ His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls/ That trace him in his line.” We see this is almost just to make a statement on Macbeth’s part that Macduff is not somebody that will threaten him.
The final event that we’re going to take a look at is this idea of the turning of the tide. In the very end of act IV we see Ross and Stewart and Malcolm all gathering in England to raise troops against Macbeth. This is really important to note because these men realize that Macbeth is doing something rotten in Scotland in fact they say, “Macbeth /Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above/ Put on their instruments.” We see that they’re really going to talk on weapons and go ahead and attack Macbeth because they feel that what he’s doing is wrong and they’re starting to see through some of his actions.
Verbal irony is one technique that Shakespeare really makes use of in act IV of Macbeth. Remember verbal irony is the type of irony where one person says something, but means something different.
Specifically in this act Shakespeare uses what we call Equivocation and that is an example of verbal irony in which the speaker says something that is true if understood properly, but at the same time does everything possible to ensure that it would be misunderstood. This allows the speaker to tell the truth but to avoid revealing certain matters. A good example of this is in the prophecies of the witches given to Macbeth.
Let’s take a look at each of those Apparitions that the witches present to Macbeth and look at how they’re Equivocating. Al right so the first apparition we see is The Armed Head. The Armed Head comes out and says to Macbeth, “Mabeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff!/Beware the Thane of Fife!” Here we see a very literal warning to Macbeth to be aware of Macduff’s actions.
We see this is quite literal, there’s not too much irony here. But when juxtaposed against the next apparition that we’re going to see, you’ll see that it can be a little bit of equivocating, a little bit of revealing the truth, but really jading it or really shading it in a light that makes it look not so convincing.
Let’s take a look at that second apparition. The next apparition that comes out and appears before Macbeth, is a Bloody Child. The bloody child says, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!/…Be bloody, bold and resolute. Laugh to scorn/ The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.” Macbeth is really excited by this prophecy. These witches have come to him and said nobody that’s born of a woman is going to harm you. That seemingly gets rid of the apparition before. They said beware Macduff but, if the next guy is coming and saying well you don’t have anything to worry about because nobody born of woman is going to hurt you, why should he have to worry about Macduff? Here we see this bloody child apparition is really feeding the fire of Macbeth's ambition.
Finally we see the Child Crowned With a tree come out. He comes out with the tree in his hand and he says, “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care/Who chafes, who frets, or where conspire are./Macbeth shall never vanquish be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill/ Shall come against him.” Here again we see an apparition feeding the fire of Macbeth’s ambition. What this crowned child is saying is that, you’re never going to be beat Macbeth, until the wood of Birnam, so the big forest actually removes itself and matches up the hill to your castle. Well if you’re Macbeth, you’re thinking this is great. Nobody is going to attack me. But as we know when we finish the play, all of these things come true.
Let’s go back to the first apparition. We’ve got that armed head. We know that it’s Macduff who ends up beheading Macbeth, so he should have been warned against Macduff. He shouldn’t have gone into battle with him at the end. The second apparition, the bloody child, said that no man born of woman shall harm Macbeth. Well we know that’s true, no man born of woman does harm Macbeth, because Macduff was untimely ripped from his mother’s womb. So he wasn’t physically born of a woman. That’s how the witches get through that or get that across. It’s that equivocating where they’ve revealed the truth but they’ve tried as hard as they can to make it misunderstood by Macbeth.
Finally this child with the crowned tree, we do see Great Birnam Wood go up the hill towards Dunsinane because the soldiers are trying to hide their numbers and they rip all the branches off the trees and shield themselves with them then they move up the hill. As we see that, we get this image of a forest and actual trees moving up the hill.
We can see that Shakespeare used verbal irony, in order to trick Macbeth and in order to show his readers that overly aggressive ambition is not necessarily the way to go, and that you should always be aware of your surroundings.
If you’re having a hard time remembering what equivocating is, think of it this way. Say you’re going over to your friend John’s house. And you tell your parents, “Well mom and dad I’m going to John’s house I’ll be there tonight. I’m going to stay the night I’ll be back in the morning.” They’re pretty cool with that, they’re really understanding, but what you haven’t told them is that at John’s house there will be no parents and there’s going to be a big party. You see you’ve presented your parents with the truth, but you’ve done you’re best to try and make them misunderstand the truth, so that you’re pretty much in the clear either way.
Why do we drive on a park on a parkway but park in a driveway? Isn’t that ironic? Don’t you think? Shakespeare used irony just like this in his play Macbeth. And in this episode, we took a look at how the verbal irony in Act IV plays into the ultimate messages that he gives. Hang on one more for food for thought; why do we call them apartments when they’re all stuck together?