Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University
Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.
Shakespeare is one of the most famous authors of all time. Even today, 400 years after he wrote, we're still reading his works in almost every high school. I mean, take a look at this book. It's his complete work. Some of the best literature in existence is right here. However, sometimes what trips us up about Shakespeare, is that the language is really difficult to understand.
In this episode, I'm going to give you guys some pointers to help you better understand what he's saying, so you can appreciate Shakespeare for all he's worth.
So I know Shakespeare can be really difficult. I know it can be really challenging, and make you not even want to really open your book. In this episode, I'm going to give you some keys to reading Shakespeare's language that will hopefully make Macbeth a little bit more accessible to you.
Let's start with these ideas, some keys to understanding Shakespeare. Our first to to know that he uses language inversion, run over lines, and lots of metaphors.
Let's break these down, and take a look at some examples. The first thing that Shakespeare does a lot is language inversion. Language inversion simply means flipping the order of words around, in order to put an emphasis on certain parts of the sentence. You're going to see some things that aren't traditionally the way we would expect to hear them, but Shakespeare uses this in order to emphasize different parts of what he's saying.
Let's take a look at something from modern English that uses inverted language, before we move on to Shakespeare. So I pulled this from an Emily Dickinson poem. She starts with "Several of nature's people I know, and they know me." Well, when we would say this, we would say well I know several of nature's people, and they know me. Here by flipping this, she puts the focus of the sentence on nature's people, and takes them off of herself. So Shakespeare does some of the same stuff in Macbeth.
Take a look at this line; Lady Macbeth says, "Glamis thou art, and Cowdar, and shalt be/What thou art promised." So here we see her taking the stress off of Macbeth being what thou art promised, and focuses on those title names, which we learn throughout the play is really important. It's a focus for Lady Macbeth. The idea of gaining power through earning titles.
So there is an example of in version of Macbeth. If you just take a second, look at it, and then flip it to how you would normally say it, it will make a lot more sense to you.
The next tricky thing that Shakespeare does is use a lot of run-over lines. It's not as hard as it seems. Really quickly. When you're looking at lines from a play that are written somewhere other than a play, one thing I want you to note is the slashes; like here, and here. What you get with the slashes is an indication of a line break in the play.
You'll see that Shakespeare uses a poetic language here. What happens is you need to make sure when you're reading the play that you read to the punctuation, and not to the line breaks. You don't want to stop where there's a slash, or where it moves to the next line. You want to stop where it would be natural to stop with the punctuation.
I'm going to read this first with line breaks. "To bed, to bed. There's a knocking at the/gate. Come, come, come, come, Give me your/hand. What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to/bed, to bed."
Now that doesn't make too much sense right? So one thing you want to train yourself to do when you're reading Shakespeare, or any other poetry for that matter, is to read to the punctuation, regardless of where the line breaks occur.
Let's read this again the way it's intended to be read when we look at the punctuation, and not the line breaks. "To bed, to bed. There's a knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come. Give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed." That sounds a lot more natural. It's much easier to understand here that Lady Macbeth is trying to get Macbeth to go to sleep after he's committed the murder of Duncan.
The final technique that Shakespeare uses quite a bit in his writing, is the use of metaphorical language. It's really important to point out that he uses these metaphors, because metaphors are comparisons between two dissimilar objects, not using the word like, or as.
The reason it's important to point out metaphors, is that clearly Shakespeare does not mean for his entire plays to be read on a literal level. Sometimes we've got to think about what he's trying to say, what deeper meaning he's communicating by giving us a comparison.
For instance, in the end of the play, Macbeth kind of frets about life right after Lady Macbeth has killed herself saying, "Life's but a walking shadow, poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing."
We have Macbeth musing about an actor's life, and what's like to be an actor in a play, and how you feel when a play is over. Now in act 5 of the play when he says this, there's nothing going on with the play. There's no actors there. In fact, Macbeth is in the middle of war. He's being attacked by Macduff and his army with great sword. What Shakespeare has done however, is used this metaphor. He's giving a common experience to his audience.
The idea of being at a play is something clearly the audience would be familiar with. They know what it looks like to watch somebody's life for three hours, and then end. So he's given them a comparison to show that he feels that life is sometimes like the shortness of a play.
It's really important to recognize that Shakespeare sometimes uses metaphors. Again not meaning to be read literally, however, meaning to be taken figuratively. If we can start looking a little bit beyond just the surface of what he's saying, we'll discover a lot more meaning in his plays.
Another key to understanding Shakespeare, is to understand the format in which he's writing. Now Shakespeare is most well known for three different types of plays. He wrote histories, he wrote comedies, and he wrote tragedies. So it's really important to understand what kind of play you're reading. In our case, we're reading Macbeth. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies.
If we take a look here; we'll see that Shakespearean tragedies always consist of four things. One is they feature a hero of high standing. They feature the hero's tragic flaw; something that makes him make a mistake. They consist of a disastrous downfall for the hero. Finally, the hero meets his death. So we know what to expect when we're reading Macbeth. This will help us take time to pick apart the different parts that lead us toward the tragedy.
Let's take a look at how Macbeth meets up to this tragedy. So first we said he had to be a hero, somebody of high standing. What we see when he's first introduced, King Duncan considers him "brave Macbeth, well he deserves that name,/Disdaining Fortune with his brandished steel/...carved out his passage/'Till he face slave;" So King Duncan here is talking about Macbeth's successes in war. He's titled as brave, and somebody who can brandish his steel or his sword. Somebody who can defend himself. So I would say he fits the bill of a hero with pretty high standing that the king is call him a brave person.
We know he's a hero. We know he has high standing. Let's check out Macbeth's tragic flaw. So that's some thing that's inherently wrong with him. Something that leads him down the wrong path.
If we think back to Macbeth's actions through out the play, you should realize that Macbeth sometimes gives up his own morals, or what he knows is the right thing to do, in order to gain power. Power is really attractive to him. He really wants to be more powerful. Sometimes he finds himself doing things that he wouldn't otherwise have done, in order to gain that power.
For instance, when he's talking, he says, "I have almost forgot the taste of fear." This is right when Macduff's army is attacking him, and right after Lady Macbeth has killed herself. We see here that Macbeth is almost so prideful that he says, he's forgotten what it's like to be scared of something. He has no reason to be scared about the fact that his wife has killed herself, because she feels guilty. He's being attacked by an army twice the size of his own.
We see Macbeth's tragic flaw in that he's so prideful, and so overconfident, and so ambitious, that he really doesn't see the true threats that are being posed against him. He's got two of those qualities. Does he face a disastrous downfall? I would say so. In fact, when Macduff's army comes to him, instead of just giving up or surrendering himself, or trying to save himself, he says, "I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked."
So we see this disastrous downfall, as even though he believes that Macduff can't kill him, Macduff actually does kill him. He falls from the brave soldier, the king, now to somebody who's been beheaded.
Let's see if he meets the final criteria to be a tragic hero. Clearly, Macbeth is a tragic hero as we see that he meets his death in the end of the play. In fact in the last scene he says, "I will not yield/To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet/And to be baited with the rabble's curse./Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsiname/And thou opposed, being of no woman born, /Yet I will try the last. Before my body/I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,/And damned be him that first cries "Hold, Enough!"
This is almost like Macbeth's final battle cry. This is what he says before he goes into battle with Macduff, who eventually beheads him, thus making Macbeth one of Shakespeare's classic tragedies.
So I know Shakespeare can be challenging, and sometimes intimidating. In this episode, we talked about his inverted language, his use of metaphors, and his run-over lines to help you better break down what he's saying. We also talked about what makes a Shakespearean tragedy, and looked at how Macbeth fits the bill.
Now that you have all those tools, I think you're ready to get started reading the Scottish play. Remember, we don't want to bring a plague down on ourselves.
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