Macbeth Irony Essay

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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.


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