Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Birth of a New Language


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         In modern society, people use a variety of formal, informal, and slang language to speak to a diverse group of people, but few take the time to reflect on the history of those words or the people who influenced them.  People need look no further than a play by William Shakespeare (1564-1612 AD) to study the rich language, culture, and lifestyles of the Renaissance era. Shakespeare is perhaps the most influential European playwright in history, but he was also a man versed in the English language. Because of his advanced knowledge of the language, he wrote plays that also influenced the way people in Elizabethan society spoke and lived. More importantly, the language and grammar he invented helped the English language progress into a newer spoken and written version of the language Europeans had previously used.  Joseph (33) writes, “The extraordinary power, vitality, and richness of Shakespeare’s language are due in part to his genius, in part to the fact that the unsettled linguistic forms of his age promoted to an unusual degree the spirit of free creativeness, and in part theory of composition then prevailing.”  His unique use of the English language also helped to cement the cultural and ideological social beliefs of the Elizabethan Era, and academic and language scholars have used his work over the last century to reflect those times long past.  William Shakespeare introduced unique terminology into the English language by creating creative expressions that influenced various societies because of the characters and themes found in Macbeth.  However, one must start with the society that he lived to see how the language progressed.

Shakespearean Language in Culture

         Shakespeare was very careful to put some distance between his plays and English ideologies.  Macbeth, written in 1606 for English audiences but set in Scotland, could be a symbol of the unification of England and Scotland under one monarchy.  Interestingly enough, it was the Scottish King James VI who became King James I of England after Queen Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603.  When King Malcolm defeats Macbeth, the rightful heir takes back his throne, and Shakespeare may reflect King James VI becoming England’s rightful heir (King James I) when the right to the English crown had been contested for many years.  The language used in Macbeth seems to suggest that Shakespeare wanted to pledge his allegiance to the new king by explaining the ambitions of both class and gender.  No one better could have understood ambition better than King James I because his mother (Queen Mary of Scotland), and his second cousin (Queen Elizabeth of England) both defied the rules of society to set about a century of defiance to patriarchal and gender ideologies. By understanding the language in the play, one may also understand the society it represents. The vocabulary used by Shakespeare helps to define Macbeth’s ambition, but it is the characters’ use of this language that also defines the importance of class and patriarchal hierarchy in Elizabethan society.  It is within the social structure defining a person’s importance that may answer why a man would betray his king to improve his station in life.  More importantly, the language used by Shakespeare retells the stories of not-so-happily-ever-after in history that still speaks to modern day audiences around the world.

Shakespeare uses a variety of authentic vocabulary to differentiate between the classes in Macbeth.  There are three distinct classes in the play: Titled (king, queen, and noblemen), soldiers (middle class), and people who served them (attendees and witches). It explains how a soldier in the army rose to be the King of Scotland because of treachery, ambition, and deceit, but it is the language that differentiates their need.  Shakespeare writes, “I bear a charmed life” (5.8) to emphasize Macbeth’s fate that he would be king because of a prophecy, but it also describes the life most elite and titled people lived as the rules were much different for this group.  The valiant life of soldiers were described with phrases like, “Who like a good and hardy soldier fought” (I.2), and the life of the soldier was often found on Shakespeare’s battlefields.  But, the servants were identified as, “lily-livered” and “a sorry sight,” to define how the lower classes were devalued and often scared of the higher classes they served. It is within the class system hierarchy that the themes found in Macbeth takes root, and society progressed because people began to believe that their station in life was not defined by birth but by ambition.  Men’s ambition progressed faster than women, and even in modern society, the language used to define women still exists.

Women in history were not equal to men, and this is evident in Macbeth.  Shakespeare shows deceit and treachery with the use of language defining the female roles.  Shakespeare was very careful to promote certain social themes, and treason was one such idea that had to be carefully relayed.  What better way to tell the story than blame a man’s treason on the woman in his life.  Men in a seventeenth-century court would have understood that Macbeth could have only been persuaded to commit treason against his king because he was persuaded by the woman in his life.  It is in the language that Lady Macbeth’s deceit and guilt can be found.

Lady Macbeth first reveals her own ambition when she finds that she is now the wife of the newly titled Thane of Crowder. But being the wife of a titled man is much different than becoming a queen. Women were subservient to men, but they were also portrayed as sneaky and dishonest. Shakespeare portrays Lady Macbeth as the mastermind of the plot with sentences like, “This night’s great business into my dispatch” to show that what is taking place is her doing (1.5.75-76).  The language suggests that the audience should blame the wife for Macbeth’s actions even though she was not the one who carried out the deeds.  The stereotypes about women found in the Elizabethan Era are still present in many places today because women are still second-class to men in many social and economic structures. Even today, the same Shakespearean language is used to define ambitious women because men see them as such.

The themes in Macbeth can be found today in no greater arena than in politics, and it is where Shakespearean language is still used to define those who ambitiously wish to rise in station. But more interestingly, it is used to define people of two distinct classes who have had to fight for equal rights in history.  Recently, Jacob Heilbrunn, at the The National Interest, wrote an article on Hillary Clinton that stated, “Under no circumstances will she allow a Republican candidate successfully to portray her as Obama 2.0—an appeasement-minded, lily-livered, umbrella-toting wussbag who is about to sell out America to Putin’s Kremlin” (para. 4).  So, it is very interesting that the word ‘lily-livered’ was used to define both the first African American president, and potentially the first female president, when both classes were not defined much better centuries ago.

The witches also appear to be social outcasts by using language like “Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, fantastical,” and “Filthy Hags” to define their abilities with magic (1.2). The fact that all three witches were women shows how European society often defined witchcraft by gender.  But, Shakespeare changed the perception of witches because it was taboo to speak of witchcraft before this time.  The Shakespearean chants he invented have been used in movies and books for centuries to showcase the type of language used by witches.  With America’s interest in witches from Salem to Hollywood, it is little wonder that this particular language of Shakespeare’s plays has been used many times in literature and movies.  Today, movies like Hocus Pocus help to tell their story with his chants and spells, but it also helps to personify his interpretation that in earlier societies, witches were women. 

Shakespearean Language used for Literary Devices

         Literary devices found in his play helps to produce the plot, characterization, symbolism, and imagery found in Macbeth, but it is the language that often leads the audience to them. Shakespearean English was so popular that every society since the late 1500s has used his phrases. The language lies deeply in the literary devices used to tell his stories.  One might ask how he invented so many words, or why he was given credit for words used centuries ago.  In telling, the truth lies in history where classical language often found in literature was lost during the earlier periods of the Middle Ages.  Shakespeare was a learned man, and he retained the classical language through studies and use of the language.  His use of regrouping those words by redefining a noun as a verb, adding a prefix or suffix to change the definition, or use of contractions helped introduce new grammar structure.  He also influenced new forms of grammar by reversing the known order that was promoted during the Renaissance era.  For certain, the Renaissance was more than the rebirth of the people, as it birthed a new language structure for which Shakespeare is often credited.

Shakespearean Language and Phrases that introduce

            Literary Devices found in Macbeth:

·         “Be All That Ends All” (Bard to Macbeth regarding assassination attempt/Plot):  (1.7)
·         “Lily-livered” (Bard of servant telling of military attack/characterization). Cowardly (5.3)
·         “Crack of doom”  (4.1)
·         “Is this a dagger which I see before me” (Macbeth/Symbolism and Imagery): Dagger symbolizes treachery, guilt, and death.  (2.1)
·         Blood (imagery) to show honor, deceit, and treachery, and death.

“What bloody man is that?” (1.2),

-“make thick my blood; / Stop up the access and passage to remorse” (1.5),

-“And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood” (2.1), —“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (2.2),

“The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood” (2.3), -“Threaten his bloody stage” (2.4).

“Is’t known who did this more than bloody deed?” (2.4). -“My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain” (5.8).

·         “At One fell Swoop” (Macduff when hearing his family was killed uses the imagery of a bird swooping down to kill its prey/Imagery): (4.3)
·         “Be-all and the end-all” (1.7)
·         “Milk of human kindness” (1.5)
·         “All our yesterdays” (5.5)


The language Shakespeare used provided great illusions of imagery found in the defining words he chose to describe it.  But, he also influenced grammar structure because he was known for reversing the order of words that had typically stayed true to previous language structures.  One might surmise from his witty nature that he did this on purpose just to keep his audience guessing as to the meanings.  To understand why he was so influential, one must understand the era that he lived.

During the Elizabethan Era, few grammar rules existed as early Modern English was entering a new period.   Literacy rates were increasing because of the invention in the previous century of the Gutenberg printing press.  More people from lower social classes were learning to read because the books were cheaper, and teachers were more available to promote academic studies.  Before the High Middle Ages, reading was something only titled or rich men, a small group of elite women, and religious clergy learned. Historically, lower classes, women, and most children did not learn to read or write, so interests in plays fostered an educational environment for many people.  During the age of the Renaissance Period, more people had a chance to learn, but very few knew Shakespearean language that he had either adopted from the Middle Ages by changing the prefix or suffix or unique words that he invented.  Many people could still not afford books, but plays were relatively cheap, and they offered forms of entertainment that were popular during this time.  Everyone attended the theatre, and therefore, were influenced directly by the language they heard.  It is little wonder that since he was so popular, his plays influenced how people spoke, or how they used grammar.

Grammar Influence:
·         chiasmus: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”  (n.d.)
·         synecdoche: “Take thy face hence.
·         Use of Contractions to convey meaning or reduce syllable count:

·         ’tis = it is                                  ope = open

·         o’er = over                               gi’ = give

·         ne’er = never                            i’ = in

·         e’er = ever                                oft = often

·         a’ = he                                      e’en = even

·         Word Order (often reversed subject and object order)
·         Regrouping of grammar forms (adding or changing the suffix or prefix to regroup and coin a new word

·         “the perfectest report” (1.6)

·          “Fantastical” (ical) used to define the witches lifestyle.

Shakespeare was known for inventing original words and phrases in all of his plays and sonnets.  Some of his other plays include phrases:

·         A Tower of Strength (Richard in King Richard III)
·         Forgone Conclusion (Othello in Othello)
·         To Thine Own Self Be True (Polonius in Hamlet)
·         Full Circle (Edmund in King Lear)
·         Star-crossed lovers (describing Romeo and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet)
·         Parting is such sweet sorrow (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet)
·         Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day (Sonnet 18) (n.d.).

People learn the plays he wrote in different ways.  Regardless of method, Shakespeare’s themes of love, loss, ambition, death, human emotions, and beautiful poetry are not lost on those seeking to learn his language.

Modern Day Culture and Influence

Today, scholars study Elizabethan Era culture and apply it to modern-day societies, but it is on the big screen that many people unknowingly learn Shakespeare’s language.  McDonald (2001) writes that modern day studies are, “…an effort to ‘place’ Shakespeare’s words in relation to the development of the English language and to the flourishing of English poetic drama at the turn or the seventeenth-century” (5).  Some of the directors have chosen to honor Shakespeare with little to no changes in regard to language and theme, but other directors have chosen to take new age approaches in retelling a tale of treachery and deceit.  While it is easy to relay an idea in a movie with state-of-the-art production studios, Shakespeare had a stage, actors, props, and his words.  Even so, screenplay writers, directors, and producers have tried to find ways to introduce his plays to modern audiences using his original language even when trying to reinvent it to a modern period.  Whether they are classical or modern retellings of Macbeth, they continue to reflect the same ideologies that have existed since Shakespeare wrote them.

         Macbeth, released in 2015, was written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. It is a dramatic classical retelling of the play that offers the audience more action than what the audience gets from the play as it is adapted from the stage to the studio where graphics and production value is available.  However, the writers stay true to the Shakespearean language by not changing the original representation found in the play. Very few changes were made in the new release, and this represents a sense of respect for the language and culture during the Elizabethan era.  The movie begins with the funeral for Macbeth’s son, but the play begins with witches.  So, there are some artistic differences between the two.  The directors use the same imagery (blood, dagger, death of characters) to relay the themes just as Shakespeare used his language.  In the movie, death is represented by his child’s death, King Duncan’s death, King Duncan’s heirs, and soldiers who died in battle. The movie shows scenes where blood is a recurring element which Shakespeare originally associated with death, honor, treachery, betrayal, and guilt.  The language was used to relay it as a means of imagery, and nothing is more telling than blood to relay his message of of an honorable and impending death.  In scene II, Duncan says, “So well thy words become thee as thy wounds; They smack of honour both” (1.2).  Shakespeare also used the blood to show betrayal on the dagger he used against King Duncan, to frame the servants, and to show the guilt of Lady Macbeth.  The movie is a reflection of how Macbeth remains relevant to society today.  But, as the audience sees the imagery in the movie, it is up to the audience of a play to visualize these themes based on the language his characters spoke.

Hollywood has been kind to Shakespeare as writers and directors have found new ways to introduce his most beloved plays to new age ideologies.  Men Of Respect, released in 1991, was written by William Reilly and William Shakespeare. It was adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, however, this movie does not follow the same archetype as the play did in that it is in a modern setting with modern social themes.  Men of Respect is a mob thriller about a hitman who receives a prophecy that he will rise to be the leader of his mob family. His wife encourages him to fulfill that destiny just as Lady Macbeth did her husband.  He then begins to kill the other leaders to take his place as head of the mob by blaming others for his crimes.  The themes of death, honor, betrayal, treachery, and guilt are evident in this movie.  It follows the themes by Shakespeare, but it is adapted to the early nineties mob storyline that plagued the nation.  Instead of a dagger, the themes are represented by guns and violent death.  Unlike the 2015 version of Macbeth, this movie has been updated to represent modern culture of mobs, gun violence, and big-city street criminals.  However, the writers try to tie in the themes found in Macbeth in the opening trailer by saying, “Mike Battalia is a soldier of the streets” (1991). Shakespeare’s battlefield is transformed, and instead of ambition to be king, it is the battle as the head of the mob families of New York City.

Shakespeare’s plays like Macbeth define his legacy because people continue to reference his language in daily conversation, academics, and scholarly research.  He is remembered for his plays, but he is equally remembered for his coined words and phrases that are more common to English speakers than his plays are.  One must ask if the themes or the witty phrases are the reasons people still continue to study Shakespeare.   Kennedy writes, “On the one hand, Shakespeare’s theater is irremediably a thing of the past; on the other hand, his plays have survived the conditions from which they originated and are continually revitalized on the modern stage” (141).   While his plays are important to English and Theatre majors, his unique words and phrases are ingrained in late modern English societies around the world.  In that, it is easy to see why Macbeth continues to be influential to audiences worldwide.




Works Cited

CalState.edu. “Reading Shakespeare’s Language.”  Etext.  (n.d.).  Retrieved on February 19, 2016, from website http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/jgarret/417/Reading-Shakespeare.pdf

Heilbrunn, Jacob. “Why the GOP should fear Hillary Clinton.” The National Interest.  Online.  (2015, Oct. 14).  Retrieved on March 17, 2016, from website http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-the-gop-should-fear-hillary-clinton-14076

Joseph, Sister Miriam. Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. Paul Dry Books, 2008.

Kennedy, Dennis. “Shakespeare without his Language.” Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance (1996): 133-148.

Macbeth.  Kurzel, Justin.  Weinstein Company. (2015).

Martin, Gary.  “Phrases Coined by Shakespeare – Macbeth.” Image.  (2016). Retrieved on February 17, 2016, from website http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/phrases-coined-by-shakespeare-in-macbeth.html

Men of Respect.  Reilly, William.   Arthur Goldblatt ProductionsCentral City FilmsGrandview Avenue Pictures.  (1991).

McDonald, Russ. Shakespeare and the Arts of Language. OUP Oxford, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. “William Shakespeare: The Complete Works.” Etext. Latus ePublishing. (n.d.).



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