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Hyperbole in Macbeth

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

''Macbeth,'' like all of works by William Shakespeare, includes many striking uses of figurative language. This lesson will examine several examples of one particular type of figurative language: hyperbole.

Macbeth and Figurative Language

Macbeth is one of the darker and more disturbing of Shakespeare's plays. It tells the story of the ambitious Scottish general Macbeth and his wife. After three witches predict that Macbeth will become king, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth conspire to murder the current king, Duncan.

Once Duncan is dead, Macbeth becomes king himself. Macbeth grows increasingly paranoid after being named King, and ends up murdering his friend Banquo, whom he suspects is a threat to his power. Events come to a head when Macbeth battles his rival Macduff, who kills him. With Macbeth dead, Duncan's son Malcolm takes the throne.

Like all Shakespeare plays, Macbeth is full of figurative language. Figurative language simply means language that is not meant to be taken literally. So when you say 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse' you are using figurative language, unless you actually plan to cook and eat a horse. Figurative language in literature is used to express thoughts and ideas in new and interesting ways.

In this lesson, we are going to focus on one type of figurative language featured in Macbeth: hyperbole.

Hyperbole

Let's go back to the saying 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse.' If the person saying this doesn't want to actually eat horse meat, let alone a whole horse, what are they saying? We know that the person is actually saying they're really hungry. They could just say that, but that's pretty boring. 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse' is a more colorful and memorable way of expressing that same idea. The exaggeration reinforces the sentiment behind the meaning of the words.

Exaggerating for effect like this is called hyperbole. Even if we've never heard the term before, hyperbole is a common, everyday occurrence. Besides our horse example, if you've ever been 'dying of laughter' or said someone is 'older than dirt,' you've used hyperbole.

Hyperbole in Macbeth

Now let's take a look at a few examples of hyperbole in Macbeth, and see how Shakespeare uses this common type of figurative language to reveal more about the characters.

In Act 2, Scene 2, having just murdered Duncan, Macbeth feels guilty about the blood on his hands. Macbeth wonders how he will get this figurative blood off his hands. He asks:

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red. (2.2.57-61)

Macbeth determines that all of the water in the ocean could not wash the blood from his hands, and, if he tried to wash his hands in the ocean, he would turn the seas red. Here, the hyperbole tells us how the murder weighs on Macbeth's conscience. He claims that there is not enough water in the ocean to clean him of what he has done. The hyperbole also shows the difference in reactions between Macbeth and his wife. Less troubled by what they've done, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to stop using hyperbole and responds, 'A little water clears us of this deed' (2.2.65).

However, later in the play, Lady Macbeth is haunted by the murder and, similarly to her husband, uses hyperbole to describe her guilt. She says, 'Here's the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand' (5.1.53-54).

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