Macbeth: "Is this a dagger...."

Bookmark and Share

Overview | Readings Page | Home

-  /    - /  -   /     - /   -  /   -
Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The opening line's feminine ending is a versified reinforcement of Macbeth's uncertainty at suddenly seeing the vision of a spectral dagger. Otherwise, the line scans normally. The dagger's appearance can be viewed ambiguously; is it an omen that Macbeth should proceed, or is it a final warning of his conscience? Macbeth's dismissal of the dagger later in the speech would suggest that he's trying to make himself believe that it's a good sign, but how would you interpret the appearance of a bloody dagger hovering before your eyes right before you were due to commit murder?

-   /  -   /      -  /     /     -   -  /      -
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

The trochaic inversion in the middle of this line is another verse technique that Shakespeare frequently employs following a caesura. The inversion sandwiches two stresses around the end of a sentence, and is useful in giving a greater emphasis to the beginning of the new thought (in this case, he wants to grasp it to see if it's real). Also, the ending scansion of a feminine ending on top of the end-stop of "Come, let me clutch thee" continues the weak ending tension mirroring Macbeth's doubt about this dagger (and what it may portend).

- /    -    /    -   /   - /   -    /
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Straight iambic pentameter here. The unbroken rhythm of the verse works in conjunction with the end-stops of this line and the line above; this is not a throwaway line. The stresses also highlight the key words in the parallelism (have, not, yet, see, still). Macbeth now has to make sense of this paradox; he plainly sees the dagger, it's right there in front of him, and yet he cannot lay hands upon it. The starkness of the line helps to punctuate the subtle change in Macbeth's tone as he tries to puzzle through this vision in the next few lines. Note that at this point, he sees a dagger and nothing more.

-   -    /    / -   /  -    /  - /
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

Note here how the regularity of the iambic rhythm and the enjambment of the lines through "heat-oppressèd brain" work together to quicken the tempo from the heavier phrasing and punctuation in the beginning. In this context, fatal doesn't quite denote "deadly" (although that makes a ripe double entendre) than it does "foreboding mischief and death; ominous" or, arguably, "instrumental to destiny." (Fatal derives from Middle French via the Latin fatum, meaning prophecy or doom—literally, what has been spoken.) Sensible here denotes "perceptible, tangible" when viewed in its relation to the end of Macbeth's question.

-  /  -    /  -  /      -  /   -    /
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

Feeling in this line denotes "the sense of touch." The answer to Macbeth's rhetorical question is, of course, "no" since he's already tried to clutch the dagger and failed. However, the potent combination of language and Macbeth addressing this dagger as if it were a character onstage forces the audience to visualize that dagger hovering in front of him.

- /  -   /  -   /     - /     -  / -
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

"Dagger of the mind" can read in two ways. First, there's the literal contrast of tangible reality and Macbeth's imagination. Second, you have metaphor of Macbeth's guilt—and doubt—manifesting itself as a vision as he waits upon the signal from his wife. False in this context plays upon a number of meanings. While the primary reading is "unreal," shades of "deceitful, inconstant; not to be trusted" are equally applicable. Keep in mind that Macbeth is asking three questions in the first seven lines, which reflects the struggle that Macbeth is still undergoing in coming to terms with his intended crime.

-  /  -    /    -   /    -  /   -  /
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?

Macbeth acknowledges that the dagger that has appeared could be a trick of his imagination (in this case, perhaps induced by a fever). Proceeding is used in its meaning of "issuing or emanating," while heat-oppressèd is Shakespeare's poetic way of saying "fevered." The usage of fever is another simple but amazingly effective piece of imagery in this speech. Fever is a symptom of a disease in its literal meaning. As a metaphor, fever denotes a state of heightened or intense emotion or activity. The disease, in this instance, is ambition.

- /   -    /    -  /    -  /  - /
I see thee yet, in form as palpable

Macbeth acknowledges the dagger again. It's interesting how Shakespeare uses the repetition of "I see" throughout the early part of the soliloquy. It creates a rhetorical buildup of tension as Shakespeare creates a little more detail each time, then returns with "I see thee still" or "I see thee yet" as a refrain. Palpable (Middle English: from the Latin palpare, "to stroke, caress") denotes "capable of being touched or handled," with a possible secondary meaning of "easily perceived" in this context. And just in case the verbal imagery of the dagger hasn't been working for the audience, Macbeth draws his own dagger to create supporting visual imagery.

-  /    -     /   - /
As this which now I draw.

There are two points of interest here. First, the line is only three feet (or six syllables). This could point to a corruption in the text as it was transcribed prior to its First Folio edition. Although some lines throughout the canon are eight, six, or even four syllables, these are usually limited to two situations: the end of a speech or scene, or when Shakespeare is splitting the poetic line between two different speakers in a dialogue. Since this line represents neither scenario, the line may indeed have lost a foot or two between Shakespeare's writing of Macbeth and the first print edition of the text. Second, notice also how Shakespeare  writes stage direction into this speech. It won't make much sense here if Macbeth doesn't draw his dagger somewhere around uttering the line.

-    /   -       /  -   /   -    / -   /  -
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;

In this line, Macbeth accepts the dagger as an omen. Marshall in this context means "to guide or usher," so that Macbeth is saying, "you seem to guide me where I was already headed." This reads both literally (i.e., the dagger is guiding him toward Duncan's chambers) and figuratively (i.e., the dagger is a call for him to stop debating). Incidentally, this usage of marshall as a verb derives from its origin denoting an official in charge of administration of cavalry; the etymology stems from Middle English via Old French mareschal, which seems to derive from the Old High Germanic marahscalc (where marah = "horse" and scalc = "servant"). Enough on marshall for now, lest we start beating a dead horse.

-   /    -  /   - -    - /   -  /
And such an instrument I was to use.

While the last two syllables of instrument (meaning "tool; agent or author") could technically scan as an iamb within the rhythm of the line, it seems a little sing-song here. Hence, I've scanned the third foot as a pyrrhic. Other than syllables and scansion, do you think there's a reason behind Shakespeare's choice of the word instrument in this line rather than weapon or implement?

-    /    -   /    -   /     -  -   /  -  /  -
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,

The twelve syllables of this line almost tempts the reader to scan it as an alexandrine, rather than pentameter. However, Shakespeare rarely employs twelve syllables at all in his works. In addition both stylistic analysis and critical consensus largely dismiss the idea that Shakespeare consciously employed the alexandrine line as a variant to his blank verse. Nor is it a particularly English tradition. When they are employed deliberately in English verse, alexandrine lines typically break at the midpoint with a caesura. There is no such syntactic parallelism in this line. It's just as easy to say (and as difficult to prove) that the line is a feminine ending in pentameter combined with a trisyllabic substitution in the fourth foot (rendering the line iamb/iamb/iamb/anapest/iamb, with an extra unstressed syllable). Semantics aside, it seems unlikely that Shakespeare said at any time, "I think I'll use an alexandrine here." By the by, Macbeth's observation in this line and the next is that "either my sight is being deceived or all my other senses are."

-  /    /     /   -   /     - /   -    /
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,

Scan "worth" as unstressed, if you like, which makes the line straight iambic pentameter. Both "else" and "worth" tend to take a similar relative stress to each other when the line is spoken, however, which leads me to scan the second foot as a spondee. Macbeth makes yet another address to the dagger, this time signifying the darker turn that the imagery of the speech will take. "I see thee still" is potent because of both its repetition and the forceful caesura following the third foot of the line.

-   /  -   /     -   /  -    /     -  /
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

Again, the straight iambic rhythm and mostly monosyllabic construction of the line helps to speed along the pace. You can imagine Macbeth's heartbeat quickening here as bloody flecks suddenly appear on the dagger. Dudgeon (Middle English dogeon, from Anglo-French digeon, originally denoting "a wood used especially for dagger hilts") refers to the handle of the dagger; gouts (Middle English goute via Old French gout, from Latin gutta or "drop") means "drops." The meaning derives from the fact that the disease that still bears this name resulted from drops of morbid humors. For a bit of Shakespearean trivia, this line is the only usage of the word dudgeon in the entire canon.

-     -   /   /  -  /    -       /  -    /
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:

The pyrrhic/spondee scansion at the beginning of this line is based on the phrasing and syntax. "Not so" pronounced with equal weight makes more sense than just punching the "not" in the phrase. The caesura is important because the statement "there's no such thing" is the turning point in the speech. Macbeth, who has seen the dagger and spent the first 14½ lines of this soliloquy waxing eloquent about its portent, takes a deep breath—and abruptly dismisses the vision in four terse syllables. It's my contention that this is when Macbeth finally resolves to kill Duncan. Whether or not he's bucking himself up with false courage is a moot point. Macbeth takes in the sight of blood appearing on the dagger and decides that he's seen enough.

-  -  -   /   -  /   -    /     - /
It is the bloody business which informs

Again, the scansion of the first foot as a pyrrhic is subjectively based on natural inflection rather than strict meter. Building on the sentiment of the previous line, Macbeth tells himself that his mind is playing tricks on his eyes because of stress and the nature of his intended crime. Inform in this line denotes "to form or shape; to manifest," although it reflects some of its more common meaning "to communicate or tell" at the same time.

/    -  -    /     /   -    -   /   -    /
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one half world

This line represents not one, but two classic uses of trochaic inversion. Shakespeare is known to use a trochee at the beginning of a line in blank verse or coming out of a caesura as a standard variant to the meter. Here we have both. The term one half world refers the division between night and day (in this case, Macbeth is referring to night).

/ -    -     /     -   /  -   /      - /
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

Ah, poetic reverie. Shakespeare will spend the next seven lines wrapping Macbeth's speech in dark imagery to set the mood. Although on a purely practical level the verse between "thus to mine eyes" and "thou sure and firm-set earth" might seem superfluous or merely embellishment, it is, after all, dramatic poetry. The verse in this part of the speech is all about tone, and the shift from emotional to rhetorical can be seen as signaling the change in Macbeth from trusted kinsman to murderer preparing himself for the deed. Nature seems dead refers to the effect of night and darkness, the silence of the night; metaphorically, Macbeth might also be referring to human nature. Abuse (Middle English abusen, from Old French abus, via the Latin past participle abusus meaning "to misuse") had a broader definition in Shakespeare's day; in this context, it either means "corrupt" or "deceive," depending upon the scholar and edition.

-   /  -      /      /    -     / -  /
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates

Here again we see a trochee following a caesura in a standard Shakespeare variation. Curtain'd sleep in this context is a double entendre that plays upon the literal meaning of bedcurtains and a more figurative meaning of "veiled" that suggests hidden from consciousness. Celebrate denotes the solemn performance of rites rather than its more festive connotations with which we associate its use.

/    /  -     /  - /     -   /  -     /  -
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd Murder,

The reference to Hecate exhibits the Renaissance view of her as a goddess of night and witchcraft; pale reflects her association with the moon. The main image here is of witches performing sacrifices to Hecate during the night. This foreshadows Macbeth's encounter with the witches and Hecate in Act IV, sc. i. Macbeth then continues by evoking the image of wither'd Murder, in which Shakespeare employs personification to transform the general concept of murder into an ancient, spectral presence (withered = "gaunt, specter-like"), stalking the land for his victims.

-  / -   /  -   /  - /    -   /
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,

Alarum'd denotes a call to arms. Sentinel, as it does today, means "one who keeps watch or stands guard." The syntax of this clause and the ones that follow it can sometimes give casual readers trouble. The subject is Murder, who has a wolf for a lookout. Metaphorically, the wolf alarms his master because Macbeth is ready to murder Duncan.

-     /      -   /      /    -    -   /    -   /
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

Again, lest there be pronoun confusion, it's the wolf's howl and Murder's stealthy pace. Watch denotes the scheduled watchword or cry—in this case, the howl of the wolf—that marks the passing of time for Murder. It also reinforces the notion that evil comes calling in the dark of night. Shakespeare is veritably laying on the haunted house imagery by this time. First, we had a bunch of witches performing horrible sacrifices to Hecate; now we have the Grim Reaper stalking the land as a wolf howls in the night. Shakespeare, of course, had neither stage lighting nor a sound system to help him, so he had to do much of this kind of mood-setting within his speeches.

-    /  -      /  - -    /        -       /   -  /
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design

Shakespeare seems to substitute an anapest for the third foot in the line. That scansion certainly makes more sense than to argue that the end of the line scans pyrrhic/trochee/trochee with a masculine ending. More importantly in this line, we have what may be the authorial equivalent of winking at the audience. Of course, Shakespeare wrote a fairly popular poem back in the day titled The Rape of Lucrece, which features an extended description of Tarquin creeping in the night toward Lucrece's bedchamber. Not only does this line evoke comparative imagery between poem and play, it serves as a wry nod to Shakespeare's own material. The irony would likely not have been missed by an Elizabethan audience.

/     -    - /      -    /    -   /    -   /
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,

After a trochaic inversion, Macbeth ends his poetic riff on Murder stalking like a ghost in the night. The interesting thing about the imagery following the caesura is the contrast between the supernatural that Macbeth has experienced or evoked within the speech and his plea to "thou sure and firm-set earth." It's another signpost within the verses; Macbeth's resolve builds steam as the time for action draws ever nearer.

/    /   -  /     -     /   -    /     -   /
Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear

I've scanned the first foot as a spondee to give the equal emphasis to the first two syllables; it could technically scan as an iamb, but this scansion gives more punch to "hear" as the main verb of the sentence. Macbeth asks the earth to ignore him as he stalks toward Duncan's chamber.

-   / -  /      /     -  -  /    - /
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout

Prate literally means "to tattle." Although it's tempting to read whereabout as "location," it actually denotes "purpose." Macbeth is saying that if the earth actually hears his footsteps, the stones themselves might betray his intention. It hearkens to the notion that murdering the king is a crime against Nature itself.

-   /    -   /  -    /  -   /    -   /
And take the present horror from the time

The verse "And take...with it" gives even scholars some pause about its literal and/or figurative meaning. In the interest of simplicity, let's examine a few salient words. Take most literally denotes "remove" (as in "take away") in this context, while present denotes "immediate" and horror speaks for itself. Time has to be viewed within the context of its entire phrase; it refers both to the current time (night) and the implication that the situation is the right opportunity.

-     /   /     -    -   /      - /       -  /
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:

Finally, the troublesome sentence that started four lines ago ends with the phrase "which now suits with it." Hence, my reading of the latter part of this verse is "the stones give me away and make me lose this perfect opportunity." I've read a number of different interpretations on this line and its predecessor, and Occam's Razor is the best policy considering the amount of ink already spilled on the subject. I think the simpler reading in this instance is best. Moving on past the caesura in the line, Macbeth comes out of his reverie with the realization that his threats aren't equivalent to action.

/     -  -   /    -  /     -   /    /      /
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

The initial trochee puts emphasis on words, and the rest of the stresses emphasize the parallel contrast within the line. Breath seems to play as a metaphor for both words and life. Depending upon the interpretation here, Macbeth either says, "words are no match for deeds" or "words are the death of deeds." The choice of interpretation probably has much to do with whether one is arguing that Macbeth is at all on the fence at this point in the speech. Regardless, the tolling of the bell in the next line sounds doom for Duncan—Macbeth's ambition ultimately has won out.

Go to Overview | Back to Readings