Irony in Macbeth
by David Schlachter
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth there was a lot of irony, and Shakespeare intended the irony of the play to build and maintain suspense, while creating a vague sense of fear.
For example, the irony in the play started out early, with the witches’ prophecies to Macbeth and Banquo. The prophecies to Macbeth were all ironic paradoxes. In Act I, Scene iii, the witches told Macbeth, “All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter.” This prophecy was ironic because even though it was true, it did not turn out how Macbeth expected it to. Macbeth probably thought that being the king would be great. He would be rich, everyone would respect him, he’d have all the power in Scotland, and he thought that that would make him happy. Of course, since the witches’ prophecies were cleverly designed to manipulate his weak mind, Macbeth murdered Duncan to satisfy his ambition. In Act III, Scene ii, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth were discussing their feelings about being king and queen of Scotland after the murder. Said Lady Macbeth, “Nought’s had, all’s spent. Where our desire is got without content: ’Tis safer to be that which we destroy than, by destruction, dwell in doubtful joy.” In Act III, Scene i Macbeth said of the witches and the murder, “For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered; put rancours in the vessel of my peace only for them; and mine eternal jewel given to the common enemy of man.” In those sentences, we can see the irony in the witches’ prophecies. The implied meaning of the witches’ prophecies was that Macbeth would be king. Macbeth took this to mean that he would be a happy king, and so dreams of him on the throne appeared. He thought that becoming king would be easy, he just had to get Duncan out of the way. Everything turned out as Macbeth had imagined, except that he was not happy as the king. The guilt from Duncan’s murder, not to mention that of Banquo’s, made being the king a horrible experience for Macbeth, all because of the witches. This irony would make the audience mistrust the witches in the back of their minds, and therefore also put a vague fear over the whole play, because of the realisation of the witches’ relentless sinister determination to disrupt peace and order in Scotland.
Another excellent example of irony in the play starts in Act II, Scene ii, shortly after the murder of Duncan. Macbeth had just committed the malicious act to satisfy his unchecked ambition, and he was quite shocked. In his words, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” The emotional effects of the murder hadn’t quite gotten through to Lady Macbeth yet, and so she nonchalantly replied, “A little water clears us of this deed.” Eventually though, Lady Macbeth’s conscience affected her mind adversely, giving her a deep emotional disturbance. In Act V, Scene i, Lady Macbeth had a fear of the dark and she had started sleep walking and talking to herself. As she was wandering the castle one night, she was obsessed with trying to wash the blood that she still felt and smelt from her hands, a huge change from Act II, Scene ii. She said, “Out, damned stop! out I say!” and continued with, “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” This is definitely very ironic, since early in the play Lady Macbeth dismissed Macbeth’s concerns with little thought, and one would expect her not to ever think of them again. As we can see in the play though, what was once a trifle to Lady Macbeth soon became a major issue when the realisation of what she had done in Duncan’s murder finally set in. As far as the audience is concerned, they would probably be shocked after the murder of Duncan, and find Lady Macbeth’s responses to Macbeth’s hysteria discomforting, thinking that Lady Macbeth must be a very evil person indeed. Later on though, when Lady Macbeth broke down mentally, the audience would feel a bit more of a vague sense of fear when they were reminded by Lady Macbeth of how terrible Duncan’s murder really was. She was very composed at first, but soon she realised that she had done something horrendous and because of that realisation she died soon afterward.
Another prime example of the play’s irony can be found in Act I, Scene vii, shortly before Duncan’s murder. The irony in this scene is called dramatic irony, meaning that the audience is aware of what is about to happen but the actors are not. For example, before this scene the audience has heard Macbeth’s soliloquies about murdering the king, and has been exposed to the mood-setting opening scenes. By now the audience would probably be on the edge of their seats, waiting for Macbeth to slip a dagger out of his pocket and run towards Duncan. To the part of the audience that would be expecting this, the next scene would be much different than they would have imagined. Act I, Scene vii is set outside of Macbeth’s castle, in broad daylight (unlike most of the scenes in the play). When Duncan arrives, he comments, “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.” Banquo is quick to agree, and he comments on the nice birds in the sky. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, has taken to graciously welcoming the guests. The scene ends with Duncan taking Lady Macbeth’s hand, and allowing her to lead him into the castle of death to his murderer. This scene is a prime example of irony because its real meaning is much different that it appears. Looking at the scene alone, one would conclude that Duncan and the Macbeths are good friends, and this is just another pleasant visit. In its context though, this scene is the beginning of Macbeth’s murder spree, and so the sunlight, birds, and nice weather make the scene all the more ironic. Apart from giving the audience a sense of brooding violence and veiled threats, this scene would also built a lot of suspense. When people saw Duncan walk into the palace, many would (rightly) suspect that he was walking obliviously to his doom. In short, this scene’s dramatic irony was a key factor in moulding the play’s suspense.
Another excellent example of irony occurs in Act IV, Scene ii shortly before the Macduffs are murdered. In the scene Lady Macduff was angry at her husband for fleeing to England, leaving her defenceless. Her son is talking to her, telling her how he’ll live without his father. He says that he’ll live like birds do, meaning living with what they get. The implied meaning in the beginning of this scene is that Lady Macbeth’s son will do just what he said he would, he’ll live with what he’ll get, and keep on living. His words are a paradox though, since the literal meaning of his words is much different than the implied meaning. Once he finishes his speech, some of Macbeth’s hit men run in and stab him. The literal meaning of what he said, that he’d live “with what [he’d] get” is so much different than his implied meaning because he definitely got what he got, but he definitely didn’t keep on living. The irony of this would reinforce what Macbeth was saying at the time, that life is pointless, and would help to add to the malicious atmosphere of the play by making the audience feel as if what they did in life didn’t really matter.
In conclusion, Macbeth is full of irony. The irony in Macbeth is there to add to the suspense and the malicious mood of the play. Without the irony in Macbeth, the play would have been much different. For example, if Duncan’s visit to the castle took place at night, in the middle of a thunderstorm, with the Macbeths being hostile to him and the witches egging Macbeth on, the play would have lacked a good deal of suspense, and the audience might begin to get bored of the play, since it would not change much and it would be easy to predict what would happen. If the witches hadn’t made their paradoxical prophecies to Macbeth, the play would be missing a lot of irony and the audience wouldn’t get much fear from watching the play, since they would just reason that Macbeth was insane to begin with. In short, the play, Macbeth wouldn’t have been such an interesting, suspenseful, or terrifying play without irony. Clearly, Shakespeare intended the irony of the play to build and maintain suspense, while creating a vague sense of fear.