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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help you to a fuller understanding of Macbeth.


Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. For example, verbs were often used as nouns. In Act I, Scene vii, line 5, Macbeth uses be as a noun:

...that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all...

And nouns could be used as verbs, as when incarnadine, which was a color, was used to mean "redden":

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarndine (II, ii, 59-61)

Adjectives could also be used as adverbs. In the above quotation clean is used in a position where contemporary usage would require a form like entirely, and easy is used for "easily" in:

Let's not consort with them. To show an unfelt sorrow is an office Which the false man does easy. (II, iii, 137-38)

They could also be used as nouns, as in:

If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key. (II, iii, 1-2)

In this instance, old is the equivalent of "frequent opportunity."


The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that chip extended its meaning from a small piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in Shakespeare's plays still exist today but their meanings have changed. The "astonishment" in:

and when he reads

Thy personal venture in the rebels' fight, His wonders and his praises do contend. (I, iii, 90-92)

Or, more fundamental, earnest meant "token of an agreement" (I, iii, 104), line meant "strengthen" (I, iii, 112), missives meant "messengers" (I, v, 6), illness meant "wickedness" (I, v, 20), and sightless meant "invisible":

Wherever in your sightless substances You wait on nature's mischief. (I, v, 50-51)


Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past leman meant "sweetheart" and sooth meant "truth." The following words used in Macbeth are no longer current in English but their meaning can usually be gauged from the context in which they occur.

PADDOCK (I, i, 9) - toad

MASTERDOM (I, v, 70) - mastery

FAVOUR (I, v, 72) - countenance, face

JUTTY (I, vi, 6) - part of a building

IN COMPT (I, vi, 26) - subject to account

TRAMMEL UP (I, vii, 3) - entangle

AFEARD (I, vii, 39) - afraid

LIMBECK (I, vii, 68) - skull, container of the brain

DUDGEON (II, i, 46) - handle

SLEAVE (II, ii, 36) - silk thread, silk

GOOSE (II, iii, 15) - smoothing iron

AVOUCH (III, i, 119) - justify

ECSTASY (III, ii, 22) - fit

SEELING (III, ii, 46) - blinding

LATED (III, iii, 6) - belated

TRENCHED (III, iv,, 26) - cut

FLAWS (III, iv, 62) - sudden gusts

OWE (III, iv, 112) - own

DRAB (IV, i, 31) - prostitute

SWEATEN (IV, i, 65) - irregularly formed

GIN (IV, ii, 35) - snare

FOISONS (IV, iii, 88) - abundant harvests

TEEMS (IV, iii, 176) - brings forth

MATED (V, i, 75) - confused

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