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Free Barron's Booknotes-Macbeth by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes
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Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in these three main ways.

1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using do/did, as when Lady Macbeth asks "Know you not, he has?" (I, vii, 30). Today we would say, "Do you not know that he has?" Another instance occurs when Macbeth tells Banquo "I think not of them" (II, i, 21); modern usage demands, "I do not think of them."

Shakespeare had the option of using the following two forms, whereas contemporary usage permits only the a forms:

Is the king going? Goes the king?
Did the king go? Went the king?
You do not look well You look not well
You did not look well You looked not well

2. A number of past participles and past-tense forms are used that would be ungrammatical today. Among these are: forbid for "forbidden," as in: "He shall live a man forbid" (I, iii, 21); holp for "helped," as in: "And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him" (I, v, 23); eat for "ate," as in:

'Tis said they eat each other. They did so, to th' amazement of mine eyes" (II, iv, 18)

3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with thou and with he/she/it:

As thou art in desire? Would'st thou have that Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life (I, vii, 41-42)

Hath he asked for me? (I, vii, 30)


Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun- thou-which could be used in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. You was obligatory if more than one person was addressed: "Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more" (I, iii, 70), but it could also be used to indicate respect, as when Lady Macbeth told Duncan:

Your servants ever Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt. To make their audit at your Highness' pleasure, Still to return your own. (I, vi, 25-28)

Frequently, a person in power used thou to a child or a subordinate but was addressed you in return, as when Lady Macduff spoke to her son:

Lady Macduff: Now, God help thee, poor monkey! But how wilt thou do for a father?

Son: If he were dead, you'd weep for him. If you would not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a new father. (IV, ii, 57-61)

But if thou was used inappropriately, it might be offensive. One of the witches uses thou in addressing Macbeth to underline the fact that Macbeth has, by his murders, reduced himself to their level:

Say if th' hadst rather hear it from our mouths, Or from our masters? (IV, i, 62-63)

One further pronominal reference warrants a comment. Duncan uses the royal plural we to stress the honor he is bestowing on Lady Macbeth by staying with her:

Fair and noble hostess, We are your guest tonight. (I, vi, 24-25)

But he uses I to stress his debt to Macbeth for winning the battle:

O worthiest cousin! The sin of my ingratitude even now Was heavy on me (I, iv, 14-16)


Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today, and so we find several uses in Macbeth that would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are on for "to" in: "The victory fell on us" (I, ii, 59); with for "by" in: "Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand" (III, i, 62); for for "on account of" in: "For certain friends that are both his and mine" (III, i, 120); and at... and for "from... to" in:

You know your own degrees; sit down: At first and last, the hearty welcome. (III, iv, 1-2)


Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis, as when Macduff found the King dead:

O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart Cannot conceive nor name thee. (II, iii, 66-67)

And Macbeth says:

Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison, Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing, Can touch him further. (III, ii, 24-26)

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