Macbeth and Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation

Macbeth and Shakespeare’s linguistic innovation

In Macbeth, Shakespeare coins an extraordinary number of words and phrases, including 'assassination', 'unsex' and 'stealthy'. David Crystal shows how these linguistic innovations help express the action and atmosphere of the play and the troubled psychology of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

When Shakespeare began writing Macbeth (probably in 1605), there seem not to have been enough words in the English language to deal with his protagonist’s state of mind and the events relating to it. We find a surprisingly large number of ‘Williamisms’ (first recorded usages in the Oxford English Dictionary) – 62 of them – most of which feel like genuine coinages on Shakespeare’s part, for they clearly relate to the themes and actions of the play.

For a start, there’s the word needed for the central event:

If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence (1.7.2)

Assassin and assassinate were already in use, and other attempts had been or were being made to find a noun for the ‘act of assassinating’, such as assassinment, assassinacy, and assassinay. But Shakespeare either hadn’t come across these or didn’t like them. And it is his usage which remained in the language.

Other murder-related words had to be coined. Macbeth says of Banquo and Fleance:

They are assailable (3.2.29, ‘open to assault’)

And we find two new verbs capturing the redness of blood:

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.62, ‘dye with incarnadine’)

Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear (5.3.14, ‘cover with red’)

Incarnadine (‘flesh-coloured, carnation’) had already been used as an adjective and a noun, but this was the first time it had been used as a verb.

Photograph of Jonathan Slinger and Aislín McGuckin in Macbeth, 2011

Photograph of Jonathan Slinger and Aislin McGuckin in Macbeth, 2011

Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth and Aislin McGuckin as Lady Macbeth in the RSC’s 2011 production

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Usage terms: Donald Cooper / Photostage

Macbeth also needs new words to talk about his own state of mind. He uses vaulting to describe his ambition (1.7.27). He hopes that his action will be the be-all and the end-all (1.7.5). He wants his state to be founded as the rock (3.4.21, ‘having a foundation’), as broad and general as the casing air (3.4.22, ‘encasing’). His imagination makes his seated heart knock at his ribs (1.3.136, ‘fixed in position’).

As part of his excuse for killing the grooms, he explains how he ignored reason as a pauser (2.3.108, ‘one who pauses’). He describes his vision of Banquo’s ghost as unreal mockery (3.4.106) and his state of mind as self-abuse (3.4.141, ‘self-deception’). He expresses his belief that he cannot be harmed with two more coinages:

As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air (5.6.48, ‘incapable of being cut’)

With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed. ...
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests ... (5.6.50, ‘capable of being wounded’)

His bravery generates more:

come fate into the list
And champion me to the utterance (3.1.71, ‘challenge’)

We might have met them dareful (5.5.6, ‘full of daring’)

Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me (5.5.14, ‘dreadfulness’)

But bear-like I must fight the course (5.6.2)

And he responds to Macduff’s revelation with one last coinage:

For it hath cowed my better part of man (5.6.57, ‘dispirited’)

Just over half the Williamisms in the play (32) are given to Macbeth.

But three of the most interesting ones are given to Lady Macbeth in her opening speech:

chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round (1.5.26)

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here ... (1.5.39)

That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose (1.5.43, ‘remorseful’)

Unsex illustrates one of Shakespeare’s favourite word-creation patterns: prefixing by un-. We’ve already seen it in unreal. Here it is again. And we find another four instances in this play:

lechery ... it provokes and unprovokes (2.3.27, ‘fails to stimulate’)
O nation miserable, / With an untitled tyrant (4.3.104, ‘having no title’)
sword ... I sheathe again undeeded (5.6.30, ‘having performed no deeds’)
Unspeak mine own detraction (4.3.123)

Compunctious is notable because he could have used remorseful, as in earlier plays (e.g. Henry VI). It has the same stress-pattern, so would fit the line. But he had just used remorse in the previous line (‘Stop up the access and passage to remorse’), and very likely he wanted to find a word which didn’t have the same root (try replacing compunctious by remorseful to see the banal effect it creates). A search in the amazing Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) shows that there wasn’t an already existing alternative – so he created one. And it is a good one. The sense of compunctious includes a notion of the ‘stinging’ of conscience, which remorseful lacks.

Most of the play’s neologisms have a negative connotation. They typically have an ominous or unpleasant ring, especially the adjectives: ‘shipwracking storms’ (1.2.26), ‘choppy finger’ (1.3.43, ‘full of clefts’), ‘stealthy pace’ (2.1.54), surfeited grooms (2.2.5, ‘fed to excess’), ‘mousing owl’ (2.4.13, ‘mouse-hunting’), ‘fitful fever’ (3.2.23, ‘full of fits’), ‘shard-born beetle’ (3.2.42, ‘born in dung’), ‘rooky wood’ (3.2.51, ‘full of rooks’), ‘sweltered venom’ (4.1.8, ‘exuded like sweat’), ‘thick and slab’ (of gruel, 4.1.32, ‘semi-solid’), ‘fiendlike queen’ (5.6.108). Half the Williamisms (31) in this play are adjectives.

The negative tone continues with the noun and verb coinages: ‘I'll devil-porter it no further’ (2.3.16), water-rugs (3.1.93, ‘rough-haired water-dogs’, context: classifying assassins), ‘no rubs nor botches’ (3.1.133, ‘flaws’), ‘the hedge-pig whined’ (4.1.2, ‘hedgehog’, context: witchery), ‘untimely emptying’ (4.3.68), ‘uproar the universal peace’ (4.3.99, ‘throw into confusion’), cyme (5.3.55, context: purgative drugs). For the record, it is also the first mention in an English text of Bellona, the Roman goddess of war (1.2.56) and Norweyan (1.2.31, ‘Norwegian’, but here seen as an enemy).

Very few neologisms have a positive meaning in the play, and when they do occur we find them given a distinctly negative spin. Some have a negative element in their structure: ‘my confineless harms’ (4.3.55, ‘boundless’), ‘a staunchless avarice’ (4.3.78, ‘that may not be held back’), ‘the unshrinking station (5.6.81, ‘unyielding’). Others are used in a clearly disturbing context: ‘aroint thee, witch!’ (1.2.31, ‘begone’), ‘this even-handed justice’ (1.7.10, context: a poisoned chalice), ‘I have drugged their possets’ (2.2.6, context: murder), ‘suffer in exposure’ (2.3.124, ‘public exhibition’, context: frailties), ‘the valued file’ (3.1.94, context: classifying assassins), summer-cloud (3.4.110, context: something that overcomes), ‘the galloping of horse’ (4.1.139, context: disappearance of the witches), ‘our down-fallen birthdom’ (4.3.4, ‘birthright'), ‘minutely revolts’ (5.2.18, ‘occurring every minute’).

The remaining three are all in a positive context, but one which is strongly ironic in view of subsequent events. Banquo’s praise of Macbeth's castle (1.6.4, ff.) includes the neologisms ‘loved mansionry’ (‘dwelling places’) and ‘coign of vantage’ (‘a projecting corner’). And Macbeth misinterprets the witches’ prophecies as ‘sweet bodements’ (4.1.95, ‘omens’). If he had had the chance to do a linguistic analysis of his own discourse, he might have suspected something. Neologisms in this play are not good news.

This is an adaptation of an article first published in Around the Globe, 44 (2010), pp. 22–23. The original can be found listed under 'Book and Articles' on David Crystal's website.

  • David Crystal
  • David Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Bangor, and works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. His books include The Stories of English (2004), Pronouncing Shakespeare (2005), Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language (2008), Evolving English (2010),The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (2016) and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (3rd edition 2018). He was Sam Wanamaker Fellow at Shakespeare's Globe in 2003. He received an OBE for services to the English language in 1995.

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