Tag Archives: prefixes

The “un”making of Macbeth

Last week, I saw the Shakespeare’s Globe cinema screening of their recent production of Macbeth, and Joseph Millson’s intense and vigorous Macbeth in particular inspired me to start up this blog again. As I watched him go from valued soldier to tyrant, I kept thinking about another accusation of “unmaking” leveled at him in the play.

As my Shakespeare students this year know (…because I keep telling them this), I really like negation affixes: those little particles like un- and dis- that turn a neutral word into a negative. And Shakespeare makes especially rich use of them: think of Richard II declaring, “Now mark me how I will undo myself” (or “God save King Henry, unkinged Richard says”), or Goneril telling Lear “A little to disquantity [his] train.” While I was watching Macbeth the other night, I kept hearing, in particular, the echoing of un-. Jonathan Hope remarks, “Shakespeare seems particularly drawn to ‘un-’ as a way of negating concepts, perhaps because it suggests an active process of undoing something, rather than simple absence.” [1] And this is, I think, what we see in Lady Macbeth’s uses of this prefix in her addresses to her husband: first, she says that the “fitness” of the occasion for killing Duncan “Does unmake” Macbeth at 1.7.54; then just after Duncan’s murder, she scolds him by saying, “Why, worthy thane, / You do unbend your noble strength to think / So brainsickly of things” (2.2.47-49), as well as “Your constancy / Hath left you unattended” (2.2.71-2).

Lady Macbeth is constantly holding Macbeth up to Macbeth, if you like, comparing his past manliness to his current weakness (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”), and in each of these cases, she’s able to cram all of that into a word by using the un- prefix: he is undone, coming apart at his noble seams, no longer the thing he was. She sums all of this up, in fact, at 3.4.75, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost: “What, quite unmanned in folly?”

Intriguingly, though, there’s something odd and unexpected about Lady Macbeth’s remark that Macbeth unbends his noble strength when he is horrified by the murder of Duncan. I might have expected to hear “bend your noble strength”: that is, Macbeth’s strength is bending because it is no longer firm. But “unbend” suggests that the natural state of strength is a taut readiness, like a bow – something that has to be constantly held in place and that cannot be allowed to slacken, rather than a substance like stone, which is effortlessly adamantine. I like what this suggests about the state of manliness in the world of Macbeth: that to be a man is to be constantly wary, constantly on guard against threats that would weaken you or make you “play the woman” (as Macduff puts it at 4.3.230).


[1] Jonathan Hope, “Shakespeare and language.” In The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (Cambridge UP, 2010): 77-90, p. 83.

Text: Macbeth, ed. Stephen Orgel (Pelican Shakespeare, 2000).