Studying rhetorical devices is one of the best ways for students to learn about the power of language. They're used in all kinds of persuasive messages, from commercials to newspaper editorials to website articles to cable news commentaries . . . if someone is trying to convince you to do or believe something, you can almost guarantee they'll toss in a hefty chunk of rhetoric to win you to their cause.

Every rhetorical device has specific effects on a text, and the ability to recognize these devices and understand their effects is vital, especially as the number of persuasive messages students are exposed to daily seems to be growing exponentially. Students with the ability to dissect these messages will be better equipped to accept or reject the arguments underneath the rhetoric on their own merits.

In skilled hands, rhetorical devices can add power and gravitas to a text, evoking strong emotional responses from an audience. William Shakespeare's hands were certainly skilled, and students will benefit from analyzing the rhetoric he used in his works. Let's take a look at the final soliloquy from Macbeth and see how Shakespeare uses rhetorical devices to convey Macbeth's overwhelming despair.

From Macbeth Act V, Scene v:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


The repetition of "To-morrow" in the third line of the soliloquy establishes the tone for its remainder. By repeating "To-morrow" three times, Shakespeare shows us Macbeth has come to the conclusion that one "To-morrow" is no more significant than the next — Nothing new will happen, nothing matters, existence is meaningless.


Personification in Macbeth

Shakespeare personifies "yesterdays" here, essentially saying that every day that passes leads people closer to death. He uses figurative language to express a literal truth.

Macbeth's focus is so narrow here that he can only see the passing of time as something leading to death. In Macbeth's despairing worldview, there is no growth, only an inexorable march to the grave.

Extended Metaphor

Extended metaphor in Macbeth

At the close of the soliloquy, Shakespeare deploys an extended metaphor to clearly express the depths of Macbeth's despair.

First, Macbeth compares life to "a poor player" — an actor in a play, perhaps one playing a bit part — who "struts and frets his hour upon the stage." This player experiences joys and fears (he "struts and frets") but once his hour upon the stage is over, he "is heard no more."

In other, simpler words: People live for a short time, they experience highs and lows, they die, and the world goes on.

But Macbeth isn't done. He then compares life to the play ("tale") the "poor player" is acting in. This expansion in scope from the individual to the world surrounding the individual signals that Macbeth is no longer talking about one person's life — he's talking about all of human existence.

And boy, does he have some harsh words for the experience. Macbeth calls life "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing."

If life is a play written by an idiot, the stories of our lives are incoherent and illogical. There's no underlying reason for anything that happens. The only surety we have is that life will continue ("To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow") — and that, someday, it will end.

Sure, we'll experience highs and lows, we'll struggle and we'll love (life is, after all, "full of sound and fury"), but what does it mean in the end? According to Macbeth, "nothing." Humanity's conflicts, successes, failures — all petty and meaningless.

Macbeth comes to believe that nothing he does, and nothing anyone else does, will matter. Nothing is important. If existence is meaningless, then individual lives are meaningless, and morality doesn't exist. In expressing this nihilistic worldview, Macbeth shows us just how much of an amoral monster he has become.

All images are taken from the Rhetorical Devices in Shakespeare's Macbeth PowerPresentation (available on CD-ROM).