‘Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me’ is one of the most famous soliloquies of Shakespeare. Appearing in Act Scene 1 of his celebrated tragedy ‘Macbeth,’ it reveals his intention in killing Duncan to become the King. The soliloquy represents his self taken over by the act that he is about to do. It was originally published in 1623. The poem also illustrates how his lust and greed dragged him to the brink of insanity.
Is this a dagger which I see before me
Summary of Is this a dagger which I see before me
Macbeth has made his decision to kill the King and take the crown as his own. Inspired in part by his own ambition, the decision to murder Duncan is aided by the prophecies of the Witches as well as the insistent urging of his wife. Still, Macbeth is wracked with guilt over what he is about to do, and his mind races with thoughts of such evil action. He first sees a dagger hanging mid-air, and then he sees it with blood dripping from it. In the soliloquy, he comments on the wickedness of the world, before his thoughts are interrupted by the ringing of the bell. He takes that as a clue from Lady Macbeth and goes on to execute their plan, recognition of all his flaws and sins. Though guilt and insanity were weighing him down, he resolves to kill Duncan and follows his hallucination.
Form and Structure
‘Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me’ is in the form of a soliloquy. It is spoken by Macbeth in the ingenuous tragedy of Shakespeare. It captures Macbeth’s mental and emotional condition at the time. The speech is a poetic form of some lines. The poem has two stanzas of varying length. The poem follows the ABAB rhyme scheme. The lines in the poem are ‘Trochee,’ this stressed and unstressed syllable pattern continues throughout the poem.
Theme and Setting
In ‘Macbeth’, there are many themes and the major ones are ambition and power, the supernatural, appearances, and reality. Especially, in this soliloquy, Evil, insanity, and supernatural elements are the major themes underlined in this passage. Throughout this speech, Shakespeare reflects upon the wickedness and dark side of human nature.
Setting here is the time before Macbeth intends to kill Duncan. It is the night, and the darkness reveals the darkness of his plan. His weakness in character is depicted through the hallucination that leads him to murder. “The dagger” and “the blood on the dagger” represents his evil instinct, guilt, and remorse.
Literary and Poetic Devices Used
Literary devices help the writers to create a style of their own and to convey ideas, feelings, and emotions to the readers. Shakespeare, well known for his use of imagery and metaphor, has employed some literary devices, to show the wickedness of the soul.
Assonance & Alliteration
“I see thee yet, in form as palpable”
“Which was not so before”
Similarly, Alliteration is used with the repletion of the sounds /m/ and /h/ in the following lines:
“Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;”
“Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.”
Shakespeare has used a number of enjambed sentences in this soliloquy. These sentences help to understand the chain effect, each idea causes the other. First, Macbeth sees the dagger and as he speaks further, “It is the bloody business which informs/ Thus to mine eyes” he sees the dagger with blood on it that indicates his intended act.
Imagery & Symbolism
Imagery in a literary work helps the readers perceive things involving their five senses. Images used by Shakespeare in the lines, “Is this a dagger which I see before me”, “With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design” and “And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood” elaborates on the mental picture of Macbeth who is about to execute his plan.
The image of the “dagger” and “blooded dagger” also serve as symbols in the soliloquy to depict the theme of guilt and intended murder.
The rhetorical question in literature intends to make the idea of the writer clear. Here, the rhetorical questions used illustrate what Macbeth has in mind at that time. “The handle toward my hand?” explains that he is about to kill Duncan with a dagger, for he reaches his dagger to ensure that what is hanging in front is his vision than the real dagger. Further, “To feeling as to sight?” gives emphasis on how his sense has overpowered him and his growing thought of insanity as he replays the act of killing Duncan in his mind.
Lines 1 to 3
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Macbeth speaks this infamous soliloquy before he has made his decision to kill the King and take the crown as his own. Macbeth begins to doubt himself and his ability to murder Duncan. Macbeth ‘sees’ the dagger before him, the handle towards his hand. Thus, he begins with the line, “Is this a dagger I see before me?”. His confused mindset leads to hallucination and pushes him over the brink of insanity.
Lines 4 to 7
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
The decision to murder Duncan is aided by Macbeth’s own ambition, the prophecies of the Witches, as well as the insistent urging of his wife. Yet, he starts to wonders if the dagger which he sees is a ‘fatal vision’ or a mere hallucination. Macbeth wonders if this dagger is a result of his ‘heat-oppressed’ or fevered brain referring to his growing insanity. Being it a part of the great tragedy, the soliloquy comes with implied stage direction. As he speaks, Macbeth reaches his belt and draws a real dagger he has in his possession. (the one he will use to murder Duncan shortly after this scene). In the lines “…art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” Macbeth recognizes his own insanity, and his lust, for killing Duncan.
Lines 8 to 15
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
The Dagger in these lines seems to point in the direction of the room where Duncan lies asleep. Still, which dagger it is, is not certain. Shakespeare could now be referring to the real dagger that Macbeth has just drawn. Further, we find Macbeth arguing with himself, and the detail of the dagger intensifies. He now sees drops of blood on the blade and ‘dudgeon’. Soon, he realizes that it is not the blood, but a result of his thoughts being so turned towards bloody deeds. As Macbeth tries to distinguish between the reality and the vision that he sees, he is getting closer to killing Duncan.
Lines 16 to 22
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
These lines indicate that it is the night time, and ‘the one halfworld’, seems to have come to halt, seem to have come to a halt. During this time, while the ‘nature seems dead’ the wicked dreams abuse the sleep of the people. Macbeth brings in the reference to Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft in classical mythology. The ‘offerings’ or rituals bring back the image of the three Witches, which has driven Macbeth to this situation. He imagines, Murder like a man has been roused awake by his watchdog, the wolf, with his stealthy pace. Also, Macbeth makes another comparison, comparing the death to the action of Tarquin – the man who raped Lucrece in Shakespeare’s narrative poem ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Murder, here, moves towards his prey, silently and stealthily like a ghost.
Lines 23 to 29
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
In these lines, Macbeth calls upon the earth to render him with such stealthy pace, so that he too can execute his plan. By now it is clear that the dagger appearing to him has made Macbeth’s mind up and he resolves to go through the deed. The phrase ‘take the present horror from the time’, again a reference to his guilt and uncertainty of action. Here, Macbeth thinks that if he moves silently, it will remove the horror from this moment. For him, the sound of his footsteps seems to fill him with fear over what he is going to do. The lines, “Whiles I threat, he lives:/Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” Depicts how the deed is ‘hot’ but his words are ‘cold’.
Lines 31 and 32
[a bell rings]
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
In these concluding lines, Macbeth hears the bell and it reminds him of the time for action. Here, one could see clearly how that unsettling vision of a dagger disappears and he goes about his business. He is more resolved with confidence than his initial inhibitions. The bell seems to be an inviting call for him to execute. At the same time, he feels it as a call inviting Duncan for his death. But the most powerful sense of all is that imaginary sense of something being there when it isn’t.
Shakespeare’s soliloquies, such as Macbeth’s ‘Is This A Dagger Which I See Before Me’, emphasize his character’s thought process preceding his intended act. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow is another soliloquy from Macbeth that explores the aftermath of his killing Duncan. His sonnets too are equally popular. Readers can read the following poems to understand his writing style better.
- “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”
- “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”
- “When in the chronicle of wasted time”
- “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
- “To me, fair friend, you never can be old”