Shakespeare and Meaning from Mono-Syllabic Words. 

Coming from a lady who, four acts previously, proudly boasts about the ‘valour of [her] tongue’, the following lines from a Lady Macbeth, now in her pitiful descent into madness, are startling in their violent prosaicness:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

(Act 5, scene 1)



Of the 56 words in this statement, 50 of them are mono-syllabic. That is, there are 50 words of just one syllable. Compare this to 56 words elsewhere in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, act 1 scene 7-a scene  in which Lady Macbeth is positively frightening in her chastisement of her husband:

We fail! 

But screw your courage to the sticking-place, 

And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep,– 

Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey 

Soundly invite him, his two chamberlains 

Will I with wine and wassail so convince 

That memory, the warder of the brain, 

Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason

(Act 1, scene 7)

56 words again. Only this time, only 42 words are mono-syllabic. That’s 75% against 89% from act 5 scene 1. That’s a significant (but not the biggest) increase/decrease, depending on your stance, in the usage of mono-syllabic words. The fact is, in Act 5, overcome by guilt for her part in Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth has regressed to a child- like state in which vulnerability, fear, and guilt consume her. The increase in mono-syllabic splutterings reflects this.

Look at the following from Macduff, upon hearing of the slaughter of his ‘wife and babes’:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?

Choose 28 other words from Macduff elsewhere in the play and get your students to count the mono-syllabic words. Help them to explore for themselves,  Shakespeare’s genius in employing mono-syllabic words to heart-breaking effect. 

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Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Meaning from Mono-Syllabic Words. ”

  1. Thanks for this. You can track the way Othello’s language deteriorates from a position of eloquence, even hyperbole, and with the unfolding of the play, he loses his ‘poetry’ only to regain it to some degree upon realising his error.

    Liked by 1 person

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