Macbeth: Doubles, doubles

Once more into the concordance, dear readers, once more! Let’s double our efforts to find doubly redoubled doubles in Macbeth.

A concordance (as you may/probably do know) is a reference that contains and counts word usage for any given collection of texts; in my deeper dives into the texts, I like to take a look at words that pop up seemingly frequently in my reading [and as per usual: like all our discussions for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare].

So: “double” (and its variants).

In Macbeth, they’re used 13 times in 10 speeches, the only play in the Canon in double digits, with the closest competitors being Richard II with 7 and The Second Part of Henry the Fourth with 6; all other have fewer than one half the amount of Macbeth.

  • As cannons “overcharged with double cracks” (I.ii.37), Macbeth and Banquo “doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe” (I.ii.38) in the battle
  • Lady Macbeth describes the preparation for the visit by the king thus: “All our service // In every point twice done, and then done double” (
  • Macbeth speaking of why Duncan should be safe in his home: “He’s here in double trust” (I.vii.12), both as a king and his guest
  • The witches: “Double, double toil and trouble” (three times in IV.i)
  • In questioning the witches, Macbeth says that he will “make assurance double sure” (IV.i.105)
  • When Macbeth learns of Macduff’s birth, he says he’ll no more believe the witches because they equivocate “in a double sense” (V.viii.20)

[And that’s not even counting the usual oppositional rhetorical devices like “What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won” (I.ii.68), and repetitious or self-referential rhetoric like “they made themselves air, into which they vanished” (I.v.5-6)]

Do all these doubles relate to (and reflect upon) what Macbeth refers to as his “single state of man” (I.iii.140), a reference we discussed the other day? Is Shakespeare contrasting that early use (single) to his more enlightened multi-part view of manhood near the end of the play?

Possibly, but they might also be there to point us in the direction of the instances of opposites coexisting in themselves in the play:

  • “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (I.i.12)
  • “So foul and fair a day” (I.iii.38)
  • “This supernatural soliciting // Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (I.iii.130-31)
  • the whole concept of equivocation (including “th’ equivocation of the fiend // That lies like truth” [V.v.43-4])
  • “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once // ‘Tis hard to reconcile” (IV.iii.138-9)

Is life in the world of Macbeth, a confusing, self-contradictory, multi-faceted mess, one that only a true king can make right? And is this the message Shakespeare wanted to deliver to his new king? And if so, was this Shakespeare’s subtle reference to James’ attempts to uniting the not-quite-yet United Kingdom?

2 Replies to “Macbeth: Doubles, doubles”

  1. Thanks! This is so interesting–especially since it seems that all this doubling only occurs in the language, images, and themes in MACBETH, and not in the characters or plot.

    The comedies contain many literal twins,and many more characters that seem parallel in other ways (ie, Rosalind and Celia; or Beatrice and Hero), while in plays like KING LEAR or HAMLET, the subplots and secondary characters often seem to serve as mirrors to the main characters and primary stories (ie, how Gloucester’s relationship with his loyal and traitorous children invites comparison with Lear’s family situation, or how Laertes serves as a foil to Hamlet). But it seems there really is very little doubling of the characters or the storyline in MACBETH. Maybe that serves to make all the equivocation in the play seem even more disconcerting and intense?

    1. Absolutely! (and don’t forget the Fortinbras foil for our Dane, too!)

      I like your statement that Macbeth really doesn’t have that kind of mirror. Without that mirror, is Shakespeare showing us how easily it is to make a mistake (without something for us to connect ourselves to the world), and does this help humanize Macbeth? Or is Banquo supposed to be that mirror, and when Macbeth has him murdered, his fate is sealed?

      All great questions for a play that seems so simple, seems so much like a runaway train plot-wise…

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