Personification is a literary device used by authors to give human characteristics to non-human objects. In this lesson, we’ll look at how William Shakespeare uses personification in his play ‘Macbeth’ and explore how it emphasizes the characters’ personal struggles.

What Is Personification?

Have you ever been somewhere and thought, ‘Wow, time flies?’ Or have you ever tried to buy something and thought, ‘Man, that really flew off the shelf?’

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In each of these examples, you were personifying an object. While personification, or giving human characteristics or abilities to non-human objects, may not be used often in our day-to-day conversations, it’s very common in literature.

An author will use personification to help readers connect more with a lifeless object. As readers, we would probably not think too much about an inanimate object or wonder how it supports a theme in a book. However, if the author uses human characteristics to give this object life, we are more likely to stop and ask about its importance to the story. It makes us think more outside the box, which helps us understand the larger meaning of the story. In addition, this object now helps set the scene in the story, create a mood, and add much stronger descriptive details.

In his play Macbeth, William Shakespeare has his characters use personification to create a stronger visual of both the external and internal battles that the characters fight.

Personification ; Macbeth

In the play, Macbeth often uses personification when sharing his internal battle with guilt.

When Macbeth delivers his soliloquy in Act I, scene vii, he includes several different personifications. Describing Duncan, Macbeth states, ‘that his virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off.’ Macbeth is giving Duncan’s virtues the ability to plead against death. Macbeth knows that he’s killing a virtuous person and that very virtue will cry out as angels do against his murder.

Later in the same soliloquy, he says, ‘I have no spur / To prick the the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’er leaps itself / And falls on th’ other.’ There are two examples of personification in these lines. First, Macbeth gives his intent an animal-like quality by saying that it can be pricked on the sides as a horse might be. After this, Macbeth personifies his ambition by giving it the ability to leap and fall.

After Macbeth kills King Duncan, he feels guilty over what he has done and says, ”Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more! / Macbeth doth murder sleep.’ ” Of course Macbeth did not hear this voice, and sleep is not a person that can be murdered. However, he has given sleep the characteristic of something living and, therefore, something that can killed.

Personification ; Lady Macbeth

In Act I of the play, Macbeth sends a letter home to Lady Macbeth to tell her of the witches’ predictions. When she finishes reading the letter, she says, ‘Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ Lady Macbeth is giving the stars the ability to put out their light so as to hide her desires from others. The stars, of course, have no ability to hide a person’s inner being, but Lady Macbeth is giving them this human quality of helping to keep her secrets from others.

Later, Lady Macbeth worries that her husband may not be able to take the throne and, thinking about him, says to herself, ‘Yet I do fear thy nature; / It is too full o ‘th’ milk of human kindness.’ Lady Macbeth gives kindness the ability to produce milk that fills the body here.

Personification ; Other Characters

Shakespeare continues to use personification when his minor characters describe their external injuries and their internal sadness for their country.

In Act I, scene ii, a captain arrives to tell King Duncan about the battle that Macbeth and Banquo have fought. He describes the war scenes and how brave both the men were as they fought new troops. However, the captain is wounded and he begins to grow weaker. He says to the king, ‘my gashes cry for help.’ In this line, the captain gives his wounds the human quality of crying and asking for help.

Later in the play, in Act IV, Macduff meets with Malcolm to try again to convince him to join the fight against Macbeth. He says to Malcolm, ‘Bleed, bleed, poor country!’ In this line, Macduff is giving his country the human quality of bleeding. Malcolm replies, ‘I think our country sinks beneath the yoke. / It weeps, it bleeds, and each day a new gash / Is added to her wounds.’ Like Macduff, Malcolm is describing Scotland as something that has the ability to cry and be injured.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Personification, or giving human characteristics or abilities to non-human objects, is a literary device used by authors to create mood and imagery. An author will use personification to create stronger visuals and to help readers connect to objects by giving them human traits that readers will understand.

In his play Macbeth, William Shakespeare uses personification to add to the descriptions of his characters’ internal and external battles. Macbeth uses personification when struggling with his decision to kill King Duncan and then again when struggling with his guilt after the murder. Lady Macbeth adds to her description of her husband’s weakness through personification. Finally, other characters use personification to describe their wounds and their country’s decline.

While we may not often use personification in our daily conversations, it’s an important literary element. It’s through Shakespeare’s use of personification that we are able to connect more to his characters’ struggles.