What's the technique in these (half-)lines from Macbeth?

                                  To be thus is nothing,
but to be safely thus.

They are from Act 3 Scene 1. Macbeth is insecure because of the good qualities in Banquo; qualities he lacks. He remarks it is worth nothing to live as king, if it isn't to safely live as king. I see the obvious use of repetition but I felt like there might be some more specific type of repetition/technique to comment about here


1 Answer 1


I take it that you are looking for poetic and rhetorical devices in this sentence. I can see a few:

  1. Euphemism. By ‘thus’ Macbeth means ‘king’, and ‘king’ would fit the rhythm as well as ‘thus’, so it is significant that he avoids the word here.

  2. Hyperbole. To be king insecurely is not ‘nothing’ as Macbeth claims; merely less desirable than to be king securely.

  3. Feminine ending. ‘Nothing’ ends the line on an unstressed syllable, perhaps indicating Macbeth’s dissatisfaction with the idea.

  4. Metrical inversion. ‘But’ begins the line with a stressed syllable (a trochee substituting for an iamb), emphasising this clause, in which ‘but’ is used with the meaning ‘unless’ or ‘without’.

  • 2. I don't think it's hyperbole. It means nothing to be king while Banquo and Fleance are still alive. He fears Banquo and recognizes his kingly nature. And the witches said Banquo, not he, would be father to a line of kings. He is not safe. 3. Eight lines of the speech have feminine endings. 4. "But to be" is a dactyl substituting for an iamb. One interpretation of "But to be safely thus" is that Macbeth breaks off before finishing the line, "But to be safely thus [is everything]." It would have scanned correctly. Feb 4, 2020 at 7:11
  • ...And he breaks off because he can't get Banquo out of his mind. He is obsessed with him. The whole speech is about him. Feb 4, 2020 at 7:13
  • (2) It may be true that for Macbeth, to be king unsafely feels like nothing. But that's not what he says! He says it is nothing: an exaggeration for rhetorical effect. (3) Yes, that's right, and this line is one of them. (4) I scan it like this: But to | be safe | ly thus. Feb 4, 2020 at 18:21

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