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I have no wordS . . .
Kids, Voice, and Violence
by Amy Ulen

Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy (approximately 2,500 lines). The play was originally printed in the First Folio (F1) in 1623, and scholars believe that it was probably reproduced from a theatrical prompt-book. In addition to being one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, Macbeth is also one of the most famous among high school students. Maybe its length is what attracts high school students, but I doubt it.  Many students are initially drawn into the story of Macbeth and his wife because of the mystery, murders, and battles.  With this in mind, I decided to tackle the final battle scene between Macbeth and Macduff for my library project. I was surprised to find that there has been very little written about this key moment in the play. My frustration level was on the rise until I took a look at the plethora of art work that was available for this scene. Macduff cries out to Macbeth, "I have no words; / My voice is in my sword . . ." (Mowat 185), and even in the world of scholarship, this crucial moment transcends words. How often do our students, out of frustration of not being heard, feel voiceless, and resort to violence to get their message across? Is it possible, then, to use Shakespeare's words to help our students find their own voices? By studying this passage through scholarship and performance, I believe that my students will begin to rediscover the power of words and their own voices.

The level of scholarship that we can expect from our students will differ from individual to individual, but a good place to begin is with a comparison of Shakespeare's text to that of a modern edition of Act V, scene viii, lines 1-20. I will be using the New Folger Library Shakespeare and the First Folio editions of Macbeth. For sake of simplicity, I will use the line number references in the Folger edition. It is interesting to note that the play ends with scene seven in the F1, but most modern editors break for a new scene after Malcolm and Siward enter the castle. This raises the first debate for students -- why the added scene break? I feel that the break makes sense in that Malcolm and Siward were in front of the castle, and Macbeth is fighting elsewhere within the castle or on the battle field. Of course, in The Masks of Macbeth, Rosenberg argues that "[t]he war is almost over: Shakespeare does not let the continuous momentum of the action slacken for a moment. Macbeth's fate, the first priority, demands immediate consummation. So in the Folio, Macbeth returns at once to the stage, he [is] still fighting, alone, his castle lost, his men mainly surrendered or gone over to the enemy" (633). I would break the students into groups, and ask each group to make a decision about the scene break. They must give three reasons for either adding the break or keeping it as it is in the F1.

Folger -- 5.8.1-20

Enter Macbeth.

Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword? Whiles I see lives, the gashes
Do better upon them.

Enter Macduff.

Turn, hellhound, turn!

Of all men else I have avoided thee.


But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

I have no words;
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.


Thou losest labor.
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield


To one of woman born.

Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee Macduff was from his mother's womb
Untimely ripped.



First Folio -- 5.7.40-61

Enter Macbeth.

Macb. Why should I play the Roman Foole, and dye
On mine owne sword? whileS I see liveS, the gasheS
Do better upon them.

Enter Macdvffe.

Macd. Tvrne Hell-hovnd, tvrne.

Macb. Of all men else I have avoyded thee:
But get thee backe, my sovle iS too much charg'd
With blood of thine already.

Macd. I have no wordS,
My uoice i
S in my Sword, thov bloodier Villaine
Then tearme
S can give thee ovt. Fight: Alarvm

Macb. Thov loosest labovr,
AS easie may'st thov the intrenchant Ayre
With thy keene Sword impresse, a
S make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on uvlnerable Crest
I beare a charmed Life, which mvst not yeeld
To one of woman borne.

Macd. Dispaire thy Charme,
And let the Angell whom thov still hast serv'd
Tell thee, Macdvffe waS from hiS MotherS womb
Untimely ript.

The first thing students will notice about these passages is the odd typeface in the F1 version. I would explain the font differences to the students. For example, the F1 uses two characters to represent the letter s (s and S). I would then ask the students to note any spelling and capitalization differences between the two texts.

Line #

First Folio



Foole, dye*

fool, die*


owne, whiles

own, Whiles


Turne, Hell-hound, turne

turn, hellhound, turn





backe, soule, charg'd

back, soul, charged


Sword, Villaine

sword, villain


Then, tearmes

than, terms


loosest*, labour

losest*, labor


easie, may'st, Ayre

easy, mayst, air


keene, Sword, impresse

keen, sword, impress





beare, charmed, Life, yeeld

bear, charmed, life, yield





Dispaire, Charme

Despair, charm


Angell, serv'd

angel, served


Macduffe, Mothers

Macduff, mother's




The students may or may not notice the words with substantive changes. I have marked those words with an asterisks (*). The following definitions, taken from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, exemplify how a small change in spelling can effect meaning:

* dye -- v. Colour, stain, tinge, suffuse; esp. impregnate with colouring matter, change the colour of by means of a (natural or synthetic) colouring material in solution.

* loose -- v. Let loose or set free; release from bonds, fetters, or physical restraint; free (the lips, tongue, etc.) from constraint.

I think it is safe to say that, in line 1, Macbeth was chastising himself for having thoughts of suicide, not the color of his sword!

The students will probably notice the accidental changes in the text, such as capitalization and punctuation. Although the changes in capitalization don't change the meaning of the words, some people in the acting community believe that Shakespeare capitalized words in the middle of a sentence because those words carried strong meaning and should be emphasized by the actor. I would have my students break into two groups, stand across the room from each other, and read the scene. Each time they come across a capitalized word in the middle of a sentence, they should emphasize that word. In this scene, they would emphasize Roman Foole, Hell-hound, Sword, Villaine, Ayre, Sword, Crests, Life, Charme, Angell, Macduffe, Mothers, and Untimely. They may also want to discuss who had the most capitalized words and what that means about the character's emotional state.

In addition to the Folger edition, I looked at five other modern editions of the text. All five modern versions were very similar to the Folger edition, so I will discuss them on the merits of their glosses and notes. I think it is important to determine what students need to know to understand the selection when choosing a text for classroom use. If the page is covered with notes on the text, the students will not try to discover meaning for themselves. It is for this reason that I would never use the Arden or Oxford editions as classroom copies. I would have them available as references only. All five editions had very similar notes; the difference was the length of discussion. For example, the Folger edition says that Roman is "associated here with approval of suicide" (184), whereas the Oxford edition goes into a lengthy discussion of Cato, Brutus, and Antony (207).

The most interesting notes in all five editions dealt with the fact that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped" (Mowat 185). Although most of the notes agree that Macduff was "prematurely delivered (by Caesarean section)" (Gibson 152), the Variorum suggested that there may have been other ways in which a child could have been born prematurely. I thought this was interesting, so I tried to find more information. I came across an article in the Shakespeare Bulletin by a group from the Boston University School of Medicine. In "A New Pun on the Birth of Macduff," they argue that there were "twelve instances between 1647 and 1876 in which vicious bulls or cows ripped the abdomens of pregnant women precipitating 'untimely' births" (Reich 15). They go on to argue that both Macbeth and Macduff use language that assaults the reproductive organs, and that Shakespeare created a pun on the word "cow'd" by relating it to this attack.

Oddly enough, the previous article was the only article I found that directly relates to this passage. There were several other articles listed in the computer search, but I couldn't find them at either the Folger or Georgetown libraries. Of course, I did find a great deal of art work, and I came to the conclusion that, at this moment in the play, everything has been said. Macduff cries, "I have no words . . ." (Mowat 185), and what is left is the ensuing battle which ends with Macbeth's head on a pike. I was amazed at many of the similarities in the works of art. In four of the five drawings that depicted both Macbeth and Macduff, Macbeth was pictured on the left side of the page. Most of the paintings had dead bodies at Macbeth's feet, both men in kilts, and swords raised for battle. The most interesting piece was created by Henry Corbould in 1826. In his engraving, Corbould depicts the two men on the battle field in front of the castle. In the distance, men are fighting, and dead bodies can be seen everywhere. Macbeth's sword is lowered, and Macduff has his sword raised in an attack stance. Macbeth has a look of fear on his face, and above him, the three witches hover. They are pointing in many directions with sinister looks on their faces. One is holding her fingers over her lips as if she is hushing Macbeth. I believe that this is the moment that Macduff tells Macbeth of his strange birth. What is so fascinating about this engraving is the use of the witches. Corbould depicts the supernatural influence of the witches all the way to Macbeth's final moments.

I often introduce this play using an activity from this final moment in the play. I have the kids pair off, and then I give them the following script:

A. Turn, hellhound, turn!
B. Get thee back.
A. My voice is in my sword.
B. I'll not fight with thee.
A. Then yield thee, coward.
B. I will not yield.

I have the students memorize either A or B, and then we work on staging a mock sword fight. They must make five moves or hits, and in the end, one person must die. We practice different ways of dying before we begin (i.e. die from laughter, die of embarrassment, die of boredom, etc.). After the scene has been choreographed, I give them time to practice their scene, and then volunteers may show their scene to the class. Afterwards, we discuss the scenes and the meaning of the line "My voice is in my sword." My alternative school students enjoy this activity because it allows them to move and yell, but they are also very perceptive when it comes to our discussion of violence and what drives people to violent acts. Through performance exercises and Shakespeare's text, they are able to make connections to their own lives, and see the power of their own voices in a world which seems very chaotic to them.


Works Cited


Anonymous. Mr. Alexander as Macduff. Mr. Irving as Macbeth. (Art File I72 #7)
---, Mr. Marston as Macduff. (Art File M374.4 #2)
Corbould, Henry. Macbeth V.7. 1826. (Art File S528m1 #73)
Lane, Richard James. Macduff. 1840. (Art File K31 #32)
---, John L. Pritchard, Macduff, Macbeth. 1838. (Art File P961.4 #1)
Loftis, W. Mr. Palmer as Macduff, Macbeth. 1794. (Art Vol. C16 #37)
Merry, Tom. The Doom of Macbeth. 1886. (Art File S528m1 #84)
Thompson, John. "I have no words..." 1826. (Art Vol. C15 #15)
Thurston, John. Macbeth V.7. 1798. (Art File S528m1 #70, 71, 72)

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Laurel, 1990.

Brown, Lesley, ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

Furness, Horace Howard. The Variorum Shakespeare Macbeth. London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1903.

Gibson, Rex, ed. Cambridge School Shakespeare Macbeth. By William Shakespeare.  1606-1611. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Mowat, Barbara A., and Paul Werstine, ed. The New Folger Library Shakespeare Macbeth.  By William Shakespeare. 1606-1611. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Muir, Kenneth. Arden Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. 1606-1611. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Reich, P., R. Corbett, T. Saunders, D. Sowerby, K. Harper, A. Brown, and S. Wilkes. "A New Pun on the Birth of Macduff." Shakespeare Bulletin. September/October, 1987.

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Macbeth. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.

Unless otherwise noted, all original content 1994-1998 Amy Ulen. All rights reserved.
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