‘Dudgeon’ was not an obscure word in Shakespeare’s time, nor was it one of the many words he invented. Dudgeon was one of the words he would have known and used routinely in his conversations with the people he interacted with, and his audience would have known it as well as we know a word like ‘cellphone’ today. It had two separate meanings that seem unconnected. The first expresses a state of mind and is usually qualified by the adjective ‘high.’ It means being angry or annoyed. So Elizabethans talked about someone leaving an encounter in ‘high dudgeon,’ for example. ‘Dudgeon’ is still occasionally used in that way today.
The way Shakespeare uses the word in Macbeth – the only time he used the word – is in a second way, also used normally in his daily interactions, but not much used today, although the word is still valid should you want to use it. In his famous soliloquy ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me …’ Macbeth is about to murder Duncan and he hallucinates about this bloody deed he is about to commit. He sees a dagger pointing towards Duncan’s bedchamber. He sees it vividly, ‘and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.’
Dudgeon is a type of wood. It is the root of the box tree. It is the most dense, the hardest, the heaviest, of all wood, the only wood that doesn’t float on water. It was, and still is, used for fashioning wood carvings, to make musical instruments and anything else that requires hard, tough wood, including dagger handles, and in Shakespeare’s time, dagger handles were referred to as dudgeons. So Macbeth is simply describing the dagger, with blood on both its blade and its handle.
However, it does offer insight into Shakespeare’s poetic technique. If he had used the word ‘handle,’ a word that was available to him, it would not have worked as well. The sound – the music – of words is important in poetry and, of course, the world’s number one poet knew that, and knew how to exploit it. Compare the two words, ‘handle’ and ‘dudgeon.’ Which one fits in with the darkness, the danger, the dastardliness of the act that is about to be committed? Notice, all those words begin with the letter ‘D.’ And the letter ‘D’, suggesting doom, death etc. rings through the language of the text. When Macbeth is trying to decide whether to go ahead with the murder he begins his famous soliloquy, “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.” – an insistent drumbeat of the ‘d’ sound. And words beginning with ’d’ proliferate throughout the text. It is like a tolling bell echoing through it.
There are other poetic aspects of the word ‘dudgeon’ as opposed to ‘handle’ in that the very atmosphere of the word echoes words like dastly, doom, dungeon, death, destruction. If we say the word ‘handle’ out loud what do we get? Something soft and lilting, whereas when we do the same with ‘dudgeon’ we get what Shakespeare wanted us to get – the dark atmosphere of the play. Small decisions like that by the author all add up to the darkness of the Macbeth that we know. Shakespeare does that kind of thing in all his plays.
But there is even more. The box tree (‘buxus’ in Latin) was associated in Roman times with funerals – coffins were decorated with its leaves. That practice survived into Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s audience would therefore not only associate the blade of the dagger with death but also the handle, when referred to as a dudgeon. All this shows some of Shakespeare’s genius at finding the exact right word for everything, every time.