Word of the Day: Mote

March 19, 2011 in Word of the Day

The word occurs seven times in Shakespeare, in comedies, tragedies, histories and late plays, but it is not with Shakespeare, but rather the King James Bible that I want to begin. Matthew 7:3 to be precise:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thy own eye?

Or in other words, do not make fun of another’s imperfections when you are blind to your own. Modern Bibles give: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your eye?” This then allows us to see a certain irony in Demetrius’ comments on the mechanicals’ play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

DEMETRIUS A mote will turn the balance, which Pyramus, which Thisbe, is the better.

Demetrius is, of course, criticising a poor performance, but his choice of ‘mote’ to describe the actors’ merits suggests that he may have his own problems when it comes to observation. After all, earlier in the play, he has received the “love-juice” in the play, something rather more than a “mote”.

Some similar irony occurs in a famous scene in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Here, almost all the male characters manage to overhear each other’s love-sick wailings, except for Berowne who manages to pour out his heart in solitude and then, taking refuge in a tree, to listen in on everyone else’s. His hypocritical position becomes very clear when he starts talking about motes…

BEROWNE But are you not asham’d? nay, are you not,
All three of you, to be thus much o’ershot?
You found his mote; the king your mote did see;
But I a beam do find in each of three.

This scene in Love’s Labour’s Lost with the association of infatuation and the mote / beam of weakness, leads to a rather more sober use of the word in Shakespeare’s long, tragic poem, The Rape of Lucrece:

Their smoothness, like a goodly champaign plain,
Lays open all the little worms that creep;
In men, as in a rough-grown grove, remain
Cave-keeping evils that obscurely sleep:
Through crystal walls each little mote will peep:
Though men can cover crimes with bold stern looks,
Poor women’s faces are their own faults’ books.

Here, Lucrece describes the position of women as being fatally open, as beings whose every weakness is exposed to men, whilst those men, using violence and “bold stern looks” can – hypocritically – disguise their own, most likely larger, flaws (the wooden beams that the motes of dust imply). This being Shakespeare, the biblical language is combined with traditional allegory of “grove” and “cave” to describe error and danger, as well as intense self-referentence to this literary Lucrece being like a “book”.

My final example is simple, but useful as a conclusion. It comes from Pericles, and is used not describe any kind of hypocritical position, but rather the smallness of the dramatic characters themselves, as small as motes of dust.

GOWER Like motes and shadows see them move awhile;
Your ears unto your eyes I’ll reconcile.

Of course, as my earlier example showed, motes are never far from beams, and the tiny object one sees in another may suggest that one is missing something much larger. When Gower speaks these lines then, as the chorus in Pericles, and uses them to describe dramatic art, are the audience meant to wonder about their own position, the possibility that they too might be actors? All the world’s a scene…

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