John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Key Passages

March 29, 2011 in Essay

Act I, Scene 1, Lines 1-11

Thunder and lightning. Enter three WITCHES.

1 Witch. When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2 Witch. When the hurly burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
3 Witch. That will be ere the set of sun.
1 Witch. Where the place?
2 Witch. Upon the heath.
3 Witch. There to meet with Macbeth.
1 Witch. I come, Graymalkin!
2 Witch. Paddock calls.
3 Witch. Anon.
All. Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

This brief but famous first scene, with its ominous mood sets the tone of the play. The witches are obviously familiar with each other, planning when next to meet. We have caught them in media res, in the midst of their current action. What they were doing before the play starts we have no way of knowing. They tell us of a tumultuous battle with the onomatopoetic phrase, “hurly burly.” And clearly they are seeking out Macbeth. The first two witches prepare to exit by announcing they hear call, respectively, a cat (Graymalkin) and a toad (Paddock). These two are traditional witches’ “familiars” (animals that help a witch with her magic).

That the weird women hear their familiars call is then a clue that they are indeed witches, as the text and character list labels them. But the astrologer Simon Forman saw the play in London shortly after it was written (in 1611) and he, without benefit of reading the text, wrote in a notebook that they were “3 women feiries or Nimphes.” (The perspicacity of this particular astrologer might be suggested by the fact that he successfully predicted his own death, but this, as has been pointed out, is not hard to do when you kill yourself.) In any case, Forman didn’t consider that they might be real women, the kind of real women who were sometimes tried and executed for witchcraft. He thought them spiritual beings.

One clue as to their perhaps inhuman quality is revealed in their next appearance, when Banquo and Macbeth meets them, and Banquo points out that they “should be women/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so” (I.3). As women with beards, they are unnatural and uncanny.

They conclude this little scene by chanting in unison, and because it is in unison the chant has an especially magical, incantatory quality. They introduce the theme of doubleness to the play (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”), and suggest thereby that good and evil may be hard to tell apart. And they interestingly refer to hovering through the air, suggesting perhaps that, like traditional folkloric witches, they can fly. This little scene is attention grabbing, with its formulaic taking of turns (1,2,3) and the short strange rhythms of the verse, all suggesting a witches’ ritual, what was often called a Witches’ Sabbath.

Act II, Scene 1, Lines 31-64

Macbeth. Go, bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,
She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed.—
Exit servant
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecat’s off’rings; and wither’d Murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
A bell rings.
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Here we see the difference between Macbeth’s outer persona, speaking in an everyday tone to his servant, and his inner thoughts, which he shares with the audience is soliloquy as soon as the servant leaves. He is waiting for his wife’s signal that it is time for him to commit the murder, but in the stillness of waiting his imagination takes over, and he has the vision (or hallucination) of a dagger in the air. He takes out his real dagger but says the dagger of his vision looks just as real to him. While he knows this imaginary dagger is from his mind, for Macbeth what is in his mind seems as real as what is in reality. And, amazingly, the vision changes even as Macbeth looks at it. First it starts moving, leading Macbeth to the place where he will commit the murder, then suddenly showing drops (gouts) of blood, which were not there before. Even as he sees this imaginary dagger, he tries to reassure himself, “There’s no such thing.”

Then he reminds himself that this is nighttime (when all seems dead), and sleep is bothered by “wicked dreams.” It is almost as if Macbeth is himself dreaming a wicked dream while still awake. This is the time of night “witchcraft celebrates/Pale Hecat’s off’rings,” he says, bringing to his mind (and the audiences) the role the witches have played in leading him towards this murder. (Hecate, who will appear later in the play as the Goddess of the witches, is pale because she is the moon goddess, Goddess of night and darkness, where the moon is the strongest pale presence).

Then almost allegorically Macbeth imagines “Murder,” set on by his watchkeeper the wolf (often associated with the moon and darkness and also with death because wolves are scavengers or carrion-eaters), moving stealthily (as criminals must). Interestingly Macbeth imagines also Murder moving with “Tarquin’s ravishing strides,” Tarquin being the mythological rapist of Lucrece, who Shakespeare wrote about in his poem “THE Rape of Lucrece,” and who he alludes to in several plays (including Cymberline and Titus Andronicus). Murder moves like a ghost, Macbeth says (and indeed murder makes for ghosts), which leads him to ask that his own strides be unheard even by the earth, for if his footsteps are heard, someone might notice where he is (and prevent the murder). Further, if his footsteps are heard, the time will not be as filled with horror. Silence can make things more frightening (as makers of scary movies know). Finally he ends with a Hamlet-like suggestion that he should stop talking and start acting, that deeds are what count.) At least in the beginning of the play, Macbeth is a lot like Hamlet, a man who likes to think and talk a lot about what he is going to do, but who finally must learn how to do.) Macbeth, as has been suggested before, is full of uses of “do,” “done,” “deed,” etc., but it does take Macbeth a while to talk himself into doing his deed. He has to soliloquize about the murder before he can actually do it. Like an introvert, he has to think first, then act.

Finally the bell rings in the silent night, and Macbeth, wishing Duncan not here this sound that is calling him to his death, leaves the stage in silence.

Act II, Scene 2, Lines 26-56

Macbeth. One cried ‘God bless us!’ and ‘Amen,’ the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
List’ning their fear, I could not say “Amen,”
When they did say ‘God bless us!’
Lady Macbeth. Consider it not so deeply.
Macbeth. But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’?
I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’
Stuck in my throat.
Lady Macbeth. These deeds must not be thought
After these ways: so, it will make us mad.
Macbeth. Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast;—
Lady Macbeth. What do you mean?
Macbeth. Still it cried ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house:
‘Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!’
Lady Macbeth. Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy Thane,
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things. Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.—
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go, carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.
Macbeth. I’ll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on’t again I dare not.
Lady Macbeth. Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers: the sleeping, and the dead,
Are but as pictures; ’tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.

The murder has been done, and Macbeth is disturbed, dwelling on the fact that he could not say “Amen,” when he heard the King’s sons praying, saying “God bless us.” Lady Macbeth suggests simple repression: don’t think about it, or else you’ll go crazy. (The irony of this speech appears later in the play, when it is indeed Lady Macbeth who has gone crazy.)

But Macbeth, as would seem normal, cannot help but think about what he has just done. And just as he had seen an air-borne dagger before the deed, after the deed he heard a voice saying to him, “Sleep no more.” (This voice we must suppose is yet another hallucination, but perhaps this voice and the airborne dagger were not actually created by the witches or the devil and not just by Macbeth’s own troubled mind?)

Macbeth, who will not sleep from now on (nor will his sleepwalking wife), sums up what he is losing, in one of the greatest poetic descriptions of sleep ever written. First Macbeth calls to mind the innocence of sleep—as opposed to the guilt of his own waking mind. Then he uses five short but brilliant metaphors to show that Macbeth knows what he will be missing. Sleep is seen as a knitter putting back together the unraveled sleeve of care; sleep is the death that each day’s life demands as a part of the nature of things; sleep is a bath after hard physical labor; sleep is the second course in nature’s banquet, the first being waking; and in this feast, it is sleep, not waking that provides the chief nourishment.

Lady Macbeth just tells him not to be so “brainsickly,” to just go wash the blood off his hands, and to return the daggers to the scene of the crime, which Macbeth has mistakenly (perhaps in a daze) carried with him. Macbeth, unable to look on what he has “done,” refuses. Lady Macbeth claiming that there is no more reason to fear the dead than the sleeping, says she will do it. Earlier in the scene, she showed a similar naiveté, when she recounted how she left the daggers for Macbeth and considered killing the king herself. She didn’t, she told Macbeth, because the king “resembled/My father as he slept.” Clearly this supposed resemblance suggests something meaningful to the more psychologically sensitive—for example that the King as King is indeed a kind of father to her. She naively thinks she can cover the sleeping attendants with Duncan’s blood and suffer no psychological consequences. Perhaps it is because Macbeth has early on thought about the murder’s psychological consequence (future lack of sleep, for example) that he doesn’t go mad. Lady Macbeth, who thinks that her soul or psyche will not be affected by a murder, who even is foolish enough to claim she could kill a nursing baby, will be the one who goes mad.

Act III, Scene 4, Lines 135-143

Macbeth. I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d.
Lady Macbeth. You lack the season of all natures, sleep.
Macbeth. Come, we’ll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use:
We are yet but young in deed.

This is the last conversation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. It is just past the middle of the play, right after the banquet that Macbeth disrupted upon seeing Banquo’s ghost. Macbeth now exhibits a for him surprising calmness and brevity. He employs a powerful metaphor, that of wading in a river of blood. The wading metaphor is apt, for in fact when you are wading a river, once you pass the half-way point, there is no turning back. Macbeth, like the play itself, is past the halfway part and so must go on his bloody way. (This river of blood metaphor also echoes the “bank and shoal of time” and “jump the life to come” images of his Macbeth’s earlier speech, and also brings to mind the traditional image of time as a river.) Lady Macbeth now acknowledges the psychological damage that has been done, pointing out that Macbeth is suffering from his lack of sleep. “Come, we’ll to sleep,” he responds, but there is no suggestion in the play that they are actually able to sleep.

Macbeth concludes, in his last speaking to his wife with words that don’t really seem directed at her. He says that his self-delusion (so most editors translate “self-abuse’), what makes him unable to sleep, is just the fear of a newcomer (to the game of murder), a fear that can be overcome by more such deeds, by more murders. Macbeth has here left his wife behind as she descends into madness and he becomes hardened, no longer plagued by guilt or self-doubt.

Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 1-38

Thunder. Enter the three Witches.
1 Witch. Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 Witch. Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
3 Witch. Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”
1 Witch. Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
All. Double, double toil and trouble:
Fire burn; and, cauldron, bubble.
2 Witch. Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
All. Double, double toil and trouble:
Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble.
3 Witch. Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse;
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips;
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
All. Double, double toil and trouble:
Fire burn; and, cauldron bubble.
2 Witch. Cool it with a baboon’s blood:
Then the charm is firm and good.

This scene contains Shakespeare’s most famous lines, after, perhaps Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”: Double, double toil and trouble/ Fire burn; and, cauldron bubble.” We are treated here to an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the witches’ most secret activity: their magical ceremony. Shakespeare here follows a traditional magical practice in explicitly invoking the magical power found in number. “Three” is the magical number first invoked in the ritual—in western magical tradition, three is the most powerful number, rather than for example “four” as with most Native American tribes. “Thrice” the cat mews and the pig whines, and then the ritual can begin.

And as ancient “black” magical traditions have it (as detailed, for example, in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), animal parts have magical properties, especially parts taken from animals only recently deceased. The superstitious idea is that such parts still somewhat carry the life energy they used to and so can be used in making a magical potion. As animal parts (lizard’s leg, tooth of wolf, tongue of dog, etc.) have magic, so much more do human parts. Thus into the cauldron they throw a Jew’s liver, a Turk’s nose, a Tartar’s lips, and a baby’s finger. Three of these parts come from explicitly non-Christians (the Jew and presumably two Moslems), which perhaps carry more magic than the presumably “saved” Christian recently dead. And the source of the fourth part (a finger from baby), suggests at the relation between the witches and the Macbeths, for early in the play Macbeth invoked pity as a new born babe, and then Lady Macbeth suggested her wiliness to murder a baby. The pure evil of taking a finger form a baby is perhaps the source of the hoped-for power from the finger in the ritual.

Act V, Scene 5, Lines 16-28

Seyton. The queen, my lord, is dead.
Macbeth. She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

What comes just before Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech is a bit confusing. Why does Macbeth first respond to the news of his wife’s death with, “She should have died hereafter”? Some editors suggest that he means, “She would have died later in any case,” the implication being that all humans die. Or, as other editors suggest, he could be saying that it would have been better for her to die some later time, not just then. This last interpretation fits well with the general theme of “time” in the play. In any case, the line is unusually short for pentameter, only eight instead of ten syllables, which might suggest to the actor takes time for a noticeable pause after “hereafter.” The “word” in Macbeth’s next line is surely Seyton’s use of the word “died.” Macbeth, about to fight a battle doesn’t have time to mourn, and the first two lines of the speech have a cold and not a mournful tone, are not what one would expect of a husband who just learned of his wife’s death.

Then the great speech begins in earnest, with the three tomorrows in a long line (eleven syllables), and a rhythmic repetition suggesting at how time moves. And if you scan this lines for iambs (du DUH), you’ll find that stresses go on the “and,” where some actors do put them, suggesting at an almost boring quality of the inevitable succession of tomorrows that make up time: Tomorrow AND tomorrow AND tomorrow. Fitting with the long slowness of this line, the next line starts with a trochee (DUH duh), stressing “Creeps.” And Macbeth’s words suggest this creeping with the alliterations, “petty pace” and “day to day,” images again echoing the original invocation of an endless string of tomorrows that makes up time, a string that Macbeth sees as petty rather than meaningful. Perhaps the death of his wife has caused him to see the meaninglessness of his life, or his inevitable death. And Macbeth’s opening thought ends by using a sound metaphor (also frequent in Macbeth), suggesting that the petty creep of time goes on to the last “syllable” of recorded time. Perhaps time is measured in syllables, because it is a human construct, something we record (in a way animals don’t). And certainly time envisioned, as ending on a final syllable does not suggest that time is grand, large, or important; if you break a sentence into just its syllables, the sentence can lose some of it meaning. So again, Macbeth suggests at the meaninglessness of time, of human time on earth, of human life.

The next thought moves from “tomorrows” to “yesterdays,” which light fools (humans) the way to death (dusty in reference to the earth/dust where humans are buried, which humans become after decomposition). Then, Macbeth associates with having a light to find the way to death (what he sees life’s journey as), with a traditional and perhaps worldwide metaphor, the association of life with a flame, using the imperative to ask for “the brief candle,” life, to be put out. We can see how he is talking in response to the news about Lady Macbeth about death, and seeing her time, and his, and ours, as just a brief candle. And the candle image of course puts us in mind of Lady Macbeth’s last appearance in the play, where she walked with candle in hand and the doctor said she always had it with her.

From the candle comes the associated idea of a shadow: if life is a candle, it is also a walking shadow (as Lady Macbeth walking with a candle could have produced a shadow.) And shadows are of course insubstantial and impermanent. And then Macbeth uses one of Shakespeare’s favorite metaphors to describe life: it is play, and we are all actors (poor players) who only have our brief time on stage (strutting and fretting) till our play ends, and we die, and are heard no more. (Shakespeare’s audience talked in terms of hearing plays, not seeing them, so the end of the play is not, as it might be to a modern audience, suggested at by the actors being seen no more, but rather by their being heard no more.)

Then again associating from the previous image/idea, Macbeth sees life not as a play, but as a related thing, a tale. But here his pessimism becomes even more explicit. Where some might see the teller of the tale of life to be God, who promises and eventual happy ending (for some) in heaven, here the tale of life is shockingly told be an idiot. Just as humans “strut and fret” in their time on the stage of life, so too do they fill their tales with “sound and fury.” But the meaning of this activity, the meaning of life, is finally “nothing.” Macbeth in a profoundly beautiful soliloquy has put forth a profoundly dark, even nihilistic idea. And this idea fits his time of life, with his wife now dead, he himself about to fight his enemies and possible die, with no religious consolation, Macbeth, despite the power of his language, is left with nothing.

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