John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Difficult Passages

April 24, 2011 in Essay

Act I. Scene 7, Lines 1-28

Macbeth. If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th’ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s Cherubins, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. —I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other —

Duncan has arrived at the castle, and Macbeth thinks out loud about the proposed murder of the king. This speech, that begins with sibilant s and harsh t sounds, captures the inner qualities of Macbeth’s thinking. Some of the language is difficult, but these difficulty can seem to come from the fact that we are overhearing Macbeth’s inner thoughts rather than a communication meant to be understood by another person. The speech starts with three repetitions of “done,” an important word in the play (along with “do,” “deed,” and other such variations).

Macbeth is here not so sure about what Lady Macbeth asserts so easily a little later, that “what’s done is done.” He would do the murder quickly (without hesitation), if only he were sure that would be the end of it, that the situation was done once the murder was. If only, Macbeth thinks, the assassination (what a whispered, sibilant word!) could trammel (that is catch as in a net), the consequences of the assassination, and thus catch (as a trammel net does) with Duncan’s end (his surcease) Macbeth’s final success (being secure as the new king). The phrase “with his surcease success” is almost intentionally obscure, with what one critic called a sickly rhythm (fitting the “doubleness” theme of the play), but the feeling (again brought out be the whispered “s” sounds) is clear: surcease, success; Duncan’s death, Macbeth’s triumph. This success, Macbeth knows, is in doubt, contingent upon the crucial conditional at the beginning of the speech: “If.”

In a now common phrase Shakespeare seems to have invented, he futilely wishes that the murder might be the “be-all and end-all.” If only it could be, then, Macbeth says, “upon this bank and shoal of time/ We’d jump the life to come.” This too is a problematic passage. First of all, in the only text of Macbeth (the first Folio), “bank and school” of time is written. While some have ingeniously tried to argue this as correct, most scholars accept the 18th century scholar Theobald’s brilliant emendation of “school” to “shoal.” Thus we get a river of time image, for a shoal is a place where a river is shallow, and we see Macbeth upon the bank of the river of time (at a shallow spot), hoping to jump over. Now while “jump the life to come” can suggest skipping over the future consequences of doing the murder, more likely the life to come refers to the after life, which Macbeth is willing to risk, jumping over or ignoring that final life to come in heaven or hell.

Then the speech gets clearer, as Macbeth moves from thinking about final judgment to thinking about “judgment here.” And here clearly justice would suggest that the murderer will be punished with murder. Macbeth recalls his traditional obligations as the King’s subject, relative, and as a host to care for (not kill) his guest. Then Macbeth for the first time explicitly talks about Duncan’s great virtue, which leads him back to theological language, for he sees Duncan’s virtues as like angels with trumpets (a familiar image, from the book of Revelations as well as from much Renaissance painting). And these angelic trumpets will announce the damnation of those who have killed good King Duncan. Then “Pity like a new born babe’ and a high order of angels (cherubim), flying in the wind, will blow (carrying forward the trumpet image) the deed in all eyes, like the wind blows specks of dust into people’s eyes, causing them to cry.

Macbeth’s “Pity as a Babe” image is echoed by Lady Macbeth’s shocking claim later in the scene:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (I.vii.54-9)

Here Lady Macbeth shows the ultimate lack of pity, an unwillingness even to spare a baby.

And then Macbeth ends with an image that echoes the jumping the life to come (across a river) that he started with. Now he is a horseman, whose horse is ambition, which he pricks (with his spurs in its side) just as he is trying to stir himself into action—but his ambition jumps too far, and falls on the other…. Lady Macbeth enters and Macbeth doesn’t finish his thought. Probably he was going to say other “side,” echoing the jump the river image from the start. The speech as a whole shows how he sensitively can analyze the negative consequences to come, but is going to leap and fall nonetheless.

Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 44-63

2 Witch. By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes. —[Knocking.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!
Enter Macbeth.
Macbeth. How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
All. A deed without a name.
Macbeth. I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of Nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you.
1 Witch. Speak.
2 Witch. Demand.
3 Witch. We’ll answer.
1 Witch. Say, if thou’dst rather hear it from our mouths,
Or from our masters?
Macbeth. Call ‘em; let me see ‘em.

There are two difficulties here. First of all there is Macbeth’s conjuring, where he professes his willingness to have churches, ships, corn, trees, castles, palaces, and pyramids destroyed. The ultimate sign of how far Macbeth has turned to evil comes in his willingness to let “Nature’s germens” be destroyed. The word “germen” relates to our word germ, not as its primary meaning of “microbe,” but rather as a seed (as in the phrase, “germ of an idea”). Germens are the invisible seeds of all things, the essences of all. Macbeth is thus willing to have the entire universe be destroyed, so long as the witches answer his questions. King Lear in his madness makes a similar pronouncement: “Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once” (III.ii.8).) Macbeth’s willingness to let everything, even the germens (the building blocks of the world) be destroyed is a shocking indication of his evil.

The other difficulty is that the witches speak of their “masters,” whom Macbeth asks to see. And their masters turn out to be “apparitions,” images that foretell the future: an armed head signifying Macduff (who will kill Macbeth), a bloody child (signifying that Macbeth cannot be killed by any “born” of woman), a crowned child carrying a tree (signifying Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane), and finally a procession of eight Kings (ending with Shakepeare’s current King, James). The witches do not control the future, then; instead the images of the future control them, are their masters. It’s as if the future is there already (behind?) waiting to be summoned into the present by those (like the witches) who know how to summon.

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