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Word of the Day: Bagpipes

shakespeare - May 20, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Bagpipes are, for Shakespeare, an instrument that inspires emotion. Falstaff, in the first of my three passages, mentions the instrument in the midst of some tavern banter with young Prince Hal:

FALSTAFF … ‘Sblood, I am as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugged bear.
PRINCE HENRY Or an old lion, or a lover’s lute.
FALSTAFF Yea, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe.

For the curious, a Lincolnshire bagpipe – no pictures of which exist in the public domain – consists of only a single “drone” (or pipe) along with the usual mouthpiece and bag. It has a rather mixed reputation: Samuel Pepys wrote in 1667 that Lincolnshire bagpipes made “barbarous music”, whilst a linguist noted in 1875 that “Licolnshire bagpipes” was a colloquialism for the croaking of frogs. The instrument may indeed have been associated with melancholia, but such a range of other opinions suggests that Falstaff’s line, rather like Falstaff himself, has a few playful ambiguities to it.

The music of bagpipes does not fare too well in my second example either. Autolycus’s music is described by a servant as so delightful that after having heard it “the bagpipe could not move you”. Again, here, the emotional properties of bagpipes are alluded to, but immediately dismissed from the pastoral world of Bohemia, a land which, unlike Perdita’s homeland, does not know such grim emotion.

I will conclude with perhaps the most curious mention of bagpipes of them all. Shylock is better known for his melancholic and brooding speeches than for his humour; yet it is he who turns the equally melancholy bagpipe to surreal comic effect. The intent of his speech – to demonstrate at Antonio’s trial that his lethal demand for a pound of flesh is based upon a fixed and inalterable humour – is deadly serious, yet one cannot help but awkwardly smile at his choice of illustration.

SHYLOCK … Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose,
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes. Now, for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be render’d,
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;
Why he, a harmless necessary cat;
Why he, a wauling bagpipe; but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended;
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Bibliography and Film and Video Productions

shakespeare - May 10, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Bibliography

Adamson, Silvia, Hunter, Lynette, Magnusson, Lynn, Thompson, Ann, and Wales, Katie, ed. Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide. The Arden Shakespeare: London, 2001.
Blake, N. F. Shakespeare’s Language: An Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1983.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books: New York, 1998.
___________, ed. Macbeth. Chelsea House Publishers: New York, 1991.
___________, ed. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Chelsea House Publishers: New York, 1987.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Bradley. A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. London: Macmillan, 1904.
Brown, John Russell, ed. Focus on Macbeth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: A Guide to the Play. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Goddard, Harold. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Phoenix Books: Chicago, 1951.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2004.
Halliday, F.E. Shakespeare and His Critics. Schocken Books: New York, 1963.
Hawkes, Terence, ed. Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare. Capricorn Books: New York, 1959.
___________, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Macbeth. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1977.
Kermode, Frank. The Age of Shakespeare. The Modern Library: New York, 2003.
——–. Shakespeare’s Language. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2000.
Kirsch, Arthur. W.H. Auden: Lectures on Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1966.
Knight, G. Wilson. The Imperial Theme. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1931.
Leggatt, Alexander, ed. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Sourcebook. Routledge: London, 2006.
Muir, Kenneth, ed. The Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth. Watson-on-Thames, Surrey:Thomas Nelson, 1984.
Onions, C. T. A Shakespeare Glossary. Oxford University Press: London, 1911.
Rosenberg, Marvin, Masks of Macbeth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Schoenbaun, Samuel. Macbeth: Critical Essays. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York:1991.
Spurgeon, Caroline. Shakespeare’s Imagery. London: Cambridge University Press, 1939.
Traversi, D.A. An Approach to Shakespeare. London: Sads, 1957.
Wain, John. The Living World of Shakespeare. Macmillan: London, 1964.
___________, ed. Shakespeare: Macbeth. Aurora Publishers Inc: Nashville, 1969.

Film and Video Productions

Casson, Philip, dir. Macbeth. With Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. HBO Home Video, 1978.
Chailly, Richard and d’Anna Claude, dir. Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth. With Leo Nucci and Shirley Verrett. Deutsche Grammophon, 1987.
Hughes, Ken, dir. Joe Macbeth. With Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman. Columbia Pictures, 1955.
Kurosawa, Akira. Throne of Blood. With Toshiro Mifune and Isuzo Yamada. Toho Company, 1957.
Kusej, Martin, dir. Dimitri Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsenks. With Chrisopher Ventris and Eva Maria Westbroek. BBC, 2006.
Billy Morrissette, dir. Scotland PA. With James LeGros and Moura Tierney. Abandon Pictures, 2001.
Polanski, Roman, dir. Macbeth. With Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. Sony Pictures, 1971.
Prouty, C. J., dir. Never Say Macbeth. With Gregory G. Giles and Alexander Enberg. Vanguard Cinema, 2007.
Serybryakof, Nikolai, dir. Macbeth, with Alec McCowen and Brian Cox. Sony Pictures, 1995.
Welles, Orson, dir. Macbeth. With Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan. Mercury Productions, 1948.
Wright, Geoffrey, dir. Macbeth. With Gary Sweet and Steve Bastoni. Starz, 2006.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Five Topics for Discussion and Writing

shakespeare - May 10, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

  1. Religion in Macbeth: Some critics and directors have emphasized the religious themes in Macbeth. Where in the play do such themes emerge? What are these themes? Are they explicitly Christian and just generally religious?
  2. Important Words and Images in Macbeth: Certain words and images appear over and over in Macbeth. Pick on such repeated word or image, then find all passages containing it. Try to say how this repeated word or image contributes to your experience of the play and also how it helps create the play’s meaning.
  3. The Macbeths’ Marriage: Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are a couple. Describe their relationship and how and why it changes.
  4. The Role of Women: How does the play Macbeth (in particular Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, and the witches) represent women?
  5. The Character of Macbeth: Show how Macbeth’s character changes over time by analyzing three of his speeches, one from the beginning of the play, one from the middle, and one from the end.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: The Play Today

shakespeare - May 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Macbeth has been one of the most performed of Shakespeare plays, from its initial performance with Richard Burbage in the title role on. In the 20th century numerous acclaimed actors and directors have taken the play on. In 1936 Orson Welles directed a famous “Voodoo” Macbeth at a theater in Harlem, with the weird sisters as voodoo priestesses. Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh were much praised for their perfomances as the couple in 1955. Peter Hall directed Paul Scofield as Macbeth in 1967 (in a production that had people talking about the Macbeth curse because opening night had to be postponed when Scofield came down with shingles); this production emphasized the play’s Christian themes, as did Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production starring Nicol Williamson. Trevor Nunn did the play again in 1976, with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in a low budget, minimalist, and powerful production. Derek Jacobi played Macbeth as military man in Adrian Noble’s 1993 production. The New Globe Theatre presented Tim Carroll’s Macbeth in 2001, with the witches (two men and a woman) controversially dressed in tuxedos and oddly painted eye glasses, seeming more ready for a party than a murder. In 2007, Conall Morrison directed another controversial Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, which featured before the play an extended dumb show of the battle, where Macbeth and others committed war crimes (murdering babies, represented by dolls). This choice undercut the sensitivity Patrick O’Kane later brought to the title role. The most acclaimed recent version is no doubt Rupert Gool’s London and Broadway production starring Patrick Stewart. The play, as bleak as Beckett’s Godot or Endgame, employed Soviet era uniforms, video images of oppression and violence, and much blood.

Macbeth has been filmed many times, including several silent movie versions. Orson Welles directed a version in 1948, with himself as Macbeth and Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth very much in love at the beginning of the play, obviously sexually attracted to each other, embracing so it looks like they mean it. And Roman Polanski in 1971 tried to make the play contemporary by bringing nudity and much blood. (Interestingly, Macbeth was the first movie Polanski did after his wife, Sharon Tae, was brutally murdered by the Manson family.) And in 2006 Geoffrey Wright directed an updated and controversial Macbeth, set in the gangworld of Melbourne Australia, with most of the original text included, but with the actor’s speaking with contemporary Australian accents.

Macbeth has such a powerful hold on people’s imaginations, that there have also been notable “spin offs’ of it. In opera both Verdi and Shostakovitch adapted the play, in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of Mittsenk, respectively. There have been cinematic and dramatic adaptations as well. The 1955 Ken Hughes film Joe Macbeth sets its scene in the Chicago gangworld, with Joe Macbeth murdering his way to power. Barbara Garson’s 1966 anti-war play Macbird! saw Lyndon Johnson as Macbeth. Akiru Kurosawa set the play in 16th century Japan, during a time of civil wars, in Throne of Blood. And Billy Morrissette’s Scotland PA shows Macbeth and his lady as partners in bed, in crime, and in business. They kill their Duncan in order to steal his idea for a fast food hamburger chain, what turn out to be a wildly successful chain of “Macbeths” burgers and fries. And in 2007 C. J. Prouty directed Never Say Macbeth, an amusing movie about a young actor who faces unexpected consequences when he defies theatrical tradition and says “Macbeth” inside the theater. Clearly the play is as relevant today as when it was first performed for King James I.

“Jumping o’er times”: An Update on Open Shakespeare

shakespeare - May 6, 2011 in Shakespeare, Uncategorized

Did you know that the word “jointress”, used by Claudius to describe his new wife and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is an Elizabethan legal term for a widow who owns property from her first marriage? I didn’t, until a contributor to Open Shakespeare made use of the site’s annotator tool to leave a comment on Hamlet during one of the two ‘annotation sprints’ organised by the project over the last few months.

That annotation on Elizabethan law is just one example out of – currently – over four hundred annotations submitted to the website, around three hundred of which are on Hamlet, chosen by vote as our flagship annotation project, and the rest on a diverse selection of Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, tragedies and romances. We hope to gather many more such contributions over the months to come, and continue to improve the annotator, which now sports a useful ‘tagging’ feature, soon allowing users to sort through annotations.

As well as gathering annotations, we have almost reached the conclusion of our efforts to publish a short introduction for every one of Shakespeare’s works. Thirty-one specially-written short pieces are already online, composed by volunteers ranging from an emeritus professor at Berkeley to a film actor from Cambridge. Along with these shorter pieces, we are beginning to accumulate longer critical essays: one on ‘Shakespeare and the City’, and another on Macbeth, kindly provided by John Boe at UC Davis.

As Open Shakespeare has grown, we have attracted some media attention. TCS (The Cambridge Student newspaper) published an article on our work in February, and a local radio station reported on our first annotation sprint. We were also invited to give a talk at the British Library as part of a series of staff talks on textual analysis at the end of February, an event which proved to be a great chance to receive new suggestions for the future direction of the project.

In the months to come, we look forward to expanding from Open Shakespeare to Open Literature, allowing users to apply our tools, and especially to annotate a wider range of authors. As annotations accumulate on Shakespeare, we also hope to publish a hardback Open Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare’s plays, on the model of the prototype, annotation-less edition prepared for OKCON 2010.

If any of this is of interest to you, please do join our ‘open literature’ mailing list, follow us on twitter, or get in touch through the website.

Minutes of Meeting: 2011-04-30

shakespeare - May 2, 2011 in Minutes, News, Shakespeare

Present:

JHS, RP

To do:

  • Publish a ‘state of the project post’ on OKFN blog
  • Publicise site through contact with other projects: www.delightedbeauty.org, www.shakespeareinsmalldoses.com
  • Publicise site: unis (NFP, fun for summer), Call For Papers
  • Investigate kickstarter
  • Organise May Week event, publicise with invitation for help over summer
  • Institute regular emails on openlit: monthly recap of volunteering/contributions, weekly drip feed of news and suggestion for contributions (one thing done, one thing needed – wotd, intro)
  • Sign up to open humanities mails: updates for okfn, advertise for openlit…
  • Prepare an Open Shakespeare presentation at OKCON Berlin

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Modern Criticism and Critical Controversies

shakespeare - May 2, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Macbeth criticism varies widely in terms of the critical approaches taken. Macbeth criticism begins in the 18th century, where the moral lessons of the play tended to be stressed. Thus Samuel Johnson summed up the play as “The danger of ambition well described.” And, in typical 18th century fashion, Johnson’s friend, the great actor David Garrick even rewrote the play so as to make the moral theme even more clear. Thus Garrick adds at the very end Macbeth saying,

I dare not ask for mercy.
It is too late, hell drags me down. I sink,
I sink—Oh!—my soul is lost forever!

This view of the play tends to see it more like a medieval morality play, with good triumphing over evil, than a modern psychological drama.

Influenced by the Romantic movement and perhaps by the rise of the novel, 19th century critics tended to make character more of the issue. Thus while they still acknowledge the moral themes of the play, the romantic critic’s focus less on the lesson of Macbeth and more on his character. Thus DeQuincy talks about how in Macbeth “the retiring of the human heart, and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is ‘unsexed;’ Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed.” And thus Coleridge explains Macbeth’s vulnerability to the witches’ prophesies by talking about the beliefs of actual soldiers: “Superstition, of one sort or another, is natural to victorious generals; the instances are too notorious to need mentioning.”

This focus on character reaches its culmination in the early 20th century with the contributions of A.C. Bradley and Sigmund Freud. The influence of Bradley on Shakespeare criticism in the early 20th century cannot be overestimated. (The critic Alexander Leggatt refers to a comic poem where “Shakespeare’s ghost failed an exam on his own plays because he had not read Bradley.”) While still acknowledging the good versus evil theme of the play (made dramatic by a dark/light opposition), Bradley saw Macbeth’s destiny as coming from his character, his tragic flaw. Thus he analyzed Macbeth as if Macbeth were a real person, and saw the poetry of his speeches more as evidence of Macbeth’s poetic genius than Shakespeare’s. Similarly Sigmund Freud analyzed the Macbeths as if they were patients on his psychoanalytic couch, seeing their psychological difficulties and tragic ends coming from the trauma of their being childless.

Refuting Bradley and Freud, L.C. Knights published a famous essay in 1933, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Here Knights made fun of the kinds of questions represented by his title, pointing out that indeed Macbeth is a dramatic poem, that the Macbeths are not real people and that although in the play Lady Macbeth talks of having nursed at least one baby, we can never know how many children she had. Caroline Spurgeon goes further (and more usefully) in this emphasis on the poetic surface of Shakespeare’s plays with her groundbreaking work Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935). Much like a botanist classifying flora, Spurgeon described the predominant imagery in each Shakespeare play. Macbeth’s “ill-fitting garments,” ”the reverberation of sound echoing over vast regions,” light as life/virtue as opposed to dark as evil/death, and (an image that according to Spurgeon is found in much of Shakespeare’s work) sin as a disease. Spurgeon convincingly demonstrates, with many examples, that these images indeed are the poetic touchstones of Macbeth, that “an appreciable part of the emotions we feel throughout of pity, fear, and horror is due to the subtle but repeated action of this imagery upon our minds, of which in our preoccupation with the main theme, we remain often largely unconscious.” So here instead of analyzing the minds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, we are analyzing the minds of the readers or hearers of the play.

But in the 20th century, discussion of the characters has gone on side by side with discussion of the poetry. Thus many critics have asked who the three witches are, whether they are supernatural, natural, or something in between. While Bradley wrote, for example, “There is not a syllable in Macbeth to imply that they are anything but women.” But Harold Goddard argued that the witches have a supernatural effect on us, “giving the impression of mighty and inscrutable forces behind human life.” “Devils and angels”—and witches—, he argues, “are out of fashion,” but for Goddard they represent something real, not necessarily in some metaphysical realm, but in human psychology, in the unconscious mind. And so Goddard begins his essay on Macbeth with an epigraph from Thoreau: “Men are probably nearer to the essential truth in their superstitions than in their science.”

From the 18th century on, critics have talked about Macbeth as “Shakespeare’s descent into Hell,” but, Goddard points out, “it is also his spring myth.” He alludes to Northen mythology, pointing out how Malcolm and his soldiers carrying the branches from Birnam wood in front of them evokes the myth of coming spring, the vanquishing of winter and war by spring and peace.

Many critics have resisted such psychological and mythic approaches, and prefer to see Macbeth as an explicitly Christian play. Thus W.A. Murray argues, “It [Macbeth], if ever poem was so, a traditional Catholic Christian poem, the moral vitality of which is rooted in an uncompromising medieval faith, and in a pre-scientific view of the nature of reality.” This is the 18th century point of view updated, as is Willard Farnham’s argument that Macbeth is “a morality play, written in terms of Jacobean tragedy. Its hero is worked upon by forces of evil, yields to temptation in spite of all that his conscience can do to stop him. . .and is brought to retribution by his death.”

The polish critic Jan Kott turned such traditional interpretations on their head, arguing that Macbeth shows the absurdity of the world and that history is nightmare. Macbeth has only one theme, Kott says, “murder.” Thus after his first murder, Macbeth declares that the world is changed, that “from this instant/ There’s nothing serious in mortality;/ All is but toys. . .” (II.iii.90-92). And so before he dies all Macbeth can do is “to drag with him into nothingness as many living beings as possible.” “This is the last consequence of the world’s absurdity,” Kott writes, ignoring any Christian affirmative morals in the play. “Macbeth is still unable to blow the world up. But he can go on murdering till the end.”

While Harold Bloom acknowledge that Macbeth is “overtly medieval Catholic,” it seems not set in Scotland but in “the cosmological emptiness as described by the ancient Gnostic heretics.” Here he comes known more on Kott’s side than Samuel Johnson’s, seeing “Christianity as irrelevant to Macbeth.” He stresses that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most imaginative hero, and that the enigma of the play is “its protagonist’s hold upon our terrified sympathy.” Bloom argues that we respond to the play with terror, but problematically we discover Macbeth “more vividly within us the more deeply we delve.” Shakespeare makes us identify and sympathize with a murderer: this is the problematic experience of reading or seeing Macbeth.

In recent years, gender critics have taken on Macbeth. Marilyn French sees the play as showing the victory of the masculine over the feminine, with there being at the plays’ end “a totally masculine world,” Lady Macbeth dead and the witches gone. Janet Adelman, in a feminist psychoanalytic reading, similarly argues that Macbeth begins “by unleashing the terrible threat of destructive maternal power and demonstrates the helplessness of its central male figure before that power. . . .” Like French she sees the end of the play as a consolidation of male power, a solving of the male’s problems through elimination of the feminine.

In 2000 Frank Kermode wrote Shakespeare’s Language, with a non-professional audience in mine. He describes a use of language that is unique to Macbeth, “an idiosyncratic rhythm,” built on oppositions and alternatives (fair and foul, grow and not grow, is and is not), and shows that while equivocation is a theme of the play it is also a habit of the play’s language. Finally, in the tradition of Spurgeon, he points to certain words and themes that are “the matrices of the language in Macbeth”: time, man, done, blood, darkness. The reader of the play can focus on these words in reading and gain a deeper understanding of how the play works.

Open Shakespeare: March and April

shakespeare - April 30, 2011 in Community, Minutes, Musings, News, Shakespeare

Annotation Sprint II

Our second annotation sprint, taking place at the end of Cambridge University term attracted contributions from all over the internet, particularly from the States. In Cambridge itself, our volunteers continued working on Hamlet, bringing the total number of annotations on this text to nearly 300.

Since this sprint, we have overhauled the aesthetics of the annotator, and added the ability to tag annotations. Work has also begun on other plays by Shakespeare, including: Henry IV pt 1, Much Ado about Nothing, Troilus and Cressida, and more.

Outreach

The project continues to appear at various events in and around Cambridge. Upcoming appearances include:

  • ‘Humanities Research: the future might be digital’, 11am – 4pm 10th May 2011, CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities).
  • ‘Food for Thought’, 2pm – 5pm 27 June 2011, English Faculty Library, Cambridge.

We have also began collaboration with local schools in Cambridge in order to test the utility of the annotator tool for Key Stage 3 students of Macbeth.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Extracts of Classic Criticism

shakespeare - April 28, 2011 in Essay

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

[From Shakespeare 1765, Johnson discusses the belief in witches and how Lady Macbeth influences her husband.]

I. i. Enter three Witches.
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, he would be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies; but a survey of the notions that prevailed at the time when this play was written, will prove that Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage, and was far from overburthening the credulity of his audience.

The reality of witchcraft or enchantment, which, though not strictly the same, are confounded in this play, has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned themselves. These phantoms have indeed appeared more frequently, in proportion as the darkness of ignorance has been more gross; but it cannot be shown, that the brightest gleams of knowledge have at any time been sufficient to drive them out of the world. . . .

The Reformation did not immediately arrive at its meridian, and tho’ day was gradually encreasing upon us, the goblins of witchcraft still continued to hover in the twilight. In the time of Queen Elizabeth was the remarkable Trial of the Witches of Warbois, whose conviction is still commemorated in an annual sermon at Huntingdon. But in the reign of King James, in which this tragedy was written, many circumstances concurred to propagate and confirm this opinion. The King, who was much celebrated for his knowledge, had, before his arrival in England, not only examined in person a woman accused of witchcraft, but had given a very formal account of the practices and illusions of evil spirits, the compacts of witches, the ceremonies used by them, the manner of detecting them, and the justice of punishing them, in his dialogues of Daemonologie, written in the Scottish dialect, and published at Edinburgh. This book was, soon after his accession, reprinted at London, and as the ready way to gain K. James’s favour was to flatter his speculations, the system of Daemonologie was immediately adopted by all who desired either to gain preferment or not to lose it. Thus the doctrine of witchcraft was very powerfully inculcated, and as the greatest part of mankind have no other reason for their opinions than that they are in fashion, it cannot be doubted but this persuasion made a rapid progress, since vanity and credulity co-operated in its favour, and it had a tendency to free cowardice from reproach. . . . Thus, in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by the fashion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal, to doubt it, and as prodigies are always seen in proportion as they are expected, witches were every day discovered, and multiplied so fast in some places, that Bishop Hall mentions a village in Lancashire, where their number was greater than that of the houses. The Jesuits and sectaries took advantage of this universal error, and endeavoured to promote the interest of their parties by pretended cures of persons afflicted by evil spirits, but they were detected and exposed by the clergy of the established Church.

Upon this general infatuation Shakespeare might be easily allowed to found a play, especially since he has followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may now be ridiculed, were both by himself and his audience thought awful and affecting.

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859).

["On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," 1823, contains De Quincey’s thoughts on why the knocking at the gate in the porter scene can so affect an audience.]

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

. . . .Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind (though different in degree) amongst all living creatures: this instinct, therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of ‘the poor beetle that we tread on’, exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,— not a sympathy of pity or approbation). In the murdered person, all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him ‘with its petrific mace’. But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.

In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakspere has introduced two murderers: and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated: but, though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the tiger spirit not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by contagion from her,—yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed in both. This was to be expressed; and on its own account, as well as to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim, ‘the gracious Duncan,’ and adequately to expound ‘the deep damnation of his taking off’, this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature, i.e. the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man—was gone, vanished, extinct, and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the dialogues and soliloquies themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration; and it is to this that I now solicit the reader’s attention. If the reader has ever witnessed a wife, daughter, or sister in a fainting fit, he may chance to have observed that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle is that in which a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life. Or, if the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolis, on the day when some great national idol was carried in funeral pomp to his grave, and chancing to walk near the course through which it passed, has felt powerfully in the silence and desertion of the streets, and in the stagnation of ordinary business, the deep interest which at that moment was possessing the heart of man—if all at once he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of wheels rattling away from the scene, and making known that the transitory vision was dissolved, he will be aware that at no moment was his sense of the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns so full and affecting, as at that moment when the suspension ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed. All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction. Now apply this to the case in Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart, and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is ‘unsexed;’ Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs- locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice; time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1772-1835.

[The following is from the notes for Coleridge’s influential Shakespeare lectures.]

Macbeth stands in contrast throughout with Hamlet; in the manner of opening more especially. In the latter, there is a gradual ascent from the simplest forms of conversation to the language of impassioned intellect,—yet the intellect still remaining the seat of passion: in the former, the invocation is at once made to the imagination and the emotions connected therewith. Hence the movement throughout is the most rapid of all Shakspeare’s plays; and hence also, with the exception of the disgusting passage of the Porter (Act ii. sc. 3), which I dare pledge myself to demonstrate to be an interpolation of the actors, there is not, to the best of my remembrance, a single pun or play on words in the whole drama. I have previously given an answer to the thousand times repeated charge against Shakspeare upon the subject of his punning, and I here merely mention the fact of the absence of any puns in Macbeth, as justifying a candid doubt at least, whether even in these figures of speech and fanciful modifications of language, Shakspeare may not have followed rules and principles that merit and would stand the test of philosophic examination. And hence, also, there is an entire absence of comedy, nay, even of irony and philosophic contemplation in Macbeth,—the play being wholly and purely tragic. For the same cause, there are no reasonings of equivocal morality, which would have required a more leisurely state and a consequently greater activity of mind;—no sophistry of self-delusion,—except only that previously to the dreadful act, Macbeth mistranslates the recoilings and ominous whispers of conscience into prudential and selfish reasonings, and, after the deed done the terrors of remorse into fear from external dangers,— like delirious men who run away from the phantoms of I their own brains, or, raised by terror to rage, stab the real object that is within their reach:—whilst Lady Macbeth merely endeavours to reconcile his and her own sinkings of heart by anticipations of the worst, and an. affected bravado in confronting them. In all the rest, Macbeth’s language is the grave utterance of the very heart, conscience-sick, even to the last faintings of moral death. It is the same in all the other characters. The variety arises from rage, caused ever and anon by disruption of anxious thought, and the quick transition of fear into it.

In Hamlet and Macbeth the scene opens with superstition; but, in each it is not merely different, but opposite. In the first it is connected with the best and holiest feelings; in the second with the shadowy, turbulent, and unsanctified cravings of the individual will. Nor is the purpose the same; in the one the object is to excite, whilst in the other it is to mark a mind already excited. Superstition, of one sort or another, is natural to victorious generals; the instances are too notorious to need mentioning. There is so much of chance in warfare, and such vast events are connected with the acts of a single individual,—the representative, in truth, of the efforts of myriads, and yet to the public and, doubtless, to his own feelings, the aggregate of all,—that the proper temperament for generating or receiving superstitious impressions is naturally produced. Hope, the master element of a commanding genius, meeting with an active and combining intellect, and an imagination of just that degree of vividness which disquiets and impels the soul to try to realize its images, greatly increases the creative power of the mind; and hence the images become a satisfying world of themselves, as is the case in every poet and original philosopher:—but hope fully gratified, and yet, the elementary basis of the passion remaining, becomes fear; and, indeed, the general, who must often feel, even though he may hide it from his own consciousness, bow large a share chance had in his successes, may very naturally be irresolute in a new scene, where he knows that all will depend on his own act and election.

The Weird Sisters are as true a creation of Shakspeare’s, as his Ariel and Caliban,—fates, furies, and materializing witches being the elements. They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act immediately on the audience. Their character consists in the imaginative disconnected from the good; they are the shadowy obscure and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, the lawless of human nature,—elemental avengers without sex or kin:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover thro’ the fog and filthy air.

A. C. Bradley (1851-1935).

[From Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), the most influential of character-based Shakespeare criticism in the 20th century.]

Macbeth, it is probable, was the last-written of the four great tragedies, and immediately preceded Antony and Cleopatra.1 In that play Shakespeare’s final style appears for the first time completely formed, and the transition to this style is much more decidedly visible in Macbeth than in King Lear. Yet in certain respects Macbeth recalls Hamlet rather than Othello or King Lear. In the heroes of both plays the passage from thought to a critical resolution and action is difficult, and excites the keenest interest. In neither play, as in Othello and King Lear, is painful pathos one of the main effects. Evil, again, though it shows in Macbeth a prodigious energy, is not the icy or stony inhumanity of Iago or Goneril; and, as in Hamlet, it is pursued by remorse. Finally, Shakespeare no longer restricts the action to purely human agencies, as in the two preceding tragedies; portents once more fill the heavens, ghosts rise from their graves, an unearthly light flickers about the head of the doomed man. The special popularity of Hamlet and Macbeth is due in part to some of these common characteristics, notably to the fascination of the supernatural, the absence of the spectacle of extreme undeserved suffering, the absence of characters which horrify and repel and yet are destitute of grandeur. The reader who looks unwillingly at Iago gazes at Lady Macbeth in awe, because though she is dreadful she is also sublime. The whole tragedy is sublime.

In this, however, and in other respects, Macbeth makes an impression quite different from that of Hamlet. The dimensions of the principal characters, the rate of movement in the action, the supernatural effect, the style, the versification, are all changed; and they are all changed in much the same manner. In many parts of Macbeth there is in the language a peculiar compression, pregnancy, energy, even violence; the harmonious grace and even Aow, often conspicuous in Hamlet, have almost disappeared. The chief characters, built on a scale at least as large as that of Othello, seem to attain at times an almost superhuman stature. The diction has in places a huge and rugged grandeur, which degenerates here and there into tumidity. The solemn majesty of the royal Ghost in Hamlet, appearing in armour and standing silent in the moonlight, is exchanged for shapes of horror, dimly seen in the murky air or revealed by the glare of the caldron fire in a dark cavern, or for the ghastly face of Banquo badged with blood and staring with blank eyes. The other three tragedies all open with conversations which lead into the action: here the action bursts into wild life amidst the sounds of a thunderstorm and the echoes of a distant battle. It hurries through seven very brief scenes of mounting suspense to a terrible crisis, which is reached, in the murder of Duncan, at the beginning of the Second Act. Pausing a moment and changing its shape, it hastes again with scarcely diminished speed to fresh horrors. And even when the speed of the outward action is slackened, the same effect is continued in another form: we are shown a soul tortured by an agony which admits not a moment’s repose, and rushing in frenzy towards its doom. Macbeth is very much shorter than the other three tragedies, but our experience in traversing it is so crowded and intense that it leaves an impression not of brevity but of speed. It is the most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps we may say the most tremendous, of the tragedies.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

[In this excerpt from Some Character-types Met with in Psycho-analytical Work, 1916, Freud discusses the implications of the Macbeths’ childlessness.]

We may take as an example of a person who collapses on reaching success, after striving for it with single-minded energy, the figure of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Beforehand there is no hesitation, no sign of any internal conflict in her, no endeavour but that of overcoming the scruples of her ambitious and yet tender-minded husband. She is ready to sacrifice even her womanliness to her murderous intention, without reflecting on the decisive part which this womanliness must play when the question afterwards arises of preserving the aim of her ambition, which has been attained through a crime.

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thought, unsex me here
… Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers! (I. v. 41)

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

One solitary faint stirring of reluctance comes over her before the deed:

… Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done it … (II. Ii. 14)

Then, when she has become Queen through the murder of Duncan, she betrays for a moment something like disappointment, something like disillusionment. We cannot tell why.

.. Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy. (III ii 4)

Nevertheless, she holds out. In the banqueting scene which follows on these words, she alone keeps her head, cloaks her husband’s state of confusion and finds a pretext for dismissing the guests. And then she disappears from view. We next see her in the sleep-walking scene in the last Act, fixated to the impressions of the night of the murder. Once again, as then, she seeks to put heart into her husband:

Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? (V. i. 40)

She hears the knocking at the door, which terrified her husband after the deed. But at the same time she strives to “undo the deed which cannot be undone”. She washes her hands, which are blood-stained and smell of blood, and is conscious of the futility of the attempt. She who had seemed so remorseless seems to have been borne down by remorse. When she dies, Macbeth, who meanwhile has become as inexorable as she had been in the beginning, can only find a brief epitaph for her:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. (V. v. 17)

And now we ask ourselves what it was that broke this character which had seemed forged from the toughest metal? Is it only disillusionment—the different aspect shown by the accomplished deed— and are we to infer that even in Lady Macbeth an originally gentle and womanly nature had been worked up to a concentration and high tension which could not endure for long, or ought we to seek for signs of a deeper motivation which will make this collapse more humanly intelligible to us?

It seems to me impossible to come to any decision. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a piéce d’occasion, written for the accession of James, who had hitherto been King of Scotland. The plot was ready-made, and had been handled by other contemporary writers, whose work Shakespeare probably made use of in his customary manner. It offered remarkable analogies to the actual situation. The “virginal” Elizabeth, of whom it was rumoured that she had never been capable of child-bearing and who had once described herself as “a barren stock” in an anguished outcry at the news of James’s birth, was obliged by this very childlessness of hers to make the Scottish king her successor. And he was the son of the Mary Stuart whose execution she, even though reluctantly, had ordered, and who, in spite of the clouding of their relations by political concerns, was nevertheless of her blood and might be called her guest.

The accession of James I was like a demonstration of the curse of unfruitfulness and the blessings of continuous generation. And the action of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is based on this same contrast. The Weird Sisters assured Macbeth that he himself should be king, but to Banquo they promised that his children should succeed to the crown. Macbeth is incensed by this decree of destiny. He is not content with the satisfaction of his own ambition. He wants to found a dynasty— not to have murdered for the benefit of strangers. This point is overlooked if Shakespeare’s play is regarded only as a tragedy of ambition. It is clear that Macbeth cannot live for ever, and thus there is but one way for him to invalidate the part of the prophecy which opposes him— namely, to have children himself who can succeed him. And he seems to expect them from his indomitable wife:

Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males … (.I vii. 72)

And equally it is clear that if he is deceived in this expectation he must submit to destiny; otherwise his actions lose all purpose and are transformed into the blind fury of one doomed to destruction, who is resolved to destroy beforehand all that he can reach. We watch Macbeth pass through this development, and at the height of the tragedy we hear Macduff’s shattering cry, which has so often been recognized to be ambiguous and which may perhaps contain the key to the change in Macbeth:

He has no children! (IV iii 216)

There is no doubt that this means: “Only because he is himself childless could he murder my children.” But more may be implied in it, and above all it may lay bare the deepest motive which not only forces Macbeth to go far beyond his own nature, but also touches the hard character of his wife at its only weak point. If one surveys the whole play from the summit marked by these words of Macduff’s, one sees that it is sown with references to the father-children relation. The murder of the kindly Duncan is little else than parricide; in Banquo’s case, Macbeth kills the father while the son escapes him; and in Macduff’s, he kills the children because the father has fled from him. A bloody child, and then a crowned one, are shown him by the witches in the apparition scene; the armed head which is seen earlier is no doubt Macbeth himself. But in the background rises the sinister form of the avenger, Macduff, who is himself an exception to the laws of generation, since he was not born of his mother but ripp’d from her womb.

It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of generation— if Macbeth could not become a father because he had robbed children of their father and a father of his children, and if Lady Macbeth suffered the unsexing she had demanded of the spirits of murder. I believe Lady Macbeth’s illness, the transformation of her callousness into penitence, could be explained directly as a reaction to her childlessness, by which she is convinced of her impotence against the decrees of nature, and at the same time reminded that it is through her own fault if her crime has been robbed of the better part of its fruits.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Difficult Passages

shakespeare - 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.