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John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Key Passages

shakespeare - 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.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Difficulties of the Play

shakespeare - March 26, 2011 in Essay

The shortness of the play

Macbeth is the second shortest of all Shakespeare plays, and the shortest of all the tragedies. It was first published in the First Folio of 1623, after Shakespeare’s death. Many have argued that the play as we know it is a cut version of Shakespeare’s original —perhaps cut by Ben Johnson who was not known to like complicated language such as Macbeth is full of (such as, “multitudinous seas incarnadine,” and “with his surcease, success”). And Simon Forman, who left a diary describing the play as he saw it in 1611, points to a different beginning than we have in our text. There is no way of knowing if the play was originally longer, but the historic success of the play in production does suggest that it works as a drama in the extant short and fast version.

Macbeth’s guilt for being led into murder by the witches.

The text doesn’t make it clear that the witches led Macbeth into murder. They do not say he has to kill Duncan in order to be king, they simply tell him he will be king. But their prediction does force readers to wonder whether Macbeth is simply following what is fated, or whether he has free will. This is an issue philosophers have not settled, nor can a reader of Macbeth. But we see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth deciding on their own to do the murder, so surely we feel they are to blame. And Macbeth has a peculiar psychic bond with the witches, as if they were a part of his own psyche. This bond is made explicit b y Macbeth’s first words in the play, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” words that clearly echo the witches’ first chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”

Lady Macbeth’s faint

After the discovery of the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth sham grief. Then surprisingly, Lady Macbeth faints. The text doesn’t tell us whether she is just pretending to faint or not (and actress would have to decide for herself about this). But if the faint is real, then Lady Macbeth is not as strong as she thinks she is or has pretended to be (which weakness fits someone who eventually goes mad with guilt).

The third murderer

In Act III, Scene 1, Macbeth hires two murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, but in the murder scene (III.3), a third murderer surprises the other two. He says he has been sent by Macbeth, he shows familiarity with Banquo’s walking habits, he is the first to recognize Banquo, and he is the first to notice (and care) that Banquo’s son Fleance has escaped. Many readers have felt that this murderer is Macbeth himself, coming along in disguise to try to make sure the job is done right. But when the first murderer returns to the castle, Macbeth is there waiting for him, and Macbeth does seem shocked and dismayed to find that while Banquo has been murdered, Fleance has escaped. So clearly the theory that the third murderer is Macbeth is “fantastic,” as one editor puts it. But many readers still have their suspicions, which suspicions fit the “uncanny” quality of the play Macbeth. And some directors have gone so far as to have Macbeth himself act as the third murderer.

Macduff abandonment of his family

Many readers blame Macduff for fleeing to England and thus leaving his wife and children undefended from Macbeth. In his defense, one can only point out that there was no reason (political, practical, or otherwise) for Macbeth to have murdered Macduff’s family, so Macduff doubtless presumed they were safe. Macduff hadn’t yet realized the pure evil in Macbeth, and so can be blamed perhaps only for naiveté.

The authorship of the Hecate scenes

In Act III, Scene 5, the three witches meet with Hecate (Greek Goddess of the underworld), At the end of the scene, Hecate and some spirits sing a long song, presumably with dancing , “Come away, come away.” Hecate joins the three witches again in Act IV, bringing with her three other witches, and this time they sing the song “Black spirits.” The problem here is that both these songs appear in a play by Thomas Middleton, The Witch, and both these songs were probably written by Middleton (not Shakespeare) and added to Macbeth (perhaps to lengthen the play). On this basis, some argue that all of Hecate’s part is a non-Shakespearean interpolation. But she does speak language that works with the play, for example calling Macbeth “a wayward son,” and pointing out to the witches that he “Loves for his own ends, not for you,” that is that Macbeth doesn’t love evil itself, but rather uses evil to get the power he loves. And Hecate also meaningfully points out, “And you all know, security/ Is mortals’ chiefest enemy” (III.v.32-3). These lines sum up Macbeth’s downfall: he couldn’t just wait for the witches’ prophecy to be fulfilled, he had to make himself secure about his future (by killing the King, then Banquo). People sometimes object to singing and dancing in the middle of a tragedy, but there is singing and dancing in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And indeed at the end of each play at the Globe theatre, the actors would do a jig, an elaborate dance. This practice is adhered to at the New Globe in London, and while it may seem ridiculous, it is remarkably effective. The audience (and the actors) leave the stage happy, after seeing (as in a recent production of Macbeth at the New Globe) Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the witches, the whole cast in a merry dance.

The fate of the witches at the end of the play

Shakespeare not infrequently doesn’t tie up all the threads of his story, doesn’t say what has happened to all the characters (most famously with the fool in King Lear). But the reader or audience should notice and wonder about these characters. While Macbeth is killed, the witches (and Hecate) are not. Presumably they still exist after the play, which suggests that Evil can never finally be defeated, although certain evil people can be.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Character Studies

shakespeare - March 22, 2011 in Essay

Macbeth, of all Shakespeare plays, has unusually flat characters, The only real personalities are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as a Couple: The Character of their Marriage

In his marriage with Lady Macbeth, Macbeth shows himself to be a traditional modern man. He is like the 1950’s businessman who moves ahead up the corporate ladder, aided by his loving wife, his partner behind the scenes. At the beginning of the play, actors often play the Macbeths as very much in love, as very sexually attracted to each other. One critic even said that the Macbeths are Shakespeare’s happiest married couple (the only competition are Kate and Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew).

Some years ago, perhaps it was on April Fool’s day, The Wall Street Journal, published a little article headlined, “Macbeth Lands Top Job in Scotland,” with the subheading, “Wife Said to be Motivating Factor.” The marriage partnership as an institution that works to further the career ambitions of the husband is a feature of the early modern and modern eras, though somewhat less so in what people call our postmodern era. (A charming recent film based on Macbeth, Scotland PA, similarly 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.)

Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth does push her husband to move quickly into his future. She tells Macbeth that his letters letting her know of the witches’ prophesy “have transported me beyond/This ignorant present, and I feel now/ The future in an instant.” And this future depends upon murdering the rightful king.

Lady Macbeth knows her husband. Yes, he is a warrior, a military hero who just before the play begins had personally killed the chief rebel against the king by cutting him from the navel all the way up to the jaw (“from the naves to the chops”). He is capable of great violence, but also of great sensitivity. (This combination of seeming opposites makes for an interesting literary character. Tony Soprano is just such a Macbeth-like sensitive tough guy, haunted by dreams, even seeing a psychiatrist—and Macbeth also seeks a kind of psychiatric help for his mad wife, in vain asking a doctor, “Cant thou not minister to a mind diseased?” (V.iii.40)

After reading Macbeth’s letter about the witches’ prophecy, Lady Macbeth talks to her imagined husband in soliloquy, “Yet I do fear thy nature./ It is too full o th’ milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way” ( I.v.16-18), Lady Macbeth wants them to be the young couple who get ahead in a hurry, who find the nearest way to success. Macbeth is sensitive psychically in that he sees witches and even a ghost (of dead Banquo, which only he sees): he is a kind of spiritual person, for he does see spirits! The hallucinated dagger he sees (“Is this a dagger that I see before me”), and his long and thoughtful soliloquies, show how easily he is drawn into the introverted world of his own thoughts. In some ways he is like Hamlet, so comfortable with thought that he could easily fail to act.

Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth’s sensitive introversion and suggests it indicates an unwelcome feminine side, too much “milk” of human kindness—milk of course being associated with females. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth, with his feminine side, is especially vulnerable to suggestions that he is less than a real man. After a long soliloquy Macbeth convinces himself to give up the plan of murdering the king, “That but this blow/Might be the be-all and the end-all” he says to himself, “here/But here, upon this bank and shoal of time/We’d jump the life to come.” (I.vii.4-7). But Macbeth knows the murder will not be the be-all and end all (a phrase apparently coined by Shakespeare), that the deed will have inevitable consequences. So he tells his wife, “We will proceed no further in the business.” (I.vii.31) But Lady Macbeth knows how to work her husband. First she uses language that suggests sexual impotence: “Art thou afeard/To be the same in thine own act and valour,/ As thou art in desire?” (I.vii.39-41) (She is subtly suggesting that if you desire something (be it sexual satisfaction or the kingship) and are unable to act, then you are less than a real man. Then she calls him a “coward,” “letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon’ I would’/ Like the poor cat in the adage” (I.vii.44-45). She is referring to an adage that would have been known to Shakespeare’s audience (who lived in a world full of proverbs): “The cat would eat fish and would not wet her feet.” She attacks his manhood, comparing him to a scared female cat (even today men have their manhood disparaged by being called a “pussy.”)

Macbeth protests, “peace/I dare do all that may become a man/ Who dares do more, is none” (I.vii.45-7). But Lady Macbeth knows how to play this game, and even more explicitly attacks his masculinity. (This not altogether admirable motivational device is occasionally used by women still today.) “When you durst do it,” she says, “Then you were a man/And to be so much more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man” (I.vii.49-51). She finally she convinces him “to screw [his] courage to the sticking place” (I.vii.61) —a metaphor derived either from tuning a violin or shooting a cross bow.

After killing the king, Macbeth tells his wife “I have done the deed,” and the words “do” “done” and “deed” echo through the play. These words often have a sexual context in Shakespeare’s comedies (as in the phrase “do the deed of darkness”), but for the Macbeths the deed of darkness becomes murder, not sex. And so the play is a tragedy, not a comedy.

Lady Macbeth tries to console Macbeth later on with a powerful truism: “what’s done is done” (III.ii.12). And later, in her madness, she tells herself the same thing: “what’s done cannot be undone” (V.i.64). While what she says is true, in both situations it offers little consolation. At first Lady Macbeth claims, “A little water clears us of the deed” (II.ii.64), but Macbeth suspects differently, saying, “To know my deed were best not know myself.” (II.ii.72). But Macbeth hardens, and after Macbeth’s the commissioned killing of Banquo, he tells his lady, “We are yet but young in deed” (III.iv.143).

For the Macbeths time itself is gradually destroyed, most obviously though their inability to sleep, for sleep is the natural way of defining time, of separating days into days and nights. Thus shortly after the murder of the King, Macbeth heard a voice, his inner voice, cry, “Sleep no more, Macbeth does murder sleep.” (II.ii.34-5). When Macbeth is told his wife is dead, he responds with detachment, “She should have died hereafter/ There would have been time for such a word” (V.v.17-19), which leads him to his great depressed soliloquy, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Once he and his wife were truly a couple. But finally, he cannot even mourn his once beloved wife. She is dead, and his life is just a meaningless succession of tomorrows, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.


Macbeth is, first of all a war hero, the courageous hero of a battle that takes place just before the play begins. A modern psychologist might even speculate that the experience of this violence and death contributes to his subsequent aberrant behavior, that his encounters with the witches and subsequent homicidal actions come about through a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. In any event, as a war hero (unlike King Duncan or the King’s sons Malcolm and Donalbain), he epitomizes masculine strength. Macbeth is also a man propelled by ambition. Once the possibility of being king is mentioned, the possibility of he being the man who leads all other men, he (and his wife) can almost think of nothing else.

But Macbeth is also sensitive and unusually imaginative. He is clearly an introvert. While he can act in battle, his natural turn of mind is towards himself, and thus his soliloquies reveal the poetic depths of his imagination. He speaks about a third of the lines in the play, much of them in soliloquy, and so we see how inward his vision is. Once Lady Macbeth is dead, Macbeth is really the only fully developed character on stage, as Shakespeare does not try to individualize or give personalities to Malcolm, Macduff, Banquo, or any of the other characters in the play.

At the beginning of the play, in a human way, Macbeth tries to draw back from murdering the king, and then he even expresses remorse for the deed. He knows his own nature and says that if he has to face what he has done, it is best he not know himself. And so he, over time, tries to repress the sensitive side of his nature. So he hardens, first in killing his friend Banquo because the witches prophesied that Banquo and not Macbeth would have descendents who were kings. But even then his guilt shows in that he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost. But he loses all humanity, becoming a twisted parody of a “real man” when he decides to kill Macduff’s wife and children just because Macduff has joined Duncan’s son Malcolm in England. Before commissioning these murders, he announces his change of heart, saying, “from this moment/ The very firstlings of my heart/ Shall be the firstlings of my hand” (IV.i.47-9). There’s to be no more introspective thought and feeling, no indecision, no guilt for killing Lady Macduff and her babies. Now he is a pure man of action, and so he is unable at the end even to express real grief for the death of his wife.

Macbeth’s character does change during the play. At first he is in conflict and full of self-doubt. Before murdering the king he hallucinates a dagger in the air, such is the power of his imagination. And after the murder, he can no longer sleep. Not being able to sleep is a traditional sign of guilt, so we can’t quite dismiss Macbeth as a psychopath, because a psychopath would not feel guilt for his evil deeds. Similarly, only Macbeth (and the audience) sees Banquo’s ghost. That he sees and is tormented by this ghost shows the power of Macbeth’s imagination and the fact that he cannot escape feelings of guilt. These feelings of guilt are one thing that make us able to sympathize with him, even as we condemn him. So at the beginning of the play Macbeth is not fully evil, as are Iago in Othello, Richard III, or Edmund in King Lear. Macbeth is a character who is gradually drawn into evil, who gradually loses his soul.

And so Macbeth finally embraces evil without self-doubt and, apart from lack of sleep, becomes more sure of himself, no longer full of guilt. This transformation is complete in the final scenes, when Macbeth returns to the battlefield to fight Duncan’s forces (including Macduff). Now Macbeth is full of energy, comfortable to be on the battlefield as he was before the beginning of the play, not thinking and feeling but just fighting, trying to kill and not be killed. He has returned to the one place he is comfortable: the battlefield.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is the only other developed character in the play. She primarily is defined in terms of her marriage, and her principle gift is her ability to influence her husband. Perhaps she controls her husband through her beauty and sexual attractiveness, and they do seem very happy to see each other in their first scene together. But Lady Macbeth certainly also controls through her language, making fun of his manhood and emphasizing her own “masculine” strength.

At the beginning she seems more ambitious for Macbeth than he is for himself (acting out the old fashioned role of the woman behind the man). She wants Macbeth to be King so she can be his “dearest partner of greatness” (I.v.11). In the early part of the play, Lady Macbeth does seem to be or at least think herself to be stronger than Macbeth. Thus Macbeth tells her “undaunted mettle should compose/ Nothing but males” (I.vii.74-5). Perhaps the inappropriateness Lady Macbeth seeming more masculine than her husband is shown most vividly by her statement that she would dash the brains out of a baby nursing at her breast rather than break an oath such as Macbeth has made to kill the king. (Her troublesome “masculine” character is perhaps also paralleled by the fact that the three female witches have beards.)

Lady Macbeth is not as introverted or psychologically sophisticated as Macbeth. After she drugs the guards so Macbeth can murder the King, she suggests she could easily have committed the murders herself, saying, “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t” (II.ii.12-13). The King is symbolically her father, but she takes no time to examine her own imagination (as Macbeth does constantly). After the murder, she counsels Macbeth not to think about it, as if such a repression could easily be accomplished. And when she sees that Macbeth has brought the bloody daggers with him rather than leave them as evidence to implicate the King’s guards as the murderers, she tells him to carry them back. He cannot, so grief stricken is he. But Lady Macbeth takes the daggers, claiming with easy words, “The sleeping, and the dead,/Are but as pictures” (II.ii.52-3. )She returns shortly with bloody hands and almost childlike in her naiveté, says, “A little water clears us of this deed: How easy is it then” (II.ii.66-7).

Her psychological progress over the course of the play is opposite of Macbeth’s and more dramatic. While he succeeds somewhat in repressing his guilt, Lady Macbeth (never conscious of it at the beginning) is overtaken by it and driven mad. A little water does not wash away the blood, and she exhibits the obsessive-compulsive symptom of constantly seeming to wash her hands. Macbeth had been a war hero, and so was somewhat hardened by the sight of blood; also, he dealt with his feelings of guilt early and explicitly, rather than just ignoring or repressing them. Lady Macbeth instead falls apart as a character, descends into memorable madness (her mad scene is one of the great actress moments in Shakespeare), and takes her life. And she takes her life offstage. While the Macbeths once acted the archetype of the power couple, by the time she dies, they have gone their separate ways.

Word of the Day: Mote

shakespeare - 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…

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Character List

shakespeare - March 19, 2011 in Essay

Duncan— Historic king of Scotland (1001-103), whom Shakespeare makes into an elderly king. He is clearly virtuous, but perhaps too trusting as he is misled first by the Thane of Cawdor and then by Macbeth.

Malcolm— The eldest son of King Duncan, he flees to England after the King’s mysterious murder in Macbeth’s castle. In England he shows his cleverness and fitness for rule by testing Macduff to make sure he is not a Macbeth spy and by suggesting the soldiers disguise their attack by all holding branches cut from Birnam Wood in front of them. He becomes King at the end of the play.

Donalbain— The youngest son of King Duncan, he flees Macbeth castle after his father’s assassination, going to Ireland.

Macbeth— Thane of Cawdor, then Thane of Glamis, then King of Scotland. A war hero and a loving husband who succumbs to temptation and becomes a murderous tyrant in order to be King. He shares his sensitive and introverted thoughts through soliloquy even as he represses his sensitivity so as to become a cold-blooded murderer.

Banquo—A general of the King’s army, Banquo is Macbeth’s partner in battle and shares the experience of the witches. prophecy with him. Banquo, who unlike Macbeth, maintains his morality and loyalty to the King, ends up murdered by Macbeth, returning as a ghost.

Macduff— The Thane of Fife, a Scottish nobleman, he flees Scotland to join Malcolm in England. Macbeth then kills Macduff’s wife and children at their castle in Fife, causing Macduff to promise revenge, which he gets by vanquishing Macbeth.

Lennox—A Scottish nobleman, he becomes more and more sarcastic about Macbeth’s virtue and more and more fearful for Scotland’s fate.

Ross— A Scottish nobleman and cousin of Macduff’s who primarily acts as a messenger in the play.

Menteith— A Scottish nobleman who joins Malcolm and Macduff in fighting against Macbeth.

Angus— A Scottish nobleman, he follows King Duncan at the beginning of the play and fights with Malcolm and Macduff at the end of the play.

Cathness— A Scottish nobleman, he joins Malcolm and Macduff to fight Macbeth. He doesn’t speak.

Fleance—Banquo’s son, he escapes the murderers who kill his father and although his whereabouts are unknown at the end of the play, his survival suggests that his descendants will eventually be Kings.

Siward—Earl of Northumberland and leader of the 10,000 man English forces that fight with Malcolm, he loses his son in the battle.

Young Siward—Siward’s son, he is killed in battle by Macbeth.

Seyton—An attendant to Macbeth, he brings Macbeth his armor and informs him of the death of his wife.

Boy—Macduff’s son, he shows precocious wit and charm in conversation with his mother, then is killed by Macbeth’s hired murderers.

An English Doctor—The doctor brags about how King Edward the Confessor of England can miraculously cure diseases.

A Scottish Doctor—He attends Lady Macbeth and reports on her sleepwalking.

A Soldier (A Captain)—He describes to King Duncan Macbeth’s battle heroism despite bleeding from his own wounds.

A Porter—The doorkeeper at Macbeth’s castle, he has a long perhaps drunken and perhaps funny soliloquy before opening the gates to Macduff and Lenox on the morning of King Duncan’s murder.

An Old Man—With Rosse, he discusses the evil omens associated with the murder of King Duncan.

Lady Macbeth—Macbeth’s wife. She encourages Macbeth to be active in fulfilling the witches’ prophecy by killing Duncan. After the deed, she gradually descends into hallucinatory madness, constantly washing her hands.

Lady Macduff—Wife of Lord Macduff, killed by Macbeth’s hired murderers.

Gentlewoman—Attendants on Lady Macbeth.

Hecate—Classical Goddess of the underworld, she appears as the three witches’ superior.

Three Witches—Either supernatural or in touch with the supernatural, they lead Macbeth to his destruction by showing him the future. They are female, bearded, and evil.

Apparitions—Supernatural visions brought to Macbeth by the witches: an armed head, a bloody child, a child crowned with a tree in hand.

Lords—Members of Macbeth’s court.

Soldiers—They represent Macbeth’s and Malcolm’s armies.

Murderers— Two murderers are hired at Macbeth’s castle, but a third joins them for the murder of Banquo.

Attendants— The retinue following Kings Duncan and Macbeth.

Messengers— Macbeth’s servants.

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Synopsis

shakespeare - February 2, 2011 in Essay

Act I, Scene 1

The play opens with thunder and lightening, then the entrance of three witches. With incantatory verses, they allude to a recent battle and plan to meet later in the day. One witch claims to hear the call of a cat (“Graymalkin,” presumably her familiar), another the call of a toad (“Paddock,” presumably her familiar), which calls lead all three to depart. Their final words in unison set the scene as foggy and announce a central theme of the play: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

Act I, Scene 2

King Duncan of Scotland, together with his two sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, and attendants, hears from a bleeding captain the details of a recent battle against Norwegian forces. The captain tells of Macbeth’s heroism in battle (and also Banquo’s). The captain leaves to have his wounds tended to, and noblemen Ross and Angus enter. Ross tells the King of the Thane of Cawdor’s treasonous support of Norway and of Macbeth’s defeat of Cawdor and the Scottish victory in battle. The King sentences the Thane of Cawdor to death and gives Cawdor’s title to Macbeth.

Act I, Scene 3

The three witches enter to thunder, discussing various of their evil deeds. They describe themselves as “the weird sisters,” and claim their “charm” (the magical verse we have heard) is now ready to have its effect, at which point Macbeth and Banquo enter. The witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter. Banquo asks them to tell his fortune as well, and is told that while he will not be King his descendents will be. Macbeth, troubled by the prophecies, tells Banquo that they should talk more later.

Act I, Scene 4

Malcolm tells his father King Duncan of the execution of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth and Banquo enter and Duncan thanks them for their battlefield heroism. Duncan announces he is making Malcolm Prince of Cumberland. Macbeth is troubled by this development but says nothing about it.

Act I, Scene 5

At Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband telling about the witches’ prophecy. She worries that her husband, though ambitious, is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness” to do what he needs to do to make himself king. A messenger arrives to tell her the King will be spending the night at the Macbeths’ castle, after which Lady Macbeth wishes to lose her femaleness and replace it with cruelty. Macbeth arrives and Lady Macbeth tells him that the King will not live to leave the castle and that she will take charge of things.

Act I, Scene 6

Lady Macbeth courteously greets the king’s party as it arrives at the castle.

Act I, Scene 7

Macbeth in soliloquy rehearses the various reasons why he should not assassinate his guest the King. Lady Macbeth enters, and Macbeth tells her they will not proceed with the assassination. Lady Macbeth upbraids him for his lack of masculinity, then tells him of her plan to get the King’s guards drunk, then after the King is killed to plant the bloody knives on these same guards, who will then be blamed for the murder. Macbeth is convinced.

Act II, Scene 1

At a court within the castle, sometime after midnight, Banquo and his son Fleance are approached by Macbeth and a servant with a torch. Banquo says that he has dreamt of the weird sisters, but in response Macbeth denies even thinking of them. Banquo, Fleance, and the servant leave, and Macbeth in soliloquy says that he thinks he sees a dagger before him, and soon in his vision he even sees blood stains on this dagger. As he decides to sop talking and start acting he hears a bell, which he takes to be a knell marking King Duncan’s immanent death.

Act II, Scene 2

Lady Macbeth in soliloquy tells how she has drugged the drinks of the king’s now sleeping guards and left their daggers for Macbeth to use. Macbeth enters saying that he has done the deed. Macbeth is upset that one of the grooms in his sleep cried “God bless us,” and the other said “Amen,” but Macbeth found himself unable to say “Amen” as well. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth not to think so much about these things, but Macbeth goes on to lament that he heard a voice saying that he would no more be able to sleep. Lady Macbeth tells him to go wash his hands while she puts the guards’ daggers (which Macbeth has mistakenly carried with him) back at the murder scene and smears the guards with blood. Lady Macbeth leaves, Macbeth wonders if his hands will ever be clean, then Lady Macbeth reenters, now with bloody hands too. They hear a knocking and leave to wash and put on their nightclothes.

Act II, Scene 3

A porter enters in order to open the gates to those knocking. He pretends to be porter of Hell Gate, admitting various sinners into hell, then he opens to door to Scottish nobles Macduff and Lenox. After some trivial joking, Macbeth enters, and MacDuff leaves to get the King, while Lenox tells Macbeth of the strangeness of the night (with portents such as screams of death). Macduff reenters, excitedly announcing the king’s murder. Macbeth and Lenox run off, Lady Macbeth enters, is told of the murder, and laments that it has happened in her house. Lenox and Macbeth reenter, and Macbeth says he regrets that in his rage he killed the king’s guards/grooms, since the evidence plainly showed they had killed the king. Lady Macbeth faints and is carried out. All except the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, leave to put on day clothes and arms. The king’s sons, fearing for their own safety, resolve to flee, one to Ireland, one to England.

Act II, Scene 4

Outside the castle an old man and Scottish nobleman Rosse talk about how even though it is by the clock now daytime, nonetheless it is still dark, and how the previous night things were so strange that an owl killed a falcon and Duncan’s horses ate each other. Then Macduff enters to tell them about the king’s murder, how the king’s sons have fled (presumably because they were guilty of the murder) and how Macbeth is to become the new king.

Act III, Scene 1

In the palace, Banquo voices his suspicion of Macbeth. Then Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and their attendants enter and Macbeth announces a feast in honor of Banquo that evening. Banquo announces that he and his son Fleance are going riding that afternoon but will be back for the feast. All leave, except for Macbeth and a servant, who is sent to bring Macbeth certain men. In soliloquy, Macbeth talks about his fear of Banquo, whose descendents according to the witches will be kings. Two men enter, and Macbeth reminds them of the various harms Banquo has done to them. They agree to kill Banquo and Fleance while they are out riding. Macbeth explains that because he and Banquo have mutual friends he as king cannot be officially involved.

Act III, Scene 2

Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to stop worrying and looking so worried. Macbeth agrees and hints that he will take care of Banquo and Fleance but not share the details with his wife.

Act III, Scene 3

The two murderers hired by Macbeth are surprised to find a third murder has joined them. They insist Macbeth could have trusted them. Banquo and Fleance enter, with Banquo killed and Fleance escaping (urged by his dying father to seek revenge).

Act III, Scene 4

Back at the palace, a banquet has been prepared. The Macbeths greet their guests, then Macbeth goes to the door to talk to one of the murderers, who informs him that Banquo is indeed dead but that Fleance has escaped. Soon after Macbeth returns to the table, Banquo’s ghost (visible only to Macbeth and the audience) enters and sits in Macbeth’s seat. Macbeth’s guest cannot understand the frenzy Macbeth is suddenly in, but Lady Macbeth makes an excuse, claiming that Macbeth frequently has such spells. In an aside she tells Macbeth to act more like a man, but Macbeth continues to be freaked out by the ghost. The ghost leaves and Macbeth calms himself, excusing his strange sickness to his guests. But then the ghost reenters, and Macbeth freaks out again, telling the ghost that he would not fear it in any other shape at all. Everyone is befuddled, and Lady Macbeth asks them all to leave. Then Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth that the ghost demanded blood. Macbeth comments on how Macduff has not come to Macbeth as he was commanded and then says he will take care of this problem soon, that there are many more bloody actions to come.

Act III, Scene 5

To thunder, the three witches meet Hecate, who criticizes them for aiding Macbeth when Macbeth doesn’t love them for themselves (evil) but for what they promise him. But she assures the witches that she shall entrap Macbeth because of the weakness he has in common with all people: too much desire for security.

Act III, Scene 6

Lenox tells a Lord about the recent events, ironically talking as if Macbeth were innocent. The Lord tells Lennox that the Kings’ son Malcolm and Macduff have fled to the English court, and they both agree that they pray for Scotland’s rescue to come from England.

Act IV, Scene 1

To thunder, over a boiling cauldron, the witches chant an incantation (“Double Double, toil and trouble”) while throwing in magical offerings (newt’s eye, dog’s tongue, etc.). Macbeth enters and demands they answer his questions. The first, an apparition of an armed head, tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff, the Thane of Fife. The second, a bloody child, assures Macbeth that none of woman born can harm him. The third, a crowned child carrying a tree, assures Macbeth he will never be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Macbeth then asks if Banquo’s descendents will ever rule in this kingdom. There appears a succession of eight kings, the last with a mirror in his hand, and Banquo following. The vision vanishes, and Macbeth is not pleased. Lenox enters to tell Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth vows that from now on he will act immediately upon his feelings and thus decides to go attack Macduff’s castle, killing his wife and children.

Act IV, Scene 2

At Macduff’s castle, with Lady Macduff, her son, and the nobleman Ross, Lady Macduff complains about Macduff having left them, but Ross defends Macduff, then leaves. Lady Macduff and her son have an extended charming conversation, in which the son makes several precociously cute remarks. A messenger enters telling Lady Macduff to fly, but she replies that she has nowhere to go. Murderers enter, kill the son and chase Lady Macduff offstage.

Act IV, Scene 3

At the English court, Malcolm asks Macduff why he abandoned his wife and children, and Macduff, insulted, offers to leave if Malcolm really thinks him a villain. Malcolm then proceeds to tell Macduff in detail how he, Malcolm, is actually more evil than Macbeth. Macduff, shocked and dressed to hear Malcolm’s litany of vices, abandons all hope and says good-bye to Malcolm. At this Malcolm knows Macduff is not one of Macbeth’s many spies and insists he himself is indeed a paragon of virtues. A doctor enters and tells how the English King cures “the Evil” (a name for scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis) with his touch. Then Ross enters and after some hesitation tells Macduff that Macbeth has killed Macduff’s wife and children. After showing his grief, Macduff promises revenge.

Act V, Scene 1

A doctor and a gentleman talk about Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, then Lady Macbeth enters candle in hand, sleepwalking, and continually acting as if she is washing her hands. Her seemingly irrational utterances suggest at the source of her disturbance: “Out, Damned spot!” “The Thane of Fife had a Wife.” The doctor suggests that her problems are more religious than medical.

Act V, Scene 2

Menteith, Cathness, Angus, Lenox, and soldiers are near Dunsinane on their way to Birnam Wood to meet Malcolm, Macduff, Siward, and the allied English forces. They discuss Macbeth evil rule and pledge to cure their country of the disease that Macbeth’s rule represents.

Act V, Scene 3

Macbeth asserts that he is unafraid since Birnam wood could never some to Dunsinane. A servant reports the approach of 10,000 English soldiers, and Macbeth tells him to leave. Macbeth calls for his attendant Seyton to bring him his arms, and then asks a doctor about his patient, Lady Macbeth. Being told that a doctor cannot cure mental problems, Macbeth rejects medicine, wishing only that the doctor might prescribe something to purge the British from the land. Macbeth announces again that he is not afraid, and the doctor wishes he were away from the castle.

Act V, Scene 4

In front of Birnam wood, Malcolm orders his soldiers to cut branches to hold before them in order to camouflage their movements.

Act V, Scene 5

Macbeth is ready for battle when he hears women crying and Seyton enters to tell him that his wife is dead. Macbeth meditates on the meaninglessness of life (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”), then a messenger enters claiming to have seen Birnam wood moving. Macbeth starts to despair at this bad sign, but resolves to do battle anyway.

Act V, Scene 6

Malcolm gives orders for the soldiers to throw down their ”leafy screens,” and he Macduff, and Siward resolve to do battle.

Act V, Scene 7

In battle, Macbeth kills young Siward, gloats how none born of woman can harm him, and exits. Macduff enters looking for Macbeth. Malcolm and Siward resolve to enter Macbeth’s castle.

Act V, Scene 8

Macbeth rejects the alternative of suicide, then Macduff enters and they fight. Macbeth taunts Macduff, telling him that none born of woman can harm him. Macduff responds by saying he came into the world via the Caesarian section surgical procedure and thus (technically) was not “born.” Macbeth laments the ambiguous way his fortune was told and says he refuses to fight. Macduff then demands Macbeth yield, but Macbeth instead resolves to fight and is killed.

Act V, Scene 9

Malcom, Rosse, old Siward, and others enter discussing the battle; Old Siward expresses thanks that his son has died as a soldier. Macduff enters carrying Macbeth’s head, and they all hail Malcolm as King of Scotland. He makes what were formerly called Thanes into Earls, says that Lady Macbeth actually seems to have killed herself, then invites all to see him crowned King of Scotland at Scone.

Word of the Day: Basilisk

shakespeare - January 31, 2011 in Word of the Day

If we include ‘basilisco-like’ in King John (I.i.244), there are nine recorded instances of ‘basilisk’ in Shakespeare’s works, and an additional four uses of the synonym ‘cockatrice’. A fabulous serpent said to be hatched from a cock’s egg and able kill with a glance (or with its breath) (OED 1), the cockatrice or basilisk is an appropriate point of comparison for the Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) – as his own mother grimly acknowledges:

O ill-dispersing wind of misery!–
O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatch’d to the world.
(Richard III IV.i.54)

But in fact Gloucester got to the analogy first; ruminating on the living obstacles between himself and the crown in Henry VI, Part III, the would-be King prophesies:

I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk.

Another Shakespearian villain associated with the mythological serpent – again, somewhat prophetically – is Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece: the mortal consequences of the rape are anticipated when his lustful gaze is compared to ‘a cockatrice’ dead-killing eye’ (l. 540). But it is especially fitting that Gloucester should bear the comparison twice. ‘Basilisk’ derives from the ancient Greek for ‘king’, the serpent being named, according to Pliny, for the spot on its head resembling a crown (cf. ‘basilisk’, OED 1). Medieval tradition bestowed a more explicitly crown-like comb or crest on the legendary serpent’s head, so that the basilisk really was a giant lizard wearing a crown – Richard III indeed.

Seventeenth-century depiction of a basilisk

‘Basilisk’ was also a type of very large cannon used from the Middle Ages until the sixteenth century (OED 3), so called because, like the legendary serpent, it had a habit of wiping out everything in view (one particularly famous basilisk, now housed at Dover Castle and weighing over two tonnes, is nicknamed ‘Queen Elizabeth’s pocket pistol’). There is mention of a military basilisk in Henry IV, Part I (II.iii.53), but of greater interest, perhaps, is the moment in Henry V when we see the two meanings of the word conflated:

So happy be the issue, brother England,
Of this good day and of this gracious meeting
As we are now glad to behold your eyes;
Your eyes, which hitherto have borne in them
Against the French that met them in their bent
The fatal balls of murdering basilisks.
The venom of such looks, we fairly hope,
Have lost their quality; and that this day
Shall change all griefs and quarrels into love.

Lastly, it may be worth noting that Shakespeare resisted any bawdy puns on cockatrice, and made nothing of the association between basilisks, pocket pistols, cannon shot, and monarchical power…

Contributed by Victoria Coldham-Fussell

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Background

shakespeare - January 28, 2011 in Essay

Interestingly, this play that refers to time constantly is Shakespeare’s shortest. And it is perhaps Shakespeare’s shortest play for a practical reason. It was written for King James, and James did not like long plays (if they went on too long he was liable to have drunk himself to sleep before the fifth act).

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, the English crown went to the Scottish King James, and Shakespeare’s acting company, formerly The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men, and on ceremonial occasions would dress in special red livery to signify their status as the King’s servants. All their public performances were officially just rehearsals. While they actually made much of their income from these Globe Theatre performances, the fiction was that they needed the Globe only so that they would be ready to perform at royal request, which they often did. No company performed for James as much as Shakespeare’s.

Many scholars think Macbeth was first performed in the summer of 1606, when King James’ brother-in-law, Christian IV, King of Denmark, brother of James’ wife Anne, came to visit. It was a summer of revelry, with many plays. Macbeth, even more than the rest of Shakespeare’s plays was probably written quickly (another reason it’s so short), and specifically to please the king.

King James was fascinated by witches and the occult. He even wrote a book on the subject called Daemonology, where he argued that not to believe in witches was a step towards atheism. And James wasn’t just an intellectual believer in witches. James was sure that he and his wife-to-be had once been cursed by a large coven of witches, perhaps as many as 200, as has recently been discussed at length by Stephen Greenblatt.

It was 1589, and a marriage had been arranged between the Danish Princess Anne and the Scottish King James. Anne of Denmark was supposed to sail to Scotland from Denmark, but a violent storm forced her ship to dock in Oslo, where James soon sailed to and married his bride. When he was finally able to return to Scotland with his wife, he decided that the storms had been the work of witches, set on by the devil (who hated the rightful king of Scotland).

Women were interrogated and tortured, often with the King as a witness. Confessions were obtained. One woman admitted that on Halloween she and a great many other witches had sailed to a small Scottish town in, of all things, sieves. Shakespeare picked up this detail for one of his own witches, who says, “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,/ And like a rat without a tail/ I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll d.” (I.iii.8). In this town they entered a church, dancing to music provided by a trumpet playing witch named Geillis Duncane. (Many of the witches’ names have survived.) The witches then showed their allegiance to Satan by kissing Satan’s bare buttocks, then, much like Macbeth’s witches with their cauldron, they used toads, cats, and dead men’s body parts to enact a ritual against the king’s ship, trying to prevent its return from Oslo. James was fascinated by the story, and he even insisted that the trumpet-playing witch come play her demonic dance music just for him.

Now King James wasn’t a totally irrational man. He knew that women under torture might be willing to confess anything, but he was convinced of the witches’ veracity when one of them told him in private conversation the exact words he and his bride had exchanged on their wedding night. James was convinced. They were witches, and they would be executed.

So in putting witches into Macbeth, Shakespeare was including material he know would interest the King. And he seems occasionally to allude to the tempest caused by James’ witches: “thunder lightening, and in rain” (I.i.2) and “Though his bark cannot be lost/Yet it shall be tempest tossed” (I.iii.25-6).

And in Act IV when he brings the witches on stage one last time, the last witch concludes,

Come sisters, cheer we up his sprites,
And show the best of our delights
I’ll charm the air to give a sound
While you perform your antic round
That this great king may kindly say
Our duties did his welcome pay. (IV.i.127-32)

And so the witches do their demonic dance (to music played by the first witch—I’d like to think she played a trumpet), then they disappear (at the Globe it would have been by way of the trap door near the center of the stage). This witches’ performance was all done presumably to entertain the great King Macbeth, but another great King, James, would no doubt have been quite entertained as well. He had a long interest in witches. (And most audiences have been fascinated by the weird sisters, so much so that some subsequent productions, such as that staged by Shakespeare’s godson William D’Avenant after the Restoration, didn’t content themselves with a mere three witches, but peopled the stage with weird women.)

James was also a famous insomniac, so Macbeth’s beautiful invocation of the powers of sleep (denied Macbeth and his wife), might also have been designed to appeal to the king:

Sleep that knits up the raveled 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. (II.ii.36-39)

And no doubt the character of Banquo was included as a compliment to King James, for James claimed to be descended from Banquo. In the history found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, which Shakespeare read, Banquo is Macbeth’s accomplice in the assassination of King Duncan. Shakespeare wisely removed this stain from James’ ancestor, making Banquo innocent. And Shakespeare included an explicit tribute to James as king in the final witches’ scene, where the eight kings who descended from Banquo are shown, the last one representing James himself because this one, we are told, holds the orbs and scepters of Scotland and England—James was king of both England and Scotland. This last king tellingly holds a mirror, which, one critic has suggested might have been used in the first performance to show King James his own reflection. King James would have looked in the mirror as it was brought up to him and seen himself, the most recent king in the line descended from Banquo.

Finally, there are contemporary associations in one of the central words/themes of Macbeth: equivocation. When the porter, pretending to be the porter of Hellgate, lists the sinners he will be letting in to hell, he says, “Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (II.iii.8-11). Shakespeare’s audience would have seen “equivocator” as a reference to the Jesuit Father Henry Garnet, who had recently been executed for his supposed role in the Gunpowder plot. This plot, engineered by Guy Fawkes and other Catholics in protest of the discrimination against Catholics, was to blowup with explosives the King and Parliament on November 5, 1605 (In England November 5 is still celebrated with fireworks as Guy Fawkes Day).

The controversy over father Garnet was that he was the author of a book carried by one of the plotters, a book called A Treatise of Equivocation. This book instructed priests under interrogation how to lie without really lying. Ambiguous double meanings were excused. When asked if someone spent the night at your house, you could say, “He did not lie in my house,” meaning “he told the truth in my house” (even though he did sleep there). Catholics were allowed “securely in conscience” to give such answers with “a secret meaning reserved in mind.” People were shocked at this defense of equivocation, for they took lying under oath more seriously than we seem to these days. And that Garnet wrote the book on the subject, undercut any claims he could make about his innocence (and he probably was innocent).

Macbeth is full of Garnet-like equivocations or “ambiguous double meanings,” so much so that Macbeth exclaims in despair when he hears that Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane,

I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane:’ and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane. (V.v.42-6)

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Introduction

shakespeare - January 19, 2011 in Essay

Why We Read Macbeth

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Even little children have heard of “Double, Double, toil and trouble.” Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and second shortest play, it moves on stage and page with breathtaking speed. Macbeth is a hero, he is tempted by the witches, at his wife’s urging he murders the King, he becomes accustomed to murder, his wife goes mad, he is killed—Bam! Bam! Bam! But the speed of the action is oddly balanced by introverted reflective poetry, as we discover in Macbeth’s many soliloquies what an interesting imaginative thinker Macbeth is.

Macbeth is a witch and a ghost story. The witches, “the weird sisters,” speak a magical rhymed verse, throw newts’ eyes, frog toes, dog tongues and such into a boiling cauldron, and have the ability to foretell the future. And the witches are clearly real, as both Macbeth and Banquo see and talk with them. In Macbeth we are in a strange world.

After Macbeth kills Banquo, Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth at a dinner party, freaking out Macbeth, and causing the dinner party to end before it has begun. No character besides Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, so perhaps this ghost is a hallucination. But as a reader or an audience, we have to take the ghost as a reality (even if just Macbeth’s psychic reality), for the stage directions make clear that the ghost is visible to the audience. Having only Macbeth and the audience see the ghost makes us indentify with Macbeth. And this is the strange trick of Macbeth. We see him become an evil murderer, but still we are forced into identifying with him, seeing the world with his eyes. One critic calls this effect terrifying, although the word “creepy” would do as well.

No wonder then that Macbeth is the one play with the most honored superstition attached to it. All actors know that they should never call the play by name when inside a theatre; instead they refer to “The Scottish Play.” For an actor to say “Macbeth” inside a theatre is to invite bad luck, as if those witches were still lurking somewhere, ready to be summoned. Indeed, some folks claim actual witches were annoyed when the play was first performed, not liking how they were portrayed. And so they cursed the play, which some say, has a history of accidents and injury attached to it.

But at the end of the play, the terrors and creepiness of the play disappear, and we welcome the happy ending. But we don’t know what’s happened to the witches (they never reappear, but they are not shown to be eliminated), so although good has triumphed, but know that evil still exists.

Macbeth shows that evil is real, as exemplified by the human act that everyone knows epitomizes evil: murder. Macbeth is a sensitive man and a war hero. And he becomes a murderer. If he can do so, the play seems to suggest, anyone might. The play forces the readers or audience to see the evil that lurks in their own souls.

And finally, the play offers some of the most memorable and well-known characters in all of literature. Everyone is expected to know Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches. While the other characters only come to life when played by fine actors, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches live in the imagination of anyone who has ever read the play.

Time in Macbeth

Time is referred to so often in Macbeth (51 times), that it is almost a character. Certainly it is a major theme.

When Macbeth first meets the witches, they say, “Hail… Thane of Glahms,” using his actual title (a thane being a Scottish nobleman, much like an earl in England). They then hail him “Thane of Cawdor,” and tell him he “shalt be King hereafter” (III.iii.48-50). Macbeth knows the Thane of Cawdor is alive and that Duncan is king. But soon the King tells Macbeth that the old Thane of Cawdor has been executed as a traitor, and that Macbeth (in reward for crushing the rebellion) will be the new Thane of Cawdor.

Macbeth says to himself, “Glahms, and Thane of Cawdor:/ The greatest is behind” (I.iii.115-16). By “the greatest,” Macbeth means the kingship, which he sees (unusually from our modern point of view) as behind him. Notice that in this old usage the future is behind! We of course think of the future as ahead of us. We see ourselves as moving through time, striding into the future, which lies ahead of us waiting for us to get there. But it makes just as much sense (if you are going to visualize time with a spatial metaphor) to assume that we are still and that time is what moves. In this case, the future is behind us, it moves into the present, then goes past us (into the past). This image also fits better with the idea of predestination, that the future is fixed behind us, will eventually come up on us, do what we will.

If the future is behind us, there is no need for us to do anything but wait. This attitude is more typical of ancient times, of classical antiquity, where it was, for example, Zeus’s will that caused all events, and oracles were regularly consulted so as to find out Zeus’s will. The modern attitude is much more inclined to free will, to making events happen and not trusting in oracles.

Macbeth does try to believe that the future (his being King) is behind him. He does try to just wait, to let time do the moving: “Come what come may,” he says, “Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (I.iii.148). And even more to the point, he says, “If Chance will have me King, why Chance may crown me/ Without my stir” (I.iii.144). Shakespeare shows Macbeth as moving between two ideas of time: from the future is behind idea, appropriate to the historically real eleventh century Macbeth, to the future is ahead idea, appropriate to Shakespeare’s era, what used to be called the Renaissance but what scholars now call the “early modern period.” Macbeth finally chooses to think of time in the modern way and stirs up what he calls his “vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself.” He marches into his future like a modern man. W. H. Auden made just this same point when he wrote, “If Macbeth had listened [to the witches] as a Greek would have listened to the Oracle, then he would have been able to sit and wait until by necessity it came to pass.” But Macbeth acts like a modern man (and thus modern audiences find it so disturbingly easy to identify with him). He cannot wait; he must act now.

Right after meeting the witches for the first time, he tries to take the old attitude towards time, telling himself to wait, but the modern impulse to act is too strong with him, even though he knows that his acting will have inevitable consequences:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the 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’ld jump the life to come. (I.vii.1-28)

By Act IV, Macbeth has become hardened to murder and loses all hesitancy about his impulsive actions. When he hears that Macduff has fled to England, he decides to murder Macduff’s family, saying, “from this moment/ The very firstlings of my heart shall be/ The firstlings of my hand” (IV.i.147-8). Lady Macbeth in her madness perhaps expresses this theme best: “To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone” (V.i.64). The truth about time is so obvious that is often goes unremarked upon. It flows only in one direction, so what’s done cannot be undone. Once you commit a murder (or break a vase) you cannot undo the action, cannot undo the consequences of your action. The tragedy for Macbeth is that he cannot go back in time, as he expresses in a typically bloody metaphor: “I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (III.iv.135-7) He must move forward in time towards his death.

And so when Macduff, having killed Macbeth, brings Macbeth’s head to the now King Malcolm, he says, “The time is free.” These words suggest at the central importance of time in Macbeth. Throughout the play, Shakespeare makes us feel that Macbeth has cursed time itself. Thus in the morning when the king’s murder is discovered, Macbeth says, thinking he is lying but ironically telling the truth: ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance/ I had liv’d a blessed time.” For Macbeth, the act of murder has cursed time itself. But at the end of the play, time is finally redeemed, free from evil.

The play offers such a vision of a peaceful time in Act IV, Scene I, when the witches (who like the Nordic triple goddesses the Norns connect with past, present, and future) show Macbeth the final vision of the future: eight Kings, the last with a glass (mirror) in his hand (which perhaps was first used to show Shakespeare’s King, James, the image of himself, the eighth king descended from Banquo). This vision of future kings is a promise of continuity, peace, a time in the future that is free from evil, a time represented by King James, Shakespeare’s own monarch, and the eighth king in the vision of the future the witches show Macbeth.

Equivocation and Doubleness in Macbeth

Macbeth is steeped in doubleness, the theme announced in the first scene by the witches with “Double, Double, toil and trouble,” and “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

The most obvious fair that turns out to be foul are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who at first act like civilized, good, loyal people but turn out to be murderous, evil, and disloyal. But they act fair and so, for a while, are believed to be fair.

Interestingly there is also a long curious scene where the fair (good) pretends to be foul (evil), the exact reversal of the Macbeths’ pretence at the beginning of the play. This is the scene where Macduff comes to the English court to support Duncan’s son Malcolm, and Malcolm pretends to be as evil (or even more evil) than Macbeth. He labels himself as without any virtues whatsoever, boundlessly greedy and lecherous, a man who makes Macbeth seem in comparison “white as snow,” a man who is willing to “Pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell” (IV.iiii.97). Finally Macduff, convinced of Malcolm’s evil, renounces his plan and proclaims himself ready to return to Scotland. Only then does Malcolm reveal that he was testing Macduff, seeing whether or not he was a Macbeth spy. Malcolm shows himself here to be a clever leader, and his pragmatic cleverness shows itself in pretending to be foul when he is fair. In short he is equivocating, lying. In the real world, even the best of men (as Malcolm is) needs to be able to equivocate.

Of course people lie every day, to each other and to themselves, but the play Macbeth calls attention to these lies. Thus when Rosse comes to the English court from Scotland, Macduff asks him how Lady Macduff and his children are. Rosse answers, “Why, well,” and goes on to say, “They were well at peace, when I did leave them” (IV.iii.179). But Rosse knows that Macduff’s wife and children are all dead. What is Rosse doing? He’s equivocating (in order to postpone giving the bad news, I guess). And he is sort of telling the truth, since he believes Macduff’s family are at peace in heaven.

The scene that places the strongest emphasis on the theme of equivocation is II.iii., the Porter scene. The Porter, presumably hung-over (and presumably played by the company’s clown) hears knocking within and decides to pretend to be the Porter of Hell Gate, letting evildoers into hell. He explicitly admits various kinds of “equivocators” into hell, those who equivocated when charged with treason (as Jesuit Father Garnet recently had when accused in connection with the Gunpowder plot). Then he lets Macduff in, and he jokes about how drink is an equivocator with lechery, giving one the impetus for sexual activity but not necessarily the ability. And with Macduff’s entry into the castle, the play turns; the fair is entering to eventually vanquish the foul. The biggest equivocators of all are the witches. They tell Macbeth he shall never be vanquished till Birnam wood come to Dunsinane. Macbeth feels safe, not knowing that the English soldiers cutting trees and carrying them before them will qualify as Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane. And they tell him “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth.” We can understand how this prophecy makes Macbeth feel safe—but he will discover that the witches speak, as he says, “in a double sense.” The crucial word is not “woman,” but “born.” Macduff came from a woman, but he wasn’t “born,” he was delivered by Caesarian section.

The crucially important fact of Macduff having had a Caesarian section, having been born via a life-saving medical technique, suggests symbolically that death can be defeated, that life defeats death. Just as the greenness of approaching Birnam Wood signifies a renewal to the kingdom (they might have used actual tree branches on Shakespeare’s stage, evoking the greenness of renewal, the feeling of spring), so the medical miracle of a Caesarian section (where a knife used to save life, not take it) brings a note of hope. Such a medical miracle is just the opposite of murder. And how fitting that it is only a child of such a birth who can free the Kingdom from the evil murderer! It is interesting that in a play that places symbolic importance, via an equivocal double meaning, on a miraculous medical technique also frequently uses medical language and even has two doctor characters in the play.

Curing Evil in Macbeth

In 1607, shortly after Macbeth was written and first performed, Shakespeare’s older daughter Susanna married John Hall, a medical doctor who around 1600 had established a practice in Stratford-upon-Avon (you can still visit his lovely house if you go to Stratford). Shakespeare obviously knew him well, and from 1600 on more and more medical information and more and more doctors appear in Shakespeare’s plays. In Macbeth, consistent with the “double double” theme, there are two doctors, an English one and a Scottish one. It is the English doctor who brings up the remarkable ability of England’s king to cure a disease called “the Evil” by the laying on of hands. The disease called “The King’s evil” was scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis that affects the lymph glands of the neck. King James himself claimed to have the ability to cure the king’s evil with his holy touch, and indeed Stuart monarchs (of whom James was the first) claimed this magical gift up through the time of Queen Anne (who touched the three-year old Samuel Johnson in an attempt to cure him of scrofula).

But Shakespeare usually means us to notice the pun, for the play Macbeth is really about how to cure evil, how to rid Scotland of the king’s evil, the evil king Macbeth. When Macbeth is preparing for his final battle, Shakespeare again emphasizes the theme of evil by having Macbeth call for his armor from his servant, shouting out, “Seyton!…Seyton, I say!”—the text spells it S-e-y-t-o-n, but it probably was pronounced to sound like S-a-t-a-n. (Shakespeare does a similar trick in the next play he writes, with Antony in Anotny and Cleopatra calling for his armor from a servant fittingly named Eros.)

One of the basic metaphors behind the play Macbeth (and the same metaphor is prominent in Hamlet) is that sin is a disease. Thus Macbeth’s evil need not only to be defeated in battle, but it needs to be cured. And because Macbeth is King, his evil (his sin) has infected all of Scotland. But how do you cure a land infected by evil? The soldiers coming to meet Duncan’s son Malcolm in his fight against Macbeth call Malcolm the “medicine” for their sick country, and say “with him pour we, in our countries purge,/ Each drop of us.” (V.ii.28-9). The idea is that the good soldier’s sacrificial blood, absorbed by the earth will cure the earth of its disease by acting as a purgative—that is as a laxative.

Shakespeare’s doctor son-in-law was much given to using purgatives as cures (purgatives and emetics were his most frequent prescriptions) and perhaps his medical practice inspired Shakespeare’s use of the purgative metaphor. Macbeth uses this metaphor with his doctor, saying, “If thou couldst, Doctor, cast/ The water of my land, find her disease,/ And purge it to a sound and pristine health, / I would applaud thee…What rhubarb, cyme, or purgative drug,/ Would scour these English hence?” (V.iii,50-52, 55-6), But it is not the English that need purging, it is Macbeth who is the evil that needs to be purged from the land. (Interestingly, Aristotle used this same earthy medical metaphor in describing tragedy, saying that tragedies involved “catharsis”—another medical metaphor for using a laxative— tragedy’s catharsis being kind of emotional cleansing, a feeling of having gotten rid of something we are better off without.)

In Macbeth we feel that evil is purged. So it makes sense to me that after Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969, the first film Polanski made, two years later, was Macbeth. Perhaps Polanski was trying to purge the evil he had been touched with (by Manson) by taking on Macbeth. Evil can be purged, but there is no claim that we can get rid of it forever. Thus the three witches in Macbeth, who seem to have set Macbeth down his evil path, are not destroyed. They just never reappear in the play after the beginning of Act IV, but we know they are still lurking, somewhere.

Macbeth is evil, we can all agree on that, but the remarkable experience in seeing or reading the play, is that we end up in some ways identifying with this evil hero, and his wife too—whose madness makes her suddenly sympathetic; how becomingly human and vulnerable of her to go mad after she and her husband do such deeds. But it is Macbeth’s mind and soul we really are forced to enter. Macbeth speaks about a third of the play’s lines, many of them in soliloquy. To really appreciate the power of these soliloquies, you need to see them live, spoken to you by an actor on the stage. When Macbeth looks at the audience and speaks, he makes each member of the audience in effect his psyche, his inner confidante. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the only strongly defined characters in the whole play, and we are forced identify with them, to see their dark possibilities as ours, to see how evil is a reality of the human condition, a part of our history. (If you go back far enough in time, we are all descended from murderers.) It makes sense that Macbeth, the greatest play ever written about evil, is the play that, according to theatrical tradition, must never be named backstage or in rehearsal. Actors call it “the Scottish play,” trying to avert the ill luck the uttering of the name Macbeth can bring.

Shakespeare loved theatre metaphors; he was probably the one who named his theatre the Globe. And so Macbeth says, in his great speech, “Life’s a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more” (V.v.24-6). There is, as usual in Macbeth, a double meaning here. We are meant to think of the actual actor, on the stage before us, who after his hour (or two) will be heard no more. But we are also to think of the man Macbeth, the historically real figure who acted out his allotted time on the stage of the real world and then was heard no more.

We are all players in life’s drama, and our time too will end, and we will be heard no more. Macbeth, a poor player who got cast into the evil villain role, can elicit an unwilling sympathy in a reader or an audience. Shakespeare makes us feel sorry for him. For Macbeth, as for many poor players on life’s stage, life is “a tale told by an idiot/ Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But Shakespeare’s tale wasn’t told by an idiot, and in Macbeth, there is finally a hopefulness; evil can be purged, health can be restored, good in fact can triumph. And because Shakespeare has made us identify with Macbeth, maybe we feel we have gotten rid of a little of the evil that might be lurking in the shadows of our own souls.

Macbeth is a study of evil, and as such it is also a study of good. The Scottish king-to-be Malcolm and the English King (Edward the Confessor) are presented finally to be every bit as good as Macbeth is evil. Just as there is a hell, the play suggests, so too there is a heaven; as there is evil, so too there is good.

Levels of Reality

Another important theme in Macbeth, sometimes overlooked, is that there are levels of reality in life. First of all there are the two levels of experience that most of us are well aware of: inner and outer life. Macbeth speaks so often in soliloquy that we enter into his inner life, his stream of consciousness as it were. But we also see him as he talks to others, suits his words to their expectations. Often in the same scene, especially at the beginning of the play, we made aware of the dichotomy between Macbeth’s inner vision (confused and tortured, unsure of whether to do the murder or not) and his outer life, where he acts the conventional and expected role: loyal servant of the king, a good man who has and will continue to serve his country first. But Macbeth has an unusually active inner life, as is shown by his soliloquy shortly before the murders, where he seems to hallucinate a dagger before him:

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 have thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling, as to sight? (II.i.33-37)

Like most of Shakespeare’s heroes, Macbeth is conscious of himself as an actor, and here he is more or less rehearsing for the murder of the king. But his imagination is so strong, the inner image becomes a reality, seen only by him and not (in most productions) by the audience. For Macbeth there is the inner world and the outer world, and both are real. And Macbeth is led to act in the outer world by the almost palpable reality of his inner world.

Later, after Macbeth has had Banquo killed, he has another even more powerful vision. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are hosting a banquet, when, according to the stage directions, “The Ghost of BANQUO enters, and sits in MACBETH’S place.” Lady Macbeth upbraids Macbeth, alluding to his past hallucination: “This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said,/ Led you to Duncan” (III.iv.61-2) But while neither Lady Macbeth nor anyone at the table one else at the table sees Banquo’s ghost, interestingly, the audience does! Shakespeare’s theatrical strategy is to make us see Macbeth’s inner vision as a reality, to see what is a psychic reality—Macbeth does seem to be hallucinating—as another reality. We are drawn into Macbeth’s troubled inner world, into his murder’s guilty psyche.

While Macbeth seems on the verge of madness in the banquet scene, he instead grows stronger, more clearly focused on acting without hesitation in the outer world (for example, ordering the murders of Lady Macduff and her children). Instead it is Lady Macbeth (seemingly the stable sane one of the couple) who goes mad, appearing at the beginning of the fifth act accompanied by a doctor. Her explicit symptoms are always having to have a light (a candle with her) and continually rubbing her hands as if she is washing them. Clearly she is afraid of the dark (where the murder of the king took place) and wants to wash away the blood on her hands (possible in reality, but not in her psyche). And with Lady Macbeth, we are shown another pair of realities (madness and sanity).

There is no sure way to tell if the witches represent another level of reality, if they are real women who practice witchcraft or are some kind of spiritual beings. But in Act IV when they reprise their “double double” chant, Hecate appears (with three other witches), dancing and singing until Macbeth enters. Hecate is a spiritual being, a Greek Goddess, and her appearance (like Jupiter’s appearance in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), posits the reality of divine beings, the reality of powerful nonhuman spiritual/supernatural forces. Hecate is the goddess of the underworld, and so of ghosts and witches. But if there is a goddess of the underworld, in the double vision of Macbeth, we know there is also a God of the overworld, a God in heaven balancing out the evil Goddess of Hell.

Macbeth is full of references to the devil and to hell. The witches explicitly brew a “hell-broth,” the porter explicitly calls the gates of Macbeth castle the gates of hell, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suggest that when they commit the murders they are or want to be in hell, and Macbeth’s enemies regularly compare him to the devil. And the experience of evil that is the action in the play, compounded by the repeated references to hell and the devil, make the reader or audience believe in the reality of evil and even the reality of hell. In the double world of Macbeth, however, if we are made to believe in hell, then we must necessarily believe in its opposite, heaven. And so Macbeth is finally an optimistic play: evil is defeated (if not forever), good is triumphant (with great sacrifices). And if we have seen how the Macbeths have embraced the dark side, hell and the devil, then we also must know that there is a light side, heaven and God.

Introduction: Richard II

shakespeare - February 27, 2010 in Introduction

Richard II opens with a dispute between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, which, badly managed by the king, results in banishment for them both. Mowbray’s is the harsher sentence, since his exile will be permanent, and his parting words on how his banishment will mean his “tongue’s is to me no more / Than an unstringed viol or harp” begin an exploration of the power of language that runs the entire length of what one critic has called the ‘Henriad’.

Henry Bolingbroke, although banished, soon returns, ostensibly to reclaim his family lands, seized by Richard from an ailing Gaunt, who, in criticising the state of Ricardian England, delivers the famous definition of his country as “A precious jewel set in a silver sea” from his deathbed. Throughout the play, Bolingbroke and Richard II are opposed, and the former shown to be a consummate Machiavellian who remains to a large extent opaque to the audience.

Richard, by contrast, is perfectly and poetically open about his feelings: an openness that makes for wonderful poetry, but also for a poor Machiavellian. His character was much beloved by romantic critics, who saw him first and foremost as a poet, and it is a rare audience indeed that feels no sympathy for the weakening king. His final long speech seeks to populate his prison with “A generation of still-breeding thoughts”, but his invention slowly turns to the realisation that although he has “the daintiness of ear / To check time broke in a disordered string”, he “for the concord of my state and time / Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.” That image of broken time, like other moments of fracture and rupture in the play, establish a legacy that haunts all the following plays, as first Henry IV and then Henry V attempt the task of, in Hal’s words, “redeeming time”.

Written entirely in verse, and occasionally in couplets, the play has its own distinctive music. It also has a distinctive history: Elizabeth I famously compared herself to Richard II, and a performance of the play was requested by the Earl of Essex in the run up to his ill-fated and abortive attempt at a rebellion in 1601.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith