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Sylvia Morris, Finding Needles in Haystacks: Shakespeare and the Internet

James Harriman-Smith - September 12, 2011 in Essay

This post has been contributed under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence by Sylvia Morris, the former head of the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, and RSC Librarian. Her blog, filled with fascinating information and commentary on Shakespeare in the past and present, can be found at

It’s tempting to think that whatever you want to find out about nowadays, it’s only a click away. But with any Google search throwing up hundreds of thousands of hits, is it really that simple? I recently heard a radio discussion where it was suggested we are all “disempowered by the overload of information”, and in the academic world, it’s the same. Historian Daniel J. Cohen has said: “It is now quite clear that historians will have to grapple with abundance, not scarcity. Several million books have been digitized … and … we are confronted with a new digital …resource of almost unimaginable size”.

Cohen’s concern is over the digitization of books and manuscripts until recently only available by examining the original item, but this isn’t the only kind of project in the digital revolution. One great resource to be launched online later this year is the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700, which offers high quality descriptions, but no images. The book holdings of major libraries worldwide are now searchable online via COPAC, but it would be a mistake to think that job’s done. Although the scope is widening, only a fraction of the world’s libraries are on COPAC, and most libraries and archives contain uncatalogued materials, and have too few staff to catalogue.

Many resources for Shakespeare study are easy to find. Among texts, Folios and Quartos have been scanned, and the Internet Shakespeare Editions is producing fully-edited modern editions for the internet. Books of Shakespeare criticism have been digitized as part of mass digitization projects of texts, manuscripts and illustrations like the Google Books project or the Internet Archive. Among institutional websites the prize goes to the Folger Shakespeare Library which includes not only the Library’s catalogues but an image database, videos, and pages of outstanding articles. Modern stage production images for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe are posted on their sites. It’s not a dedicated Shakespeare resource, but the ubiquitous Google search can pick up content from almost anywhere so effectively that a recent survey named Google search engines as 4 of the top 20 websites worldwide. While undeniably useful, this ease can encourage a “smash and grab” mentality which effectively decontextualises the images, video or written content.

My own experience with digital projects relates largely to the development of an online database of information about RSC productions, linking the data to catalogue records in the RSC’s Archives. This launched in 2004 as the RSC Performance Database. I was simultaneously involved in two image projects, Royal Holloway College’s Designing Shakespeare and the RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions. The potential benefits of linking these projects together were obvious, but with each planned and funded in isolation there was no opportunity for cooperative working.

I’m going to focus on a single but very dynamic area of digital initiatives, Shakespeare on video. If you’re a student or teacher studying Shakespeare, YouTube is an obvious place to start. A search for “Shakespeare” here results in thousands of hits all by itself, without even considering the material on other video websites.

Faced with this kind of result, sites have sprung up to help filter these resources. MIT’s Global Shakespeares project “provides global, regional, and national portals to Shakespeare productions within a federated structure”, a real treasure trove containing great content. Bardfilm is a personal blog selecting and commenting on Shakespeare-related films, a fascinating collection put together by someone with a passion for the subject, though not always easy to search. Bardbox is Luke McKernan’s project, and as you’d expect from the British Library’s Moving Image curator, the site addresses issues of selection and cataloguing while also being a personal choice. Only original videos are chosen, from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. None of these sites aim to be comprehensive, and the BUFVC’s International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio is a fantastic resource which aims to fill that gap by being an “authoritative online database of Shakespeare-related content in film, television, radio and video recordings,… international in scope and hold[ing] over 7,000 records dating from the 1890s to the present day.”

While all the above offer access to information and videos themselves, there are still problems. Items are not scanned or made searchable in a consistent way, and the mass of resources that aren’t digitised are ignored. This presents a real issue with currency. The RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s PeoplePlay UK were both projects containing thousands of images, but operating on defunct platforms they have been taken down. The RSC website currently contains valuable video interviews and production clips, but will these go the same way?

What is the future for Shakespeare in the digial world? Content is certain to grow. The question “How do I find it?” can probably be solved, but only if further cataloguing is done. The other question “How do I sort out the good stuff from the rest?” is also complicated, and too large for any small group of people to answer.

One option might be to look at the sort of solutions offered by organisations like WordPress, where help is provided by the wiki-based WordPress Codex community forum. Only twenty administrators work for WordPress, but there are 115,000 self-selected members of the forum, many of whom provide content. Is a Shakespeare crowdsourcing project like this the way forward? If so, who’s going to get it started?

Shakespeare and the Internet

James Harriman-Smith - September 5, 2011 in Community, Essay, News, Publicity

From Monday 12th September to Monday 10th October, Open Shakespeare will host a series of articles on the topic of ‘Shakespeare and the Internet’. When we invited contributions, the theme was deliberately kept as broad as possible in order to facilitate a wide and diverse range of responses from each of those who have written a post for us. Our contributors range from teachers and students of Shakespeare to an experimental theatre company.

Having already read the majority of the contributions, I can say now that the series fulfils its goal of offering what the Bard would call a “multitudinous” range of approaches to the topic of Shakespeare and the Internet; subjects range from why Polonius would appreciate hypertext to the problems and opportunities of online abundance. Please feel free to make use of the comments section at the bottom of each article, and to carry on in this space the points for debate that each article raises. The contributions will appear in the following order:

Every article in this series is published under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence, meaning that it is free to redistribute and reuse, providing that you attribute it to its author (BY) and that you share-alike. As with all the other material on Open Shakespeare, we hope that publication under such a licence will encourage the diffusion and development of our contributors’ ideas.

My thanks to all those who have contributed their time and thoughts to this project, particularly Erin Weinberg, whose proof-reading skills have been extremely useful in the preparation of these pieces for publication. Depending on the success of this series, we intend to publish similar, themed posts under an open licence in the future: if you would like to participate as either a writer or an editor, please get in touch through the usual channels.

Now, to conclude, I leave you, I hope, in approximately the same state of anticipation as Leonato leaves an impatient Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing:

> till Monday [...] which is hence a just seven-night; and a time too brief too, to have all things answer my mind.

James Harriman-Smith, Shakespeare and the City: The Theatrical City

openliterature - July 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

Cheapside ran with wine, Cornhill was festooned with pageantry, and the Lord Mayor dressed in the most elaborate of costumes; 17th November was an important occasion in Elizabethan London, a time when, in Agnes Strickland’s words, “The city of London might…have been termed a stage.” [Ackroyd (2000), 157] 17th November, or Saint Hugh’s Day, was the Accession Day of Queen Elizabeth I, the official celebration and commemoration of her ascending to the throne of England. Not only did the festivities involve a transient, theatrical transformation of London redolent with neoclassical references to Astraea redux and the Golden Age of Ovid, but they also went down in art, preserved in such paintings as Roy Strong’s Eliza Triumphis and echoed throughout the plays of William Shakespeare. The form of the Accession Day pageant and celebrations can be clearly discerned behind one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable evocations of the city:

CHORUS…But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th’antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in;
As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him! Much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry. Now in London place him.
(King Henry V, 5 Chorus 22-35)
[Note: a variety of critical editions have been used for the plays cited in this essay. Please refer to bibliography.]

Before its obvious contemporary political resonance is discussed, it is necessary to examine the language of this passage in detail. Despite the urgency and excitement of “now behold”, the Chorus delays the mention of “London” with a metaphorical description of the imaginative process. Like many of the Chorus’ speeches that beg the audience to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue 23), the language of “quick forge and working-house of thought” suggests the constructedness of theatrical endeavour and, perhaps, of kingship itself. However, the metaphor “quick forge and working-house of thought” also takes for its vehicle the workshops and industries of Elizabethan London. Incidentally, so does “piece out” by calling up the work of a tailor.[cf. OED “piece out”: ‘To enlarge or complete by the addition of a piece; to eke out or extend with extra pieces’; and “piece”: 1. trans. a. ‘To mend, make whole, or complete by adding a piece or pieces; to patch.’] As in the labour spent constructing the triumphal arches, and fake scenery of the Accession Day pageant, so is this constructedness an urban effort. From this position things grow more complex: the first simile equates Elizabethan London with Rome, Henry V with Caesar. Such an equation is not uncommon: as the title of Roy Strong’s painting made clear, the Accession Day procession used the Roman military triumph as a model; London and Rome (and Troy) were habitually linked as part of the translatio imperii;[That is to say, the belief that imperial power moved westward through the ages.] and, furthermore, Henry V was written in the same year as Julius Caesar and it is not unreasonable to expect some cross pollination. The second simile is a rarity in Shakespeare’s opus: it is not only a contemporary reference, but a reference to a contemporary hope: that the Earl of Essex would return triumphant from his attempts to quash the Irish rebellions. The passage goes out of its way to avoid any hints of treason: Essex is “the General of our gracious Empress”, no Caesar nor Henry V; and the royal welcome of “this Harry” is with “much more cause”. Nevertheless, such blunt denial, as close to the edge of dramatic illusion as only a choric figure can be, suggests that such equation contained a risky contemporary political resonance that had to be avoided. But this chorus’ purpose is not to make a political statement anyway: the last sentence is as clear as it can be when it tells the audience to “Now in London place him”, and what is truly remarkable about this passage is the way in which a city is evoked as a constant across time. Or, more precisely, the relationship of a large group of people to a single figure, to a single piece of display, is considered as something unchanging in this presentation of the city.

“Now in London place him” is not the last sentence of the Chorus’ speech, though; by the end of the description Henry V is “back return again to France”, and the plot moves on from that position. The fact that the Chorus continues smoothly from such a resonant description of contemporary London helps to counteract the way in which a metatheatrical reference to the current urban milieu normally occurs at the conclusion of a play, and thus limits the ‘episodic’ feel of a play already sharply demarcated into acts. Much can be discerned about the relationship between drama and the city, which provided space for its theatre and the money of its audience, by examining a few of those moments at the end of the play when the theatre opens up to the city around it and the city folk watching it, where the world of the play and of the theatre appear to come into alignment. Perhaps the best example is the conclusion of Jonson’s Volpone:

1st AVVOCATO […] Away with them!
Let all that see these vices thus rewarded
Take heart, and love to study ’em. Mischiefs feed
Like beasts till they be fat, and then they bleed.

[Exeunt all. Volpone re-enters]

VOLPONE The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the fox be punished by the laws,
He yet doth hope there is no suffering due
For any fact which he hath done ’gainst you;
If there be, censure him – here he doubtful stands.
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.
(Volpone, 5xii148-57)

The stage direction is editorial, but, regardless of who is on stage, the effect is very clear indeed. The couplet of the 1st Avvocato, with its clear masculine endings, sounds like the conclusion to the play, and the applause may even have started when Volpone comes forward to speak. If so, this would add an extra level of irony to “The seasoning of the play is the applause” since this line already plays upon the animal imagery of the 1st Avvocato: once the lawyer has (metaphorically) slaughtered the “beast”, Volpone steps forward to ask the audience to “season” it. In a play infused with the influence of animal fables (Volpone himself owes no small debt to the French Reynard the Fox), a culinary conclusion is very apt. This may amuse the audience but the real force of the epilogue is the way in which Volpone makes an alternate tribunal out of the audience. The city of the play has condemned the wily Fox, but the character’s final trick is, as the Chorus of Henry V does, to walk the line between the place represented on stage and the place of the theatre to achieve a different kind of pardon. Volpone’s words tell his audience the meaning of their applause, and, perhaps, briefly offer a window into the dynamics of the city itself that, at tribunal, or at play, seeks and is validated by an audience. Of course, Jonson’s play is far from unique in this: the declaration of Face that he “puts myself / On you” (5.v.163-4) at the conclusion of the highly metatheatrical Alchemist has much the same effect. So too is the ending of Eastward Ho! a useful example: because the play parodies ‘city comedy’, its inclusion of such an ending helps to link an urban awareness and concluding metatheatre even more strongly; furthermore, the occasion it characters make reference to is none other than the Accession Day pageantry.

QUICKSILVER …See if the streets and the fronts of the houses be not stuck with people, and the windows filled with ladies, as on the solemn day of the pageant.
(Eastward Ho! Epilogue 5-6)

Shakespeare too, at the end of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest also takes the opportunity an epilogue offers to collapse illusion to have characters beg “indulgence” or to “be friends”. But the best example of them all has to be the conclusion of King Henry VIII. Now known as a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and Fletcher, its last few scenes represent a sustained evocation of the city and its people that concludes with Cranmer’s famous ‘prophecy’ of both Elizabeth I, and he “Who from the sacred ashes of her honour/Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, /And so stand fixed” (5.iv.45-7), James I. The sequence of scenes is important: the action before Cranmer’s prophecy is focused on the Porter and his Man, and is filled with a sense of the city’s closeness. The Porter’s first line, “You’ll leave your noise anon, ye rascals. Do you take the court for Parish Garden? Ye rude slaves, leave your gaping” (5.iii.1-3) not only acts as an implicit stage direction for some off-stage noise to represent crowds outside the court, but actually makes reference to some other, more literally ‘off stage’ noises. A glance at a map of seventeenth century London shows the proximity of the Globe and Paris(h) Garden, both situated on the Bankside, and the latter’s bull- and bear-baiting drew crowds and noise easily audible at the Globe. Later references to “Paul’s” (14), “Moorfields” (31), “youths that thunder at a playhouse” (57), and the Porter’s order for “You i’th’chamblet, get up o’th’rail,” (86-7)["Chamblet" or 'camlet': expensive material made from silk and hair, worn by wealthier playgoers; “rail”: probably a low railing that went round the stage. – McMullan, 426] perpetuate the city’s presence and bring it even closer. Every time the city is articulated it is shaped: rhetorical magic creates the fiction on stage, but also reminds the audience of where they are. When Cranmer delivers the prophecy, he does so from this position so that he speaks both fictional, climactic revelation, and contemporary commentary and praise. This play, even more than the other conclusions open to the audience, offers a direct comment on contemporary theatre and society. The play’s own epilogue, probably Fletcher’s, that follows seems weak in comparison to this larger concluding movement.

So far, we have seen a few of those moments where the interface between Shakespeare and others’ plays and the city is at its clearest. At such points, the drama attempts to gloss the society, the city, or at least the audience of city folk, around it. This is only a small sample of Shakespeare’s approaches to the city; Anne Barton has written that the plays “are filled with evasions of the urban”, but, as should already be apparent, this is not quite right. The epilogues of The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others would all be directly addressed to an audience of city-dwellers, be they groundlings or gallants (as well as to a court audience, and, if touring, a provincial one); the noise of the “Parish Garden” could be heard in a theatre built into the city; and even Henry V, which admittedly has a very limited portrayal of actual urban events, still approaches the city in its choruses and the reminiscing of the troops before Agincourt. What would be more accurate is to say that Shakespeare approaches the urban by a roundabout route, and thus does not ‘evade’ it. To return to my earlier references to the triumphal tradition behind the Accession Day parades or the penultimate chorus of Henry V, this roundabout route to the urban is present in several other similar descriptions, all to be found in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays.

Julius Caesar is known for its anachronistic mentioning of clocks and tunics, and there is the same mix of Elizabethan “chimney-tops” and Roman generals in Murellus’ chastising description of the citizens’ previous festivities:

MURELLUS …Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
(Julius Caesar 1.i.36-41)

Although this is quite a clear description, it should be noted that Murellus is describing something that happened in the past. Here the Rome of Pompey’s triumph is used to gloss the Rome of Caesar’s return; but, at the same time, the Rome of Caesar is seen through an Elizabethan overlay of “chimney tops”. This may result, as references to “cobblers”, and “base mechanicals” in this scene certainly do, from North’s Elizabethan translation of Plutarch. What is important, though, is the way in which Murellus’ strange, composite Rome is inextricably part of his argument, and of the play’s development. A similar use of the city occurs in Anthony and Cleopatra:

CLEOPATRA Now, Iras, what think’st thou?
Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded
And forced to drink their vapour.
(Antony and Cleopatra 5.ii.206-12)

Once more, the city is presented hypothetically, and as part of an argument. It is also distinctly Elizabethan in flavour: Cleopatra goes on to say how “scald rhymers [will]/Ballad us out o’tune” and “quick comedians”, including “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy” (214-9), will portray her and Antony. Of course, this is exactly what the Elizabethan theatre has been doing for the last two hours. Rather like the peculiarly self-aware characters of Troilus and Cressida, Cleopatra sees her future and it is in a city: she can escape Rome, but London and the pervasive Elizabethan milieu can never be completely evaded. The (literal) distaste and contempt that inflects Cleopatra’s imagery of “gross diet” and being “forced to drink their vapour”, resembles Brutus’ withering description of Coriolanus’ triumphal return from Corioles:

BRUTUS […] Your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him. The kitchen malkin pins
Her richest lockram ’bout her reechy neck,
Clambering the walls to eye him. Stalls, bulks, windows
Are smothered up, leads filled, and ridges horsed
With variable complexions, all agreeing
In earnestness to see him.
(Coriolanus 2.i.179-87)

The triplet of “chats him”, “eye him”, “see him”, contributes as much as “reechy” and “smothered” to a sense of commonness that Brutus (rather ironically, given his being one of the people’s tribunes) seeks to attribute to Coriolanus. As in the other two examples, the “leads”, “lockram”, and “malkin” (a shortened version of Matilda, printed as a proper name, ‘Malkin’ in the First Folio) all create the same bifocal effect of Rome in Elizabethan terms. Or, rather, Jacobean, since passages of Brutus’ description echo two accounts of James I’s accession day parade: Dekker’s The Magnificent Entertainment and Jonson’s Ben Jonson His Part of King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement through his Honorable Cittie of London.[David George, Notes &Queries, 241 (June 1966): 164] The Tribune’s words also manage to find a middle ground between Cleopatra’s hypothetical experience and Murellus’ evocation of past triumph: for although Brutus is ostensibly describing something that just happened, the triumph that the audience has seen on stage consists only of Cominius, Lartius, Coriolanus, Captains, Soldiers, and a Herald (2.i.134SD). This is not to say Brutus is lying: he is simply telling Sicinius and the audience what has been going on offstage, elsewhere in Rome; alternatively, as with the Porter of Henry VIII, he could also be describing a rather different offstage. The “reechy” crowds so eager to see Coriolanus could have been present earlier in the play: they could have been the groundlings themselves.

It is hard to conceive the difference between the early modern theatres, especially amphitheatres like the Globe, and the modern stage. Andrew Gurr has pointed out several differences. The first of them is his distinction between “early audiences” and “modern spectators” [Gurr (2004), 1]; that is to say a collective mass of listeners, and a group of individual spectators. One reason for this difference is that, what with many gallants wearing elaborate headgear or smoking vast quantities of tobacco, the early modern theatregoer would not have been able to see very well at all. This was not for lack of trying: ‘auditors’ all but surrounded the stage so that, if you did manage to see past the plumes and puffs, the view would be both of actor and of the audience members behind him, along with itinerant tradesmen, prostitutes and thieves. An obvious result of this is that what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief” was exceptionally difficult in such a theatre. Not just sight, but touch, smell, hearing, and (should you have bought an apple as refreshment) taste constantly and intrusively reminded the auditor of where they were. There were also no on-site toilets. In such an environment, then, there was only one illusion that could be produced with ease, and that was the illusion of the city itself. Shakespeare’s plays do not evade the urban, instead their illusions must respond to and profit from the presence of city. The city is intrusive, and not just in the Roman plays, which, as has been noted, partake of a clear intellectual and traditional link between Rome and London, England and the world of Homer, Ovid, and Virgil. Anne Barton notes that even As You Like It has Duke Senior call deer the “native burghers of this desert city” (2.i.23), and Jaques (according to the First Lord) call cows “you fat and greasy citizens” (2.i.55) [Barton (1994), 331]. These intrusions are part of the chaos of the city, its novelty and uncertainty; and it can be said that the Accession Day pageant did not complicate the city by making it into a stage, but simplified it instead. The Chorus’, Brutus’, Cleopatra’s, and Marcellus’ conceptions of the city are all so clear as to be part of a wider expression, whether of the fear of shame, the sense of greatness, or otherwise. The city of the pageant and other special occasions was uncomplicated, but this is not to say that Shakespeare was unaware of the complexity and strangeness of the normal, everyday city in which he lived. It is to that city and Shakespeare’s relation to it that I will now turn.

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

shakespeare - May 10, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare


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

Film and Video Productions

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

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

shakespeare - May 10, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

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

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: The Play Today

shakespeare - May 8, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

shakespeare - May 2, 2011 in Essay, Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shakespeare - April 28, 2011 in Essay

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859).

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

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

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

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1772-1835.

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

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

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

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

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

A. C. Bradley (1851-1935).

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

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

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

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has no children! (IV iii 216)

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

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

John Boe, The Tragedy of Macbeth: Difficult Passages

shakespeare - April 24, 2011 in Essay

Act I. Scene 7, Lines 1-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 44-63

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

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

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

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.