We’ve finally made it! That is, we’ve arrived at my favorite Shakespearean play. Why do I love Macbeth so much? In part, the answer is merely that it so very dramatic. Here is Shakespeare condensing an incredible amount of action, philosophical questions, complex relationships, religious and political thought, and, of course, witches in a quite short play. So of course we are going to spend ample time today discussing the witches or the “Weird Sisters.” But before we get there, I’ll present my general theme or thesis for our discussion, which is: Macbeth is a play that delights in, queries, and ultimately itself is an exercise of paradox. Through the play we have antithesis, equivocation, questionably-gendered figures, riddles, prophecies, lies, trifling, and contradictions. And through paradox or contradictions more broadly, I’m going to suggest, we are equipped to interrogate Macbeth’s many considerations of larger issues such as providence, the supernatural, tyranny, and desire, among other topics.
The witches and the Scottish environment are certainly part of these paradoxes, but so are the characters in the play, including the supposedly “good” ones like Duncan or Macduff. Duncan, for all his generosity, is also presented as a weak king, reliant as he is on others to do his fighting for him. And his heir Malcolm is at the very least cunning, and filmmakers and theater directors have suggested a certain circularity to the evil endemic in Scotland that accompanies ambition and blood-thirsty thanes (see the film versions, for example, by Welles and Polanski). Macbeth also distorts our notion of time, particularly in the onslaught of events that lead to the deaths of many figures, alongside the play’s pause for breath in Act 4 before the quick-paced denouement in the final Act.
So to map out our discussion for today, we’re going to start with arguably the most sensational, that is the witches, and their uncanny sisterhood with Lady Macbeth. We will then move to discussing the language of the play, including its equivocations and repetitions, and finally we will move to the more philosophical question of agency or of what the language in the play suggests about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s role in bringing about their downfall. This too, I’m going to suggest, is a paradox of sorts, for the play demands of us that we pass judgement on the couple for how they shape events and how prophecy, paradox, and the environment itself shape them in turn. We have to grapple, in other words, with the heterodoxy of causes in Macbeth, and as usual, the play refuses to offer any clear or explicit answers.
We talked last week about how Shakespeare rewrites or revises familiar histories. And he does so again in Macbeth, though not nearly as drastically as he does in King Lear. Instead, Shakespeare’s reworking is one of temporality—he crafts the plot to be so compressed and almost dizzying in its speed. Many scholars have focused on the emphasis on temporality in the play, and one of the play’s most famous speeches—“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” (5.5.18)—certainly prompts such inquiries. But even at the very beginning, when we meet the Weird Sisters, we are confronted with a temporal compression and rapidity of action. The scene, we have to keep in mind, is a mere ten lines, and those lines are marked by sing-song repetition and eerie foresight into the movements of Macbeth and Banquo. So let’s spend all of one minute reading through this entire scene, but then we ourselves will have to slow down, go back, and see how Shakespeare is describing these Weird Sisters.
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, Gray-Malkin.
2 Witch: Paddock calls.
3 Witch: Anon.
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (1.1.1-10).
There is a lot of clues into Shakespeare’s understanding of the three Weird Sisters here, and I’m going to suggest that a thorough historicized understanding of witches helps us read not only the traditions that Shakespeare is evoking but also his deliberate rewriting/reframing of these ideas about the supernatural.
So before we turn back to this scene and then turn to Act 1, Scene 3, let’s try to map out some (though we won’t have time for all) of the early modern period’s conceptions surrounding witches. There are a lot of things going on, so as always, let me know if I’m moving too quickly or if you have any questions. For one, we should understand that both Catholics and Protestants in the period believed in witches, in the idea that someone could possess the power to harm others. But this idea was coming under suspicion as well, notably in the work of Reginald Scot, whose The Discoverie of Witchcraft was first published in 1584. Notably, Scot did not discount the idea that the devil was a real and active agent in the cosmos. But he questioned the existence of witches, claiming that they were simply persecuted old women. Against this claim, however, was the vast literature on the existence of witches, notably including a tract written by England’s new King, King James I. In 1597, James published Daemonologie, a book outlining the tricks that witches and the devil use to convert others into the malefic kingdom.
James was initially convinced that there was a large demonic conspiracy set out to undermine his rule. He participated actively in the famous North Berwick witch trials, and a pamphlet titled Newes from Scotland outlined the plots of various witches to destroy the King.
Witches’ power, it was believed, came directly from the devil. The witch was thought, that is, to have made an explicit pact with the devil, giving away her or his (men were charged too, though not in as great of numbers) soul in exchange for a usually small amount of supernatural ability, including the power to change the weather and to harm or kill neighbors, cattle, and others. But demonologists also argued that witches and demons were still under the power of God, or that whatever harm they worked ultimately reaffirmed the glory of God. There were legal statues against the practice of witchcraft, with a particularly harsh one passed in 1604 under the new King James. Witches in England in particular were also thought to harbor demonic “familiars,” or demons in the form of small animals. In trials, the witches “teat” was searched for, a mark anywhere on her body that would indicate that she had given suck to a demonic creature.
I’ve moved quickly through the witchcraft beliefs because while Shakespeare draws upon them, his Weird Sisters also seem to be something more than simply malevolent old women. They are, we should note, not all-powerful. Shakespeare’s witches have some circumscription, and I think it’s up to us as audiences regarding how much power we wish to ascribe to them. In other words, Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that they don’t shape fate at all, that they are actually creatures of fate/are destines, or that they fall somewhere in the middle. We can see this delimiting of powers in Act 1, Scene 3. Here, the First Witch describes an affront she received from a sailor’s wife, and her plans for revenge on the sailor himself indicate that she cannot cause his death directly:
1 Witch: A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap
And munched, and munched, and munched.
“Give me,” quoth I.
“Aroynt thee, witch,” the rump-fed ronyon cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, Master o’th’ Tiger:
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do. (1.3.3-10).
The witch’s imprecise “do” has sometimes been taken to have a sexual connotation, but it connects, as editors Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason of the Arden Third Series edition argue, to the more vague, euphemisitic use of terms such as “deed” and “done” throughout the play, a fact that we will return to later. Here it is also notable that the term “witch,” used only twice in the play, is just an insult and not necessarily an ascription of supernatural powers to the Weird Sister. They do not refer to themselves as witches either. So already we have ambiguity about what the Sisters can “do.” This is emphasized in the First Witch’s elaboration of her plan:
1 Witch: I’ll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid:
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev’nights nine times nine
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed. (1.3.18-25).
They are called the “weird sisters” at line 32, and the term is an interesting one. It derives from the Old English wryd, meaning fate. Holinshed refers to them as “the weird sisters, that is, (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie.”
Perhaps their influence, though, is greater than these first two scenes suggest. They seem to know where Macbeth and Banquo are, and they certainly do have the gift of prophecy. They might have even infected Macbeth’s language without him realizing it, and it is an uncanny parallel Macbeth sounds like them before he meets them: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.38). Interestingly, it is Banquo, and not Macbeth, who attempts to explicate what they are, and Banquo establishes another paradox or ambiguity in the play, that of gender. Are the witches gendered? Are they representative of a malevolent, specifically feminine force? Or are they, like Lady Macbeth will wish, without the “compunctious visitings of nature” (1.4.45). Here’s how Banquo describes them:
What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you, or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (1.3.39-47).
They are not like the well-dressed figures in Holinshed, whose woodcut we should spend some time analyzing.
Although Macbeth is instantly “rapt” (1.3.57) with the various titles with which the witches greet him, Banquo continues to question them, demanding eagerly their supernatural knowledge: “
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain with grow, and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours, nor your hate. (1.3.58-61).
Banquo is awarded with the intelligence that he will sire kings, but not be one himself. This prophecy, however, will also be his undoing since Macbeth will become increasingly obsessed with the promises made to his companion. These lines also link with the play’s many evocations of natural growth and succession, i.e., the idea of children. Macbeth, roused from his trance at the mention of his possible kingship, then demands more from them, hoping to learn from the Sisters “from whence / You owe this strange intelligence” (1.3.75-76). The witches, and the play, do not answer this question, and we are left to wonder if they have had this intel from the devil or from some type of sinister communication with darker forces. Banquo will wonder, when Macbeth is greeted with his new title, “What, can the devil speak true?” (1.3.108), but that “true” is contested. In any case, what is clear is that they prompt significant ontological debate, as Macbeth and Banquo confer once they “vanish”:
Banquo: The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?
Macbeth: Into the air; and what seemed corporal,
Melted, as breath into the wind.
Would they had stayed.
Banquo: Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root,
That takes the reason prisoner? (1.3.79-86).
Banquo, that is, seeks a perhaps natural explanation for the appearance and disappearance of the Weird Sisters. The question of corporeality is one that the play will revisit in full force with the “dagger of the mind” and Banquo’s ghost. But for now we should note the desire to read the Weird Sisters, to categorize them ontologically. Macbeth and Banquo are tasked with an impossible conundrum on how to understand these strange beings, who defy gender norms and appear to possess uncanny knowledge of the future. Nonetheless, Banquo is more cautious than Macbeth, though I think he is willing to believe/use the Weird Sisters if it means he too will be advanced. See, for example, his prayer in Act 2, in which he begs “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (2.1.7-9). In Banquo’s caution to Macbeth, he identifies the double-speak so characteristic of the play, and so prominent not only in the Weird Sisters, but in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s own ways of thinking:
Banquo: But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence. (1.3.124-128).
Macbeth’s tragedy, of course, is that he does not heed this warning, though we should point out that he does indeed waver in his decision to actually commit regicide. Banquo’s emphasis on “honest trifles” suggests that Macbeth might make too much of their promises, that he might expand on their significance to a greater degree than is called for by duty and morality.
To return to the double-speak of the witches and my suggestion that Macbeth is in some sense infected by their rhetoric, let’s look at his first famous soliloquy. It is one of many: Macbeth continually speaks to himself/to us, a strategy that Shakespeare employs cleverly to make us, perhaps unwittingly, pity or symphathize with him. But notice in this passage how inconclusive Macbeth is, how he himself cannot make easy distinctions between things:
Macbeth: Two truths are told
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.—I thank you, gentlemen.—
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not. (1.3.129-144).
Macbeth, as we will see throughout the course of the play, desires certainty. But as we’ve already seen in the figures of the Weird Sisters, such clear-cut information is denied him. And thus his language and his psyche must, like the Sisters, “hover” (1.1.10) between extremes. We also learn in this speech that Macbeth has an active imagination, in which he can already envision the “horrid image,” presumably of Duncan’s murdered body. Why can’t he name it? This is the first of many avoidances of speaking directly about what he intends to do. It is a “soliciting,” a “suggestion,” that will be named assassination in a later soliloquy. But here, we are enjoined, like Macbeth, to roam among the “horrible imaginings,” or to create our own mental impressions of what Macbeth might mean. Significantly, this is a moment where the play invites us to participate in the regicide or the crimes of the Macbeths by refusing to delimit or confine what those “horrible imaginings” are. We are in the realm of the “fantastical,” but is one that attempts to give us access to Macbeth’s inner world at the same time as it denies us a precise view of what that world is: “nothing is, but what is not.”
To return to the wavering, Macbeth actually concludes this incredible imaginary flight with the possibility that he would become king without taking any action: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146-147). But in writing to his wife of his encounter, Macbeth is already “stirring,” that is, he is already taking steps towards establishing the “happy truths” that he has been promised. So too, the announcement that Duncan will establish a hereditary line (something that was not traditional: the kings were originally elected) through investing his son Malcolm with the title Prince of Cumberland seems to embolden Macbeth towards the deed: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires. / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.50-53).
Another element of the witches is the fact that there are three. Three was considered a magic number in the period, and the idea of three as supernaturally potent is resonant in both the Holy Trinity and its perversion in the three Weird Sisters. I think that Shakespeare, though, is also playing with the idea of triplets in a larger structural way as well. Macbeth has three main enemies, and the play is in roughly three parts, that is, Macbeth vs. Duncan, Macbeth vs. Banquo, and Macbeth vs. Macduff/Malcolm. Alongside this triplicity we should note the doubling that also occurs throughout the play, in which things and people often serve as substitutes or mirror-images of others.
Macbeth’s language is characterized by ambiguity, repetition, euphemism, and words/concepts with multiple, contradictory meanings. As many scholars have pointed out, such elements in the play’s linguistic structure contributes to the sense of misdirection and temporal acceleration in the play. We have, of course, the prophecies, which get more convoluted as the play progresses. And we also have the term “equivocator” used by the Porter, a fact that historicist scholars have made much of. I think we’ll sidestep that discussion unless you want to cover it next class. For now, I’ll just point us to one of the uses of the term in the Porter’s language, namely that in hell there is now “an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator” (2.3.8-11). To equivocate means to say one thing but mean another, and a good reading of the play would discover equivocation not simply in the language of the witches but rather in most of the character’s language, including the elaborately formal compliments exchanged with Duncan.
One option for our reading is to understand Lady Macbeth as an alternate or mirror image of the Witches. In other words, she too has traffic with demonic agents and desires to “infect” Macbeth, particularly in her wish for Macbeth to arrive so that she can “pour my spirits in thine ear” (1.5.26), an image that might resonate with you if you’ve read Hamlet or if you think about Iago’s line in Othello: “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (2.3.351). But other critics have objected to reading Lady Macbeth as strictly demonic, for if she plays a role in convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan, we have also already seen that Macbeth himself has had “horrible imaginings” of the deed. And it is also true that she herself is infected by the spirits, or by the act of murder, for after all her bravado, she suffers a form of madness and dies offstage. We are thus still left with the question of agency, of what role Lady Macbeth plays in bringing about or stirring up the evil that appears to be endemic to Shakespeare’s Scotland. Let’s look at our first introduction to her alongside her famous soliloquy inviting the “murdering minsters” to see what you think. So we’ll begin with her letter from Macbeth and her diagnosis of her husband’s character before moving to her invocation. As Act 1, Scene 5 begins, she is reading this letter that speaks in language of certainty, but she also recognizes that Macbeth is less steadfast than his letter would seem to indicate. She has, that is, a deep and intimate understanding of her husband, one that gives us insight not only into his character, but also into their relationship.
Lady Macbeth: They met me in the day of success, and I have learned by the perfectest report, they have more in them than mortal knowledge. When I burned in desire to question them further, they made themselves air, into which they vanished. Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came missives from the King, who all-hailed me ‘Thane of Cawdor,’ by which title before these weïrd sisters saluted me, and referred me to the coming on of time, with ‘Hail King that shalt be’. This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee. Lay it to thy heart, and farewell.
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do,’ if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal. (1.5.1-30).
So I want to hear from you: What do you think of Lady Macbeth given these lines? What is her relationship with Macbeth? What agency does she believe she has? Note her line “valour of my tongue,” suggesting a type of masculine power through language. But also note the language of the letter itself, in which Macbeth has moved from calling the Sisters “imperfect speakers” to offering the “perfectest report.” It appears that the tone of the letter intimates a form of certainty on the part of Macbeth, which Lady Macbeth perhaps builds upon, thinking of the “fate and metaphysical aid” that will send him to the throne.
However fair or unfair such characterizations are, we have to admit that her “invocation” is in much stronger terms, presenting us with a woman who wishes to disown all her human—particularly feminine—ties to the world in favor of a crown. So perhaps we might see in this moment an uncanny reflection, in which the three Witches are coalesced into the one demonic wife. Or, taking another route, we might still wish to maintain the distinctions among the women. The Witches, after all, don’t need to call upon powers because they already possess them. And Lady Macbeth asks for a lot here, demanding full power to even herself wield the dagger.
Lady Macbeth: The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold.’
Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter,
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.37-54).
To begin, I want to point out that Lady Macbeth is actually not asking to be rendered a male. The “unsex” here refers to not a swapping of sex, but rather no sex at all. In other words, Lady Macbeth desires to be something not entirely human, or outside of the typical human order. And we should note the triplicity that returns here. This famous invocation is actually three in one, which we can identity through the repetition of “come.”
When she greets Macbeth, she refuses to name the deed that both have in mind. This is where euphemism comes into play, as in the “great business” (1.5.68) to which she refers. While this is characteristic of both Macbeths’ treatment of the regicide more broadly, Macbeth does confront the issue more explicitly in Act 1, Scene 7, in which we encounter a Shakespearean coinage, the word “assassination.” But note the doublings of Macbeth’s soliloquy, the back-and-forth that rests on the notion of time as moving inexorably forward even as Macbeth desires to undo the very restraints of temporal unfolding in the unknowable future, a future that might be marked, as it indeed is, by danger for himself because of this deed.
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 judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th’inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ingredience of our poisoned 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 cherubim, 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, where o’er-leaps itself,
And fall on th’other. (1.7.1-28).
This image of pity is a confusing one, in which it is unclear if pity is a powerful figure, one who can “stride the blasts” or is childlike, an innocent figure subject to other forces. Scholars are undecided on what is means, but for our purposes it is relevant that Macbeth, in his wavering, tortured speech, moves between different poles. In “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” he seems to be suggesting that he will go through with the deed, but nonetheless he wishes for the “future in the instant,” to borrow Lady Macbeth’s image. In other words, Macbeth wishes for the glory of the crown but, in keeping with the many paradoxes and the confusion of the senses in the play, also wishes for that act to be located outside of time or in the past, in which there are no repercussions that follow upon the “success” (is there an echo of succession in this word too?). If this event could be isolated from temporality, could be erased from any chronicle perhaps, then Macbeth could readily go through with the deed. At least, that’s my reading of the confusions in this passage, but I also think it’s appropriate that they are difficult to read. Macbeth is losing his grip on reality, and his language reflects the many fears that crowd upon him in his imagination. He will ultimately be convinced to betray the “double trust” (1.7.12) in which Duncan is visiting him (though we should notice that it’s actually three reasons Macbeth cites here) through Lady Macbeth’s challenge to his masculinity. And once we connect her following chastisement of Macbeth to the earlier moment in which she determined to “pour my spirits in thine ear” (1.5.26), then we might rethink how we read her desire to be “unsex[ed]” if she is able, in a sense, to “unsex” Macbeth so readily by challenging his manhood. What I’m getting at here is that perhaps she wishes to be no sex at all because she recognizes how easy it is to challenge one’s masculine persona, as she knows in her urging to Macbeth. It is notable too that even in criticizing his masculine resolve, Lady Macbeth relies upon a highly feminine image, one that she perverts into one of the most malignant imaginable, that of child-killing (something that will be significant later in the play too). As she claims:
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 plucked the nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).
Notice the move from “it” to “his” in the passage. Her declaration and her goading are effective, and Macbeth praises his wife in terms of succession: “Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7.73-75). Lady Macbeth, we might say, has sufficiently challenged the idea of her sex to render her either sex-less, hyper-masculine, or perhaps still feminine but leaning towards a “mettle” or composition that is apt only to produce other masculine beings, those who would inherit the crown that Macbeth will kill in order to obtain.
So carefully does Shakespeare map out all of these contradictions that it is sometimes harder to discern individual characters amid the other discussions. But we should look to see how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth develop as characters. Some critics, for example, have argued that the two are dual parts of the same psyche, and that while one dominates the other must be subdued. Perhaps we can see this in how powerful Lady Macbeth appears in the first half of the play, but her hold over her husband and her own agency diminish as Macbeth grows in bloodthirsty deeds. Thus the moment when Macbeth says to her “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed” (3.2.46-47) represents a swapping of agential roles, and now Macbeth will be the one who shapes and responds actively the play’s events.
I think it’s worthwhile to recall, too, that we are firmly in the world of Scotland, not England nor some unidentified space that serves as mere backdrop to the events in the play. Rather, Shakespeare’s Scottish landscape and his understanding of Scottish behavior plays a significant role in the drama. We thus learn that Macbeth is above all, at least initially, a Scottish thane, one who gains his glory and standing through acts of bloodshed. Before he encounters the Weird Sisters, too, he is one who in the Captain’s speech was “Disdaining Fortune,” and was highly bloody in his battlefield prowess:
With his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour’s minion, carved out his passage,
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (1.2.17-23).
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but think about it: Macbeth doesn’t simply skewer people on the battlefield. He stabs them in the stomach and then pulls upwards, a fact that the unpleasant term “unseamed” calls to our attention. Macbeth is later described by this same eloquent Captain, alongside Banquo, as aiming to “memorize another Golgotha” (1.2.40). The line is curious because Golgotha is the place where Christ was crucified, so that the image is a disturbing one. But I don’t think that we should forget the stereotypes that the English themselves held about Scotland as a barbarous land of violence. It is significant, then, that Malcolm flees to England and returns with an English army. Even if the Macbeths have unleashed something strange in the environment, Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood that environment as already prone to the supernatural and violent possibilities revealed in the play.
Whew. This is a lot of lead-up to the actual killing of Duncan. In our very capacious discussion, however, I want you to see how packed the first scene of the play is. This is largely true for most of the play, which moves with unforgiving speed towards the final creeping of Birnam Wood upon Dunsinane. But let’s actually look in closer detail at the murder of Duncan because both Macbeths play a constituent role in its execution. Macbeth returns from the King’s chamber, having stabbed Duncan. He’s shocked at what he has done, and is now confronting the full religious and moral implications of the regicide. Lady Macbeth, emboldened by the act, is full of vigor and resolve in the scene, returning to the chamber (though she herself could not stab Duncan because, as she notes, he resembled her father).
Macbeth: One cried, ‘God bless us,’ and ‘Amen’ the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
Listening 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 doth murder sleep’—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great Nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast—
Lady Macbeth: What do you mean?
Macbeth: Still it cried, ‘Sleep no more’ to all the house;
‘Glamis hath murdered 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 you 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. [Exit. Knock within]
Macbeth: Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Ha: they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Make the green, one read. [Enter Lady Macbeth]
Lady Macbeth: My hands are of your colour, but I shame
To wear a heart so white. I hear a knocking
At the south entry. Retire we to our chamber;
A little water clears us of this deed.
How easy is it then. (2.2.27-69).
It’s a long passage, so let’s circle back to think about some of the things going on here. What does this reveal about Macbeth’s state of mind? What about Lady Macbeth’s? Are they on the same page here? Or do we start to witness a fissure in their relationship? And what are the elements of foreshadowing here, particularly strong in this scene?
Duncan’s death unleashes something in Scotland, and the environment itself responds violently to the changes. Lennox describes the unruly night, and the Old Man and Ross hold an exchange regarding the unnatural events that have occurred, including cannibalistic horses and earthquakes. And Macbeth, now having got the “all” of the Weird Sisters’ prophecies, cannot rest content in his newfound glory. Instead, his thoughts turn continually to the idea of succession, of the fact that he has no heir to inherit his crown. Despite Lady Macbeth’s claim that she has given suck and his encouragement to her that she bring forth “men-children” (so specifically to inherit the crown), they are a childless couple, and in the play’s second part we see Macbeth obsess over his inability to give what he has won to one of his own blood. Let’s look at his articulation of this fear in Act 3:
Macbeth: To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
Our fears in Banquo stick deep,
And in his royalty of nature reigns that
Which would be feared. ’Tis much he dares,
And to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he,
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked, as it is said
Mark Antony’s was by Caesar. He chid the sisters
When first they put the name of king upon me,
And bade them speak to him. Then, prophet-like,
They hailed him father to a line of kings.
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren scepter in my gripe.,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If’t be so,
For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind;
For them, the gracious Duncan have I murdered;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings.
Rather than so, come fate into the list,
And champion me to th’utterance. (3.1.47-71).
We can identify the obvious gaps in Macbeth’s logic here, in which he determines that “fate” shall fight on his side, but it is possibly also “fate” that predetermined that he would be king. The lines of causality are consistently blurred, and Macbeth is adept at deliberately avoiding those unwelcome thoughts. Nonetheless, we also witness something like remorse here. He has traded in his “eternal jewel,” his soul, for a fruitless crown. We are back, that is, to the play’s obsession with time, in which one way to avoid death is through a type of reproduction of the self, so that the image and memory of the self live on. But Macbeth doesn’t have that image, and so he must destroy it in others.
By Act 3, it is clear that Macbeth lives in doubt. His mind is disturbed and he desires certain knowledge. So he returns to the Weird Sisters in a fantastic scene of prophecy, which we will discuss on Thursday. Today, however, we will focus on his desire for knowledge from a questionable, probably demonic source. As he relates to Lady Macbeth, he must know further of what will unfold:
Macbeth: I will tomorrow,
And betimes I will, to the weïrd sisters.
More shall they speak: for now I am bent to know
By the worst means, the worst; for mine own good,
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped 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 scanned. (3.4.130-138).
Lady Macbeth’s response to his speech is one that attempts to reestablish the natural order, to reassert the normal rhythms of life: “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” (3.4.139). But we already know that Macbeth has murdered sleep, an ailment that will be visited upon his wife in a related, but different, way.
Okay, so we will have to keep witches, fate, providence, sex and gender, and so much more in mind for Thursday. On Thursday, too, we will try to return to the banquet scene.
Well despite my plans, we only really got through Act 1 on Tuesday! But perhaps that will demonstrate to us how replete this play is with troubling but interesting questions. So today, we are going to have to move like the play itself, that is, quite quickly.
To start, let’s focus on Macbeth’s increasing determination to know. He desires, above all, certainty, even while dealing with agents that “trifle” with truths, as Banquo had reminded him. The spectacular prophecy scene, in which the Weird Sisters, alongside Hecate and others, reveal a macabre tricplicity of prophecies begins with Macbeth entering in upon them after they have wound up their charm with the famous “double, double, toil and trouble” lines.
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 yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though the 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 germen tumble altogether
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you. (4.1.47-60).
This is where we might locate Macbeth’s tyranny. He does not care for all of nature, indeed he invite chaos, so that he will have certain knowledge of his future. He too speaks in repetition, a type of conjuring of the witches who are ironically already present. He also disregards the source of their knowledge—“Howe’er you come to know it”—a dangerous omission that would likely suggest that their knowledge derives from the devil himself. Of the three apparitions, scholars have focused on the bloody child, the one who delivers the enigmatic riddle “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.79-80).
What this final encounter does establish for Macbeth is the need to be even more bloodthirsty, to remove any and all impediments to his safety. This leads then to his deputation of murderers to the Macduff household. We should note the irony in Macbeth becoming a child-killer, attempting to extirpate all lines of inheritance. Shakespeare establishes Macbeth’s tyranny even more so with the contrast of the King with the King of England, Edward the Confessor, whose holy touch can cure scrofula, popularly known as the King’s Evil. As Malcolm explains:
’Tis called the Evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king,
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,
All swol’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks
Put on with holy prayers; and ’tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace. (4.3.146-159).
This image of a healing English King, one whose land like his people are cured by his holiness, is juxtaposed with Macbeth’s harms, which are figured as enacted directly upon the land of Scotland. It is then a startling comparison that arises not just from this speech, but from the entry of Ross directly after this, with the news that all of Macduff’s family is dead.
While Macbeth desires more knowledge and enacts horrific crimes to gain surety, Lady Macbeth has been diminished, psychically damaged by her role in Duncan’s assassination. We come, then, to the famous sleep-walking scene. Let’s start at line 24, reading up to the end of the scene. Let’s have a Doctor, a Waiting-Gentlewoman, and a Lady Macbeth read this for us. [Read the scene together]. So what has changed? How would we characterize Lady Macbeth now? Is she mad? Is she justly punished? Why does the Doctor believe that he cannot help her? And what about the repetition in Lady Macbeth’s language? What do we make of it? And then let’s turn to Macbeth’s response to her ailment and his curious conclusion on the state of Scotland itself.
Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?
Doctor: Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
Macbeth: Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Doctor: Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.
Macbeth: Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it.
Come, put mine armour on; give me my staff;
Seyton, send out. Doctor, the thanes fly from me—
Come, sir, dispatch.—If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.—Pull’t off, I say.
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence? (5.3.37-56).
Macbeth does not acknowledge that he is perhaps responsible for Scotland’s illness, its influx of evil spirits that he and his wife have in part conjured, and in part heeded through the regicide. If Macbeth appears brusque here, we might think that he too has lost his sanity, or that he is so affirmed in the witches’ prophecies that he does not think any real ill can be visited upon him. Of course he learns the contrary soon after, particularly when he hears of Lady Macbeth’s decease:
Macbeth: I have almost forgot the taste of ears.
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t. I have supped full with horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?
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 my an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.9-27).
Rather than me explicating these lines, I want to hear from you. What do you make of Macbeth’s mood in this moment?
Macbeth dies offstage, killed by Macduff. At the final moments of the play, we are reminded once again of birth (Macduff was born by a C-section, or “untimely ripped” (5.8.16), and the succession of a new line. But the play also implies a circularity, and we have to wonder how well Scotland will be now with the perhaps wily Malcolm on the throne. He creates the first Scottish earls, establishing an English-inflected resonance to his rule of Scotland. But is he the holy Edward the Confessor? Or is he marked, as Macbeth and his wife were, by the bloodiness that seems endemic to the landscape itself? And what of the Weird Sisters? Presumably they are still lurking in the shadows, ready to deliver more “juggling” prophecies to bewitch others.