“When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?/When the hurly-burly’s done,/When the battle’s lost, and won.”


Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams



King Duncan of Scotland

Malcolm, Duncan’s elder son

Donalbain, Duncan’s younger son

A Captain in Duncan’s army

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife

Porter at Macbeth’s castle

Seyton, servant of Macbeth

Banquo, a thane, and his son Fleance

Macduff, Thane of Fife

Lady Macduff, Macduff’s wife

Lennox, Ross, Angus, Caithness and Menteith, thanes

Siward, Earl of Northumberland, and his son Young Siward

Hecate, Queen of the Witches

Six Witches


macbeth witchesAct One:  War divides Scotland as the rebellions Macdonald fights against King Duncan. But Duncan has the more than resolute Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, on his side, and the battle goes their way. Returning from the war, Macbeth and his fellow general Banquo encounter three Witches (or weird sisters) who tell Macbeth that he will be rewarded and one day will be king, while his companion’s descendents will prosper. As the Witches vanish, a party from Duncan arrives announcing – just as predicted – that Macbeth is now Thane of Cawdor. Stunned by the news, Macbeth writes to his wife, who resolves that her husband needs to be helped along (or pushed) on his way to power. So when news arrives that King Duncan plans to stay at their castle, she persuades the reluctant Macbeth to murder him.

Macbeth is, from start to finish, a murky play.  As one of my favorite critics A.C. Bradley put it (and I’ll be going back to him continuously during our reading), “Darkness, we may even say blackness, broods over this tragedy. It is remarkable that almost all the scenes which at once recur to memory take place either at night or in some dark spot.” Those ‘dark corners’ – Macbeth’s vision of the dagger, Duncan’s murder, Banquo’s murder, Lady Macbeth’s tormented sleepwalking – provide an easy summary of the play, as it travels from the early stages of the Macbeth’s ambition for power, the brutal murders they have to do to get it, and the steady erosion into nothingness of everything that’s important to them.

But, as much as I worship Bradley, there is one component missing from his scheme, and it is far more memorable to audiences:

First Witch

When shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch

When the hurlyburly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won.

Third Witch

That will be ere the set of sun.

First Witch

Where the place?

Second Witch

Upon the heath.

Third Witch

There to meet with Macbeth.

First Witch

I come, Graymalkin!

Second Witch

Paddock calls.

Third Witch



Fair is foul, and foul is fair:

Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Though centuries of familiarity have done a good job of stripping the Weird Sisters of (at least some) of their capacity to inspire terror, Shakespeare’s audiences, brought up on stories about the potency of witchcraft (and who indeed might have witnessed first-hand the persecution of women believed to be witches), would not have been so relaxed. And though it is unclear whether this brief scene, the very first in the play, takes place at night, it still deserves to be on any list of Macbeth’s eeriest moments. If convincingly acted, the Witches bring something genuinely terrifying into the play, bridging the gap between the world we know and understand, and the wild and chaotic space that exists just beyond it. The Sisters “look not like th’inhabitants o’th’ earth,” Banquo exclaims, “and yet are on’t.”

macbeth witches 5The oldest meaning of the word “weird” refers, perhaps surprisingly, to the magical ability to govern fate, and the message the Witches deliver to Macbeth (that he will be “king hereafter”) confirms that they live up to their name – as Macbeth himself realizes when their first prediction, that he will be made Thane of Cawdor, comes true. “this supernatural soliciting,” he murmurs, “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 up to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs

Against the use of nature?

And of course, one man who took witches seriously enough to publish a book about them was the ruler for whom, in all probability, Macbeth was written: James I. Many (if not most) scholars believe that the “Scottish play” was written in honor of the Edinburgh-born king who had recently taken control of the English throne, uniting the two nations for the first time (while also extending his patronage to Shakespeare’s company.)  Shakespeare repaid his and his colleague’s debt in fine style, returning to the main source for his English histories, the sprawling Chronicles, and drawing out from the “History of Scotland” the story of the eleventh-century thane Banquo, believed to be the ultimate ancestor of all Scottish monarchs, James included, and so pointing out the new king’s legitimate right to the throne.  But at the same time, by concentrating on the story of Macbeth, Banquo’s sometime companion and ruler, Shakespeare gave himself the freedom to construct a play in which witchcraft could play a forceful role (according to Holinshed, Macbeth relied on supernatural advice to govern Scotland). Along with further flattering King James’ interest in those topics, Shakespeare also created a dramatic world in which witchcraft and humankind become dangerously – and ultimately tragically – entangled.  In a strange way (and this play is nothing if not strange), the Witches can be seen as, as critic Terry Eagleton put it, “the heroines of the piece.”

A few things to consider as we read:

1.  Take note of the some of the play’s most obsessive interests:  the way that political and dynastic successions depends upon a cycle (birth, death, birth); the importance of motherhood and fathering and the unanticipated ways (Caesarian birth etc.) that they can become unpredictable; the echoing statements and restatements among the sisters (or witches) Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff.

2.  Also note the brevity and directness of the play, and how it effects the audience/reader.  Maurice Morgann, in his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff wrote:

‘The Understanding must, in the first place, be subdued; and lo! How the rooted prejudices of the child spring up to confound the man! The Weird sisters rise, and order is extinguished. The laws of nature give way, and leave nothing in our minds but wildness and horror. No pause is allowed us for reflection:…daggers, murder, ghosts, and inchantment, shake and possess us wholly…we, the fools of amazement, are insensible to the shifting of place and the lapse of time, and till the curtain drops, never once wake to the truth of things, or recognize the laws of existence.’

3.  Multiples – doubles, triples, quadruples – are all characteristic of the play’s language, starting right off the bat with the sister’s ‘Double, double toil and trouble.’ ‘Twoness’ – multiples of two – also appears throughout the play.  Look, for example at how the witches’ line “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” is echoed in Macbeth’s very first line “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

4.  Note how the play’s language combines “sublime magniloquence” with everyday language of great theatrical power.

5.  And this question:  how much power do the witches have?  Are they in control?  Does Macbeth’s fate inescapable?


From Harold Bloom:

macbeth witches 2“Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Macbeth is a visionary drama, and difficult as it is for us to accept that strange genre, a visionary tragedy. Macbeth himself is an involuntary seer, almost an occult medium, fully open to the spirits of the air and of the night. Lady Macbeth, initially more enterprising than her husband, fall into a psychic decline for causes more visionary than not. So much are the Macbeths made for sublimity, figures of fiery eros as they are, that their political and dynastic ambitions seem grotesquely inadequate to their mutual desires. Why do they want the crown? Shakespeare’s Richard III, still Marlovian, seeks the sweet fruition of an earthly crown, but the Macbeths are not Machiavellian over-reachers, nor are they sadists of power-obsessed as such. Their mutual lust is also a lust for the throne, a desire that is their Nietzchean revenge against time and time’s irrefutable declaration: ‘It was.’ Shakespeare did not care to clarify the Macbeth’s childlessness. Lady Macbeth speaks of having nursed a child, presumably her own but now dead, we are not told that Macbeth is her second husband, but we may take him to be that. He urges her to bring forth men children only, in admiration of her ‘manly’ resolve, yet pragmatically they seem to expect no heirs of their own union, while he fiercely seeks to murder Fleance, Banquo’s son, and does destroy Macduff’s children, Freud, shrewder on Macbeth than on Hamlet, called the curse of childlessness Macbeth’s motivation for murder and usurpation. Shakespeare left this matter more uncertain; it is a little difficult to imagine Macbeth when he is, at first, so profoundly dependent on Lady Macbeth. Until she goes made, she seems as much Macbeth’s mother as his wife.

Of all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth is the least free. As Wilbur Sanders implied, Macbeth’s actions are a kind of falling forward (‘falling in space,’ Sanders called it). Whether or not Nietzsche (and Freud after him) were right in believing that we are lived, thought, and willed by forces not ourselves, Shakespeare anticipated Nietzsche in this conviction. Sanders acutely follows Nietzsche in giving us a Macbeth who pragmatically lacks any will, in contrast to Lady Macbeth, who is a pure will until she breaks apart. Nietzsche’s insight might be the clue to the different ways in which the Macbeths desire the crown: she wills it, he wills nothing, and paradoxically she collapses while he grows even more frightening, outraging others, himself outraged, as he becomes the nothing he projects. And yet this nothingness remains a negative sublime, its grandeur merits the dignity of tragic perspectives. The enigma of Macbeth, as a drama, always will remain its protagonist’s hold upon our terrified sympathy. Shakespeare surmised the guilty imaginings we share with Macbeth, who is Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll. Stevenson’s marvelous story emphasizes that Hyde is younger than Jekyll, only because Jekyll’s career is still young in villainy while old in good works. Our uncanny sense that Macbeth somehow is younger in deed than we are is analogous. Virtuous as we may (or may not) be, we fear that Macbeth, our Mr. Hyde, has the power to realize our own potential for active evil. Poor Jekyll eventually turns into Mr. Hyde and cannot get back. Shakespeare’s art is to suggest we could have such a fate.

Is Shakespeare himself – on any level – also a Dr. Jekyll in relation to Macbeth’s Mr. Hyde? How could he not be, given his success in touching a universal negative sublime through having imagined Macbeth’s imaginings? Like Hamlet, with whom he has some curious affinities, Macbeth projects an aura of intimacy: with the audience, with the hapless actors, with his creator. Formalist critics of Shakespeare – old guard and new – insist that no character is larger than the play, since a character is ‘only’ an actor’s role. Audiences and readers are not so formalistic: Shylock Falstaff, Rosalind, Hamlet, Malvolio, Macbeth, Cleopatra (and some others) seem readily transferable to contexts different from their drama. Sancho Panza, as Kafka demonstrated in the wonderful parable ‘The Truth About Sancho  Panza,” can become the creator of Don Quixote. Some new and even more Borgesian Kafka must rise among us to show Antonio as the inventor of Shylock, or Prince Hal as the father of Sir John Falstaff.

To call Macbeth larger than his play in no way deprecates my own favorite among all of Shakespeare’s works. The economy of Macbeth is ruthless, and scholars who find it truncated, or partly the work of Thomas Middleton, fail to understand Shakespeare’s darkest design. What notoriously dominates this play, more than any other in Shakespeare, is time, time that is not of the Christian mercy of eternity, but devouring time, death nihilistically regarded as finality. No critic has been able to distinguish between death, time, and nature in Macbeth; Shakespeare so fuses them that all of us are well within the mix. We hear voices crying out the formulae of redemption, but never persuasively, compared with Macbeth’s soundings of night and the grave. Technically, the men in Macbeth are ‘Christian warriors,’ as some critics like to emphasize, but their Scottish medieval Catholicism is perfunctory. The kingdom, as in King Lear, is a kind of cosmological waste land, a Creation that was also a Fall, in the beginning.

Macbeth is very much a night piece; its Scotland is more a mythological Northland than the actual nation from which Shakespeare’s royal patron emerged. King James I doubtless prompted some of the play’s emphases, but hardly the most decisive, the sense that the night has usurped the day. Murder is the characteristic action of Macbeth, not just King Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff and her children are the victims. By firm implication, every person in the play is a potential target for the Macbeths. Shakespeare, who perhaps mocked the stage horrors of other dramatists in his Titus Andronicus, experimented far more subtly with the aura of murderousness in Macbeth. It is not so much that each of us in the audience is a potential victim. Rather more uneasily, the little Macbeth within each theatergoer can be tempted to surmise a murder of his or her own.

I can think of no other literary work with Macbeth’s power of contamination, unless it be Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the prose epic profoundly influenced by Macbeth. Ahab is another visionary maniac, obsessed with what seems a malign order in the universe. Ahab strikes through the mask of natural appearances, as Macbeth does, but the White Whale is no easy victim. Like Macbeth, Ahab is outraged by the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth, and yet Ahab’s prophet, the Parsi harpooner Fedallah, himself is far more equivocal than the Weird Sisters. We identify with Captain Ahab less ambivalently than we do with King Macbeth, since Ahab is neither a murderer nor a usurper, and yet pragmatically Ahab is about as destructive as Macbeth, all on the Pequot, except for Ishmael the narrator, are destroyed by Ahab’s quest. Melville, a shrewd interpreter of Shakespeare, borrows Macbeth’s phantasmagoric and proleptic imagination for Ahab, so that both Ahab and Macbeth become world destroyers. The Scottish heath and the Atlantic ocean amalgamate: each is a context where preternatural forces have outraged a sublime consciousness, who fights back vainly and unluckily, and goes down to a great defeat. Ahab, an American Promethean, is perhaps more hero than villain, unlike Macbeth, who forfeits our admiration though not our entrapped sympathy.”


And from Mark Van Doren:

macbeth witches 3“The triumph of ‘Macbeth’ is the construction of a world, and nothing like it has ever been constructed in twenty-one hundred lines.

This world, which is at once without and within Macbeth, can be most easily described as ‘strange.’ The word, like the witches, is always somewhere doing its work. Even in the battle which pre cedes the play the thane of Glamis has made ‘strange images of death,’ and when he comes home to his lady his face is ‘as a book where men may read strange matters.’ Duncan’s horses after his murder turn wild in nature and devour each other – ‘a thing most strange and certain.’ Nothing is as it should be in such a world. ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him/’ There is a drift of disorders in all events, and the air is murky with unwelcome miracles.

It is a dark world too, inhabited from the beginning by witches who meet on a blasted heath in thunder and lightning, and who hover through fog and filthy air as they leave on unspeakable errands. It is a world wherein ‘men must not walk too late,’ for the night that was so pretty in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has grown terrible with ill-smelling mists and the stench of blood. The time that was once a playground for free and loving spirits has closed like a trap, or yawned like a bottomless pit. The ‘dark hour’ that Banquo borrows from the night is his last hour on earth which has lost the distinction between sun and gloom.

Darkness does the face of earth entomb,

When living light should kiss it.

(ii, iv, 9-10)

The second of these lines make a sound that is notable in the play for its rarity: the sound of live in its normal ease and lightness. Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it. But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim. And the weird sisters no less than he are expressions of an evil that employs them both and has roots running farther into darkness than the mind can guess.

It is furthermore a world in which nothing is certain to keep its shape. Forms shift and constitencies alter, so that what was solid may flow and what was liquid may congeal to stone.

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,

And these are of them,

says Banquo of the vanished witches. Macbeth addresses the ‘sure and firm set earth,’ but nothing could be less firm than the whole marble and the founded rock he has fancied his life to be. At the very moment he speaks he has seen a dagger which is not there, and the ‘strange infirmity’ he confesses at the banquet will consist of seeing things that cannot be. His first apostrophe to the witches had been to creatures

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on ‘t.

So now a dead man lives; Banquo’s brains are out but he rises again, and ‘this is more strange than such a murder is.’

Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves

Shall never tremble.

(iii, iv, 102-3)

But the shape of everything is wrong, and the nerves of Macbeth are never proof against trembling. The cardinal instanced of transformation is himself. Bellona’s bridegroom has been turned to jelly.

The current of change pouring forever through this universe has, as a last effect, dissolved it. And the dissolution of so much that was solid has liberated deadly fumes, has thickened the air until it suffocates all breathers. If the footing under men is less substantial than it was, the atmosphere they must push through is almost too heavy for life. It is confining, swarming, swelling; it is viscous, it is sticky; and it threatens strangulation. All of the speakers in the play conspire to create the impression that this is so. Not only do the witches in their opening scene wail ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair,’ but the military men who enter after them anticipate in their talk of battle the imagery of entanglement to come.

     Doubtful it stood,

As two spent swimmers that do cling together

And choke their art…

The multiplying villainies of nature

Do swarm upon him…

So form that spring whence comfort seem’d to come

Discomfort swells.

[MY NOTE:  “As two spent swimmers that do cling together/And choke their art…”  Prefiguring Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?]

Macbeth’s sword is reported to have ‘smok’d with bloody execution,’ and he and Banquo were ‘as cannons overcharg’d with double cracks;’ they

Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.

The hyperbole is ominous, the excess is sinister. In the third scene, after what seemed corporal in the witches has melted into the wind, Ross and Angus join Banquo and Macbeth to report the praises of Macbeth that had poured in on Duncan ‘as thick as hail,’ and to salute the new Thane of Cawdor. The witches then have been right in two respects, and Macbeth sans in an aside:

     Two truths are gold,

As happy prologues to the swelling act

Of the imperial theme.

But the imagined act of murder swells in his mind until it is too big for its place, and his heart beats as if it were choking in its chamber.

     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 thoughts, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man that function

Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is

But what is not.

Meanwhile Lady Macbeth at home is visited by no such fears. When the crisis comes she will break sooner than her husband does, but her brittleness then will mean the same thing that her melodrama means now: she is a slighter person than Macbeth, has a poorer imagination, and holds in her mind less of that power which enables it to stand up under torture. The news that Duncan is coming to her house inspires her to pray that her blood be made thick; for the theme of thickness is so far not terrible in her thought.

    Come, thick night,

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the would it makes,

Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark

To cry, ’Hold, hold!’

The blanket of the dark – it seems to her an agreeable image, and by no means suggests an element that can enwrap or smother. With Macbeth it is different; his soliloquy in the seventh scene shows him occupied with images of nets and tangles: the consequences of Duncan’s death may coil about him like an endless rope.

If it were done when ‘t is done, then ‘t were well

It were done quickly. If the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

With his surcease success; that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’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 the inventor.

And his voice rises to shrillness as he broods in terror upon the endless echo which such an echo may make in the world.

    His virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off;

And pity, like a naked new-born babe

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin hors’d

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

That tears shall drown the wind.

It is terror such as this that Lady Macbeth must endeavor to ally in what is after all a great mind. Her scolding cannot do so.”

macbeth witches 4And for your weekend bonus, from AC Bradley:

     A Shakespearean tragedy, as a rule, has a special tone or atmosphere of its own, quite perceptible, however difficult to describe. The effect of this atmosphere is marked with unusual strength in Macbeth. It is due to a variety of influences which combine with those just noticed, so that, acting and reacting, they form a whole; and the desolation of the blasted heath, the design of the Witches, the guilt in the hero’s soul, the darkness of the night, seem to emanate from one and the same source. This effect is strengthened by a multitude of small touches, which at the moment may be little noticed but still leave their mark on the imagination. We may approach the consideration of the characters and the action by distinguishing some of the ingredients of this general effect.

     Darkness, we may even say blackness, broods over this tragedy. It is remarkable that almost all the scenes which at once recur to memory take place either at night or in some dark spot. The vision of the dagger, the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth, all come in night-scenes. The Witches dance in the thick air of a storm, or, ‘black and midnight hags,’ receive Macbeth in a cavern. The blackness of night is to the hero a thing of fear, even of horror; and that which he feels becomes the spirit of the play. The faint glimmerings of the western sky at twilight are here menacing: it is the hour when the traveller hastens to reach safety in his inn, and when Banquo rides homeward to meet his assassins; the hour when ‘light thickens,’ when ‘night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,’ when the wolf begins to howl, and the owl to scream, and withered murder steals forth to his work. Macbeth bids the stars hide their fires that his ‘black’ desires may be concealed; Lady Macbeth calls on thick night to come, palled in the dunnest smoke of hell. The moon is down and no stars shine when Banquo, dreading the dreams of the coming night, goes unwillingly to bed, and leaves Macbeth to wait for the summons of the little bell. When the next day should dawn, its light is ‘strangled,’ and ‘darkness does the face of earth entomb.’ In the whole drama the sun seems to shine only twice: first, in the beautiful but ironical passage where Duncan sees the swallows flitting round the castle of death; and, afterwards, when at the close the avenging army gathers to rid the earth of its shame. Of the many slighter touches which deepen this effect I notice only one. The failure of nature in Lady Macbeth is marked by her fear of darkness; ‘she has light by her continually.’ And in the one phrase of fear that escapes her lips even in sleep, it is of the darkness of the place of torment that she speaks.1

     The atmosphere of Macbeth, however, is not that of unrelieved blackness. On the contrary, as compared with King Lear and its cold dim gloom, Macbeth leaves a decided impression of colour; it is really the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour, sometimes vivid and even glaring. They are the lights and colours of the thunderstorm in the first scene; of the dagger hanging before Macbeth’s eyes and glittering alone in the midnight air; of the torch borne by the servant when he and his lord come upon Banquo crossing the castle-court to his room; of the torch, again, which Fleance carried to light his father to death, and which was dashed out by one of the murderers; of the torches that flared in the hall on the face of the Ghost and the blanched cheeks of Macbeth; of the flames beneath the boiling cauldron from which the apparitions in the cavern rose; of the taper which showed to the Doctor and Gentlewoman the wasted face and blank eyes of Lady Macbeth. And, above all, the colour is the colour of blood. It cannot be an accident that the image of blood is forced upon us continually, not merely by the events themselves, but by full descriptions, and even by reiteration of the word in unlikely parts of the dialogue. The Witches, after their first wild appearance, have hardly quitted the stage when there staggers on to it a ‘bloody man,’ gashed with wounds. His tale is of a hero whose ‘brandished steel smoked with bloody execution,’ ‘carved out a passage’ to his enemy, and ‘unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps.’ And then he tells of a second battle so bloody that the combatants seemed as if they ‘meant to bathe in reeking wounds.’ What metaphors! What a dreadful image is that with which Lady Macbeth greets us almost as she enters, when she prays the spirits of cruelty so to thicken her blood that pity cannot flow along her veins! What pictures are those of the murderer appearing at the door of the banquet-room with Banquo’s ‘blood upon his face’; of Banquo himself ‘with twenty trenched gashes on his head,’ or ‘blood-bolter’d’ and smiling in derision at his murderer; of Macbeth, gazing at his hand, and watching it dye the whole green ocean red; of Lady Macbeth, gazing at hers, and stretching it away from her face to escape the smell of blood that all the perfumes of Arabia will not subdue! The most horrible lines in the whole tragedy are those of her shuddering cry, ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ And it is not only at such moments that these images occur. Even in the quiet conversation of Malcolm and Macduff, Macbeth is imagined as holding a bloody sceptre, and Scotland as a country bleeding and receiving every day a new gash added to her wounds. It is as if the poet saw the whole story through an ensanguined mist, and as if it stained the very blackness of the night. When Macbeth, before Banquo’s murder, invokes night to scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, and to tear in pieces the great bond that keeps him pale, even the invisible hand that is to tear the bond is imagined as covered with blood.

     Let us observe another point. The vividness, magnitude, and violence of the imagery in some of these passages are characteristic of Macbeth almost throughout; and their influence contributes to form its atmosphere. Images like those of the babe torn smiling from the breast and dashed to death; of pouring the sweet milk of concord into hell; of the earth shaking in fever; of the frame of things disjointed; of sorrows striking heaven on the face, so that it resounds and yells out like syllables of dolour; of the mind lying in restless ecstasy on a rack; of the mind full of scorpions; of the tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; — all keep the imagination moving on a ‘wild and violent sea,’ while it is scarcely for a moment permitted to dwell on thoughts of peace and beauty. In its language, as in its action, the drama is full of tumult and storm. Whenever the Witches are present we see and hear a thunderstorm: when they are absent we hear of ship-wrecking storms and direful thunders; of tempests that blow down trees and churches, castles, palaces and pyramids; of the frightful hurricane of the night when Duncan was murdered; of the blast on which pity rides like a new-born babe, or on which heaven’s cherubim are horsed. There is thus something magnificently appropriate in the cry ‘Blow, wind! Come, wrack!’ with which Macbeth, turning from the sight of the moving wood of Birnam, bursts from his castle. He was borne to his throne on a whirlwind, and the fate he goes to meet comes on the wings of storm.

     Now all these agencies — darkness, the lights and colours that illuminate it, the storm that rushes through it, the violent and gigantic images — conspire with the appearances of the Witches and the Ghost to awaken horror, and in some degree also a supernatural dread. And to this effect other influences contribute. The pictures called up by the mere words of the Witches stir the same feelings — those, for example, of the spell-bound sailor driven tempest-tost for nine times nine weary weeks, and never visited by sleep night or day; of the drop of poisonous foam that forms on the moon, and, falling to earth, is collected for pernicious ends; of the sweltering venom of the toad, the finger of the babe killed at its birth by its own mother, the tricklings from the murderer’s gibbet. In Nature, again, something is felt to be at work, sympathetic with human guilt and supernatural malice. She labours with portents.

Lamentings heard in the air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible,

burst from her. The owl clamours all through the night; Duncan’s horses devour each other in frenzy; the dawn comes, but no light with it. Common sights and sounds, the crying of crickets, the croak of the raven, the light thickening after sunset, the homecoming of the rooks, are all ominous. Then, as if to deepen these impressions, Shakespeare has concentrated attention on the obscurer regions of man’s being, on phenomena which make it seem that he is in the power of secret forces lurking below, and independent of his consciousness and will: such as the relapse of Macbeth from conversation into a reverie, during which he gazes fascinated at the image of murder drawing closer and closer; the writing on his face of strange things he never meant to show; the pressure of imagination heightening into illusion, like the vision of a dagger in the air, at first bright, then suddenly splashed with blood, or the sound of a voice that cried ‘Sleep no more’ and would not be silenced.1 To these are added other, and constant, allusions to sleep, man’s strange half-conscious life; to the misery of its withholding; to the terrible dreams of remorse, to the cursed thoughts from which Banquo is free by day, but which tempt him in his sleep: and again to abnormal disturbances of sleep; in the two men, of whom one during the murder of Duncan laughed in his sleep, and the other raised a cry of murder; and in Lady Macbeth, who rises to re-enact in somnambulism those scenes the memory of which is pushing her on to madness or suicide. All this has one effect, to excite supernatural alarm and, even more, a dread of the presence of evil not only in its recognized seat but all through and around our mysterious nature. Perhaps there is no other work equal to Macbeth in the production of this effect.2

     It is enhanced — to take a last point — by the use of a literary expedient. Not even in Richard III., which in this, as in other respects, has resemblances to Macbeth, is there so much of Irony. I do not refer to irony in the ordinary sense; to speeches, for example, where the speaker is intentionally ironical, like that of Lennox in III. vi. I refer to irony on the part of the author himself, to ironical juxtapositions of persons and events, and especially to the ‘Sophoclean irony’ by which a speaker is made to use words bearing to the audience, in addition to his own meaning, a further and ominous sense, hidden from himself and, usually, from the other persons on the stage. The very first words uttered by Macbeth,

So foul and fair a day I have not seen,

are an example to which attention has often been drawn; for they startle the reader by recalling the words of the Witches in the first scene,

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

When Macbeth, emerging from his murderous reverie, turns to the nobles saying, ‘Let us toward the King,’ his words are innocent, but to the reader have a double meaning. Duncan’s comment on the treachery of Cawdor,

                 There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust,

is interrupted1 by the entrance of the traitor Macbeth, who is greeted with effusive gratitude and a like ‘absolute trust.’ I have already referred to the ironical effect of the beautiful lines in which Duncan and Banquo describe the castle they are about to enter. To the reader Lady Macbeth’s light words,

A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it then,

summon up the picture of the sleep-walking scene. The idea of the Porter’s speech, in which he imagines himself the keeper of hell-gate, shows the same irony. So does the contrast between the obvious and the hidden meanings of the apparitions of the armed head, the bloody child, and the child with the tree in his hand. It would be easy to add further examples. Perhaps the most striking is the answer which Banquo, as he rides away, never to return alive, gives to Macbeth’s reminder, ‘Fail not our feast.’ ‘My lord, I will not,’ he replies, and he keeps his promise. It cannot be by accident that Shakespeare so frequently in this play uses a device which contributes to excite the vague fear of hidden forces operating on minds unconscious of their influence.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning, continuing our look at Act One of Macbeth.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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1 Response to “When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?/When the hurly-burly’s done,/When the battle’s lost, and won.”

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