“I would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums/And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn/As you have done to this.”


Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


ladymacbeth11It would be fascinating to know what James I – or any of his contemporaries for that matter – made of the other strong female character in the play – the one that wasn’t a witch (albeit subtly linked to them) – Lady Macbeth.

From just a few hints in Holinshed, mainly the bald statement that Lady Macbeth was “very ambitious,” Shakespeare created a character who, despite the many things about her that remain enigmatic (her first name, for example, which is never mentioned, not even by her loving husband, or whether there was a first husband, or…) has exercised a powerful influence over the imagination of audiences and critics alike – to the extent that she has become a sort of cultural shorthand for an ambitious, threatening, ruthless figure of woman (think of comparisons to Hillary Clinton while she was in the White House). Shakespeare had already created malevolent features who literally wrestle with demons (think of Joan la Pucelle aka Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part 1), but never ones who, like Lady Macbeth, attempt to turn their sex inside out. Receiving the news that Duncan is to stay that night in their castle, she calls upon “you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts” to

     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 murd’ring ministers…

Lady Macbeth imagines “stooping” her sensitivity to “remorse” as it if were menstrual blood; being “unsexed” and inhuman are, to her, one and the same thing. But she draws power from her womanliness as well:  her “woman’s breasts” both give out “gall” and take it in. elsewhere she makes the connection between maternal nurture and destructive power all too clear.  Mocking Macbeth’s last minute nerves before he goes off to murder Duncan, she boasts, “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 my nipple from its boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn

As you have done to this.

Lady Macbeth will stop at nothing in driving her husband on to kill Duncan – at first taunting his manliness (“Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dressed yourself?” she scoffs), then claiming that she would “dash the brains out” of her own child had she undertaken to do so. Though the question of whether the Macbeths actually have children (or whether she had one from a previous marriage) – remains unanswered (although not for lack of trying on the part of some critics), what is important here is that Lady Macbeth’s ghastly words make her sound like the Witches: both mother and murderer, good and evil, fair and foul.

The play, though, would be meaningless if witchcraft had sole sway over the events:  it would, in effect, be over with before it began. The Sisters may ordain (or predict), but they are not the ones who perform the many “horrid deed[s]” that Macbeth and his wife willingly take upon themselves on their bloody path to the throne. Yet the presence of the witches do make the hero’s grip on events seem disturbingly slippery. While it may be difficult to notice while watching a performance (things just move too fast), what is striking while Macbeth is that the idea of killing Duncan, the play’s all-important point of now return, seems to originate out of nowhere. The Witches insinuate that Macbeth will be King of Scotland, but say nothing about how he should go about achieving it. Even Lady Macbeth, after hearing of their prophecies, skirts around the matter, noting somewhat astringently that though her husband is “not without ambition,” he is “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way.” – “the nearest way” meaning, of course, murdering their ruler (and guest) in cold blood. Although the milk she has eradicated from herself apparently remains in her husband, ironically, it is she who can’t quite bring herself to spell out death.

Macbeth, by contrast, does his utmost to confront the complexity of his situation. Though initially comforting himself with the thought that “if chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/Without my stir,” it soon becomes all too apparent that Fate will require some urgent prompting.  By the time that Duncan has entered the castle and a feast is prepared in his honor, Macbeth is already imagining in a kind of jumpy doublethink past his murder to what lies beyond:

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.

The extraordinary choppy texture of these lines, and their tongue-tripping quality for actors, show that Macbeth is trying to think through what seems unthinkable. His language is thick with euphemisms – “assassination” is a chilly coinage for “murder (this is its first appearance in the English language by the way – and in that same speech, the first use of “be-all and end-all.”)  He imagines cause and effect being “trammeled” (bundled up) together into one instant, feverishly plotting far beyond the immediate moment (“this bank and shoal of time”) into “the life to come.” “The meanings cannot be remembered all at once, however often you read it,” William Empson mentioned on this speech.” “It remains the incantation of a murderer, disheveled and fumbling across the powers of darkness.”

A couple of notes:

In Act One, Scene 4, note that immediately after Duncan’s speech about the former Thane 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,” Macbeth enters.

In Act One, Scene 6, lines 15-17, “All our service,/In very point twice done and then done double,/Were poor and single business to contend…” continues the language of duplication and multiplication begun by the Captain (I.2. 35-40) “…As cannons overcharged with double cracks;/So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe,” continued by the sisters, (1.3, 33-4) “Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,/And thrice again, to make up mine…” and soon to be used by Macbeth (1.7.12) “To our own lips. He’s here in double trust…”

In Act One, Scene 7, lines 1-2, while Duncan is eating his “last supper,” Macbeth is playing Judas, for to Judas Jesus at the Last Supper said: “That thou doest, do quickly.”


From Marjorie Garber:

“The word ‘equivocation’ was much in use in this period, since it was a technical term used to describe the ‘mental reservation’ by which Jesuits, often suspected of treason because of their Catholic faith, could tell untruths or partial truths under interrogation without breaking their word to God. One of the historical events shadowing Macbeth was the so-called Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy of English Roman Catholics to blow up Parliament, King James, his wife, and his elder son on November 4, 1604, in protest against the King’s refusal to grant further religious toleration. The plot was discovered in time; the conspirators were killed while resisting arrest, or later tried and executed. The plot exacerbated the already bad relations between English Protestants and Catholics, and led to rigorous enforcement of legislation requiring attendance at Anglican church services.

‘[T]h’equivocation of the fiend,/That lies like truth’ Macbeth will call it, when he realizes near the close of the play that he has misinterpreted the witches’ apparitions. Equivocation is closely akin to ambiguity, as well as to indecisiveness, an unwillingness to commit oneself either way. ‘[D]rink,’ says the Porter, may be said to be an equivocator with lechery,’ since ‘it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the desire but it takes away the performance’ (2.3.28-29, 27-28). The Porter belongs to that category of truth-telling realists that also include Emilia (in Othello), Pompey (in Measure for Measure), and the gravedigger (in Hamlet). Like them – and like the ‘wise fools’ (Bottom, Costard, Dogberry), who preceded them – the Porter speaks truth. In fact, the only other appearance of the word ‘equivocation’ in Shakespeare, outside of this play, comes in the graveyard scene in Hamlet, where Hamlet warns Horatio ‘We must speak by the card’ – that is literally – ‘or equivocation will undo us.’ Equivocation: ambiguity, the dangerous double meanings of language. Macbeth, we will see, is an equivocator in all things: a man who is split in two directions, who commits murder to become King, and suffers every moment once he is King.

‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ says the witches. In their world, nonhuman and antihuman, everything is equivocal – literally double-voiced. And Macbeth – whose mind encompasses these witches, so that they reflect his own appetite, his own uncensored wish fulfillment – declares, the first time we see him, in his very first words, ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen. So foul and fair. His mind is already in a condition to receive the witches and their tempting message. His echo of them is unconscious, but it is there.

brewhousewitches470_470x350[MY NOTE:  Let me backtrack briefly to what Garber had to say earlier about the Witches:  “What Shakespeare did with the weird sisters was make them into an emblematic state of mind – again, the onstage and unmetaphored counterpart of the ambiguous and powerful Lady Macbeth. Are the ‘witches’ inside or outside Macbeth? Are they part of his consciousness, prompting him to ambition or murder – or are they some external supernatural force? The nature of theater does not require an either/or answer to this question; the success of Shakespeare’s play is in producing both of these effects, alternately and concurrently. The witches are both inside and outside the mind of the protagonist. They tell him what he has already been thinking, just as Iago’s vivid animal imagery told Brabantio what he had already been thinking about Desdemona and Othello in bed. If the witches are causative, it is not because they tell Macbeth what to do – or, in fact because they tell him anything – but because, like Iago, they allow him to interpret things as he wants to see them. They are ‘real’ in the sense that they are visible and audible onstage, unlike, for example, the dagger that he sees before him, ‘[t]he handle toward my hand,’ or the voice that cries “’Macbeth shall sleep no more’” Modern stage directors and filmmakers often use special effects to produce these illusions for the audience in a manifest form: a dagger tied to an invisible filament descends from the flies; an amplified voice booms, seemingly from nowhere. But the stage ‘reality’ of the witches is clearly coded, by the play, as of a different order. Unlike the voice and the dagger, the witches are seen, heard, spoken to, and vouched for by another onstage witness, Banquo, who provides very much the same kind of independent assurance as does Horatio, in Hamlet, who sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Both Horatio and Banquo play a crucial role in establishing a link of verisimilitude with the audience. They are – in the play’s terms – ordinary people like ourselves. They are the confidants and companions of the tragic hero. And what they confess to seeing and hearing, we may believe also…The witches are ‘real’ in a dramatic sense – they are visible and audible onstage – and their placement on the borders of the play suggests that they are potentially out there still, ready to whisper into other susceptible ears.”]

“Double, double, toil and trouble,’” the witches chant. The word ‘double,’ too, is a sign of equivocation, of the fatal split in Macbeth, appearing again and again throughout the play, eleven times in all, always in negative contexts: Duncan is at Macbeth’s castle in double trust, yet Macbeth will murder him; Macduff, according to the witches’ apparition, seems to pose no threat, yet Macbeth will make assurance double sure, and kill him; Lady Macbeth, called by Duncan ‘our honoured hostess,’ who can scarely wait till nightfall brings the death of her royal guest, tell him that ‘[a]ll our service/In every point twice done, and then done double’ is not enough for so worthy a king. Doubleness is everywhere, and the ‘toil’ of which the witches speak is both a trouble and a snare. As he mulls the message of the witches he has just heard, Macbeth performs and enacts the very equivocation he will later rue:

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.

His ‘single state of man’ has already become doubleness, divided against itself, and equivocation will undo him. Nothing is but what is not.

macbethforbesplotWhen we first hear of Macbeth, before we ever meet him, he seems to be in a single state, a state of heroism – fighting, as is characteristic of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists at the onset of their journeys, an external war. ‘[B]rave Macbeth’ he is called, and the message of his heroism is brought to the King’s camp by a captain. The whole scene (1.2) deserves our close notice, because in some sense it is the first real scene of the play, and it begins with a question so startling that the question itself seems to present a dumb show: ‘What bloody man is that?’ These are Duncan’s first words, the king’s first words. A man covered in blood, who seems to foreshadow all the bloody language to come in this play. (As Lady Macbeth would later muse, brokenly, in the sleepwalking scene, ‘who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ The ‘bloody man’ in the second scene of the play is literally a soldier, figuratively the dead Duncan, and ultimately Macbeth himself, ‘in blood/Stepped in so far,’ unable to wash it from his hand.

To Duncan this bleeding Captain arrives with his tale of rebellion and reason:

     Doubtful it stood,

As two spent swimmers that do cling together

And choke their art…

This is one of my favorite Shakespearean images, evoking as it does a vivid picture (we see the exhausted swimmers clearly, though they are nowhere in the cast of characters) and pointing forward to a moment when the two Macbeths, likewise ‘[d]oubtful’ and exhausted, doom each other and pull each other down. The image is itself a powerful diagram of doubleness, and the loss of power that comes with doubleness. The Captain’s report tells the tale of a victory over treason, and no sooner is it heard that Ross appears to announce another traitor: the Thane of Cawdor. By the scene’s end this wartime traitor, whose sins are in plain sight, will be replaced as  both Thane and treasonous subject: ‘What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won.’ Lost – and won. Foul – and fair. We have already heard the witches speak of ‘[w]hen the battle’s lost and won,’ as if it does not matter who wins and who loses. One notorious Thane of Cawdor replaces another. Heroism in war becomes ambition in peace, and the King of Scotland appoints, unwittingly, his own murderer, his own usurper, to a place of highest trust.

duncan photoDuncan is a crucial figure for this play: all the drama swirls around him. And Shakespeare’s Duncan differs importantly from his source in the historical chronicles. Where Holinshed’s Duncan is a weak king, succeeded by a powerful and fair-minded Macbeth who reigns for ten years, Shakespeare makes his king nobler and more virtuous, the usurper more precipitate and vile in his designs, the action much quicker, the outcome more definitive, the King’s death more disastrous. Duncan is for this play the opposite of the witches and of Lady Macbeth – h e is a benevolent figure of order and trust, evoked regularly and insistently in terms of light and of fertility associated with the land. When he invests Macbeth with his new office he does so in a phrase, offered evenhandedly to Macbeth and to Banquo, that links them directly with nature:

     Welcome hither.

I have begun to plant thee, and will labour

To make thee full of growing…

Banquo, as a loyal subject, responds in a similar figure:

     There if I grow

The harvest is your own.

Duncan speaks of his ‘plenteous joys,/Wanton in fullness.’ Banquo had earlier asked the witches, ‘If you can look into the seeds of time/And say which grain will grown and which will not,/Speak then to me.’ We hear continually about ‘the seed of Banquo,’ his fruitfulness, his children. Banquo was thought to be an ancestor of King James, so that in Shakespeare’s time it would have been true to say that Banquo’s ‘seed’ still ruled the land. By contrast, Macbeth is barren, without issue; ‘[h]e has no children,’ as Macduff will say bitterly, lamenting the impossibility of retribution. Duncan’s son Malcolm will inherit from this father the same language of plantation and harvest, speaking in the play’s last scene of ‘[w]hat’s more to do/Which would be planted newly with the time.’ This is not merely decorative language; despite the growth of cities like London and Edinburgh, England and Scotland were at the time still largely open land – forests and fields, pasturage and farm. The political clock was ticking in the direction of nationalism, the unification of Scotland and England, Christian teleology and absolute monarchy. But the ideology of seasonal cycle is embedded at the center of the play. In a way, the more pointedly national and eschatological the plot, the more essential was the counterpart of planting and harvesting. As we will see, the tension between cycle and line (even literally, in Banquo’s and James’s ‘line’ of kings) maps the structure of the play at every point from first to last.

We have seen this same gesture toward fertility and seasonal-cyclical renewal at the close of other Shakespearean plays about kingship. Thus Richmond (who will become Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather) speaks in similar terms about plenty and harvest at the end of Richard III, a play that Macbeth echoes and resembles in many ways. But Duncan is liked with growth more insistently than any other Shakespearean king. When he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, whish is to be his doom, he speaks in a language that is almost pastoral, and is answered in the same spirit by Banquo:

King Duncan:

This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.


    This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve

By his loved mansionry that the heavens’ breath

Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage but this bird

Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;

Where they most breed and haunt I have observed

The air is delicate.

‘Nimbly and sweetly’; ‘pendant bed and procreant cradle’; ‘breed and haunt.’ These are images of birth, spring, and provident nature. But ‘haunting’ in the sense of customary habitation will become, insidiously, ‘haunting’ in the sense of ghostly presence. And the ‘temple-haunting martlet,’ the pious and fertile bird, will shortly be exchanged in the play’s economy of images for the raven, invoked by Lady Macbeth, and the crow, another black bird and bird of night, called up by Macbeth:

     Light thickens, and the crow

Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,

While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.


Duncan is linked with light, day, and stars; Macbeth, with darkness, night, and a ‘brief candle.’ The pattern is elegant, pervasive, and cumulatively powerful, these language clusters offering an almost subliminal imagistic counterpoint to the ongoing dramatic action, as if the play’s unconscious were pushing events forward beyond, as well as through, the conscious agency of the protagonists. Thus we have Duncan’s public pronouncement, conferring the title of Thane of Cawdor upon Macbeth and proclaiming that ‘signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine/On all deservers.’ Moments later Macbeth, aside, speaks the underside of the same figure: ‘Stars, hide your fires, Let not light see my black and deep desires.’ Duncan wants the stars to shine, Macbeth commands them to hide. In a moment the audience will hear Lady Macbeth call for blackness:

     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!’

With the death of Duncan, in the poignant little ‘window scene’ between Ross and an Old man reporting the state of popular opinion, we will hear that ‘[b]y th’ clock ‘tis day,/And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp…/That darkness does the face of earth entomb/When living light should kiss it.’ We hear also that Duncan’s horses, ‘a thing most strange and certain –/…Turned wild in nature’ and ‘ate each other.’ (2.4.14-16, 19). Night replaces day, nature turns against itself in cannibalistic excess, and the apparition scene with the witches ends, famously, with two great images of the paradoxical and unnatural: a man not born of woman, and a moving grove.

duncan1There is a way in which, as I have noted, the unwitting and dangerous innocence of Duncan resembles the innocence of Desdemona in Othello. Both characters are naïve, optimistic, and trusting, and both are murdered. I mention this because it is an important point about Shakespearean structure: in historical terms, in terms of literary source or genre, in terms of gender and cultural power, these figures (a ‘real’ Scottish king; the ‘fictional’ daughter of a Venetian nobleman) have little or nothing in common. Shakespeare changes his ‘source’ here, as he does so often in the history plays, to make his Duncan more virtuous, and more heedless, than the Duncan of the historical chronicles. To read this play as a play about Scottish, or even about English, politics will take us only so far. To see what is so powerfully, eloquently, and immediately Shakespearean about it we need to ask different questions, questions about formal structure and role. Duncan – Shakespeare’s Duncan – is too innocent for his world, and he is murdered. His credulousness and faith in human nature cannot survive in a world in which wit and witchcraft are represented by Lady Macbeth and the ‘weird sisters,’ the two forces edging Macbeth toward his fatal action. This is evident as early as the play’s fourth scene, when Duncan expresses surprise that the previous Cawdor could have been disloyal: ‘There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face./He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust.’ But the lesson to be learned, if there is one, eludes the King, she he promptly repeats his error, building an ‘absolute trust’ on the new Thane of Cawdor, who is, of course, Macbeth. Duncan wants to ‘find the mind’s construction in the face,’ but Macbeth has resolved that ‘[f]alse face must hide what the false heart doth know.’ ‘False face’ here includes the wearing of visors and disguises; Macbeth’s usurpation and murder are conceived throughout the play as an equivocation expressed in and through the language of dress.

Here the reader and critic – if not significantly, the audience – encounter the celebrated notion of ill-fitting clothing as an ‘imagistic motif’ in Macbeth. The phrase is that of Cleanth Brooks, a powerful reader of poetry associated with the literary school of the 1940s and 1950s known as New Criticism. Like many critics, including Shakespeare critics, of his time, Brooks analyzed the language of the plays as if they were poems – which, of course, they are. Shakespeare scholars and critics like Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare’s Imagery, 1935) and Wolfgang Clemen (The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery, 1951), charted patterns of imagery within and across the plays, suggesting a kind of subliminal theme or subtext of images, governed not by the conscious choices of individual characters but by an underlying dynamic, a kind of imagistic unconscious, that undercut as often as it supported the aims and agency of the dramatic speakers. Thus, to summarize such an argument about clothing imagery briefly, Macbeth begins with clothing that fits him, and moves rapidly, in the course of this relatively short play, toward descriptions of increasing sartorial grotesqueness. His

The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me

In borrowed robes?

spoken to the witches at the beginning of the play turns quickly into Banquo’s

     New honours come upon him,

Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould

But with the aid of use.

Time will make these ‘strange garments’ fit, if Macbeth will only be patient, and for a moment he seems inclined to wait for events to unfold, until he is goaded by his wife into untimely action:


We will proceed no further in this business.

He hath honoured me of late, and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon.

Lady Macbeth:

     Was the hope drunk

Wherein you dressed yourself?

Macbeth_illustration9_midBy the end of the first act Macbeth is firmly committed to disguise, making – as he will alter say – ‘our faces visors to our hearts,/Disguising what they are’ (3.2.35-36). From this point the language of clothing is continually associated with Macbeth and his usurpation; Macduff fears ‘[l]est our old robes sit easier than our new’ (2.4.39) – that is, lest Macbeth’s rule be less fit than Duncan’s. And in act 5, on the field near Dunsinane, two Scottish noblemen, Caithness and Angus, perceiving Macbeth’s imminent downfall, will speak of him in clothing images more exaggerated than any before: ‘He cannot buckle his distempered cause/Within the belt of rule,’ says one, and the other replies,

    Now does he feel his title

Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.

Thus is the plot of clothing imagery, uncontrollable by Macbeth, controlled only by the playwright and the play. Macbeth has shrunk and withered beneath the borrowed robes, become a caricature of a king: the image is sharply visual, even though it may not be mirrored by actual ‘borrowed robes’ upon the stage.

Yet we should pause here to remember that actors’ clothing was indeed often ‘borrowed,’ some items the relicts of the wardrobes of ‘real’ noblemen and courtiers. In a culture like that of early modern England, where the notion of sumptuary laws still obtained, ‘ill-fitting’ clothing was not only that which was a size too big or small, but also that which pertained to a rank inappropriate for the wearer. The sumptuary laws ordained proper clothing, fabrics, and ornaments for each rank, and – as in a comedy like Twelfth Night – some of the class-jumping activities of would-be nobleman, like Malvolio, were held up to ridicule precisely because those who practiced them aspired to a sartorial level above their actual station. The idea was one of a legible society, in which you were what you wore: a version of ‘uniform’ was ordained for each rank, with an added economic impetus, since low-status persons were asked to wear clothing of native materials (English wool), whereas aristocrats and noblemen could wear imported fabrics and lace. Actors occupied a very low social station. Technically they were servants, the ‘King’s Men’ or the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,’ a subterfuge to get around the fact that, if not employed by a nobleman, they were ‘masterless man’ and thus subject to a law designed to curb the roaming of ‘vandals’ and troublemakers across the English countryside. (Acting companies traveled, especially in the summer months and when London was beset by plague.)

The plot of clothing imagery in Macbeth speaks to a number of cultural anxieties, current and historical, about both the legibility of social rank and the legitimacy of rule. It is not merely decorative; if it influences the ‘poetry’ of the play, it does so at the level of action, motivation, psychology, and design. above all, it signifies another level of subliminal control, like the plot of the witches, of which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are only imperfectly aware, and which constitutes a counterplot to their intentions and desires. Whether the ill-fitting-clothing plot was in practice doubly subversive – whether it suggested, as in an earlier history play like Richard III and Henry V, that even ‘real’ kings were men in costume – is a question that lingers at the borders of the play.

As with the clothing imagery, so with the ‘weird sisters”: they function by indirection and insinuation. The witches never directly suggest a course of action, nor do they tell Macbeth to kill Duncan. It is his own ‘horrible imaginings’ and his wife’s prompting that move him in the direction of action. For Macbeth, as for Othello, the play becomes a psychomachia, an internal tug-of-war between, on the on hand, the loyalty of a subject, the gratitude of a recently honored vassal, and the duties of a host, and, on the other, ‘[v]aulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself/And falls on th’other’. As was the case with Othello, so, too with Macbeth: the nature of his language charts the pattern of his inner struggle. But in this case the nature of his language charts the pattern of his inner struggle. But in this case the murder comes not at the end of the play, but near its beginning. The play becomes an examination, not of whether he will do the deed, but of what the deed will do to him.

Just as he shrinks form the happy and hesitant wearer of borrowed robes to a dwarfish thief enfolded in a costume meant for a giant, so Macbeth will move from sensitivity to insensitivity. From his first interior agony and moral doubt he will move downward toward a condition in which he feels and sense nothing at all, where has supped full with horrors, has forgotten the taste of fears, cannot be moved by the death of his wife, and fittingly becomes at the last no logner a man but a rare monster painted upon a pole: a caricature of a tyrant. This is the downward slope, the tragic pattern of Macbeth’s fall, and it parallels the exaggerated unfolding of the clothing imagery, from fit to unfit. But it begins in equivocation, in moral ambiguity and interior battle.

The demonstrated equi-vocation, equal voicing, of ‘[t]’his supernatural soliciting’ that ‘cannot be ill, cannot be good,’ balancing moral and immoral possibilities as if they were somehow perfectly equal, becomes a tone at once more emotionally fraught and more wishfully hypothetical as Duncan approaches the castle:


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…

Macbeth sounds here a little like Hamlet, in his mediation on self-slaughter. If there were no consequences, action would be easy. But in these ‘[w]e still have judgment here,’ says Macbeth. ‘This even-handed justice/Commends th’ingredience of our poisoned chalice/To our own lips.’ But what is most striking about Macbeth’s ruminations is their involuted and convoluted style. ‘If it were done [completed and past[ when ‘tis done [performed]’; ‘catch/With his surcease success.’ Syntax, double meaning, and deceptive near-rhymes are battling inside him. Now,  bolstered by Lady Macbeth’s mingled encouragement and scorn, he finds himself waiting for her signal, the bell – that tolling symbol out of Othello – and he speaks in the same troubled and contorted language when confronted with a terrifying vision.”

More to come…


Our next reading:  Macbeth, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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