“Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?”


Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


I hope you’re all enjoying Macbeth as much as I am.  Having read as much Shakespeare as I’ve done (and as you’ve done) over the last year and a half, I feel so much better equipped to appreciate the play, so much more in tune to Shakespeare’s writing and rhythms and language…are you all feeling the same way?

Macbeth, Stark Naked Theater Company, Houston

Macbeth, Stark Naked Theater Company, Houston

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to see a very good production of Macbeth here in Houston performed by Stark Naked Theater Company.  (And no, it wasn’t a stark naked production.)  The company’s co-founder Philip Lehl (who starred in the production along with his wife and fellow co-founder Kim Tobin) was generous enough to share me with his thoughts on taking on one of the most challenging roles in theater:

“I didn’t anticipate how bleak I found the character of Macbeth to be.  I really believe he is driven mad (as mad as his wife) through his attempts at dealing with the murders he commits.  I had an argument with a friend of mine, who said, “he redeems himself at the end!”  I asked for textual proof, he answered with “blow wind, come wrack/ at least we’ll die with harness on our back.” (Which I didn’t find very convincing.) I then pointed out that immediately previous, Macbeth has come to the conclusion that life signifies “nothing.”  And that subsequently, upon finding out that Macduff was “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb, Macbeth says “I’ll not fight with you” and tries to run.  This killing machine, this great soldier, because of his transgressions, and the fact that he does have a conscience, has been turned into a coward.

Philip Lehl, Macbeth, Stark Naked Theater Company, Houston

Philip Lehl, Macbeth, Stark Naked Theater Company, Houston

I’m saying that I found him utterly despicable, and had a hard time coming to grips with that as an actor.  Tyrone Guthrie once told Laurence Olivier that he needed to “love” the character he was playing (Sergius in Shaw’s ARMS AND THE MAN.)  I was never able to love Macbeth.

I’ve been musing about some of the other major characters from this period of Shakespeare – Othello, Hamlet, Lear – and wondering if I would have the same reaction.

Don’t get me wrong!  I’m glad to have wrestled with this character, and found great satisfaction as an actor in finding my way through the play.  But either I missed the way in to loving that character, or there isn’t a way in, and that remains frustrating to me.

On another note: I’m fairly proud of our decision to try to present the play in a way that invited, and forced the audience to use its imagination to create horror.  For instance, I believe that the decision to have almost all of the blood in the play be invisible to the audience – thereby inviting them to see blood in their imaginations – was effective.  A friend asked me, “was that a budgetary decision?” to which I replied, “absolutely not!”  I was sorry that he had to ask, and understand that some might have thought we were being cheap, but it was all about trying to engage the audience.  I believe, by the way, that every Shakespeare play works best when presented in this way.  “O for a muse of fire…” is my textual support for that!”


From Garber:

1961-Macbeth“…bolstered by Lady Macbeth’s mingled encouragement and scorn, [Macbeth] finds himself waiting for her signal, the bell – that tolling symbol out of Othello – and he speaks in the same trouble and contorted language when confronted with a terrifying vision. As I have noted above, filmmakers and theater directors occasionally try to ‘dramatize’ this vision by presenting an actual dagger to the audience’s eyes; this takes pressure off the actor, but it also places the audience’s-eye view squarely within the consciousness of Macbeth, whereas the play itself is brilliantly careful in the way it offers a variety of competing points of view.


Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going.


     I see thee still,

And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

Which was not so before. There’s no such thing.

It is the bloody business which informs

Thus to mine eyes…

posnerdaggar‘Is this…?”; ‘I have thee not,…I see thee still’; ‘There’s no such thing.’ Internal debate and dialectic, as the invisible dagger turns bloody before his eyes. It is at this point that Macbeth approaches the dread word ‘murder,’ which he has all this time been avoiding. His ‘horrible imaginings’ in act I produced a murder that was ‘but fantasical.’ Now the fantasy is about to merge with reality, and ‘murder’ is mentioned for only the second time in the play. We may notice how hard he tried to avoid the word, to avoid putting a verb to the noun, an action to the idea:

    Now o’er the one-half world

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtained sleep. Witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings, and withered murder,

Alarumed by his sentinel the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost…

Macbeth displaces the agency from himself onto a personified ‘murder,’ who resembles one of the witches (‘withered’). Subordinate clause after subordinate clause postpones and retards the move to the verb “moves’; three lines of verse are interposed between ‘murder’ and ‘Moves.’ Language here mirrors Macbeth’s own doubt and delay; he cannot say the deed, which is tantamount to not doing the deed – and then the bell rings, and the suspense is over:

I go, and it is done. The bell invites me.

Hear it not. Duncan; for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

The reference to Tarquin, above (‘With Tarquin’s ravishing strides’), is worth our pausing over for a moment, not only because it suggests affinities with Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece but because, as some critics have noticed, it obliquely ‘feminizes’ King Duncan. Lucrece, or Lucretia, was a virtuous wife, whose husband’s praise of her led men of the court of the Roman Emperor Tarquinius Superbus to find her specially desirable. The Emperor’s nephew, Tarquinius Sextus, stole upon her and raped her, and Lucretia killed herself out of shame. The Roman historian Levy says Tarquin was ‘inflamed by her purity and beauty,’ (Holinshed’s Chronicles describes King Duncan as perhaps too ‘soft and gentle of nature’ and says the rebels regarded him as ‘a faint-hearted milksop.’) In a play in which conventionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities are often deliberately displaced, where witches who ‘should be women’ have beards, and Macbeth commends his wife to ‘[b]ring forth men children only’ in accordance with her manly spirit, this further deplacement, the slightly indecorous recasting of the story of Lucrece with Duncan in the title role, continues the sense of unease. Nothing is but what is not.

macbeth bloody handMacbeth’s language before the murder, then, is knotty, contorted, difficult to follow and to unscramble syntactically. But a striking change comes over his diction the minute the murder is accomplished: it becomes fragmented, disoriented, and disordered, the words dropping singly, like stones down a well, and echoing as they fall:

Lady Macbeth:  Did you not speak?

Macbeth:                         When?

Lady Macbeth:                                Now.

Macbeth:                                               As I descended?

Lady Macbeth:  Ay.

Macbeth:              Hark! – Who lies ‘i’th’ second chamber?

Lady Macbeth:  Donalbain.

Macbeth:         [looking at his handsThis is a sorry sight.

Strikingly now, Macbeth begins to worry about things he could not say:


One cried ‘God bless us’ and ‘Amen’ the other,

As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.

List’ning their fear I could not say ‘Amen’

When they did say ‘God bless us.’

Lady Macbeth:

Consider it not so deeply.


But wherefore could I not prounounce ‘Amen?’

I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’

Stuck in my throat.

Yet again we encounter, in this character compact of language, a loss of control over speech – not a deliberately postponed conclusion now (‘murder…Moves’), but a failure to be able to speak, to finish a thought. Macbeth has himself become one of those ‘imperfect speakers,’ unfinished and enigmatic.

Methoughts I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more,

Macbeth does 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 feat –

lady macbeth daggerSomewhat to our relief, Lady Macbeth impatiently interrupts this catalogue that threatens to go on forever. ‘What do you mean?’ she asks, and ‘Who was it that thus cried?’ At this point in the play she, unlike her husband, is untouched by horror. Her crisis will come later, and be even more terrible. But at this point, anticipating her own sleepwalking (and hand-washing) scene, she says, dismissively, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ For Macbeth, though, the horror is already fully present from the moment of the murder, and the curse upon him is sleeplessness, disorder in the world of human nature, the same disease that afflicted Henry IV, and Richard III, and other kings guilty of murder – as well as Brutus when he was contemplating the murder of Caesar.

The murder of Duncan is discovered when Macduff and Lennox knock at the gate of the castle, asking to see their king. The knocking at the gate is itself, on a stage, particularly hollow and horrible, and the Porter, who jokes about being ‘porter of hell-gate,’ marks and guards a threshold to nightmare. Like the dangerously permeable border between witches and soldiers, like the literally transgressive boundary between actors and audience, or onstage and offstage, so this gateway is also dramatically and thematically established as a place of crisis. ‘Up, up, and see/The great doom’s image,’ cries Macduff. ‘As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites/To countenance this horror.’ They are all in a living nightmare, the image of the Last Judgment, the earth’s final catastrophe. The characteristic central event of a Shakespearean tragedy is a kind of stripping or divestment, and Macbeth, as we have seen, is now stripped of language, and of sleep, by his horror at his own action. So it is particularly fitting, in the following scene, to find him stripped of clothing as well. Dressed as he is in his nightclothes, without weapons or armor, he receives the ‘news’ that is no news to him, and cloaks himself, once more, in borrowed robes, the borrowed robes of language.

Lady Macbeth’s response, a superb failure of emphasis – ‘What, in our house?’ – calls semicomic attention on the gross violation of the central value of hospitality, and her almost surely spurious faint is a stratagem of distraction rather than a sign of female frailty. When Macbeth speaks blithely and pictorially of his supposed discovery of Duncan’s body, describing that body almost as if it were a work of art – ‘Here lay Duncan,/His silver skin laced with his golden blood’ – we can recall her scornful pun at the time of the murder:

     Infirm of purpose!

Give me the daggers…


I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,

For it must seem their guilt.

Guilt is internal; gilt, external – another equivocation. Macbeth’s image of Duncan’s golden blood suggests that the internal struggle has been replaced by a ‘false face.’ His language takes on a deceptive ornateness, markedly different from the involuted contortion of his earlier equivocation, and also from the naked blankness of his first shock and horror. His sudden, politic volubility – ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance/I had lifed a blessed time, for from this instant/There’s nothing serious in mortality’ – is truer than he perhaps intends, and the sudden silence of the real mourners, Duncan’s sons, marks their temporary loss of power and his ascendancy. From this point will come the murder of Banquo, and the attempted murder of his innocent son, Fleance, and the inexcusable and brutal murder of Lady Macduff and her children, until Macbeth has nothing left, finally, of the emotion that had filled him with fear. When Banquo, alone on the stage, says ruefully at the beginning of Act 3, ‘Thou has it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all/As the weird sisters promised; and I fear/Thou play’st most foully for’t,’ the moment will mark both Macbeth’s ascendancy and his decline.

The terrible language of equivocation reenters the play as a sign of moral failure, and it does so, significantly, at the play’s midpoint, act 3, scene 4. The time is equivocal, too, the night ‘[a]lmost at odds with morning, which is which.’ Macbeth’s situation, like his language, recalls that of Richard III:


I am in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

‘Tedious’ weary, disagreeable, tiresome, exhausting. The tragic and the tedious are, in a way, as much ‘at odds’ as morning and night. Macbeth is in a sense already beyond human emotion, and these centrally placed lines act as a fulcrum, a watershed, a split. Like the equivocator described by the Porter, ‘that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,’ Macbeth is well along the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire.

Like Richard II, Macbeth has a chiastic, or X-shaped, structure, charting at once the upward and downward trajectories of its two protagonists. As Macbeth moves downward toward inhumanity and loss of affect, Lady Macbeth moves upward, toward feeling and horror. At the beginning of the play it is Macbeth who hears voices, sees visions: the dagger before him, coated with blood, the voice that cries ‘Sleep no more’; the ghost of Banquo. Lady Macbeth sees and hears nothing. Like Iago, she has no interior dimension in which to feel the emotional tug-of-war, this battle of the soul. But by the play’s close it is Lady Macbeth who has the most terrible vision, presented to us like a play-within-the-play: the vision of a bloody hand that cannot be cleaned. And this exchange of qualities takes place between Macbeth and his wife, two characters whom Freud would use as case studies for ‘disunited parts of a single psychical individuality’ in ‘Some Character Types Met with in Psycho-Analytical Work.’ Yet in the opening scenes we see in Lady Macbeth none of this frailty. We see instead rigidity, resolution, and the rejection of a restricted notion of a woman’s place. Lady Macbeth is the stronger character in the play. From the first moment we see her she is resolute, apparently without moral reservation, and devastatingly scornful of her husband’s inner struggles, which she equates with unmanliness. The opposite of ‘man’ in this case can be either ‘child’ or ‘woman.’ Thus we hear her say,

     Yet do I fear thy nature,

It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way…


     What thou wouldst highly,

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,

And yet wouldst wrongly win…


And later even more scornfully,

              Infirm of purpose!

Give me the daggers…

lady macbeth bloody handsLady Macbeth will take the daggers from her husband and return to the scene of the crime to finish the task of implicating the grooms in Duncan’s murder. In fact, as she repeatedly makes clear, she sees herself as the stronger, the dominant, the more conventionally ‘masculine’ of the two. I think we can say with justice that those unisex witches, with their women’s forms and their confusingly masculine beards, are, among other things, dream images, metaphors, for Lady Macbeth herself: physically a woman but, as she claims, mentally and spiritually a man. It’s well to remember at points like these that the actor playing Lady Macbeth, like the actor playing the far more ‘feminine’ Lady Macduff, would have been male.  [MY NOTE:  And it’s so well to note here that there are some who believe that the same actor would have played both Lady Macbeth AND Lady Macduff (they’re never on stage at the same time)]  Gender on the early modern public stage was performed rather than ‘natural.’ Like darkness, which sometimes needed to be invoked by language – or props, such as onstage candles and lanterns – in the middle of an afternoon performance, gender difference, femaleness, was an achieved effect rather than a mirror of reality. And this is very germane to the question of Macbeth’s manliness, which his wife so regularly challenges. Neither manliness nor womanliness can be taken for granted in a world, and on a stage, where gender is by definition an act.

Lady Macbeth’s language from the outset troubles this boundary between proper and improper femaleness or femininity. In two famous speeches early in the play, she undoes the conventions about the naturalness of maternal feeling:

    Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direct cruelty. Make thick my blood…


     Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

And yet again,

     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 his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn

As you have done to do this.

A famous essay of 1933 that critiques the concept of character and reality in drama mockingly asks in its title, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’ The question, as posed by the critic L.C. Knights, seems to suggest that such curiosity is extratextual: we cannot answer it, and should not try, since there is no evidence within the play to tell us. Yet Lady Macbeth’s evocation of lactation and nursing, at odds with Macduff’s later statement about Macbeth, “He has no children,’ does have a point within the play. It contrasts her with the paragon of onstage motherhood, Lady Macduff, and it associates her with the ‘unnatural,’ since her emotions run so counter to the maternal, and her cry to be ‘unsexed’ is itself contrary to physical nature. Most of all, though, it suggests the displacement or replacement of what is conventionally called ‘maternal instinct.’ For in place of offspring Lady Macbeth has her husband, whom she alternately taunts and cossets as a ‘baby’ or a child. Thus, as we have seen, she says he is too full of ‘the milk of human kindness’ to make the nearest way to the throne – murder.”


And as a bonus for the weekend:  a link to more from AC Bradley: (Consider it extra-credit reading if you will – I know Bradley is old-school, old-fashioned and probably an acquired taste, but I love him.)  I suggest pages 200-206 – click here:

Our next reading:  Macbeth, Act Three

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “Is this a dagger which I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?”

  1. Sandy Bucay says:

    In ‘Acting Shakespeare’, John Gielgud says something noteworthy about Macbeth: “The imaginative side of Macbeth has always appealed to me. Though I knew I would never be able to do justice to the warrior, there is also a romantic and visionary quality in him, and a kind of weakness that his wife brings out so clearly. I saw the part in the opposite way to Olivier.”
    Many thanks for this invaluable endeavour, Dennis!

    • Sandy: interesting (and very noteworthy)…as we’ve seen, Bloom agrees that it’s Macbeths’ imaginative genius that brings us in. And as for your last comment…you’ve made my day.


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