Act Three, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
One thing that’s been difficult for me, as we’ve worked our way through the plays, is figuring out what to include and what not to include. There’s so much I’ve wanted to share, to let you know about, that sometimes I feel like I’m overloading you. And there’s the question of what to include, what to emphasize. Plot? Character? Themes? Historical context? Somehow I think I’ve been lacking in discussing Shakespeare’s language, so to help remedy that, more from Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language:
“More than any other play, Macbeth dwells on this moment of crisis, a moment that seems exempt from the usual movement of time, when the future is crammed into the present. St. Augustine wrote about such a moment, the gap between desire and act. Though he was certain of the end desires, he was ‘at strife’ with himself. The choices to be made were ‘all meeting together in the same juncture of time.’ He said to himself, ‘Be it done now, be it done now,’ but he continued to hesitate between fair and foul crying, ‘How long? How long? Tomorrow and tomorrow?’ This, for Macbeth, as for the saint, is the moment when the soul distends itself to include past and future. Throughout the early scenes we are being prepared for the astonishingly original verse of the great soliloquy in I.vii.
Duncan, in Shakespeare though not in his Holinshed source a father-king of unquestioned benevolence, has given to Macbeth more cause to revere him, but he has also revealed that his son Malcolm is his chosen heir. At this point Macbeth has a choice: he must ‘fall down, or else o’erleap.’ He decides to ‘let that be/Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see’; again, the opposition of the done and the undone, of future deeds and present imaginings. We now encounter Lady Macbeth, reading her husband’s letter about the Weird Sisters, who ‘referr’d me to the coming on of time.’ She joins in the speculations about present and future: ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promis’d.’ But she suspects his resolution:
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’ldst 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.
Here are sibilant, conspiratorial whispers, all about what is to be wanting rather than to have the thing desired. The sneering yet somehow feverish pun ‘highly/holily’ expresses the absurdity of wanting something great, wanting it a lot, and yet trying to get it honestly, that is, without (as the case requires) committing murder.
Lady Macbeth, in foreseeing that her husband may be deterred by fear from doing as he wishes, occupies, for the moment, the position of one who has known how to distinguish properly from improper actions but has moved on to a loftier view of these matters, transcending the question of choice between good and evil. For support in this attitude she prays for release from the compunction accepted as natural to women who bear and suckle children: she prays to be evil. Macbeth’s letter has encouraged her to think of the future awards to be had from success in this prayer; it has, she claims, transported her ‘beyond/This ignorant present’; she feels ‘The future in the instant.’ Between tonight and tomorrow Duncan must die. So powerful is the spell of time on the play that when she counsels Macbeth to give nothing away by his expression she tell him ‘To beguile the time,’ to ‘Look like the time,’ to think of ‘our nights and days to come.’ The Macbeths, and the reader, are pinned down by an urgent poetry to a present moment that has no content or meaning save in its fantasies of the future. Only with the arrival of Duncan does the rhythm relax, and we have some of that mature Shakespearian verse that sometimes makes so much trouble for itself:
All our service
In every point twice done, and then done double,
Were poor and single business to contend
Against those honors deep and broad wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house.
Lady Macbeth’s arithmetical measuring of gratitude – even if multiplied by two and then again by two our service would only count as one, given your generosity – is reflected in the doublings of the verse; she goes on to repeat her sums like an accountant (25-28). On many occasions Shakespeare, needing a simple expression, cannot avoid complicating it in this way, as if by an excess of energy, but they should be distinguished from passages in which that energy is fully and properly employed; and one of the greatest of these is Macbeth’s soliloquy at the beginning of I.vii:
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’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th’ inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murtherer 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-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. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’ other –
The passage is famous, and so are may examples of interpretative criticism it has attracted. Like St. Augustine, Macbeth has to consider what is implied by his need to do in order to possess what is by that act done. The triple repetition of ‘done’ gives a fairly commonplace, even proverbial saying an intense local force. If the murder could of its own power prevent all that follows such a deed, if Duncan’s death could put an end not only to him but to all that would follow it, than at this stationary moment in time he would ‘jump the life to come,’ risk consequences in another life. But paraphrase of this sort entirely misses the force of ‘surcease, success,’ a compaction of language into what has been called a ‘seesaw rhythm’ that is the motto rhythm of the great interim. ‘Be-all and end-all,’ another such compaction, has passed into the common language, yet it seems to be Shakespeare’s coinage. If only time could be made to stop at the desired moment of the future! However, to be and to end are antithetical, they can only contradict each other; time, as Hotspur said in his dying speech, ‘must have a stop,’ though our experience of it does not. The act of murder cannot be an end; nothing in time can, in that sense, be ‘done.’ You can’t have hurly without burly, surcease does not imply the end of success (succession). No act is without success in this sense.
Macbeth has three times wishes it were: if doing it were and end; if surcease cancelled success; if ‘be’ were ‘end.’ Now a calculator like his wife, he finds a double reason not to kill the King: ‘He’s here in double trust.’ But there is a third reason: Duncan’s virtue, in the extolling of which Macbeth produces the extraordinary figures of the naked babe and the mounted cherubim. Finally he returns to the original idea of needing to leap over an obstacle, but now he falls. This is an extraordinary, excited mingling of disparate figures – the King’s virtues blaring out like the trumpets of angels in church statuary or on maps; pity totally vulnerable but riding the wind as if propelled by the blast of trumpets, again as on a map; or angels, now vengeful, riding the winds and making the assassination known to the world. As Empson remarked, ‘The meanings cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read it; it remains the incantation of a murderer, disheveled and fumbling among the powers of darkness.’ And yet Macbeth has come close to a decision; it is the entrance of his wife that makes him change it.
There ensues a remarkable dialogue. Macbeth announces that he will ‘proceed no further in this business,’ adding, in a mixed metaphor, that he has ‘bought/Golden opinions from all sorts of people,/Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,/Not case aside so soon.’ The gold of the opinions may shine, but the gloss suggests new clothes, and they take over the sentence. But this mixture is mild compared with what Lady Macbeth offers in reply:
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire?
(This is echoed by Macbeth, speaking of Banquo: ‘He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valor/To act in safety (III,i,52-53), where the halves of the hendiadys (‘act,’ ‘valor’) are split. This marks a difference between the two men: Macbeth is accused of lacking the courage to act in accordance with his illicit desire; Banquo temperately controls his aggression.)
Here the abstraction hope is called ‘drunk,’ yet it is put on like a garment; then it goes to sleep and wakes up with a hangover. Macbeth’s dread of acting in accordance with his desire is translated into a sneer at sexual incapacity; ‘act and valor’ is a hendiadys, ‘courageous action,’ but the split emphasizes the slur on manhood/virility. This savage utterance spans the tenses: ‘Was…Hath it…wakes it now…what it did…Art thou.’ In reply Macbeth asserts his manhood; he had forgotten what manhood meant when he resolved on murder. She scorns his humane interpretation, his virtue (virtus, manliness) in lines of monosyllabic force: ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would/Be so much more than the man.’ All this redefining of manliness leads her on to proclaim her own unwomanly resolution; she would kill her own baby. Macbeth is impressed: ‘Bring forth men-children only!’ Since time and place ‘adhere’ he will proceed with the plan, meanwhile mocking the time (wearing a false face of welcome).
It would not be easy to match the imaginative intensity of this scene; its language both explains and deepens our imperfect apprehension of the characters – the speeches are, in the sense of the word Macbeth applied to the Weird Sisters, ‘imperfect’: the words present themselves for processes of interpretation that cannot be ended. One might suppose the Macbeths to be whispering; there is a continuous sense of menace, still present in the next scene (II,i), when Banquo and Fleance enter. It is night; the stage directions insist on the need for torches and the dialogue insists on darkness. We are told it is after midnight. Banquo is afraid to sleep and dream. Macbeth apologizes for the inadequacy of the entertainment provided for the King, using one of those unnecessarily involved expressions so common in Shakespeare when the point is pointless courtesy, or some other inessential: ‘Being unprepar’d,/Our will became the servant to defect,/Which else should free have wrought.,’ where the strained middle line begets the next one, to mark the opposition between ‘servant’ and ‘free’; these twists are so much in Shakespeare’s manner that one again senses a surplus of intellect or of rhetorical resource, as if the motor idled too fast.
Meanwhile bad dreams and fantasies crowd in: Macbeth with his ‘dagger of the mind’ and his celebration of night, when half the world is dead, wicked dreams disturb sleep, witchcraft is at work; the horror suits the time. The murder follows immediately; the tense and nervous dialogue (‘Did not you speak? When? Now. As I descended? Ay.’ Is as far from fustian as one can get; fustian returns with the announcements of the King’s death. The price of murder is sleeplessness, and between lines 32 and 51 ‘sleep’ and its derivatives echo throughout the dialogue, eight times in lines 32-40. Lady Macbeth scorns her husband’s infirmity of purpose; if the corpse bleeds (as corpses were said to do at the approach of their killers) she will smear the blood on the faces of the drugged grooms. She even makes a sinister pun: ‘I’ll guild the faces of the grooms withal,/For it must seem their guilt’. Macbeth is left with the horror of his bloody hands. Then the knocking begins.
The Porter scene, misunderstood by some critics, including even Coleridge, is not a mere imitation of the Hell Porter episodes in miracle plays but, as De Quincey saw, the hinge of the play. The knocking connects the scenes, connects what went before with what comes after Duncan’s death. It gives scope for banter about equivocation, an idea central to the entire play; the witches equivocate, the future equivocates, the Macbeths equivocate, the language generally equivocates. The Porter jokes that drink stimulates sexual desire and impairs sexual performance, but his words have a more general application; it comes between desire and performance, the position of Macbeth in the interim time. Drink is another equivocator, but unlike Macbeth’s equivocations, it also brings on sleep. So, at this critical moment in the action, in the dark moment, disturbed only by the knocking, a central theme is persistently sounded – yet in an episode presented as grotesquely comic.
After that moment times moves stormily forward, heading into the consequences that Macbeth knew would follow and that Macduff compares with ‘The great doom’s image.’ The ironies of Macbeth’s lamentation here have often been noticed: when he says, ‘The wine of live is drawn, and the mere lees/Is left this vault to brag of,’ he is speaking of his own ruined life. And we are reminded in undertones, of what it means to be more than ‘a man’ – to kill the grooms, to show ‘an unfelt sorrow’ – and also of what it is to be a true man. Banquo and the rest put on ‘manly readiness’ which means more than merely getting dressed.
Macbeth, even when arranging the feast, is preoccupied still with time; Banquo has to go away, his time calls upon him, his absence will fill up the time till supper. ‘Let every man be master of his time,’ commands Macbeth. New antithetical terrors declare themselves, remembering the old rhythms: ‘To be thus is nothing,/But to be safely thus.’ The means to be so will depend on the murders: ‘We are men, my liege./Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,’ and all the talk of men and ‘ th’ worst rank of manhood’ that follows is ironical.
Lady Macbeth now understands that having one’s desire is not enough; she reproves her husband, ‘what’s done, is done,’ she insists. He is tortured by his dreams, envies the peace of the dead. He has a plan. ‘What’s to be done?’ asks Lady Macbeth, but he will not say. He prays for night to come, ‘Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.’ Fleance escapes the murderers and renews Macbeth’s ‘restless ecstasy,’ his fear of the future, which promises much to Banquo’s line but nothing to his. He is ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in/To saucy doubts and fears,’ the three words meaning much the same thing yet enforcing the misery of his bondage. Still absorbed by fantasies of the future, he reminds himself that the danger from Fleance will come only with time; he has ‘no teeth for th’ present’ and can be dealt with ‘to-morrow.’ There follows the Banquet scene, of which I here note only Lady Macbeth’s insistence that her husband’s fear derogates from his manhood: ‘Are you a man?’ is he ‘quite unmann’d in folly?’ Finally Macbeth rebuts these angry sneers: ‘What man dare, I dare’ and “I am a man again, ‘he says, having done more than a man should dare.
Between his wife’s insults and his defence of his manhood comes the speech in which he thinks about a past time, ‘Ere humane statute purg’d the gentle weal.’ ‘Humane’ has the sense ‘human’ with a tinge of the modern ‘humane,’ and Macbeth is thinking, rather ironically, of a lawless time in the past, when ambition was not inhibited by human laws, somewhat like the state to which he is soon to reduce Scotland. But he thinks also of a time when dead men stayed dead and there were no troublesome ghosts; to this time he cannot return, yet without doing so he cannot be ‘a man again.’ Meanwhile, in the present, his behavior ‘spoils the pleasure of the time,’ and the banqueters are dismissed. We are reminded of the time: the night is almost at odds with morning. Now Macbeth regresses into primitive terrors:
It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood.
Here ‘augures’ is more immediately intelligible than ‘understood relations.’ There is a typical blend of precise and vague; the latter term must refer to occult relationships in the world, such that however secret the crime, it has repercussions in an invisible world, and these may by divination be understood and lead to detection.”
Since we in the United States have a holiday weekend approaching, I’m going to keep today’s post fairly short. I’ll have a post on Thursday evening/Friday morning with some additional material on Act Three (and other aspects of the play), and we’ll then move on to Act Four, with a post on Sunday evening/Monday morning. Does that work for everybody?