Act Three, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
A friend of mine recently recommended I read Stephen Booth’s King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition and Tragedy. And while Booth is, in some ways, more academic than I usually care for (or have the patience for), he does have some interesting points I’d like to share:
“Finality is regularly unattainable throughout Macbeth. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth cannot get the murder of Duncan finished: Lady Macbeth has to go back with the knives. They cannot get done with Duncan himself: his blood will not wash off. Banquo refuses death in two says: he comes back as a ghost, and (supposedly) he lives on in the line of Stuart kings into the actual present of the audience. The desirability and impossibility of conclusion is a regular concern of the characters, both in large matters (‘The time has been/That, when the brains were out, the man would die,/And there an end” – III.iv.78-80) and in such smaller ones as Macbeth’s inability to achieve the temporary finality of sleep and Lady Macbeth’s inability to cease her activity even in sleep itself. The concern for finality is incidentally present even in details like Macbeth’s incapacity to pronounce ‘Amen.’
What is true of endings is also true of beginnings. Lady Macbeth’s mysteriously missing children present an ominous, unknown, but undeniable time before the beginning. Doubtful beginnings are also incidentally inherent in such details of the play as Macduff’s non-birth. Indeed, the beginnings, sources, causes, of almost everything in the play are at best nebulous.
Cause and effect do not work in Macbeth. The play keeps giving the impression that Lady Macbeth is the source of ideas and the instigator of actions that are already underway. For example, in III.ii the audience may have an impression that Lady Macbeth has some responsibility for the coming attack on Banquo and Fleance, but Macbeth has already commissioned the murders. People have also tried to show that Lady Macbeth is as much the source of the idea of murdering Duncan as she seems to be. In fact, it is almost impossible to find the source of any idea in Macbeth; every new idea seems already there when it is presented to us. The idea of regicide really originates in the mind of the audience, which comes into a world that presents only the positive action of treason or the negative action of opposing it.”
“Among the many other things we do not finally know is whether the witches are natural or supernatural. If natural, are they male or are they female? The actors Shakespeare’s audience saw were male, but what about the three bearded sisters those men played? They are indisputably female, but the play insists that we momentarily pursue the issue before returning to the facts already obvious from the repetition from the word sister and manifest in the pronoun her even at the moment of gratuitous, theatrically complicated doubt: Banquo says:
You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
And if the witches are not natural, are they real or imaginary? Where in the spectrum of unnatural evidences do they belong? We are asked to think of the dagger Macbeth sees in II.i as ‘a dagger of the mind’; after their last appearance we have a chance to think similarly of the witches: they should have passed Lennox, but Lennox did not see them (IV.i.136-7). They could be like Banquo’s ghost – apparently not imaginary but visible only to Macbeth. But Banquo saw the witches on the heath in I.iii (when they arrived ‘there to meet with Macbeth’ and met with and prophesied to both Macbeth and Banquo). Moreover, and most important, they are the first characters we see and are therefore in a way ‘realer’ to us than anyone else in the subsequent fiction. At any given moment our minds must and do behave as if they knew the nature of the witches, but in retrospect we do not know.
What matters here is not hunting down an answer to the question ‘What are the witches?’ All the critical and theatrical efforts to answer that question demonstrate that the question cannot be answered. What those frantic answers also demonstrate – and what matters – is the fact of the question. The play does not require that it be answered. Thinking about the play’s action does. As we watch the play, the witches have definition, but we cannot afterward say what that definition is. As we watch the play, we know what we cannot know; we possess knowledge that remains unattainable. That kind of paradoxical capacity is, I think, what the play gives us that makes us call it great.
The greatness of Macbeth, I think, derives from Shakespeare’s ability to minimize neither our sense of limitlessness nor our sense of the constant and comforting limitation of artistic pattern, order, and coherence. Macbeth’s soliloquy at the beginning of I.vii provides a microcosm of the whole – a microcosm in which Shakespeare’s double action is well demonstrated and which contains examples of most of the qualities I have described.
The soliloquy is the first event of the night of the murder of Duncan – a night that is made to seem endless on stage, and one that will not end in the play: it is replayed in the sleepwalking scene. The speech is concerned in a variety of ways with conclusion – with being done. The speech itself does not conclude, but is broken off by the entrance of Lady Macbeth, who comes to say that Duncan has almost finished dinner and to inform Macbeth that the event he has been deliberating is already under way:
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 –
Enter Lady Macbeth .
How now? What news?
Nothing here will stay fixed. We would stand here and jump there. Time and place will not stay fixed. Even the meaning of the word but (lines 4, 6, 7, 8, 26) will not stay fixed. And notice, in lines 12-16, how the two of ‘double trust’ turns out to be three. ‘I am his kinsman and his subject…[and] his host.’ The process by which pairs turning into trios in this baby-ridden play is at its largest in III.iii, when the third murderer inexplicably presents himself to the other two. In the last sentence of the soliloquy the sequence of images is peculiarly appropriate both to this play – in which beginning, end, first, and last are nearly meaningless concepts – and to the sentence itself – which describes failure and fails to conclude; the metaphor of spurring (done in the saddle) precedes the metaphor of mounting. The speech destroys the idea that any action can be finished; it makes the very idea of limits ridiculous. The word success in ‘catch with his surcease success’ is emblematic of the speech and the play. Success suggests both final achievement and, as its Latin root indicates, ‘that which follows,’ ‘succession.’
The speech is terrifyingly limitless, but at the same time it is, like the play, ordered, unified, and coherent. Like the coherences by which the whole play is given order, identity, and thus definition, the elements that order the speech are simultaneously those that evoke our sense of its intellectually unmanageable vastness. The word success, for example, participates in the ostentatiously artificial aural harmony of ‘surcease success.’ And, although the word but changes its meaning randomly, its very repetition gives lines 4-8 a nonlogical sound of order and regularity. Similarly, the word blow, which in lines 4 and 24 is used in two generally contradictory senses, gives the speech some coherence – some identity – by the mere fact of its repetition. The complex nonlogical interrelation among the polyptoton in ‘bear’ and ‘borne,’ the pun on ‘bear the knife’ and ‘bare the knife,’ and ‘naked [bare] new-born babe’ has a similar effect. So has the equestrian metaphorical common denominator of ‘cherubin horsed’ and ‘vaulting ambition’ in the last two sentences. So, too, have the link between the metaphysical ‘jump’ in line 7 and the leaping in the last two lines and the drift that occurs between ‘striding’ – walking across – ‘the blast’ and its immediate successor, the idea of riding a horse, bestriding a horse.
The double action of dramatic tragedy in general, of Macbeth, and of this speech in particular is summed up in the phrase ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe/Striding the blast.’ The phrase is vivid, particular, and intensely visual; and – if only because our memories of newborn babies cannot adapt to our mental picture of a striding figure – cannot be visualized (if you doubt me, just try in your mind’s eye to see the personalized ‘pity’ the phrase assures you it has empowered you to imagine). The phrase is wonderful in all that word’s pertinent senses; it is amazing, and it is a container filled by a marvel unlimited and undiminished by encapsulation. The phrase presents something limitless – beyond human comprehension – presents it in limited, comprehensible terms and leaves it still the limitless, incomprehensible, unimaginable thing it is.”
“Macbeth responds to this continuing challenge [from Lady Macbeth on the subject of babies, children and the milk of human kindness] by speaking continually, almost obsessively, about infants and children. In his fearful weighting of conscience before the murder he speaks of ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe,/Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed/Upon the sightless couriers of the air.’ Faced with the specter of Banquo’s ghost, the uncomfortable spectacle of Banquo at a banquet planned without him, Macbeth explains his terror of the ghost as fear of the uncanny and the supernatural. He would not be afraid of a bear, a tiger, or an armed rhinoceros, he insists. ‘If trembling I inhabit then, protest me/The baby of a girl.’ In contrast to this is his praise of Lady Macbeth: ‘Bring forth men-children only./For thy undaunted mettle should compose/Nothing but males.’ For her part, Lady Macbeth has kept up a constant barrage: ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man.’ The unspoken ‘it’ is the murder of the King. ‘Infirm of purpose!/Give me the daggers’; ‘Tis the eye of childhood/That fears a painted devil.’ Her slurs upon his manhood are most evident in the banquet scene. ‘Are you a man?’ she asks, and again, ‘O, these flaws and starts…would well become/A woman’s story at a winter’s fire/Authorized by her grandam,’ and, yet again, ‘What quite unmanned in folly?’ All these scathing remarks are asides, to him, to herself, and to the audience, as the splendidly impervious Lady Macbeth of the first several acts carries on the serious business of being ‘our honoured hostess,’ explaining to her guests that Macbeth’s errant behavior is a physical affliction that should be overlooked – ‘My lord is often thus’ – rather like Iago explaining that Othello often has fits, and should not be judged by them.
Under this verbal assault, half attack and half flirtatious insinuation – for the part of Lady Macbeth is often conceived nota s ‘unwomanly’ and cold, but as torridly seductive, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth tied together by erotic as well as political passions – Macbeth can perhaps hardly be blamed for his moral blankness. The ghost of Banquo exits the stage, and Macbeth feels only relief at being again intact: ‘Why so, being gone,/I am a man again.’ In act 2, scene 4, there was something inadvertently revealing about his call to ‘briefly put on manly readiness’ when the murder was discovered. In context this means ‘put on our swords’ and other warlike apparatus, to do battle with the (supposed) assassins. But the recurrence of ‘manly’/’man,’ together with the ambiguous or equivocal ‘briefly’ (swiftly; for a short duration), tells, as is usual for this play, a double tale.
Desdemona saw in herself a divided duty, felt herself torn between the claims of father and husband, but she unhesitatingly chose Othello over Brabantio. Cressida tried to choose Troilus, but was forced, both by circumstances and by certain aspects of her own character, to return to her father instead. The choice of husband or father, as we have noted, is a recurrent dilemma for Shakespearean women, and it marks not only a space of psychological sundering and individuation for these women (Hermia, Juliet, and Ophelia among them), but also something structural about the plays. In the case of Lady Macbeth, the ‘choice’ is positioned in a slightly oblique and allusive way, but is still powerfully present. The only moment in the early part of the play when she shows any responsiveness to human frailty and pathos comes when she reports her response to the spectacle of the sleeping Duncan: ‘Had he not resembled/My father as he slept, I had done’t.’ She is unable to murder a ‘father,’ though she inspires her husband to try. But Macbeth himself, called a child and taunted as a child, she hounds to murder and to death – his and hers.
The theme of killing the father, whether parricide or regicide, is everywhere in Macbeth. Parents killed by children, and also children killed by parents. The play presents, as an emblem of the socially unnatural, a pair of fictive parricides. The first is the murder of Duncan. Lady Macbeth can’t kill Duncan because he resembles her father, but Duncan’s own sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, are quickly suspected of the crime. Here we should note that in the political texture of the play the threat posted by Malcolm to Macbeth’s ambitions comes only when Malcolm’s father creates him Prince of Cumberland, and thus heir apparent to the throne. Succession of the eldest son was not automatic or assured; this is why Macbeth becomes so agitated at the designation of an official heir, who stands in the way of his own ambitions and of the witches’ prophecy. Now Macduff reports that, in the wake of the murder, Malcolm and Donalbain, King Duncan’s two sons, ‘Are stol’n away and fled, which puts them/Suspicion of the deed.’ Reduced to the silence of real grief, these sons, like Hamlet, refuse to play the game of false mourning ordained by the man who is both their father’s murderer and his successor. Like Hamlet, Malcolm flees to England.
The second fictive parricide is the murder of Banquo, again by Macbeth, and again the word is given out that the son is to blame. Lennox, who of course believes not a word of it, reports the rumor to another lord: ‘the right valiant Banquo walked too late,/Whom you may say, if’t please you,/Flenace killed./For Fleance fled: men must not walk too late.’ This is the fiction spread by the Macbeth court: that a man can be killed by his own flesh and blood.
For it is this word, ‘blood,’ in all its forms, that haunts Macbeth. Macbeth addresses the King’s sons in so ornate a fashion that his announcement seems to require a gloss or interpretation:
The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.
Your royal father’s murdered.
Moments later, we hear Donalbain to Malcolm, brother to brother: ‘Where we are/there’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er in blood,/The nearer bloody.’ The bitter pun tells all. Where some have ‘blood’ in the sense of family, issue, children, and lineage, others – like the ‘childless’ Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – have blood in the sense of bloodshed, ultimate disorder rather than orderly sequence, death rather than life, the end of a line rather than a line without end. Blood ‘issues’ from wounds in this play from that first emblematic appearance of the bleeding Captain, the ‘bloody man,’ on the battlefield.
Macbeth is prospectively haunted by signs of blood, even before the murder, as ‘gouts of blood,’ signs of the ‘bloody business’ at hand, appear on the spectral dagger. Once the murder is done, Lady Macbeth tells him to ‘was this filthy witness from [his] hand’ and says, ‘A little water clears us from this deed.’ But Macbeth can neither wash nor smear the faces of the grooms with blood:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
In this dazzling image, evoked twice, first in Latinate polysyllables (‘The multitudinous seas incarnadine’) and then in monosyllabic native speech (‘the green one red’) in a way that prefigures the poetry of Milton, Macbeth states the condition of his own engulfment. Rather than being cleansed, his bloody hand will infect and color the world. At this point his situation is still one of pathos and despair. By the third act, determined now on the murder of Banquo, Macbeth has detached the bloody hand from himself and made it an instrument of infernal darkness:
Come, seeling night
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible h and
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale…
With the coming of Banquo’s ghost we find Macbeth almost resigned to this inevitable idea of blood: ‘It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood. By the middle of the play the fear of blood spilled, of blood on his own hands, has deteriorated into this abstraction of horror. Blood is now a river in which he wades, ‘[s]tepped in so far,’ not a sea in which he might wash. The bloody hands have become an abstract concept – ‘these hangman’s hands’ – and Macbeth moves downward toward the spectacle of the painted monster on the pole.”
Thoughts? My next post will be Sunday evening/Monday morning, with the beginning of our look at Act Four of Macbeth.
And for bonus weekend movie fun, Orson Welles’ 1948 film version of Macbeth. Complete.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.