Tag Archives: Macbeth


The hurlyburly’s done, and just as they promised, the Witches are back in 1.3 to wait for Macbeth. The actors can hardly have been off the stage for more than a couple of minutes, but the Witches have been busy. And notice how we’re carried along by the action to feel that they have been wreaking havoc all over the world in just those few minutes. We don’t really know how much dramatic time 1.2 takes, but it is so short that we feel the Witches have been gone only for minutes in dramatic time as well as real time. This is the first example we’ve considered of how Shakespeare plays with time for dramatic effect. We’ll see many more, and more famous examples, as we continue through the plays.

The Second Witch has been “killing swine” (1.3.2), and the First Witch has been rebuffed by a “rump-fed” woman whose chestnuts she coveted (several interpretations of “rump-fed” have been offered; I like “fat-assed” myself), and plans to take revenge on her sea-captain husband: “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail/And like a rat without a tail/I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.7–9). The other Witches offer their help: “I’ll give thee a wind . . .And I another” (10, 13). I can’t help but think this is a fart joke. As they finalize their plans, a drum sounds: “Macbeth doth come” (31), and they recite a little chorus:


The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace!—the charm’s wound up.


I quote this to give you the flavor of the Witches’ language—singsongy, in tetrameter (four beats rather than the pentameter, or five beats, of blank verse) couplets, distinguishing them from any other character. This seems to be one of the reasons some scholars regard much of the Witches’ scenes as spurious—as if Shakespeare would never conceive of varying his language to suit his characters, or perhaps as if he would never write about anything so infra dig as witches. (The influence of the folk and fairy tale traditions on Shakespeare is greater than I see generally recognized; I’ll be pointing it out throughout.)


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The previous scene opened with a bloody man, a soldier literally covered in blood. This scene gets going with the entrance of a man metaphorically covered in blood; a man whose soul is bloody and who soon will have blood on his hands in more ways than one.

Enter Macbeth.

Note well his first line:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Nobody could possibly miss this callback to the Witches’ first appearance, but what does it mean? One scholar’s suggestion that Macbeth refers to the foulness of the weather contrasted with the fairness of his day of victory is surely accurate; it’s certainly what Macbeth must be thinking. But it is too literal to exhaust the meaning.

Shakespeare must have had a reason for making this first line a callback. The most obvious reason is to signal that we are back in the realm of the uncanny, where everything is turned on its head. But why does Macbeth rather than his comrade-in-arms Banquo make this observation? There is plainly some connection between Macbeth and the Witches. But what is its nature? Should we agree with the nineteenth-century critic Edward Dowden, who wrote that “although Macbeth has not yet set eyes upon these hags, the connection is already established between his soul and them. Their spells have already wrought upon his blood”? That would imply that he is already lost. (Those of you who are reading this to write your term papers on whether Macbeth is evil or just weak, take note. But I’m not writing that paper for you.) But that seems to me to go too far.

Think yourselves back, once again, into the world premiere audience. No more than Macbeth do you have any idea what is about to happen, apart from one huge advantage; you know what the Witches said earlier. Macbeth doesn’t. He doesn’t know he is echoing what you heard them say. He does not know they are specifically waiting for him (not Banquo); you do. You, as an attentive listener in the Jacobean audience, can already sense that this is going to end in tears. If Macbeth did, he would run the other way.

Macbeth is shot through with the form of situational irony that perhaps made its first, most memorable appearance in Western literature in Oedipus Tyrannos. Oedipus flees Thebes to thwart the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and ends up unknowingly doing both. Irony flourishes in the gap between the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance. The famous examples in Macbeth, as we’ll see and you probably already know, relate to Macbeth’s trust in the Witches’ prophecies; here we see it at work even before he meets them.

What Is a “Thane”?

One problem with Macbeth is the possibility of getting thrown by vocabulary that would have been familiar to any self-respecting eleventh-century Scot but that we never use. The most conspicuous such word is “Thane.” I’m willing to bet that you will never see this word in any context other than that of Macbeth.

So what is a thane? This is what glossaries are for, but in case your copy of the play doesn’t have one, I’ll beat you to Wikipedia and note that “Thane was the title given to a local royal official in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent to a count, who was at the head of an administrative and socio-economic unit known as a shire or thanage.” See? I’m here to help.

You all know what a “shire” is. You’ve seen those interminable hobbit movies. Just don’t imagine that Macbeth is three feet tall and that his feet are covered with hair. And don’t expect any dragons. There are no dragons in this play.

Yes, I admit it. This post is clickbait. Well, not really, since I haven’t done any serious search engine optimization on it except for the title. It’s more of an experiment to see whether this post, a simple explanation of a term that can be easily found elsewhere, gets appreciably more clicks than others. (I’ve been curious for some time because one of my Romeo and Juliet posts gets substantially more traffic than others, perhaps because it has such an explanation.) If it does, more to follow. I’m trying to learn how to revel in my shamelessness.

There Will Be Blood

The witches depart—and what is the first thing we see? A “bleeding Captain.” A man covered in blood—another apparition. Although, as this BloggingShakespeare.com post indicates, we don’t know how much was used for any particular play, real blood (animal and perhaps even human) probably was used on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage; after all, it “could not have been very hard to obtain!” It stands to reason that blood would have been splashed liberally at least on the Captain’s face and hands, emphasizing that we are still in the realm of the uncanny.

What are the first words we hear? “What bloody man is that?” They are spoken by Duncan, the king of Scotland, who little reckons that the central action of the play will be to make him a “bloody man” (“his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood,” as Macbeth thrillingly says at 2.3.110; I don’t usually like to do the term-paper motif-tracing thing, but it’s hard to ignore all the references to blood in this play. Scholars have counted over 100.).

The bloody Captain relates the outcome of the triple battle in which Duncan’s forces have been engaged. In one phase, the rebellious Macdonwald (“Macdonald”) is about to prevail when “brave Macbeth . . . unseam’d him from the nave to the chops/And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.16, 22–23). But there is little time to celebrate, as the “Norweyan [Norwegian] Lord” takes the opportunity to attack. The exhausted Captain gives way to one Rosse, who recounts the third phase of the battle; the king of Norway himself, aided by the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, “began a dismal conflict” but—again!—was defeated by Macbeth just in time. Duncan is not amused by the Thane’s behavior: “Go pronounce his present death/And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66–67).

It all seems straightforward enough: Macbeth has fought with uncommon valor for his king, and is to be rewarded with the title of Thane of Cawdor. But what was that I said about everything in this play going topsy-turvy without warning?

Is This a Thane I See before Me?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s least humorous plays. It’s rich in irony, but not in laughs except for the audacious scene of the Porter, which we’ll deal with in detail presently. So let’s ease into it with some comedy and a bit of autobiography. (This is my journey, after all.)

If you know anything about Macbeth other than snatches of some of its famous lines out of context (“Double, double” and all that), you know that actors really do have a superstition that it is bad luck to mention the name of the play or its main characters in a theater. A theatrical tradition of disasters caused by violating this rule goes way back. Hence the phrase “the Scottish Play” to refer to the play, “the Thane” or “the Scottish King” or my favorite, “Mackers,” for Macbeth, and “the Queen” for Lady Macbeth.

Here is a clip about the curse. It’s from the second season of the brilliant—I say again, brilliant—Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. The three seasons of Slings and Arrows deal with a theatrical company rather like the famous one in Stratford, Ontario, and their efforts to produce Hamlet (season one), Macbeth (season two), and King Lear (season three). If you’ve never seen it, run out and rent the DVDs the minute you finish reading this post. Seriously. You can thank me later. Anyway, the clip begins with a scene that shows off the curse’s terrible effect; it’s followed by the second season theme. The singer is Michael Polley, father of the divine Sarah Polley:


See? “I won’t play Mackers.” And as if that didn’t clinch the point, this classic episode of Blackadder (which I somehow managed to find in its entirety) shows the lengths actors go to in order to exorcise any mention of the Scottish Play:


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 But enough of this airy persiflage. When we get to The Merchant of Venice (which we may, or may not, do soon after we’ve finished with the Big Four—Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear), I’ll tell, or retell, the story of Mr. Doyle, the phys ed instructor who pinch hit as our English teacher my sophomore year in the Jesuit high school. However, that was not my first go-round with Shakespeare. The earliest exposure I can remember was to Macbeth—not the play itself, but the Classics Illustrated comics version. (Don’t knock Classics Illustrated. I can’t be the only child for whom it was a gateway drug.) I still remember images from this version, especially the scene with Banquo’s ghost and the vision of the kings. I think the illustrator went all out on that one. And who could forget the cover?

Classics Illustrated--Macbeth Cover


I certainly didn’t, though I must have repressed that winged helmet. But since I was reading Classics Illustrated before I started school, and this issue dates from 1955, it’s reasonable to think I knew about Macbeth, and Shakespeare, when I was very young. Searching my memory now, I am not sure how old I was when I read the actual play. Fragments have stuck with me for a long time (such as 2.1.50–51, “Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky/And fan our people cold”), but I might only have read it in college.

In any case, when I was little I had the interest. What a pity that it was crushed out of me! This traversal of Macbeth is therefore a memorial to my long-departed younger self, and is offered in the hope that it can prevent even one person in that self’s position from being turned off to Shakespeare.


Look!!! My Latest Post for BloggingShakespeare.com!

In which I remember the original House of Cards, which I’ve blogged about previously.

It’s a Crying Schama (2 of 2): Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, Part 2

After two posts on the subject you may be thinking, “But Diamond Jim, tell us what you really think about Simon Schama’s Shakespeare.” Well, since the transition from Elizabeth to James is a good place for it, I do; I will.

First, this series has no reason to exist. Yes, Auntie Beeb is saturating the airwaves with Shakespeare in 2012, but it’s already done a three-part series by an actual Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro’s The King and the Playwright, that covers much of the same material. Moreover, Shapiro has written some of the best general-audience books about Shakespeare of our time. Schama is not a Shakespeare scholar and, despite his pretensions, is not the sort of omnicompetent intellectual whose opinions on anything are worth listening to. What was the BBC thinking when it commissioned two hours by this popinjay even though it already had three from a real expert?

Second, when Schama does try to say something interesting about Shakespeare, he makes questionable claims and relies on dubious sources. I’ll talk about some of these later in this post.

Third, and most important, Schama’s interpretive approach is fatally flawed. For somebody who published a scathing review of Anonymous, he shares that film’s assumptions to a surprising degree. To see how, let me pick up where I left off in the last post. Schama says that once James I named the Lord Chamberlain’s Man, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, Shakespeare was “officially the court playwright” [my emphasis] His fresh opportunities to observe James closely led him to “explore the hearts and heads of kings,” focusing on such themes as madness versus sanity, good versus evil, the corrupting nature of ambition, and revenge. Of course, he hadn’t lost the common touch, as Schama claims Hamlet shows. According to Schama, Hamlet is about James’s youth; James’s’ father was assassinated and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, married the suspected murderer with unseemly haste. The performance of Hamlet at court in 1603 therefore shows that Shakespeare had not “lost his edge,” and James’s head must have been spinning to see the crime of his youth not just enacted on stage but reenacted again within the play by the Player King and Queen.

This discussion of Hamlet so perfectly shows what is wrong with Schama’s whole series that I couldn’t have done better if I’d tried. Have you ever heard of this suggestion that Hamlet is the young James, the Ghost his father, Gertrude Mary Queen of Scots? Neither had I. Surprisingly, as a little research shows, it turns out to have had a long history, going back to the end of the eighteenth century. It’s plainly a crackpot theory, with no support or credence from actual Shakespeare scholars, and wouldn’t be any less so if its best-known adherent weren’t the Nazi historian Carl Schmitt. (Schmitt aside, isn’t the genesis of Hamlet better explained by the conventional account that notes the existence of the Hamlet legend going back to Saxo Grammaticus and the popularity of the so-called ur-Hamlet, which some think Shakespeare himself wrote? Not that I agree with that last claim, but do we have to reach to cobble up an allegory about James that, just by the way, involves the claim that Shakespeare made an otherwise undocumented visit to Scotland?) But is it so very much more crackpot than the theory that Hamlet is really about dynastic intrigues in Elizabeth’s court, that Polonius is a thinly disguised Lord Burghley, and that Hamlet—well, you know who Hamlet is on this theory.

You see where this is going. Schama is getting perilously close to Anonymous territory. But my problem is not so much with this particular interpretation of Hamlet, ridiculous though it is, as with the general interpretive approach. Though he may thunder in the Guardian against the Oxfordians, Schama shares their fatally flawed assumption. For him, as for them, the plays are not plays, they are some sort of Great Cryptogram under which Shakespeare was transmitting a secret message to the secret audience of these texts.

The only thing that separates Schama from the Oxfordians he despises is his proposed secret audience—James I. Yet bizarrely for all his protestations that Shakespeare was a champion of the common Briton, Schama shares the Oxfordians’ drive to convert him into a courtier. For Schama, the author of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear is the official court poet. I don’t really see what separates Schama from Delia Bacon, the first great exponent of the view that Francis Bacon wrote the plays, when she said that the author “carries the court perfume with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes.” The only difference—and it’s immaterial in the end—is that for Schama, it is Shakespeare the man from Stratford who stinks of the court perfume. In this documentary Schama accomplishes the astounding feat of becoming the first Stratfordian Oxfordian.

There’s one other point it seems Schama is almost daring us to observe as he moves from one outrageous interpretation to another. It would have been foolhardy for Shakespeare to have composed the great tragedies as the transparent, univocal political commentary Schama suggests they are—but insane to go on and present them at court. Even if you had a good explanation of why Shakespeare would write a play about questionable incidents in James’s youth (several years before James took the throne), you’d still need to explain why he dared rub the king’s nose in it—let alone why James forbore to have his head. I almost never make biographical claims about Shakespeare, but one thing we can certainly say about him (and Schama does, in another context) is that he was politically cautious and canny. He navigated the treacherous Elizabethan waters that pulled Marlowe and Kyd under; why would he take crazy risks under James? Schama’s comment that he must have been thrill-seeking just doesn’t cut it. (Schama’s view is not based on his own original scholarship, of course, so these remarks apply equally to his source, which I suspect but can’t prove is Alvin Kernan’s Shakespeare, The King’s Playwright.)

Once Schama’s assumption that Shakespeare is sending secret messages to James is rejected, as it must be, do his more specific interpretations of Macbeth and Lear have a leg to stand on? No, although to my surprise I find myself warming to aspects of what he says about Macbeth. Here, if anywhere, you would expect Schama’s theory to find purchase, because pretty much everybody except the Oxfordians agrees that Macbeth, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, contains flattery of James, specifically the vision of Banquo’s descendants stretching out indefinitely as kings of Scotland (especially significant because the Stuarts in fact claimed a lineage that stretched all the way back to Banquo). Yet even here Schama seems compelled to say things that are absurdly untrue, such as his claim that Macbeth is about “the anarchy engulfing a country after the murder of its king.” Since Macbeth rules as a tyrant once he takes the throne, this is just wrong on its face.

When I spoke of “warming” to Schama, I meant that he touches on one of the most interesting and fascinatingly complex strands of Macbeth, its treatment of sexuality and its relation to power. Yet even here Schama botches the discussion. The most obvious and important aspect here is the reversal of conventional sexual roles between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but Schama misses that the resulting sexual charge is all on Lady Macbeth’s side. I would be very interested to see an actual argument for Schama’s claim that “the connection between sex and power is at the heart of Shakespeare’s play”; I seem to recall that Polanski took this interpretation (surprise!), although I haven’t seen his film adaptation since it was originally released.

Here is one way to test your views about the role of sexuality in Macbeth. What do you think happens in bed between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after Duncan’s murder—more or less in the gap between Act II and Act III? Be downright pornographic if you like; whatever you come up with is sure to teach you something. Do feel free to post your results in the comments. Hints at my answer follow immediately.

So, sex and power, fair enough; but almost as if he doesn’t even care what’s issuing from his mouth, Schama then comes up with remarks like “Macbeth and his wife lust for the throne” or “The sexual rush of killing is at the heart of Macbeth.” Lady Macbeth can be said to lust for the throne and feel a sexual rush at the idea of killing—her dialogue after Duncan’s murder is positively postcoital—but the whole point of the play is that Macbeth doesn’t share those feelings. If he did, Lady Macbeth would not need to spend an act and a half persuading him, nor would he have given the great speech that ends

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.

You could perfectly well argue that, goaded by the Weird Sisters, Macbeth has made up his mind that he wants the throne and that Lady Macbeth’s ardor only helps him screw up his courage to the sticking place where he can do what he has already decided to do—but I wouldn’t call that “lust for the throne.” That Schama uses this phrase in connection with Macbeth strongly implies that he isn’t even paying attention.

That impression is confirmed when Schama discusses Lady Macbeth’s tremendous speech in Act I scene v, just before Macbeth returns but after she has read the letter in which he relates the Weird Sisters’ prophecy:

The raven himself is hoarse,
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, 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 murth’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on Nature’s mischief! 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!’

To me, this is the most terrifying moment in the whole play, far more than the somewhat comical appearances of the Weird Sisters. They are external, or at best external projections of inner forces; Lady Macbeth herself is the force here, something far more powerful than the three so-called witches. The key is her plea to the “spirits” to “unsex me here”; to divest her of what makes her human, to transmute her sexualized passion for power into something beyond sex, something beyond human, to make her a being that can say, as she shortly does to Macbeth:

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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

Schama spends some time on the “unsex me here” speech—he can hardly ignore it, given what he has said about the warped sexuality of the Macbeths—but he misses its power completely. (That it is given to Judi Dench to recite doesn’t help; she may be a great actress, and by report she was a great Lady Macbeth back in 1975, but her colorless reading here doesn’t even hint at the speech’s otherworldly passion.) For Schama, the speech merely means: take away all the qualities of the “right kind of woman”–chastity, humility, obedience—and the result is exactly what male moralists of the time would have predicted: madness, insomnia, suicide. It’s as if Christopher Sly had woken up to watch the wrong play. Lady Macbeth is not imploring the “spirits” to make her a shrew; she wants to be one of them—that is, inhuman.

After all this it is pretty easy to imagine what Schama has to say about Lear, so I’ll be brief. Kings must be reduced to destitution before they can see the truth about themselves and their place in humanity. If this were really what Shakespeare was trying to say, one has to wonder why he would bother saying it to James, who—as Schama elsewhere notes—was the least likely person in the kingdom to listen (and, we might add, the most likely to misunderstand, to the messenger’s possibly fatal cost).

Let’s step back for a minute. Is this a false account of Lear? Certainly not, as far as it goes. Lear is reduced to destitution and worse, and comes to see his place in the world clearly. And for all any of us know, Shakespeare was in fact trying to send a message to James. But is it anything like enough to leave it at that? Does Schama begin to explain why Lear is one of the canonical works of world literature? Of course not. We will spend quite a while on Lear, five or ten years down the road, but for now I would say that its staggering power rests in its depiction of an arrogant old man so blind to his own world that he rejects love and truth in favor of their opposites; in losing everything he thought he had, material and otherwise, he finds his whole being turned inside out. And it still isn’t enough. You can see that something has to be desperately wrong with Schama’s interpretation from the fact that he doesn’t even mention the ending—and he can’t, really, because on his view once the king has returned from madness and now understands his place as a mere man just like the rest of us, well, Happy Ending! Only it isn’t. Oh yes, we want it to be with our whole hearts and souls. Oh yes, it was in Shakespeare’s source material, the old Leir play. Oh yes, we want Cordelia to live and our sense of the world as a good and ordered place where at least sometimes people learn from their mistakes in time to save their lives is confirmed. But in one of the bravest acts of literature anybody has ever committed, Shakespeare refuses us the comfort of a happy ending.

Never, never, never, never, never.

Why do we read or perform or watch Lear over 400 years after it was created (whereas we never bother with Leir except as an appendage to Shakespeare)? For those five words. Lear’s soul may have been turned inside out on the blasted heath but these “never”s come from the bottom of all of our souls. It is here that Lear becomes truly human.

This then is my real problem with Simon Schama’s Shakespeare. It shares the fundamental assumption of Shakespeare deniers and Bardolaters alike that the plays require some kind of secret decoder ring to be understood. And by adopting the specific view that Shakespeare, especially under James, was essentially a courtier—a de Vere without a dukedom, sending coded messages to the king about kingship—it renders us unable to understand why Shakespeare is now—or was in his time—of any greater general interest than Castiglione. To repeat, any interpretation of Lear that doesn’t even feel it’s necessary to mention the ending need not detain us.

I’ll conclude with the observation that it’s amusing that given his antiroyalism in this series, Schama is the BBC’s go-to guy for color commentary about royal events. He was there at the Royal Wedding, he was there at the Diamond Jubilee; would he seriously suggest that Elizabeth II needs to be stripped and left on a blasted heath, and Princess Anne hanged, before the queen understands that she is but one human being among others?

And yet there’s one thing you can always say on Schama’s behalf:

He ain’t David Starkey.

And with that, let’s move on. We’re still two—but only two—posts away from a new play!

Matt Smith Hath Murdered Sleep?

You can hardly ask me to forbear passing this item on; yet more evidence of the intimate connection between Shakespeare and Doctor Who, although I’m pretty sure somebody is taking the piss, as the Brits say—a lochful of it. Of course Karen Gillan wants to play Lady Macbeth—she’s Scottish! Matt Smith I’m not so sure about. He has done serious stage work, but unlike his predecessor he’s not a Shakespearean and he and Gillan have a powerful, mutually teasing chemistry in interviews, so I suspect he’s talking with his tongue so far in his cheek he can barely get the words out.

But consider the possibilities raised here! Macbeth in the TARDIS is simply a nonstarter, for obvious reasons; if there’s one thing the Doctor would never do, it’s murder somebody for his own advantage. But one of the comedies, that’s another matter. The Doctor is duplicated surprisingly often—as recently as two episodes ago—so there’s plenty of room for mistaken identity. I don’t recall him ever cross-dressing, unless you count the Sixth Doctor’s costume, but there’s a first time for everything.

Which of the plays do you think is most adaptable to the Whoniverse?