September 8, 2012


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How about those Macbeths, huh?  They seem like a fun couple.  Actually, as I think other people have noted, they have the best marriage in all of Shakespeare.  They love each other, they have great passion for each other, they understand each other, and they do things together.  It’s this last that’s the problem.  They get a little carried away with murdering people together.  The play is a stunning study of the effects of guilt. You go away with your jaw dropped open, your eyes glazed over, and the eerie feeling that the story really isn’t over.

Macbeth is a familiar play to me because my father used to go around the house quoting lines from it long before I knew where he was getting them.  I assumed they were all from the Pirates of Penzance.

Whenever he and I were at a mall or the library– someplace where we were going to split up and meet later—he would say to me “When shall we three meet again?” (I, i) It’s the first line of Macbeth when we are introduced to the three witches.

Another was “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.” (I, iv)  This is said about the death of a traitor in the first act.  My father referred it to various politicians.

The line that bears some resemblance to one from the Pirates of Penzance is, “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once!” (III, iv)  He used to say that to my mother.

And finally, on occasion when we were getting ready to do something or go somewhere, he would erupt with “Lay on, Macduff!” (V, viii)

Macbeth has been a favorite quoting grounds for psychotherapists as befitting a play about guilt:

*Present fears are less than horrible imaginings (I, iii)

*The love that follows us sometimes is our trouble,

Which still we thank as love. (I, vi)


*Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break. (IV, iii)


*Macbeth: Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain,

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


Doctor:  Therein the patient must minister to himself. (V, iii)


A long time ago I memorized the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech but I was always confused by the first line: “She should have died hereafter.” I think it was Ian McKellan in a DVD commentary who pointed out that if you read the word should as the subjunctive would it makes more sense and, if possible, lends even more power to the speech: She was going to die sometime. There was always going to be a time when she would die:


She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V, v)


The witches in Macbeth are the prototype for today’s Halloween characters.  I could go all feminist here–as I have in so many of these blog posts–and point out how defaming Shakespeare’s characterization is to herbalists, to witches, to intuitives, and to women.  But I won’t because they are such fun.  In any case, they aren’t witches, they are the “weird sisters” or the Wyrds, the Fates.   So there’s the whole discussion of what exactly is Fate?  Is it outside of us or inside us or an amalgamation of the two?

The cesspool in the weird sisters’ pot is not unlike what’s going on in Macbeth’s head.  But are the weird sisters casting spells or are they an external enactment of some recipe of Macbeth’s internal ingredients?

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays.  It hurls itself with deadly aim right into the heart of the audience.  Here are lines I haven’t already quoted:


*Fair is foul and foul is fair (I, i)


*The weird sisters, hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about. (I, iii)


*So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (I, iii)


*Strange images of death (I, iii)


*Come what, come may,

Time and the hour runs thro the roughest day (I, iii)


*. . . the milk of human kindness. (I, v)


*. . .  the be-all and end-all. (I, vii)


*. . .vaulting ambition (I, vii)


*. . .screw your courage to the sticking point. (I, vii)


*The moon is down; I have not heard the clock. (II, i)


*Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care. (II, ii)


*Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil. (II, ii)


*We have scorched the snake, not killed it. (III, ii)


*I am in blood. (III, iv)


*Double, double, toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble (IV, i)


*. . .  eye of newt and toe of frog. . . (IV, i)


*By the pricking of my thumbs

Something wicked this way comes. (IV, i)


*One fell swoop (IV, iii)


*Out damned spot! Out, I say! (V, i)


*What’s done cannot be undone. (V, i)













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