Macbeth’s double play – a language analysis of III/ 4

Fair is foul and foul is fair – the three weird sisters‘ magic spell foreshadows the nature of Macbeth’s reign. He murdererd King Duncan, a just, generous, trusting and reliable king whose only fault it was to trust the traitors among his kinsmen, whereas his assassin Macbeth reverses causality: do good, be loyal, trust and you will perish. Cheat, lie and assassin, and you will prosper. Of course he must hide his true face. He must pretend. His double play works out fine for quite a while, and the resulting moral ambiguity ist mirrored in a language full of hidden meanings. After summing up the content of this excerpt, namely the lines 1 to 32 of III/4, and putting it in its context, I will analyse the way in which Macbeth’s double play is expressed in his choice of words. Finally I will add a few ideas about the topicality of the conveyed conflict.

By murdering his king, Macbeth has usurped the throne of Scotland. But contrary to Duncan, he is a tyrant. His wife, who urged him to commit the deed, has become queen. But both can’t sleep any more. And they fear former friends: Macbeth has taken to employing murderers in order to kill Banquo, whose offspring is said to become King after him. The Macbeths have invited all lords to a banquet and welcome them merrily, while they are secretly awaiting the message that Banquo and his son Fleance have been killed. The murderers arrive soon and inform their client that the main threat to Macbeth’s reign, Fleance, has escaped. After this, the banquet is disrupted by the appearance of Banquo’s bloody ghost, whom no one but Macbeth can see. But he betrays himself by acting like a madman. Once Banquo’s death will be known, people will think twice about Macbeth’s behavior. He, in return, will try to put the blame on Fleance by accusing him of murdering his father.

Macbeth announces to “play the humble host“ (l.4). The implication of this expression depends on the emphasis: if you place the stress on the alliteration „humble host“, it is nothing but an idiom. But if you stress the verb, the very nature of his pretended humility becomes evident: he acts, he plays, but he is not humble. And he knows it. The lords, whom he encourages to “be large in mirth“ (l.11) are probably aware of it as well, as only some scenes later there is strong resistance to him. Lady Macbeth “keeps her state“ (l.5), what means her royal seat and her appearance, but does not address the party, acting shy and demure as well. Macbeth announces her welcome “in best times“ (l.5), thus speaking out for her. Then she speaks of her “heart“ (l.8) that welcomes the guests. Macbeth reconfirms “the heart’s thanks“ (p.9) of the guests, again speaking for them. They don’t say a word. Macbeth focuses all attention on himself.

Let us visualise his position on a Shakespearian stage. It is an apron stage with five trap doors – the ideal entry for ghosts, by the way – and a little house in the background, where the musicians sit above the stage. The groundlings standing all around the stange as well as the audience on the three tiers of galleries are watching when Macbeth announces that he will “sit I‘ th‘ midst“ (l.10) of the party, “the table round“ (l.12). How is it possible that he then whispers to the approaching murderer that there is “blood upon (his) face“ (l.12)? Their dialogue, in which they discuss the success of the murderous plot, must not be overheard by the guests. But even an audience used to imagining scenery according to description will only accept this fact if Macbeth has stepped some meters aside, which again contradicts his explicit announcement to sit in the middle. Therefore he lies again.

In the conversation with the murderers Macbeth uses easy puns that correspond to the taste of the groundlings – easy to understand and easy to repeat. Such as “’Tis better thee without than he within“ (l.15) and “best of cutthroats“ (l.17) as a response to “(h)is throat is cut“ (l.26). Or, using more formal English: “he’s good that did the like to Fleance. If thou didst it, thou art the nonpareil“ (l.29). “Like“ and “nonpareil“ are antonyms. In this passage, the quick alternation of “to be“ and “to do“ implies a more basic distinction between doing and being: between a person’s acting and their true mettle.

The remaining dialogue is full of imagery. First of all, Macbeth expresses the fear that creeps upon him with the alliterating enumeration “now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears“ (l.24f), all of which express the pressure under which he lives: he feels caught and enclosed in a narrow cell, though he is king. Surprisingly, it’s him that feels betrayed and caught, even if this is what he himself inflicts on others. This reversal of truth arrives at an almost perverted peak when he asks if “Banquo’s safe“ (l.108), by which he means that he’s dead. Which the murderer reconfirms, echoing the word. Macbeth compares himself to “marble“(l.32) – at least he feels he should be as whole and invulnerable as the material for monuments. He should be “founded as a rock“ (l.32), which evokes not only stability, but also St. Peter, the apostle that betrayed Jesus. And he wants to be as unavoidable and omnipresent as air. Poor Macbeth complains that all this does not come into existence, it is negated. Because of his evil victim who failed to perish.

About Banquo and Fleance they speak in ambiguous metaphors. The father’s wounds are, as the murderer puts it, “a death to nature“(l.28), which means that Banquo is dead, but also, that this death is quite unnatural, just as Macbeth’s whole reign is unnatural, because it contradicts his position in the Great Chain of Being and has been initiated by a crime. Macbeth calls him “the grown serpent“ (l.29). Thus he abuses Banquo as treacherous and poisonous, but at the same time the serpent is a symbol for sin, and Banquo’s lying dead in a ditch is a sin. The victim is presented as culprit. Just like the lords, he is quiet while Macbeth is speaking – contrary to them, he is biologically incapable of protest. The lords will rebel later. Correspondingly, Fleance is depicted as “(t)he worm that’s fled/ Hath nature that in time will venom breed/ No teeth for th‘ present“ (l.30f). A toothless vermin that needs to be erased before long in order to prevent foul play and poison. What symbolises death, decay and evil. They are explicitly attributed to Fleance, but describe Macbeth himself. Thus he expresses himself openly while he is abusing his victim’s son. This foreshadows that in the long run the evil nature of his deeds will become noticable and reveal his guilt. Thus the natural order would be re-established and Scotland would become a safe and prosperous place again.

Reversed causality in social interactions, a tyrant that pretends to be meek and considerate – such phenomena have embittered human lives since immemorial times. They still proliferate today. Shakespeare has broken down the political conflict of ambition and regicide to a simple structure which reveals the tragic nature of social wrongdoing itself. How it destroys lives and makes the transgressor as unhappy as the victim in the long run. But the trespassers – politicians, egoistic friends, exploiting colleagues have in common that they, contrary to the victims, cause conflict before suffering from it, what makes a difference. In our everyday lives we must become able to identify such schemes and we must not excuse the resulting behavior, as innocent lives are shattered, while the culprit enjoys his bounty for quite a while until his mask breaks. Therefore the ambiguity of Macbeth’s language conveys a conflict from which, unfortunately, we will be able to learn for many generations to come.

Bibliography: William Shakespeare: Macbeth. Spark Publishing – No Fear Shakespeare: New York, 2003

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