25 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/4

A cry within of women.

[MACBETH:] . . . . what is that noise?

SEYTON: It is the cry of women, my good lord. [Exits.]

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

[Enter Seyton.]

SEYTON: The Queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
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.

Enter a Messenger.

Thou com'st to use thy tongue; thy story quickly!

William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, ll 7 - 29

This is a moment of high drama in the play. Macbeth, who, with the encouragement and aid of his wife, has murdered his way to the kingship of Scotland, is besieged in the castle of Dunsinane by the armies of his victims (The cry is still, "They come!"). Secure in his castle's strength, he also still feels secure in the prophecies revealed by the Weird Sisters: among them, that none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth and that he shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him (Act IV, scene 1). He feels protected against his foes, but also aware that if those prophecies are true, so are the ones that predict his will be a sterile monarchy: no children will succeed him; instead, he has committed murder to the ultimate benefit of Banquo's children. Nausea at life fills him. He has squelched the better instincts of his conscience; perhaps that is why, when he hears the women attendants of the castle screaming, he expresses himself in oddly physical, animal terms: he has almost (almost is important, it drives the uncertainty that torments him) forgotten not the feeling but the taste of fear. The suggestion that fear is nourishing him is picked up later in the speech, when he says he has supped full with horrors. Even his expression of fear seems weirdly detached and animal-like: he describes how his fell (an archaic word meaning pelt) of hair would rise as if on its own – as if there were life in it separate from him. This division between the emotional / spiritual life that eats at him and his physical / animal life will be brought home at the play's end, when (in a stage direction often ignored in productions) his head, severed from his body, is brought on stage.

There is a sense in his speech that time is deranged, things are happening both too quickly and too slowly and in either case out of order. When an attendant officer, Seyton, brings him word that the outcry from the women was due to the death (possibly through suicide, by self and violent hands) of his tormented wife, his immediate reaction is to say she should have died later, when he would have had time to feel and mourn and react appropriately. It's possible that at this point he simply does not know how to feel anymore. The Queen had urged him on in the beginning (note his use in this passage of Direness, which not only contains the sound-sense die but links back to her wish, when she first heard of the Weird Sisters' prophecy that he would be king, that she be filled from head to toe with direst cruelty). An estrangement had slowly grown between them; she is unable to help kill King Duncan (. . . had he not resembled / My father as he slept. . .); she rebukes her husband, puzzled, for the apparitions that haunt him (the air-born dagger he sees before the first murder, the ghost of Banquo after he has him killed); Macbeth increasingly acts without consulting her. Her terrible guilt, shown in the famous sleep-walking scene at the beginning of this act, overwhelms her. Though events are foretold to Macbeth throughout the play, they never quite happen as they should, in his eyes, or bring him the certainty and security he longs for. Lady Macbeth's death is another untimely event: under attack, beset on all sides, what can he manage to say or feel?

Despite the chaos and unease swirling around him, he temporarily, extraordinarily, pauses time with a nihilistic aria expressing the disgust he now feels with life. The plodding repetition of tomorrow, the creeping, the petty pace: all suggest and reinforce a feeling of life as a drawn-out dullness, an endless series of trivialities. Macbeth at this point still thinks his life is safe from attack, not yet realizing that there might be a technical evasion hidden in none of woman born. This might seem like the security that he has ached for, but, like the kingship, it brings with it a sense of futility and restless discontent. The days arise and are extinguished, their light serving only to guide fools (that is, humanity) as they return back to dust. Despite the sense of time dragging on, Macbeth refers to time (or is it life? are the two distinguishable for us?) as a brief candle – a flame that burns itself out in short order. He speaks of time as both eternal and brief. Is time stretched out because there is so much of it to endure, or does it seem stretched out because it is simply unendurable? Out, out, brief candle provides another echo of Lady Macbeth; in the sleepwalking scene that occurred shortly before this scene, the Queen enters carrying a taper (now afraid of the dark, she has light by her continually. 'Tis her command.) and repeatedly cries Out to the imaginary blood she is trying to wipe from her hands.

Macbeth reflects on the transitory and unreal nature of life, finding horror rather than beauty (or even consolation) in this "floating world" quality. In a meta moment, he compares life to that most transitory of human creations, live performance: life is a poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage and then heard no more (this is a concise and despairing version of the already edging towards despair Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, which begins by telling us All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players). Calling life an actor suggests that it is controlled by puppet-master forces, and we do not act on our own volition; Macbeth throughout has questioned the role of destiny in his life (If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me); now, he feels himself caught up in the mechanism of Fate (his assurance against harm depends on believing in the Fateful pronouncements of the Weird Sisters). Calling the player poor suggests he is inadequate to his task as well as impoverished (that is, a victim of his own deficiencies or society's); it also suggests a conflicting glint of sympathy ("that poor man!"). It is part of a series of descriptors – petty, dusty, brief – that reinforces a sense of existence as a degraded thing.

Macbeth also finds existence, at this point in his life, a meaningless thing: he moves from describing life as an actor strutting and fretting (strut suggesting vainglory and conceit, and fret suggesting worry and wearing away) to describing life as a tale, but one told by an idiot (which here means not so much just a stupid person, as we use the word now, but a mentally disturbed one). Creating a tale – creating art, telling a story, like the playwright who sends the player out on the stage – is a way of imposing order and meaning on the world. Macbeth here declares that the tale we tell ourselves about life is equivalent to the ranting gabble of a madman – the sound and the fury signify not just nothing, but nothingness. He has moved from comparing life to an actor – a relatively rational albeit "poor" human being – to comparing it not to the idiot, who may be irrational but is still a human being, one whose condition might actually raise pity in the on-looker – but to the "tale", that is, the ranting, of the idiot. Life is no longer even represented as a human; it is words, garbled, crazy words, furious and meaningless air. Earlier there had been hints of a rational order underlying existence; Macbeth sees time stretching out to its last syllable. A syllable suggests an on-going flow of words, of words as history. But finally the words are just random syllables, units of sound lacking meaning – the tale told by a madman.

This relatively brief speech has leapt out of Macbeth, stopping the action and crystallizing his anguish. By its end, he can go no further into despair. He reverts to the world of frenzied action, demanding of the newly arrived Messenger that he tell his story, and tell it quickly. He is back in the world where we pretend stories make sense. But the Messenger has a tale to tell that seems senseless, though it's one we saw coming when we heard Duncan's son Malcolm, in the scene preceding this one, ordering his troops to cut down branches of Birnam Wood to carry before them while marching to Dunsinane, thereby misleading Macbeth as to the true extent of their forces. In short, the hapless Messenger must inadvertently report that the first protection promised Macbeth has fallen: Birnam Wood is marching against Dunsinane Hill.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Macbeth, edited by Sylvan Barnet. I'm planning on doing a Shakespeare entry at least once a month, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet's death.


Michael Strickland said...

Way to start this year's series with "Macbeth." My friend Steven Greengard, no longer with us because his brain ran too fast and he self-medicated to oblivion, used to run the California Book Auction for Bernard Osher at Butterfield's. Once, during a particularly dark, depressive period, he spent a couple of weeks obsessively reading "Macbeth" over and over, and realized at one point that some extraordinary percentage of collectible British mystery titles were taken from lines in the play. (I wonder if anyone's ever done a statistical analysis, in fact.)

Glad to read there will be a monthly Shakespeare offering here.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

That's sad and fascinating about your friend, and the British mystery titles. I'm not a big fan of mysteries so I can't come up with much there, but I was once told that Fatal Attraction comes from Macbeth. Given that it's the shortest, most direct, and in some ways most "modern" of Shakespeare's tragedies, it's kind of a puzzling play in some ways. And though you'd think it would be fool-proof, it can be surprisingly difficult to bring off -- years ago in Boston I saw it with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson in the leads, and you'd think that would be surefire, but it was so oddly flat that it became weirdly memorable.

By the way you can take some credit for the monthly Shakespeare offering, so I'm glad you're glad -- I started thinking about it after you suggested an all-Shakespeare year in your comment to 2015/52. I might do all Shakespeare in the anniversary month.

Michael Strickland said...

The only good production of "Macbeth" I've ever seen was at the San Francisco Opera, of all places, in a Pier Luigi Pizzi production of Verdi's opera that managed to get everything right. I know it isn't the play, but I've never seen a good theatrical production.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Sure, we can count the opera, which, as I have mentioned, I actually prefer as an adaptation to Verdi's Ot(h)ello. There's also Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.