On the moors of medieval Scotland, three witches hail the nobleman Macbeth as the future king—despite the fact that King Duncan is very much alive, and Macbeth is not in line to the throne. At the suggestion of power, Macbeth’s mind leaps to murder. Later, he fancies he sees a floating dagger leading him to Duncan, and after more bloodshed, believes he is haunted by the ghost of a friend. Is Macbeth merely a victim of divination, goaded by suggestion and his own imagination? To what extent is every ambition an imaginative act—and perhaps a form of prophecy? Wes & Erin give an analysis of the Scottish Play: Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, “Macbeth.”
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Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Erin: So, Wes, I was wondering if you were superstitious at all.
Wes: No, I’m actually not. I haven’t really been superstitious since I was a kid.
Erin: Okay, I think I’m still in my childhood phase, then, because I am very superstitious, and I was wondering the extent to which podcasting might be considered a form of theater. And if it’s therefore inherently unlucky for us to be saying the title of this play over and over again.
Wes: Is that a real thing? Do…?
Erin: I don’t think so. But [laughter] I think they used to. I think it used to be taken pretty seriously. Probably not so much anymore. But it’s one of those theater stories that I’m really attracted to, those theater traditions I’m really attracted to.
Wes: Tell me the details. I don’t actually know the details of this.
Erin: I don’t know if it’s more involved in this, but just that the name of the title is considered unlucky to be spoken in the theater, so people refer to it as “the Scottish Play” rather than saying Macbeth. But we’re gonna have to say Macbeth over and over again, so we might as well get used to it. But yeah. And just that there are so many, I guess, unlucky occurrences that the play is associated with, which sort of makes sense. I don’t know. I was ruminating on that a little bit last night about how maybe unlucky the play is, or maybe how unlucky its two main characters are, Macbeth and even Lady Macbeth. Maybe how unlucky they are by temperament, perhaps. And maybe that’s why things go so terribly wrong for them and maybe that’s why this has such a reputation as being in an unlucky play.
Wes: I think I remember something about the financial mishaps or actors having accidents [laughter] or something like that. But, you know, it’s probably an after fact rationalization of the fact that the play is spooky, in a sense, it’s haunted. And it’s, you know, in a way, it’s about the haunting of a person. Maybe you could say his possession and, you know, it accomplishes that very well, and it’s of course a more naturalistic version of what we might think of as possession, and it’s one that involves ambition. So I think, you know, maybe one way to think about the curse of the place, to think about the ambition of actors and the ambition of… and an artistic ambition, and which I think you kind of got out a little bit in your intro and the way in which it can be a curse, too fully acknowledged that, or a way in which it can be a curse to… you know, there’s some types of ambition or over our vaulting, as Macbeth puts it, they over leap themselves. And if they do that, then they scuttle, they fall on the other side, they scuttle the consequences they want to achieve. So it’s, you know, in a similar manner you would say, “Break a leg,” right, when you go out on stage. [laughter]
Erin: Right, right. It’s sort of like the yips, maybe, is what you’re describing. You know, it’s sort of when you suddenly can’t perform something, you know, people speak of this in terms of, you know, baseball, golf, things like that where you suddenly can’t hit the ball, you know, or you just have a complete loss of like motor skills, basically, that’s unexplained. And thinking about the yips is said to sort of induce it, or saying the word. Just this idea that like, maybe, you know, it’s a sort of curse for thinking about the yips or questioning one’s own ambitions, maybe. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into the yips, or attributing too much to it, but, you know, this being a sort of like the actors’ form of the yips, I’m imagining.
Wes: Yeah, So this question about the nature of ambition is the one that I focused most on in my reading of this, because it’s something that’s, you know, that already interests me, so in a way that might distort the reading in some ways, my reading in some ways. So I spent a lot of time on Act 1, Scene 7, thinking about that very famous speech in which he talks about vaulting ambition and what that means, so… not that we have to jump to that, but…
Erin: Well, my inclination was even just to jump to Act 5, Scene 5, which I know is just a [laughter] vaulting way to the end of the play’s ambition.
Erin: Just the explicit mention there that Macbeth makes of a poor player, sort of, I guess, at the end of his ambition.
Wes: Maybe that’s a good speech to read first because it’s… on first blush, it might kind of seem grafted onto the play. I’ve always seen it as an odd speech, and I always have trouble remembering that it belongs to Macbeth. And maybe that’s just me, but I’ve… you know. So I think it’s a kind of speech that takes some reflection, in a way, to fit into the play. And so that, in a way, is a good place to start because we could build back towards understanding it…
Wes: …as we, after we sort of address it in the beginning.
Erin: Yeah. So shall I read it?
Erin: Okay, this is Act 5, Scene 5, line 16. But I won’t start there. I’ll start a little later.
Wes: What edition are you using?
Erin: I am using Oxford School Shakespeare. It’s what I teach my kids out of. [laughter]
Wes: OK. I use the Arden. So hopefully we’re not too misaligned in our editions.
Erin: Well, luckily, this one has illustrations, so it keeps me entertained.
Wes: Aw! Okay. I would have done with that one.[laughter]
Erin: Like, for instance, for the vaulting ambition one, there’s a picture of a guy… it’s actually really funny. There’s a picture of a guy fallen from his horse after he’s jumped like a fence.
Wes: What’s hilarious about the whole picture thing is that it’s ambition over leaping itself, which I just paused a lot on that self contradiction. And so I think it’s funny to try and represent a logical impossibility or self contradiction, you know, visually it’s kind of amusing in and of itself. But anyway, all right, let’s get to the…
Erin: Yeah. So this is… We should say that this is prefaced immediately by Macbeth, learning that his wife has just killed herself or has at least died. He doesn’t really ask how, so spoiler alert for those of you who are waiting until 500 years out from this play to read it. [laughter] Okay:
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,
So the poor player there is, um… I think maybe the only time he references actors, though don’t quote me on that.
Wes: I think so. Well, it’s interesting that you left out the first two lines of that. I was thinking about the fact that in a way, those two lines contain a clue to what comes after, so… no, not to what comes after but to the metaphor…
Erin: Oh, I see what you mean. Sure.
Wes: “She should have died hereafter / there would have been a time for such a word.” I’m focusing on the word “word” because then he talks about the… he compares time to a series of syllables. So “time for such a word”… time for such a word as in… death?
Erin: I read this line a couple of ways. I think that it has sort of two meanings, maybe. That, like, she would have died sooner or later, and that that death would be inevitable, or she should have died later, when there would be more time to mourn her. So I think both of the at least in the notes that I’ve seen on this passage both of those readings are correct. So it’s unclear whether or not he thinks it doesn’t matter at one time she died, or whether or not she should have died at a more appropriate time.
Erin: So I think that that sort of multivalence of that reading determines maybe what we mean by “word”, by “word” might mean what a word of morning or a perhaps the end of the words signifying the end of her life, or… not totally sure.
Wes: So I read it as she should have died hereafter, she should have died later than now, this shouldn’t be the time of her death, in which case there would have been time for such a word as in the word “death”. So what’s interesting to me is that instead of… it’s a displacement of reality. So “time for such a word”… the thought seems to be that there would have been more time for her to live and that there is a proper time for the utterance of that word. So instead of saying, you know, “she died too young”, “she’s died before her time”, he puts it in these… in terms of language, you know, there would have been a time that the utterance of such a word would have been appropriate. So it’s an interesting displacement.
Erin: I suppose. The more you dig into that, the less justification I see for that first reading that this edition of my book gives of “she would have died sooner or later”. And yet that makes that… that was always my favorite of the two readings just because…
Wes: Why do you think it doesn’t…? Sorry.
Erin: Well, because, like, you say that, like, “she should have died hereafter, there would have been time for such a word.” So it makes more sense, I think, the way that you are unpacking those words for me. I suppose what I didn’t understand, maybe, was the implication of the word “word”.
Wes: No, I’m just wondering, can we make sense of it on that other interpretation as well? So, for instance, but she could have died at any time, anyway. “There would have been time for such a word”. Sorry: been a time. Such a word. In which case, it’s just a… Yeah, yeah, I’m not having any luck trying to make sense of it. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, now that I… I guess I just sort of always accepted the fact that this edition, first of all, gives that “she would have died sooner or later” reading first, and so I thought it was, maybe, the preferred one. But then also it sort of fits with the nihilism of the speech that follows. I have my students do recitations of this speech and also write an essay on it every year. And, you know, they always sort of parrot my reading [laughter] of which I’m now realizing is wrong. But, you know, just that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t react, you know. They’re very concerned by this because, of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are very much in love, or at least were in the first couple of acts. And so they have to find a way, an emotional way to justify the fact that he doesn’t react, which is, I guess, that he’s just been pushed beyond the limits of his own ability to care about anything, or to have any ambition. And this is sort of the end of that. So he doesn’t care now or sees the inevitability of her passing and thinks, well, that’s right, because we’re all just candles, we’re poor players, the idea of… So I suppose that those lines for me, the idea of dying sooner or later allows what follows to make more sense. Because if there was an appropriate time for her to die, that seems to me to contradict what follows, which is this idea that it’s all meaningless anyway. So why does it matter when we die or when we live?
Wes: Yeah, So we get the idea now of time as a sequence of syllables, which sets us up for the next metaphor, or the final metaphor that it’s “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing”. So life is just one thing after another, it’s… You can’t make sense of it. You might even think you can’t say why things happen. You can’t connect events in any meaningful way, which can be read kind of providentially or can be read in terms of “Hey, you know, life is meaningless”, that type of sentiment, or it can be read in more basic terms in the sense that this is someone who has had trouble with causality from the very beginning, and we’ll discuss that. He and Lady Macbeth don’t pass the marshmallow test. [laughter] They’re not good at figuring out consequences. They’re actually making realistic plans.
Wes: So he has a problem connecting one thing to another, anyway. But you’re right. Yeah, there’s a tension between saying that such a word would have a proper time. And that time is just one syllable after another and there’s no sense to be made of it.
Erin: Well, I like that focus on time, too, because, of course, they’ve been talking… Lady Macbeth and Macbeth have been talking all along about beguiling the time with fairest show…
Erin: …and at Macbeth’s death, at his murder at the hands of Macduff, Macduff announces something like, you know, “the time is free.” And then Malcolm, in his final speech, says that we won’t spend a lot of time settling everything [laughter] that has happened while Macbeth has been king and “by the grace of Grace, / we will perform in measure, time, and place.” What I love about “there would have been a time for such a word” is that that’s a perfect line of iambic pentameter and then, let’s see… “we will perform in measure, time, and place.” Yeah, that’s another perfect line of iambic pentameter. So Malcolm seems to understand the time, and not to be easily beguiled by Macbeth in the way that Malcolm’s father was beguiled by him.
Wes: When I’m thinking now just about the other sentiment expressed in this speech, which is that “life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” Usually, I think of this as a metaphor in which life is the stage, we are the poor players. But now that I think about this, [laughter] it’s life itself that is the player.
Erin: And the stage is the universe?
Wes: Yeah. So I guess you can still read it in terms of individual lives as us being poor players. But “it’s a tale told by an idiot”, right? So it almost… one might even read this as a tongue-in-cheek self-critique by Shakespeare. Does any of this make any sense? In other words, that’s what he’s saying to the audience. Is this a tale told by an idiot?
Erin: And the answer is yes.
Wes: Is this the way life is? Or is just the playwright putting one syllable after another? So I think the other thing, you know, the mention of time reminds me of… So Act 1, Scene 5. Macbeth has written a letter to his wife winding her up, basically. He’s received this prophecy that he’s going to be king. It’s a prophecy. He’s seen confirmation of that in events. Sorry, first Thane of Cawdor and then the King. So because he becomes Thane of Cawdor he’s sort of charged by that, he’s sort of like “All right, well, this must mean that I’m gonna be King”. But he’s also stressed out by the counter prophecy that they’ve given, which is that it’s Banquo’s children who’ll ultimately be the line of Kings, that he won’t be a father of Kings. So he’s been charged or wound up, and then he decides to wind up his crazy wife.
Erin: Crazy is a little strong.
Wes: I have to give you a very tendentious and you can correct, you can counter this, [laughter] the interpretation of all of this, but I’m going to maintain that she’s nuts, and she’s long been nuts, and that he is nuts to send her this letter and to get her wound up. But he’s doing it so you can wind himself up further so she could help him screw up courage to the sticking place. But you know, because, basically, one of the things he does in that letter is he calls her the “dearest partner of greatness”. And he says that, you know, I’m sending this to you so that you won’t be “ignorant of what greatness is promised thee.” So it’s not just his greatness that’s at stake. It’s at hers. They are partners in greatness. And it’s at that point that she’s worried about having him, him having too much of “the milk of human kindness”. And then he arrives and she is ecstatic, and she says, “your letters have transported me beyond / this ignorant present, and I feel now / the future in an instant.” So this is one of the things, you know, the talk we were just having about time, that time is something that’s going to come up a lot. This is one of those lines that really are striking to me, the sense in which part of what both of them are allergic to is the ignorant present, the sense of uncertainty about what the future holds and about how one’s efforts are related to one’s aspirations, which has something important to do with ambition, right? And the idea of feeling the future in the instant as opposed to the future, remaining at a distance in a way and something to work towards.
Erin: That’s really good. So it seems to me with this strange idea that they have of beguiling the time of looking like the time in order to beguile it and to “mock the time with fairest show,” they say later, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.” What do we then take the time to be? I mean, but, you know, part of that is Duncan, I suppose, you know, the present king. They have to beguile him, they have to deceive him in order to make their future come to pass. And they have to obviously deceive the good natures of everyone around them. But I wonder if there’s some other further implication in that. Or maybe the idea that time is somehow, you know, a holy thing, an order, you know, logic, within the universe that divination maybe sort of undercuts. The witches, of course, are demonic. They sing and dance with Hecate and, you know, are obviously very, very bad actors, no pun intended. [laughter] And so the idea that they could see into the future, that they can mock the time, so to speak, by seeing into the future, I think is part of their demonic natures that there’s something holy, maybe, or blessed about the idea of time unfolding as it will. You know, for instance, the liturgy of the hours and other, you know, staples of Catholic life, which, of course, you know, this is set in medieval times, pre-reformation, of course. And so this idea of everything having its proper hour, its proper season, the liturgical year. All of these things are extremely important in Catholic life. The idea that you don’t jump ahead, you live through the present moment. The idea of prophesying and of divination and all these things are therefore inherently wicked because it’s not one’s place to know the future and to play God in that way. You have to live through the present and see it play out as it will.
Wes: Yeah, that’s really interesting because… okay, I’m gonna try, and maybe not too successfully, but draw together some of these threads that you’ve gotten there. So the poor player strutting itself on the stage. So that suggests that there’s something fake and dissembling about life. It’s illusory, or there’s a lot that’s an illusion and that illusoriness has something to do with the fact that it’s disordered. “It’s a tale told by an idiot.” There’s no sense to be made of the relation between events. And then we get the… Duncan’s idea that “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”. I’m not sure if that’s a direct quote, by the way I’m doing this…
Erin: It is.
Wes: You know, he had put absolute trust in the original Thane of Cawdor and that did not work out. And then the thing that you’ve mentioned about beguiling the time, where what they… yeah, there are these repeated references to them. The one thing that they think about a lot is being good at pretense, putting on a good face and, you know, despite the fact of their treachery. And they do. I think they do a very good job of that. And one thing I want to recommend to listeners is the Polanski movie, you know, if you like that. I just think that’s like the best. There’s a lot that’s cut out, of course. I think it’s the best film… It’s the best film version that I’ve seen. And there’s a great scene in it where, after she talks about beguiling the time (I think it’s after that) she’s seen dancing with King Duncan in the most… like putting on the most delightful face and being very playful and being very, very friendly with him while Macbeth watches. So they think a lot about deception. But otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, I think they’re not good at planning. They’re not good at realistic planning. So Macbeth is interested in… he’s not interested in, but he thinks he can’t be motivated by anything but vaulting ambition, which is to say he is not willing to do what you normally do with your ambition, which is to have a goal and then to work towards it, which he thinks of his leaving it to chance, right? So he has this debate with himself after the witches have made their prophecy about whether to leave it up to chance and wait. You know, after all, it’s a prophecy. Does he have to do anything? Or whether he has to make it happen and whether he has to overleap Duncan’s children in succession, which requires him to murder Duncan and then get rid of them as well. So, yeah, there’s this failure to live in the moment and want to get outside of the moment and also get outside of, like, ordinary planning about the future in which you say “Okay, I want to achieve this goal. I’m gonna have to do X, Y and Z. It’s gonna take a lot of time. It’s gonna take work. It’s uncertain. It may not happen. Screw all that. Let’s just go straight to “the end-all and be-all,” [laughter] straight to the end point. So what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to draw a connection between your idea of the wickedness of trying to get beyond the… outside of the present moment, and then its impracticality… and then I’m drawing a connection between that and it’s impracticality and it’s pathology. It’s impractical because… and we could talk about this in a minute. But I think basically that everyone knows that Macbeth has done it right after it’s been done, and I could give my textual evidence for that at some point. And not only that, but he knows that everyone is going to know. That’s part of his problem. He knows that it’s not… It’s gonna be completely transparent. It’s not that people are gonna be confused as to who did it, and so I know these are kind of like big theses, so I’ll try and support them at some point. But if I’m right about that, then all of this is completely impractical and that impracticality is not unrelated to wickedness.
Erin: Yeah, I think that some of what you’re saying is maybe getting to what I sort of hinted at in the introduction, which is my sort of inherent distrust of ambition. Like Lady Macbeth, when she worries about Macbeth having too much of “the milk of human kindness”, she says, you know, “you are not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it.” And I suppose what I’m wondering is if there is some illness inherent in ambition, and then we get into the sort of, you know, sticky situation of thinking about, okay, so if in the liturgy of the hours and, you know, the medieval culture of the time, etcetera, one should not be looking into the future, how can we sort of square that with what must be the ambition, perhaps, of every Catholic person which is to go to heaven, right? So that is looking into the future. And and in fact, Macbeth, you know, anticipates that he is giving up his eternal life for the sake of his earthly ambitions. One might have ambitions to do good things, you know, such as, you know, one’s own salvation, though we can sort of argue as to whether or not one’s motivations to do good are actually coming from a kind of a selfish place. You know, it gets kind of more and more confusing, but, you know, ambition to me is you are trying to affect the future, or you are seeing into the particular future that you want to bring about. And therefore, is that a kind of an act of divination? And is that…? Macbeth’s problem this whole time is that he’s sort of spinning out, right? So he’s given this potential future. The the idea of murder is never, of course, suggested by the witches. And if this prophecy were given to me, [laughter] I would just assume that I just had to follow the normal course of events and this would somehow be brought about.
Wes: Yeah, he didn’t have to do anything to become Thane of Cawdor…
Wes: …so, you know, what he had to do was already done and he…
Erin: Right. And, you know, Banquo gives that justification of that, you know, Thane of Cawdor coincidence, or whatever you wanna call it, that he, you know, that he was made Thane of Cawdor by… you know, Banquo says something like “often to win us to our harm the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles to betray us in deeper confidence,” or something like that, right? So he provides a justification for that, which maybe would dissuade Macbeth. But he’s too far gone at that point and says, you know, maybe they just told you this to try and get you to go after the kingship because they knew that that was going to happen and then it gets you to do something worse. Which is also kind of an interesting idea, too, that that’s how evil works on us, that it sort of tries something out, you know, that works a little bit and then gets you to sort of buy into, you know, by the whole farm or whatever. Basically, what I’m trying to get at is Macbeth has been given this suggestion that he’s going to be king. It’s like the psychic suggestion, and then he’s the one who immediately jumps to murder. And he doesn’t even mention that to… we could tell how well suited Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are to each other, because he doesn’t mention anything about his plans for murdering Duncan to Lady Macbeth, but she also immediately knows what this is going to entail and what Macbeth has in mind or what prophecy requires of them.
Wes: And I think he knows that she’s going to know. That’s why he gets her…
Erin: Yeah. They’re definitely on the same wavelength, at least for the first half of the play. And then it’s almost as though the idea of potential futures never stops haunting him. So the idea that he’s opened this Pandora’s box and he can never sleep, he talks about not being able to eat his food for fear that it’s poisoned, he has someone paid off in every single house of every Thane in the country so that he can have spies in every household. It’s as though his ambition and his imagination are kind of like one and the same thing, and they both sort of run off with him.
Wes: You know, I think in a way there’s two types of ambition and that’s what I was trying to get at. I think there’s a more realistic kind, where you’re more attuned to the temporal nature of things, and the causal nature of things, and the uncertainty, and you’re willing to tolerate uncertainty, and then the kind that wants to make it all happen in the instant. And I think that’s like what you’re saying about ambition and imagination because in a way, both he and Lady Macbeth want the fantasy of what’s to come to be the reality in the moment and they can’t wait. And that’s why I call this… you know, I say they don’t pass the marshmallow test… [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, that’s great.
Wes: …which is because he himself, as you pointed out… let’s find where he does this. Okay, so at the end of Act 1, Scene 3… So this whole speech he mentioned that… where Banquo says, “…‘tis too strange / and oftentimes, to win us to our harm / the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” There’s an interesting contrast between that and when they first meet the witches and Macbeth himself is startled by the prophecy and finds it upsetting. And then Banquo says, “Why are you so upset? It’s a positive thing”, but then gets envious or something and says, “Well, you guys didn’t speak to me. Why don’t you give me something now? You gave something to Macbeth. Give me something”
Wes: And then they do. And then that creates part of the problem because I think part of what’s motivating Macbeth as well, and even though it takes a while to emerge in the play, is that really there’s two prophecies and they’re in contradiction with each other. And so Macbeth actually has good reason to be anxious because there are really sinister implications to the idea that he’s going to be king, but that it’s Banquo’s offspring who are gonna be kings thereafter. So it’s after that warning that Macbeth gives a speech, the effect that this prophecy that he’s gotten, whatever the witches are doing, whether it’s prophetic or they’re intervening somehow, cannot be good or ill because he’s been given confirmation. So it cannot be ill because he’s, you know, The Thane of Cawdor prophecy came true. But it can’t be good, because now he’s having this fantasy of murder that he can’t get out of his mind, which, strangely enough, is the beginning of his being in a state of doubt. You know, he develops some Hamlet-type qualities, which he didn’t have in the beginning. So in the beginning, when we hear about him in Act 1, Scene 2, Macbeth disdains fortune. He’s so courageous. He just, you know, can walk into battle and he’s not worried about that at all. He’s valour’s minion, and then we know he’s capable of great violence, he can do things, you know, thoughtlessly, engage in violence, chopping Macdonald, I think, from the nave to the chops.
Wes: Yeah. But now, it’s only after this prophecy that he’s becoming anxious and self-doubting, although Lady Macbeth seems to know that he’s capable of that already. So maybe that’s a longstanding feature of his domestic life [laughter] that may be introducing itself into his career at this point because of the prophecy. At the very end, where Macbeth says, “If chance will have me King / why chance may crown me without my stir.”
Wes: And then time an hour “Come what come may / time and the hour runs through the roughest day”, which is another way of saying that, you know, he might just wait. So he’s basically torn between these two different types of ambition, one which is vaulting in the sense that it’s going to try and jump ahead, maybe even jump outside of time, and that’s the significance of killing Duncan and being a usurper. It doesn’t wait for things to unfold naturally, or, according to how Macbeth puts it, chance, and the other one is just to wait and, you know, try and get more promotions, right? [laughter] He’s already gotten one promotion. [laughter] Maybe he’ll get more, just work on your career and do that.
Erin: Work on yourself, try some self-care, take bubble baths when you need it…
Wes: Which is the practical way to do things. And the jumping over is impractical because it leads to consequences. It leads to people’s suspicions and leads to everything that happens afterwards. So you can either suffer the work up front or you can deal with the aftermath, the nasty aftermath. So…
Erin: Yeah, no, I just want to defend Banquo for one quick second because I do think, you know, he does ask the witches to speak to him, but he’s really not obsequious about it. He also can speak when Macbeth is actually rendered dumb by the witches’ words. So I think this maybe has to do with Macbeth’s being kind of, like, a killing machine, and maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed. You know, Banquo, when he’s presented with the prophecy… We only know Macbeth’s reaction because of how Banquo reacts to seeing Macbeth. And then he says to the witches, “If you could look into the seeds of time / and say which grain will grow and which will not / speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear / your favors nor your hate.” So he’s not begging. [laughter] He’s kind of just curious. And he doesn’t then prop up Fleance and tries to (or Fleance, whatever we want to call) and try to get him, you know, gunning for the throne. I think there’s an interesting rivalry between Macbeth and Banquo, obviously, like we don’t we didn’t really realize until Macbeth says it out loud that Banquo has been something of a rival for Macbeth when he says something about Banquo’s royalty of nature. And that’s why he fears him as a potential rival, even though that makes no sense. I mean, he doesn’t even have to… Macbeth doesn’t even have to worry about murdering Banquo. It’s literal overkill, because he only has to worry about murdering Fleance, because Banquo is not going to be king. His issue are.
Wes: You’re defending Banquo. I was casting the speeches involving Banquo’s own ambitions. And you’re, I think, correctly, you’re putting it in a different light.
Erin: Yeah, So I suppose how Banquo was reacting to the prophecy is how Macbeth at first reproaches himself and tries to react. In other words, letting things play out as they will. And Banquo seems to be pretty laid back about it. Like I said, he’s not gunning for Fleance to take over or trying to prop him up in any way. I suppose on the one hand, Macbeth’s imagination is… you know, gets the better of him, and then it starts to spin out and even result in this sort of collateral damage, or this overkill, where he goes after Banquo even though Banquo is no threat. He then even, you know, kills all of Macduff’s whole family, even though they are really of no threat to him. Banquo is able to sort of sit back and just let things happen and see how they play out. So he doesn’t have that ambition, perhaps, or even the imagination to try and make things happen for him. So it would seem, on the one hand, there’s a sort of advocation for just letting things happen and not getting ahead of yourself and not allowing your imagination to run away with you.
Erin: On the other hand, I do want to talk a little bit about King Duncan and how Duncan’s failure of imagination betrays him twice and that makes him actually not a very good king. So there has to be a kind of a middle road here, and maybe Banquo is that middle road, I’m not sure yet. I haven’t thought that through.
Wes: Yeah, well, Duncan is bad at [laughter] figuring out who to trust. Banquo is actually very good at that. I think there’s evidence to show that he’s suspicious that Macbeth is about to murder someone before Macbeth even murders someone and then he’s pretty confident that Macbeth has done it afterwards. So I think you’re right about your interpretation of a speech by Banquo. You’re reminding me of my initial reaction to it, which is kind of joking around. I think the way to interpret the reaction at the end of the scene where there’s… Macbeth says “your children shall be kings” and Banquo “you shall be king, and Thane of Cawdor, too: went it not so?” “To the selfsame tune and words.” That’s that exchange between Banquo and Macbeth. So they seem to be joking around that, about the whole thing at the end of it, which is the only way to really understand why they’re sort of in denial about the disturbing. Like, if you take the prophecy seriously, then it puts them into a very, very bad conflict with each other. And so they have to try to ignore that to some extent. But yeah, I think the way to read him saying, “You know, give me some good prophecy now, too? Why were you just giving one to Macbeth?” in a way, it’s a joke, I think. I think that’s the best way to read it. And and as you point out, you know, the way he even puts it, “look into the seeds of time, say which grain will grow and which will not”, right? He’s thinking of this in a more “plant the seeds and grow” point of view, or in the “let’s wait and let things happen naturally” point of view, which is the non… what I take to be in the non-pathological ambition, where you do the work and then you wait. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Yeah, that’s a really good point. Yeah, it’s literally grounded [laughter] in reality.
Wes: [laughter] Right! Yeah, very good. I like that.
Erin: Could we talk, though, a little bit about Duncan before we move on? Because I think this is kind of important. You know, this is something I talk about actually a lot with my students when I teach this: what Duncan’s failures are and whether or not he’s actually a good king. He gets certainly a lot of praise from everybody for bearing his faculties so meek and for giving away his power very freely. He seems like a very wonderful man. But one of the things I introduced to my students or the ideas that we sort of play with, is the idea that being a good man and being a good king might be in conflict in this play. There’s too much badness resulting in being a bad king, like Macbeth obviously. You know, his kingship is almost comically bad. I guess people are starving and everybody is having [laughter] a really, really bad time. Well, he’s king, presumably because he’s so concerned with holding onto his power that he’s not actually governing in any real way. Duncan, on the other hand is extremely good, extremely modest, extremely virtuous, and therefore seems incapable of imagining that anyone might not be good or virtuous and that he shouldn’t put his trust in the Thane of Cawdor twice over again, or that he has something to fear from others. And so I wonder what that means, if that’s a product of being born into a position that you actually didn’t have to work for, that you actually don’t have enough ambition, the right kind of ambition to sort of season your kingship and and have you do something to deserve your high position in a straight… It reminds me, oddly enough, of that Douglas Adams quote… I don’t know if it’s from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or something, but someone said just the idea that anyone who is capable of getting themselves elected should therefore be disqualified from having the job that the process of becoming president is so… something about it must be so inherently unethical that it actually should disqualify you from being president. I wonder if this is sort of like the flip side of…[laughter] in a weird way. You have to be a little bit bad and have a little bit of ambition in order to understand other people’s badness and ambition and therefore in order to hold on to your power, because there is a kind of a moral imperative in protecting yourself from other people’s ambition or from other people’s treachery in order to have a stable society. And that lack of imagination on Duncan’s part seems to be what causes his downfall. And by that same token, Macbeth seems to be kind of, maybe the curative for for Malcolm being a good king because Malcolm now has to fight for the position and show his own little bit of ambition and fight back a little bit in order to… he’s sort of initiated into the world of ambition, maybe, and has to earn his spot.
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s a good point about Duncan. He says there is no art to read the mind’s construction in the face. He lacks the art because he can’t put himself into the shoes of someone engaged in treachery. He doesn’t have that imagination.
Erin: Yeah, well, that really freaks out my students. I think the idea that you can be too good of a person.
Wes: Too much of a nice guy.
Erin: Right. Right. Sorry. I probably led us down a conversational cul-de-sac there by going on that rant.
Wes: That is why the raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan. [laughter] Because he’s too naive, but…
Erin: Yeah,. Duncan even… doesn’t he? Yeah. He goes to his, you know, the place where he’s gonna get murdered and says, “Oh, this is a nice place.” [laughter]
Wes: Some well-seated or something… his castle is… What does he say? Something seated.
Erin: “This castle hath a pleasant seat.” He’s talking about Lady Macbeth’s ass there, but [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Exactly!
Erin: He has the hots for her.
Wes: So he’s not that… he’s not irredeemably good. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, there you go. [laughter]
Wes: I’m thinking that I want to move on to talk more about ambition to Scene 7 of Act 1, and I wanna look at that very famous speech. Right, so this is Act 1, Scene 7, so this is the very beginning of it.
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the 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’d 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 the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients 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 murderer 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-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
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 the other.
I spent a lot of time [laughter] figuring out the speech. First, just figuring out what certain things mean because syntactically it’s very complex, I found, at least. And then I think there’s a lot packed into this speech, which says a lot thematically about the play. You know, we discussed before how he was thinking, “should I jump over the succession, or should I just wait? Should I try and do something, do this murder to make myself king? Or should I just wait for things to unfold as they should?” And here he’s bringing a further thought, which is that trying to make it happen could actually make it not happen, [laughter] or at least make it not happen in the long run so it could trammel up the consequence, the assassination and with his surcease, with his death, it could vitiate success, basically, make success not happen. What the rest of the speech is going to suggest is that’s because there will be questions in the aftermath of the murder. If you’re thinking about this, like, how possibly could he get away with it? That’s something that he and Lady Macbeth don’t give enough discussion to. You know, she has the idea that she’s gonna daub the faces of the guards in a way that incriminates them. But in general, as we see later on, Malcolm and Donalbain both know that it’s probably Macbeth who has murdered their father. They know enough to… they know someone there is treacherous enough so they have to flee. Banquo says, you know, I suspect that Macbeth hasn’t… you know, he’s done something bad to become king. Even Macduff, I think, will hint at his doubts about Macbeth before he… you know, he doesn’t go to the actual crowning, like, he’ll take off after giving some of those hints. So everyone knows what’s going on. And I think Macbeth knows that everyone will know and that the aftermath of this… he’s kind of aware of what could happen, which is, you know, which is what does happen, which is that he ends up killing a lot of people, and then people come for him So that’s why, you know, he wants to talk about the blow being “the be-all and the end-all”, which is to say that he’s imagining a future in which the murder has no natural consequences in which it just leads to him being king. But then you don’t have to worry about any causal after effects. So in the same way he wants to jump over time and causality and get into the result, he has to fantasize that there’s not gonna be any temporality and causality after that. He wants the structure of all of this to look just like the structure of the fantasy in which you have what you want right now, because you could do it in fantasy, in your imagination, and then there’s nothing, there’s no causal aftermath to that fantasy, So you could murder someone in your fantasy, and you don’t have to worry about the trial and going to jail or whatever is gonna happen. It’s consequence-free, and that’s the way he wants this deed to be. To be the be-all and end-all.
Erin: You bring up a lot of good points here. I think of… you know, the murder itself takes place offstage, so the present moment never really happens. He’s anticipating that he’s going to jump the life to come, but he’s not really anticipating what it is he’s actually going to have to do. He later talks about Duncan, having that kind of golden silver blood, that he was sort of royalty itself and that the sight of him caused Macbeth to have such an extreme reaction that (he sort of makes this up) that the sight caused him to become so angry with the guards that killed Duncan that he then killed the guards. He uses this as a justification for getting freaked out that the guards were going to give him away and then murdering them. Even in looking at Duncan and seeing this gold and silver blood, or his skin like gold, maybe, and his blood like silver. It’s only in the aftermath, you know, it’s when he goes in and pretends to be seeing Duncan for the first time. We know he’s considerably shaken by what he’s done, but it’s like the present moment never exists. And the implications for what that might mean for Macbeth’s own soul and for even, maybe, like the role of God in the present moment is sort of interesting here, like God is a reactor. “The cherubim, horsed / upon the sightless couriers of the air, / shall blow the horrid deed in every eye”. So God doesn’t act and he doesn’t send his angels to act on anyone’s behalf. And yet this isn’t like the deism, or the, you know, the sort of gesture a deism that we see in Lear. This is sort of like God showing up late to every party. He talks in… early on about not wanting to see what he’s doing, it’s about, you know, “let the eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, / which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” And he prefaces that by saying, “stars hide your fires; / let not light see my black and deep desires.” So the present has to be completely hidden, and Lady Macbeth says the same thing. She says, “let not heaven peep through the blanket of the dark / to cry ‘Hold, hold!’,” which… that actually reminds me of someone like peking onto a stage, or something like that.
Erin: So this idea that they want everything in the present moment to be covered up and to do it so quickly that the future will happen right away so that God himself is kind of Hoodwinked, right? So that no one can interrupt them at the moment that this is actually happening and say, “Stop, don’t do this.” So this idea that everything, even God’s interference in the world or his sending his angels to intervene after the fact, it’s all done sometime later. Like God is not intervening in the now everything is the future, everything is feeling the future in the instant. And that’s just such a crazy and interesting idea to me that you can so beguile the time that you can trick God and yourself into not knowing what you’re doing until after it’s already done, so that you only have to deal with the consequences. You know, the harshest punishment, as he’ll discover, are the consequences for what you do, not necessarily the thing itself.
Wes: But in a way you’re getting at the idea of hiding the present is related to the desire that there’ll be no consequences rights because if it’s hidden, then the guilt is hidden.
Erin: Oh, I see.
Wes: You know, he’s gonna conclude here that they shouldn’t do it. And then Lady Macbeth will come back in and wind them up again. And part of the reason, as I’ve mentioned, is you know, you’ll say bloody, but we still have judgment here, so after he wants it to be “the end-all and be-all” and “to jump the life to come,” he says, “but […] we still have judgment here, that we but teach / bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / to plague the inventor: this even handed justice…” blah, blah, blah. So he’s realistically worried about being found out and teaching others to behave in the same ruthless way towards him that he’s been behaving. Or, in other words, he’s just worried about justice coming to him. And then, with regard to the pity, this line you mentioned about “the sightless couriers of the air, / shall blow the horrid deed in every eye / that tears shall drown the wind…” The way I take this, this part of the passage, he’s saying that Duncan was so good that people will be really upset by the murder. Right, What does it have to do with everything? Well, he’s suggesting that they won’t be able to ignore the fact that he did it. He kind of knows that people are going to know it’s him. So this is the weird logic of his world. He’s not so naive that he doesn’t know that he would be under suspicion, but he thinks people would have reason to just ignore that, which they might, and pretend like it didn’t happen. They can’t pretend like it didn’t happen, because Duncan is so good, their pity is going to be so strong, that they’re going to drown the wind. And the wind is like a courier, like a message bringer, so that it’s going to drown… pity will drown the pretense and the passing of the time, or the government of the time and the construction of the face, all those related things. Pity can pierce that and transcend that. And that’s where he gets to the idea of, you know, the idea that he is no spur to prick the sides of his intent, but vaulting ambition, which is to say he has a problem with motivation, right? He has a problem with ordinary ambition in which he can’t spur himself on. He can’t get himself to do things unless he’s engaged in this sort of shortcut, even though to engage in that shortcut means that the longer path that you might have taken happens on the other side, where you fall. It happens in terms of the aftermath and all those consequences, as which you’ve pointed out are the other worst part of this. And he’s conscious of that but ultimately can’t help himself anyway. And the next… what happens next with Lady Macbeth is she gives him very lame rationalizations about how they’re gonna be able to get away with it. So she’s responding directly to his concerns in this reflective moment that he’s had with himself. But they’re not… they’re not plausible, they’re not believable, but he’s gonna go for it anyway.
Wes: But correct me if I’m wrong, that they’re not convincing. [laughter] Maybe they are.
Erin: No, I don’t think so. I think that the way in which she continually gets him to act is, of course, by questioning his manhood. There is some problem at the heart of this relationship, which is the fact that I guess it’s childless. I mean, talking about failing the marshmallow test, if you can’t produce heirs, that’s a real failure of planning there. [laughter] And obviously something that, of course, Shakespeare must have been thinking about at this time as he’s writing this for, you know, the new James I, who only came to the throne because so many people had had a failure of [laughter] securing their own futures with their own children. What’s interesting about her justifications “Art thou afeard / to be the same in thine own act and valour / as thou art in desire.” I mean, she’s not wrong. And she says, you know, she accuses him of being…
Wes: Please, say what she is saying there, because my interpretation of that is not consistent with the footnote in my editions. [laughter] Yeah. What do you take that to say?
Erin: Yeah. So, “are you afraid to be the same in act as you are in your words? Are you afraid to carry out that thing that you desire to go around saying that you want this, but you don’t actually want to do it. You don’t want to go through with it. You don’t wanna put in the work [laughter] of murdering someone” (just kind of funny, I guess, considering our discussion about good ambition). And then she accused him of being like “the poor cat in the adage.” I guess the adage being the cat would eat fish but will not let her feet. But that’s the kind of the funny thing that we’re sort of talking about here, of this whole destroying the present or ignoring the present or pretending that it’s not happening, is that he kind of does get to eat fish without wetting his feet, in a way. But then he just gets indigestion from the fish or something. [laughter]
Erin: You know, this is what makes this play so interesting to me. And what makes Macbeth maybe so relatable, in a way, is that we all do this. Maybe this makes me crazy or something. But you want a piece of pie but you don’t really want to deal with the fact that you really shouldn’t have a piece of pie. So you sort of eat it without thinking, to try and trick yourself. [laughter] You’re not gonna, you know, like it’s not gonna matter, maybe, or I don’t know. I mean, there’s just… there’s something really compelling about this idea that there’s a kind of a mutability, or like an emptiness in the present moment, and that nothing is really happening except that its consequences do happen. So she’s trying to get him to… she’s trying to spur him to being present in the present moment and do the thing that he needs to do in order for these consequences to happen.
Wes: What I love is that she connects it to his love for her “from this time / such I account thy love”
Wes: Like “If you don’t do this then you don’t love me.” [laughter]
Erin: Right, right, right.
Wes: It’s that kind of relationship. [laughter]
Wes: You know, or even “you’re impotent” right, because she’s saying, you know, “the same in thine own act as the same as in desire”, as in, he can have the desire, but he can’t perform. It’s a real attack on his manhood.
Erin: It’s almost as though this impotence is kind of playing itself out in the play. Like the impotence at the heart of their relationship is playing itself out in the play. I mean, this must be why they don’t have any children, right? He can’t make good [laughter] on his own. He can’t act or or be in the present, even when it comes to, you know, having sex with his wife, maybe.
Wes: Well, he can do it in the field, right? He can split McDonald from nave to chops, but he just can’t do that to his wife. [laughter]Sorry.
Erin: Right. Yeah.
Wes: Can’t do it in bed. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] She knows… and she knows this. And this is a way that she has of controlling him by questioning this or… Yeah, So there’s some problem there. There’s some sexual problem that they have, in spite of the fact that he seems very turned on by her all the time.
Wes: Yeah, and I think one of the clues to that is that the evidence that we have is that he’s decisive and full of valor and fearlessness in the field. But when he sends a letter to his wife trying to wind her up so she can, in turn, wind him up about the prophecy, we see that she’s worried that he is too much of the milk of human kindness and that he can’t go highly unless he goes holily, [laughter] which I love.
Erin: That’s gonna be one of the hardest lines any actress has to say in all of Shakespeare.
Wes: [laughter] Yeah, right. Michelle Obama’s stalled, you know, “when they go low, we go holy.” I’m just kidding… (strike that from the record). And then you say, “Well, wait a minute. Why does she have that kind of doubt?” Obviously, he’s a… as a warrior he has no problem. So that’s why I suggested earlier on that there’s some sort of indecisiveness and self-doubt that must be manifesting itself domestically in his relationship with his wife and at home that you don’t see when he’s on the job, so to speak. He’s got those two things compartmentalized. And then what’s gonna happen? Is he…? Oddly enough, the prophecy is gonna introduce domestic doubt into the career. Because the career is going fine, he’s going about killing people, he’s getting a promotion, he’s unselfconscious, and then all of a sudden, that switches. And I read that as domestic problems actually infecting other parts of his life.
Erin: You know, highlighting, for me, the dagger speech in Act 2, Scene1, the fact that he compares his, you know, his advance upon Duncan to a rape.
Wes: Hmm… I might have missed that.
Erin: The idea of “Tarquin’s ravishing strides.”
Wes: Oh, right! Right!
Erin: Yeah, so that’s really interesting. This act, when he finally does act and finally does, in the present moment, kill Duncan, that he’s like Tarquin going to rape his friend’s wife. So he’s going to finally make his wife, I don’t know, sexually satisfied by murdering Duncan.
Wes: Right. Right.
Erin: The dagger is… maybe the speech is something we want to talk about.
Wes: Yes, yes. Let’s do it.
Erin: I’ve always taken this as an invention on his part to sort of, again, remove the stain of the present from him, or to kind of absolve himself from his guilt in the present moment by giving him a kind of a vision that erases the guilt of the present So he can blame his decision to commit this terrible act on something outside of himself to again kind of remove the present from him and make it seem like it’s all part of this divine plan or demonic plan as the case may be.
Erin: I don’t know if you agree with that. I mean, he questions the reality of the dagger, of course, in front of him, and he questions what’s causing this to appear.
Wes: Do you want to read that speech real quick?
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes.
Wes: So there’s actually four daggers involved in all of this. There’s the imaginary one, there’s the one that he draws, the real one at a side, that he’s drawing, and then there’s the two daggers that he actually commits the murders with…
Erin: Oh… Yeah!
Wes: …which are the guards daggers. I love the Polanski interpretation of this, which is so good in so many ways he walks in with his own dagger, and then he sees the guards sleeping and he has, like, does a double take and he’s like, “Wait a minute, I shouldn’t use my dagger” and puts it back in the sheath and then gets their daggers.
Erin: That’s That’s clever.
Wes: Yeah, yeah.
Erin: I don’t remember that.
Wes: Yeah. What I like about the scene is the reflection on the difference between fantasy or imagination or, in this case, hallucinate… you know, it’s a hallucinatory fantasy and reality. He calls it a “fatal vision” right, which is ambiguous. You could think of it as fatal in the sense that the dagger is going to be fatal. You can think of it as fatal in the sense that it’s fatal to him in the dual sense of it’s gonna lead to his death and that it’s just fate. And also in this, you know, the fate sense that it’s leading him towards where he’s going. Is this gonna be fatal to someone else, or is it gonna be fatal to him? It’s an interesting way of thinking about the ways in which our aggression can turn back on ourselves in fantasy. What’s fatal to others in reality can be fatal to us just because you supplement again, you know, if it’s not in fantasy, what follows it are real consequences, and the realm of fantasy is generally consequence-free. Or is it or isn’t it? You know, that’s another discussion. The other part of this is it’s the dagger that starts leading him, and he makes this observation that, you know… isn’t it interesting that this is the instrument of the murder but it’s also the thing that’s leading me to it? So the suggestion is that the means has become the end, or that maybe the means has always been the end, which is to say that it’s not really about becoming king, it’s about the murder itself. And there’s something about that act, which is ecstatic and transports him beyond the ignorant present, as Lady Macbeth puts it, or beyond the world’s typical causal frame, because that, I think, that’s the… you know, this more pathological form of ambition is seeking out that kind of transcendence and so means and ends are very confused and that they’re not realistically thought about. You know, in the same way that the act is supposed to be the be-all end-all, right, it’s supposed to be outside of a sequence of cause and effect. It’s the ends and the means are the same thing and the whole purpose of this is to get outside of, not just the ignorance of the present, right, and so to become God-like, to become omniscient, but also the contingency of the present once being subject to the vicissitudes of life, to chance to the possibility of failure.
Erin: Yeah. At the end of the speech, he even imagines (this is really interesting to me) he even imagines that the stones under his feet are going to gossip about him. They’re gonna blab and say what he’s doing. He’s worried that they’re going to “take the present horror from the time,” which is really interesting. I guess, you know, part of that is they’re going to break the silence, which is suited to the present moment because he needs to go in secrecy, even though everyone’s going to know what’s happening but also this idea that they’re going to… he’s trying to be in the moment, or produce an appropriate moment in which to actually commit this act, as if there’s like, you know, a proper way to murder someone and have the time reflect that appropriately. Even he hears Lady Macbeth ring the bell, indicating that she’s properly drugged and, I guess, have gotten the guards drunk. And so he hears the bell and that’s his cue and he says, rhetorically, to Duncan “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / that summons thee to heaven or to hell.” You know, now that this present moment has come, he is sort of gearing up for it, and he wants all of the factors of this moment to be the correct ones. And the irony, I guess, is that none of it really matters, I think.
Erin: You know, and the imaginary hurdles that he… “Hurdle”! That’s the word for the fence, right?
Wes: [laughter] Right. Yeah, right, of course.
Erin: Yeah. [laughter] So the hurdles that he imagines are all part of his own fantasy. And they’re not even real. The idea of the stones gossiping about him underneath his feet and all this other stuff, it’s all just an invention. So he invents something to lead him to the scene of the murder. And then he also is concerned about what might cause the present moment to be to be broken, the silence of the moment to be broken, Which is weird because, you know, one associates silence with holiness, right, holy silence.
Erin: And so he wants the present to be appropriate. He wants the time to be appropriate and therefore doesn’t want that holy silence of murder to be broken. Anyway, yeah, it’s just a strange, strange moment.
Wes: You’re making me think here about conscience because part of what he’s saying on that, “blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.” “It is the bloody business which informs / thus to mine eyes.” And then he has this, you know, “the one halfworld / Nature seems dead and wicked dreams abuse.” All of this is a weird expression of conscience, right, and guilt. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But, you know, the stones prating of his whereabouts and guilt and conscience, or what helps us avoid getting into these predicaments in the first place, and they inform the way in which we think through the consequences and the… which consequences we want to happen and which we don’t want to happen. And some of it is about the sorts of suffering that we would undergo if we actually did something. So we imagine that suffering, we imagine trying to live with ourselves after doing something like murdering someone. Or we imagine the disapproval of other people. We imagine you know, the pain of the people who love the one that we might have murdered. You can tell I thought a lot about murdering people, by the way. [laughter]
Erin: Mostly people named Wes, right?
Wes: Yeah, Exactly. Yeah.[laughter] I only hunt down people with my own name.
Erin: That would make such a great movie, starring Keanu Reeves. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] That’s right. I’ve gotta kill the seven other Keanus in the world.
Erin: [laughter] Including the kitten.
Wes: [laughter] That’s right. That’s right. So, yeah. So weirdly he’s being… Yeah, this is all a manifestation of his conscience nagging him. I mean, he’s having weird externalizations of his conscience, right? He’s feeling it in his environment, you know, even the vision of the dagger itself, which later on Lady Macbeth will chastise him for that as a form of guilt and hesitation. I think that’s what it amounts to. But instead of it being something that cuts to his core and actually affects his behavior weirdly, it just remains outside of himself. It’s almost like psychosomatization, you know, it’s conscience made into a symptom. So it’s that the stones are prating, like someone hearing voices, right, instead of hearing the voice of conscience.
Erin: Yeah, it’s the future in an instant. It’s, you know, he’s sort of already hearing the whisperings, the cries in the air that are going to happen after he’s committed the deed, even even before that deed. And then ultimately, I think the consequences of his behaviors that we’ve been talking about, and even for Lady Macbeth who seems to be completely conscience-less or or even calls upon demons, maybe, or the spirits that attend men’s thoughts or whatever she calls them to unsex her and to take away her womanly conscience, her pity and to fill her with direst cruelty. We even get, I guess, maybe a little indication prior to her finally succumbing to her own guilt, that she does have a conscience, because she was going to murder Duncan herself and she stops because he reminds her of her father so she can’t actually do it herself. So that’s maybe some indication that she has some soul, [laughter] some conscience that will then pave the way for her to gradually lose her mind over her own guilt.
Wes: Yeah, I think she’s already pretty psychotic in that scene, which I think in the Polanski’s played superbly because she… saying things like a little water will wash this deed away. At first, he’s the one right? He’s doing the hand washing thing and saying that he’s not gonna be able to wash the blood off his hands, it’s gonna make the whole sea red, and, you know, before we do that, she’s like, “No, everything’s, you know, it’s… a little water will wash this away and stop being such a coward.” She’s really, really detached from reality. And then what happens is after this goes down for the rest of the play, there’s a gradual inversion… It’s not… I’m not sure how gradual it is, but there’s an inversion of their roles where Macbeth becomes ruthless and fearless and Lady Macbeth is destroyed by conscience and goes crazy from it. And I see… didn’t you see the seeds of that in her in, you know, this part of the play where it’s a very… kind of… It’s like the whole idea of water: “a little water is gonna wash this away.” That’s it. That’s a very weak and temporary defense at burgeoning guilt over what’s happened. She’s in a manic kind of state that’s gonna fall apart.
Erin: This Act 2, Scene 2 is probably my favorite scene in the whole play. Just because we already see the communication breakdown happening between them too.
Wes: Yeah, yeah, I love that. I think I know what you’re talking about. Good.
Erin: First, they don’t even know where the other one is. And they kind of don’t… like what? What did you say? What? Huh?
Wes: Yes, It’s like a slapstick moment.
Wes: Why don’t we read that?
Erin: Really great.
Wes: Act 2, Scene 2, line 10.
Erin: Line… Yeah, line like, say, 14. So, “Had he not resembled my father as he slept I had done it” and the she says “My husband”
Wes: “I’ve done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?”
Erin: “I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did you not speak?
Wes: “As I descended?”
Wes: “Hark! Who lies in the second chamber?”
Wes: “This is a sorry sight.”
Erin: “A foolish thought to say a sorry sight.”
Wes: And then he goes on to the… Yeah, just this great speech… and Glamis.
Erin: They have this further complication where she’s worried about Malcolm and Donalbain being in the second chamber and… So she is continually talking about Malcolm and Donalbain.
Wes: Oh yes. Yes, yeah.
Erin: And he switches and starts talking about the guards, and then he keeps going on these long little flights of fancy here, which I, which I really like because he’s sort of like talking through his own guilt. And she’s kind of just telling him to shut up, don’t think about it, you know? [laughter] And he just kind of can’t help himself.
Wes: You know, he’s giving this very profound speech of “Sleep no more. Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep. Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care…” And she’s like… after that whole long speech, “What do you mean?” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Yeah, it’s so great!
Wes: Yeah, I had the same reaction to you. It’s almost like slapstick.
Erin: Yeah. and she doesn’t know really what he’s saying. And the irony of this, of course, is Macbeth’s fancy is that by murdering Duncan in his sleep, he’s murdered sleep itself. And he’s of course, not allowed himself to sleep now because he’s going to be afraid that someone’s going to murder him in his sleep, since he’s taught these buddy instructions. The irony is that even as Lady Macbeth is thinking that he’s this lily-livered, you know, cowardly little person, she later will not be able to sleep either, or she’ll be sleepwalking and won’t get any nourishment, any “balm for her hurt mind,” as she describes sleep, because she’s going around and walking around and at all hours while she’s supposed to be sleeping and not getting any rest, any true rest. That speaks to your sort of idea of the inversion of their roles here so they have that idea of sleep twisted on its head, and then the idea of the washing of the hands.
Wes: Exactly. You can almost see this as he’s playing the role of the witch to her. Or you could imagine this is his sort of guilty spirit passing into her because it’s somehow to me, this seems to be the turning point where she becomes the guilty one and and just the fact that he does the thing with the washing of the hands and then that will become her thing is suggestive of that. Underneath the slapstick and her confusion, it’s as if there’s some kind of psychological transplantation going on, and she’s inheriting his infirmity of purpose. And the other funny thing about the scene is that she hasn’t noticed the daggers all this time until they… you know… and she’s like, you know, “What? Why didn’t you…? Why did you bring the daggers?” So… and has to go to return them to the scene. It’s interesting to see how different productions handled that, by the way, whether they try and keep the daggers as hidden as possible. So it makes sense that she only notices them later or if they just have them in plain sight and she’s just so, you know, worked up that she just doesn’t notice them, even though they’re in plain sight. And then one might say, you know, well, there’s some sort of trauma in her going into the room to see what’s happened even though she’s pretended that nothing is wrong because you know she’s gone, he does the whole “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.”
Erin: I love that.
Wes. And then she gets back, “my hands are of your color; but I shame / to wear a heart so white.” And that… and then she gives the “A little water clears us of this deed” line. Something has also happened in the fact that when she’s gone back to the crime scene and she’s pretending that it’s no big deal, but of course we can read it as a very big deal and a turning point for her. But so we can read that, you know, in a way, as the trauma of the murder scene is affecting her, and also she’s getting infected somehow by Macbeth’s guilty spirit. And then he’s gonna lose it. He’s, as the play progresses, he’s just gonna become completely ruthless and fearless. He even says so himself. At some point, when she kills herself, he hears the cry and he says, “I can’t even remember what fear feels like. There’s a time when that would have made me very afraid to hear that.”
Erin: Right. Yeah, I like what she says, too, about how the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures, that fundamental unreality that she advocates for.
Wes: Yes. I love that.
Wes: That’s so great “the sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.” They’re pictures in the sense they’re not real, so how can they affect us, right? It’s as if the past doesn’t exist. They were once living things and now are dead, and that’s why we should be horrified. They’re just resemblances of something that doesn’t exist. It’s not real and so what’s the big deal?
Erin: Yeah, and that’s kind of a strange thing, too, because the idea that sleep is a prefigurement of death or that you’re sort of the picture of death when you’re sleeping rather than saying “you might as well just think that he’s sleeping” right. You might as well just imagine that he’s sleeping instead of dead because the two look somewhat similar. The scene is gory, albeit, instead of giving him something to work with and saying, you know, “just pretend that he’s asleep, she says, whether you’re sleeping or you’re dead, it’s just… it’s not real, none of it is real.” And so, she doesn’t give them anything that he can reference it with. She just says, “everything is an illusion, everything is fake.”
Wes: OK. Yeah. Good point.
Erin: “‘Tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.” So the idea is that everything is painted, that devils maybe aren’t real, demons aren’t real and that everything is false. And then later…
Wes: So, sorry. To just jump in there. The painted devil… so the blood is the paint. It’s the Boogieman. It’s interpreting this like a bloody corpse as being a Boogieman. And those things aren’t real.
Erin: Right. Yeah. And then later, when he sees the ghost of Banquo at the banquet and she again questions his manhood because he’s really kind of bringing down the dinner party by acting afraid of something that no one else can see, she says, “Are you a man?” And he says “Yes and a brave one” or something like that, “because I can look on that which might appall the devil.” He turns that on his head himself, and says not that he’s just looking at a painting of a devil, but that this image that he sees would appall the devil himself. And she says, “Oh, this is just… this is nonsense. This is like that dagger that you saw…” and I think she says something like “This is the very painting of your fear.”
Erin: Again, it’s just a painting. It’s something that you have created in your own mind. It’s not real. Don’t worry about it, don’t think about it. And yet it’s going to become very real to her when she imagines that she is painted with Duncan’s blood. That idea of paintings and art itself and acting, maybe are all kind of tied together there perhaps? I don’t know, this idea of the… I don’t know what implication we might take from that… that acting the plays that Shakespeare’s own life work is sort of dangerous because it makes you think that things aren’t real when they really are, or it makes you play at things that have real consequences.
Wes: Mmm. Thinking back to Duncan’s, “there’s no art to read the mind’s construction in the face,” there is, in a way, and as you pointed out, and you’d have to be a worse person to do that, but it is true throughout all of this, there’s is the idea that human beings can be actors, right, and that’s a large part of what’s going on, even the whole “fair and foul” thing. Fairs found fouls fair at the very beginning with the witches. And then when Macbeth says “so foul and fair day, I have not seen” which I take to be… He’s saying that the fair part is the victoriousness, and the foul part is that it’s really bloody and awful. I’m sure there are other interpretations of that. There’s a lot of contrast in the play between the exquisite formality and politeness that goes on between some of these lords and thanes and Duncan and of course, the thoughts that are going underneath that, even with Macbeth in the scene where he’s become Thane of Cawdor and then he’s gone to Duncan. And it’s in that scene where Malcolm is told that he’s gonna be next in line to be king, and he has an aside where he says, “You know, I’m gonna have to overleap that,” or “it’s a step that I might fall on,” something like that. So I think with “fair and foul” we can say something about the contrast between what’s inside people and what’s on the outside and the play acting they do. And then the larger possibility that life is nothing but that play acting and maybe that fairness itself is always a construction. And for that reason that one cannot make sense of life. It’s just one syllable after the other. It can’t be connected into a coherent sentence. It’s just “full of sound and fury”, because there’s nothing in human psyches that orders their behavior in such a way as to make the world make sense, right? The natural world could make sense. It’s, you know, there’s natural laws, and things behave in an orderly way. But the human world, that… one can never do that. And when one encounters fairness, it’s always a construction, it’s always foul, it’s always false and what lies beneath it is foulness. And Lady Macbeth is talking about things only being pictures can have an amoral relationship to the horrors of the world, if you conceive of everything as fictional anyway and as senseless.
Erin: What you’re saying about play acting is making me think back to Duncan’s failures to properly defend himself. Because even though everyone knows that Macbeth has committed all these acts, they don’t tell him that to his face. You know, everyone is being evasive because they’re trying to sort of defend themselves. Which makes me think about the very curious and totally bizarre Act 4, Scene 3, when Malcolm and Macduff… Malcolm sort of tests Macduff out by pretending to be something that he’s not, so that makes me think of a further implication of this idea of play acting and of creating a fiction but in a ultimately moral way, rather than the amoral way that that you’re talking about. I don’t know what that might mean. So Malcolm has this conversation with Macduff. Macduff is advocating that Malcolm come with him back to Scotland and that they rise up against Macbeth and that Malcolm takes his rightful seat on the throne. And Malcolm has a lot of reasons to be wary of this. He wonders if Macduff is really on Macbeth’s side, and that Macduff might be trying to take Malcolm back as a prize. He’s learned to be wary because of the fact that, you know, Duncan has now trusted someone who shouldn’t be trusted twice over and has paid for it, of course. And he’s also maybe a little bit suspicious of Macduff’s desire to act. We could tell that Macduff is kind of hotheaded, like Macbeth, and he wants to go and fight right away. And Malcolm says, “Wait a minute, let’s think about this.” And then he tells Macduff, he confesses to all of these fake sins that he says he has…
Wes: [laughter] Yes.
Erin: …and it is so bizarre. It’s taken me a long time to try and figure out why he does this, and maybe something that you’ve said, sort of, maybe made this make a little bit more sense to me. He says, you know, “if I were put in place of Macbeth, things would be even worse because I am such a piece of crap that you wouldn’t even believe how bad I am.” [laughter] And he says “Black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow compared to me.” He’s with, uh, I don’t know, lady killing? [laughter] He has what we would now probably call a sexual addiction [laughter] and just there are not enough women in Scotland to satisfy him.
Erin: He’s greedy, he’s all this… this terrible stuff. And he was… if he had the power, he would “pour the sweet milk of concord into hell, / uproar the universal peace, confound / all unity on earth.” So he is basically the devil himself. And what makes this seem so bizarre is that Macduff believes him and sort of mourns for Scotland, saying, “Oh, my gosh! You know, things are gonna go from bad to worse. I feel so bad for my poor country.” And Malcolm says, “Oh, just kidding. You’ve passed the test, basically,” like it was some sort of Willy Wonka handing over his chocolate factory [laughter] kind of situation. But then what makes it really funny is that Macduff seems to really not appreciate what’s just been told to him, and he seems to be still pretty suspicious of Malcolm…
Erin: …even as they leave to go into the battle. He’s like “I can’t believe…
Wes: [laughter] Yes.
Erin: …that you were just kidding. And this whole thing has really been stupid.” This is something like “such welcome and unwelcome things at once / ‘tis hard to reconcile.” So “foul and fair”, I can’t believe it.
Wes: Well, “foul and fair” do come up earlier, directly in Malcolm’s dialogue, by the way.
Erin: Oh, they do?
Wes: Yeah, so he says, so “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, / was once thought honest: you have loved him well. / he hath not touch’d you yet. I am young; / but something / you may deserve of him through me, and wisdom / to offer up a weak poor innocent lamb / to appease an angry god.” And Macduff says, “I am not treacherous.” Malcolm says, “But Macbeth is. / A good and virtuous nature may recoil / in an imperial charge. But I shall crave / your pardon; / that which you are my thoughts cannot transpose: / angels are bright still, though the brightest fell; / though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / yet grace must still look so.” This is part of what helped me connect “fair and foul” to the construction line. Because “that which you are my thoughts cannot transpose” is just another way of saying what Duncan says about “no art to read the mind’s construction in the face.” What I was trying to figure out here is where they are in this whole exchange, whether Malcolm has come clean, yet.
Erin: No. This is before he makes all these confessions.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah, that’s really good. That’s really interesting. And it speaks, too, I guess… the treachery of foulness is that foul things can look either like themselves, they can look foul or they can look fair, right? But fair things can only look fair. So that doubling of foulness is what makes it so treacherous. And yet here, immediately following this, Malcolm takes a fair thing and makes it look foul. He takes himself, you know, a fair just guy, presumably, and invents this foulness as a way to test Macduff, so…
Wes: So, as you were saying before, maybe this is what Duncan lacked. Maybe it’s not even necessarily about being a little worse of a person in a deeper sense, but it might be about being able to play the worse of a person.
Erin: Yeah, it also requires a certain acquaintance with foulness that if you’re so good, if you’re so fair, you don’t have.
Wes: And of course, we all have it. And it’s just a matter of being aware of it, right and not, you know, we all have these darker impulses. If we pretend to ourselves that we don’t have them, then we’re really in trouble.
Erin: That’s true. Maybe that maybe that actually does represent a moral failing on Duncan’s part. That he hasn’t reconciled with these foul things in his own nature and therefore is blind to them both in others and in himself, and that that is not so much goodness as just plain ignorance. It’s an interesting idea. Malcolm says later that his first false speaking… so he’s accused himself prior to this of being such an incredible liar that Macduff wouldn’t be able to handle it, [laughter] and then says, actually that he delights “no less in truth and life: my first false speaking / was this upon myself.” The first lie I ever told is this line that I told you. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Plus I’m a virgin,
Erin: Right. Plus, I’m a virgin. I’m saving myself for… [laughter]
Wes: I am not going to rape everyone. In fact, I’m a virgin. In fact, I’m an incel, so you have nothing to worry about. [laughter]
Erin: Oh, God! The worst. Yeah. So he says. He abjures “the taints and blames I laid upon myself / for strangers to my nature. And yet…” Yeah, again, there’s just this strange dichotomy here because, of course, your nature can’t be so strange to all of these bad things that you can’t convincingly pull them off. He had to know what to say in order to get Macduff to think that he was a bad guy. And that involves some acquaintance with sin and with, you know, the worst angels of our nature and that maybe Malcolm isn’t being totally honest with himself when he says that these sins are totally strange to his nature because, in fact, he has to have some acquaintanceship with them in order to pull this off.
Wes: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s like we need some fusion of “fair and foul”. I guess they can either become too disconnected with each other. They can be fully conflated with each other in the sense that “fair is foul and foul is fair.” And you need… you can’t just split them. This is a very segmental reading, by the way. But you can’t just split them apart and make them unrelated and only have one. But also, you can’t simply, uh, conflate and identify them. They sort of have to be fused in intention with each other. There’s something to be said there about a mature psychological cast of mind and how that is related to “fair and foul.”
Erin: This is reminding me of something in my own life that I heard about when I was in college, and perhaps I’m gonna get this wrong but I think it’s such an interesting story and so related to what we’re talking about that I’m going to tell it. This Professor at my college… I wasn’t here for this, and this is only hearsay so I could be getting this wrong -not that I’m going to name names- but still people might recognize this story. [laughter] People were asking how he was going to make sure that no one was going to cheat on his exam or something like that, and he basically said he wasn’t going to enforce any kind of anti-cheating surveillance, during the exam. He wasn’t gonna walk around and make sure people were cheating. And so he said, basically, if you want to cheat, feel free to cheat because I am not going to be suspicious my whole life, I would rather be made a fool of and have you cheat and take advantage of me then for me to be suspicious at all times and constantly suspect my students of something. So if you’re going to cheat, like, that’s on you and you are the one responsible for that and there’s nothing I could do about it, basically. That always fascinated me so much, just hearing that story.
Wes: This is actually very good, because I think this is a very big theme in philosophy and literature: how realistic we need to be about the world and the sense in which that’s self compromising so that if we, you know, if like a Prospero, for instance, we just wanna live a life of the mind and a life of complete virtue we can be taken advantage of. But if we live in suspicion and live in calculation, and somehow we’ve undermined our own virtuousness and our own psyche, so that question of the balance between… and I was also thinking here of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. It’s been so long since I’ve read any of it. I can’t remember whether it’s in there or if I was just thinking about this problem while reading it. But that’s the question.
Erin: I guess what interests me in that is the radical nature of that and the willingness to put oneself on the line so that one does not become tainted with suspicion. But that’s maybe not a compromise that most people are willing to make and that therefore we have to be suspicious of other people if we want to protect ourselves. And that may involve trucking in the foul in a way that maybe we’re not so comfortable with, all the time, or but that maybe isn’t even healthy for us, so that we can properly put up those defenses.
Wes: That way, we will not get murdered for our crown. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, There you go. This has been your how-to guide “We’re not getting assassinated.” [laughter]
Wes: “How to be the king.” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] I wonder if there’s a wikiHow for not getting assasinated.
Wes: Right, right.
Erin. If we should be contributors to that
Wes: Yeah. Now that the assassin nor the assassinated be. That’s our Pallonian advice.[laughter]
Erin: There you go. Don’t be an ass. Have a pleasant seat. [laughter]
Wes: You know what they say about assassination? Makes an ass of you, makes me dead. [laughter]
Wes: Alright. Okay. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.