Jan 8, 2012

Macbeth Again, Further Thoughts




Here again is Macbeth’s soliloquy, one of Shakespeare’s most famous:

            To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
            Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
            To the last syllable of recorded time;
            And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
            The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
            Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
            And then is heard no more. It is a tale
            Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
            Signifying nothing.
                                                (5.5.19-28)

Macbeth knows his ill-gotten tenure on the Scottish throne won't last much longer, and now his wife’s gone mad and killed herself. Because Macbeth’s life seems a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, he projects that everyone’s life is like that. Shakespeare know, whether or not his character does, that we all have felt that way at times. 

But Macbeth’s life is a tale told not so much by an idiot as by an ambitious, hen-pecked, anxiety-ridden, speechifying criminal whose ambition leads him to kill a king who trusted, loved, and respected him. Oh yes, and his good friend Banquo (too bad the kid got away).  Oh yes, and the wife and child of Macduff. Yes, we’ve all had days or months like Macbeth’s, haven’t we. And instead of aspirin or Xanax, here we go off to slaughter a few humans, the closer to us they thought they were, the better. There’s no blood like familiar blood, especially the children’s.

I’ve never understood why Shakespeare considered Macbeth a tragedy, which by definition details the fall of a great character. What’s great about Macbeth beyond his skill as a warrior and a few elegant speeches? 

One of these days I'm going to read some psychoanalytic criticism on Macbeth. So much about him is pure psychopath. But in spite of his murders, he seems at times to have a conscience, seems beset by guilt, unlike his cold wife.
 
Then again, even she goes through some ritual hand washing toward the end ("a little water clears us of this deed").  As for her madness and suicide, does she hate herself for her deeds? Does she feel genuine guilt, or even shame, or does she just see her ill-gotten gains coming to an end?  Better to off herself than let the riff raff do her in?  

I’ve also wondered whether the Tomorrow and Tomorrow speech is Macbeth’s point of recognition, his awareness of himself, his flaw and his mistakes, his wisdom achieved through his suffering? Or is it this one, two scenes earlier?--in which the term “mouth-honor” gives me chills, though not on behalf of Macbeth, who doesn’t deserve even the hollow echo of mouth-honor.


            I have lived long enough. My way of life
            Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.
            And that which should accompany old age,
            As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
            I must not look to have, but in their stead
            Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
            Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.
                                                                                    (5.3.26-32)

How many people do you know who would settle for mouth-honor, or who wouldn't know the difference between that and more meaningful honors bestowed by peers or superiors, from their hearts and minds? 

Do Little Leaguers who get a trophy just for showing up know, at some level, that that's insulting, patronizing mouth-honor?

Methinks we got some honor-inflation goin' on the last two or three decades.
                                                                                   
*

14 comments:

Brenda's Arizona said...

If not a tragedy, what kind?
I'm depressed now...
and so far behind on your posts!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Not again! I just can't do the Shakespeare circuit. Especially when I'm under a difficult deadline. When things slow down.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I assume it could be a history play, like his Richard II and Henry IV and V plays. I don't know, however, how much historical accuracy Shake. thought that required or how much of it Macbeth has as a play.

PA, "No Worries," as the young and cool say these days. But when you have some time . . . never mind the inclination . . . if you don't have an inclination, go down to the Dollar Store and get one . . .

Can you find in each speech at least one word or phrase, image or metaphor or turn of a phrase, that makes you say, "Damn, I admit, that was kinda nifty"? I think you can. And you may choose "darn" if "damn" is too street-ready . . .

And by the way "nifty" is what all the young and cool are saying now. Also, they're wearing green rubber boots with a small brown feather on the outside top of the left boot. It's quite the rage. Don't be caught without it, esp. in SoCal.

Kitty said...

I like that these feelings or reactions transcend time - projecting how you see the world onto everyone else, for instance. There's something to it. They are decidedly human feelings, denoting a conscience. I guess they are a product of society?

My previous comment about whether the tale signifies anything outside itself, however, is informed by history, specifically linguistics. I'm sure Shakespeare's use of the word 'signifying' is limited to his era. It amazes me though that the word existed back then!

Thank you, Banjo, for mulling over this soliloquy further. Your posts bring me back to sitting at a little desk in high school with my ragged paperback and scribbly notes. We bravely thought big thoughts back then. How sweet it is, to revisit!

Brenda's Arizona said...

The nifty word I like is 'creeps', when he is describing the shift in time. Like a high pressure creeps across the country... each day gets quietly drier, quietly less dramatic. Time creeps. As opposed to being creepy.
Gosh darn, I was hoping the latest fad would be something in hats again.

Banjo52 said...

Kitty, I'm vaguely aware of only a couple of linguistics--signifier? referent(ial)? But I'm not sure why you're surprised that Shakie used it.

Unless things have changed since my Psych 101 days, back in 1883, conscience or superego was indeed created by society, was not inborn. Even the ego doesn't come along till age two or so--right?--and isn't complete till age six or so when the Oedipal/Electra biz has been, one hopes, resolved--or at least, er, put to bed.

But Kitty, this is just great: "sitting at a little desk in high school with my ragged paperback and scribbly notes. We bravely thought big thoughts back then."

Brenda, I like your choice, especially these days when a favorite teen word is "creepy." You make set that aside and re-think "creep" as a verb, and it is indeed effective, kinda special.

On with fashion, esp. hats and boots.

somewords said...

One of my college profs said the tragedy wasn't a flaw, but instead, a hiccup of the "I". How do I know what I think I know? And the heroes get off their duffs, but the lost time has done its damage.

Banjo52 said...

Somewords, "How do I know what I think I know?" is one of the nastiest, most important issues in human experience. I see it for Lear, Hamlet, Gatsby, and others, maybe Eisenhower and Billy Pilgrim, but not Macbeth. You kill your closest friend because you might know what you think you know? And the wife and child of a noble character (Macduff)? That's one helluva hiccup.

I wonder if "a hiccup of the I" is one of those expressions that sounds great but creates more shadow than light . . . . Whaddya think?

altadenahiker said...

A sociopath, from birth, is only among us to take advantage, and other than succeeding in this, likely has few pleasures on earth. The sociopath never has a moment of what we consider truth, never sees two paths, never makes a choice. And this is why he or she is inhuman -- a different species.

Macbeth saw two paths and made a choice; he was human. That was his tragedy.

Ysabelle said...

I'm not familiar about Macbeth, but I know that the people move on what happened in their past :D


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Lets Enjoy Philippines | Enjoy Philippines

Pasadena Adjacent said...

CliffsNotes please


I'm not sure if I believe in the notion of a born sociopath or, for that matter "ultimate truth" but I think the hiker's explanation of a sociopath's existence is fascinating.

somewords said...

So in Macbeth's case, his humanity lapsed to a bizarre ambition (or Lady M's ambition), right? And stepped in blood so far, he lost his chance to return. I see him look back. Not sure if a psychopath would.

Banjo52 said...

AH and Somewords, thanks for these thoughts about psychopaths. They're new ideas for me, but they make sense.

Ysabelle, welcome. Hope to see you here again.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I got this from Mr Earl (and I like it)

"When I was green in judgment, cold in blood..."
Shakespeare. Anthony and Cleopatra. Act One

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