Study Guide


by William Shakespeare

Macbeth Essay - Household Words: Macbeth and the Failure of Spectacle

Household Words: Macbeth and the Failure of Spectacle

Lisa Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

In her epic novel on the life of Macbeth, King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett suggests that one of the primary reasons for the eventual failure of her hero's kingship is his inability to be perceived as sufficiently charismatic: 'a diverse people in time of hardship need a priest-king. The English know that. Edward is anointed with holy oil: he has the power of healing, they say'.1 Although Dunnett's Macbeth-figure—an Orkney jarl also known as Thorfinn—is very differently conceived from Shakespeare's, each shares an unfortunate tendency towards the mundane. Most particularly, Shakespeare's hero and his wife both, at certain crucial moments of their lives, strongly favour a low-key, occasionally almost bathetic vocabulary.2 This aspect of their characterization has been much mocked in the English comic and popular tradition: Bertie Wooster is continually amused by the concept of the cat i' th' adage, and Edmund Crispin's irascible literary detective Gervase Fen, Oxford professor, gives the play very short shrift:

'Do!' exclaimed Fen. 'If it were done when 'tis
done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.'

'What is that supposed to mean?'

'It isn't supposed to mean anything. It's a quotation from our great English dramatist, Shakespeare. I sometimes wonder if Hemings and Condell went off the rails a bit there. It's a vile absurd jingle.'3

The point was, perhaps, made most strongly, and most elegantly, by Dr Johnson, fulminating on the 'lowness' of the diction in the 'Come, thick night . . .' speech (though he mistakenly attributes this to Macbeth). He castigates the use of 'an epithet now seldom heard but in the stable . . . dun night may come or go without any other notice than contempt';4 he rhetorically enquires, 'who, without some relaxation of his gravity, can hear of the avengers of guilt peeping through a blanket? '; and he asserts:

sentiment is weakened by the name of an instrument used by butchers and cooks in the meanest employments; we do not immediately conceive that any crime of importance is to be committed with a knife; or who does not, at least, from the long habit of connecting a knife with sordid offices, feel aversion rather than terror?

Coleridge concurred so strongly with Johnson's strictures on the inappropriateness of 'blanket' that he suggested that the reading should actually have been 'blank height'—5 though the quality of his engagement with the play's language in general is perhaps indicated by his remark that, '[e]xcepting the disgusting passage of the Porter, which I dare pledge myself to demonstrate an interpolation of the actors, I do not remember in Macbeth a single pun or play on words' (pp. 69-70).

Other responses have been less damning and more interested in teasing out the implications of the imagery. Bradley, characteristically, saw it as evidence of characterization, and (correctly attributing the speeches) believed mundanity of diction to be differentially, and deliberately, employed in the play: he suggested that Lady Macbeth 'uses familiar and prosaic illustrations' as an indication of '[t]he literalism of her mind'.6 More recently, Paul Jorgensen has observed that the use of the banal is not in fact confined to Lady Macbeth, but is still disposed to regard patterns of speech as symptomatic and revelatory of states of mind, commenting of the 'If it were done . . .' speech that Macbeth 'is still, as in his talk with Lady Macbeth, relying upon shrinking words like it (four uses) and do (three uses)';7 and Coppélia Kahn performs a similar manoeuvre when she offers a sustained and ingenious reading of Macbeth's apparently simple use of the word 'cow'.8 Even Coleridge was prepared to concede that some at least of the play's language might be suggestively, rather than disturbingly, 'low', commenting on 'the appropriateness of the simile "as breath" in a cold climate',9 and speculating that 'enkindle you unto the crown' might still further underline the play's concern with childlessness by encoding the suggestions not only of 'kind' and 'kin' but of the 'kindling', or engendering, of rabbits (p. 61).

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, are the observations of Walter Whiter on the supposedly prosaic character of the imagery. Responding silently but unmistakably to Johnson, Whiter observes:

The word 'knife ' (says Mr Malone) has been objected to, as being connected with the most sordid offices; and therefore unsuitable to the great occasion on which it is employed. But, however mean it may sound to our ears, it was formerly a word of sufficient dignity, and is constantly used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as synonimous [sic] to dagger . . . Blanket (Mr Malone observes) was certainly the Poet's word, and 'perhaps was suggested to him by the coarse woolen curtain of his own Theatre, through which probably, while the house was yet but half lighted, he had himself often peep'd.'10

The idea that Shakespeare could have 'peep'd' through a curtain at a half-lighted Globe which he would have called a house clearly owes a very great deal more to eighteenth-century awareness of its own theatrical practices than to any historical awareness of what Elizabethan ones had been; but nevertheless I think Whiter, and Malone before him, have grasped something really central to the play here. Whiter goes on to develop his insights further, declaring that 'Nothing is more certain, than that all the images in this celebrated passage are borrowed from the Stage' (pp. 63-4) and commenting that '[t]he peculiar and appropriate dress of TRAGEDY personified is a PALL with a KNIFE' (p. 64).

In Whiter's reading, the ostensible 'lowness' of the diction is, with breathtaking ingenuity, completely recuperated in a register which allows the passage to be perceived as a sustained piece of metatheatricality. Other critics have not been slow to see similar links, ranging from Bradley's remark that Macbeth 'is generally said to be a very bad actor'11 to Malcolm Evans' comment that 'numerous theatrical references emerge on the "bloody stage" (II.iv.930) of Scotland in the course of the play, culminating in Macbeth's speech on "signifying nothing'".12 And Christopher Pye combines elements of both these lines of critical approach, that focusing on the mundanity of the play and that focusing on its theatricality, in virtually the same breath: citing 'a foolish thought to say a sorry sight', he comments on 'the spectacular banality of Macbeth's response',13 but he also calls the play 'the most spectacular of Shakespeare's tragedies. Like Lady Macbeth and like the inquisitive king [James I] who watches her, Macbeth is notable for the disquieting visibility of its mysteries' (p. 145). What I want to argue, however, is that the two elements are, precisely, forced apart by the play's structure so that what we see in Macbeth is not in fact, in Pye's suggestive phrasing, 'spectacular banality', but a banality which achieves spectacularity only in metaspectacular terms—a concept which I am, I hope, going to be able to clarify.

Dr Johnson's objection to terms like 'knife' and 'blanket' was, in effect, that they were household words, representing a 'low' diction associated with 'sordid offices'. Walter Whiter counters that all these banalseeming terms have in fact another meaning in another register, in which they are associated not with the home but with the theatre, and that they are thus actually instances of elevated—and technical—terminology by their association with the classical concept of tragedy; the value-system which Whiter is implicitly working with here is clearly signalled by the typography, which italicizes Stage and uses upper case for TRAGEDY, PALL, and KNIFE. However, these theatrical meanings are accessible only on the metatheatrical or extradiegetic level: they are there to be perceived by the audience of the play, but not by its characters. We may conceive of the characters in Macbeth primarily as actors on a stage, but they, with the notable exception of Macbeth himself towards the end of his career, are presented as representations blind to their own status as representations. When Lady Macbeth speaks of knives and blankets, she, at least, can have no access to any ulterior meaning which casts them as the accoutrements of tragedy: to her, as to Dr Johnson, they are only knives and blankets, though to us, as to Walter Whiter, they may be the appropriate props of the role she plays. Moreover, Lady Macbeth is alone: if she herself does not register the metaphorical force of her words, there is no one else present to do so. This is, in fact, a consistent and striking feature of Macbeth as a whole. It may well be, as Christopher Pye terms it, 'the most spectacular of Shakespeare's tragedies', but the elements which are most obviously 'spectacular', the episodes centring on the outlandish appearance and supernatural doings of the Weird Sisters, are (even when they are of undoubtedly Shakespearian origin) consistently staged very much for the benefit of the audience alone, and are never perceived by the majority of the characters. After their initial appearance to Macbeth and Banquo jointly, the Weird Sisters are seen only by Macbeth, and so too is the ghost of Banquo, and Lady Macbeth, for all her apostrophizings and invocations of the supernatural, never has any personal contact with it. Most other characters are even less aware than she of the presence of the diabolical and the paranormal in the play: when Malcolm gives the order for the cutting of the branches, he is adhering to a military requirement for camouflage rather than consciously fulfilling a prophecy, and it is doubtful that Macbeth's half-hints about his 'charmed-life' can convey to Macduff any sense of the extent and nature of his dealings with the Weird Sisters (indeed Macduff can refer to them, collectively, merely as an 'angel' [5.7.44]). In short, Macbeth's subjects are consistently denied any sight of the spectacles of horror that have made the play so theatrically celebrated.

This discrepancy between the experiences of Macbeth's on-stage subjects and his off-stage audience serves to reveal the ways in which Shakespeare's Macbeth shares with Dorothy Dunnett's a vulnerability to the accusation that his kingship is insufficiently charismatic and theatrical. In fact, he and Lady Macbeth are, for all their egregious brutality, in some sense the most domestic of couples, making literal and consistent use of household words. In the theatre, it may be customary to present their relationship as an explosively erotic one,14 but Nicholas Brooke well observes that 'no play of Shakespeare's makes so little allusion to sex'.15 The element of familiarity and domesticity is strongly highlighted from the very outset of the play. The Weird Sisters may have beards, live on a heath and vanish into thin air, but their conversation is notably marked by features serving to associate it with the normal concerns of women in the home:16 they use popular terminology like 'hurlyburly',17 and they discuss household animals like Greymalkin and Paddock which are, literally, familiar(s). They even talk about the weather. As with their later parodic rituals of food preparation, the alienness of the Weird Sisters is closely inscribed here within degrees of difference and inversion of the normal.

The motif of food preparation, in however distorted a form, is first signalled in the speech of the sergeant who describes the battle, when he relates how Macbeth, fighting Macdonwald, 'unseamed him from the nave to th' chops' (1.2.22). This is the first hint of the Macbeth whom Malcolm will eventually label 'this dead butcher' (5.7.99), and the epithet of butcher is applicable to him both metaphorically and literally, though the elaborate imagery and rhetorical patterning of the sergeant may tend to submerge, for the moment at least, the possibility of a literal reading. His set-piece speech, which deliberately delays the knowledge of success until he has carefully cultivated fears of uncertainty, sits well in Duncan's camp, for Duncan, as we soon learn, is marked precisely by those shows and ceremonies of kingship which will be so notably absent from the court of Macbeth. In marked contrast to the unheralded, unglossed entrance of the Weird Sisters, the sergeant is formally presented to Duncan by Malcolm, who performs a similar function when he announces the arrival of Ross to his father (1.2.45)—surely a ceremonial rather than a factual communication, unless hyper-naturalism desired a short-sighted Duncan here. Duncan, moreover, ends the scene by conferring an honour: Macbeth is to become Thane of Cawdor. The bestowal of favours and titles is a marked feature of Duncan's kingly style, and something which, we see in the closing speech, his son will also practise (could there be here an unusually favourable imaging of James I' s notorious open-handedness with knighthoods and other titles?); Shakespeare had already shown in Richard III how crucial a tool this could be in retaining support. Macbeth, notably, never does this. There are no nobles of his creation, no henchmen (with the arguable exception of the Murderers) dependent entirely on his continued favour; from the time of the disrupted banquet, he converses only with those conspicuously beneath him, like the doctor, the 'loon', and Young Seyward. Here, as in other areas, there are no outward manifestations of his kingship.

Macbeth can, however, think in terms of the spectacular and the ceremonial. We see this in his first soliloquy:

(aside) Two truths are told
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme—I thank you gentlemen—
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good.


The most marked feature of his language here, however, is the dramatic register shift between his public and private discourses in the early part of the play, before horrid banquetings force disastrously together the arenas of the public and the domestic. To himself, this early Macbeth speaks stirringly, with elaborate metaphors of theatre and performance; but for public consumption, he confines himself to the plain 'I thank you gentlemen', and later apologizes, 'Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten' (1.3.150-1). A similar dualism of approach characterizes Lady Macbeth. Alone, she talks of symbolically hoarse ravens; to her servants, she speaks, like a good housewife, of preparation for the king's visit. But perhaps the most marked contrast of this type comes in Macbeth's next soliloquy:

Go bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready,
She strike upon the bell. Get thee to bed. Exit Servant.
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?


The movement from bedtime drinks to imaginary (or supernatural) daggers within the space of two lines tellingly encapsulates the contrast between Macbeth's public and private faces. In public, he is the model of bourgeois marital comfort; but in private, he—and the audience—see strange things. At the same time, though, even Macbeth's inner life displays clear elements of continuity with his outer one, for the dagger of the mind does not only represent the antithesis of the comfort and normality offered by the drink; it also comes from the same world of household objects and food, as is suggested by the lack of any noticeable register shift in the diction, with 'drink' and 'bell' giving place almost seamlessly to 'dagger' and 'hand'. The connection becomes strikingly apparent when Lady Macbeth prefigures the Weird Sisters' parodies of cooking in her preparations for the murder: she makes drinks not only for her husband but for the guards, but she has 'drugged their possets' (2.2.6); and she has 'laid their daggers ready' (2.2.12) not for a meal, but for murder. Her housewifery continues as she soothes her husband's night fears, bids him wear his nightgown (2.2.69), and, above all, adjures him to wash his hands (2.2.45-6)—the domestic ritual that will still be with her in her madness. Her infamous cry of 'What, in our house?' (2.3.89) does not simply strike the bathetic note of her husband's 'Twas a rough night' (2.3.62); it sits perfectly with her public image as 'most kind hostess' (2.1.16). We never see Lady Macbeth out of her own house, and her mental collapse narrows even further the world we perceive her to inhabit, as we are shown her bedchamber. Bradley's comment that '[s]trange and almost ludicrous as the statement may sound, she is, up to her light, a perfect wife'18 could well have been extended to the argument that she is also, up to her light, a perfect house-wife. The Macbeths are, after all, so apparently innocuous that those about them are notably slow to realize the full horror of their behaviour.

Perhaps the most striking example of this emphasis on the discrepancy between the public and private lives of Macbeth, and the simultaneous, paradoxical, imbrication of both in the domestic, comes at the opening of 1.7. The scene is prefaced by an unusually detailed stage direction:

Hautboys. Torches.
Enter a sewer and divers servants with dishes
and service crossing over the stage.
Then enter Macbeth


This is so elaborate that Brooke elevates it to the status of formal 'dumb-show' (see note), a phenomenon without precedent in Shakespearian tragedy except in the deliberately archaic play-within-the-play in Hamlet, and although Brooke points out that the episode 'stresses the evening-time and the obligations of lavish hospitality' it does nothing to advance the narrative. What it does do, however, is make for a particularly startling contrast. Shakespeare brings on stage the whole panoply of the elaborately regulated ritual of the courtly serving of food; he then follows this with the very sequence of repetitive monosyllables which aroused the scorn of Gervase Fen, and which Nicholas Brooke concurs in terming 'notably plain vocabulary'.19 Superficially, this inverts the contrast between private eloquence and public reticence which characterized Macbeth's earlier soliloquy; but in fact he goes on to launch himself upon one of the most sustained and dense speeches in the play, in the course of which he figures the possibility of murder, and its potential consequences, precisely in terms of food:

This even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.


When Lady Macbeth enters, demanding 'He has almost supped: why have you left the chamber?' (1.7.29) we realize that Macbeth has, indeed, been once again neglecting his public image, causing a feast to be disrupted by his failure to attend to it fully, just as he will on the occasion of the appearance of Banquo's ghost. His wife indeed characterizes his dereliction in terms of improper banqueting when she uses the language of drunkenness and surfeit to describe it:

Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?


Typically, the one attempt at public show that the Macbeths do make revolves round cooking: they hold a ceremonial feast. Just as the murder of Duncan violated codes of hospitality, though, so too do their dinner invitations, since they demand compulsory attendance, a fact twice underlined—'Fail not our feast' says Macbeth to Banquo (3.1.27), and Lennox lists a precisely similar crime as one of the reasons for Macduff's downfall:

But peace—for from broad words, and 'cause he failed
His presence at the tyrant's feast, I hear
Macduff lives in disgrace.


Nicholas Brooke points out that in Holinshed, 'the quarrel with Macduff involves a complicated story about the building of Forres castle which Shakespeare reduced to refusal of an invitation (command) to dinner';20 the modification may well have been made not only in the interests of dramatic economy but because of its thematic congruence. The clear suggestion that the Macbeths are a couple at whose dinners attendance must be enforced is a powerful and compact device. It neatly measures the length of the journey they have travelled since, in the first act, Duncan deliberately solicited them as host and 'most kind hostess'. Equally, it reinforces the images both of their customary domesticity and of its rapid disintegration, making theirs a nightmare which, even at its most outlandish, retains that most distinctive quality of what Freudian theory on the uncanny has termed the unheimlich by relying for its full horror on the distortion of the traditional comforts of home. It is little wonder that the Lord who converses with Lennox should figure the rule of Macbeth precisely in terms of the subversion of the domestic:

with Him above
To ratify the work—we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives.


Macbeth has not only murdered sleep, he has also perverted the proper consumption of food.

As well as Macduff s decision to boycott it (which in itself ironically recalls Macbeth's earlier failure to attend his own feast, for suggestively similar political reasons), the grand banquet is also devastatingly upstaged by its near-homonym Banquo, the name that we might always have guessed would lurk within the word in this instance, who is, suggestively, imaged by Macbeth almost in terms of a distasteful food item: 'Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold' (3.4.95). The disastrous feast is a common enough feature of Renaissance drama, but it is particularly appropriate in the Macbeths' case, especially since the next time we see Macbeth it is at an eerily similar occasion, the brewing of the Weird Sisters' hell stew, with its foul concoction of ingredients, for 'a devil's-banqueting'.21As with so much in the play, however, the cause of the occasion's failure is never apparent to the onlookers. Macbeth's language, especially in the early part of the scene, is infuriatingly riddled with deictic phrases intelligible only to the off-stage audience, not to the onstage one:

Which of you have done this?


Thou canst not say I did it—never shake
Thy gory locks at me.


Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the Devil.


Prithee, see there—behold, look, lo


Thou hast no speculation in those eyes


Take any shape but that


This', 'it', 'that', 'behold', 'look', 'lo', 'those eyes', and 'any shape but that' can all make sense only in the presence of the referent, but that referent is literally invisible to all others on stage (and it is of course also open to the director similarly to tantalize and titillate the off-stage audience by staging the scene without an actual ghost). Moreover, 'behold', 'look' and 'lo', which Macbeth piles one on top of the other like a demented thesaurus, undo themselves even as they are spoken by their status as near-variants of one another. Their iteration serves only to underline the inadequacy of each on its own: as speech continually glosses itself, with a lack of difference that powerfully reinforces différance, we are offered a radical awareness of the slippage between signifier and signified which, even as the deictic is spoken, undermines its ability to show. (Here again, as with the banqueting, we are afforded an ironic prolepsis of the 'show' shortly to be offered by the Weird Sisters).

The whole scene is typical of the experience of Macbeth's subjects: under his rule, they get no visual value for their money. Macbeth himself is a conspicuous example of his regime's radical failure to validate itself through the performance of spectacles of power: even when he becomes aware of his own role-playing, he denigrates acting, characteristically, with his image of the 'poor player' (5.5.24), and when we hear that his title is ill-fitting 'like a giant's role / Upon a dwarfish thief (5.2.21-2) the image may well suggest a simple failure to acheive proper costuming for his part. While the spectacle of Banquo's ghost may be one of horror, it is, surely, more frustrating to be so comprehensively denied not only the experience of seeing it, but of hearing any coherent description of it. Certainly the public, performative nature of state punishment at the time would indicate that such sights would be enjoyed, and it is a pleasure that is definitively envisaged as part of Malcolm's regime:

Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o'th' time.
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit
'Here may you see the tyrant'.


Just as Duncan had made a public show of the execution of Cawdor, with the full Foucauldian apparatus of proper acknowledgement of guilt by the criminal, so the reign of his son will be inaugurated with spectacle: Macbeth's head is publicly produced (5.7.84-5), and the play's last line is an invitation 'to see us crowned at Scone' (5.7.105).

The latter actions of Macbeth's own reign have been in marked contrast to this. As he is seen talking not to his generals or lords, but only to his doctor and his armourer, the paradoxical homeliness of the 'butcher' in him becomes ever more apparent. Dismissing the English as 'epicures' (5.3.8), he notably identifies himself with simpler produce. He rails at the servant 'The Devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon: / Where got'st thou that goose-look?' (5.3.11-12). 'Cream-faced' functions in obvious opposition to 'black', but a simple 'white' would have done so even more strongly; indeed in this sense 'cream', by failing to act as a clear contrast, undoes itself as constituent part of a trope and stakes a claim for a more literal meaning. Particularly in conjunction with 'goose', 'cream' must surely suggest, however momentarily, the simple farmfood from which Macbeth's own actions have so radically alienated him. The images are appropriate, for he is thinking of his 'land' here (5.3.50), and he again sites it in terms of an economy of ingestion when he asks the Doctor 'What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug / Would scour these English hence?' (5.3.54-5). It is such images of evacuation and failure to nourish which lead directly to his peculiarly apposite threat to the messenger who informs him that Birnam wood is moving:

If thou speak'st false,
Upon the next tree shall thou hang alive
Till famine cling thee; if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.


Macbeth counters his enemies' moving wood, with its obvious connotations of renewed fertility and Maying rites, with branches of his own, twice figured as bearing parodic fruit—first the messenger and then himself—which denies life and nourishment rather than celebrating it.

Macbeth's images of a cream-faced, goose-like messenger who hangs like fruit provides the climax to a strain of cannibalistic suggestion throughout the play. Triply interpellating the messenger as foodstuff, he also recapitulates in 'cream' a recurrent play on figures centring on milk and cows. The first example of this comes in Lady Macbeth's invocation, 'Come to my woman's breasts / And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring ministers' (1.5.46-7). This clearly follows from the request to 'unsex me here' (1.5.40), but it may do rather more than simply develop the earlier idea: Janet Adelman suggests that 'perhaps Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits to take her milk as gall, to nurse from her breasts and find in her milk their sustaining poison'.22 If so, she specifically identifies herself as a food-source, a thing to be eaten. This is soon followed by the most striking and most notorious instance of the image, in Lady Macbeth's infamous lines:

I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.


Clearly this picture of menstrous motherhood encodes a terrifying ferocity, accentuated by the rapidity of the change from the emotional range of 'tender' to that of 'dashed'. Equally, though, the aggression it registers is directed not only against the putative 'babe', but also, masochistically, against Lady Macbeth herself. The action of plucking the nipple from the gum would be (as anyone who has breastfed knows) deeply unpleasant; it is more usual to insert one's little finger to prise the infant's gums apart so that the nipple can be released gently and (relatively) painlessly. Perhaps more suggestive, though, is the tacit auto-interpellation of Lady Macbeth here as a thing milked—in essence, a cow. This not only returns to the earlier motif; it is also closely echoed, as Coppélia Kahn has shown, by Macbeth's lament that 'it hath cowed my better part of man' (5.7.48).23 In his final dehumanization, Macbeth is unmanned, feminized, and radically identified with his wife, all in one fell swoop; moreover, all this is achieved, neatly, in another of his monosyllabic, literally household words.

This 'cowing' of both Macbeths works in conjunction with other images of cannibalism in the text. Duncan's horses eat each other (2.4.18); prey and predator change places when a falcon is devoured by a 'mousing owl' (2.4.12-13). Like the Weird Sisters' hideous banquet in which parts of babies are eaten, like Macbeth figuring the messenger and his enemies as cream-faced and goose-like, all of these invert conventional categories of eater and eaten, deconstructing boundaries as crucial to civilization as Lévi-Strauss's raw and cooked. In many of them, the thrust, whether covert or overt, is towards imaging humans themselves as, or in terms of, food, as it is also with the 'chops' of Macdonald and with Banquo's 'marrowless' bones;24 such an undercurrent may even be discernible in Malcolm's assertion that in comparison with himself, the state will esteem Macbeth as a 'lamb' (4.3.54), and it certainly inheres in Macduff s figuring of Macbeth as a 'hellkite' (4.3.218) and his wife and children as 'chickens and their dam' (4.3.219). All of these offer powerful images of a humanity diminished to either prey or predator, and all of them, again, do so in terms of household words. There is the lamb which could, in other circumstances, be redolent of the pastoral, the chickens which might, but do not, evoke the farmyard, the mousing owl, the geese and the cream which might also belong there,25 and the chops and bones which could suggest the kitchen. This is, indeed, a plain diction, but its very plainness is what enables it to strike so directly to the deepest fears, and to allow Macbeth to root horror in the heart and in the home.

What all these instances of plainness do, however, is work to remove the play from the arena of state affairs and situate the concerns of its main characters, at least, insistently within the realm of the domestic. As such, they doubly indicate the reasons for Macbeth's ultimate failure. The expedience of the use of ceremony in the creation of the royal image, and the seriousness of Macbeth's failure to do so, can perhaps best be appreciated by reinserting the play into the circumstances of its production. Jonathan Goldberg suggests that 'the text of Macbeth that we have derives from a court performance'.26 He also argues that the dramaturgy of the play is profoundly affected by the traditions of court theatre: 'we can come closer to the source of Macbeth if we look at the Jonsonian masque that stands somewhere behind the masquelike movement that the play ultimately takes' (p. 254). He suggests, as others have done, that the obvious comparator is Jonson's The Masque of Queens, termed by its author 'a spectacle of strangeness',27 which features an antimasque of twelve witches who boast that they have 'Kill'd an infant, to have his fat' (p. 78). Goldberg terms Jonson's play a 'spectacle of state';28 Pye uses the same phrase when he argues that 'Macbeth's "rapture" aligns the play with spectacles of state.'29 But within Macbeth, it is not only that the Weird Sisters perform a purely private cabaret; there are no spectacles of state at all. Though the play itself may function as one for its offstage audience, the experience of the court to which the play is represented will be radically different from the experience of the court which is represented within it. Goldberg suggests of James and Macbeth that 'one king slides into the other' (p. 251), but however true this may be of the rulers, the very act of staging the play performatively undoes any likeness between the self-presentational strategies of the two regimes.

There may indeed, though, be one pertinent point of similarity between the inhabitants of the stage-play world and those of the court which views it. Though we are carefully reminded that James is descended from Macbeth's enemy, Banquo, and has no blood-link with his tyrannical predecessor, the play may perhaps be seen as encoding subtle comment on James's own attitude towards the use of spectacle. Alan Sinfield notes the particular relevance of touching for the King's Evil to the world of the play: 'James himself knew that this was a superstitious practice, and he refused to undertake it until his advisers persuaded him that it would strengthen his claim to the throne in the public eye.'30 It might also be worth noting that the title of Jonson's Masque of Queens overtly declares its affiliation with Queen Anne of Denmark—well known for her passion for the theatre—rather than with the King himself.31 Were James a sufficiently attentive viewer, he might perhaps draw conclusions from Macbeth about the proper use of theatrical display which might lead him to find his own behaviour wanting—except that to do so would probably demand from him a cognitive shift as radical as that which might enable the characters in the play to become aware of their own imbrication in theatricality. If the play can indeed be read as offering such a commentary on the appropriate use of the spectacular, it would then be harking back directly to the didacticism of the morality play, a genre with which the porter scene has already connected it; and in addition to this artistic self-reflexivity, it would also be remarking on the domestic politics of the royal household itself, and pointing up the extent to which, though the language of the home may be plain in diction, it may be complex indeed in terms of resonance and register.


1 Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter [1982] (London, 1992), p. 672.

2 On the relationship between the two characters' diction, see William Shakespeare, Macbeth, edited by Nicholas Brooke (Oxford, 1990), introduction, pp. 14-19.

3 Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders [1946] (Harmondsworth, 1958), p. 136.

4 From The Rambler, no. 168, 26 October 1751.

5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2 vols. (London, 1960), vol. 1, p. 65.

6 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [1904], (London, 1974), pp. 312 and 311.

7 Paul Jorgensen, 'Macbeth's Soliloquy', from Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in 'Macbeth' [Berkeley, 1971], reprinted in Roy Battenhouse, ed., Shakespeare's Christian Dimension (Bloomington, 1994), pp. 481-5; p. 483.

8 Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, 1981), p. 191.

9 Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, p. 61.

10 Walter Whiter, 'Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare' [1794], reprinted in John Wain, ed., Macbeth: A Casebook, pp. 63-76; p. 63.

11 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 298.

12 Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing, second edition (London, 1989), p. 133.

13 Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London, 1990), p. 150.

14 This could, I think, be illustrated from many productions, but a recent and striking example was Philip Franks' November, 1994 production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Lady Macbeth's backless purple dress was so eye-catching that the actress was featured wearing it, in character, in the Sheffield Star's 'wardrobe' section (usually including only real people), sharing her 'seduction tips'.

15Macbeth, ed. Brooke, introduction, p. 19.

16 On the element of domesticity in the representation of the Weird Sisters, see also Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy (London, 1995), p. 224.

17 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Brooke, I.1.3. All further quotations will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

18 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 316.

19Macbeth, ed. Brooke, introduction, p. 7.


21 G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme (Oxford, 1931), p. 138.

22 Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers (London, 1992), p. 135.

23 Kahn, Man's Estate, p. 191.

24OED cites the first use of 'chop' as a cut of meat as occurring in 1461, in the Paston Letters.

25 This element would have been even more pronounced when the Cat appeared in the Middleton-authored revisions, which Brooke prints.

26 Jonathan Goldberg, 'Speculations: Macbeth and Source', in Shakespeare Reproduced, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (London, 1987), 242-64; p. 251.

27 Ben Jonson, The Masque of Queens, in Jacobean and Caroline Masques, Vol. 1, edited by Richard Dutton (Nottingham, 1981), p. 71.

28 Goldberg, 'Speculation', p. 260.

29 Pye, The Regal Phantasm, p. 156.

30 Alan Sinfield, 'Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals', in Critical Quarterly, 28 I:2 (Spring, Summer, 1986), 63-77, reprinted in New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, edited by Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton (Harlow, 1992), 167-80; p. 172.

31 Suggestively, Sophonisba, another play with which Macbeth is occasionally compared, also focuses on a queen. (Kenneth Muir comments on the comparison in his introduction to the Arden edition [London, 1951], introduction, p. xxii.)

Source: "Household Words: Macbeth and the Failure of Spectacle," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 50, 1997, pp. 101-10.