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Time for Such a Word - Verbal Echoing in Macbeth

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'Time for Such a Word' Verbal Echoing in Macbeth

George Walton Williams, Duke University

It is a critical commonplace that Macbeth's opening line—'So foul and fair a day I have not seen' (1.3.36), whatever its particular referents may be1—is singularly important to Macbeth's character, echoing as it does the enigmatic and ominous chant of the Witches as they conclude their first appearance: 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' (1.1.10). That the play begins with the witches strikingly adumbrates their immanent presence throughout the play; that they are the first to mention the name of the hero confirms their importance. The play and the character both will live under the shadow and the menace of these opening lines—the shortest first scene in the canon. The scene includes this gnomic utterance that destroys 'the distinction [between] … foul and fair '; with it the Witches verbalize their position, standing for 'those who have said "Evil, be thou my good.'"2 Their contrasting adjectives occur often in proverbial contexts in English, but the paradox here suggested is unusual, though not unique, in the tradition.3 'Fair without but foul within', says the proverb; the Witches say that fairness and foulness are the same, a point that Shakespeare had expressed with extraordinary foreshadowing in Love's Labour's Lost: '"Fair" in "all hail" is foul, as I conceive' (5.2.340).4

By repeating the adjectives and reversing their sequence in the second half of the Witches' line, Shakespeare calls particular attention to these words, invests them with mystery, and fixes them in our minds so that when Macbeth speaks them just over one hundred lines later, his echo of the Witches' diction comes in with an eerie, secondary force (independently of the speaker's presumed intention). Macbeth intends, presumably, little more than a reference to a mixed sort of day—the uncertain tide of the battle, the dubious nature of the weather—but his use of the Witches' terms, linking the Witches and the speaker in vocabulary, intimates that there is a bond between them and him,5 more significant than mere repetition of diction. He is ready to receive them when they come to him. Macbeth did not hear the Witches, but he knows how they speak and so knows how they think; speaking their words, he speaks their thoughts.6

A comparable echoing of a word not heard occurs in Scene 5 of the first Act, as Lady Macbeth reads and re-acts to her husband's letter.7 That letter brings her the sense and the spirit of the encounter with the Witches and gives Lady Macbeth some seven words of their vocabulary five that she repeats, commenting to herself—'Cawdor', 'shalt be', 'promised', 'great[ness]', 'mortal'8—and two others that she addresses to Macbeth—'all-hail', 'ignorant' (1.5.14-56). Three of these words appear together at the end of Macbeth's letter: 'that thou … [mightst not be] ignorant of what greatness is promised thee' (11-13; emphasis mine).9 The three words spring from love; Macbeth uses them to her, '[his] dearest partner of greatness', as a demonstration of his affection for her. Lady Macbeth, reconceiving them, turns two of them back on him, thinking how 'great' he is and what has been 'promised' (17, 15, 21) to him. He wanted her to be not 'ignorant' of the future; she turns that third word also, using it with supreme contempt to describe the moment as 'This ignorant present' (line 56)—'The language forces the two to converge.'10

Powerful as these terms may be in their dialogue, one word she uses was, significantly, not in the letter: 'hereafter'; she greets Macbeth: 'Greater than both by the all hail hereafter!' (54). The Third Witch had said: 'All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!' (1.3.48); but the letter had said: they 'all-hailed me Thane of Cawdor' and 'Hail, King that shalt be!11 (1.5.6-9). Lady Macbeth's phrase is a fusion of these messages, using the 'all hail' that describes the present thaneship to confirm the 'hereafter' that describes the future kingship....

(The entire section is 4,538 words.)