Time for Such a Word - Verbal Echoing in Macbeth

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4538

'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:...

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'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. Forcing the instant to control the future. It is her way. Lady Macbeth's phrase, 'all-hail hereafter', adopting the 'time word' that will 'ring powerfully later',12 is a brief abstract of the Witch's salutation, a collapsing or foreshortening of time, 'a shorthand reprise of the Sisters' greeting'.13 W. A. Wright observed that 'Lady Macbeth speaks as if she had heard the words as spoken by the witch'; and John Upton, the noted textual scholar of the eighteenth century, finding the presence of the word in Lady Macbeth's speech so jarring with its absence in Macbeth's letter, supposed that the text of the letter was defective, should have had 'hereafter' in it, 'for this word she uses emphatically when she greets Macbeth … being the [word] of the Witch'.14

It is the word of the Witch, first used in the play by the Third Witch (1.3.48), that tantalizes Macbeth with the hope that will lead to his destruction. It appears again, properly used, we may say, by the rightful monarch to suggest his rightful control of the future: 'Malcolm, whom we name hereafter / The Prince of Cumberland' (1.4.38-9). Having heard the word from the Witch in Scene 3, interpreting it as a temptation, Macbeth hears it again (140 lines later) from his King in Scene 4 in a context to which he says he will give his full allegiance (1.4.22-7)—but which he immediately rejects (48-53): 'The Prince of Cumberland—that is a step / On which I must fall down or else o'erleap' (48-9).15

The vacillation in Macbeth's response to the word is terminated by Lady Macbeth's use of it in Scene 5, a scant 73 lines further on (1.5.54). This trio of uses—three times in three consecutive scenes within 217 lines—offers a set of references to the future that will have impressed Macbeth's mind in three different ways, the last way, Lady Macbeth's way, being the final and dominant one. To ensure the 'promised' hereafter, Lady Macbeth will 'feel now / The future in the instant' (1.5.56-7). The relationship that the two Macbeths have to time, one uncertain and one assertive, is perfectly and concisely represented in the collocation between them just after Duncan's murder:

Macbeth When? Lady Macbeth      Now.                                           (2.2.16)

In order to remove the question and to make the future in the instant, now, Lady Macbeth proposes to 'beguile the time' (1.5.62); Macbeth accepts that way of life, echoing her idea (though not her term) in his 'mock the time' (1.7.81). This echo speaks the crucial change in Macbeth's attitude to time; he has forgotten his normative attitude towards the movement of time with which he properly concluded his response to the Witches' prophecies: 'Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day' (1.3.145-6).16 Thanks to the encouragement and threats of his wife, however, he now is 'settled, and bend[s] up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat' (1.7.79-80).17 No longer will he allow that 'chance may crown me / Without my stir' (1.3.142-3). He begins to stir.

The word of the Witch resonates powerfully in these three early scenes of the play. Its presence in Lady Macbeth's speech18 invites the question: how came she by that word? Since no editor has seen fit to accept Upton's textual explanation by adding the 'omitted' word to Macbeth's letter, we may seek an explanation within the existing text. We may argue that just as Macbeth has adopted the phrase of the Witch that he never heard, so Lady Macbeth here adopts the word of the Witch that she never read.

'Come, you spirits', she says (1.5.39). Can there be any doubt but that they will come? What spirit could resist so charming an invitation to such an interesting programme of activity and entertainment? The play is a play of hospitality perverted, its great central scene (3.4) the banquet in which Macbeth particularly wishes to establish order (line 1) and to promote health (line 38) (in both which efforts he fails, being no true King—lines 109, 118, 119). To this banquet he specifically invites Banquo (3.1.15, 29). Can there be any doubt but that he will accept? As Banquo, coming from his realm of the supernatural, accepts Macbeth's invitation, so, we may argue, the Witches, coming from theirs, accept Lady Macbeth's. One of the proofs of their presence is the fact that Lady Macbeth in both action and word seems to have become unsexed, seems to have become mannish. Confirmation of their presence in her body is the presence of their word 'hereafter' in her vocabulary.

The word of the Witch becomes Lady Macbeth's word; its fourth and final use in the play is spoken by Macbeth at her death: 'She should have died hereafter' (5.5.16). It is Macbeth's epitaph for his wife; it is all that he has to give her. In the hereafter that they thought they would have, there would have been time for a longer epitaph than this, but 'now' there is no time. Those who mocked the time have no time. They sought the future in the instant; they secured it. As might, therefore, have been expected, when the normal calendrical future comes, there is nothing mere. 'Naught's had, all's spent' (3.2.6), says she; and he discovers that their life has been one 'Signifying nothing' (5.5.27). Lady Macbeth's use of the word 'hereafter' deranged the regular sequence of time; his use restores it. But it is too late. Discovering the futility of the theory of time that he has espoused, Macbeth returns, after the brief epitaph for his wife, to thoughts of himself and to his original understanding of the sequence of time—'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day' (5.5.18-19)—though it is an understanding tempered now with sad experience that proved the Witches right, that what seemed fair was foul and that what offered 'fairest show' has proven to be most foul.

That lesson, we may say, Banquo understands from the beginning, having heard his partner link fairness and foulness in his opening speech. At the salutations of the Witches, Macbeth, as Banquo tells us, 'start[s] and seem[s] to fear / Things that do sound so fair' (1.3.49-50).19 Banquo is the first to use the word fear in the play, introducing here a series of more instances of this word than are to be found in any other of Shakespeare's plays: Macbeth is the most fear-filled play of the canon. Macbeth's response, then, is correct: in this play things that sound fair are to be feared, and perhaps Banquo's cautious self apprehends the fact that things that sound fair are to be feared because they are, in the proof, foul. 'The fear-fair sound-pun mirrors fair-foul; something dark shadows this golden promise.'20 Banquo links the two near homonyms fair and fear in consecutive lines and repeats one of them eight lines later (line 58).21 Though the two words may not sound with a phonic identity to some natural ears, they resound with a suggestive echo in the ear of memory, even as the mind disambiguates their significations.

It is no doubt too much to claim that Banquo, echoing one of the two key words of the Witches, has shown a susceptibility to the Witches of a lesser degree but not of a different kind from that of Macbeth; but it is certainly true that, immediately after he has used one of 'their' words, 'fair'/'fear', the Witches speak to him as they spoke to Macbeth after Macbeth had used their vocabulary. The dauntless temper of Banquo's mind, however, protects him. When the Witches vanish mysteriously, he associates them with the basest element, their natural element, the earth; he is disposed to think ill of them. Macbeth, on the other hand, disposed to think well of them, supposes they have returned upward to their natural element, the air (1.3.79-80), a pleasing hope that he repeats in the letter to his wife. Banquo is rightly seen in this first en-counter as setting the standard of integrity and probity from which Macbeth is later to fall off, but it should be noted in Macbeth's defence that his final response to the blandishments of the Witches is, like Banquo's, that he shall not be tempted. We learn later that Macbeth and his Lady have previously (several times?) considered taking action to secure the crown for Macbeth (1.7.47-52); each time the idea has arisen, however, Macbeth has rejected it. The latest and last rejection is before us: 'We will proceed no further in this business' (1.7.31). His record is beyond reproach—indeed his integrity, we may say, is stronger than Banquo's: it has been tested and found firm. Banquo's probity has not before now been tested.

Such testing is soon to come. Banquo is suddenly made aware of his unique and privileged position. Before the meeting of the thanes held after the death of Duncan, Banquo speaks his mind:

                 let us meet And question this most bloody piece of work, To know it further. Fears and scruples shake us. In the great hand of God I stand, and thence Against the undivulged pretence I fight Of treasonous malice.                                    (2.3.126-31)22

Banquo's shift from the plural mat includes all the thanes to the singular—himself only—marks his recognition that he is a privileged witness: he has information that no one else has about the death of Duncan. Here he vows before God to fight against the treason and malice so far undivulged. He makes this statement suspecting, we must sup-pose, that the pretence is on the part of his friend: he must suspect Macbeth. We know that Banquo has dreams of the Witches: 'I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters' (2.1.19), and that in his nightmares or his sleepless state he has 'cursèd thoughts' (2.1.8). What those may have been he does not say, but they were so seriously threatening as to drive Banquo to pray to the 'Merciful powers' mat those thoughts be restrained—natural though they were—or that he be restrained in thinking them (2.1.7-8).

What then, in this condition, is he to make of Macbeth's proposal 'cleave to [his] consent, when 'tis' (2.1.24)?23 When 'tis' occured a few hours later, at the meeting of the thanes in the hall after the death of Duncan. At that moment, standing in the hand of God, Banquo had his test. He failed. He said nothing. He had vowed that he would fight against pretence and malice; instead, when his test came, he held his peace and, in so doing, clove to Macbeth's consent. He said nothing; it is not unreasonable to suppose that had he disclosed the knowledge he had in his privileged position, the election would not have fallen on Macbeth (2.4.29-32).

He might have kept silent from timidity, or from an unwillingness to speculate, or from a reluctance to stand in the way of his good friend's advancement; he might have kept silent because he was greedy for the 'honour'—the greatness promised to him by Macbeth (2.1.25). It is more likely, however, that he kept silent because he realized that until Macbeth was king and the Witches' royal prophecy had been fulfilled, his own children would be unlikely to reign in their turn (3.1.5-10). He wishes the prophecies to be 'truth' (line 6), though he knows that 'The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles to betray's / In deepest consequence' (1.3.122-4). As Macbeth needed the 'truth' of the advancement to Cawdor to make him especially vulnerable to the gaining of the kingship, so Banquo needed the 'truth' of Macbeth's advancement to the kingship to make him especially vulnerable to the temptation of the advancement of his children.24 Macbeth's third 'truth' was the happy prologue to set up Banquo's swelling 'hope' of the imperial theme for his children (1.3.126-8; 3.1.10). Banquo knows in his heart that Macbeth has done the thing which he ought not to have done; he is not fully aware that at the meeting of the thanes he himself has left undone the thing he ought to have done. There is no health in either of them. Banquo's silence is the tie that knits him indissolubly to Macbeth (3.1.16-18); his 'advice', as Macbeth terms it, has been 'both grave and prosperous' (3.1.21-2). Prosperous for Macbeth, grave for Banquo.

The deterioration in Banquo's character is represented by the deterioration in Banquo's diction. It has been intimated that he has used—three times, in fact—one of the words of the Witch or its homonym: he now uses the other; and he uses the two words in conjunction, just as Macbeth had done before:

Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all As the weird women promised;25 and I fear Thou played'st most foully for't.26                                                     (3.1.1-3)

The fair promise was to be feared because it was foul.27 Banquo, like Macbeth, has echoed the crucial words of the Witches.

Shakespeare sharpens the significance of this passage by one of the instances of ironicjuxtaposition for which this compact play is famous.28 At the end of the preceding scene, the Old Man, the embodiment of wisdom, addressing himself first to Ross, prays in the concluding couplet:

God's benison go with you, and with those That would make good of bad, and friends of    foes.                                      (2.4.41-2)

'Enter Banquo '—the only character who had indeed the knowledge that might have made good of bad and friends of foes.29 He chose not to use it; he remained silent. The first words he speaks after that failure to speak are the words of the Witches. Banquo speaks these words to characterize Macbeth and Macbeth's guilt, not himself and his own. That is not surprising: we need no bubbles come from the earth to tell us that humans in their frailty see in others those sins which they are unable to see in themselves.

Long ago Bradley recognized the deterioration of Banquo's character;30 Granville-Barker, Richard J. Jaarsma, and Marvin Rosenberg have argued in support of Bradley's view, still not generally accepted. Banquo's language suggests that Bradley was right. Like Macbeth, like Lady Macbeth, Banquo has chosen to speak the language of the Witches. Lady Macbeth deliberately and with manly re-solve placed herself under the control of the Witches; Macbeth rejected that control firmly (1.7.31) as he unmanly and weakly submitted to the control of his wife; Banquo negligently allowed himself to be seduced by them. These three central characters, in ways peculiar to their personalities and defining of those personalities, labour to work out their own damnations.


1 See Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley, 1978), pp. 35-6, for some of the suggestiveness.

2 Bernard Groom, ed. Macbeth (New Clarendon edn, 1939), p. 117.

3 Nicholas Brooke, ed. Macbeth (Oxford edn, 1990). See Tilley, Dictionary, F29 (and Dent F29); the pair occurs in The Faerie Queen, 4.8.32, and in Much Ado, 4.1.101.

4 Rosenberg, p. 114. In addition to the uses of these two adjectives, cited here in conjunction, each occurs twice in the play used singly. Fair occurs in the King's description of Lady Macbeth as 'Fair and noble hostess' (1.6.24) and in the Messenger's description of Lady Macduff as 'Fair dame' (4.2.66). We might argue that only one of these ladies is truly fair. The King's observation is inadequate; he himself acknowledges that he cannot find the mind's construction in the face. (The King's sons, how-ever, have the ability that their father lacked: Malcolm's extended testing of Macduff (4.3.1-126) demonstrates his corrective to his father's inadequacy, and even Donalbain recognizes that a smile may conceal a dagger (2.3.139).) Foul occurs in what might almost be a gloss on these two disparate references to fair: 'Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, / Yet grace must still look so' (4.3.24-5, Malcolm's perceptive observation). And the Scots Doctor observes that 'Foul whisp'rings are abroad. Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles' (5.1.68-9), the only issue of the Macbeths' generating.

5 Cp. Roy Walker, The Time is Free (London, 1949), p. 11.

6 Cp. G. K. Hunter, ed. Macbeth (New Penguin edn, 1967), p. 37.

7 For interesting observations of another kind on Lady Macbeth's reception of the letter see Mark Taylor, 'Letters and Readers in Macbeth, King Lear, and Twelfth Night', Philological Quarterly, 69 (1990), 31-53. The letter functions in the play 'chiefly as a way of revealing something about the motives and proclivities of the [person who reads it]' (p. 31). 'What Macbeth puts into his letter is not, for the most part, what Lady Macbeth reads out of it' (p. 35).

8 Macbeth's phrase in the letter, 'more … than mortal knowledge'—he seems to have investigated their credentials—becomes Lady Macbeth's 'mortal thoughts'. And the spirits—the 'weird sisters'—'tend on' those thoughts of mortality. Her destructive 'tend on' of line 40 mocks her considerate 'Give him tending' in line 36.

9 These written words of Macbeth's consitute the only reference in the play to Lady Macbeth's becoming a queen; the Lady herself never mentions any desire on her own part for queenship. The absence of any such expression is the more remarkable since in Holinshed she is 'verie ambitious' in her personal lust for a crown (Chronicles of Scotland, p. 171).

10 Rosenberg, p. 115. These two instances of the word 'ignorant', both spoken by Lady Macbeth, are the only two in the play.

11 As customarily in Shakespeare, the quoting of an earlier speech is inexact, but the intent is sufficiently clear to Lady Macbeth.

12 Ibid., p. 234.

13 Ibid.

14 Wright, ed. Macbeth (Clarendon edn, 1869), p. 94; Upton, Critical Observations on Shakespeare (1748), p. 204.

15 Macbeth echoes himself in the use of the word 'o'erleap' in his later soliloquy (1.7.27), in both instances perverting a normal process of ascent—climbing a set of stairs, mounting a horse—by an action inappropriate or inept that causes him to 'fall' (1.4.51; 7.28). I owe to a former student the insight that Macbeth here, depresonalizing, transmutes a human into a thing.

16 And, we may be confident, the roughest night—2.3.60.

17 As 'bend up' signifies Macbeth's commitment in the first part of the play, leading on to the crisis of 3.4, so 'I am bent to know' (3.4.133) signifies his commitment in the second part of the play, leading on to the catastrophe of 5.10.

18 The Variorum edition (p. 60) quotes Mrs Jameson's excited response to hearing this word on the stage (vol. 11, p. 324): 'those who have heard Mrs Siddons pronounce the word hereafter, cannot forget the look, the tone, which seemed to give her auditors a glimpse of that awful future, which she, in her prophetic fury, beholds upon the instant'. Another powerful lady, Mrs Dorothy Dunnett, has used the word to conjure up a grandly imaginative account of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in King Hereafter (1982).

19 Richard J. Jaarsma, in 'The Tragedy of Banquo', Literature and Psychology, 17 (1967), 87-94, suggests that Banquo at 2.1.6-9 'for the first time … recognizes, as Macbeth did not, the Witches' evil intent' (p. 91); the recognition may have come sooner.

20 Rosenberg, p. 116.

21Helge Kokeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1953), identified these two words as homonyms—they 'were often pronounced alike' (p. 106); but Fausto Cercignano, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (Oxford, 1981) finds that in this passage 'word-play is based on antithesis not identity' (p. 235). Nevertheless, he gives examples of passages in which fair and fear, though never rhyming to one another, rhyme to the same words: fair: air: ear: appear: there: bear: fear (pp. 80, 167, 238). Though the two words are, and could be sounded as, phonologically distinct, it is clear that they were not always sounded so. Various speakers used variant soundings in varying contexts. Professor Ronald Butters, to whom I am obliged in this matter, notes that 'there has been much interaction/interchange between the -ear and -air vowels in the history of English, and [the distinction] was very much in flux in Shakespeare's day' (Correspondence, 31 March 1993). The trio of homonymie words in this passage (1.3.49-58) is exactly balanced in Venus and Adonis, 1083-6. In both works, Shakespeare is playing with the echo; if the words are inexact homonyms to the ear, their sounds are sufficiently close to provide an echo to the mind.

22 Though Banquo begins this speech with the straightfor-ward statement that the thanes should dress in proper and decent attire before they reassemble (line 125), when Macbeth echoes the metaphor in line 132, the same image suggests a covering over of hypocrisy and deceit (Jaarsma, p. 92).

23 Walker notices that Macbeth's insinuating 'cleave' echoes Banquo's harmless use in 1.3.144.

24 Noted also by Jaarsma (p. 93).

25 'Promised' is itself a word interesting in its associations. It is used four times in the play, thrice by the Macbeths and here finally by Banquo. Macbeth uses it first to describe the predictions of the Witches (1.3.118) because he wishes to persuade himself that the fore-tellings pertaining to himself are in fact binding commitments promised. In his letter, as we have seen, he transfers the word (1.5.12) to his wife, who uses it with a positiveness and a determination keener than those of her husband: 'and [thou] shalt be / What thou art promised' (1.5.14-15). When Banquo uses the word here in its final appearance, he does so with the same assurance that marked the Macbeths' uses; though he speaks of the predictions as 'hope' (1.3.54; 3.1.10), here his 'promised' that defines Macbeth's future suggests that he regards his children's future as promised also. He has appropriated the word of the Macbeths and their attitude to it. Too late, however, Macbeth discovers that though the Witches 'keep the word of promise to our ear / [They] break it to our hope' (5.10.21-2).

26Fear-foully will surely recall the pun that Banquo made when he first used fear and fair in 1.3.49-50, as they recall also Macbeth's fair and foul. Furthermore, Banquo's supposition that Macbeth '[played] most foully' echoes Lady Macbeth's assumption that he '[would] not play false' (1.5.20). But, at her urging, Macbeth does play false, assuming a 'false face' to hide 'what the false heart doth know' (1.7.82) (that false face does not deceive Malcolm (2.3.135-6); see also ). Later, Macbeth falsely '[plays] the humble host' (3.4.4), though a murderer.

27 Though, as has been noted, fair and foul are often linked in the proverbial and literary traditions, fear and foul are not; but fair, fear, are foul are linked in a work that Shakespeare knew intimately, Tamberlaine: 'Ah fair Zenocrate, divine Zenocrate, / Fair is too foul an epithet for thee, / That in thy passion for thy country's love, / And fear to see thy kingly father's harm … ' etc. (Part 1, 5.1.135-8).

28 Each of the three major characters has an entrance that ironically comments on the line of the preceding speaker: Macbeth's occurs at 1.4.14, after Duncan's lines 13-14; Lady Macbeth's is at 1.7.28, after Macbeth's line 25; Banquo's is here.

29 Walker proposes that 'the first phrase is for Ross and the rest spoken after the retreating … Macduff (p. 82), and Rosenberg concurs. I would suggest that Macduff 'retreats' after his last line (39), marking his solo exit from the stage with a rhymed couplet. Ross then addresses the Old Man, whose reply, also a rhymed couplet, includes a blessing specifically on Ross, who leaves now (41) (not in company with Macduff who earlier headed off to Fife), and another on 'those' unspecified persons who would make good of bad. The first such person, ironically, is Banquo, who arrives now. Prior critics have been misled by the traditional 'act break'—in reality no more than a scene break, as we now know.

30 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), pp. 384-5.

Source: "'Time for Such a Word': Verbal Echoing in Macbeth," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 47, 1994, pp. 153-59.


Macbeth (Vol. 90)


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