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Household Words: Macbeth and the Failure of Spectacle

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6,103 words.)