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adopt the second, unless we consent to burden Shakespeare with a careless mistake in a very critical passage.
And, apart from unwillingness to do this, we can find a good deal to say in favour of the idea of a plan formed at a past time. It would explain Macbeth's start of fear at the prophecy of the kingdom. It would explain why Lady Macbeth, on receiving his letter, immediately resolves on action; and why, on their meeting, each knows that murder is in the mind of the other. And it is in harmony with her remarks on his probable shrinking from the act, to which, ex hypothesi, she had already thought it necessary to make him pledge himself by an oath.
Yet I find it very difficult to believe in this interpretation. It is not merely that the interest of Macbeth's struggle with himself and with his wife would be seriously diminished if we felt he had been through all this before. I think this would be so; but there are two more important objections. In the first place the violent agitation described in the words,
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
would surely not be natural, even in Macbeth, if the idea of murder were already quite familiar to him through conversation with his wife, and if he had already done more than 'yield' to it. It is not as if the Witches had told him that Duncan was coming to his house. In that case the perception that the moment had come to execute a merely general design might well appal him. But all that he hears is that he will one day be King—a statement which, supposing this general design, would not point to any immediate action. And, in the second place, it is hard to believe that, if Shakespeare really had imagined the murder planned and sworn to before the action of the play, he would have written the first six scenes in such a manner that practically all readers imagine quite another state of affairs, and
To this it might be answered that the effect of the prediction was to make him feel, 'Then I shall succeed if I carry out the plan of murder,' and so make him yield to the idea over again. To which I can only reply,, anticipating the next argument, 'How is it that Shakespeare wrote the speech in such a way that practically everybody supposes the idea of murder to be occurring to Macbeth for the first time?'
continue to imagine it even after they have read in scene vii. the passage which is troubling us. Is it likely, to put it otherwise, that his idea was one which nobody seems to have divined till late in the nineteenth century? And for what possible reason could he refrain from making this idea clear to his audience, as he might so easily have done in the third scene?1 It seems very much more likely that he himself imagined the matter as nearly all his readers do.
But, in that case, what are we to say of this passage? I will answer first by explaining the way in which I understood it before I was aware that it had caused so much difficulty. 1 supposed that an interview had taken place after scene v., a scene which shows Macbeth shrinking, and in which his last words were 'we will speak further.' In this interview, I supposed, his wife had so wrought upon him that he had at last yielded and pledged himself by oath to do the murder, As for her statement that he had 'broken the enterprise' to her, I took it to refer to his letter to her, a letter written when time and place did not adhere, for he did not yet know that Duncan was coming to visit him. In the letter he does not, of course, openly 'break the enterprise' to her, and it is not likely that he would do such a thing in a letter; but if they had had ambitious conversations, in which each felt that some half-formed guilty idea was floating in the mind of the other, she might naturally take the words of the letter as indicating much more than they said; and then in her passionate contempt at his hesitation, and her passionate eagerness to overcome it, she might easily accuse him, doubtless with exaggeration, and probably with conscious exaggeration, of having actually proposed the murder. And Macbeth, knowing that when he wrote the letter he really had been thinking of murder, and indifferent to anything except the question whether murder should be done, would easily let her statement pass unchallenged.
This interpretation still seems to me not unnatural. The alternative (unless we adopt the idea of an agreement prior to the action of the play) is to suppose that Lady Macbeth refers
1 It might be answered here again that the actor, instructed by Shakespeare, could act the start of fear so as to convey quite clearly the idea of definite guilt. And this is true; but we ought to do our best to interpret the text before we have recourse to this kind of suggestion.
throughout the passage to some interview subsequent to her husband's return, and that, in making her do so, Shakespeare simply forgot her speeches on welcoming Macbeth home, and also forgot that at any such interview 'time' and 'place' did 'adhere.' It is easy to understand such forgetfulness in a spectator and even in a reader; but it is less easy to imagine it in a poet whose conception of the two characters throughout these scenes was evidently so burningly vivid.
DID LADY MACBETH REALLY FAINT?
In the scene of confusion where the murder of Duncan is discovered, Macbeth and Lennox return from the royal chamber; Lennox describes the grooms who, as it seemed, had done the deed:
Their hands and faces were all badged with blood;
They stared, and were distracted; no man's life
Macb. O, yet I do repent me of my fury
That I did kill them.
Wherefore did you so?
Macb. Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
The expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan,
At this point Lady Macbeth exclaims, 'Help me hence, hol'
except Duncan's sons exeunt. (The stage-direction Lady Macbeth is carried out,' after Banquo's exclamation 'Look to the lady,' is not in the Ff. and was introduced by Rowe. If the Ff. are right, she can hardly have fainted away. But the point has no importance here.)
Does Lady Macbeth really turn faint, or does she pretend? The latter seems to have been the general view, and Whately pointed out that Macbeth's indifference betrays his consciousness that the faint was not real. But to this it may be answered that, if he believed it to be real, he would equally show indifference, in order to display his horror at the murder. And Miss Helen Faucit and others have held that there was no pretence.
In favour of the pretence it may be said (1) that Lady Macbeth, who herself took back the daggers, saw the old King in his blood, and smeared the grooms, was not the woman to faint at a mere description; (2) that she saw her husband over-acting his part, and saw the faces of the lords, and wished to end the scene, which she succeeded in doing.
But to the last argument it may be replied that she would not willingly have run the risk of leaving her husband to act his part alone. And for other reasons (indicated above, p. 373 f.) I decidedly believe that she is meant really to faint.
She had now, further, gone Is it not quite natural that it should come just when
no Goneril. She knew that she could not kill the King herself; and she never expected to have to carry back the daggers, see the bloody corpse, and smear the faces and hands of the grooms. But Macbeth's agony greatly alarmed her, and she was driven to the scene of horror to complete his task; and what an impression it made on her we know from that sentence uttered in her sleep, 'Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?' through the ordeal of the discovery. the reaction should come, and that Macbeth's description recalls the scene which had cost her the greatest effort? Is it not likely, besides, that the expression on the faces of the lords would force her to realise, what before the murder she had refused to consider, the horror and the suspicion it must excite? It is noticeable, also, that she is far from carrying out her intention of bearing a part in making their 'griefs and clamours roar upon his death' (1. vii. 78). She has left it all to
her husband, and, after uttering but two sentences, the second of which is answered very curtly by Banquo, for some time (an interval of 33 lines) she has said nothing. I believe Shakespeare means this interval to be occupied in desperate efforts on her part to prevent herself from giving way, as she sees for the first time something of the truth to which she was formerly so blind, and which will destroy her in the end.
It should be observed that at the close of the Banquet scene, where she has gone through much less, she is evidently exhausted. Shakespeare, of course, knew whether he meant the faint to be real: but I am not aware if an actor of the part could show the audience whether it was real or pretended. If he could, he would doubtless receive instructions from the author.
DURATION OF THE ACTION IN MACBETH.
AGE. HE HAS NO CHILDREN.'
1. The duration of the action cannot well be more than a few months. On the day following the murder of Duncan his sons fly and Macbeth goes to Scone to be invested (11. iv.). Between this scene and Act III. an interval must be supposed, sufficient for news to arrive of Malcolm being in England and Donalbain in Ireland, and for Banquo to have shown himself a good counsellor. But the interval is evidently not long: eg. Banquo's first words are 'Thou hast it now' (III. i. 1). Banquo is murdered on the day when he speaks these words. Macbeth's visit to the Witches takes place the next day (III. iv. 132). At the end of this visit (Iv. i.) he hears of Macduff's flight to England, and determines to have Macduff's wife and children slaughtered without delay; and this is the subject of the next scene (IV. ii.). No great interval, then, can be supposed between this scene and the next, where Macduff, arrived at the English court, hears what has happened at his castle. At the end of that scene (IV. iii. 237) Malcolm says that 'Macbeth is ripe for shaking, and the powers above put on their instruments': and the events of Act v. evidently follow with little delay, and occupy