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A Ship Blown from Its Moorings

A Ship Blown from Its Moorings. Feraco Search for Human Potential 16 November 2011. Macbeth. Foreshadowing is particularly important in a play like this because the story is partly about the ways that foreknowledge – whether real or simply believed – can affect us.

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A Ship Blown from Its Moorings

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  1. A Ship Blown from Its Moorings Feraco Search for Human Potential 16 November 2011

  2. Macbeth • Foreshadowing is particularly important in a play like this because the story is partly about the ways that foreknowledge – whether real or simply believed – can affect us. • Consider the Machine of Death: even if I look at my slip and see a C.o.D. that seems avoidable – “underprepared blowfish,” for example – I’m going to run into some serious problems if I’m going to try resisting the fate that’s been spelled out for me. • Let’s say A represents me in my current state, B will represent me after I look at my C.o.D., and T represents me at the time of death. • Theoretically, A turns to B (which tells me T), at which point I can do everything in my power to avoid T. • But here’s the thing: T happens in a future that includes me reading my C.o.D. • After all, B follows A, but T follows B; by looking at the slip, I’ve looked at a T that takes place after I looked at the slip!

  3. Macbeth • Whether I look or not, then, doesn’t really matter: no action I can take between B and T can change T, because T exists because of A, B, and every letter after. • It would seem that my only choice pertains not to how I’ll die, but to how I’ll greet the rest of my life. • (Fearfully? Normally?) • Resistance appears futile. • If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter whether Lady Macbeth is manipulative, or whether Macbeth himself is evil; it seems their parts were already scripted.

  4. Macbeth • On the other hand, resistance may prove futile in the long term…but can’t it prove vital in the short term? • It seems to me that, even if I can’t eliminate my odds of dying from the C.o.D., I can reduce them – delay the day I die. • If I’m going to die via blowfish, I can either eat heedlessly, or studiously avoid the fish. • It’ll get me one day, but why hasten the process? • The Machine hasn’t told me when I will die, and it seems to me that if, via my knowledge of my ultimate fate, I can change my habits enough to shift my death-day forward by a significant amount of time, I’ve reacted to its prophecy wisely. • In other words, I know how I will die, but I don’t know how I will end up in the position to die.

  5. Macbeth • But that’s the problem with Macbeth: he takes the Sisters’ pronouncements as though they form a set of instructions. • That’s not what they are. • Snyder points out that “the Weïrd Sisters present nouns rather than verbs. They put titles on Macbeth without telling what actions he must carry out to attain those titles.” • When their greetings are taken together, they’re barely even a prophecy in the strictest sense of the word. • The Sisters hailed him, and that’s pretty much it; they tell Macbeth what he’ll be, but not how he’ll be it. • Banquo receives a more cut-and-dried prophecy, but doesn’t do anything to bring it about; indeed, he’s troubled by what it portends for his country. • Macbeth’s the one who goes and tries to make the “prophecy” a reality, whether he actually can or not.

  6. Macbeth • The witches seem inhuman, yet Macbeth listens to them despite his initial resistance. • He does the same thing with Lady Macbeth. • Remember, the Weïrd Sisters are not “weird” (notice the presence of two dots above the “i”). • The word means that they’re able to see the future. • But we don’t know why they’re here; we don’t understand the Sisters’ motives for their plans. • A later scene removes some ambiguity by introducing Hecate as their leader, but many people feel Shakespeare didn’t write that scene; without it, we really have no idea why the witches do what they do, or whether they’re any more beholden to “fate” than Macbeth is.

  7. Macbeth • So why trust them? • When Macbeth, walking with Banquo on their way back to Forres, mentions that “so foul and fair a day I have not seen,” we’re not just reminded of the witches’ chant from earlier, or that Macbeth himself is both fair and foul already • What happens to Macdonwald is Exhibit A. • Since we just read about the revenge the Sisters exacted against that unfortunate sailor, we’re reminded that one of them can essentially control the uncontrollable – the weather. • The weather is consistently disordered – lots of storms that symbolize the chaos and passion fueling the play.

  8. Macbeth • But do we know they can see the “uncontrollable” – the future? • By the time they reach Macbeth, Cawdor’s already been taken back to camp; the fact that word hasn’t reached him doesn’t mean people don’t already know it’s happened. • In short, the “prophecy” regarding Cawdor had already come true in the present; it wasn’t prophecy at all.

  9. Macbeth • But because they tell Macbeth before he has a chance to know they’re being truthful, he interprets the sequence of events – they tell him he’s something he’s not, then he learns that he’s actually earned that title – as evidence of their foreknowledge. • And yes, history ultimately unfolds the way the Sisters say it will – Macbeth serves as king, and Banquo’s descendants will rule. • But we don’t know whether that means the witches can see the future, or whether they’re just really good at shaping it with their words. • If it’s the latter, it won’t be the last time Macbeth’s actions are shaped by what women say…or suffers the consequence of listening to something seemingly inhuman, something evil, only to forget what makes him good or human.

  10. Macbeth • The question of whether the witches can really see the future is a pretty uncomfortable one for much of the play; there’s a little more evidence to support their abilities in the fourth act, but we don’t see them again until then. • That question, in turn, leads to a whole host of others • If the Sisters can see the future, is Macbeth still responsible for his actions? • If they can’t, how is Macbeth able to make events play out in ways that make their words come true? • Should the witches be trusted when we have no idea what their agenda could be, or where their interests lie? • Do they have Macbeth’s (and Banquo’s) best interests in mind? • Keep in mind that they originally didn’t tell Banquo his son would be king. • And can Macbeth even resist their prophecies? • When you read Act III, consider what happens to Macbeth when he starts “acting on his own.”

  11. Macbeth • In the here and now, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches under darkening, turbulent skies, hear their words, and watch them vanish into thin air. • The men’s reactions differ substantially. • Macbeth disbelieves (rationally), but is tempted by the witches’ words; this reveals itself in his pleading demands for follow-up information, truths that the witches never provide. • Banquo’s unconvinced until Ross and Angus arrive; when they do show, he’s still wondering whether he and Macbeth have simply gone crazy after fighting for so long. • But when the newcomers deliver information that verifies one of the claims the witches made regarding Macbeth, Banquo reacts with astonishment – belief, but skeptical belief. • Macbeth, on the other hand, immediately jumps a step ahead, picturing a crown upon his own head.

  12. Macbeth • Banquo cautions Macbeth that “to win us our harm,/Th’ instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray ‘s/In deepest consequence.” • In other words, the devil may give you a couple of mild truths in order to win your trust, and then hang you with the trust he’s earned. • We’ve already seen this with Cawdor. • But while Banquo tries to keep his friend from staring into the abyss, it’s already too late. • Even when Macbeth tries to back away from his scheme later in the act, that same voice of darkness and heartless ambition (now in the form of Lady Macbeth) pushes him right back to the edge.

  13. Macbeth • For the bulk of the scene’s second half, Macbeth walks the stage soliloquizing, wondering whether he should trust the witches and arguing well for either side. • In the end, he merely chooses what he wants to believe – that he, a mere nobleman with no family save his wife to call his own, could rule a nation – and that choice starts him down a very dark path. • Notice, however, that he’s wavering a bit, even here: Snyder calls attention to the absence of Macbeth’s burning desire to rule, and it’s a point that resonates particularly well in this scene. • Sure, Macbeth seems excited, but we don’t really understand why he would want to be king. • And other than a creeping sense that he doesn’t want to be forgotten, we never really know why: we just watch it happen, horrified but fascinated by the descent.

  14. Macbeth • Scene IV opens with Cawdor dying by another’s hand, which surprises nobody: of course King Duncan kills by proxy. • For that matter, so will King Macbeth. • Shortly thereafter, Duncan mentions that you can never truly tell what another man is thinking, and that he was therefore foolish to have trusted the Thane of Cawdor completely. • It’s a good point…except he then goes and does the same thing with Macbeth, which seems incredibly naïve. • Unfortunately, it’s easy to notice that naiveté without seeing the greater significance of his words – specifically, how the inability to trust one’s own judgment ends up driving the entire play.

  15. Macbeth • It’s not just a matter of Duncan not being able to size people up correctly. • Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Macduff, Malcolm, even Banquo – every major character, at some point in the play, makes a serious error when predicting either the consequences of certain actions or what someone else will do. • Duncan just happens to be exceptionally bad at judging people; for someone we’re supposed to respect as a good king, he certainly has his flaws. • The King’s almost-unconscious realization that our eyes can betray us, and that we can see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear, provides Shakespeare with a means to further develop his exploration of blindness and control.

  16. Macbeth • When Duncan suddenly announces that Malcolm will be the Prince of Cumberland – i.e., has officially reached the age at which he’s ready to assume the throne if needed – he harshly reminds Macbeth of his place outside of the usual line of succession, and that he’ll need to get rid of more than Duncan if he wants to reach the throne. • Macbeth hadn’t really considered the degree of difficulty inherent in pulling off his plan. • When he prays for the stars to “hide [their] fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires,” he draws an immediate parallel to Duncan’s earlier point about not being able to trust the world as you see it. • This idea of something wicked hiding behind something pleasant pops up throughout the play; we’ll see it again when we meet Lady Macbeth, who advises her husband to “look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under’t.” • But his choice of words is most unfortunate: he’s just hoping for the chance to finalize his plans without anyone discovering what he’s up to…but the “stars” in Shakespeare’s works are not to be trifled with.

  17. Macbeth • We meet Lady Macbeth in the cold opening to Scene V, as she reads her husband’s letter and learns of the witches’ words. • She immediately – and correctly – concludes that while he has enough ambition to want power, he lacks the ruthlessness he needs to take power: his nature is too full of “human kindness” for him to do what is necessary. • She vows to herself that she’ll say whatever it takes to get her husband to change his mind; obviously, she’s looking out for herself, but in doing so she’s also protecting her husband’s “best interests.”

  18. Macbeth • But when she hears word that Duncan is arriving at the castle – indeed, that he’ll be staying the night with them – she, like her husband, reacts with disbelief and guarded optimism. • Can things really fall into place that easily? • Are the heavens moving the chess pieces into just the right spots for things to go their way? • Knowing that her husband will likely waver when confronted with the nature of his task – unzipping a rebel leader is one thing, but murdering someone you considered a good king and a beloved friend as he sleeps is quite another – Lady Macbeth steels herself for what’s to come. • She prays to the gods to “unsex” her – i.e., to remove the “milk of human kindness” that supposedly makes women weak and compassionate, and to fill her up with the resolve she’ll need to steer her husband down the “correct” path.

  19. Macbeth • It’s important to notice the parallels between her request and Macbeth’s; this indicates, perhaps, that she and her husband are not as dissimilar as we’d first expect. • She, like her husband (who cries out “Stars, hide your fires!”), prays for darkness to fall and cover her deeds. • She, too, prays for the strength to do what fate seems to dictate. • But while Macbeth clearly believes the witches can see the future, it’s not at all clear that Lady Macbeth believes. • For her, the witches’ words are a mean to an end. • They don’t have to describe a future that should happen: they have to describe a future she can make happen.

  20. Macbeth • Scene VI is exceptionally short: Shakespeare liked making use of these little sequences, both in order to break up his pacing and in order to slip little things into his plays that only the attentive audience members would notice. • Banquo offhandedly mentions that the birds use Macbeth’s castle as a nesting ground after they leave the churches where they usually live, providing an ironic juxtaposition between the castle as place-of-virtuous-life and the castle as the place-of-treacherous-death it will soon become. • That speaks to the scene’s second purpose: you’ll notice a great deal of “doubling” in the dialogue. • This subtly references the double face that Macbeth must wear: look like the flower, strike like the serpent.

  21. Macbeth • But Scene VII takes a strikingly different tone. • Macbeth doesn’t want to look like the flower, let alone strike like the serpent. • He can’t convince himself to wear the false face. • In one of the play’s most famous sequences, Macbeth agonizes alone about whether to go through with his/Lady Macbeth’s plot, ultimately resolving – alone – to abandon the entire venture. • Macbeth is painfully aware here of what he hadn’t realized in Scene IV, and what he later forgets: that things are never as simple as “kill the king, take the throne.” • This hearkens back to the “chess piece” and choice discussion from the play’s beginning: consequences lead to further consequences, not dead ends – and Macbeth suspects that those consequences would force him to face an appropriate fate if he did end up killing Duncan.

  22. Macbeth • Macbeth has plenty of reasons beyond simple self-preservation to let Duncan live. • He just risked his life – twice – defending his rule, and killing those subjects who would strike at his king. • Moreover, it’s wrong for Macbeth to use – really, to abuse – his role as host in order to lure his prey into a trap. • Dante chillingly suggested what happened to those who betrayed their guests; it’s not a fate Macbeth would want. • He mentions that Duncan is “here in double trust,” and here the “doubling” serves not to show someone’s hidden motives, but to strongly emphasize the necessity of sparing the king. • And despite my criticism of him, Duncan hasn’t really done anything wrong, or at least anything that would justify his slaughter. • This isn’t a matter of replacing a harmful or tyrannical ruler with someone better-suited to rule; this would be murder, plain and simple.

  23. Macbeth • So when Lady Macbeth arrives, Macbeth essentially tells her to be patient – that he’s barely lived a day as the Thane of Cawdor, and that they might as well enjoy their new honors instead of rapidly casting them aside. • Based on what we’ve explored earlier, it’s unsurprising that Lady Macbeth reacts somewhat poorly to his suggestion. • Instead, she fights back with an almost animalistic fury, mocking everything about her husband – questioning his love, his manhood, his honor, his courage. • It’s a blitzkrieg offensive, and Macbeth is completely overwhelmed by her; his denials and refusals sound defeated even as they leave his lips. • Worse still, she seems to have justification for each accusation.

  24. Macbeth • When Macbeth states that he’s willing to do whatever men do, but that he won’t turn himself into a monster for power’s sake, it’s a terrible, poignant line: we know, as soon as he says those words, exactly what Shakespeare will make him become. • What people often miss, or misinterpret, is what Lady Macbeth says in response. • She replies that real men wouldn’t crumble in the face of fear, and that real men follow through on what they say they’ll do; she even says she’d be willing to kill her own child as it nursed from her if she had pledged to do so, and dares her husband to meet her level of commitment to one’s word.

  25. Macbeth • Macbeth crumbles, and tells her she’s only fit to have male children, as her fighting soul couldn’t produce a “soft” female child. • But this “heartlessness” exposes her own relative powerlessness: her soul is trapped within a female body that allows a society she could conquer to cage her. • In a man’s body, she’d be a fierce warrior, prized for her ability to unzip rebel leaders in a single swipe. • Instead, she’s marginalized and sidelined. • And as we’ll see later in the play, even she’s unprepared for the consequences of her actions; she’s less capable of living with what she’s done than she assumed she’d be. • This doesn’t even begin to get into the terrifying implications of her line about dashing out the baby’s brains; if she’s nursed, as she says she has, where’s her child?

  26. Macbeth • So the two resolve to get Duncan’s men drunk enough to be blamed for the crime; Macbeth will stab Duncan with their own daggers, thus implicating them in their king’s slaughter. • We’ve discussed inebriation – the loss of control – in Siddhartha; we’re left to wonder here whether the stars, or our own complicated deceptions, make drunkards of us all. • The scene closes with a line from Macbeth, a final reminder of Duncan’s fateful words about trusting one’s sight: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.”

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