Re-reading Shakespeare: Macbeth

(1) Shakespeare is credited with a huge vocabulary, and his plays also include the first appearances of many words. Scholars have a lot of fun tracking these down, and then speculating on possible meanings. Definitions are of course difficult when you’re dealing with a first usage. Take a line like this delivered by the sailor’s wife: “‘Aroynt thee, witch,’ the rump-fed ronyon cries.”

Nobody knows where “aroynt” (or “aroint”) came from. From the context here (and its use in King Lear) it’s assumed to be a curt form of dismissal. It could be a curse too. I wonder if Shakespeare just made it up because it sounds good. I wouldn’t put that past him.

Then there’s the “ronyon.” Is that, or was that, a word? Did anybody use it before Shakespeare? It’s usually given as derived from the French rogne for mange.

Finally, there’s the “rump-fed” part. In the edition I’m looking at a note says this has been “variously explained,” and gives four different readings. The editor is inclined to the fourth, which is “fed on the best joints, pampered.” I would have never guessed this. I think it’s closer to the second explanation provided: “fat-bottomed, fed or fattened in the rump.” The sailor’s wife is a fat-ass just sitting there mounching and mounching on bon-bons. I don’t think this makes literal sense of “rump-fed,” but I don’t think that’s important. The meaning seems clear.

(2) This is the tragedy of the bad man and his wife. As such it’s unique among the tragedies (I’m not including Richard III). Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes certainly have their flaws, but the Macbeths are villains and they know it. What’s more, they think that conscience is a sign of weakness and that things will start to get better once they wade a little further out in blood. They are but young in deed. “Things bad begun make strong themselves by will.”

Like a lot of bad people, they are paranoid. They are afraid that other people are just like them. Which is to say, as wicked as they are. It is the tyrant’s point of view. Once having overthrown authority and seized power, what’s to stop anyone else from doing the same to them? This is the source of their obsession over safety and security. To be thus is nothing, they need to be safely thus. Lady Macbeth fantasizes of being in a position where “none can call our power to accompt.” It seems to me that they worry about this more than they do about their souls. When they startle at various night sounds they probably hear the footstep of an assassin, not the devil.

(3) There’s a history of people wondering just how much Banquo knows about what’s going on. He tells us that Macbeth has “play’dst most foully for” the crown and I don’t think he’s giving private voice to mere suspicions here. As A. C. Bradley remarked:

He [Banquo] alone of the lords knew of the prophecies, but he has said nothing of them. He has acquiesced in Macbeth’s accession, and in the official theory that Duncan’s sons had suborned the chamberlains to murder him.

So call Banquo tinged with guilt. But what makes the play so much fun, at least for me, is the fact that everyone knows what’s going on. Immediately after Duncan’s murder Donalbain and Malcolm shift away, not dainty of their leave-taking. They know they’re next. The same can be said for Ross and Macduff, as is clearly implied in their brief conversation. Roman Polanski’s film version captured this well, with all sorts of knowing looks being exchanged between the various lords. It was no big secret. When Lady Macbeth starts walking and talking in her sleep, the doctor and her waiting-gentlewoman are less surprised (or embarassed) by what she’s saying than the fact that she’s saying it. They know right away who the old man is that had so much blood in him. And of course the witches not only know everything that’s going on, they know it all in advance. The evil spirits don’t have to hear Macbeth’s questions, they already know what he’s come to ask of them.

Macbeth is like any public figure today (politician or other form of celebrity) whose legitimacy is a fraud but who never gets called out for it because it’s in no one’s interest to do so. Until, of course, a tipping point is reached and they are exposed, leaving everyone who once enabled them (the time-servers like Ross) flying for plausible deniability and rushing to switch sides. This isn’t just the fate of tyrants, but that of all players. Not that they care much, in the end.

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