Bill Long 3/11/06
Memorizing and Thinking
I have decided that the language of Shakespeare in Macbeth is simply too rich and suggestive to study it in any other way than by memorizing it. Then, after you do that, you can take the language with you wherever you go, begin to incorporate it into your speech, and find hidden meanings (or even inconsistencies) in S's use. Let's review the flow of the first 23 lines of 1.2, with special emphasis on lines 7-23.
The scene opens near the battlefield, where a bloodied soldier comes to Duncan to report the latest news of the "broil"--the revolt of Macdonwald against Duncan's authority. Though the first seven lines are not without their interest, we can present them quickly. Duncan first speaks:
"What bloody man is that? He can report,
As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt,
The newest state" (1.2.1-3).
We would have expected the "of the revolt" to appear after "the newest state," but S's flexibility in using language actually encourages us to do the same, especially if meaning can easily be preserved.
The next three or four lines are likewise straightforward. Malcolm speaks:
"This is the sergeant
Who like a good and hardy soldier fought
'Gainst my captivity. Hail, brave friend!
Say to the King the knowledge of the broil
As thou didst leave it" (1.2.3-7).
The lines have an air of verisimilitude. Even though the King could have asked the sergeant directly to declare his "knowledge of the broil," this action wouldn't comport with the king's dignity. Therefore Malcolm, the heir apparent, needs to encourage the bloody sergeant to tell the King the situation on the battlefield.
The "Sergeant" Speaks
My reaction to the speech over the next 17 lines (7 through 23) is similar to my first reaction to Job 3. In Job 1-2 Job suffered a terrible loss through the initiative of the Satan and connivance of God. Job lost his wealth, health, children and stature in the community. After seemingly accepting his plight in 1:20-21 and 2:9-10, Job then erupted with a torrent of emotions in ch. 3--an eruption which signals to the reader that something dramatic has happened to Job psychologically in a very short time. But Job's emotional outburst in ch. 3 is expressed in neatly balanced Hebrew poetry, with a deep awareness of the rich Hebrew vocabulary for darkness. Job is out of control emotionally--and a very controlled piece of Hebrew poetry tells us this.
So it is here in Macbeth 1.2.7-23. The soldier is bleeding from his gashes and in need of immediate medical attention, yet he delivers his words, for the most part, with an eloquence and power that certainly didn't match his exhaustion. In the remainder of this essay and the next one, I will make six points about the sergeant's speech in these lines--points that only come to the fore when we delve deeply into the exploration and mastery of S's language.
1. Two Linguistic Infelicities
Even though these 17 lines contain some picturesque eloquence, they also provide some ambiguous or confusing words. Let's begin with the sergeant's description of the battle scene:
"Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art" (1.2.7-9).
The confusion here is whether the swimmers are meant to be fighting one another to the point of exhaustion or whether they are simply clinging to each other because they are spent. That is, the image only "works" if the swimmers are antagonists (because the two sides in the battle are 'at each others' throats') but the actual words suggest only that two depleted swimmers are clinging together because of their exhaustion and thereby are choking each other. But the picture created may have been too good to lose: everyone knows that depleted swimmers lash out against each other and try to choke each other, whether or not they are antagonist towards each other. In fact, the image works more powerfully if they are not antagonistic--that is, exhaustion turns even skillful, and friendly, swimmers into deadly opponents. Thus, S's picture doesn't really "fit" here, though you only realize the extent of its unfitness if you think about it for a while.
Second, there is confusion regarding how the reinforcing troops are described. The text runs as follows, without any emendation or punctuation:
"The merciless Macdonwald
Worthy to be called a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him from the Western Isles
Of kerns and gallowglasses is supplied" (1.2.7-11).
Here it seems as if Macdonwald is "supplied" by two things: (1) the multiplying viillainies of nature; and (2) the kerns and gallowglasses. The former is an eloquent but general term, possibly describing the lower classes (the "villeins") who swarmed to Macdonwald, while the latter are two words describing Irish light and heavy-armed fighters. The lines make sense only if you "drop" line 11 (how do you do that?) so that it is the "multiplying villainies" (i.e., lower-class villeins) that swarm to Macdonwald's aid from the West. As it is, the editors put the phrase (Worthy to be called a rebel, for to that/ The multiplying villainies of nature/ Do swarm upon him) in parenthesis, thus creating a flowing thought, but making the words in parentheses almost unintelligible. S probably wrote both at one time or another but some editor, believing perhaps that whatever the Bard wrote was too good to lose, decided to put both of the phrases together--creating confusion of meaning.
Now, with the decks cleared (by exposing the linguistic infelicities), let's move to how and why the passage "sings."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long