Bill Long 3/14/06
The Sergeant Finishes His Speech I
The sergeant's speech in 1.2 is divided into three parts, which are neatly signaled b by the King's interrupting the Sergeant on two occasions with interjections (24, 33-34). The first part (7-23), exposited in previous essays, speaks of Macbeth's clash with Macdonwald; the second (25-33) addresses the entry of the "Norweyan" lord; the final (34-44) presents the martial valor of Macbeth and Banquo. In looking at the second and third parts of the Sergeant's speech, I would like to discuss four points: (1) the "Homeric" nature of S's imagery; (2) his emphasis on "doubling"; (3) the specific words S uses; and (4) his unusual phrase to "memorize another Golgotha" (40). We recall that the soldier's eloquence flowed as the blood was oozing from his pores. Indeed, he claims faintness at the end, and Duncan orders medical attention for him (44).
Shakespeare's "Homeric" Similes
In two places in these lines S uses similes. (1) Were Macbeth and Banquo dismayed by the sudden entrance of the Norweyan lord into battle? "Yes," is the word at the end of l. 34. They were. But S gives us that word with a kind of "tongue-in-cheek" humor. If we were to stop reading at the end of line 34, we would think that his captains were dismayed, but then l. 35 explains further: "As sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion." Or, in modern words, 'I am as scared to do this--as scared as Duke is to face Southern in tomorrow's NCAA basketball tournament.' We are caught off-guard, and we smile. Valor bathes the preceding lines, and now valor will be manifest in Macbeth and Banquo's actions. (B) There is another simile a few lines later. How valorous were they? "As cannons overcharged with double cracks,/ So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe" (37-38).
The world Shakespeare recalls to mind with these similes is the world of Homer, the greatest poet of the West. In his incomparable description of the Trojan War, Homer fills his work with memorable similes, mostly drawn from nature, to illustrate aspects of our common human experience. Space only permits my citing a few. In Book II, when the Achaeans are gathering to hear Agamemnon, they are likened to a horde of swarming bees:
"They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore, while among them ran Wildfire Rumour, messenger of Jove, urging them ever to the fore. Thus they gathered in a pell-mell of mad confusion, and the earth groaned under the tramp of men as the people sought their places" (Iliad 2.100ff. Fagles translation).
A few lines later, after Agamemnon has spoken, Homer says:
"With these words he moved the hearts of the multitude, so many of them as knew not the cunning counsel of Agamemnon. They surged to and fro like the waves of the Icarian Sea, when the east and south winds break from heaven's clouds to lash them" (Id. 2.142ff.).
One final simile will suffice for now. Actually, this third simile is really an extension of the second. In S's language (from Macbeth 1.2), we might call it a sort of "double literary crack," which Homer provides for us to help us ruminate deeply on the nature of the crowd, the commonness of our fate, the deep sadness of human existence.
"or as when the west wind sweeps over a field of corn and the ears bow beneath the blast, even so were they swayed as they flew with loud cries towards the ships, and the dust from under their feet rose heavenward. They cheered each other on to draw the ships into the sea; they cleared the channels in front of them; they began taking away the stays from underneath them, and the welkin rang with their glad cries, so eager were they to return" (Id. 2.147ff.).
The similes function as essential elements for Homer in creating his picture; S also uses them to fire the imagination. The first one ("as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion") makes us smile and see in the mind's eye the confident duo of Macbeth and Banquo carving their way through the foe. The latter ("as cannons overcharged with double cracks....") shows us their energy, their explosive power, even their loudness in destruction. They are sort of mini-killing machines, unleashed against the foe.
Returning, then to the image of Macbeth and Banquo at war, we have:
"As cannons overcharged with double cracks,
So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe..."
"Cracks" are explosives. So M & B are a double charge in a cannon, a sort of double chocolate cookie of warfare, where chocolate on the outside is reinforced by chocolate on the inside.* They are like
[*Of course, since we are in America, we now have "triple" chocolate chip cookies. Is "quadruple" far behind?]
firecrackers within firecrackers, which pack a double wallop, like the soaring fireworks that are launched into the sky, only to spout again at their apex because charged with another explosive within. So we have this doubling of energy, and "they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe." Who knows precisely what this means, but it suggests to me that the product of M & B's effort now is not simply a doubling of power but a squaring of it. It is not simply what we might say as "twice three" but "three squared." It is the difference between 6 and 9 or 8 and 16 or 10 and 25. Or, maybe the image means that it is not simply 2X2 but is 2X2X2. They double the double. In any case, similes and language of doubling help S show the strength of our captains. And, the fact that S shows this in such few words suggests that the power of M & B is a concentrated power, a sort of small dosage that provides big power.
The next essay explores the other two themes mentioned above.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long