Overview Act I
"Threes" in 1.1
"Threes" in 1.1 (II)
Weird Sisters I
Weird Sisters II
Act 1, Scene 2
I. 2 Images
Word Use in 1.2
Word Use in 1.2 II
Partial Lines (1.2)
Partial Lines II
Phrases and 1.3
The Future Now
The Chalice (1.7)
Sacking the Temple
Sack. the Sacred II
The "Chance" II
The Poisoned Chalice (1.7.11)
Bill Long 7/22/05
Bringing the Eucharist into the Discussion
Macbeth's indecisiveness concerning whether he can go through with the plot to assassinate Duncan reaches a fever pitch in 1.7. The idea to kill Duncan has been simmering in his mind ever since 1.3, where the prediction of the Weird Sisters, that he would become Thane of Cawdor, is confirmed by Rosse (1.3.105). If they are right on one of the two predictions, he thinks they must be right on the other. Banquo tries to dissuade him from this conclusion ("The instruments of darkness tell us truths/ Win us with honest trifles/ to betray's/ In deepest consequence"--1.3.125-127), but Macbeth cannot get the idea out of his mind. He plays with the thought later in the scene, but the possibility of murdering his sovereign rightly shakes him to the core:
"My thought, whose murder yet is but fantasical,/ Shakes so my single state of man, that function/ Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is/ But what is not" (1.3.140-143).
It would rattle his sword, or even shake his spear(e). His wife has no such compunctions (1.5), even though it takes her quite a while to screw up her confidence (note her exhortation to Macbeth to "screw your courage to the sticking place" in 1.7.61). Macbeth tries to put her off in 1.5 by saying, apparently noncommittally, "We will speak further"--1.5.70), but the idea never leaves his mind. As 1.7 opens, then, we see Macbeth tormented internally by the tension between going ahead with the murder to further his (and his wife's) ambition or forgetting the whole thing.
Macbeth's Speech in 1.7.1-28
In this speech Macbeth weighs the possible outcomes of going ahead with the murder. The speech drips with vigorous images, which I will explore in a later essay. On the one hand, he thinks he might go ahead with the plot, even if he hazards a divine judgment in the life to come (1.7.7). Yet, he knows that "we still have judgment here, that we but teach/ Bloody instructions, which being taught, return/ To plague th' inventor" (1.7.8-10). In other words, violence recoils upon the violent or, to use 21st century lingo, "what goes around comes around." He goes on to suggest reasons why he shouldn't go ahead with the plot--Duncan was such a "meek" person that his "virtues will plead like angels." One of the ways that justice will recoil on him if he goes through with the plot, however, deserves mention:
"This even-handed justice/ Commends th'ingredience of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips" (1.7.10-12).
Two words stand out here: ingredience and commends.
Shakespeare uses ingredience as a noun here. According to the OED, ingredience can mean two things. First, unsurprisingly, it can be what we would call ingredients: "That which enters into a mixture," as the "ingredients in a medicine, potion" or the "mixture itself." Actually, the OED gives this meaning as the way the word is used in our quoted passage. A prior use of the term in this way is by Thomas More in 1533: "Thys plaster...hath som good ingredience. But it hathe also some deade potycarye (from our "apothecary") drugges putte in it that can do no good."
But then there is the second meaning, which is derived from the structure of the Latin root (in-gredior): "The fact or process of entering in." The OED also has the word ingrediency that has the same two definitions as ingredience. Uses of ingredience in the second meaning, as the editors to the Oxford edition of Macbeth point out, frequently have a theological connotation. Let's hear a few of them. From 1557: "For us in heaven to have ingredience." From the Puritan Richard Sibbes in 1636: "Both natures (of Christ) had an ingredience into all the works of mediation." The impenetrable Alfred North Whitehead could write in 1925: "This complete ingredience in an occasion, so as to yield the most complete fusion of individual essence with other eternal objects in the formation of the individual emergent occasion..." I am so glad I knew when to put Whitehead down (very early in my career). Then, combining the first use of ingredience with a figurative twist, we have James Ussher (of the literal 7 day creation) say in 1645: "Faith doth not consist in darknesse and ignorance; but Knowledge is of the ingredience of it." Finally, the theological use of ingrediency has several 17th century attestations. From 1648: "It [Papistry] destroies your Obedience, by the ingrediency of merits." Or, from 1650, "There is an ingrediency and concurrence of all the great and glorious Perfections of God." or, from 1668: "Think not that sensual pleasure..can have any ingrediency into this state of blessedness." Actually, I was thinking that very thought.
More Briefly on Commends
The verb "commends" has a host of meanings in English, but one of the oldest, going back to Chaucer, is its theological significance--"to commit with a prayer or act of faith." Thus, from 1400, "He...saise devote praiers and commendez him till his godd." Or, from an early version of the Book of Common Prayer, "We commend unto thy mercifull goodness, this congregation." Or, a ditty from 1620, which I like: "Who errs and mends, to God himself commends."
Returning to Macbeth
Three theological or ecclesiastical terms are thus present: commends, ingredience and chalice. I think both definitions of ingredience are helpful to render the full power of the image. On the one hand, the "ingredients" of the chalice, the Cup of the Lord, is the Blood of Christ. It is the "cup of salvation," the promise of eternal life, the strength to get through the day, the drink of heaven. Now the ingredience is "poison'd," which we willingly bring to our lips. Killing Duncan would result in Macbeth's quaffing this poisoned beverage in the holy cup. It is reminiscent but more severe than the Psalmist's line: "A scorching wind will be the portion of their cup" (11:6). Yet, the second meaning of ingredience, with some of its theological pedigree illustrated, also resonates. Even-handed Justice will then be commending the "entering in" or the "ingesting" of the [ingredients] of the poisoned chalice. And, Justice, rather than a pastor, will be commending or "committing with an act of faith" these snaky, noxious contents of the sacred vessel to our lips. Macbeth will drink deeply of the cup of damnation by retaliating against Duncan. Justice will be done, and we will sup to our own destruction. I wonder if Shakespeare ever heard the line said in a liturgy in his day: "I commend the ingredience of this chalice to your lips..."
"The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." I don't think I will ever hear those words in the same way, again.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long