All Is But Toys (2.3.92)
Bill Long 8/14/05
Macbeth's Janus-faced Speech
After the murder of Duncan, the Macbeths have to "look like the time," so to speak. They must dissimulate, manufacture their horror when the dead Duncan is "discovered," and make it seem as if they are as stunned and overwhelmed as is everyone else. However, often when you murder someone (I have read), things don't work out quite as smoothly as you imagined. Inner doubts and pangs of conscience plague, and these plagues are projected outward toward the world so that you never know whether that is a dagger or a glint in people's eyes as they look at you. Macbeth will have to deal with the inner turmoil, where every noise appals him (cf. 2.2.57) as well as the growing skepticism as well as external rebellion that will attend his tyrannical rule.
Macbeth's speech in 2.3.89-94, which happens a mere 25 lines after Macduff bursts out of Duncan's chamber with his unforgettable "O horror! Horror! Horror!" reflects the inner turmoil Macbeth has felt since even before the murder of Duncan. The speech both puts on a face of loss as Macbeth speaks to the others but, even more strongly, seems to be a window into his own fears and unspeakable grief.
Looking at the Text
"Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in morality;
All is but toys; renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of" (2.3.89-94).
At least three things call for comment in these moving lines. First is the word "chance" in line 89. Second is the sense, expressed in four different ways or images, that life is definitively over. And third is the combination of "renown" with "grace" in line 92, suggesting as they do both human and divine sources of strength.
It is fascinating to me that Macbeth calls the series of events, culminating in the death of Duncan, this "chance." The word "chance" has a very long history in English, and the way we think of it now, referring to something which is fortuitous or uncertain, is refined if we realize that the root meaning of the term has to do with something "falling." The OED informs us that the origin of the word is from the Old French cheance, which is equivalent to the Italian cadenza, which mirrors the Late Latin cadentia--a "falling." Thus a chance is "the falling out or happening of events; the way in which things fall out."
The picture that comes to my mind is from a game we played as children called "pick up sticks." It consisted of a number of narrowly-tapered nine-inch sticks that we held in our hand and then released, letting them fall where they would, with the object of the game being to see if we could pick up the sticks, one at a time, without disturbing any of the other sticks. The "game" was determined by how the sticks fell.
Thus, Macbeth describes the series of events leading to Duncan's death as this "chance"--this series of things that fell out like it did. Is he being disingenuous, or was there a sense that the unexpected consequences that even now were flooding over Macbeth could so color the entire experience as to make it a "chance"? I think it is more the latter. He is aware that though the blood of Duncan and the two grooms might eventually be stanched that the flow of his conscience cannot. Who would have believed this chance?
A Biblical Interlude
Something about the possible disingenuousness of Macbeth's story reminds me of a biblical story. Moses had gone up to the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments from God, but he was slow in returning. In the meantime the people of Israel became restless. They went to Aaron the priest and said, "Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Ex. 32:1). I like the phrase, "As for this Moses." It reminds me of my early days in contract law.."the party of the first part...the party of the second part..."
Well, Aaron went along with the people, and helped them fashion the golden calf with the gold rings the people donated at his behest. Moses then heard from God (news traveled fast), that the people were doing this, and Moses charged down from Mount Sinai, broke the tablets (the 10 Commandments) in his arms and "took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it" (Ex.32:20).
I have to skip the symbolism of forced drinking of substitute gods in order to get to my real point. Moses then asked Aaron for an explanation for the manufacturing of the golden calf. Aaron replied, in one of the funniest backside-covering explanations I have ever heard:
"They said to me, 'Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (Ex. 32:23-24).
Are Aaron and Macbeth saying the same thing? I tend to think that Aaron explanation is a trifle less credible than Macbeth's, one that was forced by the immediacy of Moses' appearance and the fact that Aaron was suddenly "on the spot." Macbeth, on the other hand, had time to plan Duncan's death, to try to control his feelings, to steel himself against all eventualities. Whereas Aaron's words are a blatant attempt to disavow responsibility, Macbeth's seem more calculated--he is not trying to deny his role in the event but is rather saying that things have fallen out quite differently than he expected. A tsunami, rather than a manageable high tide, has swamped his bark, and he is at a loss.
The next essay explores the other two points.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long