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
Come, you Spirits (1.5.40)
Bill Long 7/26/05
The Terror of the Invocation
In Christian services of worship, God's presence is always invoked. Sometimes the invocation is repeated three times, as worshippers call on the Triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit-- to be present in power and grace. One of the terrors of Lady Macbeth's invocation of the spirits in 1.5 is that its triple invocation both mirrors and reverses the divine invocation with which Christians are familiar. In addition, her invocation implicates a discussion in the history of religious thought about the presence, access to and abilities of spirits to wreak havoc in the world. Let's turn to each of these.
She has just received a missive from her husband explaining the surprising words of the Weird Sisters, that Macbeth would become Thane of Cawdor (confirmed by the King's messengers) and then King. But the letter troubles her. It bespeaks a man ready to receive the benefits of which the Sisters speak but not one who would put forth his hand to attain those same benefits. She says:
"Yet do I fear thy nature:/ It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way" (1.5.16-18).
She decides that she must take matters into her own hands by shaming her husband into action:
"Hie thee hither,/ That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,/ And chastise with the valour of my tongue/ All that impedes thee from the golden round" (1.5.25-28).
A messenger interrupts her reverie to tell her the unexpected news that Duncan will be staying with the Macbeths that night. What a golden opportunity! It is as if the future has irrupted into the present and handed her and her husband the easy way to fulfill the Sisters' words. What need is there for screaming birds overhead giving you signs of what will take place; what need is there for oracles on the earth when you can just take matters into your own hands and steer history down the path of destiny? The messenger departs and Lady Macbeth works herself into frenzy in which she utters her three-fold invocation:
"Come, you Spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here..." (1.5.40-41).
"Come to my woman's breasts,/ And take my milk for gall..." (1.5.47-48).
"Come, thick Night,/ And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell" (1.5.50-51).
Thinking About the Spirits
But who are these spirits, and what does she expect them to do? Those familiar with the New Testament know that Jesus exorcised a good number of evil spirits, even sending some into a nearby herd of pigs, who, oppressed by them, jumped off the cliffs to their death. Usually, however, the NT doesn't mention where the departed spirits go, or what powers the spirits still have. It also doesn't say how the evil spirits got inside a person in the first place. But there is an interesting and strange passage in the Gospel of Luke that no doubt fueled theological speculation through the centuries. I quote it from the elegant KJV:
11:24 "When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. 25 And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. 26 Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
Here it appears that the spirits are vindictive and have a sort of homing device within. It is almost as if they, like good salesmen, don't like to lose a customer and that they will do all in their power to destroy the life that has now become well-ordered. The passage brings up the chilling prospect of demonic influence irrespective of a person's desire and indeed contrary to it.
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy
This classic text, which went through six editions from 1621-1651, finishing with more than 1/2 million words, devotes its longest subsection to "A Digression on the Nature of Spirits, bad Angels or Divels, and how they cause Melancholy" (126.96.36.199). The Anatomy is almost impossible to read, for it is at once a compilation of all knowledge on a particular subject known to the writer, with ample quotations from Latin sprinkled in the main text. Often it is unclear whether Burton himself approves what is said or is just describing a series of opinions on a subject, and often his language reflects the obscurity of the subject matter, but in 188.8.131.52-184.108.40.206 ("Of Witches and Magitians, how they cause Melancholy") he discusses not only the locations and numbers of these spirits but also their baleful influences. He mentions how mathematicians calculated that it would take a stone 65 years falling from the "starry heaven" to reach the earth. In these 170 million miles, he wonders, "how many such spirits may it containe?" Various thinkers divided the evil spirits into six or eight or nine categories. "I finde that our Schoole-men and other Divines make nine kindes of bad Spirits, as Dionysius hath done of Angels." Neither space, nor your patience, would permit a listing of these "nine kindes," here. Suffice it to say that these spirits can work all manner of havoc on humans. And then, if this isn't enough, he goes on to say, "You have heard what the Divell can doe of himselfe, now you shall heare what he can performe by his instruments, who are many times worse (if it be possible) than he himselfe, and to satisfie their revenge and lust, cause more mischiefe..." (220.127.116.11). Now we might be better able to understand the opening lines of the last Stanza of Luther's "Mighty Fortress": "And though this world with devils filled..."
Devils, spirits, magicians, witches all. They were the causes of melancholy for Burton. He doesn't mention perhaps a more burning theological question: how they enter into the mind and thoughts of humans, but Lady Macbeth leaves no doubt on how she wants them to operate. Whether or not they have to wait for the right moment to enter the unsuspecting victim, she is out front in her request. 'Enter me,' she says. 'Fill me with your venom.' 'Stop up any capacity for mercy or magnanimity I might have.' 'Take away sex from me.' 'Remove all human emotions of kindness, remorse, and pity.' 'And let the dark night not see the violence of our deeds.' Sacrifice everything for the sake of ambition. Not the first, and certainly not the last, to desire this.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long