Saturday, April 07, 2007

When shall we three meet again?

From the first line of Macbeth onward, I remember indelibly much because of the intense memorization required when I was in high school. Rereading nevertheless amused me and fascinated me. I can't resist enjoying the many facets of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth even if my high school English teacher's voice keeps cackling the lines in my head. I like contemplating Lady Macbeth's steely resolve that turns to madness, and the pain and horror of all the victims.

To reread the play is always to revisit the questions of whether Macbeth is free to decide his own path or if he's inevitably condemned by his own ambition and the goading of the witches. The shaping of these questions begins with the witches' first predictions. Banquo raises questions as soon as the witches leave, setting the tone for the whole play. Are the witches (which Banquo calls "bubbles") setting Macbeth up to do evil? Or are they simple fortune tellers? Banquo's view is so rational compared to that of Macbeth -- and he so soon pays for it. His words:

But 'tis strange;
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence. (I, iii, 122-126)

The witches struck me in a new way in this reading. They are just as magical, airy, and ineffible as the fairies of Midsummer Night's Dream, I realized. They fly, they only have a material presence sometimes, they answer to the abyss, they commune with all sorts of other spirits. I don't think this aspect was part of my high school lessons.

A few of the quotes that gave me a new view of Shakespeare's supernatural world especially surprised me with their similarity to Puck and the harmless fairies. Here are the words of a spirit accompanying Hecate:

O what a dainty pleasure's this,
To sail i'th'air while the moon shines fair,
To sing, to toy, to dance, and kiss.
Over woods, high rocks and mountains,
Over hills and misty fountains,
Over steeples, towers and turrets
We fly by night 'mongst troops of spirits.
No ring of bells to our ears sounds,
No howls of wolves nor yelps of hounds,
No, not the noise of water's breach,
Nor cannons' throats our height can reach. (III, v, 55-65)

A little later Hecate in person responds to the long recipe in the famous "Double, double toil and trouble" speech:

O, well done! I commend your pains,
And every one shall share i' th' gains.
And now about the cauldron sing
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
Music and a song intervene, and Hecate continues:
Black spirits and white,
Red spirits and gray
Mingle, mingle, mingle,
You that mingle may. ( IV, i, 39-45)

The more I read, the more I picture the witches as beautiful women, even despite the reference to their beards -- beautiful, not very young, without any human responsibility, and very tempting.

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