Close Reading: Lady Macbeth “Come You Spirits.”

For commentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/ideal-portrait-of-lady-macbeth-97937

For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v. In this speech, Lady Macbeth prays to dark spirits to make her cold and remorseless, so that she can convince her husband to kill the king, and take the throne.

The Text

Lady Macbeth
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits390
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature395
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,400
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, Lines 388-403.

The Given Circumstances

Lady Macbeth has just received a letter from her husband. That letter informs her the witches prophesied he would be king. Soon after she’s finished reading it, another messenger, (hoarse and out of breath), tells her that King Duncan will be staying at her castle tonight! Lady Macbeth immediately sees this as the perfect opportunity to make her husband king, by plotting to murder Duncan as he sleeps under her roof.

Traditional Interpretations

I’ve seen at least six productions of “Macbeth” and when it comes to this scene I think the main interpretations I see are either that Lady Macbeth is gleefully evil, or highly sexual. While it is true that she is praying to dark spirits, and her language when she speaks to Macbeth is sexually charged, I feel that these are not the only options when playing this character.

Francis McDormad

I love the regal poise of Francis in this 2021 movie. She is utterly in control and has absolutely no qualms about murder. I get the sense that she’s more praying to Mercury to get her to speak daggers to her husband, instead of to Lucifer to help her use one. She even has knives coming out of her ears (look at those earings!) This Lady Macbeth doesn’t seem evil in the sense of a cartoon villain. She’s just a woman in a violent society who believes that regicide is an acceptable way to sieze power. I think in this world, might makes right.

By contrast, Judy Dench in the 1979 RSC production is also very human. Her spirits are like… well spirits. You get the sense that she’s taking a swig of liquid courage to get her to go through with these actions which SHE KNOWS ARE WRONG.

Literary Devices

Imagery

“The Triple Hecate,” by William Blake, 1794.

Ravens in Greek and Norse myths were birds of prophecy and associated with the goddess of magic, Hecate (who appears in the play in Act IV). Ravens often appeared to announce deaths or execution. The speech is also full of imagery that rejects traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues. Lady Macbeth seems to associate womanhood with kindness, mercy, pity, and remorse and thus attempts to shed her femininity to accomplish her cruel objective of killing Duncan.

Verse

The Rauen himselfe is hoarse,
That croakes the fatall entrance of Duncan
Vnder my Battlements. Come you Spirits,
That tend on mortall thoughts, vnsex me here,
And fill me from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full
Of direst Crueltie: make thick my blood,
Stop vp th'accesse, and passage to Remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keepe peace betweene
Th'effect, and hit. Come to my Womans Brests,
And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers,
Where-euer, in your sightlesse substances,
You wait on Natures Mischiefe. Come thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoake of Hell,
That my keene Knife see not the Wound it makes,
Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke,
To cry, hold, hold. Macbeth, Act I, Scene v, First Folio Reprint from Internet Shakespeare Editions.

It’s interesting to note that (in the First Folio text) this speech is only three sentences long. It is a constant build up of energy with only three stops. In addition, Shakespeare puts the most important words, at the end of each line. Almost every line ends with something Lady M wants to kill, such as Duncan, or wants to kill within herself (peace, remorse, nature, Woman(hood). The verse also has commands strewn about in the beginnings and ends of lines. The question is, how confident does Lady Macbeth feel while giving them?

Questions to consider

One of the biggest questions I have with this play is why Lady Macbeth and her husband want to be king and queen anyway? After all, Shakespeare has written plenty of plays that detail how hard and stressful (uneasy) it is to be king. Plus, Macbeth is already a trusted lord and friend of the king, why would he want to damn himself to get a job he knows isn’t his to take? I think that, especially now in the 21st century, it’s very important to have a coherent motive for why the Macbeths are willing to kill for the crown.

Our Interpretation

Looking over the text, my actress sensed a deep loneliness in Lady Macbeth and a haunted feeling that makes her seem desperate to change her life. I thought about how insomnia and paranoid fears are repeated motifs in the play, as well as character traits found in both Macbeth and later Lady Macbeth. Then I thought- Macbeth is a soldier; his wife has probably had to spend years wondering if he is going to come home and imagining what kind of terrible death he might suffer on the battlefield While the king sits safely at home. Perhaps she sees killing the king as a form of revenge for all the fear and sleepless nights she’s experienced, and an attempt to protect her husband from war, by safely placing him on the throne. Maybe she sees this as the only way to make sure her beloved husband never dies in battle. Therefore, instead of watching an evil woman become more evil, you’re watching a good woman, (with good intentions), damn herself for love, which I would argue is a much more active and dynamic choice.

Resources:

https://myshakespeare.com/macbeth/act-1-scene-5

The Weirdest History Show on YouTube

No, you aren’t hallucinating. This is a clip from the short-lived Warner Brothers kids cartoon show “Histeria,” an educational variety show, sort of like Horrible Histories or “Who Was.” This clip is a song about the life of Henry VIII.

The show was produced by Worner Brothers for the WB back in 1996. It starred many successful voice actors from other WB projects like Billy West (Renn and Stimpy), Tess McNeill (Tiny Toon Adventures), and Frank Welker (The current voice of Curious George). In addition, the show was created by Tom Ruegger, Executive Producer of Warner Animation, who also created Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. Those of you who grew up in the 90s know that the WB occasionally sprinkled their shows with educational sketches especially with Animaniacs:

So the idea of using these creative people to create a show about history was not a bad one in and of itself. It could have been a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock. The problem is that the characters are TERRIBLE.While Tiny Toons had likeable characters who were the modern-day successors to classic Warner characters like Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hampton pig, Histeria has lame characters nobody knows or has any interest in like Froggo, World’s Oldest Woman, and Big Fat Baby. In addition, there is no through line to any of these sketches so it seems like a bunch of random skits. While the Animaniacs was about crazy weird characters trying to escape from the Warner Bros. lot, it seems unclear as to why these characters are talking to me about history.

In short, Histeria feels like a bunch of talented people were forced to make it, and they gave little thought to how to make it a popular series. Still, the animation is good, the voice acting is top-notch, and occasionally, the jokes land very well, and the songs are very catchy. Not surprisingly, my favorite song is this one, where the cast summarizes in song, all 37 plays of William Shakespeare:

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WesternAnimation/Histeria

This video, of course, is about the life of Henry VIII.

The Awesome world of “Six”

One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.

The Cast of “Six” perform live at the 2021 Tony Awards.

This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.

The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.

Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story

Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.

I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.

I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.

Part II: The women take wing

During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.

TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by

III. Why “Six” Slaps

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have.
Emilia, “Othello,” Act IV, Scene iii.

Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.

Bravo.

Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII:

Books

TV:

Web:
https://www.history.com/news/henry-viii-wives

https://sixonbroadway.com/about.php

Resources on Shakespeare’s History Plays:

Books

  1. Shakespeare English Kings by Peter Saccio. Published Apr. 2000. Preview available: https://books.google.com/books?id=ATHBz3aaGn4C
  2. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. Available online at https://books.google.com/books/about/Shakespeare_Our_Contemporary.html?id=QIrdQfCMnfQC
  3. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook
  4. The Essential Shakespeare Handbook by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding Published: 16 Jan 2013.
    77ace26dfdee4259bf48d6eed1a59d57
  5. Will In the World by Prof. Steven Greenblatt, Harvard University. September 17, 2004. Preview available https://www.amazon.com/Will-World-How-Shakespeare-Became/dp/1847922961

TV:

The Tudors (TV Show- HBO 2007)

“The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (BBC, 1970)

Websites

Watch “Shakespeare Made You Die (Dumb Ways to Die Parody)” on YouTube

Tomorrow is the first session of my course on Shakespeaere’s tragedies! I’m so excited to teach this great group whom I’ve worked with before. To mark this occasion, I present this silly, catchy, and informative song about the tragic fates of Cleopatra, Juliet, Hamlet, and others.

Title page for my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

If you want to sign up for this course or request a private session, you can do so at http://www.outschool.com, or by scanning the QR code below:

The trailer for my course.

Thanks for reading and have a good weekend!

Intro to King Lear

Lear at its core is a play about growing older, and not just for its title character. Goneril and Regan learn their father is a lousy dad and learn to stand up to him. Edgar learns about the cruelty of the world and how to deceive his enemies.


Plot Summary

Lear, a king in pre-Christian England, is too old to rule, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He then tells them he will give the the kingdom to the one who loves him most.

Lear’ youngest daughter Cordelia, refuses to flatter her father, so she banishes her. He also banishes the Earl of Kent, who warns the king that his actions are foolish and rash. Finally, Lear demands that, although he resigns his kingdom, his daughters call him king and agree to house him and his knights in their castle.

Lear is not the only rash old man who is blind to his true danger. His friend the Duke of Gloucester has a bastard son named Edmund, who schemes to usurp his father’s lands and marry into Lear’s family. Edmund frames his legitamite brother Edgar which forces him to disguise himself as the mad beggar Poor Tom

After his daughters refuse to house him and his knights, Lear goes stark-raving mad. He runs out into a storm on the heath, wishing the Earth were struck flat and all mankind was destroyed. He is soon cared for by his Fool, and Kent, disguised as a commoner named Caius.

Duels, wars, tears, and oblivion follow.

Dramaturgy Website: American Shakespeare Center

Contemporary Parallels:

“Empire” (TV Series 2015-2020)

Empire Cast - Original Soundtrack from Season 1 of Empire - Amazon.com Music
Poster for Empire with Lucius and Cookie, and their three sons Jamal

Succession (HBO- 2018- present)

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2018/08/02/succession-hbos-new-dramais-king-lear-modern-media-age/

This scene from “Brave”

“Slings and Arrows,” Season three

https://shakespeareanstudent.com/2022/10/17/slings-and-arrows-season-3/

“Ran” by Akira Kurasawa-

Encanto (2021): Click here to read my post about Encanto and Lear

Videos

Shameless Plug

I’ll be playing Kent in King Lear October 22nd, 1PM EST. It’ll be streamed on Discord and live on YouTube here:

Watch “D E M O N O L O G Y” on YouTube

This book Demonology influenced Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet in ways I’ll get into later. It was written by King James himself, and it takes the form of a dialogue, that is, an intellectual conversation where the concept of witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, etc is explained, debated, and questioned between two imaginary people.

In the video, Youtuber Andrew Rakich, known for his history series, Checkmate Linconites, (where he plays two characters who argue about the Civil War from a Union and Confederate perspective) has done a dramatic reading of the whole book in the accent of 1600s England. It’s part audio book, part history lesson, part linguistics lesson, and all great!

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

Just like in Dr. Faustus, James theorizes that the Devil lets all so-called sorcerers and necromancers believe they have power over him, to deceive them later.

For as the humor of Melancholie in the selfe is blacke, heauie and terrene, so are the symptomes thereof, in any persones that are subject therevnto, leannes, palenes, desire of solitude: and if they come to the highest degree therof, mere folie and Manie:

Demonology, Chapter 1, p. 30,. Reprinted from Project Gutenberg

This passage echoes Hamlet’s description of his own meloncholy, and his fear that The Devil might be trying to use his melocholy to conjure up his father in order to damn him:

The spirit that I have seen
600   May be the devil, and the devil hath power
601   To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
602   Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
603   As he is very potent with such spirits,

603. As . . . spirits: i.e., because he has great influence on those who have a temperament such as mine.
604   Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds

604. Abuses: deludes.  If the Ghost is deceiving Hamlet about King Claudius’ guilt, and Hamlet kills him, Hamlet would be a murderer, and therefore damned.
605   More relative than this: the play’s the thing
606   Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, reprinted from Shakespeare Navigators.com.

For that is the difference betuixt Gods myracles and the Deuils, God is a creator, what he makes appeare in miracle, it is so in effect. As Moyses rod being casten downe, was no doubt turned in a natural Serpent: [pg 023]where as the Deuill (as Gods Ape) counterfetting that by his Magicians, maid their wandes to appeare so, onelie to mennes outward senses: as kythed in effect by their being deuoured by the other. For it is no wonder, that the Deuill may delude our senses, since we see by common proofe, that simple juglars will make an hundreth thinges seeme both to our eies and eares otherwaies then they are. Now as to the Magicians parte of the contract, it is in a word that thing, which I said before, the Deuill hunts for in all men.

Demonology, Chapter 6, p. 23

It’s very useful to conceptualize what the early Jacobeans thought the difference was between God and the Devil, and thus the difference between divine miracles and hellish charms. In James’ eyes, all magic and demonic arts were mere illusions, designed to play upon men’s senses and draw the intended victim into the Devil’s power. Obviously, since all of theater rests upon such illusion, it’s no wonder Shakespeare portrays magic onstage in his most popular works. In particular, this passage calls to mind the magic of Prospero, who is able to conjure spirits fo a while, but they all eventually dissolve:

PROSPERO
146   You do look, my son, in a mov’d sort,

146. mov’d sort: troubled state.
147   As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
148   Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

148. revels: festivity, entertainment.
149   As I foretold you, were all spirits and
150   Are melted into air, into thin air:
151   And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

151. baseless fabric: structure without a physical foundation.
152   The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
153   The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

153. the great globe itself: all the world, [and the theater] >>>
154   Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

154. all which it inherit: all who live on it.
155   And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

155. insubstantial: without material substance.
156   Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

156. rack: wisp of cloud driven before the wind.
157   As dreams are made on, and our little life
158   Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, Act IV, Scene i.
A close reading into the most infamous 17th century manual for finding and persecuting witches and sorcerers.

 For although, as none can be schollers in a schole, & not be subject to the master thereof: so none can studie and put in practize (for studie the alone, and knowledge, is more perilous nor offensiue; and it is the practise only that makes the greatnes of the offence.) the cirkles and art of Magie, without committing an horrible defection from God: And yet as they that reades and learnes their rudiments, are not the more subject to anie schoole-master, if it please not their parentes to put them to the schoole thereafter; So they who ignorantly proues these practicques, which I cal the deuilles rudiments, vnknowing them to be baites, casten out by him, for trapping such as God will permit to fall in his hands: This kinde of folkes I saie, no doubt, ar to be judged the best of, in respect they vse no invocation nor help of him (by their knowledge at least) in these turnes, and so haue neuer entred themselues in Sathans seruice; Yet to speake truely for my owne part (I speake but for my selfe) I desire not to make so neere riding: For in my opinion our enemie is ouer craftie, and we ouer weake (except the greater grace of God) to assay such hazards, wherein he preases to trap vs.

Demonology Chapter 5, page 15.

It almost seems in this passage that James is covering his tracks against any detractors who might be wondering if he himself might be damned for knowing so much about witchcraft. Accordingly, he asserts that the knowledge of witchcraft is perfectly lawful, it’s the practice that damns the scholar.