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February 27, 2011
The Thane of Fife, he had a wife; where is she now?
Macbeth, Act V, scene 1
Can a blog have footnotes? Am I breaking any rules? I wanted to add that the Shaw Records, mentioned last month, were compiled by Harriette F. Farwell and published in Bethel, Maine, by E.C. Bowler, in 1904. Although her name does not reveal it, she must be related to our line of Shaws, because she refers to a common ancestor and dedicates the work to her brother, Eben Shaw Kilborn, who supplied funds for the enterprise. According to Farwell, the line of American Shaws she traces from 1594 to 1882 came originally from the Scottish Highlands, though some resided in England before coming to America. In a preface, she includes the following quotation from Clans of the Scottish Highlands, by Robert Roland MacIan: Antiquarians and genealogists assent to the tradition that the Shaws are descended from MacDuff who aided Malcolm III, the rightful heir to the Scottish throne, in overthrowing Macbeth in 1056-7.
At twelve or so, I pored over this book, in a race with Haitian termites, busily boring their way through it in secret, leaving lace-like pages, full of holes. For a developing consciousness of identity and place in history, it was perfect. But the initial thrill of generation soon palled; I got lost, swamped in begats, which reminded me of passages in the Old Testament I always skipped. I think now that pointed searches might be the way to attack it: work, wars, politics, religion, participation in government, who made that first westward move and why? At the moment, though, I find myself stuck at the very beginning, struck by my man Macduff. Not the historic Macduff about whom I know next to nothing, who may or may not be my relation, but the Macduff who appears in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.
What is a man? Shakespeare asks. Not just once, but in play after play. Sometimes he means a human being but, in the case of Macduff and others, his interest is in masculine gender. How far can a man lean toward Woman and still be Man? Shakespeare’s women are various and sometimes powerful, but I don’t find in them the same preoccupation with definition that I do in his men. In array and disarray, in Bach-like counterpoint, Shakespeare parades an inexhaustible supply of men before us, some so driven by a single humor as to be caricatures; others, like Hamlet, Iago, and Shylock, so deeply drawn that we shall never fully sound them.
Boozer, schmoozer, simpleton, bumpkin, prince, pauper, king and courtier, Puritan, knave, bastard, tyrant, pimp. Yes-man, kiss-up, brown nose. The young man, hot and rash, the bachelor, confirmed and unconfirmed, the shrew tamer, the unrequited lover, the foolish, fond old man, the dotard. The jealous husband. The second son. The helicopter father, the father fleeced and betrayed. Pirate, cut-purse, highwayman. Dandy, fop, coward. Merchant, soldier, scholar, slave. Blackamoor, Jew, Turk, and Christian. The hero and the holy man. The fool, the madman, clown, and court jester. The actor and the mime. The boy actor playing a woman, playing a man. Man naked in the storm, or decked in borrowed robes. Spy and counter-spy. The unbridled hedonist. The man who never thinks, and the man who thinks too much (this is where Horatio begins to look good). The suicide, the murderer, the gravedigger who turns up a grinning skull. The ghost.
It’s time to haul out the computer, the ordinateur, as the French call it, to make sense of this jumble, to see why Macduff stands out. A computer can certainly tell us how many times the word man appears in Shakespeare, maybe even when it means man and whenhuman kind, and when, if ever, Shakespeare uses the word woman, in this second way. How many jobs and professions, high and low, are represented, how many are married with children, how many go to war, how many are gay. Such lists could be fascinating and telling in themselves, but they would not satisfy. I used to get students to play a game with me, to line up characters from a particular play on a continuum between two poles: good and evil, appearance and reality, music and noise. Pick any pair you like; then move them about like counters. What shall we do with Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father by pouring poison in his ear? Perhaps he truly loves the queen and satisfies her sexually. He kneels, we overhear him praying. Doesn’t that count? It might, but not in this case, because Claudius cannot repent and compounds his crimes at the end of the play. Claudius, go to the end of the line!
Or how about a different kind of Match.com? A sort of oracular Dear Abby. Feed in descriptions of your friends and relatives, and up pops the verdict: Your father is Capulet: he’ll be sorry he kept you from Romeo, but only after you’re dead. Your girlfriend is Lady Macbeth: she’ll upgrade your social and professional status, but don’t let her have a baby lest she dash its brains out. Your buddy is Falstaff: carouse with him now, but be sure to dump him before he ruins your career plans. Or plug in famous public figures like the Kennedy brothers, Gandhi, Qaddafi, Martin Luther King Jr., Elliot Spitzer, and John Edwards. How do they stack up? The other night I saw Kissinger on TV. He looks pretty good, sounds just the same, was surprisingly kind to Obama, I thought. Can we find a place for him between salvation and damnation, his exact niche below God and the angels in the Great Chain of Being, now that he’s white-haired and relatively harmless, in late-night hugger-mugger with Charlie Rose?
Why bring up Shakespeare after Waiting for Godot? Post-Einstein, post-Sartre, post Pinter’s silences, post-Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. Read a post-apocalyptic novel instead, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, or In the Country of Last Things, by Paul Auster. Read the book of Revelation. We’ve been looking forward to the end of the world since the beginning, or so it seems. Stop reading altogether, as some pundits predict we will. But where is the computer with a mighty moral nose? A computer to delineate every gradation in a single trait, to take on the human comedy entire, as Shakespeare does, even if he shows us nothing but sinners. In Hamlet, or in Hamlet’s father, I think he comes close to a model man. Ophelia sees in Hamlet an Elizabethan idea of perfection: The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mold of form, The observed of all observers. But when she speaks these lines, Hamlet is already a fallen creature, quite, quite down. Hamlet, in turn, hero-worships his father, speaks him a splendid epitaph, half acknowledging that he wasn’t perfect: He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again. Exactly what I would say of my own father! Too bad Hamlet got there first.
When the Ghost speaks for himself, however, he disappoints, appears self-pitying and selfish. OK, he’s a soul in torment. But why does he ignore the heavy burden he lays upon his son, the train of evil he sets in motion? A student once raised her hand to ask if parents could command children from beyond the grave. No doubt hers was a temporary adolescent anxiety, but an excellent question, I thought, worthy of study and meditation. What do the dead expect from us, what duties do we owe them? A ghost, of course, is but a shadow of a man, a spirit merely, no more perhaps than a figment of imagination, far, far beyond earthly concerns.
Macduff, however, is made of solid flesh. If you know the story, you know how brilliantly Shakespeare sets up the circumstances in which Macduff, surrounded by cowards, bullies (including Lady Macbeth, an unsuccessful male-impersonator who confuses ambition, unprovoked aggression, and cruelty with masculinity), and murderers, will strut and fret his hour upon the stage. But even if you don’t, three short speeches should convince you of Macduff’s contribution to Shakespeare’s exploration of manhood. In the first, Macduff expresses amazement and horror at the deaths of his wife and children, ordered by Macbeth, who has lately killed the too-trusting King Duncan and usurped the Scottish throne: What? All my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop? Here, all that is conventionally feminine, the prettiness and domesticity of a hen with chicks in a barnyard, has been destroyed by rapacious “male” power in the form of a bird of prey, a hell kite. Macduff, who might have stood between them, has been called away from home and country by typically male concerns: politics, honor, duty, and destiny. In England to gather support for a showdown with Macbeth, the terrible news about his family disarms him, catches him naked. Advised to Dispute it like a man, Macduff answers: But I must also feel it as a man. He is not ashamed to express raw emotion, or to acknowledge that a husband and father is as much a man as a warrior: Sinful Macduff, They were all struck for thee. Macduff knows he should have been there. In this recognition, brief and sudden though it is, Shakespeare achieves a balanced merger of Man of Action with Man of Sensibility. Compare the brooding Hamlet whose indecision and delay bring his play to a near standstill. Or Laertes, who takes no time to weep for his drowned sister Ophelia, but rushes instead to collude in a treacherous plot with Claudius for which he pays with his life. Chastened Macduff goes on to defeat Macbeth but, at the same time, points the way to contemporary notions of shared housekeeping and stay-at-home fathers. Though it’s still news, I notice, when a politician weeps (shorthand for womanish behavior) in public.
Who can forget at one fell swoop, forever embedded in our language, though the deadliness has gone out of it with the loss of fell as an adjective. My mother often used this phrase to describe an action both swift and complete – no sense of quotation in it, though she could quote Macbeth and had a particular fondness for the line in which sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care. Sirene has her grandmother’s high school text in which she writes what must be her teacher’s pronouncement: one of most powerful scenes in any play. A typical tenth grader, impressed, but not yet ready to venture her own interpretation, or to say why or what was so profound. More sophisticated readers see that Macduff’s monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to Latinate English, its imagery drawn from familiar surroundings, suggests that plain speaking he-men can be eloquent. Think Humphrey Bogart. Ironically, Macbeth himself, in response to Lady Macbeth’s taunts that he is less than a man when he hesitates at first to murder King Duncan, delivers an even more potent summation, setting a limit he is about to exceed: I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none. Alliterative, aphoristic, and paradoxical, these lines remind me of Lyndon Johnson, who proclaimed, we want no wider war, even as he sent more troops to Vietnam. Of the many U.S. senators and citizens who admired George Bush because he kicked butt, but later came to regret the war in Iraq. Of Obama, explaining his pursuit of the war in Afghanistan while accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace.
It pays to attend to who says what in Shakespeare. The most beautiful lines in The Tempest come out of the mouth of the monster Caliban. Admirable though he is, Macduff is not the hero of the play. That title belongs to regicide Macbeth, an eerie adumbration of Papa Doc Duvalier, who moves from vaulting ambition, to traffic with dark spirits, to hallucination and near-madness, to licensed killing sprees by hired thugs, until he is so far steeped in blood he cannot turn back, until paranoia sets in, a fear of opposition that can never be assuaged combined with an implacable will to stay in power. Seen in this light – and Aristotle can supply other reasons having to do with recognition and reversal – Macduff seems a poor player, drafted by Shakespeare to swing his plot around; someone, after all, must turn this tide in the affairs of men, restore the kingdom of Scotland to order. In fact, we know very little about Macduff and can only guess at his future. Will he remarry, produce more children, participate in a coup, lose his life in battle, turn cynic, become a wise, old hermit of the highlands? No one knows or cares. Nor can Macduff do more than the plot requires. Though he may be aware that Malcolm, the rightful heir, is weak and devious, he cannot choose a better king. His imagination, like his world, is narrow, clannish. Macduff is no metrosexual; he probably wouldn’t want Hilary Clinton for a wife. Shakespeare could certainly fashion a suitable husband for her, but not a perfect man. Like a modern novelist, Shakespeare invites our participation. We must construct the model out of shreds and patches, much as we invent ourselves.
Some understandings are years in the making. At some point I lost interest in the facts of my family history and chose the fictional Macduff to be my cousin. How many times did I hear my mother say at one fell swoop, uncomprehending even after I had read the play, before I found the poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins which begins, I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. I was far away from her in college when I figured out what fellmeant, and further still from any idea of what depression might be like. Years again before I taught Macbeth so often I knew the text by heart, bending the ears of innocent sophomores till they cried hold, enough! Still, I won’t apologize for my literary rants. I cannot help it that a certain electrical impulse or alignment of genetic code makes me want to go on listing male types in Shakespeare to the end of time. I recommend King Lear, Leontes of The Winter’s Tale, and Prospero of The Tempest for further solutions to the puzzle of manhood. But I do realize that other triggers exist in others to create different but equally heady delights. I once challenged a friend to tell me what was so great about biology. She felled me with two words: “It’s life!”
To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear,
till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great natures second course,
And makes us rather swing the arrows of outrageous fortune