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Chapter Seven Macbeth's Future: "A Thing of Custom"
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I. Inverness

T. S. Eliot contrasted Dante's allegorical style—where images are clear, even if their meaning is uncertain—to the unique convergence of "intelligibility and remoteness" that makes Shakespeare's English harder for a non-native speaker to understand than Dante's Italian. Eliot chose the castle description of Macbeth as his example:[10]


This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air


Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself


Unto our gentle senses.



This guest of summer


The temple-haunting [martlet], does approve,


By his lov'd [mansionry], that the heaven's breath


Smells wooingly here; no jutty, frieze,


Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird


Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.


Where they [most] breed and haunt, I have observ'd


The air is delicate.


(Macbeth 1.6.1-9)

Duncan and Banquo actually describe not the castle but the air around it. Literally, their words indicate that the location of Macbeth's castle positions it so that a wind clears it of the smells associated with lack of sanitation. On a map, Inverness stands at the top of Loch Ness, where to Shakespeare's imagination the breeze would doubtless be brisk. Movie versions show us the castle in the distance, and stage notes have Lady Macbeth greet Duncan outside the castle.[11] Yet the torches and hautboys of the First Folio suggest an interior scene.

Poetry projects olfactory sensations with difficulty. It is easy to miss that Banquo and Duncan describe what they smell as much as what they see. Harry Berger has argued that Banquo hides his thoughts from Duncan in this conversation, although he projects himself as a war bird (mar tlet) whose procreant cradle will produce future kings of Scotland.[12] If the play closes by raising the possibility that Macduff may become Malcolm's Macbeth—he has killed one king of Scotland (Macbeth) and may make a habit of it—at this point Banquo, who knows the witches' prophecy for Macbeth, may intuit—or smell into (as the Fool says in King Lear )—more than he reveals.[13]

Like the uncertain future that stretches beyond dusty tomorrows, the innocent past lies tantalizingly beyond the bounds of the play. Macbeth's letter and sudden arrival makes indeterminable the precise point at which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin to wish Duncan dead. Even as he prepares a dagger for Duncan's throat, Macbeth conjures a former social order of "even-handed justice" (Macbeth 1.7.10) which the movement of the play will eventually reimpose. This vision of a former world raises the hope for a better tomorrow, just as ancient customs theoretically determine future conduct in the common law.


Shakespeare's sources offered no details about Duncan's murder except that, prodded by his wife, Macbeth kills the king "at Enverns, or (as some say) at Botgosuane."[14] Nothing in the play raises specific alternatives to the murder plot Lady Macbeth devises, such as the possibility of Macbeth's killing Duncan in a jealous rage after finding him in bed with Lady Macbeth, or "accidentally" pushing him off a battlement, or poisoning his supper. The suitability—as Lady Macbeth sees it—of a lone Scottish castle for murder disguises the question of whether Macbeth's letter implies that the couple had previously discussed the death of Duncan.

If the play's sleight of hand precludes one from imagining a better murder plan than that cobbled together under the pressure of Duncan's sudden arrival, the eventual failure of Macbeth's purpose for murdering Duncan gives the lie to Lady Macbeth's declaration that time and place "have made themselves" (Macbeth 1.7.53). When Lady Macbeth herself greets Duncan, the porter is significantly absent: his romance role would have been to explain the castle's ways, that a king who enters risks death. Lady Macbeth substitutes. But she has replaced Banquo's martlets with her own raven thoughts; called on spirits, murdering ministers, and night; and haunted the castle before Duncan's entrance to its battlements. When she and Duncan exchange convoluted courtesies, the double duties Lady Macbeth advertises—"All our service / In every point twice done, and then done double" (Macbeth 1.6.14-15)—mimic her double purpose and duplicity.

Whereas Macbeth tells himself that his only fear is to lose "the present horror of the time, / Which now suits with it" (Macbeth 2.1.59-60), his wife consciously expresses a visionary future. Eager for murder, when she first greets Macbeth she tells him she feels "the future in the instant" (Macbeth 1.4.57). "Tomorrow" (Macbeth 1.4.59)—to her mind the day when Duncan remains alive—need never come. Shakespeare's characters typically listen to what others say, and may use a word scenes or acts later because prompted by something spoken earlier. Lady Macbeth's narrow view of "tomorrow" haunts Macbeth, until he turns the word over three times on hearing she has died.


From the time of Chrétien de Troyes, romances reflect the situation of a feudal nobility caught between what Erich Köhler called an ambitious and increasingly centralized monarchy and a rising urban bourgeoisie of merchants, manufacturers, and jurists.[15] Macbeth is a nobleman, and the play's opening scenes further establish him as a type of knight or warrior used to killing at close quarters. He slays the merciless Macdonwald with a reverse sword stroke typical of romance heroes, unseaming him from the "nave to th' chops" (Macbeth 1.2.22). Editors with an eye on Shakespeare's sources have rightly glossed the sisters whom Macbeth meets as images of fate, the Anglo-Saxon "weird," but the consistent spelling of weird as "weyward" in the 1623 folio, our only early text of the play, suggests the theme of knight errancy as well—the wanderings and errors and right ways and wrong ways and crossroads and Herculean Y's of romance knights seeking adventure.

As the wolf howls and Macbeth moves with "Tarquin's ravishing strides" (Macbeth 2.1.55), like injustice incarnate, toward the chamber where Duncan sleeps, he fears not so much the event or failure or eternal damnation, though each of these enters his consideration. More strikingly, his mind leaps to that point in future time just beyond his control; he craves finality, to "jump the life to come" (Macbeth 1.7.7). But closure eludes his imagination, and this factor also contributes to the portrait of Macbeth as a knight of romance, the literary form that, David Quint argues, lacks the ability of epic to terminate.[16] Instead of projecting a kind of teleological sublime, Macbeth's thoughts form a court for "judgment," where his "vaulting ambition" takes sides against the logic of precedent: "we but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / to plague th' inventor" (Macbeth 1.7.8-10, 27). Unable to project a settled future to justify his gruesome course, Macbeth passes sentence against himself as he broods on "consequence":

                    This even-hand justice
Commends th' ingredience of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.
        (Macbeth  1.7.10-12)


Like Brutus or Othello, Macbeth projects conditions under which he deserves to perish. When he abandons Dunsinane, his imaginings find a way out.[17]

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