Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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9 ‘an equivocator’ – One who uses vague and ambiguous language so as to avoid committing himself one way or the other. The Jesuit missionaries sent into England under Elizabeth and James were frequently accused of being equivocators: claiming to be loyal to the crown on the one hand, but, rightly or wrongly, seen also as the agents of foreign powers that were plotting to depose queen or king. The idea of a balanced scale is used by the Porter to give a visual image of such equivocation.

10-11 ‘who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven’ – Many commentators believe this to be a reference to the Gunpowder Plot and the trial and execution of Father Henry Garnet of the Society of Jesus. This last took place in 1606, meaning that Macbeth was probably written some time after this date. Father Garnet had publicly justified equivocation, if it were used, for example, to protect others from arrest and torture.

13ff ‘an English tailor…’ – The English are appropriately satirised by the Scots in Macbeth , just as they are by the Danes in Hamlet . As such, an English tailor is seen as an idiot.

14 ‘French hose’ – a pair of tight-fitting stockings. Only a completely stupid tailor would try to steal the cloth out of a pair of ‘French hose’ he was mending, since they are a skin-tight garment and the theft would be impossible to disguise. The joke works just as well if the audience imagine the tailor stealing his hand into someone’s hose while the garment is being worn: the invasion would be immediately obvious to the wearer. The latter reading has sexual implications: ‘tail’ was contemporary slang for penis, and ‘goose’ (‘roast your goose’, see below) was a word for the pockmarks caused by syphilis – the ‘French disease’.

15 ‘here you may roast your goose’ – That is: it’s hot enough in hell for you to heat up your iron (a meaning of ‘goose’). Sweating, however, was advocated as a cure for syphilis, giving a further meaning to ‘roasting one’s goose’.

19-20 ‘the primrose way to th’everlasting bonfire’ – Primroses are one of the first flowers of spring, and therefore suggest the promise of good things to come. The path of promise they indicate here, though, is deceptive and equivalent to the broad way of the gospels that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13).

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William Shakespeare