Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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7 ‘Most sacrilegious Murther hath broke ope/ The Lord’s anointed Temple, and stole thence/ The life o’th’building!’ – The idea of the king as a special dwelling-place of God – appointed to be God’s representative on earth – would have appealed to James I, who was an advocate of the Divine Right of kings. Shakespeare’s image combines the Old Testament story of the Ark of the Covenant being taken from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians with the idea of a king being a holy, ‘anointed’ person containing a sacred, living soul. Both the Temple in Jerusalem and the Kings of Judah were sanctified by anointing, and kings and queens of England have also, from the time of Saint Dunstan, been anointed with chrism at their coronation.

71 ‘a new Gorgon’ – The snake-haired head of a Gorgon turns a person to stone if it is gazed upon.

76 ‘The great doom’s image!’ – Duncan’s murder is an ‘image’ of the terrible sufferings associated with the end of the world and Judgement Day. The hyperbole is continued in the next line with the command to Malcolm and Banquo: ‘As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites’.

80 ‘That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley…’ – The alarum bell would normally signal attack. Lady Macbeth goes a step further and imagines an army at the gates sounding the ‘parley’ on a herald’s trumpet.

86 ‘What! in our house?’ – Lady Macbeth immediately draws attention to the fact that such an event casts shame, and even suspicion, on her and her husband. Her words are a carefully considered diversion – she is hoping that her hearers will think that the guilty would not draw attention to such matters.

89-92 ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance,/ I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from this instant, there’s nothing serious in mortality;’ – The audience have been awaiting Macbeth’s ‘reaction’, wondering if he will sound as convincing as his wife. His words, in fact, ring true, but only, as A.C. Bradley pointed out long ago, because in the very act of deception he ‘utters at the same time his profoundest feelings.’ The phrase ‘in mortality’ should be understood to mean, ‘in this mortal life’. Almost immediately after killing Duncan, life becomes a pointless and meaningless game to Macbeth; he shares exactly the same feelings in Act V, Scene v, when he speaks of the unending succession of ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ and the creeping ‘petty pace’ of time itself (V.v.19-20). There, life will be compared to the acting of a ‘poor player’; here, ‘All is but toys’.

93-4 ‘The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees/ Is left this vault to brag of.’ – Macbeth’s image recalls Psalm 75, verse 8 – ‘For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.’ The word ‘vault’ makes the heavens sound like the ceiling of a tomb.

99 ‘as it seem’d’ – Lenox already voices doubts.

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William Shakespeare