There be dragons!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Macbeth Act V.3

The full speech reads thusly:

Seyton!—I am sick at heart,
When I behold—Seyton, I say!—This push
Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

The last bit particularly intrigues me.
Note the structural points: honour, love, obedience, troops = 4 things.
curses, mouth-honour, breath = 3 things
Seyton is called three times
The structural pattern of three resembles the tertiary list of the door warden (the hellgate keeper of Act II.3); nose-painting (blood, violence, curses), sleep (honour given as though sleepwalking), urine (breath being just another filthy vapor exuded by the human machine).
Also one leads to the other; muttered curses are covered up with mouth-honour, both of which are no more than breath; all of which are part of that tale told by an idiot.
The iambic pentameter structure runs throughout in fairly consistent pattern until the last "not" which overburdens the line and lingers as a final tone; nothingness, negation is the last syllable of recorded time.
Throughout the play Macbeth and his lady have equated violence with manliness or courage; "Is the courage drunk wherein thou dressed thyself?" or "When thou durst do it then thou wert a man" or "my thought...shakes so my single state of man" or "thou lily-livered boy...those linen cheeks of thine / are councillors to fear." So to do violence, in Macbeth's mind, is to be manly.

In this speech to the doctor (whose job it is to make people healthy) Macbeth is lamenting the fact that he is prematurely old, but without the things that are supposed to come with old age like honour, love, obedience, friends. Instead he feels prematurely old and endures the deepfelt curses of others muttered under their breath b/c they are too afraid of him to curse him to his face. Any honour he has is done only through coersion and not really heartfelt; it is "mouth-honour".

But the last bit about breath is an odd statement. It can be parsed as "I have curses, mouth-honour & breath all of which would be denied by weak hearted people who are too cowardly to deny that they do this." But that reading does not accord with the fact that those around him are afraid of him. Why would anyone admit they give him only superficial honor? Wouldn't they flat out deny it and say their honor was deeply felt? Moreover, why does Macbeth tag "breath" into this list of three?

It seems that the second of those two lines actually fits only to the "breath" and not to "curses and mouth-honour". Thus the line reads as "I still have breath (damnit) which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not." Whose poor heart? impoverished heart? This must be his own, self-loathing, self-pitying heart which would, if it could, deny itself breath (commit suicide) but lacks the courage to do violence to itself;
he "dare not" V.7
similar to other "daring" phrases;

Lady Macbeth:
Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,'
Like the poor cat i' the adage?

Prithee, peace:
I dare do all that may become a man
Who dares do more is none.

Lady Macbeth:
Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamour roar
Upon his death?

I'll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on't again I dare not.

'tis much he (Banquo) dares;
And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety.

Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the devil.

What man dare, I dare:

And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl.

How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth
In riddles and affairs of death;

I dare not speak
much further;
But cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves,

Heaven preserve you!
I dare abide no longer.

Bleed, bleed, poor country!
Great tyranny! lay thou thy basis sure,
For goodness dare not cheque thee: wear thou
thy wrongs;

My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak.

in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. Seyton!

Were they not forced with those that should be ours,
We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
And beat them backward home.

That's a great deal of daring do. Why? Perhaps to emphasize the daring nature of what is attempted with the eventual drabness of Macbeth's life? The humdrum of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...? the ineffectual strength of his rotted courage?

In other words, here Macbeth, hating his life, desires to kill himself but cannot do so b/c he lacks the courage. The use of two "d" words (deny and dare not) recalls that earlier famous "d" phrase "the deep damnation of his taking off" - if Macbeth kills himself he is truly damned. But he already is damned and thus cries out for someone else to help save him from the mire and flood into which he has already fallen ; "Seyton!" - a name very redolent of the fiend himself "Satan"!

Macbeth in full at MIT university;

FYI; Macbeth is playing at the Guthrie.


  1. I agree with your statement that Macbeth sees himself as being too cowardly to kill himself. This would argue his defensive battle as a lesser form of suicide, acknowledging one last time his wife’s comparative superiority. This stance, however, cannot truly be upheld by the reader without submitting himself to the same bewitchment that Macbeth suffers from, for this logic circles back on Lady Macbeth’s argument that violence is courage and courage is virtue. Instead, I would posit Shakespeare is pushing us to redefine what courage really is, by giving us a character repeatedly touted at brave and bold, who turns out to be anything but.


    P.S. Great observation with the triplication. Not sure what to make of this distinction outside of its connection to the hellish witches. What in your estimation does contrasting repetition of four represent?

  2. Shakespeare’s ubiquitous use of “dare” would seem to underscore the inseparability of a type of mentality from either Scotland itself,or Macbeth’s “thaneness” or both. The play essentially opens and closes in warfare—the ultimate dare. Whether civilization can exist at all without warfare and the daredevils that wage it? would seem to be posed by the bard in this piece.