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  • The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth
  • David L. Kranz

It is a commonplace among critics of Macbeth to point out that the eponymous hero's first words echo a similarly antithetical line chanted by the witches in the opening scene of the play Macbeth's "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (1.3.38) is noteworthy not only because it reiterates a paradoxical statement, but because it refers back to the very beginning of the play rather than to the sorceries which have just preceded Macbeth's arrival in the third scene.1 Macbeth cannot have overheard the "fair is foul" antithesis of the witches; instead, it seems to come to his mind out of the very thick air. Whether readers and audiences infer that Macbeth and the witches speak the same language by mere chance or that the latter's words have infiltrated the hero's mind simply by proximity, a close and mysterious connection between the hero and the supernatural hags is established well before the actual staged temptation of the former. Thus it is by means of verbal echo, not dramatic confrontation, that Shakespeare first connects Macbeth to the Weird Sisters.2

What is repeated in Macbeth's iteration is obviously morphemic and semantic, a matter of individual words and their juxtaposed contrary meanings. But the repeated words "foul and fair" are part of a line that has distinct rhetorical and rhythmic properties as well. Fricative alliteration reinforces the repetition, and the completely monosyllabic nature of the line crisply highlights its iambic meter. Poetic patterns, not simply repeated words, play a part in suggesting to an audience the [End Page 346] mysterious source for Macbeth's subjective commentary on the day's battle or its weather.

Later in the third scene, Shakespeare calls explicit attention to the poetic continuities that exist between the supernatural and human characters. Fifty lines after Macbeth's words on the day's vicissitudes, after the witches hail Macbeth and Banquo three times and give them three predictions, and after the witches vanish, the two soldiers reiterate the gist of the surprising prophecies:

Macb.:

Your children shall be kings.

Ban.:

                             You shall be King.

Macb.:

And Thane of Cawdor too; went it not so?

Ban.:

To th' selfsame tune, and words. Who's here?

(1.3.86-88)

This brief stichomythia is followed immediately by the arrival of Rosse and Angus, who announce that Macbeth actually has been named Thane of Cawdor. The audience, of course, has known of Macbeth's advancement since the end of 1.2, where in words and rhyme reminiscent of the witches' opener, Duncan orders in one breath the "death" of Cawdor and the removal of his title to "Macbeth," after which Rosse responds, "I'll see it done," and the king redundantly notes in closing, "What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won" (1.2.66-69). At the end of 1.3, this repeated announcement sends Macbeth into rapt asides so intriguing that little, if any, attention has been focused on the words of Banquo and Macbeth I have quoted.

The lines, however, clearly imply an intimate relationship between the witches' words and the hero's words. Banquo's answer to Macbeth's query about the accuracy of his remembrance of the witches' prophecies, moreover, refers not only to the repeated "words" themselves but to the "tune" with which Macbeth has accompanied them. Banquo says that Macbeth's rendition is "selfsame," although on the page neither word nor rhythm is perfectly identical to the earlier predictions. The order, for example, is exactly reversed, and all the hailings are gone. Perhaps, then, Banquo is only joking. It is more likely, however, that Macbeth has imitated the speech of the witches. That he has done so, or rather that Banquo and Macbeth have together done so, is hinted in the repetitive rhetorical structure of the lines: three separate phrases, the second of which repeats the first with nearly identical syntax and the same end-word, "King."

Metrically, the Scots' remembrance does not recapitulate exactly the [End Page 347] largely iambic (with some trochaic) feminine pentameters characteristic of the witches' prophetic greetings to Macbeth...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-0383
Print ISSN
0039-3738
Pages
pp. 346-383
Launched on MUSE
2003-08-04
Open Access
No
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