- Linguistic Taboos and the "Unscene" of Fear in Macbeth*
In her essay of 1984 on ineffability in Shakespeare, Marjorie Garber gives Macbeth as a typical example of how linguistic interdiction may be due to a taboo. Her reference is to the "deed without a name"1 by which the weird sisters famously reply to Macbeth's question about what they were doing when he met them. The forbidden name for the deed, as Garber suggests, "involves some kind of transgression of boundaries," implying conversation with the devilish or the sacred or with prohibited knowledge.2 Although this is a central issue in this play, it constitutes only the furthest end of a series of linguistic and visual taboos focused upon the conscious and painful experience of murder as the utmost transgression of moral boundaries.3
In his study of the killing of kings in Shakespeare, Maynard Mack rightly observes that "Western drama opened with defiance of the king" and that the pattern originally set by Prometheus's challenge of Zeus and Clytemnestra's assassination of Agamemnon, "despite temporary resolutions, has continued through much of the history of drama."4 Mack argues that in Shakespeare it acquired "the central, symbolic function it had in Agamemnon two thousand years before."5 In Macbeth, in particular, he remarks, killing the king is "almost inevitably to be attempted and yet is almost inevitably unperformable" as "the king can be killed, but the whole world, human, natural, and supernatural, reacts to offer a new king."6 Thus regicide appears strangely neutralized, in fact made "impossible, for better and worse."7 [End Page 55]
And yet, there are other levels of performance more closely concerned with the representation of regicide onstage that suggest more ambiguous approaches. It has often been pointed out that following Elizabeth's 1559 proclamation against the acting of plays "wherin either matters of religion or of the governaunce of the estate of the common weale shalbe handled or treated,"8 theatre had to cope with a sustained royal politics of strict surveillance. The forbiddance of regicide was one crucial tenet of Elizabethan politics; it was central to the establishment of royal power, as witnessed by the famous 1571 An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion, and it was increasingly sustained by James I's absolutist politics.9 Showing it onstage was a delicate question. It has been contended that theatre had to devise strategies to sidestep critique. The king was to be shown weak or mad and in any case the cause of his own delegitimization and fall—for instance, by renouncing the crown; his death was to be the natural consequence of his faults, possibly carried out when no longer a king (as in Richard II) or justified by overt accusations of illegitimacy (as with Claudius in Hamlet).10 Otherwise, the king's murder was normally removed from sight, as in Duncan's case, or it could be reported or re-enacted metatheatrically within a clearly fictitious context, as in Hamlet.11 In many cases, representing king killing meant focusing on acting and role-playing. This allowed to use the dynamics of theatre in order to explore
a wholly new standard of kingship, different from either the two bodies kind of thinking or the Christian service ideal of Gaunt [in Richard II]. Kingship is not an identity or a God-given position anymore. It is not even a complex institutionalized fiction like those of the Middle Ages traced by Kantorowicz and Edward Peters. Rather, it is a role to be played by an actor with skill and illusion. Kingship is coming to have the flexibility of the actor—he is always separate from his mask—but it is also suffering the essential inauthenticity of the theater.12
Indeed, both staging and not staging the killing of a king, by resorting to the artificiality of metatheatre, had numberless implications. In Macbeth, a play which encrypted references to the Gunpowder Plot and at the same time displayed an overt homage to James,13 it certainly had many. Interestingly, not one but two kings are killed in this play, Duncan and Macbeth, both apparently legitimate.14 The good king...