Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Clintons-Macbeths

In response to some of the recent events in the Democratic primary campaign, I sent the following quotes to a dear friend of mine, a retired married woman who lives on the East Coast and is supporting Barack Obama's candidacy. Back in the 1990s, I first jokingly raised the analogy of the Clintons and the Macbeths; I don't claim any originality for it since I would imagine Shakespearean scholars, students and enthusiasts could find analogies for almost anyone and anything in the rich trove of his collected works. Part of what motivated it was an annoyance at something the Clintons, whom I admire but also consider to be one of the most ruthless duos on the political horizon, had done, and part of it was my ongoing fascination with Shakespeare's play, whose drama, structure and language never fail to enthrall me. (I feel the same way about Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Richard II, and a number of his other works.)

I still would argue that mapping the Shakespearean principals onto the junior Senator and her husband, the former President, is problematic, but I also think that one could very well pull all sorts of passages out of that place to describe some of their (behavior). So here goes (the act and scene are given in parentheses at the end of each quote):

Lady Macbeth:
(Speaking to Macbeth/Bill, but also speaking of her own ambition)
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised: yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it: what thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou'ldst have, great Glamis,
That which cries 'Thus thou must do, if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.' Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear;
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round. (1.5)

Lady Macbeth:
(Calling for the courage to carry out the drugging, so that Macbeth/Bill may do their enemies in)
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!' (1.5)

Lady Macbeth:
(After reading a letter/email from Macbeth/Bill, exciting her to visions of power)
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5)

Lady Macbeth:
(Talking to Macbeth/Bill about what they'll do to poor Duncan/Obama or anyone else who ends up in their lair)
O, never
Shall sun that morrow see!
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't. He that's coming
Must be provided for: and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch;
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom. (1.5)

Lady Macbeth:
(Her sheer ruthlessness, laid bare)
Only look up clear;
To alter favour ever is to fear:
Leave all the rest to me. (1.5)

(Her ambivalent husband, describing his feelings about the matter)
If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips. ...
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other. (1.7)

Lady Macbeth:
(Speaking to Macbeth/Bill, urging him, as she will, to go on)
We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail. (1.7)

Lady Macbeth:
(Her general principle)
Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy. (3.2)

Now after reading those excerpts, don't you want to go see the play performed? Admit it!


  1. "Why didn't Shakespeare write in regular English? What's with this Olde English?"

    I'm channeling a voice you've no doubt heard.

    The breast passage is, like, one of my favorites. Or, since I rarely return to the plays, my favorite.

    Did you see the Chicago/midwest Henry IV all women cast this spring? Or was that only available downstate?

  2. Keguro, don't you think the English of Macbeth is pretty straightforward? He even creates numerous phrases we still use today, like the "be-all and end-all"! The man (or constellation of persons involved in the writing of these plays) deserves mega props, by any measure. But you are right...then again, people complain about Henry James. Or Herman Melville. Or Zora Neale Hurston. Or....

    I didn't see the Henry IV all-women cast, and I wish I'd known about it. Are you still making periodic undercover visits this way?

  3. Chicago is off my list for the foreseeable future, unless I need a very cheap flight somewhere.

    I honestly have not spent any time with any Shakespeare, apart from the sonnets, for more years than I should admit. With the sonnets, it's more the contemporaneity of sentiment rather than style or language that fascinates me.

    The all-woman cast was fascinating; it made explicit, I think, the strange (queer) gender neutrality of Shakespeare's characters. Even Lady Macbeth, perhaps especially Lady Macbeth, seems oddly gendered, her body full not of "femininity," but all sorts of un-gendering, de-gendering substances. Perhaps?

  4. Keguro,

    I often look at the plays, particularly to study characterization, plotting, and the intricacies of the rhetoric, metaphor and symbolism, among other things. I particularly love how he shifts between verse and dramatic prose given the speakers, the circumstances, and the affect and dramatic effects he's aiming for. Macbeth is not his greatest, I know, but I cannot get enough of those two. And then there's the ever problematic Othello.... "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,-- / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!-- / It is the cause." How can any writer who cares about language not appreciate such gifts, whoever wrote them? Truly Shakespeare is inexaustible. I do love the sonnets too, though. I've taught them at the high school and undergraduate level, and look forward to the day when I can teach them at the graduate level.

    I would love to have seen that performance. It sounds utterly fascinating, and there are several of his plays that offer interesting queer possibilities. Imagine As You Like It with the genders of all the performers switched, for example (this has probably been done umpteen time, hasn't it?).