Monday, December 29, 2014

Macbeth's friendlessness

I've always been haunted by this soliloquy --
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. Seyton!
-- by the way Macbeth begins by calling upon Seyton, twice, the way it interrupts itself and then begins again, and then interrupts itself once more to call for Seyton again.  I vacillated between writing "the way it interrupts itself" and "the way he interrupts himself."  But it's the speech that's interrupting itself: the sense of social agency that belongs to a person speaking is over now, or all but over.

This is the first time that Macbeth calls on Seyton, the first time he's mentioned.  Shakespeare was writing Antony and Cleopatra at the same time as Macbeth, and in both plays he is interested in the last unimportant figures who stay loyal to the end, whose loyalty is only noticeable, who are themselves only noticeable, at the end (in A&C it's the schoolmaster Antony sends to negotiate with Caesar).  Seyton matters here because he's the only person Macbeth can count on, because Macbeth still knows that persons are what you count on, that being a person, being able to speak, means being able to speak with someone, to have them care what you say.

I think I'm obsessed by the minimalism of this soliloquy (as in sonnet 73, the language is headed towards the lesser adjectives: sear to the understated yellow; cf. yellow leaves, or none, or few, as though "few" were fewer still than none, as yellow is consciously less sublime, less an achievement, than sear).  "Honour" isn't replaced by abasement but by "mouth-honour," a repetition with a difference that is not revolution.  And he must not look to have these things: it's not just that he won't have them, but that he can't dally with their false surmise.  But he can call Seyton, good air, his only friend.

"When I behold--": prelude to some grand comment on life and its depths, as in the roughly contemporaneous Sonnet 12:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Shakespeare questions even the young man's beauty and its defense against time, when he beholds the violet past prime; Marvell worries, "When I behold the poet, blind yet bold," that Milton will ruin the sacred truths; Wordsworth's heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky.  But Macbeth doesn't need to finish the thought: there's no lesson to be learned here, no reaction that matters, no when which marks any sort of achievement or perspective.  He has lived long enough to be past whens (she should have died hereafter, either way, so when doesn't matter).

I love this soliloquy, I think, because it doesn't state anything, any insight, any generalization, or rather it's all generalization, since there are no particulars that matter any more, nothing he may look to have.  "The poor heart" isn't it's own, but it's what all hearts are now, thanks to him.  He calls Seyton, I think, partly to interrupt these thoughts, but partly to confirm them: calling Seyton and being alone are the same thing.  Not that Seyton is indifferent to him, but that being alone is the human condition in a different way from the way we imagined.  It's not that we're irremediably separated from each other; it's that we're alone together, that we think for others (that's what soliloquies are always about), but what we think about for them is being alone.


NoteDo not say that Shakespeare is writing a hysterical speech for Macbeth here, that he's calling Seyton so insistently so as not to be alone with his own thoughts, like Lear calling on the storm so as not to ponder on things would hurt him more.  Seyton is more like his Fool, but without any of the Fool's presence: most of the Fool's loneliness is internalized in Macbeth, and Seyton represents more the residual element in Macbeth's character that corresponds to the part of Lear's heart that is sorry for the Fool yet.  But Macbeth is not sorry for Seyton: that's just not in question within the residual affect of the scene 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sweets to the sweet

I've been loving, for a long time, the way Shakespeare uses the word sweet.  Two obvious instances.  In Richard II the Queen, puzzled over her own free-floating sadness, says:
                                                   I cannot tell
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard.
And then Edgar's amazing, ambivalent lament:
                                 O our lives' sweetness
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once.
It's an amazing word for Shakespeare, and tends to come at times of sadness and need: "If you do love old men, if your sweet sway allow obedience, if you yourselves are old," Lear pleas with the heavens. Sweet sway.

And I've been thinking why it's such a good word: because it's great and ephemeral, the experience of tasting, not possessing, and the purer the sweetness the less it's about even the idea of something lasting. It's Ashbery's "charity of the hard moments," but without hardness or charity: the sweetness of the moment, as it "Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." It's just for now, but that's pretty great, the way a play can be pretty great.