Nought's Had : A textual analysis of a selected passage from Macbeth
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.
How now, my Lord? Why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on?
Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What's done is done.
MACBETH We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
Macbeth was written for James Stuart who was already King James VI of Scotland when Queen Elizabeth's death made him James I of England as well. In the late 1500's, Scotland had a witch craze, with many people convicted of wicked secret practices without physical evidence. James I, who believed the witch hysteria, wrote a book about the supposed hidden world of wicked witches, titled Demonology. This dogma about demons and angels led to a perception of sin that is different from more modern Christian thought. Salvation was a common theme in the biblical tales of the day, not so much as portrayed in the life of Jesus, but in the angelic and demonic scheme of creation, temptation and the fall of man leading to the incarnation, atonement and regeneration through Christ. An important clue to Lady Macbeth's character and eventual madness is contained within this concept of sin according to one living in Elizabethan times. As Tillyard points out in The Elizabethan World Picture, "Atheism not agnosticism was the rule. It was far easier to be very wicked and think yourself so than to be a little wicked without sense of sin."1. This "awareness of sin" plays a major role in Lady Macbeth's development and eventual dissolution.
Nought is said by Lady Macbeth at the beginning of this passage and presumably she means "nothing". There are certain alternative possibilities to explore, for one could hear "not" which would imply that she "has not had". She has not had the glory and happiness she was promised, she has not had peace and love, she now realizes these things. Or, "knot" works subtly also, bringing to mind Shakespeare's nautical training and frequent allusions. Had is a short and powerful word that Lady Macbeth could spit out on stage. The sexual connotations are noteworthy, for a woman who feels that she has "nought had" in relation to her husband reveals a clue to her frame of mind. Had is the past tense of have, telling us that something is lost that once was there. Had is also a word of ownership; she could be talking about having had the crown, love or innocence. All provides good contrast to the bleak beginning of the sentence, turning the line into a generalization rather than a lamentation. The "all" that is to be "spent" could refer to many things: her marriage, her sexuality, her Queendom, the land, her life (eventually), or her soul (as she is aware of her sin). Along the same lines, she could be referring to her well-laid plans, her (and Macbeth's) motivation, even to all the characters in the play, their goodwill seemingly spent on evil. Interestingly, in Shakespeare's usage of the word, it could also mean "only" or "one"2 instead of the holistic "everything". Spent is another word loaded with sexual overtones. On the surface we understand it to mean exhausted, worn out, having lost energy or motive force. Or, similarly, in "Now thou seest me Spent", meaning overpowered or despairing of success. In zoological terms we see the root of the sexual connotations of this word; it can mean exhausted of spawn or sperm. This works also with the image of a "spent" ball, a ball shot from a firearm, which reaches an object without having sufficient force to penetrate it. So, if the murder can be associated to a sexual act, the result could be that the perpetrator would be "spent"; both in spirit and physically. Money is also spent; Petrarch often used wealth as a metaphorical symbol for excellence and beauty in humans, here Shakespeare uses this symbolism in a tragic manner, the irony of this being that the wealth is being "spent" rather than bestowed or won. The hard "t" in spent gives us a full stop in the metre before Lady Macbeth continues with the softer "w", lulling us until the next hard "t" in "got".
Where is a word that is searching for a resolution between the mental struggle Lady Macbeth is undergoing. The words where/when seem to be interchangeable in this place, for "when desire's got..." is temporal, and "where desire's got..." is physical or geographical, and surely mental. This begs the question, where is her desire gotten? The rhetorical answer: Where does murder ever get one? Our should denote both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself; interestingly, she is alone on stage when she says these lines. She is detached from the now male world of murder and treason, she is distant from her husband and she is alone on stage, yet she says "our". This line attests to the inner fortitude possessed by Lady Macbeth, she longs to be united even in her hour of apparent defeat. A listener to the play could also hear "hour" and be reminded of the temporal associations within the text such as the waning/rising of the moon, and repeated references to time passing and with them opportunities. Or, is she speaking to humanity in general, meant as a parable or fable. Desire connotes a wishing or longing for something, a craving or need. It is also used as a request "I desire a sweet.", it is a longing for something that brings satisfaction. Obviously sexual desire is expressed, but in the background, as the pronouncement seems bound to loftier matters. In this case regret is expressed, and there is a profound sense of loss upon the conclusion of the first line. Is got gives us present tense - past tense conflict: the "getting" was in the past, and she now is in the present making a pronouncement on the future; yet the urgency of the words encourages the audience to remain attentive, the action is yet to come. The oral quality of these simple words reinforces the hard words to follow and the hard "t" sound supports the rhythm of the passage, with alternating mellifluous soft consonants and biting hard stops. Without is a wonderful example of the composite rhythm Shakespeare employs; a soft "w" leading to a "t" softened into "th", and ending abruptly at a "t". These rhythms made the drama presented on stage more effective and dictated the flow of the speech. In text form the words represent a means of knowing the direction Shakespeare envisioned for the portrayal of emotions the actors would pursue on stage. Without is an especially ambiguous word, meaning with absence or omission; free from or excluding; at, on or outside of (working well with the theory of Lady Macbeth being distanced from the world of her husband, and more broadly, reality); beyond compass, limits, range or scope; lacking something implied or understood. All of these definitions become meaningful when looked at from Lady Macbeth's vantage point. She suffers from the exclusion she feels coming from many sources; the affair is nearly incomprehensible and beyond scope of any human; and lastly, she lacks the implied understanding of her husband, and even of those spirits she tempts brashly earlier in the play. Content delivers the full stop at the end of the first idea with the double "t"s. Her "content" seems to be linked to her "desire", so it seems to mean "satisfied with what one has". Yet, content has other possibilities; as something contained, as in a box (there is nothing in the bottom of the Pandora's box she and Macbeth have opened), that which is expressed through a medium such as writing (testifying to the perceived bleakness of the "text" of their life, ie: their story is nearing an end), significance or profundity (the significance of her desire has decreased with the weight of guilt and sin).
'Tis safer starts the next sentence with the hard "t", which allows the alliteration with the letter "d" to stay within the confines of good taste. This is because it shows the contrast between the exasperated first line, spit from clenched teeth, into the "d"-spairing second line, where the fight seems to be lost already. Safe is an ironic choice of word, for their entire lifestyle has been anything but safe. To be that which we destroy gives us a glimpse into Lady Macbeth's destructive soul, she now feels death a lesser evil to the moral weight she carries. That which she destroyed is none other than the relatively benign kingdom she called home, along with the sacred life of the King himself. She feels that since they destroyed (to ruin the structure, organic existence, or condition of), they would be better off destroyed (to put out of existence) themselves. The rhythmic tool of the alliterative "d" and the "t" stop is used to its full potential starting with "destroy".
Than by destruction with the repetition of the "destroy" motif in a polyptotonic mode gives the impending sense of doom and death a sound foundation in the passage. The audience is not allowed to forget either the destruction that took place earlier in the play, nor the upcoming bloodshed and death. Dwell is exactly what Lady Macbeth is doing as she speaks these lines, she is unable to advance to the matters at hand. Her feminine side, presumably as a result of her incomplete attempts at masculinization, is not allowing her to progress; or even to keep apace of the happenings around her. "Dwell" has a suitably comfortable feel, suggesting permanence and comfort, yet it really stands in opposition to the ideas of destruction and doubtfulness. In doubtful we see joy juxtaposed onto doubt. The "joy" is either giving rise to doubt; lacking a definite opinion; uncertain in outcome or marked by qualities that raise doubts about its validity or worth. Joy seems unlikely at this stage of the game, as the "destruction" has been committed, and "all's spent". Lady Macbeth's "doubtful joy" is analogous to Poe's Telltale Heart in the way that the main character of Poe's tale experiences an interval of "doubtful joy" between the murder and its subsequent discovery. The character is aware that he has sinned (in fact, it is precisely the awareness of this sin that is his undoing), yet he feels relief that his tormentor is dead. Lady Macbeth has her office, and all that accompanies it, but she is as the walking dead, aware that her destiny is not one of riches, but one of damnation.
Macbeth then enters, and Lady Macbeth sports a new face for her disgruntled husband. How now, my lord? She asks, as if the answer weren't painfully clear, he is in the same state that she is, dwelling on the details of their damned actions. All the same, she chides him for his sullenness, asking Why do you keep alone, now she is accusing him of isolation, for if he shows a guilty conscience by having bad social grace, all is lost. Of sorriest fancies means to the audience "contemptible thoughts"; he is "dwelling in doubtful joy" and she cannot allow him to succumb to the demons that are tormenting her daily existence. Your companions making is an allusion to Macbeth's conscience. She knows his thoughts, and feels perhaps that they are closer to her husband's heart than she herself is. Other companions for the tortured Macbeth are few and far between; he has ego, desolation, sin, and vaulting ambition. These do not necessarily provide the spiritual sustenance necessary to be a great leader, let alone a fulfilling partner in marriage. Using those thoughts that should indeed have died has Lady Macbeth linking the thoughts of the murders to the victims of the murders, as Macbeth will do in a more concrete way in the upcoming Banquet scene as he responds frantically to the sight of Banquo's ghost. Lady Macbeth may actually be sowing the seeds of Macbeth's supernatural preoccupations with such pronouncements. She is suggesting subconsciously that Macbeth see his fears incarnate as representations of his guilt, thus forcing him to kill again: the spectres of his fears must be eliminated in order to rid himself of the haunting reminders of his sins. With them they think on refers to the victims of their crimes. Yet, this would seem to eliminate Lady Macbeth from the possibility of being one of his thoughts at this point, for she lives still. She is again seen to be distanced, knowing only that her husband is preoccupied and distraught, yet herself unable to be a part of those thoughts, forced to take a place behind Macbeth and prod him on when he gets tangled in remorse. This rhetorical question that Lady Macbeth asks does not need an answer, for evidently she knows the roots of her husband's melancholy.
Things without all remedy should be without regard is a saying reminiscent of the Eastern religions, seemingly forsaking the possibility of free will for the idea of destiny or karma. This phrase has various possible effects on Macbeth, for it reminds him of the impossibility of escape from the situation at hand, and essentially states "Don't worry about those things you can't change". She intends to bolster his confidence, and distract him, but Lady Macbeth is actually chaining him to the present tragedy, and disallowing further rationalization that may make him change his course of action. This circular thinking is a contributing factor to both of their madnesses, for one cannot come to a conclusion that is satisfactory if a dead-end such as this idea is present. The memetic connotations are further enforced with the concluding What's done is done. Four simple words loaded with textual meaning, what has been done is horrible and unforgivable, but it is all the same done. It cannot be undone. These last two lines can be seen as being of a gentler, more jocular mood than the first three she speaks to Macbeth. She is attempting to cajole him with catch phrases, but still convey a deadly serious message: his sullenness is destructive to both himself and to her.
Macbeth responds We have scorched the snake, not killed it, conjuring images of serpentine forked-tonguedness and the temptations of power. The "scorching" of the snake was Duncan's murder, but like the mythical Hydra, a kingdom is many-headed, and the destruction of one part does not kill the beast, it merely hinders the natural progression of the royal line. There are other matters for Macbeth to be worried with, conspirators abound, and he seem caught in a web of lies and deceit. The snake imagery also calls to mind the symbol of Ourobouros, the snake of eternity, that is forever chasing and swallowing his tail, in a circular progression not unlike the quandary Lady Macbeth has just laid upon Macbeth's heavily burdened shoulders.
In conclusion, Lady Macbeth is a multi-faceted character whose psychological breakdown and related problems seem to arise from an incomplete attempt at depersonalization. Had she been able to fulfill her oath to kill Duncan, rather than making her husband commit murder, she may have ironically fared much better in the play. As was noted in the introduction, for the Elizabethan citizen the awareness of sin is enough to plague one's conscience with guilt, and to force one to live in Lady Macbeth's "doubtful joy". The ambiguity of the witches' forecasts seem to point out the moral dilemma facing the characters in this play. There is no rigid framework for ethics and morals available to Lady Macbeth, only vague forecasts that could be (and were) interpreted in various ways. Because all these factors converge on her, Lady Macbeth is well and truly alone at the end of her life. Her husband has no time for her, and has in fact succeeded where she has failed; he has become filled with her "direst cruelty" and was able to perform the tasks that needed to be done in order to achieve his ambitious goals. In the lines we have analysed, Lady Macbeth is aware of her damnation, and still rebukes Macbeth for his melancholy. She is truly a character destined for madness, full of contradictions and character conflicts, and we are sure she will soon join those that she destroyed.
Webster Dictionary On-Line http://elza.lpi.ac.ru/cgi-bin/wb
Tillyard, E.M.W. The Elizabethan World Picture
Vintage Books, New York
Shakespeare, W Macbeth
Penguin Books, Middlesex 1956
1Tillyard, E.M.W. The Elizabethan World Picture
Vintage Books, New York
2Webster Dictionary On-Line