Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nothing Personal, Duncan

We don't discuss interpretation of the text enough these days. I really should make more progress in R3, but that's a different story :).

The other day I answered somebody's question on Macbeth, asking what this quote means:

I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent

I pointed out that this quote is only partial, and when you look at the rest it makes more sense:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent
, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

And falls on the other.
This quote comes from Macbeth himself, trying to pump up for the bloody deed he's about do (namely, kill the king).  My best summary for this particular passage was, "Nothing personal, Duncan.  I don't have to do this because of anything that you did.  You're just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I want to be king, and that means you gotta go."

I know that's a gross over simplification, but sometimes that's all these kids want.  When I think of "translating Shakespeare into modern speech" this is what I think of.

Anybody want to help flesh out (or correct) that answer?  The next time somebody googles for the meaning of that quote I'd love for them to land here and see some interesting discussion about what that passage means.


Andrew Huntley said...

It seems fairly accurate, the only thing I might add is that he has a moment of doubt where he realizes that if he fails, he is going to be in a very precarious position, i.e. dead, executed for treason, as he knows this will be the case, having executed Cawdor himself.

JM said...

I think Macbeth has explored the gist of your summary--and his conscience, which he cannot ignore-- earlier in the soliloquy when he speaks of what he *should* do as opposed to what he's planning to do. But I don't think it's quite as simple as "Hey Duncan, thems the breaks." I think he's much more sympathetic than that. Hence, his great conflict. I don't think he'd be as bothered as he evidently is by something so cut and dry. And he's actually, finally, come to the antithesis of such a feeling at the end of the soliloquy.

Faced with Duncan's generous nature, the repercussions of the actions he entertains, and the reality of the end results, Macbeth realizes the base nature and bottom line of what it is he can pretend no longer to ignore; namely that it's Ambition with a capital A and Ambition only that drives him.
He pictures himself in the metaphor of an overeager horseman who leaps proudly into the saddle, over-zealously, and falls on the other-- [side ?], in other words to the ground,failing miserably.(Line by line textual analysis reveals that the last line of the speech: "And falls on the other.", even though it ends with a period, may be an incomplete thought finished by Lady Macbeth's entrance, and by his own "How now what news?".)
He knows his "spur" (ambition) is not only not enough of an impetus to warrant his heinous thoughts, but that it can result in an utter and resounding failure in *every* way. He fails as a man, a friend, and a loyal subject, all with the possibility that his plan will fail as well.

He has pretty much come to the conclusion that it's not worth it (I have no spur), then...enter an additional "spur" in the person of Lady Macbeth. They argue for an entire stave longer; Macbeth continues to protest, now to her and not just himself, re: his conscience, manhood, honor, and the very possible total futility of their enterprise, bolstered by his earlier musings. He loses the argument. Macbeth is weak in his resolve, but I don't believe he's weak in honest feelings. He allows them to be overruled. Therein lies his tragedy.

Alan Katz said...

Is there an issue when teaching this if one simply uses the horse metaphor?

MacB-'s career is the horse, which he can't even make run by himself, but if he does go for it he'll fall. As a horse who ambitiously vaults falls on itself.

I know today's kids aren't very equestrian, but would they still get it?

JM said...

Alan--It's all interpretation and imaging. I've seen both the rider and the vaulting horse metaphors given. I think one is as valid as the other. I like the rider one simply because it encompasses Macbeth's person in the rider--it's a personal choice that worked for me when playing the role. But he could also fall *with* the horse on the other side of a vault. Both are great images and, I think, easily understood.