Thursday, June 2, 2011

Clichés and Macbeth

Nancy and I once had some friends over to watch Mel Gibson's Hamlet. I wasn't sure what they thought of Shakespeare (or Mel Gibson, for that matter), so I tried to keep things light-hearted. After the famous soliloquy, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: "Well that was just one cliché after another."

And, of course, in a way, it is. "To be, or not to be." "There's the rub." "Shuffled off this mortal coil." "A bare bodkin." "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." These all pop up from time to time in semi-serious literature, conversation, and even comedy monologues. At least I've heard them in these contexts. But the Bard of Avon never heard them in conversation; he made them up, just as he concocted "To thine own self be true," "In my mind's eye," "Brevity is the soul of wit," and a dozen other phrases that people might recognize today without ever having seen or read the play.

Macbeth, too, has its creative combinations that have become part of everyday language. "What's done is done." "The milk of human kindness." "I bear a charmed life." "Double, double toil and trouble." Their very familiarity makes it hard sometimes to appreciate the playwright's achievement. "The be-all and the end-all" is so common, it's easy to fly by it in Macbeth and take it as a commonplace, as if Shakespeare would ever have had to throw in an overused phrase because he couldn't think of any better way to fill seven syllables. Instead, we should stop and marvel at the mind that could come up with a construction both weird and perfectly clear. Yeah, it's weird. People would give me looks if I called someone a do-all or a start-none. We can call someone a "know-it-all," but not a "know-all." We can't even call someone or something simply a "be-all." It has to be both be-all and end-all, or else it just sounds wrong-all.

By contrast "What's done is done" sounds totally pedestrian. But could anything be more powerful than this flat tautology when Lady Macbeth uses it to sum up her advice to her husband to quit worrying about all the people he's killed?

The play is crammed full of great lines, thousands that people don't walk around quoting in casual conversation. Example 1:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
The blood as symbol of the stain of guilt, the invocation of Neptune's power (or lack of power in this case), the image of  Macbeth's crimson sin turning the color of all the seas of the world -- beauty shines from all directions in this passage. And if I could coin one word as cool as "incarnadine" and include it in even history's worst play, I would live the rest of my days with an assurance of accomplishment.

Example 2:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
With its self-willed command to the flame of life, its mounting images of human existence as meaningless text (eerily presaging postmodernism's concept of empty signifiers), and its devastating last line, fighting relentlessly against the meter only to die two feet too soon, this speech is the most hauntingly powerful declaration of nihilism I know. It's greatness demonstrates the problem with the philosophy of despair, though. How could life signify nothing when such beautiful language exists in the world? The more it convinces, the more it refutes itself.

1 comment:

  1. Grammarly Cost
    Language is an important part of expressing ourselves to the whole world. It is needed while we are speaking to someone and also when we are writing something. The language that we talk often tends to have colloquialisms, and the grammar isn't always perfect. But it does reflect into our writings. Along with that, we aren't always able to write in perfect grammar.