Friday, June 3, 2011

Macbeth is Down for the Count

While reading Macbeth, I made a list of some themes that seemed to come up often. Here's what I wrote:

     • What you can read in a face (Does a face reveal the heart or hide it?)
     • What makes a man, what makes a woman (Masculinity = courage? Femininity = meekness?)
     • Thought and action (Why hesitate? What happens between thought and deed?)
     • Devils and Angels (Appearances by, influence by, men and women as)
     • Fear and courage (Does it take fear or courage to kill? Does murder cause fear or courage?)
     • Time, being on time (The unchangeable past, the sense of Fate decreeing the moment, etc.)

It occurred to me to run the text through a word-count program to see if sheer statistics would bear out any of my impressions. What I found contained a mixture of the confirming, the thought-provoking, and the trivial. Representing the last category, the most common word in Macbeth is "the," used 647 times. For anyone fascinated with Shakespeare's use of articles, I'll report that, by contrast, "a" comes up only 239 times and "an" a paltry 28.

Moving past the articles, prepositions, pronouns, and common verbs like "is" and "have," the most frequent special word is "Macbeth"; it will not surprise anyone that Macbeth is a main theme in his own play, especially when he shares a name with another important character. The next most frequent peculiar word is "king," again no surprise in a play about a man who kills a king and becomes a king. Then come "lady," "good," and "time," all with over 40 occurrences. The first happens mostly in stage directions indicating Lady Macbeth, and "good" happens mostly in the common phrase "my good lord," but the results seem to show that I was right about the importance of time. A quick search finds these phrases: " 'Tis time, 'tis time," "Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits," "Th' untimely emptying of the unhappy throne," "She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word," and so on.

Weighing in at 35 occurrences is "fear," again confirming one of my observations. "Man" comes just behind with 33. Next, the high frequency of the word "night" (29 appearance) shows me I missed a common reference, but now that I think of it, most of the action happens at night, especially the appearance of ghosts and daggers and such. Similarly, "sleep" happens 23 times, and seeing it high on the results reminds me that Macbeth can't sleep after he becomes a murderer ("I have murdered sleep!") and that Lady Macbeth walks in her sleep. Certainly I should say that night and sleep are thematic to this dark, death-ridden drama. "Hand" and "blood" both come up 23 times; it's pretty painfully obvious now that I should have included bloody hands on my list. (Does anyone else wish they had named their dog Spot just so they could quote Lady Macbeth?)

Even without overwhelming numbers, the other themes on my list still make some sense; "angel" and "angels" come up twice each, and some of the other ideas don't depend on particular words. It's certainly not the most sophisticated method of analysis, but it was a funny experiment to try. Seeing "thane" on the list at 25 occurrences makes me think that the exercise might be better used as the basis of a game. What play yields these results?

     • 99 love
     • 46 sweet
     • 40 night
     • 40 eyes
     • 35 fairy
     • 30 moon
     • 25 wood
     • 19 sleep
     • 14 snout
     • 14 moonshine
     • 9 cobweb

Too easy.