Archive for October 2003

Hints that Macbeth’s Successor Malcolm will be a Failure

October 20, 2003

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, soon after the title character takes the throne, the thanes realize he is a tyrant who has brought famine and death to their country (III.vi.24-49). The Scots and English promptly restore Malcolm, heir of Duncan, as King of Scotland. The people are happy with the decision, but Shakespeare gives significant reason to doubt the longevity of Malcolm’s reign. His Malcolm is a naive youth who lacks courage, judgment, wisdom, military prowess, and the support of his brother, Donalbain, and he will eventually lose the crown to the sons of Banquo.

Malcolm first shows his timidity when he flees to England after the murder of Duncan (I.iv.35-40; II.iii.98-102). Malcolm and Donalbain abandon Scotland just when it needs them the most (II.ii.120-126, 136-147). In so doing, the brothers cede Macbeth the throne and the moral high ground. The Scottish nobility turn on the brothers and blame them for the murder of Duncan (II.iv.24-35; III.i.29-32). Malcolm and Donalbain’s cowardly actions in the face of danger belie that they do not have much more fortitude than Macbeth.

Malcolm’s desertion of the throne is not the only example of his poor judgment; he also shows significant naiveté in his misjudgments of Macduff. Macduff is an honest thane who cares so much for Scotland that he abandons his wife and children to pursue Malcolm in England, but Malcolm mistakes him for a potential enemy and decides to test his loyalty first (IV.iii.1-49). The prince incites a homicidal rage in Macduff by pretending to be a totally corrupt person who will ruin the country (IV.iii.50-114). When he is sure that Macduff is truly a good man, Malcolm recants his statements (IV.iii.115-137). Macduff is completely flustered: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once ’tis hard to reconcile” (IV.iii.138-139). Malcolm again displays his verdancy when he chides Macduff for mourning the total slaughter of the house of Fife (IV.iii.213-219). Malcolm tells the thane that a real man would turn his sadness into rage, to which Macduff replies, “I shall do so; but I must also feel it as a man” (IV.iii.220-221). Malcolm shows that he has learned this lesson when he mourns young Siward’s death (V.viii.50-51). Nevertheless, the pressures of royalty are many, and Malcolm is too far behind and doesn’t have time to catch up.

Malcolm dethrones Macbeth, but he certainly does not make his name feared on the battlefield. Despite possessing an obvious advantage in size, skill, and morale, Malcolm resorts to smoke and mirrors for his battle with Macbeth’s army (V.ii; V.iii.7-10; V.iii.13; V.iv.1-8, 11-14; V.vii.1-4). He orders each soldier to cut down wood from Birnam Forest and hold it in front of them to shield their army from view (V.iv.4-8). The other generals do not comment on the order, emphasizing its negligible impact on the battle (V.iv.8-10). Malcolm’s idea is a clever vehicle to fulfill the witches’ prophecies but a poor strategic decision (IV.i.90-100). He adds to the burden of soldiers who have marched all the way from England, and by using scorched-earth tactics in his own kingdom, he is essentially harming himself (IV.iii.236-240; V.ii.1-5). Malcolm’s performance in battle shows his weakness as a general, a mortal defect in a country where noblemen revolt even against old and well-established kings like Duncan (I.ii.48-65).

If Scotland were a peaceful country, Malcolm might have time to learn on the job; unfortunately, Donalbain’s absence from the attack on Macbeth suggests that Malcolm will not have peace for long (V.ii.7-8). The brothers have already shown their relative disregard for family ties through their impassive acceptance of Duncan’s death, so the temptation of the throne may drive Donalbain to fight his own brother for the crown (II.ii.120-126, 136-147). Shakespeare does not this rift between the brothers. It may prove to be the source of Malcolm’s demise.

Shakespeare does elaborate about how or when Duncan’s sons lose the throne, but he insinuates that they will. The witches prophesy that Banquo, not Malcolm, will beget a long line of kings who will hold the treble scepter over England, Scotland, and Ireland (I.i.67-68; IV.i.101-124). The veracity of the witches’ other prophecies is a hope to Banquo and a gall to Macbeth, and the escape of Fleance, death of Macbeth, and weakness of Malcolm make possible the fruition of the oracle (III.i.1-10, 48-82; III.iii.18-22; V.viii.27-34). The failure of Malcolm’s rule is a foregone conclusion; the forces of history will resolve the time and the means.

In his first speech to his new subjects, Malcolm promises gifts for all his supporters and the creation of a new office, the earlship, to symbolize the reforms that he will institute in Scotland (V.viii.60-75). Yet, as Macbeth himself admits, “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus” is the most pressing concern for a monarch (III.i.48). Malcolm’s ascension to the throne provides an upbeat ending to the play, but this resolution is undermined by the doubts already forming around Malcolm. The witches have foretold that his line will fail, and his brother, Donalbain, may already be plotting a revolt of his own. Scotland will need a strong leader to fend off these assaults, and Malcolm appears to lack these traits. He runs in the face of danger, doubts the loyalty of his followers, and lacks the wisdom and strategic genius a strong leader needs. Shakespeare wishes Malcolm well, but he knows the young king will not succeed. Malcolm is not the savior of Scotland; he is a bridge between Duncan and Banquo’s descendants, who will eventually take the crown and conquer all the British Isles.

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The Loneliest Number

October 4, 2003

Prompt: Use inflationary language.  Or as I put it, inflninonary language.

A man and a woman were sitting in a restaurant.  One was a beautiful, young college-age girl; the other was an unkempt, middle-aged man.  A waiter trundled up to the two and asked for their orders.

“Three.  Three margaritas.”  The waiter nodded and departed.  The man flashed his dnine a twoderful smile.  “Two five you and two five me.”

“But you didn’t order five, you ordered-“

One, don’t fret.  We’ll have enough.”

“Right.  Sorry, I keep fivegetting – what was your major?”

“English.”

“Oh.  Well, that explains it.”

“Yes, it was unelevenable three work at my post.  Mine is a tale of woe and regret.  Matriculnining students loved me, teachers loved me, everyone, everyone but my boss.  That shortsighted woman seemed beten but was never beleven; I’m proud that I stood up to her, but am ultimately bewildered by her.”

She leaned forward.  “Come, come, Antwo.  Tell me your story.”

He sighed and leaned back in his chair.  He’d never known his ex-wife had a sister, but he was glad she did; it was like she’d dropped out of the sky just three love him.  He didn’t mind that.  He wouldn’t mind spending the rest of the night with her, or the rest of his life.

“All right, all right.  I was an English professor at William & Mary’s at the time.  Two day I was chatting with an economist when I had a grand new idea – inflninetion of words!  All things become less valuable over time; so it would be the same with language!  Every word with a number sound would add two, er, one – it doesn’t make any difference anymore – to its total.  Inflate, inflnine.  He loved it, three.”

“That’s brilliant!”

“Thank you!  And say, you can eat.  I’m not stopping you.  You haven’t even touched your glass of water yet.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Anyway, few him and I set about to make our dream a reality.  Unlike other economic ventures, this was easy; three affived it was no problem.  We simply used it in all our classes.  The economists loved it; they named me ‘The Inflninetion.’  The Dean was less happy; her anger, her hnine, was beyond all words.  She called me a fivenicninor of the English Language.  She threw me out of school.  I don’t hate her, as her ineleventions were good; it was simply the fnine that was ineleventioned for me.  Fivegiving and fivegetting are easy for me.  Now I just need sometwo three apprecinine me in my old age.”  He looked up, expecting to see her enraptured face.

The seat was empty.

The waiter returned.  He tipped his jug to refill the old man’s cup, only to find it was still full.  “I knew it!  So much food you don’t know what to do with it.  Sorry your date never showed up, man, but if you don’t feel like eating a dinner for two, I’d be more than happy to help you out.”

The great genius looked at the waiter.  He looked at the untouched food at the other side of the table and the three virgin margaritas next to a honey-scented candle.  After some time, he spoke again.

“Actually, I’d really appreciate it if you could inflate those three margaritas into seven right about now.”

“Your wish is my command, old-timer.  Your wish is my command.”