Everyone Already Knows What Owl She's Talking About
August 25, 2021 11:34 PM   Subscribe

How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth” (SL Medium) Actors and critics have long remarked that when you read Macbeth out loud, it feels like your voice and mouth and brain are doing something ever so slightly wrong. There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people. It’s as if Shakespeare somehow wove a tiny bit of creepiness into every single line. The literary scholar George Walton Williams described the “continuous sense of menace” and “horror” that pervades even seemingly innocuous scenes.
posted by gusottertrout (97 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
Owl be back.
posted by fairmettle at 11:44 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I love this kind of thing, thanks for posting!

It feels (totally anecdotally) to me like the construction “the hand” and “the eye” aren’t all that unusual. (I can’t think of examples right now, but maybe it’s noteworthy that those are the constructions used to talk about one’s body parts in many languages, including Spanish.)

I want to ask the other side of the question: is Shakespeare more likely to use indefinite articles or personal possessives (e.g. “an owl”, “my hand”) ahead of nouns in other scripts when compared to Macbeth? Like, what happens when you take the inverse document frequency of indefinite articles conditioned on there being a following noun? (I’m super sleepy so please forgive me if this makes no sense)
posted by chaiyai at 11:57 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


missed one in "th'innocent," methinks
posted by chavenet at 11:59 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


[also, this explains the ur-creepiness of an all-too recent construction: "The Donald"]
posted by chavenet at 12:00 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


I want to ask the other side of the question: is Shakespeare more likely to use indefinite articles or personal possessives (e.g. “an owl”, “my hand”) ahead of nouns in other scripts when compared to Macbeth?

It's a good question, I think they get at this indirectly by:

So they compared word-usage in Macbeth to Shakespeare’s overall writing. What words did he use in Macbeth more frequently than in his other plays?

So while that doesn't answer the question exactly, it does either suggest more indefinite articles or less use of nouns where the article use would account for the difference in usage.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:08 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I've found that "the eye wink at the hand" construction to be very common among people with disabilities, myself included. I'll often say things like "move the left hand inwards" or "be careful with the feet" instead of "move my left hand" and "careful with my feet". Perhaps it's a way of not claiming them as my own. Once I realized that I was doing it, I made a conscious effort to start saying "my".
posted by Soliloquy at 1:50 AM on August 26 [24 favorites]


We have an owl that lives off yonder past the barn, and it is referred to in household vernacular as "the owl" (well, the Swedish equivalent "ugglan") because, you know, it's the owl we have in the vicinity and it makes its presence known. I mean, how many owls lived around Glamis castle?
posted by St. Oops at 2:12 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


I love this hidden stuff in Shakespeare! Like the animal imagery in Othello, or the verse becoming a sonnet when Romeo meets Juliet.

What gets to me is that Shakespeare seems to have put in all these layers while writing at top speed. He had basically a full-time acting job with a punishingly intense schedule by modern standards (very short runs meaning a load of lines to learn). He had his business interests in Stratford. He didn't have endless time to pore over these compositions. But somehow he was able to just sit down and write with all this complexity.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:35 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


The owls are not what they seem.
posted by kersplunk at 2:38 AM on August 26 [15 favorites]


This again proveth the Shakespeare was the brilliant
posted by polymodus at 3:02 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


I'm going to inject some skepticism here.

Here's the usage of 'the' in some of Shakespeare's works:
::Play, % of words in text that are 'the' thanks to Wolfram Alpha
COMEDIES
As You Like It, 3.22%
Measure for Measure, 3.22%
A MidSummers Night Drean, 3.42%
Much Ado about Nothing, 2.7%
The Tempest, 2.93%

TRAGEDIES
Hamlet, 3.68%
Julius Caesar, 3.01%
King Lear, 3.49%
MacBeth, 3.76%
Romeo and Juliet, 2.73%

HISTORIES
Richard III, 3.26%
Henry IV, Part 1, 3.43%
Henry IV, Part 2, 3.71%
Henry V, 3.92%
CONCLUSION: Sure, MacBeth has many 'the's but not many more than a MidSummer Night's Dream or Hamlet and Less than other plays like Henry V. So, not extraordinary in any way.

Also, the word 'hand' appears many times in MacBeth but there is only one instance, the one quoted of "the hand" Here are some others from MacBeth:
I,6: Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower
I,6: Give me your hand;
II,1: The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
II,2: And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
II,2: My hands are of your colour; but I shame
IV,1: The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
etc.
Regarding "the owl":
Henry VI, Part 3: The owl shriek'd at thy birth,—an evil sign;
Venus and Adonis: The owl, night's herald, shrieks, 'Tis very late;'
So, yes, this does seem to me to be a specific owl rather than 'an owl'

From the article: "By saying “it was the owl that shriek’d”, Lady Macbeth is — in a quite deliciously creepy way — implying that everyone already knows what owl she’s talking about."

Yes, it is the owl that shrieks, the herald of the night as we know from other plays.
posted by vacapinta at 3:16 AM on August 26 [32 favorites]


I'm going to inject some skepticism here.

And you're welcome in doing so! Is there a way to look at the individual uses with Wolfram Alpha site other than downloading? I can't download anything on this computer.

What I found interesting about the idea is in how a use of "the" worked with the idea of fate in Macbeth, potentially giving a stronger sense of a predetermined path by use of "the" rather than an indefinite article and wondered if there was any correspondence to that use in the other plays. (Realizing of course that "the" is gonna be used commonly in a number of ways as well.)
posted by gusottertrout at 3:38 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Stupid paywall is stupid.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 4:05 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Macbeth has many 'the's but not many more than A Midsummer Night's Dream or Hamlet and less than other plays like Henry V. So, not extraordinary in any way

Hope and Witmore address this in their article (for which you'll need an academic subscription), where they use a tool called WordHoard to compare the frequency of 'the' in Macbeth with its frequency across the whole corpus of Shakespeare's plays:
WordHoard’s figures show that ‘the’ occurs in Macbeth 422 times every 10,000 words. In Shakespeare as a whole, ‘the’ appears only 327 times every 10,000 words. In terms of actual instances, ‘the’ appears 703 times in Macbeth; but if Shakespeare were behaving ‘normally’, it would only appear 545 times. So we can say that there are about 150 ‘extra’ ‘the’ forms in Macbeth.
Hope and Witmore also note that, along with the higher frequency of 'the' in Macbeth, there is a slightly lower frequency of 'a'. They conclude: 'there seems a reasonable statistical case for saying that there is a tendency in Macbeth, compared to the canon as a whole, for determiners to be definite (‘the’, ‘that’, ‘those’) rather than indefinite (‘a’, ‘some’).'

Having read the recent thread on p-values, I think I'll reserve judgement on whether this is statistically significant. But it's not just the owl, of course; there's the crow as well: 'Light thickens; and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood.'
posted by verstegan at 4:07 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


We can't talk about weird words used in Macbeth, and most especially in an article which picks out "weird" itself - without pausing to consider that that word meant in Scotland. I will leave it to Len Pennie to explain: Scots word of the day - WEIRD.

Weird, was and is a noun in Scots meaning "fate". For example in the proverb "A man may woo where he will, but wed where his weird is". Macbeth - was of course a real king of Scotland in the 11th century. In writing his play Shakespeare drew on the account of Raphael Holinshed - from the 1580s. And Holinshed in turn was working from earlier records. One of these was Andrew of Wyntoun - who appears to have introduced the supernatural elements and murder accusations, to the tale. Wyntoun's account was about the fate of Macbeth itself - but this aspect of the tale was personified in the "Weird Sisters" - who were so called not because they were strange as because they were prophetic.

If a Scot uses "weird" today, they are almost certainly using it in the same context as the rest of the world understands it - but that is all thanks to Shakespeare's misunderstanding.
posted by rongorongo at 4:18 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


Color me skeptical, although I do like the "hiding in plain sight" aspect of this.

I've never seen Macbeth performed in full, only snippets of it in shows about the theatre (see what I did there) like Slings and Arrows. I kept meaning to watch the Patrick Stewart version on Great Performances but I always turn it off during/after the opening scene, which is creepy enough for me, thanks.
posted by basalganglia at 4:20 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


And the reason I'm skeptical is because at a formative age I read James Thurber's Macbeth Murder Mystery. Just like the unnamed American woman, these folks seem to have missed the plot, quite literally.

Macbeth is creepy because a play about ambition, usurpation, and revenge is SUPPOSED to be creepy, even before you get into the whole supernatural thing. See also: Hamlet's manic wordplay, Titus' cannibalism, and everyone's obsession with Desdemona's snot-rag.
posted by basalganglia at 4:27 AM on August 26 [5 favorites]


Can anyone with access to the article see whether they took out Middleton's scenes?
posted by Hypatia at 4:45 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Yes, it is the owl that shrieks, the herald of the night as we know from other plays.

The owl shrieks to herald the night, just as "the rooster/cock crows" to herald morning. In modern times, it's "the clock" we keep an eye on to know the time of day, and we listen to "the radio" to receive announcements from beyond.

I'm surprised there was no mention in the article of whether "the" constructions were/are used more frequently in Scottish English or Scots than in more Southern dialects.
posted by trig at 4:46 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


there's the crow as well: 'Light thickens; and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood.'

See also "as the [crow/arrow] flies"
posted by trig at 4:48 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the full paper, but there are simpler explanations for all the usages singled out in the article.

"The owl" is actually quite a common way of referring to owls in general. It's a little more formal, sure, but really no weirder than this exchange would be today:
"Is it the owl that collects shiny things for its nest?"
'No - it's the magpie that does that."

As for "to beguile the time, be like the time", Lady M's not talking about time as an abstract concept, but about the time they both find themselves living in. The meaning is no more than: "To avoid looking suspicious, observe the same customs which presently apply in society as a whole" - in other words, the customs of the time.

Shakespeare avoids having his characters say "my hand" or "my eye" because he was writing a heightened version of english for performance on the stage. He's not trying to reproduce the casual, everyday language of average citizens any more than Abraham Lincoln was when he composed the Gettysburg Address.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:02 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


If I may offer some Browning (by way of Bertie Wooster):

The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven-
All's right with the world!

Doesn't sound like he's implying a personal relationship with a specific snail, and certainly not with a particularly creepy one...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 5:36 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Now do The King in Yellow.
posted by bouvin at 5:56 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


I always thought it creepy when a man refers to his spouse as 'the wife'.
(But 'the kids' is for some reason not weird at all to me)
posted by MtDewd at 5:59 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


This seems like the place to drop a reference to the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, done by the Folger Shakespeare Library. They really do cover interesting topics, including some on language.
posted by gudrun at 6:02 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


[also, this explains the ur-creepiness of an all-too recent construction: "The Donald"]

Not all that recent: it was the formulation often used by Ivana Trump speaking English in the 1980s (hypercorrection, as her native Czech lacks articles and she was seemingly a little murky on their use in English).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:26 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I'm all for any reasoned inquiry into how Macbeth works. That combination of narrative drive and disorientation is fascinating. Still, there are some elements right on the surface.

When one of the witches talks about tormenting the husband of a woman who slighted her by not giving her chestnuts, she says: "I'll drain him dry as hay." That's fucking spooky.

Speaking of fucking spooky, here's Judi Dench in the sleepwalking scene, looking at her disembodied hands and giving perhaps the greatest scream in recorded history. Yet also notice: "Here's the smell of the blood — still!" A woman is obsessively washing her hands in her sleep, smelling blood on them.

And yes: "the smell of the blood" has a disjointed horror that "I smell blood on my hands" does not have.
posted by argybarg at 6:27 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]


I assume you are all taking the necessary precautions when you speak the name of the Scottish play.
posted by emjaybee at 6:33 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


If I may offer some Browning (by way of Bertie Wooster):

The lark's on the wing;


You may. You should. I would note that The lark and The nightingale figure in Romeo and Juliet, so make of that what you will. (Probably a thesis on Birds of Shakespeare someplace. And the definite article for that matter.)

Gets around, the lark.
posted by BWA at 6:38 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Not to "well actually" a Blackadder excerpt, but I do take care to point out that the superstition is against saying the name "Macbeth" inside the theater, usually just within the dressing room.

p.s. Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends.
posted by argybarg at 6:39 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


TheophileEscargot: He didn't have endless time to pore over these compositions. But somehow he was able to just sit down and write with all this complexity.

He reworked his plays over the course of performances. Furtheremore, the versions in the First Folio have today were edited, so what we have written down today is very different from what an audience would've seen on opening night.
posted by Kattullus at 6:40 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


emjaybee, you mean Macbeth? [Edit, arrgh, missed the link, sorry]
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 6:40 AM on August 26


what we have written down today is very different from what an audience would've seen on opening night.

Hence his little known work, "We Bombed in Stratford-Upon-Avon."
posted by BWA at 6:45 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Probably a thesis on Birds of Shakespeare someplace.

Not just a thesis.
posted by Paul Slade at 6:54 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


The MetaFilter: I'm going to inject some skepticism here.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:00 AM on August 26 [13 favorites]


I always thought it creepy when a man refers to his spouse as 'the wife'.
(But 'the kids' is for some reason not weird at all to me)


The plural "kids" might make it OK here. I would find a man (or woman) who said "the kid" annoying.
posted by FencingGal at 7:05 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


He reworked his plays over the course of performances.

He could certainly have revised versions between runs. But in "1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear" James Shapiro points out that play runs back then were extraordinarily short, e.g. a week or two. So an actor would have to learn all the lines for a major part, and then a week or so later do it again. Shakespeare can't have been that popular with the rest of the cast if he was dicking around with the script in the middle of a run too.

I was reading one analysis that compared part of Cleopatra to his source (Plutarch describing Cleopatra's barge I think) and it pointed out that Shakespeare basically just went sentence by sentence through the source, rewriting it as blank verse. At least at times it seems to me like Shakespeare was writing at speed.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:17 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Not to "well actually" a Blackadder excerpt, but I do take care to point out that the superstition is against saying the name "Macbeth" inside the theater, usually just within the dressing room.

Yeah, I know someone who works in theatre and who also reckons character quirks are what make up a personality. He will ostentatiously avoid saying the name except during a performance of the play. I knew him in high school: if you ask him what Shakespeare plays we covered in English class, he will -- I guarantee -- list them off: "Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Scottish Play, and King Lear."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:20 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Everyone go listen to Ian McKellen do the "sound and fury" soliloquy.

Then go listen to him talk about it. Note: Patrick Stewart attended this lecture. He later offered a version of the soliloquy of his own.

I watched the Fassbender Macbeth recently and it was fucking harrowing. Almost too much. Macduff's family burned at the stake... That play creeps me the fuck out and sows doubt as to the possibility of good in this broken world.
posted by Caxton1476 at 7:20 AM on August 26 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: creeps me the fuck out and sows doubt as to the possibility of good in this broken world.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:22 AM on August 26 [11 favorites]


p.s. Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends.

Someone needs to correct the Wikipedia article which erroneously has this as "Hot potato, off his drawers, pluck to make amends!" based on an incorrect tweet.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:36 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


TheophileEscargot: He could certainly have revised versions between runs. But in "1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear" James Shapiro points out that play runs back then were extraordinarily short, e.g. a week or two. So an actor would have to learn all the lines for a major part, and then a week or so later do it again. Shakespeare can't have been that popular with the rest of the cast if he was dicking around with the script in the middle of a run too.

That is a good point, and I should've been more precise with what I meant. I'm no expert, and just going by other scholarship I've read, but from what I understand, theaters in Shakespeare's time would rotate their plays, cycling rather quickly through them. Shakespeare and his troupe would use what they had learned from previous iterations to improve the play. How much was changed, we don't really know.

However, the First Folio is clearly an edited collection, and some of the plays might be substantially different from their original performances. But again, since more than half the plays in the First Folio were only printed within its covers, we have a very limited idea of how much or little was changed by its editors.
posted by Kattullus at 7:45 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I watched the Fassbender Macbeth recently and it was fucking harrowing. Almost too much. Macduff's family burned at the stake... That play creeps me the fuck out and sows doubt as to the possibility of good in this broken world.

Macbeth is bleak af. I remember seeing a production (it was excellent) when I was a young teenager and it was the first time I realized that a play could just flat out brutalize an audience.
posted by thivaia at 8:05 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


If your only tool is statistical analysis, then everything is just data and numbers.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:52 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


"Well, this is true to form; no surprises there. He started five of his eleven novels to date with the definite article. We’ve had two of them with 'it', there's been one 'but', two 'at's, one 'on' and a 'Delores'. Oh, that, of course, was never published."
posted by dragstroke at 9:01 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


The article is about the article "the."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:19 AM on August 26 [9 favorites]


The Owl, The.
posted by darkstar at 10:24 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Regarding the article itself, I think the idea has merit and I enjoy this kind of work. I am not entirely convinced of all the conclusions, but this would be fun to talk about in class.

I'm always a bit in awe of pre-digital scholarship that compiled things like complete concordances to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Like...how?
posted by Caxton1476 at 10:30 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


(They call it “The Scottish Tragedy”.)
They do?
posted by howfar at 10:38 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I'm always a bit in awe of pre-digital scholarship that compiled things like complete concordances to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Like...how?

No internet to distract them
posted by trig at 11:05 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


I'm always a bit in awe of pre-digital scholarship that compiled things like complete concordances to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Like...how?

The ancient databases tell of a legend of things called "index cards"
posted by Devoidoid at 11:17 AM on August 26 [12 favorites]


You can play around with word frequency and lots of other types of analysis in the Shakespeare corpus using Voyant Tools.
posted by zepheria at 11:32 AM on August 26 [2 favorites]


"Listen, don't mention the owl! I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it all right."

I think one problem stems from the click-baity nature of the headline. "The" isn't the "creepiest" word, because no one word is "creepy" on its own; it's a word that seems unusually present in some of the creepier language.

Here's a free online Shakespeare concordance if you like.

Regarding Shakespeare's revision process: certainly, he fiddled with the plays, but how much is impossible to tell. Inserting a speech here for a special performance at some aristocrat's manor, removing an allusion to something that might have become a touchy subject -- like removing the admiring references to the Earl of Essex from Henry V -- the only contemporary reference Shakespeare makes in any play! -- after Essex tried to oust QEI and got beheaded for it. It's also quite likely that some changes were contributed by actors through their performances -- maybe a different phrasing or image that sounded better than what was written.

As far as bleak goes... No play is more bleak than King Lear, in my humble opinion. The 2008 version with Ian McKellen is... traumatizing.

I need to rewatch the Fassbender Macbeth. The first time I watched it, the slow speaking pace of much of the verse drove me crazy -- Pace! Pace! Pace! It's in iambic pentameter for a reason, people. Maybe I'd enjoy it more on a second viewing.

And re: Shakespeare's use of "weird" -- pretty sure he was using it in the sense of "fate, destiny" -- not in our modern sense of "strange" (According to the OED, the sense "of strange or unusual appearance, odd-looking" emerges in the early 1800s).
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:48 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I'm always a bit in awe of pre-digital scholarship that compiled things like complete concordances to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Like...how?
posted by Caxton1476


Also if your username's a reference to another famous William, then... well done, you helped make all this possible!
posted by trig at 11:50 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Not just a thesis.

Imagine: you write a play, and hundreds of years later there are people falling out of the sky and malnourished cows because of it.

Thinking about things like this makes it scary to do almost anything.
posted by trig at 11:58 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Next step, use brain scans to determine the creepiest lines. Then you can try to figure out why the lines are creepy.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:06 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


(They call it “The Scottish Tragedy”.)
They do?


Maybe, but it's usually called "The Scottish Play."

In fact, there are two plays called The Scottish Play. Cruelly, neither playwright is Scottish.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:34 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Imagine: you write a play, and hundreds of years later there are people falling out of the sky and malnourished cows because of it.

For Shakespeare, it's a Thursday.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:35 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


I'm always a bit in awe of pre-digital scholarship that compiled things like complete concordances to Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Even post-digital scholarship of this sort (under the broad heading of descriptive bibliography and textual analysis) is incredibly time-consuming, detail-oriented, painstaking work. By examining things like idiosyncratic abbreviations and spellings, they can identify how many typesetters were working on a particular book, and which sections of the book each typesetter had. They can determine the skill level of the typesetters from errors in layout (putting verse as prose, vice versa). Out of a few different copies of a book, they can determine which one was printed first based on comparing tiny fractures and blemishes in particular letters, indicating that the block used was deteriorating. They can speculate on whether a book was prepared from the author's handwritten version (their "foul papers"), from a prompt-book, from memorial reconstruction (the first, "Bad" quarto of Hamlet), from an earlier printing, or even some combination of methods. There was one scholar (can't remember the name and can't find it right now) who compared something like 200 different copies of the First Folio -- every page, every word, every letter -- to identify variants, determine the number of compositors/typesetters, etc. etc. It's fascinating stuff, even if sometimes its more speculative than certain, but it requires a certain kind of dedication to the grind and an eagle-eye for minutiae. TBH, I'd rather let the bibliographers do their work while I try to struggle through some abstruse French Theory :D
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:37 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


There's a really obvious experiment, why didn't they rewrite some passages without 'the' and give it to test readers to see their reactions. They should've at least done that to validate their result easily.
posted by polymodus at 12:51 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


“abstruse French Theory” is “The Scottish Play” for some people.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:24 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


It feels like the article is quite frankly begging the question.

Same thing here with “serpent”! Normally you’d say, “be a serpent” — but “be the serpent” sounds so much more specific and freaky.

No, no you wouldn't "normally" say that! If someone gave you Ali's famous aphorism "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," it would be very normal to say "be the butterfly" when encouraging someone's footwork.

What the specificity of the definite article gives is intensity, not creepiness.
posted by explosion at 1:33 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


I've never seen Macbeth performed in full, only snippets of it in shows about the theatre (see what I did there) like Slings and Arrows.

Ahh, my fave part in Slings and Arrows is when they visit the local grade school production (which is actually quite good) and they let the really mean girl in grade seven play Lady Macbeth, and she totally fucking nails it! Best Lady Macbeth evah. But they're all good.
posted by ovvl at 2:07 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I've done some transcribing and editing of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts - described here - and getting to know a work intimately through that process was a formative experience for me. Simply transcribing another's words teaches us so much, and it opens the text wonderfully.
posted by Caxton1476 at 2:20 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Probably an apocryphal story, but I love it anyway.

An actor got the chance to play Lady Macbeth for the first time and was determined to put her stamp on the role. Casting around for something that hadn't been done before, she decided to play the sleepwalking scene with her eyes closed ... and walked straight off the edge of the stage on the opening night.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:11 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Diana Wynyard, in 1948. Fell 15 feet, but the show went on.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:59 PM on August 26 [6 favorites]


Macbeth is bleak af. I remember seeing a production (it was excellent) when I was a young teenager and it was the first time I realized that a play could just flat out brutalize an audience.

The first time I saw it live, they had an incredibly realistic severed head at the end. They had to have done a life mask of the actor playing Mackers. I’ll never forget it.

I’ve played a witch in two different productions of TSP, both incredible experiences.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:01 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Also, thank you, thread, for reminding me that it's time for my semi-annual "Slings and Arrows" rewatch.
posted by thivaia at 5:15 PM on August 26 [2 favorites]


Also, my favorite six degrees of separation moment came out of the second production I was in. Our Lady MacDuff was worried about screaming without getting hoarse, so I gave her some tips from my old voice teacher. We got to be friends, and I mentioned something about loving Vincent Price movies. It turns out she and Vincent’s daughter had been friends in college.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:45 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


This thread rules!
posted by clavdivs at 6:22 PM on August 26


It is as if these two will do great evil, yet to preserve their humanity, cast everything in third person, to keep distance, and create magic between them. Yet, it is a magical play with witches and prophesies, regret and murder. I worked tech on a production of this play in 1968, (or so) at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. The costume designer surely went on to design Klingon Wear, these costumes were just that, and they used Edgar Varese's electronic music for the production. It was mysterious and dark indeed, and the constant unraveling of affairs in this play, and the portends and foresight, make it plenty a dive into a dark and disasterous conundrum.
posted by Oyéah at 7:15 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


The Queen, my Lord, is dead.
What? All my pretty chickens?
posted by Oyéah at 7:18 PM on August 26


I've seen a couple of performances but my favourite was this Globe production where the groundlings became severed heads poking through a black sheet, and the witches were dressed in battered and bloodstained versions of the tabards the ushers there wear.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:55 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: creeps me the fuck out and sows doubt as to the possibility of good in this broken world.
posted by ricochet biscuit


Thank you. I needed a laugh that hard. I would give you all the favorites if I could.
posted by hippybear at 8:15 PM on August 26


So not the ghosts or the madness or the witches or the revenge then?

Come to think of it, if the definite article has this effect (which I rather doubt) are translations into languages with no articles, like Russian, noticeably less creepy? Does The Scottish Play (not risking it) come across as a rollicking comedy in some countries?
posted by Fuchsoid at 8:48 PM on August 26


The end of the article, it says: "When you’re faced with a mystery, the answer might be something so common and obvious that it’s already in front of you"

So hey you data scientists here's the reason MacBeth is creepy: A dude meets three crazy-looking witches who tells him he's going to be king. Their prophecies start coming true. Egged on by his wife, he kills the King. Blood all over the place. Once he starts killing, the dude literally cannot stop killing. He just can't. He thinks about it but he can't. Meanwhile, his wife tries to wash blood off her hands but it won't come off. She's going to take all the skin off her hands before those stains disappear. Dude tries to pretend everything is okey-dokey. But in the middle of a banquet, the decaying corpse of his victim shows up. He's going slowly insane. He can't stop killing. He gives in to it. He finally meets his doom in a way that the witches had prophesied. So did the dude have a choice in all this? He acts in response to his own ambition and the prompting of the witches, sure but could it have turned out any other way? That's the creepiest question: You think you have a choice in this life?

Seems more obvious to me than "the" :)
posted by storybored at 8:56 PM on August 26 [7 favorites]


Lady M's "The raven himself is hoarse" speech always gives me shivers.

The production I talked about earlier was for Shakespeare in the Park. There were two red-tailed hawks that circled the performance site during almost every performance. We called them Malcolm and Donalbane and made them our mascots. One night, when we got to the line, "...and sleep in spite of thunder," a huge, deafening clap of thunder pealed as if on cue.

We witches were visible throughout the show in a little encampment in the woods just offstage. We had a cauldron over an init fire pit, and we wade little charms and corn dollies to hang in the trees. When Banquo died, we came on and raised him as a zombie; he lurched back t our camp where we surreptitiously covered him with mud and stage blood for his appearance at the banquet.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:07 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


Fell 15 feet, but the show went on.

That makes me think the story might be true after all. Great to be able to put a name to it at last.

The first time I saw it live, they had an incredibly realistic severed head at the end. They had to have done a life mask of the actor playing Mackers.

A few years ago I did a backstage tour of the National Theatre here in London. One of the props they showed us was a very realistic severed head left over from an old production of a violent classical play. (I think in this instance it was Richard III rather than Macbeth but I could be wrong.)

The tour guide explained that, whenever a play called for a severed head to be displayed on stage, they modelled that head very meticulously to match the relevant actor's face. At the end of the run, when the prop was no longer needed, they'd give him the option of taking his head home to keep as a souvenir. I still don't know if it's a custom limited to this one theatre alone, or one that's observed more widely.

I didn't recognise the actor from the prop head we were shown, but he'd evidently preferred to leave his own head in the National's care. I love the thought of an elderly actor ending his long and glorious career with half a dozen models of his own severed head, each showing him at a different age, all lined up along the top of a bookcase in the spare room.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:07 AM on August 27 [6 favorites]


When Banquo died, we came on and raised him as a zombie

One last story, then I'll stop.

I was lucky enough to see Out of Joint's promenade production of Macbeth at a semi-derelict old music hall called Wilton's here in London. They set the story in Idi Amin's Uganda, with shouting "soldiers" ushering us around the building to see one scene in this room, one in the next. All the supernatural elements were staged to match this theme - voodoo rather than gothic.

In the banquet scene, they had a long table set up in the middle of an otherwise empty room, with all the main actors seated around it. We - the audience - simply gathered round behind the actors, close enough to lay our hands on their shoulders or reach over to grab a bit of prop food from the table if we'd wanted to do so. We were all wondering how they were going to do Banquo's ghost with us watching from such close quarters. There was a delicious little tingle of nervous anticipation in the air. Watching this scene from the safety of an auditorium is one thing: the prospect of having it play out a few inches in front of your face quite another.

For the ghost's first appearance, they simply had Macbeth addressing empty air, so we all relaxed, both relieved and disappointed that it wasn't going to be any scarier than that. As the play dictates, Lady M then talked her husband down, order was restored and her guests settled. We were the cynical London audience again: yeah, yeah, seen it all before.

That's when Shakespeare has Banquo's ghost appear a second time. This time, the actor playing him burst from the centre of the table in a riot of sudden movement and noise. We jumped out of - our - fucking - skins and it remains the single most effective staging of that scene I've ever experienced.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:50 AM on August 27 [14 favorites]


For what it's worth, I found the linked article to be more fun than enlightening on its own, with the study the article references as the more interesting element. Getting too caught up in whether any given "the" could be swapped out for a "an" or "a", I think, is trying to judge the forest from the trees. I reread the play and most uses of "the" aren't really swappable, but the bigger consideration might be in the use of words that require an article of either sort, with all the "the"s signaling perhaps more physical points of reference and/or taking on a feeling of portentousness that helps develop the theme and tone of the play.

Some of that is fairly straightforward, "By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes. / Open, locks,/ Whoever knocks."
or
First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.
or
"New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake."


literally ominous lines, while other uses are fit to lists or a kind of repetition of objects within a line, like
"You are, and do not know't:
The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopp'd; the very source of it is stopp'd."
or

"Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed; whereby he does receive
Particular addition. from the bill"

or
"Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;"


This seems to both provide a specific kind of rhythm to the lines and assert analogies which are of course a choice by Shakespeare that could be otherwise. The surfeit of of "the"s in that sense come from decisions on how to capture the essence of the scene in speech that aren't strictly necessary, but somehow are fit to the characters and play. This is perhaps clearer in something like the announcement of Duncan's murder by MacDuff likening the act to the desecration of the temple, or in Lady Macduff's re-referencing "the" owl in a different context on news MacDuff has fled.

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o' the building!


"From whence himself does fly? He loves us not;
He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
All is the fear and nothing is the love;
As little is the wisdom, where the flight
So runs against all reason."


The decisions around what analogies to use also affects the use of "the" in ways that can't really be separated from each other. The "the"ing is a part of the measure.

There are a number of unnecessary "the"s, by my accounting, where it would have been possible to do without any preceding article at all, other than how it would effect the meter, making the accumulation of "the"s a textural choice. It's difficult to say how much of the use of "the" was intentional for itself or as part of a larger stylistic or thematic concern and how much is just happenstance, there is maybe some indication of the use of "the" phrases fitting some pattern within the play, in terms of who speaks and where the most notable accumulations occur, but that's beyond my pay grade to judge in any depth, just as the rhythmic utility would be for actors speaking the lines. It's an interesting way to look at the play though, sparked some good comments and gave me cause to reread it, so I consider that a win.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:53 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


We can't talk about weird words used in Macbeth, and most especially in an article which picks out "weird" itself - without pausing to consider that that word meant in Scotland.

Yep - our teacher translated it as "prophetic". He also showed us the Roman Polanski version, financed by Playboy, which wasn't short of violence and nudity. Ah, Leaving Cert 1999.
posted by kersplunk at 2:40 AM on August 27


And re: Shakespeare's use of "weird" -- pretty sure he was using it in the sense of "fate, destiny" -- not in our modern sense of "strange" (According to the OED, the sense "of strange or unusual appearance, odd-looking" emerges in the early 1800s).

On reflection - I think you are right about Shakespeare's intention here. But the origin story of the word, in the context of the play, is remarkable. The word "weird" - and its modern English meaning as "strange" - seems to owe a lot to Macbeth. It that sense, it joins the other already large group of phrases and words coined by Shakespeare. The witches DO seem to be weird in the modern sense of peculiar, transgressive (for example Banquo “You should be women, and yet your beards forbid us to interpret that you are so" ). The audience are supposed to find the witches not just prophetic but also ugly, unworldly and unsettling (recall - that the play appeared at a time when women were still being burnt as witches in Scotland). So - it is quite possible for people to cite back to the witches as an original example of use in this modern meaning.

Remarkable then that, not only is this meaning not what Shakespeare intended - but the word did not even appear in the definitive first folio of Macbeth. (it was mis-transcribed as "weyward"). The word appears 6 times in the amended text - always in the context of "the weird women" or "the weird sisters" - so always in circumstances where it is probably easier for audiences (and directors) to misinterpret it as an adjective rather than a noun - we are not given any further guidance.

"Weird" itself, was one of those words that retained its original meaning in Scots having go there via Anglo-Saxon "wyrd" - fate or destiny. Digging back further - we trace it to high German "wurt" with the same meaning. And further back still we trace the word to urðr who was one of the 3 norns in Norse mythology. Urðr was the one who would determine your fate, along with her pals Verðandi (who focussed on present events) and Skuld (who focussed on debts and was the decided in fights). These Norse figures would probably have been what medieval Scottish writers were thinking about when talking about women who foresaw destiny. This is particularly so in the case of Macbeth - so is believed by some to have been the same figure that is otherwise known as "Karl Hundason" - king of Scots - in Orkneyinga saga . Remember that Orkney and Shetland where Norse in Macbeth's time.
posted by rongorongo at 3:08 AM on August 27 [8 favorites]


Another interesting thing about Macbeth is the porter's use of the word "equivicator", which was a very charged word when Shakespeare wrote the play. I've taken this explanation from The Globe's website:

"Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ was probably written in 1606, just three years after King James I (VI of Scotland) was crowned as Elizabeth I’s successor. [...] Within that time, in November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot had been discovered: the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, kill James, and replace him with a Catholic monarch failed, and the plotters were tortured and horribly executed."

[...]

"At the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3, the Porter amuses himself by pretending he is the gatekeeper of hell, letting in new arrivals. He exclaims: 'Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. Oh, come in, equivocator.'

"The insistent reference to equivocation seems to be alluding to the Catholic priest Henry Garnet, who was hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Gunpowder Plot and was deeply criticised for equivocating. Allegedly, Garnet had heard confession from Robert Catesby, one of the plotters, which revealed his intention to kill the King, but obeyed the Seal of the Confessional by keeping it secret. Jesuits were particularly associated with equivocation, which is a way of avoiding the sin of lying by implying something untrue through ambiguous phrasing. Garnet’s defence of equivocation was extremely damaging in his trial, and the Porter’s light-hearted remarks seem to be playing on popular derision of the priest."

posted by Paul Slade at 4:21 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


trying to judge the forest from the trees

As they're walking toward the castle!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:34 AM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Oh OK, one more story...

I was in the audience for this puppet theatre version of Macbeth, where all the characters were modelled as birds. Macbeth was a strutting rooster, Duncan a regal swan and so on. It was a production designed mainly for kids, so some of the spookiest stuff was toned down a bit, but once you surrendered yourself to the puppets, it worked perfectly well.

Walking home I made a mental list of the lines which had taken on a different light when delivered by this unusual cast. There was Macduff's stunned "all my pretty chickens" speech of course - now a literal description of the creatures slain - but the one I really liked was "I fear he played most fowly for it."
posted by Paul Slade at 9:56 AM on August 27 [5 favorites]


Clip from Orson Welles' "Voodoo Macbeth" (1936).
posted by kirkaracha at 11:58 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Yet we go on and on with old White guys being President, don't we? I lived through this with Nixon, Ford, Jimmy, Reagon, Clinton, Bush (wait, wasn't there a Bush in between?), Obama, horrific Trump because no one could believe we had a Black President so of course there was a backlash against that. And that was Trump. Trump was the backlash against the Obama. You knew those fuckers were coming for us, didn't you? And then they did. Those people who could not stand to see a black President. And then fuck Hillary, not only was she a woman, she was a manly woman. She'd been married to Bill, of course. But we can't elect a manly woman who has done all of the things on her own right. Then there's Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the hippie element of American politics but really it's all about Lindsey Graham and how hurt he and Gym Jordan are, because in reality, if you've been following along, none of those people in Washington care about you, they only care about themselves.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:32 PM on August 27


I think that comment landed in the wrong thread, Marie Mon Dieu.
posted by hippybear at 5:45 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


There are some definite Macbeth parallels in there, though.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:12 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Should have been "The Nixon, The Ford, etc" to get the full effect, though.
posted by hippybear at 8:19 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


Does the article by Hope and Witmore address the thinking that Thomas Middleton contributed to the writing of the play?
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:01 AM on August 28


As far as I know that isn't an issue taken up in the analysis mentioned, but they may have looked into it at some other time as it is something people have tried to use data to figure out and I would imagine Hope and Witmore are aware of the back and forth over what may or may not have been added or abridged by Middleton or Shakespeare for a later revival of the play. I have to assume they didn't make any decision themselves as to whether, say, the Hecate speech should be included or ignored, as that would complicate their involvement.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:26 AM on August 28


I love this post. Having never seen Macbeth staged before, I've really enjoyed all the details everyone's sharing in this thread.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 5:08 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


"The" seems to be like the Higgs Boson of language. "In September 1938, Joyce wrote the concluding pages of Finnegans Wake, its last word (the) being as deliberate as the concluding Yes of Ulysses: 'In Ulysses, to depict the babbling of a woman going to sleep, I had sought to end with the least forceful word I could possibly find. I had found the word "yes," which is barely pronounced, which denotes acquiescence, self-abandon, relaxation, the end of all resistance. In Work in Progress, I’ve tried to do better if I could. This time, I have found the word which is the most slippery, the least accented, the weakest word in English, a word which is not even a word, which is scarcely sounded between the teeth, a breath, a nothing, the article the'."
posted by Tarn at 5:09 AM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Same thing here with “serpent”! Normally you’d say, “be a serpent” — but “be the serpent” sounds so much more specific and freaky.

The thing about "the serpent", though, is that it's a very specific reference to yet another bit of Gunpowder Plot trivia. There was a medal struck in 1605 partly to commemorate the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Featured prominently: a serpent under flowers.

(I was going to go on about the other references like the many occurrences of equivocation, but I see Paul Slade has covered that for me.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:30 PM on August 31


In the Fassbinder trailer linked above, I was pleased to see included the Lady's* terrifying line "What's done is done". This is fascinating to me, because I had of course heard this many times, reduced to the most banal cliche, and beloved by the kind of scoundrel who thinks that any examination of how the errors and sins of the past led us to a parlous state in the present can and must be defused by simply saying :"Well, hindsight is 20/20", before I read the play. Where it chilled me to the bone. Many memorable lines from Shakespeare have undergone this process, of course.( I once heard a man say "The Bible says, neither a borrower nor a lender be").

* nowhere in the text is she called "Lady Macbeth" btw
posted by thelonius at 5:03 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


"The" seems to be like the Higgs Boson of language.
Something that is interesting about Scots - and compared with English - is that it seems to be a little heavier than English in terms of its use of "the". Scots might say things like " How are you the now?" or " Do you speak the Gaelic", in cases where English speakers would omit those words. Shakespeare seems to have written Macbeth using various sources in English and Latin - but his patron was King James I/VI. James would not have been a distant figure in this context: he was a big fan of theatre, he had written his own book (Daemonologie) about witchcraft and he was a Scot.

I wonder how James and the other courtiers who had turned up in England would have sounded to Shakespeare? This was a time when Scottish courtiers would have spoken Scots to each other - and if they were speaking English then they would have probably used some different words and expressions just as would be the case today. Was Shakespeare somehow echoing James' speech patterns in the same way he was echoing some of his ideas and hist country's national stories?
posted by rongorongo at 5:11 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


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