Have a drink on me, Macbeth.

OK, reading through Macbeth again, and I’m finding quite a bit of drinking imagery. And again, like the “manly” stuff from a few days back, it’s not as if there’s more here than in other plays (there isn’t), it’s just that it stands out (at least in my reading).

A few tasty bits:

Lady Macbeth:

  • “th’ milk of human kindness” (I.v.16) and “Come to my woman’s breasts // And take my milk for gall” (I.v.46-7), not to mention “the babe that milks me” (I.vii.55).
  • “Was the hope drunk?” (I.vii.35)
  • “wine and wassail,” “limbeck” (a device used for distilling), “drenched natures,” and “spongy officers” (all in one speech: I.vii.65, 68, 69, and 72)
  • “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; // What hath quenched them… surfeited grooms…drugged their possets” (again a single speech: II.ii.1-2, 5, and 6)
  • “You do not give the cheer [or toast]” (III.iv.33)

Macbeth:

  • “our poisoned chalice” (I.vii.11)
  • “when my drink is ready” (II.i.32)
  • “We’ll drink a measure” and “Give me some wine, fill full. // I drink to th’ general joy o’ th’ whole table” (III.iv.12, 89-90)

The porter riffing on “drink” and “much drink” (II.iii.23, 29)

The First Spirit: “a sip of blood” (III.v.46; though Shakespeare may not have written this)

Malcolm: “Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell” (IV.iii.98)

Notes of interest:

  1. it appears the drinking references end at the haunted banquet. The First Spirit, as noted, may not be Shakespeare’s contribution; and Malcolm’s statement is about a waste of drink, not the consumption of it.
  2. Lady Macbeth uses drink imagery more than all other characters combined (what that means, I haven’t the foggiest)
  3. and one last thing: this doesn’t even include my favorite one of all (though technically it’s not a “drink” reference)…

In Lady Macbeth’s first speech in the entire play, she desires her husband’s return: “Hie thee hither, // That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (I.v.24-5). It may not be a drink but as the speech comes in the scene when she discusses breast milk and the milk of human kindness, it does feel like a kind of liquid to be used to change the nature of the recipient. The image is reminiscent of Claudius and old (dead) Hamlet, but it’s the use of “spirits” here that fascinates me.

As early as the late fourteenth century, the word could mean “One or other of certain subtle highly-refined substances or fluids … formerly supposed to permeate the blood and chief organs of the body” (“spirit, n.; 16.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2016. Web. 19 July 2016.). What it could NOT mean was any kind of alcohol; a distilled fluid wouldn’t be referred to by that word until 1612 (this is 1606, remember), and a strong alcohol for drinking would not be referred to by that word until at least 1684 (“spirit, n.; 21.a and c” OED).

If Shakespeare was using it in the latter senses, he’d be a visionary; if he was using the former, it would be the only time in the canon that he uses “spirits” in the fluid sense–all other uses (all 127 of them) use the more insubstantial denotations. If it’s the fluid sense, it would almost feel as if she’s already been “unsex”-ed, already filled “from the crown to the toe topful // Of direst cruelty” (I.v.41-2) and the “spirits” would be that cruelty, but that reference doesn’t come until later in the scene. Is it a more insubstantial “spirits” she’s using here, her spirit, her life force, her strength?

Is she so fearful of Macbeth’s kind “nature” (I.v.15) that she feels that pouring her thoughts and strength into her husband is a lost cause, and that she will need to lose her female-ness to do the deed herself?

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