Macbeth: midpoint(s) to the confined heart of the matter

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at Macbeth.

There are 2162 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1081, or at Act Three, Scene Four, line 46. According to Dr. Rodes’ theory, you could find at this midpoint (or within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly sums up a major theme of the play. The 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions.

Only there’s another issue at play here…

Back when we were discussing the witchy incantations inserted into Shakespeare’s text (Davenant’s appropriation of Thomas Middleton’s songs from his play The Witch), we noted that some 53 non-Shakespearean lines were inserted into the text. So, a little division and subtraction later, and you have a possible midpoint at line 19 of the same Act Three, Scene Four.

And I think it matters.

Beginning at line 21 of the scene and ending five lines later (all outside the 20-line buffer zone suggested by Rodes…IF we use the non-Shakespearean lines in our count, as I did at the top of this post) is Macbeth’s response to hearing that Fleance has escaped:

Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect;
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.—But Banquo’s safe?
  • III.iv.21-25

Despite its appearance outside the parameters of the (let’s call it) “inclusionary” witch-text, I think this speech may be key to Macbeth’s character.


First, we get a reference to his “fit”…the more I come across this (and Lady Macbeth’s corroboration later in the scene), the more I think this concept of the “fit” or seizure is important–key, really–to Macbeth’s inner and outer life. He is a man, desperate to be “perfect” and if not “perfect” than at least as “whole as the marble…the rock” or as “wide … spacious” (“broad, adj.; 2a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press,June 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.) as the air. Instead, in his usual state, he is trapped to “saucy doubts and fears.”

Saucy? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary’s main definition for the word in Shakespeare’s day is “insolent towards superiors” (“saucy, adj.; 2a” OED Online.). Taking this into consideration, Macbeth knows he should be better, stronger than this, but he is what he is, susceptible to these fears and fits.

Now, when referencing these “fears,” I’ve used the words “trapped” and “susceptible”… but is that what Shakespeare’s saying?

Yes, and no.

Bound? Absolutely, as it meant to “enclose, confine, contain” (“bound, v.; 2b” OED Online.).

Confined? Of course.

But when we get into the first two of Macbeth’s verbal descriptors, cabined and cribbed, we find something interesting. The more confining connotations for both of those verbs are found first in this very speech (“cabin, v.; 3a” and “crib, v.; 2a” OED Online.), with Shakespeare stated explicitly as the point at which the meaning evolved. So yes, these two words mean to confine or restrain, but it was Shakespeare’s use that causes OUR view of the word in that way. What did those words mean before Shakespeare?

To cabin meant “to dwell, lodge, [or] take shelter” (“cabin, v.; 1” OED Online.), and to crib meant “to feed at a crib” (“crib, v.; 1” OED Online.). Neither word had the negative connotation of confinement; rather, both had more everyday connotations–to lodge, to feed. The implications are astounding:

Macbeth is used to living in doubt and fear. He’s prone to fits. He so desperately wants to be “perfect” or “whole,” but even the air around him “encloses” on him (“casing, adj.” OED Online.). He is a man trapped by his mental and emotional circumstance.

Is it any wonder that he would leap at the chance to make real the witches’ prophecy of his becoming king? Is it any wonder that he depends (or at least had depended) so greatly on his wife, who he considers his “dearest partner of greatness” (I.v.11)? And once achieved, is it any wonder that he would do anything to keep that royal, perfect power?

That insecurity is at the heart of man Macbeth, at the heart of play Macbeth.

But Rodes’ theory only works if our line-count removes the non-Shakespearean sing-songy witchy verse…