Macbeth: Mac-Bawdy? not so much


First of all, there’s not a whole lot of bawdy in Macbeth. Or as Eric Partridge, the author of the great Shakespeare’s Bawdy, puts it: “Macbeth is the ‘purest’ of the Tragedies and, except for the Porter Scene, pure by any criterion” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 47). It’s almost as if the play itself said, “Unsex me here” (I.v.40).

The first bawdy bit I could find comes in that “unsex me here” speech by Lady Macbeth. As she takes on a “manly” aspect, she discusses her “keen knife” (I.v.51) and the wounds it will make. Back when we were discussing Hamlet, we talked about how the “keen” concept of having an edge could be interpreted as having a sexual connotation to it. And a knife is a pretty phallic weapon. But it still feels a bit of a reach.

The next bit of bawdy I find comes in Act One, Scene Seven, when Macbeth is trying to take back his decision to kill Duncan, and Lady Macbeth takes him to task for it:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.
  • I.vii.49-54

I suppose the “do it” in that opening line could refer to screwing. The first “man” could be a cock, I guess, and discussion being “more that what you were” could be an hard-on, and the “does unmake you” could be that erection becoming flaccid. But I think that’s stretching it a bit. I think she’s really just talking about masculinity here, not sexuality (though I’m sure some would argue the point).

Near the end of Macbeth’s “is this a dagger which I see before me” speech, he references the “Tarquin’s ravishing side” (II.i.56), an allusion to the rapist in Shakespeare’s own The Rape of Lucrece. Even this reference is less erotic than esoteric.

Now, we get to the Porter scene. We get “urine” (II.iii.26) and a discussion of what liquor can provoke:

Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep and, giving him the lie, leaves him.
  • II.iii.27-34

This is really the only blatant bout of bawdy in the entire play. The porter says that drink brings on lust but makes it so that the man cannot get it up to perform the act: “stand to” is, of course, to get a hard-on. The final image of the speech is how liquor has metaphorically fucked the man. Bawdy? Yes, but it pales to almost every other play.

Later, when the witches are concocting their brew, the third witch tosses in a “finger of birth-strangled babe // Ditch-delivered by a drab” (IV.i.30-31). A whore has delivered a baby in a ditch. Not exactly nudge-nudge-wink-wink-inducing.

And finally, Malcolm, when trying to test Macduff in Act Four, Scene Three, tries to convince Macduff of his sins of lust:

But there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness. Your wives, your daughters,
Your matrons, and your maids could not fill up
The cistern of my lust, and my desire
All continent impediments would o’erbear
That did oppose my will.
  • IV.iii.60-65

“Voluptuousness,” “desire,” “lust,” and “will” are all terms having a horny meaning. Their use here, however, is so dry that it’s no surprise that we learn that it comes from a virgin, yet “unknown to woman” (IV.iii.126).

And as Porky Pig would say, “Tha-tha-that’s all, folks.”

Kind of a limp display, no?

3 Replies to “Macbeth: Mac-Bawdy? not so much”

  1. Bit late but… I think there is a case for some bawdy in the witches’ scenes. For instance, when the first which says:

    ‘I’ll drain him dry as hay.
    Sleep shall neither night nor day
    Hang upon his penthouse lid.
    He shall live a man forbid.
    Weary sev’nnights nine times nine
    Shall he dwindle, peak and pine.’

    The curse of sleeplessness might be a play on incessant sexual exertion… The witches are crude and loathsome but it seems as if they might have some powers of seduction too.

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