Macbeth and scansion: witches and three pauses

As I wrap up discussion of the plays, I like to take a quick look back on some of the more noteworthy clues I’ve noticed in the lines of the play. Not necessarily the words within the lines, mind you, not the diction, but rather the syntax, the scansion, the pauses. Macbeth is no different…

OK, first of all, let’s deal with the elephant in the room, or rather the four elephants in the room: the three witches and Hecate. These supernatural entities don’t speak in our expected blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter)–or rhymed iambic pentameter, for that matter. Now there’s some argument as what to call the witches’ sing-songy incantations. Incomplete or catalectic form of trochaic tetrameter, perhaps. Trochees, as you might remember, are the exact opposites of iambs: instead of a two-syllable foot with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed, a trochee is a two-syllable foot with the first syllable stressed. Tetrameter would be comprised of four-foot lines; so eight-syllable lines. But these lines are, for the most part, seven-syllable affairs; that’s where the “catalectic” descriptor comes into play…instead of a full trochee at the end of the line, the line loses that final unstressed syllable. Thus, we get lines like:

/ ~ / ~ / ~ /

When the hurly-burly’s done,
/ ~ / ~ / ~ /

When the battle’s lost and won
  • I.i.3-4

So you could call these lines catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Or…you might call them acephalous iambic tetrameter. In other words, this would be a four-foot iambic line, only we’re missing the first syllable. Though most critics go for the catalectic trochaic tetrameter categorization, I like “acephalous iambic tetrameter,” not just to be perverse and contrary (though I can be), but because (first) it sounds like “a syphilis” (heh heh, he said “syphilis”) and (second) the other word for acephalous is “headless” which is just so fitting for the witches. Oh, and (third) because when Hecate speaks, it’s primarily in full iambic tetrameter (are the witches Hecate without her head?).


Earlier in the discussions, I looked at the “Tomorrow…” speech, and got into some depth of meter on that one. I’ve been remiss and not hit some of the other major speeches thus far. And I’m going to be remiss again and not do one (again) today.

Instead, I want to look at three pauses, shortened verse lines and ponder the shift is taking place in each…

Act One, Scene Two: during the bleeding Captain’s description of Macbeth on the field of battle:

For brave Macbeth–well he deserves that name–
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valor’s minion, carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements.
  • I.ii.16-23

That’s one sentence, ladies and gentlemen. Now, one could say that the pause forced by the shortened line “Till he faced the slave” is just allowing the actor to breathe. Sure, maybe. But I think something else is at work here. After the opening line’s combined spondee and trochee (MAC-BETH–WELL he), the speech is pretty regular blank verse, except that awkward, shortened line which is surrounded by the only other two non-regular iambic lines:

~ / ~ / ~/ / / ~ / ~

Like Valor’s minion, carved out his passage
/ ~ / ~ /

Till he faced the slave;
~ / / / ~ / / / ~ /

Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him

First, we get three non-regular metered lines. Second, we get the shortened line itself forcing the pause (and yes, eagle-eyed readers, that’s either a catalectic trochaic trimeter, or an acephalous iambic trimeter). At first, I thought it might be cool to cut that “Which ne’er shook hands” line just to get to my fave “Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chaps.” But that line’s got to be there for a reason (especially since its non-regular meter seems to call attention to it), and seeing both Henry V and Richard III recently (and thinking of the ending of this play, too) reminds me there’s usually some kind of interaction between your combatants onstage. Only there isn’t here. Macbeth just cuts Macdonwald in half. This pause focuses the audience to listen to a description not just about Macbeth’s fighting prowess, but his brutality, his impatience. Are we getting characterization for Macbeth in a seemingly throwaway speech by bloody Captain Exposition?

Next, when Angus and Ross encounter Macbeth and Banquo, following the witches’ greetings/prophecies, Banquo talks to Macbeth in an aside,

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s
In deepest consequence.—
Cousins, a word, I pray you.
  • I.iii.123-7

Mostly regular blank verse spoken to Macbeth (save for either a trochee or spondee kicking off that third line (WIN US or WIN us), but then we get that short line, after which Banquo breaks off his aside, and addresses Ross and Angus (“Cousins, a word, I pray you”). Dramatically, it diverts attention, and allows space for Macbeth’s asides. But it seems abrupt. What makes Banquo break off like that? Is there something in Macbeth’s (non)response? Is our clue in Banquo’s next line: “Look how our partner’s rapt” (I.iii.142). Is Macbeth simply stunned, and when he can provide Banquo with no response, Banquo turns his attention to their two visitors? Possibly. But let me throw out another possibility: this could be evidence of one of the “fit[s]” (III.iv.56) Lady Macbeth says her husband suffers from (“often thus, // And hath been from his youth” [III.iv.54-5]). Of course, that story of hers could just be a lie, conveniently spun to explain his breakdown (in much the same way as her fainting spell is after the discovery of Duncan’s corpse), but I’d like to think that maybe there’s more to Macbeth’s pathology. (But that’s just me)

Finally, in the next scene, Duncan meets Macbeth and reveals that his party is going “from hence to Inverness, // And bind us further to you” (I.iv.42-3). There’s a two-beat pause at the end of that line before Macbeth responds. It could be merely the surprise of the visit that pauses Macbeth’s response. Or is he already thinking of murder, either of Duncan (which he had already pondered [“my thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” (I.iii.139)]) or of Malcolm (which he will reveal in an aside less than half-a-dozen lines later)? Methinks our impatient and fitful future king is already allowing his brain to run ahead.

Characterization is the silences.

Jeez, I love this stuff.

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