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Every once in a great while, I like to overthink the things that usually I do best when not thinking at all about them. This time, it's a blank verse poem. You see, I'm a fairly big fan of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, as you might remember before taking that doze in freshman English, wrote a great deal of his material in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Ten syllables per line, with stresses falling on the even-numbered syllables. Actually, it varies so that the verse itself doesn't put the speaker or audience to sleep, but that's the basic principle of iambic pentameter. Whether English writers discovered it by mistake or carefully thought about it, iambic pentameter is a verse form that most complements normal spoken English, making it great for dramatic verse.
Well, back in 1996 my love of Shakespeare combined with a poetry writing workshop produced a dramatic speech. In blank verse. Written, as it were, with an Elizabethan feel to it. In fact, I put myself for a moment into the mindset of a certain Elizabethan playwright, William S__________, thinking that surely, were we to find an original manuscript or notes for one of his plays, the material would contain things that never made it into the finished manuscript. Let's take Macbeth, for example. When Banquo's bloody ghost confronts Macbeth at the banquet, can't you just see the Bard writing a speech for him? Darn near every other ghost the man ever put into a play not only speaks but often gets some great lines in the bargain. Can't you just see Will penning a great lambaste for Banquo to level at Macbeth, only to have Henslowe tell him in rehearsals that the play is running too long and he needs to cut some lines? Will cuts the Banquo speech (among other things), and the critics hail the scene as genius because the ghost just stands there the whole time, silently letting Macbeth talk himself into trouble.
Well, that's the speech I wrote. What if there was an address from Banquo? What would Banquo say to Macbeth as they stood eye to eye, man to ghost, murderer to victim? And I proceeded from there. The poem in its final version appears below:
Banquo's Ghost Addresses Macbeth
(Outtake from Act III, sc. iv)
Look here, Glamis, in these sightless orbs
Where once reflected Heaven's noble light,
Whose proud fire be now doused by thy command,
By thine instruments, by such mongrel curs
As now thou may fetch for thy loyalty.
Poor Glamis, Cawdor, King, treacher, fiend;
Thou most fair hath played most foul. Thy vile hands
Betray thee still, thy bloody members shall
Unduly cause thy grasp to slip upon
The crown for which thy hands didst murder Duncan.
If chance did naught to crown thee King, why, so
Thou stirred 'gainst bothwherefore? Was't evil hid,
Whose countenance shone fair to all but God?
Or, like the ill humors that putrefy
The wounded flesh, did then such evil seep
And fester thy soul? Alas, how men fall.
Like Cain, a brother's blood marks thee, villain.
Yet Fleance lives, good Malcolm and Macduff,
Whose seed thy hags foretold begets thy doom;
Vain lords and petty thanes will fortify
Thee not whilst Birnam stirs and marches hence
To usurp the foul usurper Macbeth.
Know this despairBanquo shall be avenged.
Thy grisly deed be done and sleep no more,
Till thou be summoned anon at Hell's door.
© 1996 by J. M. Pressley
Here's where the overthinking part comes in. I like the verse; why else would I have written it? But I've never really delved into why I wrote the poem precisely the way that I did. So, I'm going to explore each line for meter and content. There are a total of 25 lines in this speech, and we'll see just how wellor badlythe intent is carried out in the execution. Note: for the purpose of convention, stressed syllables will be designated by a / sign over the syllable, and unstressed ones by a - symbol.
/ / / - - - / - / Look here, Glamis, in these sightless orbs
Oh my, this can't be iambic pentameter, can it? There's only nine syllables, and they certainly don't fit the classical stress pattern! Well, that's my way of shaking up the pattern right from the get-go. Besides, that series of three stresses to begin the speech puts it off on a strong foot (sorry, poetic inside joke there). It's like a vocal finger jabbing Macbeth in the chest as Banquo begins to speak. Note how Banquo addresses Macbeth as Glamis rather than either "King" or his name (more on that later). And the use of "these sightless orbs" accomplishes two things here: it makes it at least end in a blank verse pattern in the last two feet, and it sounds better than "these dead eyes."
- / - / - / - / - / Where once reflected Heaven's noble light,
Now, for anyone who might still complain about the lack of classic iambic pentameter in the first line, I give you as classic an example as you will ever find. Five feet, all de-DUMM rhythm, and the second line says, "Hey, now that I've got your attention, we can move back to traditional meter." Besides, although this line waxes poetic, it is, in fact, merely a descriptive clause qualifying "these sightless orbs" from the line above. As such, you don't necessarily want the speaker to linger so much on it. By the way, doesn't the use of "Heaven's noble light" as a metaphor sound like a Shakespearean turn of phrase?
- / / - - / - / - / Whose proud fire be now doused by thy command,
This line scans traditionally, with only the second foot being reversed (DUMM-de). This allows the key words to receive the stresses in this line. I also managed to work in a little assonance with the OW sounds (proud, now, doused), which can be an extremely useful poetic device. The last bit, "by thy command," sets up another rhetorical construction known as anaphora, which comes to fruition in the following line; I'll be using "by" to begin three successive clauses.
- / / - - - / / - / By thine instruments, by such mongrel curs
Anaphora continues through this line, repeating the "by" to form a build-up to "mongrel curs" at the end of the line. The unstressed syllables in this line allow the speaker to get to the point. Incidentally, the phrase "mongrel curs" is not a redundancy. Used adjectivally, mongrel denotes "of mixed origin or character"which Macbeth's henchmen certainly areand curs is a play of both meanings: an inferior dog, and a cowardly or base person.
- / - - / - - / - - As now thou may fetch for thy loyalty.
This line admittedly sacrifices true iambic pentameter for a curveball rhythm. It's actually a variant of dactylic trimeter (three feet that scan DUMM-de-de in three syllables instead of two). Or, perhaps it's an iamb/pyrrhic/trochee/iamb/pyrrhic rhythm. At any rate, this is where I say that poetic license has been liberally used in this line. By the way, I confess that "fetch" in this line is a word choice based on the "dog" meaning of "curs" used previously. The cumulative effect is to reinforce what Macbeth has lost in killing Banquo.
- / - / - / / - / Poor Glamis, Cawdor, King, treacher, fiend;
We now move back to reasonably traditional iambic pentameter; there is a missing unstressed syllable after "King," which is the only variant on the meter. Otherwise, it scans normally. Banquo reels off Macbeth's titles as epithets (using the handy rhetorical device of asyndeton, i.e., multiple repetition without conjunctions used to provide emphasis, among other things), followed by the damning titles of "treacher" (yes, from "treachery", and it is, in fact, a real word) and "fiend." You can just hear each word pounding a little harder than the one before it. This is in keeping with the accusatory theme of the overall speech.
/ - / - / - / - / / Thou most fair hath played most foul. Thy vile hands
Yeah, yeah, I know. I couldn't resist the urge to play on Shakespeare's own writing in this line, although it does set up a change in the tenor of the speech. Banquo now begins to question why Macbeth has done what he's done. The stresses play on the important words within the line, even though the line actually scans as trochaic rather than iambic. And remember the focus in Macbeth about blood on the hands? The "vile hands" reference plays off of that.
- / - / - / - / - / Betray thee still, thy bloody members shall
More on the hands reference, and the rhythm moves back to a straight iambic pentameterif for no other reason than to reestablish that this is blank verse. It's also another example of anaphora ("thy vile hands"/"thy bloody members") to hearken back to the hand imagery in the play.
- / - / - / - / - / Unduly cause thy grasp to slip upon
More straight blank verse. The alliteration of the "s" and "p" sounds is intentional; "unduly" also has a nice ring to it, and the shade of meaning of "excessively" is what I meant. It scans correctly, but this is the first word that I might change if there was a better word with the same pattern of stresses.
- / - - - / - / - / - The crown for which thy hands didst murder Duncan.
Believe it or not, this is still iambic pentameter, just with a feminine ending (the extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line). The metrical pattern is iamb/pyrrhic/iamb/iamb/iamb. Blank verse, no doubt about it. Banquo also brings the hand imagery to its logical conclusion with this line. Incidentally, this culminates a series of three lines that demonstrate both metaphor and irony: Macbeth kills Duncan to gain the crown, but Duncan's blood on Macbeth's hands will cause him to lose his grasp upon it. It could also be seen as a reaffirmation of karma.
- / - / - / - / - / If chance did naught to crown thee King, why, so
More blank verse. This line is a setup for the not-so-rhetorical questions to come. This is also a nod to Macbeth's asides in Act I, sc. iii ("If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me/Without my stir"). I'm not nagging, mind you, but some of this is really going to make more sense if you've actually read the play....
- / - / - / - / - / Thou stirred 'gainst both--wherefore? Was't evil hid,
Banquo actually wants to know. Remember that "wherefore" does not mean "where" in early modern English; it means "why." This and the ensuing lines are exploring one of the main questions at the heart of Macbeth: was Macbeth evil all along, or did a combination of circumstances (including the witches and one of the angriest wives of all time) drive Macbeth to evil? Also, I'd like to make the point that the usage of formal thou throughout this speech is done with a specific purpose in mind. In Macbeth, Banquo addresses Macbeth with the less formal you, as one would expect of peers who were friends. By using thou (and its other cases) in this speech, Banquo is insulting Macbeth throughout it. It's not just done to give it more Shakespearean seasoning.
- / - / - / - / - / Whose countenance shone fair to all but God?
Here the stresses serve to hit the highlight of the question: did you fool everyone but God with your evil? Note the effectiveness of the word "countenance" in this instance as well. While the surface meaning remains "appearance" (specifically pertaining to facial expression), "countenance" also plays on the verbal denotation "to sanction" at the same time. Both shades of meaning reinforce one another in this line.
- / - / / - - / - / Or, like the ill humors that putrefy
In this line, the only metrical variance is the inversion of the third foot into a trochee. "Humors" takes advantage of multiple meanings in this line, although the literal meaning of a bodily fluid is the primary intention here (it can also mean "temperament" or "a temporary state of mind," both of which definitions add interpretive possibilities to the speech). Putrefy is just the best word here, both in terms of stresses and denotative meaning. The simile at work here over the next three lines is a comparison of Macbeth's evil to gangrene, which has rotted his soul the same way that gangrene rots the flesh. Simile is a very effective poetic device when used appropriately.
- / - / - / - / - / The wounded flesh, did then such evil seep
The first turn of phrase in this line, "the wounded flesh" was a real toss-up for me. It was between this and "a dagger wound," which presents the same syllabic stress pattern and brings in a reference to Macbeth's dagger soliloquy of Act II, sc. i and so references Macbeth's crime against Duncan. However, I liked the smoother flow of "wounded flesh," and the sudden violence of a dagger wound seemed a bit at odds with the image of evil seeping at the end of the line. Also, this is one of the few lines that I let the metrical pattern dictate the syntax of the line ("did then such evil seep").
- / - - / - / - / / And fester thy soul? Alas, how men fall.
This line ends the philosophical treatment of Macbeth's nature and brings in a touch of dismay from Banquo for the first time in this speech. But it's still less sadness than reproval with the last thought in the line, "Alas, how men fall." Think of your mother when you were young saying, "I'm very disappointed in you." Now, multiply that emotion tenfold.
- / - / - / / / / - Like Cain, a brother's blood marks thee, villain.
This line works, but I can't take credit for it. I was simply trying to bring in a Biblical simile, something that Shakespeare often does. The stress pattern begins as basic blank verse, but the spondee/trochee ending in the last two feet is something I rarely do. However, the stresses reinforce once again the accusation that truly ends the philosophical waxing within the speech on the nature of Macbeth's evil. Banquo here stands before Macbeth like his personal Fury, hurling this charge at him. The stresses in "blood marks thee, villain" make a harsh statement that much harsher when spoken.
- / - / - / - / - / Yet Fleance lives, good Malcolm and Macduff,
Stresses here fall back to straight iambs. This shifts into the last section of the speech, in which Banquo will now taunt Macbeth with his weaknesses and failings. Primarily, the henchmen failed to murder Banquo's son, Fleance, and Malcolm and Macduff have escaped Scotland. Banquo is holding these examples up to herald Macbeth's downfall.
- / - / - / - / - / Whose seed thy hags foretold begets thy doom;
In this context, "seed" primarily refers to children; Banquo is hailed as the father of kings to be, though he would not be one himself, according to the witches. Fleance, son of Banquo, is still alive, and hence, this part of the witches' prophecy is still on. Likewise, Malcolm is the son of the murdered King Duncan, and will be crowned at the end of the play following Macbeth's demise. Finally, the prophecy "none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth" is to be fulfilled in Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb/Untimely ripp'd" as a child. And "seed" plays on the fact that in all three cases, the mishaps seem inconsequential to Macbeth; the ultimate effect is that those three escapes plant the seed for Macbeth's destruction.
/ / - / - / - / - / Vain lords and petty thanes will fortify
Like lines 4-5 above, here Banquo reinforces that Macbeth has sacrificed those closest to him in favor of allies who will do him little good in the days to come. "Vain" and "petty" both take on dual meanings in this line. With "vain," the meanings of "excessively proud" and "lacking substance" complement each other, and "petty" both refers to the noble status as minor, as well as the denotations of "trivial" and "narrow-minded." The spondee foot that begins the line means that both "vain" and "petty" will get equal stress as "lords" and "thanes," which is the general intent. Finally, "fortify" is chosen both because of its implication in physical defenses (what with an army getting ready to attack) as well as its meaning "to give emotional, moral, or mental strength."
- / - / - / - / - / Thee not whilst Birnam stirs and marches hence
Again, straight blank verse, nothing fancy. This line serves to goad Macbeth further with his imminent mortality. Birnam, although carrying the obvious surface meaning of the so-named Birnam Wood (that referred to in the witches' prophecy), also substitutes for the army hidden within it, approaching ever closer.
- - / - / - / - - / To usurp the foul usurper Macbeth.
I had to look up the term for this nifty little rhetorical twist: polyptoton. This refers to the repetition of words derived from the same root, in this case, "usurp." I just liked the sound of the line, really, even if the word choices force the meter into a mostly trochaic rhythm. And finally, Banquo gets nearly to the end of his speech before spitting the name "Macbeth" like a curse.
/ / - / / - - / - / Know this despair--Banquo shall be avenged.
Here Banquo neatly wraps up the speech with its main thesis: you're going to get what's coming to you. This and the Cain simile of line 17 are the only lines in the poem, in fact, in which the entire sentence is contained within a single ten-syllable line. Both lines use this conciseness for effect, and both mark the end of a movement within the speech. In this instance, the curt declaration prepares the audience for the ending couplet to follow.
- / - / - / - / - / Thy grisly deed be done and sleep no more,
This line returns to strict iambs, playing with assonance in the deep "e" sounds (deed, be, sleep). Both "deed be done" and "sleep no more" are nods to Macbeth lines within the play. In the former instance, think of Act I, sc. viii (If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well/It were done quickly). As for the latter, sleep is a recurring symbol throughout the play, particularly in Macbeth's lines in Act II, sc. ii of "sleep no more!/Macbeth does murder sleep" and later, "Glamis hath murder'd sleep , and therefore Cawdor/Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more. " The last word sets up for the next half of that time-honored tradition at the end of Elizabethan speeches, the rhymed couplet.
- / - / - - / - / / Till thou be summoned anon at Hell's door.
While the line is meant to be taken literally at face value, it's also a subtle nod to the the porter's speech of Act II, sc. iii, in which the porter pretends to be the gatekeeper of Hell. And with that, exit Ghost.
While Banquo's Ghost Addresses Macbeth isn't Shakespeare, it does reflect some of the same poetic sensibilities that Shakespeare would use by the time he was writing Macbeth. While the language, both in usage and syntax, is overwhelmingly contemporary (the only true archaisms used are the cases of thou, wherefore, and anon), the subject matter and poetic devices lend it an Elizabethan air. Blank verse used in conjunction with rhetorical devices and heightened language renders the poem a deliberate affectation of dramatic verse. The word choices work with, rather than against, the stresses within the meter, and the poem uses selected language and imagery from within the play itself to reinforce its subject matter.
Was the poem successful? I thought so before undertaking such a painstaking close reading of the subject matter, and the in-depth analysis above has done nothing to change my opinion. Of course, I can't claim that I'm not at least a little biased. But I've done enough thinking for the time being. I wrote what I meant and meant what I wrote. How's that for an example of antimetabole?
Now, go read the original source material.
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