Tue, Jun 5, 2012
“Pity like a naked new born babe” – the key Speech in Macbeth
Professor Peter Titlestad
Many people are puzzled by Macbeth’s speech about “pity like a naked new born babe.” Even when they realize that the speech may have something to do with the Apocalypse, there are still difficulties with some of the details.
The Apocalypse is what is described in the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. This book has given rise to numerous pictorial representations of Doomsday, and it is in these pictures as much as in the text that the clues to understand Macbeth’s speech lie. There was such a Doomsday picture painted on the wall of Shakespeare’s parish church in Stratford-on-Avon. The most famous, of course, is Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel but one can guess that Shakespeare had not seen this particular one.
The speech starts with a metaphor of time as a “bank or shoal” surrounded by the limitless sea. Time is only a small, finite entity, it is not endless. Time will end. All around is eternity. The end of time is signalled by Doomsday, the Second Coming of Christ to judge the dead. This will involve the separation of the sheep and the goats, of the saved and the damned. These pictures show Christ sitting in judgement showing the wounds in his hands and side: his blood is part of the standard imagery of these pictures. Around him fly the Cherubim (traditionally depicted as naked infants) blowing trumpets. The graves have opened, the dead have arisen and those on Christ’s left hand, the damned, are dragged down to hell by devils while those on the right hand are the saved. Such pictures are intended to terrify the viewers and disturb their consciences. Macbeth’s speech is the utterance of the disturbed conscience of a man brought up in this tradition of iconographic teaching. Will he make the right decision, will he be among the sheep or the goats?
The speech is an anguished, terrified and deeply but confusedly imaginative meditation on the results of his planned murder of King Duncan. Angels will “plead trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking off.” What one does on the little bank or shoal of time has consequences for all eternity. The following phrase merges a number of ideas in Macbeth’s excited and disturbed mind. He should have pity on Duncan, a naked new born baby should excite pity, but the babe in this case is also one of the Cherubim riding the wind and blowing blasts on the trumpet that declare the horror of his contemplated deed and the judgement that will follow.
A pictorial representation of the crucified Christ in Shakespeare’s day was called a “pity.” The representation of Doomsday was called a “doom.” Later, Macduff is to call the sight of the murdered King the “great doom’s visage” and liken this blood to the precious blood of Christ. He tells Malcolm and Banquo “as from your graves rise up” evoking the picture of the opening of the tombs on judgement day.
Macbeth has only “vaulting ambition” which he, at this moment, realizes “o’erleaps itself” to spur him on. He knows what he should do. He tells his wife “we shall proceed no further in this business” but then gives in to the viscous tongue of a young woman, quite possibly a very glamorous one, who has already given herself to evil and who wants to be Queen. She says that she would dash out the brains of a baby: so much for “pity like a naked new born babe”!
Macbeth is a study of conscience disregarded and of the ever-worsening consequences that follow on an evil decision, for Macbeth becomes a tyrant and the killing never stops. It is also one of Shakespeare’s many and varied studies of the relations between a man a woman.