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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Macduff's Untimely Ripping

Via Adam Smyth, I read this piece in the Guardian by John Sutherland on "crap Shakespeare." Sutherland claims that, "[a]part from Macbeth's soliloquies, the porter's half-pissed prose and Lady Macbeth's mad musings," Macbeth is a "veritable sea of crap."

His prime example? The riddle about Macduff's unusual birth:

You will remember the great plot twist. No man "of woman born" can kill Macbeth. ... "Know that Macduff," our good guy says, "was from his mother's womb untimely ripped." ... But what, the audience will wonder as they file out of the theatre, does "untimely ripped" actually mean? A Caesarian? Premature delivery? Was the Macduff foetus removed at the point of conception and, by the advanced technology of 15th-century alchemy, brought to term in a test tube?

Even in medieval Scotland, surely, you are still "born of woman" even if you did pop out, or were pulled out, a month or two early?

This seems just plain silly to me. For one thing, it's a witch's riddle, after all: it palters with you in a double sense, rather than explaining the situation in the clearest expository prose you can imagine.

More importantly, is there really much debate about what this riddle means? Does anyone actually think being "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" can mean merely that Macduff was delivered "a month or two early"? I've always thought it was completely clear that this was a Caesarean birth, and it seems to me perfectly reasonable to take this to mean, according to the lying-like-truth logic of the witches' prophecies, that Macduff was not "born" of woman, since "born" can mean delivered through the birth canal, not "ripped" out of the womb surgically (or by whatever methods passed for "surgically" in Macduff's pitiable mother's day). The whole point of the riddle is that Macbeth takes the emphasis to be on "of woman," while it turns out the emphasis is on "born." Personally, I think this is a satisfying narrative solution to the riddle, but of course it also makes ideological (or thematic, depending on your critical predilections) sense in a play featuring Malcolm, a man "yet unknown to woman," as the legitimate heir to the throne. Unlike Macbeth himself (a fellow almost damned in a fair wife), both the tyrannicide and the true heir are "uncorrupted," as the play would have it, by contaminating associations with female sexuality.

Ok, enough of this. Something about the Sutherland article annoyed me. Not because Shakespeare didn't write some bad lines, but because it was too clever by half. Or by three-quarters.

  • At 10/05/2006 08:58:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Crap criticism.


  • At 10/05/2006 06:52:00 PM, Blogger Ancarett wrote…

    That's as stupid a criticism as ever I've seen from one of my more clueless students. But they at least have the virtue of being complete novices to the field of critical reviews. What's this guy's excuse?


  • At 10/06/2006 09:37:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Yes folks, medieval test-tube babies. What a douchebag.


  • At 10/08/2006 01:56:00 AM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Given what we know about cesarian sections before the late 17th century, Sutherland should take a cue from Hamlet's Gravedigger: Macduff's not born of woman. He's born of one that was a woman, sir, but bless her soul she's dead.


  • At 10/08/2006 09:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Back then, women did not survive caesarian sections, so they were rarely done on live women. Usually they were done after the mother died, just in case the baby would live (mainly to baptise it).

    So he was not "born of woman" but "Delivered surgically from a corpse". (as Muse points out, she's dead, no longer a woman).

    Tolkien uses a similar twist of words when the witchking is killed by "no man" but a woman...


  • At 10/08/2006 05:29:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Very interesting, Muse and Boinky. Do either of you happen to know a source that discusses caesarian sections in the Renaissance? I'm teaching Macbeth later this semester and would love to work in that very interesting interpretive possibility (I'd always previously thought about "not of woman born" in the way that Hieronimo describes). Thanks!


  • At 10/09/2006 11:04:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Caesarian sections are discussed in Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of women (London, 1612; STC 12496), and in Helkiah Crooke's Mikrokosmographia (London, 1615; STC 6062), esp. page 343-44 (sig. Gg4r-v).


  • At 10/09/2006 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Thanks, bdh.

    Here's how the section on caesarian births in Guillimeau opens (modernized): "It now remains only, that I speak of the last kind of delivery, which must be practiced, after the Mother's decease, that thereby the child may be saved, and receive Baptism. This birth is called Caesarian ... in imitation of Caesar, who was ripped out of his mother's womb, at the very instant she died" (p. 185; sig. Aa1r).

    And here's what Crooke says in his Mikrokosmographia: "If the mother be dead and the childe yet liuing, then presently without any delay the wombe of the mother must be ript open. And those children that are thus taken foorth are called Caesares, or Caesones from the cutting of the mothers wombe, from whence the Caesars had their names. After this manner as Pliny reporteth in the ninth Chapter of the seauenth Booke of his Naturall History, was Scipio Affricanus the elder, Iulius Caesar and Manilius borne" (p. 343).

    He adds, however, "But if the mother be yet aliue and the Infant by no other meanes can safely bee brought foorth the same section or opening of the wombe may bee administred; for common experience and the authority of antient Physitians doe assure vs that the wounds of the muscles of the lower belly and of the Peritonaeum or rim are not mortall. Hippocrates in the third Section of his sixt booke Epidemiωn, commaundeth vs to cutte our Dropsie patients instantly: now this Section for the Dropsie is a wounding of the Epigastrium or lower belly and the Peritonaeum: as for the wombe it selfe Paulus Aegineta teacheth vs that the wounds thereof are not mortall. It appeareth vnto vs saith he that though the whole Matrix bee taken away, the woman will ordinarily suruiue" (pp. 343-44).

    Guillimeau likewise notes in his book that Caesarian births are occasionaly preformed on women who are alive, though he counsels against this practice (pp. 187-88).

    So it appears, not surprisingly, that both readings are correct. Caesarian births do seem to have been associated primarily with delivering the fetuses of dead mothers, but it was also recognized that women "will ordinarily survive" c-sections because "the wounds thereof are not mortall."

    I feel a bit abashed that I wasn't aware of the connection between c-sections and dead mothers (I wonder if this has been commented on in the notes to my editions of Macbeth and it just failed to register in my mind), but I'm inordinately pleased to have this new take on the witches' prophecy, so thanks again to muse, boinky, and bdh.


  • At 10/09/2006 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I think Crooke is basically wrong about women often surviving c-sections.

    Also, the etymology from Caesar may well be a myth. Wikipedia actually seems pretty good on this.


  • At 10/09/2006 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    I agree with hieronimo. I can't remember where I read this but I think few if any women survived c-sections until much later (1890s?) when uterine suturing was introduced, Though wikipedia (thanks, h) says the first recorded survival was in 1500 in Switzerland. Does Laquer have anything to say on the subject?


  • At 10/09/2006 08:37:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Just to be clear, Guillimeau makes this same claim, though he's more skeptical of its accuracy. Both writers are drawing on classical medical sources (I assume they're classical), so it's clear the idea of delivering a live fetus from a live mother though a Caesarian section had long been thought possible, even if the procedure was normally associated with delivering a live fetus from a dead mother.


  • At 10/10/2006 05:08:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    The statistics all say the same thing – don't get sick. Period.


  • At 3/12/2009 10:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    There are a few interesting things to think about concerning the Macbeth/Macduff issue...

    for example, the name Macbeth is translated as "Son of Light," the name "Macduff" translated as "Son of the Black Man." You would think that the son of light would be the good guy, and the son of the black man the bad guy... I wonder what the witch's riddle, "fair is foul and foul is fair" means?

    Also, another clue, somewhere in some gnostic gospel, Jesus says... "When you see one who was not born of woman, worship that one, he is your Father." It might have something to do with a man who is born of the "Unknown Father," or the "Unknown God,"(the black man) ie; the Son of Man... the one who is named at the beginning... named before birth, so, in a sense, "ripped from his Mother's womb" or known by the "Unknown Father" before his birth... Son of Man, Son of God, so therefore... not of woman... self-born.

    Some people think a lot of Shakespeare's plays have to do with a great universal drama that hasn't happened yet... meaning that in history, the end of Macbeth hasn't happened yet... something to think about.


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