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:
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.