Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Shakspere Society of Philadelphia
Maybe not the first, but the oldest Shakespeare club in America or possibly even the world, has kept minutes for over a hundred fifty years.



Dean Wagner in the chair. Other members present Ake, Bartlett, Binnion, Bornemann, Cramer, Dunn, Fallon, Fisher, Frye, Green, Griffin, Hopkinson, Lehmann, Mabry, Madeira, Peck, Pickering, Warden. Mr. Dunn introduced his guest Daniel Richter, Professor of History at Penn and Mr. Dunn's successor as the director of the McNeil Center for the Study of Early American History.

The Secretary has been looking through the minutes and the menus of the Society in the 1850's, 60's and 70's. (These ancient documents are part of the H.H. Furness collection in the Van Pelt Library at Penn. Mr. Furness, one of the first eminent American Shakspere scholars, was the second secretary of our Society).) Minutes are at times detailed, at others minimal; the extensive minutes show that Society meetings typically were spent discussing, in excruciating detail, the meanings of a series of difficult phrases and lines from the play under study (usually one a season). Suspect textual readings were warmly debated as well. Annual dinners were at first held just after Christmas and then, from the end of the Civil War, on or near Shakspere's birthday. They were six- or seven-course affairs, with wines served with each course, followed by discussions about perhaps eight or nine different topics relevant to the play studied during the previous month. These sessions lasted for six or seven hours in some years. A heroic age!

We began our reading of Macbeth at the start of Act Three, Scene Four. The Vice Dean asked us to continue to think about why Macbeth and his Lady change as they do, and to ask ourselves how powerful the influence of the witches is on Macbeth. A member asked about the Third Murderer who appears in 3.3 and only there; is he, Macbeth, as some claim? Unlikely, the Vice Dean feels: Macbeth does not know in 3.4 that Fleance has escaped. This very minor part is cut in some productions of the play.

3.4'Macbeth now shows himself a full-fledged tyrant and is so named several times in the rest of Act Three. Earlier, he felt excruciating regret for his murder of Duncan; now he orders more murders without compunction. Did discussion ensue about the nature of the ghost of Banquo: a figment of Macbeth's imagination? No one else at the banquet sees him/it. A contrast to the witches: Macbeth and Banquo both see them in Act One. Could one stage the play without a ghost appearing? Some members emphatically endorsed this idea.

Macbeth may be ruthless now, but he is still tortured by inner fears: conscience? He refers vividly to the worthlessness of the power he now enjoys: he and his Lady "eat our meals in fear" and cannot sleep without "these terrible dreams that shake us nightly." He tells himself that "blood will have blood," that inevitably murder will out. At the end of this wonderful scene, he tried to calm himself by renouncing forethought before action: as long as he kills as soon as he thinks of it, he can have mental peace. As if, Mac!

3.5'Hecate's scene with the witches is a later addition, scholars agree (Thomas Middleton was paid for additions to a later staging of the play, we know). "Oh well done, I commend your pains/ And everyone will share in the gains" sounds like Grand Ole Opry rather than the bearded crones who chant about fingers of babies "Ditch-delivered by a drab" and strangled at birth.

3.6'In England, patriotic Scots get help from Edward the Confessor, as piously healing as Macbeth is ruthlessly bloodthirsty. The Vice Dean noted the imagery that makes Macbeth a source of disease to the land he rules. Overthrowing Mac, says a Lord, will allow Scots to eat their meals and sleep in peace, echoing Macbeth's language in 3.4.

4.1'Vigorous reading of this scene by all the assembled company! Do we see a decisive moment here of change by Macbeth into a complete moral monster? He decides to kill all of the escaped Macduff's family. Members commented that the tyrant behaves as irrationally, as primitively here as a Saddam Hussein or a Joseph Stalin: mindless revenge that yields no clear benefit to the ruler. Macbeth, desperate, repeats to himself that he must stop thinking about what to do to protect himself and simply act brutally, cruelly, murderously. The Vice Dean contrasted Macbeth here to Hamlet, endlessly analyzing whether and how he should act to avenge his father's murder. (Your scribe might add that Hamlet sounds rather Mac-like when he tells himself to sweep to his revenge and to "put away all trivial fond records" in Act One, and when he praises the brutal Fortinbras and castigates himself in Act Four: "O from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!")

The witches both give Macbeth false hope in 4.1 and drive him frantic with dismay: no man born of a woman can kill him, he will not fall till the woods come to his castle' but the progeny of Banquo will be kings for generations to come. This ambiguity of message, these mixed feelings in Macbeth, are pervasive in the play.

4.2'Lady Macduff and her son are killed, the boy before our eyes'unusual in Shakspere, as members noted. Macduff, his wife, says, is a traitor and in leaving his family exposed, "wants the natural touch": more of the moral ambiguities so common in the play. 4.3'Malcolm tests Macduff's patriotism at a rather tedious length; then the terrible moment when Macduff must hear the news of his family's murder. Macduff is eloquently silent at first, and then he says only, "He has no children": meant of Macbeth? No eye for eye possible? Or of young Malcolm? "He can't grasp what I feel." Malcolm urges murderous vengeance; Macduff says he must first "feel it like a man" when he hears of his family's slaughter. We remember Macbeth's brief resistance to his Lady's call for Duncan's blood: "I dare do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none."

A member argued that this play is Shakspere's attempt to define what a good king is. The Vice Dean noted that Macbeth is not lustful or greedy for possessions as Malcolm (at first) says he would be asking. Only the urge for power consumes Macbeth. The Vice Dean asked members to assess the further changes in Macbeth in the last act.

WE WILL MEET NEXT ON NOVEMBER 19, AND BEGIN READING MACBETH AT THE START OF ACT FIVE. Our next play will be Timon of Athens, which we will read in its entirety, contrary to the Secretary's earlier advice to members!

Respectfully submitted Robert G. Peck Secretary

Originally published: Thursday, March 06, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019

I would like to point out tha Macbeth was written for King James the 1st of England as The Royal Play of Macbeth Why so short because James went to sleep on long plays It flatters James .I have a 1 hour talk which proves this if you wish a copy I will send this to you Ian Brown
Posted by: Ian Brown   |   Jul 3, 2011 4:43 AM
Please note my email:
Posted by: Ramachandra Deva   |   Dec 3, 2009 10:41 AM
I am a Kannada (a Dravidian language of India) translator of Shakespeare.I have translated Macbeth, Hamlet, The Tempest and King Lear. My on Shakespeare in two cultures. It is a comparative study of Shakespeare in India with particular reference to 130 years old tradition of Kannada translations/productions of his plays. I shall be glad to be posted of your activities.
With regards
Ramachandra Deva
Posted by: Ramachandra Deva   |   Dec 3, 2009 10:38 AM