A deceptively difficult speech from the first act of Macbeth, this wonderfully epic tale of battle comes to us from the mouth of a character who we are meeting for the first time and we never see again. This is characteristically knotty and complex monologue comes from a period in Shakespeare’s career when he was really pushing the possibilities of blank verse. We are miles away from Romeo or Helena at this point. If you can land this speech, you can do almost anything in Shakespeare’s canon; it requires a lot of work, but it is hugely rewarding!
Macbeth is set in Scotland around the year 1030, based on the true story (with some obvious supernatural additions) of the rise of the Scottish King Macbeth. The play opens at the end of a war between the vaguely united Scottish forces and the Norwegian vikings. In a very Game of Thrones turn of events, some Scottish thanes (or Lords) like Macdonwald have sided with the Vikings. In this speech, the captain describes the battle between the traitor Macdonwald and the forces of the Scottish army, led by the titular character.
As for the traffic of the stage … not much has actually happened yet. We have met the three weird sisters—who say they plan to meet again, at the end of the day, on a heath with Macbeth. Then, immediately, we meet King Duncan and his son Malcolm. Duncan asks who the bloody man is before him, and Malcolm says it’s the good soldier who freed him from captivity. Malcolm then asks the captain to tell the King what happened.
As an actor playing this role, it’s important to remember that the information you are providing is new and important both to the characters on stage and (more importantly) the audience. It’s also the first big speech in verse of the play: you’ll be teaching some of the audience to engage with heightened language.
Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald
(Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him) from the western isles
Of Kernes and Gallowglasses is supplied;
And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel’s whore: but all’s too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
Which smok’d with bloody execution,
Like Valour’s minion, carv’ d out his passage,
Till he fac’d the slave;
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
As with all of our Monologues Unpacked, we suggest the first thing you do to decode Shakespeare’s language is to note and research all the unfamiliar words and phrases. Be brutally honest with yourself: don’t leave anything to chance.
Kernes —Kerns were Irish or Scottish light-armed foot soldiers. A kern would carry a shield of wood and either a sword or bow and arrow.
Gallowglasses — Mercenary armoured warriors who served primarily as bodyguards to Celtic chieftains. They were hand-picked for their strength and massive size, and they would usually carry a battle axe or a halberd (an axe on long pole).
Fortune — fortune becomes a person in this context. He is potentially a reference to the Roman god Fortuna. She is depicted as a woman holding a rudder, to control destiny.
Valour’s minion — just as he personifies Fortune, Valour here becomes a person. In this context Valour’s minion (Macbeth) is closer to a favourite rather than someone who serves.
Ne’er — Never.
Bade — Past form of bid.
Unseam’d — to open the seams of. In this context, to slice something (or someone) open.
Nave to the chops — navel (or stomach) to the cheeks.
Notes on Pronunciation:
“Fac’d”, “fix’d”, “carv’d”, etc. are all pronounced with one syllable. “Damned” is pronounced with two syllables: “damn-ed”. This aids the rhythm of the text.
It was looking doubtful, both sides we dragging the other down
Like two tired swimmers drowning. The unmerciful Macdonwald
(It makes sense why he became a traitor being that such qualities are within him) had fierce soldiers from Ireland on his side; and that Lady Fortune, luck personified,
Was clearly smiling on Macdonwalds side: but it wasn’t enough;
For brave Macbeth, well he deserves to be called brave, with no respect for the plans of Lady Fortune, with his sword held high, like the servant of Courage, cut out his path till he faced Macdonwald, who neither shook hands with him or said goodbye to him, until Macbeth cut him from the stomach to the cheeks and then cut off his head and put it on our battlements.
There is a lot to think about with Shakespeare, but when it comes down to it: drive to the end of your thoughts to find some sense. To help you drive to/land your thoughts, I have underlined and put in bold the last three words of each thought.
Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together 11
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald 11
(Worthy to be a rebel, for to that 10
The multiplying villainies of nature 11
Do swarm upon him) from the western isles 10
Of Kernes and Gallowglasses is supplied; 10
And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, 11
Show’d like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak; 10
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name), 10
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel, 10
Which smok’d with bloody execution, 9
Like Valour’s minion, carv’ d out his passage, 10
Till he fac’d the slave; 5
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, 10
Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops, 11
And fix’d his head upon our battlements. 10
Notes on Rhythm and Verse
The numbers at the end of each line represent the number of syllables. As we know, a line of blank verse should have 10 syllables (5 weak and 5 strong) that sound a little like a heartbeat (da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum). The fancy name for this is iambic pentameter. As Shakespeare got further into his career, he played around a lot more with this form—bending and breaking the rules for dramatic effect.
Think of the rule breaks as clues being left behind by the writer. If we say 10 syllables is a regular heartbeat and someone speaking in regular verse is calm and steady, what does this say about our captain? Is he panicked? Out of breath? We know he is bleeding. Does he keep gaining and then losing his composure? What about the line with only 5 syllables? Perhaps it leaves time for a pause while he’s trying to pull himself together?
Shakespeare was a writer, but he was also an actor: he knew how to use words to support performers and give them interesting things to do. While respect for Shakespearean language is important, remember that it’s there to work for you (and not the other way round.)
Notes on Performance
Bring your attention back to this speech’s three thoughts: one small opening thought and then two loner ones. (In some editions, there is no full stop after “rebels whore”, so it really could be one small thought and one huge thought.) As an exercise, work out the most economical way of conveying the captain’s thoughts. Cut out all poetic images and focus on the logic:
Doubtful it stood.
The merciless Macdonwald from the western isles
Of Kernes and Gallowglasses is supplied.
But all’s too weak; For brave Macbeth with his brandish’d steel
carv’ d out his passage, till he fac’d the slave.
Unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.
Next, use the poetic description to fill out the story with as much detail as you can. For example: where are the two spent swimmers? In the ocean? A pool? A waterhole in the desert? How long have they been treading water before they start clinging together to try and save themselves? As you get to this image, discover it as you search for the words—the best description the captain can think of in the given moment.
To get the movements of the text into your head and body, try dividing your rehearsal room in two halves: the logical plot and the colourful description. You can then speak the plot to one half and the description to the other, running back and forth as needed. (You’ll be doing a lot of running.) Then stand still, and find the definition using your voice alone.
Finally, be wary of the bracketed sections. Think of them as being said to somebody else: if the bulk of the text is said directly to the king, then think of the bracketed sections being said to Malcolm as a clarification. That will help to break them up and remind the audience they are comments on the main plot, not directly crucial to it.