Last week, I saw the Shakespeare’s Globe cinema screening of their recent production of Macbeth, and Joseph Millson’s intense and vigorous Macbeth in particular inspired me to start up this blog again. As I watched him go from valued soldier to tyrant, I kept thinking about another accusation of “unmaking” leveled at him in the play.
As my Shakespeare students this year know (…because I keep telling them this), I really like negation affixes: those little particles like un- and dis- that turn a neutral word into a negative. And Shakespeare makes especially rich use of them: think of Richard II declaring, “Now mark me how I will undo myself” (or “God save King Henry, unkinged Richard says”), or Goneril telling Lear “A little to disquantity [his] train.” While I was watching Macbeth the other night, I kept hearing, in particular, the echoing of un-. Jonathan Hope remarks, “Shakespeare seems particularly drawn to ‘un-’ as a way of negating concepts, perhaps because it suggests an active process of undoing something, rather than simple absence.”  And this is, I think, what we see in Lady Macbeth’s uses of this prefix in her addresses to her husband: first, she says that the “fitness” of the occasion for killing Duncan “Does unmake” Macbeth at 1.7.54; then just after Duncan’s murder, she scolds him by saying, “Why, worthy thane, / You do unbend your noble strength to think / So brainsickly of things” (2.2.47-49), as well as “Your constancy / Hath left you unattended” (2.2.71-2).
Lady Macbeth is constantly holding Macbeth up to Macbeth, if you like, comparing his past manliness to his current weakness (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”), and in each of these cases, she’s able to cram all of that into a word by using the un- prefix: he is undone, coming apart at his noble seams, no longer the thing he was. She sums all of this up, in fact, at 3.4.75, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost: “What, quite unmanned in folly?”
Intriguingly, though, there’s something odd and unexpected about Lady Macbeth’s remark that Macbeth unbends his noble strength when he is horrified by the murder of Duncan. I might have expected to hear “bend your noble strength”: that is, Macbeth’s strength is bending because it is no longer firm. But “unbend” suggests that the natural state of strength is a taut readiness, like a bow – something that has to be constantly held in place and that cannot be allowed to slacken, rather than a substance like stone, which is effortlessly adamantine. I like what this suggests about the state of manliness in the world of Macbeth: that to be a man is to be constantly wary, constantly on guard against threats that would weaken you or make you “play the woman” (as Macduff puts it at 4.3.230).
 Jonathan Hope, “Shakespeare and language.” In The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (Cambridge UP, 2010): 77-90, p. 83.
Text: Macbeth, ed. Stephen Orgel (Pelican Shakespeare, 2000).