O, then we bring forth weeds, when our quick minds lie still

From Antony and Cleopatra (2.1.94-95), a note to myself as I begin a long holiday:

O, then we bring forth weeds,
When our quick minds lie still

And some other Shakespearean uses of weed/weeds as the noun in its not-clothes sense. It is not a favorite but is certainly a repeated metaphor:

Henry IV pt. II – 4.4:


Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds

Henry VI pt. II – 3.1:

Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry.

Measure for Measure – 1.3:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey.

Rape of Lucrece – 920-926:

‘Unruly blasts wait on the tender spring;
Unwholesome weeds take root with precious flowers;
The adder hisses where the sweet birds sing;
What virtue breeds iniquity devours:
We have no good that we can say is ours,
But ill-annexed Opportunity
Or kills his life or else his quality.

Richard II 3.4:

I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Richard III 2.4:

‘Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace:’
And since, methinks, I would not grow so fast,
Because sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.

Hamlet 1.5:

I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

Henry V 4.1:

For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry:
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all, admonishing
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself.


How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!

From Macbeth (4.1.47-60):

MACBETH
How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
ALL [WITCHES]
A deed without a name.
MACBETH
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

And some contextualizing remarks from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Gary Wills (pg63-65).

When Macbeth sets out consciously to “know, by the worst means, the worst” from the witches (3.4.133-34), he is exposing himself to the same laws that made Sir Edward Kelley (in real life) and the Duchess of Gloucester (in Shakespeare’s play) guilty of necromancy—i.e., of witchcraft. He appeals to the witches in the name of their art, of their dark knowledge, no matter what its source (4.1.50-51):

I conjure you, by that which you profess,
How e’er you come to know it, answer me.


He has addressed them in terms of their office:

How now you secret, black, and midnight hags.


This is the way Ovid’s Medea begins to conjure Night: “Oh, Night,
you secret-keeper!”

Nox, ait, arcanis fidissima . . .

This is not an accidental resemblance. The model for Macbeth’s conjuring speech is the classical speech of Medea best known to Shakespeare in Ovid’s and in Seneca’s versions of it. It has long been recognized that Shakespeare based Prospero’s description of his magic on Ovid’s Medea; but Macbeth’s speech is just as close to that model.

Macbeth asks for knowledge on the basis of witches’ power to wrest, from an unwilling nature, compelled submission. To emphasize this he lists the classical adynata (feats beyond natural causation) that make up the canonical list of witches’ boasts. Medea, like other classical witches, says she can draw down the moon, move crops around, invert the seasons, reverse river currents, turn everything topsyturvy. Here is Macbeth’s use of that classical witch-catalogue (4.1.52-59):

[see quoted passage at top]

This kind of speech, often imitated from the classical sources, is almost always put into the mouth of a witch or the queen of witches. Ben Jonson [in The Masque of Queens], for instance, has Hecate say:

When we have set the elements at wars,
Made midnight see the sun, and day the stars;
When the winged lightning in its course hath stay’d,
And swiftest rivers have run back, afraid
To see the corn remove, the graves to range
While places alter and the seas do change;
When the pale moon, at the first voice, down fell
Poison’d, and durst not stay the second spell


Although Macbeth’s adynata, like Jonson’s, are classical, there is one Christian touch in Shakespeare that makes its “modern” witchcraft more explicit. Macbeth not only says he will set the winds at war—a typical feature of witch-boasting—but that he will make them war against the churches. That is an extra touch of malice that Doctor Faustus shares with Macbeth. Faustus says that he will “make my spirit pull his churches down” (Az.3.98).

And the Golding translation (what Shakespeare would have known) of the passage in Ovid (7.190-210ish):

…… O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.

Lucan’s Erichtho may also be relevant, though the Pharsalia doesn’t seem to have been translated in full until over a decade after the play.

And I feel now the future in the instant

A small observation as I read Macbeth after rewatching the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench version yesterday. One atmospheric element of the play that I never feel in performances – because they move too fast for the ramifications to sink in – is what I, for lack of any better term, think of as cognitive time slippage. I guess you could also call it a sort of prolepsis but it would then need distinguishing against (my quite possibly poor understanding of) Gerard Genette’s narratological definition. What happens here is not a narrative sequence displacement (a looking forward to a future moment) but a cognitive displacement where the character’s mind seems genuinely to ‘slip’ out of the present and into the future. There are a few potential instances of this throughout the play but the first two will illustrate the point. First is Macbeth responding to the prophecy of the witches (1.3.132-43):

MACBETH
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

The flow of grammar and sense are tough – and my commentaries are hesitant to commit to explanations – but the italicized lines seem to me a three-step mental movement in which the character’s mind shifts from an anchoring in the real present to one in the not real/imagined future. In performance the concluding ‘nothing is / But what is not.‘ sounds a sophism of sorts but in a leisurely reading the paradox of Macbeth’s present/is being replaced by the future/is not establishes a particular type of time-based mental disturbance – one that immediately infects Lady Macbeth as well. At their first meeting in 1.5.54 she greets him:

Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.

All this is very different from Brutus’ lines in Julius Caesar (2.1.63-69) that my Arden edition calls up as comparison since Brutus there doesn’t lose sight of the act of imagining (and focuses on the interim anyway, which is a different issue of time):

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

Brutus understands his activity as purely mental/internal while Macbeth (nothing is but what is not) and especially Lady Macbeth (transported me beyond … I feel now) seem to insist on having crossed a line into (imagined) physical manifestation.

An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star

Edmund in 1.2 of King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!

My personal locus classicus for such observations is Zeus in Odyssey 1.30ish, on the troubles Aegisthus has brought upon himself – even though there he wobbles a bit in conceding a different manner of predestination.

Look you now, how ready mortals are to blame the gods. It is from us, they say, that evils come, but they even of themselves, through their own blind folly, have sorrows beyond that which is ordained.

ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται:
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ᾽ ἔμμεναι, οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε᾽ ἔχουσιν,

Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust, destroy our friends and after weep their dust

From All’s Well That Ends Well (5.3.58):

but love that comes too late,
Like a remorseful pardon slowly carried,
To the great sender turns a sour offence,
Crying, ‘That’s good that’s gone.’ Our rash faults
Make trivial price of serious things we have,
Not knowing them until we know their grave:
Oft our displeasures, to ourselves unjust,
Destroy our friends and after weep their dust.
Our own love, waking, cries to see what’s done,
While shameful hate sleeps out the afternoon.

The last line has a notable alternate reading – curiously not acknowledge by the editors of the Arden 3rd – ‘shame full late’…

It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks

From All’s Well That Ends Well (2.2):

LAVATCH
Truly, madam, if God have lent a man any manners, he
may easily put it off at court: he that cannot make
a leg, put off’s cap, kiss his hand and say nothing,
has neither leg, hands, lip, nor cap; and indeed
such a fellow, to say precisely, were not for the
court; but for me, I have an answer will serve all
men.
COUNTESS
Marry, that’s a bountiful answer that fits all
questions.
LAVATCH
It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks,
the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn
buttock, or any buttock.
COUNTESS
Will your answer serve fit to all questions?
LAVATCH
As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney,
as your French crown for your taffeta punk, as Tib’s
rush for Tom’s forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove
Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his
hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding queen
to a wrangling knave, as the nun’s lip to the
friar’s mouth, nay, as the pudding to his skin.
COUNTESS
Have you, I say, an answer of such fitness for all
questions?
LAVATCH
From below your duke to beneath your constable, it
will fit any question.
COUNTESS
It must be an answer of most monstrous size that
must fit all demands.
LAVATCH
But a trifle neither, in good faith, if the learned
should speak truth of it: here it is, and all that
belongs to’t. Ask me if I am a courtier: it shall
do you no harm to learn.
COUNTESS
To be young again, if we could: I will be a fool in
question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer. I
pray you, sir, are you a courtier?
LAVATCH
O Lord, sir! There’s a simple putting off. More,
more, a hundred of them.
COUNTESS
Sir, I am a poor friend of yours, that loves you.
LAVATCH
O Lord, sir! Thick, thick, spare not me.
COUNTESS
I think, sir, you can eat none of this homely meat.
LAVATCH
O Lord, sir! Nay, put me to’t, I warrant you.
COUNTESS
You were lately whipped, sir, as I think.
LAVATCH
O Lord, sir! spare not me.
COUNTESS
Do you cry, ‘O Lord, sir!’ at your whipping, and
‘spare not me?’ Indeed your ‘O Lord, sir!’ is very
sequent to your whipping: you would answer very well
to a whipping, if you were but bound to’t.
LAVATCH
I ne’er had worse luck in my life in my ‘O Lord,
sir!’ I see things may serve long, but not serve ever.
COUNTESS
I play the noble housewife with the time
To entertain’t so merrily with a fool.
LAVATCH
O Lord, sir! why, there’t serves well again.
COUNTESS
An end, sir; to your business.

Who, with our spleens, would all themselves laugh mortal

From Measure for Measure (2.2.115ish), Isabella to Angelo:

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons

From Othello (3.3.329-332):

Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur

And a similar notion, less direly construed – from Tristram Shandy v.2 ch.19:

I mention this, not only as matter of hypothesis or conjecture upon the progress and establishment of my father’s many odd opinions,—but as a warning to the learned reader against the indiscreet reception of such guests, who, after a free and undisturbed entrance, for some years, into our brains,—at length claim a kind of settlement there,——working sometimes like yeast;—but more generally after the manner of the gentle passion, beginning in jest,—but ending in downright earnest.

The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief

Some polonian platitudes from Othello (1.3), as the Duke soothes Brabantio over Desdemona’s elopement:

DUKE OF VENICE
Let me speak like yourself, and lay a sentence,
Which, as a grise or step, may help these lovers
Into your favour.
When remedies are past, the griefs are ended
By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended.
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the next way to draw new mischief on.
What cannot be preserved when fortune takes
Patience her injury a mockery makes.
The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief;
He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.

I want to connect the bolded line with Juvenal 10.22 (cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator – ‘the empty-handed traveler will sing in the robber’s face’) but it feels too weak a link.

At least Brabantio gets his own back in his reply:

BRABANTIO
So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile;
We lose it not, so long as we can smile.
He bears the sentence well that nothing bears
But the free comfort which from thence he hears,
But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow
That, to pay grief, must of poor patience borrow.
These sentences, to sugar, or to gall,
Being strong on both sides, are equivocal:
But words are words; I never yet did hear
That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.
I humbly beseech you, proceed to the affairs of state.

A pelting kind of thersitical satire, as black as the very ink ’tis wrote with

A history of the reception of Thersites would be a fun project.

A prepping quote from Tristram Shandy:

And first, it may be said, there is a pelting kind of thersitical satire, as black as the very ink ’tis wrote with——(and by the bye, whoever says so, is indebted to the muster-master general of the Grecian army, for suffering the name of so ugly and foul-mouth’d a man as Thersites to continue upon his roll——for it has furnish’d him with an epithet)

And a sample of Shakespeare’s indulging in the thersitical vein, from Troilus and Cressida (5.1):

THERSITES
Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.
PATROCLUS
Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?
THERSITES
Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

Arden adds these enlightening but effect-deflating glosses:

guts-griping … palsies ‘colic or other spasms of the abdoment, hernias, common colds or other infections of nose and throat, severe cases of kidney stones, illnesses like stroke that result in torpor or inertness, severe termor and paralysis

(From Longer notes) …The list comprises: chronic eye inflammation, liver ailments like hepatitis, asthma, bladder infections caused by cysts or abscesses (impostumes), lower back pain (sciaticas), gout (which can produce white lumps in the joints and knuckles) or else psoriasis (causing dry, reddish itchy patches on the skin of the hand), bone-ache (including the ‘Neapolitan bone-ache’ or syphilis), and pustular outbreaks of the skin caused by herpes, impetigo, ringworm, etc. This last, the tetter, produces a rivelled fee-simple or irreversible wrinkling.