The Reading Room
“Out, damned spot.” Out Shakespeare.
When it comes to why Thomas Bowdler felt the need to “censor” Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1807, the answer is pretty easy: it features a lady cursing.
In one of the most famous lines of the play, a delirious, sleepwalking Lady Macbeth attempts to wash the imaginary blood off her hands only to find her hands remain unclean. Lady Macbeth curses the stubborn blood, a literal manifestation of her guilt, crying “Out, damned spot, out, I say!” (5.1.37). Feminine cursing would not do for Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare. Never mind the grisly murder or fact that she swears because she believes her hands to be besmeared with the blood of her slain king who “resembled / [Her] father as he slept” – slept peacefully in her house moments before she persuaded her husband to brutally murder him. This all passed Bowdler’s muster. A female accomplice in murder? Quite alright. A female cursing? Strictly forbidden.
As many bans are, Bowdler’s is superficial and imbecilic, missing the forest through the trees. He simultaneously signals that Macbeth is a cultural pillar that must be preserved and read but glosses over the truly problematic material within its covers. To reject the troubling material in Macbeth would be to ban the entire play. This is precisely what some schools are doing now across the nation, with Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida leading the pack in number of books banned with 713, 456, and 204 respectively. Having recently moved to Pennsylvania, I was surprised to encounter this statistic and began digging into which books were banned and why. When I came to Macbeth, I let out an audible laugh: one high school in Pennsylvania claimed it was banned for violence and depictions of witchcraft. The violence might be understandable seeing as the play ends with Macduff parading Macbeth’s head around on a pike, blood dripping as he tries to heal a broken Scotland.
The witchcraft angle, though, is nothing but a convenient excuse – a witchy cloak to mask the truly offensive material: blasphemy and female power – a real double whammy in conservative camps. A ban on the “weird sisters,” is really a ban on female agency, voice, and influence. In order to understand why witchcraft in Macbeth is so offensive, we must grapple with the core question of the play (an unanswerable one): why does Macbeth do what he does? The real threat of the witches is not their famous “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” – the now clichéd lines that have inspired countless Halloween costumes and Hollywood translations like the Sanderson sisters (yes, Hocus Pocus season is now upon us). The threat is the fact that females might have more power than men – that it is the witches and not Macbeth that hold the fate of Scotland in their gnarled hands. Macbeth’s central concern is that strategic female coercion may ultimately be more powerful than brute male strength. How else would homeless female “hags” beat Scotland’s fiercest warrior, capable of “unseam[ing]” a man “from the nave to th’ chops” to “[fix] his head upon our battlements” (1.1.24-5)? Decapitations were evidently not uncommon in Macbeth’s Scotland.
The genius of the decapitations that bookend the play cannot be overstated: Macbeth goes from placing the enemy’s bloody head on pike to being that very head in Act 5. The entire question of the play and the 400 years of subsequent scholarship is how did he get there? Those who are afraid of Macbeth and ban it would answer: witchcraft, witchcraft made him do it. In Shakespeare’s England and our own radicalized America, this quickly becomes a slippery slope – one that renders the witches a demonic substitute for God. If we transfer agency away from Macbeth, we give the weird sisters a god-like ability to control Macbeth’s fate and write his destiny. This is blasphemous and, therefore, cannot be tolerated. Thus, out of reverence to God, we ban Macbeth. This might have made sense in early modern England, where the church was the state; it makes little sense today. If we needed more proof of society’s devolution, this is it: we have banned Macbeth for its religious irreverence in a country where church is theoretically (at least as enshrined in our constitution) separated from the state. Notably, the Church of England let Macbeth play on in the seventeenth century.
By conflating witchcraft with divine power, today’s ban flattens Shakespeare’s complex worlds and reduces Macbeth to a simple truth: the witches, acting as God, compelled Macbeth to murder. This makes Shakespeare, via Macbeth, sound like a two-year-old who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar: it’s not my fault – they made me do it. Under this logic, Macbeth had no choice but was forced into murder by the female trio’s hellish power, as if the hand of Satan controlled Macbeth’s, plunging the dagger into the sleeping Duncan’s frame. Taking this stance renders the play a long and boring exercise in reading comprehension rather than a philosophical interrogation of the power of suggestion, fate versus individual agency, shifting definitions of masculinity and femininity, gender expectations, the burden of power, and the irreversibility of one’s actions – to name a few. In defense of his continued killing spree, a beleaguered, emotionally defeated Macbeth reasons, “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.169-71). Macbeth weighs his options and decides to “go o’er” and continue killing. Macbeth makes this decision all on his own, in a soliloquy, without any witchcraft.
In the high school and college classroom this conversation is distilled into the now cliched question of “fate versus free will.” Was Macbeth fated to kill Duncan and unleash an irreversible string of coverup murders or did he choose to do so? What was Lady Macbeth’s role in this decision? Since she is the one who ultimately convinces Macbeth to kill Duncan, is her power of persuasion the play’s real witchcraft? Fear of female power is, after all, what spawned the witch trials in England and America. So now we come to the important question: is the book really banned for witchcraft? Is it really banned because the weird sisters and Lady Macbeth wield a magical influence that compels Macbeth to kill, blaspheming “God’s plan” by translating it into a hellish perversion of the divine? Methinks not. While witchcraft may make for a convenient scapegoat, the larger issue seems to be male fragility and female strength. Macbeth does not want to kill Duncan, but is forced into it by his wife’s shaming; Macbeth cannot dispose of the murder weapon, but Lady Macbeth can. The thought that Scotland’s great warrior and king might be no more than a puppet controlled by his wife and three homeless women dancing around a cauldron is too much for some modern psyches to bear. Today’s curriculum regulators might take a closer look at Act One and vow inaction, for once you set a destructive campaign in motion, you may soon find yourself “Stepped in so far” that it can be difficult to walk back.