Response to “Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth” by Dennis Biggins
EH 304 Late Shakespeare 10/10/2011 “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth,” by Dennis Biggins Summary: In this article, Biggins focuses on several themes, both obvious and discreet, within the plot of Macbeth. Biggins disputes other critics’ opinions that sexuality has little thematic importance in Macbeth, stating that the play is immersed in sexuality through both violent and mystical indications. Other critics refer to the play as “the purest of Shakespeare’s tragedies,” in which the Porter’s remarks about drink and sex might easily seem incongruous (Biggins 255).
Biggins, however, identifies not only the more obvious sexual elements, such as can be seen in the exchanges between Macbeth and his wife, but states that the play has several passages in which “the full purport has not been grasped. ” Biggins expounds on the mystical connotatations, and ties this theme directly to underlying themes and symbols of violence and sexuality that are prominent throughout the play. Biggins compares Macbeth to other Shakesperian works, highlighting Shakespeare’s use of demonic and sexual symbolism.
In Biggins’ opinion, witchcraft is the most potent theme in Macbeth, for it links violence and sexuality perfectly within the fatal plot. This, in turn, creates a bigger and more sinister role for the weird sisters, who are seldom on stage. Biggins and other critics agree that: “the Weird Sisters are something other, or at any rate something more than garden-variety witches of the kind described by contemporary witch lore. There is a demonic aspect of the Weird Sisters, but their powers are too limited for them to be seen in terms as full-fledged demons or devils.
They occupy a kind of twilight territory between human and supernatural evildoing” … (Biggins 255). ” Biggins propses that all the violent manifestations that take place on stage are demonstrations of sexual impulse. Furthermore, the sexual impulsivity and violence in the various characters are driven by the “irreistable demonic forces” characterized by the Weird Sisters. In the colloquy between the Sisters in I. iii there is a mingling of the motifs of unnatural evildoing and of lust that are to recur later in the play with reference to Macbeth and his wife (Biggins 258).
Using textual evidence, Biggins shows that these themes, sexual, demonic and violent, are prevalent in many of Shakespeare’s works. Barbantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft to sedice his daughter Desdemona in Othello, saying “For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not” (Oth. , I. iii. 62-64). Likewise, Biggins suggests that the ghost in Hamlet sees Clauduis’ wooing of Gertrude as a kind of trickery or witchcraft.
He draws similar paralells in King Lear, Henry VI and Antony and Cleopatra. Biggins theory centers around the powers of the divine and demonic, and his suggeststions about the lesser themes, such as sexuality and violence, are seen only as a reaction to witchcraft. Response: Biggins heavily associates the Weird Sisters and their ties to the supernatural with sexuality. He analyzes many of their lines, adding more sexual connotations than previous critics. For instance, in I. iii the first witch responds to the woman as a “rump-fed Ronnion. Other critics have explained this language to mean well-fed or having a fattened rump. Biggins, however, says that it may be used here to express, among other things, sexual antagonism. He calls the term abusive and compares it closely to other terms used, like witch, hag, baggage, and polecat. In Jacobean-Elizabethan culture the latter two terms purportedly have sexually implicit meaning, while the former two slurs have specific, poignant meaning in Macbeth (Biggins 257). Biggins insists that “the Witch derisively ees her enemy as a sexual object whose role she intends to usurp” also noted in the article are other critics interpretations of these lines. The general consensus is that scene focuses on acts of cruelty and spite. Here, and in several other places, Biggins addresses and agrees with other criticisms or interpretations. Yet, he states that most all of the scenes portraying the Weird sisters are laden with double meaning, and therefore encompass both the mundane analysis and his own sexual theory. The article offers many compelling arguments, but lacks solid textual evidence.
Each line or passsage can be seperately analyzed, as done by Biggins, but these specific lines do not encompass the ambuguity of Macbeth. Basically, many of the conclusions drawn in “Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth” become obsolete when analyzed with a more modern meaning-in-motion approach. The sexual aspects Biggins insists the Weird sisters to portray throughout the play are not always applicable when viewed in light of other action and dialogue in the play. For example, the first witch’s line “I’ll drain him dry as hay,” (I. iii. 15) could have several interpretations.
Possibly the witch could be referring to causing a bodily ailment such as dehydration, which fits well within the scene alongside the mariner’s talk, or she could even be referring to the more remote idea of sacrifice as killing swine has already been mentioned by the second witch. Biggins, however, states that this line in particular holds double meaning, and “refers to her intention of draining the unfortunate man of his semen, through her grossly inordinate exploitation of him as a succubus. ” Other than the reference to “the rump-fed runion” (I. iii. ), which Biggins has already mentioned as being overtly sexual, the scene exudes no sexuality. In motion, this scene becomes one that encompasses the dark dealings with prophecy and the supernatural. I do not agree that sexuality and witchcraft are inherently linked. Biggins also does not thoroughly address the violence in Macbeth. Violence, as in his references to Lady Macbeth’s silloquey concerning the murder of Ducan, is again viewed as being urged by a physical passion. Biggins states that “very early in the play the imagery establishes a link between sexuality and the physical violence of rebellion. He does not, however, support this claim with textual evidence, but instead relies on the theory of pervading sexuality to make a connection between the two themes. I find the title of this article slightly misleading, as I expected the violent scenes in Macbeth to be clearly analyzed and any interpretations fortified with textual evidence and other scholarly sources. Here Biggins seems to be implying that the violence in Macbeth is the last and most insignificant theme of the play, present only as a reaction to the sexual tension which, in itself, is a reaction to dealings in the dark arts.
He continues to emphasize this opinion as he describes Macbeth’s final silloqey prior to Duncan’s death stating, “the regicide has tones of an act of sexual ravishment” (Biggins 268). Another example can be found when Macbeth reveals the death to Duncan’s sons in “the language of procreation” (Biggins 268) saying: “The Spring, the Head, the Fountaine of your Blood/ Is stopt, the very source of it is stopt” (II. iii. 72-74). Though this particular line does portray language that could be sexual, the scene itself does not fit Biggins’ theory. When viewed in-motion, the sexuality disappears from the scene.
It remains ambiguous, portraying a variety of conflicting emotions, but does not exude sexual tension as is suggested by Biggins. Finally, Biggins main focus is this article is on witchcraft. Here I find his arguments compelling and well researched. His insight into higher powers, both good and evil, that are at work in Macbeth make many of the passages in the play more profound. Though I still disagree with Biggins’ prevalent sexual theory that stems from this research, I appreiciate the concrete documentation he uses when discussing the elements of witchcraft.
For example, Biggins insists that “several of the ingredients in the Witche’s cauldron have conotations of lustfullness. ” Here he has referenced Thomas Spalding’s Elizabethan Demonology to verify procedure and ingredients, and again adds his own element of the sexual. Through the darker themes in the play we “are shown a world of human action in which the barriers between creation and destruction are less sharply defined than we habitually suppose and the borderland between what is natural and what seems unnatural are shadowy (Biggins 270). Basically, the added elements of the dark arts portray both the darker and lighter sides of human syche, and create a more complex set of emotions for the audience to identify with. I find his outlook on withcraft and demonology interesting and enlightening, and even agree that it adds intracacy to Macbeth, but I still cannot completely agree with repeated references to sex. Overall, the themes Biggins discusses in “Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth” are well thought out and clearly explained. The article is interesting, shedding light on society, and dark lore that would have been prevalent in the Jacobean or Elizabethan period. I found many points related to his interpretation of the text that I disagree with.
Reading this article, however, has caused me to reevaluate several scenes in Macbeth, and consider other interpretations. I stiil prefer the meaning-in-motion approach to analysis, which focuses more closely on the myriad emotions and reactions of the audience, rather than trying to find total meaning in static lines of text. I find that I am more inclined to agree with other critics in their opinions that Macbeth is “the purest of Shakespeare’s tragedies” (Biggins 255) Biggins, Dennis. “Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth. ” Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 255-77. Literary Reference Center. Web 12 October 2011.