‘Eye of newt and toe of frog’

The recent political developments in the UK, the USA, Syria, North Korea, and around the world in general made me think of Macbeth and the imagery of the body.

Body parts seem to form an important image cluster in Macbeth. Although it pales compared to Titus Andronicus in the gory category, it still has its fair (and foul) share of severed heads and dismembered limbs, not to mention the recurrent reference to blood strained hands. Besides constant mentioning of eyes and hands, we should also remember that Act I presents us with a severed thumb and the final Act with the severed head of the protagonist. In between, we have slit necks, gashed heads,  hacked bones, babies ripped from a mother’s womb, and animal parts  – ‘eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting, lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing’, ‘scale of dragon, tooth of wolf witch’s mummy, maw and gulf’.

Besides the possible interpretation that Shakespeare audiences delighted in gore and torture as much as any contemporary cinemagoer watching the Revenant, we should also consider how Elizabethans view the connections between the body natural and the body politic. Macbeth is a play where the body politic is turned apart by individualistic political ambition and where the head of the state, the monarch, is severed from the body of the society, the people. Perhaps what strikes the most in the profound and desperate isolation in which the Macbeths find themselves – they are totally cut off from others, both human and supernatural. They are the very image of the dismembered body parts throughout the play.

By approaching the play from this perspective, it seems to me that the play invites audiences and readers to look at the current political situation and critically analyse the state of disconnection between those in power and the ‘country’ they should represent.

Further reading:

  • Dobski, B. J., & Gish, D. A. (2012). Shakespeare, the Body Politic, and Liberal Democracy. Perspectives on Political Science, 41(4), 181–189.
  • Harris, J. G. (1998). Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press.
  • Spicci, M. (2007). The body as metaphor: digestive bodies and political surgery in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Medical Humanities, 33(2), 67–69.
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