Every Noise Appalls

The first two essays in this series drew attention to the structure of the first part of Macbeth and to the way Shakespeare incorporates the Garden of Eden into his story. Macbeth, we saw, is a temptation story in which, compared to the Biblical story, the temptation itself is drawn out and extended. The Garden in the Biblical story became Macbeth’s castle in Shakespeare’s, but instead of Macbeth being expelled, the Garden itself was transformed into the everlasting dungeon.

In this essay, I show that Shakespeare has included important details in Macbeth that confirm the allusion to the Garden, though of course, “confirmation” was not his purpose. What the detailed allusions accomplish is to intensify the dramatic impact of the story and deepen its meaning.

Naseeb Shaheen’s mammoth volume Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays is the first volume I turn to when studying a play and it seldom disappoints. However, in spite of the detailed and exhaustive scholarship represented by this excellent volume, Shaheen actually does miss many Biblical references. In part, this is because of the very strict criteria he follows to determine whether a passage should be regarded as a Biblical reference. Demanding that a reference be linked in specific words and expressions might make references clear, but it also may blind one to vaguer, but nevertheless important allusions.

One of those allusions in Macbeth which Shaheen overlooked, or at least decided not to include, is the frequently repeated reference to noises that terrify. The Biblical story speaks of “hearing the sound of Yahweh God” and of Adam and Eve, in obvious fear, attempting to hide themselves in the Garden (Genesis 3:8). We should not think of the sound of Yahweh in the Garden as a pleasant, soft, and gentle sound, though if Adam had not sinned Yahweh’s thunder would not have frightened him.

In Macbeth, the references to sound, noises, and hearing occur with such frequency in the short space of Act II, Scene II, that a reader or an audience feels the fear and tension in the air. But this is just preparation for MacDuff’s pounding at the castle gate, signaling the arrival of Macbeth’s judge.

The first of the repeated references to sound begins at the end of Scene I, just before Macbeth murders Duncan.

[A bell rings]

I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.

Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell

That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

When Scene II opens, Lady Macbeth is boasting of her boldness, the fire in her spirit (2.2.1-2). Immediately upon pronouncing the words, she is suddenly smitten with fear.

That which hath made them drunk hath made me

bold;

What hath quench’d them hath given me fire.—Hark!

—Peace!

She then comforts herself with the thought that it was an owl — that fatal bellman — which shrieked. But her boldness melts again when she hears Macbeth cry from within: “Who’s there? —what, ho!” She panics: What if the guards have been awakened and the deed not done? But Macbeth soon appears and she rewards him with respect: “My husband!”

His response again draws attention to terrifying noise.

MACBETH: I have done the deed. —Didst thou not hear a noise?

LADY MACBETH: I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.

Did you not speak?

MACBETH: When?

LADY MACBETH: Now.

MACBETH: As I descended?

LADY MACBETH: Ay.

MACBETH: Hark! (2.2.14-18)

After a short dialogue with Lady Macbeth in which Macbeth repeatedly refers to hearing the guards cry and lamenting that he could not join them in saying, “Amen,” he goes on to speak of hearing a voice cry out:

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep’ (2.2.35-35)

Still it cried, “Sleep no more!” to all the house: (2.2.40)

 

Lady Macbeth then asks, “Who was it that thus cried?” (2.2.43) When she returns to Duncan’s chamber to get rid of the daggers Macbeth unconsciously brought with him, he hears the knocking at the door for the first time.

 

Whence is that knocking?

How is’t with me, when every noise appals me? (2.2.56-57)

 

Lady Macbeth returns to her Lord and rebukes him for his lack of courage, urging him on to hide.

 

My hands are of your colour; but I shame

To wear a heart so white. [Knock] I hear a knocking

At the south entry: —retire we to our chamber;

A little water clears us of this deed:

How easy is it then! Your constancy

Hath left you unattended. [Knock] Hark! more

knocking.

Get on your nightgown, lest occasion call us,

And show us to be watchers. —Be not lost

So poorly in your thoughts. (2.2.63-70)

 

The last reference to noise in Scene II is Macbeth’s lament.

[Knock]

Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst!

Depending on how one counts, there are about 15 references to sound, noise, and hearing within the space of some 72 lines. Some of these stand out not simply because they are references to a sound, but much more because of the immediate verbal and situational context. If there had only been one reference like, “How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?” one could hardly miss the allusion to the Garden, how much more striking when these words are Macbeth’s response to the first time Macduff knocks on the castle gate?

When Lady Macbeth first hears the Macduff knocking, her response is “retire we to our chamber,” in other words, “Let’s hide.” Then, as if to make sure the slower people in the audience could not possibly miss what he is doing, Shakespeare has her command Macbeth to put on his nightgown, clothing that will cover their guilt, hiding the fact that they were “watchers.”

Macduff continues to knock, and knock, and knock in Scene III, where Shakespeare offers the half-drunk porter’s commentary about hell and judgment that I wrote about in the previous essay.

The terrifying sound of Yahweh in the Garden would have been like the thunderous sound of the glory-cloud on Mt. Sinai, one step at a time coming closer and closer to Adam and Eve. They flee to hide themselves from His presence because their heavenly Father has become their Judge. Of course, no allusion to the sound of Yahweh in the Garden can do justice to the glory involved, but Shakespeare connects Macbeth to Adam through repeated sounds of various sorts that create an atmosphere of impending doom, which is enforced by the climactic sound of thunder-like pounding. Finally, in the context of the judge knocking at the door, Shakespeare has Macbeth and his Lady run to hide and change their clothing to cover their guilt: a story that we may have heard before.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.