In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is ambitious and heartless. She believes her husband is too full of kindness and compassion (the milk of human kindness) to take the most expedient path (the nearest way) toward the Scottish crown. That is, killing the king. Given Macbeth’s character, the suggestion that he is too compassionate paints Lady Macbeth as an especially vile person.
I haven’t read Macbeth, or any of Shakespeare’s plays, in years (which reminds me that I should; I remember very little of the plots of the plays I read long ago). But I’m reminded regularly in phrases our present-day language borrowed from Shakespeare’s writing. The source of the “milk of human kindness” phrase we use today is this:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
Macbeth Act 1, scene 5
Lady Macbeth considered the “milk of human kindness” a weakness; compassion is the capital of fools, in her jaundiced view of the world.
No, I did not reproduce the quote above from memory; I had to look it up. The same is true of many other phrases we use that can be traced back to Shakespeare’s writing:
- All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…
- If music be the food of love, play on…
- To be or not to be…
- A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…
The Unitarian Universalist minister who officiated at my wedding read, at my behest, my favorite Shakespeare sonnet, which appears in my blog and my other writing with some regularity and appears here again:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Some words and ideas last for eternity, it seems, while some fade away like rose petals growing old and brittle, losing their vitality and flexibility and intrinsic beauty to time and struggle. The words, though, don’t decay; rather, the ideas and images they convey succumb to changing human conditions. The difference between great writing and superfluous drivel is not found in the words themselves but, rather, in the stories they tell and their ability to outlast evolution, at least in the short-term. Here, short-term is relative to the age of the planet.
Emotions and definitions change, as evidenced by “the milk of human kindness.” Compassion was, to Lady Macbeth, a flaw; an unpleasant and dangerous weakness. Today, we ostensibly believe compassion is a virtue. Ostensibly, because I question our collective claim that we believe compassion is virtuous. We need to look no more distant than rallies of Trump supporters. I need not go down that dark, ugly, diseased alley.
People change. The change in language offers evidence of the change in people. Pejoratives become compliments. Compliments become censures. Love becomes hate; or, perhaps, resentful tolerance. But that can’t be, can it? Shakespeare said “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” What are we to believe? Shakespeare or our own eyes? Our eyes can deceive us, but so can the meaning of Shakespeare’s words change over time. What once was good becomes bad. What was bad becomes good. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous phrases show up on t-shirts, presented in ways that mock his ideas, suggesting he was dangerously naive. In today’s world, perhaps. But not in his world. Shakespeare hasn’t changed, but the world in which he lived has undergone a radical transformation. Certain aspects of the world of humanity have improved immeasurably. But the transformation’s evil twin shadows change, carrying a torch and an accelerant.
What in the hell am I going on about? Maybe I should clarify. Language and people and society change. In the midst of change, confusion reigns. I’m in the midst of a sea of change, as are we all, thanks to a society in turmoil. Therefore, I’m swimming, trying to keep my head above waves of confusion. I see a life preserver coming my way. No. My God, they’ve thrown me an anchor!