In my former life, studying English in college and teaching it at various high schools, I gained a certain familiarity with Shakespeare. I always enjoyed reading the Bard, and seeing good performances of his works is one of my Very Favorite Things. I hope to introduce my children to this love someday soon.
Skimming Philbrick’s work on Moby Dick let me in on the little fact that Melville shared a similar love for Shakespeare, and it became obvious to me early on that one of his favorite works must have been Macbeth.
My first clue was way back in Chapter 32. You remember it – the chapter on Cetology that I took issue with earlier. At the very end of the chapter, as I was reading along, it started to sound very familiar. Melville is going on about various types of whales with all manner of “uncouth names.” Then he says this:
But I omit them as altogether obsolete; and can hardly help suspecting them for mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing.
It was the “signifying nothing” part that took me back to Macbeth. Remember this famous quote?
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Rather misquoted, but it must have come from Shakespeare, right?
So that was my first clue, but I like the second reference even better. Remember the witches in Macbeth? Their main purpose was probably foreshadowing Macbeth’s demise, although they are fun to watch as well. Like Shakespeare, Melville uses plenty of foreshadowing, as we’ve already discussed. The witches give Macbeth some interesting predictions about his death that make him think he is invincible, since the predictions seem so impossible. Remember? “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him.” And this one? “Be bloody, bold and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” Macbeth thinks that his vile deeds will not come back to haunt him, for after all, how could the distant woods come to the castle? And everyone is “born of a woman,” so therefore, I can’t be harmed by anyone! Those of you who have read this play know that the woods DO come to the castle and someone not (technically) born of a woman does serve up Macbeth’s head. He is not invincible after all.
Now let’s see how Melville works this into Moby Dick. Ahab is the character feeling invincible here. Not only invincible, but perhaps even immortal! (Chapter 117) There are also strange predictions here, made by “the Parsee,” that lead Ahab to this conclusion. These things couldn’t possibly happen, therefore, my quest must be possible, and I will not perish. Or so thinks our Captain. The Parsee predicts that Ahab will see two caskets before he dies, one not made of mortal hands, and one of American wood. Ahab’s response? “Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see!” He also predicts that he will preceed Ahab in death, but then re-appear. The third prediction is that “only hemp can kill thee,” which Ahab thinks means death by hanging at the gallows. None of these predictions seem very likely, so with a laugh of derision, mad Ahab proclaims himself “immortal on land and on sea.” As we know (or have guessed), Ahab is not immortal, just as Macbeth was not.
Well, what do you think? Do you see the similarities? Are you convinced? Perhaps you can find some more similarities between Macbeth and Moby Dick. I’d love to hear them!