From MACBETH, Act III, Scene 2: “Light thickens, and the crow/ Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.”

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The words in the title that are spoken in Act III, Scene 2 of Macbeth convey the subtext of the whole play, from the opening scene of thunder and lightning and three witches to the moment MacDuff places MacBeth’s severed head before the new King Malcolm. In their subtle layering the words are of great portent, as Shakespeare intended them to be. MacBeth is speaking to his wife, whose own state of mind has become precarious because she is wracked by guilt. Each word is significant and none wasted. The two of them are already complicit in the murder of King Duncan, two guards, and the heir apparent, Banquo. More death and guilt will follow for them, but by now in the play they have both succumbed to an evil grown out of their shared and fierce political ambition. There are no boundaries. Nothing matters but that Macbeth should be King.

How is so much conveyed? There is a current beneath these eleven words, a motion and emotion as meanings intertwine. The beauty of English lies in the variations that create its subtext, so the same word can have multiple meanings. It is, after all, a language that was repeatedly subjected to invaders who altered some words, left others intact, and gave us new ones in turn. The Anglo-Saxons used the word kingly, the Norman French used royal. The term my lord is from 800 A.D., my liege came after 1066. Ghost is Anglo-Saxon, phantom is from the Normans. So much else in the language runs the same course, no word denied attention, changes often accommodated, yet both versions giving—almost, but not exactly—the same intention. We live even now with Old English and Old French in everyday use, both the language of the inhabitant and that of the invader:  foe/enemy; weird/strange; woodland/forest; deathly/mortal; green/verdant; graveyard/cemetery; reckless/intrepid.

Shakespeare knew the differences, but he also knew how to choose which language to use to create the layers of meaning that would give to the audience—whether they realized it or not—the weight of his intention. In the line I quote here at the beginning, the words light, crow, makes, rooky, and wood are Anglo-Saxon in origin and these ancient words carry something pithy, earthy, fundamental. They already convey something intrinsically real to us. But how does Shakespeare play with this? In Old English, “rook” was the word for crow, but the meaning of rook as a chess piece came from old French. By Shakespeare’s time, rook was also used as a verb that signified to defraud by cheating. Crows are scavengers who feed on carrion, notoriously symbolic of deception, death, and war–and witchcraft–but they are also creatures of prophecy, and this line Macbeth speaks is prophetic, setting the stage for his downfall, though to him the words are a signal that it is time to act under cover of darkness, to grab his unholy prize.

“Light thickens” announces more than it seems. Shakespeare could have simply told us that day is ending, that dusk has arrived, that it is the twilight hour, or eventide, or even half-light. But none of those terms would have given the sense of weight that “Light thickens” brings. It is the harbinger of the encroaching disaster that is already damping out any light of reason Macbeth could have kept–or Lady Macbeth could hold as she listens to him. Macbeth feels the enveloping darkness not only of time but of spirit. He has made a pact with himself and entered into tragedy, for the weight of his ambition is too great to give him a way to stop. Not anymore.

This quote has haunted me often. Would that I could write such a line? Oh, yes. Yet it is not envy I feel, but awe. Because of such writing as this, I learn what it means to tell a story.

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