Assessing and translating the ambiguities of wordplay in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
The aim of this paper is to focus on a double issue. On the one hand, it shows how a play so concerned with deceptive appearances and treachery as Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains a great number of puns, or occurrences of wordplay—a stylistic device used to create ambiguity. On the other, it examines the ways in which two French translators, Maurice Maeterlinck and Jean-Michel Déprats, have opted either for source or target-oriented renderings of the English source—the basic difficulty of passing from one language to another being the inherent asymmetry between languages in terms of syntactic structures and semantic contents. What is specific to Macbeth, a play based on suspense, is Shakespeare’s use of what could be referred to as the “awareness discrepancy” and its resulting irony. There are basically four categories of puns of this kind: firstly, the speaker who makes the pun is aware of the process at work; secondly and contrariwise, the author clearly takes precedence over the character who is unaware of the pun; thirdly, knowledge conveyed through wordplay is shared by all the characters on stage at a given moment; lastly, only the audience is in the know, which results in dramatic irony.
The omnipresence of wordplay in Shakespeare’s dramatic production and in the Sonnets attunes the audience and readers’ perception to the unstable relation between name and object, sound and thing, in a Saussurian perspective, and ultimately to the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects in the Jakobsonian sense. Such a phenomenon is most relevant to a play like Macbeth where the eponymous hero’s reign initiates chaos and where “nothing is, but what is not” (1.3.142). Such considerations provide a convenient starting point for a treatment of one of Shakespeare’s favourite stylistic choices and theatrical habits. The Weird sisters and the eponymous protagonists are equivocators, speaking with two equal voices, and adopt a mendacious discourse that “lies like truth” (5.5.44). The fact that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are deft practitioners of wordplay acts as a marker of character, as a badge of their true nature, whereas other, often minor, dramatis personae, are made to produce wordplay in certain types of situation only. More than ever in Macbeth, Shakespeare probes into the perils of verbal duplication and duplicity, puns becoming fatal.
The issue at stake in the present paper is to show that in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy which, by definition, involves a notorious amount of deception, “awareness discrepancy” is an essential factor in producing irony and building up suspense, at once disclosing and hiding truth. The argument will follow Dirk Delabastita’s fourfold typology in There’s a Double Tongue (1993). He speaks in terms of “personal wordplay” if “the speaker of the pun [is] aware of the pun”; of “auctorial wordplay” if “the dramatist intend[ed] to produce a pun over the head of the character”; of “overt wordplay” if “all or some of the characters on the stage [are] aware of the pun” and of “covert wordplay” if it “is understood by the audience only” (145). These four categories will provide the guideline to the present exploration of a selection of puns from Macbeth and close attention will be devoted to Maurice Maeterlinck and Jean-Michel Déprats’s translational choices for the Pléiade edition, published respectively in 1959 and 2002.
For the sake of demonstration, only selected examples pertaining to each category will be examined in turn, mostly following the chronological unfolding of the play and overlappings from one category to the other will be underlined. Here is a sample from the first category, “personal wordplay”. The first example is a case of punning onomastics. This is “the principle”, referred to by Delabastita, as that of “the telling name (nomen est omen): the character’s name calls forth a pun in which part of his/her nature is disclosed” (139). Duncan is speaking of Macbeth:
True, worthy Banquo: he is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me. [...] (1.4.54-6)
Here the text overlaps both categories 1 and 4, “personal” and “covert” wordplay, because, on the one hand, Duncan is aware of producing a witty pun, but on the other hand, the King is praising his kinsman who is shortly to murder him – this is definitely a case of dramatic irony. More than this yet, in the course of his punning conceit, Duncan unwittingly draws a link between Banquo’s name and the irony of the banquet scene (3.4) – Banquo is an ominous name indeed. But, of course, if ever Duncan is supposed to be aware of the pun, he cannot be conscious of the proleptic irony contained in his words. Neither can Banquo himself. As such the present example also pertains to “auctorial” wordplay. Both Maeterlinck and Déprats render “banquet” as “festin”, therefore producing a pun-free translation, but the analogy between onomastics and feasting is obvious enough.
In the following scene, Lady Macbeth, speaking of her desire to spur on her husband’s faltering ambition, declares:
[...] Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear, (1.5.25-6)
The English text plays on the multiple ambiguities of the word “spirit” meaning at once resolution in psychological terms and designating the liquid product derived from either a chemical or alchemical process of distillation. The word may also refer to “spirits” in the sense of magic or daemonic creatures. Both Maeterlinck and Déprats choose a low-equivalence substitution amounting to a disambiguating approach, emphasising the psychological dimension of the term only. Opting respectively as they do, for “courage” and “ardeur”, they leave out the triple semantic layering of Shakespeare’s pun, which ties up three semic strings of meaning that find themselves intertwined in the semantic fabric of the play as a whole.
In the same scene, in the course of her invocation of diabolical creatures, Lady Macbeth notably exclaims:
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! [...] (42-3)
Both Maurice Maeterlinck and Jean-Michel Déprats give priority to the surface meaning of the word “crown” as “crâne”, but Déprats rightly notes that there might be a hidden reference to the royal crown, Lady Macbeth’s precious ambition.
Antanaclasis – the rhetorical device consisting in playing on the various semantic layers of a same word in the same sentence, sometimes opposing a word to itself, thus creating giddiness and instability in the mind – is a recurrent feature of the play and the Weird Sisters are not the only ones to “palter with us in a double sense” (5.8.20). Thus, again in 1.5., Lady Macbeth resorts to a clever combination of antanaclasis, double metonymy and maxim in the advice she gives her husband and partner in crime:
[...] To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, (63-4)
Both translators emphasise one of the two metonymical meanings of the word “time”, namely “monde”, in Pascal’s sense of terrestrial secular vanity. But what Lady Macbeth is really saying is: “to deceive the world, pretend you adopt the manners of the age. In other words, look like everyone else”. This is a very subtle conceit in which the word “time” is given two metonymical connotations which, though not very distant, are yet distinct from each other.
In 3.2., Macbeth resorts to a sardonic antanaclasis:
[...] Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, (19-20)
It is a well-known fact that tyrants like Macbeth or Richard III, Shakespeare’s notorious butcher kings, often ensure their own tranquillity by dispatching their adversaries to a better world. This present example overlaps categories 1 and 3, “personal” and “overt” wordplay, because Lady Macbeth is well aware of her husband’s meaning. In this case, the French word “paix”, both translators’ option, is an adequate, semantic and quasi phonetic equivalent.
Not surprisingly, Macbeth features quite a number of lugubrious sarcasms deftly resorted to by the eponymous protagonists. Thus, again, Lady Macbeth says of Duncan:
[...] He that’s coming
Must be provided for; (1.5.66-7)
thus playing intentionally and sardonically on her double role as hostess and accomplice in regicide. Here Maeterlinck and Déprats render this grim humour by translating respectively: “ Occupons-nous de celui qui vient ” et “ Celui qui vient, il faut s’en occuper ”. Moreover this particular cue overlaps both categories 1 and 3, “personal” and “overt” wordplay, because Macbeth himself is perfectly aware of what his wife is driving at. Actually he has already made up his mind about the murder of Duncan long before his devilish wife eggs him on, as can be seen through 1.3.139: “My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical”.
In 1.7., Macbeth resorts to an equally lugubrious pun when speaking of Duncan, he says:
[...] He’s here in double trust:’ (12)
The King is convinced of the honesty of purpose of his own kinsman and he feels secure in his host’s care. “Trust” works metonymically in the sense of “trusted person”. Macbeth speaks in a double tongue indeed. Both translators resort to the French word, “sauvegarder”.
Here follows a reflection on two puns belonging to the second category, “auctorial wordplay”, in other words, “the dramatist intend[ed] to produce a pun over the head of the character.”
The first one comes from 2.3.78-9, lines spoken by Macduff on discovering the body of the slain Duncan:
As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites,
To countenance this horror! [...]
Here Shakespeare plays on the polysemy of the word “countenance”, to be construed either, to quote David Crystal’s third definition of the word, as “face up to, confront” – Crystal gives this precise line from Macbeth as an illustration – or else the verb “countenance” can be understood as “Be in keeping with, give a suitable accompaniment to”, which is C.T. Onions’s option in his own Shakespeare glossary. Maeterlinck chooses the first meaning:
sortez donc de vos tombes et marchez
comme des spectres pour tenir tête à
whereas Déprats chooses the second option,
Surgissez comme de vos tombeaux, et marchez pareils à des spectres,
Pour être à l’unisson de cette horreur.
Now, although both translations are accurate and valid, Déprats emphasises simultaneity, or the synchronic level, whereas Maeterlinck rather stresses a proleptic hint at the unfolding of the action, the ghost of Banquo confronting Macbeth, his murderer. Such an interpretation highlights an eminent contradiction between the fixed and the shifting aspects of the temporal scheme in a play where the eponymous protagonists “feel [...] The future in the instant” (1.5.57-8). Shakespeare at this stage most probably had those two meanings in mind.
In the following act, Macbeth’s celebrated prosopopeia to Night contains another arresting case of polysemy:
Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond
Which keeps me pale! [...] (3.2.49-50)
First of all, the word “bond” of line 49 refers to Banquo’s life, but, in a wider perspective, to all the bonds, be they legal, social or moral, which are in turn defaced and destroyed by Macbeth. Such bonds include “Nature’s copy”, that of Banquo and his son, Fleance, not being “eterne”, “eternal”, line 38 of the same scene, an instance of Lady Macbeth’s grim humour to be discussed below. The word “bond” also anticipates Macbeth’s own “bond of Fate” (4.1.84). Now, in the case of line 50, the word “pale” is definitely a case of double entendre, meaning wan, “pâle”, which is Maeterlinck’s translational option:
annule et mets en pièces ce grand pacte qui me fait pâlir!
However “pale” is also a synonym of “pal’d”, in the sense of “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d” (3.4.23). “Pale” appears then as a direct echo of the “bond” of the previous line. In other words, Macbeth is caught up in an endless series of “tomorrows”. Jean-Michel Déprats’s translation is in keeping with such an interpretation:
Annule et déchire ce grand pacte
Qui me tient ligoté.
This second option seems to be the more convincing of the two, highlighting as it does the hidden side of Shakespeare’s ambivalent discourse.
Being a tragedy steeped in deceit and characterised by deceptive appearances, Macbeth features relatively few puns of which all characters are aware at the same time (“overt wordplay”) except for the overlappings examined above. However, such is the case in 2.3.138-9:
the near in blood,
The nearer bloody.
Here Donalbain is made to resort to a complex, triple layering of double polyptoton, antanaclasis, and metonymy. In other words, the closest member of one and the same family emblematised by the blood metonymy – Macbeth is Duncan’s cousin – may turn out to be the worst criminal. In this example, Malcolm is obviously aware of the meaning of Donalbain’s double-barrelled pun.
In the following act, Lady Macbeth resorts to a yet more tortuous pun, the fatal implication of which does all but escape Macbeth. She says, referring to Banquo and Fleance, using a combined legal metaphor and pun, a frequent superimposition in the Sonnets:
But in them Nature’s copy’s not eterne. (3.2.38).
As M.M. Mahood explains in Shakespeare’s Wordplay:
Nature’s copyhold, the tenure of life at the will of the lord of the manor, is not unending for either Banquo or Fleance; in this respect Macbeth can master time by tearing to pieces Banquo’s bond of life. But in time’s natural, regenerative process, Banquo and Fleance are copied in their descendants; and that copy seems eternal to Macbeth as he watches the procession of kings who are to descend from Banquo: ‘What will the Line stretch out to th’ cracke of Doome?’ (140).
Mahood’s analysis combines both semantic facets of the word “copy”, “image” and “bail”, corresponding respectively to Maeterlinck and Déprats’s translations:
Mais en eux, l’image de la vie
n’est pas éternelle.
Mais leur bail avec la nature n’est pas éternel.
At the very close of the play, when Malcolm declares to Macduff entering the stage, victoriously brandishing the usurper’s head:
[...] – this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place. (5.9.37-9)
he is resorting to quite a subtle combination of antanaclasis and double metonymy. The phrase is based on a double metonymy indeed. God bestows his gifts through grace, and he represents grace itself. In other words, at the end of the tragedy, one is made to notice that order being restored, this specific form of wordplay aims at asserting unity and harmony whereas during the chaotic and nightmarish phase of it, antanaclases were part and parcel of the generalised blurring of ethical codes, splitting of words and concepts, and the disturbing confusion brought upon the earth by the forces of evil and disruption.
As far as the fourth and last category is concerned – only the audience is in the know, in other words, “covert wordplay” amounting to an effect of dramatic irony – 1.3.38 is certainly a case in point. Macbeth declares:
So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
which is an exact echo of the Weird Sisters’ shibboleth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11). Banquo is totally unaware of this. The fair/foul opposition, combining homophony and polysemy, is definitely at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. The polysemy of the words “fair” and “foul” is a rich and complex one, often translated into French as an aesthetic sort of opposition: “beau”/“laid”, “beau”/“hideux”. Maeterlinck’s translational choice of the Weird Sisters’ pronouncement, “Le laid est beau et le beau laid” is not very felicitous in French. “Fair” and “foul” are also antonyms in such fields as ethics or the law. Here Jean-Michel Déprats justifies his own choice – “Le clair est noir, le noir est clair” – by arguing that the present translation stresses the light/darkness contrast, itself providing the play with one of its richest metaphorical networks (1445). Indeed there exists a metaphorical chiaroscuro informing the whole play, at once exposing and obfuscating the essence of characters and events alike.
The present paper has throughout sought to highlight some of the multiple facets of duplication and reverberation at the core of one of Shakespeare’s most accomplished achievements in the tragic genre. The play itself, through its constant use of puns, eminently stresses the cleft identity of language and the translators’ respective options, despite the inherent asymmetry of the source and target codes, and the challenge of the “anisomorphic” (Delabastita) quality of respective languages, enhance the constant interplay between disclosure and concealment which is the hallmark of Shakespeare’s stylistic virtuosity.
I - Shakespeare segments discussed: edition and translations:
DÉPRATS, Jean-Michel. 2002. Tragédies II in William Shakespeare Œuvres Complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
MAETERLINCK, Maurice. 1959. William Shakespeare Œuvres Complètes, II. Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
MUIR, Kenneth (ed.) 1951. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare Macbeth. London: Thomson, 2003.
II – Other references :
CRYSTAL, David and Ben. 2002. Shakespeare’s Words A Glossary and Language Companion. London: Penguin.
DELABASTITA, Dirk. 1993. There’s a Double Tongue An Investigation into the Translation of Shakespeare’s Wordplay, with Special Reference to Hamlet. Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi.
MAHOOD, M.M. Shakespeare’s Wordplay. 1957. London: Routledge, 2004.
ONIONS, C.T. 1986. A Shakespeare Glossary. 3rd revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Mireille Ravassat is Senior Lecturer at the University of Valenciennes (France), where she teaches English literature, stylistics and translation. Her main research interests are Shakespeare and stylistics (her PhD thesis deals with Shakespeare and the oxymoron in Shakespeare’s works). She has contributed to academic books on Shakespeare and to the Shakespeare Dictionary published by Ellipses in 2005. At the last ESSE conference in London (2006), she convened a seminar on “Shakespeare’s Language: stylistic and linguistic approaches”.