Blog #133: Is this Macbeth I see in To the Lighthouse?

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I conjure you, by that which you profess
(How e’er you come to know it) answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down,
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads,
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure
Of nature’s germaines tumble all together
Even till destruction sicken, answer me
To what I ask you.

Macbeth, IV, 1, lines 50-61

Virginia, Virginia, Virginia! My latest To the Lighthouse discovery has me shaking my head, neurons nictitating in disbelief, unable to look directly at what my brain thinks it is seeing. Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane and together they have marched on to Skye. Wood and castle, I’ve discovered them lurking behind the lighthouse arras, along with traces of Hamlet to boot. It is almost too much to take in, and once again I have to rebuild and recalibrate my sense of To the Lighthouse.

Where to begin? Perhaps with “Sonnet 98,” although that is a corner I have not yet properly explored. Nevertheless, it does bring Shakespeare into To the Lighthouse, and perhaps it played a part in my ever so blinding discovery. If so, it was a subconscious part, for as yet I have not applied my mind to the sonnet. No, my first conscious inkling, dark and blotchy, of Macbeth came three or four weeks ago. Somehow, the line “Together they had seen a thing they had not been meant to see” caught my eye and my mind and, connecting it to “You have known what you should not,” I felt an urge to see Bankes and Lily as Doctor and Waiting Gentlewoman. The urge was mild, however, and I did not pursue it, busy as I was trying to make sense of greenhouse, billiard room and Conrad.

The urge must have festered, though, because yesterday a bizarre notion erupted. Hiking up the Grind, I was seized with the conviction that Mrs. Ramsay is kindred to Lady Macbeth. Admittedly, Mr. Ramsay soliloquizing is what Bankes and Lily were not meant to see, not Mrs. Ramsay. The connection between Mrs. Ramsay and Lady Macbeth seems tenuous at best. Mr. Ramsay is the one occupying the Lady Macbeth position in relation to Lily and William. With Macbeth in mind, I read and reread the preceding lines in the novel, reread and find, “suddenly a loud cry, as of a sleep-walker, half roused.” Surely, I am not mistaken and this is the ghost of Macbeth rising in To the Lighthouse. It is also myself. I feel myself “a sleep-walker, half roused.” My mind spins with possibilities and implications.

I keep reading and rereading the passage which precedes Lily and Bankes seeing “a thing they had not been meant to see.” Am I doing the same? What is it I am seeing? So much is now changed. Mrs. Ramsay’s reaction to the “sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds,” the tension which grips her, “her impulse of terror,” all now link to Duncan’s murder and the sound of the owl. Mrs. Ramsay, “cool, amused, and even faintly malicious,” Mrs. Ramsay willing to offer Charles Tansley up as a sacrifice to her husband, Mrs Ramsay with a picture of a pocket knife with six blades on her knee, Mrs. Ramsay in all these aspects is sister to Lady Macbeth. Further parallels rise up. Mrs. Ramsay discomposed by her husband’s “coming to her like that, openly, so that any one could see,” echoes Lady Macbeth’s anxiety that Macbeth’s face is “a book where men / May read strange matters.” Yes, and further, Mrs. Ramsay’s mental remonstrations at the dinner—“But why show it so plainly,” and “Everybody could see”—make her sister to Lady Macbeth at the banquet, vainly trying to excuse Macbeth’s behaviour on seeing Banquo’s ghost.

Banquo’s ghost! The name of Banquo introduces another sequence of parallels. The similarity in names, for one thing. If I am right in my Macbeth conjectures, then surely Virginia’s naming of William Bankes goes far beyond referencing Sir Joseph Banks or William Bankes of Kingston Lacy. Surely, for Virginia, “There was good sport at his making,” and the bank sound in Bankes would have summoned Banquo while the William would have shouted Shakespeare. Delusional thinking on my part? I think not. Consider William Bankes as Banquo. Bankes and Ramsay were friends, yet now the friendship has petered out, and Mr. Bankes sees “the body of his friendship lying with the red on its lips laid up in peat.” The friendship died and was buried when the two men, alone—not on a heath, but on a road in Westmoreland—met the hen with her “covey of little chicks.” Hard, now, to read that passage without thinking of MacDuff’s anguished cry, “all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop.” Macbeth sends protean ripples out in all directions.

But to continue with the identification of Bankes as Banquo. Further proof for seeing
Banquo elementing aspects of Bankes lies in Mr Ramsay’s children. In thinking about them, Mr. Bankes lays special weight on their number—“Eight children! To feed eight children on philosophy!”—and then the text tells us that “[h]e called them privately after the Kings and Queens of England.” The children are Mr. Ramsay’s, yet Mr. Bankes is the one to connect them to the Kings and Queens of England. With the connection comes the connection to Banquo’s descendants in Macbeth, “the show of eight Kings.” The thought that Mr. Bankes is not “sure which was which, or in what order they came in” also pushes me to think about order and the naming of James. In Macbeth, the eighth and last king in the order brings with him associations of King James—reason enough for Virginia to give the same name to the Ramsay’s youngest child, just as Macbeth, “the Scottish play,” gives her reason enough to use Scotland and the Isle of Skye as the setting of her novel.

Three further connections between Macbeth and To the Lighthouse seep into my mind, two tenuous and slight, the third more demonstrable and suggestive. The first is simply the parallel which exists between the death of Mrs. Ramsay and Lady Macbeth. Both die abruptly, both die mysteriously, and both die offstage. The second connection lies in the colour of the sea. Subtle alchemy is at work, and with occasional help from the “Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife,” the sea changes colour again and again, a veritable rainbow, now blue, now black, now gold, now green, now grey, now purple, now red, now white, now yellow. The shade shifts are always realistic and plausible, relatively unobtrusive, so no alarm bells, beyond those of war, go off, in the “Time Passes” segment when the narrative tells us about the “purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath,” or later when Lily, thinking about Paul Rayley and passion, notes that “[the] whole sea for miles round ran red and gold.” Think Macbeth, however, and the “boiled and bled” and the “ran red” conjure up “[t]he multitudinous Seas incarnadine.” The parallel deaths and the parallel colours thicken the Shakespearean broth, and may, to subtler or more persistent minds than mine, provide new insights into Virginia’s aims and methods.

More obvious and rewarding to me—because easier to decipher—is the way in which “The Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife” bridges Macbeth and To the Lighthouse. Macbeth with vacillating husband and overambitious wife adds another level of meaning to Virginia’s inclusion of the “Tale.” Both fish wife and Lady Macbeth bend weak husbands to their grasping will and push them to act against their better selves. In fairytale and play, overreaching and desire for more, more and always more, culminate in chaos and retribution. With her sensitivity to patterning and story, Virginia surely saw the parallels. And even had she not, the notes to her edition of Grimm make a direct comparison between play and tale. The words in “The Tale of the Fisherman and his Wife” which are quoted in To the Lighthouse come from Grimm’s Household Tales With the Author’s Notes, translated by Margaret Hunt, and included in the notes is the following statement: “The feature of the wife inciting her husband to seek high dignities is ancient in itself, from Eve and, the Etruscan Tanaquil (Livy, 1. 47), down to Lady Macbeth.” Virginia wouldn’t have needed the note, yet on reading it she must certainly have nodded in agreement.

Fun as it is to find flashes of Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, the real fun lies in thinking why they might be there. Some reasons are obvious. Partly, Macbeth amplifies the implications of “The Tale of the Fisherman and His Wife.” Awareness of Macbeth, be it conscious or unconscious, brings with it Lady Macbeth and thereby causes a reappraisal of Mrs. Ramsay. Cam and James are not the only ones who are “demons of wickedness, angels of delight.” Mrs. Ramsay’s domestic behaviour, so positive seeming, has a darker side. Within her lies “The horror! The horror!” of the false or perverted ideal. War will follow from her actions as surely as it does from Lady Macbeth’s. Macbeth brings with it the knowledge that “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Indeed, Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab, mumbling, hobbling, lurching, and leering, with “with broom and pail, mopping, scouring,” are transmogrified Macbeth witches, three become two, who work for good instead of evil. Through their efforts the house is restored so that “the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring, too softly to hear exactly what it said—but what mattered if the meaning were plain? entreating the sleepers.” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” In reading Macbeth, equilibrium in the equation often flows from fair to foul; in To the Lighthouse the equilibrium constant is affected by the lives of the obscure—one armed poster hanger, servant girl, Tube liftman, cleaning ladies—foul to fair deserves deeper consideration.

Macbeth is not necessary to any reading of To the Lighthouse. Indeed, as far as I can tell, no one before me has ever written about the Macbeth echoes in the novel. Assiduous Googling and ferreting in journals turns up no sign of anyone preceding me. Mathew Brinton Tildesley’s “Knocking on the Lighthouse Gate: Further Connections Between Thomas De Quincey and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse” only looks at how De Quincy’s critical piece might offer insights into Virginia’s creative process. The focus is on De Quincey’s influence and no direct connections are ever made between To the Lighthouse and Macbeth. Anyhow, as said, conscious awareness of Macbeth is not necessary in reading To the Lighthouse. Themes of fair and foul, of siren dangers, of false ideals and goals, of war and dissolution, and of flux and stasis can be deciphered without Shakespeare. To see Macbeth in To the Lighthouse, however, destabilizes Virginia’s text and makes it free. It coats the catgut with butterfly bloom, raises the rainbow over the granite, sets the butterfly’s wings waving on the cathedral arches, and shakes the fabric loose over the iron girders. More than that, Macbeth in To the Lighthouse brings all of Shakespeare with him.

Next week, I’ll briefly shake a stick at Hamlet and King Lear to see what light they shed on To the Lighthouse and the workings of Virginia’s mind.

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