In “The Two-handed Engine and the Fatal Bellman: ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Macbeth’” (Notes and Queries, April 1979, 126–128), June Winter showed that “Milton in his passage about the corrupt clergy (Lycidas, 108–31) is invoking imagery used by Shakespeare in passages of Act II in Macbeth, a play about corruption in the state of Scotland.” Before learning of her work, I had collected evidence that the poem was connected to Act III of Macbeth, and in such a way as to suggest the association of Milton, or the singer of Lycidas, with Macbeth, and Edward King, or Lycidas, with legitimate royalty and Banquo in particular.
The evidence is as follows. The works are cited as L and M. L is quoted from Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957); M, from the Arden edition (1972). References to M are by scene of Act III, or by act and scene if not to Act III.
1. There are several echoes of words and word complexes.
(a) The contrast of “rugged wings” (L 93) and “Sleek Panope” (L 99) recalls “sleek o’er your rugged looks” (M ii 27). (The name “Panope” may be suggested by “o’er … looks.”)
(b) With the series “her wizard stream” (L 55), “His gory visage down the stream” (L 62), “He shook his Mitred locks” (L 112), “With Nectar pure his oozy Locks he laves” (L 175), compare “lave our honours in these flattering streams, / And make our faces vizards to our hearts” (M ii 33) and “never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (M iv 49). Besides the exact repetitions, “vizards” is echoed by “wizard” and “visage,” and the latter means “face.”
(c) With “the day-star … repairs his drooping head” (L 168) compare “things of Day begin to droop” (M ii 52).
(d) Lycidas is “the Genius of the shore” (L 183); under Banquo Macbeth’s “Genius is rebuk’d” (M i 55).
(e) L mourns Edward King, whose future was to have been in the church; Macbeth kills the King for his crown, and the English sovereign, who helps to oust the usurper, is “the most pious Edward … the holy King” (M vi 27).
2. Several particular ideas recur.
(a) Restlessness and the rest of death: “He must not float upon his wat’ry bier / Unwept, and welter to the parching wind” (L 12);
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well (M ii 19).
(b) A droning insect: “What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn” (L 28); “The shard-born beetle, with his drowsy hums” (M ii 42). In placement “Gray-fly” corresponds to “beetle,” “sultry horn” to “drowsy hums.”
(c) Unwelcome intruders at a banquet, who displace guests: they “Creep and intrude … scramble at the shearers’ feast, / And shove away the worthy bidden guest (L 115); compare
Macb. The table’s full.
Len. Here is a place reserv’d, Sir.
Macb. Where? (M iv 45)
and “they rise again, … And push us from our stools” (M iv 79).
(d) Return to security after a dreadful apparition: “Return Alpheus, the dread voice is past / That shrunk thy streams” (L 132);
Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mock’ry, hence!— [Ghost disappears.
Why, so;—being gone,
I am a man again (M iv 105).
3. The theme of resurrection after untimely death is common to the two works.
So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head, …
So Lycidas, sunk low, but mounted high (L 166).
Banquo is to rise again in his descendants, and rises himself, despite his injured head: “they rise again, / With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns” (M iv 79). (The paradox “sunk low, but mounted high” may recall the witches’ “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” etc. [M I iii 65].)
4. The Orpheus theme in L recalls Banquo’s connection to Nature.
With “Orpheus … Whom Universal nature did lament” (L 58) compare “his [Banquo’s] royalty of nature” (M i 49), “in them [Banquo and Fleance] Nature’s copy’s not eterne” (M ii 38), “[Banquo’s least gash] a death to nature” (M iv 27), and “the worm [Fleance], that’s fled, / Hath nature that in time will venom breed” (M iv 28). (Banquo’s line continues that of Duncan, whose “gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature” [M II iii 111].) The singing severed head of Orpheus described by Vergil and Ovid, or his “gory visage” (L 62; “visage” replaced “head” in the manuscript), corresponds to Banquo’s gashed head (M iv 26) with its cut throat (M iv 15). As Ovid tells that Orpheus made trees and stones follow him and weep for him, so “Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak” (M iv 122). The fate of Orpheus may also be suggested by the language, “with thy bloody and invisible hand, / Cancel, and tear to pieces …” (M ii 48), especially in view of the context—the eye of Day, and therefore the head; compare the day-star that “Flames in the forehead of the morning sky” (L 171).
5. The general theme of fame is also common.
“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise / (That last infirmity of Noble mind),” etc. (L 70). “Thou wouldst be great” (M I v 18), says Lady Macbeth, but Macbeth laments, “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition …” (M I vii 25). Perhaps we can compare Lady Macbeth’s intention to “pour my spirits in thine ear” (M I v 26) to the poetic inspiration of a muse or Apollo; in L Apollo “touch’d my trembling ears” (L 77) in reproof of ambition.
Most of these comparisons suggest directly or indirectly the association of Milton, or the singer of L, with Macbeth, and Edward King, or Lycidas, with legitimate royalty and Banquo in particular. Ever since Johnson, critics have questioned the sincerity of Milton’s (or the singer’s) grief and have noted that the poem is about himself. At the banquet Macbeth pretends to miss Banquo (M iv 39, 89), preparing to mourn him later; in fact Banquo was his rival, destined for greater success than he, now cut off early on that account. Macbeth’s concern is for himself. Edward King, “dead ere his prime” (L 8), can be said to have been preferred by royalty to Milton—granted a college fellowship by the crown. The source of Lycidas in Macbeth may lend support to the idea that Milton felt, or conceived the possibility of feeling, jealousy and subsequent guilt. Let us not forget, however, the respect Macbeth had for Banquo (M i 49).