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I've always been curious about the precise phrasing of this line from Macbeth, spoken by the First Murderer:

Most royal sir, Fleance is 'scaped.

The meaning of this, and as far as I can tell the meter and rhythm, is exactly the same as:

Most royal sir, Fleance escaped.

Indeed it even sounds almost identical when spoken out loud, as would be the intention in a play. So why then does Shakespeare opt for the contraction 'scaped over escaped? It's not a common usage: he chose escaped in many other cases:

That has to-day escaped. I thank you all;

  • Antony and Cleopatra

I spoke with some of the sailors that escaped the wreck.

  • The Tempest

I wonder how the king escaped our hands.

  • Henry VI Part III

He does use 'scaped just as commonly.

How 'scaped I killing when I cross'd you so?

  • Julius Ceasar

Stephano, two Neapolitans 'scaped!

  • The Tempest

But a careful read of these seems to suggest this is to maintain rhythm, because "escaped" is two syllables whereas 'scaped is one. But since "is scaped" is also two syllables, it's not necessary in Macbeth.

Is there any other reason why the contraction might be preferred in this instance?

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  • 1
    Have you noticed any social differences between the speakers of “‘scaled” and “escaped”? It might be a dialectical choice.
    – Fabjaja
    Dec 7 '20 at 11:42
  • 1
    In verse, Shakespeare decides between scape or escape according to which one scans. In prose, he uses them both, but from a brief glance at a search of his plays, I think scape is more common. Presumably the contraction (which we don't hear often these days) was in common use in speech in Shakespeare's day.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 7 '20 at 19:16
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The murderer’s choice of words here is an attempt to deflect or minimize his responsibility for the failure to kill Fleance. He knows that he and his fellows failed Macbeth (“We have lost best half of our affair”) due to their incompetence (“Who did strike out the light?”), and chooses his words to Macbeth carefully to avoid being punished.

The phrasing “Fleance escaped” would likely be interpreted as saying that Fleance made his escape while the murderers were busy murdering Banquo (that is, what actually happened in III.3). Whereas “Fleance is scaped” suggests, without actually telling a lie, that the escape was a fait accompli: that is, the murderers arrived on the scene too late and found that Fleance was already gone.

The strategem works: Macbeth does not inquire into the circumstances of Fleance’s escape, and employs the murderers again in IV.2.

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To say ‘Fleance escaped’ tells Macbeth what happened during the ambush. It is a simple past tense, and as such it leaves scope for there to be more to the story… ‘Fleance escaped, but we chased him down at last and killed him’ for example.

‘Fleance is escaped’ (or Fleance is ‘scaped to make it scan) tells Macbeth, and us, that Fleance is currently at large.

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Even though this question already has two answers, it seems worth adding what the lines looked like in the original text of Macbeth, published in the First Folio of 1623. The First Folio printed the text as follows:

  Mur. Most Royall Sir
Fleans is scap'd.

The italics are from the First Folio; they are not what matters here. The Folio's spelling was scap'd, not 'scaped, and the words were divided over two lines. This suggests a break in the regular metre. Scholarly editions have dealt with this in various ways.

Kenneth Muir's edition of Macbeth (The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen, 1951; Routledge, 1989) renders the murderer's words as follows:

Most royal Sir ... Fleance is scap'd.

In a footnote to lines 15-19, Muir adds,

This arrangement of the lines (...) provides an effective pause of embarrassment before the murderer can bring out his confession of failure (19). This is suggested by printing the line as two.

This supports the interpretation in Gareth Rees's answer.

(Neither Muir's Arden edition nor A. R. Braunmuller's New Cambridge Shakespeare edition comment on the word choice "is scap'd" instead of "[has] escaped".)

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