12

In the beginning of Macbeth, before Macbeth himself is actually introduced, we get a little overview of what's been happening from the Sergeant. He says this, which includes this aside about Macbeth's name:

And fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show'd like a rebel's whore: but all's too weak:
For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel
Which smok'd with bloody execution
Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 2, Amsco Literature Program edition

Why does Macbeth "well deserve that name"? What does "Macbeth" mean, and what has he done here that would specifically make him deserve that name? He obviously has been doing well in battle; what about that makes him especially deserving of the name "Macbeth"?

2 Answers 2

27

"Name" is here not used in the sense of "proper name" but in the sense of "distinguished or honourable repute, honour" (C. T. Onions: A Shakespeare Glossary).

In other words, the Sergeant is saying that Macbeth deserves being called "brave". His own report of the battles explains why.

In all six editions of Macbeth that I have read so far, I don't recall any discussion on the meaning of the name Macbeth. It is a name that Shakespeare found in his main source for the play, Holinshed's Chronicles, and the name of a historical king of Scotland (Macbethad mac Findláech). Kenneth Muir's edition of the play does not discuss the origin of Macbeth' name, nor is this discussed in the appendices, which contain passages from sources that we know Shakespeare used (especially Holinshed) or that he may have used (Buchanan's Rerum Scoticorum Historia and John Leslie's De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum).

Alex Woolf's From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070 tells us that Macbethad was a member of the Moray dynasty (page 229), that he may have spent some time in exile after his father had been killed in 1020 (page 247) and summarises his reign (pages 255–265) but doesn't say anything about the meaning of his name.

However, Benjamin Hudson's Macbeth before Shakespeare briefly discusses Macbeth's name (page 44):

The correct Gaelic form of Macbeth's name is Mac bethad, a compound of two elements: mac (son) and bethad (life). By extension a "Son of Life" meant Christian. (…) During his lifetime the name Mac bethad began the process of contracting into the more familiar form Macbeth.

However, for "name" in the Sergeant's speech to refer to Macbeth's name ("Son of Life"), both Shakespeare and his audience would have needed to be aware of its Gaelic etymology. If Shakespeare had intended this, it would have added some irony, since Macbeth kills so many people.

Sources

  • Hudson, Benjamin: Macbeth before Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 2023.
  • Shakespeare, William: Macbeth. Edited by Kenneth Muir. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1984. (The 1984 edition differs from the 1962 edition by a new introduction, new appendices and various other changes.)
  • Woolf, Alex: From Pictland to Alba, 789–1070. The New Edinburgh History of Scotland, volume 2. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
4
  • 2
    Agreed; it means "epithet" here. Commented Jul 9 at 17:24
  • 3
    So essentially it means "brave Macbeth – and he well deserves being called 'brave'..."
    – printf
    Commented Jul 9 at 17:29
  • Perhaps worth noting that bethad here is Middle Irish/Scottish, whose orthography was notoriously inconsistent, and represents /ˈbʲeθəð/ (≈ ‘Beth-udh’, where dh = the th sound in ‘the’). Around the 13th century, the /θ/ started being reduced to /h/, and later on (somewhere not too far from Shakespeare’s time), the final consonant disappeared, leaving /'bʲehə/, still the Scottish Gaelic form today. So Shakespeare’s choice of MacBeth is somewhat anachronistic, representing a form where the later change has happened, but not the earlier one. Commented Jul 9 at 18:05
  • As a speculative asid:e Holinsheds Chronicles are generally assumed to be Shakespeare's source for the MacBeth story. It's worth noting that on the first page referring to Mac(k)Beth Holinshed writes " [she] was maried vnto Sincell the thane of Glammis, by whom she had issue one Makbeth a valiant gentleman". Perhaps with "brave Macbeth" Shakespeare is referring back to the valiant epithet in this line.
    – bvanlew
    Commented Jul 10 at 12:47
1

According to Wikipedia:

Macbethad mac Findláech (anglicised as Macbeth MacFinlay; died 15 August 1057), nicknamed the Red King (Middle Irish: Rí Deircc),1 was King of Scotland from 1040 until his death in 1057. He ruled during the period of Scottish history known as the kingdom of Alba.

The name Mac Bethad (or, in modern Gaelic, MacBheatha), from which the anglicized "MacBeth" is derived, means "son of life".[2] Although it has the appearance of a Gaelic patronymic it does not have any meaning of filiation but instead carries an implication of a righteous man[2] or religious man.[3] An alternative proposed derivation is that it is a corruption of macc-bethad meaning "one of the elect".[2]

When I read the line where the sergeant says "..brave MacBeth - well he deserves that name - " I interpreted "name" as being fame or reputation and thus referring to "brave" instead of meaning personal name and thus referring to "MacBeth".

In old fashioned English writing, the usage of words and phrases does not always mean the same thing as in contemporary writing. Reading more Shakespeare and other English language literature from centuries past helps to understand from context words and phrases and sentences which confuse modern readers.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.