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In Act V, Scene III of Macbeth:

Macbeth: Canst not thou not minister to a mind diseased

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

That weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient must minister to himself

Macbeth:

Throw physic to the dogs. I’ll none of it.

Physic obviously refers to medicine (as the physic in physician) , or so I thought. But when I thought more visually, I mean how I would stage it, I thought perhaps it was a command to his soldiers to throw the quack doctor out. It would certainly make for a more arresting dramatic mise on stage! And then again later, I thought it might as well just be a philosophical judgement, throw the whole of medicine to the dogs after all medicine and doctoring did not have, on the whole, a very good reputation then and perhaps Macbeth was simply impatient at the doctors equivocation.

How should one decide between these options?

  • 1
    Here's the OED link for 'physic' to confirm its definition. – Fabjaja Jan 26 at 17:30
  • What's a dramatic mise? What's a mise? – user14111 Jan 26 at 22:38
  • "Physick" is one of the archaic spellings, and refers to pre-modern medicine in general, but also specifically to laxatives. (Note that Macbeth, in the subsequent exchange, asks the Doctor if he can "purge" the land of Englishmen--a nice little joke.) – DukeZhou Jan 27 at 3:51
  • @user14111 Possibly this? – Rand al'Thor Jan 30 at 11:25
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    Please don't remove the macbeth tag here. Questions about the play Macbeth should include the appropriate tag. – Rand al'Thor Feb 4 at 19:23
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Since MacBeth continues to talk to the doctor afterwards, and specifically asks him to heal his country, it doesn't sound like he's objecting to the doctor or the practice of healing overall. "For the dogs" in this line sounds more like "What, you can't cure my wife? Oh, then the hell with it" or "fine, screw medicines."

This Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare translation is helpful:

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
Come, put mine armor on. Give me my staff.
Seyton, send out. — Doctor, the thanes fly from me.
Come, sir, dispatch. — If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again. — Pull ’t off, I say. —
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug,
Would scour these English hence? Hear’st thou of them?

(modern English)

Medicine is for the dogs. I won’t have anything to do with it. (to SEYTON) Come, put my armor on me. Give me my lance. Seyton, send out the soldiers. (to the DOCTOR) Doctor, the thanes are running away from me. (to SEYTON) Come on, sir, hurry. (to the DOCTOR) Can you figure out what’s wrong with my country? If you can diagnose its disease by examining its urine, and bring it back to health, I will praise you to the ends of the Earth, where the sound will echo back so you can hear the applause again. — (to SEYTON) Pull it off, I tell you. (to the DOCTOR) What drug would purge the English from this country? Have you heard of any?

  • SparkNotes isn't really a reliable source. There are lots of popular modern-English 'translations' of classical works, and many of them are pretty bad or have mistakes where the 'translator' didn't understand the lines. We've even had questions about such issues. Also, as DZ's answer points out, a 'translation' might give only one of many possible interpretations of the original text. I think this answer would be much better if you replace the SparkNotes link with an explanation of your interpretation directly from the original lines. – Rand al'Thor Jan 27 at 13:06
  • @Randal'Thor I wasn't aware that SparkNotes had a bad rep, but in any case, I did supply my original interpretation in the first paragraph. – Lauren Ipsum Jan 27 at 18:32
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Part of the strength of good dialogue is there are so many ways it can be played. (Actors will surprise you.) The preceding lines are important.

Give me mine armor
How does your patient doctor

Not so sick, my lord, as she is with troubled with thick-coming fancies that keep her from rest

Cure [her] of that
Canst though not minister to a mind diseased

Actors need to be able to connect to the material, and the Doctor could be describing PTSD. Macbeth's response could be desperation, or it could be sarcastic. (Important to keep in mind that Macbeth is busy preparing for battle—having an activity not related to the dialogue is a huge boon performance-wise— so don't overlook a certain frenetic energy to the scene, as the play drives toward conclusion.) The physicians' art at the time was highly unreliable, so there may be skepticism similar to that often directed toward certain branches of psychology.

  • Macbeth asks the doctor if he has a cure. The Doctor says in these cases only the patient themself has the cure. Macbeth says "To hell with you then. I'll have none of it."

It is a kind of "throw away", though, so I wouldn't over-emphasize. Note that the action of preparing for battle bookends the exchange.

Throw physick to the dogs—I'll have none of it
Come, put my armor on. Give me my staff.

What makes it work so well is that Macbeth is otherwise occupied. But it can get deeper.

A good technique for playwrights and actors both is "what does a character want? what do they really want? what do they really, really want?" So Macbeth may be keeping himself distracted to avoid dealing with his emotions. (His wife is descending into madness and that has got to bring up some heavy feelings. Note how many times the word "fear" is used in the scene. Dread would be a good word for what Macbeth is avoiding.)

Likewise there are many ways the second exchange between Macbeth and the Doctor could be played.

If thou couldst Doctor, cast the water of my land— find her disease
and purge it to a sound an pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo that should applaud again
Pull it off, I say— what rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence? Hearest thou of them?

Aye my good lord
Your royal preparations makes us hear something

The doctor's response is wry.

The question is, is Macbeth merely showing a stiff upper lip, good cheer in the face of imminent mortal danger, or is he losing his mind? (i.e. is he seriously asking the Doctor if he can scour the English from the land?)

The final line of the scene implies that the Doctor, at least, thinks Macbeth is a bit "off his rocker":

Were I from Dunsinane away and clear
Profit again should hardly draw me near.

Essentially, the Doctor is saying, "get me out of this madhouse." "If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't. I don't care how much you pay me."

Macbeth, Act V, Scene 2, line 42 ff. (Folger Library)


It does occur to me that if you did want to integrate some action to support the lines, you could have the Doctor trying to tend to Macbeth. (Perhaps he has "the shakes", or is experiencing some phantom ailment.)

They are talking about Lady Macbeth, and when the Doctor reveals he has no treatment that can heal her, Macbeth waves the Doctor off from ministering to him, having concluded that "physicking" is fruitless.

Specifically, both Macbeth and Lady M are suffering from PTSD.

Now the line is literal—Macbeth saying he have none of it in regard to himself. (There is the added dimension that he might realize his own ailment is mental, and therefore immune to treatment.)

This would also increase the kinetics of the scene because now you have Macbeth preparing for battle, being ministered to, and engaging in a diagnostic discussion all at once.

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