Drama Versus Novel – Macbeth and Moby-Dick

Each art specializes in expressing a facet of nature. Rhythm, for example, belongs to the musical arts. The painted arts, of course, can convey rhythm as well. Looking at Géricault’s Epsom Races, one cannot but hear the familiar three beat signature of racing horses:

Géricault, Epsom Races (Course D’Epsom)

But motion is properly the property of music. Colour belongs to the painted arts. Of course music can also have “colour” or “scene:” for example, Liszt’s tone-poems has scene and Davis’ “King of Blue” has colour.

Now what about prophecy? I guess this isn’t really a facet of nature, but a facet of the supernatural. But which art owns the rights to prophecy? Well, let’s put it to the test! There’s two similar prophecies in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Here we have drama and novel trying to do the same thing.

Contestant #1 Drama (Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

In this scene, the witches call up apparitions who prophecy to Macbeth:

SECOND APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH. Had I three ears, I’d hear thee.

SECOND APPARITION. Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn

The power of man, for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. [Descends]

MACBETH. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?

But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,

And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;

That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,

And sleep in spite of thunder.

[Thunder. THIRD APPARITION: a Child crown’d, with a tree in his hand.]

What is this,

That rises like the issue of a king,

And wears upon his baby-brow the round

And top of sovereignty?

ALL. Listen, but speak not to ‘t.

THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH. That will never be:

Who can impress the forest; bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!

Rebellion’s head, rise never, till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

Contestant #2 Novel (Melville’s Moby-Dick)

Ahab and all his boat’s crew seemed asleep but the Parsee; who crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails. A sound like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah, ran shuddering through the air.

Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.

“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”

“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:–a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before–if that ever befall-then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?–Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom–“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.–I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;–“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.

Moby-Dick is narrative; Macbeth is dramatic. But which one does prophecy better? Both passages give me the chills because it’s quite obvious in both instances that the low-probability event that they laugh off is precisely what’s going to kill them.

Well, there’s more economy in drama. It takes Melville 362 words to convey what Shakespeare does in 201. Another dramatist might even have been able to do it in less. Shakespeare is known to be quite verbose (when you’re that good with words, why not?). Winner: dramatic art.

But, while drama is more frugal and to the point, there’s a third voice in the narrative version, the voice of the narrator. In Shakespeare, the witches and Macbeth converse: that’s it. In Melville, there is the main dialogue between Ahab and the Parsee, and the narrator adds the details of the shark’s tails and the description of the men’s silence after Fedallah prophecies. Of course, the director of the drama could invite the audience to see these supratextual details in the stage directions or the setting. Here I think that the writer is superior to the dramatist in that the writer has more control over the reader’s interpretation. The dramatist is at the mercy of the director. So, while it’s not the case that narrative art is richer, but it is the case that narrative art retains greater control of the artistic product. Winner: narrative art.

What about from the viewpoint of suspense? It’s patently obvious that Ahab is going to be seeing dual hearses that someone is going to bid the tree unfix his earthbound root. What both Shakespeare and Melville are doing is setting up their audience’s expectations by saying: “Stay tuned, just wait to see how I pull this off!” From the perspective of suspense, the narrative and dramatic arts come to a draw. But I’ll have to give this one to the dramatic arts because, Melville, to make the scene more “dramatic” borrows from drama: the exchange between Fedallah and Ahab is recited verbatim and could be part of a play.

Of course I say this because I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work and not the work of the Muse of narrative art.

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