Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Poe's Use of 'Macbeth' in 'The Masque of the Red Death.' (Edgar Allan Poe)

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Poe's Use of 'Macbeth' in 'The Masque of the Red Death.' (Edgar Allan Poe)

Article excerpt

The collective evidence of the range and variety of sources suggested for "The Masque of the Red Death" indicates that individual readers gifted with cross-citational memory often have made profitable discoveries. Such possibilities, as every student of literary sources knows, are endless.(1) And yet it seems to me strange that Macbeth has seldom, if ever, figured as a possible source in any discussion of Poe's story. For, in my repeated reading of "The Masque of the Red Death," I can find nothing more compellingly shadowy than the presence of this Shakespeare play, especially that of Banquo's ghost and the Banquet Scene (III.iv).

There is, indeed, first-hand evidence in Poe's Pinakidia that he had contemplated not only the Banquet Scene but a possible theatrical manipulation of its spooky effects:

Pinakidia 7

Speaking of the usual representation of the banquet-scene in Macbeth, Von Raumer, the German historian, mentions a shadowy figure thrown by optical means into the chair of Banquo, and producing intense effect upon the audience. Enslen, a German optician, conceived this idea, and accomplished this without difficulty. (Collected Writings 2: 14)

This note appeared in 1836, six years before the publication of "The Masque of the Red Death" in Graham's Lady's and Gentlemen's Magazine. During the intervening years, Poe might well have pondered Von Raumer's suggestion in order to develop appropriate rhetorical devices for his own craft that would possibly match the Enslen effect on the stage. As a matter of fact, it is conceivable that Poe's verbal account of Prince Prospero's instinctive reaction upon seeing the "spectral image" was meant to simulate something of "the intense [visual] effect" Enslen was believed to have achieved for his "audience":

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon the spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage. (Collected Works 2: 675)

The Pinakidia reference, however, may not be wholly essential for us to observe how Prospero's reflexes duplicate Macbeth's during the former's encounter with the Red Death. The texts themselves give us ample evidence of Poe's persistent recall and select use of details from Macbeth at various stages. Given the likeness and immediacy of the two situations, both Prince Prospero and Macbeth betray shock, anger, and shame in matching proportions. Macbeth, we recall, vents his anguished fury in stages:

Which of you have done this? ....

Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake

Thy gory locks at me.


Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee.

Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold.

Thou hast no speculation in those eyes

Which thou dost glare with.


What man dare, I dare.


Hence, horrible shadow,

Unreal mock'ry, hence! (III.iv.48-50, 93-96, 105-106)

Prospero, on his part, addresses the revelers, and just once; he never addresses the Masque:

"Who dares?" he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him--"who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him--that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!" (675, emphasis added)

The verbal parallels in "The Masque" of Macbeth's "dare" and "mockery" are, I believe, far from fortuitous. Furthermore, both passages underscore the visual effrontery and the threat posed to the speakers by the visitants. In other words, the burden of their outbursts is the same: the ghost at once mocks and stultifies; its incorporeality--compare Macbeth's "take any shape but that"-makes it impossible for them to confront it physically. …

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