Be on your guard for the third man; Podium

From the British Academy Shakespeare Lecture delivered by the Fellow in English at Trinity College, Cambridge

THERE ARE some terrible moments in Macbeth, but none more terrible than this, when one man has to break the news to another that his dear ones have all been murdered: "Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes/ Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner/ Were on the quarry of these murdered deer/ To add the death of you."

These two men are not alone; a third is present and listening, and it is he who completes the line left suspended by the messenger's words, "To add the death of you/ Merciful heaven". He urges the bereaved man to give sorrow words, to be comforted and to dispute it like a man with "us".

"Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge/ To cure this deadly grief." To which the man whose life of incurable grief is just beginning famously responds: "He has no children." We cannot tell for certain whom he means by "he" - whether the man who is trying to comfort him too promptly or the man who has killed his children. He might have said "Thou hast no children", or "You have no children". It is not the only occasion in Macbeth where it is not clear who "he" is.

Pronouns help us work out who we are, you are, they are, and their singular equivalents. In the theatre, pronouns acquire a radical urgency because they are wrought into the conditions of performance. They remind us at a less than fully conscious level that we are all performing these pronouns all the time, whether we like it or not. The three men in this scene do have names of their own: Ross, who brings the news; Macduff, who receives it; and Malcolm, who listens and intervenes. But in the theatre we do not hear these proper names as we hear the pronouns that enact the relations between them: I, you, thou, he.

I want now to set up some thoughts about "the third person". Let me swiftly sketch a spectrum of beliefs and practices. At a mundane level there is the legal position of the "third party', that is to say, "a party or person besides the two primarily concerned", as in the third-party insurance familiar to car-drivers.

At a more fabulous level, we may think of the tripled daughters and sisters of myth and folk-tale, of whom the third represents "that which shall be", or in Freud's tragic scenario, the Goddess of Death in masquerade as Cordelia, Aphrodite, Cinderella and Psyche. Less paganly, we may think of the Holy Ghost as the Third Person of the Trinity, or of Christ on the road to Emmaus, or of the figure in TS Eliot's "What the Thunder Said": "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" The figure of the third is always ominous, whether of good or of ill, of black magic or white.

We should also think of the superstitious ideas of third bodily organs. Apart from our fingers and toes, we mainly think of our basic corporeal endowment in terms of ones and twos. We normally greet with alarm the idea of two heads or three nostrils.

To have a third nipple was no joke in Shakespeare's time, but a matter of life or death for those suspected of witchcraft. Macbeth makes a nervous joke in response to the Second Apparition, the bloody child who cries: "Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth", to which Macbeth replies: "Had I three ears, I'd hear thee." But this play holds so many triple happenings and utterances that perhaps one does need a third ear.

Perhaps one could do with the "third eye" familiar to Hindu and Buddhist belief. We might also pause over the "third tongue" - the figurative sense, now obsolete, of "a backbiter, slanderer", a false witness. Or between a husband and wife, so that one might think of the character of Iago as exactly "the third tongue', who comes between Othello and Desdemona.

My own emphasis is on the ethical significance of this figure. The third person may stand at the edge of the scene, a bystander and looker-on, like so many attendant lords and servants. I am particularly interested in the moment when such a figure "comes forward" and steps into a scene between two (or more) others. Of course he or she or they may signally fail to do so; or they may be positively turned away and ejected, no longer one of us, to speak and be spoken to but only spoken about.

We do not go to tragedy for fantasies of immunity. Macbeth reminds us that there is no safe place for the third person, not even for the reader. We should attend to the predicament of those onlookers, witnesses and bystanders whose choices and fates prefigure our own, as we endlessly turn from him and her to thee and you and me and us, playing our parts and taking them, making and unmaking our one common world.

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Fern Britton's gardening challenge may grow into something special

Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?