Macbeth's 'Yet I will try the last' What?
Macbeth’s last words show him summoning up something of the epic-heroic Macbeth of I. ii, who ‘unseam’d’ the ‘merciless Macdonwald . . . from the nave to th’ chops, / And fix’d his head upon our battlements`, also ‘curbing’ the ‘lavish spirit’ of ‘that most disloyal traitor, / The Thane of Cawdor’ and forcing the invading Norwegian King Sweno to composition (I. ii. 9-23, 51-61).1 His initial lack of fear of Macduff is due to his ‘security’, but even when that proves to have been a delusion he ‘will not yield’ and accepts Macduff’s challenge with alacrity:
There seems to be limited consensus on what ‘the last’ is that he will try. Neither Muir nor more recently Nicholas Brooke (Oxford, 1990) has a note on it. In the most recent editions, Bevington’s edition of The Complete Works (1992/1997) has ‘i.e., my last resort: my own strength and resolution’ (V. iii. 32n, p. 1254b). The Riverside Shakespeare 2, second edition (Boston, 1997), 2 has ‘i.e. his unaided strength and courage’ (V. iii. 34n, p. 1387a). And The Norton Shakespeare 3 has ‘the last resort’ (V. x. 32, p. 2616).3 But there is no readily available reason why it should be ‘the last’ and not ‘my strength’ (for example); whereas there is a reason for an alternative explanation related to the show of Apparitions and their prophetic utterances in IV. i. Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos’d, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last: before my body
I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff;
And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’
(V. viii. 30-34, italics mine)
In Macbeth’s lines quoted above, immediately following (1) ‘Birnam Wood . . . come to Dunsinane’ and (2) ‘being of no woman born’, (3) ‘the last’ would seem to refer to the first of the three portendings of the Apparitions in IV. i, because the last there?‘Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him’ (IV. i. 92-94a)?is the first of the equivocal prophecies to be realized, when Birnam Wood ‘began to move’ (V. v. 35a), and it is the first mentioned here. The second there?‘laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’ (IV. i. 79-81)?is second in realization and in mention here, leaving the first given in IV. i, by ‘an armed head’, as ‘the last’ to be yet untried in V. viii:
The fulfillment of the prophecies in reverse order is in the spirit of the Sisters’ (and their ‘masters’’) wayward ways, not to mention Shakespeare’s ways in such a case. Moreover, although the sense is not the same as that of ‘The last shall be first’ in its immediate context in the New Testament (Matthew xix. 30), the proverbial formula is apt as well as ironical, here. And the chapter is the same in which Jesus says ‘of such [as "little children"] is the kingdom of heaven’ (14), and ‘if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments’, first that ‘thou shalt do no murder’ (17-18).
Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff;
Beware the Thane of Fife.??Dismiss me.??Enough. (IV. i. 71-72)
Brooke says that ‘there have been various interpretations of the symbolism of the Apparitions, including improbable assumptions that the armed head is Macbeth’s, or Macduff’s’ (173). But, given ‘the last’, there seems good reason to see Macbeth’s head as not only the successor of Macdonwald’s head ‘fix’d upon our battlements’ (I. ii. 20) but also the ‘armed head’ of the First Apparition, anticipating ‘Th’ usurper’s cursèd head’ (V. ix. 21) that Macduff enters with at V. ix. 19 (SD), presumably upon a pole or spear that he proceeds to fix in place, wherever that is (‘Behold where stands’). As far as the play enables us to tell, Macbeth sees ‘the last’ but feelingly.
Dr. Tom Clayton
University of Minnesota, USA
© Tom Clayton Printed in Notes and Queries NS 44.4 (December 1997): 507-08
1 All quotations from Macbeth are taken from the late Kenneth Muir’s New Arden edition (1962).
2 The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Updated Fourth  Edition (New York, 1997).
3 The Norton Shakespeare (the Oxford edn. of 1986 + introduction, notes, and commentary), ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York, 1997).
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