Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 March 2021
When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; – that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; – and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, – I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. … Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? – Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, – Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
Call me Ishmael.
To begin this book, I have presented three well-known but very different beginnings. The first is the beginning of Macbeth (1606), the second is the opening of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759–67), and the third, of course, is the first sentence of Moby Dick (1851).
With his beginning to Macbeth Shakespeare hurls us in medias res – a time-honored strategy, reaching back, as we shall see, to Homer, whose furious opening of the Iliad set off a train of critical discussion that ran throughout the teaching and analysis of rhetoric from antiquity until the present day. Amid the darkness and blood-soaked imagery of Macbeth, the witches are power-brokers, stirring the “vaulting ambition” of Macbeth to a deed that is unnatural in the extreme: the vicious murder of God's representative on earth, the legitimate king of Scotland.