Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
We cannot surely but sympathize with the horrors of a wretch about to murder his master, his friend, his benefactor . . . Yet this sentiment is weakened by the name of an instrument used by butchers and cooks in the meanest employments; we do not immediately conceive that a crime of any importance is to be committed with a knife; or who does not, at last, from the long habit of connecting a knife with sordid offices, feel aversion rather than terror?
Dr Johnson’s impatience with Shakespeare’s style is well known and this is but one of his numerous remonstrances against it, taken from a 1751 article in The Rambler. The present subject of his indignation (which probably caused him to confuse husband and wife) was the speech in which Lady Macbeth calls upon the night to hide her black thoughts and deed:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ’Hold, hold!‚(Macbeth 1.5.49–53)
The critic’s reprobation of Shakespeare’s incongruous choice of words does not stop at knife: while dun is described as ‘an epithet now seldom heard but in the stable’, the blanket of the dark is singled out as a generic mistake:
Who, without some relaxation of his gravity, can hear of the avengers of guilt peeping through a blanket? I can scarce check my risibility when the expression forces itself upon my mind.