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The body as metaphor: digestive bodies and political surgery in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
  1. M Spicci
  1. Mauro Spicci, Dip. Scienze del Linguaggio e Letterature Straniere Comparate, Sezione di Anglistica, Piazza S Alessandro 1, 20123 Milano, Italy; spiccifam{at}


The article aims to reconstruct the perspective of bodily pathology underpinning Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play, Scotland’s body politic is frequently depicted as a macro-system suffering from a complexional imbalance of digestive origins. More specifically, Scotland comes over as a huge stomach strangled by a carcinogenic foreign body in need of being “raze[d] out”. Since traditional purgative drugs such as “rhubarb” and “cynne” turn out to be totally inefficient to cure the body of Scotland, the resolution to adopt a drastic medical measure becomes more than urgent. The conclusion of the play coincides with the most terrible form of political surgery: Shakespeare’s reiterated use of verbs such as “pluck” and “purge”, commonly used in Renaissance herbals and handbooks, suggests that Macbeth’s physical body is suffering from a kind of “blockage”, for which herbal treatments are no longer sufficient. Nothing less than a surgical operation is needed to “purge” the corrupt entrails of the State dominated by Macbeth’s tyranny.

  • Shakespeare
  • Macbeth
  • body politic
  • metaphor
  • political surgery
  • digestion

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • iThe idea of the perfect functioning of the human body has given birth to a number of different figural and metaphorical traditions (for example, the theory of the body politic; the analogy of macrocosm/microcosm) that are sustained by the idea that it is possible to draw analogies between the structure of the human body and that of more abstract and symbolical “bodies” such as the State or the Church. An analysis—both diachronic and synchronic—of the relationships between bodily metaphors and Shakespeare’s dramatic experimentation can be found in my article The dialectics of self-anatomy.1

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