James Thurber, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery"
"It was a stupid mistake to make," said the American woman I had met at my hotel in the
English lake country, "but it was on the counter with the other Penguin books -
penny ones, you know, with the paper covers -
story. All the others were detective stories. I'd read all the others, so I bought this one without
05 really looking at it carefully. You can imagine how mad I was when I found it was Shakes-
peare." I murmured something sympathetically. "I don't see why the Penguin-
had to get out Shakespeare plays in the same size and everything as the detective stories,"
went on »y companion. "I think they have different-
tice went on »y companion. "I think they have different-
10 notice that," she said. "Anyway, I got real comfy in bed that night and all ready to read a good
mystery story and here I had 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' -
Like 'Ivanhoe'", "Or 'Lorna Doone'," I said. Exactly," said the American lady. "And I was just
crazy for a good Agatha Christie, or something. Hercule Poirot is my favorite detective."
"Is he the rabbity one?" I asked. "Oh, no," said my crime-
15 You're thinking of Mr. Pinkerton, the one that helps Inspector Bull. He was good., too."
Over her second cup of tea my companion began to tell the plot of a detective story that had
fooled her completely -
"Tell me." I said. "Did you read 'Macbeth'?" "I had to read it," she said. "There wasn't a scrap
of anything else to read in the whole room." "Did you like it?" I asked. "No, I did not," she said
20 decisively. "In the first place, I don't think for a moment that Macbeth did it." I looked at her
blankly. "Did what?" I asked. "I don't think for a moment that he killed the King," she said. "I
don't think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either. You suspect them the most, of
course, but those are the ones that are never guilty -
began, "that I -
25 could figure out right away who did it. Shakespeare was too smart for that. I've read that
people never have figured out 'Hamlet', so it isn't likely Shakespeare would have made
'Macbeth' as simple as it seems." I thought this over while I filled my pipe. "Who do you
suspect?" I asked suddenly. "Macduff," she said, promptly. "Good God!" I whispered, softly.
"Oh, Macduff did it, all right," said the murder specialist. "Hercule Poirot would have
30 got him easily." "How did you figure it out? I demanded. "Well," she said, "I didn't right
away. At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person
killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first
murder should always be the second victim." "Is that so?" I murmured. "Oh, yes," said
my informant. "They have to keep surprising you. Well, after the second murder I
35 didn't know who the killer was for a while." "How about Malcolm and Donalbain, the
King's sons? I asked. "As I remember it, they fled right after the first murder. That looks
suspicious." "Too suspicious," said the American lady. "Much too suspicious. When
they flee, they're never guilty. You can count on that." "I believe," I said, "I'll have a
brandy." and I summoned the waiter. My companion leaned toward me, her eyes
40 bright, her teacup quivering. "Do you know who discovered Duncan's body?" she
demanded. I said I was sorry, but I had forgotten. "Macduff discovers it," she said,
slipping into the historical present. "Then he comes running downstairs and shouts,
'Confusion has broke open the Lord's anointed temple' and 'Sacrilegious murder has
made his masterpiece' and on and on like that." The good lady tapped me on the
45 knee. "All that stuff was rehearsed," she said. "You wouldn't say a lot of stuff like that,
offhand, would you -
advance. 'My God, there's a body in here!' is what an innocent man would say." She
sat back with a confident glare.
50 I thought for a while. "But what do you make of the Third Murderer?" I asked. "You
know, the Third Murderer has puzzled 'Macbeth' scholars for three hundred years."
"That's because they never thought of Macduff," said the American lady. "It was
Macduff, I'm certain. You couldn't have one of the victims murdered by two ordinary
55 banquet scene?" I asked, after a moment. "How do you account for Macbeth's guilty
actions there, when Banquo's ghost came in and sat on his chair?" The lady
leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. "There wasn't a ghost," she said. "A
big strong man like that doesn't go around seeing ghosts -
lighted banquet hall with dozens of people around. Macbeth was shielding somebody!"
60 "Who was he shielding?" I asked. "Mrs. Macbeth, of course," she said. "'He thought
she did it and he was going to take the rap himself. The husband always does that
when the wife is suspected." "But what," I demanded, "about the sleepwalking scene,
then?" "The same thing, only the other way around," said my companion. "That time
she was shielding him. She wasn't asleep at all. Do you remember where it says,
65 'Enter Lady Macbeth with a taper'?" "Yes," I said. "Well, people who walk in their sleep
never carry lights!" said my fellow-
hear of a sleepwalker carrying a light?" "No," I said, "I never did." "Well, then, she
wasn't asleep. She was acting guilty to shield Macbeth." "I think," I said, "I'll have
another brandy," and I called the waiter. When he brought it, I drank it rapidly and
70 rose to go. "I believe," I said, "that you have got hold of something. Would you lend me
that 'Macbeth'? I'd like to look it over tonight. I don't feel, somehow, as if I'd ever really
read it." "I'll get it for you," she said. "But you'll find that I am right."
I read the play over carefully that night, and the next morning, after breakfast, I sought
out the American woman. She was on the putting green, and I came up behind her
75 silently and took her arm. She gave an exclamation. "Could I see you alone?" I asked,
in a low voice. She nodded cautiously and followed me to a secluded spot. "You've
found out something?" she breathed. "I've found out," I said, triumphantly, "the name
of the murderer!" "You mean it wasn't Macduff?" she said. "Macduff is as innocent of
those murders," I said, "as Macbeth and the Macbeth woman." I opened the copy of
80 the play, which I had with me, and turned to act II, Scene 2. "Here," I said, "you will
see where Lady Macbeth says, 'I laid their daggers ready. He could not miss'em. Had
he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it.' Do you see?" "No," said the
American woman, bluntly, "I don't." "But it's simple!" I exclaimed. "I wonder I didn't see
it years ago. The reason Duncan resembled .Lady Macbeth's father as he slept is that
85 it actually was her father!" "Good God!" breathed my companion softly. "Lady
Macbeth's father killed the King," I said, "and, hearing someone coming, thrust the
body under the bed and crawled into the bed himself." "But," said the lady, "you can't
have a murderer who only appears in the story once. You can't have that." "I know that,'' I
said, and turned to Act II, Scene 4. "It says here, 'Enter Ross with an old Man.' Now, this old
90 man is never identified and it is my contention he was old Mr. Macbeth, whose ambition it
was to make his daughter Queen. There you may have your motive." "But even then," cried
the American lady, "he's still a minor character!" "Not," I said, gleefully, "when you realize that
he was also one of the weird sisters in disguise!" "You mean one of the three witches?"
"Precisely," I said. "Listen to this speech of the old man's. 'On Tuesday last, a falcon towering
95 in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd.' Who does that sound like?"
"It sounds like the way the three witches talk,"said my companion, reluctantly. "Precisely!" I
said again. "Well," said the American woman, "maybe you're right, but -
said. "And do you know what I'm going to do now?" "No," she said. "What?" "Buy a copy of
'Hamlet'," I said, "and solve that!" My companion's eye brightened. "Then," she said,
100 "you don't think Hamlet did it?" "I am," I said, "absolutely positive he didn't." "But who," she
demanded, "do you suspect?" I looked at her cryptically. "Everybody," I said, and dis-
appeared into a small grove of trees as silently as I had come.
the English lake country = the Lake District in northern England;
rabbity = timid like a rabbit;
to take the rap (coll.) = to take the punishment;
taper = wax candle; putting green = lawn on which golf is played
1.1. What are the circumstances in which James Thurber and the American lady have their conversation?
1.2. Give a short outline of the story.
2. Analysis and dscussion
2.1. Divide the text into its constituent parts, find subtitles for each part and explain your decisions.
2.2. The American lady is an 'expert' on detective fiction. Collect all the various statements she makes about a well-
explain how she applies these rules to 'Macbeth'.
2.3. Which passages in the text strike you as being particularly humorous? Explain. Refer to at least two passages.
2.4. Apart from presenting a funny episode, what do you think was Thurber's aim with this story? State and explain at least two facts.
3.1. Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' is a detective story. Comment in about 150 words whether this is right or wrong in your view.
3.2. Do you think that the reading of a Shakespearian play should remain in the curricula of German grammar schools? Name three reasons and explain them.