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O Proper Stuff! — Macbeth, III, iv.

A. W. Crawford. Modern Language Notes. Vol. 30

These words seem, so far, to have baffled all the commentators. No real definition of either the separate words or of the phrase as a whole has been offered, and the explanations given are but the purest guesses. The phrase is not, perhaps, of vital importance to an understanding of the play, but correctly interpreted it throws some light upon one of the most important aspects of the play, and helps to make clear the relations of Lady Macbeth to her lord and to his crimes.

None of the comments that I can find shows any appreciation of the words of the phrase, but all alike content themselves with an attempt to define the subjective mood of the speaker. Clark and Wright, in the Clarendon Press edition of the play, give this explanation: "Mere or absolute nonsense, rubbish. We have 'proper' used in a contemptuous exclamation in Much Ado about Nothing, i, 3, 54, and iv, 1, 312. For 'stuff' see Measure for Measure, iii, 2, 5, and I Henry IV, iii, I, 154." Furness gives only the Clarendon note, and Editor II adds a quotation from Scott. Rolfe's note is obviously a restatement of the same conception: "Ironical and contemptuous. Proper (=fine, pretty, etc.) is often so used." These citations will suffice, for most other editors simply follow the Clarendon note without comment of their own.

Nor do the Shakespearean lexicons take us any nearer the true meaning. Schmidt's Lexicon gives two uses of "stuff," the second of which is: "Especially things spoken or recited: Usually in contempt," and for which our passage is cited as an instance. Cunliffe's New Shakespearean Dictionary does not give any definition of "stuff," and under the definition of "proper" does not cite this passage. Neither the commentaries nor the dictionaries, then, have given us the true meaning.

The words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her lord just after their company have sat down to the Banquet. Macbeth has declined to be seated, for, as he says, "The table's full." He sees the ghost of Banquo in his place, but as no one else seems to see it his words are not understood. The guests are about to rise because of Macbeth's strange actions and words, when Lady Macbeth urges them to keep their seats, assuring them that "The fit is momentary." When chided for his behavior, Macbeth excuses himself by referring to the sight as that "Which might appal the devil." Then Lady Macbeth says to him
O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear:
This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said,
Led you to Duncan.
That is, she is telling him that what he now sees is but the projection of his own inner fear, and is but another vision of "the air-drawn dagger," which came entirely from his own mind, or as she puts it is his own (proper) stuff.

The use of "stuff," in a subjective sense, for the things of the mind or spirit, is common enough in Shakespeare. It is used again in this sense in the last act of the play where Macbeth asks the Doctor if he cannot
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart? (V, iii, 44-5.)
It is also used in a similar sense in several other plays, of which the following are the two most important:
My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.
Hamlet, II, ii, 324.

Yet do I hold it very stuff o' the conscience
To do no contrived murder. Othello, I, ii, 2-3.
In two passages the word "stuff" is associated with "dream," and has a somewhat similar connotation:
'Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen
Tongue and brain not. Cymbeline, V, iv, 146-7.

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on. Tempest, IV, i, 156-7.
There need be no difficulty with "proper," the other word in the phrase.[1] It is very frequently used, as here, in the etymological sense of "one's own" (Latin, proprius = 'one's own'). Two examples of this use will suffice: "My proper life," Hamlet, V, ii, 66 ; and "Our own proper son," Othello, I, ii, 97.

This interpretation makes it clear that Lady Macbeth does not at any time see the ghost of Banquo, and that Macbeth's vision is but the fear that arises from his guilty conscience. Lady Macbeth has apparently had no part in the murder, for it is not on her conscience, but only on her lord's. With the murder of Duncan her superior moral nature had all but collapsed, and Macbeth had to commit all the other crimes himself. The play is therefore primarily the story of Macbeth and his crimes, for not only the visions of daggers before the deeds, but the visions of ghosts afterward, are all his "proper stuff," or the projection of his mind alone.


1. C. T. Onions (A Shakespeare Glossary, Oxford, 1911) recognizes the required meaning of stuff, "matter, in a fig. sense," though he does not cite the passage here discussed. He also reads proper in a number of passages with the meaning 'one's own,' but cites the passage here discussed as illustrating the meaning "excellent, capital, fine (ironically)."

How to cite this article:
Crawford, A. W. O Proper Stuff! Macbeth, III, iv. Modern Language Notes. Vol.30. 1 May. 1915. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. < >.


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