New Gorgons, Still Lives

Babies, Ballads, and Macbeth

  • Elizabeth Mazzola The City College of New York


Death assumes many faces in Macbeth, but the variety of corpses and ghosts which tyrannise the play’s protagonist signals problems larger than one man’s ruthlessness or paranoia. Contemporary ballads often feature similar ontological confusion about where and how life ends, sometimes imagining the dead with the same sense of their vital non-being, moral authority, cunning magic, and important place in the community. Like Macbeth, these ballads also powerfully theorise the way offical power reconfigures social space, reconstructing neighborhoods as places of surveillance and households as sites of neglect, streets as settings where poverty spreads, and families as traps where new life gets put out. In fastening their gaze upon dead bodies which subvert rot and defy decay, Macbeth and contemporary ballads picture the collective social body as something that sprawls and suffers and moves but does not grow, something that the state keeps alive but also near death.