Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Macbeth is seemingly the last of four great Shakespearean tragedies—Hamlet (c. 1599—1601), Othello (c. 1603—1604), King Lear (1605—1606), and Macbeth (c. 1606—1607)—that examine the dimensions of spiritual evil, as distinguished from the political strife of Roman tragedies such as Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Whether or not Shakespeare intended Macbeth as a culmination of a series of tragedies on evil, the play does offer a particularly terse and gloomy view of humanity’s encounter with the powers of darkness. Macbeth, more consciously than any other of Shakespeare’s major tragic protagonists, has to face the temptation of committing what he knows to be a monstrous crime. Like Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (c. 1588), and to a lesser extent like Adam in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Macbeth understands the reasons for resisting evil and yet goes ahead with his disastrous plan. His awareness and sensitivity to moral issues, together with his conscious choice of evil, produce an unnerving account of human failure, all the more distressing because Macbeth is so representatively human. He seems to possess freedom of will and accepts personal responsibility for his fate, and yet his tragic doom seems unavoidable. Nor is there eventual salvation to be hoped for, as there is in Paradise Lost, since Macbeth’s crime is too heinous and his heart too hardened. He is more like Doctor Faustus—damned and in despair.
To an extent not found in the other tragedies, the issue is stated in terms of salvation versus damnation. Macbeth knows before he acts that King Duncan’s virtues “Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.19—20). After the murder, he is equally aware that he has “Put rancors in the vessel of my peace … and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man” (3.1.68—70). His enemies later describe him as a devil and a “hellhound” (5.8.3). He, like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus before him, has knowingly sold his soul for gain. And, although as a mortal he still has time to repent his crimes, horrible as they are, Macbeth cannot find the words to be penitent. “Wherefore could not I pronounce ’Amen’?” he implores his wife after they have committed the murder. “I had most need of blessing, and ’Amen’ / Stuck in my throat” (2.2.35—7). Macbeth’s own answer seems to be that he has committed himself so inexorably to evil that he cannot turn back. Sentence has been pronounced: “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more” (lines 46—7).
Macbeth is not a conventional morality play (even less so than Doctor Faustus) and is not concerned primarily with preaching against sinfulness or demonstrating that Macbeth is finally damned for what he does. A tradition of moral and religious drama has been transformed into an intensely human study of the psychological effects of evil on a particular man and, to a lesser extent, on his wife. That moral tradition nevertheless provides as its legacy a perspective on the operation of evil in human affairs. A perverse ambition seemingly inborn in Macbeth himself is abetted by dark forces dwelling in the universe, waiting to catch him off guard. Among Shakespeare’s tragedies, indeed, Macbeth is remarkable for its focus on evil in the protagonist and on his relationship to the sinister forces tempting him. In no other Shakespearean play is the audience asked to identify to such an extent with the evildoer himself. Richard III also focuses on an evil protagonist, but in that play the spectators are distanced by the character’s gloating and are not partakers in the introspective soliloquies of a man confronting his own ambition. Macbeth is more representatively human. If he betrays an inclination toward brutality, he also humanely attempts to resist that urge. We witness and struggle to understand his downfall through two phases: the spiritual struggle before he actually commits the crime and the despairing aftermath, with its vain quest for security through continued violence. Evil is thus presented in two aspects: first as an insidious suggestion leading Macbeth on toward an illusory promise of gain and then as a frenzied addiction to the hated thing by which he is possessed.
In the first phase, before the commission of the crime, we wonder to what extent the powers of darkness are a determining factor in what Macbeth does. Can he avoid the fate the witches proclaim? Evidently, he and Lady Macbeth have previously considered murdering Duncan; the witches appear after the thought, not before. Lady Macbeth reminds her wavering husband that he was the first to “break this enterprise” to her, on some previous occasion when “Nor time nor place / Did then adhere, and yet you would make both” (1.7.49—53). Elizabethans would probably understand that evil spirits such as witches appear when summoned, whether by our conscious or unconscious minds. Macbeth is ripe for their insinuations: a mind free of taint would see no sinister invitation in their prophecy of greatness to come. And, in a saner moment, Macbeth knows that his restless desire to interfere with destiny is arrogant and useless. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3.145—6). Banquo, his companion, serves as his dramatic opposite by consistently displaying a more stoical attitude toward the witches. “Speak then to me,” he addresses them, “who neither beg nor fear / Your favors nor your hate” (lines 60—1). Like Horatio in Hamlet, Banquo strongly resists the blandishments of fortune as well as its buffets, though not without an agonizing night of moral struggle. Indeed, promises of success are often more ruinous than setbacks—as in the seemingly paradoxical instance of the farmer, cited by Macbeth’s porter, who “hanged himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4—5). It is by showing Macbeth that he is two-thirds of his way to the throne that the witches tempt him to seize the last third at whatever cost. “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor! / The greatest is behind” (1.3.116—17).
Banquo comprehends the nature of temptation. “To win us to our harm,” he observes, “The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray ’s / In deepest consequence” (1.3.123—6). The devil can speak true, and his strategy is to invite us into a trap we help prepare. Without our active consent in evil (as Othello also learns), we cannot fall. Yet in what sense are the witches trifling with Macbeth or prevaricating? When they address him as one “that shalt be king hereafter” (line 50), they are stating a certainty, for they can “look into the seeds of time / And say which grain will grow and which will not,” as Banquo says (lines 58—9). They know that Banquo will be “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. / Not so happy, yet much happier” (lines 65—6), since Banquo will beget a race of kings and Macbeth will not. How then do they know that Macbeth will be king? If we consider the hypothetical question, what if Macbeth does not murder Duncan, we can gain some understanding of the relationship between character and fate; for the only valid answer is that the question remains hypothetical—Macbeth does kill Duncan, the witches are right in their prediction. It is idle to speculate that Providence would have found another way to make Macbeth king, for the witches’ prophecy is self-fulfilling in the very way they foresee. Character is fate; they know Macbeth’s fatal weakness and know they can “enkindle” him to seize the crown by laying irresistible temptations before him. This does not mean that they determine his choice but, rather, that Macbeth’s choice is predictable and therefore unvoidable, even though not preordained. He has free choice, but that choice will, in fact, go only one way—as with Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost and in the medieval tradition from which this poem was derived.
Although the powers of evil cannot determine Macbeth’s choice, they can influence the external conditions affecting that choice. By a series of apparently circumstantial events, well timed in their effect, they can repeatedly assail him just when he is about to rally to the call of conscience. The witches, armed with supernatural knowledge, inform Macbeth of his new title shortly before the King’s ambassadors confirm that he is to be the Thane of Cawdor. Duncan chooses this night to lodge under Macbeth’s roof. And, just when Macbeth resolves to abandon even this unparalleled opportunity, his wife intervenes on the side of the witches. Macbeth commits the murder in part to keep his word to her and to prove he is no coward (like Donwald, the slayer of King Duff in one of Shakespeare’s chief sources, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles). Not only the opportunities presented to Macbeth, but also the obstacles put in his way are cannily timed to overwhelm his conscience. When King Duncan announces that his son Malcolm is now Prince of Cumberland and official heir to the throne (1.4.36—42), the unintended threat deflects Macbeth’s mood from one of gratitude and acceptance to one of hostility. These are mitigating circumstances that affect our judgment of Macbeth, and, even though they cannot excuse him, they certainly increase our sympathetic identification.
We are moved, too, by the poetic intensity of Macbeth’s moral vision. His soliloquies are memorable as poetry, not merely because Shakespeare wrote them, but because Macbeth is sensitive and aware. The horror, indeed, of his crime is that his cultivated self is revolted by what he cannot prevent himself from doing. He understands with a terrible clarity, not only the moral wrong of what he is about to do, but also the inescapably destructive consequences for himself. He is as reluctant as we to see the crime committed, and yet he goes to it with a sad and rational deliberateness rather than in a self-blinding fury. For Macbeth, there is no seeming loss of perspective, and yet there is total alienation of the act from his moral consciousness. The arguments for and against murdering Duncan, as Macbeth pictures them in his acutely visual imagination, when weighed, are overwhelmingly opposed to the deed. Duncan is his king and his guest, deserving Macbeth’s duty and hospitality. The King is virtuous and able. He has shown every favor to Macbeth, thereby removing any sane motive for striving after further promotion. All human history shows that murders of this sort “return / To plague th’inventor” (1.7.9—10), that is, provide only guilt and punishment rather than satisfaction. Finally, judgment in “the life to come” includes the prospect of eternal torment. On the other side of the argument is nothing but Macbeth’s “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” (line 27)—a perverse refusal to be content with his present good fortune because there is more that beckons. Who could weigh the issues so dispassionately and still choose the wrong? Yet the failure is, in fact, predictable; Macbeth is presented to us as typically human, both in his understanding and in his perverse ambition.
Macbeth’s clarity of moral imagination is contrasted with his wife’s imperceptiveness. He is always seeing visions or hearing voices—a dagger in the air, the ghost of Banquo, a voice crying “Sleep no more!”—and she is always denying them. “The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures,” she insists. He knows that “all great Neptune’s ocean” cannot wash the blood from his hands; “No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” To Lady Macbeth, contrastingly, “A little water clears us of this deed. / How easy is it, then!” (2.2.57—72). Macbeth knows that the murder of Duncan is but the beginning: “We have scorched the snake, not killed it.” Lady Macbeth would prefer to believe that “What’s done is done” (3.2.14—15). Ironically, it is she, finally, who must endure visions of the most agonizing sort, sleepwalking in her distress and trying to rub away the “damned spot” that before seemed so easy to remove. “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” she laments (5.1.35—52). This relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth owes much to traditional contrasts between male and female principles. As in the pairing of Adam and Eve, the man is putatively the more rational of the two but knowingly shares his wife’s sin through fondness for her. She has failed to foresee the long-range consequences of sinful ambition and so becomes a temptress to her husband. The fall of man and woman into the bondage of sin takes place in an incongruous atmosphere of domestic intimacy and mutual concern; Lady Macbeth is motivated by ambition for her husband in much the same way that he sins to win her approbation.
The fatal disharmony flawing this domestic accord is conveyed through images of sexual inversion. Lady Macbeth prepares for her ordeal with the incantation, “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here … Come to my woman’s breasts / And take my milk for gall” (1.5.40—8). When she accuses her husband of unmanly cowardice and vows she would dash out the brains of her own infant for such effeminacy as he has displayed, he extols her with “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7.73—5). She takes the initiative, devising and then carrying out the plan to drug Duncan’s chamber-guards with wine. This assumption of the dominant male role by the woman might well remind Elizabethan spectators of numerous biblical, medieval, and classical parallels deploring the ascendancy of passion over reason: Eve choosing for Adam, Noah’s wife taking command of the ark, the Wife of Bath dominating her husbands, Venus emasculating Mars, and others.
In Macbeth, sexual inversion also allies Lady Macbeth with the witches or weird sisters, the bearded women. Their unnaturalness betokens disorder in nature, for they can sail in a sieve and “look not like th’inhabitants o’th’earth / And yet are on’t” (1.3.41—2). Characteristically, they speak in paradoxes: “When the battle’s lost and won,” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.4,11). Shakespeare probably drew on numerous sources to depict the witches: Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which he conflated two accounts, one of Duncan and another of King Duff slain by Donwald with the help of his wife), King James’s writings on witchcraft, Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (used also for King Lear), and the accounts of the Scottish witch trials published around 1590. In the last, particularly, Shakespeare could have found mention of witches raising storms and sailing in sieves to endanger vessels at sea, performing threefold rituals blaspheming the Trinity, and brewing witches’ broth. Holinshed’s Chronicles refer to the Weird Sisters as “goddesses of destiny,” associating them with the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who hold the spinning distaff, draw off the thread of life, and cut it. In Macbeth, the Weird Sisters’ power to control fortune is curtailed, and they are portrayed as witches according to popular contemporary understanding, rather than as goddesses of destiny; nonetheless, witches were thought to be servants of the devil (Banquo wonders if the devil can speak true in their utterances, 1.3.107), and through them Macbeth has made an ominous pact with evil itself. His visit to their seething cauldron in 4.1 brings him to the witches’ masters, those unknown powers that know his very thought and who tempt him with those equivocations of which Banquo has warned Macbeth. The popularity of witchlore tempted Shakespeare’s acting company to expand the witches’ scenes with spectacles of song and dance; even the Folio text we have evidently contains interpolations derived in part from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (see especially 3.5 and part of 4.1, containing mention of Middleton’s songs “Come away” and “Black spirits”). Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s original theme of a disharmony in nature remains clearly visible.
The disharmonies of gender relations in Macbeth suggest another disturbing dimension of this tragedy. The play is filled with what Janet Adelman (in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce, edited by Marjorie Garber, 1985) aptly calls fantasies of maternal power. Macbeth, like many males, attempts to cope with his imaginings of a destructive maternal power and his fantasies of escape into a world fashioned and controlled solely by himself. Initially, he submits to his wife’s idea of manliness and commits murder in order to win her approval, destroying in the process a fatherly figure whose manhood is nonetheless ambivalently presented to us: Duncan is to be sure a nurturing father-king, but he is also too soft and trusting for his own good. Macbeth chooses to side with his masculinized wife against the gentler side of human nature, lauding her as a woman who should “Bring forth men-children only,” since her “undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (1.7.73—5), but, in the longer term, Macbeth finds himself desiccated by his own vulnerability to this masculinized mother. He turns unsuccessfully to the witches for the power he needs to make him author of himself; in the process of attempting to make himself wholly “masculine,” he manages instead to strip away from himself “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,” and all the graces that should “accompany old age” (5.3.24—5). His nemesis is appropriately one who was not, in the normal sense, “of woman born,” since Macduff “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (5.8.13—16). Macduff represents, in other words, the self-creating and invulnerable masculinity that Macbeth cannot fashion for himself. The ending of the play is distressingly absolute in its consolidation of male power—a reestablishment of control that seems necessary in view of the virulence of the maternal power the play has dared to unleash.
Patterns of imagery throughout the play point similarly to disorders in nature and in human relationships. The murder of Duncan, like that of Caesar in Julius Caesar, is accompanied by signs of the heavens’ anger. Various observers report that chimneys blow down during the unruly night, that owls clamor and attack falcons, that the earth shakes, and that Duncan’s horses devour each other. (Some of these portents are from Holinshed.) Banquo’s ghost returns from the dead to haunt his murderer, prompting Macbeth to speak in metaphors of charnel houses and graves that send back their dead and of birds of prey that devour the corpses. The drunken porter who opens the gate to Macduff and Lennox after the murder (2.3) invokes images of judgment and everlasting bonfire, through which the scene takes on the semblance of hell gate and the Harrowing of Hell. Owls appear repeatedly in the imagery, along with other creatures associated with nighttime and horror: wolves, serpents, scorpions, bats, toads, beetles, crows, rooks. Darkness itself assumes tangible and menacing shapes of hidden stars or extinguished candles, a thick blanket shrouded “in the dunnest smoke of hell” (1.5.51), an entombment of the earth in place of “living light” (2.4.10), a scarf to hoodwink the eye of “pitiful day” (3.2.50), and a “bloody and invisible hand” to tear to pieces the lives of the virtuous (3.2.51—2). Sleep is transformed from “great nature’s second course” and a “nourisher” of life that “knits up the raveled sleave of care” (2.2.41—4) into “death’s counterfeit” (2.3.77) and a living hell for Lady Macbeth. Life becomes sterile for Macbeth, a denial of harvest, the lees or dregs of the wine and “the sere, the yellow leaf” (5.3.23). In a theatrical metaphor, life becomes for him unreal, “a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more” (5.5.24—6). This theme of empty illusion carries over into the recurring image of borrowed or ill-fitting garments that belie the wearer. Macbeth is an actor, a hypocrite, whose “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.83) and who must “Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (1.5.65—6). Even the show of grief is an assumed mask whereby evildoers deceive the virtuous, so much so that Malcolm, Donalbain, and Macduff learn to conceal their true feelings rather than be thought to “show an unfelt sorrow” (2.3.138).
Blood is not only a literal sign of disorder but an emblem of Macbeth’s remorseless butchery, a “damned spot” on the conscience, and a promise of divine vengeance: “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood” (3.4.123). The emphasis on corrupted blood also suggests disease, in which Macbeth’s tyranny is a sickness to his country as well as to himself. Scotland bleeds (4.3.32), needing a physician; Macduff and his allies call themselves “the med’cine of the sickly weal” (5.2.27). Lady Macbeth’s disease is incurable, something spiritually corrupt wherein “the patient / Must minister to himself” (5.3.47—8). Conversely, the English King Edward is renowned for his divine gift of curing what was called the king’s evil, or scrofula (4.3.147—8). These images are generally paternalistic in their invocation of kings and fathers who heal and unite.
Throughout, the defenders of righteousness are associated with positive images of natural order and with patriarchal control. Duncan rewards his subjects by saying, “I have begun to plant thee, and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28—9). His arrival at Inverness Castle is heralded by signs of summer, sweet air, and “the temple-haunting martlet” (1.6.4). He is a fatherly figure, so much so that even Lady Macbeth balks at an act so like patricide. Macduff, too, is a father and husband whose family is butchered. The forest of Birnam marching to confront Macbeth, although rationally explainable as a device of camouflage for Macduff’s army, is emblematic of the natural order itself rising up against the monstrosity of Macbeth’s crimes. Banquo is, above all, a patriarchal figure, ancestor of the royal line governing Scotland and England at the time the play was written. These harmonies are to an extent restorative. Even the witches’ riddling prophecies, “th’equivocation of the fiend” (5.5.43), luring Macbeth into further atrocities with the vain promise of security, anticipate a just retribution.
Nonetheless, the play’s vision of evil shakes us deeply. Scotland’s peace has been violated, so much so that “to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly” (4.2.76—8). Macduff has been forced to deny his proper manly role of protecting his wife and family; Lady Macduff and her son, along with young Siward, have had to pay with their innocent lives the terrible price of Scotland’s tyranny. In his frenzied attempt to prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy about Banquo’s lineage inheriting the kingdom, Macbeth has, like King Herod, slaughtered much of the younger generation on whom the future depends. We can only hope that the stability to which Scotland returns after his death will be lasting. Banquo’s line is to rule eventually and to produce a line of kings reaching down to the royal occupant to whom Shakespeare will present his play, but, when Macbeth ends, it is Malcolm who is king. The killing of a traitor (Macbeth) and the placing of his head on a pole replicate the play’s beginning in the treason and beheading of the Thane of Cawdor—a gentleman on whom Duncan built “An absolute trust” (1.4.14). Most troublingly, the humanly representative nature of Macbeth’s crime leaves us with little assurance that we could resist his temptation. The most that can be said is that wise and good persons such as Banquo and Macduff have learned to know the evil in themselves and to resist it as nobly as they can.
Along with its timeless interest in murder and the human conscience, Macbeth is an intensely political play. It surely was viewed as such when it was first produced in 1606—1607. The drunken porter in 2.3 seemingly refers to the infamous attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament known as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and to the subsequent trial of the Jesuit Henry Garnet, the notorious “equivocator,” for his part in the conspiracy (2.3.8). Banquo fulfills a historical role as progenitor of the dynastic line that would lead eventually to James VI of Scotland, who had become James I of England in 1603. The pageant of “eight Kings and Banquo last” that Macbeth must witness on the occasion of his final visit to the Weird Sisters (22.214.171.124) ends with a glass or magic mirror showing many more kings bearing the appurtenances of royal office, including the “twofold balls and treble scepters” (4.1.121) that seemingly refer to James’s double coronation in 1603 as King of England and Scotland. James was keenly interested in witchcraft. Scotland was a constant worry on England’s northern border, aligning itself with France, marauding across the English border, tearing itself apart through clan violence, and, from an English point of view, manifesting the kind of tyranny that the English especially feared. The Scotland of this play thus helps to define, largely by contrast, what is thought to be truly English. The English King who is described as doing “A most miraculous work” in curing “the evil,” or scrofula, by his touch (4.3.147—8) suggests a flattering reference to James, who claimed this power of curing. This unnamed English king lends his support to the military attack against Macbeth through which the tyrant is finally overthrown. The play simultaneously incorporates an uneasy attitude of hostility toward Scotland along with a vision of union between the two countries that is brought about by the subjugation of Scotland to her southern neighbor. A rough kind of harmony is achieved out of disharmony. Macbeth’s act of murderous regicide is answered by another regicide in the name of English law. The quandaries of such a resolution may point to the ambivalence that many English people felt about their odd ruler from the north, the man who came to be known as “the wisest fool in Christendom.”