Thomas De Quincey

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What are the merits of "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" by Thomas de Quincey? Can it be considered de Quincey's finest critical essay?

The merits of "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" include the engaged, close, and psychological reading de Quincy gives of the end of act 2, scene 3 in Macbeth. Through his intense focus on this scene, he offers an early psychological reading of a text. This work can be and has been considered de Quincey's finest critical essay.

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The merits of de Quincey's essay lie in the close, engaged, and psychological reading he gives of the knocking at the door that occurs right after Macbeth has murdered Duncan in act 2, scene 3 of Macbeth . The knocking at the gate by Macduff and Lennox brings us out...

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The merits of de Quincey's essay lie in the close, engaged, and psychological reading he gives of the knocking at the door that occurs right after Macbeth has murdered Duncan in act 2, scene 3 of Macbeth. The knocking at the gate by Macduff and Lennox brings us out of the suspension of time in which Macbeth did the unthinkable and killed his king. In the play, the lines are as follows:

To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself. [Knocking within.]
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!

In de Quincey's reading, this knocking signals the resumption of the activities of the real world after a deed so terrible it was world-stopping. The knocking builds our sympathy for Macbeth, who, immediately after having murdered Duncan, wishes he could undo the act. As de Quincey explains it, Shakespeare understood that an act so world-changing as killing a king warranted a pause:

In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers and the murder must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs locked up and sequestered in some deep recess.

The merits in this are, first, that de Quincey is deeply engaging with the play, and, as a result, trying to analyze and understand his reactions to it. A second merit is that de Quincey, years ahead of psychological criticism, is offering a psychological explanation for the knocking, understanding that what goes on in a great work of literature must be deeper than what the rational mind alone can comprehend. Finally, his focus on one small part of the play presages the kind of attention or close examination of a text that would become the core of critical analysis in the twentieth century.

Literary critics such as Judson S. Lyon have called this de Quincey's finest critical essay.

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