(Shakespeare for Students)

The brevity of Macbeth is so much a function of its brilliance that we might lose rather than gain by turning up the lost scenes of legend. This brilliance gives us in the end somewhat less than the utmost that tragedy can give. The hero, for instance, is less valuable as a person than Hamlet, Othello, or Lear; or Antony, or Coriolanus, or Timon. We may not rejoice in his fall as Dr. [Samuel] Johnson says we must, yet we have known too little about him and have found too little virtue in him to experience at his death the sense of an unutterable and tragic loss made necessary by ironies beyond our understanding. He commits murder in violation of a nature which we can assume to have been noble, but we can only assume this. Macbeth has surrendered his soul before the play begins.

When we first see him he is already invaded by those fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable. They will also reveal him as a great poet. But his poetry, like the poetry of the play, is to be concerned wholly with sensation and catastrophe. Macbeth like Lear is all end; the difference appearing in the speed with which doom rushes down, so that this rapidest of tragedies suggests whirlwinds rather than glaciers, and in the fact that terror rather than pity is the mode of the accompanying music. Macbeth, then, is not in the fullest known sense a tragedy. But we do not need to suppose that this is because important parts of it have been lost. More of it would have had to be more of the same. And the truth is that no significant scene seems to be missing. Macbeth is incomparably brilliant as it stands, and within its limits perfect. What it does it does with flawless force. It hurls a universe against a man, and if the universe that strikes is more impressive than the man who is stricken, great as his size and gaunt as his soul may be, there is no good reason for doubting that this is what Shakespeare intended. The triumph of Macbeth is the construction of a world, and nothing like it has ever been constructed in twenty-one hundred lines.

This world, which is at once without and within Macbeth, can be most easily described as strange. The world, like the witches, is always somewhere doing its work. Even in the battle which precedes the play the thane of Glamis has made "strange images of death" [I. iii. 97], and when he comes home to his lady his face is "as a book where men may read strange matters" [I. v. 62-3]. Duncan's horses after his murder turn wild in nature and devour each other—"a thing most strange and certain" [II. iv. 14]. Nothing is as it should be in such a world. "Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" [V. i. 39-40]. There is a drift of disorder in all events, and the air is murky with unwelcome miracles.

It is a dark world too, inhabited from the beginning by witches who meet on a blasted heath in thunder and lightning, and who hover through fog and filthy air as they leave on unspeakable errands. It is a world wherein "men must not walk too late" [III. vi. 7], for the night that was so pretty in Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice has grown terrible with ill-smelling mists and the stench of blood. The time that was once a playground for free and loving spirits has closed like a trap, or yawned like a bottomless pit. The "dark hour" that Banquo borrows from the night is his last hour on an earth which has lost the distinction between sun and gloom.

Darkness does the face of earth entomb.
When living light should kiss it.
[II. iv. 9-10]

The second of these lines makes a sound that is notable in the play for its rarity: the sound of life in its normal ease and lightness. Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it. But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim. And the weird sisters no less than he are expressions of an evil that employs them both and has roots running farther into darkness than the mind can guess.

It is furthermore a world in which nothing is certain to keep its shape. Forms shift and consistencies alter, so that what was solid may flow and what was fluid may congeal to stone.

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them,
[I. iii. 79-80]

says Banquo of the vanished witches. Macbeth addresses the "sure and firm set earth" [II. i. 56], but nothing could be less firm than the whole marble and the founded rock he has fancied his life to be. At the very moment he speaks he has seen a dagger which is not there, and the "strange infirmity" he confesses at the banquet will consist of seeing things that cannot be. His first apostrophe to the witches had been to creatures

That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on 't.
[I. iii. 41-2]

So now a dead man lives; Banquo's brains are out but he rises again, and "this is more strange than such a murder is" [III. iv. 81-2].

Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.
[III. iv. 101-02]

But the shape of everything is wrong, and the nerves of Macbeth are never proof against trembling. The cardinal instance of transformation is himself. Bellona's bridegroom has been turned to jelly.

The current of change pouring forever through this universe has, as a last effect, dissolved it. And the
dissolution of so much that was solid has liberated deadly fumes, has thickened the air until it suffocates all breathers. If the footing under men is less substantial than it was, the atmosphere they must push through is almost too heavy for life. It is confining, swarming, swelling; it is viscous, it is sticky; and it threatens strangulation. All of the speakers in the play conspire to create the impression that this is so. Not only do the witches in their opening scene wail "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" [I. i. 11], but the military men who enter after them anticipate in their talk of recent battle the imagery of entanglement to come:

Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art....
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him....
So from that spring whence comfort seem'd to come
Discomfort swells.
[I. ii. 7-9; 11-12; 27-8]

Macbeth's sword is reported to have "smok'd with bloody execution" [I. ii. 18], and he and Banquo were "as cannons overcharg'd with double cracks" [I. ii. 37]; they

Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.
[I. ii. 38]

The hyperbole is ominous, the excess is sinister. In the third scene, after what seemed corporal in the witches has melted into the wind, Ross and Angus join Banquo and Macbeth to report the praises of Macbeth that had poured in on Duncan "as thick as hail" [I. iii. 97], and to salute the new thane of Cawdor. The witches then have been right in two respects, and Macbeth says in an aside:

Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.
[I. iii. 127-29]

But the imagined act of murder swells in his mind until it is too big for its place, and his heart beats as if it were choking in its chamber.

Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
[I. iii. 134-42]

Meanwhile Lady Macbeth at home is visited by no such fears. When the crisis comes she will break sooner than her husband does, but her brittleness then will mean the same thing that her melodrama means now: she is a slighter person than Macbeth, has a poorer imagination, and holds in her mind less of that power which enables it to stand up under torture. The news that Duncan is coming to her house inspires her to pray that her blood be made thick; for the theme of thickness is so far not terrible in her thought.

Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"
[I. v. 50-4]

The blanket of the dark—it seems to her an agreeable image, and by no means suggests an element that can enwrap or smother. With Macbeth it is different: his soliloquy in the seventh scene shows him occupied with images of nets and tangles: the consequences of Duncan's death may coil about him like an endless rope.

If it were done when't is done, then't were well
It were done quickly. If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump me life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor.
(I. vii. 1-10)

And his voice rises to shrillness as he broods in terror upon the endless echo which such a death may make in the world.

His virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
[I. vii. 18-25]

It is terror such as this that Lady Macbeth must endeavor to allay in what is after all a great mind. Her scolding cannot do so. She has commanded him to screw his courage to the sticking-point, but what is the question that haunts him when he comes from Duncan's bloody bed, with hands that can never be washed white again?

Wherefore could not I pronounce "Amen"?
I had most need of blessing, and "Amen"
Stuck in my throat.
[II ii. 28-301]

He must not consider such things so deeply, his lady warns him. But he does, and in good time she will follow suit. That same night the Scottish earth, shaking in a convincing sympathy as the Roman earth in Julius Caesar never shook, considers the grievous state of a universe that suffocates in the breath of its own history. Lamentings are heard in the air, strange screams of death, and prophecies of dire combustion and confused events [II. iii. 56-8]. And the next morning, says Ross to an old man he meets,

By the clock 't is day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.
[II. iv. 6-7]

Macbeth is now king, but his fears "stick deep" in Banquo [III. i. 49]. The thought of one more murder that will give him perhaps the "clearness" he requires [III. i. 132] seems for a moment to free his mind from its old obsessive horror...

(The entire section is 4791 words.)


(Shakespeare for Students)

Irving Ribner
Macbeth is in many ways Shakespeare's maturest and most daring experiment in tragedy, for in this play he set himself to describe the operation of evil in all its manifestations: to define its very nature, to depict its seduction of man, and to show its effect upon all of the planes of creation once it has been unleashed by one man's sinful moral choice. It is this final aspect which here receives Shakespeare's primary attention and which conditions the sombre mood of the play. Shakespeare anatomizes evil both in intellectual and emotional terms, using all of the devices of poetry, and most notably the images of blood and darkness which so many commentators have described. For his final...

(The entire section is 9154 words.)

Supernatural Elements

(Shakespeare for Students)

That the Weird Sisters possess ... perennial and astounding vitality is attested by the whole sweep of Shakespearean criticism. All hands seem to be convinced that they symbolize or represent evil in its most malignant form, though there is to be found little unanimity of opinion regarding the precise nature of that evil, whether it is subjective or objective or both, whether mental or metaphysical. (pp. 55-6)

The single purpose of this study is to examine, as thoroughly as possible, the nature of that evil which the Weird Sisters are said to symbolize or represent, and to reproduce one aspect at least of the metaphysical groundwork of the drama. It presupposes that in Shakespeare's time evil was considered to be both...

(The entire section is 2473 words.)


(Shakespeare for Students)

Tom F. Driver
In Macbeth there are three kinds of time: (1) time measured by clock, calendar, and the movement of sun, moon, and stars, which for the sake of convenience we may call "chronological time;" (2) an order of time which overarches the action of the entire play and which may be called "providential time;" and (3) a time scheme, or an understanding of time, belonging to Macbeth, which maybe called "Macbeth's time." (pp. 143-44)

The play contains a very large number of references to chronological time; that is, to the day, the night, or the hour. There is no point in citing all of them, but one example may serve to show the deliberateness with which the hour is sometimes established. Act I,...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)

Gender and Sex Roles

(Shakespeare for Students)

One of the organizing themes of Macbeth is the theme of manliness: the word (with its cognates) echoes and re-echoes through the scenes, and the play is unique for the persistence and subtlety with which Shakespeare dramatizes the paradoxes of self-conscious "manhood." In recoiling from Macbeth's outrageous kind of manliness, we are prompted to reconsider what we really mean when we use the word in praising someone. Macbeth's career may be described in terms of a terrible progressive disjunction between the manly and the humane. In any civilized culture—even among the Samurai, Macbeth's counterparts in feudal Japan—it would be assumed that the first set of values is complementary to and subsumed in the second. But, as he...

(The entire section is 4660 words.)


(Shakespeare for Students)

The total meaning of [Macbeth] depends on a complex of interwoven patterns and the imagery must be considered in relation to character and structure.

One group of images to which Cleanth Brooks called attention [in his The Well-Wrought Urn] was that concerned with babes. It has been suggested by Muriel C. Bradbrook that Shakespeare may have noticed in the general description of the manners of Scotland included in Holinshed's Chronicles that every Scotswoman 'would take intolerable pains to bring up and nourish her own children [Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951)]; and H. N. Paul pointed out that one of the topics selected for debate before James I, during his visit to Oxford in the summer of 1605,...

(The entire section is 4156 words.)


(Shakespeare for Students)

Wayne C. Booth
Put even in its simplest terms, the problem Shakespeare gave himself in Macbeth was a tremendous one. Take a good man, a noble man, a man admired by all who know him—and destroy him, not only physically and emotionally, as the Greeks destroyed their heroes, but also morally and intellectually. As if this were not difficult enough as a dramatic hurdle, while transforming him into one of the most despicable mortals conceivable, maintain him as a tragic hero—that is, keep him so sympathetic that, when he comes to his death, the audience will pity rather than detest him and will be relieved to see him out of his misery rather than pleased to see him destroyed. Put in Shakespeare's own terms: take...

(The entire section is 8742 words.)

Lady Macbeth

(Shakespeare for Students)

Maternal power in Macbeth is not embodied in the figure of a particular mother (as it is, for example, in Coriolanus); it is instead diffused throughout the play, evoked primarily by the figures of the witches and Lady Macbeth. Largely through Macbeth's relationship to them, the play becomes (like Coriolanus) a representation of primitive fears about male identity and autonomy itself, about those looming female presences who threaten to control one's actions and one's mind, to constitute one's very self, even at a distance. (p. 90)

The witches constitute our introduction to the realm of maternal malevolence unleashed by the loss of paternal protection; as soon as Macbeth meets them, he becomes. . ....

(The entire section is 2185 words.)


(Shakespeare for Students)

A. C. Bradley
The main interest of the character of Banquo arises from the changes that take place in him, and from the influence of the Witches upon him. And it is curious that Shakespeare's intention here is so frequently missed. Banquo being at first strongly contrasted with Macbeth, as an innocent man with a guilty, it seems to be supposed that this contrast must be continued to his death; while, in reality, though it is never removed, it is gradually diminished. Banquo in fact may be described much more truly than Macbeth as the victim of the Witches. If we follow this story this will be evident.

He bore a part only less distinguished than Macbeth's in the battles against Sweno and Macdonwaid. He and...

(The entire section is 3685 words.)