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Recent criticism of Macbeth has been preoccupied with the play's presentation of opposing moral values, with the conflicts between natural and supernatural, male and female, and good and evil being the particular focus of critical debate. Thomas McAlindon (1991), for example, has analyzed the title character's entire motivation in terms of metaphysically opposing forces, maintaining that "the meaning of Macbeth's ambition [is] deeply enmeshed in Shakespeare's conception of microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, so that it … dramatises a struggle between the forces of unity and disunity." Other scholars, however, have maintained that such concentration on the drama's oppositional elements simplifies the protagonist's ethical position. Reading the play in the light of performance, R. A. Foakes (1962) stated: "Appearance and reality are no longer separated and set side by side, but are … confused or identified with one another, so that 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' evil and good become hard to distinguish for Macbeth, and he is not only the hero, but the villain of this play as well." Similarly, François Laroque (1989) and Stanley Wells (1994) argue that Shakespeare uses equivocal language in his discussion of the natural and the supernatural, thus denying primacy to either. Other critics, such as Barbara L. Parker (1970) and Huston Diehl (1983), have even contended that the ambiguities in Macbeth ultimately suggest a sceptical attitude to the possibility of any reliable human knowledge of the world.

Another primary concern of modern scholars has been the treatment of gender issues. Both Stanley Cavell (1993) and Robert Kimbrough (1983) maintain that Shakespeare blurs traditional gender distinctions in the play. Kimbrough argues that "while Shakespeare in Macbeth criticizes the destructive polarity of masculine versus feminine, constantly informing the play is his recognition of a fuller, healthier way of life, his vision of potential human wholeness, his androgynous vision." By contrast, Carolyn Asp (1981) has focused on the masculine presence in the drama, claiming that Macbeth represents Shakespeare's criticism of an extreme masculine stereotype: "as Macbeth accepts a false masculinity that simultaneously fosters the illusion of his godlike power and diminishes his total human development, he is alienated from the very society that inculcates the stereotype."

The character of Macbeth remains problematic for modern critics. According to J. A. Bryant (1961), Macbeth is a wholly negative character who possesses the capacity for good but chooses to commit evil instead: "Macbeth is certainly diabolical, and he does the Devil's work; but like the Devil he has willed himself into his desperate position, and he is captive of nothing except the Providence he chose to ignore." Other critics, such as Robert B. Heilman (1966), emphasize the ambivalent nature of Macbeth, describing the title character as "the criminal as tragic hero." In examining the play as it appears in performance, Julian Markels (1961) and E. A. J. Honigmann (1976) have maintained that the fundamental ambivalence of the play resides in the response of the audience. They argue that Shakespeare's handling of staging, structure, and symbolism compels the audience both to empathize with Macbeth and to be morally repulsed by him. While some critics, such as Clifford Leech (1967), have claimed that these ambiguities represent Macbeth's leading "a more abundant life through his guilt," T. McAlindon (1973) insists that the ambiguity itself is symptomatic of Macbeth's "breakdown in natural and appropriate relationships, and the semantic disorders and social confusion which are necessarily attendant upon such a breakdown." This response to Macbeth as hero and villain, and Macbeth's apparent insight into his own condition and decline, are for Maynard Mack, Jr. (1973) and Barbara Everett (1989) essential to Shakespeare's creating a truly "tragic" character. As Mack writes in "The Voice in the Sword": "Our Macbeth is a hero as well as villain, and our response to him is multiple … what we have been shown is the destruction of a soul, whose intuitions of a life beyond life are his glory and become his ruin." Thus, for many contemporary critics, the complex relations between the natural and the supernatural, the masculine and the feminine, and good and evil, especially in the character of Macbeth, may not be dichotomies in which Shakespeare depicts clearly dominant elements, but rather ambiguous relation-ships complicated by Shakespeare for the sake of tragic implication.

Language And Symbolism

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Kenneth Muir (essay date 1966)

SOURCE : "Image and Symbol in 'Macbeth'," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 45-54.

[In the following essay, Muir surveys the recurring images and symbols in Macbeth, focusing in particular on images of light and darkness, order and chaos.]

A good deal has been written about the imagery of Macbeth since Caroline Spurgeon showed [in Leading Motives in the Imagery of Shakespeare's Tragedies] that the iterative image was that of a man in ill-fitting garments. It has been pointed out, for example, that the image can be interpreted in more than one way and that we need not necessarily suppose that Shakespeare looked on his hero as a small man in garments too large for him: we may rather suppose that the point of the image is that the garments were stolen or that they symbolize the hypocrisy to which Macbeth is reluctantly committed when he embarks on his career of crime. It has also been pointed out that this particular image should be considered in relation to a wider group of tailoring images, of which the imaginary tailor, admitted by the Porter of Hell-gate, may be regarded as a kind of patron.

What is more important is that, since the publication of R. B. Heilman's [This Great Stage (1948) and Magic in the Web (1956)], W. H. Clemen's The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery and G. Wilson Knight's series of inter pretations, Miss Spurgeon's concentration on a single iterative image, even though numerically predominant, is apt to be misleading. The total meaning of each play 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 The Well Wrought Urn, 1947] was that concerned with babes. It has been suggested … 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'; and H. N. Paul pointed out [in The Royal Play of 'Macbeth', 1950] that one of the topics selected for debate before James I, during his visit to Oxford in the summer of 1605, was whether a man's character was influenced by his nurse's milk. Whatever the origin of the images in Macbeth relating to breast-feeding, Shakespeare uses them for a very dramatic purpose. Their first appearance is in Lady Macbeth's invocation of the evil spirits to take possession of her:

      Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.

They next appear in the scene where she incites Macbeth to the murder of Duncan:

      I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me—
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as
Have done to this.

In between these two passages, Macbeth himself, debating whether to do the deed, admits that

          Pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast,

would plead against it; and Lady Macbeth, when she first considers whether she can persuade her husband to kill Duncan, admits that she fears his nature:

It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

Later in the play, Malcolm, when he is pretending to be worse even than Macbeth, says that he loves crime:

       Nay, had I pow'r, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.

In these passages the babe symbolizes pity, and the necessity for pity, and milk symbolizes humanity, tenderness, sympathy, natural human feelings, the sense of kinship, all of which have been outraged by the murderers. Lady Macbeth can nerve herself to the deed only by denying her real nature; and she can overcome Macbeth's scruples only by making him ignore his feelings of human-kindness—his kinship with his fellow-men.

Cleanth Brooks suggests therefore that it is appropriate that one of the three apparitions should be a bloody child, since Macduff is converted into an avenger by the murder of his wife and babes. On one level, the bloody child stands for Macduff; on another level, it is the naked new-born babe whose pleadings Macbeth has ignored. [In The Business of Criticism, 1959] Helen Gardner took Cleanth Brooks to task for considering these images in relation to one another. She argued that in his comments on 'Pity, like a naked new-born babe' he had sacrificed

a Shakespearian depth of human feeling … by attempting to interpret an image by the aid of what associations it happens to arouse in him, and by being more interested in making symbols of babes fit each other than in listening to what Macbeth is saying. Macbeth is a tragedy and not a melodrama or a symbolic drama of retribution. The reappearance of 'the babe symbol' in the apparition scene and in Macduff's revelation of his birth has distracted the critic's attention from what deeply moves the imagination and the conscience in this vision of a whole world weeping at the inhumanity of helplessness betrayed and innocence and beauty destroyed. It is the judgment of the human heart that Macbeth fears here, and the punishment which the speech foreshadows is not that he will be cut down by Macduff, but that having murdered his own humanity he will enter a world of appalling loneliness, of meaningless activity, unloved himself, and unable to love.

Although this is both eloquent and true, it does not quite dispose of Brooks's interpretation of the imagery. Miss Gardner shows that, elsewhere in Shakespeare, 'a cherub is thought of as not only young, beautiful, and innocent, but as associated with the virtue of patience'; and that in the Macbeth passage the helpless babe and the innocent and beautiful cherub 'call out the pity and love by which Macbeth is judged. It is not terror of heaven's vengeance which makes him pause, but the terror of moral isolation. Yet, earlier in the same speech Macbeth expresses fear of retribution in this life—fear that he himself will have to drink the ingredients of his own poisoned chalice—and his comparison of Duncan's virtues to 'angels, trumpet-tongued' implies a fear of judgment in the life to come, notwithstanding his boast that he would 'jump' it. We may assume, perhaps, that the discrepancy between the argument of the speech and the imagery employed is deliberate. On the surface Macbeth appears to be giving merely prudential reasons for not murdering Duncan; but Shakespeare makes him reveal by the imagery he employs that he, or his unconscious mind, is horrified by the thought of the deed to which he is being driven.

Miss Gardner does not refer to the breast-feeding images—even Cleanth Brooks does not mention one of the most significant—yet all these images are impressive in their contexts and, taken together, they coalesce into a symbol of humanity, kinship and tenderness violated by Macbeth's crimes. Miss Gardner is right in demanding that the precise meaning and context of each image should be considered, but wrong, I believe, in refusing to see any significance in the group as a whole. Macbeth, of course, is a tragedy; but I know of no valid definition of tragedy which would prevent the play from being at the same time a symbolic drama of retribution.

Another important group of images is concerned with sickness and medicine, and it is significant that they all appear in the last three acts of the play after Macbeth has ascended the throne; for Scotland is suffering from the disease of tyranny, which can be cured, as fever was thought to be cured, only by bleeding or purgation. The tyrant, indeed, uses sickness imagery of himself. He tells the First Murderer that so long as Banquo is alive he wears his health but sickly; when he hears of Fleance's escape he exclaims 'Then comes my fit again'; and he envies Duncan in the grave, sleeping after life's fitful fever, since life itself is one long illness. In the last act of the play a doctor, called in to diagnose Lady Macbeth's illness, confesses that he cannot

       minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart.

Macbeth then professes to believe that what is amiss with Scotland is not his own evil tyranny but the English army of liberation:

What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

On the other side, the victims of tyranny look forward to wholesome days when Scotland will be freed. Malcolm says that Macbeth's very name blisters their tongues and he laments that 'each new day a gash' is added to Scotland's wounds. In the last act Caithness refers to Malcolm as 'the medicine of the sickly weal',

And with him pour we in our country's purge
Each drop of us.

Lennox adds:

          Or so much as it needs
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the

Macbeth is the disease from which Scotland is suffering; Malcolm, the rightful king, is the sovereign flower, both royal and curative. Macbeth, it is said,

Cannot buckle his distemper'd cause
Within the belt of rule.

James I, in A Counter-blast to Tobacco, referred to himself as 'the proper Phisician of his Politicke-bodie', whose duty it was 'to purge it of all those diseases, by Medicines meet for the same'. It is possible that Shakespeare had read this pamphlet, although, of course, disease-imagery is to be found in most of the plays written about this time. In Hamlet and Coriolanus it is applied to the body politic, as indeed it was by many writers on political theory. Shakespeare may have introduced the King's Evil as an allusion to James I's reluctant use of his supposed healing powers; but even without this topical reference, the incident provides a contrast to the evil supernatural represented by the Weird Sisters and is therefore dramatically relevant.

The contrast between good and evil is brought out in a variety of ways. There is not merely the contrast between the good and bad kings, which becomes explicit in the scene where Malcolm falsely accuses himself of avarice, lechery, cruelty and all of Macbeth's vices, and disclaims the possession of the king-becoming graces:

Justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.

There is also a contrast throughout the play between the powers of light and darkness. It has often been observed that many scenes are set in darkness. Duncan arrives at Inverness as night falls; he is murdered during the night; Banquo returns from his last ride as night is again falling; Lady Macbeth has light by her continually; and even the daylight scenes during the first part of the play are mostly gloomy in their setting—a blasted heath, wrapped in mist, a dark cavern. The murder of Duncan is followed by darkness at noon—'dark night strangles the travelling lamp'. Before the murder Macbeth prays to the stars to hide their fires and Lady Macbeth invokes the night to conceal their crime:

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'.

Macbeth, as he goes towards the chamber of the sleeping Duncan, describes how

            o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep.

The word 'night' echoes through the first two scenes of the third act; and Macbeth invokes night to conceal the murder of Banquo:

       Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day …
       Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do

In the scene in England and in the last act of the play—except for the sleep-walking scene—the darkness is replaced by light.

The symbolism is obvious. In many of these contexts night and darkness are associated with evil, and day and light are linked with good. The 'good things of day' are contrasted with 'night's black agents'; and, in the last act, day stands for the victory of the forces of liberation (v, iv, I; v, vii , 27; v, viii, 37). The 'midnight hags' are 'the instruments of darkness'; and some editors believe that when Malcolm (at the end of Act IV) says that 'The Powers above / Put on their instruments' he is referring to their human instruments—Malcolm, Macduff and their soldiers.

The opposition between the good and evil supernatural is paralleled by similar contrasts between angel and devil, heaven and hell, truth and falsehood—and the opposites are frequently juxtaposed:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good.
             Merciful powers
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!
           It is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.

Several critics have pointed out the opposition in the play between night and day, life and death, grace and evil, a contrast which is reiterated more than four hundred times.

The evidence for this has gone beyond imagery proper and most modern imagistic critics have extended their field to cover not merely metaphor and simile, but the visual symbols implied by the dialogue, which would be visible in performance, and even the iteration of key words. The Poet Laureate once remarked that Macbeth is about blood; and from the appearance of the bloody sergeant in the second scene of the play to the last scene of all, we have a continual vision of blood. Macbeth's sword in the battle 'smok' d with bloody execution' he and Banquo seemed to 'bathe in reeking wounds'; the Sergeant's 'gashes cry for help'. The Second Witch comes from the bloody task of killing swine. The visionary dagger is stained with 'gouts of blood'. Macbeth, after the murder, declares that not all great Neptune's ocean will cleanse his hands:

       this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

Duncan is spoken of as the fountain of his sons' blood; his wounds

       look'd like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance.

The world had become a 'bloody stage'. Macbeth, before the murder of Banquo, invokes the 'bloody and invisible hand' of night. We are told of the twenty trenched gashes on Banquo's body and his ghost shakes his 'gory locks' at Macbeth, who is convinced that 'blood will have blood'. At the end of the banquet scene, he confesses wearily that he is 'stepp'd so far' in blood, that

       should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

The Second Apparition, a bloody child, advises Macbeth to be 'bloody, bold, and resolute'. Malcolm declares that Scotland bleeds,

       and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.

Lady Macbeth, sleep-walking, tries in vain to remove the 'damned spot' from her hands:

Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

In the final scene, Macbeth's severed head is displayed on a pole.… The subject of the play is murder, and the prevalence of blood ensures that we shall never forget the physical realities in metaphysical overtones.

Equally important is the iteration of sleep. The first statement of the theme is when the First Witch curses the Master of the Tiger:

Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and his wife

In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly;

while Duncan, 'after life's fitful fever … sleeps well'. An anonymous lord looks forward to the overthrow of the tyrant, when they will be able to sleep in peace. Because of 'a great perturbation in nature', Lady Macbeth

        is troubled with thick coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.

The key passage in the theme of sleeplessness, derived apparently from Holinshed and Seneca's Hercules Furens, occurs just after the murder of Duncan, when Macbeth hears a voice which cries 'Sleep no more!' It is really the echo of his own conscience.… As Murry puts it [in Shakespeare, 1935]:

He has murdered Sleep, that is 'the death of each day's life'—that daily death of Time which makes Time human.

The murder of a sleeping guest, the murder of a sleeping king, the murder of a saintly old man, the murder, as it were, of sleep itself, carries with it the appropriate retribution of insomnia.

As Murry's comment suggests, the theme of sleep is linked with that of time. Macbeth is promised by the Weird Sisters that he will be king 'hereafter' and Banquo wonders if they 'can look into the seeds of time'. Macbeth, tempted by the thought of murder, declares that 'Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings' and decides that 'Time and the hour runs through the roughest day'. Lady Macbeth says she feels 'The future in the instant'. In his soliloquy in the last scene of Act I, Macbeth speaks of himself as 'here upon this bank and shoal of time', time being contrasted with the sea of eternity. He pretends that he would not worry about the future, or about the life to come, if he could be sure of success in the present; and his wife implies that the conjunction of time and place for the murder will never recur. Just before the murder, Macbeth reminds himself of the exact time and place, so that he can relegate … 'the moment to the past from which it will never escape into the future'. Macbeth is troubled by his inability to say amen, because he dimly realizes he has forfeited the possibility of blessing and because he knows that he has become 'the deed's creature'. The nightmares of the guilty pair and the return of Banquo from the grave symbolize the haunting of the present by the past. When Macbeth is informed of his wife's death, he describes how life has become for him a succession of meaningless days, the futility he has brought upon himself by his crimes:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

At the very end of the play, Macduff announces that with the death of the tyrant 'The time is free' and Malcolm promises, without 'a large expense of time' to do what is necessary ('which would be planted newly with the time') and to bring back order from chaos 'in measure, time, and place'.

From one point of view Macbeth can be regarded as a play about the disruption of order through evil, and its final restoration. The play begins with what the witches call a hurly-burly and ends with the restoration of order by Malcolm. Order is represented throughout by the bonds of loyalty; and chaos is represented by the powers of darkness with their upsetting of moral values ('Fair is foul and foul is fair'). The witches can raise winds to fight against the churches, to sink ships and destroy buildings: they are the enemies both of religion and of civilization. Lady Macbeth invokes the evil spirits to take possession of her; and, after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth's mind begins to dwell on universal destruction. He is willing to 'let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer' merely to be freed from his nightmares. Again, in his conjuration of the witches in the cauldron scene, he is prepared to risk absolute chaos, 'even till destruction sicken' through surfeit, rather than not obtain an answer. In his last days, Macbeth is 'aweary of the sun' and he wishes 'the estate of the world' were undone. Order in Scotland, even the moral order in the universe, can be restored only by his death. [In Dramatic Providence in Macbeth, 1958] G. R. Elliott contrasts the threefold hail with which Malcolm is greeted at the end of the play with the threefold hail of the witches on the blasted heath: they mark the destruction of order and its restoration.

All through the play ideas of order and chaos are juxtaposed. When Macbeth is first visited by temptation his 'single state of man' is shaken and 'nothing is but what is not'. In the next scene (I, iv) Shakespeare presents ideas of loyalty, duty, and the reward of faithful service, in contrast both to the treachery of the dead Thane of Cawdor and to the treacherous thoughts of the new thane. Lady Macbeth prays to be spared 'compunctious visitings of nature' and in the next scene, after the description of the 'pleasant seat' of the castle with its images of natural beauty, she expresses her gratitude and loyalty to the king. Before the murder, Macbeth reminds himself of the threefold tie of loyalty which binds him to Duncan, as kinsman, subject and host. He is afraid that the very stones will cry out against the unnaturalness of the murder, which is, in fact, accompanied by strange portents:

Lamentings heard i' th' air, strange screams of
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion and confus'd events
New hatch'd to th' woeful time.

The frequent iteration of the word 'strange' is one of the ways by which Shakespeare underlines the disruption of the natural order.

Passages which older critics deplored, and which even H. N. Paul regarded as flattery of King James, may be seen as part of the theme we have been discussing. Macbeth's curious discourse on dogs is one of these passages. It was inserted not mainly because of James's proclamation on the subject, but to stress the order of nature—naturae benignitas—'the diverse functions and variety within a single species testifying to an overruling harmony and design' and it is used to persuade his tools to murder Banquo. In the scene in England, Malcolm's self-accusations—in particular his confession of wishing to uproar the universal peace and confound all unity on earth—are disorders contrasted with the virtues he pretends not to have and with the miraculous powers of the pious Edward.

Reference must be made to two other groups of images, which I have discussed elsewhere in some detail—those relating to equivocation and those which are concerned with the contrast between what the Porter calls desire and performance. The theme of equivocation runs all through the play. It was suggested, no doubt, by the topicality of the subject at Father Garnet's trial, but this links up with 'the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth', the juggling fiends 'That keep the word of promise to our ear / And break it to our hope', and Macbeth's own equivocation after the murder of Duncan:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality—
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

Macbeth's intention is to avert suspicion from himself by following his wife's advice to make their 'griefs and clamour roar upon' Duncan's death. But, as he speaks the words, the audience knows that he has unwittingly spoken the truth. Instead of lying like truth, he has told the truth while intending to deceive. As he expresses it later, when full realization has come to him, life has become meaningless, a succession of empty tomorrows, 'a tale told by an idiot'.

The gap between desire and performance, enunciated by the Porter, is expressed over and over again by Macbeth and his wife. It takes the form, most strikingly, in the numerous passages contrasting eye and hand, culminating in Macbeth's cry—

What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine

and in the scene before the murder of Banquo when the bloodstained is no longer Macbeth's, but Night's:

       Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.

In the sleep-walking scene, Lady Macbeth's unavailing efforts to wash the smell of the blood from her hand symbolize the indelibility of guilt; and Angus in the next scene declares that Macbeth feels

His secret murders sticking on his hands.

The soul is damned for the deeds committed by the hand.

It has recently been argued that the opposition between the hand and eye provides the clearest explanation of that division in Macbeth between his clear 'perception of evil and his rapt drift into evil'. Lawrence W. Hyman suggests [in Tennessee Studies (1960)] that Macbeth is able to do the murder only because of the deep division between his head and his hand. The

almost autonomous action of Macbeth's dagger, as if it had no connection with a human brain or a human heart, explains the peculiar mood that pervades the murder scene … As soon as he lays down the dagger, however, his 'eye' cannot help but see what the hand has done.

A study of the imagery and symbolism in Macbeth does not radically alter one's interpretation of the play. It would, indeed, be suspect if it did. In reading some modern criticisms of Shakespeare one has the feeling that the critic is reading between the lines and creating from the interstices a play rather different from the one which Shakespeare wrote and similar to a play the critic himself might have written. Such interpretations lead us away from Shakespeare; they drop a veil between us and the plays; and they substitute a formula for the living reality, a philosophy or a theology instead of a dramatic presentation of life. I have not attempted to reshape Macbeth to a particular ideological image, nor selected parts of the play to prove a thesis. Some selection had to be made for reasons of space, but I have tried to make the selection representative of the whole.

We must not imagine, of course, that Macbeth is merely an elaborate pattern of imagery. It is a play; and in the theatre we ought to recover, as best we may, a state of critical innocence. We should certainly not attempt to notice the images of clothing or breast-feeding or count the allusions to blood or sleep. But, just as Shakespeare conveys to us the unconscious minds of the characters by means of the imagery, so, in watching the play, we may be totally unconscious of the patterns of imagery and yet absorb them unconsciously by means of our imaginative response to the poetry. In this way they will be subsumed under the total experience of the play.

And what of the producer? It would be quite fatal for him to get his actors to underline the key images—to make them, as it were, italicize them with a knowing wink at the professors in the stalls or the students in the gallery. All we should ask of the producer in this matter is that he should give us what Shakespeare wrote, and all that Shakespeare wrote, and that he should not try to improve on the script provided by the dramatist.

T. McAlindon (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Macbeth," in Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 197-219.

[In the following essay, McAlindon discusses the numerical symbolism that reinforces Macbeth as a "tragedy of ambition."]

Even though the text overtly invites us to do so, nothing might seem more reductive than to consider Macbeth as a tragedy of ambition. The meaning of Macbeth's ambition, however, is complex, being deeply enmeshed in Shakespeare's conception of microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, so that it reaches out to engage in a significant relationship with everything else in the play. In this respect Shakespeare is developing a conception of ambition which was systematically and explicitly articulated in Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, where the hero, a 'fiery thirster after sovereignty' (Part I,, justifies his ambition and its attendant violence by an appeal to the dynamics of Nature:

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
                              (Part I,II.vii. 18-20)

Thus 'martial' Tamburlaine is identified throughout with the element of fire, at once the 'noblest' and most 'aspiring' as well as the most destructive of the elements. Zenocrate is the Venus whose tears moderate his violence, his marriage to her being analogous to the concordant discord of Nature herself. Her death unleashes all the destructiveness in his nature, so that he ends his career with the burning of Babylon and dies as the victim of a fiery fever.

The character of Macbeth and the whole atmosphere in which he moves set Shakespeare's tragedy at a vast remove from Marlowe's. But in addition to the common subject of an ambitious usurper, and the shared Renaissance sense that ambition can be a noble virtue or a deadly vice, the two plays have an underlying philosophical affinity that must have been readily perceptible to Renaissance audiences. Macbeth's ambition is a desire not so much for power and wealth as for 'greatness'. It proceeds from a restless striving which he himself scarcely understands and which compels him to 'o'erleap' all obstacles of person, time, and place so as to win, as tokens of his transcendent worth, golden opinions and the golden round. It is a form of desire made manifest not only in martial valour but also in a powerful imagination which obliterates the achievements and satisfactions of the present with its bewitching delineations of future deeds. It makes him yearn always for 'more' (I.iii.70), drives him to 'do and … do and … do' (line 10), makes him vault beyond great and greater to 'the greatest' (line 117). But counter-balancing this compulsion towards striving and strife is Macbeth's 'milk of human kindness' (I.v.14), signifying the impulse which binds him to others in affectionate partnership; thus before his tragic transformation he is a man loved (; IV.iii.13) as well as admired by all. Emblematised as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Banquo in defence of a just social order, this union of contrary impulses is already on the point of collapse at the beginning of the play; and its collapse is Macbeth's and his country's tragedy. Critics have rightly pointed out that although Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, it has some claim to being 'the most complex and subtle in its statement'. Many, too, have pointed out the characterisation of its criminal hero has a strange ambivalence which is reflected in a ubiquitous sense of doubleness. That the play's subtle complexities are generated by its dualistic outlook is generally acknowledged; what remains to be emphasised is that its dualistic character emanates from a particular construction of reality which Shakespeare absorbed from his own culture.

Perhaps more than any of the other tragedies, Macbeth dramatises a struggle between the forces of unity and disunity. Without opening up the debated question as to what extent it is a tragedy tailored to please King James, one can reasonably detect in this emphasis a discreet nod in the direction of James's title—in which he himself took pride—as the prince of peace and union. The emphasis can be seen in the characterisation of Duncan as a conscientious ruler who leaves fighting to those of his nobility who relish it, rewards them generously for their endeavours, and seeks to bind them all to him and to each other in a gracious and fruitful mutuality. Although the order which Duncan represents is a feudal order, Shakespeare naturalises, validates, and interprets it not by the discourse of hierarchy but by that of contrarious unity. Some three years before Macbeth, Middleton and Dekker celebrated James's coronation and progress through the city of London with an 'entertainment' which actually personifies the Four Elements and shows them joining hands in a renunciation of their 'natural desire / To combat each with other'—symbolising an end to the dissensions which afflicted English society at the close of Elizabeth's reign. So too Shakespeare delineates the essential significance of Duncan's character in the superb passage where he and Banquo evoke an image of nature's opposites, both elemental and sexual, joyfully united in a procreant harmony ( To argue that Macbeth deploys the 'naive', 'geriatric', unequivocal discourse of a metaphysically sanctioned absolutism, and that this hierarchical discourse is mischievously negated at every point by a double-vision discourse that reflects the deconstructive energies and indeterminacies of language (a subversive process which Shakespeare himself was by implication unaware of) is entirely unacceptable. As even this purportedly 'naive' and 'geriatric' passage suggests, the double vision of the play is manifestly the product of its controlling discourse: the harmonious order jointly imagined by Duncan and Banquo accommodates hierarchy, but it is essentially a loving partnership of nature's opposites; and the poetry no less than the dramatic context makes clear that this contrarious, 'pendent' order is as fragile and vulnerable as it is fruitful.

Evil is regularly referred to in the most orthodox manner in Macbeth as unnatural, on the assumption that whatsoever is natural is good. But this simple conception of nature is assimilated to a more comprehensive view which acknowledges 'nature's mischief (I.v.50) no less than its bounty (III.i.97), compunction (I.v.4), and love. The fate of Macduff's nest and its abandoned 'birds', pitilessly destroyed 'At one fell swoop' by Macbeth's 'Hell-kite' (IV.iii.216-19), stands in diptychal relation to the Duncan-Banquo passage on the temple-haunting martlet and correlates with numerous imagistic echoes of nature's dark ferocity. This natural ferocity is intimately associated with demonic evil and with the attempt of the fallen angels (IV.iii.22) to undo the work of the Creator; many in Shakespeare's audience would no doubt have recalled standard Christian doctrine to the effect that the strife of the elements in the world and in humankind was a consequence of the Adamic fall. But the demonic supernaturalism of the play functions more as intersification than as explanation: it adds horror, mystery, and awe to the extraordinary spectacle of cruel violence erupting in the 'gentle weal' and its most 'worthy gentleman'. The most important insight furnished by the play is that the equiv ocating witches and the malignant spirits that tend on mortal thoughts are potent precisely because they are in tune with the bewildering doubleness of the natural order.

One of the most remarkable features of this tragedy is the way in which number symbolism co-operates with nature symbolism in the process of signalling key ideas relating to the tragic theme of disunity and chaos. This may be largely due to the fact that here, as in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare the tragedian shows a more than usual interest in time, the movement of the heavenly bodies, and history. The tradition of numerical symbolism and the temporal sensibility were closely related in literature since there was a natural connection between the time sense, astronomy, and the art of exact measurement according to number.

It has long been recognised that Macbeth abounds in trinities and that this accords with the traditional association of the number three with the rituals of witchcraft. But threes and twos, trebling and doubling, are closely linked throughout the play; and this relationship, I would add, is extended to include the idea of endless multiplication—'terrible numbers', 'multitudinous seas', 'the multiplying villainies of nature', 'confineless harms'. What this pattern does—or would have done for a Renaissance audience attuned to cosmological discourse—is to evoke in large the Pythagorean concept of cosmos as limit and measure and of chaos as the unlimited, the innumerable. In its totality, therefore, the number pattern corresponds with Macbeth's grim calls for the frame of things to disjoint (IH.ii.16) and the united elements to 'Confound and swallow … up' all natural and human order (IV.i.52-60) if his desires are not fulfilled. More particularly, this symbolic pattern focuses sharply on the idea that 'doubleness' is the root cause of tragic change and confusion, so that the witches' refrain, 'Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble' (IV.i.10-11, 19-20, 35-6) might be taken as the play's epigraph.

… [In] A Midsummer Night's Dream and (less obviously) Othello Shakespeare exploited the traditional association of 'the indefinite binarie' with the undoing of unity and limit, and with error, rebellion, duplicity, confusion, darkness, and devilry. More obviously relevant to the concerns of Macbeth, this symbol is thoroughly integrated to the tragedy and semantically modified to support its special pattern of meaning. On the one hand, the symbol signifies excess, transgression of limit, the beginning of multiplication (doubling). It relates thus to Macbeth's fondness for the word 'more' ('Tell me more!') and his contempt for 'enough' ('And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!'"). It relates also to Banquo's prayer for restraint (II.i.8), to his warning that unlawful augmentation may mean loss (lines 26-7), and his perception that Duncan, who retires to bed 'shut up / In measureless content' (lines 16-17), has discovered the great paradox that self-fulfillment entails self-containment. But doubleness also signifies duality-without-unity, contradiction, duplicity, and so, too, confusion and doubt (there is covert play throughout on the aural link between 'double' and 'doubt': 'I … begin / To doubt th'equivocation of the fiend' etc.). The most frequent manifestations of doubleness are specifically stylistic and are to be found in the extensive use of antithesis, paradox, oxymoron, pun, equivocation, and dramatic irony (a form of continuous and unintentional pun or equivocation.) But doubleness as a numerical phenomenon is heavily stressed throughout, and at the start it is projected in such a way as to illuminate the whole nature of the impending tragedy. In scene ii (after the three witches have chanted their confusingly dualistic sing-song—'the battle's lost and won', 'Fair is foul and foul is fair'), the Captain reports on the progress of the battle against the rebels, and in doing so depicts a fierce struggle between two almost undistinguishable opponents (in this context even the names of the two men add to the sense of near-identical opposites). The battle, reports the Captain, stood 'doubtful', like 'two spent swimmers that do cling together / An d choke their art (I.ii.7-10). Then 'brave Macbeth' 'carv'd out' a passage through the rebels until he confronted 'the merciless Macdonwald' (on whom 'the multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm') and quickly sliced him in two, having first 'unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops' (lines 7-23). The next part of the Captain's report focuses on the heroic partnership of Macbeth and Banquo, and here the emphasis is on the way uncurbed valour might prove self-destructive: undo the unity of the self, make the hero his own enemy. The two men were 'As cannons overcharg'd with double cracks' (where 'crack' signifies both 'split' and 'explosion'). Undaunted by the increased numbers on the opposite side, they 'Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe' and seemed as if they would 'memorise another Golgotha' (lines 37-41). The impression of doubleness, doubt, and confusion which emanates from these two passages—Duncan's 'worthy gentleman' is also a 'butcher' (v.vii.69) in the making; the two honourable captains threaten to emulate the soldiers who crucified Christ—is reinforced in Rosse's account of the battle and causally associated once more with the idea of excess: Macbeth stood firm against Norway's 'terrible numbers' and confronted the rebellious Thane of Cawdor 'with self-comparisons, / Point against point, rebellious arm 'gainst arm, / Curbing his lavish spirit' (lines 53-8). The hint of contrarious transformation arising from the syntactic displacement of the word 'rebellious', which should qualify the second 'arm', is resoundingly accented at the end of this scene by the King's declaration that Macbeth is to be rewarded with Cawdor's title.

In the third scene Macbeth meets the witches for the first time, and their equivocal prophecies begin the process of Assuring his unstable identity. Because they tell him 'Two truths' (that he is both Glamis and Cawdor), and also revive old thoughts about murdering Duncan (as is usually inferred from his guilty 'start' at line 51), Macbeth judges that their 'soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good'. Banquo resolves this paradox by recourse to standard Christian doctrine, remarking that the instruments of darkness tell us trifling truths 'to betray's / In deepest consequence'. But Macbeth seems not to hear his 'partner', for he drifts off immediately into the 'Two truths' soliloquy and reveals that his 'single state of man' is so shaken that nothing is but what is not: in imagination, he is already murdering the King whom he serves so valiantly (I.iii.122-44).

Initially, Lady Macbeth's influence is more important than that of the witches in undoing Macbeth's single state. She is fully conscious of how doubtful he stands ('Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it … wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win' (I.v. 16-19). She is also possessed of an instinct for doubling, and a contempt for unity, singleness, and limit, that will overwhelm him. In her hypocritical welcoming of Duncan, she protests that all her service, 'In every point twice done, and then done double, / Were poor and single service' when matched against his generosity ( This prepares for her assault on Macbeth. His 'better part of man' claims that to do more than becomes a man is to be none; but she retorts with consuming conviction that on the contrary he would be 'so much more the man' if he were to murder Duncan (I.vii.46-51). And before this vision of being 'so much more' the man he is—with his courage' 'screw'd to the sticking place'—Macbeth collapses in awe: 'Bring forth men children only!'

One of Shakespeare's favourite symbols for the binary nature of human beings, the hand (our two-handedness), is incorporated in the pattern of symbolic doubleness and developed into one of the most imaginatively potent verbal and visual motifs in the play. In Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, there was the hand of love and the hand of hate, the hand that unites and the hand that violently divides. Here that symbolic dichotomy remains, but the eye joins the gentle hand in opposition to its violent counterpart. This complication of the manual symbol allows it to mesh with the light-darkness dualism and at the same time to serve as an index of the psychophysical disorder which Macbeth and his wife bring upon themselves—and ultimately on the whole of Scotland—when they commit themselves to the path of murder. In I.iv and I.v, each of them independently identifies the hand with action that is not only violent but also wilfully blind: carried out so swiftly as to escape the restraining censorship of the eye, symbolising (as the most sensitive of the bodily organs) that side of human nature which recoils in pain from the perception of physical cruelty. Macbeth's,

                         Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my dark and deep desires!
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

is echoed in his wife's

                              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.47-51).

That the eye has largely displaced the gentle hand as the violent hand's opposite (moving the emphasis away from simple contrast to the idea of an intense and traumatic revulsion) is most clearly shown when Macbeth steels himself for the killing of Banquo:

                               Come, seeling
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens …

The most memorable uses of the hand—eye opposition are both visual and verbal. The dagger which marshals Macbeth towards Duncan's chamber is a false creation of the heat-oppressed brain which makes fools of his eyes as it moves invitingly before hi, 'the handle toward my hand' (H.i.33-44). The play on 'hand' and 'handle' simultaneously identifies the hand with the dagger and hints at its alienation from the body. This hint is confirmed after the murder with Macbeth's horrified cry: 'What hands are here? Ha! they pluck out mine eyes' (line 59). Lady Macbeth's remark that a little water will clear the blood from his hands is, of course, echoed by her obsessive hand-washing in the final act. But what I wish to stress about that delirium is the way in which it restores the original symbolic antithesis. For she is now in imagination the sympathetic and loving wife whose hand is tenderly extended to comfort her distraught husband: 'Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed' (V.i.48-63). This image of what might have been is undercut in the last scene with Malcolm's news that Macbeth's fiend-like queen took off her life 'by self and violent hands' (V.ix.36-7). The double-hand symbol occurs also in the contrasting allusions to the 'hand accurs'd' ( which rules Scotland and that of the gracious king whose 'touch' cures those afflicted with ulcerous diseases 'pitiful to the eye'—'such sanctity hath / Heaven given his hand' (IV.iii.144-52). This is clearly the antithesis which encloses the hand—eye opposition, since gracious Edward's hand is visually paralleled in the first half of the play by that of gracious Duncan: 'Give me your hand. Conduct me to mine host: we love him highly' (

The equivocating, duplicitous witches are initially instrumental in destroying Macbeth's single state of man by playing on his twofold nature, ensnaring him in doubleness, and projecting him unrestrained into a realm of multiplying villainy. Their identification with threeness, however, is no less emphatic than that with doubleness; it functions as a continuous reminder that Macbeth is undone by his desire for more, his belief that the titles of Glamis and Cawdor are not enough.

Why the number three should be associated with witchcraft in Christian tradition might seem puzzling. The Christian deity after all is a Holy Trinity; indeed in many cultures, three is a symbol of fullness, power, and divinity. The explanation, of course, lies in the fact that witchcraft, like devilry, is a rival system which parodies what is seeks to overthrow.

The witches' threeness, like their doubleness, is encoded in the play at every level of expression. The resources of language (as well as the structure of the human body) are such that it was much easier for Shakespeare to give continuous and unobtrusive expression to the idea of an ensnaring duality; and he had already had abundant practice in doing so. But he addressed the problem of encoding threeness in an astonishingly thorough and inventive manner. Character grouping at a secondary level, and also emblematic imagery, provide periodic echoes of Act I's opening emphasis on 'we three'. The Porter admits three imaginary sinners into Hell, the first an equivocator (II.iii.4- 17). Macbeth hires three murderers to kill Banquo and Fleance, the third apparently an afterthought to 'make assurance double sure' (IV.i.83). And in Macbeth's final meeting with the witches, his demand for 'more' (line 103) of their 'more … than mortal knowledge' (I.v.2) is answered by three equivocal apparitions and then by 'a show of eight kings … Banquo following'—a group of nine, the witches' favourite multiple of three. This procession reflects the ironic process of retributive reaction against Macbeth's lust for more that is now well under way in the tragedy. Thus it seems to him as if the line of kings descending from Banquo 'will … stretch out to th' crack of doom' and he cries in rage, 'I'll see no more' (IV.i.117-18). The 'twofold balls and treble sceptres' (line 121) carried by some of the kings bring together the two fatal numbers in a manner which connects contemporary history (in the person of King James, supposed descendant of Banquo) with the retributive process. The twofold balls are usually taken to refer to the double coronation of James at Scone and Westminster; the treble sceptres were the two used for investment in the English coronation, and the one used in the Scottish coronation. This two—three emblem would seem to signify both unified duality and authentic fullness or supremacy (i.e. divinely sanctioned kingship).

Threeness is mirrored also in action and time. The witches make three appearances in all (if we follow the general view that III.V. is not Shakespearian). Duncan, it would seem, is murdered at 3 a.m., and the Porter and his friends carouse until the same hour. Macbeth commits three major crimes: the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff's family; and one of the most striking—and generally unnoticed—facts about the first crime is that it involves two additional and entirely unplanned murders: little did Lady Macbeth think when she sent the terrified Macbeth back with the daggers that he would spontaneously kill the two grooms. The Macbeths appear as king and queen for the first time at the beginning of the third act ('Thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all', line I); and Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking is seen by the Doctor only on the third night (V.i.I).

It is language itself, however, that the number three most conspicuously informs; and this is always effected in such a way as to accent the motifs of doubleness and excess. The chant which opens the play begins with a couplet followed by a triplet: five lines in which the witches proclaim their threeness and at the same time identify themselves with confounding opposites and storm-chaos:

1 Witch. When shall we three meet again?
        In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2 Witch. When the hurly-burly's done,
        When the battle's lost and won.
3 Witch. That shall be ere set of sun.

Each of them departs at the behest of a familiar, two of which are named. The name of the Third Witch's familiar is withheld; it will be added on the third appearance of the witches—in the third line of the scene (IV.i.3). In fact the addition of a tantalising third is the principle which structures the witches' greeting—a kind of mock investiture (I.iii.48-50) in which each line is itself a structure of three threes:

1. Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane
  of Glamis!
2. Witch. All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane
  of Cawdor!
3. Witch. All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King

Banquo picks up this triple pattern in his interrogation of the witches: 'M y noble partner / You greet with present grace, and great prediction / Of noble having and of royal hope' (lines 54-6). Anticipating the royal entry of Act HI , scene i, Macbeth translates the triple promise into a royal drama which will reach its desired climax after the second act: 'Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme' (lines 127-9; cf. lines 116-17). Two scenes later Lady Macbeth appropriates the triple greeting and grimly determines that its third component will materialise: 'Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promis'd' (I.V.13-14).

Other manifestations of the witches' addiction to the number three occur in I.iii just before Macbeth's arrival, and are notable for the exactness with which they are enwoven in the play's unfolding pattern of meaning. Macbeth's entry is immediately preceded by the following chant, which the witches recite in unison:

The Weird Sisters hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again to make up nine.
Peace! The charm's wound up. (lines 32-7)

In the first lines here we have doubleness, adroitly linked in the third line to the idea of ambition by means of an etymological pun: the Latin ambire means 'to go about', and ambitio means 'going about in order to win popularity and power'. More important, however, ambitious doubleness leads to threeness and thence to multiplication.

The First Witch's promise of vindictive action against the captain of the Tiger isolates the play's key word, 'do / deed', and anticipates, and numerically emphasises, the tragic pattern whereby Macbeth's 'horrid deed' traps him in a hell of torturing, sterile, restless, and endless activity:

I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do

I'll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev'n-nights nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine …
                                (lines 10, 18-23)

The word 'do' or 'deed' echoes insistently throughout the play, but on several occasions, beginning with Macbeth's, 'If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly' (I.vii.1-2), it repeats the First Witch's triple iteration (cf. lines 46-8; III.ii.43-4).

Before the final appearance of the witches, verbal threeness is heard in the ghostly voice which tells Macbeth that he will sleep 'no more' (II.ii.41-3), in the outcry after Duncan's body is discovered (' 0 horror! horror! horror!', II.iii.62), and in the Porter scene. The Porter, however, delights in conjoining threes and twos. He mimics the knocking on the door with a 'Knock, knock, knock', followed shortly by 'Knock, knock', a pattern which he repeats a few sentences later. He tells the two men who enter that he was 'carousing till the second cock' (i.e. 3a.m.), and that drink 'is a great provoker of three things'. Its provocations, he explains, are equivocal and duplicitous (II.iii.1-37).

The triadic principle affects language most conspicuously in the third and last appearance of the witches. And here too its partnership with both doubleness and limitlessness is strongly emphasised. A double 'Thrice' opens the scene (IV.i.1-2) and the couplet refrain, 'Double, double, toil and trouble; / Fire burn and cauldron bubble' is chanted three times (lines 10-11, 20-1, 35-6). The 'secret, black, and midnight hags' (line 47) pour into their cauldron the blood of a sow that has eaten her nine farrow (line 65).

Both the first and second apparitions address Macbeth as 'Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!' (lines 71, 77), and he answers, 'Had I three ears, I' d hear thee' (line 78). Al though they warn him to beware Macduff, they tell him equivocally to

Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man … (lines 79-80)

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
                                    (lines 90-1)

In accordance with this fierce insistence on diabolical threeness, the scene ends with Macbeth's terrible determination that from now on he will set no limits—either of number ('all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line') or time ('be it thought and done')—to his killing.

The last expressions of threeness are given to the two Macbeths, and they function clearly as elements in the pattern of condign punishment which characterises the latter part of the play. Lady Macbeth's final words are, 'To bed, to bed, to bed' (V.i.64); and her sleepless husband sees himself condemned to a near-interminable succession of days and nights: 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow … '

It will be apparent, I hope, that the number symbolism which I have outlined above simply could not be a critical invention. Conventional canons of taste might wish to exclude consideration of such material from any account of Macbeth as a major Shakespearian tragedy, and relegate it instead to the pages of some learned, minor journal for the benefit of those who take pleasure in such arcane matters. To ignore it, however, would be to disregard something which clearly meant a great deal to Shakespeare; which makes Macbeth (like Julius Caesar) a far more intricate and artful play than has customarily been thought; and which provides us moreover with firm clues as to its meanings. Its special relevance in this context lies, of course, in the fact that number symbolism is part of the language of cosmology; its presence helps to support my general approach to the tragedy.

At the heart of the play lies the great cosmological theme of love and strife, articulated in Macbeth's (no longer valid) description of himself as a man with 'a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage, to make's love known' (II.iii.116-17). His tragedy is that of a valiant soldier whose courage overspills into a violent cruelty, and whose capacity for love and pity gives way to a destructive hatred that finally embraces life itself. The union of woman and man (and especially martial man) being symbolic of the union of opposites in all nature, Macbeth's marriage, like Othello's, is crucial to an understanding of his character and destiny. Lady Macbeth may be totally unlike Desdemona, but this play too should be read as the tragedy of a marriage as well as of a great man. Macbeth and his wife had, it would seem, a true bond. His deep love for her is economically but firmly indicated. We infer it from the way he writes instantly to share his success with her; from the terms of endearment which spring easily to his lips; from his admiration for her powerful will and his need for her respect; and from his desire to protect her from the knowledge of Banquo's impending murder. Given the vicious role she has to play, her love for her partner, and her affectionate disposition, are much less apparent than his, especially at the beginning. But they are real nonetheless. It is true that she scorns 'the milk of human kindness' and renounces her woman's milk for gall, but it is also true that she admits to having tenderly loved the babe that milked her (I.V.17; I.vii.54-5). Her tenderness manifests itself after Duncan's murder when her own misery responds to Macbeth's and she seeks to comfort him with gentle words. In her, 'Gentle my lord, sleek o'er your rugged looks … ' (III.ii.28), the emotional rather than the social sense of the word 'gentle' is primary, and it has reference to both wife and husband: at once kindly and fierce. Her tenderness shows yet again after the departure of the guests on the night of Banquo's murder ('You lack the season of all natures, sleep', HI.iv.141); and, of course, in the sleep-walking scene. The tender love-and-pity shown in these glimpses of her womanly nature is what should have predominated in her relationship with Macbeth. According to the chivalric model, and the mythic one which underpins it, her gentleness should have moderated his martial fire and in so doing have helped him to achieve and maintain heroic integrity. What happens instead is that Lady Macbeth, in her desire to help her husband realise his ambition, effects a willed but temporary suppression of her 'feminine' qualities, allows the 'masculine' element in her nature to predominate, and at the same time brings about a complete suppression of those 'feminine' elements in her husband's nature which are essential to full humanity.

In King Lear we saw that 'to be tender-minded' and 'pregnant to good pity' does indeed 'become a sword'. Here, however, the element of humane feeling which keeps a brave defender of 'the gentle weal' (III.iv.76) from becoming a merciless rebel is expanded to include fear as well as love-and-pity (a complication anticipated in Hamlet). Macbeth has a capacity for fear which is wholly at variance with an accepted notion of manliness. But the accepted notion, which Lady Macbeth uses as a scornful whip to drive him to murder, is largely invalidated here. Initially, Macbeth's fear and compassion are almost synonymous. The mere thought of murdering Duncan becomes for him a horrid image that unfixes his hair and makes his heart knock at his ribs; it also overwhelms him with the image of Pity as a naked newborn babe exposed to the elements, its plight assaulting every eye and drowning the wind with tears (I.iii.135-8; I.vii.19-25). And there is pity as well as fear (the eye's pity) in his refusal to return to the scene of his crime: 'Look on't again I dare not' (II.ii.50-1).

The rest of Macbeth's career becomes a continual and never fully successful attempt to overcome fear (the fear now of guilt and insecurity) by means of reckless violence. In this development, the decision to kill Banquo is finely significant. When he calls upon Night's bloody and invisible hand to tear to pieces the great bond that keeps him pale, the word 'pale' signifies not only fear but also a defensive limit: it is the palisade which protects the gentle weal from wolf, bear, and shag-eared villain. In rejecting the moral instinct of fear ('honest [i.e. honourable] fear' it is called in The Rape of Lucrece, line 173), Macbeth goes beyond the pale of humanity to become a figure of terror, obsessively fighting 'pale-hearted fear' (IV.i.85) in himself and his reluctant followers: 'Hang those that talk of fear' (V.iii.36; cf. lines 10-17). In the last act, he himself records, and then manifests with haunting eloquence, the results of his war on fear. Hearing the cry of women, he asks flatly, 'What is that noise?', and recalls that his senses would once have cooled to hear a night-shriek: direness, familiar to his slaughterous thoughts, cannot once start him (V.v.7-14). The situation pointedly echoes the night when he 'heard a voice cry, "Macbeth doth murder Sleep,—the innocent Sleep" ', and asked his wife in terror, 'Didst thou not hear a noise?' (II.ii.14 , 35; cf. line 58). What Macbeth has succeeded in destroying is the fear that is entwined with his feeling for others, the fear of the tender eye. The implications of that success are disclosed when the cause of the women's fearful cry is announced. His response to the news of his wife's death is one of total insentience: he has no time to mourn for her now, and even if he had, there would be no point: life is meaningless, and so is death (lines 17-28). This from a man once full of the milk of human-kindness, who dearly loved the woman who has died: a wife last, mad, tender words were, 'To bed, to bed, to bed'. Shakespeare's sense of tragic change and loss is nowhere more acute than here.

Macbeth's response to his wife's death, as has often been noted, is significantly contrasted with Macduff's reaction to the news that his family has been slaughtered. Macduff stands in paralysed silence for a while, and when urged to convert his grief to rage and 'dispute it like a man', he replies:

                             I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. (IV.iii.220-3)

Macduff has been accused by his wife of being deficient in both love and courage. But these terse, expressive lines show him to be the complete man, and provide a final comment on the ideal of manliness as heartless daring presented by Lady Macbeth and internalised by her husband. Critical comments on this final contrast, however, tend to imply that Macduff is the full man Macbeth never managed to become, the model which discloses his intrinsic insufficiency. This, I believe, is a serious misreading of the text, and one which weakens its tragic impact. Macduff is merely a diminished version of what Macbeth once was. Indeed one of the most remarkable features of Macbeth's disintegration is that he remains in some sense a man of humane feeling even when his sensibility is in ruins. The ever increasing coarseness and brutality which he exhibits in his address to others is counterpointed by sudden soliloquising or quasi-soliloquising revelations of a self that hates what it has become. After his furious berating of the hapless Seyton, comes:

I have liv'd long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n in the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare

After the order to 'Hang those that talk of fear', comes: 'Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased … Cleanse the stuff d bosom of that perilous stuff / Which weighs upon the heart?' (lines 40, 44-5). And after the contemptuous killing of Young Siward comes the wholly unexpected confession to Macduff: 'my soul is too much charg'd / With blood of thine already' (V.viii.5-6).

Whether the image of the nobly courageous soldier is restored in Macbeth's final 'bear-like' (V.vii.2) stand—whether the first Cawdor's epitaph, 'Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it' (I.iv.7-8), and Young Siward's, 'like a man he died' (V.viii.43), function as analogy or contrast—is a question which has generated much disagreement. Having already considered the matter elsewhere, I shall merely draw attention to something which seems never to be remarked on, and which has special relevance in the context of this interpretation. Macbeth's last words are: 'And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!"' (V.viii.34). These words are the epitaph Macbeth gives himself, and with an economy that is characteristic of Shakespeare's most mature art, each of them reaches deep into the imaginative roots of the play. In the doctrine of contraries, as we have seen, the idea of limit is crucial. The bond which unites opposites is also a bound or boundary which separates and distinguishes them; things decline to their confounding contraries when the limit is transgressed. The great man stretches himself to the utmost point of endeavour; beyond it he becomes his own opposite, ceases to be. Once the brightest of angels (IV.iii.22) and loved by all, Macbeth in the end is hated as the blackest of devils (lines 52-6), his soul given over to 'the common enemy of man' (III.i.68). In fact Macbeth, the great defender, has become the common enemy.

The idea of limit is implicit in that of the deed, one of the most complex and significant image-concepts in the play. The term incorporates a pun which was not peculiar to Shakespeare but can be found as early as the fifteenth-century morality play, Everyman: it is implied there that every deed or action is a deed in two senses of the word: it is a bond with inescapable, binding consequences and can never be relegated to the past as a thing over-and-done-with. Marlowe tied the pun to the myth of the devil compact in Doctor Faustus, setting up an ironic relationship between the deed or 'deed of gift' which Faustus makes with Lucifer and his convenant with God, represented by Jerome's Bible—the Old and New Testament or Covenant. The essence of Faustus' tragedy is that in seeking by his convenant with Lucifer to escape from the limitations imposed upon him by the divine convenant he sacrifies a condition of limited freedom ('the freedom of the sons of God') for what turns out to be a state of degrading servitude; the deed of gift, and every one of his 'proud audacious deeds', make him the terrified and obedient servant of 'proud Lucifer'.

In Macbeth, the broken covenant is constituted primarily of the 'strong knots' (IV.iii.27) by which human beings seek to 'bind' (I.iv.43) themselves to one another in love, kindness, and gratitude: the knots which Macbeth acknowledges to be 'strong … against the deed' (I.vii.14). The archetype of this kind of bond is not the soul's covenant with God but the bond which reconciles and joins the warring opposites in nature. The divine bond is secondary; it is suggested by the grace of 'gracious Duncan' and 'holy Edward', generous- and gentle-handed men who personify the qualities which unite whole communities as well as individuals. The divine bond's opposite is the 'bond of fate' (IV.i.83) into which the Macbeths enter when, in pursuit of more and more, and in their willingness to cancel and tear to pieces every bond that keeps them pale, they call for aid upon Night, the spirits, and the witches.

The whole tragedy might be read as an exploration of the 'deed' pun. Once Macbeth has done 'the horrid deed', he is committed by the logic of consequences to more and more of the same, so that his guilt becomes inescapably obvious and resistance to him inevitable. Instead of being strong as the rock and free as the air, he finds himself 'cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears' (III.iv.20-4). Lady Macbeth's assurance that 'A little water clears us of this deed' and its 'filthy witness' (II.ii.66 , 46) is answered in the sleep-walking scene by her discovery that the bloody deed is indelible, a past act that is eternally present: 'What's done cannot be undone' (V.ii.65). But the terrible folly of her assumption is underscored throughout by continual play on 'do-deed-done-undone', by the whole design of the play, with its emphasis on ironic reversal and condign punishment, and above all by the delineation of Macbeth's tortured psychological state. The bloody deed ruptures his inner being ('To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself (II.ii.72)), isolates him entirely from his kind (even from his 'dearest partner of greatness') and prompts him in the end to wish that 'th' estate o' th' world were now undone' (V.v.50). Macbeth knows he has surrendered his soul to the devil, but whereas Faustus is tortured by the thought of an eternity in Hell, Macbeth never once reflects on the pains of the afterlife. In effect, damnation is just a metaphor for the suffering he has brought upon himself in this world by sinning against kindness and humankind.

The theme of the deed in turn is incorporate in that of time. The connection can be inferred from the use of legal terminology which identifies the allotted span of life as a lease (IV.i.99), copyhold (III.ii.38), or bond (line 49) granted to the individual by Nature as Time. The connection is disclosed in dramatic form through Macbeth's initial realisation that if the deed is to be done then it must be 'done quickly', and by his subsequent commitment to violent, unreflecting action: 'This deed I'll do before the purpose cool' (IV.ii.154). Furthermore, the meaning of the deed is that time is an organic unity or natural order in which the relationship between past, present, and future cannot be served. In Doctor Faustus, the clock whose chimes mark the end of the hero's rebellion and the beginning of retribution suggests that time is an arm of divine justice. In Macbeth, time itself is the ultimate arbiter of justice, and comprehends in itself all the binding laws against which the hero rebels.

In no other tragedy of Shakespeare is time so comprehensive in its significance or so continuously implicated in what is said and done. The term itself spreads out in every direction so that it signifies all humans and the world in general ('To beguile the time, / Look like the time'), history ('the volume of … time', 'recorded time'), and a natural order which is also a corrective order: 'Time thou anticipat'st my dread exploits' (IV.i.144). Perhaps what most distinguishes the treatment of time here is the insistent emphasis on its function as part of a spatio-temporal order, an order of time-and-place. This idea is foregrounded at the outset in the witches' questions (summarising the whole purpose of their first dialogue): 'When shall we three meet again?' 'Where the place?' The same idea is localised in the conception of Macbeth's usurpation as 'Th ' untimely emptying of the happy throne' (IV.iii.68), and its untimely occupation. Such indeed is the emphasis on the necessary relationship between time and place that all references to time alone effectively signify the entire 'frame of things' (III.ii.16).

The importance of time in this tragedy seems to arise naturally out of Shakespeare's exploration of the psychology of ambition, especially as it manifests itself in Macbeth's singular temperament. Ambition is a perpetual dream of the future; and in a highly imaginative man like Macbeth it is an obsession with what might be so intense that it makes what is almost unreal, and certainly worthless, by comparison. For such a man, prophecy is fatally attractive; it plays on his habitual tendency to become 'rapt'—spiritually transported to other times and places. So Macbeth's destiny is fully disclosed in the third scene when the witches encapsulate his whole life—past, present, and future—in three titles. Wishing desperately that they had told him 'more', Macbeth breaks away from the quartet of friendship which he has formed with Banquo, Rosse, and Angus, and drifts into the 'Two truths' soliloquy where he sees the image of himself as Duncan's murderer and finds that nothing is but what is not. Banquo's remark, 'Look how our partner's rapt' (I.iii.143) anticipates the tragedy of isolation and disintegration which is to follow. This little emblematic drama repeats itself when Macbeth leaves the chamber where Duncan is being entertained to soliloquise about if and when it were done; and yet again when he leaves the table to talk to the murderer of Banquo, his chief guest—after which he is 'rapt' as never before.

If the witches are fatally in harmony with Macbeth's obsession with the future, so too is his wife. His letters about 'the coming on of time', she tells him, have 'transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant' (I.v.56-8). In getting Macbeth to actualise the future which seems so immediate to her, she echoes the witches' opening dialogue by constructing an argument in which she perverts the notion not only of what becomes a man but also of what befits time and place. What better than to kill the king when he comes 'here to-night' to shower more honours on us? Never did 'time, nor place … adhere' as they do now (I.v.28, vii.51-2; cf.II.i.59-60). This claim heralds a state of chaos in which nothing ever seems to fit time or place, so that Duncan's murder is very aptly termed 'Confusion['s] … masterpiece' (II.iii.67). The first sign of such 'disjointing' in the frame of things is very pertinent to Lady Macbeth's own tragedy. While Macbeth trumpets his false grief, Malcolm and Donalbain perceive that this is neither the time nor the place to grieve for their father:

                  What should be spoken
Here, where our fate, hid in an augur hole,
May rush, and seize us? Let's away.
Our tears are not yet brewed. (lines 119-22).

Just so, Lady Macbeth's death is announced to her husband in a besieged castle when the tenderness she scorned has been drained out of him: 'She should have died hereafter … '

More noticeable, however, is the way in which the Macbeths set themselves up as masters of time and place. The midnight bell is delayed until three o'clock so that it becomes a signal for murder rather than 'good repose' (H.i.29). The frantic scene in which the news of Duncan's death is announced ends with Macbeth's authoritative words, 'Let's briefly put on manly readiness, / And meet in the hall together' (II.iv.132-3). In the next scene we hear that 'he is already … gone to Scone / To be invested' (II.iv.31-3), Duncan's body having been placed in the storehouse of his predecessors; and in the two scenes following—the appropriately hectic tempo of the play is now established—he is sitting on Duncan's throne, appointing times and places for his subjects. Banquo is to ride swiftly on his business so as to appear tonight as chief guest at the banquet (III.i.15, 37). Banquo thinks he is 'master of his time' (line 40), but Macbeth is preparing to 'take tomorrow' (and tomorrow and tomorrow) from him (line 22) by means of a plan which is most exact in its ordering of time and place:

                  Within this hour, at most,
I will advise you where to plant yourselves,
Acquiant you with the perfect spy o' th' time,
The moment on't; for't must be done to-night,
And something from the palace. (lines 127-31)

The feast itself begins as an elaborate parody of fitness in time and place (III.iv.1-6). This serves only to emphasise the violent exclusion of the chief guest, and the abrupt manner in which the other guests are 'displac'd' (line 108) and dismissed ('go at once', line 117). More generally, it emphasises the feast's function as a symbol of the confusion which characterises Scotland in the new regime.

A striking peculiarity of the play is the emphatic manner in which Macbeth's appropriation of time and place is reflected in nature at large and represented as a violation of Nature's organic unity and creative cycle. When Duncan is murdered the darkness and tempest associated initially with the witches take control of all nature, so that the perception of chaos is intense. Most notably, the moon and stars are invisible during the night (an answer to the Macbeths' demonic prayers), and the sun fails to rise when 'by th' clock 'tis day' (II.i.115; II.iv.6). As a creature of the night who uses the midnight bell to signal violence rather than 'good repose', Macbeth attacks sleep, which is 'the season of all natures': not just a restful division between one day and the next, but a form of re-creation in the diurnal cycle. Macbeth also seeks to destroy 'the seeds of time' (I.iii.58) in the reproductive cycle, attempting to ensure that Banquo's 'seed' (III.i.69) will not produce its line of kings, and successfully obliterating Macduff's procreant nest.

Nature reacts by paying Macbeth in kind. He eats his meals in fear and sleeps no more. The rebellious dead rise from their graves to haunt his waking dreams and take from him 'the place reserv'd' (III.iv.45) at the feast of life. The 'earth-bound root' of Birnam wood unfixes itself and moves to Dunsinane (IV.i.92-5). An d there a man untimely ripped from his mother's womb completes the process of even-handed justice, making a mockery of the assurance that 'our high-plac'd Macbeth / Shall live the lease of Nature, pay his breath / To time and mortal custom' (lines 98-100). But even before he dies Macbeth is already a withered tree (V.iii.23), condemned in his own mind to live in a chaos of time where life is a featureless succession of undistinguishable nights and days: process without pattern, motion without rest: 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow … '

Others there are in Macbeth's Scotland whose commitment to the bonds of nature is disclosed in a respect for time or time-and-place; their attitudes and actions serve to define Macbeth by contrast and in the end to facilitate the restoration of nature's creative harmony. Duncan is responsive to the 'pleasant seat' and healthy ambience of Macbeth's castle, and Banquo knows that when summer comes the martlet loves to build his procreant cradle in such places. Gracious and unhurried though his manner is, Duncan has decided to stay only one night at the castle and has ordered Macduff 'to call him timely' for his part, Macduff is agitated because he has 'almost slipp'd the hour'—the vigorous knocking on the door which grates on the Porter's hangover is evidence of Macduff's determination to act 'timely' (H.iii.44-5; emphasis added). Malcolm's delaying of grief, and his instant flight from Scotland, are indications of a vigilant, foreseeing wisdom which later saves him from rushing with 'overcredulous haste' into the many traps set by Macbeth to 'win' him 'into his power' (IV.iii.117-20) (an obvious contrast to Macbeth's reaction to the witches' assurances). Macduff's refusal to grant credence until after the battle has been fought to rumours that Macbeth's followers are deserting (V.iv.14-16) reflects the same attitude; it is helpfully glossed by his partner-in-arms, Siward, in a manner which comments clearly on Macbeth's credulous impetuosity:

                      The time approaches
That will with due decision make us know
What we shall say we have, and what we owe.
Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate,
But certain issue strokes must arbitrate;
Toward which advance the war. (lines 16-21)

Malcolm's 'royalty of nature' is fully demonstrated in the play's concluding speech. Like Duncan, he bestows honours on the deserving in token of love and gratitude (V.ix.26, 40), and wastes no time in doing so (line 26). Whatever else is to be 'newly planted with the time', he promises to perform 'in measure, time, and place' (where measure denotes both number and limit). And his final emphasis is on the unity of all in Scotland's place of kings: 'So thanks to all at once, and to each one, / Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.'

Those of us who have never lived under the heel of a brutal tyrant are apt to react strongly to Malcolm's reference in this speech to the dead butcher and his fiendlike queen. Malcolm, however, is speaking truthfully about one half of the story (when 'o'er the one half-world / Nature seems dead'), and the only half which matters in the end to those who survive the terror. Neither that remark, nor the undoubted slackening of tension when he is present, should blind us to the importance of what Malcolm says in Acts IV and V. Much of it constitutes Shakespeare's considered epilogue to the swelling act of Macbeth's imperial theme. It is perfectly true, however (and herein lies much of the greatness of the tragedy), that Malcolm's concentration on the image of the butcher who would 'confound / All unity on earth' (IV.iii.99-100) in no way obliterates—in fact intensifies—our poignant awareness of the valiant partner, gentle husband, and sensitive man the protagonist once was. The perception voiced in the epilogue to Doctor Faustus is implicitly, and far more powerfully, embodied here: 'Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.'

Stanley Cavell (essay date 1992-93)

SOURCE : "Macbeth Appalled (I and II)," in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. XII , Nos. 2 and 3, Fall, 1992 and Winter, 1993, pp. 1-15; 1-15.

[Cavell is an American critic and philosopher whose books include The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (1979). In the following essay, which originally appeared in two parts, Cavell explores the "silences" in Macbeth and their effect on the perception of the masculine/feminine dichotomy, Macbeth's possible child, and the witches.]

When a given text is claimed to work in the light, or in the shadow, of another—taking obvious extremes, as one of a given work's sources or as one of its commentaries—a measure of the responsibility of such a linking is the degree to which each is found responsive to the other, to tap the other, as for its closer attention. Macbeth is a likely work to turn to in these terms on a number of counts. Being Shakespearean melodrama, it takes up the question of responsiveness, the question, we might say, of the truth of response, of whether an action or reaction is—or can be—sensually or emotionally adequate to its cause, neither withholding nor excessive (Macbeth's to news of his wife's death, or Macduff's to his wife's and his childrens', or Macbeth's to Banquo's reappearance, or Lady Macbeth's to Macbeth's return from the wars). More than any other Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth thematically shows melodramatic responsiveness as a contest over interpretations, hence over whether an understanding is—or can be—intellectually adequate to its question, neither denying what is there, nor affirming what is not there (a deed, a dagger). As if what is at stake is the intelligibility of the human to itself.

The question of human intelligibility takes the form, in what I want to begin to work through in Macbeth, of a question of the intelligibility of human history, a question whether we can see what we make happen and tell its difference from what happens to us, as in the difference between human action and human suffering. I conceive of Macbeth as belonging as much with Shakespearean histories as with the tragedies, but not as a history that takes for granted the importance of the political and of what constitutes a pertinent representation of its present condition. It raises, rather, the question of what history is a history of, hence the question of how its present is to be thought of. This continues the direction I was taking the last time I was caught up in a text of Shakespeare's, in thinking about Antony and Cleopatra. There, accepting as uncontroversial the ideas that a Shakespeare history play forms some precedent or parable for its own political present, and that the playing of Antony and Cleopatra and their company is a setting for world catastrophe, I proposed thinking through the play as a representation of the catastrophe of the modern advent of skepticism (hence also of the advent of the new science, a new form of knowing), taken as an individual and a historical process. (This is recorded in the introduction to my Disowning Knowledge.) But while certain contemporary historical events are accepted as sources for Macbeth—accounts of the Gowrie Conspiracy and of the Gunpowder Plot—there is not, to my knowledge, an uncontroversial sense of the play as unfolding, in its claustrophobic setting, its own sense of its present politics and of human history. On the reading of the play proposed here this lack of clarity itself becomes a certain confirmation of the play's invocation of its sense of its own matrix, specifically a sense of the political as itself changing, as itself a scene of obscurity, even, one might say, of the occult.

I might describe the drift of this reading as following out my sense that the texts of Macbeth and of Antony and Cleopatra—I am glad to accept them as dating within a year or so of one another—are opposite faces of a study of the interpenetration of the erotic and the political. Here is a way I described the changeover of worlds envisioned in Antony and Cleopatra: "Hegel says that with the birth of Christianity a new subjectivity enters the world. I want to say that with the birth of skepticism, hence of modern philosophy, a new intimacy, or wish for it, enters the world; call it privacy shared (not shared with the public, but from it)." Macbeth, I conjecture, secretes its own environment of a new intimacy, of privacy shared, a setting not exactly of world catastrophe but of a catastrophe of privacy, hence of a certain politics. This privacy is expressed in philosophy as a catastrophe of knowledge. It may be thought of as the skeptical isolation of the mind from the body, simultaneously a sense that everything is closed to, occluded in, human knowledge (in philosophy?) and at the same time that everything is open to human knowledge (in science? in magic?). The aspiration and eroticization of the new science invoked at the opening of Antony and Cleopatra ("Then must you needs find out new heaven, new earth") marks its relation to and distance from the closing of the world of Macbeth within magic, science's origin and shadow.

It matters to me, in ways some of which will become explicit, to mention in passing another sort of unfinished or continuing business of mine determining my interest in history in Macbeth—my attention in recent years to the work of Emerson, in which narrative history, let us say, is under incessant attack. It is clear enough that Emerson's mission as a writer of the philosophical constitution of a new nation is in part to free its potential members from an enslaving worship of the past and its institutions, in religion, in politics, in literature, in philosophy. But the anticipation is quite uncanny, in his "History," the first essay of his First Series of Essays, of the spirit of the Annales historians' disdain for great events, their pursuit of the uneventful, a pursuit requiring an altered sense of time and of change, an interpretation of what I call the ordinary or the everyday. I had thought that Emerson's formulations concerning history would play a more extensive role in this text—or in some unwritten one of which the present text is perhaps a fragment—than has so far proven the case. At present I will be content with four citations from "History":

I have no expectation that any man will read history aright, who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense than what he is doing to-day.

But along with the civil and metaphysical history of man, another history goes daily forward—that of the external world,—in which he is not less strictly implicated.

I am ashamed to see what a shallow village tale our so-called History is.… What does Rome know of rat and lizard? What are Olympiads and Consulates to these neighboring systems of being? Nay, what food or experience or succor have they for the Esquimaux seal-hunter, for the Kanaka in his canoe, for the fisherman, the stevedore, the porter?

When a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me,—when a truth that fired the soul of Pindar fires mine, time is no more.

The immediate background for what follows formed itself in an unpredicted interaction of two seminars I was teaching two springs ago. The more elaborate of these was a large seminar on recent trends in Shakespearean criticism that my colleague Marjorie Garber and I were offering on an experimental basis to a group of students divided between the study of literature and of philosophy. The division itself is one that various trends in contemporary literary theory have promised to move beyond, but which, in my part of the academic forest, is kept in place by all but immovable institutional forces. The trends in criticism we proposed to consider fell, not surprisingly, into the more or less recognizable categories of feminist, psychoanalytic, and new historicist work; but while as an outsider to the institutions of Shakespeare study I was happy for the instruction in recontextualizing this material, and while the feminist and the psychoanalytic continued to seem to me about what I expected criticism to be, the new historicist, for all its evident attractions, kept presenting itself to me as combating something that I kept failing to grasp steadily or clearly. Put otherwise, in reading the feminist and/or the psychoanalytic critics I did not feel that I had in advance to answer the questions, What does Shakespeare think women are, or think psychology is?, but that I could read these pieces as part of thinking about these questions; whereas I found myself, in reading the new historicist critics, somehow required to have an independent answer to the question, What does Shakespeare think history is?

The form the question took for me more particularly was, How does Shakespeare think things happen?—is it in the way science thinks, in the way magic thinks, or religion, or politics, or perhaps in the way works of art, for example, works of poetic drama think? It is not clear that these questions make good sense. You may even feel in them a certain unstable frame of mind, as if there is already palpable in them a response to Macbeth.

This form of the question of history was shaped for me by the other seminar I was offering that spring, on Romanticism and skepticism, in which the romantic fantasy of a union between philosophy and poetry was a recurrent topic, particularized in the question to what extent Emerson is to be thought of as a philosopher and the question of the extent to which, or sense in which, Wittgenstein's thinking is a function of his writing. An important theoretical statement of the questions of philosophy and writing for the seminar was Heidegger's "On the Origin of the Work of Art," taking up its formulation according to which the work of the work of art is that of letting truth happen; and taking up Heidegger's relating, as the German does, of the idea of happening to the idea of history; so that the implied notion is that truth becomes historical in art. This can be seen as a contesting of Hegel's finding that the belief in art as the highest expression of truth is a thing of the past. Behind both Heidegger and Emerson we read Friedrich Schlegel, the great translator and follower of Shakespeare, who had called for the union of philosophy and poetry, who had said that what happens in poetry happens in a given work always or never, whose concept of poesis, or poetic making or work, evidently inspires Heidegger's idea of the particular, irreplaceable work art does, and who in his extraordinary essay "On Incomprehensibility" cites Shakespeare's "infinitely many depths, subterfuges, and intentions" as an example of the conscious artist enabled to carry on "ironically, hundreds of years after their deaths, with their most faithful followers and admirers," and who also in that essay on incomprehensibility had said, "I absolutely detest incomprehension, not only the incomprehension of the uncomprehending but even more the incomprehension of the comprehending"—the moral of which I take to concern the present human intellectual task as one of undoing our present understanding of understanding, a task I find continued with startling faithfulness to Schlegel's terms in Emerson's "Self-Reliance," understanding this essay to be, as it quite explicitly declares itself to be, an essay on human understanding.

In the reading we assigned ourselves for our Shakespeare seminar, I found Macbeth to be the text of Shakespeare's about which the most interesting concentration of current critical intelligence had been brought to bear. Both Marjorie Garber and Janet Adelman have recently published major discussions of the play, as has Steven Mullaney, whose work cites its affiliation with, and is cited in the work of, Stephen Greenblatt. While Macbeth is not given special attention in Greenblatt's Shakespearean Negotiations, certain sentences from that book's introduction—entitled "The Circulation of Social Energy"—rather haunt the preoccupations that will guide my remarks here. Greenblatt's introduction concludes with the sentence, "The speech of the dead, like my own speech, is not private property," about which I feel both that I agree with the intuition or impulse being expressed, and at the same time, that this expression invites me to deny something—something about the privacy of language—that I have never affirmed, that no one can simply have affirmed. I must try, even briefly, to articulate this double feeling.

I am not alone in finding the most significant work of this century on the idea of the privacy of language to be Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein rather cultivates the impression—which the prevailing view of him takes as his thesis—that he denies language is private; whereas his teaching is that the assertion or the denial either of the publicness or of the privateness of my language is empty. Philosophers, typically modern philosophers, do chronically seem to be denying something, typically that we can know there is a world and others and we in it, and then denying that they are denying it. Wittgenstein is distinguished by asking (as it were nonrhetorically), "What gives the impression that I want to deny anything?" His answer has to do with his efforts to destroy philosophical illusions (ones he takes apparently as endemic in Western philosophical thought): denial is in the effect of a presiding, locked philosophical struggle between, let us say, skepticism and metaphysics. To understand this effect or impression is part of Wittgenstein's philosophical mission. For him simply to deny that he is denying privacy, say by asserting publicness, would accordingly amount to no intellectual advance. It would merely constitute a private assertion of publicness, as though publicness itself had become private property. Something of the sort is a way of putting my intuition of what Macbeth is about; one might call it the privatization of politics or think of it as a discovery of the state of nature.

Because at the moment I see my contribution to the study of Macbeth to lie perhaps in addressing certain features of its language that I find peculiar to it, I shall mostly forgo discussion of recent important work, and its conflicts, on the question of gender in Macbeth, as for instance Janet Adelman's proposal (in "Born of Woman") that the play embodies at once fantasies of absolute maternal domination and of absolute escape from that domination (a discussion, besides, whose generosity in the notation of the critical literature goes beyond my scholarship); and as Marjorie Garber's rather conflicting proposal (in "Macbeth: The Male Medusa") that the play studies gender indeterminacy. I mark this elision here and at the same time give a little warm-up, out-of-context exercise in the way I read Shakespeare's lines, by taking a certain exception to Garber's interpretation in that piece of a familiar exchange in Macbeth, one that can be taken as involving a discourse of gender.

When Macbeth says, "I dare do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none," Lady Macbeth replies, "What beast was't then / That made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man" (I, vii, 46-49). Garber reads this as an all-too-familiar sexual taunt, a questioning of her partner's masculinity. Without denying the taunt in Lady Macbeth's question, I find myself struck by her taunting interpretation of Macbeth's idea of excessive daring as meaning that to strike beyond certain human limits is to be a beast. If we take it—something that will come back—that Lady Macbeth shares with Macbeth, as they share every other idea, something like the idea of men as beasts, then this tells another way to hear her puzzling continuation: "To be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man" (I, vii, 50-51). That is: To be more beast is to be more man. On this way of thinking, her sexual taunt is something more than, or is prejudicially confined in being called, an "attack upon his masculinity, his male identity." It is as much an attack on human sexuality as such, as it has revealed itself; surely including an attack on its presence in her.

My fastening on to the species reading of the sexual taunt—its expression of an anxiety about human identity—has been prepared by the way I have over the years addressed the issue of philosophical skepticism as an expression of the human wish to escape the bounds or bonds of the human, if not from above then from below. I call it the human craving for, and horror of, the inhuman, of limitlessness, of monstrousness. (Besides being a beast, another specieslike contrast with being human is being a monster. It may be that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have reason to suppress this possibility while they can, to cover it with a somewhat different horror.) There is in me, accordingly, a standing possibility that I use the more general, or less historical (is it? and is it more metaphysical?) species anxiety to cover a wish to avoid thinking through the anxiety of gender. If there is a good reason to run this risk it is that the reverse covering is also a risk, since knowing what is to be thought about the human is part of knowing what is to be thought about gender.

The risks of confining interpretation—to move now further into the play—are exemplified in the much-considered announcement of Macduff's that he was untimely ripped from the womb. Macbeth's response is to denounce, or pray for, or command disbelief in, the "fiends / That palter with us in a double sense; / That keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope" (III , viii, 19-22). The picture here is that to wish to rule out equivocation, the work of witches, is the prayer of tyranny. The picture is itself equivocal, however, since it must be asked why Macbeth believes Macduff. That means both: Why does he believe this man? and Why does he believe what this man says? Here I can merely assert something. In turning against Macduff (to "try the last against him"), Macbeth is contesting not simply a man (whatever that is) but an interpretation; or really a double interpretation. The first interpretation, I believe uncontested, is that being of no woman born just means being untimely ripped from the womb. Some critics have expressed puzzlement and dissatisfaction over this interpretation, feeling that a fateful moment is made to depend on a quibble, as if Shakespeare is being superficial or sloppy; yet they feel forced to accept it, presumably because Macbeth accepts it. But I do not know that any have expressed a sense that Macbeth may himself (though he has suggested other possibilities—that Macduff derives from a girl, or from witches) have felt forced.

This is the burden of what I suggest as the second interpretation Macbeth contests in his fatal encounter with Macduff, one that associates with the name of Caesar the procedure of delivering a child by an incision through the abdominal wall and uterus. Macbeth had identified Banquo as the one "under [whom] / My genius is rebuk'd; as, it is said, / Mark Antony's was by Caesar" (III, i, 53-55). It is congenial to my sense of things that this fact of Caesar's rebuke cited by Macbeth about Mark Antony is notable in Antony and Cleopatra; beyond this, my suggestion that Macbeth silently associates Macduff's origin as partaking of Caesar's and so transfers to the antagonist before him the power to rebuke or subdue his spirit (for example the power to force his acceptance of that other's interpretation of what is between them), is a reading which reveals Macbeth to be afraid of domination by a masculine as much as by a feminine figure. I say he is contesting an interpretation (or fantasy), and it is one to which, this being tragedy, he succumbs, having (always) already accepted an interpretation (that of witchery)—as if the other face of tyranny (or a redescription of its fear of equivocation) is fixation, say superstition. (Of course my second interpretation depends on granting that Shakespeare knew the surgical procedure in question under the Caesarean interpretation.)

Since (what proves to be) the equivocation of "no woman born" is a construction of the witches, and since fixating its meaning as being ripped untimely is Macbeth's response to Macduff's fixing of himself as rebuker and subduer, I am taking the play to characterize interpreta tion as a kind of inner or private contest between witchcraft and tyranny, which it almost identifies as a war between the feminine and the masculine. This formulation contests, while to an unassessed extent it agrees with, the perception of the play in Steven Mullaney's "Lying Like Truth." I agree particularly with Mullaney's sense that the play virtually announces its topic as, whatever else, equivocation, and that standing interpretations of equivocation, or ambiguity, do not account for the extraordinary language of this play. But, putting aside here Mullaney's elegant presentation of the play as a presentation of treasonous language (which nevertheless seems to me a confined interpretation), he cites too few of the actual words of the play to clarify his claim of their specialness. For example, he claims that the "language [Macbeth] would use [to lie] instead masters him." How shall we assess whether Mullaney's idea of being mastered comes to more than an assertion of one of the common facts of words, that they have associations beyond their use on a particular occasion? Certainly we must not deny it: A word's reach exceeds a speaker's grasp, or what's a language for?

This is to say: words recur, in unforetellable contexts; there would be no words otherwise; and no intentions otherwise, none beyond the, let me say, natural expression of instinct; nothing would be the expression of desire, or ambition, or the making of a promise, or the acceptance of a prophecy. Unpredictable recurrence is not a sign of language's ambiguity but is a fact of language as such, that there are words.

I strew my reservation concerning Mullaney's description of Macbeth 's language with references to various of the play's famous topics—ambition, prophecy, promise—to register my awareness that in claiming, despite my reservation, to share a sense of the play's specialness of language, the weight of this reservation depends on proposing an alternative account. I shall sketch two elements of such a proposal, isolating two common features or conditions of the medium of the play—its language to begin with—that the text of Macbeth particularly acknowledges, or interprets. One can think of the idea of a text's uniqueness, or difference, as the theory of language the text holds of itself, as Friedrich Schlegel more or less puts it. I will call these features of language language as prophecy and as magic or mind-reading.

These features interpret conditions of what can be called the possibility of language as such. Prophecy, or foretelling, takes up the condition of words as recurrent; mind-reading takes up words as shared. Philosophy has wished to explain the recurrence of words (which may present itself as their evanescence) by a theory of what it calls universals; and similarly (taking universals as concepts or as rules) to explain their sharing or mutuality, so far as this is seen to be a separate question. Wittgenstein's Investigations questions precisely the necessity and possibility of these places of philosophical explanation. In this light, Macbeth represents the world whose existence philosophy is horrified by, and created by—the possibility that there is no end to our irrationalities, to our will to intellectual emptiness.

My idea of the first of the conditions of language acknowledged by this play—language as prophecy—is that a kind of foretelling is effected by the way the play, at what prove to be charged moments, will bond a small group of generally small words so that they may then at any time fall upon one another and discharge or expel meaning. The play dramatizes the fact that a word does not exist until it is understood as repeated. Examples I specify a bit here are the foretelling of the words face, hand, do and done, success and succession, time, sleep, and walk. That the acknowledgement of words as foretelling is a specific strain within the Shakespearean virtuosity is indicated in contrasting it with words as telling or counting in The Winter's Tale (as recounted in Disowning Knowledge). Foretelling emphasizes the unpredictable time of telling, unguarded as it were from the time of understanding. Take the case of do and done. The word leaps from a witch's "I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do," to Lady Macbeth's "What's done cannot be undone," and Macbeth's "[I] wish the estate o' th' world were now undone." I take up the word from what is perhaps its most intricate instance: "If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly" (I, vii, 1-2).

As a statement is grammatically what can prove to be true or false, and be verified or modified, so a human action is what can prove to succeed or fail, and be justified or excused—words and deeds carry within themselves the terms, or intentions, of their satisfaction. With recurrence on my mind, and having said that without the recurrence of words there are no words (hence no expression beyond that of organic need, no expression, we might say, that contains desire), I hear Macbeth's speculation of deeds done in the doing, without consequence, when surcease is success, to be a wish for there to be no human action, no separation of consequence from intention, no gratification of desire, no showing of one's hand in what happens. It is a wish to escape a condition of the human which, while developing terms of Emerson's essay "Fate," I have described as the human fatedness to significance, ourselves as victims of intelligibility. And I have claimed that it is this perception that Wittgenstein captures in identifying the human form of life as that of language. Something of the sort is, I believe, meant in recent years when it is said that language speaks us, or that the self is created by language. The implication in these formulations seems often to be that we are not exactly or fully responsible for what we say, or that we do not have selves. And yet the only point of such assertions—cast in a skeptical tone—is to deny a prior stance or tone of metaphysics, a metaphysical "picture" of what it is to "be" responsible or to "have" a self (a picture no doubt at the service of politics, but what is not?). Such skeptical assertions would deny that the self is everything by asserting that it is nothing, or deny that we are in control of a present plenum of meaning by denying that we have so much as a single human hand in what we say. These assertions and denials of metaphysics are the victories of tyranny over witchcraft, Macbeth's occupation. Whose story is it that the self is self-presence, that meaning is the fullness of a word? It is not truer than it is false.

A famous registration of what I am calling the fatedness to significance is Freud's idea of the overdetermination of meaning in human action and passion. If we follow Jean Laplanche (in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis) in watching the origins of human significance in the emergence of human sexuality, tracing the transfiguration of psychic drives out of biological instincts, then may we not further recognize in this origin of desire the origin of time, say of the delay or interval or containment in human satisfaction; hence the origin of the end of time, say of the repetitiveness of desire's wants and satisfactions; hence the origin of reality, say of something "beyond" me in which my satisfaction is provided, or not? Then we have a way of thinking about why Macbeth, in wishing for the success of his act to be a surcease of the need of action, for a deed that undoes doing, must (logically) wish for an end to time. For to destroy time is what he would, with paralyzing paradox, risk the future for: "that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all—here, / But here, upon this bank and shoal of time" (I, vii, 4-6). This is what "We'd jump the life to come" in favor of (whether the life to come is taken to mean the rest of his time, or the rest of time). Why? (And suppose the life to come suggests the life to come from him. He says that the worth of his kingship is bound up for him with the question of his succession. But we have just heard him say in effect that success would consist for him in surcease, in remaining, with respect to the act which is the type of the consequential—producing progeny—"unlineal," "unfruitful." Well, does he want babies or not? Is this undecidable? If we say so, then Macbeth is the picture of undecidability.)

Both he and Lady Macbeth associate doing, in addition to time, with thinking: "I am afraid to think what I have done," he says (II, ii, 50); and a few lines earlier she had said, "These deeds must not be thought / After these ways; so, it will make us mad" (II, ii, 32-33). If there were nothing done or to do there would be nothing to think about. Before we come to ponder what it is they have to think about, I note that the opposite of thinking in Macbeth's mind is sleep ("sore labour's bath, / Balm of hurt minds" (II, ii, 37-38), and that in acting to kill action and end time Macbeth "does murther Sleep" (II, ii, 35); so that in acting metaphysically to end thought he consigns himself absolutely to thinking, to unending watchfulness. Lady Macbeth at last finds a solution to the problem of thinking how not to think, when there is no obvious way not to think, in sleepwalking, which her witness describes as a version of watchfulness.

Before moving from language as foretelling to the second of the conditions of language which I hypothesize the play particularly to acknowledge—language as magic or mind-reading—I simply note two foretellings or occurrences of the idea of walking (or walking as sleeping) that bond with the ambiguity or reciprocity, real or imagined, of action without consequence, say of the active and the passive becoming one another. First, the witnessing Doctor's description of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking—"to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching"—seems most literally a description of the conditions of a play's audience, and play-watching becomes, along with (or as an interpretation of) sleepwalking, exemplary of human action as such, as conceived in this play—yet another of Shakespeare's apparently unending figurations, or explorations, of theater; here, theater as the scene, and as the perception or witnessing of the scene, that is, of human existence, as sleepwalking. Macbeth's all but literal equivalent of sleepwalking is his walking, striding, pacing (all words of his), to his appointment to murder, led by "a dagger of the mind, a false creation" (II, i, 38), moving like a ghost (II, i, 56).

Another bonding of the idea of walking with that of acting without acting is Macbeth's description of life as "but a walking shadow; a poor player" (V, v, 24). While in this inaudibly familiar speech about all our tomorrows I remark that Macbeth has a use for something like the idea that life, construed as a tale, signifies nothing—he has, as said, been trying to achieve the condition of insignificance ever since his speech about ending time, and before that. That life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, like both mad Lady Macbeth and sad Macbeth and like the perhaps sane players playing them, is a tremendous thought, but not something Macbeth learned just now, upon hearing of his wife's death. Perhaps it is something he can say now, say for himself, now that she is dead—that human life does not, any more than a human player, signify its course for and beyond itself; it is instead the scene or medium in which significance is found, or not. She is apt to have found this idea unmanly, anyway as diverging from her point of view. To speak of a player who "struts and frets" is simply, minus the melodramatic mode, to speak of someone who walks and cares, hence signifies acting and suffering and talking about both in view of others, which pretty well covers the human territory. And what is wrong with strutting and fretting for an "hour on the stage" that is not wrong with time altogether? Is "signifying nothing" the decay of their having been "promised greatness" (favorite words of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their opening speeches)? And is this announcement of greatness taken as a hint of pregnancy and issue, or is it perhaps the promise of exemption from time (if that is different); or is it, given the hints of religious contestation in the play, a charge against the promise of eternity, against something Macbeth calls, thinking of the Witches, the "metaphysical"? It is imaginable that Macbeth is taking revenge against any and all of these promises of consequence, perhaps against the idea of history as fulfilling promises.

Of course this speech about insignificance, or say inexpressiveness, is an expression of limitlessly painful melancholy; but again, that pain is not new to Macbeth, not caused by the news of his wife's death. His response to that news I find in full—before the metaphysics of time and meaning, so to speak, take over—to be: "She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word." That is all. Is it so little? He says that like everything else that happens her death is untimely, as if not hers: nothing is on or in time when nothing is desired, when desire is nothing, is not yours. And he says that he is incapable of mourning now; and if not capable now, then when not? The wrong time for death is an ultimately missed appointment; no time for mourning death sets an ultimate stake in disappointment. Here is a view of human history, history as unmournable disappointment. Macbeth's speech goes on to explore it. Perhaps it is a perception Lady Macbeth perished in trying to protect her husband from. This is something he can say now, no longer protecting her from her failure to protect him. If so, then the play's study of history is a study of their relationship, this marriage. What is this marriage?

In arriving at … [this question]—What is this marriage, this relation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?—I opened what is for myself the encompassing question of why, in thinking about Shakespearean tragedy, I have previously avoided turning to this play. Two questions have, it seems forever, dogged me about Macbeth. What is the source of the attractiveness of this terrible pair? And why have I always felt intimate yet unengaged with their famous moments? As if I have and have not wanted to consider that this pair, representing the most extensive description the Shakespearean corpus devotes to an undoubted marriage (that of Cleopatra's with Antony is not undoubted), represents, to some as yet unmeasured extent, an always standing possibility of marriage itself.

Masculine disappointment together with feminine deflection of that disappointment indicates a more or less familiarly cursed marriage; and I was suggesting that the mood of "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" is informed by knowledge Macbeth brings onto the stage from the beginning. If that is so, then the events of the play, the ambition for and against greatness and exemption, are in defense against this knowledge. In asking what this marraige is we have crossed to the second of the conditions of language that I have been claiming this play particularly to acknowledge: the first was language as prophesy, as foretelling; the second is language as mind-reading, a particular sharing of words, as if by magic.

As foretelling in Macbeth may be contrasted with telling or counting in The Winter's Tale, so sharing words in Macbeth may be compared with sharing words in Coriolanus, namely with words figured as food; in Macbeth words may rather, it seems, be something like potions: "Hie thee hither, / That I may pour my spirits in thine ear" (I, v, 25-26). There recurrently seems to me a phantasm glancing in these words of Lady Macbeth, beyond the idea of her wishing to inspire her husband, or give him courage, through her words; some more literal or imagined posture in which she invades him with her essence. Anyone might note that the play associates the production of words with the production and reception of blood: "We but teach / Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return / To plague th' inventor. This even-handed justice / Commends th' ingredience of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips" (I, vii, 8-12); "M y gashes cry for help" / "So well thy words become thee, as thy wounds" (I, ii, 43-44), as if in a tragedy of blood—and in this one, as the Arden editor reports, blood is mentioned over one hundred times—words are wounds, and the causes of wounds. I am drawn to test for the phantasm I allude to because of my sense of the pairs of certain cursed marriages, as in a relation of a sort I have elsewhere called spiritual vampirism.

The idea of words as mind-reading is a conception of reading as such—or play-watching—reading the text of another as being read by the other. Uttering words as mind-reading is represented in the language of this marriage, in which each of the pair says what the other already knows or has already said; or does not say something the other does not say, either assuming the other knows, or keeping a pledge of silence. They exemplify exchanges of words that are not exchanges, that represent a kind of negation of conversation. For example: Macbeth prays to "let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see" (I, iv, 52-53), and Lady Macbeth is soon incanting "That my keen knife see not the wound it makes" (I, v, 52); again, she fears that he is "without / The illness that should attend" ambition (I, v, 19-20), and later he says to her, "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill" (III, iii, 55); and earlier, Macbeth's letter tells Lady Macbeth that greatness is promised her, and she repeats this in her ensuing soliloquy as something promised him. And let us add that before she reads, while sleepwalking, the letter she has in that condition written herself, as a kind of script of the play (a suggestion of Marjorie Garber's), Macbeth at the opposite end of the play had already written a letter which forms a script for her words; the first words we hear her say are his. But my hypothesis is that the play's sense of mind-reading, of being trapped in one another's mind, in false, draining intimacies (the idea of vampirism), is expressed preeminently in what the pair of the marraige do not, or not in good time, say to, or say for, one another. I note three topics about which they are silent: the plan to kill Duncan, their childlessness, and the relation of Lady Macbeth to the witches. I imagine there are different causes for silence in the three cases.

The pair's initial implicitness to one another over the plan to kill Duncan means to me not that each had the idea independently but that each thinks it is the other's idea, that each does the deed somehow for the other. It is an omen that neither knows why it is done. This will come back.

The compulsively repeated critical sneer expressed in the question "how many children had Lady Macbeth?" expresses anxiety over the question of the marriage's sexuality and childlessness, as if critics are spooked by the marriage. But I speak for myself. Is there any good reason, otherwise, to deny or to slight the one break in Lady Macbeth's silence on the subject of her childlessness, her assertion that she has suckled a (male) child? There may be good reason for her husband to deny or doubt it, in his considering whose it might be. If we do not deny her assertion, then the question how many children she had is of no interest that I can see; the interesting question is what happened, in fact or in fantasy, to the child she remembers. (David Willbern, as I recall, in a fine essay suggests in passing that her suckling is a fantasy. If so, then what is the fantasy of remembering a (fantasied) child?) And if we do not deny or slight her assertion then the fate of the child is their question, a fact or issue for them of a magnitude to cause the magnitude and intimacy of guilt and melancholy Macbeth begins with and Lady Macbeth ends with. Its massive unspokenness is registered by the reverse of the procedure of the recurrence of words, namely by the dispersal or dissemination of words for birth throughout the play—deliver, issue, breed, labour, hatch'd, birthdom, bring forth. I would like to include the punning use of borne, repeated by Lenox in his nervously ironic "Men must not walk too late" speech (a nice instance of the prophetic or foretelling use of "walk," especially of Lady Macbeth's last appearance). This listing of terms for child-bearing perhaps tells us nothing about early references in the play to becoming great or to "the swelling act / Of the imperial theme" (I, iii, 128-29). But when one is caught by the power—it will not happen predictably—of the vanished child, one may wonder even over Lady Macbeth's response upon the initial entrance to her of Macbeth, "I feel now / The future in the present," which in turn is, and is not, Macbeth's perception of history. (A sense of pregnancy, but without assurance of reproduction, may suggest the monstrous as much as it does the sterile.)

Anticipating for some reason an especially negative reaction to the last instance of deflected birth and death I am about to adduce, I emphasize that I am not undertaking to persuade anyone of unspoken presence. I am testifying to something guiding me that I cannot distinguish from a valid intuition. If I do not eventually discover a satisfying tuition for it, I will have to give it up as a guide. Perhaps it is not an intuition of free interpretation but a dagger of the mind, precisely not to be followed. But if one could know this in advance, or settle it, there would be no spiritual danger of the kind criticism runs, no such acts and thoughts to be responsible for or to; one would be either a witch or a tyrant. I would like to say: The great responsibility of philosophy is responsiveness—to be awake after all the others have fallen asleep.

The instance I am thinking of is the opening human question of the play, I mean the first words spoken after the witches have delivered themselves of their opening questions and answers about their meeting again. Duncan enters and encounters something that brings forth his response, "What bloody man is that?" If we take it to heart that in this tragedy, or say medium, of blood, blood is associated both with death and with birth, and that bloody figures and figures of children originate or appear from, as it were, the witches' cauldron, then this appearance of the questionable bloody man—as from the cauldron—may be seen to begin the play. It figures beginnings—of plays, of human actions—as consequences, as conclusions manifested, synthesized, conjured. The witches' cauldron accordingly appears as the origin of theater, as the scene of appearitions or appearances, and as the source or representation of the human as that which identifies and denies itself—or, as Hamlet virtually says, as that which imitates itself so "abominably," in the form of abominations, objects of horror to themselves.

That a first-night, or a first-day, audience may not at first recognize a connection between the bloody man and the cauldron is true enough, but not obviously more surprising than anything else not recognized, on the first, or on the hundred-and-first, encounter. I assume that any complexity the average mortal finds in a play of Shakespeare's is something Shakespeare is capable of having placed there. The critical question is: How? By what means? The question whether an author intends any or all of what happens is a convenient defense against this critical question. Recent attacks on intentionality share the (metaphysical) picture of intention that they would criticize, one that makes its importance absolute, as if, if intention counts for anything in meaning, it counts for everything. (We have seen the pattern before.) Metaphysics, so described, here concerning intention, might be called magic thinking. So let us say: Intention is merely of the last importance. Everything (else) has first to be in place for it to do what it does—as in putting a flame to a fuse. And of course accidents can happen. Would one like to imagine that the man of blood follows the witches' incantations by accident? Magicless, impotent witches are no easier to imagine than the other kind.

But I cannot stop the intuition here, the intuition of the magic of theater and its voices and its other apparitions, of the declaration of theater as the power of making things appear, along of course with the powers of equivocation and of casting spells. (Are only witches and warlocks so empowered? Or are they only convenient paranoid projections of what we accept as humdrum human power? Glendower's metaphysical claim to call up monsters, together with Hotspur's skeptical question as to whether they will come when he calls them, forms another instance of fixated philosophical sides that Shakespeare may be taken as bringing to confusion. Is this the accomplishment of philosophy, or its cue?) What has happened to Macbeth? What is the element of difference to his consciousness that brings forth his guilt and private violence and melancholy, as if settling something? This question draws me to imagine the bloody man—a poor player whom we never see again, who in Shakespeare's source was killed—against the question I impute to Macbeth (granted as it were that Lady Macbeth knows the answer) about what happened at the death and birth of his child. (Macbeth is not the only Shakespearean male to find birth mysterious and unnatural, who might believe anything about it and about those to whom and from whom it happens. This is cardinal in the essay of Janet Adelman's that I have cited in Part I.) I do not look for a stable answer to be found by Macbeth: he protests his acceptance and his doubt of the witches throughout. But that there are witches and that they bring forth children may provide him with a glance of explanation, perhaps of hope, perhaps of despair; an explanation at once of the presence of the absence of his child and of the absence in the presence of his wife.

I ask here only that we allow Macbeth to have posed for himself the issue that so many critics now so readily take as answered—that there is some inner connection between Lady Macbeth and witchery. Some approve the idea that in her opening scene she is casting a spell on herself ("unsex me here … fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty" (I, v, 41-43)—though here I seem to have heard every interpretation of these frightening words except the one that seems unforced to me; that it expresses rage, human as can be, at the violence and obligation of sexual intercourse, at what Laplanche calls, in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, the traumatic nature of human sexuality: her husband is returning any moment from the wars. And none fail to remark that she is presenting herself as a mother, in her fashion ("Take my milk for gall, you murth'ring ministers" ([I, v, 48])). If she is a witch it follows both that witches are mothers and presumably that she is capable of destroying their child with her own hands. (Is there a difference supposed in the pronunciation of "murth'ring" and "mothering"? Or is this identity a critical commonplace?)

We are, of course, in the middle of the third of the three topics I said the pair are silent about; the first two were their plan of Duncan's murder and their vanished child; the third is the topic and the logic of monstrousness. What is there for them to discuss about this? Others may speculate with detachment over the belief in witches, but it is the likes of Macbeth who, finding themselves confronted with witches, have to ask how you tell who is a witch (the commonest question there could be about witches); and have to carry through the logic that if anyone is a witch then his wife may be one; that hence he may be the master and the minister of a witch, figures named in the play (and he has perhaps tasted his wife's milk or gall and had her pour her spirits in his ear and felt chastised by the valor of her tongue, but I will not speculate here); hence that he has had a child with a witch, produced something monstrous that has to die, as if he were a devil, not a man (he is called "Hell-hound" by Macduff [V. viii, 3]). There is nothing to discuss: No individual human knows more than any other what the difference is between the human and the monstrous, as no human is exempt from the wish for exemption from the human. I mean no one is in a position to tell another that there are or are not witches, any more than to tell another that there are or are not humans.

Here is a way of considering this play's contribution to the continuing European discussion of witches contemporary with it—its sense of metaphysical denial (say denial of our fundamental metaphysical ignorance of difference between the human and the monstrous) projected through human society by legalizing the identification of witches. It seems to me just like Shakespeare to have already infiltrated this discussion (as noted in Disowning Knowledge) by coloring Othello's psychological torture of Desdemona (who, on the pattern of Lady Macbeth, is anything but a witch) as a witch trial—a sense of the erotic denial introduced into one's human identity by the projection of one's sense of bewitchment. (Another of Shakespeare's indirections with his sources is his hedging of Mark Antony, who, on the pattern of Coriolanus, is anything but a Christ, with signs of Christ.)

By the time of Macbeth's last encounter with the witches, at the opening of Act IV , he seems to have accepted his participation in their realm, undertaking, successfully, to "conjure" them (IV , i, 50). In the ensuing appearances or apparitions from the cauldron to Macbeth (and to us) of the armed head and of the bloody child and of the child crowned, we have the pattest declaration by the play of its theory of the work of theater as the conjuring of apparitions; and I am taking it, if you like in deferred action, to figure for us (and for Macbeth, whoever, in identification with us, he is), what we see (saw) when at the beginning we encounter(ed) the bloody man, the origin and destiny of his child, hence of himself. Now one may feel that all this takes Macbeth's sense of bewitchment or exemption to be a function of an incredible capacity for literalization on his part. But is it really more than is shown by his sense that he is to be dominated by a man who exists from no woman? Moreover, literalization is perhaps not so uncommon, but is an ordinary part of magic thinking, like imagining that to claim that an author means what he or she says is to claim that his or her intention has created all the conditions in conjunction with which intention does what it does, as if the striking match creates the fuse it lights, together with the anger and the enemy and the opportunity in and for and from which it is struck. (In a sense, no doubt, it does. What sense?)

To work toward a close of these remarks, one that takes them back to my opening intuitions of Macbeth as a history play that questions whether anything can be known—or known to be made—to happen, I come back to the murder of Duncan. What I have said or implied about this so far is that Macbeth walks to it in a sleep and that each of the pair acts it out as for the other, assuming its origination in the other, so that the desire for the deed and the time of the deed can never be appropriate, never quite intelligible. To raise the question of what it is that is thus done on borrowed time, with stolen words, let us take it that it is performed with that dagger of the mind Macbeth speculates might be the instrument of murder and ask what wound in the mind it makes, one that each of the pair asks not to see—which we now understand as impossibly asking the other not to see.

I pause to remark that it is probably the sense of their silence to one another about unsilenceable topics that has above all prompted critics to suggest that scenes are missing from the play. I am in effect claiming that what is missing is not absent but is present in the play's specific ways of saying nothing, say of showing the unspeakable. A methodological point of interest thus arises concerning the subject of what you might call critical responsibility. My claim is that readers/watches of the play are meant to read its silences; that, in effect, the speculation about a missing scene is a cover for the speculator's missing response to scenes that are present. This implies that should, as it were, a missing scene show up for this play, it could prove neither the truth nor the falsity of what I claim the silence is about. To accept such a scene is to be willing to rethink the play; perhaps it would contain further silences. There is, by my definition, no scene missing from the play I mean to be considering here, the one constituted in the Arden edition I cite from. (How many plays have the Macbeths?)

My account of the pair's silence about the plan to kill Duncan depends here mostly on three elements that indicate that they each imagine Macbeth's deathblow to direct itself to Lady Macbeth.

The first element is Macbeth's speech as he reenters from having gone, after the discovery of Duncan's body, to see his handiwork: "From this instant, / There's nothing serious in mortality; / All is but toys" (II , iii, 90-92). Good readers have characteristically felt that something is horrifyingly disproportionate in these words of Macbeth's, disagreeing about Macbeth's sincerity or degree of consciousness in saying them. My sense is that these words cannot take their direction from the figure of Duncan, however they may recognize his disfigurement; but that the only object whose loss for Macbeth could amount to the radical devaluation of the human world is Lady Macbeth, together with some phantasm in the idea of "toys," as of some existence left behind. (A measure of the disproportion in Macbeth's speech on Duncan's death—"nothing serious in mortality"—is to set it with Cleopatra's on Antony's death—"nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon" (IV, xv)—where I assume no sense of disproportion. How far this connection verifies my general sense of these plays as history plays about a break in history, as turns in the history of privacy, or say skepticism, hence in the history of marriage, hence in the history of legitimacy and succession, I do not guess now.)

That Lady Macbeth shares this knowledge of herself as the object of the killing is how I take the second element I cite in this connection, that of her fainting upon Macbeth's words that recount in vivid and livid detail his killing of Duncan's grooms: "Who could refrain / That had a heart to love, and in that heart / Courage, to make's love known?" (II, iii, 114-16). It is she alone who knows what Macbeth loves, to whom whatever he does makes his love known. (But the sincerity or reality of her fainting is a matter of controversy. Am I simply assuming it? I might say I have provided an argument in favor of its reality. But I would rather say that it is still perfectly possible to insist that the fainting is insincere, put on by her to divert the attention of the company, only this will now have to include her knowledge of what Macbeth's deed was in killing his love; and then the idea of her insincerity will perhaps seem less attractive.) After Lady Macbeth is helped to exit from this scene, she is never an active presence in the play's events. This is why the fact of her death comes to Macbeth as no shock.

The third element in defining the object of Macbeth's killing is Lady Macbeth's entrance to him upon his words, "I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself/ And falls on th' other" (I, vii, 25-26). By now I will take no one by surprise in expressing my sense that the line should be left alone (I mean, to begin with, that it should not be taken to be incomplete) to nominate Lady Macbeth as the other. (This at the same time leaves the line to mark this entrance as a cardinal declaration in this play that its study or acknowledgment of theatrical entrances is of their quality as appearances or apparitions, called forth, con jured.) Critics have wished to see in Macbeth's image of "overleaping" here an image of himself as the rider of a horse, mounting it or jumping it, overeagerly. I do not say this is wrong; but since Macbeth's words are that it is his intent whose sides are, or are not, to be pricked, there is a suggestion that he is identifying himself also as the horse (as earlier he associates himself with a wolf and later identifies himself as a baited bear); a horse by whom or by what ridden is unclear, ambiguous: perhaps it is by his ambition, perhaps by the ambition of another, so that "falling on the other" means failling to the other, to be responsible for it, but perhaps it means falling upon the other, as its casualty. Then the falling is not overeager, but an inevitable self-projection of human promise. (If one insists that not he but strictly his intent is the horse, he remaining strictly the rider, then again his intent out-runs his control not because of overeagerness but because of the separate lives of intention and of the world, we riding, as best we can, between.)

If we take it as ambiguous whether Macbeth is imagining himself as the rider or as the horse, the ambiguity is then an expression of the pair's mutual mind-reading, their being as it were overliterally of one mind: whatever occurs to one occurs to the other; whatever one does the other does; in striking at her he strikes at himself; his action is something he suffers. Sleepwalking seems a fair instance of a condition ambiguous as between doing something and having something happen to you. Other actions pertinent to this play, exemplary of the ambiguity or reciprocity of acting and suffering, or in Emerson's words, between getting and having, are giving birth and the play of sexual gratification. The reciprocity presents itself to Macbeth as requiring an assassination that trammels up consequence, all consequence, an act of metaphysics whose consequence is of being assassinated; as if acts of realizing your world, acts of self-empowerment, are acts of self-assassination, the openest case in which doing a deed and suffering the deed are inseparable. The logic is that of narcissism, and the sense is that there is a narcissism under a negative sign, with love replaced by hatred. You need not think that masculinity and femininity are determined by a prior determination of activity and passivity in order to think that prior to the individuation that begins individuating others—to the formation of the human self that is subject to others and subjects others, that knows passion and that knows action, that is bewitchable and tyrannical—there is nothing either decidable or undecidable about the self's gender. And if "being" a gender (one rather than another) is a mode like, or is part of, "having" a self (this one rather than another), is individuation ever over? There are always others to tell you so and others to tell you otherwise. Are they others?

A psychological account of the state in which punishment of an object (or former object) of love is a state of self-punishment is given by Freud in his statement of the etiology of melancholia. I shall quote some sentences from Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" and then close with a few sentences about why I find their association with Macbeth, through Nietzsche, significant, I mean why I want to follow them on.

An object-choice, an attachment of the libido to a particular person, had at one time existed; then, owing to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object-relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it onto a new one, but something different.… It was withdrawn into the ego … [where] it served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object. Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, so that the [ego] could henceforth be criticized by a special mental faculty, the forsaken object.… The melancholic displays … an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in the melancholic, it is the ego itself.

"Impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale"—it seems a move in an auction of nothingness, self-punishment as for the murder, finally, of the world. Guilt as melancholia seems a reasonable formulation of Macbeth's frame of mind. It is a suggestion from which to reenter the texts from which I reported that I have begun asking tuition for my intuitions about this play.

The passages from "Mourning and Melancholia" just quoted were adduced a few years ago in Timothy Gould's study of Nietzsche's Pale Criminal (a figure in an early section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra), which appeared in the Summer, 1986 issue of Soundings. In readducing the passages here I am in effect claiming that Nietzsche's Pale Criminal, whatever else, is a study of Macbeth. That section of Zarathustra speaks of guilt that expresses itself in madness after the deed and madness before the deed, and it proposes a problematic of blood and of human action in which performing a deed is taken over by an image of the performance of the deed, an image which functions to fixate or exhaust the doer's identity so that he becomes nothing but the doer of this deed, suffering subjective extinction as it were in the doing of what he does. It speaks, accordingly, to why Macbeth thinks of himself (thinking shared, as it must be, by Lady Macbeth) as in a sea of blood of his own giving, so as pale. (Macbeth once asks "seeling Night," with its "bloody and invisible hand" to release him from that "which keeps me pale" [III, ii, 46-50] and in her sleepwalking Lady Macbeth will say, or say again, "Look not so pale … give me your hand" [V, i, 59, 63].) In a world of blood, to be pale, exceptional, exempt, without kin, without kind, is to want there to be no world, none outside of you, nothing to be or not to be yours, neither from nor not from your hand; but to be pale is to be drained and to demand blood, to absorb what is absorbing you.

And the bearing of Macbeth as Nietzsche's Pale Criminal is significant for me, to be followed on, because of Nietzsche's response (so I claim) to Emerson's "Experience," a centerpiece of the seminar on romanticism and skepticism I mentioned at the outset … of this essay. (Emerson's essay opens with the question, "Where do we find ourselves?" The introduction to Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals opens with the two sentences: "We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers. How should we have found ourselves when we have never looked for ourselves?") Emerson's "Experience" is about the inability, and the ability, to mourn the death of his five-year-old son; the essay works toward the discovery of the social, call it America, toward the discovery of succession, imaged by Emerson as coming to walk, to take steps, beginning in what is quite explicitly described as walking in your sleep. Emerson here responds to, takes responsibility for, Shakespeare's and Kant's and America's ideas of success and succession: in effect, he is claiming to enter history by becoming their successor. It is an essay, as I have put it in the first chapter of This New Yet Unapproachable America, where the image of the human hand emblematizes the question of how deeds enter and work in the world, the question of how, as Emerson phrases it, you "realize your world," something Emerson's critics, as he reports in his essay, keep complaining that he has himself failed to do. But realizing his world is of course precisely what Emerson takes himself to be doing, in his writing, in the way only humans can; nonmagically, as it were; by letting something happen, the reversal of denial. This is more or less, not for unrelated reasons, how Heidegger and Wittgenstein also think, so that what is most active is what is most passive, or receptive. This suggests that we do not know whether knowing—for example, knowing whether one is human or inhuman—is a masculine or a feminine affair.

I am citing bits of what might, in another world, be called the history of the reception of Macbeth, or part of its historical circulation or exchange or energy, say of its money or blood of the mind, as a way of saying that if Shakespeare's play is a distinctive event in the history it remembers and enacts—if it is to continue to happen to its culture, to the extent that it, or anything, has ever happened to its culture as art happens, as truth happens in art, not alone as conclusion but as premise, not alone as document but as event—that is because events happen as this work shows them to happen, contains them, no more nor less clearly. In emphasizing, rather than Shakespeare's sources, Shakespeare's writing as a source variously open to appropriation, I may find my own provocation in it, without claiming to speak for it—as for example fixing its own mode of appropriating sources. Then I am in effect claiming that the Shakespearean play here claims a power to challenge authority that is based on birth and inheritance; that the political as realm of royal blood never recovers from this portrait which locates its causes in unsayable privacy (as in this marriage), inroyal authority's sleek imitability (as in Malcolm's apparent libeling of himself, and in Macbeth's bloody hand as the imitation and inheritor of the king's healing touch); nor recovers from its support by treasonableness in expansive masculinity (as in Macduff); nor from its vanity (as in Banquo's narcissistic mirror).

So I am in effect verifying the familiar idea that a Shakespeare history play develops from the morality tradition, but taking its moral direction to put a kink in the old history—taking it not as directed to teach the proper conduct of king and subject, but instead to constitute a moral about what history is, or has become—that what happens is not what is news, not a tale of a world, real or fictional; that such things are accounts merely of trivial horrors, consequences of old deeds, revenge returning, as Macbeth learns, as kings typically learn, too late; that learning what has happened is exemplified by the learning of what is happening now, or as Emerson more or less puts the matter, that history is not of the past, but for example is in our sleep-watching of this play; so that you need not become a horror-dealing, horror-dealt tyrant in order to recognize what is worth doing and worth having. And might you learn how not to become the victim of a tyrant? But what if, after the passing of tyrants, you yourself play the confiner?

Supernatural Elements

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Stanley Wells (essay date 1994)

SOURCE : "A Scottish Tragedy: Macbeth" in Shakespeare: A Dramatic Life, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994, pp. 282-99.

[Wells is an English educator and critic whose books include Shakespeare: The Writer and His Work (1978) and Shakespeare: An Illustrated Dictionary (1978). In the following essay, Wells discusses Shakespeare's politics, characterizations, and portrayal of the supernatural in Macbeth.]

Macbeth has a well-deserved reputation as one of Shakespeare's most sheerly exciting plays, a fast-moving murder story laced with witchcraft and offering the theatrical pleasures of a ghost, apparitions, a sleepwalking scene, and climactic battles culminating in a hand-to-hand combat in which the villain-hero is killed by his virtuous adversary. Macbeth himself is more like Richard II I than any of the intervening tragic protagonists. Both men are great warriors who come to the throne not by warfare but by murder. Both sink further and further into blood as they struggle to extricate themselves from the consequences of their deeds, and both are tormented by conscience. The fates of both men are inextricably linked with those of their countries, and each of them is finally defeated in personal combat by a representative of the forces of virtue who thereby purges the state of evil and restores the health of the nation. Each play, too, is concerned not with some remote or fictitious country but with a period or setting related closely to the lives of its first audiences. Richard the Third … ends with the triumph of the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, the reigning sovereign at the time it was written. In Macbeth Shakespeare portrays a supposed ancestor—Macbeth's comrade, Banquo—of her successor, James I, and draws attention to the continuity of the line in a strange episode which makes the connection explicit.

Macbeth was written probably in 1606; King James VI of Scotland had come to the English throne in 1603, and soon afterwards Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, came under royal patronage as the King's Men. While it seems simplistic and reductive to suggest that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to flatter King James, there are enough points of contact between play and sovereign to make it likely at least that as he wrote he had his royal patron's tastes and interests in mind.

Set in Scotland, the play opens thrillingly with the appearance in thunder and lightning of three witches, who are to figure prominently in the action. Witchcraft was widely practised in Shakespeare's time, and James had a special interest in it—with good reason, since at one time several Scottish women were trying hard to destroy him by methods such as casting into the sea cats bound to the severed joints of dead bodies with the hope of raising storms while James was sailing to Denmark. At their trial in 1591 it was said that they had asked the devil why their spells had failed, to receive the reply 'Il est un homme de dieu'—a phrase echoed in Macbeth when Banquo, James's ancestor, claims 'I n the great hand of God I stand' (2.3.132). James's own credulous book on the subject, Demonology, had appeared in Edinburgh in 1597, and was reprinted in London in the year of his accession. His investigations resulted in the detection of so many frauds that as time passed his credulity waned, but in 1616, years after Macbeth was written, he investigated a case at Leicester in which he heard of a boy who suffered from fits. The boy's symptoms were not understood to be the result of natural illness, he made accusations of witchcraft, and as a result nine people had been hanged and another six were in prison awaiting trial. The King managed to get the boy to confess that his accusations were fraudulent and those in prison were released; not much could be done about the others, though James did rebuke the judges for carelessness in having had them put to death.

More direct links with James come in Shakespeare's portrayal of Banquo. In Holinshed's Chronicles, where Shakespeare found the story, Banquo is implicated in the murder of King Duncan; in the play, though he is subjected to the same kind of temptation as Macbeth, Shakespeare causes him to withstand it. There is good dramatic reason for this, but it may reasonably be interpreted also as a sensible diplomatic move when one considers the episode, scarcely required by the action (and often cut in more recent performance), in which Banquo's bloodstained spirit appears to Macbeth pointing to a show of eight kings, the last bearing a glass which, says Macbeth,

  shows me many more; and some I see
That twofold balls and treble sceptres carry.

This clear allusion to James's unifying of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, symbolized by his investiture with two sceptres and one orb, breaks the play's timebarrier to link the historic action not merely with the time of the play's original performance but beyond that, since then James was the only king to have been so crowned. Whether the description of the English king Edward II I touching for the King's Evil (4.3.140-59) would have been pleasing to James is a moot point; its presence in the play can be justified on aesthetic and intellectual grounds, but again it has often proved dispensable, and Malcolm's statement that the King 'To the succeeding royalty … leaves The healing benediction' (4.3.156-7) is easily seen as a strained compliment to that same 'succeeding royalty'.

The matter is complicated by the state of the only surviving text, which shows signs of adaptation. It is Shakespeare's shortest surviving tragedy, and includes episodes (3.5, and parts of 4.1) that there is good reason to believe are not by Shakespeare. These episodes feature Hecate, who does not appear elsewhere; they are composed largely in octosyllabic couplets in a style conspicuously different from the rest of the play; and they call for the performance of two songs, identified in the original version of Macbeth only by their opening words, that survive in full in The Witch, a play of uncertain date by Thomas Middleton, who appears to have collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens. It seems likely that Middleton, for reasons unknown, adapted Shakespeare's play some years after it first appeared.

The play's framework of national destiny has proved less attractive to later ages than the personal tragedy of Macbeth played within it; many modern productions adjust the text to throw even more emphasis on Macbeth and his Lady, some even suggesting that the action takes place entirely within Macbeth's mind. There are signs that Shakespeare himself found the depiction of national and political issues the less inspiring part of his task, particularly in the long (well, it always seems long) scene in which Malcolm, the rightful heir to the Scottish throne, tests the integrity of Macduff, who is leading the rebellion against the tyrant, by pretending that he would make a far worse ruler even than Macbeth. Intellectually, as critics have laboured to show, the scene is entirely justifiable, and the writing is never less than competent, but the dramatic mode seems artificial and stilted by comparison with that of the bulk of the play, and the emotional temperature is low; it seems significant that here (as in the opening scene of Henry the Fifth) Shakespeare's wording is close to that of his historical source, as if he were dutifully versifying history rather than being taken over by it.

Theatrical emphasis upon the figures of Macbeth and his Lady is justified by Shakespeare's technique of character portrayal in this play. In, for example, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet he uses his stylistic virtuosity to bestow the impression of individuality on a wide range of characters so that even minor roles—like the servant, Peter, and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, and the courtier Osric and the gravediggers in Hamlet—have their own distinctive voices. This is not how he works in Macbeth. Here, as if to draw attention to the play's moral and ethical structure, even major roles are drained of individuality. In Holinshed, for example, Duncan is a weak king, too 'soft and gentle of nature', 'negligent … in punishing offenders', 'slothful' to the point of cowardice. Shakespeare builds him up into a symbol (rather than a portrait) of an ideal king. True, he is not a warrior, but this is not made a ground for criticism, and although there is nothing in the text to show how old he is, it is probably a sound tradition to play him as an old man. Everyone treats him with respect and affection, he is generous in praise and honours where they are due, and in return he receives the love and duty of his subjects. To Macbeth he is 'the gracious Duncan' who

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off.

Above all, he is a king: Shakespeare stresses throughout the play the holiness of true kingship. Duncan's murder is compared to sacrilege, to the desecration of a temple. When his body is discovered, Macduff cries:

Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence
The life o'th' building.

Duncan is the sort of role—there are many of them in this play—that an actor probably does not get much fun out of playing. He is important not as a personality but for the associations he is made to carry: of generosity, fruitfulness (' I have begun to plant thee,' he says to Macbeth, 'and will labour / To make thee full of growing' [1.4.28-9]), grace and sanctity. With his murder these virtues lose sway in Scotland; the need for them in a well-run commonwealth is impressed on us again briefly towards the end of the play, in the English scene, when we hear of the King of England to whom sick people are brought for cure: a virtuous king brings practical benefits.

Banquo is similarly treated. In Holinshed we are told of Macbeth that, 'communicating his purposed intent with his trusty friends, amongst whom Banquo was the chiefest, upon confidence of their promised aid he slew the King at Inverness'. In Holinshed Macbeth has Banquo killed not because, as in Shakespeare, he fears his 'royalty of nature', but simply because of the prophecy that Banquo's descendants would inherit the throne. There are good artistic as well as political reasons for this change: to have given Macbeth any accomplice other than his wife would have diminished his stature. And Shakespeare needs a representative, not of the ideal good against which Macbeth sins in murdering Duncan, but rather of a more normal human attitude, though still a virtuous one, that will help to keep Macbeth in perspective. We see Banquo first with Macbeth, but immediately a distinction between them is established. Though both hear the witches' prophecies, their reactions differ. Macbeth seeks a way of bringing them to pass, whereas Banquo treats them simply as unfulfilled prophecies—and ones that may have come from the devil's emissaries. Increasingly Banquo is aligned rather with Duncan than with Macbeth; they two share the passage about the temple-haunting martlet (1.6.1-9) that helps to associate them with the fruitful forces of nature, and although Banquo lacks Duncan's halo of sanctity, he possesses 'royalty of nature', courage, and 'a wisdom that doth guide his valour / To act in safety' (3.1.51,54-5).

The real parting of the ways between him and Macbeth comes just before Macbeth murders Duncan. Banquo has been disturbed by his encounter with the witches: strange thoughts trouble him—whether an awareness of temptation in himself or a suspicion of Macbeth is, perhaps deliberately, left uncertain. Sleepless, he prays that the 'Merciful powers' will restrain in him 'the cursèd thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose'. He tells Macbeth of his dreams:

I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters.
To you they have showed some truth.

Macbeth replies in lines that brilliantly suggest an uncertainty of how far he can go with Banquo:

                                   I think
  not of them;
Yet, when we can entreat an hour to serve,
We would spend it in some words upon that
If you would grant the time.

Banquo agrees:

At your kind'st leisure.

And Macbeth seems encouraged to go further:

If you shall cleave to my consent when 'tis,
It shall make honour for you.

But now Banquo withdraws:

                So I lose none
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,

I shall be counselled.

It is a measure of Shakespeare's subtlety in composing a dialogue of nuance that Banquo can express both to Macbeth and to us his imperviousness to temptation without actually having been tempted.

From this point on, Macbeth is alone with his wife; he has severed his last link with normal humanity. When Banquo hears of Duncan's murder he makes his position unequivocally clear:

                 Fears and scruples shake us.
In the great hand of God I stand, and thence
Against the undivulged pretence I fight
Of treasonous malice.

Macbeth's awareness of Banquo's suspicions, and his anxiety to ensure that the succession shall fall to his own descendants, are no doubt powerful reasons for the attempted assassination of Banquo and his son, but still more powerful is the awareness that Banquo's presence causes in him of the evil to which he has succumbed. As he thinks of Banquo, he becomes possessed by consciousness of his sin:

For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind,
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.

To the audience, Banquo stands as a measure of normality against which the lack of balance in the mind of the tragic hero can be measured. To Macbeth he is as it were an embodied conscience, not to be stilled even by death.

In Duncan and Banquo, then, Shakespeare was less intent on 'creating character' than on fashioning the component parts of a balanced composition. Even greater bareness of characterization is to be seen in many of the other figures of the play. Caithness, Mentieth, Lennox, Ross, Angus—they sound like extracts from a tour guide to the Highlands, and have no more individuality than decreasingly important railway stations along a minor branch line.

Even more obvious stylization is to be found in the play's representatives of evil. The three witches are a theatrical problem: too often far more of a nightmare for the director than for the audience. Members of Shakespeare's original audience would have been closer to the practice of witchcraft than most of us, for whom bearded women savour more of sideshows at a fair than of someone living at the other end of the village whom one believed, and who believed herself, to have supernatural powers of evil action. Shakespeare presents the witches from, so to say, a position of belief: not as women pretending to other people that they have supernatural powers, but as creatures who genuinely believe themselves to have such powers, and who visibly accomplish deeds for which no rational explanation is offered. They can apparently think as one, continuing and completing each other's sentences, they have not only the appurtenances of human witch-craft—a cauldron, horrible things to cast into it which they represent as, for instance,

Root of hemlock, digged i'th' dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-delivered by a drab—

they can not only vanish in a manner that is convincing at least to Macbeth and Banquo (though in the theatre we may be conscious of the trickery by which it is done) but they can also call up apparitions for which no rational explanation seems possible either to those who see them in the play or to us. The vagueness that surrounds them—our uncertainty as to the exact nature of their powers—creates a sense of disembodiment, so that we feel them as an emotion—three wicked shudders—rather than see them as people. Theatre directors have to have them represented by actors, but their horror may be better conveyed by not taking Shakespeare's implicit stage directions too literally than by having them chuck into a cauldron plastic spiders and the like that are no more frightening than the sort of Hallowe'en horrors that can be bought from a children's joke shop. [In the RS C production of 1986] Adrian Noble got a much better effect by having them roll round their mouths bits of bread left over from the Macbeths' feast and then slowly spew them out.

The witches confound our sense of reality. Their evil counterbalances the virtues projected in, especially, Banquo and Duncan; they are anti-natural, and—even more importantly to the effect of this play—they are equivocal, blurring distinctions between what is and is not. The equivocal is frightening, and its omnipresence in Macbeth is what makes this such a frightening play. It reminds us that there is indeed more in heaven and earth than philosophy can account for, reawakening the subconscious fears that we normally keep suppressed, frightening us by its sense of dangers lurking behind things familiar, of what Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Nashe called 'the terrors of the night', sudden unidentifiable shrieks, movement where we had expected stillness, a knocking at the door at dead of night, motiveless attacks, nightmares that terrify us even though we know them to be dreams, the possibility that ghosts really do exist. It turns us all into children, frightened to watch yet too fascinated to stop watching.…

The witches are the catalysts to this fear, the equivocal aspects of their being announced with wonderful compression in the brilliant little opening scene:

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
              Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Grimalkin.
Paddock calls.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

The disturbance of the weather, the hurly-burly of warfare, the turmoil in nature when fair is foul and foul is fair, when values are reversed, all help to create the sense of evil as a denial of nature, a disturber of the peace, yet at the same time something which is itself, however mysteriously, in and of nature. The idea recurs throughout the play, not only in relation to the central characters but in, for instance, Lennox's description of the storm on the night of the murder, when 'the earth / Was feverous and did shake' (2.3.59-60), in the choric episode between an Old Man and Ross recounting the horrors of the night, 'unnatural, / Even like the deed that's done' (2.4.10-11), and in the crimes of which Malcolm falsely accuses himself. But it is not simply that things behave in a manner that is contrary to nature: at the same time they appear to be what they are not. Not only does what has been fair become foul; it retains its fair appearance, so that it is simultaneously fair and foul. This idea again is carried through the play with ever deepening irony: 'There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face', says Duncan about the thane of Cawdor: 'He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust' (1.4.11-14)—and at that moment enters Macbeth, the new thane of Cawdor whose treachery will exceed that of his predecessor; 'look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't', says Lady Macbeth to her husband (1.5.64-5); 'This castle hath a pleasant seat', says Duncan on entering the building where, we know, he will be murdered (1.6.1); 'False face must hide what the false heart doth know', says Macbeth shortly before he kills Duncan (1.7.82).

Equivocation comes before us almost in person in the grimly comic figure of the Porter who so often tempts directors to rend the play apart by the way he is played, presumably under the illusion that Shakespeare not only expected but desired his clowns to speak more than is set down for them, to break the play's continuity with a display of comic virtuosity, not to say vulgarity. Shakespeare gives his clowns all they need, and all we need from them; the Porter's comedy is of the play, not excrescent to it, he is porter at once of Macbeth's castle and of hell-gate, his drunken fantasies are the counterpart of Macbeth's hallucinations, and, admitting an 'equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, but could not equivocate to heaven' (2.3.8-9), he reminds us of Macbeth's willingness to 'jump the life to come'. 'I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to th'everlasting bonfire': in that characteristic pun on the word 'professions' we are reminded of those who profess themselves other than they are, the serpent under the flower. Possessed of the throne, Macbeth and his Lady

Must lave our honours in these flattering streams
And make our faces vizors to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

Malcolm, who is really virtuous, makes himself appear wicked as a means of testing Macduff's integrity; thus 'fair', by making itself appear 'foul', proves the truth of Macduff's apparent fairness.

Above all, equivocation is expressed through and in the witches and other people's reactions to them. Banquo sees that things may not be as fair as they seem; some doubt seems latent even in his encouraging remark to Macbeth when they two together first hear the prophecies:

Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?

And he asks them 'I'th' name of truth, / Are ye fantastical or that indeed / Which outwardly ye show?' He remains severely sceptical, while Macbeth is carried away on a flood of speculation. Banquo's warning note is clear enough, and important as an anticipation of what is to come: 'oftentimes', he says, 'to win us to our harm / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles to betray's / In deepest consequence' (1.3.121-4). But Macbeth, while seeing that the direction his thoughts are taking may be an evil one, will not face up to the need to make a clear judgement:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good …
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

This deeply human awareness of the anomalous in his own nature, the sense of an undertow of evil cutting beneath the bank and shoal of time, is one of the things that make Macbeth's plight so moving, and cause us to be more deeply involved with him than with Banquo. Banquo is in the great hand of God; Macbeth is a cause of greater concern just because his judgement is less clear.

The overt expression of the witches' equivocal nature comes in the set of prophecies delivered by the apparitions in the cauldron scene (4.1). In spite of Banquo's warning, Macbeth continues to place his trust in the weird sisters; he accepts their oracular statements at face value; these prophecies do indeed seem fair, it does seem impossible that Birnam Wood will come to Dunsinane, and there seems no reason why Macbeth should not feel confident after he is told that 'none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth'. But after all, the first apparition has warned him against Macduff: 'beware Macduff, / Beware the thane of Fife', and it is at his own risk that he, who has been so apt to create a false impression, should take their other statements at face value. It is Macbeth's powers of self-deception that bring about his final overthrow. The ambiguous nature of the witches symbolizes the power of choice that he is given, and in the play's last minutes we have a vivid visual symbol of the destructive force of his self-deception when the army led by Malcolm and Macduff adopts the device of carrying the branches of trees as camouflage, so that it seems as if Birnam Wood really did move towards Dunsinane. The tables are turned; Macbeth's bloody instructions return to plague the inventor; the fair appearances of evil are foul at heart.

The army that brings the tyrant's reign to an end comes to its victory bearing 'leafy screens'. Besides providing a climactic false appearance, the action also, in its use of the green branches of trees, reminds us of the good things of nature, and of their association during the course of the play with the virtuous characters and with the good way of life in man and in the state. Duncan and Banquo have been associated in our minds with growth and with fruitfulness. On the other side are the weird sisters, inevitably associated with forces opposed to nature: with storm and tempest, savagery and murder. Caught in the middle are the play's central figures, Macbeth and his Lady. In both of them we witness a conflict between natural and unnatural forces.

The evil within Macbeth and his Lady constantly finds expression in a need to suppress natural human feeling. So in a great invocation Lady Macbeth makes a fiercely conscious effort to subdue her womanhood:

 you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th'effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief. Come, thick
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!'

The speech, impressive in itself, reverberates through the play. 'Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall' is recalled soon afterwards when, inciting her husband to murder Duncan, she declares:

                                           I have
  given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, and I so sworn
As you have done to this.

'Milk ' becomes something of a symbol of merciful nature, prepared for by Lady Macbeth's statement that her husband's nature 'is too full o'th' milk of human kindness' (1.5.16-17) and recalled when Malcolm deceptively declares that he would

Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.

Similarly, Lady Macbeth's invocation to night is soon to be paralleled by Macbeth's:

  seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.

The play is full of similar links: its poetic texture is dense, creating a claustrophobic, self-contained world: words such as 'blood' and 'night' recur again and again, accumulating fresh and more complex associations all the time.

In the earlier part of the play the subjugation of natural instincts seems easier for Lady Macbeth than for her husband. There is an exultant ring to her declarations of savagery; she cannot understand her husband's mental torment. He has to 'bend up … each corporal agent' to what he admits to be a 'terrible feat' (1.7.79-80); contemplating his bloodstained hands, he cries in agony:

  they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

But his wife takes a more severely practical point of view:

A little water clears us of this deed.
How easy is it then! Your constancy

Hath left you unattended.

For her 'The sleeping and the dead / Are but as pictures' for him the mere thought of the unnaturalness of his contemplated deed conjures up a horrified vision of the universe in mourning:

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off,
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.

At first, then, there is a clear contrast between the two. As the play progresses their roles are reversed. Lady Macbeth's imagination begins to work. Both of them, who had called upon night to cover their deeds, find that Macbeth 'hath murdered sleep' (2.2.40); they are afflicted nightly with terrible dreams; they had turned day into night, and now their own nights are rendered indistinguishable from day. Lady Macbeth had denied imagination. She had committed the mistake of those referred to by Lafeu in All's Well that Ends Well who 'make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear' (All's Well that Ends Well, 2.3.2-6). The 'unknown fear'—fear of the unknown—is terribly present from the start to Macbeth; he denies it after great struggle. Lady Macbeth seems not to fear it at all; but when her imagination begins to work her 'seeming knowledge' gives way to the horrified questionings of the sleepwalking scene which shows with an extraordinary anticipation of the theories of Freudian psychology the release in sleep of the subconscious fears and other emotions that Lady Macbeth had succeeded in suppressing in her waking life. She had thought that a little water would clear her of her deed; now she finds that 'Al l the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand' (5.1.48-9). She ends in a mental disintegration revealing her 'great perturbation in nature'.

Macbeth's progress is in the opposite direction. In him we see a slow death of the imagination, proceeding from an extreme sensibility through great though self-inflicted suffering to a state of almost complete emotional sterility. He has denied the prompting of nature. By usurping the throne he has plunged his country into unnatural turmoil. He has tried to restore order, but his crime makes this impossible; so the banquet, traditional symbol of social harmony, which begins in order—'You know your own degrees; sit down' (3.4.1)—is broken by the entry of Banquo's ghost, reminder of the host's crime, and ends in disorder—'Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once.'

Gradually Macbeth finds himself forced by sheer impetus of accumulated evil into a career of escalating crime: 'I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er' (3.4.135-7). He becomes a mass murderer—no wonder the play has continued to seem relevant to the twentieth century—committing his worst crimes with none of the awareness of evil that he had felt in murdering Duncan:

The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th'edge o'th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line.

The bonds of nature are seen to be indivisible in the external and the internal world. Macbeth had desired to 'Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale' (3.2.50-1), but his crimes against external nature are against his own nature, too, and this brings retribution, retribution that he had himself foreseen, the retribution of an 'even-handed justice'. He had expressed his willingness to 'jump the life to come' (1.7.7), but the very phrase is ambiguous: he finds that he is plunged into hell not in a life after death but in a death in life. His expressions of pretended suffering on the discovery of Duncan's body forecast the suffering that he is already beginning to undergo:

Had I but died an hour before this chance
I had lived a blessèd time, for from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality.
All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead.
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

At this stage we still hear some of the hyperbole of conscious dissimulation; later comes a piercing, realized vision of despair that comes purely from the private world:

  way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny but dare

Macbeth has, as he says, 'supped full with horrors' (5.5.13); he is scarcely capable of emotional response: 'I have almost forgot the taste of fears' (5.5.9); and so when news arrives of his wife's death his reaction is less a statement of personal grief than a denial of the validity of human emotion. This is Shakespeare's way of showing us the dust and ashes of Macbeth's self-destroyed soul:

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
An d then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Up to a point, Macbeth offers the satisfactions of fiction as defined by Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism: 'The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.' But the play's morality is not as simple as this. Macbeth's 'Tomorrow' speech is a meditative point of repose before the turmoil of the conclusion. But his despair is not absolute. As the witches' equivocations are stripped bare, as he hears how Birnam Woo d 'began to move ' (5.5.33), he pulls himself together with a last assertion of physical heroism: 'Blow wind, come wrack, / At least we'll die with harness on our back' (5.5.49-50); he refuses to 'play the Roma n fool' (5.10.1), and remains courageous to the end. Shakespeare gives him no dying speech. He defies Macduf f even after learning that his enemy was 'from his mother's wom b / Untimely ripped' (5.10.15-16), goes out fighting, and returns only to be slain.

This did not satisfy later adapters. Sir Willia m Davenant, in his Restoration version of about 1663, gave Macbeth a moralizing last speech: 'Farewell, vain world, and what's most vain in it—Ambition.' And when David Garrick revived the play in 1744 he added a considerably longer dying speech that seems indebted to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus:

'Tis done! the scene of life will quickly close.
Ambition's vain, delusive dreams are fled,
And now I wake to darkness, guilt and horror.
I cannot bear it! Let me shake it off.—
'Twa' not be; my soul is clogged with blood.
I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy.
It is too late, hell drags me down. I sink,
I sink—Oh!—my soul is lost forever.
Oh! (Dies)

That is banal because it is too explicitly moral. Both Davenant and Garrick reduce the play to a demonstration of the folly of ambition, and Garrick makes the hero condemn himself to a hell which is far less appalling than the vision of desolation that Shakespeare had already caused him to express on hearing of his wife's death.

The ending of Shakespeare's play shifts the focus from the personal to the political; Macduff's entrance with Macbeth's severed head—a reversion to an earlier dramatic mode that is often softened in modern productions—signals a happy ending for Scotland if not for the play's central characters who, in Malcolm's closing speech, are dismissed as 'this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen'. But this is even more of an over-simplification than Mark Antony's assessment of Brutus, a reduction to two-dimensionality of characters whom we have experienced with three-dimensional vividness. Though Macbeth is a profoundly moral play, it is not, like Malcolm, moralistic.

François Laroque (essay date 1989)

SOURCE : "Magic in Macbeth," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 35, April, 1989, pp. 59-84.

[In the following excerpt, Laroque explores the mythical traditionHomer, Seneca, Lucan, Norse and Germanic legendsthat Shakespeare may have drawn upon in his portrayal of the supernatural.]

The word 'magic' is one spontaneously and traditionally associated with a play defined as "a statement of evil" [L. C. Knights, "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" An Essay in the Theory and Practice of Shakespeare's Criticism, 1933]. Evil is here essentially felt and visualized through the specific early Scottish background of Macbeth—with its weird sisters, its ghosts, its murky air and moving wood. It indeed creates an atmosphere of increasing horror that suggests a headlong fall into the recesses of an Inferno which is simultaneously Christian and pagan, Homeric as well as Dantean.

At the same time, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the word magic itself hardly ever appears in the text of the play (only once in III.5.26, and that is in the controversial 'Hecate' scenes), and that, other than in the stage directions in the Folio, Shakespeare only refers to the so-called witches as the Weird Sisters. After using magic as an essentially verbal and metaphoric web of meaning in his earlier great tragedies, Shakespeare makes us feel what the thing itself, rather than the word, looks and sounds like.

In this respect, it is rather curious that the earliest specific reference to a performance of Macbeth (on 20 April 1611), which is in the Bocke of Plaies of the astrologer and magician Simon Forman, fails to mention the relevant magic scenes, which made some critics suspect the text was just another of John Payne Collier's forgeries.

Magic mostly concerns the paraphernalia of witchcraft whose outlines I will analyse with particular emphasis on the milk images and on the cauldron scene, which present a vision of perverted maternity. These provide a verbal and visual counterpart for the deed without a name achieved by the witches and for the horrors which Macbeth says he has supped full with (V.5.13). These scenes, which are highly spectacular and even sensational in terms of stage effects are all dependent on a vast body of myth gathered from Homer, Seneca and Lucan mainly but which also capitalizes on Norse legend or on Germanic elements, as in the Birnam wood scenes. Continental witchcraft sources are also important as the Weird Sisters do not exactly behave like most of their English or Scottish counterparts.

The topic of magic is one that has been copiously discussed and documented by various critics, historians or anthropologists and the evidence which has been produced seems as impressive as it is often finally inconclusive. My purpose here is to focus on a number of mythical archetypes or prototypes, mostly found in literary sources and thus theoretically accessible to Shakespeare, which seem to me to have been woven into scenes involving magic or associated with it. After all, the play was probably first performed in the presence of King James, who was both a scholar and an expert in demonology and things occult. As the later Masques of Ben Jonson reveal, with their heavily pedantic or arcane marginal glosses along the text of, say, The Masque of Queens, the body of the entertainment was built as a labyrinth of knowledge (Jonson's famous Court hieroglyphics). Although we have no text supervised by Shakespeare and no idea of what marginalia he may have used as verbal-visual prompters, it is undeniable that the unique importance devoted to magic (in its classical and continental overtones) in this play shows extensive documentation and a double work of conflation and compression. I take the cauldron scene, which functions as a sort of antimasque in the play, as quite emblematic in this respect. It concentrates the textual 'brew' and its membra disjecta of witch-lore and legend, repeats in a grotesque undertone the main magical motifs in the play, and their obsessional insistence with depraved maternity and perverted nourishment.

The presentation of magic in Macbeth is sustained by a great number of classical allusions and sources that build up a learned though largely submerged context for the many verbal, visual and poetic flashes in the play.

The first mythical allusion that occurs is to the archaic goddess of war Bellona, when Rosse addresses Macbeth as Bellona's bridegroom (I.2.55). This is the one and only allusion in Shakespeare to this early and obscure Roman goddess of war, which he probably found in Book I of Lucan's The Civil War or Pharsalia, where the author lists the unnatural prodigies and dire calamities that accompanied the beginning of the war between Caesar and Pompey:

If tales are true, the national deities shed tears [ … ] Birds of ill-omen cast a gloom upon the daylight, and wild beasts, leaving the woods by night, made bold to place their lairs in the heart of Rome [ … ] Women gave birth to creatures monstrous in the size and number of their limbs, and mothers were appalled by the babes they bore; and boding prophecies spoken by the sybil of Cumae passed from mouth to mouth. Again the worshippers who gash their arms, inspired by fierce Bellona chanted of heaven's wrath, and the Galli whirled round their gory locks and shrieked disaster to the nation.

As in Macbeth, this passage evokes a trend of apocalyptic imagery, as chaos and doom are suggested in the unnatural events marking the animal and the human worlds alike. What is more the Latin phrase crinem [ … ] sanguineum which the Loe b library translator, J.D. Duff, has chosen to render by the expression 'gory locks', may well have suggested the apparition of the blood-bolter 'd Banquo (IV.1.123) if Shakespeare did use this passage as one of his sources for witchcraft in the play.

Bellona is also mentioned by Boccaccio in The Genealogy of the Gods, in connection with Minerva:

Minerva [ … ] was the daughter of the second Jove [ … ] [and], Cicero states, was the inventor and prince of wars, and yet is called by some Bellona, sister of Mars, driver of chariots, as it seems is shown by Statius saying: 'Bellona reins the horses with her bloody hand and avoids the long arrows'. Nor was this the one that the ancients affirmed to be virgin and sterile, indeed, as the same Cicero would have it, she gave birth to the first Apollo, from Vulcan oldest child of Heaven. Beside that [ … ] this is the one that was storied famous in arms, with dark eyes, holding in her hand a very long spear with a crystal shield, and this the more to show her rediscovery of war, rather than for anything else.

On a second level, as G.L. Kittredge remarks [in Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1929], Bellona was also equated by the Saxons with the Valcyries while the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology (ed. C.T. Onions) enters the word 'Valcyrie' as synonymous with "Bellona, Erinys, Gorgo , witch, sorceress". In Scandinavian mythology, the valkyrie was a war-maiden who hovered over battle-fields to conduct the fallen warriors to the Valhalla. George W. Dasent, in his book on Popular Tales from the Norse [1859] comments that these 'Wish-Maidens' , or oska-moer as they are called in the Edda, were Odin's corse choosers, i.e. those wh o picked out the dead for him in the field of battle. Give n the Norwegia n background of these mid-eleventh century Scottish battles and their overall atmosphere of grand war epic, the Scandinavian connection at the beginning of the play should not be overlooked.

Shakespeare had already indirectly alluded to Bellona in connection with Hotspur in the first part of Henry IV, when the young Percy alludes to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war (IV.1.14) and again at the beginning of Henry V when the Chorus says of young Kin g Henry:

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword
  and fire
Crouch for employment (5-8).

This passage takes its source in Holinshed in a speech attributed to the Warlike Harry before the besieged city of Rouen, on 2 January 1419:

He declared that the goddesse of battel, called Bellona, had three handmaidens, ever of necessitie attending upon him, as blood, fire, and famine. And whereas it laie in his choise to use them all three, (yea, two or one, at his pleasure,) he had appointed onelie the meekest maid of those three damsels to punish them of that citie, till they were brought to reason.

It is interesting here that, just as in the case of the Gorgo n (see below) and the Sisters in Macbeth, we have here another malefic female trinity.

The association between war and femininity conjures up the mythical image of the Amazon which seems to have fascinated the Elizabethans, partly because of its possible identification with the Virgin Queen of England who, in her speech to the British army at Tilbury in August 158, just before the Armada, had said: / known I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king of England too. On Augus t 8th, Leicester wrote in a letter that the Queen was full of princely resolution and more than feminine courage [ … ] She passed like some Amazonian empress through all her army. Some contemporary verse in Latin by Eleutherrius call Eizabeth Angla virago and compare her with the Amazon queen Penthesilea in an epic simile, and a Dutch engraving of 1598 has a figure which is both a map of Europe and a representation of Elizabeth brandishing her sword over the Armada. In the fifth book of The Faerie Queene, the chivalrous Britomart appears as the fictional image of Elizabeth, although it is true that only Radigund, a possible characterization of Mary Stuart, is effectively called an Amazo n by Spenser, since the Amazons were also commonly regarded as a symbol of female tyranny.…

Now , the scene in Macbeth being essentially Scotland, the other possible context for Shakespeare's image may have been Holinshed's Description of Scotland, where the chronicler describes at length the martial courage of Scottish women:

In these daies also the women of our countrie were of no lesse courage than the men; for all stout maidens and wives (if they were not with child) marched as well in the field as did the men, and so soone as the armie did set forward, they slue the first living creature that they found, in whose bloud they not onelie bathed their swords, but also tasted therof with their mouthes, with no lesse religion and assurance conceived that if they had alreadie been sure of some notable and fortunate victorie.

This gruesome fascination for the blood of battles may explain why the Amazon was often associated with witch-craft and cannibalism in the Renaissance. But, although the figures of the Valkyrie and of the Amazon form another malefic female trinity in conjunction with Bellona here (it is indeed one of the patterns of Macbeth, to resort to mythical figures that are all female and usually go by three), it is in fact brave Macbeth [ … ] which smok'd with bloody execution (I.2.18) of the first Act and he who will be shown wading deeper in blood as the play goes on. Lady Macbeth has not appeared yet and, in spite of her blood-curdling speeches to call forth the murth'ring ministers (I.5.48), Miss Bradbrook is probably right in saying [in "The Sources of Macbeth," Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951)] that "she is not quite Holinshed's valkyrie".

In fact, in the early scenes of the play, it is as if Lady Macbeth were essentially the daring mind that conjured up the spirits of murder to pour her dire cruelty into her husband's ear and make him the executioner of meek king Duncan. The evil imagery of her famous soliloquy in I.5 just after a Messenger has brought her the news of the king's visit to her castle, turns her into a verbal fury and a witch (11.40-54):

              [ … ] Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty …
                 [ … ] Come to my woman's
And take my milk for gall, you murth'ring

The desire to be 'unsexed' and the sacrifice of her femininity identity her with the prototype of the Amazon, since, as suggested by the fanciful etymology of the name, which was supposed to derive from 'a-mazos', i.e. breastless, amazons were believed to have the custom to destroy the girls' right breasts so as to prevent them getting in the way when shooting their arrows in battle.

The second mythical figure evoked, albeit indirectly, in the play is that of the Greek enchanteress Circe, who is metaphorically hinted at in the wine and wassail with which Lady Macbeth plans to drug Duncan's chamber lains:

Lady M. When Duncan is asleep
[ … ] his two chamberlains
Will I with wine and wassail so convince,
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only: when in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie, as in a death

Circe's influence is here a subliminal one which merely surfaces in the striking image of the swinish sleep. In the Odyssey Homer describes the powers of enchantment of the fair witch through Polites' narrative of how he and his men were turned into swine after being invited to enter the palace and to drink some delicate potion:

Polites [ … ] said [ … ] "O, friends,
Some one abides within here, that commends
The place to us and breathes a voice divine
As she some web wrought, or her spindle's
She cherisht with her song; the pavement rings
With imitation of the tunes she sings;
Some woman, or some Goddesse tis. Assay
To see with knocking". Thus said he, and they
Both knockt, and called; and straight her shining
She opened, issuing, bade them in to cates.
Led, and unwise they follow'd, all but one,
Which was Eurylochus, who stood alone
Without the gates, suspicious of a sleight.
They enterd, she made sit; and her deceit
She cloakt with Thrones and goodly chaires of
Set nearby honey and the delicate
Wine brought from Smyrna, to them, meale and
But harmefull venoms she commixt with these,
That made their Countrey vanish from their
Which eate, she toucht them, with a rod that
Their transformation farre past humane wunts;
Swines' snouts, swines' bodies tooke they,
 bristles, grunts,
But still retained the soules they had before
Which made them mourne their bodies' change
 the more.
She shut them straight in sties, and gave them
Oke-mast and beech and Cornell fruite they eate,
Groveling like swine in earth, in foulest sort.

This long quotation was necessary to show that Shakespeare had indeed done some research on the Circe myth since The Comedy of Errors where the line I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup (V.1.271) was probably simply inspired by Whitney's emblem, as the phrase of Circe's cup occurs in the last line of the poem below the woodcut. Whitney shows several animals as the results of the transformations of Circe and he calls the swine hogge. Although Ovid naturally also refers to Circe and to her wiles and enchantments in the fourteenth book of Metamorphoses, Homer's description seems closer to Shakespeare's play both in atmosphere and verbal patterns. So I would make it a case here for Shakespeare working on his tragedy with Homer's text (probably in some private translation since Chapman's was not printed before 1614) uppermost in his mind and argue for this passage from The Odyssey to be considered as a hidden model for Macbeth.

Indeed, we can see two important parallels with Macbeth in this passage. The first is found in the lines where Lady Macbeth later tells her husband that the surfeited grooms / Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg'd their possets (H.2.5-6). A 'posset' was a type of mixed beverage very much like Circe's potion: its traditional ingredients were ale or sack, spiced with sugar, eggs, and hot milk to form a curd. It is also interesting to note that the image was already used by the Ghost in Hamlet to describe the effects of Claudius's poison on his blood:

The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood.

Similarly, the 'wassail bowl', customary of Christmas hospitality in Elizabethan England, was made with a crab dipped in ale and sugar. Incidentally, the word reinforces the strong impression of the Macbeths' breach of sacred hospitality in those scenes. The reference to the snores of the guards is evocative of some loudy inebriated sleep as well as of the grunting of pigs.

The second parallel concerns the Porter scene which seems to pre-exist in Homer in miniature and as it were in ovo, in the repeated allusions to Circe's gates and to knocking upon them for entrance. In the words of Duncan that precede his entry into Inverness (This castle hath a pleasant seat / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/ Unto our gentle senses. ., I.6.1-3), the Macbeths' castle looks as deceptively inviting as Circe's. This is another variation on the fair/foul motif running throughout the play. The Porter makes of course great fun out of the potentially frightening knocking at the gates by giving a comic echo to the actual knocking at the door and by repeating the word as a burden, thus turning the whole business into a grim 'knockabout' farce. But, significantly, the second half of his speech is a quizzical piece about the equivocating powers of drink, that both provokes and unprovokes, makes and mars desire and men.

Another possible link between Circe and wine may be established through a pun on 'swinish' and 'winish'. Macbeth's later metaphor (The wine of life is drawn, II.3.95) probably takes up the idea, suggesting that the more sinister side of the Porter's equivocation has now come about. It is the sobered down, cold and tragic realization of irreversible horror, which is of course both symbolical and ironic in its christian undertones, but also a grim counterpart of the Circe episode in Homer which remains essentially comic because the situation is reversible. The sailors will indeed be changed back to their previous human shapes.

As to the swine, we can remark that they are often mentioned in witchcraft and magic (the second Witch says she has been killing swine in I.2.2) ever since, in the New Testament, Christ cast out the devils of the possessed at Gadarenes into the herd of swine that subsequently fell down a slope and drowned in the sea (Matthew VIII. 28-32, Mark V. 8-13 and Luke VIII. 26-33).…

Besides, an old Morality play called The Cradle of Security, whose text is now lost but which is briefly described in Robert Willis's spiritual autobiography, Mount Tabor (1639), offers an astonishing dramatization of the episode, which Shakespeare may have seen or heard of. This text offers a good example of the use of swine masks in scenes of temptation and sin in the repertory of the Tudor moralities. Robert Willis saw the performance in Gloucester as early as 1570, when he was only a little boy of six (he was, incidentally, born the same year as Shakespeare) standing in the front bench between his father's legs:

The play was called (the Cradle of security,) wherein was personated a King or some great Prince with his Courtiers of severall kinds, amongst which three ladies were in speciali grace with him; and they keeping him in delights and pleasures, drew from his graver Counsellors, hearing of Sermons, and listning to good Counsell, and admonitions, that in the ende they got him to lye downe in a cradle upon the stage, where these three Ladies joying in a sweet song rocked him asleepe, that he snorted againe, and in the meane time closely conveyed under the cloaths where withall he was covered, a vizard like a swines snout upon his face, with three wire chaines fastned thereunto, to the other end thereof being holden severally by those three ladies, who fall to singing againe, and then discovered his face, that the spectators might see how they had transformed him, going on with their singing; whilst all this was acting, there came forth of another door at the farthest end of the stage, two old men, the one in blew with a Serjeant at Armes, his mace on the shoulder, the other in red with a drawn sword in his hand [ … ] at last they came to the Cradle, when all the Court was in greatest jollity, and then the foremost old man with his Mace stroke a fearfull blow upon the Cradle; whereat all the Courtiers with the three Ladies and the vizard all vanished; and the desolate Prince starting up bare faced, and finding himselfe thus sent for judgement, made a lamentable complaint of his miserable case, and so was carried away by wicked spirits.

In this description, the play evokes an allegorical device, a sort of dumb-show not unlike that in Hamlet. But the enticing singing of the 'three ladies' and the 'swine snout' suggests a dramatic reworking of the Circe myth in a christian light, quite close to what Shakespeare is doing in Macbeth in terms of translating it into powerful visual imagery and verbal magic.

The next mythological figure that occurs in the play is that of Hecate, which is twice alluded to in the play, in somewhat contradictory terms, as both pale and black (Pale Hecate off' rings II.1.52 and Black Hecate's summons III.2.41). Until she appears as a character rebuking the witches in III.5 Hecate is constantly associated with the operations of black magic or sorcery in the Renaissance and she is mentioned by Shakespeare both in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, she was a fairly mysterious figure even in antiquity:

[She was] an ancient chtonian goddess of obscure origin [ … ]. Generally she is associated with uncanny things and the ghost world. For this reason, she was worshipped at the cross-roads, which seem to be haunted the world over. Hence her statues [ … ] often have three faces or three bodies [ … ] Hecate is a formidable figure [ … ] a bogy which 'meets' and frightens the wayfarers. Hence it is remarkable that she is assoicated with sorcery and black magic, from at least the tragic Medea.

Pierre Grimal, in his Dictionnaire de la mythologie [1951], further notes that, in late traditions, Hecate was made into the mother of Circe who was herself Medea's aunt, which gives the impression of a tightly knit family of female evil-doers.

The same type of close family relations seem to characterize another mythical figure or monster evoked in Macbeth, namely that of 'Gorgo' or 'the Gorgon', just after Macduff has discovered the horrible sight of king Duncan's dead body:

Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.

The Gorgons were another malefic trinity of sisters whose names were Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. Their hair was intertwined with serpents, their hands were brass, their bodies covered with scales, their teeth like boars' tusks. They also sported golden wings that allowed them to fly. When gazed upon, they turned the onlooker to stone. Medusa, whose name means 'the Queen' and who was the only mortal of the three, had her head cut off by Perseus; the latter, who knew of the deadly stare of the Gorgons, had managed to trap her by making her stare at herself in the shield given to him by the goddess Minerva and polished like a mirror (in other versions it was a crystalline shield, which introduces an interesting parallel between Bellona's shied as described by Boccaccio (see above) and Minerva's).…

The Gorgon, mentioned by Macduff, thus stands more as a mythological emblem for the series of severed heads in the play (Macdonwald's, Duncan's, the blood-boltered Banquo, the apparition of the Armed Head, and Macbeth's own head presented by Macduff to Malcolm at the end), than as an appropriate image to describe the dead king, unless she is reduced to the rhetorical trope of hysteron proteron to figure hair-raising horror. Dante alludes to the Medusa in Canto IX of his Inferno, as an image of the stricken conscience.

On the other hand, the assimilation of the Gorgon to the male heads cut off in the course of the tragedy was also quite possible. Indeed, Roman art in Britain has some examples of male Medusae, like the one found in the Temple of Salis-Minerva at Bath. And an equivalent of the grinning, glaring, open-mouthed, tongue-pulling mask of this semi-male figure is also probably to be found in the foliate head of the frightening Green Man, a popular figure of Elizabethan and Jacobean pageantry, which one can still see carved in stone or wood in the pillars and pews of English cathedrals.

Such ambiguity or androgyny of the Medusa figure in Macbeth is also a token of the androgyny of the witches and of the king, in a play where the feeling of the uncanny and of horror is also provoked by the question of sexual uncertainty with its virile women and its childish or unmanly men (for René Girard the abolition of sexual differences, which makes men effeminate and women masculine, is also a sign of what he calls the "sacrificial crisis" [in La violence et le sacré, 1973]. In the play, the possible translation of Medusa into a Green Man or Wodewose is an interesting mythical and magical process which works as a transition from the gore of Gorgo to the green of Birnam wood.

This feeling of deep ambivalence aroused by the vision of the Gorgon at the heart of the tragedy … is an effect of equivocation and magic that subtly insinuate themselves in the language of the play whose ambiguity Marvin Rosenberg in The Masks of Macbeth [1978] defines as "the chameleon masks that [ … ] shelter counter-meaning behind words".

But besides this verbal and visual magic, coming from the play's classical and mythical sources, one must also pay attention to what I will tentatively call "magic in action" i.e. the effective gestures or modes of behaviour that strengthen the representation of magic in Macbeth and help the spectators visualize it on the stage. Cornelius Agrippa and the Renaissance Neo-Platonists used to oppose two types of magic, that of the sorcerer or goetist and that of the magus or theurgist. Such terms stood for the practice of the black arts in general, or necromancy, on the one hand, which required the help of the devil and of the powers of darkness and designated, on the other hand, the use of white magic which was used for anything from the learned art of conjuring spirits for some good cause to the powers of healing by prayer, with elements like water or with the help of various charms. But one should also be aware of the fact that, like Jean Bodin in The Republic, King James in his Daemonology drew no distinction among magicians and censured all magic as black, an attitude which Frances Yates [in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, 1979] describes as "reactionary" as compared with what she calls "the Neo-platonic enlightenment" of Giordano Bruno and John Dee.

If we still accept to use those traditional categories in Macbeth, goetic magic naturally appears as the province of the witches and of Lady Macbeth, while theurgic magic is associated with the miracles performed by the 'Good King' at the English Court.

As far as goetic magic is concerned, I would like to focus my analysis on Lady Macbeth's 'conjuring' of the 'Spirits' and on the cauldron scenes, in so far as their imagery reverberates throughout the play: Come to my woman's breasts / And take my milk for gall, you murth 'ring ministers. Lady Macbeth's offers her milk for gall to her spirits (I think that, besides Johnson's generally accepted interpretation of 'in exchange for gall', we can perhaps also take the phrase to mean 'as gall', which implies that Lady Macbeth offers to nurse the spirits from her breasts and to feed them on her milk as their sustaining poison). This would have reminded Elizabethan audiences of the image of the witch suckling her familiars.

Besides the wonderful scene of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, which anyway concerns the activity of the wet nurse, Shakespeare in fact rarely mentions a mother giving suck in his plays except in the two characters of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra (who both curiously appear as childless). The former says / have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me (I.7.54-5), while the latter is described as a mother nursing the Nile worm on her breast that will bite her breast into a final death ecstasy:

[To an asp, which she applies to her breast]
                                              With thy
                      Sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
                      Of life at once untie [ … ]
[To Charmian]                           Peace,
           Dost thou not see my baby at my
           That sucks the nurse asleep?

Behind these two scenes of fanciful breast-feeding by women who are less mothers than witch-figures, one is probably meant to recognize allusions to the contemporary belief, which was a specific feature of English and Scottish witchcraft, that a witch would entertain a familiar, i.e. a demon, in the shape of an animal. These familiars, whether they be cats, dogs, toads, rats or serpents, would suck the witch's blood from some 'privy', or secret part of her body, thus leaving an insensitive spot in it. This was called the 'witch's mark' and it could be detected by the Inquisitor if, after being pierced through with a fine blade (the so-called 'pricking of the mark'), the woman had no significant reaction of pain. These familiars are described by George Gifford, minister in Maldon, in his Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraftes [1593], where a Schoolemaister called M.P . says to a character named Danieli:

What say you to this: that the witches have their spirits, some hath one, some hath more, as two, three, four, or five, some in one likenesse and some in another, as like cattes, weasils, toads, or mice, whome they nourish with milke or with a chicken, or by letting them suck now and then a drop of bload; whom they call when they be offended with anie, and send them to hurt them in their bodies; yea, to kill them, and to kill their cattell.

So, when Lady Macbeth says take my milk for gall she is metaphorically uttering a form of incantation or maleficium that turns her nourishing, maternal fluid into venom, so that she herself is changed into some deadly snake and into a figure of the classical Fury.

Now, it is interesting that at the end of 1 Henry VI Shakespeare had already presented a similar scene (with a grotesque rather than tragic note, it is true) when Joan the Pucell, also presented as both an amazon and a witch, tries to persuade her spirits to come to help her win the battle in Angiers:

Now, ye familiar spirits that are cull'd
Out of the powerful regions under earth,
Help me this once, that France may get the field.
[They walk, and speak not.]
O, hold me not with silence over-long!
Where I was wont to feed you with my blood
I'll lop off a member and give it to you
In earnest of a furthest benefit,
So you condescend to help me now.
[They hang their heads.]
No hope to have redress? My body shall
Pay recompense if you will grant my suit.
[They shake their heads.]
Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted futherance?
Then take my soul; my body, soul and all,
Before that England give the French their foil.

They depart. A little later in the play, Joan appears in a dialogue with a shepherd, her real father, whom she refuses to acknowledge:

Shep. Deny me not, I prithee, gentle Joan.
Joan Peasant, avaunt! You have suborn'd this
     Of purpose to obscure my noble birth.
Shep. 'Tis true, I gave a noble to the priest
    The morn that I was wedded to her mother.
    Kneel down and take my blessing, good
      my girl.
    Will thou not stoop? Now cursed be the
    Of thy nativity! I would the milk
    Thy mother gave thee when thou suck'dst
     her breast
    Had been a little ratsbane for thy sake

In a way, the shepherd's curse of his daughter, who wishes his wife had poisoned her with her milk, is tantamount to Lady Macbeth's 'invocation' that leads to the symbolic sacrifice of her 'baby'.

This occurs in scene 7 of Act I, no longer in a soliloquy but in a dialogue with her husband, when she wants him to be a man and do the deed:

      I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn

As you have done to this

In these lines, Lady Macbeth takes the aggressive stance of the unnatural mother who, after replacing the maternal function with that of the witch, now turns the tenderly feminine act of breast-feeding into the most dreadful act of butchery. The image of the crushed babe is of course an emblematic one in the play and it is looking ahead to the cauldron scene and to the savage slaughter of Macduff's wife and babes. But one can also take the image as the symbol of the perverted mother who poisons her child with her milk, which is even more powerful when it is set against the background of contemporary Scottish practice, depicted in Holinshed's Description of Scotland:

They [the Scottish mothers] thought them [ … ] not to be kindlie fostered, except they were so well nourished after their births with the milke of their brests [ … ] nay they feared least they should degenerat and grow out of kind, except they gave them sucke themselves, and eschewed strange milke …

An interesting exception to that is the case of James I himself, who, in his opening speech to his first English Parliament, on 19 March 1603/04, declared: / thank God I sucked the milk of God's truth with the milk of my nurse. Although the milk is only a metonymy here, the phrase reveals an attitude which is complementary to that of Lady Macbeth in that it corresponds to the child's denying his own mother (Mary Stuart is indeed excluded from the 'Show of eight king' in the witches' cave). When the mother is degenerate enough to be bent on the destruction of her own children, which was the ritual initiation sacrifice in witchcraft, the only way to enable the child to survive was to allow him to suck Strange milke.

A classical and mythical analogue for this scene of breast-feeding turning into infant slaughter is that of Medea, one of the archetypal witches in antiquity, described both by Ovid in the sixth book of his Metamorphoses and by Seneca in a tragedy that Shakespeare must have read in Studley's translation. The scene in which Medea contemplates revenge on Jason by slaughtering her own children shows her shedding her own blood in sacrifice to Hecate, in order to prepare herself to the unnatural murder:

With naked breast and dugges layde out Ile
  pricke with sacred blade [ … ]
Myne arme, that for the bubbling bloude and
 issue may bee made [ … ]
My tender childrens crussed fleshe, and broken
 broosed bones
Lerne how to brooke with hardned heart.

The translator is responsible for such words as 'dugges' or 'tender children' just as, in an earlier passage of the play describing Medea's plan for revenge (With crimsen colourde bloud of Babes their Aulters will I stayne), he had rendered victimas by 'babes'. This may have been for the sake of alliteration or an attempt of Studley to 'improve' on the already sensational text of Seneca's tragedy. But Lady Macbeth lacks Medea's excuse to kill, i.e. jealous frenzy and revenge; nor does she have, like another Amazonian trull, Margaret in 3 Henry VI, the motivation for murder coming from the desire to avenge York's defiant decision to take the throne from the king her husband (I.4.114). With her it is the other way round: she wants her husband to kill the king and take his crown out of pure ambition and fascination with evil.

One of the popular accusations against witches in the Renaissance was that they killed infants and young children to use their flesh and blood in their satanic brews. There is abundant textual as well as iconographic evidence for it as can be seen on various contemporary continental engravings.…

This brings us back to the incantations of the Sisters preparing their gruel thick and slab: Finger of birth-strangled babel Ditch-delivered by a drab (IV.1.30-1). Such lines evoke the infanticidal imagery of Lady Macbeth's earlier speech and they represent an infernal re-enactment of the Biblical theme of the slaughter of the Innocents which recurs so often in this tragedy. The boiling cauldron of Act IV is a grotesque encapsulation of the chaos created by tyrannical rule where, in the place of a natural order of growth, we find foul animals and ripped bodily organs forming a gruesome little world picture.

But the evil cauldron is also the image of the unnatural mother's womb, and in some early productions it was indeed placed over a trap-door in order so that the witches and/or the later apparitions would be seen emerging out of it.

After the killing of infants, we are taken a step further into horror with the intimations of cannibalism in the play. Besides the explicit allusions to animal cannibalism (to Duncan's horses that eat each other, II.4.18, and to the sow [ … ] that hath eaten/ Her nine farrow, IV.1.64-5), we are told of the bits and pieces of the human body to be boiled in the Sisters' cauldron. A subliminal link between the dashed out brains of the breast-fed babe of Act I and the finger of birth strangled babe of Act IV is quite possible here. This suggests that the scenes of black magic had been prepared by the perversion of maternal love which is finally unmet aphored in the horrible climax where the mother eats the flesh of her own child. This is something which Shakespeare found in Seneca's Tragedy of Thyestes and which he dramatized in a most spectacular manner at the end of Titus Andronicus. Another possible source for this type of spectacular horror were the books of Deuteronomy (XXIX . 53-7) in the Old Testament, which list the curses and plagues threatened in retribution for disobedience to God:

And thou shalt eate the fruit of thine owne body, the flesh of thy sonnes and of thy daughters [ … ]

The tender and delicate woman among you which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground, for delicateness and tendernesse, her eye shall be evil toward the husband of her bosome, and toward her sonne and toward her daughter.

And towards her young one that commeth out from between her feet, and towards her children which she shall beare: for she shall eate them for want of all things, secretly in the siege and straitness.

This type of curse or plague was also taken up by the French Huguenot poet Agrippa d'Aubigné [in his "Misères", 1571] in his portrayal of France rent by the religious wars as the allegory of an afflicted Mother turning against the children whom she ought to protect and feed:

O France desolee! O terre sanguinaire,
Non pas terre mais cendre! ô mere, si c'est mere
Que trahir ses enfans aux douceurs de son sein
Et quant on les meurtrit les serrer de sa main!
  [ … ]
La mere ayant long-temps combattu dans son
Le feu de la pitié, de la faim la fureur,
Et dict à son enfant (moins mere qu' affamee):
"Rends miserable, rends le corps que je t' ay
Ton sang retournera où tu as pris le laict,
Au sein qui t'allaictoit r'entre contre nature;
Ce sein qui t'a nourri sera ta sépulture".

[O desolate France! O bloody land,
 Not land, but ashes! O mother, if motherly it
 To betray your babes in your tender breast
 As you hurt and choke them with your hands
 [ … ]
 [The hungry mother] craves in her breast for
 the loved one
 And tells her child (less as a mother than as a
 famished one)
 "Restore, thou wretch, the body which I made;
 Your blood will return where you sucked your
 To the breast which nursed thee goes' gainst
 The breast that fed thee shall be thy

Although this long, dark and superb baroque epic poem was not translated into English, I find the analogies with the milk and blood images of Macbeth particularly striking.

Like Medea, Lady Macbeth symbolically murders her own children and children's limbs are thrown to boil into the cauldron out of which Macbeth will drink his hallucinating potion.

The antimasque-like grotesqueness of the cauldron scene, with its hodge-podge of cannibal sow and birth-strangled babe, is not entirely without precedent nor a pure invention on Shakespeare's part. It is interesting that, besides the classical sources (like the sixth book of Lucan's Pharsalia which presents a Thessalian witch or the incantations of Medea in both Ovid and Seneca), Shakespeare may have turned to contemporary travel books telling of "the Cannibals that each other eat". One of the available sources was André Thévet's account of the Brazilian cannibals in Les singularités de la France Antarctique, 1557, translated into English by Thomas Hacket in 1568 under the title of The New found worlde, or Antarctike. This narrative was used by Montaigne as a source for his famous essay 'Of the Cannibals', a text repeatedly echoed in Shakespeare's plays. Thévet was part of the Raleigh circle and his book already influenced the imagery of Marlowe's Tamburlaine. Moreover, the French edition of the book, it is interesting to note, figures as a gift in the Index Librorum Regis, which lists the books in King James VI's library. I will quote a passage where Thévet describes the cannibal practices of the Tupinamba Indians who lived in the bay of Rio de Janeiro:

Now when that they are retourned from their slaughter or murther, the owner of ther prisoner [ … ] will request all his friendes to come to him against that day to eate their parte of their bootye, with good quantitie of Cahoun, which is a kinde of drinke made of Mill, with certaine rootes. Upon this day of solempnitie, all the assistantes will decke themselves with fethers of divers coloures, or else they will painte their bodies. Specially he that doth the execution, shall be decked after the best maner that is possible, having his shread of wood, wherewith he doeth his office, richly adorned with faire fethers: but the prisoner, the shorter time that he hath to live, the more greater sign of ioy doeth he shewe. He shall be brought surely bounde with cordes of Cotton into a publicke place, being accompanied with ten or twelve thousande of the wilde men his enimies, and there shall be smitten downe like an Oxe in the shambles (after many Ceremonies.)

[ … ] the body being cut in pieces, they take the bloud, and therewith bathe their male children, for to make them the more hardye [ … ] The prisoner being put to death after this sort, and hewed in pieces, and prepared according to their maner, shall be distributed among them all, be they never so many, every one a morseli or piece; as for the bowels or inner partes, the women eate them commonly, and they reserve the head to set it on a poll out of their houses in signe of triumph and victorie.

Besides the gruesome description of cannibal practices and of the custom of sticking the heads of the defeated enemies on poles as a triumphant posture which may be seen as providing a New World counterpart to some of the images and actions in Macbeth, it is also interesting to read about the Amazons in a subsequent chapter (XL) , where Thévet remarks that: One finds that there were three types of Amazons in History [ … ] The earliest were to be found in Africa, among whom were the Gorgons who had Medusa as a queen. With those examples one sees how Renaissance cosmographers revived ancient myths to give them a new contemporary habitation, always at the outer edges of the known world, as it had already been the case for the earlier Scythian cannibals and amazons in the descriptions of Herodotus. Amazons and cannibals were then obviously used to fill out the gaps in the maps.

So, the scenes of black magic in Macbeth have appeared to stretch far beyond the simple chronicle material of Holinshed or others and they may be among the most thoroughly and diversely documented which Shakespeare ever wrote.

Now, the world of theurgic or white magic does not appear in the play until Act IV, scene 3, in the famous lines where the miracles performed by Edward the Confessor, the Good King of England, are described by Malcolm:

A most miraculous work in this good King,
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven,
Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures;
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction.

This King wh o heals by touch a disease called 'the Evil ' is the obvious antithesis of the Scottish tyrant whose sole name blisters on our tongues (IV.3.12) and who has infected his country with some foul disease. Those magic powers of the king are not simply meaningful in the context of the imagery and symbolism of evil in the play. They have long been considered in history as the attributes of the royal person and as a sign of the king's legitimacy and of his divine right. Marc Bloch wrote a rather voluminous book on the topic, Les rois thaumaturges [1924], where he considers at some length the case of Edward the Confessor, the last of the Anglo-Saxo n kings in England:

Edouard le Confesseur fut de bonne heure tenu pour un saint [ … ] On lui prête bon nombre de guérisons miraculeuses: étant saint, il devait être thaumaturge [ … ] ll y avait en Angleterre une jeune femme atteinte d'un mal affreux: une enflure des glandes du cou qui rpandait une odeur fétide. Instruite par un songe, elle alla demander sa guérison au roi. Celui-ci, s'étant fait apporter un vase plein d'eau, y trempa les doigts et touche ensuite les parties malades, faisant sur elles plusieurs signes de croix. Aussitôt sous la pression de la main royale, le sang et le pus sortirent: la maladie parut céder [ … ] Une semaine á peine s'était écoulée que l'heureuse femme était radicalement guérie, que dis-je? non seulement débarrassée de son mal, mais d'une stérilité obstinée qui la désolait: la même année elle donna un enfant à son mari.

[Edward the Confessor was reputed a saint from very early on [ … ]. He has been accredited with many miraculour cures: being a saint he had to be a healer [ … ] . There was in England a young woman suffering from a horrible disease: the glands in her neck were swollen and gave off a fetid stench. Being instructed by a dream, she went to ask the king to cure her. He had a vessel of water brought to him, dipped his fingers in it and touched the sick parts of her body, making several signs of the cross over them. Under the pressure of the royal hand the blood and pus came out at once [ … ] . Hardly had a week gone by that the happy woman was completely cured, nay not only rid of her evil but also of an obdurate sterility which afflicted her: in the same year she bore a child to her husband.]

It is interesting to note that in the legend of the saintly king, the cure of the Evi l is accompanied by a restoration of fertility as in the general movement of Macbeth. As in Richard II, the good king is indirectly described as the Lord's anointed (III.2.54-7).

In fact, Edward the Confessor seems to be the reincarnation of another saintly king, Dunca n himself, as there certainly exists some correlation between Duncan's emblematic golden blood (II.3.112) and the 'golden stamp' which Edwar d hangs around the neck of the sick he wants to heal. Macbeth is a play that seems to argue in favour of the divine absolutism of kings which, of course, was not to displease James I. The latter, although quite reluctant to touch for the evil at the beginning of his reign (he had even made it a condition for his acceptance of the English crown that he would not be required to touch), was finally gradually coaxed into keeping up the tradition which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had observed before him. In fact, such a vision of kingship remained by and large a magical one, quite suited to the description which Sir James Frazer gives of its ritual and primitive origins in The Golden Bough [1922]:

The belief that kings possess magical or supernatural powers by virtue of which they can fertilise the earth and confer other benefits on their subjects would seem to have been shared by the ancestors of the Aryan races from India to Ireland [ … ]. Perhaps the last relic of such superstitions which lingered about our English kings was the notion that they could heal scrofula by their touch. The disease was accordingly known as the King's Evil [ … ] . Hence the king, starting as a magician, tends gradually to exchange the practice of magic for the priestly functions of prayer and sacrifice.

But the 'good King ' of Act IV is not simply the antithesis or antidote of the tyrant Macbeth. His healing of 'the Evil ' is also a form of exorcism of the particular type of evil generated by the Sisters and by Lad y Macbeth in her dark incantations.

The name of 'king's Evil ' was then often given to the disease know n as scrofula, i.e. the tubercular inflammation of the glands of the neck. Accordin g to An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, "the literal signification of scrofula is a little pig; diminutive of scrofa, a breeding sow. It is remarkable that the Greek name [ … ] for swollen or scrofulous glands appears to be similarly connected with [the Greek wor d for] pig". Willia m Clowes, an Elizabethan physician, published in 1602 a book called A right frutefull treatise of the artificiali cure of struma where, as he says in the preface, he means:

to demonstrate and deliver unto the friendly Reader, the cure of a certain unnaturall tumor or Abscecse, called in Latin, Struma; of the Arabians Steophala, but generally, in English, it is called,the kings or Queenes Evill: A disease repugnant to nature: which grievous malady is knowne to be miraculously cured and healed, by the sacred hands of the Queenes most Royall Maiesty, even by Divine inspiration and wonderfull worke and power of god, above mans skill, Arte and expectation.

Clowes goes on to say that

Scrofula taketh the name of Scropha, which signifieth a Sow, that is a Gluttonous and Phlegmaticke beaste: and it groweth in them by reason of their overmuch eating. There be some againe which say, that it is called Scrophula, either because that Sowes which give sucke be subiect to this disease, and that is the reason of their greedy eating; or else because the sow that giveth Milke brings forth many young ones at once.

The coincidence between Lady Macbeth's Circean pow ers to plunge men into a swinish sleep and the witches' use of sow's blood in their cauldron, on the one hand, and Edward the Confessor's powers to heal by touch the sow's disease or king's evil, on the other, suggests that Shakespeare did go into what medical information was available about scrofula while he was writing Macbeth.

[In Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971] Keith Thomas's remark that "scrofula itself was probably caused by infected milk" shows that, in those days, analogies were then drawn between the mother feeding her child and the sow's giving milk to explain the transmission of the disease and its presence in young infants. We have already seen above the weaning of the child to avoid it sucking 'corrupt milk' and, in the same connection, Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, warns that if the mother be not fit or well able to be a nurse [ … ] that they should make choice of such woman, of a good complexion, honest, free from bodily diseases, if it possible, all passions and perturbations of the mind. What Burton actually means by his rather vague last phrase is clearly explained in Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 [1977], where we learn that

according to Galen, who was followed by XVIth and XVIIth century doctors, husbands ought not to sleep with nursing wives since carnal copulation [ … ] troubleth the blood, and also, by consequence, the milk. [This was the reason why] kings and noblemen took the wet-nurse into their own house, so that sexual access to her by the husband could be effectually prevented.

This piece of information on early seventeenth century child-rearing practices would also be quite relevant to Lady Macbeth who, as some critics and directors have noted, works herself up into a criminal fury which is close to sexual excitement in the speeches where she calls on Spirits and murthering ministers. The metaphorical 'witch' in her (she uses the language of the sorceress) is equivocatingly doubled with the wiling seduction of a woman burning with voluptuousness and sensuality.

This brings us back to the point of Lady Macbeth's perverted maternity as the main source of her black magic and of the contamination of evil in the play. We have seen what types of associations the images of the milk changed for gall and of the dashing of the brains of the baby sucking at her breast evoked in contemporary imagination and superstition. Clowes's text allows us to go even a step further in the analysis of these clusters of meaning to suggest that there may be a link between the images of the sow and those associated with the murderess. To paraphrase such a parallel we would have to say that, like the sow, Lady Macbeth symbolically destroys her own young by poisoning them at her galled breast and by allowing them to suck what will infect them with scrofula. It is probably in this context that the images of animal cannibalism in Macbeth should be placed (particularly that of the sow [ … ] that hath eaten Her nine farrow). In this she would come close to the witch Sycorax in The Tempest, a name whose etymology combines the sow and the raven and that also sounds quite close to the name Circe, in Shakespeare's late and rather grotesque recreation of the evil dam motif.

So, Lady Macbeth, as the archetype of the bad mother, provides infected nourishment to the people, the body politic, who then have to be touched and cured by a saintly king. It is of course true that the healing king is Edward the Confessor and that the sick are hence the English rather than the Scottish subjects. Marvin Rosenberg mentions the difficulty in The Masks of Macbeth, and speaks of "the complex dialectic of the play" and of Shakespeare "dimension[ing] fair with foul even here". What matters in terms of structure, symbolic design and dramatic movement is the contrast between Scotland's 'butcher' and England's 'saintly king'. Edward embodies the charismatic figure of grace in a play that, unlike the histories, curiously has no bishop, cardinal or even priestly figure that would call for the purgation of evil and the reparation finally achieved in Macduff's victory and the accession of Malcolm. So, for the sake of dramatic balance Shakespeare manages a transference or transfusion of evil across Scotland's borders into England's bodies. This double focus or piece of dramatic 'handy-dandy' sacrifices the demands of surface rationality for the sake of the inner dynamics of imagery and structure. In terms of rhetoric there is a minor hypallage or exchange be tween the Scots and the English, to make the overall antithesis more striking and convincing.

This type of symbolism works in connection with the political movement of the play as well as with its dramatic structure. It is also congruent with the ritual element of civic pageantry where the fountain motif was a prominent and popular emblematic device. Lady Macbeth changes the fair and fertile fountain of wine and milk (the emblem of the prosperous and orderly commonwealth) into a foul cistern of blood and gall which will spread contagion, steritlity and death all around during the tyrannical reign of her husband. Then Scotland ceases to be a mother to become a grave (IV.3.166).

Moreover, the king reigns over his thanes like a garderner over his orchard: his good rule promotes fertility and growth and, conversely, his negligence or wastefulness (as in the case of Richard II for instance) make it swarm with caterpillars or noisome weeds (Richard II, III.4.38, 47). Contrary to Duncan and to Malcolm who, in the end, refer to things which would be planted newly with the time (V.9.31), Macbeth can only plant murderers (I will advise you where to plant yourselves, / Acquaint you with the perfect spy o'th' time (III. 1.128-129). When the latter mentions the gift of "bounteous Nature" (III. 1.97), he is addressing the gang of criminals whom he sends out after Banquo and Fleance and whom he otherwise places in the lowest ranks of mankind.

After his unnatural accession to the throne of Scotland, Macbeth quickly becomes a bloody tyrant and a butcher making the whole country suffer physically as if it had been struck by some kind of plague. The main metaphor all along the tragedy is that of the sickly weal requiring 'medicine' rather than that of the waste land as in Richard II or The Winter's Tale, although Lennox, one of the Scottish noblemen, says at the end or as much as it [our country] needs / The dew the sovereign flower, and drown the weeds (V.2.30). What's more, as is signified by the miniature chaos of the witches' cauldron, the Macbeths are both afflicted by the curse of sterility as opposed to Banquo who is said to be the root and father / Of many kings (III. 1.5-6). This motif runs parallel to the plant/ growth images discussed above as the word 'root' certainly points to the concept of some genealogical tree (exclusive of women and in the order of male filiation only, from father to son, as repeated several times in the play). Now, this type of seasonal or vegetal imagery had a ritual significance for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences because it was associated with the ceremonies of civic pageantry organized for the king's accession or entry into London.

Pageantry frequently resorted to the garden allegory to symbolize either dynastic unification (the white and the red roses in the case of the Tudors) or happy succession from the Tudor to the Stuart branches. It is thus no wonder that such devices should also be found in the popular drama of the time as associated with some of the play's prevalent images. Besides the garden allegory, another emblem of restored fertility and harmony used in street pageantry was the filling of the city's conduits or fountains with wine, as in Dekker's 1604 civic pageant:

Here on an arch Detraction and Oblivion seek by 'their malicious intention' to suck the fountain dry, but they are checked by the arrival of James I. Vice having been suppressed, the fount then flows with milk, wine, and 'balme' through its several pipes.

The mention of milk and wine … are respectively changed for gall and mere lees in Lady Macbeth's invocation of the Spirits and in the stopping of Duncan's wine of life after his murder. As to balme, one may naturally think of the perfumes of Arabia that will not sweeten the little hand of Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene (V. 1. 48).

In Macbeth, the desire for fertility and the repugnance for drought is rendered in the most graphic and spectacular of terms in the almost Manichean antithesis between the solitary tyrant pent up in his flint tower of Dunsinane besieged by Malcolm, Macduff and Siward, and the green wood of the liberating armies which is reminiscent of the folk-custom of the May-Day gathering of greenery, when Elizabethan villages traditionally ransacked the neighbouring forests for boughs to deck the Maypole planted in the centre of the green by the church. German critics have found an interesting analogue for this in Germanic folklore, in the story of King Grünewald:

A King had an only daughter, who possessed wondrous gifts. Now, once upon a time there came his enemy, a King named Grünewald, and besieged him in his castle, and, the siege lasted long, the daughter kept continually encouraging her father in the castle. This lasted till May-day. Then all of a sudden the daughter saw the hostile army approach with green boughs: then fear and anguish fell on her, for she knew that all was lost, and said to her father, "Father, you must yield, or die, I see the green-wood drawing nigh".

In this tale the daughter plays the same part as the witches in Macbeth as she knows through her miraculous gifts that her father cannot be vanquished until the green wood comes to the castle. The Manual of German Mythology explains that the legend of the moving forest found its origin in the German popular ritual of May festivals and that King Grünewald (the name means 'green wood' in German) was some kind of Winter-giant whose reign came to an end when the Maying began and the green wood approached the village.

So, the development of the motifs and imagery of magic in Macbeth led Shakespeare to take a closer look at the sources of classical mythology and to go beyond the usual Ovidian and Senecan stories which he had used in an early comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream. Incidentally, it is no simple chance that these two plays should have masque-like and operatic structures that will indeed be worked upon by later playwrights or composers and blown up as it were from the many mythical allusions of the type which I have tried to analyze. I do not think that much can be made out of them in today's theatre, in a world where classical myth seems to have gone back into the underground. But this was probably also the case in the popular stages of Shakespeare's own time as opposed to what could be done and presented in the private theatres and in Court performances.

But in a tragedy like Macbeth Shakespeare does not indulge in the usual hocus-pocus or 'abracadabra' stuff that many of his contemporaries were content to use when they were dealing with scenes of magic. He is careful to relate them with the most intimate and domestic elements of life, through the milk and nursing images, interweaving the sources of fertility with the agents of destruction so that one is enabled to realize how deep-seated and difficult to eradicate evil is.

These images also function as a miniature emblem pointing to the theme of desecrated hospitality. The poisoning of the milk, the drugging of the wine, the consumption of strange flesh and strange blood show that black magic has contaminated the most basic functions of human existence and of the social community. Only some powerful exorcism, some miraculous intervention or divine help such as those provided in the Doctor interlude and in the reports of Edward the Confessor's healing of the sick, could be seen as potent enough to rid the world of the tyrant's plague.

The imagery bearing on black magic is tangled in a complex network of associations although it is also somehow organically as well as historically put together thanks to the classical and contemporary traditions of witchcraft and it stands poles apart from the scenes involving white and 'green' magic in the most blatant, dazzling type of antithesis. Yet black and beneficent magic are also linked by a relation of osmosis and complementarity in Norman Rabkin's definition of the term [in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, 1967]. When the sweet milk of human concord has been poured into hell, it takes a divine patriarchal figure to cleanse and purify it.

Peter Stallybrass (essay date 1982)

SOURCE : "Macbeth and Witchcraft," in Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 189-209.

[In the following essay, Stallybrass analyzes the social and political relevance of witches during Shakespeare's time and examines Shakespeare's use of the witches to affirm the "natural" monarchical and patriarchal order.]

For students of Macbeth, witchcraft has always presented a problem. At the one extreme, we have scholars like T.A. Spalding and W.C. Curry who have unearthed some of the historical minutiae of medieval and Renaissance concepts of witchcraft [in Elizabethan Demonology (1880) and Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (1937), respectively], at the other extreme, we have critics who accept the play's witchcraft only as a form of psychological symbolism. Since the publications of Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) and Alan Macfarlane's Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970), the latter position has seemed less tenable. But this does not mean that we should return to the (admittedly useful) positivistic data-gathering of Spalding and Curry to understand the function of witchcraft in Macbeth. I see little point, for instance, in attempting to classify the Weird Sisters as witches or warlocks or norms (distinctions which were rarely observed by Tudor and Stuart witchcraft treatises or reports of trials). Such classifications tend to emphasize the exoticism of witchcraft beliefs without beginning to explain how such beliefs could ever have been held.

It is, indeed, worth emphasizing the 'normality' of witchcraft beliefs. Although witchcraft accusations reached epidemic proportions in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, witchcraft beliefs are endemic in many societies. Their frequency, however, should not be taken as evidence for the truth of witchcraft (there is no proof, for instance, that 'witches' eat their own children, cause sickness, plague or famine, or have sexual relations with devils) but as evidence of the social utility of such beliefs in a variety of societies. An adequate explanation of witchcraft, then, needs to have a double focus: on the one hand, it must describe the actual beliefs and explain how they fit within a particular cosmology; on the other hand, it must take into account the function of such beliefs.…

Witchcraft beliefs are one way of asserting distinctions; they 'sharpen definitions,' as Mary Douglas puts it [in the introduction to Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (1970)], including definitions of political and familial roles. They can be used, for instance, to account for the "unnatural" ambition of a rival or for the 'unnatural' power of a woman. In doing so, such beliefs imply and legitimate their opposite, the 'natural'. In short, witchcraft beliefs are less a reflection of a real 'evil' than a social construction from which we learn more about the accuser than the accused, more about the social institutions which tolerate/ encourage/act on those accusations than about the activities of those people (in England, mainly women, mainly poor) who were prosecuted as witches. What Mary Douglas says of dirt [in Purity and Danger (1978)] could be said of witchcraft: it 'is never a unique, isolated event' but rather 'the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification … in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.' Witchcraft accusations are a way of reaffirming a particular order against outsiders, or of attacking an internal rival, or of attacking 'deviance'. Witchcraft in Macbeth, I will maintain, is not simply a reflection of a pre-given order of things: rather, it is a particular working upon, and legitimation of, the hegemony of patriarchy.


[According to G. L. Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old and New England , 1929] the English government had, at least since 1300, been concerned with 'witches'—'with sorcerers, because they might attempt to kill the king, with prophets (including astrologers) because they might forecast the hour of his death.' The Duke of Buckingham, accused of treason in 1521, had been encouraged by a prophecy that he would be king, although he had been warned that the prophet, a Carthusian monk, 'might be deceived by the devil'. In 1558, Sir Anthony Fortescue was arrested for sorcery, having cast a horoscope which stated that the Queen 'should not live passing the next spring', and in 1580, Nicholas Johnson was accused of 'making her Majesty's picture in wax'. This last case was one of the factors in the passing of a new Act in 1580-1 which attacked the 'divers persons wickedly disposed' who had 'not only wished her Majesty's death, but also by divers means practised and sought to know how long her Highness should live, and who should reign after her decease, and what changes and alterations should thereby happen.' The Act went on to attack all those who, 'by any prophecying, witchcraft, conjurations or other like unlawfull means whatsoever', attempted to harm the monarch or to meddle in her affairs. In England, then, there was already a clear connection between prophecy, witchcraft, and monarchy before James ascended the throne.

In Scotland, James was making his own connections. There is little evidence that he had an interest in witchcraft before 1590, but the sensational trials of that year changed his attitude. More than 300 witches were alleged to have met and confessions were extorted, with the aid of torture, which pointed to a conspiracy directed by the Earl of Bothwell against the king himself. James took an active part in the trial, and Agnes Samson's report [in Newes from Scotland] of 'the very words which passed between the King's Majesty and his Queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage' made him give 'more credit to the rest'.

But if the trial triggered James's interest in witchcraft, we may suggest two possible determinants of the actual form his interest took. The first is, paradoxical though it may seem, his very desire to be in the intellectual vanguard. We need to remember that the witch craze was not the last fling of residual medieval 'superstition', but, at least in part, the potent construction of some of the foremost intellectuals of the time, including Bodin. It may well be … that it was James's attempt to keep up with intellectual developments on the Continent after his contract with scholars in Denmark in 1589 which first aroused his in terest in witchcraft.

But if his interest was stimulated by Continental ideas, his new belief consolidated his pre-existing interest in the theory and practice of godly rule. If the King was God's representative on earth, then who could be a more likely victim of the devil's arts than he? In his early work on the Book of Revelations, James had associated the devil with Antichrist, in his guise of the Pope, but it was not difficult to imagine that the devil employed more than one agency. To suggest, then, that the monarchy was under demonic attack was to glorify the institution of monarchy, since that implied that it was one of the bastions protecting this world from the triumph of Satan. As Stuart Clark says, [in The Damned Art (1977)], 'demonism was, logically speaking, one of the presuppositions of the metaphysics of order on which James's political ideas ultimately rested.' Clark also shows how this kind of antithetical thinking is the logical corollary of analogical thinking. If kingship is legitimated by analogy to God's rule over the earth, and the father's rule over the family and the head's rule over the body, witchcraft establishes the opposite analogies, whereby the Devil attempts to rule over the earth, and the woman over the family, and the body over the head.

Henry Paul, in his important study of Macbeth [The Royal Play of Macbeth (1950)], argues in great detail for the indebtedness of the play to James's views on the nature of witchcraft and kingship. The play was performed before James and his father-in-law, the King of Denmark, at Hampton Court in 1606, and Paul argues that the play was shaped in important ways by royal patronage. But it is not demonstrable, in my view, that James's views (as set forth in his Daemonologie, for instance) were sources for the play, although they undoubtedly set ideological limits to it. In 1604, a play called Gowrie, performed by the King's Men, had been banned. The play was presumably based on the Earl of Gowrie's attempt to murder James in 1600. Gowrie had been killed in the attempt, and [according to Gowrie's Conspiracie (1600)] on him had been found a bag 'full of magicall characters, and words of inchantment, wherein, it seemed that he had put his confidence.' Whatever the reason for banning the play, the King's Men would have been unlikely to risk a second offensive play on the sensitive topics of the attack upon kings and the uses of the black arts.

But if James's ideas were not a source, they provide an analogue, sharing and partially determining the ideological terrain of Macbeth. Like James's works, Macbeth is constructed around the fear of a world without sovereignty. Similarly, Robert Bolton, preaching in 1621, attempted to legitimate sovereignty by constructing the imaginary horrors of a world without it:

Take Sovereignty from the face of the earth, and you turne it into a Cockpit. Men would become cut-throats and cannibals one unto another. Murder, adulteries, incests, rapes, robberies, perjuries, witchcrafts, blasphemies, all kinds of villainies, outrages, and savage cruelty, would overflow all Countries. We should have a very hell upon earth, and the face of it covered with blood, as it was once with water.


If it was the ascension of James to the English throne which suggested a play about Scottish history, and about James's own ancestry in particular, it is worth noting how Shakespeare utilized Holinshed, his main source for the play. To begin with, he simplified the outlines of the story to create a structure of clear antitheses. Holinshed's Duncan is a weak king, 'negligent … in punishing offenders,' and unable to control the kingdom, whereas Shakespeare's Duncan is, as even Macbeth admits, 'clear in his great office' (I.vii.18). Holinshed's Macbeth has a legal right to the throne, since 'by the old lawes of the realme, the ordnance was, that if he that should succeed were not of able age to take the charge upon himselfe, he that was next of bloud unto him should be admitted', whereas Shakespeare makes little of Macbeth's claim. Moreover, Shakespeare omits any reference to the 'ten yeares in equall justice' during which Holinshed's Macbeth ruled after 'the feeble and slouthfull administration of Duncane'. Finally, Holinshed's Banquo is a party to Macbeth's plot to murder Duncan, whereas Shakespeare's Banquo is not.

What is striking about all these changes is that they transform dialectic into antithesis. Whereas Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy undoubtedly raises dialectical questions about sovereignty, Macbeth takes material eminently suitable for dialectical development (the weak ruler being overthrown by a ruler who establishes 'equall justice') and shapes it into a structural antithesis. One reason for the shaping of the sources in this way was, no doubt, royal patronage. This meant, for instance, that Banquo, James's ancestor, had to be shown in a favourable light, and it may be that James's views on godly rule and on 'the trew difference betwixt a lawfull, good King and an usurping Tyrant' were taken into account. Certainly, Macbeth differentiates as clearly as James's Basilikon Doron between the good king whose 'greatest suretie' is his people's good will and the tyrant who builds 'his suretie upon his peoples miserie'.

Holinshed's account, though, suggested another factor by which the tyrant might be distinguished from the godly ruler: his relation to witchcraft. For Holinshed describes how Macbeth 'had learned of certaine wizzards' and had gained (false) confidence from a witch who told him 'that he should never be slaine with man born of anie woman'. But even over the issue of witchcraft, Holinshed is not entirely clear, because the crucial prophecies which embolden his Macbeth are made by 'three women in strange and wild appareil, resembling creatures of elder world', and these women are later described as 'either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromenticall science'. It was probably these three women whom Dr Gwin transformed into the Tres Sibyllae who hailed James as King of Scotland and England in a performance presented to the king at Oxford on 27 August 1605.

But for the Witches in Macbeth to have been presented as godly sibylls would have weakened the antithetical structure of the play. Only by making his Sisters forces of darkness could Shakespeare suggest demonic opposition to godly rule. And here Shakespeare had to supplement Holinshed's account of Macbeth. For although the political effects of usurpation are suggested by Holinshed's account of how, after Macbeth murdered Banquo, 'everie man began to doubt his owne life', there is little sense of the natural holocaust which Bolton saw as the logical outcome of the overthrow of sovereignty. For an image of a king's murder and the consequent turning of a country into 'a very hell upon earth', Shakespeare had to turn back to Holinshed's account of Donwald's murder of King Duff, a murder which is itself the consequence of the King's execution of Donwald's kinsmen for conspiring with witches against him. Many of the horrifying events which follow Duff's death (the darkening of the sun, lightning and tempests, cannibalism amongst animals) reappear, more or less transformed, in Macbeth, reaffirming through antithesis the order which has been overthrown—the order of monarchy, of patriarchy, of the head, of 'reason'.


'For Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft' (I Samuel XV. 23). And the first two scenes of Macbeth present both witches and rebellion. But what kind of witches are they? In the first scene, we can note several aspects of them: they are connected with disorder in nature (not only thunder and lightning but also 'fog and filthy air'); they are associated with familiars (Graymalkin and Paddock), the common companions of English witches but rarely mentioned in Scottish or Continental prosecutions; they can 'hover'; they reverse moral values ('Fair is foul, and foul is fair' (I.i.10); they presumably foresee the future, since the third witch knows that the battle will be over by sun set. The third scene, though, shows more clearly what seems to be an ambiguity in the presentation of the Witches. On the one hand, they have features typical of the English village 'witch', being old women, 'wither'd' and with 'choppy fingers' and 'skinny lips'. ([In The Discoverie of Witchcraft] Reginald Scot described English 'witches' as 'commonly old, lame, bleareeied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles'.) Moreover, the second witch kills swine and the first witch pursues a petty vendetta, typical offences in English witch prosecutions. But, on the other hand, they are mysterious and 'look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth' (I.iii.41), and they prophesy the future.

What is the function of this ambiguity? At one level, no doubt, it enabled Shakespeare to draw upon the common belief in an 'evil' at work in the English countryside whilst never reducing the play's witches to village widows. But it was also structurally convenient because it established a double perspective on evil, allowing for the simultaneous sense of reduction in Macbeth as he becomes increasingly dependent on the 'midnight hags' (IV.i.47) and of his aspiration as, after 'Disdaining Fortune' (I.ii.17) in the battle, he attempts to grab hold of Providence itself. The double perspective operates throughout the play. On the one hand, Macbeth is reduced to the image of 'a dwarfish thief (V.ii.22) before being literally reduced to the head which Macduff carries onto the stage. At this level, evil is conceptualized as eating up itself until nothing is left. But the conceptualization leaves no role for militant 'good' (and therefore would not require the 'great revenge' (IV.iii.214) of Malcolm and Macduff), and so the world of self-consuming evil is combined with a dualistic world in which both the Witches and Macbeth threaten to bring the world back to its first chaos or, as Bolton puts it, to create 'a very hell upon earth', the hell of a world without sovereignty.


The Witches open the play, but they appear in only the first and third scenes of the first Act. In the fifth and seventh scenes, the 'temptress' is Lady Macbeth. In other words, scenes in which female figures champion evil alternate with public scenes (Duncan and news of the battle in scene 2; the honouring of Macbeth, Banquo, and Malcolm in scene 4; Duncan's reception at Macbeth's castle in scene 6). And the public scenes, with the exception of the last, are exclusively male. If this foregrounds the female figures, Lady Macbeth is also equated with the Witches in more specific ways. As Mark Rose says [in Shakespearean Design (1972)], 'the third scene opens with the Witches alone, after which Macbeth enters and they hail him by his various titles. The fifth scene opens with Lady Macbeth alone, practising witchcraft.… And when Macbeth enters she, too, hails him by his titles.' Moreover, Lady Macbeth and the Witches are equated by their equivocal relation to an implied norm of femininity. Of the Witches, Banquo says:

            You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

And Lady Macbeth invokes the 'murd'ring ministers' (I.v.45) to unsex her.

The enticement of Macbeth both by the Witches and by his wife is briefly suggested in Holinshed's account of Macbeth, and in Holinshed's earlier account of Donwald's wife Shakespeare found a much expanded role given to a murderer's wife. But in neither account is any connection made between witchcraft and the murderer's wife. Again, we see the antithetical mode being strengthened in Macbeth by the development of analogies between 'perverted femininity', witchcraft, and a world turned upside down. The analogy was not, of course, new, and it is notoriously enshrined in Malleus Maleficarum where Femina is derived from Fe and Minus 'since [woman] is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith.'

But it is important to note the shift of emphasis when Lady Macbeth 'replaces' the witches. By this movement from the already damned to the secular world, the implications of the rejection of 'womanhood' are made explicit. Whereas the witches are difficult to categorize at all within the implied norm, in I v, Lady Macbeth is shown in the very attempt of overthrowing a norm inscribed in her own body. 'Remorse', 'compunctious visitings of Nature', and the 'milk' of 'woman's breasts' (I.v.41-5) are established as the 'feminine' virtues even as Lady Macbeth negates them. Indeed, because of the inscription of those virtues in Lady Macbeth, her relation to witchcraft is not as clear at the psychological as it is at the structural level. Although Lady Macbeth might say, like Joan la Pucelle, 'I exceed my sex' (1 Henry VI, I.ii.90), her relation to witchcraft is never as explicit as Joan's. For Joan is not merely accused of being a 'witch' and 'damned sorceress' (III.ii.38); her conjurings lead to the actual appearance of fiends upon the stage.

Nevertheless, Lady Macbeth's invocation of the 'murd'ring ministers' (I.v.45) as her children has particular resonance within the context of witchcraft, even if her ministers never appear. For her proclaimed role as mother/lover of the spirits implicitly subverts patriarchal authority in a manner typically connected with witchcraft. If the first Witch plans to come between a sailor and his wife in I.iii, Lady Macbeth herself breaks the bond with her husband by suggesting both his metaphysical and physical impotence (he is not 'a man' (I.vii.49)) because he is unworthy of the respect due to a patriarch, because he is 'a coward' (I.vii.43), and, possibly, because, as we learn later, his is 'a barren sceptre' (III.i.61). It is particularly ironic, then, that Macbeth says 'Bring forth men-children only' (I.vii.72). For the structural antitheses which the first act develops establish the relation between women, witchcraft, the undermining of patriarchal authority and sterility.

But how can the family be conceptualized if women are, literally, faithless? One way is to show that not all wom anhood falls under the curse of witchcraft, and this is surely an important reason for the introduction of Lady Macduff in IV.ii, a scene which has no base in Holinshed. Indeed, it is the destruction of this 'ideal' family which leads to Macduff's revenge and the final dénouement. But Lady Macduff is introduced late in the play, and we have already been presented with another way out of the dilemma: a family without women—Duncan and his sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, Banquo and his son Fleance (at the end of the play, Siward and his son Young Siward). On the one hand, there are the (virtuous) families of men; on the other hand, there are the antifamilies of women. And here, the notorious question, 'How many children had Lady Macbeth?' is not entirely irrelevant. For although Lady Macbeth says, 'I have given suck' (I.vii.54), her children are never seen on the stage, unlike the children of Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, and Siward. Are we not asked to accept a logical contradiction for the sake of a symbolic unity: Lady Macbeth is both an unnatural mother and sterile? This links her to the unholy family of the Witches, with their familiars and their brew which includes 'Finger of birth-strangled babe' and the blood of a sow which has eaten its own litter (IV.i.30 and 64-5). Like the Witches, Lady Macbeth and her husband constitute an 'unholy' family, a family whose only children are the 'murd'ring ministers'.


I have been writing mainly of the ways in which the Witches and Lady Macbeth function in the first Act. But their functions are not constant throughout the play. Lady Macbeth is beginning to be developed into her own antithesis even before the murder takes place. 'Nature' is reasserted through her in its most compelling guise—the Law of the Father which, in this society, founds and is founded by the Law of the King. Thus, Lady Macbeth says that she would have murdered Duncan herself 'Had he not resembled / My father as he slept' (II.ii.12- 13). And in the last act, she is transformed from the pitiless instigator to murder to the guilt-ridden sleep-walker whose thoughts return to 'the old man' who had 'so much blood in him' (V.i.38). Curry interprets her sleep-walking as 'demoniacal somnambulism'. But surely this is to miss the dramatic point, which is the reassertion of 'the compunctious visitations of Nature' if only in sleep. Lady Macbeth's last words, indeed, are not of her own guilt but of the solicitous wife's care for her husband: 'give me your hand.… To bed, to bed, to bed' (V.i.64-6). But the transformation of Lady Macbeth is used to affirm developmentally the antithetical structure. It operates as a specific closure of discourse within the binary opposition of virago (witch)/wife.

If Lady Macbeth's changing function is marked by psychological change, the Witches' changing function is marked by the changing function of their prophecies. Much has been made of the fact that the Witches speak equivocally, that they are, as Macbeth says, 'imperfect speakers' (I.iii.70). But the apparitions of the fourth act are progressively less equivocal, moving from the 'armed head' to the 'bloody child' to the 'child crowned' to the 'show of eight kings, the last with a glass in his hand' which shows Banquo's descendants stretched out 'to th' crack of doom' (IV.i.117). The Witches here, far from being 'imperfect speakers', conjure up a vision whose truth is established by the presence of Banquo's descendant, James I. In this prophecy of the 'good', dramatic fate (as yet incomplete) joins hands with completed political fate.

As with Lady Macbeth, then, so with the Witches: they are constructed so as to manifest their own antithesis. Cursed witches prophesy the triumph of godly rule. At one level, no doubt, this implies that even evil works providentially. As James himself had declared in the preface to Daemonologie:

For where the devilles intention in them is ever to perish, either the soule or the body, or both of them, that he is so permitted to deale with: God by the contrarie, drawes ever out of that evill glorie to himselfe.

But at another level, the association of the Witches with the workings of Providence is part of the process by which attention is focused upon Macbeth alone. In I.i, the Witches are invoked by their familiars; in I.v, Lady Macbeth invokes the spirits. But, in the third act, it is Macbeth, who had to be 'invoked' to do the deed, who invokes the night to 'Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful Day' (III.ii.47). But Macbeth's conjunctions made even

                though the treasure
Of nature's germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken

lead to a future in which he, with his 'fruitless crown' (III.i.60), has no place. At the end, his only 'familiar' is 'Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts' (V.v.14).


The first act of the play is framed by images of witch-craft, rebellion and murder. At the end of the second act, an old man describes a world turned upside down, in which owls kill falcons, horses revolt against men and cannibalize each other, and night strangles day. In I.i, I.iii, III.v, and IV.i , thunder sounds. And in III.v and IV. i Hecate, who, according to Jonson, 'was believed to govern in witchcraft', appears. Indeed, IV.i , the last scene with the Witches, can be seen as the emblematic centre of the play, containing as it does both the vision of kings and the fullest display of the workings of the 'secret, black, and midnight hags' (IV.i.48). It is not my purpose to enter into the dispute about the authorship of the Hecate passages. Whether Shakespeare wrote them or not, they are perfectly in keeping with the structure of the play. Indeed, the dance of Hecate and the six Witches gives a concrete dramatization of the 'deed without a name' (IV.i.49) which reverses the whole order of 'Nature'. We need to imagine something like the Witches' dance in Jonson's The Masque of Queens (1609), which was

full of preposterous change, and gesticulation, but most applying to their property, who at their meetings, do all things contrary to the custom of men, dancing back to back and hip to hip, their hands joined, and making their circles backward, to the left hand, with strange fantastic motions of their heads and bodies.

In the rituals of Shakespeare's Witches, as of Jonson's, a Jacobean audience could contemplate the systematic un-doing of the hierarchical ceremonies of speech, of cooking, of dancing.

It is also in Act IV , though, that the 'prayers' for a 'swift blessing' ( which will restore those ceremonies begin to be answered by the discovery of medicines for 'the sickly weal' (V.ii.27). At the same time, the impotence of literal medicines is made explicit by two minor characters: the English doctor who admits the impotence of his art to cure scrofula, the Scottish doctor who admits the impotence of his art to cure 'infected minds' ('More needs she the divine than the physician' (V.i.72)). The introduction of these characters should warn against any attempt to give too naturalistic an explanation of the play, since their function is largely to assert the dependence of physical health upon political and metaphysical order. Indeed, the only function of the English doctor is to dramatize the difference between his own weak art and the medicine of King Edward's 'sanctity' (IV.iii. 144). (The King's power to heal scrofula, a belief which originated with Edward I, was a useful piece of royal propaganda and, although James I was himself sceptical, he ultimately agreed to take part in the healing ceremony; its propaganda value may be suggested by the fact that Charles II touched 90,798 persons in nineteen years.) Of course, King Edward offers Malcolm the practical aid of troops as well as the metaphysical aid of the 'sundry blessings' which hang about his throne (IV.iii. 158). But the 'med'cines' of Malcolm's and Macduff's 'great revenge' (IV.iii.214) are guaranteed and legitimated by a godly magic which surpasses 'the great essay of art' (IV.iii. 143).

Witchcraft, prophecy and magic function in Macbeth as ways of developing a particular conceptualization of social and political order. Witchcraft is associated with female rule and the overthrowing of patriarchal authority which in turn leads to the 'womanish' (both cowardly and instigated by women) killing of Duncan, the 'holy' father who establishes both family and state. This in turn leads to the reversals in the cosmic order which the Old Ma n and Ross describe, and to the reversals in the patriarchal order, culminating in the killing of Lady Macduff and her son. The conclusion of the play reestablishes both the offended (and offending?) father, a father, paradoxically, 'not born of woman' (V.iii.4) (does this imply that he is unnatural or untainted?), and the offended son/king. And the Witches can simply disappear, their evil supplanted by the prophetic vision of Banquo's line and by the 'heavenly gift of prophecy' and 'miraculous work' (IV.iii. 157 and 147) of a legitimate king.


This aspect of Macbeth as a work of cultural 'ordering' could, of course, only make claims to 'truth' within a cosmology which accommodated witchcraft beliefs. That cosmology was largely defined by the Bible. There are, indeed, interesting parallels between Macbeth and the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor in the Book of Samuel (I Samuel XXVIII) , a text which was dealt with by nearly every Renaissance treatise on witchcraft. Jane Jack has explored this parallel in ["Macbeth, King James and the Bible," ELH, 22 (1955)], where she writes:

Like Saul, Macbeth hears from the witches the confirmation of what he most fears. The crisis of the story is the victory of the witches: the resolution of the story is the judgement passed on Macbeth at the end—the same judgement that is passed on Saul: 'So Saul dyed for his transgression, that he committed against the word of the Lord, which he kept not, and in that he sought and asked consel of a familiar spirit' (glossed in Geneva version as a 'witche and sorceress').

Jack goes on to assert the essentially religious tenor of Macbeth, a view which most critics of the play seem to hold. Murray, for example, maintains [in "Wh y Was Duncan's Blood Golden?", Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966)]:

[Macbeth] is, if ever a poem were so, a traditional Catholic Christian poem, the vitality of which is rooted in an uncompromising medieval faith, and in a prescientific view of the nature of reality. Consequently it preserves in a tremendously powerful and well unified set of images one of the greatest forces in Western European culture, a force which, however alien it may seem to many of us today, we can afford neither to forget, nor to neglect, for it contains, and can still convey, much of the wisdom of human experience.

The 'Christian' interpretation is, I believe, right in so far as it recognizes that Macbeth can only be understood in relation to a particular cosmology. But Murray, like Jack, attempts to separate religion from politics in a way which was totally foreign to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinking. For instance, the Fifth Commandment ('Honour thy father and thy mother' … ) received new emphasis during this period so as to give religious underpinnings to the patriarchal state. Indeed, analogical thinking could be used not only to draw close parallels between the law of Moses and the law of the State but also to collapse traditional distinctions. Thus, in The Six Bookes of the Commonweale (1586), Bodin rejected Aristotle's distinction between political and domestic hierarchy, claiming that the family 'is the true seminane and beginning of every Commonweale.' Nor is it surprising that Bodin also wrote an influential attack upon witchcraft, Démonomanie des Sorciers (1580). If state and family were founded together, witchcraft founded the antistate together with the antifamily. James I also made the connection between state and family ('By the Law of Nature the King becomes a naturali Father to all his Lieges at his Coronation') and he too saw witchcraft as the antithesis of both. If the family was theorized as the site of conflict between hierarchy and witchcraft, that was, no doubt, because of its symbolic importance in early modern Europe when, as Natalie Davis writes [in "Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual In-version and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe," in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society (1978)],

the nature of political rule and the newer problem of sovereignty were very much at issue. In the little world of the family, with its conspicuous tension between intimacy and power, the larger matters of political and social order could find ready symbolization.

Witchcraft, sovereignty, the family—those concepts map out the ideological terrain of Macbeth, a terrain which should be understood as a field of conflict, not a 'given'.

I would argue, then, that Murray is wrong in attempting to collapse the present moment of analysis back into the 'eternity' of a past 'wisdom'. What, after all, are those 'well unified set of images', which give us 'the wisdom of human experience', about? 'Unreasoning womanhood', 'eternal motherhood', mind as 'a male quality only', Murray tells us. He points, I believe, to important elements in the play, but he then requires that we empathize with its symbolic orderings without reference of those orderings as embodying particular manoeuvres of power.

Those manoeuvres as they relate to 'unreasoning woman-hood' are spelled out clearly enough in Krämer and Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the most influential of all the Renaissance witchcraft treatises. In it, a section is dedicated to answering the question 'Why Superstition is chiefly found in Women.' The roots of witch-craft are there discovered to be in the very nature of women, a nature which includes her desire, following Eve, to betray mankind. 'She is more carnal than a man'; 'as she is a liar by nature, so in her speech she stings while she delights us'; 'her heart is a net, and her hands are bands. He that pleaseth God shall escape from her; but he that is a sinner shall be caught by her'; 'can he be called a free man whose wife governs him … ? I should call him not only a slave, but the vilest of slaves, even if he comes of the noblest family'; 'nearly all the kingdoms of the world have been overthrown by woman.' (All of these statements have analogues in Macbeth.) In the Malleus, misogyny leads to the conclusion that 'it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft.' Kramer and Sprenger's advocacy of a programme of ruthless repression is a logical consequence of their fear of a supernatural power in the hands of the powerless. For who would the powerless direct their power against if not the powerful?

If Kramer's and Sprenger's beliefs were grounded in medieval Christian traditions, similar beliefs can be found in modern African societies which have been analysed by anthropologists attempting to understand the social functions of such beliefs. Esther Goody, for example, observes [in "Legitimate and Illegitimate Aggression in a West African State," in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations] that amongst the Gonja in Ghana only women are punished for witchcraft, and she accounts for this by showing the relation between witchcraft and the prohibition against aggression amongst women, since they have been consigned to an exclusively nurturing role:

There are two regular characteristics of the female domestic role. First, in the role of mother, a woman is a focus of emotional ties.… Then, as wife, woman is defined as subordinate to her husband. Aggression, if permitted, would threaten both these characteristics.… And if a woman strikes her husband with a stirring stick … he will become impotent; aggression in a woman's role renders a man powerless—it cannot be permitted.

A woman's refusal to be subordinated, then, is often accounted for by witchcraft. Similarly, Max Gluckman notes [in "Moral Crises: Magical and Secular Solutions," in The Allocation of Responsibility (1972)] that

In Nupe the evil witches who kill are women.… Nadel seeks to answer why. He finds a striking conflict between the roles which, ideally, women ought to play and that many women in fact do. Ideally, a Nupe woman should be a good wife, subservient to her husband, bearing him many children, and staying at home to care for them and their father. In reality, a great deal of trade is in the hands of women.

Women seem to be particularly vulnerable to witchcraft accusations in patrilineal, patrilocal societies, where women are cut off from their own kin and expected to merge their interests with those of their husbands' kin.

Two versions of how women operate in this kind of situation are constructed in Macbeth. Lady Macduff sub-merges her interests in her husband's, and when he flees she is totally defenceless; Lady Macbeth actively pursues her husband's interests, but only those interests which separate him from his kin. In the latter case, this leads to Macbeth's murder of his cousin, to the isolation of the husband with his 'dear wife' (III.ii.36), cut off from 'honour, love, obedience, troops of friends' (V.iii.25), and finally, to the total isolation of Macbeth in the field of battle. But the play, concentrating increasingly on Macbeth himself as it develops, does not analyse the position of women; rather, it mobilizes the patriarchal fear of unsubordinated woman, the unstable element to which Krämer and Sprenger attributed the overthrow of 'nearly all the kingdoms of the world', to which the Gonja and the Nupe attribute witchcraft.

I am not proposing to conflate the imaginary society of Macbeth with Gonja or Nupe society. But I am arguing for the general relevance of anthropological and sociological models of the relation between witchcraft beliefs and structures of political and social dominance. We need such models, I believe, if we are to analyse, rather than repeat, the terms of the play itself. What I have attempted to show here is the use of witchcraft as a form of ideo-logical closure within Macbeth, a returning of the disputed ground of politics to the undisputed ground of 'Nature'.

But the play is not, of course, about witchcraft, nor does the threat of the Biblical 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' (Exodus, XXII . 18) hang over Macbeth as it hangs over The Witch of Edmonton (1621), for instance. And it cannot be said that the witches in Macbeth provide the only explanatory element in the play. If their prophecies provide one motive for the killing of a king, the radical instability of the concept of 'manliness' is sufficient to precipitate the deed. But it would be misleading to interpret this overdetermination as a conflict between supernatural and natural modes of explanation, since, within the cultural context, there was no necessity to choose between those modes. (For example, Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton is at first abused as a witch merely because, as she complains, 'I am poor, deform'd and ignorant' (II.i.3); but the fact that she is presented sympathetically as a scapegoat—the natural explanation—is not seen as contradicting the fact that she becomes a witch—the supernatural explanation—and therefore presumably 'deserves' her death.) Nevertheless the coexistence of those modes suggests that the structural closures which I have been examining do not preclude a problematic relation between 'highly' and 'holily' (I.v.17-18).

Gender Issues

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Robert Kimbrough (essay date 1983)

SOURCE : "Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. X V I , 1983, pp. 175-90.

[In the following essay, Kimbrough examines the portrayal of gender in Macbeth, maintaining that through the "unnatural" characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare endorses "androgeny"the harmonious blending of male and female characteristics within the individual.]

Long before "conscience was born of love," the human species had inherited a mammalian subdivision into sex, female and male, nature's way of providing generation and continuity of our species. Before mammals all generation was a unisexual operation. Post-conscience-ness sensed as much with its invention of the myth of androgyny, a myth most readily available in the Judeo-Christian version of God the Creator as an Androgyne, creating humanity in the image of that androgyny, with the division of humanity into separate sexes following, and falling hard upon. We are still suffering from the shock.

In spite of the evolution of two sexes within humanity, the internal and external physical differences between female humans and male humans remain infinitesimal; yet these small differences loom large because of the evolution of consciousness, or mind. With the evolution of mind, differences between females and males became ground plots for constructs of conscienceness, of self and of other. Thus, female and male differences are, for the most part, matters of mind. We call these evolved and evolving attitudes of mind which stem from and are directed toward sex, matters of gender.

By Shakespeare's day, the division of humanity within the evolving world of mind had reached a state … of an almost absolute division of humanity, not into subtypes of one species, but into separated types, each treated as if it were itself a separate species. Two worlds had evolved, two cultures had been created, masculine and feminine—not in a parallel relationship, but hierarchial: masculine first, feminine second.…

But the work of these scholars also reminds us that there is a tendency in Shakespeare to want to break down the barriers between the sex-genders. Shakespeare sensed that humanhood embraces manhood and womanhood. Shakespeare sensed that so long as one remains exclusively female or exclusively male, that person will be restricted and confined, denied human growth. Each will be the prisoner of gender, not its keeper.

Because through all of Shakespeare there runs the theme that both male and female must be liberated from the restrictions inherent in the concept of the two genders, his works move toward liberating humanity from the prisons created by inclusive and exclusive gender labeling. In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare (in a satiric vein) asks two questions: why … can't a man be more like woman?, and why shouldn't a woman be allowed to act like a man? (Or, is not Shakespeare's actual question, given Venus's behavior, why would anyone want to act like a man?) On a social level, when a woman such as Juliet laments that she wished she had the prerogative of men and could speak out in matters of love, or when a man such as Trolius self-consciously states that he is being weak and effeminate if he shows disgust with fighting, each is trying to break out of the frustrating confines of what society has circumscribed and described as appropriate behavior for a woman or for a man.

Gender liberation in a more sustained form appears in Shakespeare when a character of one sex experiences thoughts and emotions beyond those traditionally associated with the gender values of that sex. Because a woman dressed as a man has simultaneously two genders, the theatrical device of girl-into-boy disguise provided Shakespeare with a kind of laboratory testing ground where he could isolate such moments of heightened, broadened awareness. There are seven uses of such disguise by Shakespeare, but he has only Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Viola in Twelfth Night, before they enter disguise and once within, refer vividly and amusedly to male characteristics, organic as well as behavioral, sex as well as gender. As "men," Julia, Portia, Rosalind, and Viola are able to display a broader range of human character traits than they could as women only; they are liberated from the confines of socially appropriate gender behavior.

Reaching further into our humanity are the attempts to cross gender barriers found in Julius Caesar, Othello, and Macbeth. On a deep, personal level, Portia tries to break away from prescribed role in order to share with and participate in the brutal world of Brutus. Although he loves his wife, Brutus is too private a person to share with anyone else, male or female. But Desdemona and Othello each begin marriage so conditioned by their respective feminine and masculine worlds that their gestures to bridge separation are childlike and futile even before Iago separates them absolutely. From the outset we know that the relationship between Lord and Lady Macbeth has been one of mutuality and sharing; yet they, too, like Portia, Brutus, Desdemona, and Othello, are prevented from attaining and maintaining a full range of human character traits because of cultural attempts to render some exclusively feminine and some exclusively masculine.

But this is only a base-level statement, for the drama of Macbeth contains a fierce war between gender concepts of manhood and womanhood played out upon the plain of humanity. In a metaphoric sense, as well as in the final dramatic siege, Macbeth loses the battlefield. Macbeth's death, first psychic then physical, stems from his failure to allow the tender aspects of his character to check those tough characteristics which are celebrated by the chauvinistic war ethic of his culture, championed by his wife, and defined in the extreme by the nature of the first two murderers. In his attempt to "better" himself, he is "helped" by Lady Macbeth, whose tragic career parallels and counterpoints his. Although they fail miserably on the stage of this life, Shakespeare constantly keeps before us their potential for human fulfillment. In spite of their isolating, alienating behavior in the play, a bond with the audience is maintained so that we are not merely repulsed; we are moved through pity to understand and to fear the personal and social destructiveness of polarized masculinity and femininity.

In Macbeth, and elsewhere in Shakespeare, as in Elizabethan literature in general, to be "manly" is to be aggressive, daring, bold, resolute, and strong, especially in the face of death, whether giving or receiving. To be "womanly" is to be gentle, fearful, pitying, wavering, and soft, a condition often signified by tears. That machismo was a positive cultural virtue in Shakespeare's day is what gives point to Lady Macbeth's strikes against her husband. Indeed, the play opens and closes with ceremonial and romantic emphasis on brave manhood. In the beginning, such is the theme of the description given of "brave Macbeth" by that "good and hardy soldier" whose "words become thee as thy wounds. / They smack of honor both." Even the traitor Cawdor comes in for praise: "Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it" (I.iv.7-8). At the end of the play, Malcolm gives young Siward the honor of leading the first charge against Macbeth's castle; Ross tells old Siward about his son's ensuing death:

Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt.
He only lived but till he was a man,
The which no sooner had his prowess confirmed
In the unshrinking station where he fought
But like a man he died.

No tears for the father; to Malcolm's "He's worth more sorrow, / And that I'll spend for him," old Siward responds:

           He's worth no more.
They say he parted well and paid his score,
And so, God be with him.

This refusal to show sorrow—rather, this complete rejection of sorrow—is so extreme that it makes most in a modern audience uncomfortable, and such a reaction may have been intended by Shakespeare, for his fullest definition of humanity involves the show of both "manly" courage and "womanly" sorrow.

When Ross announces to Macduff that his family has been exterminated, Malcolm is taken back by Macduff's complete silence. Yet, when Macduff's emotions do break out, Malcolm counsels in embarrassment, "Dispute it like a man." There follows one of those great Shakespearean moments; Macduff quietly responds, "I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man" (I.V.iii.220-21). Here Macduff declines to be merely manly, as that gender term has so far been defined and as is meant by Malcolm. But Macduff is not for this moment becoming merely womanly. Here he expresses a fuller range of his being: his humanhood.

In order to emphasize this significant moment, Shakespeare has Macduff reject both simplistic "feminine" and simplistic "masculine" extremes of behavior: "O , I could play the woman with my eyes / And braggart with my tongue" (11. 230-31). Macduff goes on to say, in effect, bring on Macbeth. When Malcolm responds, "This tune goes manly" (1. 235), I would like to think that Malcolm has understood the full significance of what he has seen and heard and intends "manly" to mean more than bravely—but I doubt it; Shakespeare is too aware of the moral obtuseness of ordinary human nature to make life automatically defer to art. Nevertheless, the point Shakespeare makes through Macduff is clear: bravery and compassion are not incompatible; they are both natural, human attributes. When Macduff says, "I must also feel it as a man," had he said woman, the speech would be just as powerful because Macduff's response is a fully-realized human response.

There is no need at this point in the late twentieth century to rehearse the significances of the Shakespearean terms natural and unnatural. What is natural is good, balanced, positive, normal, generative, and healing. Such a definition is the assumption behind Macduff's rebuff to Malcolm in England: "Boundless intemperance / In Nature is a tyranny" (IV.iii.66-67). And such a definition informs Banquo's remark upon seeing the Witches: "Yo u should be women, / An d yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so" (I.iii.45-47). The witches are out of nature; they are unnatural because they are hermaphroditic. The point is important because Banquo's description is usually taken as a misogynous jibe. What Shakespeare reminds us is that witches have no normative sexual identity. In fact, one of a witch's most pronounced and commonly invoked powers was to destroy normal sexuality, be it in a man or in a woman. Furthermore, witches have the ability to turn a woman into a man (although, not a man into a woman). An d it is in this doubled context that Lady Macbeth's famous "unsex me" speech (I.v.39 ff.) can be labeled unnatural. The "spirits" she invokes might just as well be Macbeth's witches.

Within the interlocking microcosms of Elizabethan thought, killing a human, a king, a guest, and a kinsman are, of course, all unnatural acts, and Lady Macbeth is afraid that her husband's nature is too good—or, too natural—to allow him to commit murder:

            Yet I do fear thy nature.
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness.

The phrase makes us pause, rings in our ears: "The milk of human kindness." No other expression better reveals Shakespeare's basically optimistic vision of the nature of humankind (except possibly Miranda's speeches). "Human kindness" was still a redundancy in Shakespeare's day because to be kind was to be human. Kindness is humanness; mankind is humankind. Mensch.

And "the milk of human kindness"—how perfect. Basic nourishment, passed from mother to child—generation after generation. Madonna and child, symbol of goodness and love—human kindness. No wonder the language of Lady Macbeth's command to her own witches always startless us:

       Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.

Yes, nature's first mischief was the unnatural act of fratricide. Yes, we live in a fallen world where "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." We live in Macbeth's world. The Thane of Fife had a wife:

           Whither should I fly?
I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world, where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas,
Do I put up that womanly defense
To say I have done no harm?

Evil is a natural phenomenon, even though we call it unnatural. We do so, for confronting evil reality is the countervailing power of the milk of human kindness, a redemptive force of nature.

Shakespeare keeps the contrast of natural and unnatural before us when he again uses the metaphor of nourishment in Lady Macbeth's later direct challenge to her husband:

    I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as
Have done to this.

Lady Macbeth knows that love, compassion, pity, remorse are all emotions which Macbeth has in his nature and which she must repress in him in order for Macbeth to carry on with the "bloody" business.

And she states before he arrives that she must repress in herself these same forces, which she clearly thinks of as feminine (Buckingham ironically praises Richard's "tenderness of heart / And gentle, kind effeminate remorse" [R3, III.vii.20 1-02]). Here is the "unsex me" speech ad-dressed to her own witches:

        Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood;
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it. Come to my woman's breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd'ring
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief.
                        (I.v.38-48, italics added)

Lady Macbeth wants to become cruel, which is a so-called masculine trait. But in order to become cruel, she must close off the flow of blood from having "access and passage" to the heart, which is the seat of love, the source of "remorse," pity, compassion, and contrition—all of which are "compunctious" (Shakespeare coined the word) attributes of our human nature. Human nature, in turn, takes its shape and being from the vital spirits that are carried in the atomies of the bloodstream, a major function of which, according to Aristotle and the Elizabethans, was to keep the heart alive. When the blood stops flowing into the heart, the heart loses its source of vitality and hardens—which leads to despair and suicide, the ultimate murder, the sin against life itself (hence the unpardonable sin). Shakespeare is saying that compunction (the ayenbyte of inwyt) is natural and therefore human. But Lady Macbeth and her society have labeled remorse and pity as merely "feminine." She and her society confuse womanhood and humanhood. In rejecting that which she has been made to think is weak and womanly within her in order to become cruel and manly, she moves away from her humanity toward the demonic, toward becoming a life-denying witch instead of toward that sixteenth-century secular ideal, Dame Nature, the androgynous force that created the world and keeps it in motion toward fulfillment.

We are told before we meet him that Macbeth is "noble," and he shows us in the presence of the witches that he is "compunctious" because the confrontation with the "supernatural soliciting" "doth unfix my hair / An d make my seated heart knock at my ribs / Against the use of nature" (I.iii.130, 135-37, italics added). The "I f it were done when 'tis done" soliloquy (I.vii.1 ff.) is all about conscience, and by the time his wife appears on stage he has concluded that "We will proceed no further in this business" (1. 31). When Lady Macbeth calls him afraid, casts doubt on his "act and valor," and taunts him with "Letting 'I dare not' upon 'I would,'" still he can wisely, humanly answer,

             Prithee peace!
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dare do more is none.

Here Macbeth has the humanists' view of humanity: "I dare do all that may become a man"—I am sufficiently courageous to do whatever is fitting to humanity, what is appropriate in the fullest sense. This is the climax of the opening action of the play: "We will proceed no further.… I dare do all that may become a man." Macbeth has so far shown strength and dignity and seems activated by the milk of human kindness, by compunctious visitings of nature.

In a sense, the play at this point becomes Lady Macbeth's, although Macbeth remains the main actor, for he cannot resist and counter her next speech. She responds immediately to the philosophic nature of his reply concerning what is right action in terms of manhood and humanhood by retorting boldly:

     What beast was't then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
                       (11. 47-48, italics added)

She is on target; we have seen Macbeth tempted by the witches and have just heard him admit his ambition. She insists on her definition of manhood as cruel, fearless, active, consistent, and brave in behalf of which she has sought to "unsex" herself (rather, uncultivate her cultivated feminine self): "When you durst do it, then you were a man" (1. 49). Not valor and courage, but guts and balls. To this, she adds the appeal of "bettering" one's self, using "man" in a quite modern, colloquial manner (by way of Nietzsche):

And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.
                                          (11. 50-51)

She then cleverly ties these two meanings together when she sarcastically adds that now having the time and place fit for murder "Does unmake you" (1. 54)—unmans you and uncrowns you. The ultimate challenge to his machismo—"I have given suck … " (11. 54-59)—has been quoted above. Now, she here takes charge, and presents the plan for murder. Macbeth's reluctant agreement is presented through the metaphor of the manly woman:

      Bring forth men-children only;
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.
                                    (11. 72-74)

Macbeth has succumbed to the gender definitions of male and female of his society as they have been expressed by Lady Macbeth—divided, separated definitions which reject the bonding nurture of the milk of human kindness—as can be seen in his reductive, simplistic syllogism: all men are tough; you are tough; therefore, all children coming from you will be, should be, had better be men. Even though his response is strained and sarcastic, it shows his conversion to her point of view. The two are in league against humanity.

While Macbeth has acquiesced to a definition of masculinity which comes from dominant societal norms that equate machismo with manhood, Shakespeare does not allow us to forget that once Macbeth had a fuller vision, nor does he try to shift the blame for Macbeth's fall to Lady Macbeth. The "dagger" speech (II.i.33 ff.) arises from Macbeth's conscience (a sign of "compunctious visitings of nature"), but this soliloquy does not end with any "We will proceed no further." This time, before Lady Macbeth enters, the bell rings and Macbeth concludes, "I go, and it is done" (1. 62). He is on his way literally and figuratively to becoming the kind of man his wife has urged. When he pretends to discover the murder of Duncan, his words have piercing ironic truth:

       from this instant
There's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys.

For him, this is precise truth; once he has destroyed the order of nature, all is reduced to relativeness. Hence, his rhetorical question is devastatingly ironic:

Who can be wise, amazed, temp'rate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.
                                   (11. 104-05)

No, not the kind of man he is becoming, but the ideal answer is any man—or, all humanity. Still, he presents his thoughts within a philosophic framework, one now perverted:

The expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason.

       Who could refrain
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make 's love known?
                                      (11. 106-14)

Shakespeare was well aware that courage means heart-stuff; we still say "take heart," meaning, be calmly resolute, be patient—a meaning opposite to Macbeth's counsel: "Let's briefly put on manly readiness" (1. 129).

"Manly readiness" is what the two murderers have when they respond to Macbeth's challenge to carry out revenge against Banquo: "We are men, my liege" (III.i.91). The bitterness of Macbeth's long diatribe, "Ay , in the catalogue ye go for men" (1. 92), takes its force from our recognition that Macbeth is like these men even while some vestige of his former vision—"I dare do all that may become a man"—shines through.

This is the kind of counterplay that informs the banquet scene (which I am tempted to call the further milking of Macbeth). When Banquo's ghost first appears, Lady Macbeth tries to calm her husband by a near-Pavlovian technique; she says in aside to him: "Are you a man?" Shakespeare's first repetition of the verb "dare" in Macbeth's answer signals the degree that Macbeth has slipped from true manhood:

Ay, and a bold one, that dare to look on that
Which might appal the devil.
                      (III.iv.50-60, italics added)

Still, compunctious visitings of nature continue to shake him, bringing Lady Macbeth to direct irony, but embracing ironies only fully apparent to us and Shakespeare:

        O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts
(Imposters to true fear) would well become
A woman's story at a winter's fire,
Authorized by her grandam.

What, quite unmanned in folly?
                                  (11. 60-73)

The conscience-invoked dagger was a sign of true (reasonable) fear; thus, Shakespeare indicates that Lady Macbeth's mockingly "feminine" "flaws and starts" are not "Imposters to true fear" as she claims, but are final visitings of nature which could redeem, restore, or re-make Macbeth.

With the second entry of Banquo, Macbeth is even more distracted, and Shakespeare has him return for a third time to the concept of daring, calling attention to how far Macbeth has drifted away from his earliest vision. There is frenzy now in his rejection of conscience:

   What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The armed rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble. Or be alive again
And dare me to the desert with thy sword.
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl.
                          (11. 99-106, italics added)

Macbeth here makes the final division of humanhood into manhood and womanhood, mere derring-do and cowardice. Thus his words when Banquo leaves for the last time have a fulfilled ironic thematic significance: "Why, so, being gone, / I am a man again" (11.107-08). He is not a girl baby, but one of Lady Macbeth's "men-children."

Shakespeare returns to this motif of manhood at the very end of the play. On finding out about Macduff's Caesarean delivery (considered to be an unnatural manner of birth), Macbeth gasps:

Accursed be that tongue that tells me so,
For it hath cowed my better part of man.

Johnson defined "cowed" as depressed with fear, dispirited, overawed, intimidated. Indeed, the tragedy of Macbeth lies in the fact that during the course of the play his "better part of man" has increasingly been repressed by his worse part, his merely tough part. The positive vision of human kindness—as illustrated through Macduff's re-action to the slaughter of his family, and seemingly at the outset felt and acknowledged by Macbeth—has almost been completely lost. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth's heart had received fewer and fewer visits from compunctious nature. Because his heart has been gradually hardening, Macbeth can no longer feel, or, rather, has just enough memory of feeling to highlight his isolation:

I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. I have supped full with
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

At the beginning of the play, the sight and unnatural temptings of the witches did rouse and stir his hair (I.iii.135); now, at this point, he admits his state of degeneration. The kind promptings of nature have become so sluggish, so deadened, that nothing can startle him. His heart is hardening. He has sentenced himself to solitary confinement.

Why is it, then, that we do not detest Lord and Lady Macbeth? Both are clearly evil. She is early determined to play the serpent (I.v.24-25) and from the outset we are given the disturbing suspicion that even before encountering the witches Macbeth has entertained the unnatural act of regicide:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise and nothing is
But what is not.

Why can we not simply dismiss them? We cannot because they are all too human throughout—through them Shakespeare appeals to our shared humanity, our potential for a human fulfillment which rises above gender division.

Lady Macbeth's death proves her humanity, for it shows that she was not as tough as she thought she was. Ironically, to Elizabethans, insanity and suicide were considered signs of weakness, signs of cowardice, therefore partaking of the "feminine." (Ophelia's suicide is handled more tolerantly than it would have been even had she been a man of equal social status.) Lady Macbeth's culture, however, did not allow her to truly develop her full self. She operates from the restrictive base assumptions of a culturally defined feminine self. Furthermore, when she says "unsex me," she really means ungender me, which serves to point up the cultural confusion and misunder-standing of sex and gender in the seventeenth century, let alone the twentieth. And the irony of this attempt to masculate herself is highlighted by the fact that she was trying to be the "good and dutiful" wife of the newly emerging middle-class culture, trying to "better" her husband.… Through a literal self-effacement, she attempts to back and support her spouse in his worldly ambition and to force him to compete in the male hierarchy. But in trying to act a socially appropriate role, she acts unnatu-rally; she moves counter to the pulls of kindness. She cannot deny her humanity; insanity is the only path out of the position she has fashioned. Yet, even in her resolution and in her madness, there is moving recognition of the bond of nature: "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't" (II.ii.12-13); "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" (V.i.35).

So too with Macbeth. No matter how steeped in blood, he never loses sight of a different life, a truly better life:

              My way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare
 not.                       (V.iii.22-28, italics added)

This fourth and final use of "dare" embraces both senses of manhood—I should not and I cannot—and tends to bring Macbeth back into the pale of humanity. The speech allows us to pity Macbeth because it shows he retains a vision of a fuller, healthier, "wholier" life, even though he has narrowed his life, repressed his nature, choked his human kindness.

And a final humanizing touch throughout the play is that Lord and Lady Macbeth love each other. From the outset we can observe from the way they address, treat, and respect each other that theirs is what society calls a "good" marriage; their love is what gives power to Macbeth's resigned, thoughtful response to the announcement that "The Queen, my lord, is dead":

She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.

In the natural course of events, Lady Macbeth would have lived her life through to its natural end. But, he, she, they have prevented all that. Now, time merely "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day"; life now to Macbeth is merely:

          a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Lord and Lady Macbeth may end in despair, but we do not share that state with them. While Shakespeare in Macbeth criticizes the destructive polarity of masculine versus feminine, constantly informing the play is his recognition of a fuller, healthier way of life, his vision of potential human wholeness, his androgynous vision.

Shakespeare, in Macbeth and all of his plays, holds a mirror up before our human nature which reflects honestly, in depth, the good and ill together. This act stems from his assumption that human nature is essentially good and beautiful; that it has a potential for positive fulfillment. Shakespeare's impulse is to help us overcome the limitations imposed by every day actuality as experienced in nature and society, only one of which is gender. While one hopes that the ultimate, long-range effect of Shakespeare's art is external (political), the plea for human liberation in that art appeals to the individual, and any degree of social realization will retain its roots within the individual, within our humanity.

Shakespeare, saying farewell to his theater, modestly said that his "aim" was "but to please," and please he does because his appeal is to our "better part," that aspect of our nature nurtured by "the milk of human kindness." Shakespeare has pleased many and pleased long because his is the art of human kindness. With Shakespeare as our text and example, we can learn that art of human kindness, and we can undertake the essay toward androgyny.

The concept of androgyny tends to frighten and disturb—and well it should because the potential for androgyny, which is part of our essential nature, can, if stimulated, cause shock waves, which will disturb the arrangement and display of our surface selves. Coleridge located the radical placement of androgyny when he casually remarked on September 1, 1832 (in Table Talk), "The truth is, a great mind must be androgynous." This truth is beautifully acknowledged by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, during the course of which she returns again and again to Shakespeare as the great example of androgyny realized. Her phrase is "unity of mind." Androgyny, then, may be defined as fully realized humanity. Because this state of mind is rarely attained and, when achieved, nearly impossible to maintain, androgyny is an ideal goal—a vision of unity and harmony beyond the confines of gender, within the confines of the human.

Carolyn Asp (essay date 1981)

SOURCE : "'Be bloody, bold and resolute': Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXVIII , No . 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 153-69.

[In the following essay, Asp contends that the transformation of Macbeth's character results from his becoming an extreme masculine stereotype.]

Almost without exception people feel constrained to play roles in accordance with what they believe to be the expectations of others. The individual suspects that he can only become a part of his society through performing roles which are defined by both negative and positive sanctions of law, custom, and accepted norms of behavior. A stereotype is an intensification of a role which typifies in an unvarying pattern a conception, opinion, or belief concerning appropriate modes of behavior. Stereotypes frequently narrow the expression of human personality and the range of authentic sexual identity by embodying a conventional and superficial view of the roles men and women are to play in social interaction and even in their perceptions of themselves. They not only make self-knowledge difficult; they impede authentic communication and create a society in which fixed ideas and modes of response are accepted and even admired. Because stereotypes focus on one aspect of the personality and dis-regard or denigrate others, they create models which, ironically, are almost impossible to embody because they fragment and narrow the personality rather than unify or express it.

The examination of sexual stereotyping is one of Shakespeare's enduring interests, and is found in plays as diverse as Much Ado About Nothing and Antony and Cleopatra. In Macbeth the phenomenon of such stereotyping is highly developed and central to the tragic action. Lady Macbeth consciously attempts to reject her feminine sensibility and adopt a male mentality because she perceives that her society equates feminine qualities with weakness. The dichotomy between role and nature which ensues ends with her mental disintegration and suicide. Macbeth's case is more complicated. In the play the male stereotype is associated with violence made socially and ethically acceptable through the ritual of warfare. Under the urging of his wife, Macbeth not only accepts the narrow definition of manhood that the stereotype imposes but he agrees to act that role for self-aggrandizement. Unlike his wife's role-assumption, Macbeth's is not in conflict with his nature; rather, it is an expression of a certain aspect of it. It tempts him to exercise godlike power through the violence it calls courage and aspire to freedom from consequences and invulnerability from mortal danger. But because it releases anarchic forces within him and allows him to give full play to his intense egoism, it seals his doom both psychologically and socially.

When the play opens, Macbeth is presented as the most complete representative of a society which values and honors a manliness and soldiership that maintain the cohesiveness of the tribe by extreme violence, if necessary. Even before he appears on stage he is admiringly described as the quintessential warrior, the upholder of tribal unity in the face of rebellion. The account of his battle with Macdonwald is meant to portray him as a man of fearless courage whose valor is the very symbol of his manhood, yet the description of the traitor's disembowelment emphasizes cruelty and violence rather than courage. In the eyes of his peers and his sovereign, however, he is the "brave" and "noble" Macbeth. In such a world, as Edmund says in King Lear, "to be tender minded / Does not become a sword" (V.iii.31-2). Ironically, it is the "gracious" Duncan who is the only man in the play who could be called "tender minded." Thanking his generals, he exclaims, "M y plenteous joys wanton in fullness, seek to hide themselves / In drops of sorrow" (I.iv.35-6). Duncan's sentimental joy over the bloody victory emphasizes the fundamental weakness of a warrior society that condones and rewards in its heroes a violence that, unregulated by ritual or power, can turn against it. The conviction that valor is the whole of virtue (virtus) can displace the values of peace with those of war and cause the metamorphosis of the human into inhuman being.

Among the warriors expressions of tenderness are considered either degrading or counter-productive. When Rosse is moved to tears by Lady Macduff's complaints, he says, "I am so much the fool, should I stay longer, / It would be my disgrace, and your discomfort" (IV.ii.28-9). An guished by the news of his family's massacre, Macduff tries to repress his tears, admitting that they make him "play the woman." Urged by Malcolm to "dispute it like a man," he at first rejects the stereotypical response and tells the prince, "I must also feel it like a man," that is, like a complete human being who can integrate both feminine and masculine responses. It is significant that at this major turning point in the action Shakespeare emphasizes the full humanity of Macduff, the pre-ordained instrument of retribution. If only for a moment he transcends the stereotype. Then under the pressure of Malcolm he converts his "feminine" grief to manly revenge, crying out: "front to front, / Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself! / Within my sword's length set him" (IV.iii.235-7). Only a fully human warrior can confront and conquer the "fiend" that Macbeth has become.

The manly stereotype in this play exceeds the limits of soldierly valor and embraces the extreme of retaliatory violence. This attitude permeates society from noble to bondsman. On one end of the scale Macduff's cry "He has no children!" voices his frustration at being balked of complete vengeance. On the other end, the murderers whom Macbeth suborns to kill Banquo assert, "We are men, my liege" when Macbeth asks them if they will suffer Banquo's "crimes." Macbeth agrees that "in the catalogue ye go for men" (III.i.91), yet he makes a distinction between the catalogue of men and the "valu'd file": there is no basis for identity as a man merely in declaring one's male gender or membership in the human race. In Macbeth's mind manhood is not a constant, fixed quality but one which must continually be proved by manly deeds. So he asks them to define themselves further: "Now if you have a station in the file / Not i'th'worst rank of manhood, say't" (III.i.101-2). One declares that the vile buffets of the world have incensed him to recklessness; the other, weary with disasters, would set his life on any chance. Both men dare to take the course of their lives into their own hands and prove their manhood in violently self-assertive action. Under Macbeth's questioning, a sophistical syllogism emerges from the conversation: the valued man is the courageous man; the courageous man will dare even murder to right the wrongs done to him; therefore, the valued man is he who will dare to commit murder. By this reasoning, Macbeth justifies himself as well as his agents.

Although a definition of manhood in terms of qualities such as daring and ruthlessness is not totally invalid, it is incomplete, as Macbeth knows in his deepest being. Initially he rejects his wife's call to violence, emphasizing the limits that circumscribe human/humane action: "I dare do all that may become a man, / Who dares do more is none" (I.vii.46-7). He fears the inhuman, godlike power that overstepping the limits implies; he fears to lose his humanity in the exercise of "manly" deeds. Macbeth has an inchoate grasp of the idea that being human means accepting the limits imposed by social interconnectedness, by one's rank and role. He cherishes the "golden opinions" he has won from his peers by circumscribed action. Although he seems unsure of his own relationship to the concept of true manhood, he can recognize in Banquo a complete man whose "royalty of nature" and sexual potency he fears yet admires. Macbeth admits that Banquo, like himself, "dares much," yet

… to that dauntless temper of his mind,
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety.

As Eugene Waith comments [in "Manhood and Valor in Two Shakespearean Tragedies," ELH, XVI I (1950)]: "True manhood is a comprehensive ideal, growing out of the familiar Christian concept that man is between beasts and angels in the hierarchy of creation. To be worthy of this station, a man must show more than physical valor which characterizes the soldier and traditionally distinguishes the male of the species."

A major part of Macbeth's agony is created by his recognition of what constitutes full manhood and his conflicting acceptance of an incomplete stereotype. Why, knowing what he does, does he accept it? Because he succumbs to the temptation that faces every tragic hero set within a world of limits; the temptation to override those limits and establish himself as an omnipotent center of reference. The stereotype gives Macbeth a role whereby to act out a species of godlike power which manifests itself in the ability to take human life with impunity. The tragic irony of his situation, of which he gradually becomes aware, is that in the actualization of this "godlike" potential he becomes inhuman, less the man, in the full understanding of the word.

The text indicates that Macbeth is an effective killer on the battlefield, but as a representative figure, he is no more violent than any man could be, nor is he any more of a killer than the warriors who are his peers. What differentiates Macbeth from other males in the play is his intense awareness of the potential for violence within him and his willingness to entertain unrestricted fantasies as to how that potential might be used. Immediately after his first encounter with the Weird Sisters he asks himself:

… 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?

Later he bids the stars hide their fires lest his dark desires be exposed to even a glimmer of light. He is a man terrified yet fascinated by the power within him. This is why he initially seeks limits, calling upon the restraints that morality and society can impose upon him. When his wife describes him as "too full of the milk of human kindness," she bases her interpretation of his character on those energies of restraint (fear, human respect, conscience) to which he conforms his outward behavior. Understanding his fascination with violence but not his terror of its effects, she forces him to ask himself whether or not he dares to risk acting out the potential that is in him in order to objectify the possibilities of his self. If he does not dare, will he ever know himself and his possibilities? The question he must ask himself is whether or not the consequences of purely self-defining action will destroy his humanity. Macbeth senses that once he enacts his deep desires he will be radically transformed. Inhuman energy will be generated from this commitment to self-realization uninhibited by responsibility. He, even more than his wife, realizes clearly that "what is done, is done / An d cannot be undone." Since the effort to be inhuman is essential to the service of Mars, the limited definition of manhood associated with soldierly valor is perfectly suited to Macbeth's project of self-divinization.

In Macbeth's Scotland, violence and its accompanying qualities are limited to the male. Women are subordinate to men and divorced from political influence because they lack those qualities that would fit them for a warrior society. Rosse, describing Scotland's dire state, says that the crisis is so unnatural it would "make our women fight" (IV.iii.187). This comment suggests that Shakespeare took liberties with his source in order to create an artistic world in which he could examine male and female stereotypes. [In his Chronicles of Scotland, 1587] Holinshed actually writes of this period that "in these daies also the women of our countries were of no lesse courage than the men; for all stout maidens and wives (if they were not with child) marched as well in the field as did the men, and so soone as the armie did set forward, they slue the first living creature that they found, in whose bloud they not onlie bathed their swords, but also tasted thereof with their mouthes." The stereotypical role of women in the play, however, defines them as weak, dependent, non-political, incapable of dealing with violence except to become its victims. After Duncan's murder, when Lady Macbeth demands to know "what's the business," Macduff describes the typical feminine reaction to such news:

O gentle lady,
'Tis not for you to hear what I can speak:
The repetition in a woman's ear,
Would murther as it fell.

Macduff, like Hotspur, refuses to share his political life with his wife; instead, he leaves for England without a word to her. She resents his departure and interprets it as a desertion. Rosse, in a patronizing manner, counsels her to "school" herself, excusing Macduff's behavior on the grounds that her husband is "noble, wise, judicious," in political life and must, as a result, be a good husband and father. Even though Macduff and his wife seem to be the normative couple in the play, their communication with and understanding of each other fall far short of that exhibited between Macbeth and his wife early in the action. Until he is bowed by calamity, Macduff lacks the capability for sympathetic communion that Macbeth possesses: he fails to foresee his wife's sorrow and anger and he seems unaware of the real danger to which he has exposed his family by his absence. The action of the play proves his wife's complaints to be justified. Significantly, Macduff and Lady Macduff never appear on the stage together.

In his conversation with Malcolm, Macduff exhibits a condescending attitude toward women, whom he separates into saints and whores. When Malcolm claims to be an arch-voluptuary, Macduff cynically assures him:

We have willing dames enough; there cannot be
That vulture in you, to devour so many
As will to greatness dedicate themselves.

On the other hand, he approves of the fact that Malcolm's mother was "oftener upon her knees than on her feet, / Died every day she liv'd" (IV.iii.110-13), a royal hermitess rather than an imperial jointress.

In a society in which femininity is divorced from strength and womanliness is equated with weakness, where the humane virtues are associated with womanliness, the strong woman finds herself hemmed in psychologically, forced to reject her own womanliness, to some extent, if she is to be true to her strength. Lady Macbeth is such a woman, worthy of the equality her husband bestows upon her early in their relationship when he calls her "my dearest partner of greatness." Macbeth here shows himself remarkably free from the chauvinistic attitudes that domi-nate his society. It certainly seems his intent to share power with her and establish a kind of joint-rule that would fly in the face of custom. It is obvious that she is attracted by the prospect of wielding power in her own right, but there is no evidence to indicate that she wants royal status for herself alone. Convinced that she must work through her husband if they are both to attain greatness, she scrutinizes his weaknesses and determines to "chastise with the valour of [her] tongue / All that impedes [him] from the golden round" (I.v.29-30). Her valor throughout the play is, as she describes it here, primarily rhetorical. Her role, as she perceives it, is to evoke her husband's "noble strength" so that he can act in accord with his desires. To do this she must appeal as a woman to his manliness as well as channel her energies into maintaining a persona of masculine courage.…

Lady Macbeth has so internalized the stereotypes of her society that she is convinced that she must divest herself of her femininity if she is to have any effect on the public life of her husband. She calls upon the "murdering ministers" to turn her maternal milk to vengeful gall, to "unsex" her.… Yet, in spite of her dire invocations, her conscious desire to take on a male psyche, her fundamental, even unconscious femininity breaks through the surface of her arguments with her husband before Duncan's murder. In these arguments she wages a sexual assault which can only be successful if Macbeth perceives her as intensely female. When she describes him as a husband/ lover who, like his hope of glory, has become "pale," "green," and "waning," she challenges an essential element of his self-image, that of potent male, which is the foundation of all his other roles. To be the heroic warrior, to be king, he must first act the man with her. When this role is threatened by her scorn, when the symbol of his whole enterprise is founded to be flaccid or unacceptable ("from this time, / Such I account thy love" I.vii.38-9), the collapse of what might be called the male ego is imminent. She implies that she will find him unacceptable if he is afraid "to be the same in [his] own act and valour / As [he is] in desire" (I.vii.40-1). Only if he dares to do the deed will he be a man, and so much more the man, in her esteem. The whole argument to murder is couched in sexual terms: she accuses him of arousing her expectations and then failing to follow through with action. What man would not try to disprove that accusation?

What potency is to the male, maternity is to the female. Lady Macbeth plays on both of these physical/psychological states that are fundamentally associated with the sexual stereotypes in the play. On the one hand, she taunts her husband to show his potency in performance; on the other, she offers to negate her own maternal power as an example of her dedication. While her rhetoric of violence convinces her husband to move beyond the limit and take on the role of "manly" murderer, the images she uses refer directly to her physical femaleness: "I would … / Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums" (I.vii.56-7). Macbeth's admiring command ironically affirms the very maternal instinct she boasts of denying:

Bring forth men children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

Finally, she assures him of invincibility. When he hesitates, entertaining the possibility of failure and discovery, she merely asks contemptuously: "We fail?" She affirms that daring and courage will overcome all obstacles, an idea later echoed by the prophecies: "Be bloody, bold and resolute" (IV.i.79).

In spite of her pragmatic and ruthless rhetoric, it is obvious that the gall in her breasts has not been sufficient to unsex Lady Macbeth. She admits that she has relied on wine to make her bold and give her fire, qualities normally associated with the masculine temperament. When Macbeth appears after the murder she calls him "my husband," the only time in the play she addresses him by that familiar title that emphasizes the sexual bond between them. It connotes a certain desired reliance on his strength, indicating that she is not as independent as the stress of her role demands. The staccato rhythm of her speech preceding and just after her husband's entrance betrays an anxiety that not even the wine can mitigate. It is only when she realizes that her husband is losing control that she resumes the dominant role she would much rather he played.

Ironically, her assumption of a masculine role does not create partnership; rather, it distances Lady Macbeth from her husband. As long as he retained elements of so-called feminine sensibility, he was susceptible to her appeal: there was a "weakness" in him that responded to her challenge. After he fully assumes the stereotype she urges upon him, there is nothing in him she can manipulate. Her dream of being partner to his greatness is doomed by the very means she has used to insure that greatness. By making him "manly" she has guaranteed that he will think of her as subordinate and unworthy of truly sharing power. Her action shares with his a peculiarily self-defeating thrust.

After Duncan's murder Lady Macbeth begins to admit the breakdown of congruence between the role she is playing and the person she is; alone, she admits: "Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire's got without content" (III.ii.4-5). A dawning realization of the self (her repressed dimension of womanliness) behind the mask is essential to her tragic identity. When Macbeth morosely enters she resumes the mask and acts the strong companion. Un moved, her husband echoes her internal apprehensions:

Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy.

Although united in the same embrace of misery, each is isolated in a separate world of suffering. "The affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly" (III.ii.18- 19) drives the partners apart even in the marriage bed.

It is ironic that throughout this scene Macbeth addresses his wife in terms of intimacy and affection, calling her "love," and "dearest chuck," while at the same time, he deliberately deceives her about the murder of Banquo It is evident that she is no longer in his confidence, for when she asks "what's to be done?" he tells her "be ignorant of the knowledge … till thou applaud the deed" (III.ii.45). His refusal to answer her question parallels Macduff's earlier reluctance to answer her when she inquired "What's the business?" It can be argued that Macbeth deceives his wife to protect her from implication in Banquo's murder, yet in spite of this overtly good motive, his attitude reveals a patronizing and stereotyped point of view. In their conversation it is almost as though Macbeth is testing his wife's reactions. When he remarks in a seemingly casual way that "Banquo and his Fleance lives" her answer comes up to the mark: "But in them Nature's copy's not eterne" (III.ii.38). It is a subdued response, lacking her earlier vehemence and conviction. It cannot be that Macbeth wishes to protect her from the fact of the murder since he drops too many hints as to the nature of the deed. His tactic seems geared deliberately to impress upon her that it is he who has planned and initiated the action that will result in Banquo's death, that he has internalized her "bloody instructions" so successfully that he no longer needs her. When he perceives that she "marvels" at his words, he lamely justifies his conduct by telling her "Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill" (III.ii.55).

The last time we see Macbeth and his wife together is during the banquet scene as they attempt to preside over the festivities. As the scene opens Macbeth reiterates certain norms that guide human and humane conduct: "You know your degrees," (III.iv.1) he tells his guests, emphasizing the structure of hierarchy and limit that governs responsible social interaction. The banquet itself is an archetypal human situation which involves feasting and communality: it symbolizes that "living with" or conviviality that is the keynote of humane behavior. Macbeth can only play at being a part of the human scene: "Ourself will mingle with society / And play the humble host" (III.iv.4-5 [italics mine]). Lady Macbeth significantly "keeps her state," remaining apart from the group. When the inhuman world breaks in upon him in the form of Banquo's ghost, his wife, oblivious to the phenomenon, berates him for not even acting "the man." Her failure to see the ghost indicates that she has no real affinity with the realm of the inhuman. Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to have the power not only to communicate with this realm but actually to conjure it. The ghost appears only after Macbeth hypocritically wishes that Banquo were present. When Lady Macbeth asks him the old question "Are you a man?," he affirms the stereotype: "Ay , and a bold one, that dare look on that / Which might appall the Devil" (III.iv.58-9). It is obvious then that Macbeth does not fear the ghost itself but what the ghost signifies: the extent and limits of his own power. This encounter is a moment of truth in which Macbeth clearly sees his affinity with and power over the inhuman world; his ability to summon the ghost, even inadvertently, proves how far he has stepped beyond the limits of humanity. In this confrontation he hysterically resorts to violent physical prowess as his standard of courage: "What man dare, I dare" (III.iv.98), he boasts. Like the old Macbeth, he longs to prove himself in single combat: "Be alive again, / And dare me to the desert with thy sword" (III.iv.102-3); but Banquo represents a realm of existence with which Mac beth is engaged but which he cannot confront with a sword. At the same time that the ghost affirms Macbeth's alienation from the human community it also manifests the limits that plague his ambition to act with impunity. The role of manliness may allow him to act with imagined godlike freedom but it cannot guarantee that the deed will be done when it is done. The ghost is a reminder that although Banquo may be dead, Macbeth cannot escape the consequences of that death. It thrusts the very conditions of his humanness into his face:

… the time has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,

And push us from our stools.

As Macbeth had conjured up the apparition so he dismisses it, calling it an "unreal mockery," asserting that "it being gone /I am a man again" (III.iv.107). For Macbeth, "being a man" has become synonymous with being invulnerable to conscience, fear, or compassion, in a word, with assuming to himself godlike qualities and powers. Throughout the banquet he is almost completely divorced from the human situation of which he is the center; he creates "most admir'd disorder" by his obsessive engagement with the realm of the inhuman. The feast disintegrates, bonds of fellowship and rank are disregarded, and Lady Macbeth commands the guests, "Stand not upon the order of your going, / But go at once" (III.iv.118-19).

Just as Macbeth was oblivious to his guests during the banquet, so he is oblivious to his wife after it. Focused intensely inward, he plots in solitude his future schemes. The distance between husband and wife is accentuated by the formal "Sir" with which she addresses him. As in Act II , scene ii, the action concludes with Lady Macbeth's invitation to bed: "You lack the season of all natures, sleep" (III.iv.140), a subtle hint expressing her need for the intimacy of the boudoir. Macbeth, however, is preoccupied with his determination to seek out the Weird Sisters: "now I am bent to know, / By the worst means, the worst" (III.iv.133-4). Preternatural knowledge means control, domination; it is an intrusive, penetrating activity, a kind of masculine sexual equivalent. His wife's invitation to literal sexual consummation pales before the intensity of Macbeth's psychic need. The ravenous desire to control futurity, to reinforce his invincible image, drives him to move actively towards these representatives of the inhuman realm. By the end of this scene Macbeth has taken a significant step away from his own humanity: he is content that his actions be mechanical, unreflective, untouched by considerations of conscience. "Strange things I have in head," he boasts, "that will to hand, / Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd" (III.iv.138-9).

In the human realm knowledge of events is the male prerogative; in the preternatural realm, on the contrary, it belongs to the sexually ambiguous Weird Sisters. In a perverse way they suggest a debased image of the hermaphroditic figure, a figure to whom sexual stereotypes are simply not applicable. Can we say that the inhuman, as represented by these creatures, is also the sexually undifferentiated? They are mysterious and powerful not only because of their knowledge but also because of the spontaneity and unpredictability that freedom from stereotypes allows. They come and go as they please; they will not be interrogated or commanded. Macbeth tells his wife: "When I burn'd in desire to question them further, they made themselves air, into which they vanish'd" (I.v.4-5).

When the Weird Sisters first encounter Macbeth they present him with a vision of his destiny that tempts him to create his own future through an action that can only be performed if he accepts a false stereotype of manliness: murder becomes the means he must use to create actively his destiny and he can only commit murder by linking the image of the murderer to that of the male. They show him what he could be. The question is: will he aggressively create himself or will he passively let events work their way? At first he resolves: "If chance will have me king, why, chance / May crown me without my stir" (I.iv.143-4). Yet Macbeth has always shaped his life by will and action; he is by nature one who takes the significance of his existence into his own hands. Finally, he rejects passivity and takes control of his future. In his second encounter with the Weird Sisters he demands that the prophecies be presented by the "masters," presumably demons who assume the shapes of the apparitions. These prophecies enkindle in him the false certainty that he can eliminate limitations, restrictions, and ultimately the threat of his own mortality if only he intensifies the male stereotype: "Be bloody, bold and resolute"; "belion-mettled and proud" (Iv.i.79;90). The promise of security is his greatest enemy because it blinds him to the truth of his contingent status as a human being. If no man of woman born shall harm Macbeth, then he has achieved a godlike invulnerability which allows him to act without restraint or fear: "the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand" (IV.i. 147-8). It is this very type of action, however, that dooms him to destruction under the sword of Macduff.

As Macbeth strives to emulate "marble-wholeness," his wife splits apart psychically under the pressure of his indifference and her remorse. Her agony of spirit and deep dividedness burst forth without her conscious awareness in the sleep-walking scene. On the one hand she exhibits fearless determination: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" (V.i.36). She uses the plural "our" when she speaks of power, indicating that it had been her desire and intent to share, a fantasy she can only live out in nightmares. On the other hand, she exhibits a horror of the deeds and their consequences: "What, will these hands ne'er be clean?" (V.i.42). Significantly, in her sleep she relives the mastery over her husband she no longer has: "Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard?" (V.i.36). Her final words, however, are a pathetic expression of her need for comfort and union: "come, give me your hand … To bed, to bed, to bed" (V.i.68). As in the early scenes of the play, she both despises her husband's "weakness" and desires to lean on him for support.

As Lady Macbeth collapses under the onslaught of an infected mind, Macbeth succumbs to the assaults of external foes. When Seyton brings his word that the queen is dead, his response is terse and ambiguous: "She should have died hereafter" (V.v.17). Significantly, Lady Macbeth's demise is announced by the wailing of her women. At the end of the play she is completely removed from the masculine world she so desperately wanted to enter and which so effectively has excluded her. A victim of her "thick-coming fancies," she, like her husband, loses touch with her humanity except within the ambiance of a dream world.

In the battle scenes at the end of the play, Macbeth, who channeled all his energies into being a "man," is visually and linguistically surrounded by boys until his final encounter with Macduff, the man of no woman born. It seems as though the feminine principle, removed by the sequestration and suicide of Lady Macbeth, transfers itself to the persons of these young males whom Macbeth considers inferior to himself. He disparagingly refers to Malcolm as a "boy"; he bullies Seyton, calling him "lily-liver'd boy"; and when young Siward challenges him to combat, he can hardly condescend to battle such an adversary. Although Macbeth seems invincible on the battlefield, we must remember that his "valor" is being exercised upon males unequal to him in strength and experience. In terms of courage, and according to the laws of Macbeth's society, young Siward does prove himself a man by paying "a soldier's debt"; in his case, manliness does not confer invulnerability. It is, rather, a willingness to confront death and take the consequences:

He only liv'd but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd,
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.

Siward achieves a form of manhood, but the structure of the play demonstrates the limitations of the definition set forth in the eulogy.

During the final action, the very humanity that Macbeth has tried so hard to escape forces itself upon his consciousness. He feels acutely his alienation from human society:

… my way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have.

A strange remorse afflicts him when he confronts Macduff:

Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back, my soul is too much charg'd
With blood of thine already.

He sees with tragic clarity that in having striven to become more than a man he has become less than one: "bear-like I must fight the course" (V.vii.2). Deprived of preternatural assurance by Macduff's revelation, Macbeth begins to "pull in resolution," suddenly losing that false valor created by the illusion of his own immortality. He briefly falters, and in that faltering, an echo of his former martial courage is heard once more. It is as though Shakespeare forces us to remember Macbeth as the warrior-hero whose true valor is the emblem of his manhood. Threatened with humiliating captivity, Macbeth refuses to yield; like young Siward, he fights on, knowing he is doomed.

At the end of the play the action of the opening scenes finds remarkable parallels, indicating society's continued acceptance of the values and stereotypes that paradoxically both threaten it and guarantee its continuation. The false claimant to the throne is destroyed by superior force, this time embodied in Macduff, who, ironically, performs the same task that had previously been Macbeth's. He walks on stage with Macbeth's severed head, a brutal gesture that recalls Macbeth's own ruthless execution of Macdonwald. The same emphasis on repression of pain and tender feeling, the same equation of soldierly valor and manhood are reiterated in the discussion of young Siward's death. Malcolm, a subdued, more Machiavellian version of Duncan, distributes thanks and rewards using the same imagery of planting that his father before him had used, but unlike the former king's, Malcolm's thanks are brief and measured, his tears merely promised. The warm, golden blood of Duncan shows colder, less bright, in his son. The prince, in a performance convincing enough to have deceived Macduff, claimed that he could, had he the power, "pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell" (IV.iii.97). Now that he is king, there is no guarantee that he, like Macbeth, could not be seduced into actually carrying out that claim. Society has not changed; it has merely eliminated two extremists who pushed the stereotype of manliness beyond the limits it was established to serve.

The verdicts levelled against Macbeth and his wife by their society, "butcher," and "fiend-like Queen" do partial justice, if that, to the richness of their characters or the universal dimensions of the seductions to which they are exposed and to which they succumb. The tension which raises them to the level of tragedy in the eyes of the audience is created by the conflict between the roles they think they must play to actualize the self and achieve their destiny and the limits imposed by both nature and society. On the one hand, there is the ancient temptation: "ye shall be as gods"; on the other, there is the profound awareness (especially on Macbeth's part) of the inviolable limits which keep men human. As Macbeth accepts a false masculinity that simultaneously fosters the illusion of his godlike power and diminishes his total human development, he is alienated from the very society that inculcates the stereotype. Although Lady Macbeth strives to share in the male world by consciously renouncing her femininity, neither she nor we are allowed to forget that "little hand" that cannot, finally, wield the knife. As his "dearest partner" she was to have shared in the "golden round" and the "greatness promised"; instead, she shares only in the dehumanization and nothingness Macbeth faces as his end.

Further Reading

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Berger, Harry, Jr. "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth." Genre XV , Nos. 1-2 (Spring/ Summer 1982): 49-79.

Contends that Macbeth "as a text to be interpreted by readers provides a critique of the play as a script—that is, as the basis of performance."

Calderwood, James L. If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986, 156 p.

Compares and contrasts Macbeth and Hamlet; contends that Macbeth can be understood as "a tragedy about the nature of tragedy" and examines the psychological, social, and political ramifications of Macbeth's violence.

Coursen, H. R. "A Jungian Approach to Characterization: Macbeth" In Shakespeare's "Rough Magic": Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 230-44. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Employs a Jungian taxonomy to describe Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with regard to their tendencies toward introversion and extroversion.

Doran, Madeleine. "The Macbeth Music." Shakespeare Studies X V I (1983): 153-73.

Analyzes Shakespeare's use of such devices as rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and assonance to argue that Macbeth is a "musical" play.

Ferrucci, Franco. "Macbeth and the Imitation of Evil." In The Poetics of Disguise, pp. 125-58. Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1980.

Proposes that Macbeth is rife with Shakespeare's reflections on the transference of the English throne from Elizabeth to James.

Grene, Nicholas. "Macbeth." In Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, pp. 193-222. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992.

Argues that Macbeth explores the relationship between power and authority against a supernatural background that underlies the entire play.

Lawlor, John. "Natural and Supernatural." In The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare, pp. 107-46. London: Chatio & Windus, 1966.

Presents a general discussion of Macbeth, covering such subjects as free will, Shakespeare's wordplay, and the play's imagery.

Leary, William G. "The World of Macbeth." In How to Read Shakespearean Tragedy, edited by Edward Quinn, pp. 234-49. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

Analyzes the "world" of Macbeth, dividing it into four parts: the physical, the psychological, the political, and the moral.

Long , Michael. Macbeth (Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare). Ne w York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, 124 p.

Explores general issues of language and imagery, examines Macbeth scene by scene, and compares the play to other tragedies by Shakespeare and other dramatists.

Poole, Adrian. "'The Initiate Fear': Aeschylus, Shakespeare." In Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example, pp. 15-53. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Compares Macbeth to Aeschylus' Oresteia, insisting that Macbeth is "Shakespeare's most Aeschylean tragedy."

Sinfield, Alan. "Macbeth: History, Ideology, and Intellectuals." CQ, Critical Quarterly XXVIII , Nos . 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1986): 63-77.

Examines Shakespeare's ambivalence toward monarchical rule in Macbeth, exploring the possible influence of Buchanan to counteract the traditional Jamesian interpretation.

Waswo, Richard. "Damnation, Protestant Style: Macbeth, Faustus, and Christian Tragedy." The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 4, No . 1 (Spring 1974): 63-99.

Examines Macbeth and Doctor Faustus in light of the Elizabethan (Protestant) conception of damnation.

Wiggins, Martin. "Macbeth and Premeditation." In The Arts, Literature, and Society, edited by Arthur Marwick, pp. 23-44. London: Routledge, 1990.

Uses Macbeth to investigate the sixteenth-century conception of murder.

Willbern, David. "Phantasmagoric Macbeth" English Literary Renaissance X V I , No . 3 (Autumn 1986): 520-49.

Investigates Macbeth's characters and their relationships according to a series of geometrical schematics that incorporate psychoanalytic perspectives.

Young, David. "Primitivism and Sophistication in Macbeth." In The Action to the Word: Structure and Style in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 99-130. Ne w Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Insists that Macbeth distorts the distinction between language and action, developing "a magical partnership" in which thoughts, prayers, and invocations "move all too smoothly into deed and actuality."

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