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From the 1700s to the present, critics have praised the artistic coherence οf Macbeth and the intense economy of its dramatic action. Earlier commentators as well as contemporary critics have frequently remarked on the play's vivid depiction of treachery and bloodshed, its nightmarish atmosphere, the exploration of the issue of free will versus fate, and the enigmatic nature of its hero. In the late twentieth century, however, there has been a shifting and complex response to the play and its chief protagonist. Although scholars continue to evaluate its relationship to the traditional medieval morality plays as well as its treatment of dynastic issues, they are no longer inclined to view Macbeth as a simplistic allegory of good versus evil or royalist propaganda vindicating the monarchy of James I. There is currently a sharp division among commentators on the question of whether Macbeth is a sympathetic figure with whom audiences and readers can identify, as they do with Lear, Hamlet, and Othello, or whether Macbeth is an egotistical and unadmirable character. Nevertheless, critics generally agree that Macbeth dominates the play in a way that is unique among Shakespeare's tragic heroes.

Late twentieth-century commentary on Macbeth frequently focuses on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience, his descent into corruption, and whether his fate is predestined. Dieter Mehl (1983) has centered his wide-ranging discussion of the play on Macbeth's agonizing internal conflicts and the stages of his moral corruption, contending that Shakespeare depicts his protagonist as an inherently good man who only succumbs to temptation after a harrowing struggle with his conscience. In Mehl's judgment, the nature of evil—and its hold over individual characters—is the essential issue of Macbeth. Similarly, R. A. Foakes (1996) has described the play as Shakespeare's most penetrating analysis of the concept of evil. Foakes regards Macbeth as an essentially moral man who, because of his wife's bullying and his own ambition, fatally compromises his gentler instincts and destroys his own humanity, ending up a victim as well as a villain.

Many recent commentators have discussed the question of whether the term "tragic hero" is appropriate for a dramatic protagonist who devolves into a murderous tyrant. In the context of these discussions, they have examined the means by which audiences and readers are led to identify with Macbeth, to sympathize with his fate, and to some degree even admire him. Robert B. Heilman (1966) has examined the issue of the hero's problematic stature, arguing that because we are induced to share Macbeth's perspective on events, his emotional turmoil, and his terrible anxieties, we find ourselves empathizing with him and achieving an expanded vision of human nature and of ourselves. From Heilman's perspective, Macbeth is no ordinary villain but rather a man with an exceptional capacity to feel, imagine, and suffer, and thus he evokes our pity and understanding. Arthur Kirsch (1984) also has focused on Macbeth's ambitious nature, emphasizing the emptiness of his desires and the insatiability of his aspirations. The critic characterizes Macbeth as the most egotistical of Shakespeare's tragic heroes and suggests that it is extremely difficult either to sympathize with him or to admire him. By contrast, Michael Davis (1979) has interpreted Macbeth as a tragedy of courage, in which Shakespeare explores the nature of manliness and the implications of defining oneself solely in terms of valor. Davis proposes that Macbeth's unquenchable desire to master his fate and overcome all obstacles must inevitably lead either to defeat—or to emptiness—if he conquers all his foes. In Davis's judgment, when Macbeth places his future in the hands of the witches, he relinquishes his autonomy and becomes unmanned.

Indeed, emasculation is one of Macbeth's principal anxieties, according to psychoanalytic criticism. Other subconscious tensions discovered in the play by commentators using this approach include incestuous or oedipal fears. Macbeth has been the subject of a large number of psychoanalytic interpretations. Over the last thirty years, traditional Freudian or oedipal readings of the play have been augmented by many commentators. Robert N. Watson (1984), for example, has argued that Shakespeare portrays Macbeth's crimes as symbolic infringements on the normal cycles of procreation and generation. He asserts that Macbeth's transgressions should be seen as crimes rooted in ambition rather than sexual perversion. In another departure from conventional Freudian interpretations, H. R. Coursen (1985) has offered a Jungian approach to the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. From this perspective, the couple is seen as unconsciously exchanging masculine and feminine capacities as Macbeth allows his inherent proclivity toward introversion and human kindness to be dominated by his wife's dynamic and aggressive temperament. Kay Stockholder (1987) also has evaluated the nature of the relation between the play's chief protagonists. She argues that they are bound together by a love that associates passion with violence rather than tenderness and, further, that their intimacy dissipates after Duncan's murder because henceforth Macbeth becomes the unimaginative man of action his wife initially believed him to be. In the critic's judgment, the play's dream-like quality is reflected in the relationship between the Macbeths as well as by the witches, who help position the play on the boundaries between the dreaming and waking states.

Supernatural elements in Macbeth are part of the texture of discussions of religious and theological issues in the play, and the Weird Sisters are frequently linked to the possibility of providential or deterministic interpretations οf Macbeth. Critics who have recently analyzed the play in these terms generally allude to its ambiguous or paradoxical treatment of theological issues and deny any clear-cut resolution of such questions. For example, Howard Felperin (1975) has examined the play in terms of its relation to orthodox Christian drama, pointing out ways in which it promotes traditional doctrines but subverts or revises them as well. Although the play demystifies sacred myths and symbols, the critic asserts, it shows these forms as essential to social stability and legitimate hierarchy. Charles Moseley (1988) has viewed Macbeth as an inherently religious play, one that is chiefly concerned with the conflict between good and evil in the soul of its protagonist. Moselely maintains that Macbeth is not forced to do anything: although the witches prey on his ambition, it is ultimately his refusal to express contrition for his wickedness that seals his fate. Both James L. o'Rourke (1993) and Susan Snyder (1994) have also questioned providential readings of the play, employing different approaches but reaching similar conclusions. In o'Rourke's opinion, Macbeth portrays a world that is deeply subversive of Christian metaphysics—one in which the dramatic action is determined neither by divine providence nor by human will, but instead by an irrational sequence of action and consequence. The critic regards the play as profoundly pessimistic, governed from beginning to end by an ironic perspective that obscures the distinction between good and evil. Snyder similarly has found the world of Macbeth morally unstable and the boundary between supernatural and human causality indeterminate. In her judgment, the play provides no answers to the questions it raises about the relative culpability of the witches'equivocal predictions and Macbeth's potential to commit the murder they seem to suggest to him. Indeed, she concludes, the prophecies of the Weird Sisters remain as inscrutable as Macbeth's motivations.


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Harry Levin (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Two Scenes from Macbeth" in Shakespeare's Craft: Eight Lectures, edited by Philip H. Highfíll, Jr., Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, pp. 48-68.

[In the following essay, Levin examines the thematic significance of the Porter's scene and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking episode. In the former, he discerns resonances of hell and damnation, as well as an iteration of the witches'equivocal oracles; the latter scene, he suggests, epitomizes the nightmarish quality of Macbeth and repeats in miniature the play's alternating arguments regarding free will and fate.]

Hamlet without the Prince would still be more of a spectacle than Macbeth without the Thane of Glamis. Though the latter is not introspective by nature, his soliloquizing is central to the play, as he considers intentions, casts suspicions, registers hallucinations, coerces his conscience, balances hope against fear, and gives thought to the unspeakable—all this while sustaining the most energetic role in the most intense of Shakespeare's plays. Macbeth is the fastest of them, as Coleridge pointed out, while Hamlet, at almost twice its length, is the slowest. Thus the uncut Hamlet has plenty of room for other well-defined characters and for highly elaborated subplots. Whereas Macbeth, which has come down to us in a version stripped for action, concentrates more heavily upon the protagonist. He speaks over thirty per cent of the lines; an overwhelming proportion of the rest bear reference to him; and Lady Macbeth has about eleven per cent, all of them referring to him directly or indirectly. Most of the other parts get flattened in this process, so that his may stand out in bold relief. Otherwise, as Dr. Johnson commented, there is "no nice discrimination of character." As Macbeth successively murders Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff with her children, a single line of antagonism builds up through Malcolm and Fleance to the effectual revenger, Macduff. There is evidence, in the original text and in the subsequent stage-history, to show that the grim spareness of the plot was eked out by additional grotesqueries on the part of the Witches.

I make this preliminary obeisance to the centrality of the hero-villain because it is not to him that I shall be calling your attention, though it should be evident already that he will be reflected upon by my sidelights. In skipping over the poetry of his speeches or the moral and psychological dimensions of character, I feel somewhat like the visitor to a Gothic edifice whose exclusive focus is devoted to a gargoyle here and there. I should not be doing so if the monument as a whole were less memorably familiar than it is, or if the artistic coherence of a masterpiece did not so frequently reveal itself through the scrutiny of an incidental detail. My two short texts are quite unevenly matched, though not disconnected in the long run. One of them, the Porter's Scene, has been regarded more often than not as a mere excrescence or intrusion. The other, the Sleepwalking Scene, has become one of the high spots in the repertory as a set piece for distinguished actresses. The lowest common denominator between them is that both have been written in prose. Apart from more functional purposes, such as documents and announcements, Shakespeare makes use of prose to convey an effect of what Brian Vickers terms "otherness," a different mode of diction from the norm. To cite the clearest instance, Hamlet's normal personality is expressed in blank verse; he falls into prose when he puts on his "antic disposition." This combines, as do the fools'roles, the two major uses of Shakespeare's non-metrical speech: on the one hand, comedy, low life, oftentimes both; on the other, the language of psychic disturbance.

Our two scenes are enacted in these two modes respectively. But, before we turn to them, let us take a very brief glance at the outdoor stage of the Shakespearean playhouse. On that subject there has been an infinite deal of specific conjecture over a poor halfpennyworth of reliable documentation, and many of those conjectures have disagreed with one another. Over its most general features, however, there is rough agreement, and that is all we need here. We know that its large jutting platform had a roof supported by two pillars downstage; one of which might conveniently have served as the tree where Orlando hangs his verses in As You Like It. We are also aware of an acting space "aloft" at stage rear, whence Juliet or Prospero could have looked down. As for the curtained space beneath, that remains an area of veiled uncertainty. Yet the back wall of the tiring-house had to include an outside doorway big enough to accommodate the inflow and outflow of sizable properties, and possibly to present a more or less literal gate upon due occasion. Hence it is not difficult to conceive of the stage as the courtyard of a castle, into which outsiders would arrive, and off of which branched chambers for the guests, who might hurriedly rush out from them if aroused by some emergency. Moreover, the surrounding auditorium, open to the skies and rising in three tiers of galleries, might itself have presented a kind of courtyard. Not that this arrangement was representational. It was the stylization of the theatrical arena that made possible its scope and adaptability.

Much depended, of course, upon the convention of verbal scenery. When the aged, gracious, and serene King Duncan appears at the gate of Glamis Castle, his introductory words sketch the setting and suggest the atmosphere:

This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

(I, vi, 1-3)

The description is amplified by Banquo with his mention of "the temple-haunting marlet," the bird whose presence almost seems to consecrate a church, one of the succession of birds benign and malign whose auspices are continually invoked. The description of the marlet's "procreant cradle" (8)—and procreation is one of the points at issue throughout—assures us that "the heaven's breath / Smells wooingly here" (5,6). And Banquo completes the stage-design:

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observ'd
The air is delicate.

(9, 10)

Knowing what we have been informed with regard to Duncan's reception, and what he is so poignantly unaware of, we may well find it a delicate situation. Stressing its contrast to the episodes that precede and follow it, Sir Joshua Reynolds called it "a striking instance of what in painting is termed repose" Repose—or rather, the absence of it—is fated to become a major theme of the tragedy. It will mean not rest but restlessness for Macbeth, when Duncan all too soon is accorded his last repose. Are we not much nearer, at this point, to the fumes of hell than to the heaven's breath? Macbeth, as he will recognize in a soliloquy, "should gainst his murtherer shut the door," rather than hypocritically welcoming Duncan in order to murder him (I, vii, 15). Duncan has been a ruler who exemplified royalty, a guest who deserved hospitality, and a man of many virtues who has commanded respect, as Macbeth himself acknowledges. The scene is set for the crimes and their consequences by this two-faced welcome into the courtyard of Macbeth's castle.

By the end of the incident-crowded First Act, in spite of his hesitant asides and soliloquies, everything has fallen into place for the consummation of the Witches'cackling prophecies. The Second Act begins ominously with Banquo's muted misgivings; he supplicates the "merciful powers"—who seem less responsive than those darker spirits addressed by Lady Macbeth—to restrain in him "the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose," and retires after Macbeth has wished him "Good repose" (II, i, 7-9, 29). This exchange would seem to occur in the courtyard, which becomes the base of operations for the murder. The first scene culminates in the vision of the dagger, hypnotically drawing Macbeth to the door of Duncan's quarters. Leaving them after the deed, as he recounts to his wife in the second scene, he has experienced another hallucination: the voice that cried "Sleep no more!" (II, ii, 32). Meanwhile Lady Macbeth has soliloquized, fortified with drink, and he has cried out offstage at the fatal instant. One residual touch of humanity, the memory of her own father, has inhibited her from killing the king herself; but she is Amazonian enough, taking the bloody daggers from her badly shaken husband with a crude and cruel joke (the pun on "gild" and "guilt"), to reenter the death chamber and plant them upon the sleeping grooms (II, ii, 53-54). It is then that the tensely whispered colloquies between the guilty couple are suddenly interrupted by that most portentous of sound effects: the knocking at the gate.

This is the point of departure for a well-known essay by Thomas De Quincey, who argues, rather overingeniously, that the interruption helps to restore normality, calming the excited sensibilities of the spectator. "The reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again," De Quincey concludes, "the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them." Here De Quincey, who elsewhere styled himself "a connoisseur of murder," seems to have got his proportions wrong. Surely it is the Porter's Scene that forms a parenthesis in an increasingly awful train of events. "Every noise appalls me," Macbeth has said (II, ii, 55). For him—and for us as well—the knock reverberates with the menace of retribution, like the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It heralds no resumption of diurnal business as usual. Let us bear in mind that the knocker is to be the avenger, the victim who will have suffered most from the tyrant's cruelty. Macduff's quarrel with Macbeth, according to Holinshed's chronicle, first arose because the Thane of Fife did not fully participate when commanded by the King of Scotland to help him build the new castle at Dunsinane. It is surprising that Shakespeare did not utilize that hint of motivation; possibly he did, and the scene was among those lost through the rigors of cutting. It would have added another turn of the screw to Macbeth's seizure of Macduff s castle at Fife and the domestic massacre therein.

As for Dunsinane Castle, it is ironic that Macbeth should count upon its strength and that it should be so easily surrendered, "gently rend'red," after a few alarums and excursions (V, vii, 24). It comes as a final reversal of the natural order that he, besieged and bound in, should be assaulted and overcome by what appears to be a walking forest. So, in the earlier scenes, the manifest presumption is that the pleasantly situated Glamis Castle would be a haven and a sanctuary, associated with temples by Macbeth as well as Banquo. Rapidly it proves to be the opposite for its guests, whereas those menacing thumps at the gateway announce the arrival not of a dangerous enemy but of their predestined ally. Despite his sacrifice and suffering, his quasi-miraculous birth, and his intervention on the side of the angels, I shall refrain from presenting Macduff as a Christ-figure. There are altogether too many of these in current literary criticism—many more, I fear, than exist in real life. Yet it is enlightening to consider the suggested analogy between this episode and that pageant in the mystery cycles which dramatizes the Harrowing of Hell. Some of those old guild-plays were still being acted during Shakespeare's bodyhood; nearby Coventry was a center for them; and we meet with occasional allusions to them in Shakespeare's plays, notably to Herod whose furious ranting had made him a popular byword. Without the Slaughter of the Innocents, over which he presided, the horrendous slaughter at Macduff s castle would have been unthinkable. Many later audiences, which might have flinched, have been spared it.

When Jesus stands before the gates of hell, in the Wake-field cycle, his way is barred by a gatekeeper suggestively named Rybald, who tells his fellow devil Beelzebub to tie up those souls which are about to be delivered: "how, belsabub! bynde thise boys, / sich harow was never hard in hell." The command of Jesus that the gates be opened takes the form of a Latin cadence from the liturgy, Attollite portas . . . This, in turn, is based upon the vulgate phrasing of the Twenty-fourth Psalm: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in." The liturgical Latin echoes the rite of Palm Sunday celebrating Christ's entrance into Jerusalem. It was also chanted before the portals of a church during the ceremonies of consecration. In the mystery, Jesus enters hell to debate with Satan and ends by rescuing therefrom various worthies out of the Old Testament. That is the typological situation which prefigured Shakespeare's comic gag. We must now turn back to his dilatory Porter, after having kept the visitor waiting outside longer than the Porter will. Obviously the action is continuous between Scenes Two and Three, with the repeated knocking to mark the continuity. "Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" is the exit line (II, ii, 71). Macbeth, unnerved, is guided to their chamber by his wife, as he will be again in the Banquet Scene, and as she will imagine in the Sleepwalking Scene. There should be a minute when the stage is bare, and the only drama is the knocking.

But it will take a longer interval for the couple to wash off the blood and change into night attire. This is the theatrical necessity that provides the Porter with his cue and one of the troupe's comedians with a small part. Shakespeare's clowns tend to be more stylized than his other characters, most specifically the fools created by Robert Armin, and probably to reflect the personal style of certain actors. Will Kemp, who preceded Armin as principal comedian, seems to have specialized in voluble servants. It may well have been Kemp who created the rather similar roles of Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice. Each of these has his characteristic routine: a monologue which becomes a dialogue as the speaker addresses himself to imagined interlocutors. Gobbo's is especially apropos, since it pits his conscience against the fiend. Shakespeare did not abandon that vein after Kemp left the company; indeed he brought it to its highest pitch of development in Falstaff's catechism on honor. The Porter's little act is pitched at a much lower level, yet it can be better understood in the light of such parallels. The sleepy Porter stumbles in, bearing the standard attributes of his office, a lantern and some keys. He is not drunk now; but, like others in the castle, he has been carousing late; and his fantasy may be inspired by the penitential mood of the morning after. "If a man were Porter of Hell Gate"—that is the hypothesis on which he is ready to act—"he should have old turning the key"—he should have to admit innumerable sinners (II, iii, 1-3).

An audience acquainted with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus would not have to be reminded that the hellmouth had figured in the mysteries. And the dramatist who had conceived the Brothel Scene in Othello had envisioned a character, namely Emilia, who could be accused of keeping—as the opposite number of Saint Peter—"the gate of hell" (IV, ii, 92). The Porter assumes that stance by choice, asking himself: "Who's there, i'th'name of Belzebub?" (3-4). He answers himself by admitting three social offenders. It has been his plan, he then confides, to have passed in review "all professions," doubtless with an appropriately satirical comment on each (18). But, despite the histrionic pretence that hellfire is roaring away, the Porter's teeth are chattering in the chill of early morning: "this place is too cold for hell" (16-17). Neither the time-serving farmer nor the hose-stealing tailor seems as pertinent a wrongdoer as the equivocator, "who could not equivocate to heaven" (10-11). Here the editors digress to inform us about the trial and execution of Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuit Order, in 1606. The topical allusion is helpful, insofar as it indicates how the word came to be in the air; and Garnet's casuistry had to do with treason and attempted regicide, the notorious Gunpowder Plot. But Macbeth is not exactly a satire on the Jesuits. Maeterlinck, in his translation, renders "equivocator" by "jésuite" because there is no cognate French equivalent. The thematic significance of the Porter's speech lies in its anticipation of the oracles ("These juggling fiends"), which turn out to be true in an unanticipated sense: "th'equivocation of the fiend" (V, viii, 19; V, v, 42).

The Porter, who has been parrying the knocks by echoing them, finally shuffles to the gate, lets in Macduff and Lenox, and stands by for his tip: "I pray you remember the porter" (20-21). Drink, which has inebriated the grooms and emboldened Lady Macbeth, is his poor excuse for tardiness. The after-effects of drinking are the subject of his vulgar and not very funny riddle: "nose-painting, sleep, and urine" (28). Then, licensed perhaps by the precedent of the devil-porter Rybald, he moves on to the equivocal subject of lechery. If drink provokes the desire but takes away the performance, it is a paradigm for Macbeth's ambition. For, as Lady Macbeth will realize: "Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire is got without content" (III, ii, 4-5). When liquor is declared to be "an equivocator with lechery," that equivocation is demonstrated by the give-and-take of the Porter's rhythms: "it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him" (II, iii, 32-36). Each of these paired clauses, here again, links a false promise with a defeated expectation, expiring into drunken slumber after a moment of disappointed potency. The see-saw of the cadencing is as much of a prophecy as the Witches'couplets, and it has the advantage of pointing unequivocally toward the dénouement. The repartee trails off, after a lame pun about lying, with the reentrance of Macbeth, for which the Porter has been gaining time by going through his turn.

That turn has regularly been an object of expurgation, both in the theater and in print. I am not digressive if I recall that, when I wrote the introduction to a schooledition several years ago, the publishers wanted to leave out the Porter's ribaldry. I insisted upon an unbowdlerized text; but their apprehensions were commercially warranted; the textbook, though it is in a well-known series, has hardly circulated at all. Thousands of adolescents have been saved from the hazards of contemplating alcoholism, sex, and micturition. On a higher critical plane—some would say the highest—Coleridge was so nauseated by the whole scene that he ruled it out of the canon, declaring that it had been "written for the mob by another hand." The sentence about "the primrose way to th'everlasting bonfire," Coleridge conceded, had a Shakespearean ring (II, iii, 19). Without pausing to wonder whether it might have been echoed from Hamlet, he characteristically assumed that Shakespeare himself had interpolated it within the interpolation of his unknown collaborator. This enabled him to beg the question with Coleridgean logic and to comment further on "the entire absence of comedy, nay, even of irony . . . in Macbeth." Wholly apart from the comedy or the authenticity of the Porter Scene, it must strike us as singularly obtuse to overlook the fundamental ironies of the play: its ambiguous predictions, its self-destructive misdeeds. It could be urged, in Coleridge's defense, that the concept of dramatic irony had not yet been formulated. Kierkegaard's thesis on it was published in 1840, having been anticipated by Connop Thirlwall just a few years before.

Coleridge's rejection is sustained by another high literary authority. In Schiller's German adaptation, the Porter is high-minded and cold sober. He has stayed awake to keep guard over the King, and therefore over all Scotland, as he tells Macbeth in an ambitious jest. Instead of masquerading as an infernal gatekeeper, he has sung a pious hymn to the sunrise and has ignored the knocking in order to finish his Morgenlied. Yet, for a century now, the current of opinion has run the other way; commentators have held, with J. W. Hales, that Shakespeare's Porter was authentic and by no means inappropriate. Robert Browning heartily agreed, and Bishop Wordsworth even allowed that the scene could be read with edification. So it should be, given its eschatological overtones. We have long discarded the neo-classical inhibitions regarding the intermixture of tragic and comic elements. We have learned, above all from Lear's Fool, that the comic can intensify the tragic, rather than simply offer itself as relief. Those "secret, black, and midnight hags," the Witches, who for Holinshed were goddesses of destiny, come as close as anything in Shakespeare to the chorus of Greek tragedy (IV, i, 48). But their outlandish imminence seems elusive and amoral because of their mysterious connection with the machinery of fate. The Porter's role is grotesquely choric in another sense. Like the Gardener in Richard II, he stands there to point the moral, to act out the object-lesson. This castle, far from reaching up toward heaven, is located at the brink of hell. Even now its lord has damned himself eternally.

Damnation is portended by the curse of sleeplessness, which has been foreshadowed among the spells that the First Witch proposed to cast upon the sea-captain: "Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his penthouse lid" (I, iii, 19-20). No sooner has the King been murdered than Macbeth hears the voice crying "Sleep no more!" and begins to extoll the blessing he has forfeited. The word itself is sounded thirty-two times, more than in any other play of Shakespeare's. Repeatedly sleep is compared with death. Almost enviously, after complaining of the "terrible dreams" that afflict him nightly, Macbeth evokes the buried Duncan: "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well" (III, ii, 18, 23). When he breaks down at the Banquet Scene before the apparition of Banquo's ghost, it is Lady Macbeth who assumes command, discharges the guests, and leads her husband off to bed with the soothing words: "You lack the season of all natures, sleep" (III, iv, 140). It should be noted that she does not see the ghost or hear the voice, and that she skeptically dismisses the airdrawn dagger as a subjective phenomenon: "the very painting of your fear" (III, iv, 60). Unlike Macbeth, she has no intercourse with the supernatural forces. To be sure, she has called upon the spirits to unsex her, fearing lest she be deterred from murder by the milk—the feminine attribute—of human kindness. And from the outset it is he, not she, who feels and expresses that remorse she has steeled herself against, those "compunctious visitings of nature" (I, v, 45). When they ultimately overtake her, his insomnia will have its counterpart in her somnambulism.

In keeping with her aloofness from supernaturalism, Shakespeare's treatment of her affliction seems so naturalistic that it is now and then cited among the clinical cases in abnormal psychology. According to the seventeenth-century frame of reference, she may show the symptoms of melancholia or—to invoke theological concepts that still can grip the audiences of films—demonic possession. Psychoanalysis tends to diagnose her malady as a manifestation of hysteria, which compels her to dramatize her anxiety instead of dreaming about it, to reenact the pattern of behavior that she has tried so desperately to repress. Freud regarded this sleepwalker and her sleepless mate as "two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality," together subsuming the possibilities of reaction to the crime, and underlined the transference from his response to hers, from his hallucinations to her mental disorder. In more social terms, the closeness of their complementary relationship seems strongly reinforced by the sexual bond between them. Three of the exit-lines emphasize their going to bed together. Caroline Spurgeon and other interpreters of Shakespeare's imagery have noticed that the most recurrent metaphor in the play has to do with dressing and undressing, transposed sometimes into arming and disarming or crowning and uncrowning. The sense of intimacy is enhanced by the recollection that the nightgowns mentioned are dressing-gowns, that under the bedclothes no clothing of any sort was worn in that day; and nakedness exposed is one of the other themes (a recent film has welcomed the opportunity for presenting a heroine in the nude). Lady Macbeth, as M. C. Bradbrook has observed, must have been a siren as well as a fury.

Inquiries into her motives have dwelt upon her childlessness, after having borne a child who evidently died, and that frustration seems to have kindled Macbeth's hostility toward the families of Banquo and Macduff. Deprived of happy motherhood, she takes a somewhat maternal attitude toward her spouse, and she seeks a vicarious fulfillment in her ruthless ambitions for his career. Holinshed had stressed her single-minded goading-on of her husband, "burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen." She may be a "fiendlike queen" to Malcolm and other enemies, but the characterization is highly nuanced when we contrast it with the termagant queens of Shakespeare's earliest histories (V, ix, 35). Criticism ranges all the way from Hazlitt ("a great bad woman whom we hate, but whom we fear more than we hate") to Coleridge ("a woman of a visionary and daydreaming turn of mind"). Coleridge had re-created Hamlet in his own image, after all, and his Lady Macbeth might pose as a model for Madame Bovary. The variance in interpretations extends from Lamartine's "perverted and passionate woman" to Tieck's emphasis on her conjugal tenderness, which provoked the mockery of Heine, who envisages her billing and cooing like a turtle dove. She may not be "such a dear" as Bernard Shaw discerned in Ellen Terry's portrayal; but she encompasses most of these images, inasmuch as Shakespeare clearly understood the ambivalence of aggression and sympathy in human beings. Her emotions and Macbeth's are timed to a different rhythm. As he hardens into a fighting posture, and his innate virility reasserts itself, she softens into fragile femininity, and her insecurities come to the surface of her breakdown.

Distraction of the mind is rendered by Shakespeare in a pithy, terse, staccato idiom which might not inappropriately be termed distracted prose. Madness, along with all the other moods of English tragedy, had originally been conveyed through blank verse, as when Titus Andronicus "runs lunatic." So it was in Kyd's operatic Spanish Tragedy, though the later and more sophisticated ragings of its hero would be added by another hand in prose. The innovation was Marlowe's: in the First Part of Tamburlaine the captive queen Zabina goes mad over the death of her consort Bajazet, and before her suicide gives utterance to a short prose sequence of broken thoughts. Her farewell line, "Make ready my coach . . . ," must have given Shakespeare a suggestion for Ophelia. He seized upon this technique and developed it to the point where it became, in the phrase of Laertes, "A document in madness, / Thoughts and remembrance fitted." Ophelia distributing flowers, like King Lear distributing weeds, obsessively renews the source of grief. Edgar in the guise of Tom o'Bedlam deliberately imitates such language as does Hamlet when he simulates insanity. Lear's Fool is exceptional, since he is both a jester and a natural; yet, in that dual role, he may be looked upon as a mediator between the comic and the distracted prose. And in King Lear as a whole, in the interrelationship between the Lear-Cordelia plot and the Gloucester-Edgar underplot, we have our most highly wrought example of the two plots running parallel. As a matter of dramaturgic tradition, that parallel tended in the direction of parody.

Thus, in the Second Shepherds'Play at Wakefield, the serious plot about the nativity is parodied by the sheep-stealing underplot, since the lamb is an emblem of Jesus. In the oldest English secular comedy, Fulgens and Lucres, while two suitors court the mistress, their respective servants court the maid—probably the most traditional of all comic situations, harking back as far as Aristophanes'Frogs. In Doctor Faustus the clowns burlesque the hero's conjurations by purloining his magical book and conjuring up a demon. This has its analogue in The Tempest, where the conspiracy against Prospero is burlesqued by the clownish complot. Having defended the essential seriousness of the Porter's Scene, I am not moving toward an argument that there is anything comic per se in the Sleepwalking Scene; but there is something distinctly parodic about the virtual repetition of a previous scene in such foreshortened and denatured form. Murder will out, as the old adage cautions; the modern detective story operates on the assumption that the murderer returns to the locality of the crime. Lady Macbeth, always brave and bold when her husband was present, must sleep alone when he departs for the battlefield. It is then that her suppressed compunction, her latent sense of guilt, wells up from the depths of her subconscious anguish. Under the cover of darkness and semi-consciousness, she must now reenact her part, going through the motions of that scene in the courtyard on the night of Duncan's assassination, and recapitulating the crucial stages of the entire experience.

When the late Tyrone Guthrie staged his production at the Old Vic, he directed his leading lady, Flora Robson, to reproduce the exact gesticulation of the murder scene. Such an effect could not have been achieved within the Piranesi-like setting designed by Gordon Craig, where the sleepwalking was supposed to take place on the steps of a sweeping spiral staircase. One of the most theatrical features of this episode, however it be played, lies in the choreographic opportunity that it offers to the actress and the director. At the Globe Playhouse the principal problem in staging would have been the glaring fact that plays were performed there in broad daylight. That was simply met by a convention, which has been uncovered through the researches of W. J. Laurence. A special point was made of bringing out lanterns, tapers, or other lights, paradoxically enough, to indicate the darkness. But the lighting of the Sleepwalking Scene is not merely conventional. Lady Macbeth, we learn, can no longer abide the dark. "She has light by her continually," her Waiting Gentlewoman confides to the Doctor (V, i, 22-23). It is the candle she carries when she enters, no mere stage property either, throwing its beams like a good deed in a naughty world. Banquo, on a starless night, has referred metaphorically to the overclouded stars as extinguished candles. Macbeth, when the news of his wife's suicide is subsequently brought to him, will inveigh against the autumnal prospect of meaninglessness ahead, and the yesterdays behind that have "lighted fools / The way to dusty death" (V, v, 22-23). Life itself is the brief candle he would now blow out.

Lady Macbeth presumably carried her candle throughout the scene until the London appearance of Sarah Siddons in 1785. She was severely criticized for setting it down on a table, so that she could pantomime the gesture of rubbing her hands. Sheridan, then manager of the Drury Lane, told her: "It would be thought a presumptuous innovation." Man of the theater that he was, he congratulated her upon it afterwards. But many in the audience were put off by it, and even more by her costume. She was wearing white satin, traditionally reserved for mad scenes, and later on would shift to a shroud-like garment. Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth became, by wide consent, the greatest English actress in her greatest role. Hence we have a fair amount of testimony about her performance. A statuesque figure whose rich voice ranged from melancholy to peevishness, subsiding at times into eager whispers, she was "tragedy personified" for Hazlitt, who reports that "all her gestures were involuntary and mechanical." More physically active than her candle-burdened predecessors, who seem to have mainly glided, she excelled particularly at stage-business. The hand-rubbing was accompanied by a gesture of ladling water out of an imaginary ewer. When she held up one hand, she made a face at the smell—a bit of business which Leigh Hunt considered "unrefined." Yet, after she had made her exit stalking backwards, one witness testified: "I swear that I smelt blood!" She herself has attested that, when as a girl of twenty she began to study the part, she was overcome by a paroxysm of terror.

Turning more directly to "this slumb'ry agitation," we are prepared for it by the expository conversation between the Gentlewoman and the Doctor (V, i, 11). Lady Macbeth's twenty lines will be punctuated by their whispering comments. It is clear that there have been earlier visitations, and that Lady Macbeth has engaged in writing during one of them; but what she spoke the Gentlewoman firmly refuses to disclose. The Doctor, who has been watching with her during the last two nights, has so far witnessed nothing. But, from the account, he knows what to expect: "A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching!" (9-11). Sleep seems scarcely a benefit under the circumstances, much as it may be longed for by the watchful, the ever-wakeful Macbeth; and, though Lady Macbeth is actually sleeping, she is not only reliving the guilty past but incriminating herself. When she appears, the antiphonal comment ("You see her eyes are open." / "Ay, but their sense is shut.") raises that same question of moral blindness which Shakespeare explored in King Lear (24-25). If she could feel that her hands were cleansed when she washed them, her compulsive gesture would be a ritual of purification. Yet Pilate, washing his hands before the multitude, has become an archetype of complicity. Her opening observation and exclamation ("Yet here's a spot" . . ."Out, damn'd spot!") is a confession that prolonged and repeated ablutions have failed to purge her sins (31, 35). She continues by imagining that she hears the clock strike two: it is time for the assassination. Her revulsion from it compresses into three words all the onus of the Porter's garrulous commentary: "Hell is murky" (36).

That sudden glimpse of the bottomless pit does not keep her from the sanguinary course she has been pursuing. But the grandiose iambic pentameter of her courtyard speeches, inspiriting and rebuking her reluctant partner, has been contracted into a spasmodic series of curt, stark interjections, most of them monosyllabic. "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" (39-40). She had thought at least of her father, and had momentarily recoiled. Macbeth had feared that the deed might not "trammel up the consequence," might open the way for retributive counteraction, and indeed Duncan's blood has clamored for a terrible augmentation of bloodshed, has set off the chain-reaction of bloodfeuds involving Banquo's progeny and Macduff s. Hitherto we had not been aware of Lady Macbeth's awareness of the latter, much less of how she might respond to his catastrophe. Her allusion to Lady Macduff seems reduced to the miniature scale of a nursery rhyme ("The Thane of Fife / had a wife"), but it culminates in the universal lamentation of ubi est: "Where is she now?" Then, more hand-washing, more conjugal reproach. Her listeners are realizing, more and more painfully, that they should not be listening; what she says should not be heard, should not have been spoken, should never have happened. "Here's the smell of the blood still" (50). The olfactory metaphor has a scriptural sanction, as Leigh Hunt should have remembered: evil was a stench in righteous nostrils, and the offence of Claudius smelled to heaven. The heartcry comes with the recognition that the smell of blood will be there forever: "All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand" (50-51).

She had been clear-headed, tough-minded, and matterof-fact in tidying up after the murder: "A little water clears us of this deed." It was Macbeth, exhausted and conscience-stricken after his monstrous exertion, who had envisioned its ethical consequences in a hyperbolic comparison:

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine.
Making the green one red

(II, ii, 57-6)

Her hand is smaller than his, and so—relatively speaking—is her hyperbole. All the perfumes of Arabia, all the oilwells of Arabia, could not begin to fill the amplitude of the ocean, and the contrast is completed by the oceanic swell of his Latinate polysyllables. She has come to perceive, unwillingly and belatedly, that the stigmata are irremovable. He had perceived this at once and, moreover, reversed his magniloquent trope. Never can the bloodstain be cleansed away; on the contrary, it will pollute the world. No one can, as she advised in another context, "lave our honors" (III, ii, 33). The sound that voices this perception on her part ("O, O, O!") was more than a sign when Mrs. Siddons voiced it, we are told (V, i, 52). It was "a convulsive shudder—very horrible." The one-sided marital dialogue goes on, reverting to the tone of matter-offactness. "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown, look not so pale" (62-63). If Duncan is in his grave, as Macbeth has mused, is not Banquo in a similar condition? Where is he now? Reminiscence here reverberates from the Banquet Scene: "I tell you yet again, Banquo's buried; he cannot come out on's grave" (63-64). These internalized anxieties that will not be so coolly exorcized are far more harrowing than the externalized ghosts that beset Richard III on the eve of battle. Having resumed his soldierly occupation and been reassured by the Witches'auguries, Macbeth has put fear behind him, whatever the other cares that are crowding upon him. It is therefore through Lady Macbeth that we apprehend the approach of nemesis.

And then her terminal speech: "To bed, to bed; there's knocking at the gate" (66-67). It is imaginary knocking; what we hear again is silence, a silence powerful enough to resurrect the encounter between those harbingers of revenge and damnation, Macduff and the Porter. Her fantasy concludes by repeating what we have already watched in both the Murder Scene and the Banquet Scene, when she led her faltering husband offstage. "Come, come, come, come, give me your hand" (67). Her next and penultimate remark harks back to the concatenation of earlier events. The First Witch, in her premonitory resentment against the sailor's wife, had promised him a swarm of nameless mischiefs (future tense): "I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do" (I, iii, 10). Macbeth's own ruminations at the edge of action had started from the premise (present tense, conditional and indicative): "If it were done, when'tis done, then'twere well / It were done quickly" (I, vii, 1-2). It was done quickly, whereupon Lady Macbeth sought to arrest his mounting disquietude with the flat affirmation (past, transitive): "What's done, is done" (III, ii, 12). Similar as it sounds, it was a far cry from her concluding negation, her fatalistic valediction to life: "What's done cannot be undone" (V, i, 68). This implies the wish that it had not been done, reinforces Macbeth's initial feeling that it need not be done, and equilibrates the play's dialectical movement between free will and inevitability. The appeal, "To bed," is uttered five times. She moves off to the bedchamber they will never share again, as if she still were guiding her absent husband's steps and his bloodstained hand were still in hers.

The doctor, who has been taking notes, confesses himself to be baffled. The case is beyond his practise, it requires a divine rather than a physician. In the following scene he discusses it with Macbeth on a more or less psychiatric basis. Lady Macbeth is "Not so sick . . . / As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies, / That keep her from her rest" (V, iii, 37-39). The Doctor is not a psychiatrist; he cannot "minister to a mind diseas'd" (40). Nor has he a cure for Scotland's disease, when Macbeth rhetorically questions him. Here we catch the connection with the one scene that passes in England, where the dramatic values center on Macduff s reaction to his domestic tragedy. His interview with Malcolm is a test of loyalty, and the invented accusations that Malcolm levels against himself—that he would, for instance, "Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell"—are more applicable to Macbeth, whose milky nature has gone just that way (IV, iii, 98). We are at the court of Edward the Confessor, the saintly English king whose virtues make him a foil for the Scottish hellhound. A passage which might seem to be a digression expatiates on how the royal touch can cure his ailing subjects of the scrofula, known accordingly as the King's Evil. Shakespeare is complimenting the new Stuart monarch, James I, descendant of the legendary Banquo, who had revived the ancient superstition. But the pertinence goes further; for the spokesman of the English king is another doctor; and the antithesis is brought home when we compare the sickness of the one country with that of the other. The King's Evil? Given the omens, the tidings, the disaffections, is it not Scotland which suffers from that disease?

A. C. Bradley asserted that Lady Macbeth is "the only one of Shakespeare's great tragic characters who on a last appearance is denied the dignity of verse." That comment discloses a curious insensitivity not only to the ways of the theater, which never interested Bradley very much, but to the insights of psychology, for which he claimed an especial concern. It could be maintained that distracted prose constitutes an intensive vein of poetry. Somnambulism, though fairly rare as a habit among adults (much rarer than sleep-talking), is such a striking one that we might expect it to have had more impact upon the imagination. Yet there seems to be little or no folklore about it, if we may judge from its omission in Stith Thompson's comprehensive Index. It has suggested the rather silly libretto of Bellini's opera, La Sonnambula (based upon a vaudeville-ballet by Scribe), where the sleepwalking heroine compromises herself by walking into a man's room at an inn, and then redeems her reputation by singing a coloratura aria while perambulating asleep on a rooftop. Dissimilarly, Verdi's Macbetto avoids such pyrotechnical possibilities. The prima donna, in her sleepwalking scena, sticks fairly close to Shakespeare's disjointed interjections, though her voice mounts to a Verdian lilt at the high point:

Arabia intera
rimandar sí piccol mano

co'suoi balsami non puó,
 no, no, non puó . . .

The only serious dramatization that I can recall, apart from Shakespeare's, is Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. In contradistinction to Lady Macbeth, Prince Friedrich has already made his promenade when the play opens; he is discovered at morning seated in a garden; and the garland he is unconsciously weaving adumbrates his dreams of future military glory. The title of Hermann Broch's fictional trilogy, Die Schlaf-wandler, is purely figurative. A melodrama made famous by Henry Irving, The Bells, culminates in the mesmerized reenactment of a crime. It is worth noting that the first Macbeth acted in German (1773), freely adapted by Gottlob Stefanie der Jüngere, replaced the sleepwalking scene by a mad scene in which Macbeth was stabbed to death by his lady. Shakespeare would seem to have been as unique in his choice of subject as in his handling of it.

There is nothing to prevent a mad scene from taking place in the daytime. But Lady Macbeth must be a noctambulist as well as a somnambulist, for her climactic episode brings out the nocturnal shading of the tragedy. Macbeth, from first to last, is deeply and darkly involved with the night-side of things. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth apostrophize the darkness, calling upon it to cover their malefactions. The timing of crucial scenes is conveyed, not merely by the convention of lighting candles, but by the recurring imagery of nightfall, overcast and dreamlike as in the dagger speech:

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

(II, i, 49-51)

Characters, habitually undressing or dressing, seem to be either going to bed or getting up, like the Porter when he is so loudly wakened. "Light thickens," and the mood can be summed up by the protagonist in a single couplet:

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

(III, ii, 52-53)

Critical decisions are reached and fell designs are carried out at hours when night is "Almost at odds with morning, which is which," when the atmosphere—like hell—is murky, and it is hard to distinguish fair from foul or foul from fair (III, iv, 126). The penalty for wilfulness is watchfulness, in the sense of staying awake against one's will, of fitfully tossing and turning between bad dreams. Existence has become a watching, a waking, a waking dream. Yet "night's predominance," as one of the Thanes describes it, cannot last forever (II, iv, 8). Malcolm offers consolation by saying: "The night is long that never finds the day" (IV, iii, 240). Macduff is fated to bring in the head of Macbeth on a pike, like the Thane of Cawdor's at the beginning, and to announce the good word: "the time is free" (V, ix, 21). The human makes its reflux over the fiendish at long last. After so painful and protracted an agony, after a spell so oneiric and so insomniac by turns, we welcome the daylight as if we were awakening from a nightmare.

Dieter Mehl (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Macbeth" in Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 105-30.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in German and published in 1983, Mehl follows Macbeth through the course of the dramatic action, delineating the protagonist's agonizing moral struggles, his progressive corruption, and his increasing isolation. Throughout his discussion, the critic calls attention to similarities and differences between Macbeth and the other major tragediesas well as Richard III and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus—pointing out the many distinctive and innovative features of this play's tragic hero.]

Compared with King Lear, Macbeth appears much more simply constructed and easier to understand. Its structure is tight, almost classical in its compelling consistency and there is only one plot. The tragic action, at first sight, is equally transparent. One may, if one is fond of crisp formulas, like V. K. Whitaker reduce it to'simply the yielding of a great and good man to temptation and the degeneration of his moral nature resulting from his first deed of sin'.117 But this glib description is hardly adequate to account for the play's unusual fascination and makes it sound like an edifying morality. It is more appropriate to try and understand it in relation to the other three major tragedies and to its historical context.

Although plot and subject are quite different from Hamlet, Othello and King Lear, there are close thematic links between these three plays and Macbeth. The burning question of how evil comes into society and why it has such power over individual characters is only touched on in the earlier tragedies, usually in connection with the protagonist's tragic experience; in Macbeth, it is right at the heart of the play. Claudius, Iago and Edmund are presented as the very incarnation of hatred and corruption, but the dramatist tells us very little about their motives and he never makes them objects of our sympathy. Their well-deserved exposure and punishment is not a central aspect of the tragic impact, but the confirmation of moral order and poetic justice. In Macbeth, however, as has often been remarked, the villain and criminal has become the tragic hero, not in the sense of a cautionary history, but as a disquieting study of human corruptibility and ruthless lust for political power. Lear's agonized question,'Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?'(III.6.76-7), is not answered, yet in Macbeth Shakespeare has made it the central theme of his tragedy, mainly by a change of perspective. It is not the victims of wickedness and sin that the play is concerned with, but wickedness and sin itself, yet not from an attitude of orthodox certainty, but from a dramatic point of view so close to the protagonist that any superior detachment is made impossible.118

The problem of evil is made spectacularly concrete by the introduction of the Elizabethan mythology of witchcraft, including elements of popular superstition as well as theological speculation. It was well known that the new King James I was deeply interested in all kinds of supernatural phenomena and witch-lore, and it seems reasonable enough to assume that, with this play, Shakespeare deliberately touched on a theme that could not fail to fascinate his monarch and the patron of his company, the King's Men, just as the actual subject, early Scottish history and the descent of the Stuarts from Banquo, seems an obvious compliment to James. Thus, visiting Oxford in 1605, the King was greatly pleased when, in the course of an allegorical pageant, he was hailed as Banquo's heir by the same three Fates who had once promised the crown to his ancestor and his progeny for all eternity.119 This topical significance of the tragedy had, without doubt, consequences for the presentation of the story.

It probably explains why Shakespeare's Banquo, in contrast to the dramatist's most important source, Holinshed's chronicle, is not implicated in the murder of Duncan as Macbeth's fellow-conspirator, but serves as a positive moral contrast. There were, however, perfectly good dramatic reasons for this change, as for several other alterations of the historical material. Most of them are due to Shakespeare's most original conception of his tragic hero.

If one compares Macbeth with Holinshed's account, the first thing to be noticed is again the skillful concentration of the action. The Macbeth of the chronicles has ruled justly and with obvious success for some ten years before he turns into a tyrant and his enemies begin to unite against him. The murder of Duncan is more conventionally motivated by the King's weakness, to which Macbeth objects, and by his apparent exclusion from the succession: contrary to established Scottish practice, Duncan declares his son to be his heir, which Macbeth takes as an affront. The murder is the work of a conspiracy, not the brutal crime of an individual. The particularly repulsive circumstances of the act Shakespeare took over from another case of regicide reported by Holinshed: about a century before Macbeth, Donwald vented some private hatred against King Duff and murdered him, at the instigation of his wife, while entertaining him as a guest in his own home. The crime was followed by supernatural portents: for six months there was neither sun by day nor moon by night, and there were several other frightening signs of divine wrath until the deed was avenged, all the murderers cruelly executed and the body of the King properly buried according to his rank. Macbeth's crime, in comparison, is much more political and less spectacular. It is also morally less revolting and of less consequence for the whole realm. The dramatist has transferred some of the supernatural and cosmic phenomena accompanying the murder of Duff to Macbeth's story. He has also condensed the time of the action into a few months and has particularly emphasized the aspect of'pricke of conscience'120 by the apparition of Banquo's Ghost and the sleepwalking scene, neither of which are mentioned in the sources. The comic solo of the porter, too, is his own addition.

Shakespeare's source clearly links this tragedy to his history plays and the similarities with Richard III, including even verbal parallels, have often been noticed.121 Tillyard calls Macbeth'the epilogue to the histories'and rightly calls attention to the fact that state and community are more important aspects of the tragic action here than in the other tragedies.122 It is not only the party of Macbeth's opponents that is victorious at the end, but the whole kingdom, a community whose welfare is dependent on order and law. Malcolm stands for the principle of a good monarch in a much more concrete and meaningful sense than Fortinbras or Albany. Macbeth is in many ways an eminently political play; it demonstrates, very similarly to Richard III, the law of crime and punishment or sin and retribution in history, a law insisted on again and again by Elizabethan historians as well as by the authors of The Mirror for Magistrates. Prophecy and tragic irony as well as the close relationship between individual guilt and cosmic order had already been important issues in Shakespeare's histories and had often even determined their dramatic structure. These plays were, however, less concerned with the individual's struggle against temptation or with private morality. Richard III is in many ways a most fascinating character, but we can hardly say that he undergoes a genuinely tragic experience or that there is any marked personal development. His villainy and his dynamic inhumanity are a part of his nature that is taken for granted; they are not explored in any depths or taken as a central problem in the play, although they can be made more prominent and disturbing in performance.

At the end of the play, Richard, who is confronted by imminent destruction and revenge, talks of his conscience and, in a long soliloquy, sees himself as one of the damned. This is a rather conventional form of self-recognition at the moment of death, and the stylized rhetoric as well as the rather schematic scenic form of the last act makes it difficult for us to see him as a tormented human being with whom we can really identify.123 At least, the possibility of tragic conflict is not pursued much further in the rest of the play and it is obvious that the play wants us to side with Richard's enemies, most of all the victorious Tudor Richmond.

All this does not mean that it is easy to draw the line between history and tragedy, either in Elizabethan theory and practice or by a general abstract definition; yet most critics agree that the traditional grouping of Richard III with the histories and Macbeth with the tragedies is justified by the character and the subject of the two plays. In spite of its topical interest for Shakespeare's audience and its political aspect, Macbeth is not a historical play. What really absorbs the spectator is not so much the fate of Scotland, but the protagonist's agonizing mental conflict, his farreaching moral decision, and his total collapse under its consequences.124 It was even Bradley who spoke of our'sympathy'for Macbeth125 and though the reactions of individual spectators are bound to differ, the play's undiminished popularity throughout the centuries, in the study as well as on stage, is evidence that Shakespeare has dramatized Macbeth's criminal career in such a way that it does not merely arouse indignation and revulsion, but also a sense of personal involvement and sympathy in the literal sense of our suffering with the hero, which could hardly be said of Richard III. Macbeth's tragic experience is, of course, very different from that of Lear, but it is of the same intensity and energy of imagination and it is no less directly related to fundamental ethical issues. There is a very similar view of human existence as a series of moral decisions beyond the reach of comfortably orthodox definitions.

This is in no way qualified, but rather highlighted by the presence of the witches. Like the Ghost in Hamlet, they are not to be explained as a phenomenon by itself, but are inseparably related to the protagonist and his tragic dilemma. Their first appearance is, above all, designed to create a striking atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. The spectator finds himself transported into a world where human beings are closely observed by supernatural spirits eager to create confusion and to take advantage of man's infirmities. The witches are a rather more sinister version of the elves and fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream who make fun of the mortals and are amused by their folly. For the'weird sisters', the political quarrels and bloodshed among men are no more than'hurly-burly'(1.1.3) where it is all the same who wins and who loses. All the familiar standards of everyday experience are irrelevant to them and thus there is, from the start, a clear opposition between man-made order and this dimension of the unreliable and deceptive, acting as a threat and a challenge:'Fair is foul, and foul is fair'(I.1.9). Here it is already evident that these apparitions are neither benign spirits of order nor agents of an inescapable fate, but, in a way that is particularly characteristic of Shakespeare's dramatic art, combine elements of popular belief and a syncretistic mythology. It is a combination that is possible only in a theatre that is at the same time popular and learned, as only the Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre was.126

Against this background, the second scene is bound to seem rather less impressive despite its martial rhetoric and talk of heroic exploits. The epic pathos of the blood-smeared eye-witness—obviously modelled on the classical messenger-speech—is clearly marked as something of a declamatory pose by the completely different style of the previous scene. The slightly false grandeur of the diction makes Macbeth's celebrated victory sound like a bloody slaughter as much as a glorious success. The action that is to follow is not anticipated in any detail, but some important themes are sounded and, in retrospect at least,* most spectators will notice the ominous equation of'that most disloyal traitor,/The Thane of Cawdor'(L2.54-5) and Macbeth who inherits that'former title'. The protagonist is introduced rather indirectly at first, similar to Hamlet, Othello and (very briefly) Lear. Loyalty and a soldier's toughness are the chief virtues ascribed to him from the first, and both are a kind of starting-point for the conflicts that are to follow. With Macbeth's help the King has overcome all his external and internal enemies and he can now, it appears, rely on the new Thane of Cawdor for loyalty and protection.

In the following scene, the two worlds to which we have been introduced confront one another directly, and it is immediately clear from the dramatic style and the language that this is not a normal encounter of partners in a dialogue, but an apparition arranged by the supernatural beings in the course of which the mortals are told as much and no more as lies within the will and the power of the spirits. Like Hamlet, Macbeth and Banquo are directly addressed by the apparition, but they are by no means granted any reliable information. They try to extract some firm instruction, teased by the possibility of obtaining some usually hidden knowledge; the witches, however, create confusion, not certainty and this is perfectly in keeping with Elizabethan ideas of such ghosts and their influence on humans.

In contrast to his source, Shakespeare lays great stress on the different reactions of Banquo and Macbeth and this alone should make perfectly clear that the'weird sisters" power over human will is very limited; they can suggest, not direct, and they do not directly circumscribe the freedom of their chosen victim. Macbeth's reaction, effectively described by Banquo for the spectator's benefit, is one of immediate terror and shock. The annunication of royal dignity fills him with cold fear and this strongly suggests that it hits him in a particularly sensitive spot, that he, like Hamlet, has somehow been prepared for a revelation of this kind, even though this need not be something of which he is himself aware. The spectator knows, however, that the witches who address him as'Thane of Cawdor'have the advantage of Macbeth who is still ignorant of his new title, and this must give him an idea of their superior knowledge. Banquo, on the other side, is completely unimpressed and sees the witches as a curiosity or a strange deception of the senses. Their announcement is for him no more than a surprising incident, not to be taken too seriously, and he watches its powerful effect on Macbeth with genuine astonishment.

The immediate arrival of Duncan's messengers who greet Macbeth officially as'Thane of Cawdor'gives to the witches an appearance of prophetic authority and again Shakespeare emphasizes the different effect of this revelation on Banquo and on Macbeth. Banquo's first reaction is amazement at the deceptive power of evil ('What! Can the devil speak true?'(1.3.106)). For him, the obvious explanation is provided by the Christian commonplace that the Fiend often puts on the mask of truth and trustworthiness to deceive us all the more effectively, and he pronounces it with the certainty of an orthodox doctrine:

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.


There is no doubt that for many Elizabethans this was the only possible answer to the question of the origin and the authority of supernatural forebodings, and Shakespeare's plays are full of similar statements. Attractive half-truths and pleasant flattery ('honest trifles') are well-tried means of temptation and corruption; but it is only for those who are unaffected and uncorruptible that they are as transparent as they are for Banquo and for the spectator enlightened by him.

Remarkably, both Banquo and Macbeth understand the witches'prophecy as an invitation to act, although this is not explicitly spelt out, and therefore needs the active cooperation of the listener. Banquo uses traditional terms to describe the Devil, and Macbeth, too, speaks of'supernatural soliciting'(1.3.129). This may be an accurate description of the effect on him of the witches'address and of their secret intention, but it cannot be said that there is any'soliciting'in their actual words; it is Macbeth's own mind that does the soliciting.127 It will not be lost on any reader that his reaction provides a terrifying confirmation of Banquo's confident explanation. The witches'prophecies have activated his brain with an irresistible intensity, as Shakespeare makes clear by a most original form of dramatic soliloquy. The conventional'aside', which usually serves as a device to inform the spectator directly or to draw our attention to deliberate deception on the speaker's part, is here used in a novel way: it indicates a state of intense mental preoccupation and a temporary withdrawal from the dialogue in which he takes part only with a few meaningless phrases. What has really taken possession of his whole mind is reflected in an'aside'that more and more turns into a monologue audible only to the audience. Temptation is not, as in the moralities, an act of persuasion by a seducer, but a mental process within the individual consciousness. Shakespeare here leaves behind him the more conventional dramatic method he himself used in Othello, where Iago still plays the part of Vice and the wicked counsellor. Macbeth, however, is tempter and tempted at the same time, and only the spectator is able to witness his internal struggle. All the other characters on stage can merely see what Banquo describes for them:

Look how our partner's rapt. (1.3.142)

In the case of more conventional villains, the complicity of the reader or spectator can produce a feeling of amused superiority, perhaps even sneaking admiration. In Macbeth, the technique is obviously a means of manipulating our sympathy.128 The intensity of the inner conflict qualifies, for us, Banquo's unambiguous, but rather abstract explanation; it is invested with a disturbing concreteness by Macbeth's agony, and this makes it impossible to remain in a state of detached superiority. The driving force behind this tragic conflict is his irrepressible imagination which many critics, before and since Bradley, have described as the hero's most distinct and fatal quality.129 It compels him to pursue relentlessly the ideas suggested to him by the witches and it prevents him from resisting their destructive consequences. This is what makes the whole scene so characteristic and crucial for what follows. Macbeth does not make a clear-cut, conscious decision to take the evil course, unlike Richard III, whose 'I am determined to prove a villain'(1.1.30) suggests a very different conception of tragedy and may illustrate the fundamental contrast between the two plays. For Macbeth, evil seems to be anything but an attractive alternative to his previous innocence; rather it is a terrifying possibility, and the effect of these imaginings on his whole being is unmistakable:

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?


This is a completely new tone in Shakespearian tragedy. Macbeth's description reminds us of the Ghost's account in Hamlet, hinting at the horrors and torments of Hell, of whom he'could a tale unfold'(1.5.15). Here it is, however, the sudden and frightening discovery of one's own hellish thoughts that is the most disturbing experience.130 Man's extraordinary capacity for completely immobilizing himself by visions of infernal pain and punishment, so powerfully expressed in Hamlet's famous soliloquy, is presented in actu:

Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not.


The border-line between reality and imagination becomes increasingly blurred. Macbeth's soliloquy is a demonstration of the experience that the products of our imagination can assume a presence as powerful and active as reality itself. For the first time, the word'murder'appears in this connection, not introduced by any tempter from without, but entering Macbeth's thoughts of its own accord, as it were, and smothering all normal impulses. None of Shakespeare's tragic heroes before Macbeth has undergone the same experience. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, perhaps, comes nearest to it. Knowingly he chooses Hell rather than salvation; but then, the terms of his temptation are very different and it is not his imagination as much as his insatiable desire for knowledge and intellectual power that leads him to damnation.

Macbeth does not make a definite decision, but leaves it all to'chance'and'time'(1.3.143 and 147), yet the intensity of his temptation and his complete isolation, emphasized by the dramatic technique, prepare the spectator for the sinister development which in the following scene already becomes more clearly foreseeable. The contrast between the outwardly loyal Macbeth, in whom the King puts all the trust disappointed by the previous Thane of Cawdor, and his'black and deep desires'(1.4.52), is again underlined by an'aside'that shows his deeply divided mind. The crime now appears as a real possibility that wants to shut out the light of day. He has obviously almost succumbed to the temptation before his wife drives him to the actual committal of the murder, and it is the prophecy of the witches acting on his imagination rather than any more clearly defined political consideration that brings about his fall. The text does not give us all the precise psychological steps that lead to the final decision, but it is clear that Malcolm's proclamation as Duncan's heir—which is not, as in the sources, a clear rejection of Macbeth's own just claim—as well as the announcement of the royal visit make him draw closer to his purpose which even his own eye must not see (1.4.52). Not even his different senses are in harmony with each other, and Macbeth's rhetorical division of eye and hand seems to express an illusory hope that one can commit a crime without being accountable for it with one's complete person.

The whole scene is informed with the contrast between Macbeth's outward behavior and the internal conflict known only to the audience. It is further emphasized by the rhetoric of his professions of loyalty and the unsuspecting trust of the King. The description of the traitor's exemplary death and Duncan's comparison of Macbeth's loyalty with a banquet also contribute to the tragic irony of the scene.

The preparation of the crime stretches over several scenes and this creates the impression of a long and painful temptation which does not happen with the inexorable speed and concentration of Othello's corruption, but needs various different influences and succeeds only after a series of agonizing struggles and strong inner resistance. In this process Lady Macbeth does not, by any means, play the part of a Iago. Before her first appearance, Macbeth has already considered the crime as an actual possibility and he has been changed by the witches'prophecy more than his wife can be aware. Her own, much less scrupulous determination and rejection of any moral doubts rather act as a contrast to the world of his much more complex imagination and direct our sympathies towards Macbeth into whose ear she intends to pour her own poisonous spirit. The progress of his corruption is, in a way, retarded by the presence of his wife because it seems as if it is not the witches alone who set him on his way to damnation. At the same time, this progress is now, in terms of the dramatic situation, cast in the form of persuasion and personal influence, whereas before it was only presented as a lonely struggle of the hero with his own phantasies.

In Othello, as we have seen, the most genuine appreciation of the hero's qualities (as well as of Cassio's) come from the mouth of the slanderer. Similarly, in Lady Macbeth's first speech we get a portrait of her husband whose most humane features seem all the more reliable as they have obviously impressed someone who knows him well and are not, as in the case of Duncan's praise, the result of hypocritical flattery. What Lady Macbeth fears as the chief obstacle to her husband's advancement,'the milk of human-kindness'(1.5.15), is the very reason why, for the spectator, he becomes a tragic hero and one with whom we can, to some extent, identify because he does not give in to wicked temptation without an agonizing struggle. Lady Macbeth knows nothing of such painful conflict with one's own'horrible imaginings'(1.3.137) and sees only indecision and weakness where there are genuine scruples. Bradley thought that her lack of imagination was indeed the chief difference between the two.131 The witches hardly mean anything to her, and her determination to commit the crime is as radical as it is unreflected. Her emphatic dedication of herself to the spirits of evil, coupled with an explicit denial of her sex (1.5.38-49), has much more in common with Lear's curse against his eldest daughter (King Lear 1.4.272-86), and the wording clearly indicates that she is invoking powers that are against nature, that she is, in fact, repudiating her own human nature by asking to be barren. She deliberately chooses to be one with the witches, and her whole speech reveals that she is already possessed by the spirits to whom she prays. At least, this is how an Elizabethan audience would most probably have understood the scene.132

In spite of all the dramatic energy of her character, which has made her part one of the most famous and most effective actress's roles in all the tragedies, she is, in comparison with the protagonist, not a very complex character. What makes her so fascinating to the audience is chiefly her fatal impact on Macbeth, not her own character problems or any tragic conflict within her. Her language, too, is much less imaginative, not as rich in associations, but unambiguous in the simplicity and inflexibility of her will-to-power. Still, her dynamic speeches and her powerful impression on other characters in the play provide an ample potential for any great actress, and the impact she can make in a good production is much stronger than her comparatively simple characterization in the text might suggest.

The structure of the first act, with its seven relatively brief scenes, mirrors Macbeth's inner conflict and portrays a world of very contradictory values. Lady Macbeth's threatening expectation of the'fatal entrance of Duncan'(1.5.37) is followed by Duncan's actual arrival which combines in a particularly impressive way tragic irony and the poetical evocation of untroubled harmony between man and nature. The hoarse raven mentioned by Lady Macbeth is contrasted with the'temple-haunting martlet'whose trustful nesting in Macbeth's castle make Duncan and Banquo feel all the more secure and welcome within its walls. Critics have noticed that Shakespeare's imagery creates for us a world of natural harmony and peace that makes the violation of all human loyalties and traditional ties by Macbeth and his wife all the more repulsive.133 The same nature that is completely perverted in Lady Macbeth is presented to us in these images as a power that is fruitful and constructive. But the popular superstition proves to be deceptive and the trusting bird has as little intuitive foreknowledge of the unnatural treason prepared within these seemingly hospitable walls as Duncan who is taken in by the hypocritically fulsome rhetoric of his hosts. The vision of a natural order based on harmony and trust is crucial for our own orientation within a play whose action is shaped by murder and blood. What is all-important, however, is the fact that Macbeth is most conscious of this order and has not, like his wife, once and for all rejected it.

His first great soliloquy, following immediately on his reception of Duncan, once more reviews the possible consequences of the projected deed, but especially its inhuman character. Like Hamlet, who is deeply worried by'the dread of something after death', Macbeth recognizes man's uncertain fear of a life beyond and of being asked to account for his actions as a powerful impediment when it comes to making moral decisions. He himself describes the unnatural ugliness of the murder he is about to commit in no uncertain terms as well as its inevitable consequences. The image of the'angels, trumpet-tongued against/The deep damnation of his taking-off (1.7.19-20) obviously suggest eschatological associations, while'Pity, like a naked newborn babe'(1.7.21) once again reminds the audience of the unprotected helplessness of an innocent life that can only be shielded by pity from destruction. Divine punishment and retribution, not human revenge are what really frightens Macbeth and they direct the further course of the action. The soliloquy does not announce a decision already made, but it reveals a clarity of vision and a painful awareness of the true situation that again remind us of Hamlet. Lady Macbeth does not add anything to this insight. Her function is rather to cloud his imagination than to oppose his fears and forebodings with a positive vision or an inspiring aim. From the very beginning, it is striking to see how much Macbeth's language and thought are preoccupied with the bloody nature and consequences of the murder and how little there is in his speeches of the real allurements and the hoped-for gain. This obsession with the terrors and the sinister consequences of crime rather than with its glorious rewards marks a characteristic difference between Macbeth and Marlowe's tragic heroes whose dynamic ambition, even where it becomes plainly criminal in execution, is always informed with an alluring vision of the wonderful prize to be reaped in the end. Macbeth and his wife know what they want to gain, but the play's rhetoric hardly ever suggests that the honor they hope to win is worth the terrible price to be paid for it. They seem almost more fascinated by this price than by their original ambition.

The final persuasion is more the result of Lady Macbeth's dynamic and unscrupulous will than of clever arguments or inventive eloquence. She does not really take any notice of his genuine scruples or try to refute them. His intention to abandon further thought of the deed, announced at the beginning of their decisive encounter, is apparently rather superficial and easily dispelled. Nor is her reminder of his oath—of which the audience knows nothing—a carefully prepared argument, but rather a demonstration of her ruthless determination, whose firmness impresses him, just as Hamlet is impressed by the unreflecting impetuosity of Fortinbras and Laertes. All that really frightens him is brushed aside by her insistence on an idea of simple manliness whose most important quality is a fearless readiness to act. To this he can only oppose half-hearted caution,'If we should fail?'(1.7.59), which she has no difficulty in overruling. For a brief moment, near the end of the scene, he seems to have adopted her firm determination, overwhelmed by her show of masculinity which is only an expression of her obsessed denial of all that is woman in her. When Macbeth himself now decides to combine all the energies of his body in the service of this crime,'bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat'(1.7.79-80), he acts in opposition to what he himself has experienced and what is more characteristic of his own nature: the agonizing conflict between different senses that makes a really determined and concentrated effort all but impossible for him. This side of himself will soon gain the upper hand again.

The second soliloquy, immediately before the murder, is again the expression of a deeply divided personality and it reveals to the audience the power of an uncontrollable imagination that will always be beyond Lady Macbeth's grasp.134 The imaginary dagger (11.1.33) symbolizes the unreal nature of the prize Macbeth is aiming at, a'fatal vision', like the apparition of the witches and just as illusory and elusive. This again raises the question of how reliable our senses are since eyes and hands seem to perceive different things. Macbeth experiences the particular nocturnal hour with an intense awareness of the brutality he is about to commit. This awareness does not in any way diminish the criminal sinfulness of the act, but it brings the hero much closer to the audience because he himself describes the horrors of his crime with such clarity of vision and such intense moral consciousness.135 The deed is undertaken without any of the enthusiastic determination and enjoyment of his own villainy that is so characteristic of Richard III. There is no cheerful expectation of a glorious reward. Terror and anguish are the prevailing emotions, and the murderer goes off to his victim like one doomed. No murder in the tragedies is committed with so little conviction, and not even a short-lived, liberating triumph is gained by it.

The soliloquy again contributes to a vivid emotional engagement on the part of the spectator, mainly because it does not, like the traditional soliloquies of the villain, try to establish a secret understanding between the speaker and the audience. It need not be spoken right at the front of the stage, in close contact to the auditorium, but rather serves to express the hero's complete isolation. His vision of the fatal weapon, dramatized in a most effective and original manner, cuts him off from everything around him. Again, a comparison with the soliloquies of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is instructive: there, too, we have solo scenes whose main purpose is neither reflection nor planning, but the portrayal of a deep emotional and intellectual crisis. Shakespeare departs from his previous practice in the use of soliloquy in order to present Macbeth's fundamentally divided character by this disturbing vision. He is obviously making a moral decision of a most far-reaching nature, but he is clearly beyond rational reflection and a conscious weighing of the issues involved. Without any self-justification or any illusion he really believes in, yet fully conscious of the'present horror'(II. 1.59) he leaves the stage to commit the murder that has already taken place in his (and in our) imagination. When, only twelve lines later, he re-appears, the irrevocable has happened, and all the rest of the play describes the mental and political convulsions set in motion by this crime. As in classical drama, the actual murder is executed off stage, but Macbeth is perhaps the best example of the way in which the terrifying inhumanity of the crime is impressed on us all the more powerfully by this indirect form of presentation. Poetry and dramatic rhetoric are more effective here than visual representation.

Lady Macbeth herself appears to experience the unnatural atrocity of the murder:

Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done't.


Even she is unable to commit parricide, yet as King, Duncan is no less sacred, and her hesitation at this point underscores the magnitude of the crime, the violation of natural order and loyalty.'My father as he slept'also reminds the audience of the familiar world of blood-relationship and domestic harmony that is brutally negated here.

Macbeth's own disturbed state of mind demonstrates the fatal consequences of the crime, following immediately on its execution, even more impressively. As before the deed, his imagination now proves to be completely beyond his control and it becomes the most dangerous instrument of divine revenge. Lady Macbeth's sensible advice,'Consider it not so deeply'(II.2.30), is totally ineffective and only underlines the intellectual as well as the moral distance between the two; this will continue to widen as the play goes on, in spite of their complicity.

Macbeth's language, with its disjointed and, in places, fragmentary syntax, especially its memorable images, suggests a deeply disturbed consciousness in which the idea of violated order and a peaceful existence never to be recovered has taken root once and for all. The knocking at the gate immediately makes clear that from now on even the most harmless incident turns into a reminder of his guilt. The contrast between his own conviction that his hands will never be clean again and Lady Macbeth's practical advice, 'A little water clears us of this deed'(II.2.67), may explain why, in spite of the repulsive gravity of Macbeth's guilt, the audience is not indifferent or simply hostile towards him, because, for all the progressive hardening of his mind, what Bradley calls'a gleam of his native love of goodness'is left with him and distinguishes him from her.136 The ultimate superiority of order and human integrity is made credible in this play not so much by any contrast with positive characters as by Macbeth's own lucid consciousness of moral values, by his continuous references to norms against which he has offended.

The discovery of the crime, the reports of the spectacular and frightening side-effects, and the seemingly successful play-acting of the criminals strike us, after what has gone before, as dramatically brilliant but comparatively conventional, as a diminishing of moral intensity. A certain easing of the dramatic tension before the actual reversal of the tragic development is not, however, a fault of the play's construction, but an important element of the dramatic rhythm which brings out the real significance of the crime all the more effectively. After Macbeth's horrifying visions before the deed, any of the usual consequences of such a murder must seem comparatively trivial and in the nature of an anticlimax.

Between the scenes of lonely anguish and the return to practical politics, there is a scene which earlier critics suspected to be an un-Shakespearian interpolation, but no modern reader will have any doubts as to its genuineness and its essential function for the total tragic effect of the play. This is the comic solo of the porter whom the knocking at the gate, so terrifying to Macbeth, has roused from his drunken stupor, immediately after Macbeth has expressed the futile hope that the sound might re-awaken Duncan.137

This kind of sharp contrast between two completely different stylistic registers is not unusual in Elizabethan drama or, indeed, in Shakespearian tragedy, even though the descent from tragic pathos to irresponsible clowning seems particularly abrupt here. It does not, however, appear to be out of place in a theatre which, like the Elizabethan public stage, does not aim at creating an illusion of realistic experience and does not attempt to disguise its role as popular entertainment, its eagerness to please. The audience is unashamedly reminded of the human actor behind the stage costume:'I pray you remember the porter'(II.3.19). The clown, asking for his tip, stands for a world of unconcerned vitality; to him, even Hell is only a subject for good-humored joking. It has often been remarked that the scene is closely related to the traditional representation of the Gates of Hell in the moralities,138 and this observation can help us to see the thematic significance of this interlude. In a comic manner it suggests religious associations and transforms Macbeth's castle into a place of the damned, if only as an imaginative game played by a drunken servant. The audience will hardly miss the ironic equation between the fictitious sinner greeted by the porter and the real criminals who are already within the gates. The pseudo-learned lecture on the effects of alcohol, too, plays on themes from other parts of the tragedy, especially the dangers of equivocation, of deceptive prophecy that can tempt man into futile efforts. The porter's mock-serious definition is a parody of the forces that have defeated Macbeth. What he says about drink is just as true of his fatal ambition:'it makes him and it mars him; it sets him on and it takes him off; it persuades him and disheartens him'(II.3.30-1).

Whether we can call this'comic relief is a question of the effect of the scene on the individual spectator. Critics have argued about whether this comic interlude actually softens the horrors of the murder scene or makes it even more ghastly by contrast, but this can hardly be decided from the text alone: it depends very much on the disposition of the beholder. The juxtaposition of sublime rhetoric, tragic intensity and a realism without illusions or pretensions is, at any rate, very characteristic of Shakespearian tragedy, and the porter has often been compared with the gravediggers in Hamlet for his very similar function. Tragic experience never loses its vital connection with the world of trivial everyday experience. Even those characters who have yet to undergo shattering trials are usually shown, immediately before the catastrophe, in relaxed dialogue with socially much inferior representatives of unblinkered realism and simple wisdom (e.g. Hamlet, Desdemona, Juliet, Lear, Cleopatra). Shakespeare's drama never loses sight of the essential link between comedy and tragedy, their common roots in stylized role-playing.

Macbeth's own shocked horror at the deed he has committed is presented with such dramatic intensity, that the discovery and the frightened reactions of those around him at first only seem like a comparatively harmless epilogue. The spectator does not share the terrified surprise of the unprepared because he has witnessed the planning of the crime. He is thus able to concentrate his attention on the two murderers who successfully pass their first test in hypocritical dissembling and are, for the time being, able to avoid all suspicion, although the immediate flight of Duncan's sons anticipates later developments and clearly diminishes Macbeth's success. The official version of the murder is not accepted by those who are most nearly concerned and the brief transitional scene (11.4), in which we learn about Macbeth's imminent coronation, puts this outward triumph in a context that once more emphasizes the inhumanity of the murder. The figure of the Old Man who is completely separate from the play's action and obviously represents the point of view of simple humanity, further adds to the impression of unnatural violence and offence against sacred pieties. His blessing at the end of the scene answers the sinister events with a simple definition of humane integrity:

God's benison go with you, and with those
That would make good of bad, and friends of foes!


It is a pointed rejoinder to the witches' 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair'(I.1.9) that seems to have directed the dramatic action so far. Without these brief but insistent reminders of a natural sense of justice and human community Macbeth might easily have become a melodramatic presentation of meaningless horror and inescapable nightmare.139

Macbeth soon finds that one crime is not enough to win and to secure the crown for him. It is only by further murder that he can keep what he has gained by the first murder. The dramatist underlines this by making Banquo the first to suspect him and by reminding the audience, through Banquo, of the witches'prophecy of which only the first half has so far become true. By his first murder, Macbeth has tried to prove the truth of what the weird sisters foretold; by the murder of Banquo he wants to prove them liars, but their prophecy is confirmed even in that sense that is most fatal for him;'fruitless crown'and'barren sceptre'(III. 1.60-1) are, ultimately, the prize for which he has given away his humanity and sold himself to the inexorable mechanism of crime.

There is a clear contrast between the agonized decision to kill Duncan and the calculating chill of the arrangements to rid himself of Banquo. Neither supernatural visions nor the energy of Lady Macbeth are needed, and no moral scruples seem to weaken his determination although he is fully aware of Banquo's'royalty of nature'(III. 1.49). As in other tragedies by Shakespeare, the special virtues of the villain's opponent are most eloquently and reliably praised by him who is provoked by them into destructive hatred:

to that dauntless temper of his mind
He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
To act in safety. There is none but he
Whose being I do fear; and under him
My genius is rebuked as, it is said,
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.


Banquo is characterized almost more impressively by Macbeth's fears than by his own actions.

It is only for one brief scene that the audience witnesses a protagonist who is fully in command, who is capable of efficient planning and who confronts the murderers with the same ruthless determination as that shown by Lady Macbeth in the first act. Like her, he now presents to them a primitive ideal of undaunted manliness in order to persuade them to undertake the murder. It is one of the few scenes in which the initiative is all with Macbeth, but the audience already knows enough about the witches'prophecies to doubt the possibility of lasting success for him, and even the very next scene (III.2) reveals that, in contrast to Richard III, the part of the accomplished intriguer and murderer is only a mask, kept up with great effort. Even more striking and characteristic of Macbeth's tragic isolation is the increasing distance between him and his wife. His behavior makes her, too, gradually realize the questionable and elusive nature of what they have gained and she voices something like a superficial moral of the tragedy:

Naught's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.


The rhyming simplicity of this orthodox commonplace would be more fitting for a pathetic murder story like the anonymous play Arden of Feversham, where the sinning lovers, immediately after the murder of the husband who has stood in their way, find that all the joy has gone out of their union and the fruits of the crime prove to be illusory.141 Something of this simple Christian experience is also taken for granted in Macbeth, but this does by no means'explain'the play, because the intensity and complexity of Macbeth's struggle cannot be reduced to a simple morality even though, in the last resort, the play endorses, for the Christian spectator, the self-destructive sterility of evil.

Macbeth's anguished fears are beyond the reach of Lady Macbeth's comforting words and it is essential to notice that he does not take her into his confidence regarding his further murderous plans. In fact, their roles have temporarily been exchanged: it is he who appears to be concerned about her peace of mind ('Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck'(III.2.45)) and who invokes the night to blind'the tender eye of pitiful day'and to'Cancel and tear to pieces'all moral law (III.2.46-50). It is no surprise to the spectator that the attempt fails completely. Banquo's son escapes and most contemporary spectators must have known that they were ruled by a supposed descendant of his.

The return of Banquo's Ghost, like so many similar apparitions in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, is a visual reminder of unrevenged crime and imminent retribution. It is one of the most original and dramatically effective variations of conventional ghost scenes. Macbeth's attempt to celebrate reconciliation, hierarchic order and peaceful community by a banquet is thwarted not by those around him nor by any suspicion against him from outside, but by his own inability to shake off the crime. Whether one interprets the Ghost as a kind of hallucination, which seems to be a rather too psychological and superficial explanation, or as reality, the work of a diabolic or a benign fate, it is certainly a powerful expression of the fact that even the murder he has delegated to others begins to haunt Macbeth and that his mental disturbance is now apparent to others besides himself.142 He is unable to perform his duties as host and thus unable to justify his usurped power by domestic order and internal peace, as the Macbeth of the chronicles managed to do for a period of some ten years:

You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting
With most admired disorder.


The terror aroused by the Ghost within Macbeth is not so much a sign of moral compunction or fear of discovery, but rather the result of the sudden realization that nothing whatever has been gained by the murder and that the crime is not a thing of the past. All further action is determined by this violation of the social order. The façade of self-assurance can only be preserved by new guilt and by deliberate hardening against any human impulse. At the end of the scene, Macbeth is determined to proceed along this fatal path. From now on he lives only for his own safety and explicitly rejects any thought of a return:

For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.


The idea of blood, which keeps reappearing in this tragedy with unusual insistence, is extended into a memorable image that anticipates Macbeth's further course for the spectator and expresses his frightening hardness of heart more powerfully than any theological treatise.

His decision to seek out the witches shows what power they have gained over his will and to what extent he is now prepared to submit to their fatal influence. His deterioration into a tyrant who has no other aim than to secure his throne, is complete and the following part of the play is mostly concerned with the opposing forces gathering against him. It is only towards the end that his own personality takes the centre of the stage again.

The scenes with Hecat (III.5 and part of IV.1) are of somewhat doubtful authenticity and it is quite possible that these spectacular incidents are later additions to satisfy the audience's interest in such stage-effects and in historical prophecy.143 Hecat's speeches are rather out of tune with the style and the content of the other witch-scenes and they do not quite agree with the character of these creatures earlier in the play. Their function as instruments of hellish corruption is spelt out in too simple terms whereas in the first scenes, the witches only announced a few general prophecies that so deeply impressed Macbeth and made him commit double murder. By the time of this new meeting he has already become so dependent on them that there is little left for them to do. There is no question of actual temptation or corruption; Macbeth is only confirmed in his vicious course and encouraged with doubtful hopes. Hecat's words, though, suggest a more active function:

raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes'bove wisdom, grace, and fear.


This is a fairly exact description of Macbeth's further career, but the illusion that destroys him is no outward compulsion overruling man's free will; it activates Macbeth's determination to the point of a monomaniac obsession with the securing of his power and the elimination of all possible enemies. At the same time, he is strengthened by a sense of false security founded on most ambiguous prophecies. The oracular promises are as deceptive as Macbeth's self-confidence, inspired by the witches'black magic. It is certainly their intention to deceive him, but, as before the murder of Duncan, his own cooperation is needed to make the deception effective. In this instance, he is evidently willing to interpret the riddling message rather hastily in a sense most favorable to him.

The vision of the long line of Banquo's descendants as future Kings may be a theatrical homage to the first Stuart King. It also dramatizes Macbeth's terror at the idea of his own short-lived glory.'Sweet bodements'are succeeded by'Horrible sight'(IV.I.95 and 121) and Macbeth is quite unable to preserve the detached integrity of his moral responsibility, as Banquo did. He realizes that his intercourse with the witches is for him a'pernicious hour'(IV.I.132), limiting his personal freedom, and yet he allows himself to be deceived by the false authority of the magic spectacle and his future actions to be determined by it.144 Will and imagination are finally corrupted when, at the end of the scene, he decides to exterminate Macduff s family. This exceeds even the brutality he has committed so far. At this point he has become most like the monster Richard III.

Although Shakespeare places the personality of his tragic hero, poisoned by his perverted imagination, firmly in the centre of the play (in contrast to the earlier history play), he also, especially in the second half, makes him part of the larger community of the state, not so much by political discussion or crowd scenes, but by the idea of a country suffering under tyrannous rule and by the contrast to the blessed government of Edward the Confessor in England. Between the two Hecat scenes, we hear of the generous reception of Malcolm at the English Court in the conversation between Lennox and'another Lord'who has no further part in the action. There are strong hopes of liberation from crippling suppression and twice the word'tyrant'is used within the brief dialogue. From now on, it frequently takes the place of Macbeth's name. The vision of a brighter future implies the collapse of all familiar order and all natural forms of community under Macbeth's tyranny:

we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,
Do faithful homage and receive free honours—
All which we pine for now.


Even the most elementary forms of life have been threatened by Macbeth's crimes.

The pathetic family in Macduff s castle illustrates this kind of harmless and harmonious order, destroyed by the brutal will of the tyrant. The murder of these completely innocent and in no way dangerous blood-relations of Macduff cannot be justified by any political calculation, but is rather the manifestation of a blindly destructive bestiality to which Macbeth has sunk.

To this, the long scene at the English Court opposes a completely different form of rule and a demonstration of human integrity. It serves as a reminder of Macbeth's isolation and imminent defeat. Malcolm's royal nature, inaccessible to any corruption, proves that it is possible to resist the powers of evil that have been so successful up to now. There is no necessary and inevitable conflict between a man's appearance and his true nature; at least goodness must never make use of an evil mask, as Malcolm explains:

Angels are bright still though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.


The biblical associations and the reference to the witches ('all things fouL') are obvious. Malcolm lives in a world that is already outside Macbeth's experience and the length of the scene is a sign of how important the contrast is for the dramatist. The testing of Macduff by Malcolm takes up a surprising amount of room even in Holinshed's chronicle; it is obviously meant to show that Malcolm has all the qualities of the perfect king and that Macduff s integrity is above temptation. The dialogue unfolds the picture of an ideal king almost in the manner of a didactic debate. The impression of a world completely corrupted by the tyrant's murderous ambition is thus modified; in Richard III, this only happens very near the end, by the idealizing presentation of Richmond. Here, the principle of goodness and of beneficial rule is embodied not only in Macbeth's opponents, but in the English King, gifted with divine powers of healing, who makes England a haven of peace outside the'poor country', tormented by tyrannous oppression and several times lamented in the course of the scene.145 We are left with the vivid impression that Macbeth's personal tragedy has involved all the people of Scotland who are groaning under his yoke and longing for liberation. This idea is conveyed to the audience not so much in political terms as by the image of a living organism, personified as the bleeding victim of the murderer from whose clutches it must be saved. Macduff s own suffering is part of this general sorrow. Where wives and children can no longer live in safety, the commonwealth has broken down and there must be a completely new beginning. This duel between two opposing principles is clearly seen as the decisive confrontation of Good and Evil, Day and Night, legitimate rule and arbitrary tyranny, and in this respect Macbeth is closer to the traditional morality pattern than the other tragedies.

The contrast is underlined by the dramatic switch back to Macbeth's castle where the physician, presumably played by the same actor who represented the physician at the English Court,146 confesses his powerlessness in the face of Lady Macbeth's illness. The sleepwalking scene recapitulates, in fragmented prose, important motifs from the first part of the play, in particular the ineradicable traces of the blood shed by the murderers. The fact that Macbeth's most hardened and determined accomplice breaks down even before him is an important aspect of the play's manipulation of our sympathies. His isolation becomes more and more complete and the presence of a vengeful fate is felt more and more acutely. The physician, too, points out that Lady Macbeth's disturbed state of mind falls outside the competence of medical advice:

More needs she the divine than the physician


We are clearly reminded of the previous scene, with its account of the English King's healing gift.

Shakespeare has inserted yet another scene before the protagonist reappears on stage. As in Hamlet and King Lear, the hero is absent for some time during the fourth or the first part of the fifth act and the dramatic suspense is kept up by concentration on other aspects of the action as well as by indirect characterization. In Macbeth, this technique mainly strengthens the impression that the number of Macbeth's opponents is continually growing. Even his enemies, Angus and Menteth, regard him not just as a tyrant that has to be exterminated, but as a thoroughly'distempered'and despairing murderer who can defend his position only with the greatest effort and whose royal dignity sits uneasily on him, like an ill-fitting garment (V.2.20-2). The comparison of his title with a'giant's robe'that is far too large for this despicable moral stature harks back to earlier uses of the clothes metaphor and it makes very clear that Macbeth can no longer impress his subjects with his usurped authority.147 The image of blood sticking to the murderer's hands is also brought up again (V.2.17) and it is thus evident that Macbeth's guilt is no longer a matter of his personal tragic experience, but a public affair that has set armies in motion and affected the whole nation.

When Macbeth himself comes back to the stage, he seems, on the one hand, completely obsessed by his belief in the witches'ambiguous prophecies, on the other, he describes himself as'sick at heart'(V.3.19) and he is fully conscious of what he has forfeited. Again it is the contrast between his haunted life and the simple expectations of a'normal'everyday existence that serves to show how utterly he has excluded himself from all human intercourse:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have;


The brief dialogue with the physician once more draws attention to the poisonous infection that has spread from the guilty individual to the whole nation. Though Macbeth is, consciously, merely referring to the threat to his country from the invading troops, his metaphor has a much deeper resonance for the spectator, especially since the image of disease has been used in the play before with similar implications:

If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee . . .


The perversion of all human instincts by guilt has seized the individual ('a mind diseased'(V.3.40)) as well as the social structure and for both the physician's advice that the patient must'minister to himself (V.3.45-6) is, in the context of the play, equally valid. For the country it means casting out Macbeth in whom the disease seems to be personified, but he himself and his wife have passed the point where return and health are still a possibility. Unlike Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Macbeth is not reminded of the divine grace that is still within reach until the last by any voice from within or without. Repentance and forgiveness of sins are no subjects for this tragedy. The tyrant must be exterminated if the country is to recover peace and lawful order.

And yet, even to the end, there is more than just horrified revulsion or untroubled satisfaction at Macbeth's death. The Aristotelian rule that the tragic hero must be neither all good nor totally evil is not altogether neglected in this case, even though the reaction of the audience is not likely to be entirely uniform. I think that Bradley's impression,'To the end he never totally loses our sympathy', is shared by most readers of the play, as long as'sympathy'is not interpreted in a narrow sense.149 There is no question that the whole tragedy means us to side with Macbeth's opponents and that nobody can seriously wish him longer success, but it is equally clear that the play's ending is very different from the triumph at Bosworth, even though the political situation is not unlike that at the close of Richard III (as far as Malcolm's right of succession is concerned it is, in fact, even less open to debate) and Macbeth is not allowed any heroic gesture of self-recognition, like Othello.

What is crucial for our reaction, however, is that up to the end we never see Macbeth as a'born criminal', but always remember the painful process of his corruption by illusion and blind ambition. Of Othello it is said,'that wert once so good'(V.2.288), which would be hardly thinkable in the case of Macbeth because the play begins immediately with his temptation and fall. Yet the whole action of the play seems to be based on the assumption that his career, too, is, morally speaking, a fall from great height and that there was once a'good'Macbeth whose corruption is the real centre of the tragedy.150 The fact that at the end he has reached such an extreme degree of hardening that only his extermination can be hoped for, is no more than a disturbing consequence of his decision to listen to the voices of evil. The play shows us a different stage in the hero's tragic experience and a different kind of moral deterioration than Othello, but the two plays are based on a very similar concept of evil and its effects on human relationships.

At the very end, the hero does not suddenly come to realize what he has lost, because he has known that all along and, unlike Othello, he did not commit his crimes in the fond belief that his cause was just. He himself has experienced and described the reality of evil in such unambiguous terms that there is no need for any moral dénouement. The only thing that surprises him, as well as the spectator, about his defeat is the way in which the prophecy of the weird sisters, that had lulled him with a false sense of security, comes true. Once this is realized all hope and courage leave him, though this hardly seems to affect his deeper despair which makes him unable to think of anything but his own misery and fearful decline. He himself suggests that this hardening against the most basic human impulses and values is not something he was born to, but the result of a painful process that has changed his whole personality:

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.


This is to remind us of a Macbeth we have only had very brief glimpses of, a Macbeth as the whole play assumes him to have existed before the beginning of his tragedy. When, however, he goes on to confess,'I have supped full with horrors'(V.5.13), he takes up the image of the banquet, recalling the disrupted ritual of the third act as well as suggesting associations of an unholy alliance with the powers of evil, a communion that effectively excludes him from the community of man. In this state, the news of his wife's death seems to affect him very little because all human existence has become meaningless for him. If the passage in question were not so often quoted out of its context, it would hardly be necessary to point out that his frightening description of an absurd life is by no means an account of Shakespeare's personal convictions but is meant to characterize the agony of the protagonist:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Biblical associations are combined with the traditional image of life as a stage-play. What for Jaques, in As You Like It, was no more than the expression of self-conscious melancholy ('All the world's a stage'[H.7.139]), is for Macbeth the painful experience of a tragic illusion. It is immediately followed by the report of the messenger who has witnessed the unnatural movement of Birnam Wood. This is the beginning of Macbeth's final defeat and the fulfilment of the witches'riddling prophecy. Macbeth himself begins to realize that he has been the victim of'the equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth'(V.5.43-4).

As in Hamlet, references to the language of the Bible and to Christian concepts of damnation and salvation appear more frequently towards the end of the play. For those readers and spectators who are familiar with this traditional background, Macbeth is one of the damned, and the pains of Hell he has to suffer consist mainly in his inability to forget or suppress what he has lost by his own free choice. Already Coleridge, and Bradley after him, felt that Macbeth reminded him of Milton's Satan who realizes with anguish that he is forever barred from any community with goodness, when he has sneakingly entered Paradise, and it seems to me quite probable that Milton was partly inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy when he made Satan reflect on his fallen state in Paradise Lost:

For onely in destroying I finde ease
To my relentless thoughts . . .

(IX. 129-30)

But what will not Ambition and Revenge
Descend to? who aspires must down as low
As high he soard, obnoxious first or last
To basest things. Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on it self recoiles;


The parallel is instructive, though it only applies to one aspect of Macbeth and should not be generalized. Milton's openly stated intention to'justifie the wayes of God to men'(I.26) is hardly the central concern of Shakespeare's play, but the intensity with which Macbeth's moral hardening is presented as a relentless process of deterioration and suffering at the same time, can explain why Macbeth has repeatedly inspired Christian interpretations, though these have often rather reduced than illuminated the tragic impact of the text.152 Macbeth's decision and his gradual perversion are placed in a world of political and heroic values and are not primarily assessed in dogmatic categories, though the imagery suggests associations with a fallen angel as well as with Marlowe's Faustus. These biblical and religious associations, together with our insight into the moral and spiritual corruption of an individual meant by his creator to be good, are important elements of this particular tragedy and they prevent us from experiencing Macbeth's death only as the well-deserved end of a political criminal. The vitality of the dramatic rhetoric, the rich images and precise metaphors contribute to the impression of an intense questioning and seeking to discover coherence and meaning in a world of challenging opportunities. Macbeth is determined to act, not to wait patiently for the gifts of fortune, and he does not try to escape from the consequences of his own actions. All this does not in the least detract from his moral responsibility, but it may help to account for the fact that his fate affects most readers and spectators as more tragic (in the traditional sense) than the defeat of Richard III.

The ending confirms the presence of a benign providence that means to grant Scotland a period of stable peace and lawful order; yet the author of the disturbance and chaos is not denied all human greatness and potential integrity. Both points of view have to be recognized for an adequate understanding of the play.153

The patriotic optimism of the closing tableau is not likely to convince us, after all that has gone before, as a true and complete summary of the play's tragic vision. The country can breathe freely and'the days are near at hand/That chambers will be safe'(V.4.1-2).'The time is free'(V.6.94), but reader and spectator cannot merely rejoice at the liberation from the tyrant's rule because they have been witnesses to a dimension of the action of which the surviving actors themselves are unaware. None of the survivors knows anything about the supernatural influences embodied in the witches and none has any true idea of Macbeth's temptation and anguish of conscience.154 For them it is enough to look at'The usurper's cursèd head'(V.6.94) and to hear the promises of the new King. But it is partly this muted and only outwardly cheerful quality of the ending that makes it so different from the proclamation of Henry Tudor at the conclusion οf Richard III. Our interest in the history of the community and the future of Scotland cannot quite suppress our sympathy with the fall of the protagonist and his lonely agonies. If critics insist on the play's more confident optimism in comparison with the ending of King Lear they often seem to me to take insufficient account of this ambivalence at the close. It is the result of the unusual combination of history and tragedy as well as the evocative poetry and the dramatist's manipulation of our sympathy which makes any simple moral interpretation totally inadequate. Bradley quite rightly includes Macbeth in his still very impressive description of Shakespearian tragedy or rather what he considers our reaction to it:

moral order . . . has lost a part of its own substance,—a part more dangerous and unquiet, but far more valuable and nearer to its heart, than that which remains,—a Fortinbras, a Malcolm, an Octavius. There is no tragedy in its expulsion of evil: the tragedy is that this involves the waste of good.155

In this fundamental respect, Macbeth is not as different from the other great tragedies as it may seem at first sight, even though the emphasis is different and the process of moral perversion is explored with greater dramatic intensity than the experience of tragic suffering. This is why at the end there is not the customary obituary, paying due respect to the greatness of the departed hero. Only the audience knows that there is more that ought to be remembered than the survivors of the tragedy have witnessed and that much more has perished than'this dead butcher'(V.6.108).156


117 Virgil K. Whitaker, The Mirror up to Nature. The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies (San Marino, 1965), p. 260. All quotations in this chapter are from G. K. Hunter's edition, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1967); see also the useful edition by Kenneth Muir, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1951).

118 See E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies (London, 1976), pp. 126-49 ('Macbeth: The Murderer as Victim') for some very perceptive comment on this point.

119 See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1983), VII, 429-31 and 470-2. Bullough discusses all the historical background (pp. 423-69) and reprints the most important texts, especially the relevant passages from Holinshed's, The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1587).

120 See Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, VII, 498.

121 This applies, with some reservations, to King Lear as well. See A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1985), where Richard III is several times referred to and Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence (London, 1972), pp. 26-30, where Richard III is discussed as prologue to the tragedies. The structural similarities between the histories and the tragedies are helpfully discussed in Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1971), pp. 195-224.

122 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944; Peregrine Books, Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 315.

123 So Muir, Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, p. 29. On Richard III, see the important interpretation by Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary on Shakespeare's Richard III (London, 1968), pp. 218-24.

124 See Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 315.

125 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 298, 299, 305.

126 See Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Baltimore, 1978), pp. 192-6, on'Popular Myth and Dramatic Poetry'. Macbeth is only mentioned in passing, but the discussion is quite relevant here.

127 See Hunter's note on the passage, p. 143.

128 See the interpretation by Honigmann and by John Bayley, Shakespeare and Tragedy (London, 1981), pp. 184-200. Bayley rightly speaks of'the irrational feeling that we are closer to Macbeth than to any other character in Shakespeare'(p. 185). See also R. B. Heilman's excellent essay'The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods', ShS, 19 (1966), 12-24, reprinted in Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards, eds., Aspects of'Macbeth'. Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge, 1977), pp. 26-38.

129 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 294-301:'an imagination on the one hand extremely sensitive to impressions of a certain kind, and, on the other, productive of violent disturbance both of mind and body. Through it he is kept in contact with supernatural impressions and is liable to supernatural fears'(p. 295).

130 Angelo in Measure for Measure has a very similar experience (cf.II.2.162-87).

131 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 311-14.

132 See Muir, Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, pp. 151-2, and his edition, pp. lxvi-lxx.

133 See L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (London, 1959), p. 115; on the play's imagery see Kenneth Muir,'Image and Symbol in Macbeth', Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966), 45-54; there are some good observations in M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London, 1957), pp. 130-45.

134 For a very sensitive interpretation of this soliloquy, see Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeares Monologe. Ein Zugang zu seiner dramatischen Kunst (München, 1985), pp. 159-66. An English translation of this book is in preparation.

135 See Hamlet's soliloquy immediately before the prayer scene (III.2.379-83), which seems much more conventional in comparison.

136 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 306.

137 Thomas De Quincey's famous essay,'On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth', is reprinted in Shakespeare Criticism. A Selection, ed. D. Nichol Smith, The World's Classics (London, 1916).

On the porter scene, see Muir's introduction to his edition, pp. xxv-xxxii, and John B. Harcourt,' "I Pray You, Remember the Porter"', Shakespeare Quarterly, 12 (1961), 393-402.

138 See Glynne Wickham,'Hell-Castle and its Door-Keeper', Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966), 68-74; reprinted in Muir and Edwards, Aspects of'Macbeth', pp. 39-52.

139 This is how the play appears in Jan Kott's influential book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1964), pp. 89-100.

140 See Muir's note, Arden edition, pp. 177-8, and Hunter's comment (Penguin edition, p. 159), with a reference to Iago's praise of Cassio in Othello (V.I. 19-20).

141 See the thorough edition of The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham, ed. M. L. Wine, The Revels Plays (London, 1973).

142 On the various traditions of staging this scene, its emotional and symbolic dimensions, see Marvin Rosenberg's exhaustive study, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley, 1978), pp. 428-89. The book gives an invaluable account of how many great actors and producers have interpreted each scene of the play.

143 See Hunter's edition, pp. 21-3, and Muir's edition, pp. xxxiii-xxxvi.

144 See Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason. A Study of the Tragedies and the Problem Plays (London, 1964), pp. 124-59; see also the good chapter on Macbeth in John Lawlor, The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (London, 1960), pp. 107-46 ('Natural and SupernaturaL').

145 See IV.3.31, 100, 103-8, 164-73.

146 See the commentary in Hunter's edition, pp. 177 and 181.

147 See also I.3.144-6, where it is said of Macbeth:

New honours come upon him
Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould
But with the aid of use.

148 The passage is often singled out for its effect on our sympathy for the hero; it reminds us of the natural and ordinary sphere of life, from which Macbeth has excluded himself. See Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 305-6, Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes,p. 114, and Hunter's edition, pp. 26-7.

149Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 305. It was De Quincey who first argued against a too narrow concept of'sympathy'; see his essay referred to in n. 137 above.

150 Hunter very rightly speaks of'the idea of a'good'Macbeth, buried somewhere beneath the activites of a will dedicated to evil'(p. 26).

151 Cf. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 304; I quote from The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. H.C. Beeching, Oxford Standard Authors (London, 1904).

152 See the excellent account of Macbeth criticism by R. A. Foakes in Stanley Wells, ed., Shakespeare. Select Bibliographical Guides (London, 1937), pp. 189-202, with a good bibliography, and G. K. Hunter, 'Macbeth in the Twentieth Century', Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966), I-II, reprinted in Muir and Edwards, Aspects of'Macbeth', pp. I-II. For a comparatively open-minded'Christian'reading of Macbeth see Ivor Morris, Shakespeare's God. The Role of Religion in the Tragedies (London, 1972), pp. 310-22.

153 See also the very different interpretations of the play in Ruth Nevo, Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton, 1972), pp. 214-57, and Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton, 1973), pp. 206-37.

154 This seems to me a very important point. See also Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare, p. 224:'there is nothing of the jubilant mood of the conclusion of Richard III'.

155 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 27-8.

156 Here again, the play's stage history can provide important clues to the interpretation and draw attention to problems the literary critic tends to overlook or to overestimate. Rosenberg's study, The Masks of Macbeth is invaluable in this respect. See also on various aspects of the play, especially in performance, John Russell Brown, ed., Focus on'Macbeth' (London, 1982), a very stimulating collection of essays, including an interview with Peter Hall on his experience as a producer of Macbeth.

Psychoanalytic Interpretations

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Robert N. Watson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE:'"Thriftless Ambition,'Foolish Wishes and the Tragedy of Macbeth," in Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 83-141.

[In the following excerpt, Watson supplements the traditional Freudian or oedipal interpretation of Macbeth by focusing on the symbolic aspects of the hero's ambition. In the critic's judgment, the murder of Duncan represents Macbeth's perverse attempt to establish a new identity through a ruinous disruption of the normal cycles of procreation and generation.]

Shakespeare portrays Macbeth's crimes, from first to last, as costly violations of the procreative cycle. Dr. Isadore Coriat, one of the play's first psychoanalytic critics, identifies the witches who instigate these offenses as "erotic symbols, representing, although sexless, the emblems of the generative power in nature. In the'hell broth'are condensed heterogeneous materials in which even on superficial analysis one can discern the sexual significance."20 But superficial analysis dismisses too easily the discordant aspects of that emblem. These bearded women provoke Macbeth to mix the sexual elements ruinously, as they provoked him to mix the elements of the other natural cycles that must be polarized to be regenerative: night with day, dreaming with waking, and fall with spring. Under their influence he misuses his generative powers in such a way that he undermines the hereditary order, rendering his sexuality as barren and distorted as their own.

The Oedipal crimes constitute a man's ultimate offense against his hereditary nature, and the most insidious mixture of the generational cycles, which must remain distinct to remain healthful. Since so much has been written about the Freudian implications of Macbeth, however, this chapter will examine only those aspects of the Oedipal situation that relate to ambitious revisions of identity. Macbeth conspires with the temptress to "do the deed" that will make him king, or remake him as king. Norman Holland outlines the standard psychoanalytic axioms about the play: "Macbeth acts the role of a son who replaces the authority of his father by force and substitutes himself. The motive for this father murder is Lady Macbeth, the'demon woman'who creates the abyss between father and son."21 Since Gertrude is the prize of Claudius'crime, Hamlet holds her partly responsible for that crime; Richard III entraps the Lady Anne by a trickier version of the same deduction. Freud argues that the woman's passive role gradually became misinterpreted in "the lying poetic fancies of prehistoric times" until the mother became an active instigator.22 Lady Macbeth seems to offer herself as the sexual prize of Macbeth's regicide, and threatens to become the murderous mother rather than the seductive mother if he refuses the task (1.7.56-59).

But, from my point of view, the reading of the crime as essentially ambitious rather than essentially sexual squares better with the situations the psychoanalysts describe. What Lady Macbeth actually provokes in her husband is an ambitious deed; the analogy to the Oedipal situation may be a resonance rather than a primary but veiled meaning. In offering to become either the seductive mother or the murderous one, she is reminding him that it is in his own power to decide whether to create this new royal self or to destroy it in its infancy. His success in creating it will be a measure of his sexual capacity, but that sexual provocation remains at the distance of a metaphor, and is intimately linked to the goal of a new birth rather than to any goal of sensual gratification. Occam's Razor seems to cut against the traditional Freudian reading in this case. Sexuality is Lady Macbeth's means to an ambitious end in the play's superficial psychology, and it would be fitting for the same transaction to apply on the play's deep figurative level. If psychoanalytic critics argue that "Macbeth's killing of Duncan represents hatred and resentment of a fatherlike authority" and that "Lady Macbeth embodies or projects Macbeth's ambitious wish," as Holland summarizes it,23 then the tensions seem more applicable to the hazards of ambition than to the "family romance" as such. Duncan is not Macbeth's actual father, but plays the paternal role in limiting the legitimate range of Macbeth's aspiration; the play makes it clear that Duncan is not a restrictive authority except in holding his preeminence and in promising it to another heir before Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is not Macbeth's actual mother, but plays the maternal role in offering to "embody" an ambitious new self for him.

Several critics have suggested that the murder of Duncan is figuratively a rape, or that the murder is only the offspring, or the projection onto Duncan, of a sexual crime between Macbeth and his Lady.24 Rather than making either the violent or the sexual aspect of the "deed" merely a metaphor for the other, however, my thesis makes them mutually dependent: this is a rape with procreative purposes, and it entails ripping the hereditary body politic untimely from its haven in Duncan's body. (The revelation of Macduff s Caesarean origins is, in this sense, another example of Macbeth's crime functioning as a rash wish that unwittingly invites its own punishment.) But this sinister seduction turns out to be a dismal failure. One critic equates the spirits of drink that the Porter says inspire but hinder sexual activity with the spirits that appear to Macbeth as witches: for each man, "The spirits that seem to make him potent actually render him impotent."25 The sexual situation is again not merely parallel to the political situation, but intimately linked to it: the attempt to conceive a new self becomes instead a loss of the original birth, and the effort to seize sovereignty over the process of procreation and lineage is steadily revealed as a forfeiting of all procreative abilities and lineal aspirations. Macbeth is left with a "barren sceptre" (3.1.61): the ambitious abuse of his sexual powers has ruined those powers. His castration, like that of Oedipal sons, is the final result of indulged Oedipal impulses; his impotence, like that of fisher-kings in myth, leads necessarily to his expulsion from rule.

The phallic character of Macbeth's crime is clear enough, however one chooses to interpret it. Led by a dagger, he advances toward Duncan's bed-chamber "With Tarquin's ravishing strides" (2.1.55). Newly convinced by his wife to assert his sexual manhood by this deed, to become the "serpent" striking up through the "innocent flower" (1.5.64-65), Macbeth claims to "bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat" (1.7.79-80); and when conscientious fear renders him impotent to act, she says, "You do unbend your noble strength" (2.2.42). When she mocks him for lacking the "manhood" to finish that task, she chooses to call him "Infirm of purpose" (2.2.49). The murder is described by everyone, including the perpetrators, as a "deed" or "act"; but these euphemisms for the horror that "Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name" (2.3.64-65) refer to sexual deeds or acts as often as murderous ones in Shakespeare.26 This convergence of the two acts suggests the mixed crime of Oedipus; since the direct result is the creation of an exalted but sinister Macbeth, it may refer to the aspect of the Oedipus story that focuses on pride and identity, rather than the aspect that focuses on sexual psychology for its own sake.27

The regicide is not the first time Macbeth has violently "conceived" an exalted new self and hewed its Caesarean path to life through another's body. Scotland is conventionally described as a mother throughout Macbeth, and only a few lines into the play we see Macbeth emerge as her heroic child. Using his "brandish'd steel" to make himself "valor's minion," he "carv'd out his passage" to Macdonwald and "unseam'd him from the nave to th'chops." A "passage" was a standard term in Renaissance medicine for "the necke of this wombe" at the base of the uterus.28 Richard II uses the same term when he strives to "tear a passage thorough the flinty ribs / Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls" for his rebirth in "A generation of still-breeding thoughts" (5.5.6-21), and Shakespeare will use it again to describe Coriolanus'determination to chop "his passage" through "Rome gates," which (as I will argue) become the symbol of his mother's womb through which any viable rebirth must pass.

Macbeth's first rebirth, however, is a defense of Duncan's paternal privileges rather than an assault on them. Disdaining the sinister allure of the "rebel's whore" Fortune—a version of the Oedipal temptress—Macbeth and Banquo confirm their identities as "children and servants" to Duncan's throne (1.4.25). But once the prospect of creating heroic new identities with their swords has presented itself, the loyal soldiers become susceptible to the lure of the sinister witches, who offer them a rebirth that evades rather than affirms their hereditary subordination. The witches are Jocasta-figures, avatars not only of the temptress-figure Lady Macbeth with whom they share a provocation and a sexual ambiguity, but also of that sinister temptress Fortune, with whom they share a name: etymologically as well as mythologically, "the three weird sisters" are the women of fortune. Furthermore, witches and midwives were strongly identified with each other in sixteenth-century England, particularly in accusations that midwives induced birth to give the child a soul, then consecrated that soul to Satan by ritualistically killing the infant before it could be baptized.29 The parallels between this accusation and the witches'instigation of Macbeth's rebirth, death, and damnation, are certainly speculative, but also intriguing. Once it becomes clear that his first rebirth has not granted Macbeth a place in the royal lineage, he determines to use the same figurative technique that made him Duncan's loyal son to become Duncan's rebellious son. As with Prince Hal, Shakespeare undoes the dream-work of a boy's father-saving fantasy, revealing the latent father-killing fantasy that was lurking symmetrically behind it. The witches perform the same psychoanalytic function, for Macbeth and for us, encouraging him to recognize the inevitable Oedipal conflict arising from his role as Duncan's child and servant, and thereby to recognize the perverse psychological mechanism connecting his loyal deeds with his "horrible imaginings."

The witches'prophecy is what sets the play's tragic aspect in motion, and it does so by luring Macbeth away from the normal cycle of generation. The prophecy seems to announce an equitable distribution of glory to the two triumphant soldiers: rule to Macbeth and succession to Banquo. But, as Lucien Goldmann suggests, the tragic hero generally finds that his gods "speak to him in deceitful terms and from afar off, the oracles which he consults have two meanings, one apparent but false, the other hidden but true, the demands which the Gods make are contradictory, and the world is ambiguous and equivocal."30 The hidden truth in the riddling prophecy, arising from the fog of the "foul and fair" day on the heath, is that the two promised forms of glory are mutually exclusive. A cause-and-effect relationship lurks unrecognized in the witches'division of the spoils: since Macbeth will seize a paternal identity that does not belong to him hereditarily, he will be forbidden to father a lineal successor. The prophecy that confronts Macbeth is therefore an Oedipal prophecy—specifically, a warning about filial rebellion and the castration that avenges it—as Lévi-Strauss argues all riddles are.31 Such a riddle tempts man toward the fatal violation it describes, sends him in pursuit of self-destruction through a desperate and deluded attempt at self-preservation. The "paradoxical impression that Macbeth gives of being morally responsible for his own destruction even though he is so heavily fated to destroy himself that the lines of his destiny can be read by prophecy"32 may be partly resolved by recognizing the unwitting act of choice that invites his fated barrenness. His fatal error, like that of Oedipus, is a failure to notice the cautionary aspect of the prophecies affixed to the gloriously inciting aspect; the contrastingly cautious Banquo avoids that Oedipal (and figuratively castrating) mistake. Banquo, the acknowledged enemy of Macbeth's "genius" or generative force (3.1.48-69), may safely partake of the crown by growing into it through generation rather than transforming himself forcibly into a figure of royal stature. As Edward Forset wrote in the same year that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, "when wee be disposed to alter any thing, we must let it grow by degrees, and not hast it on too suddenly."33 The flesh of Banquo's flesh eventually grows into the kingly robes that hang so loosely on Macbeth's artificial person.

Lady Macbeth is quicker than her husband to recognize that murdering Duncan will entail murdering the procreative order. The fisher-king Duncan basks in the natural fecundity that he half-perceives and half-creates in the couple's home. Banquo explains Duncan's enjoyment of this castle in suggestive terms:

This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his lov'd mansionry, that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here; no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observ'd
The air is delicate.


Just as Lady Macbeth has already begun replacing this martlet with a raven, and the domesticated jutties with battlements (1.5.38-40), so has she begun to replace this nurturant sexuality with its antithesis. Her plea that the spirits "unsex me," according to a recent study, contains a specific request that her menstrual cycle be intermitted:34

Make thick my blood,
Stop up th'access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose.


Even her request that the spirits "take my milk for gall" suggests that the reborn Macbeth (like the reborn Coriolanus) can be nurtured into life only by fluids opposite to "the milk of human kindness" by which he was originally formed and fed (1.5.48, 17).

Freud understood this couple's loss of progeny as essentially such a rash wish, a barren instruction returning to plague the inventors: "It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of the talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of geniture."35 The inconsistencies concerning Lady Macbeth's children, despite L. C. Knights's famous argument, actually makes Freud's point all the more convincing.36 If the children were concretely presented to us, Shakespeare would be obliged to provide a literal cause for their parents'poetically just lack of an heir. That would likely both alter the polarity of our sympathies and conceal the important symbolic cause behind a crudely physical efficient cause. This is opportunism on Shakespeare's part of the sort Knights describes, where the play works as something other than a realistic story, but if (as Knights urges) we ignore the apparent disappearance of the children, if we refuse to think of Lady Macbeth as a procreative creature, then we lose the moral import of that disappearance. Macduffs reasons for abandoning his family to slaughter remain somewhat unclear, perhaps for same didactic purpose.37 By including only the comment that this Caesarean figure "wants the natural touch" (4.2.9), Shakespeare suggests that the products of disordered procreation are deprived of heirs by a jealous natural order. Since it requires Duncan's death, Macbeth's royal rebirth thriftlessly ravins up his own life's means (2.4.28-29); since Caesarean operations were virtually always fatal to the mother in the Renaissance,38 Macduff's birth entails the same unwitting offense. By refusing us a complete factual explanation for either man's loss of progeny, Shakespeare focuses our attention on the defect they share and the nemesis it provokes.

This shared unnaturalness and childlessness enables Macduff to cure the disease that threatens the nation's procreative health. Macbeth's crimes against Malcolm's "due of birth" and against "nature's germains" in general have blighted Scotland's fertility (3.6.25; 4.1.59). The threatened kingdom is, as Macduff says, truly a threatened "birthdom" (4.3.4). In reply, Malcolm portrays himself as merely another agent of that blight, a creature of indiscriminate lust in conceiving children, and hardly better than Lady Macbeth in nursing them thereafter: he will "Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell" (4.3.98). This causes Macduff to wonder whether there can be any hope for Scotland's regeneration,

Since that the truest issue of thy throne
By his own interdiction stands accus'd
And does blaspheme his breed? Thy royal father
Was a most sainted king; the queen that bore thee,
Offner upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she liv'd.


What this speech emphasizes is generational continuity: Malcolm's royal virtues should follow from his hereditary rights, almost as if orderly succession were virtue itself. The quality Macduff eulogizes in Malcolm's mother is her daily exchange of death and life, a pattern associable with the regenerative virtues of sleep, "The death of each day's life" as it is called at the time of Duncan's murder (2.2.37). This figuratively posthumous mother merges with Macduff s literal one into the notion of Scotland as such a mother:

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot
Be call'd our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile.


Macbeth's Caesarean rebirth has infected the entire nation with his nullified and self-alienated condition, and precludes any more natural births in the future. "Cruel are the times when we are traitors, / And do not know ourselves," the choral Rosse tells Lady Macduff moments before she and her babes are slaughtered (4.2.18-19). Disruptions of succession converted individual mothers and the mother-country into tombs in Richard III (4.1.53; 4.4.138, 423) and Richard II(2.1.51, 83), and now the same transaction threatens Scotland's future.

But eventually Scotland, like Macduff, is rescued from the dead maternal womb and begins a new generation of life. Macduff s role as the spearhead of this vengeful revival becomes an emblem of the fact that Macbeth is destroyed by the unlineal, unnatural provenance of his own royal identity. Macbeth is able to achieve his bloody rebirth only by performing a regicide; Macduff is able to perform his regicide, according to the prophecies, only because of his Caesarean origins. Macduff is, in this sense, the fulfillment of Macbeth's foolish wish to replace natural succession with abrupt violence. Macbeth again resembles Richard III, in serving as the sacrifice by which his nation restores its damaged lineal health, and Macduff is a suitable blade-wielding hierophant. When a society must purge a sin that has injured its fertility, it generally sacrifices a figure onto whom all the sin is projected, often a temporary mock-king; the executioner is generally a liminal figure who partly reflects or partly contracts the victim's particular taint.39

A group of paradoxically mighty infants resume the process of generation as Macbeth's enemies.40 From the corrupt jumble of nature's germains in the witches'cauldron arise miraculously two such symbols of procreation's determination to survive and destroy the barren tyrant. The crowned babe, suggesting the rightful heir Malcolm, and the bloody babe, suggesting the Caesarean child Macduff, represent several things on other levels: the inheriting children Macbeth cannot have, the potential heirs Macbeth has sought to kill, the Oedipal children who typically abuse the father who was himself an Oedipal criminal, and the wounded regenerative order as a whole.41 For Macbeth as for Richard III, the failure to eradicate all such heirs, and relatedly the failure to terminate all such cycles, generates a nemesis that returns to destroy him. As in Greek and Christian myths, at least one heir escapes the tyrant's defensive Slaughter of the Innocents, and the army that defeats Macbeth consists of "Siward's son, / And many unrough youths that even now / Protest their first of manhood" (5.2.9-11). Once again Macbeth has succeeded only in interrupting a cycle he sought to override completely, and when it resumes he finds himself trapped in an unnatural generational isolation (5.3.24-26), with no child of his own to succeed him. . . .


20 Quoted by Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 220.

21 Ibid., p. 221; see also his p. 225.

22 Sigmund Freud, in the Standard Edition of his Works, trans. James Strachey, XVIII (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 136.

23 Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 219; see also Irving Ribner, "Macbeth: The Pattern of Idea and Action," Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959), 150.

24 See for example Dennis Biggins, "Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth," Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975), 255, 264-266.

25 Copp élia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 178.

26 Eric Partridge, Shakespeare 's Bawdy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), mentions some examples in his entries under "act" (p. 56) and "do it" (p. 95).

27 The Oedipal character of the crime is suggested in other, more allusive ways, mostly by the guilty couple themselves. On the night of the regicide (2.2), Lady Macbeth is almost paralyzed by Duncan's resemblance to her father, and by the typical Oedipal fear that "Th'attempt and not the deed / Confounds us"; she then warns her brooding husband as Jocasta warned hers: "Consider it not so deeply" (2.2.9-29). But Macbeth, reading his sins in his palms, cries out, "What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes"; "To know my deed," he adds, "'twere best not know myself," which is at least as true for Oedipus as it is for Macbeth. The witches also resemble Jocasta in admonishing Macbeth to "Seek to know no more" about the riddling prophecy by which he rose to power, and the ominous prophecy, linked in unspoken ways to the first one, by which he is fated to fall. When he insists on and receives an answer, he finds it "does sear mine eyeballs" (4.1.103-13). Macbeth is thus well-suited to teach Scotland's young men "What'twere to kill a father" (3.6.3-20).

28 Richard Jonas, The Byrth of Mankynde (trans. from Eucharius Roesslin, De partu hominis), rev. and ed. Thomas Raynold (London, 1545), I, fol. 9v; cited by Jenijoy La Belle, "'Strange Infirmity': Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea," Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980), 382.

29 Thomas R. Forbes, The Midwife and the Witch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 127 and passim.

30 Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God, trans. Philip Thody (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 44.

31 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Scope of Anthropology, trans. Sherry Ortner Paul and Robert A. Paul (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), pp. 35-39.

32 Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1936), p. 407; cf. Sanders, p. 282.

33 Edward Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (London, 1606), p. 64.

34 La Belle, in Shakespeare Quarterly 31: 381-386; as she points out, this disruption of the menstrual flow "is tantamount to murdering infants—albeit unborn," and thus "destroys the lineal flow," making Lady Macbeth analogous to Rosse's Scotland, not the mother of a new generation but instead its grave. The rebirth of Macbeth, then, entails a biological event that reveals how opposed ambitious alterations are to natural fertility.

35 Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, trans. Joan Riviere et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1934), IV, 330; see also Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 66, on the ways "other analysts, notably Ludwig Jekels," develop Freud's idea; and Janet Adelman, The Common Liar (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 7.

36 L. C. Knights, "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" rpt. in Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970), pp. 45-76. Edgar Allan Poe's short piece on "The Characters of Shakespeare" makes an argument similar to Knights's.

37 Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 263, describes Macduff s responsibility for his own loss of family as unmistakable yet oddly undefined. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 222, reports one psychoanalytic reading in which "Macduff proves again, in the logic of the unconscious, that'the bad son makes a bad father.'"

38 Harvey Graham, The Story of Surgery (New York: Doubleday, 1939), p. 375.

39 For a discussion of such sacrificial practices, particularly as they relate to tragedy, see René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), passim. Macduff may also serve as society's pristine agent against the threat of Oedipal rebirth embodied by Macbeth. Victor Calef, "Lady Macbeth and Infanticide," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 17 (1969), 537 n. 10, points out that his Caesarean birth leaves Macduff miraculously free from the taint of having entered his mother's genital passages even once. See also Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 227.

40 Cleanth Brooks, "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," rpt. in Kernan, Modern Shakespearean Criticism, pp. 385-403, discusses the peculiar strength of these babes. Cf. Philostratus the Elder, Les Images ou Tableaux de Platte Peinture, trans. B. de Vigenère (Paris, 1629), p. 480, which captions a drawing of "Hercules Among the Pygmies" with a moral applicable to Macbeth: "C'est un mal heur extreme / De s'ignorer soymesme, / Un Geant triomphant / Est bravé D'un enfant."

41 Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 219.

H. R. Coursen (essay date 1985)

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

[Here, Coursen adopts the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung to explore Shakespeare's characterizations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. He argues that Jungian theory illuminates the conflict between them by explicating their dominant orientations, the interaction of their conscious and unconscious purposes, and the fixed order of the dramatic world they inhabit.]

At the Shakespeare Association Meeting in San Francisco in 1979, after I had presented a paper on Jungian Approaches to King Lear,1 C. L. Barber asked me, "Why Jung, and not Freud?" This essay is an answer to Joe's question. I have no wish to exclude Freud, and could not even if I wished to. I do wish to suggest "Why Jung?"

It is safe to say that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do not interact positively or productively with each other. I hope to suggest, from a Jungian perspective, some of the reasons for the destruction they wreak upon each other and upon their marriage. Since their personal disaster is not a single doom, but has implications that "Strike heaven in the face" (4.3.6),2 I shall suggest, further, how the Jungian approach allows us to define these characters in the context of the world they inhabit, a world obviously not our own. I shall suggest how the world-view of Macbeth renders more than merely a "domestic tragedy."

Since A. C. Bradley's magnificent essay on Macbeth,3 it has been a critical commonplace that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth "exchange characteristics" as the play progresses. The early Macbeth, suffering a nervous breakdown as he completes the "terrible feat" (1.7.81) of murdering Duncan, and waxing hyperbolic about the blood on his hands, hardens into the tyrant wading through his sea of blood (3.4.135-37). The early Lady Macbeth, ruthlessly efficient in her command of the details of regicide, softens into the sleepwalker of Act 5, projecting endless spots of blood onto her "little hand" (5.1.48) from the endless reel of her guilt. As Bradley says, "the development of her character—perhaps it would be more strictly accurate to say, the change in her state of mind—is both inevitable and the opposite of the development we traced in Macbeth."4

While I believe that we would all share Bradley's thesis of "inevitability" in the case of Lady Macbeth, my purpose here is to explore the "opposite development" of the two chief characters via Jung's description of personality types. The "exchange of characteristics" is hardly as clear-cut as I suggested above, so it will be necessary for me to pause at times to observe nuances in the overall movements of these two characters through their play.

The advantage of the Jungian approach is that Jung describes the "attitude of consciousness" characteristic of a basic psychological orientation, and also posits the compensatory and opposite attitude of the unconscious. The give-and-take between a defined mode of consciousness and the specifically postulated response of the unconscious is a constant of Shakespeare's more complete characterizations. Those extraverted kings, Henry IV and Henry V, for example, suffer invasions from their repressed feelings, each attack characterized by a sleepless exploration of the emptiness of the goals that extraversion has achieved. The Jungian approach explains the dynamic of change in a character, as repressed elements surface, and defines the inevitable patterns within which change will manifest itself. Beyond whatever I do here, however, resides the ineluctable mystery of Shakespearean characterization.

Writing about "Marriage as a Psychological Relationship," Jung says that "Nature is aristocratic. The normal man is a fiction, although certain generally valid laws do exist."5 Dramatic characters are also a fiction, of course, but the Jungian abstraction can assist us in exploring the mysterious "reality" that resonates from Shakespeare's characters.

Jung isolates two dominant orientations: the extravert and the introvert. The extravert, says Jung, is "object oriented": his "attitude is characterized by the subject's subordination to the demands which the object makes upon him." "The introverted attitude is characterized by the subject's assertion of his conscious intentions and aims against the demands of the object."6 The popular distinction between the "other-directed" and the "inner-directed" person applies fairly accurately to Jung's distinction between extraversion and introversion.

To the two basic orientations, Jung adds four functions, the functions being the primary mode in which individual extraversion or introversion is conducted. They are: the two evaluative functions of thinking and feeling, and the two perceptive functions of intuition and sensation. Each of these functions inheres in human beings, of course. Sensation tells us "that something is" "Thinking tells us what a thing is." Feeling "implies an evaluation" (and thus must be distinguished from "sensation"). Intuition is "perception of the possibilities inherent in a situation" (Jung's ital.).7

One function, however, dominates in each individual. This "superior function is always an expression of conscious personality, of its aims, will and general performance."8 The primary function, then, corresponds to what Jung calls the "persona," or self-selected "image."9 Prince Hal, for example, is an extravert, a fact that accounts both for his ability to roister with Falstaff, in Hal's effective version of "negative public relations," and for his apostrophe to the crown in II Henry IV. In each case the crown is the object that draws Hal's energy, as he knows it has extracted the energy of his extraverted father. In spite of self-conscious "image-making," however, the individual remains unaware of the compensatory power of subordinate functions "opposed to the conscious aims, even producing effects whose cause is a complete enigma to the individual."10 Jung describes conscious orientation, rather than its inevitable and compensatory opposite, but Shakespeare makes us aware of that opposite. Thus the extraverted thinker, Henry V, discovers before Agincourt a powerful tide of introverted feeling; or, perhaps it discovers him, as the driving extravert must pause to consider the personal implications of his successful politics: "O ceremony, show me but thy worth!" (4.1.241).

Through Jung's description of psychological types, we gain some sense of the "phenomenology" of Shakespeare's characters, of the way in which the character works within itself, as conscious aims and unconscious forces interact. We also grasp how the plays work as interactions of characters, as a collision of attitudes emerges from different orientations and functions. Desdemona (extraverted intuition) and Othello (introverted sensation) are uniquely susceptible to the misunderstanding fomented by the extraverted thinker, Iago. The psychological type responds to other types out of an inner nature of which he or she is unconscious, because it is the unconscious.

The complex emotional issues of Hamlet serve to illustrate the point. That Gertrude represents extraverted feeling helps to account, beyond oedipal considerations, for the response of the introverted thinker, Hamlet, to her, and for his hatred of the woman-in-him. That woman, the "anima" in man's androgynous nature would compensate for Hamlet's conscious orientation if he could accept that aspect of his psyche.11 For Hamlet, conditioned to know woman only in the image of his mother, the anima is repressed. Hamlet's androgyny becomes a stereotypical "not-me" to be sneered at: "It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman" (5.2.213-14). Hamlet's perception of his mother's example and his consequent repression of his anima forces him to reject his feelings, in this case, his evaluation of the duel. Misogyny prohibits androgyny. He falls into the trap that awaits the male consciousness, or ego, that is informed primarily by thinking: "thinking makes it so" (2.2.251). Hamlet berates himself when his thinking is challenged from within, when feeling wells up and overwhelms conscious orientation. His introverted thinking produces an explosion of extraverted feeling that, typically, indicts "the subject": "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (2.2.550). The pressure to do more with a function than can be done activates the qualities he hates, those of extraverted feeling embodied in his whore-mother. Hamlet castigates himself accurately for assuming the precise stereotype predicated by his repression of the more general and deeply compensatory powers of the anima: "I . . . Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, / And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, / A stallion" (F. "scullion": 2.2.584-88). Hamlet describes what he is doing, and compensates for inaction by telling us all that he should be doing, as his repressed extraverted feeling leaps inevitably to hyperbole. Many of the seeming inconsistencies of Hamlet's character are explicable when we realize that his "shadow" qualities, those repressed by conscious orientation, will leap out when the introverted thinker is under intense pressure. Such explosions occur when Hamlet encounters the Ghost, and when Hamlet breaks up what might have been his masterstroke—the play-within-the-play. That moment, certainly, incorporates the oedipal conflict; it is part of a specific syndrome that blocks Hamlet from psychic integration, that makes him "tragic." The shadow is the anti-type, or alter ego, the primitive personality created unconsciously by consciousness. Gertrude, extraverted feeling, can see nothing wrong (other than "o'er" hastiness: 2.2.57) in her marriage to her dead husband's brother. Hamlet, introverted thinking, can find nothing right in it, save sound economic policy ("Thrift, thrift, Horatio!": 1.2.180). But Hamlet does not recognize that his mother is, in a sense, his shadow, and some of the hasty things he does will escape his own condemnation. As with critics and spectators, different orientations will render different evaluations of the same event, be that event a marriage within a play, or the play itself.

Initially, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth represent opposite orientations, introversion and extraversion. They express even their common goal—the crown—with opposite vectors of energy. Lady Macbeth perceives it in the extraverted, external way, as "the golden round" (1.5.28), "solely sovereign sway and masterdom" (1.5.70), and "the ornament of life" (1.7.42). Macbeth senses it within himself, as "Vaulting ambition" (1.7.27). Macbeth, the introvert, responds to the effect that his potential action has on him:

. . . 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?


A "thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical" activates interior content into "horrible imaginings" (1.3.138-39). Macbeth may express his contemplation as "thought"—it is the available term—but he is responding with interior sensations for which no terms exist. His is to be "A deed without a name" (4.1.49). As Dr. Johnson, paraphrasing Macbeth's lines, suggests: "All powers of action are oppressed and crushed by one overwhelming image in the mind. . . . Of things now about me I have no perception, being intent wholly on that which has no existence."12 For the introvert, however, interior content—the action of the object (murdering the king) upon the subject (Macbeth)—is "existence."

Parallel passages demonstrate the fundamentally different orientations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth:

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


Lady Macbeth. Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife sees not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry,'Hold, hold!'


Both wish to avoid detection by any revealing light—as if God's vision of His world could be momentarily veiled. But Macbeth would wish to say with multiple-murderer John Wayne Gacy, "The body probably did it, but the mind doesn't know it."13 Macbeth's emphasis is on his inner desires and their attendant fears. Lady Macbeth does not consider it so deeply; she merely fears prevention of the act by some outside agency. She does not sense, as Macbeth does, that that agency is coded into her deepest individuality.14 The distinction between the two can be grasped via one of those echoes that Shakespeare creates within the sounding chambers of this play. Macbeth remarks his personal response to a murder not yet committed; it "doth unfix [his] hair" (1.3.135). Lady Macbeth calls on external powers to "unsex [her] here" (1.5.41), so that the murder can be committed.

Lady Macbeth represents a complex example of what Jung calls extraverted thinking, one of the few women in Shakespeare who belongs to that type. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, is another; she actually assumes the male role, and in a far more "macho" manner than do Rosalind or Viola. Extraverted thinkers are usually men, and, in Shakespeare, they include Richard III, Bolingbroke, Hal-Henry V, Claudius, Vincendo, Iago, and the early King Lear. From that list it should be clear that elements other than "generally valid laws" of psychological orientation pertain to Shakespeare's characterization.

As she utters her invocation to "thick Night," Lady Macbeth is putting herself through a kind of "conscious repression," a process perhaps psychologically impossible, since repression is an unconscious activity, but one that Shakespeare dramatizes for us in soliloquy. Lady Macbeth fears interior content as the extravert does.15 What is inside Macbeth and possibly inside her might prove a barrier between them and the external goal. Therefore is Macbeth's "human kindness" to be feared (1.5.16). His moral scruples are to be chastized as impediments to "the golden round" (1.5.27-28). Her "woman's milk" is to be transformed to "gall" (1.5.48), her being unsexed. The object dictates the necessity—a perversion of the natural, a debasement of humanity, an attempt to warp cosmic verities into the narrow patterning of individual will. As she perceives it, attainment of the objective goal is worth any price. Her own words signal the irony—any temporary victory must occur within a deeper defeat. As Jung says of the extraverted thinker: "If the attitude is extreme, all personal considerations are lost sight of, even those affecting the subject's own person."16 Lady Macbeth does not ignore personal considerations; she would demolish them.

Her activity, however, is typical of Shakespeare's extraverts, if more extreme. Successful Claudius, who would also suspend the "way things are" for the time being, finds his murder returned to confront him. Successful Henry IV and Henry V suffer an insomnia that is the reflex of the "total consciousness" that their version of kingship has demanded. All-powerful King Lear tumbles into his own inner storm. Richard III is haunted before Bosworth Field by a spiritual reality he had laughed to scorn. One of the most frightening aspects of Iago is that he, apparently, suffers no such attack.17 Lady Macbeth's repression has long been obvious to critics, and is not the product of modern psychological approaches to her character. Dowden, writing in 1872, says, "Lady Macbeth gains, for the time, sufficient strength by throwing herself passionately into a single purpose, and by resolutely repressing all that is inconsistent with that purpose."18

Here is a "resolute" repression. She provides Macbeth with the extraverted formula that will conceal the inner sensations that work "strange matters" (1.5.63) onto his countenance. To achieve conscious intention one must create a persona:

To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like th'innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't.


But—as the allusion to Eden suggests—Time, that powerful rhythm of the supernature, will not be beguiled by a "false face" that hides "What the false heart doth know" (1.7.83). For Macbeth, the heart is the heart of the matter. Lady Macbeth believes—or affects to believe—that interior content can be erased quite easily, as if by some behaviorist experiment in brainwashing:

[Duncan's] 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 limbec only.


Much later, Macbeth will pose a question to which she had so easily given such a positivistic answer earlier:

Canst thou not 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?


As in Othello, however, the results of psychic poisoning are more lingering and profound than are the effects of alcohol. To employ "wassail,"19 the toast of Christmas celebration, as a means to kill a Christian king, and to believe that water is a total solvent, is to open the bosom to more perilous and ineradicable stuff. At that later moment, of course, Macbeth himself has long since yielded to "suggestion." The second set of prophecies already looms on the horizon before Dunsinane. They have been invited, as it were, by Macbeth's willingness to accept the meaning of the surface, by his inability to perceive the "inner sense" that was his early dominant. Lady Macbeth is yielding to that long-repressed set of inner images.

The early Macbeth is aware that "prophetic greeting" (1.3.78), or prophecy, does not compel: "If Chance will have me King, why Chance may crown me / Without my stir" (1.3.144-45). The problem, however, is that he enunciates a pagan theory of fatality, seems to dismiss his own ability to make decisions, and thus ignores the ultimate issue of his actions. In a fallen world that issue is the possible damnation of his soul. Macbeth encourages within himself the confusion engendered by a world that is only apparently ambiguous. Macbeth presents us, and its characters, with perhaps the most paradigmatic "world picture" in all of Shakespeare.20 Banquo, of course, sees the Weird Sisters not as handmaidens of "Chance," but as "instruments of darkness [who] tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray's / In deepest consequence" (1.3.124-26). The world of King Lear may allow us to debate the issue of whether nature is the vesture of a purposive cosmos or a collision of blind forces that impact upon good and evil without distinction. The world of Macbeth does not permit that debate. Even "disorder" in Macbeth is a distortion of a more comprehensive positive pattern, in a Miltonic sense. In Macbeth we experience disorder as it violates the a priori cosmic law, whether mousing owls soar to down falcons, or horses contend "'gainst obedience" and issue forth as if to "make war on mankind" (2.4.12-18), rather than to bear man into war. In King Lear "the frame of the world" that defines and that is definitive does not exist. But it does in Macbeth.

As Banquo places a proper and negative valuation on the Weird Sisters, the former Thane of Cawdor puts a proper—and negative—value on his existential being. He "set forth / A deep repentance . . . / he died / As one that had been studied in his death, / To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd / As'twere a careless trifle" (1.4.6-11). Mindful of the eternal premises that pervade the visible world, Cawdor hopes that his repentance will have some efficacy in absolving him of his earthly treason. His final words may resemble those of the convicted Grey in Henry V: "My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign," to which Henry piously replies, "God quit you in his mercy!" (2.2.165-66). King Claudius reaches insights similar to those I attribute to Cawdor, but extraverted Claudius is trapped, even in his temporary introversion, by the objects his crime has gained him. Macbeth, the introvert, finds himself in a trap before the murder whereby he will gain the crown, a dilemma signalled by an inner perturbation to be reflected in nature as the murder occurs and during the regicide's reign. Macbeth is caught before the fact in a tug-of-war between his "corrupt will" and his "virtuous understanding," as Tillyard says.21 For all of his temporary and even willful misunderstanding, Macbeth knows what world he is in, and who he is in that world. His own nature keeps him informed of the macrocosmic and the microcosmic truth. Yet he persists in confusing that truth. The Weird Sisters, for example, do not solicit. "This supernatural soliciting" (1.3.130) occurs within Macbeth.

The world of Macbeth is "Augustinian." God is not merely the overseer of all events, but the "magister interior," the inner image of the "outer mystery." In Jungian terms, this inner imagery constitutes the basic archetype of the individual—the self. "The self," says Jung, "is a God-image, or at least cannot be distinguished from one. The self is not a substitute but a symbol for the deity."22 Macbeth's aside about "Chance," and his perception that the Weird Sisters "solicit," might suggest that he has already begun to alienate himself from the a priori nature of his world, and from the unique but also a priori nature of his selfhood. In pondering the murder, however, he achieves a kind of reintegration. He knows that no man can "jump the life to come" (1.7.7), and that a regicide faces retribution, just as King Claudius suffers it in the last scene of Hamlet: "this even-handed Justice / Commends th'ingredience of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips" (1.7.10-12). He knows that to murder Duncan is to violate the laws of kinship, homage, and hospitality. He knows that Duncan's clarity in office will, if he is murdered, elicit a personified "Pity" (1.7.21), to be bruited by all the messengers of Heaven into an outpouring that will dampen even the winds controlled by the instruments of darkness. He knows, then, that a principle inheres in nature greater than that represented by the Weird Sisters. Against the certainty of "deep damnation" (1.7.20), however, Macbeth senses the inner thrust of "Vaulting ambition" (1.7.27).

The introverted Macbeth rehearses for himself all the reasons why he should not murder Duncan, not merely on some intellectual level, but with an image-making imagination that approaches the experiential level. He senses the nature of his fall from grace before the fact. If, as Jung says of "introverted sensation," Macbeth "is guided by the intensity of the subjective sensation excited by the objective stimulus,"23 he is caught between the vivid sensations of cosmic outrage and his inner sensation of ambition.24 Macbeth would evade this dilemma by dealing primarily with consequences, some personal, some political, some cosmic. He tends to obscure the deed itself and to evaluate the external results, however negative on all counts. "Ambition"—the first time that Macbeth mentions the motive he shares with Claudius (cf. Hamlet: 3.2.55)—seems to encourage in him a kind of extraversion, the establishment of a relationship with a normative external world. Although his understanding of that relationship is total, and totally negative—as befits the introvert and as opposed to the specific, detailed, and dangerously "objective" plan Lady Macbeth is working out—Macbeth has begun to swing towards his wife's orientation. At the moment that he senses ambition's leap within him, she enters. He gives her an extraverted reason for not pursuing the murder:

We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.


Perhaps the best way to understand the "confrontation scene"—the climax of Macbeth is to pause to listen to what Jung says about the inevitable misunderstanding that must occur between the introvert and the extravert:

The introvert interposes a subjective view between the perception of the object and his own action, which prevents the action from fit[ing] the objective situation. Although the introverted consciousness is naturally aware of external conditions, it selects the subjective determinants as the decisive ones. It is therefore oriented by the factor in perception and cognition which responds to the sense stimulus in accordance to the individual's subjective disposition [cf. Macbeth's "the disposition that I owe": 3.4.112]. Whereas the extravert constantly appeals to what comes to him from the object, the introvert relies principally on what the sense impression constellates in the subject. We must not forget—although the extravert is only too prone to do so—that perception and cognition are not purely objective, but are also subjectively conditioned. The world exists not merely in itself, but also as it appears to me. By overvaluing our capacity for objective cognition we repress the importance of the subjective factor. The subjective factor has all the value of a codeterminant of the world we live in, a factor that can on no account be left out of our calculations. It remains an enigma to the extravert how a subjective standpoint can be superior to the objective situation [cf. Lady Macbeth's "They have made themselves, and that their fitness now / Does unmake you": 1.7.53-54]. Faced with this prejudice the introvert is usually at a loss for the right argument, for he is quite unaware of the unconscious but generally quite valid assumptions on which his subjective judgment and his subjective assumptions are based.25

Shakespeare, of course, dramatizes Macbeth's "quite valid assumptions" for us via Macbeth's aside and soliloquies. But they hold no ground against Lady Macbeth's attack. Her consciousness, in turn, will be incapable of holding out against her failure to accept "subjectivity" as a "co-determinant of the world we live in." It follows that, as Jung suggests of the introverted sensation type, Macbeth "easily becomes a victim of the aggressiveness and domineeringness of others."26 It is a trait he shares with another introverted warrior, Othello. Not only is Macbeth, as Jung suggests of the introverted sensation type, "wholly incapable of adequately reproducing his subjective perceptions"27—except as he remarks them in his asides and soliloquies—but, by offering any reason at all to Lady Macbeth, he seems to invite manipulation. He gives a good reason, insofar as he would counter her orientation—I'm doing well now, why risk current success? But it is not his reason—to kill Duncan would be wrong. And to offer a materialistic reason for not pursuing a greater material goal is to open oneself up for counterattack, to be forced into what Jung calls the "overcredulous attitude of consciousness" of the introverted sensation type28 (cf.1.7.75-78).

The confrontation scene establishes Lady Macbeth's extraverted thinking, as Jung suggests of this type:

The self-assertion of the personality is transferred to the formula [i.e. the murder of Duncan achieves "solely sovereign sway and masterdom"]. The formula gains such an ascendency that all other possible standpoints are thrust into the background. It usurps the place of all more general, less definite, more modest and therefore more truthful views of life. It even supplants the general view of life we call religion. Thus the formula becomes a religion, although in essentials it has not the slightest connection with anything religious. It assumes the essentially religious quality of absoluteness. . . . One could call this kind of judgement predicative. It is never absolutely depreciative or destructive, since it always substitutes a fresh value for the one destroyed.29

In this case, however, what is destroyed will destroy Lady Macbeth's predicate of power. Of such a psychological type, Jung suggests that "personal sympathy with others must . . . suffer unless they too happen to espouse the same ideal. . . . Anything new that is not already contained in [the] formula is seen through a veil of unconscious hatred and condemned accordingly. . . . The critic is demolished, if possible with personal invective, and no argument is too gross to be used against him."30 Such a person, says Jung, tends "to construe any opposition to [the] formula as personal ill-will."31 Perhaps one can glimpse from this description the psychological affinity between the King Lear of the "love test" and the Lady Macbeth of the confrontation scene.

Shakespeare creates a role reversal in Macbeth. The woman does not correspond to the stereotype, the superficial norm to which the "nature" of the play, as represented by Macduff, appeals. Macduff s assumptions about stereotypes are being challenged even as he responds to Lady Macbeth's demand to know what has happened:

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.


His lines anticipate, of course, the murdering words that Ross will drive into his ear, and they anticipate the destructive repetition that Lady Macbeth will suffer.

In her dealings with Macbeth, she has been dynamic, absolute, and scornful of his hesitancy. The "animus," or "male minority in woman,"32 emerges in its biting, opinionated, and "rationalizing"33 manner, producing an inevitable "anima" reaction from Macbeth, that is, activating his "female minority."34 His own weak "feminine content"—weak because unconscious, hence unintegrated into his personality—considers failure (1.7.59). We experience an all-too-typical husband and wife argument, but one that intersects cosmic coordinates. As Jung explains in "Marriage as a Psychological Relationship":

Just as the animus projection of a woman can often pick on a man of real significance . . . and can actually help him to achieve his true destiny with her moral support, so a man can create for himself a femme inspiratrice by his anima projection.35

Lady Macbeth's grasp of Macbeth's "true destiny" emerges from an opinionated absolutism that ignores deeper absolutes—the a priori premises of the world of the play and of personality within that given world. Her "victory" is based on the shallowest of psychological grounding: her unconscious "maleness" has forced Macbeth into the stereotypical role of yielding female. He may see her as "inspiration." Certainly he acknowledges the power of animus when he says, "Bring forth menchildren only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males" (1.7.73-75). His punning suggests that he has slipped into the linguistic duplicity that characterizes Lady Macbeth's diction and that will victimize Macbeth as he seizes the reassuring surface of the second set of prophecies. He recognizes here, however, that his own soul, or anima, though driven to acquiescence by Lady Macbeth's virility, is not committed to the deed: "I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat" (1.7.80-81). He perceives the deed in its true nature, but he will walk through it physically, as if his own nature were not there. He permits a forced extraversion that contradicts what he knows to be his inner nature.

As Jung suggests of the unconscious exchange of masculine and feminine energies inherent in the animaanimus conflict, the results "often turn out to be an illusion with destructive consequences . . . blinding fantasies and the likelihood of most absurd aberrations."36 Anything decided on the basis of this conflict is predicated upon the illusion of "consciousness," or, to put it another way, unperceived energies dictate the decision. Lady Macbeth combats Macbeth's barely articulated scruples with a male ferocity:

Macbeth. Pr'ythee, peace.
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.

Lady Macbeth. What beast was't then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.


While Lady Macbeth claims to know what manhood is, Macbeth is correct. To "do more" in this world is to descend nature's hierarchy, and to become—unbecomingly—very like a beast, as Act 5 suggests Macbeth does become. Macbeth's initial argument about "golden opinions" has opened him up to a manipulation that views gold as the argument. His assertion about manhood and its proper limits comes too late in the debate.

In spite of her "masculine" vehemence, Lady Macbeth must also employ her woman's weapons. She would deny her husband her sexual favors, and she would indulge in the most heinous action she can think of—infanticide—had she vowed as Macbeth has done (1.7.54-59). As Coleridge says, "Had she regarded [the murder of the sucking infant] with savage indifference, there would have been no force in her appeal."37 The actress at this point might moderate towards tenderness to render her conclusion more dynamic. Suffice it that Lady Macbeth has hardly been "unsexed." Her feminine self emerges vividly through the most inhuman moments of her conviction. That energy is part of her conviction, of course, but it will exact a frightful retribution once interior content—or self-hood—marshalls against what consciousness has done. She will pay for what Jungian analyst, June Singer, calls "the hubris of consciousness."38 This modern version of the ancient violation of the zone of the gods is typical of the extraverted thinker. Lady Macbeth, of course, violates the zone of God, an infinite space that also exists within her.

She has attempted a kind of exorcism of her own humanity, and has coerced Macbeth towards an act that he accepts on the most superficial of premises. His repression, therefore, remains close to the surface, and releases itself in vivid imaginings. His senses are "appall[ed]" (2.2.57) and will remain "pester'd" (5.2.23) off and on throughout the play. He is "afraid to think" what he has done, and will not look on it again (2.2.50-51). Thinking, as Macbeth engages in it, activates terrifying inner sensations. No wonder that Macbeth must now be afraid of his human functions. His function" had been "smother'd in surmise" (1.3.141), as interior content prohibited external action. Now, having murdered Duncan, he finds that surmise smothers function. His human capacity must yield to "terrible dreams" (3.2.18). Like Claudius, he would pray, but "Amen" sticks in his throat (2.2.31-32). Macbeth is, in a sense, the first murderer, therefore he is "th'best o'th'cut-throats" (3.4.16), having done the deed, as he senses it, to one of the organs whereby man's constant contact with God can be expressed. Macbeth experiences immediately what Lady Macbeth will know later, as St. Bernard suggests:

False to its own nature, which is to be a divine analogue [the soul] ceases at one and the same time to resemble God and to resemble itself. . . . Now, conscious of what it is in itself, it can ignore neither its own remaining and inherent capacity for greatness, nor the cruel loss of that greatness of which it is naturally capable. In other words it feels itself both alike to God and faithful to itself inasmuch as its aptitude for divine things subsists, but at the same time false both to God and its own true nature; and hence it is rent in twain and feeling itself still like and seeing itself in part unlike, it conceives that horror of self which is the inner tragedy of the sinner's life.39

Jung, discussing the extraverted thinker, provides a modern gloss on this passage that will pertain to the later Lady Macbeth: "The first function to be affected by . . . conscious inhibition is feeling, since it is the most opposed to the rigid intellectual formula and is therefore repressed the most intensely. No function can be entirely eliminated—it can only be greatly distorted."40 In different ways, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth inflict distortion upon themselves; therein lies their inner tragedy.

I do not believe that this play can be written off as some version of the struggles that modern man and woman encounter in the "corporate world"—the Mary McCarthy thesis.41 Shakespeare does more than merely demonstrate the breakdown of yet another marriage. He develops a pattern with which we may be familiar, showing a husband and wife entangling themselves in self-woven webs of misunderstanding. But he goes further, showing us, as Dover Wilson says, "a gigantic reflection of our sinful selves thrown upon the immeasurable screen of the universe."42 The failure of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to understand themselves is central to their tragedy. It is a tragedy, however, because of the world in which they act, a world of which Macbeth and, in her way, Lady Macbeth have full knowledge before they act. Similar failures in our world doom us in diminished ways. Each of us, however, can experience that "inner tragedy" we experience in each of the Macbeth's. Each of us can experience the failure of their "relationships." We discover ourselves as their failure resonates from the stage to where we are—guilty creatures sitting at a play. But their existential failure is only one of the powerful emotional realities to which this play demands our response.


1 The talk appeared subsequently as "The Death of Cordelia: A Jungian Approach," Hebrew University Studies in Literature 8, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 1-12.

2 Citations of Macbeth are from the New Arden Edition, ed., Kenneth Muir (London, 1976). Citations from other plays accord with The Complete Works, 3d ed., eds., Hardin Craig and David Bevington (Glenview, 111., 1980).

3Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), pp. 331-400.

4 Bradley, p. 374.

5The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York, 1976), p. 176. Where possible I shall cite this one volume collection of Jung's work, since it represents the best introduction to the works per se that I know. The essay appears in Volume 17 of Jung's Collected Works: The Development of Personality, eds. Read, Fordham, and Adler, trans. R. D. F. Hull (Princeton, 1956), pars. 324-45.

6Portable Jung, p. 311. The original essay from which I quote, "On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry," appears in Collected Works, vol. 15, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, pars. 97-132.

7Portable Jung, pp. 25-26. Collected Works, vol. 8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, pars. 280-92.

8Portable Jung, p. 190. Collected Works, vol. 6, Psychological Types, Part 1. Subsequent quotations of Jung, except where noted, will emerge from the substantial portion of Psychological Types included in The Portable Jung.

9 On the "persona," see Psychological Types, pp. 465-67.

10Portable Jung, p. 200.

11 For a discussion of the "anima," see Psychological Types, pp. 467-72.

12 Quoted in the New Arden Edition, p. 21, n.141.

13Portland Press-Herald (31 December 1980), p. 21.

14 At other moments, she expresses her awareness of "inner nature" only within requests that it be "blocked" from expression (cf. 1.5.40-50).

15 Jung labels such a process "conscious inhibition." Portable Jung, p. 200.

16Portable Jung, p. 201.

17 That is, unless Harold Goddard's fascinating thesis on Iago be correct. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1961), 2:94-99.

18Shakspere: His Mind and Art (London, 1872), p. 251.

19 The word, in Shakespeare, tends to mean "carouse," as in Hamlet's "keeps wassail" (1.4.9) referring to Claudius, and Octavius's "lacivious wassails" (Antony and Cleopatra: 1.4.57) referring to Antony. Berowne seems to give the word a strictly secular connotation in "He is wit's pedler, and retails his wares / At wakes and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs" (5.2.318-19).

20 See my discussion, which draws on many others, of the issue of "world-view," in Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg, Pa., 1976), pp. 314 ff. Macbeth, I believe, represents a coherent and consistent world-view, as opposed to King Lear, where "the nature of Nature" is one of the play's profound questions, and as opposed to; say, Titus Andronicus. The latter strikes me as a grabbag of "world-views," a syncretic medley that may emerge from an Ovidian vision of nature's interpenetration with humanity. I disagree to some extent with William Elton on King Lear. Cf. Christian Ritual, pp. 237-307.

21Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1959), p. 315.

22Portable Jung, p. 162, and Collected Works, vol. 2, Psychology and Religion, par. 157.

23Portable Jung, p. 253.

24 One might argue that Macbeth's interior content represents "feeling," in that evaluations are involved, but Macbeth knows that content as imagery, that is, something perceived primarily by the senses, and "evaluated" by physical response.

25 Ibid., pp. 229-34.

26 Ibid., pp. 256-57.

27 Ibid., p. 257.

28 Ibid., p. 258.

29 Ibid., pp. 202-3.

30 Ibid., pp. 201-2.

31 Ibid., p. 201.

32 Ira Progoff, Jung's Psychology and its Social Meaning (New York, 1973), p. 77.

33Portable Jung, p. 174.

34 Progoff, p. 77.

35Portable Jung, p. 175.

36 Ibid.

37 Quoted in the New Arden Edition of Macbeth, p. 42, n.57.

38Boundaries of the Soul (New York, 1973), p. 408. The phrase is originally Jung's, also used to define "psychic inflation." Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York, 1965), p. 233.

39 Quoted in Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (New York, 1936), p. 296.

40Portable Jung, p. 200.

41 "General Macbeth," Harper's, June 1962, 35-39.

42 Introduction to Macbeth (Cambridge, England, 1947), p. lxviii.

Kay Stockholder (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Macbeth: A Dream of Love," in American Imago, Vol. 44, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 85-105.

[In the essay that follows, Stockholder evaluates the dream-like atmosphere of the play and the way in which it represents the relation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. She examines their love for each other and their unique intimacy in terms of their unconscious desires and the play's association of sexuality with violence.]

Plato in the Republic reflected uneasily that even a good man might dream that he slept with his mother, and Freud tried to reassure the audience to his Introductory Lectures to Psycho-Analysis when he reminded them that there was someone in the real world actually doing the horrible things of which they merely dreamed.1 The combination of the involuntary nature of our dreams and their emotional power can remain a source of worry even though most of us exempt from moral judgment the expressions of desires in the willess realm of dreaming. However, any action that ensues from a state of mind that seems on the borderline between waking and dreaming, any engulfing or compulsive emotion, raises troublesome questions about whether desires as well as actions are subject to moral judgment.

In literature a similar kind of question appears in the gulf between an aesthetic and moral apprehension, between the impulse to savour the formal beauty in which any kind of experience is rendered, and the impulse to come to literature, as Sydney suggested was appropriate, for delightful teaching. That there might be some kind of gulf between these two aspects of literature is implied by Freud and developed by Norman Holland, who in the Dynamics of Literary Response2 argued that the moral aspect of literature, by sublimating the core phantasy, allows us secretly to indulge, much as we do in dreaming, otherwise forbidden desire. The parallel dichotomies between dreaming and waking experience and between the aesthetic and moral aspects of art suggest that the dream level of art is not as easily integrated into the cognitive and rational aspects as Anton Ehrenzweig and other theorists suggest.3 Rather, it suggests that art contains an inherent internal conflict of a kind that Stephen Greenblatt saw in an historical context.4 It suggests that the moral aspect of art may be at odds with an amoral aesthetic apprehension in a way similar to traditional conflicts in religion between mystics and churchmen, or in love relations between romance and marriage. In all of these, the sense of oneself as a moral agent and some sense of a self-authenticating and unchosen immediacy, must live with each other, and may not be able to live without each other, but remain in uneasy tension. Life itself, in the gulf between dreaming and waking states, presents us with the most polarized version of this dichotomy, and even Plato, who by casting out the artists sought to preserve his republic from this kind of discord, recognized that he couldn't do away with dreams.

In art this tension between a moral and an appreciative mode appears in the polarity between the narrative content and the formal structuring of it. That is, the formal properties of art, those devices of structure and rhetoric that give a work a sense of internal coherence, a sense that the end is contained in and therefore flows inevitably from the beginning, generates an aesthetic stasis that counters the moral or ideological component that by definition assumes that things might have been otherwise. A work that makes this internal struggle particularly visible is Macbeth. It does so because it simultaneously maintains strongly moral concerns, and is also amongst the most dream-like of works.

Of Shakespeare's plays Macbeth is one of the most morally straightforward in that its condemnation of the evils of regicide and untoward ambition is unambivalent. But it is also one of the most puzzling, not only because of the preternatural events, but also because the dense poetry is generated by the protagonists as they themselves invoke the standards by which their actions are condemned. As a consequence the play's moral force, even as it is evoked, tends to be absorbed into the desire-laden atmosphere, producing a world so pervaded by compelling emotion that the protagonists seem to have little control over the forces that move them. This quality not only renders the action dreamlike, as others have noted.5 It coalesces with the formal ordering to challenge the moral ordering that it also incorporates. In dreams all detail of action, of the landscape with which the dreamer is surrounded, all that he encounters in his dream, expresses his emotional dynamic rather than the logic of ordinary causality. In Macbeth the language in which the protagonists anticipate their crime rises from and echoes in the language of other figures, both those that are dreamlike and those that are naturalistic. As a consequence these figures, while to a greater or lesser degree maintaining a sense of independent identity, also function as aspects of the protagonists'inner landscape. They become images writ large, part of what one critic has called a "subtextual wave."6 They merge with other images, as well as with the dense network of forebodings and foreshadowings, that resonate from one voice to another throughout the text. In this way the text adumbrates the dream-likeness of the protagonists'experience—Macbeth's encounter with the witches which leaves him feeling that "nothing is but what is not,"7 his hallucinations, and Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking. The fluidity with which images of evil transform into action and characters, and actions and characters in turn generate images, creates patterns that highlight the sense of aesthetic inevitability. This strong sense of inevitability, that things could not be other than they are, becomes a metaphorical expression of the dream-like sense of external event being shaped by the protagonists'desires that have eluded their consciousness and will. The force of the desire from which events arise is at once so compelling to the protagonists and so inimical, not only to others'well-being, but any ordinary conception of their own, that it both arouses and negates a moral response.

In Macbeth the desire that moves the text is peculiarly intense because it is also that which defines the love between its protagonists, and the play is rendered more dream-like because the story of their love, which is not the overt subject of the play, structures the text. In dreams we do not expect the structuring principle, the force of desire and fear that generates the dream and is, as it were, its theme, to be visible, precisely because the dream is designed, as Freud tells us, to conceal that which it is designed to express. Similarly, Macbeth places in the centre of our vision a morally forceful story of untoward ambition, regicide, tyranny and the slaughter of children. But the text is structured by and its unique aura generated by the relation between Macbeth and his wife, who become like dream figures who encounter in the surrounding world representations of seemingly self-authenticating desires they do not experience directly. The combination of collusive intimacy and their violent action suggests people who are bound together by a perverse love, one that joins erotic passion to aggression and terror rather than to tenderness. The sexual overtones of the language surrounding the murder therefore express the lovers'erotically perverse passions. As in dreams, the accompanying fear and terror signify the distance between their desires and those that generate ordinary well being. That distance defines their love within an alternate reality, as dreams can seem to challenge the reality of our waking lives.

Since Macbeth is not a dream, but a play, and therefore must include what would be the latent content of dream within itself, one can more easily than in dreams reach into the shadows of the text and draw the figures into the centre of intellectual focus. As soon as one turns attention away from the play's moral and political issues, which obscure the love relation, it becomes clear that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the most intimate of Shakespeare's lovers. They intuit each other's deepest feelings, are known to each other, and have a common enterprise. They fully rely on each other, and, most importantly, in sharing the same figurai language they contribute equally to the range of images that characterizes the play. They collude both in murdering Duncan, and in generating the images of guilty eroticism that characterize the text. Their collusion in murdering Duncan is so fine-tuned that neither is more responsible than the other. As a consequence, the murder rises from their relationship rather than from the character of either of them, neither of whom alone is portrayed as capable of it. As a single person's deed expresses the character of the person, or as a single character is defined by his or her actions and language, so the action that arises from a relationship characterizes that relationship. The action of the play, the planning, execution and consequences of the murder become extended images expressive of the emotions the protagonists generate in each other. The overt subject matter, while carrying its own import, also functions as a metaphorical expression of the emotional dynamic which constitutes the protagonists'relationship. That relationship generates the dream-like aura even while, and because, it remains in our peripheral vision rather than at the center of our attention. Ehrenzweig makes a similar argument about painting when he says that the shapes perceived subliminally in the background detail lend meaningfulness to the foregrounded figures.8

The play's dream-like inevitability and the love between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth intersect in the figures of the witches who most clearly situate the play on the borders between dream and waking, between the realm of the ethical and that of compulsive. In so far as they are seen by Banquo as well as Macbeth, they are part of Macbeth's waking world, but their supernatural attributes blend them into a dream realm. Since we see before Macbeth does what later fuses to his dreamlike state of mind, the witches become part of the textual metaphor that expresses Macbeth's unconscious desire. The desire which they represent, however, is not primarily for the crown with which they tempt him, nor only, as J.I.M. Stewart argues, for the murderous vision that enraptures him.9 It is precisely for the fusion of violence and femininity represented by the witches. The fear that accompanies Macbeth's desire is expressed in their ugliness, while the force of his unknown desire is expressed in the aura of supernatural force that defines them. The attributes and images that the witches share with Lady Macbeth and their role in instigating the murder that he and his wife will together perform, render them textual expressions of Macbeth's unconscious associations with his wife. As they are of indeterminate sex, bearded women, so Lady Macbeth acts with traditionally masculine initiative and calls upon them, as'fateful ministers'to unsex her; as we encounter them planning to seduce Macbeth into his crime, so we encounter Lady Macbeth planning to steady his will; as they arise from a barren heath, so Lady Macbeth's barrenness, flowing in the text from her denial of feminine tenderness, renders fruitless Macbeth's crown and sceptre, and radiates to the country at large, changing it from "our mother" to "our grave." Therefore, it is as though Macbeth in encountering the witches on the heath encounters attributes that he unconsciously associates with his wife. A further link between the witches and Lady Macbeth is suggested by Dennis Biggins who argues that traditionally witches are associated with lust, perverse sexuality and female dominance.10 This sexual association appears in the text through the sequence of scenes in which the witches'plan to meet Macbeth is followed by the depiction of battle in which Macbeth appears as "Bellona's bridegroom." These images of frighteningly seductive women amidst the violence of battle form the atmosphere from which Lady Macbeth emerges when she appears reading Macbeth's letter. The letter comes out of a textual vacuum, but realistically can only have been written as Macbeth's first act toward fulfilling the dark desires stirred in him by the witches'prophecies. He seems to assume that his wife will continue what the witches began. By so speedily informing her of the events he both defines his project as jointly hers, and expresses his knowledge of her powers to advance it.

The trenchant brevity of his letter to Lady Macbeth suggests the intimacy that is more formally expressed in its close, "This have I thought good to deliver thee, my dearest partner of greatness, that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promis'd thee" (I. v. 9-12). She instantly intuits Macbeth's excited fear, and assumes, like Macbeth, that they will not rely on circumstances to fulfill the witches'prophecy. As Macbeth immediately envisioned Duncan's murder, rather than himself enthroned, so she will'catch the nearest way.'The accord of her mind to his suggests that in writing to her he relied on her resolve to steady his. This dramatized mutuality is supported textually by the echo of his words in hers.

He said,

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

(I, iv, 51-54)

She says,

Come, thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife seen not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry'Hold, hold!'

(I, v, 51-54).

When the action in which she functions, as he anticipated, to help him "wrongly win" that which he would not "play false" to attain, arises from this rich texture of dream-like images, it is as though they share their dream as well as their waking lives.

Her response demonstrates that his estimate of her character is as accurate as is hers of his. Their mutual knowledge and, even more, their acknowledgments that they are known to the other, along with their joint enterprise, give their relation an intimacy and power that propells them into their fearsome phantasies. She assumes in his character precisely the vacillation he has already demonstrated, and she adds substance to Macbeth's "horrible imaginings" when she anticipates Duncan's fatal entrance under her battlements. She also draws the images of violence first encountered on the battlefield into familial and sexual realms when she says,

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
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 murth'ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief!

(I. v. 41-51)

Lady Macbeth opposes her normal sexuality to violence in asking, as Jenifoy La Belle argues, to be rid of her femaleness.11 But a new and perverse sexuality reappears when she wants herself filled "from the crown to the toe with direst cruelty," for that image gives to violence the body's sensuality. Her reference to her woman's breasts merges the image of female sexuality into those of nurturing, but in fear of her own tender nature, as she is of Macbeth's being "too full of the milk o'human kindness," she perverts that image by envisioning'murth'ring ministers'sucking her milk, now turned to gall. In concluding her anticipation of the murder with the image of the blanketed darkness that is like Macbeth's image, she adds a sexual resonance to her denial of familial and sensuous tenderness.

In the aura of that perverse sexuality she greets Macbeth, feeling'the future is in the instant,'in the same way Macbeth felt that "nothing is but what is not." That instant contains for Lady Macbeth the generative power that she denied in the previous passage. The "night's great business" will give birth to'sovereign sway and masterdom,'to power, rather than to a sucking infant. Macbeth enters into his wife's unspoken thought and defines their love within it when he responds, "My dearest love,/Duncan comes here tonight" (I. v. 59-60). The intense and intuitive mutual understanding that informs their terse exchange drains of impact Macbeth's vacillating demure, "We will speak further" (I. v. 72). The rhythm by which each excites the other to the point of action structures the scenes that lead to the murder. The first movement occurred in Macbeth's sending the letter, Lady Macbeth's response, and his collusive reaction to her. The second begins when Macbeth, momentarily free of the rush of desire, enters a Hamlet-like meditation on the'bank and shoal of time'between life and death. He appreciates the unusual array of ordinary pleasures of life—domestic ease, honour, paternal affection from his king—and fears the consequences that he intuits will follow upon violating the obligations that he can so pleasurably fulfill. Opposed to both fear of reprisal and pleasure in doing that which forestalls it is only the sheer rush of incomprehensible desire. As though intuiting the nature of that desire, Macbeth imagines the retributive forces in the image of a child, a "naked new-born babe / Striding the blast." (I. vii.22-3). That image, taken textually, joins related images of babies and of barrenness to be discussed shortly. Taken as indicative of Macbeth's character, it suggests his intuition that his desire violates not only his obligations as Duncan's kinsman, subject and host, but also strikes at the core of the fertility embedded in love, sexuality, and family. His mind for the moment on ordinary pleasures and free of perverse desire, he is left only with "vaulting ambition" which without the spur of desire, "o'er leaps itself/ And falls to the other side." Previously Macbeth came, as though called, after Lady Macbeth's soliloquy. Now she comes, as though called, to do in fact what both she and Macbeth anticipated she would. By chastising "with the valor of [her] tongue / All that impedes [him] from the golden round" (I. v. 28-9), she functions to bring his enraptured vision, initially so separate from his ordinary reality and daily life into "Time and the hour [that] runs through the roughest day" (I. iii. 152). In writing the letter he took the first step toward integrating his phantasy to his reality. She overcomes the impeding pity, associated by Macbeth with fertility in his image of the "new born babe," by equating it to cowardice and by equating the murder to his sense of manliness:12

What beast was't then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. 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.

(I. vii. 46-58)

In imagistically killing her infant, she exposes the intuition that underlay Macbeth's earlier image of the babe striding the blast. She assumes that their love which will be consummated in the murder represents some alternate reality, intrinsically opposed to fertility, family, and society, all represented in the image of children. In arguing that Macbeth's pledge to her is more binding than the pledge of a mother's love to a child, given the strong analogy generated throughout the play between the kingdom and a family, she makes an encompassing scale of creaturely accord that extends from sucking infants to social harmony, and opposes to it the love between herself and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth defines their love in enmity towards kind and country, tenderness and children. Her images, which resonate in the same ranges that his previously did, far from repelling him, bring him to the point where he can join the desire that was first expressed in the horrifying images of the witches to his own "act and valour" (I. vii. 40).

Narratively the murder is a consequence of the action preceding it, but textually it is a kind of vortex that collects and transforms all of the emotional forces that constitute the play. The text has defined Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's love in their plans to murder Duncan, and it renders their sexual consummation in the murder.

That the murder represents their sexual relationship appears in many ways. It appears in the rhythm by which they excite each other to the "sticking place," as well as in those images that associate the murder with their dark privacy when Macbeth asks that light not see his "black and deep desires." Lady Macbeth deepens the image when she imagines the knife wound made beneath "the blanket of the dark." These images collect into Duncan's unseen, and therefore doubly private, bedroom, and, as Berry argues, Macbeth adds phallic force to the sexual suggestiveness in saying that he will "bend up / Each corporal agent to this horrible feat" (I. vii. 79-80).l3 The hallucinatory dagger that points him towards Duncan indicates a state of mind mid-way between dreaming and waking when it fuses with the one he carries in his hand. In that fused state of consciousness Macbeth makes explicit the previously subtle associations between sexuality and violence when he says,

Now o'er the one half world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep: Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Heccat's off rings; and wither'd Murther,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.

(II. i. 49-56)

Having identified himself with "wither'd Murther," celebrated by witchcraft, the "stealthy pace" with which he approaches Duncan's bed suddenly becomes that of Tarquín about to rape Lucrece. It is not only that the murder carries sexual force, as others have argued.14 The fused image of murder and of rape completes the sexuality between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that was implied when Macbeth on the battlefield was referred to as "Bellona's bridegroom." After calling Macbeth, as he emerges from the room, "My husband" (I. ii. 14), Lady Macbeth participates in the murder that consummates their love as well as their joint enterprise in entering the bedroom that Macbeth has just left. There she smears with Duncan's blood the swinish grooms, and returns to declare to Macbeth that "My hands are of your color" (II. ii. 61).

The knocking at the Porter's gate that breaks in upon the couple's intense privacy intensifies their intimacy and the Porter's speech adds to the sexual suggestiveness of the previous scene. Having associated himself with the murder by calling himself the porter of hellgate, the Porter enumerates the social forms of equivocating trickery and treachery. This comic version of the witches' "Fair is foul and foul is fair," echoed in myriad ways in the text, foreshadows the social chaos that will radiate from and express the hell of perverse sexuality within the castle. The Porter's jokes on the morally equivocal are associated later to the diabolic witches by Macbeth when he blames his impending defeat on "the equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth" (V. v. 43-4). The Porter links that moral equivocation to sexuality when he says that in provoking desire but inhibiting performance, drink "may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him" (II. iii. 30-37). Earlier Lady Macbeth, when Macbeth's will wavered, asked, "Was the hope drunk /Wherein you dress'd yourself?" (I. vii. 35-6). Like the Porter, she associates drunkenness with being unable to "be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire" (I. vii. 40-1). A few lines later she plans to ply Duncan's chamberlains with "wine and wassail." With little justice (especially since it later appears that she has also drugged their drink) but much imagistic force, she then talks of the "swinish sleep" of the "spongy officers." The image of the swinish and drunken chamberlains acquires sexual overtones when the Porter associates drunkeness with impotence. The cluster of images adds a sexual dimension to Lady Macbeth's contempt of what she sees as Macbeth's unmanly vacillation. The cluster associates the peaceful sleep that Macbeth foregoes with the drunken grooms who "mock[ing] their charge with snores" (II. ii. 6-7) are the object of Lady Macbeth's contempt. Therefore her eagerness to "chastise with the valor of [her] tongue / All that impedes [him] from the golden round" (I. v. 28-9) intimates her scorn for and impatience with swinish impotence. That impotence she so scorns is also associated with Duncan through the image of Duncan in the bedroom surrounded by the sleeping grooms, who later also are gilded with his golden blood. But the character of Duncan, who promised to plant [Macbeth] and labour to make him full of growing, embodies the images of soft nurturing that she despises in Macbeth and represses in herself in order to excite him to manly action. Manliness in both its social and sexual aspects is realized in murder, while quiet sleep, nurture, and hierarchical harmony are associated with sexual and social impotence. The text therefore leaves no middle-ground between impotence and the "restless ecstasy" of erotic violence for ordinary, loving, sexuality. The porter scene, not only extends the theme of equivocation from the witches into the social fabric of the play's world;15 its portentous grotesquerie reaches into the deepest psychological recesses of the text in the way Freud described jokes revealing what earnestness conceals.

The violence within which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth consummate their sexuality generates both the story of their barren love and the images of children that pervade the text. The witches'barren heath and Macbeth's barren sceptre are born of, or express, the violent love they lead to, while the normal fruition of love, children and parenthood, become textual representatives of the protagonists'own outraged feelings that will constitute their nemesis.16 In the text the opposition between their barren love and a fertile world appears first in the contrast between the castle, guarded by the croaking raven, in which they consummate their love, and the images of birds in their "pendant bed and procreant cradle" observed by Duncan and Banquo as they approach it. Before the murder Macbeth saw "pity" as an avenging babe; after the murder an image of children represents the equivocating witches when a "bloody child" assures him that he cannot be killed by man "of woman born," and a crowned child tells him that he will live till Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. That tenderness as such has become his enemy appears when the first act that flows from his resolve to let the "firstlings of his heart . . . be / The firstlings of his hand" (IV. i. 146-7), is to kill Lady Macduff and her children, though their murder cannot succeed in assuaging the terrible fears that afflict his nights. In doing so Macbeth generates Macduff s outraged parenthood which coalesces with the images of avenging children and the more general images of Macbeth's loss of creature comforts—sleep, communal eating, communal membership. Instead of joining the festive table, Macbeth'sups full of horrors'at the witches'cauldron; instead of having children, images of them represent inimical fates, and instead of experiencing the tenderness of parenthood, Macbeth is fated to be killed by one who represents those feelings he and his wife have denied. In all these ways Macbeth will confront in the plot as a whole, and in what he takes to be a real world, the extended images of their internal state that earlier characterized his rich imagination, while Lady Macbeth, whose role it was to affirm the primary reality of the external world, will confront its equivalent in the overtly nightmare realm she has now entered. They will change places in the course of the action, but the polarities will remain unchanged.

The erotic violence central to Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's relationship radiates in widening circles to the most public ranges of their lives. The images that express Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's isolation from ordinary pleasure echo in the words that describe the country over which they rule. Wanting relief from their nocturnal agonies, Macbeth determines that they "shall no longer eat in fear and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly" (III. ii. 17-19); and Lennox says that Macduff seeks help in England so that they may "Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights; / Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives" (III. vi. 33-5). The violent images that surrounded the sexualized murder also describe the body-politic when Lennox adds, "I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; / It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash / Is added to her wounds" (IV. iii. 39-41). When Ross responds, "Alas, poor country, / Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot / Be call'd our mother, but our grave" (IV. iii. 164-6), the commonwealth becomes an image of Lady Macbeth's violation of her maternity. The language spreads from the heart of their relationship to the periphery, the textual level metaphorically expressing the emotional dynamics of their violent eroticism.

Once the images of their eroticism have emerged from the blanketed darkness, neither can confront the image of themselves they see in the other, and the force that bound them begins to separate them. As his inner turmoil is transformed into images of his country's anguish, Macbeth gradually redefines himself in relation to Lady Macbeth. The collusive intimacy between them fades almost immediately after Duncan's murder, for Macbeth begins to espouse her definition of him as an unthinking man of action, and to redefine her in a more conventionally feminine role, while she becomes more tentative in relation to him. The altered relationship appears in Macbeth's secrecy about his plan to murder Banquo, and in Lady Macbeth's secrecy about her inner state. She says, echoing Macbeth's earlier lines,

Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

(III. ii. 4-7)

But she denies her anguish by dismissing his when Macbeth envies Duncan who sleeps well "after life's fitful fever" (III. ii. 24), and he revels in his secret plans to murder Banquo when he tells her to let her "remembrancer apply to Banquo." Each withdraws from the other as they now make their faces "vizards to [their] hearts" (III. ii. 30, 35) not, as previously, to secrete themselves from the outside world, but rather to remain hidden from each other. Macbeth indirectly approaches his plan, saying "O! full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! / Thou know'st that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives." When she responds, "But in them Nature's copy's not eterne" (III. ii. 36-9), he secretly obtains her validation of his unspoken plan. She addresses him as "gentle, my lord," and he her as "love," but in calling her "dearest chuck" (III. ii. 28, 30, 46), and withholding knowledge from her, he denies the equality that was assumed when she asked, "What cannot you and I perform upon the unguarded Duncan?" (I. vii.69-70). Macbeth thus reestablishes the conventional protectiveness of a man towards a woman.17

Having covertly gained her consent, Macbeth proves that he fulfills her standards of manliness by arranging Banquo's death alone. But the eroticized violence, the sexual version of the witches'fair-foulness and foul-fairness, remains in the language with which he anticipates Banquo's death:

Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister'd flight: ere to black Heccat's summons
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung Night's yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note.

(III. ii. 40-4)

"Heccat's summons," "drowsy hums," and "night's yawning peal" suggest the dark ease of seductive sleep that overwhelms and cancels the moral horror that is the overt content. He continues to savour the images in which he couches the contemplated murder when he says, "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 rouse" (III. ii. 49-52). Enjoying Lady Macbeth's silent "marvel," Macbeth anticipates the murder with a kind of swoon into an auto-erotic violence that excludes her. The process of the lovers'separation, begun after the first murder, is completed after the second. The banquet at which no food is consumed not only represents the dissolution of social accord, but also the accord between Macbeth and his wife. Banquo's ghost, unlike the airborne dagger which Macbeth recognized as unreal, is a full hallucination. It is Macbeth's last revel in the aura of desire before the fearful delights of nightmare retreat, and Macbeth begins to see the world his dream has generated in harsh day light.

Macbeth's horror at Banquo's ghost expresses his attitude toward his own compelling desires. Since he cannot acknowledge the desires that have generated the image, he cannot look upon it. His consciousness approaches what the play of images has already inscribed in the text when he says,

Blood hath been shed ere now, i'th'olden time,
Ere humane statute purg'd the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murthers have been perform'd
Too terrible for the ear. The times has been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murther is.

(III. iv. 75-83)

Macbeth here approaches a recognition that the horror that fills his world does not arise from the act of regicide, but rather from his imagination of it. With this recognition the gestation begun beneath the blanket of the dark completes itself in a perverse birth. From his imagination, Macbeth is reborn in Lady Macbeth's image of manliness when he says, "Augures and understood relations" have "By maggot-pies, and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret'st man of blood" (III. iv. 122-5). This new Macbeth will, by enacting the "strange things [he] has in head before . . . they are scann'd (III. iv. 139-40), create his world in the image of his previous inner life, while Lady Macbeth succumbs to the "thick night" she had invoked and yields to the those "thick-coming" fancies that previously defined him. Banquo's image not only encapsulates Macbeth's past; it also foreshadows his future. Macbeth says of it, "Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold; / Thou hast no speculation in those eyes / Which thou dost glare with" (III. iv. 94-6). Macbeth's sense of life's meaningfullness lay in the confused passion of his relationship to Lady Macbeth; therefore in having excluded her from his consciousness he also denied his own inwardness, and so finds himself "fallen into the seare, the yellow leaf (V. iii. 22). The underlying bond with her remains visible on the plot level when he prepares for his final battle outside the castle, while inside the castle she vainly washes her hands. His fear of meeting death and his concerns for her become a single issue when he simultaneously addresses the Doctor and Seyton. He intertwines directions for the battle with the language appropriate to his despair of curing the "thick-coming fancies" and the memory of a "rooted sorrow" that constitute both her disease and his past:

Come, put mine armor on. Give me my staff.
Seyton, send out.—Doctor, the thanes fly from me.—
Come, sir, dispatch.—If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.—Pull't off, say.—
What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?

(V. iii. 48-56)

Apart from Lady Macbeth he is bereft of the rich if horrifying meaningfulness that was contained in their relationship. Having become the man of action she wanted him to be, and repudiated the imagination he shared with her, he can respond to her death with only ashen emptiness:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(V. v. 17-28)

Since Macbeth is preoccupied both with reassuring himself that he is invulnerable to death in battle, he refuses to recognize the mortality that her death implies. As well, he dismisses the reminder of the nightmare realm he bequeathed to her when he says "She should have died hereafter." To avoid the impact of her death in the present, his mind moves first to the future, and then to the past. But having emptied the present of significance, the future stretches ahead, "Tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," partaking of the present emptiness and "petty pace." He can take no joy in the prospect of escaping death in the coming battle, or of everlasting life, when all recorded time is made up of the insignificant syllables of meaningless action. On the phrase "creeps in this petty pace" his mind swings from the future to the past, suggesting an association between the image of creeping at a petty pace and the earlier images of children. Like the future, the past also has been drained of meaningfullness, rendering illusory the desire that lit all those "yesterdays" from infancy, or from the play's beginning, to the present. Now they lead only to the "dusty death" he projects onto the future. Therefore he wants life's candle out, the light by which he can read the meaning of Lady Macbeth's death. Not wanting to read it, he sees life itself as a "walking shadow," an image that expresses his sense of himself as a bloodless husk, emptied of desire. The image of the moving shadow suggests one of the stage, but since the candle has been blown out, it is a darkened stage, a scene like Duncan's bedroom that Macbeth both wants and fears to see. Earlier the staged sounds of the clamour at the Porter's gate replaced the images of Duncan's gore, so now Macbeth in his mind's ear hears in the darkness the player who "struts and frets" upon the "bloody stage" his world has become. Rather than seeing an image of Duncan's bloody bedroom coloured by his own desires and revulsion, guilt and rage, he takes a further and final means to distance himself from that vision. He transforms the image of the stage to the less immediate one of a tale, but denies what the tale might reveal by attributing it to an enlarged and grotesque version of a child—an idiot—and so eradicates the meaning of his past, present, and future. But thereby hangs another tale of the process by which Macbeth, in fearing to confront the significance of Lady Macbeth's death, transforms his life into a tale "signifying nothing."18

The textual excitement fades after Lady Macbeth's death, allowing the moral level greater ascendancy as the play nears its close. Macduff, characterized by his grief and outrage for the loss of children, fittingly defeats the intrinsically barren Macbeth and ends a brutal tyranny that has rendered Scotland a barren wasteland. At the end of the play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth die separately. Macbeth's head is on a pole, and Lady Macbeth lies within the castle. The text, however, subtly links them when Malcolm in the play's closing speech evokes them as "this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" (V.ix.35).

Macbeth is not the first of Shakespeare's plays that yokes sexuality to violence. The vision of heterosexuality that is implicit in Macbeth and that is expressed in the world that emanates from these lovers, I believe develops from the violence, both passive and active, that more subtly led Othello and Desdemona to consummate their love in death. Their love for each other, in that it creates a world apart from ordinary obligations and reality, is like that between Romeo and Juliet, as well as like that between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but the idyllic romance of the earlier play was opposed to a violent external world which destroyed it. That same violence seeped into the love of Hamlet and Ophelia, Desdemona and Othello, to render them, in different modes, self-destructive. In the sequence that begins with Romeo and Juliet, one sees violence and aggression first as the frame that surrounds two idealized young lovers who are seen brought to their tragic end as a consequence of forces external to them. In Othello the violent forces are defined initially as external, with only faint echoes in the language of the characters, but they slowly invade and define the lovers. The process completes itself in Macbeth in which the violence explicitly characterizes the lovers, and, as fears and desires shape dreams, extends from them to define their world and to shape the text that contains them.


1The Republic of Plato, tr. Francis MacDonald Cornford (Oxford, 1941), p. 296. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr., James Strachey (New York, Penguin, 1974), p. 179.

2 Norman Holland, Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford, 1968), p. 314.

3 For some discussions of the relation between art and either dream or primary process thought see Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: Schocken, 1952), Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (London, 1967), pp. 256-79, Arthur L. Marotti,'Counter-transference, the Communication Process and the Dimension of Psychoanalytic Criticism," Critical Inquiry 4 (1978) 471-89, and Alan Roland'Imagery and the Self in Artistic Creativity and Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism,'The Psychoanalytic Review, 68 (Fall, 1981), pp. 409-20.

4 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 253-54.

5 See particularly Simon O. Lesser in 'Macbeth: Drama and Dream,'Literary Criticism and Psychology, ed., Joseph P. Strelka (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 150-73.

6 Ralph Berry in Shakespearean Structures (London: Macmillan, 1981) in a precise and careful way argues for a'subtextual wave'(90) of associations and for what he calls'chameleon words'(91) that weave sexual puns into other levels of the play. See also a related argument by Harry Berger, Jr., in'Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth,'The Power of Form in the English Renaissance, ed., Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982) pp. 49-81, who says that the textual reading of the play undermines the impact of a stage performance by revealing the way in which the'good'thanes are involved in the'scapegoating'of women (74).

7 All quotations are taken from the Yale edition, ed., Eugene M. Waith (London, Oxford Univ. Press, 1954).

8 Ehrenzweig, pp. 32-46.

9 J. I. M. Stewart in Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longmans, Greene, 1949) observes that it was the'crime and not the crown that compels Macbeth'(93).

10 Dennis Biggins in'Sexuality, Witchcraft and Violence in Macbeth,'Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1976), pp. 255-77, points out that traditionally witches were presumed to be lustful, sexually perverse and sexually dominant. See also Vesny Wagner, 'Macbeth:'Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair,'American Imago, 25 (1968), pp. 242-57.

11 Jenifoy La Belle in "A strange infirmity,'Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea," Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 381-86, argues from contemporary medical terminology, that Lady Macbeth invokes infernal powers literally to stop her menstruation, the sign of her sex as well as of her fertility, and later experiences the physiological and emotional consequences of her request having been granted (384). She relates that to the blood images which then substitute for the natural flow. Her argument that literal amenorrhea grounds Lady Macbeth's images, gives additional force to my argument that the murder functions as a sexual act.

12 For the relation of destructiveness to vulnerability see Joan M. Byles, 'Macbeth: Imagery of Destruction,'American Imago, 39 (1982), pp. 149-64, and Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 145.

13 Berry, p. 92.

14 See Richard Wheeler in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 145, Biggins also perceives the sexualized violence of the play in seeing the murder as a kind of rape and Berry says that the Tarquín image joined to the idea of murder creates a phallic murder that is at'this play's heart of darkness'(92). See also Muriel Bradbrook, Aspects of Dramatic Form in the English and Irish Renaissance: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983) and Madelon Gohlke who in "I wooed thee with my sword'; Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds., Carolyn R. Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980): pp. 150-70, relates this play to Othello with the observation that in both murder is a loving act, and love a murdering one (156).

15 See Kenneth Muir, Introduction to the Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1951), (xxiii-xxix).

16 For other views on the significance of images of children see Ludwig Jekels in'The Riddle of Shakespeare's Macbeth,'The Design Within, (243), Cleanth Brooks,'The Naked Babe in the Cloak of Manliness,'The Well Wrought Urn (London: Dobson Books, 1968), pp. 17-39, and Marjorie Garber in Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 153-4.

17 For discussions of the ways in which the relative dominance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have been related to contemporary feminist issues see D. S. Kastan in'Shakespeare and the Way of Womenkind,'Daedalus, 11 (1982), pp. 115-30, Joan Larsen Klein, "Lady Macbeth;'Infirm of Purpose,"'The Woman's Part: pp. 240-55, see also Carolyn Asp, "'Be Bloody, Bold and Resolute': Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth Studies in Philology, 78 (1981), 153-69, and D. W. Harding in'Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme,'Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969) 245-53.

18 Holland gives a penetrating reading of the core phantasy of this speech as though it were an independent poem (106-14). Where he sees a primal scene phantasy, I see developments from and references to the previous action. The coherence between his reading and mine substantiates my view that imagery and sequence of action in the text substitutes for what would constitute unconscious motivations from the past of a person like Macbeth.

Macbeth As Tragic Hero

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Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 19, 1966, pp. 12-24.

[Here, Heilman surveys the dramatic strategies that lead us to identify with a hero who is also a murderer. The critic maintains that Macbeth is a tragedy rather than merely a melodrama or morality play, because our understanding of human nature and of ourselves increases through our experience of empathizing with him.]


The difficulties presented by the character of Macbeth—the criminal as tragic hero—have led some critics to charge Shakespeare with inconsistency, others to seek consistency by viewing the initial Macbeth as in some way morally defective,1 and still others to normalize the hero by viewing the final Macbeth as in some way morally triumphant. Perhaps a recollection of Lascelles Abercrombie's enthusiastic phrase,'the zest and terrible splendour of his own unquenchable mind'(1925), and of Wilson Knight's comparable'emerges at last victorious and fearless'2 (1930), helped stir L. C. Knights to complain (1933) that'the critics have not only sentimentalized Macbeth—ignoring the completeness with which Shakespeare shows his final identification with evil—but they have slurred the passages in which the positive good is presened by means of religious symbols'.3 Even after this, so unflighty an editor as Kittredge could say that Macbeth'is never greater than in the desperate valour that marks his end'.4 On the other hand, the editor of a Macbeth meant for schools describes Macbeth as a'bold, exacting and presumptuous criminal, . . . bent on destruction for destruction's sake','the champion of evil','a monster', giving'the impression . . . of some huge beast who . . . dies lashing out at everyone within range'.5 But if intemperateness of eulogy or condemnation is exceptional, the opposing impulses are not altogether reconciled; if to many critics Macbeth is damned, there is hardly consensus about either the way down or the mitigating circumstances or how good the bad man is.'Damned, but'might be a title for an anthology of critical essays.

The problem of character, which is no more than quickly sketched by this sampling of judgments, becomes intertwined with the problem of generic placement, a standard, though rarely decisive, evaluating procedure. If the play changes from the study of a complex soul to the history of good men's victory over a criminal and tyrant, has it not dropped from the level of high tragedy to that of political melodrama? This seems harsh, and we can evade it either by discovering unmelodramatic complications in Macbeth as king (a method approached by Neilson and Hill when they acknowledge that Macbeth'proved a desperately wicked man'but add, with mild confidence,' . . . we are reassured that he was more than the mere butcher the avenging Malcolm not unnaturally calls him'),6 or by minimizing the importance of character and insisting that the play is a great dramatic poem (as in that anti-Bradleyism which can be traced at least from Knights's 1933 essay). When we look, as many critics do, at the poetic-dramatic structure, we find, among other things, that the nadaism of Macbeth's'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'speech is not Shakespeare's but Macbeth's and that the play contains numerous images of good kingship and affirmative life; Macbeth is regularly in contrast with the norms of order and hope. The trouble with abstracting a meaning—'Crime doesn't pay'or 'The way of transgressors is hard'—and regarding character as principally a buttress of that meaning7 is that it has consequences for the placement of drama. Kenneth Muir faces the consequences when he says,'We may, indeed, call Macbeth the greatest of morality plays . . .'.8 However, Muir is understandably diffident about the term'morality play'; so he not only says'greatest'but adds a weighty series of codicils intended to cushion to the utmost, or even counteract, the implicit demotion from'tragedy'to'morality play'.

The critical uneasiness with the character of Macbeth is different from the usual feelings—uncertainty, attentiveness, curiosity, passion to examine, and so on—stirred by an obscure or elusive character, because it springs from a disturbing sense of discrepancy not evoked, for instance, by Shakespeare's other tragic heroes. We expect the tragic protagonist to be an expanding character, one who grows in awareness and spiritual largeness; yet Macbeth is to all intents a contracting character, who seems to discard large areas of consciousness as he goes, to shrink from multilateral to unilateral being (we try to say it isn't so by deflating the Macbeth of Acts I and II and inflating the Macbeth of Acts IV and V). The diminishing personality is of course not an anomaly in literature, whether in him we follow à gradual decrease of moral possibility or discover an essential parvanimity, but this we expect in satire (Fielding's Blifil, Austen's Wickham, Meredith's Sir Austin Feverel, Eliot's Lydgate), not tragedy. This source of uneasiness with Macbeth, however, is secondary; the primary source is a technical matter, Shakespeare's remarkable choice of point of view—that of this ambitious man who, in Muir's words that sum up the contracting process,'becomes a villain'. We have to see through his eyes, be in his skin; for us, this is a great breach of custom, and in the effort at accommodation we do considerable scrambling. When we share the point of view of Hamlet, we experience the fear of evil action and of evil inaction; when we share the point of view of Othello and Lear, we experience passionate, irrational action whose evil is not apprehended or foreseen; but when we share the point of view of Macbeth, we have to experience the deliberate choice of evil. Hence a disquiet altogether distinguishable from the irresoluteness of mind before, let us say, some apparent contradictions in Othello.

The problem is like that which usually comes up when readers9 must adopt the point of view of a character in whom there are ambiguities. Unless structure is based on contrasts, point of view ordinarily confers authority but discomforts, which invariably lead to disagreements, arise when authority apparently extends to matters which, on aesthetic, rational, psychological, or moral grounds, the reader finds it difficult to countenance.10'Disagreements', of course, implies studious recollection in tranquillity, or rather, untranquillity; what we are concerned with in this discussion is the immediate, unanalysed imaginative experience which precedes the effort to clarify or define. We are assuming that the person experiencing Macbeth is naturally carried into an identification with Macbeth which, if incomplete, is still more far-reaching than that with anyone else in the play.11 This should be a safe working assumption, whatever the modifications of sensibility that qualify the immediate unanalysed experience and hence lead to alternative explanations of Macbeth in retrospect. Surely Muir is right in saying of our response to Macbeth that'we are tempted and suffer with him'.12

Behind our condemnation of trivial literature, whether we call it'sentimental','meretricious', or something else, lies the sense that the characters whom for the moment we become give us an inadequate or false sense of reality, call into action too few of our human potentialities. Hence'tragedy'tends not simply to designate a genre, in which there may be widely separated levels of excellence, but to become an honorific term: it names a noble enterprise, the action of a literary structure which compels us to get at human truth by knowing more fully what we are capable of—'knowing', not by formal acts of cognition but by passing imaginatively through revelatory experiences. In a morality we see a demonstration of what happens; in tragedy we act out what happens, undergoing a kind of kinaesthetic initiation into conduct we would not ordinarily acknowledge as belonging to us. The problem is how far this process of illuminating induction can go without running into resistance that impedes or derails the tragic experience, without exciting self-protective counter-measures such as retreating from tragic co-existence, with the hero to censorious observation of him from a distant knoll.13Macbeth at least permits this way out by its increasingly extensive portrayal, in Acts IV and V, of the counterforces whom we see only as high-principled seekers of justice. Do we, so to speak, defect to them because Macbeth, unlike Lear and Othello, moves into a greater darkness in which we can no longer discern our own lineaments? Do we, then, turn tragedy into melodrama or morality?


That, of course, is a later question. The prior question is the mode of our relationship with Macbeth when he kills Duncan; here we have to consent to participation in a planned murder, or at least tacitly accept our capability of committing it. The act of moral imagination is far greater, as we have seen, than that called for by the germinal misdeeds of Lear or the murder by Othello, since these come out of emotional frenzies where our tolerance, or even forgiveness, is so spontaneous that we need not disguise our kinship with those who realize in action what we act in fantasy. Yet technically Shakespeare so manages the situation that we become Macbeth, or at least assent to complicity with him, instead of shifting to that simple hostility evoked by the melodramatic treatment of crime. We accept ourselves as murderers, so to speak, because we also feel the strength of our resistance to murder. The initial Macbeth has a fullness of human range that makes him hard to deny; though a kind of laziness makes us naturally vulnerable to the solicitation of some narrow-gauge characters, we learn by experience and discipline to reject these (heroes of cape and sword, easy masters of the world, pure devils, simple victims); and correspondingly we are the more drawn in by those with a large store of human possibilities, good and evil. Macbeth can act as courageous patriot (I, ii, 35 ff.), discover that he has dreamed of the throne ('. . . why do you start . . . ?'—I, iii, 51), entertain the'horrid image'of murdering Duncan (I, iii, 135), be publicly rewarded by the king (I, iv), be an affectionate husband (I, v), survey, with anguished clarity, the motives and consequences of the imagined deed; reject it; feel the strength of his wife's persuasion, return to'this terrible feat'(I, vii, 80); undergo real horrors of anticipation (II, i, 31 ff.) and of realization that he has actually killed Duncan (II, ii, 14 ff). Here is not a petty scoundrel but an extraordinary man, so capacious in feeling and motive as to have a compelling representativeness; we cannot adopt him selectively, feel a oneness with some parts of him and reject others; we become the murderer as well as the man who can hardly tolerate, in prospect or retrospect, the idea of murder. The suffering is so great that the act is hedged about with penance; unless we are neurotic, we cannot pay such a price without earning it; murder belongs, as it were, to normalcy—to us in our normalcy. Furthermore, the anguish is so powerful and protracted, and the'terrible feat'so quickly done, that it marks only a brief failure of moral governance; we seem to sacrifice only a mite of the sentience that we instinctively attribute to ourselves. That, too, after solicitations whose power we feel directly:'Vaulting Ambition', indeed, but also challenges to our manly courage, the promise of security, and, behind these, the driving strength of another soul not easy to disappoint or even, when the other speaks for a part of ourselves, to resist. These persuasions, in turn, are a supplement to'supernatural soliciting'(I, iii, 130), to'fate and metaphysical aid'(I, v, 26). Finally, Shakespeare affords the reader one more aid in accepting his alliance with the murderer: that alteration of ordinary consciousness that enhances the persuasiveness of deviant conduct by the'good man'. From the first prophetic phrases Macbeth has been'rapt', a word applied to him thrice (I, iii, 57, 142; I, v, 5), and when the knocking is heard Lady Macbeth adjures him,

Be not lost
So poorly in your thoughts;

(II, ii, 71-2)

there are also his dagger-vision speech before the murder (II, i, 33 ff), and after it the hallucinatory impressions that make Lady Macbeth use the word'brainsickly'(II, ii, 46). The note of'unsound mind'helps make the murderer'One of us', to use Conrad's term, rather than a criminal-outsider.

If it be a function of tragedy, as we have suggested, to amplify man's knowledge of himself by making him discover, through imaginative action, the moral capabilities to which he may ordinarily be blind, then Shakespeare, in the first two acts of Macbeth, has so managed his tools that the function is carried out superlatively well. He leads the reader on to accept himself in a role that he would hardly dream of as his. If it be too blunt to say that he becomes a murderer, at least he feels murderousness to be as powerful as a host of motives more familiar to consciousness. Whether he knows it or not, he knows something more about himself. It may be that'knows'takes us too far into the realm of the impalpable, but to use it is at least to say metaphorically that the reader remains'with'Macbeth instead of drifting away into non-participation and censure. Shakespeare's dramaturgic feat should not be unappreciated.


That behind him, Shakespeare moves ahead and takes on a still greater difficulty: the maintaining of identity, his and ours, with a character who, after a savage initial act, goes on into other monstrosities, gradually loses more of his human range, contracts, goes down hill.14 Surely this is the most demanding technical task among the tragedies. Othello and Lear both grow in knowledge; however reluctantly and incompletely, they come into a sense of what they have done, and advance in powers of self-placement. With them we have a sense of recovery, which paradoxically accompanies the making of even destructive discoveries. Renouncing blindness is growth. Macbeth does not attract us into kinship in this way; his own powers of self-recognition seem to have been squandered on the night of the first murder and indirectly in the dread before Banquo's ghost. Nevertheless there are passages in which he has been felt to be placing and judging himself. There may indeed be something of tragic self-knowledge in the man who says that he has'the gracious Duncan . . . murder'd'and

mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man;

(III, i, 65, 67-8)

yet he is not saying' I have acted evilly', much less' I repent of my evil conduct', but rather,' I have paid a high price—and for what? To make Banquo the father of kings.'Macbeth is not so simple and crude as not to know that the price is high, but his point is that for a high price he ought to be guaranteed the best goods; and in prompt search of the best goods he elaborates the remorselessly calculating rhetoric by which he inspirits the murderers to ambush Banquo and Fleance. Again, he can acknowledge his and Lady Macbeth's nightmares and declare buried Duncan better off than they, but have no thought at all of the available means of mitigating this wretchedness; the much stronger motives appear in his preceding statement'We have scorch'd the snake, not kill'd it'and his following one, 'O, full of scorpions is my mind . . . that Banquo, and his Fleance, lives'(III, ii, 13, 36-7). The serpents of enmity and envy clearly have much more bite than the worm of conscience.

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far

(III, iv, 136-7)

encourages some students to speak as if Macbeth were actuated by a sense of guilt, but since no expectable response to felt guilt inhibits his arranging, very shortly, the Macduff murders, it seems more prudent to see in these words only a technical summary of his political method. In'the sere, the yellow leaf lines Macbeth's index of the deprivations likely to afflict him in later years (V, iii, 23 ff.) suggests to some readers an acute moral awareness; it seems rather a regretful notice of social behaviour, such as would little trouble the consciousness of a man profoundly concerned about the quality of his deeds and the state of his soul. Finally, in Macbeth's battlefield words to Macduff—

my soul is too much charg'd
 With blood of thine already—

(V, viii, 5-6)

some critics have detected remorse. It may be so, but in the general context of actions of a man increasingly apt in the sanguinary and freed from refinement of scruple, there is much to be said for the suggestion that he is'rationalizing his fear';15 possibly, too, he is unconsciously placating the man who has most to avenge and of whom the First Apparition has specifically warned him (IV, i, 71).

Since different Shakespearians have been able to find in such passages a continuance of genuine moral sensitivity in Macbeth, it is possible that for the nonprofessional reader they do indeed belong to the means by which a oneness with Macbeth is maintained. If so, then we have that irony by which neutral details in an ugly man's portrait have enough ambiguity to help win a difficult assent to him. However, a true change of heart is incompatible with a retention of the profits secured by even the temporarily hardened heart, and the fact is that once Macbeth has become king, all of his efforts are directed to hanging on to the spoils of a peculiarly obnoxious murder. Shakespeare has chosen to deal not only with an impenitent, though in many ways regretful, man, but with one whose crime has been committed only to secure substantial wordly advantages (in contrast with the wrongs done by Lear and Othello). Perhaps what the play'says'is that such a crime has inevitable consequences, that worldly profit—goods, honour, power—is so corrupting that, once committed to it, the hero can never really abjure it, can never really repent and seeks ways of spiritual alteration, though he may cry out against the thorns and ugliness of the road he cannot leave.16 However far such a theory can be carried, it is plain that Macbeth, once he has taken the excruciatingly difficult first step on the new route, discovers in himself the talents for an unsurrenderable athleticism in evil.

The artist's problem is that for a reader to accompany such a character and to share in his intensifying depravity might become intolerable; the reader might simply flee to the salvation of condemning the character. This does not happen. For, having chosen a very difficult man to establish our position—to give us shoes and skin and eyes and feeling—Shakespeare so manages the perspective that we do not escape into another position. As with all his tragic heroes, Shakespeare explores the point of view of self, the self-defending and self-justifying motions of mind and heart; alert as we are to self-protectiveness in others, we still do not overtly repudiate that of Macbeth. That is, Macbeth finds ways of thinking about himself and his dilemmas that we find congenial, and, even more than that, ways of feeling which we easily share. The dramatist can rely somewhat, of course, on that ambiguous sympathy with the criminal that human beings express in various ways; even an artist who is not romanticizing a criminal can count on it up to a point if he protects it against counter feelings. Suppose, for instance, that we had seen a great deal of Duncan at Macbeth's castle or that the murder were done on the stage or that Macbeth did not undergo the agonies depicted in II, ii; he would already have lost his role as erring humanity, and we ours as secret sharer. Suppose, also, that he then took the throne by blunt force, or were grossly shameless, or rapped out lies which everyone knew to be lies. But he does not drive us away by such methods; instead, our murderer is a man who suffers too much, as it were, really to be a murderer; he agonizes more than he antagonizes. After the murder, we next see him in a painfully taxing and challenging position—the utter necessity of so acting in public, at a moment of frightful public calamity, that neither his guilt will be revealed nor his ambition threatened. The pressure on him shifts to us, who ought to want him caught right there. Can he bring it off? Can we bring it off? In some way we become the terribly threatened individual, the outnumbered solitary antagonist; further, our own secret self is at stake, all our evil, long so precariously covered over, in danger of being exposed, and we of ruin. But we miraculously come through, our terrible anxiety somehow transmuted to strength under fire; we say the right things ('Had I but died an hour before this chance', II, iii, 89), have the presence of mind to be carried away by'fury'and kill the chamberlains and turn suspicion on them, and still to'repent'the fury (105). Relief, perhaps triumph. This statement may require more delicacy and precision, but it should indicate the way in which Shakespeare instinctively approaches the task of enticing us into collusion. We remain the murderer in part because the pressure of other motives makes us forget that we are. What we forget we do not deny.

Macbeth is in danger of degenerating from Everyman into monster, that is, of pushing us from unspoken collusion to spoken judgment, when he coolly plots against Banquo. But Shakespeare moves Macbeth quickly into a recital of motives and distresses that invite an assent of feeling. Macbeth's important 25-line soliloquy (III, i, 47-71) is in no sense a formal apologia, but it has the effect of case-making by the revelation of emotional urgencies whose force easily comes home to us. There are three of these urgencies. The first is fear, that especial kind of fear that derives from insecurity:' . . . to be safely thus'(48) is a cry so close to human needs that it can make us forget that the threat to safety is made by justice. The fear is of Banquo, a man of'dauntless temper', of'wisdom'(51, 52); we can credit ourselves with Macbeth's ability and willingness to discriminate at the same time that, unless we make an improbable identification with Banquo, we can enter into the lesser man's sense of injury and his inclination to purge himself of secondclass moral citizenship. The second great appeal is that to the horror of being in a cul de sac, of feeling no continuity into something beyond the present: all that we have earned will be nothing if we have but a'fruitless crown','a barren sceptre','No son'(60-3). It is the Sisters that did this;'they'are treating us unfairly, inflicting a causeless deprivation. Our Everyman's share of paranoia is at work. Yet the price has been a high one ('vessel of my peace', loss of'mine eternal jeweL'); it is as if a bargain had been unfulfilled, and we find ourselves sharing the third emotional pressure—resentment at a chicanery of events which need not be borne.

The anxiety in the face of constant threats, the pain at being cut off from the future, the bitterness of the wretched bargain—these emotions, since they may belong to the most upright life, tend to inhibit our making a conscious estimate of the uprightness of the man who experiences them. This may be a sufficient hedge against our splitting away from Macbeth when he is whipping up the Murderers against Banquo. But since Macbeth can trick us into the desire to'get away with it', or into discovering that we can have this desire, it may be that even the subornation of murder evokes a distant, unidentified, and unacknowledgeable compliance. Here the appeal would be that of executive dispatch and rhetorical skill in a difficult cause; it is satisfying to use against another the method before which one has been defenceless earlier, the appeal to manliness (91 ff.), to hint the grave danger to oneself (115-17), to claim a meritorious abstention from'barefac'd power'(118), though the power is legitimate. Then quickly, before we have time to cast off the spell, to catch ourselves tricked into a silent partnership in crime and to start backing away from it, we are enthralled in another way: again, this time with both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the terrible fear, the sense of constant menace, the'affliction of these terrible dreams', the'torture of the mind'(III, ii, 18, 21). Afflictions and tortures: we have our own, and we do not stop, step to one side, and think that ours are more just and noble than those of the wretched royal pair. Macbeth's language, in a brilliant touch, even makes the usurpers weak victims, such as we sometimes like to be: threatening them is a'snake', cut in two, but reuniting to extend the'danger', against which we offer but'poor malice', that is, feeble opposition (14-15). Here is one of the subtler of the series of verbal and dramatic means by which we are held'with'Macbeth and the queen; we are with them as long as we do not turn and say,'But what do you expect?'And as long as we do not say that, we have not shifted to the posture invited by melodrama and morality play.

At the banquet scene the courtesy and breeding of the host and hostess hardly seem that of vulgar criminals, from whom we would quickly spring away into our better selves. But before the Ghost appears, Macbeth learns of the escape of Fleance, and he speaks words that appeal secretly to two modes of responsiveness. He introduces the snake image from III, ii, 14: as for Banquo,'There the grown serpent lies', but then there's Fleance:

the worm that's fled
Hath nature that in time will venom breed.

(III, iv, 29-30)

It is not that we rationally accept Macbeth's definition of father and son, but that we share his desperateness as destined victim; and his image for the victimizing forces, as long as it is not opposed openly in the context, is one to evoke the fellowship of an immemorial human fear. This, however, tops off a subtler evocation of sympathy, Macbeth's

I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.


The new image for fear, which we have already been compelled to feel, is peculiarly apt and constraining: it brings into play the claustrophobic distress that can even become panic. We do not pause for analysis, stand off, and say,'It is the claustrophobia of crime'; rather the known phobia maintains our link with the criminal. Then, of course, the moral responsiveness implied by the appearance of the Ghost and by Macbeth's terror make a more obvious appeal, for here the traditional'good man'is evident. Not only does he again become something of a victim, but the royal pair draw us into their efforts to save a situation as dangerous as it is embarrassing and humiliating. They are in such straits that we cannot now accuse them, much less triumph over them. Macbeth's demoralizing fear, finally, works in a paradoxical way: fear humanizes the warrior and thus brings us closer to him, while his inevitable reaction from it into almost hyperbolic courage, with its conscious virility ('Russian bear','Hyrcan tiger', etc., 99 ff), strikes a different chord of consent. From now on until the end, indeed, Macbeth is committed to a bravery, not unspontaneous but at once compensating and desperate—a bravura of bravery—that it is natural for us to be allied with.

The danger point is that at which the admired bravery and its admired accompaniment, resolution (such as appears in the visit to the Witches, IV, i), are distorted into the ruthlessness of the Macduff murders. Here we are most likely to be divorced from Macbeth, to cease being actors of a role and become critics of it. At any rate, Shakespeare takes clear steps to'protect'Macbeth's position. That'make assurance double sure'(IV, i, 83) has become a cliché is confirmatory evidence that the motive is well-nigh universal; getting rid of Macduff becomes almost an impersonal safety measure, additionally understandable because of the natural wish to'sleep in spite of thunder'(86). We come close to pitying his failure to grasp the ambiguity of the oracles, for we can sense our own naiveté and wishful thinking at work; and his disillusionment and emptiness on learning that Banquo's line will inherit the throne, are not so alien to us that Macbeth's retaliatory passion is unthinkable. Shakespeare goes ahead with the risk: we see one of the cruel murders, and the next time Macbeth appears, he is hardly attractive either in his almost obsessive denying of fear (v, iii, 1-10) or in his letting his tension explode in pointless abuse of his servant, partly for fearfulness (11-18). Still, the impulses are ones we can feel. Now, after Macbeth has been on the verge of breaking out into the savage whom we could only repudiate, things take a different turn, and Macbeth comes back toward us as more than a loathsome criminal. He is'sick at heart'(19)—words that both speak to a kindred feeling and deny that the speaker is a brute. He meditates on approaching age (22 ff ), with universality of theme and dignity of style teasing us into a fellowship perhaps strengthened by respect for the intellectual candour with which he lists the blessings he has forfeited. Above all he has a desperately sick wife: pressed from without, still he must confer with the doctor and in grief seek remedies for a'mind diseas'd','a rooted sorrow','that perilous stuff/ Which weighs upon the heart'(40-5). Shakespeare makes him even extend this humane concern, either literally or with a wry irony that is still not unattractive, to the health of Scotland:

find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health.


Along with all of the troubles that he meets, more often than not with sad equanimity, he must also face crucial desertions:'the thanes fly from me'(49). Like us all, he tells his troubles to the doctor. He has become an underdog, quite another figure from the cornered thug, supported by a gang of sinister loyalty, that he might be. This athlete in evil, as we called him earlier, has had to learn endurance and endure, if we may be forgiven, the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Against such solitude we hardly turn with reproof.

Macbeth opened the scene crying down fear; he goes on with three more denials of fear, one at the end (32, 36, 59); now we are able to see in the repetition an effort to talk down deep misgivings, and the hero again approximates Everyman, ourselves. When Macbeth next appears, just before the battle, it is the same: he opens and closes the scene literally or implicitly denying fear, even though the prophecy of his end seems miraculously fulfilled (v, v, 1-15, 51-2). Meanwhile the queen's death is reported, and the warrior, moved but finely controlled, turns grief into contemplation, with the seductiveness of common thought in uncommon language. The closing battle scene is a series of denials of fear, appealing to both pity and admiration. Some details are instinctively ingratiating.'They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly'(v, vii, 1)—oneself as the victim of others bent on cruel sport.'Why should I play the Roman fool . . . ?'(v, viii, 1)—no moral retreat, no opting out of adversity.' I will not yield'(27)—the athlete's last span of endurance, fight against all odds.


My intention has been, not to offer a full study of Macbeth or a fresh account of his moral alteration, not to argue that he is a worse man than some have thought (though some analyses seem not to catch what Knights called'the completeness [of] his final identification with eviL') or a better man than other men have thought (though he is remarkably endowed with aspects of personality not ordinarily expected in a man committed to evil), but to describe the apparent impact made upon the imagination by certain deeds, thoughts, and feelings of his. Since there is hardly a need to demonstrate that Macbeth is a villain and that villains ordinarily repel us, the emphasis has naturally fallen upon those elements in him that tend to elicit, in whatever degree, fellow-feeling, pity, favour, or even admiration. Macbeth possibly establishes a subtle kinship by setting in motion certain impulses which we would rather not admit—anomalous siding with the criminal, aggressive ambition, envy, the pleasure of getting away with it (which includes leaving the'it'unexamined). More frequently the appeal to allegiance is that of states of situations which are neutral in that they may come to good or bad men but which, without analysing the merits of the figure involved, we find it difficult not to fear or pity—the threat of exposure, the anxieties of a perilous position, relentless enclosure by men and circumstances, nightmares and insomnia of whatever origin, the pressing need for greater safety, the pain of miscalculation and the gnawing sense of a bad bargain, any enlargement of the penalties of advanced age, desertion, the unequal struggle, the role of the underdog. Finally, and more important, Macbeth early gives every sign of having a conscience, and later he exhibits qualities and abilities that normally elicit respect or admiration—resourcefulness under severely taxing stresses, readiness for intolerable difficulties, resolution, the philosophic cast of mind, endurance, bravery.

If the general demonstration, as it is summarized here, has merit, it opens the way to several other points. For one thing, it should help explain some rather enthusiastic accounts of Macbeth: that which binds us to him, either the painfulness of what he endures or the qualities that he shares with men we admire, so overwhelms the sense of the ruthless tyrant that we either let this slip out of operative consciousness or take it for granted as not requiring further discussion, and proceed then to erect a rational form for all the feelings of kinship or approval. Shakespeare has so thoroughly attacked the problem of keeping a villain from being a mere villain that at times it has apparently been easy to lose sight of his villainy. On the other hand, the endowing of Macbeth with the power to attract fellow-feeling and even approval makes it unlikely that'the sympathies of the audience are switched to his enemies'.17 This is a crucial matter. For if such a switch does take place, then the play does not hold us in an essentially tragic engagement, but carries us into a relationship like that with Richard HI (a play often used to illustrate Macbeth).

To be convinced of Macbeth's retention of our sympathy may seem to imply a denial of our sympathy to Malcolm, Macduff, and the conquering party. By no means: obviously we share their passions whenever these control the action, and we may even cheer them on. Yet we do not remain fixedly and only with them, as we do with Richmond and his party in Richard III, and with such forces in all dramas with a clearly melodramatic structure. When the anti-Macbeth leaders occupy the stage, we are unable not to be at one with them; but the significant thing is that when his point of view is resumed, Macbeth again draws us back, by the rather rich means that we have examined, into our old collusion. After III, vi, when we first see committed opposition to Macbeth ('. . . this our suffering country, / Under a hand accurs'd!'—48-9), the two sides alternate on the stage until they come together in battle. In one scene we have the rather easy, and certainly reassuring, identification with the restorers of order; in the next, the strange, disturbing emotional return to the camp of the outnumbered tyrant. We move back and forth between two worlds and are members of both. As a contemporary novelist says of a character who is watching fox and hounds,'She wanted it to get away, yet when she saw the hounds she also wanted them to catch it'.18

Macbeth, in other words, has a complexity of form which goes beyond that normally available to melodrama and morality play, where the issue prevents ambiguity of feeling and makes us clear-headed partisans. Whether Macbeth goes on beyond this surmounting of melodramatic limitations to high achievement as tragedy is the final problem. It turns, I believe, on Shakespeare's treatment of Macbeth, that is, on whether this retains the complexity that cannot quite be replaced by the kind of complexities that Macbeth does embrace. Here, of course, we are in the area of our mode of response to character, where all is elusive and insecure, and we can only be speculative. What I have proposed, in general, is that, because of the manifold claims that Macbeth makes upon our sympathy, we are drawn into identification with him in his whole being; one might say that he tricks us into accepting more than we expect or realize. If it is true that we are led to experience empathy with a murderer and thus to come into a more complete'feeling knowledge'of what human beings are like (tragic experience as the catharsis of self-ignorance), then Shakespeare has had a success which is not trivial. Yet there remains a legitimate question or two. Let us try this approach. It is not the business of tragedy to let man know that he is only a scoundrel or devil (any more than its business is to let him know that he is really an angel); it is obvious enough that such an experience would be too circumscribed to gain assent to its truthfulness. In so far as he pushes us in that direction, Shakespeare makes the indispensable qualifications. Yet the felt qualifications can be expressed in ways that are less than satisfactory; for instance,'Macbeth is a villain, but there's also this to be said', or, still more,'Macbeth is a wonderful man. Oh yes, a villain, of course.'Such flip statements are not found literally in Macbeth criticism, but they do represent the tendency to make a unitary assessment and then add an afterthought, that is, to pull the constituent elements apart unevenly instead of holding them together in a fusion not so simply describable.

It is possible that Shakespeare's basic method encourages this tendency. Shakespeare first chooses a protagonist who in action is worse than the other main tragic heroes, and then tends to make him better than other tragic heroes, in effect to make him now one, and now the other. Shakespeare had to protect Macbeth against the unmixed hostility that the mere villain would evoke; perhaps he over-protected him, letting him do all his villainies indeed, but providing him with an excess of devices for exciting the pity, warmth, and approval which prompt forgetfulness of the villainies. If critics have, as Knights protested, sentimentalized Macbeth, it may be that the text gives them more ground than has been supposed, that Shakespeare's own sympathy with Macbeth went beyond that which every artist owes to the evil man whom he wants to realize. We may be driven to concluding that Shakespeare has kept us at one with Macbeth, in whom the good man is all but annihilated by the tragic flaw, by making him the flawed man who is all but annihilated by the tragic goodness—that is, the singular appeal of the man trapped, disappointed, deserted, deprived of a wife, finished, but unwhimpering, contemplative, unyielding. If that is so, Shakespeare has kept us at one with a murderer by making him less than, or other than, a murderer.

This may seem a perverse conclusion after we have been pointing to the'risks'Shakespeare took by showing Macbeth lengthily arranging the murder of Banquo and by having the murder of Lady Macduff and her children done partly on stage. The risk there, however, was of our separation from Macbeth as in melodrama; the risk here is of an empathic union on too easy grounds. For what is finally and extraordinarily spared Macbeth is the ultimate rigour of self-confrontation, the act of knowing directly what he has been and done. We see the world judging Macbeth, but not Macbeth judging himself. That consciousness of the nature of the deed which he has at the murder of Duncan gives way to other disturbances, and whatever sense of guilt, if any, may be inferred from his later distresses (we surveyed, early in section iii, the passages sometimes supposed to reveal a confessional or penitent strain), is far from an open facing and defining of the evil done—the murders, of course, the attendant lying, and, as is less often noted, the repeated bearing of false witness (II, iii, 99; III, i, 29 ff; III, iv, 49). Of Cawdor, whose structural relationship to Macbeth is often mentioned, we are told that

very frankly he confess'd his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness'pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance.

(I, iv, 5-7)

Macduff, with rather less on his conscience than Macbeth, could say,

sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee—nought that I am;
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls.

(IV, iii, 224-7)

Cawdor and Macduff set the example which Macbeth never follows; or, to go outside the play, Othello and Lear set examples that Macbeth never follows. Part of Hamlet's agonizing is centred in his passion to avoid having to set such an example. Macbeth simply does not face the moral record. Instead he is the saddened and later bereaved husband, the man deprived of friends and future, the thinker, the pathetic believer in immunity, the fighter. These roles are a way of pushing the past aside—the past which cries out for a new sense, in him, of what it has been. If, then, our hypothesis about the nature of tragic participation is valid, the reader ends his life with and in Macbeth in a way that demands too little of him. He experiences forlornness and desolation, and even a kind of substitute triumph—anything but the soul's reckoning which is a severer trial than the world's judgment. He is not initiated into a true spaciousness of character, but follows, in Macbeth, the movement of what I have called a contracting personality. This is not the best that tragedy can offer.19


1 See, for instance, Wolfgang J. Weilgart,'Macbeth: Demon and Bourgeois', Shakespeare Society of New Orleans Publications (1946), and its citations, as well as the citations in Kenneth Muir's Introduction to the Arden Macbeth (1951 ff.), pp. xlviii ff. Weilgart's ill-written essay, based on Karl Jaspers's Psychologie der Weltanschauungen is not uninstructive.

2 For fuller quotations and appropriate comments, see Muir, op. cit. pp. lix ff. The Abercrombie quotation is from The Idea of Great Poetry, the Knight from The Wheel of Fire (Knight carried the idea further in Christ and Nietzsche, 1948).

3How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?, pp. 54-5.

4 Introduction to his edition οf Macbeth (Boston, 1939), p. xiv.

5 George Clifford Rosser, Critical Commentary, Macbeth (1957), pp. 38, 39, 40, 44. This work might be compared with a Catholic schoolboy manual, the Rev. R. F. Walker's Companion to the Study of Shakespeare: Macbeth (1947). The often useful application of Catholic doctrine unfortunately keeps giving way to sermons.

6 William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (eds.), The Complete Plays and Poems of Shakespeare (Boston, 1942), p. 1183.

7 Cf. Gogol's Inspector General, where the meaning'The way of transgressors is hard'is conveyed exclusively through characters acting in character.

8Op. cit. p. lxxiv.

9 For convenience I shall use the word'readers'to denote literal readers, spectators at the theatre, viewers, all those who see the play on stage or in print or in any other medium. I use'we'to denote the hypothetical possessor of characteristic responsiveness.

10 Some critics always defend apparent authority; others redefine the character who has it; still others look for artistic signs that the apparent holder of authority has been subtly disavowed. Thus, one school accepts Gulliver's view of himself and of the Houyhnhnms; another argues that the total structure of Book IV turns the satire against Gulliver. The readers who accept Moll Flanders's view of things resort to various shifts to deal with her inconsistencies; the opposite way out is to treat Moll as a product of confusions in Defoe's own mind.

11 Even when an over-valuing of Brecht's theories puts something of a halo upon the Verfremdungseffekt and of a shadow upon Einfühlung. The inevitability of Einfühlung, whatever its precise character, is indicated by Brecht's having to rewrite to try to prevent it after it had appeared in responses to his own work. Perhaps, however, we need a new term like'consentience'to suggest more than'sympathy'but less than'identification'or'empathy', which suffer from popular overuse.

12Shakespeare: The Great Tragedies, Writers and Their Work No. 133 (1961), p. 35. Cf. his statement that'the Poet for the Defence . . . can make us feel that we might have fallen in the same way'(Introduction, Arden edition, p. 1, and similarly on p. Ivi).

13 Gorki's Lower Depths, Ibsen's Wild Duck, and o'Neill's Iceman Cometh are remarkably alike in their portrayal of the need of self-protective illusions; in effect they deny the possibility of the tragic experience of illumination. But recent playwrights like Osborne, Pinter, and Albee choose an opposite course: they make the reader identify with one evil or another by giving him nowhere else to go. They permit no illusions of saving virtue (though they may foster illusions of irremediable defectiveness). This is of course the way of satire, which aspires to much less than the tragic range of personality.

14 This difficulty will of course not exist for critics who believe that Macbeth, though a lost soul, has wrenched some sort of moral triumph from his career.

15 Muir's note on the passage (Arden edition, p. 165).

16 Among the accounts of Macbeth's descent one of the most interesting is that of W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1937).

17 Muir, Shakespeare: The Great Tragedies, p. 36. However, Muir uses the words rather incidentally to name one of the factors that may account for the difficulty of presenting the play successfully on the stage. He may not be strongly convinced that sympathies do switch. At any rate, his words conveniently summarize a point of view probably held widely.

18 Veronica Henriques, The Face I Had (1965), p. 38.

19 As Muir says,' . . . the last two acts are not quite on the level of the first three'(Shakespeare: The Great Tragedies, p. 36). This is a passing comment, however, again in the context of the actability of the play. Cf. G. B. Harrison,' . . . Macbeth is in some ways the least satisfactory of Shakespeare's mature tragedies. The last Act falls away . . .' This is from the Introduction to the Penguin Macbeth (1937), p. 17. But Harrison uses this statement to introduce the subject of revisions in the text.

Besides the comparisons that have been made, there is another that has elucidatory value. Garrick added to Macbeth's lines a closing speech which in content might have been inspired by the same sense of shortcoming that prevails in the present essay, but which is in the common rhetorical vein of eighteenth-century improvements of Shakespeare:

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—It will not be; my soul is clog'd with blood—I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy—It is too late, hell drags me down; I sink, I sink,—my soul is lost for ever!—Oh!—Oh!

(Quoted in Arden edition, p. xlvi, n. 2.) One wonders whether Garrick was remembering Marlowe's Dr Faustus, which Macbeth resembles, notably in the great ambition of the hero, in the enormous struggle at the time of the first decisive step, and in the phenomena of psychic strain. Garrick's last four lines might be a précis of Faustus's final hundred lines. But this striking fact underscores the difference in the treatment of the two heroes: Faustus sees the whole truth of his career with utmost clarity, but because of a'block', as we would say, cannot take advantage of the grace he rightly feels is offered; Macbeth, on the other hand, lacks this clarity and hence is hardly able to advance to the next stage, where the issue is spiritual despair.

Michael Davis (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Courage and Impotence in Macbeth," in Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 219-36.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1979, Davis reads Macbeth as a play that demonstrates the implications of understanding life solely in terms of valor and manliness. From this perspective, the critic argues, a man must be master of his fate, and thus when Macbeth trusts in the witches' prophecies he is emasculated. In order to escape the threat of being unmanned, he defies fate and chooses a course of action that he knows must end in his defeat.]


First impressions are important. Even if not always correct, they are the stuff out of which our later opinions are fashioned. They may be confirmed, altered, or rejected, but in each case they must be explained. It is for this reason that our first glimpses of Shakespeare's major characters are invariably instructive. The description we first hear of Macbeth may or may not be accurate, but the very anonymity of the Captain who utters it as a report to the king of the battle against the rebel Macdonwald, coupled with the fact that the king readily believes it, is an indication that the description is a fair rendering of what Macbeth is generally reputed to be.

For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valor's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave;


Three things strike us immediately. Macbeth is characterized as brave: courage is his signal, and perhaps his single virtue. Second, his courage comes to the fore in a situation in which he defies Fortune—not just chance, but chance deified. Finally, Macbeth is contrasted to the slavish Macdonwald. Courage is the virtue not of slaves but of masters. Macbeth's courage has something to do with his capacity to master a chancy situation.2

Courage is the central issue of the play.3 This becomes clearer once we see the connection among courage, bravery, and valor on the one hand, and the staggering frequency of references to manhood, being a man, not being womanly, etc., on the other. Shakespeare writes in a tradition in which courage is the manly virtue par excellence. This tradition has its roots in the literature and philosophy of Greek antiquity in which the word for courage, andreia, also means manliness, and in which among the fundamental cosmic principles of opposition we find male and female.4 The former is the active principle, the latter passive—so much so that the female body is thought to provide only the raw material for nourishment and growth of the fetus. The male sperm provides everything else. In Aristotle the existence of an ordered cosmos is owing to the imposition of form (the male principle) on matter (the female principle)—something purely potential, purely passive.5 To say that Macbeth is courageous, then, means that he takes matters into his own hands, that he seizes opportunities—potentialities—that he does not passively let fortune guide him but disdains it with his brandished steel.

The deeper implications of Macbeth require an understanding of the meaning of courage and manliness within the play. A variety of possibilities come to the fore. "I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none" (1.7.46-47).6 At the beginning Macbeth holds a very classical notion of the nature of courage. There are limits placed on human action. To cross these limits means to become something nonhuman—whether subhuman or superhuman. At the same time, he shows a grudging admiration for his wife who is not put off by the prospect of crossing these limits. "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males" (1.7.72-74). This strange woman is the first to emphasize the connection between courage and being the most manly of males, but it is a view shared by Macbeth. After Duncan's body has been discovered, when Macbeth wishes to give the appearance of strength and virtue he suggests that those present meet again after they have "put on manly readiness" (2.3.135). And later he taunts the murderers into agreeing to attack Banquo by suggesting that if they do not avenge themselves they are less than men:

First Murderer: We are men, my liege.
Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed, whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike: and so of men.
Now if you have a station in the file,
Not i'th'worst rank of manhood, say't,
And I will put that business in your bosoms
Whose execution takes your enemy off,
Grapples you to the heart and love of us,
Who wear our health but sickly in his life,
Which in his death were perfect.
Second Murderer: I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.
First Murderer: And I another
So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,
That I would set my life on any chance,
To mend it or be rid on't.


Manhood is thus not simply generic; it does not simply distinguish one class of beings from another. It does this, but it also provides the basis for a hierarchy among men.7 To be a real man is to be more than a mere man, and to be a real man means above all to take one's fate and one's honor into one's own hands even to the point of being reckless enough "to spite the world" and risk death.

This understanding of the connection between manhood and courage is confirmed in what follows in the play with one interesting exception. Upon hearing of the death of his wife and children at the hands of Macbeth, Macduff is told by Malcolm to "dispute it like a man." He replies, "I shall do so; / but I must also feel it as a man" (4.3.220-21). In other words, he must suffer it like a man; he must be passive for a time in order to place his actions in the proper context. This exception deserves some attention. It is the one moment in the play when the identity of courage and manliness is explicitly questioned. And yet in this context Macduff s passivity is perceived by Malcolm as a weakness. And Macduff himself, after letting "grief / Convert to anger" (4.3.228-29), characterizes his grief as womanly, although he does not for that reason regret having shown it. In other words, this exception is seen as an exception. Feeling grief like a man means acting like a woman. Shakespeare chooses to abstract from this more moderate and sensible view of human life as some mixture of manliness and womanliness, of activity and passivity; he does so because he wishes to teach us something about manliness by showing us its most extreme, and at the same time most consistent, form. For this reason the dominant view of manliness remains fairly expressed in the speech that announces the death of the young Siward.

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.


Young Siward's manliness consists in facing almost certain death, knowing it, and still "to spite the world" continuing.

That Macbeth is under the spell of this view of courage is clear from the last scene. Having just learned that Macduff is not of woman born Macbeth says, "it hath cowed my better part of man"; that is, it has momentarily deprived him of courage (5.8.18). Courage is the better part of man. Macbeth's last words are "And damned be him that first cries' Hold enough!'" (5.8.34). Damnation, and so salvation, apparently have to do primarily with one's conduct in battle.8 The worst of all sins is to say "uncle."

Macduff too is an advocate of courage. "[F]ront to front / Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself; / Within my sword's length set him. If he'scape, / Heaven forgive him too!" (4.3.232-35). Malcolm's reply to this declaration is "This time goes manly" (4.3.235). Should Macbeth prevail in battle, Macduff, whose wife and children have been brutally slaughtered, is willing to see their slaughterer forgiven. We have already seen Malcolm call upon Macduff to cure his grief with revenge like a man. We also see that Siward, the old soldier, hears of his son's death, and can only think to ask whether he received his wounds in front like a man or behind like a coward (5.8.46). But the most striking statement of this cult of manliness comes from a woman, Lady Macbeth.9 First she taunts her husband with the charge of cowardice in order to persuade him to murder Duncan. "And live a coward in thine own esteem, / Letting' I dare not'wait upon' I would'" (1.7.43-44). And shortly thereafter: "When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man" (1.7.49-51). This view of courage as the highest of human possibilities is held at least in part by all the major characters in Macbeth save the one singled out for her womanliness, Lady Macduff, and the one singled out for his saintliness, Edward, the pious king of England. Our first impression is that the play is a great praise of the virtue courage. Macbeth more consistently than anyone else takes his bearings by the reduction of human virtue to courage that is implied in the identification of courage and manliness. Why then is the tragedy his? Macbeth may be justly punished for his excess, but this excess is rooted in his consistency.

If Macbeth is, as its full title suggests, a tragedy, then there ought to be something redeeming in the man Macbeth. He cannot be simply cruel, ambitious, blood-thirsty, and tyrannical. Macbeth is in the deepest sense a tragedy because it presents us with a man who does possess a virtue but of such a kind and to such a degree that he dares do all that may become a man and as a result ends up less than a man. We are presented with the spectacle of one virtue pushed to such an extreme that it ceases to be virtue. Macbeth's tragedy is the tragedy of courage. To make this claim plausible requires that something be said about the peculiar structure of courage.

Courage is the virtue of action, of nonpassivity, of taking one's fate into one's own hands. At the same time, however, it is a reactive virtue. It is not possible to be courageous unless one is in some sense threatened. As a virtue the purpose of which is conquest, its success is simultaneously its failure. It is not accidental that this play almost begins with the famous lines, "Fair is foul and foul is fair." The goal or end toward which courage tends is victory, but victory creates conditions under which there is no longer any outlet for courage. Courage is the martial virtue. But, as Aristotle puts it, "War is for the sake of peace."10 In war every effort is made in the name of victory, but this very victory deprives the warrior of his pre-eminence.

To say that courage is reactive and at the same time the virtue of action is to say that human action is at its best reactive. It is always geared to the overcoming of obstacles. All of this is quite interesting but not as yet particularly tragic so long as we make war in order to enjoy peace. But for Macbeth whose essence is his courage, this structure portends an unceasing drive to overcome obstacles, which, because they are finite, must cease to be obstacles as soon as they are overcome. His courage thus requires that he seek out ever new obstacles, obstacles, which once overcome, are recorded for us by the train of dead bodies he leaves in his wake. He is first concerned only to kill Duncan, thereby becoming king. But he is not content with having the throne; he must have it so securely that it cannot be wrested from him. This desire for security takes the form of attempting to prevent even death from causing him to lose the throne. Macbeth thus seeks to secure the kingship for his offspring. This was so far from being a part of his original ambition that the very prophets who assured him he would be king also assured him that his sons would not be. Macbeth's concern for his children cannot be understood as a natural paternal desire to assure the well-being of his offspring. There are as yet no children, or at least if there are they are so minimized as individuals that they are never mentioned in the play even by this worried father.11

Macbeth is a man in search of a foe. With each success he becomes less content. Had he simply desired the throne he could have made his reign relatively secure in the way taken by the Macbeth of the source for this play, Holinshed's Chronicles.12 That is, he could have ruled more justly, or at least more moderately.13 The real Macbeth ruled for seventeen years, ten of which were wholly untroubled. No, our Macbeth desires more than the throne. He seeks an obstacle so great that he will not have to seek another, but that must mean one so great that, while ensuring the continuance of his manliness, it will thwart his victory.

We are confronted with a dilemma. If it is the core of our natures to attempt to overcome obstacles, either they can be overcome, in which case we will have nothing left to do—we are unmanned; or they cannot be overcome, in which case we wonder why we should make an attempt—we are again unmanned. In either case, we, who wish to be courageous, are rendered impotent. What may perhaps save us is that we do not know—cannot know—whether victory or defeat awaits us.

The play that is concerned with courage is also concerned with tyranny, and not accidentally. Shakespeare is not the only one to have seen the tyrannic impulse as the extreme version of the desire to be master of one's fate. Nor is he the only one to have seen the tragic implications of tyranny.14 Xenophon's Hiero teaches that the tyrant will be less free to do what he wills than most men; he will be hated, and so his freedom of movement will be restricted from fear of assassination, and, because he will be envied he will be in no position to distinguish real friends from artful flatterers. The tyrant will be able to trust no one.15 Hegel also illustrates the self-defeating character of the tyrannic impulse. We seek to master others, to enslave them, because we seek their recognition. But what we really want is their recognition freely given. Our very acts of conquest, while ensuring recognition, at the same time, by enslaving opponents, makes their recognition worthless.16 Here, too, fair is foul.

But Shakespeare goes deeper. One might reply to Xenophon as Machiavelli would have. If a tyrant is clever enough, he need not be hated.17 And one might reply to Hegel that tyranny is only tragic if what is desired is recognition and not mastery for its own sake. Shakespeare wants to show that tyranny is necessarily tragic because, as the extreme form of courage, it is what it is by virtue of overcoming obstacles. Its complete success would put it out of business.

Shakespeare does not mean to suggest that this most extreme form of tyranny is possible. For it to be so, more than other human beings would have to be mastered. Yet because he does wish to proceed for a time with the pretense of its possibility, he is forced to enlist the aid of preternatural beings on Macbeth's behalf. This is instructive for two reasons. First, it enables us to see that if courage could be pushed to its extreme form, it would prove tragic. Second, by introducing conditions for this extreme form of courage that are on the one hand necessary and on the other admittedly impossible, Shakespeare shows us just why complete mastery is impossible. With that it is necessary to turn to the role of the witches in the play.


Courage may consist in disdaining fortune, but Macbeth places trust in fortune-tellers. He is aware early on that: "If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir" (1.3.143-44). From the moment he entertains this possibility, the manly Macbeth begins his submission to the "powers of darkness" and is unmanned. There is a great temptation to interpret the witches away—to understand them as a powerful, if subliminal, force in Macbeth's psyche. To surrender to this temptation is to miss the point. The immediate evidence of the play is that the witches are independent of Macbeth, not in his soul. The witches always precede Macbeth on stage. They appear to Banquo as well as Macbeth. There are certainly examples of visions which appear to Macbeth alone, and which are therefore intentionally of uncertain status. Both the dagger of act 2, scene 1 and the ghost of Banquo in act 3, scene 4 are clearly meant to be taken in this ambiguous fashion. The witches are not. It is their very independence and their connection to fortune (Holinshed hints that they may be the goddesses of destiny) that set up the crucial tension between Macbeth and fortune. A fully adequate analysis of the play would require a complete interpretation of the witches. In lieu of that, it will be helpful to concentrate on what the witches bring to the play, prophecy, and its connection to the problem of courage.

On the surface, one who disdains fortune should have no truck with fortune-tellers. Macbeth feels this tension, and so his attitude toward the witches is throughout the play equivocal. On the one hand, he acts out of the belief that what they say is true; on the other hand, he acts on his own in order to be doubly sure. Having just heard that he cannot be harmed by any man of woman born, and taking that to mean that no man can harm him, Macbeth nevertheless resolves to kill Macduff to "make assurance double sure, / And take a bond of fate" (4.1.83-84). This attitude is certainly understandable—no use taking chances. At the same time, however, it is patently ridiculous. To know one's fate is to neutralize chance. To think that prophecy needs assurances is to doubt that it is prophecy. In Macbeth's case this means to call into question all of the motives for what he has done and for what he plans to do. Macbeth decides to murder Banquo because the witches have foretold that Banquo's heirs will rule Scotland. He believes them enough to worry about Banquo, but not enough to give up all attempts to forestall the future they predict. He doubts and does not doubt that what they say about the future is correct. As Macbeth's attitude toward the prophecy is equivocal, it is poetic justice that the prophecy itself should turn out to be equivocal.

The question of equivocation, mentioned explicitly only twice, deserves closer scrutiny. Its occurrence late in the play is fairly straightforward. Having just seen Birnam Wood beginning to move toward Dunsinane, Macbeth says: "I pull in resolution, and begin / To doubt th'equivocations of the fiend / That lies like truth . . ." (5.5.42-44). An equivocation appears to speak with one voice but really speaks with two. Birnam Wood, not actually moving to Dunsinane, is still sort of moving to Dunsinane. The prophecy is ambiguous. (There is, of course, a more serious difficulty with Macbeth's view of prophecy. He traffics with preternatural beings, beings who do things no man can do, and yet it does not occur to him for a moment that, having defied the ordinary course of nature in one respect, they might well be able to do so in other respects. If you put part of your faith in preternatural beings, it does not seem very clever to put the rest of it in natural laws. Beings who can foretell the future might just be able to make trees move.)18 The crucial word here is equivocation. To understand what Shakespeare has in mind when using it we must turn to act 2, scene 3, a scene often noticed for its humor, but too seldom for its meaning.

Shakespeare draws our attention to a parallel between prophecy and drinking. Both equivocate. The equivocation is not spelled out with regard to prophecy, but it is spelled out with regard to drinking. The drunken porter tells Macduff that drink is notorious for three things—nose painting, sleep, and urine, but:

Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him and it mars him; it sets him on and it takes him off; it persuades him and it disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him. (2.3.31-38)

Drink provokes desire and at the same time causes impotence.

Prophecy has a similar structure. It plants desire in Macbeth, and at the same time makes it impossible to fulfill this desire. Both drink and prophecy arouse and emasculate, and do so not by dint of any easily resolved ambiguity in their natures. It is not that part of drink, or prophecy, arouses, and part emasculates. No, the very same thing that heightens our desire renders us unable to achieve the object of our desire. Drink and prophecy are not part fair and part foul but simultaneously fair and foul.

To tell Macbeth that he will become king is to tell him that regardless of what he does he will become king. In the meantime, however, he still has to act. He is alive. The choice of letting himself be crowned without his stir is not a real choice. Since he must do something, not stirring is not a real alternative. But this man of action, of manliness, has been placed in a situation in which, whatever he does, his fate is sealed. Accordingly, he cannot think of himself as taking his fate into his own hands. To be favored by fortune is fine, but to be favored by fortune and told about it in advance is an insult to his manhood. Courage is the virtue of action, but to be worthy actions must have some consequence. It might seem ideal to know in advance what the consequences of one's actions will be. Yet to know in advance what the future holds, and at the same time know that a variety of courses of action appear open, must lead to the conclusion that one's particular choice of action is inconsequential, and if inconsequential not worthy, and if not worthy not virtuous. Foreknowledge, which appears to ensure courage, in the end makes it impossible to consider oneself courageous.19 Macbeth is indeed "valor's minion." He who appears to be the favorite of courage is in fact the slave of courage.20

Faced from the beginning with the prospect of enslavement, the manly Macbeth is bound to rebel. Because the witches are agents of his enslavement, they are the targets of his rebellion, a rebellion at first only partial but in the end total. Macbeth has two choices. He may accede to the prophecy, that is, to emasculation, or he may fight what he knows from the outset to be a losing battle. He chooses the latter.

I'gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish th'estate o'th'world were now undone.
Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind, come wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.


And his last words:

Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff;
And damned be him that first cries "Hold, enough!"


Hecate, the top witch, has seen this coming all along:

And, which is worse, all you [the other witches] have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.


And so she punishes Macbeth, but the raw materials for that punishment are already available in human nature.

And that distilled by magic sleights
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As by the strength of their illusion
Shall draw him on to his confusion.
He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes'bove wisdom, grace, and fear:
And you all know security
Is mortals'chiefest enemy.


Security is mortals'chiefest enemy because only when threatened by insecurity can mortals exert themselves, and only by exerting themselves can they fulfill themselves. Yet paradoxically, mortals treat security as though it were their greatest friend, and must do so. "To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus—" (3.1.48). All exertion is directed toward security, the very thing that makes exertion unnecessary. This thought is unwittingly expressed by Macbeth himself when asking the murderer about the success of the attack on Banquo and Fleance: "Banquo's safe?" (3.4.26). In the context, to be safe is to be dead.

Macbeth's rebellion began early. His very action to gain and hold the kingship secure is in its way a rebellion. What has only been implicit, however, becomes explicit in his second go-around with the witches. At the beginning of act 4 Macbeth appears as one accustomed to command. He who ought to be the supplicant acts imperiously. Macbeth attempts to command the return of the first apparition, and having asked the witches, not very politely, to tell him whether Banquo's heirs will ever rule in Scotland, he meets their response, an apparition, brusquely. "Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo. Down!" (4.1.112). Macbeth attempts to regain control over his own future by commanding the fortune-tellers. Earlier in act 3 he had responded to the prospect of Banquo's heirs ruling with the following words. "To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings! / Rather than so, come, fate, into the list, / And champion me to th'utterance!" (3.1.70-72).

Macbeth challenges fate and, of course, fails. Knowing that damnation consists in giving up the fight, renouncing courage and ceasing to consider oneself master of one's own fate, Macbeth sees only one way of avoiding it—"damned [be] all those that trust them! [the witches]" (4.1.139). But Macbeth has trusted them. If he had not, and did not continue to do so, his wrath against them would be unintelligible. Only because he believes what they say does he find it necessary to challenge them. Macbeth's attitude toward the prophecy is to the end equivocal, and necessarily so.


Macbeth is a tragic figure for two reasons. His virtue, courage, when pushed to its extreme is self-annihilating. And his belief in the prophecy is incompatible with his courage, and so with his self-esteem. Still, it is legitimate to ask why courage need be pushed to the extreme, and why we need worry about things like prophecy. A play that touches us so deeply must be based on a foundation more accessible and more generally applicable than the prophecy of witches. It is therefore necessary to find some means of connecting the questions of prophecy and courage in such a way as to show that the essence of the tragedy of courage is displayed most clearly by means of a consideration of the effects of prophecy. The means will be time, and in particular what it means for human beings to be temporal beings.

Prophecy turns the temporal order topsy-turvy. Lady Macbeth, upon receiving a letter from her husband describing his first meeting with the witches puts it very well. "Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant" (1.5.57-59). To say that the present is always ignorant is only to say the commonplace. The specifics of our futures may at times seem very probable, but we are never really sure that some chance event might not intervene to frustrate our hopes and ambitions. This precariousness of human life generally is not exactly caused by the fact that we are temporal creatures; it is rather part of what it means to be a temporal creature. Hope, anxiety, ambition—these are signs that we are never sure of our fates. Prophecy would destroy the open-endedness of the future present in the instant. The problem of time enters with the witches. The play literally opens with the word "when," and the first problem the witches set for themselves is a temporal problem. Perhaps more instructive is the manner in which they initially present themselves to Macbeth.

All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth, Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!


This is not simply prophecy; it is not concerned only with the future. The first two salutations are emphatically addressed to Macbeth rather than being descriptions of him. They represent his past and his present. He is addressed as Glamis, which he has been for some time, and as Cawdor, which he has just become, but only rather matter of factly described as the king he will be. While the first two salutations may be understood as according to Macbeth the customary respect due his titles, the last leaves some doubt whether the respect due the person of a king is something to which Macbeth is entitled. Macbeth is certainly more taken with the prophecy. (He of course takes the salutation as Thane of Cawdor as a prediction because he is as yet unaware of what Duncan has done. This is itself important, since we are always in a sense unaware of the present until we have reflected upon it, and by then it is past.) But the implications of the prophecy do not escape the more sober Banquo.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.


The witches must represent time past, present, and future because the future is not independent of the past. Time has seeds. Events done in the present grow in the soil of past events and have consequences for the future. Macbeth grows to understand this better as the play progresses. "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day" (1.3.146-47). And later in act 1:

If it were done when' tis done, then'twere well
It were done quickly. If th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.


The "life to come" can, but need not, mean the life to come after this life. It may also mean that actions in the present have consequences. They shape the possibilities open to us in our futures. It is not so easy to "Let every man be master of his time" (3.1.40).

The entire play subsequent to the regicide may be described in terms of Macbeth's struggle against the consequences of his earlier actions. His battle is not so much a battle for a specific future as a battle against the past. And yet his every attempt to right the situation sinks him deeper into enslavement by the past. Since Macbeth's actions are reactions to situations growing from his previous actions, his attempts to free himself—to assert his independence and manhood—bind him to the past even more slavishly.

Lady Macbeth realizes the impossibility of the situation long before Macbeth.

Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.
How now, my lord! Why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what's done is done.



That there are things without remedy, and in particular that these are paradigmatically the things of the past, flies in the face of Macbeth's own understanding of his manliness. The final and overwhelming obstacle to Macbeth's courage is the past, and its apparently commonsensical rule uttered by a madwoman, "What's done cannot be undone" (5.1.71).

Macbeth's flirtation with prophecy is first a symptom of his desire to overcome the fundamental insecurity of not knowing what the future holds for him. He wishes to be master of his time, but this means that he must seek to overcome his nature as temporal. Security, which is "mortals'chiefest enemy," is at the same time the object of mortals'chief desire, a desire that can only be satisfied if it is possible to be sure of the consequences of one's actions. Security is mortals'chief enemy, however, because to be mortal is to be in that precarious and endangered position of being threatened, and so attempting to gain security. Life consists in the activity of reacting to this threat. When the threat is gone, so is life understood in this way. If courage is the paradigmatic human virtue, then it is the human plight to pursue an object all the while knowing that if the pursuit is successful, all that is desirable in human life vanishes with the victory.

Macbeth's equivocation is thus not simply the result of a fantastic and imaginary situation. While prophecy is at most a very unlikely matter of concern for us, the mere consideration of its possibility leads us to see that the temporal conditions necessary for an act of the most extreme courage, an act that attempts to overcome the source of human insecurity, would require an attack on the condition of this insecurity, time. Such an attack must fail because the attempt to assure our futures at the same time makes us prisoners of our pasts. Put most simply, if courage is virtue, human life is tragic. In Macbeth we see this tragedy acted out. It can only be acted out if the impossible—prophecy—is made possible, if "nothing is / But what is not" (1.3.141-42). It may be unlikely that a real human being will ever run out of obstacles to overcome, but real human beings can think through this tragedy, and so realize that life understood in terms of courage is tragic. Courage, in principle, leads to impotence, or in more familiar language, to nihilism, that state in which, because everything is permitted, nothing is desired.

Nietzsche describes nihilism as the resolution rather to will nothing than not to will at all.23 Macbeth fits this Nietzschean description. Pressed by his wife to forget the past since "what's done cannot be undone," Macbeth refuses to submit to this law of time. He tries to compel fortune by compelling the fortunetellers, and when this fails, he defies fortune knowing it will mean his death. He wills nothing rather than not will at all—a final effort to assert his manliness in a world that can only mock the attempt.24

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, . . .
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
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.



We are still left to ask what all of this has to do with us. We are not terribly tempted to speak of courage as the paradigmatic virtue. Indeed, we are tempted not to speak of virtue at all. Shakespeare's Macbeth is of importance to us because we are heirs to a tradition that understands man as enveloped in a hostile atmosphere, alienated from the world, and at his best in the battle to overcome this estrangement. If this battle is in principle capable of being won, then either man will no longer be at his best, or he will no longer be man.25 If the battle against a hostile nature is in principle not capable of being won, it is not at all clear why it ought to be fought. To take our bearings by attempting to overcome a hostile nature is inevitably to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis. If we cannot win we lose, and if we can win we lose. It is appropriate that the first scene of Macbeth should contain the line "When the hurlyburly's done, / When the battle's lost and won." if life is understood as a battle, winning is losing.

Two options seem open to us if we are to understand human life as other than tragic. One is suggested by Shakespeare. There are two kinds of prophecy in Macbeth. One comes from the "powers of darkness"; it is satanic and tempts Macbeth to be more than a man, to be like a god. The other is a "heavenly gift" (4.3.157) and is practiced by Edward of England. This passing reference to Edward, coupled with the fact that it is Edward who supports Malcolm in restoring Scotland to normalcy, is an indication of an alternative understanding of man as not confronted with a hostile nature but as living within a beneficent nature. The appropriate response, then, is not courage but something like piety. Put less gracefully, it is not so bad to be a slave. To fill out this suggestion would require another reading of the play, keeping in mind that the alternative to manliness is womanliness and that the two need not be understood as incompatible.

The alternative was understood most powerfully by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, on the one hand understanding the necessity of some fixed and eternal standards for our action (security) and on the other hand understanding the tragic implications of such standards for our non-fixed and non-eternal lives (security is mortals'chiefest enemy), sought to elaborate a doctrine that combined the eternal and the temporal and thus satisfied both human needs—the need for security and the need for insecurity. Nietzsche did this by attempting to make the sequence of temporal events itself eternal in the sense of eternally recurring. His solution intentionally violates that temporal law according to which "what's done is done" without sacrificing its other formulation "what's done cannot be undone." By reinterpreting the rigid separation of past, present, and future time, Nietzsche attempts to make it possible to overcome our enslavement to the past. By willing our future we are simultaneously willing our past and so, in a paradoxical manner, determining what we have already become.26 Difficult as it is, Nietzsche's teaching of the eternal return is not lunacy. It is a bold attempt to avoid the tragic implications we have seen sketched out in Shakespeare's Macbeth, not by rethinking the importance of courage but by rethinking the structure of time.

But perhaps there is a third way—a combination of the manliness of Macbeth and the womanliness of Edward. Uncovering the underlying conditions of human life in which we have no choice but to acquiesce requires a certain boldness. Understanding this togetherness of moderation and madness would help us to take the measure of our most philosophical poet.


This essay, in a slightly different form, was originally published in Essays from the Faculty, Sarah Lawrence College (February 1979). It owes a great deal to Jose Benardete's fine article "Macbeth's Last Words" (Interpretation 1 [Summer 1970]: 63-75), as well as to several conversations with Richard Kennington on the question of equivocation in Macbeth. I would also like to thank my daughter Jessica Davis for her help in preparing the typescript.

1 All references from the play are to The Tragedy of Macbeth, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: New American Library, The Signet Classic Shakespeare, 1963).

2 Compare this with Niccolò Machiavelli's advice to princes in chapter 25 of The Prince: "fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down" (trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985], 101).

3 See Samuel Johnson's notes on the play in Barnet, Macbeth, 159-60.

4 Aristotle Metaphysics 986a26.

5 Aristotle On the Generation of Animals 730a-b.

6 For other instances of the connection between manliness and courage see 2.3.111; 3.4.59, 66, 74, 80, 100, 109; 4.2.66, 76; 5.2.4, 11; 5.3.6; 5.5.6.

7 Compare with Plato Republic 474b-476a.

8 See Benardete, "Macbeth's Last Words," 63-65.

9 The importance of Lady Macbeth for the meaning of the play must be clear to any interpreter. She is especially important in an interpretation based on the distinction between manliness and womanliness. Like the witches, who appear to be female and yet have beards, Lady Macbeth has an ambiguous sexual status. She explicitly unsexes herself (1.5.42). That the statement of the cult of manliness should come from an unsexed being is of some interest. It may well point to the instability of manliness or courage. To be manly is always on the way toward being something else. Benardete suggests that "if Lady Macbeth unsexes herself, Macbeth may be said to dehumanize himself ("Macbeth's Last Words," 71).

10 Aristotle Politics 1333a35. For the extreme modern view see Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "On War and Warriors," where Zarathustra says, "it is the good war that hallows any cause" (The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann [New York: Viking Press, 1954]), 159.

11 There would be little doubt that there are no children were it not for what Lady Macbeth says at 1.7.54-55—"I have given suck, and know / How tender'tis to love a babe that milks me." At 4.3.216 Macduff says of Macbeth, "He has no children." The apparent contradiction does not really weaken the point here. Even if Macbeth does, or did, have children, his silence about them makes it clear that he is not thinking about them in any but the most abstract of ways when he plans to murder Banquo.

12 Barnet, Macbeth, 145.

13 Compare this with the discussion between Macduff and Malcolm in act 4, scene 3, where Shakespeare makes it clear that he is aware of, and has thought through, the possibility of a more sober variety of tyranny.

14 Compare the account of tyranny in books 8 and 9 of Plato's Republic as well as Gorgias 471aff.

15 For this see the whole of the Hiero, and the interpretation of it by Leo Strauss in On Tyranny (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1963).

16 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, B.4.A.33, the section on master and slave, and also Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (New York: Basic Books, 1969), ch. 1.

17 See chapter 19 of Machiavelli's Prince.

18That Macbeth knows this is obvious from 3.4.124.

19 Compare Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1116al - 25.

20 See Benardete, "Macbeth's Last Words," 74.

21 Note the double entendre.

22 Emphasis mine.

23 Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 3.1 and 3.28.

24The speech is made on the occasion of the death of Lady Macbeth. Her death is announced by Macbeth's servant, Seyton, pronounced as Satan.

25 Despite their obvious differences, two of the great prophets of the nineteenth century, Marx and Nietzsche, see the problem of modern man in terms remarkably similar to these. For Nietzsche man is at a crossroads and must become either more (der Uebermensch) or less (der letzte Mensch) than he has been. In Marx, postrevolutionary man is necessarily radically different from prerevolutionary man since the latter is what he is by virtue of the class struggle, which is abolished by the revolution.

26 Compare this with the subtitle of Nietzsche's Ecce Homo"Wie man wird was man ist," or "How one becomes what one is." The attempt to eternalize the sequence of temporal events is an attempt at once to maintain and to deny the distinction between being and becoming.

Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Macbeth's Suicide," in ELH, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 269-96.

[In the essay below, Kirsch brings together Augustinian theology, Renaissance moral essays, and Freudian psychology to explore the nature of Macbeth's ambitious desires. He sees the hero's aspirations as both a sinful fantasy of god-like omnipotence and an expression of infantile narcissism, he also emphasizes the hollowness of Macbeth's quest, suggesting that this play is "the least redemptive and least heroic of Shakespeare's great tragedies."]

Macbeth is the most self-centered of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, and not coincidentally, it seems to me, the one with the least amplitude of spirit. All of Shakespeare's great tragic figures are isolated in a universe essentially of their own imagination and thought, but in none of them is such isolation so inordinate and destructive an expression of egoism as it is in Macbeth.1 Macbeth relentlessly pursues what he thinks of as his "own good" (III.iv.134),2 but the more he does so the more he seems impelled by an infantile combination of helplessness and rage. At the end Malcolm calls him a "dead butcher" (V.ix.35). No other major Shakespearean hero has anything approaching such an epitaph, and if it hardly does justice to Macbeth's tragic experience, it nonetheless discriminates a deflationary undercurrent that runs through the language and action of the entire play. An appetite for blood is associated with Macbeth's valor before he ever appears on stage, and he is presented in postures and images that diminish him and emphasize his weakness as that appetite intensifies. Mary McCarthy's charge that "he is old Iron Pants in the field" but that "at home" Lady Macbeth "has to wear the pants"3 is only slightly outrageous: his frequent domination by his wife is symptomatic. His ambition provokes desires in him that he is increasingly incapable of satisfying, like the impotent drunkenness the Porter describes, and he seems from the first "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears" (III.iv.23-24).

In my own view these characteristics make Macbeth a peculiarly difficult hero to sympathize with, let alone admire, but they are in any case central to his tragedy, and they should be dealt with in their own terms, not sentimentalized, ignored, or turned on their heads. An illuminating way to begin is to focus upon Macbeth's ambition and fear, the two emotions or drives—"passions of the mind," as they were called in the Renaissance—that most dominate him, usually simultaneously, and that constitute the deepest as well as most ostensive manifestations of his self-absorption. These two passions are familiar topics in criticism of Macbeth,4 but they have almost always been treated in relatively restricted contexts. They deserve a wider view, because in their widest sense, the sense they eventually have in the play, ambition and fear comprise a large measure of normal human experience as well as the experience of Macbeth and have particularly rich implications in Christian thought as well as in both Renaissance and modern psychology.

In the moral literature of the Renaissance ambition rarely had positive connotations. It was almost always conceived of as a threat to hierarchy and therefore as a disorder within the individual, as well as within the family and the state, with which the human soul was held to be analogous. Macbeth refers to this idea and its analogies when he refers to the shaking of his "single state of man" (I.iii.140) by his ambitious and murderous thoughts and when he later pledges his fealty to Duncan, saying that his "service," "loyalty," and "duties" are to Duncan's "throne and state, children and servants" (I.iv.22, 24). Lady Macbeth makes a similar speech, with more spiritual connotations, when she associates duty and hierarchy with the parable of the talents, with God's parentage of human life ( The pledges to Duncan are hyperbolic, if not hypocritical, but all three speeches nonetheless reflect the premise that a man's identity is defined by his place and by his inner willingness to submit to its limits and obligations. Analogies among the bonds of obedience between God and man, sovereign and subject, parent and child, master and servant, and reason and passion are commonplace in the Elizabethan period. In a universe so conceived, ambition is inescapably associated with primal images of usurpation: with the diabolic envy and usurpation upon God of Satan's rebellion, as well as with the presumption and disobedience within the soul of man at the fall. "Ambition and desire to be aloft" were also inevitably associated with unnatural rebellion within the family as well as the kingdom: "the brother often to seeke and often to worke the death of his brother; the sonne of the father, the father to seeke or procure the death of his sons." The "Homily against disobedience and wil-full Rebellion" adds, in words that could serve as at least a partial epigraph for Macbeth, that "where most rebellions and rebelles bee; there is the expresse similitude of hell, and the rebelles themselves are the verie figures of fiendes and devils."5

St. Augustine calls the pride from which man's and Satan's rebellion resulted "a perverse desire of height," and his discussion both of the nature of this desire and of its consequences is extremely germane to an understanding of Macbeth's aspirations. "What is pride," Augustine writes, "but a perverse desire of height, in forsaking Him to whom the soul ought solely to cleave, as the beginning thereof, to make itself seem its own beginning. This is when it likes itself too well, or when it so loves itself that it will abandon that unchangeable Good which ought to be more delightful to it than itself." Since man was created of nothing, Augustine continues, he was "lessened in excellence" at the fall: by "leaving Him to adhere to and delight in himself, he grew not to be nothing, but towards nothing." The devil said to Adam and Eve,

"Ye shall be as gods": which they might sooner have been by obedience and coherence with their Creator than by proud opinion that they were their own beginners; for the created gods are not gods of themselves but by participation of the God that made them; but man desiring more became less, and choosing to be sufficient in himself fell from the all-sufficient God.

The just reward, Augustine concludes, that Adam and Eve received for "desiring more" was the perpetuation of the paradox of that desire:

What is man's misery other than his own disobedience to himself: that seeing he would not what he might, now he cannot what he would? For although in paradise all was not in his power during his obedience, yet then he desired nothing but what was in his power, and so did what he would. But now, as the scripture says, and we see by experience, "Man is like to vanity." For who can recount his innumerable desires of impossibilities?6

An interest in the peculiar futility and suffering that Augustine associates with human ambition and aspiration can be seen early in Shakespeare's career in The Rape of Lucrece, a work that anticipates Macbeth and is perhaps its most deeply suggestive source.7 Though the poem's ostensive subject is rape, it is actually preoccupied with ambition. Tarquin's resolve to possess Lucrece is repeatedly and explicitly associated with envy, usurpation, and ambition at the same time that it is treated as a violent instance of man's general perversity in "desiring more." The prose argument and early lines of the poem make clear that Tarquín is provoked to desire Lucrece in the first place because of his "envy" of her husband Collatine's possessing "so rich a thing" (39),8 and this underlying motive is given acute emphasis just before the rape, as Tarquín views Lucrece's sleeping figure:

Her breasts like ivory globes circled with blue,
A pair of maiden worlds unconquered;
Save of their lord, no bearing yoke they knew,
And him by oath they truly honoured.
These worlds in Tarquín new ambition bred;

Who like a foul usurper went about,
From this fair throne to heave the owner out.


Shakespeare suggests the Augustinian texture of this "ambition" throughout the poem, but most pointedly and extensively as Tarquín lies in his own bed "revolving / The sundry dangers of his will's obtaining":

Those that much covet are with gain so fond
That what they have not, that which they possess
They scatter and unloose it from their bond;
And so by hoping more they have but less,
Or gaining more, the profit of excess
Is but to surfeit, and such griefs sustain,
That they prove bankrout in this poor rich gain.

So that in vent'ring ill we leave to be
The things we are, for that which we expect;
And this ambitious foul infirmity,
In having much, torments us with defect
Of that we have: so then we do neglect
The thing we have, and all for want of wit,
Make something nothing by augmenting it.

Such hazard now must doting Tarquín make,
Pawning his honor to obtain his lust;
And for himself himself he must forsake

(127-28, 134-40, 148-57)

The same paradoxes are emphasized after the rape, when Tarquín is compared to a drunken and "full-fed" animal: "Drunken desire must vomit his receipt. / Ere he can see his own abomination" (703-04).

There are numerous precise analogies between The Rape of Lucrece and Macbeth. The line, "And for himself himself he must forsake," for example, looks forward suggestively both to Macbeth's fear of knowing himself (II.ii.72) and to his fear that his "single state of man" is literally disintegrating, that parts of his body are separating from him; and Shakespeare describes Tarquin's internal debate before the rape in terms that anticipate the external debate between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth before the murder of Duncan:

Thus graceless holds he disputation
'Tween frozen conscience and hot burning will.


These lines, as well as the whole characterization of Tarquín, lend support to Freud's suggestion that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth "complete" each other as characters, that Shakespeare conceived of them as "disunited parts of a single psychical individuality."9

Beyond these and other specific analogies, however, The Rape of Lucrece deserves emphasis in interpreting Macbeth because it points with unusual explicitness to the broader resonances of the tragedy of human desire that Shakespeare depicts in the Macbeths'whole ambitious "infirmity." The poem makes particularly intelligible the synapses of thought that lead Shakespeare to have Macbeth compare himself to Tarquín just before the murder of Duncan, and to have the Porter, just after the murder, talk of the literal effects of drink upon sexual desire:

Lechery, Sir, it provokes, and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.


The relevance of this bawdy speech to the profoundest movements of the play cannot be exaggerated.10 The murder of Duncan is saturated with echoes of the aspiring rape of Lucrece and with its larger meaning in Shakespeare's thought and imagination. The Porter recapitulates that meaning precisely and in doing so comments upon the desolate paradoxes of Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's ambitious desires. The equivocations of "Drunken desire" are clearly related to those of the witches'prophecies and to a whole world in which "from that spring, whence comfort seem'd to come, / Discomfort swells" (I.ii.27-28). Shakespeare directly associates the equivocations the Porter describes with the garments of ambition that clothe Macbeth: "Was the hope drunk," Lady Macbeth asks him, with an irony of which she is yet unaware, "Wherein you dressed yourself?" (I.vii.35-36). And there are intimations of the same equivocations, perhaps literalized, in the actual relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. With taunts that seem also to be yearnings, Lady Macbeth provokes Macbeth to be more of a man by killing Duncan, and she calls him "My husband!" (II.ii.13) for the first and only time right after the murder, but the drunken deed which thus seems to give new life to their marriage at the same time empties it. "Nought's had, all's spent, 7 Where our desire is got without content," she cries after Macbeth has attained the crown, "'Tis safer to be that which we destroy, / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy" (III.ii.4-7). Macbeth enters at exactly the moment Lady Macbeth says these lines, and she suppresses her own thoughts in trying to woo him away from his. But Macbeth is already moving decisively away from her at the same time that he echoes her:

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

(III.ii. 19-22)

The state of mind, as well as body, that the Porter describes is humorous in a drunk, but in sober (and insomniac) men and women it is hell, which is exactly where Shakespeare locates the Porter and the whole action of the play.11 The only desire Macbeth and Lady Macbeth subsequently have in common, though they cannot share it, is the desire for extinction.

The suffering that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth depict and endure represents a heightened version of the condition that Renaissance moral philosophers argued was inherent in human passions in general as well as in the passion of ambition in particular. For these commentators, as for earlier Christian writers, all human passions were considered perturbations of the mind, expressions of the "innumerable desires of impossibilities" that caused the fall and constituted man's state forever after it. The passions did not exist when man was at rest in paradise, perfectly at one—at "peace," to use Macbeth's term—with himself and his surroundings, when, in Augustine's words, he "desired nothing but what was in his power, and so did what he would" rather than, as now, what he "cannot." Pierre de la Primaudaye's The French Academy, a vast and influential treatise of moral psychology first translated into English in 1586, offers a typical Renaissance elucidation of these assumptions:

THE PHILOSOPHERS teach us by their writings; and experience doth better shew it unto us, that to covet and desire is proper to the soule, and that from thence all the affections and desires of men proceede, which draw them hither and thither diversly, that they may attaine to that thing, which they thinke is able to leade them to the enjoying of some good, whereby they may live a contented and happie life. Which felicitie, the most part of men, through a false opinion, or ignorance rather of that which is good, and by following the inclination of their corrupted nature, do seeke and labor to finde in humane and earthlie things, as in riches, glorie, honor, and pleasure. But forasmuch as the enjoying of these things doth not bring with it sufficient cause of contentation, they perceive themselves alwaies deprived of the end of their desires, and are constrained to wander all their life time beyond all bounds and measure, according to the rashnes and inconstancie of their lusts. And although they rejoice for a little while at everie new change, yet presently they loath the selfesame thing, which not long before they earnestly desired. Their owne estate alwaies seemeth unto them to be woorst, and everie present condition of life, to be burdensome. From one estate they seeke after another.12

Ambition, for La Primaudaye, is not merely a species of this general predicament of human desire but in some respects its epitome. "Ambition never suffreth those that have once received hir as a guest, to enjoy their present estate quietly," he remarks in his chapter on that passion,

but maketh them always emptie of goods, and full of hope. It causes them to contemne that, which they have gotten by great paines and travel, and which not long before they desired very earnestly, by reason of their new imaginations and conceites of greater matters, which they continually barke foorth, but never have their minds satisfied & contented. And the more they growe and increase in power and authoritie, the rather are they induced and caried headlong by their affections to commit all kind of injustice, and flatter themselves in furious and frantike actions, that they may come to the end of their infinite platformes.13

These passages are clearly germane to Macbeth, and in addition to providing suggestive glosses on the peculiar emptiness and insatiability of Macbeth's aspirations, they indicate the exceptional resonance of ambition in the Renaissance. The "infinite platformes" of Macbeth, moreover, comprehend an appalling measure of destructive as well as insatiable aspiration, and beyond his general observations La Primaudaye has a number of particular reflections on ambition that illuminate the sources of this combination in human experience. His comments are extraordinarily apposite to Macbeth. He remarks, citing Plutarch, that "the desire of having more . . . bringeth foorth . . . oftentimes" in ambitious and great lords "an unsociable, cruell, and beastly nature," and he adds,

Further, if (as histories teach us) some have been so wretched & miserable, as to give themselves to the Art of Necromancie, and to contract with the devili, that they might come to soveraigne power and authoritie, what other thing, how strange soever it be, will not they undertake that suffer themselves to be wholy carried away with this vice of ambition? It is ambition that setteth the sonne against the father, and imboldeneth him to seeke his destruction of whom he holdeth his life.14

This is a remarkable passage. If it was not actually in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote Macbeth, it nonetheless shows striking analogies with the play and discriminates some of its deepest currents of experience. Macbeth, of course, makes a pact with witches, if not the devil; Scotland, as the Porter as well as many others makes clear, becomes an express similitude of hell as a result; and the murder of Duncan "is little else than parricide."15 It is Lady Macbeth who explicitly says that the king resembled "My father as he slept." (II.ii.13), but she speaks for Macbeth's soul as well, and as I suggested earlier, the association of father and king was in any case inescapable in the Renaissance. It animates as well as haunts Macbeth from the first.16

What is ultimately most interesting about the motifs of necromancy and parricide in Macbeth, however, is not their presence but their conjunction, (the conjunction, as it were, of Marlowe's Faustus and Tamburlaine), for Shakespeare suggests that the two are deeply connected if not actually functions of each other. This connection, which La Primaudaye states explicitly, seems to me to be at the heart of the play. It is directly related to the dynamics of original sin, the desire for omnipotence that Augustine describes, and at the same time it has precise and illuminating analogues in modern psychological thought. Freud, as is well known, argues that the fantasy of killing and replacing the father is the fulcrum of human psychological development. Less familiar and certainly less actively appreciated is his contention that oedipal guilt can have such potency in human development because for a small child a murderous thought is indistinguishable from a murderous deed, and he traces this magical thinking to the earliest period of infancy. Clinical research has tended to confirm the presence of this form of thinking in infants, and even psychologists who distrust Freud's concentration upon oedipal rivalry do not generally question his outline of the earlier realm of thought and feeling upon which he argued it depended. In this infantile realm the self is all-encompassing and its platforms do indeed seem infinite, for in an infant's mind distinctions between the self and the outer world tend to dissolve, nature seems animistic, and above all, thoughts seem omnipotent. This, as we shall see, is the necromantic realm that Macbeth inhabits and that accounts for much of his heroic force in the play, because unlike normal civilized adults, unlike even his wife, in whom this earlier world of thinking and feeling is buried, Macbeth is often profoundly conscious of its movements within himself It is the realm, certainly, from which his parricidal impulses stem and which together with those impulses give primitive energy not only to his ambition but to the passion in the play upon which we have only barely touched, but which permeates it—the passion of fear, even more deeply, of dread.

Because the theme of usurpation is so insistent in Macbeth, parricidal resonances are not hard to find in the play. The real issue is to understand them in the proportions and with the particular inflections that the play itself gives to them. In the most directly voluptuous of her ambitious fantasies, Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth that the "great business" of murdering the king "shall to all our nights and days to come / Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom" (I.v.68, 69-70).

The aspiration to be the only one, to have sole sovereignty, sole masterdom and possession, is the aspect of childhood thinking that has the deepest roots in the psyche and not incidentally the clearest analogue to Augustine's theology of the fall. In a child's imagination the wish to be the one and only is absolute—it is so by definition—and the result is a particularly deep representation of the Augustinian dialectic of more and less. Very young children, in the unlovely exclusiveness of their egoism, always tend to feel that they are impaired by someone else's gain, that in any competition what one wins the other must inevitably lose, that loss is self-diminishment. Such thinking, of course, is not confined to children. Montaigne remarks on its persistence in adults in a brief and unsettling essay entitled "The Profit of One Man is the Dammage of Another." He observes that "let every man sound his owne conscience, hee shall finde, that our inward desires are for the most part nourished and bred in us by the losse and hurt of others," and he associates this condition with the "generali policie" of "Nature": "for Physitians hold, that The birth, increase, and augmentation of every thing, is the alteration and corruption of another"17 Freud contends, in his own domestication of these natural laws, that in a very young boy's fantasies of competition with his father this general policy can take on a murderous inflection; heaving the owner out, to use the words of The Rape of Lucrece, means killing him.

Precisely such an inflection is in fact given to competitive thinking by Duncan at the very outset of Macbeth, when he tells Rosse to "pronounce" the "present death" of the Thane of Cawdor, "And with his former title greet Macbeth . . . What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won" (I.ii.66, 67). The inverse and murderous relationship between winning and losing that Duncan reveals in these lines suggests the dialectic that both Montaigne and Freud comment upon, and it describes the actual condition of the whole world of Macbeth in its early scenes, for the play suggests the anatomy of a parricidal nightmare long before the Macbeths enact one. The witches initiate the absolute opposition between winning and losing at the outset of the play—"When the battle's lost and won" (I.i.4)—and their prophecies are often couched in the language of inverse functions and equivocal contest (being greater or lesser, for example, not so happy or much happier), but the rhetoric of their supernatural solicitations, at least at the start, is quite tangibly anchored in the natural world of the play. Rivalry, "self-comparisons" (I.ii.56), is war, and competition is blood in the fluid world of rebellious Scotland; men often must walk in "strange" if not "borrowed" robes; and a man's title and place can literally be defined by killing. Macbeth does in fact, not in fantasy, defeat and replace the Thane of Cawdor, and though he is responsible for Cawdor's death, he is not responsible for the rebellious disorder that is its occasion. Duncan is the "Lord's anointed" (II.iii.67), and as Macbeth himself painfully testifies, "clear in his great office" (I.vii.18), but if he is a good and rightful king, he is not evidently a strong one, and the darkened realm of ambiguous and bloody contest over which he presides at the start of the play is the political equivalent of the parricidal battleground of a young boy's imagination, a world that invites, in Banquo's phrase, "the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose" (II.i.8-9).

The diffusion of such thoughts in the early part of the play suggests not that Shakespeare is apportioning them for praise or blame, still less that he is using them to create a subversive subtext, as Harry Berger has recently argued,18 but rather that he is presenting them as heightened, tragic conditions of the economy of nature that Montaigne discriminates and that Macbeth himself eventually incarnates. The "cursed thoughts" of which Banquo speaks are, of course, in Macbeth's own mind from the very beginning. Freud suggests that a man sometimes will commit murder in order to rationalize his sense of guilt, that guilt is the cause of the crime rather than its result.19 There is more than a suggestion of this condition in Macbeth (as opposed to Lady Macbeth, in whom guilt is a distinct after-effect). There is a strong sense of forbidden and buried thoughts in Macbeth's rapt reaction to his first meeting with the witches, and these thoughts immediately surface in his first soliloquy when he speaks of the "horrid image" that unseats his heart, of the "horrible imaginings" that surpass his present fears, and of his "thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical" (I.iii. 135, 138, 139). But the lines that give the sharpest expression to the parricidal thoughts that both surround him and lie within him occur when Duncan proclaims Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne. Macbeth says in an aside:

The Prince of Cumberland!—That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.


This speech depicts the crucial moment of Macbeth's commitment to the deed, long before Lady Macbeth enters the scene. Macbeth has ostensive reason to envy Malcolm if he is to believe the logic of the witches'prophecy, but that logic is itself an expression of the murderous economy of competition that the rebellion has encouraged in the kingdom. The heart of the speech is its categorical and inverse reasoning: "I must fall down, or else o'erleap" (an image that anticipates Macbeth's subsequent reference to "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself [I.vii.27]), and this reasoning is in turn the expression of the dark and aspiring desires that both Augustine and Freud find to be at the source of human infirmity and guilt, and that Montaigne, less homiletically, sees as a natural basis of human conduct.20 As Coleridge suggests, Milton seems to be evoking this moment in the play (and an Augustinian interpretation of it) when he describes how Satan,

With envy against the Son of God, that day
Honoured by his great Father, and proclaimed
Messiah king anointed, could not bear
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

(PL, 5.661-65)

Macbeth's own sense of impairment is profound throughout the play, and some of its psychological resonances are so obvious as to be overlooked. The most basic is that the act of parricide (and to some extent the fantasies of it as well) is, like the denial of God, a negation of the source of one's being. As La Primaudaye suggests, it is self-destructive for a man "to seeke his destruction of whom he holdeth his life," and that precise insight is explicitly stated on two occasions in Macbeth, both times in apparent reference to Duncan's sons, but really in reference to Macbeth. The first occurs just after the murder of Duncan, when Donalbain asks, "What is amiss?" and Macbeth himself answers: "You are, and do not know't: / The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood / Is stopp'd; the very source of it is stopp'd" (II.iii.95-97). Macbeth has blood on his mind as well as his hands, but both the metaphor and the thought have a literal application to the predicament of his own soul. Essentially the same thought, specifically related to ambition as in La Primaudaye, is expressed by Rosse later in the action when the flight of Malcolm and Donalbain appears to implicate them in the murder: "'Gainst nature still: / Thriftless Ambition, that will ravin up / Thine own life's means!" (II.iv.27-29).

An equally profound psychological resonance of Macbeth's impairment, one that reaches even deeper to the roots of his tragedy because it precedes the realm of parricidal contention itself, is both his and our constant sense that his usurpation, his quest—his ambition—is, and by its nature must be, entirely unattainable, a fantasy grotesquely beyond the reach of reality. A very young boy may wish in his imagination to take his father's place, but he obviously cannot do so in fact. He literally cannot perform his father's role, neither sexually nor in other ways, and in this respect such childhood fantasies are like the drunken lust the Porter describes, only far more frightening. Macbeth always knows this. Lady Macbeth, at first, does not. She herself, as we have seen, is most explicit in recognizing the parricidal impetus behind the murder of Duncan, but though that recognition both deters and eventually destroys her, its most immediate effect seems to be to excite her.

Macbeth never experiences such excitement and is at first tenuous and doubtful and later savagely frustrated and enraged, because in him is represented that part of a childhood sensibility that always knows the enterprise to be physically impossible. The play's celebrated clothing images, and their precise development in the course of the action, make this part of Macbeth's predicament unusually clear. Banquo, when speaking of the new honors that have come to Macbeth, refers to "strange garments" that "cleave not to their mould, / But with the aid of use" (I.iii. 146-47), but Banquo looks into the "seeds of time" (I.iii.58) and is willing to wait to let them grow. Macbeth, on the other hand, like a child, cannot wait, and the garments to which he aspires will never fit him: early in the play he calls them "borrow'd robes" (I.iii.109), later they are called the dress of his drunken hopes, and finally they "Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfish thief (V.ii.21-22). That final description has many reverberations, but its purely physical impact is important. Macbeth is simply not big enough for the role and title to which he aspires. He is called a dwarf rather than a child because he has in fact had terrifying adult powers, but what the image nonetheless suggests is the radical disproportion between a small child and the grown-up man he wishes all at once to replace and become.

This sense of disproportion, if not disjunction, is central to the whole play. It is not confined to clothing images, and it is represented in ways that suggest even more fundamental sources of human experience. The Porter points to the obvious sexual manifestation of disjunction in discriminating the gap between drunken desire and performance, but his speech is itself only a part of the prevailing concern in the play with the larger and deeper relationship between thought and action. That relationship is Macbeth's own single most constant and important preoccupation, and as I suggested earlier, its roots can be traced to the world of infantile thought. This infantile stage of human development, which Freud calls primary narcissism,21 is an absolute realization of Macbeth's metaphor of the "single state of man," for to an infant his own body and the world's body seem coextensive, and the microcosm and the macrocosm are experienced as one. External reality for an infant is composed of his own sensations and the projection, often hallucinatory, of his own wishes and fears—of his "thoughts"—and because these thoughts can ignore the coordinates of time and space in what we perceive as external reality, "since what lies furthest apart both in time and space can without difficulty be comprehended in a single act of consciousness,"22 they seem magical and omnipotent. Freud suggests in Totem and Taboo that this infantile narcissism is the source of animism and that it actually characterized primitive man, who practiced magic and peopled the universe with spirits, who "knew what things were like in the world, namely just as he felt himself to be," who "transposed the structural conditions of his own mind into the external world."23 Freud also argues that such animistic thinking is still present in more civilized and adult experience, in the very nature of dream-work as well as in more conscious life. Its more beneficent or paradisal residues he finds in the state of being in love, when against the normal evidence of external reality, the lovers feel the "I" and "thou" to be one; its more malign and hellish traces he finds in the behavior of neurotics (and psychotics), in whom the formation of symptoms is determined by "the reality not of experience but of thought," who "live in a world apart," who "are only affected by what is thought with intensity and pictured with emotion."24

A. P. Rossiter writes that in Macbeth Shakespeare represented "the passionate will-to-self-assertion, to unlimited self-hood, and especially the impulsion to force the world (and everything in it) to my pattern, in my time, and with my own hand."25 I think that Rossiter is correct and that behind this "will" and "impulsion," whose force in the play he himself finds somewhat puzzling, is the universal experience of infancy that Freud and others have discriminated. There is certainly no tragedy in Shakespeare's canon in which children figure so importantly and in which, particularly, there is such a profusion of images of infants and infancy. These children and images have many functions, not least as a reminder of Macbeth's own childlessness and of the future in which he cannot participate and tries to destroy, but their profoundest effect,26 I think, is to evoke the whole realm of primitive narcissism in which Macbeth is "cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd" and with which the entire action of the play resonates, a realm in which there is no future except that which is pictured as being fulfilled in the present, in the moment of thought. Lady Macbeth suggests the character of such magical thought and its childhood origins quite precisely when she rebukes Macbeth for his unwillingness to face Duncan's dead body:

The sleeping, and the dead,
Are but as pictures;'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.


Though Lady Macbeth correctly locates this "eye" in Macbeth's consciousness, the primitive world of magical and animistic thinking, like the filaments of parricidal competition, pervade the whole play as well. Metaphorical analogies between the macrocosm and microcosm are constant and have unusual power in Macbeth, and as A. C. Bradley and all subsequent critics have recognized, the state of mind within Macbeth and the state of Scotland outside of him seem often indistinguishable. Equally important, nature itself is literally animated in the play—most conspicuously when Birnam Wood indeed moves to Dunsinane—and the play is filled with suggestions of actual magic. There is white magic in the "good" English king, who has "a heavenly gift of prophecy" and whose hand and "healing benediction" can cure "the disease . . . call'd the Evil" (IV.iii.l46ff); and black magic, of course, is represented in the witches. Macbeth does not create the witches, and we see them before he does. They open the play and establish its environment before Macbeth ever appears, and when he himself sees them, so does Banquo; and though Banquo does not, like Macbeth, become obsessed with them, he does nonetheless respond to the magical potency of the realm of thought they represent. Both men wonder (in much the same way that Macbeth will later wonder about his hallucinations) whether the witches are real. Banquo asks, "Are ye fantastical, or that indeed / Which outwardly ye show?" (I.iii.53-54), and Macbeth says that "what seemed corporal, / Melted as breath into the wind" (I.iii.81-82). Though the witches eventually come to seem more exclusively the projection of Macbeth's own mind, they are never only that, and they are always corporeal for us as well as him. Their presence hardly exonerates Macbeth of his crimes, but their powerful effect on stage necessarily draws an audience into the realm of magical and hallucinatory thinking of which they are so palpable an expression.

It is nonetheless within Macbeth's own consciousness that this realm has its most profound and compelling representation in the play. All Shakespearian tragic heroes "live in a world apart," but none so clearly and completely in "the reality not of experience but of thought." The Renaissance phrase "passions of the mind" is peculiarly apposite to Macbeth. His characteristic posture, virtually a physical posture on stage, is self-absorption, in manifold senses of the term. He is at first "rapt" (I.iii.57) but then quickly literally "lost" in his "thoughts" (I.iii.57), not only in soliloquies, in which such preoccupation is conventional, but in the midst of communal occasions, the banquet being the most memorable (and where the apparition that causes his withdrawal seems more purely the creation of his own mind). Moreover, the thoughts in which he is lost, the "sorriest fancies" he makes his "companions" (III.ii.9), are usually not only about himself, about his state of mind, but about the very pressure of thought in his consciousness, and most specifically about the urgent need to make the thoughts deeds and thereby terminate them—in his own repeated words, to make the hand and heart one.27 This need, I think, is a recollection of the primitive, infantile fear of disintegration, and it resonates in complex ways in Macbeth's persistent anxiety that parts of his body are becoming separated from each other and in the urgency and dread of his quest to bring them absolutely together in his mind.

Lady Macbeth touches directly upon these issues in her attack on Macbeth's manhood. She says, when he hesitates to kill Duncan,

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.

(I.vii.39-41, 49-51)

These lines, which anticipate the Porter's, are resonant with the parricidal motifs of the play, but they also suggest the more primal realm both of Macbeth's fear and of his ambition, for most of his characterization and much of the action of the play are in fact concerned with his efforts to "transpose the structural conditions of his own mind into the external world." This quest takes two forms: altering the perception of reality within his own mind and altering external reality to conform to his thoughts. The quest in either case is pathological, destructive, and ultimately psychotic, and Lady Macbeth shows its eventual outcome in actual life by collapsing and withdrawing entirely into a hallucinatory world of sleepwalking.

The alteration of Macbeth's own consciousness is first suggested in the raptness with which he meditates upon the witches'prophecy, but it is most decisively presented in the soliloquy that describes his hallucination of the bloody dagger. He recognizes that he is seeing "a dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain," and concludes with clarity that "There's no such thing. / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes" (II.i.38-39, 47-49). The final effect of the soliloquy, however, is to represent Macbeth's dread of disintegration and the consequent need for hallucination in order literally to compose himself, the need for his "eyes" to be "made the fools o'th'other senses / Or else worth all the rest" (II.i.44-45). Freud speaks of the peculiar dread psychotics experience as they recognize that their hold on reality is dissolving. Shakespeare captures that sense of dread in this soliloquy, with the difference, which is part of Macbeth's distinction as a tragic hero, that Macbeth can contemplate psychotic experience without succumbing to it as his wife does.

At the end of the soliloquy Macbeth seems to recover his composure—he seems, again literally, to pull himself together—and those thoughts appear to turn outward:

Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
The very stones prate of my where-about,

And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.


These lines are difficult but also typical of Macbeth. They suggest not only, as J. Dover Wilson remarks, that Macbeth "speaks as if watching himself in a dream,"28 but specifically that Macbeth wants the outer scene to express the inner one, as it does in dreamwork, that after resisting the impulse to imagine a reality created by and within his own thoughts, he is now preparing to transform the external world to make it conform to those thoughts. The whole of the speech represents Macbeth's utter unwillingness to tolerate any division between what is outside and what is inside himself, and his cold closing lines forecast the ruthlessness and rage with which he will attempt to make the two consonant: "Whiles I threat, he lives: / Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives" (Il.i.60-61).

Macbeth's murder of Duncan is his first attempt to bring about such a consonance: in parricidal terms by making himself sole sovereign of his world, the one and only; and on the more primal level of narcissism by making himself and his kingdom coextensive, by literalizing the medieval and Elizabethan metaphor of the king's two bodies. Lady Macbeth, appropriately, plays a major part in the parricidal aspiration, but the conscious pursuit of the more primal quest is Macbeth's alone, and it intensifies after the murder of Duncan, as he successively plans the destruction of Banquo and Fleance and of Macduff s family without Lady Macbeth's knowledge.

In contemplating the first of these family murders, Macbeth says,

For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as to go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd.

(III.iv. 134-39)

The distance—in time if not in space—between head and hand is nearly gone when he conceives the murder of Macduff s family. Informed that Macduff has gone to England, he says,

Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits:
The flight purpose never is o'ertook,
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment,
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it
thought and done.

(IV.i. 144-49)

This, it seems to me, is the crown to which Macbeth has aspired all along—to be, in Lady Macbeth's words, "transported . . . beyond / This ignorant present" and "feel . . . The future in the instant" (I.v.56-58), to have the omnipotent power to contain the whole world within his own mind and to make it entirely in his own image—to be, as Augustine says man wished to be at the fall, and as he is in his mind in infancy, like a god. This moment is the apogee of his ambition. It is also the turning point in the action. Unburdened of the gap between the heart and the hand, the thought and the act, the present and the future, he loses the energy of his fear—"Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, / Cannot once start me" (V.v.14-15)—but without the distinction between himself and the outside world, and without the future, he also begins to lose the energy and definition of life itself. "Tomorrow" becomes a meaningless prolongation of today (V.v.19), and he becomes "aweary of the sun" (V.v.49). And as he begins to lose life, the outside world begins to regain it. Macbeth's crowning of his thoughts is followed by the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her child, but also immediately afterward by the scene in which Malcolm successfully tests Macduff: Malcolm states that his "thoughts cannot transpose" Macbeth's inner nature (IV.iii.21), but he nonetheless learns to "know" Macduff through an imitation of Macbeth that is also an exorcism of Macbeth's world of transposing thoughts.

Montaigne makes an extremely interesting comment about the nature of such a world of thought in his essay, "Of Judging of Others Death." He remarks that "we make too much account of our selves" and presumptuously believe that the universe has the "same motion" we do: "Forsomuch as our sight being altered, represents unto it selfe things alike; and we imagine, that things faile it, as it doth to them: As they who travell by Sea, to whom mountaines, fields, townes, heaven and earth, seeme to goe the same motion, and keepe the same course, they doe." He associates this way of thinking most particularly with the fear of death:

We entertaine and carry all with us: Whence it followeth, that we deeme our death to be some great matter, and which passeth not so easily, nor without a solmene consultation of the Starres; Tot circa unum caput tumultuantes Deos. So many Gods keeping a stirre about one mans life. . . . No one of us thinkes it sufficient, to be but one.29

All of Shakespeare's greatest tragic heroes have the infantile presumption Montaigne describes—none of them can be said to think it sufficient to be but one. Macbeth's presumptuous thinking, however, is both more radical than and different from that of other Shakespearean heroes in a way that is profound and instructive. Lear's need, for example, to imagine that heaven and earth move as he does is indeed an infantile denial of his mortal limits, as he himself intermittently realizes—"They told me I was everything;'tis a lie, I am not ague proof ( But Lear regresses into infancy because old people naturally do so and because he is afraid of dying. He protests against death, in the last analysis, because he wants to hold on to life and its real human relationships, particularly, at the end, to the love of his child Cordelia. In Macbeth, however, "All is the fear, and nothing is the love" (IV.ii.12), and Macbeth's attempt to make the world keep to his motion is essentially a flight from human relationships and a denial not of death but of life. For his fear of the distance between his thought and the world outside of them is finally a fear of consciousness itself; and his regression to the inordinate self-love of primary narcissism is a return to the "perfect" safety and "perfect" integrity of the womb, which, as Rosse says of Macbeth's kingdom, "cannot / Be called our mother, but our grave" (IV.iii. 165-66).

It is common to say that Macbeth's ambition is suicidal. It may be more exact and revealing to recognize that non-being is his ambition, that he commits himself from the first to the suicide that Lady Macbeth acts out at the end, that his deepest wish is to annihilate the very self he asserts. This acute paradox is adumbrated with almost allegorical clarity earlier in Shakespeare's career, in Richard III. In the first part of the play, while he is still climbing, Richard III is untroubled—like the medieval Vice with whom he explicitly allies himself, he is singularly "motivated," joyous in the humor and histrionics of his intrigues, the unalloyed, if destructive, energy of the aspiring will. But once he attains the throne and that energy cannot be directed outwards, it is turned against himself, and he seems immediately deflated. He confesses that "I have not that alacrity of spirit / Nor cheer of mind that I was wont to have" (V.iii.74-75),31 and after he awakens from his dream on Bosworth field, he realizes that his love of himself is now destroying him:

What do 1 fear? Myself? There's none else by;
Richard loves Richard, that is, I [am] I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am!
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,
Lest I revenge? What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me—
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself.

(V.iii. 183-91, 201-04)

The sense of astonishment in this soliloquy is perhaps more than Richard's alone. Richard appreciably changes in these lines from a personification into a man, and the speech suggests Shakespeare's own discovery of the dramatic potential of transposing the allegorical topography of the morality drama into the consciousness of a single individual. But in any case the soliloquy precisely discriminates the suicidal paradox of Richard's quest to be, as he says in another context, "myself alone,"32 and it anticipates the tremendous force of that paradox in the tragedy of Macbeth.

The apparent contradiction that Richard sees with such clarity—"What, myself upon myself? / Alack, I love myself"—can be explained in complementary Augustinian and Freudian terms. For Augustine, self-love, the soul's desire to be its own beginner, to be everything, both results in and is born of emptiness, of nothingness. The Freudian analogue, as I suggested earlier, is the self-love of primary narcissism. The resonances of such narcissism exist in all human beings, and in an infant the condition is natural. The regression to such a condition in an adult, however, is truly to confound hell in Elizium, for except in the state of intense love in which the self is paradoxically at once lost and aggrandized, the godlike presumption of primary narcissism results in a sense only of the loss of the self, because a self that encompasses everything ultimately cannot be defined by anything, and is indeed defined by nothing. The premise common to both the Augustinian and the Freudian conception is that human beings must exist in relation to a reality outside of themselves, that, as Wallace Stevens observes, "Nothing is itself taken alone. Things are because of interrelations and interactions."33

The Augustinian reverberations of Macbeth's tragedy are explicit and emphatic. Among Macbeth's first words after he has achieved the crown are, "To be thus is nothing" (III.i.47); both he and Lady Macbeth immediately yearn to join the safety and "peace" of the man they have murdered (III.ii.6, 20); and the subsequent action progresses inexorably towards the state of mind in which Macbeth himself sees all of life as "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing" (V.v.26-28) and towards its counterpart in the literal suicide of his wife. What distinguishes Macbeth from Richard III in this respect is not only that Macbeth is partially conscious of the movement toward nothing from the beginning (as Richard is not), but that the whole play, and particularly the relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, dramatizes the emotional character of that movement. A sense of emotional emptiness permeates the play. Lady Macbeth points to it explicitly soon after the killing of Duncan when she speaks of attaining desire "without content" and of spending all and having "nought"; and it informs Macbeth's actions throughout, in the undercurrent of weariness even in his earliest soliloquies, and in the appalling tedium of feeling and spirit that he exhibits in contemplating his later homicides.

Underlying this manifest sense of emotional emptiness, as well as expressing it, is ambivalence, which is almost necessarily born of a suicidal impulsion. The equivocations that flood the language and action of the play are one expression of this ambivalence, and Macbeth, of course, depicts it directly: in his continuous indecision early in the play; in the collocation of aspiration and dread in his consciousness until nearly the end of the play; and even at the end, when he seems beyond fear, in his sleeplessness, a sleeplessness that is at once a denial, to use his own words, of "great Nature's second course, / Chief nourisher in life's feast" and a protection against "The death of each day's life" (II.ii.38-39, 37).

But the most profound representation of ambivalence is in the actual relationship of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that occupies the dramatic center of the play, for I think that the two of them do, as Freud observes, suggest disunited parts of a single psychic entity and that the eventual effect of this entity upon us is precisely that of disunion, the kind of radical disunion that in a single individual is understood as self-destructive ambivalence. Lady Macbeth relishes the thought of murdering Duncan, while Macbeth dreads it; later she retreats from thoughts of killing, while he embraces them. He, early in the play, seems without will, while she seems defined by it (though, interestingly, her will can be expressed only through her husband, for whom she has contempt, so that the whole being the two of them compose suggests self-hatred as well as self-love from the start); as the play proceeds, his willpower seems to increase in inverse proportion to the diminution of hers; and by the end of the play their positions are reversed, she becoming "all remorse and he all defiance."34 The cumulative effect of such oppositions and inversions—and many more could be elaborated, since they draw upon all the antinomies of parricide and narcissism in the play—is to suggest not so much change, or even conflict, within the composite soul of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as stasis and atrophy. For the more the various terms of the oppositions between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are inverted, the more they remain the same. Their antinomy is not resolved but, in many senses of the word, petrified. The result, like the result of profound ambivalence in actual human experience, is not only an increasing sense of paralysis and depletion of energy, but a sense that between the terms of the oppositions, inside the antinomy, is nothing, a void. I mentioned earlier that Shakespeare seemed to have anticipated the marriage of the Macbeths in the Rape of Lucrece, in the dispute within Tarquín between "frozen conscience and hot burning will." In Macbeth that antinomy eventually suggests a human soul that has no temperature at all.

Macbeth's reference to the nourishment that his sleeplessness denies him has a counterpart in the lines of Lady Macbeth that refer to the primal image of life's nourishment, and her speech suggests how elemental is the emptiness that the two of them incarnate:

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.


This is the root of the many images in Macbeth of murdered children and of naked, newborn, and bloody babies, and it is, it seems to me, the "rooted sorrow" (V.iii.41), not only of Lady Macbeth but of the whole tragedy. Psychoanalysts trace the deepest forms of despair to the deprivation of maternal nourishment, and there is certainly an insatiable hunger in Macbeth's need for more and more and more. But Macbeth's own past is not an issue in this play, and one hardly needs psychoanalysis to understand that the image, as well as the actuality, of a mother's nurture of an infant at her breast is the irreducible basis of human development—the "rock" upon which the first sense of the self must be "founded," the "casing air" that nourishes the "broad and general" promise of all subsequent relationships (III.iv.21, 22). Macbeth is so bleak and forbidding an experience because it presents a world in which this foundation and promise are violated. For what Lady Macbeth imagines, Macbeth enacts. His attempt, in Augustine's words, to be his own beginner can be understood as a desperate effort to fill the void she describes, but it is also necessarily a movement backwards and downwards towards it; and in that regressive quest, that movement towards nothingness, he denies all the creative processes and relationships that nourish and renew life and give it meaning. Like Night in The Rape of Lucrece and the night that envelops this play, he "Make[s] war against proportion'd course of time" (774). He kills the old and the young, a king and fathers and kinsmen and, at the last, a mother and child. We cannot know or care how many children Lady Macbeth once had, but we do know that she and Macbeth have none in this play, because the human soul their marriage composes is, like Macbeth's crown, "fruitless" and "barren" (III.i.60, 61).

All of Shakespeare's tragic heroes necessarily move towards death, the formal and, as Northrop Frye insists, defining end of their dramas, but in no other play is that movement so willfully life-denying, and for this reason Macbeth seems the least redemptive and least heroic of Shakespeare's great tragedies. There is a disposition among recent critics of the play also to find it problematic, to stress, for example, the endemic and latently murderous competition within the whole world of the play as well as the absence of feminine values and the ultimate emptiness of all that defines courage and manliness.35 But this is to treat the play as if it were an argument and to grasp a point and miss it at the same time, for Macbeth is a tragedy of the deliberate emptying out of human life, and as in all the tragedies, and in this one above all, the condition of the hero becomes and is the condition of the world that both Shakespeare and he create in his image. In the tragic world of Macbeth, to be a hero is to enact the human consequences of the predicament of Satan, for whom also, in Milton's words, "the mind is its own place," "not to be changed by place or time" (PL, 1.254, 253). Shakespeare makes us experience the tragic passion of such a "place," because we are made to see so much through Macbeth's eyes, but he also makes us aware of its annihilating cost. For we understand from the outset of Macbeth the conclusion drawn at the end of Richard HI: that to love one's self alone is to turn the self upon the self murderously and without pity; that human beings, unlike devils, cannot respire without the changes of Time and Place and the related hierarchies of human generation and nurture; that the ultimate sense of our individual identity, not to mention our humanity, depends upon our willingness to give to and receive from others. We can so deeply experience the hell Macbeth creates and inhabits precisely because the play makes us apprehend these truths, because we always know, as he increasingly does, what is absent, "what is not" (I.iii.142). Our essential experience, like his, is one of loss.

The nature of this loss is represented everywhere in the play, but it is most crystallized in the scenes and speeches that emphasize human relationships and human community. It is shown in the peculiar horror of Macbeth's isolation during the banquet scene—one of the scenes Simon Forman remembered most—and it is stated explicitly by Macbeth when he laments that "that which should accompany old age, / As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have" (V.iii.24-26). And it is asserted, I think, most profoundly in the experience of Macduff. Macduff is not a hero, but he is Macbeth's proper nemesis. His not being "of woman born" (V.viii.13) suggests more about Macbeth's thinking than his own, but it also perhaps frees him from the profound terror of the regressive movement Macbeth has imposed upon the world of the play. Macduff alone in Scotland seems unafraid to know himself and is therefore the one most concerned for others. It is fitting that it is he who announces at the end of the play, in words that resonate with the depths of Macbeth's tragedy, that "the time is free" (V.ix.21). Some critics find that announcement overconfident and contend that the play's ending implicates Macduff in the same ethos of blood as Macbeth's. Macduff admittedly leaves his family unprotected, and he submits, in the midst of his grief over their loss, to Malcolm's call for vengeance. And, not without savagery of his own, he too kills a king. But to argue that he thereby "steps into [Macbeth's] role"36 and essentially becomes his double is to devalue the play's real equivocations and ironies and to pursue modern shibboleths of contradiction and inversion at the expense not only of what is manifest but also of what deeply moves us. Macduff leaves his family out of duty to his whole society. He does not anticipate, because he cannot imagine, the wantonness of the murder of his wife and children, and the guilt that he himself assumes for their death is one he shares with all mankind (IV.iii.224). And though his role in the play is certainly to kill Macbeth, it is his grief that prompts him, and it is his grief that we remember. If he lets that "grief / Convert to anger" (IV.iii.228-29), as Malcolm urges, he has cause, and we ourselves respond to his anger not as a symptom of emotional impoverishment but, on the contrary, as an expression of the fullness of his sorrow. When Malcolm tells him to "dispute" his grief "like a man," Macduff answers:

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.


It is no accident that these painfully moving lines should bring into focus what it really means to be a man, and a comparison with Macbeth's atrophied response when he hears of the death of his own wife is inescapable: "She should have died hereafter: / There would have been a time for such a word" (V.v. 17-18).

There is never any doubt in this play how much is lost and what is lost in Macbeth's primitive quest of his "own good." The preciousness of life is lost.


1 Macbeth's egoism is especially stressed by Helen Gardner, "Milton's'Satan'and the Theme of Damnation in Elizabethan Tragedy," E&S 1 (1948), 44-66; A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns (New York: Theatre Arts, 1961), 209-34; and Gordon Braden, "Senecan Tragedy and the Renaissance," Illinois Classical Studies, forthcoming. I am particularly indebted to Braden's article.

2 References to Macbeth are to the New Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1977).

3 "General Macbeth," Harper's Magazine (June, 1962); rpt. in the Signet edition of Macbeth, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: NAL, 1963), 232.

4 See especially L. B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961), 208-39; and M. C. Bradbrook, "The Sources of Macbeth," Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951), 35-48.

5 The third part of the "Homily against disobedience and wilfull Rebellion," Certaine Sermons or Homilies appointed to be Read in the Time of Queen Elizabeth I, facsimile of 1623 edition, eds. Mary Ellen Rickey and Thomas B. Stroup (Gainesville, FL: Scholars'Facsimiles & Reprints, 1968), 293, 295, 296.

6 Book 14, chaps. 13-15, City of God, trans. John Healey, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (London: Dent, 1945), 2:43-46.

7 For discussions of parallels between the two works, see especially Bradbrook, "The Sources of Macbeth"; and Muir, Arden Macbeth, 189-90.

8 References to The Rape of Lucrece are to the text in the New Arden edition of The Poems, ed. F. T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960).

9 "Those Who are Wrecked by Success," Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74), 14:324.

10 Muir focuses upon this speech in his introduction to the Arden edition, xxiii-xxix.

11 See Glynne Wickham, "Hell Castle and Its Door-Keeper," Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966), 68-74.

12 A2.

13 [P8].

14 Q3v.

15 Freud, 14:321.

16 Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), 101-10, has a suggestive discussion of parricidal motifs in Macbeth. Rabkin sees parricide as an alternative to ambition in explaining Macbeth's motives; my own interest is in understanding parricide as a deep expression of Macbeth's ambition. See also Northrop Frye, "My father as he slept: The tragedy of order," in Fools of Time (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967), 3-39.

17The Essayes of Montaigne, trans. John Florio (New York: Modern Library, 1933), 73.

18 "The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation," ELH 47 (1980), 1-31. Berger's readings of the opening scenes are fertile and valuable, but I think his consequent "challenge" to the "orthodox view" of the play (4) depends upon a shallow construction of that view to begin with. Northrop Frye's argument about order in Macbeth and other Shakespearean tragedies, for example, an argument that Berger does not consider, comprehends immense ironies without deconstructive consequences.

19 "Criminals from a Sense of Guilt," Standard Edition, 13:332-33.

20 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas M. Raysor, (London: Dent, 1960), 1:64. References to Paradise Lost are to the text in The Poems of John Milton, eds. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London: Longmans, 1968).

21 See "On Narcissism: An Introduction," Standard Edition, 14:73-102.

22 "Animism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thoughts," Totem and Taboo, Standard Edition, 13:85.

23 Freud, 13:91.

24 Freud, 13:86.

25Angel With Horns, 218.

26 See Freud, 14:320-22; Cleanth Brooks, "The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness," in The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947); and Braden, "Senecan Tragedy and the Renaissance."

27 Muir (Arden edition, xxvii-xxix) calls attention to reiterated images of separation and disjunction in the play. He does not pursue their psychological implications. Interestingly, in Doctor Faustus, Marlowe's exploration of necromantic thinking, images of bodily separation are acted out.

28 Cited by Muir, Arden edition, 50n.

29Essayes, 548.

30 References to King Lear are to the Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1952).

31 References to Richard HI are to the New Arden edition, ed. Antony Hammond (London: Methuen, 1981).

32Henry VI, Part Three, Arden edition, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross (London: Methuen, 1964),

33Opus Posthumous, ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Knopf, 1957), 163.

34 Freud, 14:324.

35 In addition to Berger's article, "The Early Scenes of Macbeth," and the scholarship to which he refers, see Jose Benardete, "Macbeth's Last Words," Interpretation 1 (1970), 63-75.

36 Berger, 4.

John Cunningham (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "'The Scottish Play': Hero and Villain," in Critical Essays on Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, edited by Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, Longman Group UK Limited, 1988, pp. 111-21.

[In the following essay, Cunningham examines ways in which modern audiences reconcile Macbeth's double roles as hero and villian.]

Actors consider Macbeth to be so'unlucky'that many of them will never allow it to be named, but refer to it as in the title above ['The Scottish Play']: Peter o'Toole, when playing the leading role, always called it'Harry Lauder', after a once famous Scottish comedian. No other play of the three dozen Shakespeare wrote has such a reputation for disaster, so it may be worth asking why this should be so. The usual explanation given is that much of the play is performed in gloomy, underlit settings and it ends with some vigorous hand-to-hand fighting, always a likely source of calamity on stage. Yet other plays have underlit episodes and many of his history plays—to which group this, in a way, belongs—involve fighting and'killing'in their later scenes, when the tired actors may be at risk.

A more likely reason for its unpopularity amongst performers is that it is rarely a successful play in the theatre. Twentieth-century actors seldom become famous for their presentation of Macbeth—-if they do it well, people praise them for succeeding despite the difficulty of the role. The crux of the difficulty is nothing to do with lighting or fighting, but the nature of the main character: the hero of Macbeth is also the villain, and it seems almost impossible to reconcile the two roles in a way that will satisfy a modern audience. Other major roles show flawed characters, perhaps—Hamlet with his warped depressive's view of the world, Othello with his hypersensitive jealousy—but none pursues a deliberate course of evil as Macbeth does. Richard III does so, but he is a villain—and we might remind ourselves that, in the eighteenth century for example, a number of great actors were famous for their performances of Richard and of Macbeth. Perhaps an earlier age did not see the paradox, the villain/hero, quite as we do?

The word'tragedy'like the word'hero'is capable of several definitions, including the popular one which covers any sort of calamity from a chip pan on fire to a Test cricketer with a sprained wrist via airline crashes and massacres in remote countries. Calamity is, indeed, central to the way we all think of this word. The classical definition of it was given by Aristotle two thousand years before Shakespeare wrote his play. Roughly summarised, Aristotle said that a tragedy must show the sudden downfall of a great man in a position of high prosperity. It should arouse pity and terror in the audience—pity because they should be able to relate to the hero, terror at the power of the gods before which we are so impotent—and should help to cleanse them a little of the arrogance that mankind has always suffered from—the proud assumption that he is the master of his fate; he, in short, is God.

Though this definition may seem austere and academic to a modern student, it is a sound one: a disaster is most impressive when it strikes someone of great stature at the pinnacle of success; it can leave us feeling a little more humble than we were before we saw or read it—can cut us down to size for a while, at least. But this will only work if we can relate ourselves in some way to the hero, and an impossibly virtuous character alienates an audience, becomes some kind of Superman. To prevent this, Aristotle suggested that the hero should have some kind of human weakness, and, early in the present century, this'flaw', as it is usually called, was worked into an elaborate theory of tragedy which was so influential that it still affects most people who study the genre—and it certainly offers a convenient'explanation'of Macbeth. The human weakness of the hero becomes'the tragic flaw'—the root of the entire development of the play. So Othello's'flaw'is jealousy, Hamlet's indecision and so on. Macbeth, of course, suffers from ambition. It is a neat explanation for which Macbeth's own speeches about his ambition seem to provide good evidence, but it is not a lot of use to an actor trying to make sense of a complex role to an audience, and that has always been and always must be the most important criterion in any interpretation of such a play, intended, as it was, only to be acted, not studied.

Modern theatrical directors have not lacked ideas to try to make the play effective. Macbeth, we are told, meets the Witches when he is suffering from'battle fatigue', the Second World War term for what used (more bluntly) to be called shell-shock. So the military aspect of the man—certainly an important one—is heavily emphasised, and it does not take long to move from this view of the play to our vision of a military society: a Fascist Macbeth is perfectly playable, though surely he is wildly different from any noted Fascist leader of our century? Our horror of military rule is matched by our concern for the deprived, and the Witches can be played as neglected old ladies, desperately poor, whose part therefore becomes a social statement Such performances strike the viewer more by their ingenuity than by any insight they give into the central puzzle, but a brief glance at these ideas will begin to give us a notion of how very hard it is to interpret any of this play in our times. The death of young Macduff may still disturb (though it is very hard to act it—no small boy can make a convincing job of'He has killed me, mother') but we, like Macbeth, have'supped full with horrors'and have read of, seen perhaps in a documentary film, awfulness on such a scale that the casual butchering of a precocious lad seems trivial: we know too well how autocratic powers maintain themselves by systematic reigns of terror and the catalogue of suffering that Ross gives at the end of Act IV fails to shock us. We don't believe in witches. If we revere the monarchy it is in a very different way from what folk felt about it in 1605. Perhaps we don't really believe in evil—few of us, to be sure, believe in hell. To our blasé minds, both heroism and evil seem naive, simplistic: all heroes, we suspect, are looking for their fifteen minutes of fame complete with television interview, all evils are social or'psychological'. No wonder'the Scottish Play'gives actors such a hard time.

At least, students may console themselves by recalling that this is about the shortest play Shakespeare wrote—yet producers often feel they must shorten it further. The text is probably short because it was censored politically. Today the director will often cut out the scene where Macbeth sees the show of kings and the passage in IV.3 where Malcolm talks about the King of England curing diseased people who flock to him: these episodes refer specifically to James I (effectively patron of Shakespeare's company), to his ancestry and interest in the divine authority and power of kingship. They make little sense to a modern audience.

Yet even when we try to strip away such'difficult'passages as this we are left with the central problem more strikingly obvious than ever: there is no hero. Macbeth starts to'fall'as soon as the play begins; Malcolm makes a late run—he has just one good scene, the one that takes place in England, to build himself up a little in the eyes of the audience—and we are expected to join in the general junketing at the end when the patriotic hero of Act I has somehow become a'dead butcher'. How is the actor—how are we the readers—to make any coherent sense of this?

We might begin our search for an answer with Aristotle's analysis in mind. It is at once apparent that Macbeth is a great man and that he is at the height of his success in life at the beginning of the play. The injured soldier from the battlefield speaks of his courage in the highest terms and Duncan is full of praise for him as for Banquo (a tactful balance, as Banquo was an ancestor of James I, early in whose reign the play was written). The first stage in his downfall is often said to be when he meets the Witches, who suggest a great future for him. This is to ignore a very important speech. When Banquo and Angus bring him the news that the first prophecy has, in fact, come true—that he is Thane of Cawdor—he shares his thoughts with the audience in a long'aside'(I.3.129 onwards). If the vision he has had is good, as it has certainly foretold something good, a well-deserved reward, he asks:

. . . 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? . . .
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man . . .


What suggestion? The Witches made no suggestions at all, but simply addressed him by three titles, the third being'King hereafter'. They say nothing of'murder'and Macbeth specifically speaks of'my thought'as the origin of the'fantastical'(that is, imagined only) murder. The Witches have merely triggered off a thought that he was already disposed to have, perhaps? Yet in the course of Act I, scene 7 we learn more about his previous thoughts. Lady Macbeth says:

Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both


—referring to the occasion when Macbeth first spoke to her of'this enterprise', that is the murder of Duncan. This has to be a reference to plans before the play began, before he had ever seen the Witches. When he does meet them, they merely confirm him in an idea he already had. On this view of him, Macbeth is a total villain, false from the start, and it is possible in performance to represent him so. Yet such an interpretation does not succeed well with audiences. A total villain is not very interesting, and Shakespeare rarely offers us one. In Hamlet, for example, Claudius is saved from being a pantomime wicked uncle by the torments of guilt he suffers, yet guilt is something Macbeth seems hardly to feel at all: at the end of the play he regrets that his age is friendless, that is all, and his wife's death elicts merely the comment that she died at the wrong moment.

Lady Macbeth, indeed, gives us another way of looking at him. Clearly she understands his nature well, and in her first scene (I.5) she gives us a pithy account of her husband. One phrase in particular may strike any listener:' . . . wouldst not play false,/ And yet wouldst wrongly win'(I.5.19-20). Few of us can face this truth about ourselves. We would all like to have things we should not have, and would accept them if somehow, without quite committing a crime ourselves, we could have the millions in the Swiss bank account that many modern villains probably have and enjoy. Are we to see Macbeth as some kind of universal man, a figure who symbolises our liability to temptation and is actually tempted? This seems rather to diminish him to something less than a hero or a villain: to make him just a fallible mortal who happens to be offered an extraordinary prize, of which he has dreamed.

This scene—surely a key episode in the play—has given rise to a different view, emphasising the role of Lady Macbeth rather than of her husband. She says that she will pour her spirits into his ear, chastise him with the valour of her tongue. Macbeth appears to some interpreters as a man basically good but lured or forced into evil by an unscrupulous wife—in other words, Macbeth is the hero, Lady Macbeth the villain. Productions based on this supposition run grave danger of the hero appearing to be a mere hen-pecked husband, but there is quite a strong case to be made here: in the scene during the banquet given for Duncan (I.7) Macbeth appears as having wholly resolved to go no further with the plot, and giving a very precise account of the reasons for ('vaulting ambition') and against.

The speech (I.7.1-28) deserves and will receive further examination because it shows us a lot about Macbeth, but the important thing to the Lady-as-villain school of thought is that, at the end of his closely argued case for going no further, his wife is able completely to change his mind for him. Yet to see her as his evil genius presents difficulties later on, when it is very clear that she is no party to his misdeeds:'Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck'he says (III.2.45), having conceived and plotted the murder of Banquo entirely on his own, as he apparently carries out his campaign of terror throughout Scotland later on. The Lady's villainy runs out almost as soon as Duncan has been murdered, where she has had the wit to tell her husband to get suitably dressed but the lack of foresight to think that merely washing off the blood will wash away the guilt. Her subsequent unhappiness, loneliness and suicide make her a fascinating character, and perhaps one of the reasons for the play's ill reputation is that the'heroine'so much over-shadows the hero—unless he has found a really effective way to play his part.

This brings us to other ways of interpreting him. In a popular edition of the complete works, C J Sisson speaks of'complex issues in the mind of a poet-warrior', thus succinctly expressing a widely held view of the central character. Macbeth has some fine speeches and they are, of course, poetry because Shakespeare wrote in verse. It is silly to praise Macbeth for his poetry—though critics have done so—when we should be praising the author. Shakespeare wishes us to see how Macbeth thinks and feels, and to see it as vividly as possible, so of course he gives him eloquent, sometimes beautiful, verse. Even so, he is easily misunderstood. To take the most famous example, the'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow'of Act V, scene 5 (lines 19-28), we can readily see that it is a passage with perfect cadences to express despair, and with skilfully developed images—'day to day'linking with'all our yesterdays','lighted'with the'brief candle', and that, possibly, with the'poor player'since extras were called'shadows'. But what it actually says, as at least one critic believes, is that Macbeth is off his head: at the time of the play's composition, no sane man believed that the world had no meaning at all. That is to deny God, to deny everything. A nihilist hero is himself nothing, and the play must fail if there is a blank at the heart of it. At best the speech is a statement of total despair, a condition that interests us very briefly because it leads nowhere.

The poetic eloquence of this speech may actually hinder the modern reader from perceiving its meaning: this is not true of two of Macbeth's soliloquies, the one to which we have already referred, in the last scene of Act I, and the famous'river of blood'image (Act III.4.135-137)—nominally spoken to Lady Macbeth, but really his own thoughts shared with the audience, for by this stage in the play his wife knows almost nothing of what he is up to.

The first speech (I.7.1-28), as we have said earlier, is important both for the light it throws on his divided nature, and thus his role in the play, and for the help it can give the modern reader or viewer in understanding the nature of his action to the full. We are accustomed now to think of famous figures as being at risk—presidents and popes, ministers and judges have been victims of murderous attacks, highly publicised. The murder of one sweet old gentleman may not seem to us a very great matter. In this speech Macbeth with agonised care sums up all the reasons why it would be infamous of him to kill Duncan: the King is his relative as well as his monarch; he is a guest of the castle whom the laws of hospitality protect; he has been a good king—above all lacking in the corruption which power so often brings—'So clear in his great office'. Macbeth, with the ruthless insight into his own nature that is so special to him, says he has only'vaulting ambition'to urge him on. To us ambition is a virtue, to the Elizabethans it was a sin, for it suggested a kind of impatience against God who had called you to your station in life. Thus the only reason for the murder is a bad one. The reasons against it: it is a crime against kinship; against kingship, itself a triple sin for it is a crime not only against the man who is killed, but against the society which he heads and against God, under whose power the anointed ruler holds sway; against the laws of hospitality; against natural justice which says that Duncan is a good man and therefore should be protected, not destroyed. This analysis, which the original audience would have grasped without elaboration as the concepts were familiar, helps us to realise the enormity of the offence which Macbeth commits: more interestingly it helps us to see into his mind. He is absolutely clear about the nature of the act he contemplates and rejects it. His reason for changing his mind we shall consider in a moment.

The'river of blood'image, like the passage we have just considered, helps us in two ways: once again it shows his very clear perception of the nature of his deeds and the position in which he stands; but it also offers an explanation of why he continues on his dreadful course. The whole play may be seen as a working-out of the metaphor. Once you start on a wrong course of action it is almost impossible to go back—indeed, how could Macbeth'return'? He cannot bring Duncan back to life, or give up his kingdom to Malcolm—who would execute him no doubt—or call Banquo from the grave. He may, in fact, be seen as a man who is the victim of the logic of power-politics: do one ill deed, and you have to do more, until you find you have to tyrannise the whole world and retain your power by terror—including the murder of the children of dissidents. So have dictators always done.

If this is our view of the man—a hero who makes one false step and then cannot retrace it—the reason why he takes that step becomes very important, so we now return to the passage in Act I where he decides to stop before it is too late. The conventional explanation of the change is that his wife, so much stronger than he is we are told, persuades him. His wife is his inferior in reasoning: as soon as the murder is done, Macbeth knows it can never be undone, that the blood will remain on his hands; his wife believes that'a little water clears us of this deed'. But she has a shrewdness that gives her power. We have seen that, in the episode where she receives her husband's letter, she shows a very good knowledge of the kind of man he is. Thus she knows exactly what taunt will stir Macbeth beyond endurance, and applies it: he cannot bear to be called a coward, so that is what she calls him.

If we are to consider Macbeth as in some sense heroic, we might start with this, for the play begins and ends with it. In the earliest part of the play there is constant reference to Macbeth's great courage on the battlefield. In the last section, though he sees clearly (as usual) how all the odds are against him—the prophecies of his death all fulfilled—he calls upon what he has always had:'Yet I will try the last,'he says, and engages Macduff with sword and shield. Physical courage never deserts him—his horror at the ghost of Banquo is moral, the spectre of his own guilt appals him—and in the last Act it is very noticeable indeed how brisk he is, even as premonitions of the end crowd in on him.

Perhaps the way he dies illustrates Shakespeare's own awareness of the problem we have been examining. If Macbeth is a great man, in particular a very brave one, and if we are, late in the play, reminded of this fact rather energetically, our sympathy might go more to him than the conclusion of the play requires. So, it may be argued, he is killed offstage in order that we may not see him bravely fighting against odds which have been loaded by destiny itself. More probably, in my view, he is killed offstage so that his head can be brought on. This is not an easy moment to stage nowadays, for a very good reason: most of us have never seen a severed head. Elizabethan audiences might well have done, for they turned out in enormous crowds to see executions, and the very gruesome ritual of death for high treason was highly popular. At the end of the calculated savagery the executioner cut off and held up the head for all to see. In the earlier part of the business, the disembowelling, the executioner got his hands and arms covered in blood—hence the'hangman's hands'that Macbeth speaks of immediately after killing Duncan (II.2.27). These images would have had a powerful effect on the audience, which is now lost.

If the final image of Act V is of a traitor justly punished and giving way for true leadership and restoration of a sick country, it is not the image of the whole Act. If we compare what we see in the previous Act, our perplexity increases. The bulk of Act IV is taken up with the extent of Macbeth's evil. In the first scene he is shown threatening omens by the Witches, but these seem only to confirm him in his course. In the second scene we actually see acted out a piece of calculated terrorism, the murder of women and children by jeering, brutal agents. The third, set in England, gives us a long catalogue of the appalling state of Scotland under his rule, where no one is safe; political murder so common, people are not even curious about it; and good men are at highest risk. This is villainy at its most extreme, and conscious villainy at that, deliberate, remorseless.

Yet in much of Act V there seems to be an attempt to re-create the heroic soldier of Act I, even if he fights in a wrong cause, with an additional touch to catch our sympathy. When Macbeth says:

. . . my way of life
Is fallen 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 . . .


we can almost feel sorry for him in his loneliness, an aspect of his life intensified a moment later when the Doctor brings news of his wife—and then tells the audience that he wants to desert as others are doing. Of the courage that still fills Macbeth, aware as he is of his own hopelessness and the reasons for it, we have already spoken. Surely there is something of a hero left?

Perhaps our way through this, whether we act or study the play, is to follow the course, step by step, which leads from the'valour's minion . . . worthy gentleman'of the second scene to the'dead butcher'of the end. We do begin with a great man, he is at the height of his achievement, fortune does seem to smile on him, even if he has the capacity to think of evil—we all have, after all. Pride is his undoing—pride in his valour, the pride that lets him think he can succeed against all the odds, can interpret his own destiny as given by the Witches in his own way. His downfall, it may be argued, is in two stages: the first fall is when he changes his mind about killing Duncan, which leads inevitably to other evil and ends in total tyranny; the second is his actual death at the hands of a man he has wronged in the service of a ruler he has usurped. He does indeed become the villain, but he never quite loses our sympathy because, at every stage, he is so painfully aware of what he is doing, and because of the element of'inevitability'referred to earlier. After a single wrong move carried out in full awareness of its evil, he is in a way no longer the murderer but the victim of that remorseless power of destiny which should, as Aristotle said, arouse our pity and our terror.

Religious And Theological Issues

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Howard Felperin (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "A Painted Devil: Macbeth" in Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy, Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 118-44.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1975, Felperin discerns a parodic gap between the Christian view of the world set forth in the medieval mystery plays and Shakespeare's adaptation of that view in Macbeth. On one hand, the critic argues, the play demystifies sacred myths and symbols by representing them as arbitrary constructs, while on the other it demonstrates that they serve an indispensable function in society.]

'Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.

Macbeth, II.ii.53-54

The last of Shakespeare's major tragedies to depend primarily on a native tradition of religious drama is also the most widely and seriously misunderstood in its relation to it. Indeed, Macbeth might well appear to be an exception to the principle of Shakespearean revision we have educed from the earlier tragedies. In those plays, the effect of mimetic naturalization over and above the older models contained within them had been achieved precisely by revealing the moral oversimplification of those models, in sum, by problematizing them. But Macbeth is unique among the major tragedies in having generated nothing like the central and recurrent problems that have shaped interpretation of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and even Antony and Cleopatra. Certain aspects of the play have of course received more than their share of attention and are continuing matters of debate: the status of its witches and of witchcraft; its topical relation to James I; the authorship of the Hecate scenes, yet these are more pre-critical problems of background and provenance than critical problems as such. For Macbeth, as Shakespeare's one "tragedy of damnation," is so widely acknowledged to exist within a relatively familiar dramatic tradition, that critical response to the play has become almost a matter of reflex in assimilating the play to it. This would seem to contradict the argument so far advanced that Shakespearean tragedy is fundamentally and finally unassimilable to its models, and that this unassimilability iś what underlies and generates their problematic status and realistic effect in the first place. At the risk of bringing chaos into order by discovering problems where none have existed, I want now to reexamine the relation between Macbeth and its inscribed models in the light of the previous discussion. It may turn out that those models are not quite the ones usually said to lie behind the play, and its relation to them not the clear and settled congruity that it is generally thought to be.

The tradition within which Macbeth is almost universally interpreted is that of orthodox Christian tragedy, the characteristic features of which are already well developed as early as Bocaccio and Lydgate and are familiar to all students of medieval and renaissance literature. It typically presents the fall of a man who may be basically or originally good but is always corruptible through the temptations of the world and his own pride or ambition. This action occurs against the structure of a fundamentally ordered and benevolent universe, which is finally self-restorative despite the evil and chaos temporarily unleashed within it, since crime will out and sin is always repaid. Of course the point in this essentially didactic genre is to illustrate the wages of human wrong-doing and the inexorability of divine purpose. That Macbeth, with its malign forces of temptation embodied in the witches, its vacillating but increasingly callous protagonist, and its restorative movement in the figures of Malcolm and Macduff, has affinities with this tradition is obvious and undeniable. The moral pattern of Shakespeare's play is not essentially different from that set forth in Boccaccio and Lydgate, and there is no lack of more immediate versions of it with which Shakespeare would have been well acquainted. He had drawn on A Mirror for Magistrates in previous histories and tragedies; several sixteenth-century moralities deal with the same theme; and the same pattern, though without political overtones, informs Dr. Faustus, a play with which Macbeth is often compared. Shakespeare's own early Marlovian monodrama, Richard III, falls squarely within this tradition of Christian tragedy, and its similarities with Macbeth were pointed out as far back as the eighteenth century.

Yet there is another dramatic tradition at work within Macbeth or, more accurately, a sub-genre of this same tradition, that is at once much older than these examples and more immediately and concretely present within the play. For here, as in Hamlet, Shakespeare allows the primary model for his own action to remain at least partly in view. We have already seen how the cry of the elder Hamlet's ghost to "remember me" is more than a reminder to his son to avenge his death; it simultaneously conjures up the older mode of being and acting which would make revenge possible, which the action of Hamlet at once repeats and supersedes, and which points with all the intentionality and ambiguity of any sign toward the heart of the play's meaning. In Macbeth, too, the persistence of an older dramatic mode within the world of Shakespeare's play is no less explicitly recalled. Though there are many places in Macbeth that could serve as an entry into this older world, the two modern scholars who have consciously perceived its existence have both entered it through, so to speak, its front door, the "Hell-gate" of Inverness with its attendant "devil-porter." For here too the purpose of the porter's request, "I pray you remember the porter" (II.iii.22), is more than to extract a tip from Macduff whom he has just admitted. The reference of his remark is ambiguous, as Glynne Wickham observes, "for it can be addressed by the actor both to Macduff and to the audience. As in the porter's dream, it is in two worlds at once; that of Macbeth's castle and that of another scene from another play which has just been recalled for the audience and which the author wants them to remember."1

That other play, which Wickham advances as Shakespeare's "model for the particular form in which the chose to cast Act II, scene iii, of Macbeth, and possibly for the play as a whole,"2 is The Harrowing of Hell in the medieval English mystery cycles. Derived from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and adapted in two of the oldest rituals of the Roman Catholic liturgy, it is enacted in all of the extant cycles, though details of staging and dialogue differ from one to another. Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ comes to hell (represented as a castle on the medieval stage) and demands of Lucifer the release of the souls of the prophets and patriarchs. In all versions, the arrival of Christ is heralded by strange noises in the air and thunderous knocking at the castle gates. In the York and Towneley plays, the gate of hell has a porter appropriately named Rybald, a comic devil who breaks the news to Beelzebub of Christ's arrival and questions David and Christ himself as to his identity. Finally, Jesus breaks down the gate of hell, routs the resisting devils and, after a debate with Satan, who tries to deny the prophecies of his godhead, releases the prophets amid prayers and rejoicing. The Coventry version of the playlet, the one that Shakespeare is almost certain to have seen, is not extant, but there is no reason to think it was substantially different from the other versions. In fact, the Pardoner in John Heywood's The Foure PP (1529?), is described as having been on easy terms with "the devyll that kept the gate," since he had "oft in the play of Corpus Christi . . . played the devyll at Coventry," and is himself addressed as "Good mayster porter."3 With its castle setting, bumbling porter named Rybald, "Clamor vel sonitus materialis magnus"4 in the depth of night, and background of prophecy, the cyclic play of the Harrowing of Hell would have been easily evoked by the business of Macbeth, II,iii in the minds of many in Shakespeare's audience who still remembered the porter. Moreover, the memory of the old play would strongly foreshadow the outcome of Macbeth as well, since Christ's entry into and deliverance of the castle of hell also looks forward to Macduff s second entry into Macbeth's castle and triumph over the demonic Macbeth at the end of the play.

Though prefiguring the didactic superplot or counterplot of Macduff s liberation of Scotland and defeat of Macbeth, however, The Harrowing of Hell has little direct bearing on the main or central action of Macbeth's personal destiny within the play, aside from rather broadly associating him with Beelzebub or Satan. But there is another play, or rather pair of plays, in the mystery cycles that supply what The Harrowing of Hell leaves out in the action of Macbeth, namely The Visit of the Magi and The Massacre of the Innocents. The cycles are more varied in their dramatization of these episodes from St. Matthew than they are in the case of the deliverance from hell, particularly as to the outcome of the massacre, but all share certain elements that bear directly on Macbeth's career. In all of them, three wise men come to pay homage to a king born in Israel and descended from David, the prophecies of whose birth they rehearse to Herod. Outraged at these prophecies of a king not descended from him, which are confirmed by his own Biblical interpreters, Herod plans to murder the magi and all the children of Israel. The magi escape, warned by an angel, whereupon Herod sends his soldiers out to exterminate his rival, who also escapes into Egypt. The outcome of Herod's brutality—the murders are carried out on stage amid the pleas and lamentation of the mothers—though different in each version, is in all cases heavy with dramatic irony. The Towneley play, for example, concludes with a self-deluded Herod proclaiming that "Now in pease may I stand / I thank the Mahowne!"5 In the York and Coventry versions, the irony is more explicit, as the soldiers of the former admit under questioning that they are not sure whether Jesus was among the "brats" they have murdered, and in the latter a Messenger informs Herod that "All thy dedis ys cum to noght; / This chyld ys gone in-to Eygipte to dwell."6 In the Chester play, Herod's own son is murdered by his soldiers while in the care of one of the women. When told the news, Herod dies in a paroxysm of rage and is carried off to hell by devils. Even more pointed and ironic is the Ludus Coventriae version, in which Herod stages a feast to celebrate the successful execution of his plan to consolidate his reign and succession. Its mirth and minstrelsy are interrupted with the stage-direction, "Hic dum [the minstrels] buccinant mors interficiat herodem et duos milites subito et diabolus recipiat eos." While the devil drags Herod away, the spectral figure of Death, "nakyd and pore of array" closes the play with the inevitable moral: "I come sodeynly with-in a stownde / me with-stande may no castle / my jurnay wyl I spede."7

The appearance of death at Herod's feast cannot help but recall the appearance of Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's feast. For even though this motif of death at the feast of life occurs only in this one version of the Herod plays, it is a medieval topos which must have been available to Shakespeare from other dramatic or pictorial sources, if not from this particular play, since he had already employed it in Fortinbras'image at the end of Hamlet:

O proud Death,
What feats is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?


Indeed, the influence of the medieval cycles on Macbeth is not confined to the pair of plays already discussed but can be traced to other plays within the same cycles. Shakespeare's choric trio of witches, for example, are anticipated not only by the three kings in The Adoration of the Magi, but by the three shepherds and the three prophets in the play that precedes it in the Coventry and other cycles, The Adoration of the Shepherds. There, both the shepherds and the prophets are granted foreknowledge of Christ's birth, both discuss his prophesied kingship, and in the Chester version, both employ a form of paradoxical salutation similar to that of Shakespeare's witches:

Primus Pastor. Haile, King of heaven so hy,
 born in a Cribbe . . . !
Secundus Pastor. Haile the, Emperour of hell,
 and of heaven als . . . !
Tertius Pastor. Haile, prynce withouthen
 peere, that mankind shall releeve . . . !


Moreover, prophecies of the birth of a potentially subversive child trouble not only Herod, but both Pharaoh and Caesar Augustus before him in the Towneley cycle. Both follow the same, self-defeating course of attempting to defy the prophecies through promiscuous slaughter. Certain details of the Towneley play of Pharaoh may even find their way, from this or other versions of the story, into some of Macbeth's most famous language and imagery. His miraculous lines on how "this my hand / Will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red" (II.ii.60-62) may well have their humble beginning in the reported outcome of Pharaoh's equivocations with Moses, the first of Egypt's plagues:

Syr, the Waters that were ordand
for men and bestis foyde,
Thrugh outt all egypt land,
ar turnyd into reede-bloyde.


Or Macbeth's anguished outcry, "O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!" (III.i.36) may echo the same soldier's account of the third plague while internalizing it: "Greatte mystis [of gnats], sir, there is both morn and noyn, / byte us full bytterly."10 Even the plague of darkness may contain the hint for the dominant imagery of Shakespeare's play. It is not my intention to press these parallels as literal "sources," but it is important to recognize the close affinities of Macbeth with a series of Biblical tyrant plays, all repeating essentially the same story, each of whose protagonists—Satan, Pharaoh, Caesar, Herod—is a type of tyranny within a providential scheme of history. The apparently innocent request to "remember the porter" opens up an historical context for Macbeth that we have only begun to explore.

What, then, is the significance of these largely neglected models as they are deliberately recalled within Shakespeare's play? Glynne Wickham sums up their contribution to Macbeth as follows:

The essentials that he drew from the play [of Herod] are the poisoning of a tyrant's peace of mind by the prophecy of a rival destined to eclipse him, the attempt to forestall that prophecy by the hiring of assassins to murder all potential rivals and the final overthrow and damnation of the tyrant. . . . Like Herod with the Magi, Macbeth adopts a twofold plan. He aims first at Banquo and Fleance; and, when this plan miscarries, he extends his net to cover all potential rivals and strikes down Lady Macduff and her children. The last twenty lines of this scene are imbued with the sharpest possible verbal, visual and emotional echoes of the horrific scene in Bethlehem. Young Seward's image of Macbeth as both tyrant and devil in Act V, scene vii, recalls the drunken devil-porter of Act II, scene iii, and thereby the two complementary images of the religious stage, Herod the tyrant and the Harrowing of Hell, are linked to one another in compressed form to provide the thematic sub-text of this Scottish tragedy. Pride and ambition breed tyranny: tyranny breeds violence, a child born of fear and power: but tyrants are by their very nature Lucifer's children and not God's, and as such they are damned. As Christ harrowed Hell and released Adam from Satan's dominion, so afflicted subjects of mortal tyranny will find a champion who will release them from fear and bondage. This Macduff does for Scotland."11

The passage is worth quoting at such length because it so accurately reflects not only the indisputable elements Shakespeare takes over in Macbeth from the medieval tyrant plays but the doctrinal message those plays were designed to illustrate and inculcate, a moral orientation that critics much less conscious of dramatic traditions and much more "modern" and secular in outlook than Wickham also find in Macbeth. But to assimilate the meaning of Macbeth to that of its medieval models, as Wickham and most other critics of the play more or less explicitly do, is not only to make Shakespeare's play less interesting than it is but to make it say something it does not say. Such an interpretive stance is based on a misunderstanding of the way any truly great writer uses his sources and models, as well as the way Shakespeare used his own in this play.

For the resemblances of plot structure, characterization, even language between Macbeth and the medieval cycle plays cannot simply be ascribed to a pious attitude and a parallel intent on Shakespeare's part in relation to his models. All these resemblances arise in the first place as a result of the efforts of characters within. the work to turn the action in which they are involved toward or even into a certain kind of older action, to recreate their experience in the image of certain precedents for their own purposes, purposes which cannot be immediately identified with the author's and which the play as a whole may not ratify. We have already seen this impulse at play within Hamlet and the previous tragedies, where Hamlet, Othello, and Lear all attempt and fail to turn the action into a version of the morality play, and it is no less present and pervasive in Macbeth, though here the particular medieval convention involved is a somewhat different one. For from the inception of the Scottish counterplot, Malcolm, Macduff, and the others are given to recreating present history in terms of medieval dramatic conventions. In Malcolm's depiction of him during the interlude at the English court, for example, Edward the Confessor is presented not as an historical monarch but as a type of royal saintliness, the dispenser of "The healing benediction" and possessor of "a heavenly gift of prophecy" (IV.iii. 156-158). In contrast to the England blessed with such a king, Scotland has become, in Ross's account, a place "Where sighs and groans, and shrieks that rent the air, / Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems / A modern ecstasy" (IV.iii. 168-170), that is, a hell on earth that cries out for the harrowing. Its ruler becomes, in Macduff s words, "Devilish Macbeth," "this fiend of Scotland" than whom "Not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned" (IV.iii.55-56). In the same highly stylized and archaic vein, Malcolm proceeds to characterize himself, first as a walking abstract and brief chronicle of vices exceeding even those of the collective portrait of Macbeth, and then as an equally abstract model of virtue allied to Edward the Confessor. To seek some naturalistic basis for his highly abstract "testing" of Macduff is futile, for like Hamlet's "portrait-test," its rhetorical and theatrical overdetermination will always be in excess of any personal motive that can be offered in so far as it is inspired by old plays rather than present feeling. Malcolm, like Hamlet, must go out of his way to abstract and depersonalize himself and his world as a necessary prelude to the scenario of redress being contemplated. He and his fellows must remake Scottish history into moral allegory, thereby legitimating themselves and their historical cause by assimilating them to an absolute and timeless struggle of good against evil. Malcolm and his party must, in sum, represent themselves and their world, in precisely the terms of the play's medieval models, that is, in the name of all that is holy.

This effort to abstract themselves to older and purer roles, however, is not the exclusive prerogative of the angelic party of Malcolm and his followers and not confined to the Scottish superplot. A complementary but antithetical project is already underway near the beginning of the play in Lady Macbeth's attempt to become one with a demonic role:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
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. . . .


Her terrible soliloquy is appropriately cast in the language of the tiring room, as if its speaker were an actress beckoning attendants to costume her and make her up for the part she is about to perform, to "unsex" and depersonalize her into yet a fourth weird sister, even to dehumanize her into the "fiend-like" creature that Malcolm styles her at the end. All her efforts are bent toward making herself into a creature who trades lightly, even whimsically, in evil, and if her soliloquy echoes something of the incantatory tone of the witches'speeches, her utterances surrounding the murder reproduce something of their levity:

Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures.'Tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I'll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.


Her entire effort of depersonalization lies compressed within the notorious pun: an inner condition of being ("guilt") is to be externalized into sheer theatrical appearance ("gilt"), not simply to transfer it onto others but to empty it of the substance of reality and make it (stage-)manageable. Her repeated assurance that "A little water clears us of this deed" (II.ii.66) would similarly transmute the red and real blood of Duncan not simply into gilt but into something as superficial and removable as the Elizabethan equivalent of ketchup or greasepaint: "How easy is it then!" There is bad faith here of course, in so far as her transformation never loses consciousness of its own theatricality and thus never becomes complete. She would qualify herself for murder by becoming a devil, but to her devils remain only "painted," thereby disqualifying herself for murder. Lady Macbeth's attempt to theatricalize herself into a callous instrument of darkness and thereby disburden herself of the horror of the time is doomed to break down, largely because it receives no external confirmation or reinforcement from her husband—since role-playing in drama as in culture does not go on in a vacuum—who is constitutionally unable to think of these deeds after these ways.

In contrast to her fragile and ambivalent commitment to a mode of imitation which is expedient, temporary, and only skin-deep, Macbeth's commitment is to a mode of vision in which sign and meaning coincide, role and self are indivisible, and an action is not imitated but accomplished, once and for all time. It is a way of thinking and seeing much closer to that of Macduff, who describes the scene of the murder as "the great doom's image" (II.iii.74), than to that of his wife:

This Duncan
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.


In Macbeth's apocalyptic and allegorical projection of the deed and its consequences, Duncan becomes the Christ-like victim, and Macbeth the Judas-like traitor and Herod-like judge who will himself be judged. With its winds, weeping, pleading, and trumpet-tongued angels, the imagined scene conflates features of several typologically related cycle plays, notably those of the Crucifixion and Last Judgment. Within a mode of vision that blurs distinctions between intent and action, subject and object, illusion and reality, even to contemplate such a deed is to shake and crack the "single state of man" in which role and self were formerly united in the figure of Duncan's trusted defender. "To know my deed," he tells his wife after the murder, "'twere best not know myself (II.ii.72), and for Macbeth the rest of the play is dedicated to assimilating himself to the role he has fully foressen to replace his old one, to closing any gap that remains between himself and it:

From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,

Seize upon Fife, give to th'edge o'th'sword
His wife, his babes. . . .
No boasting like a fool;
This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.


A new and antithetical unity of being is born. Macbeth expounds and enacts a philosophy of language in relation to action that brings him into line with every previous tyrant of the medieval and Tudor stage. Tamburlaine's insistence on the instantaneous convertibility of his words into deeds is notorious, but the same attitude underlies Cambyses'murderous demonstrations of his omnipotence, as well as the decrees of Pharaoh, Herod, and Caesar that all the children shall be slain and all the world taxed. In each case, the tyrant enacts a demonic parody of the divine power he claims, namely the power to make the word flesh. By the end of his play, Macbeth's assimilation of himself to the dictates of the tyrant's role within the older drama being mounted by Malcolm and Macduff would seem to be complete, their dramatic visions having joined into one.

Given that the Macbeths willingly take on and play out the roles of "butcher" and "fiend-like queen" assigned to them in the apocalyptic history of Scotland according to Malcolm and Macduff, how can we contend that they are anything more than the walking moral emblems that the latter say they are, or that their play is anything essentially different from its medieval models? The answer is already implicit in the nature of their role-playing. For the fact is that, despite the different attitudes they bring to their role-playing and the different outcomes of it, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both have to strain very hard to play out their respective roles, and neither is completely successful in doing so. Lady Macbeth cannot fully become the fiend she tries to be, and Macbeth cannot fully become the strutting and fretting Herod he thinks he is. In the case of Lady Macbeth, her eventual madness is the index of the very humanity she would negate by turning herself into a pure and untrammeled role, the residue of an untransmuted humanity that had sought boldness in drink and was checked by remembered filial ties before performing the act that should have been second nature. Madness in Shakespeare's tragedies always attests to the incompleteness of an unreinforced role-playing, that technique by which the self in its naked frailty seeks refuge from the anxiety of such extreme and disruptive actions as revenge, regicide, or abdication through the adoption of an older and simpler mode of being. In this respect, the "antic disposition" of Hamlet, the madness of Lear on the heath, and now the quiet somnambulism of Lady Macbeth are very different from the behavior of Herod, who "ragis in the pagond and in the street also"12 when he fails to find confirmation of his absolute kingship in the prophecies, the wise men, and events themselves. For Herod does not and cannot go mad; he is mad. His "rage" is his role, and no matter how often he is traumatized, he will rebound with cartoon-like resiliency to his former outline, and rage again.

To define the truer madness that occurs in Shakespeare's tragedies, however: what is it but to be something other than role? Those who would follow Malcolm, Macduff, and the rest in equating Lady Macbeth with her fiend-like role and Macbeth with his role of butchering tyrant, and proceed to moralize or patronize them accordingly, are simply not listening:

Macduff. Turn, hellhound, turn!
Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee,
But get thee back! My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.


Macduff s challenge proceeds programmatically out of his own role of missionary, Christ-like avenger. Yet Macbeth's response proceeds not out of his assigned and chosen role of stage-tyrant, but out of an unsuspected reserve of sympathetic and spontaneous humanity that exists beneath it, a self still fragile and unhardened in evil even at this point, against his own and Macduff's protestations and accusations to the contrary. And Shakespeare's juxtaposition of the two reveals how inadequate and inappropriate are the moral terms deriving from the didactic drama of Satan, Pharaoh, Herod, Cambyses, even Richard III, to the drama of Macbeth.

Shakespeare makes it clear that Macbeth's play is in a fundamental sense not their play, despite the efforts of the characters within it, including Macbeth, to conform it to an orthodox tyrant play, and the many resemblances that result. Consider, for example, the nature of the prophecies and the manner in which they are accomplished. Just as Herod had questioned the Magi (and in one version his own interpreters), Macbeth questions the witches. He is shown in a highly archaic dumb-show an emblem of a "Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand" and another of a "Bloody Child," with accompanying glosses to the effect that "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth" and "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him" (IV.i.80-81, 92-94). Malcolm's camouflaging of his troops with the foliage of Birnam Wood identifies him with the crowned child bearing a branch, Macduff s Caesarean birth identifies him with the bloody child, and together they do indeed overcome Macbeth, with all the irony of a violated nature having her vengeance on the man who has violated her workings in himself. Yet even as these prophecies come true, they do so with an air of contrivance and artificiality quite alien to the inevitability of those of the cycle plays. On the religious stage the prophecies had had a literal transparency that those of Macbeth no longer possess. No interpretive effort is necessary to reconcile what was predicted (a king is to be born who will supplant Herod) and what occurred; or the literal meaning of the prophecy (Christ will supplant Herod) and its moral meaning (good will supplant evil); or the signs in which the prophecy is expressed (a star in the sky like a "sun"; a word in a sacred text) and their significance (the "son" of God, the "word made flesh").

In Macbeth, by contrast, a strenuous interpretive effort is necessary to reconcile the portentous emblems and pronouncements of the witches'dumb-show with their human and natural fulfillments, though we are largely unconscious of that effort when we make it. This is not simply a matter of the trickiness traditionally associated with prophecies of demonic origin. For not only are the prophecies of Macbeth not transparent and univocal as the prophecies of the Herod plays had been; strictly speaking, they do not even come true. It is not Birnam Wood but Malcolm's army bearing branches from Birnam Wood that comes against Macbeth at Dunsinane. Macduff may have been "Untimely ripped" from his mother's womb, making him something of a man apart, but that hardly qualifies him as one not "of woman born," the immaculate and otherwordly avenger of a fallen Scotland. It is only when we suppress their literal meaning (and our own literalism) and take the prophecies solely at a figurative level that they can be said to "come true" at all, let alone be made to illustrate the kind of moral logic we like to read out of them. In his handling of the prophecies so as to reveal their "double sense," their disjuncture of literal and figurative meanings, Shakespeare has introduced an element of parody, of fallen repetition, into his play in relation to its medieval models.

Yet this parodic discrepancy between Christian vision and Shakespearean revision which runs through the play does not in the least prevent the Scottish resurgents from blithely conducting themselves and their counterplot as if no such gap existed and the two were one and the same, even though their own elected roles and exalted design are compromised by it. We might think, for example, that Macduff s unexplained abandonment of his own children and wife to Macbeth's tyranny, though ultimately providing him with the most natural of motives for revenge, could scarcely strengthen his claim to the exalted, impersonal role of Scotland's avenger prescribed by the play's Christian model. After all, even on the medieval stage it is the epic, superhuman Christ of the Apocalypse who harrows hell, and not the more human figure of the gospels. But for the Scottish resurgents, these deeds must not be thought of after these ways. It is precisely their capacity to sublimate their naked frailties into the service of a missionary role and a divine plan that constitutes their real strength and the prerequisite for their success.

Macduff s personal guilt and grief are instantly transformed, at Malcolm's prompting, into the "whetstone" of his sword in the impending divine conflict, for which "the pow'rs above / Put on their instruments" (IV.iii.238-249). As such an "instrument" of righteousness, Macduff "wants the natural touch" (IV.ii.9) in more ways than his wife imagines. His unhesitating absorption into his role is never more astonishing than when he finally presents his own nativity legend, however literally lacking it may be, as the necessary credential for defeating Macbeth, however invincible in combat he once again appears. The same absence of self-doubt or self-consciousness in his new kingly role also characterizes Malcolm (whose single act prior to the mounting of the counterplot was also one of flight), particularly in his disposition of that "Which would be planted newly with the time" (V.viii.65) after the final victory. His announced intent of rewarding his followers with promotion to the rank of earl and of punishing his foes ("The cruel ministers / Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen" [V.viii.68-69]) sets the seal on the new historical order of his reign as a secular imitation of divine judgment. Yet the scene is also an eerie and unsettling repetition of an earlier scene in the play. For Malcolm's language and gestures cannot help but recall those of Duncan after the victory over Cawdor and Macdonwald, a new era of freedom and love that proved only too fragile and temporary, anything but an apocalyptic triumph of good over evil. The battle toward a civilized and humane order, like all the play's battles would seem only to have been lost and won after all. The arrival of Malcolm and Macduff at Dunsinane is decidedly not the harrowing of hell or the coming of Christ, though its partisans behave as if it were.

Of course it is not really surprising that Macduff and Malcolm never come to perceive, much less feel, themselves to inhabit the gap between the heroic and archaic roles they adopt and the precarious selves that adopt them. For they are ultimately akin to such earlier Shakespearean tragic foils as Laertes and Edgar, un-self-conscious and un-self-questioning imitators of an inherited and wholly conventional way of acting, two-dimensional characters in a three-dimensional world. It makes no difference whether we say that such foils seem cardboard or cut-to-pattern because they are supporting actors or that they are doomed to be supporting actors because they are cardboard and cut-topattern. For it is precisely the conventionality of Laertes'rant and Edgar's mock-madness that throws into relief the dimensionality of Hamlet's and Lear's more demanding experience. We can accept in them an unreflectiveness, even an insensitivity that is harder to accept or understand in Shakespeare's protagonists themselves. We are not unsettled when Laertes acts like Laertes, rants for revenge and leaps into his sister's grave. The cat will mew, the dog will have his day. It is much more unsettling, however, when Hamlet acts like Laertes, betrays the very depth and sensitivity that distinguishes him from Laertes, and does the same. Similarly, no one is shocked when Macduff enters with "the tyrant's cursed head" atop a pike and apocalyptically proclaims that "The time is free" (V.viii.55), nor when Malcolm lends his blessing to the deed and the sentiment. For that judicial brutality and the ritual language that surrounds it proceed directly out of the ingenuous repetition of convention that we have come to expect from these characters and violate nothing that has been shown to exist in either of them. Macbeth's brutalities, by contrast, and the self-brutalization that makes them possible are profoundly disturbing to us, not simply because they remain so disturbing to him, and not simply because they represent, as one critic puts it, "murder by thesis"13 —for what else is Macduffs decapitation of Macbeth?—but because they betray precisely that fullness of humanity with which Shakespeare has endowed him in contrast to his foils. In his strenuous effort to become the complete tyrant, to achieve the demonic equivalent of his angelic foils'unself-conscious conventionality, Macbeth must go out of his way to ignore the gap he senses between the pious and preordained view of things and the way things are, must do willfully what the others do quite naturally.

The question arises, then, why does Macbeth accept his destiny as a latter-day Herod, when he is not Herod? For no less remarkable than Macduff s unhesitating conviction that his birth carries the necessary credential for defeating him, is Macbeth's unresisting acceptance of it and the consequent slackening of his "better part of man." Why does Macbeth acquiesce to prophecies that require his co-operation to be fulfilled? The answer to these questions, I would suggest, lies in the mode of vision that we have already seen him bring to his experience before the murder of Duncan. He simply cannot do otherwise, not because his actions are compelled from without—the prophecies are not theologically binding like those of the cycle plays but psychologically self-fulfilling14—but because he has long since internalized his society's way of seeing and thinking. Both before and after the murder, Macbeth's is a primitive and animistic world of portents and totems, of stones that "prate" of his whereabouts, of a bell that summons to heaven or hell, of knocking that might raise the dead, of the crow turned emblem of darkness, of night that is synonymous with evil, of accusing voices and menacing visions, a world become archaic melodrama burdened with significance. This "overperception," in which distinctions between subject and object, man and nature, illusion and reality, past and present—all the potential distinctions of our modern critical and historical consciousness—are lost, is characterized in its essence by Lady Macbeth, when she reminds her husband that "'Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil," that "these flaws and starts . . . would well become / A woman's story at a winter's fire, / Authorized by her grandam" (III.iv.63-66). Yet it is just such a childlike and superstitious vision that finally binds everyone else in the play, including Macbeth, into a society as traditional and cohesive as a tribe or a clan. It is the vocation of the ruling and priestly class of such a society to paint, fear, and punish the devils who endanger that cohesiveness and their own power, and this is exactly what the Scottish thanes do, from the suppression of Macdonwald and Cawdor to the overthrow of Macbeth. The act of mounting atop a pole Macdonwald's and Macbeth's painted images, or better still their heads, is necessary as a totemic deterrent to tyranny, a public symbol of the inviolability of the social order and a glaring reminder of the inevitability of the moral law that sustains it: the wages of ambition is, and always must be, death. Macbeth had been an intergral part of this social order, as Cawdor had been, so it is in no way surprising to see them both attempt to conform their careers to the sacred fictions they were born into and carry around within them, Cawdor by repenting like a morality protagonist and Macbeth by remaining the arch tyrant to the end. Macbeth and Macduff understand one another perfectly, across the moral gulf that separates them, for both speak the primitive language of the tribe.

This is not to suggest that Shakespeare is simply holding up to ridicule the sacred myths, symbols, and forms that so pervade Macbeth. It is Marlowe, not Shakespeare, who is given to expressing an adolescent contempt for religion as something invented to "keep men in awe."15 The play is much more than an easy demystification of the ritual forms that dominate the consciousness and condition the actions of virtually all its principals, for it shows those forms to be at once quite arbitrary and fictive in themselves but wholly necessary and "real" in the social function they serve. In this respect, the play presents a stylization not only of Shakespeare's own society, where these Christian, ritual forms still prevail, but of all societies. It would be the height of ethnocentric naivete to view the "ecstatic" or "nostalgic" community depicted in Macbeth as any more primitive in its constitution than later, more "enlightened" societies in which heads are no longer mounted on poles.16 The gibbet in the eighteenth century—some of whose Shakespearean criticism does indeed condescend to his Elizabethan "barbarism,"—or the electric chair in the twentieth are designed to serve the same necessary function of deterring deviance within the community and to preserve the same necessary fiction that crime must inevitably be followed, as the night the day, by punishment. Moreover, the play depicts the impulse constitutive of every society to make its particular social forms and institutions, which are always arbitrary in so far as they are man-made, seem as necessary as natural forms and processes themselves, indeed a logical extension of them:

I have begun to plant thee and will labor
To make thee full of growing.


What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time—
As calling home our exiled friends abroad. . . .


My way of life
Is falL'n into the sear, the yellow leaf. . . .


Within a world that sees itself through the ritual forms of the medieval drama, in which the book of human history and the book of nature are one volume of God's making, it is almost a reflex of all its members to describe the social and historical process of meting out rewards and punishments, for all its demonstrated fallibility, in an imagery of unfailing natural process. But to dismiss this impulse as a version of nostalgic fiction or pathetic fallacy is to misunderstand the play. For like Macbeth's, Duncan's, Lennox's, and the others'investment of the natural world with human attributes, these efforts to endow the human and historical world with a serene inevitability that properly belongs only to nonhuman nature is more than fiction and less than truth, another aspect of the persistent recreation of the sacred, the remystification of the merely secular, that defines the world of the play in its essential doubleness.

It is this radical equivocation of Macbeth in relation to its medieval models, the double sense in which it at once recreates those models through the communal effort of its characters and reveals them to be a means of social and institutional legitimation, that makes the play so susceptible to pious mystification or ironic demystification. Of these possibilities for misinterpretation, the pious reading has of course prevailed. The play is generally regarded as a humanization and vivification, through the flesh and blood of Shakespeare's mature language and dramaturgy, of the bare skeleton of its stagy and didactic antecedents. In this view, their homiletic intent though it may be softened is not fundamentally questioned or altered in the process of benign and respectful transformation. The "good" characters are granted just enough of a depth they do not possess, and the "evil" characters are denied just enough of the depth they do possess, to flatten the play into a consistent domestication of a wholly traditional moral design. But surely it must be otherwise, for in what does Shakespeare's humanization of his sources consist but the putting into question of their conventional roles and forms? To the extent that the figures who carry around with them that older moral design as a sacred and un-self-conscious trust are made to appear conventional, predictable, and bidimensional by contrast with the figures with whom they share the stage and who are restless in their roles, however strenuously they attempt to conform to them, that older moral design can no longer be authoritative. Critics have always been responsive to the interiority of Macbeth's struggle, but they have been reluctant to recognize that it is achieved precisely at the expense of his status as a moral emblem or example. Yet he becomes something much more interesting to us than any moral emblem in the process, and not because, as the critical commonplace would have it, evil is intrinsically more interesting than good. Macbeth is more interesting than his prototypes and foils, not because they are good and he becomes evil—for Herod is hardly "good"—nor even because they "are" and he "becomes"—for his change is in many ways regressive—but because he cannot take his nature for granted. He cannot quite rest content in an action in which his role and his nature are determined in advance, but must continuously re-invent himself in the process of acting them out. It is in this that Macbeth's "modernity" consists and that his case bears directly on our own, at least to the extent that we are as fully human as he is. In this respect too, he becomes a very different kind of dramatic model, a type of modernity whose compelling interest for the playwrights who follow Shakespeare will cause him to be imitated again and again.

The simplifications that have become doctrine in the tradition of interpretation of Macbeth are the result not only of a failure to establish the play's relation to its models in its full ambivalence, but of a failure to identify the play's primary models in the first place. Just as Hamlet has less to do with Senecan revenge drama than with native morality tradition, so Macbeth has less to do with the morality play than with the tyrant plays of the Biblical cycles. Its nearest contemporary analogue is not Marlowe's Faustus, with which it is often compared as a parallel study in the psychology of damnation,17 but Tamburlaine or even Edward II, those early Elizabethan history plays which, like Macbeth, are modeled on the medieval tyrant plays that are the authentic prototypes of Elizabethan historical tragedy. The morality play is a misleading model in the interpretation of Macbeth in so far as it presents a world already more cerebral and voluntaristic than the cultic and animistic world of the cycles. It emphasizes, that is, freedom of moral choice within a mental setting, as opposed to the communal and typological destiny unfolded in the cycles. This misplaced emphasis on moral choice within Macbeth, where it receives little of the extended deliberation accorded to it in Hamlet, may well arise from the forced imposition of morality conventions upon the play and may well underlie all the misguided adulation of the bland and reticent Banquo and the equally misguided pity for Macbeth. For Macbeth's choices and actions, as I have tried to show, are not free in the way the morality protagonist's are, but are largely determined by his own and his society's expectations soon after the play begins. The universe of Macbeth is not ultimately and comically free, as it is even in those variations of the morality (like Faustus) where the protagonist persists in choosing wrongly and thus qualifies as an object of tragic pity, but is conditioned by forces largely outside his control. Of course those forces are no longer the benign and providential ones embodied in the figures of God and his angels who descend from above upon the human community below. Rather, they are disruptive forces that periodically and inexplicably bubble up, as it were, from within human nature and society, as the witches who incarnate and herald them seem to do from within the earth itself. Unlike the morality protagonist, who is confronted at all points with a clear choice between moral meanings already established by generations of sophisticated theological apologetics, Macbeth, and the protagonist of Elizabethan historical tragedy generally, must struggle with meaning as it ambiguously unfolds in the world. It is only by confusing these two dramatic modes that such reassuring commonplaces as "the Elizabethan world picture" or "the great chain of being" could misleadingly have been applied as a norm in the interpretation of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies in the first place, as if the "natural condition" they present were order and the life of man could be analogized to the life of nonhuman nature. In our own struggle with the meaning of Macbeth, the proper identification of those models actually implicit within the play thus proves crucial and affirms once again the interdependence of literary history and interpretation.


1Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage (New York, 1969), p. 222. Wickham's discussion of the influence of the cycle plays on Macbeth is reprinted in part from Shakespeare Survey 19, ed. Kenneth Muir (Cambridge, 1966), pp. 68-74. See also John B. Harcourt, "I Pray You, Remember the Porter," Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961), 393-402.

2 Wickham, p. 215.

3 J. M. Manly, ed., Specimens of the Pre-Shakespearean Drama (Boston, 1900), vol. I, p. 510.

4The Chester Plays, Part II (E.E.T.S., London, 1959), p. 323.

5The Towneley Plays (E.E.T.S., London, 1966), p. 180.

6Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Hardin Craig (E.E.T.S., London, 1957), p. 31.

7Ludus Coventriae or The Plaie Called Corpus Christi, ed. K. S. Block (E.E.T.S., London, 1922), pp. 176-177.

8The Chester Plays, Part I (E.E.T.S., London, 1926), p. 155-156.

9The Towneley Plays, p. 73.

10The Towneley Plays, p. 73.

11 Wickham, pp. 230-231.

12Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays, p. 27.

13 "It [Macbeth's atrocity against Macduff's family] is not nursed malice (they are'unfortunate'souls), but murder for thesis, a deed in which all that makes an act recognisably human, whether moral or immoral, has been by-passed." Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), p. 270. That the impulse behind Macbeth's "thesis" of dehumanization remains "recognizably human" and hardly as alienating in its effect as Sanders claims is confirmed by the fact that he can still call his victims "unfortunate," that he adopts it precisely for its promise of destroying his human sympathies, and that he never completely achieves its aim of self-demonization. Sanders'essay, in its responsiveness to the dramatic phenomenon of Macbeth and resistance to the received moral ideas that surround it, represents a genuine advance in interpretation of the play despite occasional atavisms.

14 By changing their nature from the "goddesses of destinie" of Holinshed's Chronicle to Elizabethan witches, Shakespeare subtly but significantly curtails the weird sisters'power of determination. It is now Macbeth's actions that make the prophecies "come true" and not the prophecies that reveal a predetermined truth. Of course he will be conquered when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, but only if he leaves his seige-proof castle to meet it; of course he must beware Macduff, once he slaughters his family; of course Macduff alone has the power to harm Macbeth, but only when Macbeth recognizes him as one not of woman born. On the grounding of the prophecies in a purely natural "law of retributive reaction," see the excellent discussion by Sanders, pp. 253-307.

15 Marlowe's religious views and the testimony of Thomas Kyd and Richard Baines, quoted here, are intelligently discussed by J. B. Steane, Marlowe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 17-26.

16 The term "ecstatic" is aptly applied to Shakespeare's tragic societies by Northrop Frye, Foods of Time (Toronto, 1967), p. 29, and "nostalgic" by Alvin Kernan, "The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays," The Yale Review, LIX (1969), 1, 3-32, to the older, passing world of the second tetralogy. The concept is further elaborated by Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King (New Haven, 1972). It is worth noting that the object Macduff carries in the closing scene of D'Avenant's revision of the play (1674) is not Macbeth's "head" but his "sword." The substitution, part of a larger effort to render Shakespeare seemly by rendering him bloodless, works to obscure the primitive essence of the Scottish society of Shakespeare's play and the underlying similarity between Macduff and Macbeth as creatures of it.

17 See, for example, Helen Gardner, "Milton's Satan and the Theme of Damnation in Elizabethan Tragedy," Essays and Studies, I (1948), 42-61. The fundamental inappropriateness of morality models to Macbeth is also apparent from D'Avenant's version, where Macbeth is reduced to a personification of Tyranny and Ambition (at his death, the stage direction reads "Ambition dies"), and the sharpest possible moral contrast, summed up in Macduff s closing couplet, is aimed at: "His Vice shall make your Virtue shine more Bright, / As a Fair Day succeeds a Stormy Night." The moralization of the play is carried a stage further toward absurdity in Garrick's additions to J. P. Kemble's acting copy (1795), in which Macbeth becomes a pale and frightened Faustus before his death:

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—
It will not be; my soul is clog'd with blood—
I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy—
It is too late, hell drags me down; I sink,
I sink,—my soul is lost for ever!—Oh!—

Reprinted by H. H. Furness, ed., Variorum Macbeth (Philadelphia, 1873), pp. 355, 295.

Robert G. Hunter (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Macbeth" in Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments, The University of Georgia Press, 1976, pp. 159-82.

[In the essay below, Hunter discusses the human and supernatural origins of evil both in the play and in the mind of its protagonist.]

Macduffe was from his Mothers womb Untimely ript.

So much of Macbeth is concentrated in this "horrid image" that a tracing of all its metaphoric connections would result in an essay on the whole play. Macbeth, for example, first enters our consciousness when the bleeding captain describes how he ripped the life from merciless Macdonwald by unseaming him from the nave to the chops. To list all the torn bodies that fill the space between that image and the play's end would be almost as tedious as it was for Macbeth to wade through the resulting blood. Fewer and more to our point are the instances of the more specific images of a bloody child. The figure is literally present, an ironic clue to hidden meaning, as one of the apparitions that the juggling fiends use to trap Macbeth. The child's advice to be bloody, bold, and resolute, Macbeth puts into practice by having his murderers stab Macduff s little son to death before his mother's eyes. Early in the play another version of mother and child is suggested to us by Lady Macbeth's claim that she would snatch the nursing baby from her breast and dash its brains out if she had sworn to do so. But perhaps the most meaningful as well as the most enigmatic of these children is Pity, which Macbeth, in the "If'twere done" soliloquy in act I, scene 7, describes as a naked, newborn babe. Because the helplessness of the babe inspires pity, the personification is appropriate, but this is an odd infant, for it strides the blast—walking upon the wind, or bestriding it, perhaps, or marching to the trumpet sound of Duncan's pleading virtues. But Pity is also like one of heaven's cherubin, one of God's angelic instruments, because Macbeth's great enemy, and hence a prime servant of divine justice, is decent human emotion—compassion, the horror and pity that will be aroused by the sight of the murdered, virtuous Duncan. So the bloody child is Macbeth's enemy, the innocent inspiration for compassion.

In the beginning the source of such inhibiting compassion is within as well as outside Macbeth, and that is why Lady Macbeth symbolizes its destruction by the murder of life to which she has given birth. The bloody body of Macduff s young son is proof, if we need any, that Macbeth's inhuman cruelty finally achieves the intensity urged on him by his wife. But the blood which covers the body of the child which Lady Macbeth murders in imagination and Macbeth has killed by his murderers in reality is the blood of the child itself. The blood upon the apparition is ambiguous. It may be the child's and it may not and at the moment it does not occur to us to wonder which it is. But the image of the newborn Macduff is unequivocal. This child is covered with the blood of its mother and thus act 5 presents us with a companion piece to the diabolical madonna of act I. Lady Macbeth imagines a mother who has killed her child. Macduff presents us with a child whose birth has killed its mother.

The pairing of these icons directs us to questions which are central to our concerns. Lady Macbeth's imagined infanticide is the most horrible crime it is possible for her to conceive, and most of us would, I hope, admit the difficulty of going her one better. The murder's special horror derives from its supreme unnaturalness. But what about the horror of the death of Macduff s mother? It is the result of the natural processes of nature in a fallen world. The newborn child, symbol of innocence, cannot, we tell ourselves, be made guilty of the blood with which it is covered. Its life results in death, but there is no element of willed action that could turn that responsibility into guilt. The natural processes of a postlapsarian nature may result in events as cruel and horrible as the crimes of Macbeth, but the events are not therefore crimes, because the element of will is missing. Except, of course, that it isn't. Will is present if the events of nature are conceived of as ultimately caused by divine will. The proper Christian response to such events as deaths in childbirth is, "Thy will be done." Which leads us to ask ourselves if this is also the proper Christian response to the crimes of humanity. All Christian theologies, I think, agree that human crimes are made to serve divine purposes, and most maintain that no such crimes could be committed without divine permission, but the crimes of men are held to be the results of the wills of men and as such, deserving of divine punishment. This conclusion is easily acquiesced in so long as the human will is held to be free. Lutheranism and Calvinism, however, deny the freedom of the will, but continue to insist that the eternal punishment of the reprobate is just. All men justly deserve punishment because all are born corrupted by original sin. This, I presume, is the final significance of the bloody child. Any newborn babe is as guilty and as subject to eternal punishment as Lady Macbeth herself.

The child ripped from its mother's womb grows up to become Macduff and in so doing embodies three times the human condition of simultaneous guilt and innocence. In being born he is guilty and innocent of the death of his mother. But he is also guilty and innocent of the deaths of his wife and children. They die for the courage of his opposition to Macbeth and for the stupidity of his abandonment of his family. Unlike Hamlet, Macduff feels guilt rather than responsibility for these deaths:

Sinful Macduff,
They were all strooke for thee: Naught that I am,
Not for their owne demerits, but for mine
Fell slaughter on their soules.


Finally he kills Macbeth. For that death, quite properly, he feels no guilt at all. Like Hamlet, he kills as the scourge and minister of heaven, and as such he is no more (or less) guilty than the child ripped from his mother's womb. In Hamlet's play the mystery of the antagonist's evil was dramatized by Claudius's inability to repent. In Macbeth antagonist has become protagonist and the examination of the mystery is much more complicated as a result.

But if Macduff stands to Macbeth in the relationship of Hamlet to Claudius, he stands more obviously as a symbolically highly complicated version of Richmond in relation to Richard III. In our terms, Macbeth, after Hamlet and Othello, is a return to the concerns of Richard III. It is a triumphal return, to be sure. Shakespeare's ability to create characters and to devise symbolic actions, as well as his command of poetic language, are markedly subtler and more powerful than they were fifteen years earlier. It is important to remember that these skills are not merely Shakespeare's means of expressing thought. They are his means of thought, and as his means increase in subtlety and power his thought grows more complex, profound, and difficult to understand. In Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III, a series of slaughtered innocents brought to our attention the possible presence of a jealous God whose justice visited the sins of guilty fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generations. In Macbeth the image of the bloody child is in the visual and verbal texture of the play, profoundly a part of the way the play exists as a work of art, and the result is to deepen the meaning—or rather the mystery—of this human suffering in a way that makes Shakespeare's previous employment of it seem brutally obvious. Nonetheless, the connection between the early histories and Macbeth is clear. The last two plays of the first tetralogy share with Macbeth a common pattern and a common problem. Like Richard III, Macbeth presents us with a story which must be apprehended in two different ways simultaneously—as the providential tragedy or tragicomedy of a society and as the psychological tragedy of a villain protagonist.

The providential tragicomedy opens with a society in revolt—in, that is to say, a state of sin, for the king revolted against is a lawful monarch and a saintly man. The indistinct figures of the merciless Macdonwald, Sweno the Norway's king, and the Thane of Cawdor are important for the sense they give us that Macbeth's murder of Duncan is not, like Claudius's fratricide, a personal crime primarily, but rather one which a sizable proportion of the society is trying to commit and for which the entire society will inevitably suffer. The second scene of Macbeth is thematically a condensation of the History plays'narrative of the War of the Roses. The rebels are sinning against God as well as man and the war they wage threatens to "memorize another Golgotha"—except of course that it is Macbeth whom the bloody captain describes as meaning to do so, and it is Macbeth who does so. The murder of Duncan is a hideous blasphemy:

Most sacrilegious Murther hath broke ope
The Lords anoynted Temple, and stole thence
The Life o'th'Building.


And the death of Duncan, like the death of Christ, is attended with storm and darkness. Rosse has the explanation: "Thou seest the Heavens, as troubled with mans Act, / Threatens his bloody Stage" (2.4.6-7). Here is the theatrical metaphor of the providential tragedy. God is present as spectator at the theater of his judgments but when necessary he will intervene as participant. "Man" is both individual and universal. The "act" is Macbeth's, but it is also man's—witness the recent revolt—and man must suffer for it. The instrument for man's punishment will be—with a logic and justice that could only be divine—the specific man who did the act for which man will be punished. But, of course, in God's good time, the evil minister of chastisement will be destroyed as a punishment for his crimes, including those he has committed as the instrument of chastisement. Grace, in the person of Malcolm, will be restored to Scotland.

The inadequacy of this design as a description of the action of Macbeth is perfectly obvious but it is one of the patterns that make up the play's complexity. Shakespeare's main interest, as it was in Richard III, is in the nature and meaning of the evil instrument and that is the subject of the other, the psychological tragedy. But Shakespeare has developed (or retained from Hamlet) an interest in God's good instruments as well. A part of the functioning of the tasteless and colorless Richmond of Richard III has in Macbeth been assigned to Macduff and another part to Malcolm. The interest of these figures is not in the least psychological. Malcolm and Macduff have not been endowed with minds in the way that Macbeth, Othello, Iago, Hamlet, Claudius, and Richard have. Their interest—and particularly Macduff's—lies in their symbolic complexity, the complexity of their functions in the Macbeth world.

In this sense, Malcolm is the less complicated of the two. His function is to be good, a dull proceeding in the theater, however difficult in life. Shakespeare enlivens his character by following Holinshed and having him, in act 4, scene 3, pretend to be bad in order to try Macduff s sincerity. The result is a scene in danger of being tedious if regarded only as a piece of theatrical naturalism, or an "atmospheric" device for depicting the loss of confidence in human beings that is one result of tyranny. Its important subject is the mystery of grace. In convincing Macduff of his insatiable voluptuousness and his staunchless avarice, Malcolm describes a potential or possible Malcolm, a vessel and instrument of wrath, one who, like Macbeth, exists to

Poure the sweet Milke of Concord, into Hell,
Uprore the universali peace, confound
All unity on earth.


He then reveals that he is not in fact the villainous Macbeth-equivalent that he has pretended to be. But not being Macbeth does not, of course, make him the opposite of Macbeth. All, and it is rather a good deal, that Malcolm claims for himself is a prior innocence. Up to this point in his life, he has refrained from doing evil. He is not saying "I am good," but "I have been good up to now." Macbeth's true opposite is Edward the Confessor as described by the doctor and by Malcolm. The job of the actor playing Malcolm is to convince us that Edward is his chosen potentiality, the royal possibility that Malcolm wills himself to become. But it is up to us to wonder if it lies within the power of any unaided human will to become what Edward is described as being:

He hath a heavenly guift of Prophesie,
And sundry Blessings hang about his Throne,
That speake him full of Grace.


The orthodox, Augustinian answer, and one that is clearly supported by Malcolm's speech, is that grace is the unmerited gift of God. This is, of course, an answer that creates a question: is the opposite of Edward equally the result of God's will, of the withholding of grace? This is one of the questions Shakespeare examines by creating the characters of Macbeth and his wife.

Macduff s symbolic function is considerably more complicated than Malcolm's, and one way of understanding it is, I think, to see it in the light of Shakespeare's concerns in Hamlet. Like Hamlet—though like him in no other way—Macduff is the elect instrument for the destruction of an evil king. But in Hamlet Shakespeare explored the psychological meaning of the concept. In Macbeth he limits himself largely to a symbolic exploration through the image of the bloody child. Largely, but not entirely. In depicting Macduff s agony for what he sees as his guilt for the deaths of his wife and children, Shakespeare is dramatizing realistically the horrors of life under tyranny. He is also dramatizing one of the ways in which an instrument of divine justice comes into being. By killing Macduff s innocent family, Macbeth is teaching his enemy bloody instructions, which will return to plague the inventor. Perhaps the most terrible sentence in the play is Macduff s reply to Malcolm's urging of revenge: "He ha's no Children." There is little doubt, however, what their fate would be if they existed and were left to Macduff's mercies. If Macduff does not become guilty of Macbeth's most horrible crimes, it is because he cannot. Malcolm is right in the speech which concludes the scene in England: "the Powres above / Put on their Instruments." But it is not a pretty sight. Macduff s example suggests one meaning for election: the good man will not do the evil that he cannot do.

The primary concern of the play is with the evil man, however, and with the question of the guilt of the evil. The consideration of the theme leads Shakespeare to create a world of double evil—human and superhuman—and to speculate dramatically on their interrelationship. Chronologically, in terms of the succession of scenes, supernatural evil—the witches—is presented as prior to human evil, as the fall of Satan is prior to the fall of man. But man in Macbeth is fallen and Macbeth's mind, like all human minds, though to an extraordinary degree, is prepared for the witches before he meets them. His first line "So foule and faire a day I have not seene" (1.3.38) seems to indicate that he is tuned in to the witches in some extrasensory fashion. And yet his variant of the witches' "faire is foule, and foule is faire" is morally neutral: the weather is terrible and the battle is won, a human observation on a banal paradox which is reassuringly different from the witches'diabolical reversal of moral values. Ordinary humanity soon ceases to obtain, however. Macbeth's reaction to the third witch's "All haile Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter" constitutes the first mystery of the play. Banquo asks our question: "why doe you start, and seeme to fear / Things that doe sound so faire?" Macbeth soon tells us, though not Banquo:

This supernaturall solliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good.
If ill? why hath it given me earnest of successe,
Commencing in a Truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good? why doe I yeeld to that suggestion,
Whose horrid Image doth unfixe my Heire,
And make my seated Heart knock at my Ribbes,
Against the use of Nature? Present Feares
Are lesse than horrible Imaginings:
My Thought, whose Murther yet is but fantasticali,
Shakes so my single state of Man,
That Function is smother'd in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not.


Macbeth fears the contents of his own mind, and well he might. If I were told that I was to be king hereafter my mind would provide me with Malvolian images for contemplation: myself seated in my state, in my branched velvet gown, receiving homage. Macbeth imagines the murdered Duncan. The oddity is rationally inexplicable. Macbeth tries to explain it by seeing his mind as the object of temptation, of "supernaturall solliciting," and the immediate source of the "horrid image" as a "suggestion" to which he has yielded. But there has been no soliciting and no suggestion audible to the audience. The witches have simply presented Macbeth with a morally neutral fact about the future, one which asks nothing whatever of him either in thought or action, and he knows this:

If Chance will have me King,
Why Chance may Crowne me,
Without my stirre.


The play's word for Macbeth's odd psychological state at this moment in the action is "rapt" and it is used twice, once by Banquo ("Looke how our Partner's rapt") and once, in his letter to Lady Macbeth, by Macbeth himself. The word is suggestive. Clearly both Banquo and Macbeth intend to indicate some such natural condition as that defined by the O.E.D.: "Transported with some emotion . . . Deeply engaged or buried in (a feeling, subject of thought, etc.); intent upon." But the word has stronger supernatural meanings as well and "rapt" suggests, I think, the possibility that Macbeth's condition may bear some resemblance to the "raptus Pauli." Perhaps Macbeth, on the road to Forres, has an experience similar to Saul's on the road to Damascus. "Trembling and astonyed" he may be possessed and converted by an exterior, superhuman force. If so the force is diabolical rather than divine and this possibility—that the forces of evil may have a way into and power over the human mind analogous to that of divine grace—accounts for some measure of the difference in complexity and intensity of the characterization of Macbeth by comparison with his earlier version in Richard III.

What "enraptures" Macbeth is not, however, the words of the witches but the image which those words inspire, the horrid image of murder. The problem of the precise origin of that image and of others like it is crucial to our understanding of the protagonist and the play. The origin of any image is, of course, the imaginative faculty of the mind in which it appears, but Shakespeare makes it difficult to dismiss as purely subjective the horrid image by which Macbeth is originally "rapt" by making it the first of a series of four. The other three, the bloody dagger, the voice which cries "Sleep no more," and the ghost of Banquo, form a progression of phenomena whose pure subjectivity is made to seem increasingly doubtful. Macbeth knows that the first image of murder is "but fantasticali." About the second he has doubts. Perhaps it is "a Dagger of the Minde." He thinks he heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more" and knows he may merely have thought it. But he does not doubt the reality of the ghost of Banquo for an instant and we are left to wonder if he is right or if Lady Macbeth is correct in characterizing the ghost as "the very painting" of Macbeth's fear.

But whatever the origin of these phenomena, one thing is clear: Macbeth is obsessed by images of evil. What is less clear is what we mean by "obsessed." Obsession may be an entirely natural process: "The action of any influence, notion or'fixed idea,'which persistently assails or vexes, esp. so as to discompose the mind" (O.E.D.). This is a reasonably precise description of the action upon Macbeth's mind of the notion of bloody, violent murder. But obsession may also be a supernatural process: "The hostile action of the devil or an evil spirit besetting any one; actuation by the devil or an evil spirit from without; the fact of being thus beset or actuated" (O.E.D.).

There are then, two opposed possible sources for the causes of Macbeth's raptness and his obsession. The origin of these psychic phenomena may be natural or supernatural. They may be the unaided products of Macbeth's imagination. But they may also be the result of the working of diabolical powers, either through the presentation of exterior stimuli to Macbeth's senses or through the direct working upon Macbeth's imagination of diabolically controlled physiological forces.1 But if the question of the source of the phenomena that obsess Macbeth admits of two possible answers, so does the question of their control. Is Macbeth's will free to exclude these images of evil from his mind? Again, it seems to me, the play does not give us an answer and as a result of Shakespeare's careful reticence in dealing with both these problems, anyone attempting to understand the play confronts a quadruple Macbeth, a character who may be conceived of in four different ways. Macbeth may be criminal, or insane, or self-damned, or reprobate. If the source of his horrid images is within his own mind and within the control of his will, then he is a morally responsible criminal who freely conceives of and executes his crimes. If the source is within his own mind, but outside the control of his will, then he is a madman whose diseased psyche presents him with hallucinations so powerful that they force him to action. If the source is supernatural but his will is free and strong enough to drive the phenomena from his consciousness, then he is "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" and he damns himself by choosing to permit the domination of the powers of evil over him. If the source is supernatural and his will is not free, then Macbeth is one of the Calvinist reprobate whom God has damned from eternity and abandoned to the powers of evil.

In the other three Shakespearean tragedies we have looked at, a similar though more limited choice of conceptual versions of the protagonist has been presented to us. But in each case, or so it seems to me, one possibility is emphasized as the most probable explanation of the protagonist's nature. Richard III appears most likely to be the reprobate instrument of divine providence. Hamlet, however mysteriously, seems to be an elect scourge and minister of heaven. Othello most probably is a free agent who through errors of judgment and wrong choice comes to desire damnation. But in the case of Macbeth, I think Shakespeare keeps the possibilities in suspension so that, at the play's end, the mystery is extraordinarily complex, almost as baffling, despite the strongly emphasized Christian context, as King Lear itself.

Our belief in the criminal Macbeth, a free agent freely conceiving and executing his crimes, is encouraged, particularly in the play's beginning, by the evidence that, despite his proclaimed nobility and courage, Macbeth is by nature a destroyer, a killer. The bloody sergeant's enthusiastic image of Macbeth's smoking sword unseaming Macdonwald from the nave to the chops prepares us to accept without surprise his notion that Macbeth meant to bathe in reeking wounds and memorize another Golgotha. By evoking his own dramatization of the killing of Caesar and coupling it with the crucifixion, Shakespeare suggests that, though he begins as a defender of order, Macbeth (like Banquo, who is also being described) is potentially an agent of strife and chaos. When we discover from Lady Macbeth that her husband wanted to kill Duncan before the supernatural soliciting, when neither time nor place adhered to make the murder possible, we realize that the identity is more than potential. Macbeth's moral nature does not require the supernatural as an explanation for why his mind presents him with strange images of death—the odd phrase used by Rosse to describe the corpses Macbeth has left behind him on the battlefield. Macbeth, we begin to suspect, is an artist in death whose imagination presents him with forms which he then brings into being, his (and confusion's) masterpiece being the corpse of the king.

If Macbeth's obsessive images are the creations of his own mind, unaided by supernatural powers, his degree of moral responsibility depends upon the freedom and strength of his will. If Macbeth's imagination is free of supernatural influence then his will may be also. If it is, and if it is not the naturally bound will of a madman, then Macbeth is a criminal who deserves whatever punishment is visited on him in this world and the next. The strongest evidence for the freedom and health of Macbeth's powers of choice is undoubtedly the soliloquy which begins, "If it were done when'tis done, then'twere well, / It were done quickly." The psychomachy there dramatized is won by the forces of reason, and of political reason in particular. Macbeth sees clearly that, leaving "the life to come" entirely out of consideration, there is a justice built into the operation of the political world of here and now. His murder of Duncan will be an example to the men he wishes to rule, particularly since there is no moral or political justification for the destruction of so good a king. Rational ambition must give way to other claims of reason which indicate so clearly that the fulfillment of ambition must be finally self-destructive.

The decisive clarity of this triumph of the reason can only emphasize the culpability of Macbeth when he capitulates to his wife's scorn of his manhood. Macbeth as criminal dominates our view of him at this point in the play, I think. We see him as freely conceiving and freely executing his crimes.

But our doubts of this identity begin at once. With the next soliloquy we start to suspect that Macbeth is, or is becoming, madder than we thought. The dagger which Macbeth sees and we do not and which he finally decides has no objective existence could be evidence of a sane mind under strain, sane enough, indeed, to recognize hallucination for what it is and to dismiss it at will. And yet this victory for reason does not result in the rule of reason. What replaces hallucination is an indulgence of the imagination in a theatrical self-contemplation which is a dissociation from the true self. Macbeth tries to dignify the sordid reality of a murderer sneaking up on his victim by decorating it with the inflated rhetoric of "wither'd Murder," "his Centinell the wolf," and "Tarquin's ravishing strides." The second half of the dagger soliloquy is Macbeth's equivalent of Othello's "Put out the light," an exalted prelude to the brutality of the crime which ensues. Shakespeare foregoes the dramatization of the crime and of the third of our phenomena, the voice which tells Macbeth that he shall sleep no more. As with the vision of the dagger, our natural assumption is that Macbeth is again hallucinating but the terror with which he describes the event is far more intense than his earlier reaction. Shakespeare, I think, is directing our minds toward two possibilities. The first is to strengthen our previous suspicion that Macbeth is or soon will be insane. Lady Macbeth encourages us:

These deeds must not be thought
After these wayes: so, it will make us mad.

You doe unbend your Noble strength, to thinke
So braine-sickly of things.

(2.2.33-34, 45-46)

The act of the murder has so taxed Macbeth's will that it no longer has the strength to control and repress his mind's horrible imaginings or to distinguish them from what really happens. But the terror which Macbeth communicates in his description of the voice might raise another possibility and would certainly have done so in the minds of all but the most skeptical Elizabethans. What if Macbeth is not going mad, but is being driven mad by supernatural powers intent on his destruction? One effect of Shakespeare's decision to have the third of our phenomena narrated is that we are free to doubt its purely subjective nature. Perhaps if we had been present, we would have heard it too.

There is no such doubt about Banquo's ghost. The evidence of the Folio stage directions, supported by Simon Forman's report of a 1610 production, make it as certain as these things can be that the ghost should be on stage for us to see.2 But what is the nature of what we see? Obviously it is not what Macbeth first takes it to be—the animated corpse of Banquo. No one except Macbeth and the audience can see it. It may be what Macbeth finally concludes it is—a horrible shadow, an unreal mockery, an illusion produced by the working of supernatural powers of evil upon Macbeth's mind. Or it may be a naturally explicable hallucination, the product of a guilty mind that has gone over the brink into madness. The ghost's visibility to us would then be the result of Shakespeare's decision to make Macbeth's insanity as vivid as the theater can. Finally there is a third possibility: the ghost may be Banquo's spirit, as the ghost in Hamlet is old Hamlet's spirit but visible only to Macbeth as old Hamlet is visible only to his son (and us) in the closet scene. In any case, it is at this point that the criminal Macbeth and the insane Macbeth become one. The free criminal, if that is what he is, has become the madman as a result of the evil he has done. Whether the fascination of doing evil has been at any time within the control of his will, Macbeth's doing of it has brought him to the condition of a raving lunatic. But having arrived at that condition, he does something quite astounding. By an effort of the will, he ceases to be mad. If we consider Macbeth as the prey to natural hallucination, then what we see and hear is a man issuing orders to his own mind: "Hence horrible shadow, / Unreall mock'ry hence" (3.4.119-120). The ghost disappears, and, although the play is only half over, its disappearance ends the series of puzzling phenomena we have been concerned with. From this point on Macbeth is plagued with no more "horrid images." They are replaced by illusions of a very different kind—the false expectations raised by the visions presented to him by the witches. But the change goes further than that.

It is hard to demonstrate, but I would maintain that the quality of Macbeth's mind is very different after his victory over the ghost of Banquo. In the first part of the play Macbeth is a man of action who thinks associatively, like a poet. His life is apprehended and created through his imagination and Shakespeare, by Macbeth's expression of it, brilliantly suggests the quality of such a life, evil as, in this case, it is: "Light thickens, / And the Crow makes Wing to th'Rookie Wood" (3.2.51-52). But once the ghost is conquered, this odd, cruel lyricism disappears from Macbeth's speech leaving dull brutality and bitterness in its place:

It will have blood, they say:
Blood will have Blood.

I am in blood
Stept in so farre, that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go ore.

(3.4.123-124, 138-140)

If rapt is the best word for the Macbeth of the play's first half, "tedious" replaces it in the second half. Not, by any means, tedious to us. He remains fascinating. But tedious to himself. Macbeth has become a bored thug.

The best explanation for this puzzling change is probably to be found in the relationship of Macbeth's will to his imagination. The triumph of Macbeth's will is a Pyrrhic victory. In order to destroy the vision of Banquo's ghost, Macbeth must destroy its source, his imaginative power. Most imaginations wither slowly. Macbeth kills his. Only by murdering his imagination can Macbeth retain his sanity, but the sanity that remains to him is horrible, a kind of rational madness. The destruction of Macbeth's imagination by his will is an act of self-preservation, but the self preserved turns out to be much like Richard Ill's, an "I" that has neither pity, love, nor fear.

If Macbeth's obsession is natural, he conquers it by an act of partial self-destruction that leaves him, in a secular and temporal sense, a damned soul, despairing and brutish, whose life is a horror to be waded through. He remains that if his obsession is supernatural, but when we so consider him we see that there may be dimensions to the meaning of his tragedy that would escape us if we neglected the supernatural possibility. Not that we need much change our account of what happens to Macbeth and what he does about it if diabolical forces are responsible for the series of psychic phenomena we have considered. In either case Macbeth's imagination is the immediate source of image, vision, voice, ghost; and in destroying his imaginative powers, Macbeth is destroying the instrument through which the forces of evil exercise their power over him. The irony of this triumph of the will alters its nature, however. Diabolical powers are bent on destroying Macbeth by driving him insane through working upon his imagination. They succeed in destroying Macbeth by forcing him to destroy his imagination in order to preserve his sanity. But this act of self-preservation turns out simultaneously to be an act of spiritual self-destruction. Is the triumph of evil over Macbeth inevitable then? I believe the play suggests that it may be. But it also suggests that it may not be.

If the play is taking place in an Augustinian world, then the power of evil over Macbeth's mind must be permitted by God, but the Augustinian God, though he permits the triumph of evil, ought not to permit its inevitable triumph. The possibility of a saving choice should be open to Macbeth—and perhaps it is. The diabolical temptations and torments to which Macbeth is subjected may also be manifestations of divine grace. When Macbeth has heard the witches'prophecy he yields to the "suggestions" that in order to become king he must murder Duncan. The form of that suggesion is a vision of the murdered king:

that suggestion,
Whose horrid Image doth unfixe my Heire,
And make my seated Heart knock at my Ribbes,
Against the use of Nature.


A suggestion is a "prompting or incitement to evil . . . a temptation of the evil one" (O.E.D.). The paradox of this temptation is obvious: it repels while attracting. Temptations often do. That the horror has a perverse attraction for Macbeth does not however cancel its nature for him as horror. The temptation takes a form that warns the tempted against yielding to it and thus the origin of the horrid image may be as much divine as diabolical. The same can be said for the bloody dagger. Macbeth interprets it as marshaling him the way that he is going but another mind might take it as a barrier in his way and so Macbeth's rejection of it may be a rejection of divine warning. The voice that cries "sleep no more" can even more obviously be the threat of divine justice as well as the triumph of the devil. Finally the ghost of Banquo, which drives Macbeth to the brink of madness, may simultaneously be driving him toward true sanity through the sacrament of penance. Macbeth, as a result of the vision of Banquo's ghost, is brought to something like Claudius's psychological condition after "The Mousetrap." If he were to repent, confess his sin, and suffer its temporal consequences, he would save his soul. Thus the whole series of psychic or supernatural phenomena partake of a possible double nature and reveal that Macbeth's imaginative faculty is potentially as much the instrument of grace for his salvation as the instrument of evil for his temptation and destruction.

But the possible double nature of these phenomena is not the only evidence for the working of grace upon Macbeth through his imagination. Again, in the "If it were done" soliloquy, Macbeth's arrival, for once, at a correct choice is attributable not simply to the action of right reason upon the will, but to the action of the imagination as well. Macbeth's stated purpose in the soliloquy is to confine his thought to a consideration simply of his temporal situation "heere, upon this Banke and Schoole of time," jumping the life to come. He concludes as a result of an eminently rational process of thought that judgment will be visited upon him even here, and that he must therefore refrain from murder. But throughout this logical consideration of a practical moral and political problem, the imagery in which his thought takes form betrays the presence beneath the conscious surface of his mind of the pressure upon it of his knowledge and fear of eternity and this presence may well be evidence of the working of grace. When, for example, he comes to consider the evenhanded justice that will see to it that the murderer of Duncan will himself become the victim of a murderer whom he has taught to kill, Macbeth's poetic imagination personifies the idea. He embodies the concept, however, not as the usual blindfolded lady with the scales, but as the commender of a chalice to the lips—an image of the evenhanded priest at the sacrament of Communion. The image is a natural result of the fact that Macbeth has just come from what he has proposed shall be the saintly Duncan's last supper, but it is also evidence of the possible existence of forces within his mind, but not of it, that present his consciousness with thoughts that will not let him "jump the life to come." Again, when he considers what effect the saintliness of Duncan may have upon the men who will determine whether to punish his killer, he imagines Duncan's virtues pleading: "like Angels, Trumpet-tongu'd against / The deepe damnation of his taking off (1.7.1920). Virtues plead, like angels, against damnation most notably in the highly popular allegory of the Four Daughters of God where Justice and Truth, Mercy and Peace argue the fate of fallen man before their divine Father and are reconciled when Christ agrees to satisfy justice by taking upon himself the punishment which man deserves. The form which Christ's pity for humanity inspires him to assume is that of a naked newborn babe and that is the form which Macbeth imagines for the pity that will inspire men to destroy him if he murders Duncan. Within the confines of this soliloquy then, Shakespeare has Macbeth use imagery that suggests God's decision to save fallen man through Christ's atonement, the Nativity and the Last Supper.

For a modern reader of the play this emergence of images of eternity into a soliloquy ostensibly devoted to the political and moral decisions of here and now is a brilliant example of Shakespeare's ability to convey a sense of the unconscious mind working upon the consciousness. But what for us is evidence of the unconscious is for Shakespeare's time explicable as extra-psychic, as supernatural, so that some of Shakespeare's brilliance as an imitator of the human psyche may have its origin in a desire to suggest that at times the contents and movements of the mind are the result of forces outside the mind itself. Here his verse suggests, I think, how grace may strive to work upon Macbeth's will through the power of his imagination. Reason and imagination combine to bring Macbeth to the rejection of evil. Then Lady Macbeth enters and the work of grace is overthrown. Macbeth's will freely rejects its earlier decision and he continues on the course which leads to his damnation.

If the origin of the psychic phenomena is supernatural and if Macbeth's will is free, then Macbeth is self-damned, for if evil works on him through the power of his imagination, so does grace and his will chooses to obey the promptings of the former. But one last possible Macbeth remains. If Macbeth's mind is subject to the suggestions of the supernatural and if his will is not free, then he is a reprobate sinner as conceived by Calvin, one upon whose damnation God decided in his secret councils before the creation of the world.

In Macbeth the evidence for this most frightening of tragic possibilities is found largely in the nature of time and the characters'relationship to it. Shakespeare uses the witches and their prophecies to suggest that the future may be immutable. W. C. Curry explains the witches'power of foreseeing the future as the result of a superhuman version of logical inference from their superior understanding of the causes of things: "In this sense, the demons, having lost nothing of their angelic nature, know the future development of events conjecturally though not absolutely."3 This is convincing enough so long as the only prophecies in question are those about Macbeth's future glories. But the later misleading revelations are considerably harder to account for. Perhaps the witches might have known that Macduff was born by Caesarean section and that he was likely to kill Macbeth. But how could they foresee Malcolm's sudden development of a talent for camouflage and the precise moment and form of its expression? Or what except supernatural knowledge of what must occur in the future could have informed them that Banquo's descendants would turn out to be the House of Stuart?

The witches necessarily give us the strong sense that what Lady Macbeth calls "this ignorant present" is that instant in which the illuon of possibility can exist, but only because ignorance allows it to. The immutable future seems subject to the exercise of will because we cannot see it in the instant. In fact it exists with the same finality as the past and it is known with the same certainty to supernatural intelligence. But the importance of the relationship of the characters to future time is considerably larger than that suggested by the witches'enigmatic knowledge of what will be hereafter. The significant differences between Macbeth and his wife and the changes that take place in their natures are defined and determined by their different and altering relationships to time. In the first two acts of the play it is obvious enough that each is dominated by a different psychic element. Macbeth embodies imagination. Lady Macbeth embodies will. What each in this way is determines the difference in each of the quality of his knowledge of what will be. Macbeth apprehends the future sensually. He knows the murder of Duncan by his experience of the horrid image. He sees the bloody dagger before he has brought it into existence. He experiences the future torture of his mind, the restless ecstasy that lies ahead of him, when he hears the voice cry, "Sleep no more." Lady Macbeth, on the other hand knows what will be because she wills it to be: "Glamys thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promis'd" (1.5.13-14). Her knowledge of the future is less apprehension than information. Duncan will be killed because she has determined that he will be. If she had sworn to dash her baby's brains out, that would happen too. Macbeth's letter transports her beyond this ignorant present because it instructs her will. All in all she is a frightening demonstration of the stupidity of the will when it is not informed by imagination. Her reason foresees results but not consequences, so she can invite evil to possess her without regarding the invitation as more than a necessary precondition for Duncan's murder. Once done, it will be done, "what's done, is done"—or so she thinks. Macbeth's apprehending, associating, essentially poetic mind knows better: the assassination cannot trammel up the consequence. The truth that Lady Macbeth discovers is very simple: the past does not cease to exist, but it does pass beyond the power of the will to alter it.

Not only that, the existence of the unalterable past saps the power of the will to control the future—or to believe that it can control the future. Macbeth asserts his will to subjugate his imagination and the result is a new Macbeth incapable of fully experiencing either past, present, or future, a Macbeth who is an easy prey to the juggling and paltering of the witches. The vacuum left by the disappearance of his own imaginative vision of the future is easily filled by the misleading, the merely factual information of the witches. His will has lost the game by winning it. And the paradoxical triumph of Macbeth's will is simultaneously the defeat of his will-dominated wife.

Lady Macbeth's relationship to the play's time is oddly stationary. She exercises her will in turn upon future, present, and past. When the future she wills into existence becomes the present, she ceases to have a future, and when it has become the past, she ceases to have a present as well. From the beginning she is locked into the moment of the murder. At first her function is to will the murder into existence and until that moment, her function smothers surmise. When the moment arrives, her will successfully exercises itself by imposing upon that bit of time the order needed to prevent disaster. She can return the daggers because she refuses to allow her imagination to discover the meaning of what she will see when she sees the murdered Duncan:

. . . the sleeping, and the dead,
Are but as Pictures:'tis the Eye of Childhood,
That feares a painted Devili.


Life and death are no more meaningful to her than art, and without imagination neither life, death, nor art can have meaning.

But once his wife's will has brought him safely past the moment of Duncan's murder, Macbeth begins to deprive her will of its future-determining function:

LADY: What's to be done?
MACB. Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest Chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.


He starts to savor the pleasure of the future's imagined crimes:

Come, seeling Night,
Skarfe up the tender Eye of pittifull Day,
And with thy bloodie and invisible Hand
Cancell and teare to pieces that great Bond,
Which keepes me pale.


But these horrible imaginings must be paid for when they have become realities and as past crimes they erupt into the present in the form of Banquo's ghost. Again Lady Macbeth's will must try, this time more frantically, to preserve the order of the present moment. Desperately she deploys her familiar arguments. Macbeth is not a man. The ghost is but a picture, the painting of his fear. But she is powerless against this strange image of death. Only Macbeth's will can control it, but though his will succeeds in doing so, the victory comes too late for Lady Macbeth. Macbeth has ruined the party:

You have displac'd the mirth,
Broke the good meeting, with most admir'd disorder.


at once, goodnight.
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.


The essentially suburban nature of her evil mind is nowhere more apparent than in the moment of its defeat. But it will not do to overemphasize the merely bourgeois quality of her aspirations. The festivity which Banquo's ghost has interrupted is an emblem of the measure, time, and place which was last possible in the banquet that preceded Duncan's murder and which will become possible again only when the butcher and his fiendlike queen are dead. The efforts of her will to impose such order upon the present have proved futile and the present has turned out to be the product of an immutable past which was once a future that her will apparently determined. The function of her will is smothered at that moment when Macbeth's will smothers his "surmise." After the departure of her guests she has barely twenty exhausted words to speak to her husband before she leaves the play, returning only as a will-less, imagination-haunted sleepwalker.

We see her in that scene, caught in her moment, the one she has willed and which she can now neither escape nor alter. She has become a walking shadow tormented by shadows, but unlike Richard the Third or her husband, she cannot respond to the unalterable outside herself by altering herself. She can only escape by destroying herself. As with Richard and Macbeth, her death leaves us in doubt about the real power of her apparently determining will. In Macbeth the suspicion that the events of the play are preordained is always present and that suspicion is a logical inference from the witches'knowledge of the contents of future time. This possibility is given poetic expression by Macbeth's last great speech. There Macbeth's sense of himself as poised between meaningless yesterdays and meaningless tomorrows comes into focus on the enigmatic phrase "recorded time" with its implication that all time, future as well as past, is history, a matter of eternal record. Man's considerations of possibility, his exercises of will, are predicated on an illusion of possibility. His psychomachies are sciamachies, the struggles of a walking shadow. The literary metaphor that concludes the speech is an answer to and a development of Rosse's early theatrical metaphor for the intervention of divine providence. Man's acts are nothing more than the strutting and fretting of a poor player and the bloody stage is not his, but the idiot's who has invented the tale that is being told upon it. Our sense that in Macbeth life may be meaningless arises, however, not from an idiotic lack of logical coherence in the action, but from its opposite, the sense that the form of Macbeth's life, is, to adapt Coleridge's critical distinction, mechanical rather than organic. If the events of Macbeth's tragic existence have been predetermined by divine power, if indeed "Der Herr Gott würfelt nicht," then the bitterness of "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" is entirely justified.

The last of our four Macbeths, the predestined reprobate instrument and object of God's wrath, suggests the existence of a world conceived by Calvin and recreated imaginatively by Shakespeare. Each of the other three possible Macbeths similarly suggests a world that would account for his nature. The criminal who freely conceives and executes his crimes embodies evil in a Pelagian universe. The man whose own mind pushes him to the brink of madness and who must destroy his imagination in order to survive inhabits a world ruled by natural determinism. The Macbeth who freely chooses to follow the promptings of supernatural evil rather than those of divine grace inhabits the universe created by Augustine's God and embodies in it the same mystery that Claudius defines in Hamlet. The coexistence of these versions of our reality has characterized the other three plays we have examined. But Richard III appears most likely to be a creature of Calvin's God. Othello seems to inhabit a Pelagian world, though one whose optimism has been tragically qualified by Shakespeare's sense of the ways in which our minds are bound by their very natures. The Augustinian solution to Hamlet's mystery seems more satisfactory than any other, but in his tragedy, as in the other plays, probability is never certainty and the mystery remains a mystery. In Macbeth, it seems to me, no possibility predominates. The various suggested causes of the protagonist's tragic destruction coexist in perfect equilibrium.

But, of course, the destruction of the protagonist does not conclude the play's action and Macbeth's last great speech is not the play's final word. The beneficence of providence is reasserted strongly at the end. As a result of his killing of Macbeth, Macduff tells us, "The time is free," suggesting that our previous sense of its enslavement was, though accurate, the result of a special condition—the temporary subjection of the play's world to evil through the capitulation to diabolical forces by Macbeth and his wife. Now, to take up Malcolm's vocabulary, the threat and fact of chaos have given way to "measure, time and place." Thanks to "the grace of grace," justice and mercy have been restored to Scotland and the retributive portion of justice has already begun to operate in the destruction "of this dead Butcher, and his Fiend-like Queene."

The element of the unsatisfactory in this highly satisfactory conclusion needs careful definition. It stems in part from the inadequacy of the words butcher and fiend. Our experience of Macbeth and his wife has been so complex that this simplicity inevitably calls attention to itself. Not, in my opinion, because we find the terms too harsh. They are as deserved as the fates of the people to whom they apply. For the purposes of Shakespearean temporal justice, a man is what he has done and I cannot see that the play solicits the smallest sympathy for what this butcher and fiend have done. But Macbeth is not only a presentation of actions. To an extraordinary degree, even for Shakespeare, the world of the play is the cause and the result of the protagonist's mind. That world contains forces—divine grace and supernatural evil—that are not of Macbeth's mind yet cause that mind to be what it is. And Macbeth's mind, in turn, causes his world to be what it is, not only because of the impact of his crimes upon the world, but because the quality of that world is communicated to us as it is apprehended by Macbeth's mind. His subjective world becomes the world of our dramatic experience. Shakespeare has made us know what it is like to live within the associative, obsessed mind of a man like Macbeth, and we must, I think, admit that Macbeth's last great speech evaluates our knowledge of Macbeth's world accurately. Life in the world as Macbeth knows it signifies nothing.

We can, of course, take that knowledge to be the knowledge of an illusion. The play permits us to choose to believe that Macbeth's life is a tale told by an idiot only to Macbeth and only because Macbeth has willfully destroyed his ability to see the measure, time, and place that Malcolm and Macduff can see. But does the text insist that the subjective vision is illusion and the objective is reality? I do not think so. I have said that Macbeth should be apprehended simultaneously as the providential tragicomedy of a society and as the psychological tragedy of a villain protagonist. I have also maintained that there are at least four different and equally valid ways of understanding that protagonist. Two of these ways, by seeing the protagonist of the psychological tragedy as a creature without free will, call into doubt the meaningfulness of the providential pattern. And this, surely, is what Macbeth does at the end of the play by maintaining that he is a poor player in a tale told by an idiot. If he is without free will, then he is trapped in recorded time and his life signifies nothing. What the play shows us is that, experienced from within, by its victim and instrument, the providential pattern signifies nothing.


1 See R. H. West, The Invisible World, Athens, Ga., 1939, p. 29.

2 Kenneth Muir, ed., The Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth,p. xvii.

3 W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, Baton Rouge, La., 1937, p. 48.

Charles Moseley (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Macbeth's Free Fall," in Critical Essays on Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, edited by Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, Longman Group UK Limited, 1988, pp. 22-34.

[In the essay that follows, Moseley examines the issue of free will versus predestination, arguing that Macbeth is free to choose whether to murder Duncan and free to choose repentance, but once these choices are made his fate becomes inevitable. The critic asserts that Macbeth is fully aware of what he is doing at every stage of his self-destructive progress.]

All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be king hereafter!

The Witches'prophecies in I.3 are fulfilled to the letter. Macbeth, almost immediately Thane of Cawdor, is soon king. Banquo would indeed beget kings: James I, early in whose reign the play was written, was one of them. So was everything that happened to Macbeth inescapable? Did he ever have a chance? Faced with a masterful wife who twits him about his own manliness, Witches lying in wait in odd corners of the countryside, the motive of huge ambition, an ideal opportunity and a dagger conveniently at his belt, could he have resisted, avoided his fate and not killed Duncan? The question of Macbeth's freedom of will and action is central to the play. I shall suggest that not to see Macbeth as a free agent is to destroy any coherence and dignity the character might have.

But to begin with we need some discussion of terms to clear the undergrowth. First, free will and predestination. Predestination has usually been understood as man not being free to alter the future course of events and his own conduct in them, both of which being controlled by some higher power. Free will, on the other hand, means the capability of choosing, within the constraints of circumstances—among which are the results of the free will of other beings—between alternative courses of action and response. The opposition seems complete: if there is free will, there can be no predestination, for the outcome cannot be known in advance; if the outcome is determined in advance, goodbye free will. But in fact the mutual exclusion is only apparent.

The problem with the concept of predestination lies in the idea of time implied in the syllable'pre-'. Some analogies may help to sort this out. For example, when we watch a play for the first time and do not know its plot, we cannot know in advance what the characters are going to do. When we see it again—and nothing in the play has changed—we know, as by definition the characters cannot, just what they will do: we can see their future, but they can't. The sequence of time in the play is present in our minds as a single completed whole. This of course allows the possibility of irony; but it does not and cannot mean the characters are predestined by us to behave as we know they will, for in their imaginary and illusory world they are still ignorant of the future, which for them at any given moment does not, strictly, yet exist. They are capable of acting and deciding as free beings, which is why we find them interesting. To put it another way: if we see a man sitting on a chair, he must be sitting on it. But his sitting on it is not controlled by our seeing him. In a similar way, in the sixth century, Boethius, in the Consolation of Philosophy, suggested the idea of predestination was simply a literal nonsense; God, who exists by definition in an Eternal Present, where there is no time, has knowledge of events in time but not foreknowledge of them, for all times are equidistant from him as all points on the circumference of a circle are equidistant from the central point of no dimension round which it is described. Thus it is possible to reconcile God's knowledge of all time, including the future, with the freedom of choice and action in time of human beings.

Macbeth could be seen as the puppet of forces external to the world of the play—the Witches, or the evil they represent, or of a malevolent Fate or a hostile Creator. But to do so would reduce him to the level of a doll without autonomy of action and choice; it would rob him of his dignity as a tragic hero. Our reaction could only be pity, and the play would be a statement, quite literally, of no meaning—no meaning in the suffering and grandeur of man, and because it would imply that all men are similarly so controlled, the statement would itself be predestined and therefore without any meaning that could logically be seen as true or false. But to see Macbeth as a free agent with real choices allows us to ask the much more interesting question of how Macbeth was trapped into becoming the willing agent of his own damnation. Before we can look at that damnation, it is necessary to glance at what type of play Macbeth is, and the nature of the Witches and what they represent.

Macbeth is a fundamentally religious play: that is, its main area of interest is in the struggle in a man's soul between good and evil courses, where the choice of good leads to his developing his full potential, and the choice of evil to his utter and complete loss of being and identity. It draws, indeed, for a good deal of its material on the religious drama, the Moralities and Mysteries, that were still being played in the towns of England well into Shakespeare's manhood. The Porter scene, for example, is built on and has verbal echoes of the comic scene in the play of The Harrowing of Hell, where the devil-porter hears a knocking on the gate and opens it—after much verbal slapstick—to let in Christ the redeemer who will destroy the power of hell for ever. (This gives us an interesting clue about Macduff.) Like other art of the time, the play presupposes a model of the order and degree of the universe that is the fruit of centuries of speculation by Christian philosophers, where every being has its allotted place and job to do, and sin consists, basically, in refusing to do it. But most importantly, like Marlowe's Dr Faustus, it is a play about a man being tempted by appeals and suggestions to his overriding passion—in the cases of both Faustus and Macbeth, power—to his damnation. Shakespeare has clearly built Macbeth's motivation on an understanding of the nature of sin as defined, for example, in the work of the great theologian St Thomas Aquinas: the root cause of sin is the commitment of the self to a good which is changeable and imperfect, and every sinful act stems from an uncontrolled desire for some such good. Desire like this results from the fact that the sinner loves himself before all other things (the name for that is the Deadly Sin of Pride). Macbeth's inordinate ambition—of which he is fully conscious, (I.7.25ff)—makes murder a lesser evil than not enjoying the kingship. Furthermore, Macbeth's career closes with an insight into the terrible despair and aloneness that is how the theologians define hell—for, as Marlowe's Mephistophilis reminded Faustus, it is only imagery to talk of the fires of hell, for hell is a state and not a place:'Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it'. Macbeth is thus the spiritual tragedy of a man who rejects his honoured and virtuous place in the hierarchy of Scotland and of the universe through the coveting of the throne, and reduces himself to nothingness. He is a man, moreover, who assumes that the knowledge of the future the Witches seem to have leaves him no escape from his destiny.

Shakespeare's understanding of evil in this play is also built on sound theological footings. It is philosophically and logically a grave mistake, as St Augustine demonstrated in the early fifth century, to see evil as independent, self-existing, a rival army, as it were, to the hosts of heaven, that might eventually win. Unfortunately the imagery we have to use in order to be able to think at all about those things beyond human reason does tend to make us visualise evil as a power capable of action, just as the metaphor of the fires of hell has misled thousands into a phobia about toasting forks. Evil, rather, is a privation of good, an emptying, rather than a filling with something else. Its character is fundamentally negative. But on stage this philosophical nicety is very hard to represent—though we do see a gradual emptying from Macbeth of all those qualities that made him so admired by other characters at the play's opening, and Lady Macbeth prays for a quite literal emptying of her womanly qualities. Shakespeare's device of the Witches was a way of getting round this difficulty as well as appealing to popular taste and preconceptions.

Among the educated, there was an underlying scepticism about the powers supposedly deployed by witchcraft. Even James I was beginning to modify the credulous position he had expressed in his youthful work Demonologie. In some circles, indeed, the whole concept of an invisible angelic/demonic world was under some attack. But there was a good deal of popular belief in the power of witches to do nasty things to people, and the annual consumption of harmless old women being burnt as witches was quite high for a good part of the seventeenth century. On the stage there was a fashion for plays with witches and devils in them, and though often the devils were comic (for Satan can't stand being laughed at) they were not taken without seriousness. The stage presence of Shakespeare's Witches combines something revolting and threatening with absurdity. The doggerel in which they speak emphasises the mindlessness of their malice—as for example towards the master of the Tiger; they represent in an externalised form the power in nature to turn to nothingness, away from true Good. The supernatural soliciting has no power of itself; they do not tell Macbeth to do anything, they do not control him in any way, they merely say what shall be and leave the chain of circumstance leading to it unsaid. Their prophecies could all come true—as does the first—without Macbeth doing anything at all except continue as'noble Macbeth','Bellona's bridegroom'. He could even become king without doing anything—as he sees:'If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me'(I.3.143). (He is a member of the royal family, and even the designation of Malcolm as heir, which he sees as a major blow to his hopes (I.4.49ff) does not preclude the possibility. Malcolm, heir to the throne or not, through entirely natural causes might well fail to live to enjoy the crown.) All the portents and prophecies of Macbeth's second interview (IV.1.47ff)—which is initiated not by the Witches but by Macbeth—have, ironically, a logical and natural explanation. The ambiguity of these second prophecies extends to the first; they'palter in a double sense', and Macbeth ultimately recognises that it is his hopes that have made him take that sense in a way that has led to his destruction (V.6.56ff). Their power derives from their initial articulation of Macbeth's overmastering passion, the ambition he has already at least hinted at to Lady Macbeth (I.5.16ff), and from his wish, his'burn[ing in] desire'(I.5.3) to believe, understand, and know in a certain way. It is not the Witches but Macbeth himself who allows the prophetic utterance to enslave his mind.1

Any power the Witches have is therefore parasitic upon Macbeth's own nature and ambition, and they externalise the deepest desires that he finds difficult to admit even to himself (I.3.136-137). Shakespeare is thus in a sense using them almost as a part of Macbeth's noble but flawed mind. A similar point is hinted at in V.3 and V.5: the Seyton (pronounced'Satan') who arms Macbeth, and who tells him the news of the Queen's death that pushes him finally over the edge into despair, is an image of the real relationship between the Prince of Darkness and the moral being. The devil is powerless unless men give him power. The focus of the play thus centres in Macbeth's character, in the tragic mental and moral destruction and its effects. There was much theorising about tragedy in the sixteenth century which there is no space to go into here. What really concerns us is the consequent assumptions about the nature of the hero on which Shakespeare and his audience would be working. On a mature view a tragedy does not simply describe the fall of a man from high place to misery—which certainly happens to Macbeth, from'noble Macbeth'to'that dead butcher'—but also studies how he falls. His fall has to matter to us; we have to be convinced of his original grandeur, nobility and importance, see his fall as terrible and yet, because it proceeds from his own moral choice rather than merely from things done to him, ultimately just. And we have to feel a sense of terrible waste of human greatness and potential.

Both these premises, therefore, the religious and the dramatic, necessitate a Macbeth who is in a real sense free to choose. If he is not, he cannot be a viable hero of a tragedy; only if he is can the spiritual drama have any meaning.

As a tragic hero Macbeth has something in common with overreachers whose ambition brings about their downfall, like Marlowe's heroes Tamburlaine, Mortimer or Faustus—especially in their amoral pursuit of power. But he has more in common with a hero like Milton's Satan, where we see a being making an initial and entirely free wrong choice, and gradually being rendered less and less free by the consequences of that choice, to the point where he is unable to escape the prison of his own self. What is striking about Macbeth is the self-awareness he shows in his own self-destruction. He knows exactly what he is doing and is at all stages aware of his own progress. Moreover, his progress is highlighted by the important use of two foils to him, Banquo and Lady Macbeth.

Banquo and Macbeth start the play off pretty much on the same level. Both are valiant soldiers, dutiful subjects, the saviours of their country, equal in their deservings (I.4.29ff). But when the Witches appear on the heath to both of them, their reactions begin to separate them, and it is worth illustrating how Banquo's cautious detachment preserves him from the fatal lust to know what devours Macbeth's mind.

Ironically, we know from I.2.66ff, before the Witches appear, that the thaneship of Cawdor has been granted (entirely understandably) to Macbeth. Their first prophecy is thus no prophecy, merely a statement of what is. But Banquo and Macbeth do not know this; and Macbeth's'rapt'reaction, conveyed by bodily gesture (I.3.50ff)' . . . why do you start . . .?') suggests that his interest has been passionately kindled and we are prepared for his desire to know more (lines 69ff). He has already, without examination, taken the statements at face value, and his desire to believe in the future greatness he covets means he is well and truly hooked:'The greatest is behind'(line 116) is a clear hint of his passionate interest, and his eager turning to Banquo in the following lines elicits Banquo's prophetic warning (an important signal to us that the play is deeply concerned with the way Macbeth is motivated):'That trusted home/ Might yet enkindle you unto the crown'(lines 119-120). His desire to talk of it more to Banquo (lines 153ff) confirms his acceptance of the reality and trustworthiness of the experience, and it is only after he has murdered Duncan that he dissembles his interest (II.1.21) Banquo receives a similar but apparently contradictory prophecy in I.3.61ff; he too desires to hear more—he is understandably curious—but he is aware of the likelihood that the Witches are an illusion (lines 51-53), mere'bubbles'(lines 78-79). He recognises something devilish in them (line 106), and remembers, as Macbeth forgets, that the'instruments of darkness'can tell truth to make the soul trap itself—again, a useful guideline for the audience about what to watch out for in Macbeth (line 120). Nevertheless, he is intrigued by them (II. 1.20) though he never loses his doubt about their status and reality—'If there come truth from them . . .' (III.1.6ff). Like Banquo, the audience may be being asked to remain uncommitted to the final reality of the Witches and the supernatural, but to recognise that the mind's consent to the illusion or whatever it is might enkindle all sorts of terrible things. It is, after all, Macbeth alone who sees the Ghost in III.4, and whatever else it is, it is one of the'scorpions'of his mind.

The moral sense and caution shown by Banquo is constantly emphasised by Shakespeare to highlight the freedom of choice both men enjoy. Careful of his honour, Banquo is guarded at Macbeth's tentative suggestion that they should join forces:

So I lose none [honour]
In seeking to augment it, but still keep
My bosom franchised and allegiance clear,
I shall be counselled.

(IL 1.26-29)

He is clearly suspicious when Duncan is murdered, and declares his own position quite unambiguously (II.3.127ff): 'In the great hand of God I stand'. The point is that he is tempted, he is attracted to the idea of siring a race of kings, but he does not fall:

Merciful powers!
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!

(II. 1.7-9)

Having one character who did not give way enormously heightens our perception of the one who did.

The Witches'prophecy is powerful only because Macbeth already has ambitions and desires that alarm him. I.3.129ff shows that he wants to believe that he will be king, but he sees a terrible way to achieve it: murder. He is aware that even thinking the thought—'murder yet is but fantastical'(line 138)—is dreadful (though having the thought flash through the mind is not in itself sinful). It is consenting to it that revolts his whole physical frame, as the action itself will upset the very order of nature—a terrible'yield[ing] to that suggestion':

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature


Macbeth sees the appalling reversal of all values, of duty and nature implied in the action. And this time his conscience and his perception of the way the moral machine of the universe runs make him reject the notion of actively seeking the crown in this way; he rightly sees that he is not compelled to do anything (line 144).

Yet his desires, though'black and deep', unfit for the eye of heaven to see, he does want accomplished. Clearly he has discussed them with Lady Macbeth at some point (I.7.48). She, indeed, has at this point no similar misgivings: there is no ambiguity about her when we first meet her. Indeed, Shakespeare had to develop her so rapidly as a foil to Macbeth's moral perplexity that in her first appearance she has to be clearly recognised as villainous. She is committed to the fulfilment of their joint ambition by any means. There is something utterly devilish in her rejection of all that is feminine in herself, something literally unnatural. Her terrible prayer (I.5.38ff) is fulfilled to the letter like all the prayers in this play are: she becomes a 'fiend-like queen'. But he is not willing to so commit himself—he reacts,'We will speak further'(which is the polite formula for'no') (I.5.69) to Lady Macbeth's clear assumption that he is eager to get on with the murder. She reacts with fury; but this is the last time we see her so confident. For as Macbeth grows in evil doing, she weakens. She needs Dutch courage before the murder of Duncan (II.2.1); she is agitated and nervous after it; by III.2.5-7 we are seeing the first crack in her, the first signs of the fear and insecurity that lead to her eventual madness. By V.1 she is in her own hell. The character whom Shakespeare presented to us at first as in many ways the simplest to understand is being shown to have a moral consciousness and awareness of her responsibility for her own actions.

By I.7.1ff the desire to be king is at the front of Maebeth's mind. He is even ready to murder to become so, but dreadfully afraid of consequences in this life and the next. He is aware that kingship won in such a way makes itself vulnerable to the very same breakdown in order and duty. He recites all the reasons why he should not murder Duncan (lines 12ff), and—in utter self-knowledge—he recognises that his ambition will, if not checked, ultimately destroy him (lines 25ff). (This concern for right conduct has been the means for him to be up till now'noble Macbeth', and it is well known—and seen as a fault—by Lady Macbeth: I.5.16ff.) Sensibly, he determines to'proceed no further in this business'(lines 31ff), in recognition that what he would be doing would destroy his humanity (lines 45-47). But as a result of Lady Macbeth's persuasion by the unfair argument attacking his self-esteem, his courage, and his love for her, by lines 80ff he consents. He knows exactly what he is doing. The horror of what he is about to do that he shows in his soliloquy II.1.33ff does not stop him; and by II.2.20ff the horror at what he has done is compounded by the awareness that his bodily and spiritual rest is destroyed for ever. He needs blessing, but has (without repentance) cut himself off from it. The consciousness of his own guilt for his own action is overwhelming, and remorse (line 73) is almost insupportable.

His action has made him in a real sense unfree, for as he himself perceived, no action is without consequences. His life is now a series of responses to those that flow from this initial crime. First he has to dissemble. Yet in his dissembling when Duncan's death is discovered he speaks, with a hypocrisy which must be self-aware, a truth he echoes sincerely on Lady Macbeth's death:

Had I but died an hour before this chance
I had lived a blessèd time . . .


Fear makes him follow the first murder with two more, when he kills the guards to protect his own position; fear of Banquo, fear of the future—'To be thus is nothing;/ But to be safely thus'(III.1.47ff)—becomes the controlling emotion in his mind. Fear makes him mistrust his peers so that he keeps spies in their houses (III.4.130-131). He is quite aware of what is happening to him: he recognises that his'eternal jewel', his soul, is now:

Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings!


And the reaction is not repentence, which can rescue the most hardened sinner, but defiance and despair:'come fate into the list/ And champion me to the utterance'(lines 70-71). All the time he is conscious of the'bonds'on him (III.2.16ff) which alone keep him human, and in his despair rejects them. In the agonies of remorse, in the hellish snake-pit of his conscience—'full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife' (III.2.36)—he envies Duncan's peace. He knows what he is doing and what he is:

I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.


The irony, which Shakespeare could count on his audience spotting, is that in his despair he forgets that true repentance can cleanse of the worst of sins. He has now truly lost his freedom, for he is trapped by his own mind in a hell of his own devising.

At this point he has overtaken Lady Macbeth in evil. He tells her to be innocent of the knowledge that he is planning to murder Banquo (III.2.45-46). When we see him meeting the murderers almost on their own level and persuading them, we are aware of the enormous lowering of status and dignity he has brought on himself (III.1.75ff). He has thrown all concern for anyone or anything except himself to the winds, and mere retention of power is all that matters. He decides to seek the Witches out'to know/ By the worst means, the worst'(III.4.133-134) and in IV.l he desires to know the future even if it entails the destruction of the world itself (lines 49ff; cf. lines 99ff).

By IV.1.149ff, when he vows to kill the Macduffs, his crimes have become merely vindictive, purposeless, vicious—and stupid. This cannot be to his advantage in any way. The violence is mindless, and even the nobility he had as a fighter at the opening of the play begins to dissipate in sheer bloodiness: the ugliness in V.3 of his nervous anger—supported by the significant oath'death of my soul'(line 16)—does not argue a great commander men willingly follow any more, and he knows that he is alone and must always be so: all the things he had at the beginning of the play he has lost. His life is fruitless, in the'sere, the yellow leaf (lines 20ff). He has even lost'the taste of fears'(V.5.9ff). His mind is now diseased as is Lady Macbeth's, and in V.3.40ff he is clearly talking about himself as well as her. Life has become meaningless,'signifying nothing'(V.5.18ff). He has finally become both the traitorous Cawdor and'merciless'Macdonwald, even to the composition of his army of kerns. The sense of waste and the terrible loss of something that was once grand and noble is profound.

Macbeth has been tricked by his own desires and ambition into projecting onto the ambiguity of the Witches'showings and speeches what he wanted to see and understand. He recognises at the end that the fiends are'juggling':

. . . palter[ing] with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.


But by then it is too late; he is in hell, where the doors are firmly bolted—on the inside.


1 The motif of prophecy being fulfilled by attempts to avoid it—as in Oedipus Tyrannos—is common enough. Shakespeare is using the motif the other way round.

James L. o'Rourke (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Subversive Metaphysics of Macbeth," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XXI, 1993, pp. 213-27.

[Here, O'Rourke rejects the providential interpretation of Macbeth, claiming instead that the play depicts a world in which there is no rational sequence of motivation, action, and consequence, nor any restoration of order at the close. There is no accounting for the dramatic action, the critic argues, only an indifferent fatalism that subverts a Christian explanation of human existence.]

The persistence of the providential reading of Macbeth may be the best evidence for the continuing influence of A. C. Bradley on Shakespeare studies. Based on the introductions to Macbeth in standard classroom editions,1 Bradley's blend of metaphysical idealism and psychological realism which presents Macbeth as a drama about the purgation of the evil embodied in the figure of a murderer and the consequent restoration of a political and providential order is still the most common reading of the play presented to American students. This echoing of a Bradleyan line in Macbeth criticism would seem to have bypassed Harry Levin's attack, thirty years ago, on Bradley's approach to the tragedies. At that time, Levin characterized Bradley's metaphysical framework as an amalgam of Hegel and Aristotle,2 in which Bradley's usual description of a Shakespearean tragedy as a process leading from the temporary disruption of cosmic order to its restoration displaced the idea of catharsis from an account of the experience of a playgoer to a description of the world of the play. In this interpretation of Aristotle, the Poetics has become, as Stephen Booth puts it, "a sign of the covenant between literature and the ultimate values of the universe."3

Interpretations of Macbeth which have departed from Bradleyan beliefs about the "ultimate values of the universe" have nonetheless generally remained faithful to Bradley's emphasis on character and action as the primary vehicles of the conceptual framework of the play. Bernard McElroy and E. A. J. Honigmann focus on the character of Macbeth and stress his capacity for conscience and his consequent suffering; Wilbur Sanders and Harry Berger, Jr. go past the level of individual characters to describe Duncan's Scotland as a troubled society; and Karl F. Zender seems to offer a challenge to at least the more extreme views that Macbeth offers "an optimistic view of life" when he contends that Young Siward's death represents a shift from an ameliorative to a pessimistic conception of the significance of human struggle."4 But Zender reinscribes Young Siward's death within a Bradleyan universe when he frames it thus: "His death reminds us, in the midst of the triumph of natural and providential order, of its limitations" (425). This is consistent with Bradley's principle that tragedy depends upon a sense of "waste" within the structure of a cosmic order.5 Berger's and Sanders'critiques of Scottish society as depicted in Macbeth are not really, despite Berger's use of the word, "structuralist"; Berger has done more than what he calls "smok[ing] the edges of this structuralist approach with an existentialist emphasis" when he describes Macbeth as expressing the "realistic view that history is largely the work and burden of man" (Berger 3), a conclusion that is far more traditionally humanist than it is structuralist.

There is not much about the witches in character and action criticism which seeks to assess the depth of Macbeth's character or his responsibility for his fate. A more truly structuralist analysis of the play that concentrates on the image of the witches in Macbeth is Peter Stallybrass's "Macbeth and Witchcraft," in which Stallybrass argues, I think justifiably, that the Weird Sisters of Macbeth embody all that stands in opposition to the political order not only of medieval Scotland but of Jacobean England. I agree entirely with Stallybrass that a reader should see as a "manoeuvre of power"6 the creation of a symbolic order which demonizes witches in order to justify a patriarchal polis, but I do not agree with Stallybrass that to see this is to disagree with Shakespeare. Stallybrass seems to believe that Shakespeare actually wrote the play that Bradley et al. describe, but that a modern reader should dissent from Shakespeare's conservatism. I would argue that in Macbeth Shakespeare wrote a play that is profoundly subversive of the Christian metaphysics that structured the symbolic order of his society. The subversion is in the poetry of Macbeth, and the pattern, as Paul de Man said of the structural intentionality of Derrida's reading of Rousseau, is too interesting not to be deliberate.7

A shift from critical analysis of character and action to a concentration on the language of the play can bring about a markedly different view of the determining forces of Macbeth. At one level, the problem is put very well by L. C. Knights, who, although he advocated a providential reading of the play, showed exactly what has to be ignored to come to that conclusion when he said of the "sound and fury" speech that "the poetry is so fine that we are almost bullied into accepting an essential ambiguity in the final statement of the play."8 It seems an odd conception of poetic value to believe that "fine poetry" is to be resisted as one would a bully. But poetic language does not only figure as rhetorical persuasiveness in Macbeth; a post-structuralist conception of metaphor as the constitutive principle of metaphysics rather than as an ornament to meaning can demonstrate the close-knit integrity of the language of Macbeth, and can open up a reading of the play that goes beyond the quasi-naturalism of the Bradleyan universe of tragedy which, as Levin so succinctly put it, "presupposed that man is both the master of his fate and an object of supervision on the part of the gods, to a much greater extent than either science or theodicy would encourage us to believe."9 The deconstruction of this providential view of Macbeth's metaphysics has taken several forms in recent studies of the play. D. H. Fawkner, while avowing a Derridean approach to Macbeth, has simply flipped the metaphysical coin and discovered that the witches create a "hyperontological zone" in which "vanishing" is "structurally'stronger'than presence"; Stephen Booth and Marjorie Garber have found reasons to celebrate the play's undecidability; and Malcolm Evans has adopted the Derridean principle of supplementarity to insist that "if'nothing'is identifiable with sin and chaos, it is also the ground of all creation."10 But I would argue that all of these read-ings underestimate the centrality of the weird sisters to Macbeth. What the witches represent is precisely the opposite of undecidability; they are more than a simple principle of absence, and are even more than a supplement to the Creator of the Christian tradition. When Booth's especially close reading of the effects of iteration and wordplay in Macbeth leads him to the conclusion that "cause and effect do not work in Macbeth,"11 he puts his finger on the metaphysic em-bodied by the weird sisters. If Stallybrass's observation that the weird sisters represent a challenge to the entire symbolic order of a traditional Western political system is pursued, then the stakes of Booth's observation become clear: the action of Macbeth is determined either by the Christian God who guarantees a traditional symbolic order and the Bradleyan/Aristotelian covenant, or by the weird sisters who replace that Creator in the position of omniscience and represent an acausal determinism.

Macbeth clearly has much to say about Christian metaphysics, and specifically with the central paradox of a metaphysic which asserts both the omniscience of a divinity possessed of a simultaneous vision of all eternity and the free will of mortal beings who exist within that vision. In the economy of Macbeth's metaphysical speculations, the "sound and fury" speech subverts both halves of that Christian paradox, and comes to be far more than an eloquent expression of Macbeth's despair. The imagery of the speech draws together many of the themes of the play's own subversive metaphysics, and the speech itself functions as an anagnorisis in which Macbeth crystallizes the terms of the conditions he addresses as "fate" or "time" in his asides and soliloquies throughout the play. A trope that anchors the metaphysics of the speech and of the play occurs in Macbeth's imagining of days stretching to "the last syllable of recorded time." The notion that time should end on a "syllable" supplants the Christian notion of the Last Judgment, as this "syllable" recalls, and provides a tightly logical completion to, the opening of the Gospel according to John which says that "In the beginning was the Worde."12 This wordplay about language completes a tropism which replaces the metaphysical governance of the word (logos) that gives order and purpose to the whole of creation with the prophecies of the witches, the "weyard sisters" who represent the blind determinism of Wyrd.

The subversive pun by which Wyrd supplants Worde anchors a metaphysics of linguistic determinacy that, in Macbeth, is a metaphysic devoid of allegorical reach—it "signifies nothing." The seemingly curious word choices which occur in the "sound and fury" speech are precise expressions of Macbeth's realization of the structure of this closed and meaningless determinism. When he responds to the news of Lady Macbeth's death by saying, "There would have been a time for such a word" (5.5.18),13 "word" does not mean only "message," and one underestimates the degree of Macbeth's fatalism if the line is paraphrased to mean that there would have been a better time for such news.14 There is an old English proverb about the operation of Wyrd which says "After word comes weird"—as the OED glosses it, "The mention of a thing is followed by its occurrence."15 When Macbeth refers to his wife's death as a "word" he collapses the distinction between "word" and "weird," the saying of a thing and the thing itself. The irony here is that Macbeth has, for most of the play, attempted to live under the naturalistic assumption that he could race against time. Eliminating the space between imagining and doing seemed to him the necessary means of his own success; he had sought to "trammel up" consequences and overtake time by making the "firstlings of [his] heart . . . The firstlings of [his] hand" (4.1.147-48). As he contemplates attacking Macduff s castle he says "be it thought and done" (149), but he echoes himself in a way that subverts his attempt to impose his own form of closure on history. His promise that "This deed I'll do" (154) unintentionally parodies his earlier assertion that "I have done the deed" (2.2.14), where the emphatic past participle expressed the wish that the murder of Duncan "Might be the be-all and the end-all—here" (1.7.5). When "I have done the deed" turns into "This deed I'll do," the iteration suggests an endlessly reopening chain of consequence.

In the "sound and fury" speech, time jeopardizes Macbeth not in its naturalistic speed but in its metaphysical scope; it "creeps in this petty pace," but comes relentlessly to the be-alls and end-alls of death and last syllable which end life and history. As Macbeth no longer sees any possibility of outracing time, the depth of his fatalism can be measured in the contrast between the flatness of the lines, "She should have died hereafter: / There would have been a time for such a word," and the eagerness which had informed his plans and desires to bring "Strange things . . . in head . . . to hand, / Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd" (3.4.138-39), and "To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done . . . This deed I'll do, before the purpose cool" (4.1.149-54). By the time of the "sound and fury" speech, Macbeth is not inclined to think that there would have been a better time for Lady Macbeth to have died; he says, rather, that it doesn't really matter when an inevitability happens to occur. His collapse of "tomorrows" into "yesterdays" grounds his fatalism in a denial of the reality of "time" itself as it is seen within a mortal perspective, and his detachment depends upon his approximation to a perspective which is superior to temporality and is inhabited, in Macbeth, by the "weyard sisters." Lady Macbeth had defined the power of this perspective early in the play when she said that Macbeth's letters had transported her "beyond / This ignorant present" (1.5.56-57) until she felt "The future in the instant" (58). Seeing the "future" as the present is, in a Christian metaphysic, an attribute of God, who sees all time as simultaneous. The subversive metaphysics of Macbeth depersonifies this perspective which sees all time, all tomorrows and yesterdays, as simultaneous—that is, it removes the figure of "God," or the logos, from that position—but it does so without restoring freedom to human action. Even after replacing the figure of God with a trio of exaggeratedly fantastic figures that cannot inspire literal belief, Shakespeare binds all of the action of Macbeth to the vision of these figures. They do not cause events to occur, but neither can the action of the play be explained without reference to their prophecies. The most seemingly commonsense interpretive questions, such as whether the witches are autonomous and cause Macbeth to murder Duncan, or if they are simply manifestations of Macbeth's unconscious, are made unanswerable by a play that does not operate within the assumptions about causality and temporality implicit in the questions. Such questions do not capture the mode of the "existence" of the Weyard Sisters, because these figures do not exist within the assumptions of a language which presumes causality. As Wyrd replaces Worde, the witches embody a literally nonexistent condition; what they represent defies the language, because it escapes the foundational categories of metaphysics of presence; "Wyrd," as Derrida says of "différance," is neither active nor passive, present nor absent, sensible nor intelligible.16

Macbeth thus engages the central problem of a Christian metaphysic, the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will, and emerges with the gloomiest of verdicts, as neither Divine Providence nor human volition can account for the action of the play. The idea of free will is dissipated in the failure of naturalistic questions to produce a causal chain that runs from motivation to action to consequence. The inadequacy of such questions shows through the prose of the foremost of Shakespeare's character-and-action interpreters when Bradley describes Macbeth's feelings at the murder of Duncan: "The deed is done in horror and without the faintest desire or sense of glory—done, one may almost say, as if it were an appalling duty; and, the instant it is finished, its futility is revealed to Macbeth as clearly as its vileness had been revealed beforehand."17 It was, however, the futil-ity of the act which Macbeth had noted well before it took place. He wished that "th'assassination could trammel up the consequence," and "be the be-all and end-all here" (1.7.2-5), but he finally came to acknowledge the inevitability of retribution, saying:

in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th'inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.


Macbeth says that he has no desire to kill Duncan ("I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent," [1.7.25-26]). He sees that the prophecies mean that there is no necessity for him to do anything in order to become king; when he says "If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me, / Without my stir" just after the meeting with the Witches [1.3.143-44], this suggests that the prophecies, rather than inciting Macbeth towards the killing of Duncan, should have led him to view Malcolm's nomination as the royal heir with an equanimity born of the certainty of his own eventual accession. And he shows no sense of accomplishment even immediately after he has performed the murder: "Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst" (2.2.73) he says, only minutes afterwards.

Why, then, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Bradley's description of Macbeth's motivation toward the murder is that it is "as if . . . an appalling duty." It is, Bradley sees, more accurately described as a compulsion than as a decision, and Bradley's attempt at a quantification of what drives Macbeth to the act of regicide, that "neither his ambition nor yet the prophecy of the Witches would ever without the aid of Lady Macbeth have overcome . . . [Macbeth's] resistance"18 to the idea of killing Duncan will, to a modern ear, too easily recall "The woman gave me of the tree, and I did eat," to sound like a balanced assessment of blame. Macbeth's action is not entirely explicable in psychological terms, and the terms of any explanation are greatly complicated by the means of representation, in structure and language, of the murder itself. A significant feature of the representation of Duncan's murder is that it takes place offstage. This is a departure from the Shakespearean norm, and even from the norm in Macbeth, where Banquo, Macduff s son and Young Siward are murdered onstage, and Macduff exhibits the severed head of Macbeth. When this unseen murder is placed between Macbeth's wish that "I go, and it is done" (not "and I do it") and his emphatic assertion just after the killing that "I have done the deed," where the rhetorical finality expresses his desire to send the deed to a safely completed, "trammelled up" past, the psychological dimension of the dramatic absence of the murder becomes clear; the play is representing Macbeth's avoidance of any thought of the act.

A thoroughly naturalistic vocabulary would offer, then, "repression" as the explanation for why Macbeth never discloses an adequate motivation for the killing of Duncan. One would say that Macbeth never allows himself to acknowledge that he has, of his own free will, committed this murder. But the imagery of the play suggests that there is something other than a personal unconscious below the level of autonomous will, and it uses the vehicle of dreams as the means of access to that world. When Macbeth contemplates the assassination of Duncan, he says "Stars, hide your fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires" (1.4.50-51). This image of extinguished stars is recalled and given a domestic cast which counterpoints the impending horror of the murder when Banquo says to Fleance, "There's husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out" (2.7.4-5), but the imagery takes on a more ominous tone as Banquo goes on to say

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep: merciful Powers,
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose!


He gives definition to these "cursed thoughts" moments later when he meets Macbeth and says, "I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters" (2.1.20). Macbeth, on his way to murder the sleeping Duncan, then sees the bloody dagger and draws the conclusion that

Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's off rings . . .


This surreal "dream" world finally swallows Lady Macbeth; she had sought to live entirely on a naturalistic plane, only borrowing from the witches the expediency of a "fair is foul" morality. She ends, however, in a madness which cannot distinguish a "real" world from one of sleep and dreams. Macbeth's image of life as a player is a transformation of this experience of irreality. As he lives with the consequences of a murder which he consciously disavowed and then performed as if in absentia, his guilt is like that experienced in dreams: retribution is relentless and its means exceed the scale of realism (as Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane) but the actual transgression which inspires this retribution has only a shadowy, ambiguous existence. In Macbeth's metaphor, he is playing the role of the regicide, coping with the consequences of that "even-handed justice" which returns his "bloody instructions" upon himself, but he is no more responsible for the action of this world than the self in a dream, or an actor for the drama in which he exists.

The larger context, the unknown which is not comprehended by the individual "player," is a metaphysical order rather than a personal unconscious in Macbeth. In the "sound and fury" speech, Macbeth surrenders the naturalistic assumptions that had constituted his belief that time's challenge resided in its fleetness, and that his own success would depend upon overtaking events. He speaks of the two natural divisions in time as they appear to a mortal consciousness—a day and a life—and he imagines the larger frame of history, or "recorded time." Just as he sees that tomorrows end by becoming yesterdays, he describes life and history from their endpoints of "dusty death" and "last syllable." But any perception which is limited to temporal terms, even one running from first Worde to last syllable, is only ignorance in relation to the perspective of the weyard sisters, who see that "tale" which tells all of history at the border where it meets the "nothing" that is an eternity beyond that last syllable. They themselves are only a literary device, a personification of such a perspective, and when Macbeth describes this perspective without personifying it, the place occupied by God in a Christian metaphysic is left empty. But the very possibility of an atemporal vision to which all time would be simultaneous abrogates causality and choice, and binds all human action to a single story.

Much of Macbeth is designed to give an audience the experience of living through such a predetermined tale. Macbeth's repeated professions of confidence in his own security "till Birnam wood come to Dunsinane" have the effect of assuring an audience that this realistically unlikely event will occur. The irony is intensified by the rapid alternation, in the later part of the play, of short scenes of Macbeth in Dunsinane with those of the forces attacking the castle; from both sides the references to Birnam and Dunsinane are so regular as to become almost incantatory. Angus, with the rebellious Scots, says of the English forces, "Near Birnam wood / Shall we well meet them" (5.2.5-6); Caithness informs him that "Great Dunsinane he [Macbeth] strongly fortifies" (12), and Lennox closes the scene by saying "Make we our march towards Birnam" (31). Macbeth then opens the following scene by saying

Bring me no more reports; let them fly all:
Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane
I cannot taint with fear


and closes it with "I will not be afraid of death and bane, / Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane" (59-60). When Siward then asks at the outset of scene 4 "What wood is this before us?", the answer is entirely predictable: "The wood of Birnam" (3). The realistic rationale behind Malcolm's order to "Let every soldier hew him down a bough / And bear't before him" (5.4.4-5)—that this will disguise their numbers—has already been dispensed with; Macbeth has just been warned that there are ten thousand soldiers in the English force moving toward the castle (5.3.15.) The fact that Birnam wood will move toward Dunsinane is locked into place by the witches'prophecies, but its explanation in realistic terms is, dramatically, an afterthought.

Macbeth's expressions of confidence in his own security create a dramatic irony that Bradley refers to as a "Sophoclean irony," in which, as Bradley puts it, "a speaker is made to use words bearing to the audience, in addition to his own meaning, a further and ominous sense, hidden from himself and, usually, from the other persons on the stage."19 While broad structures of fore-shadowing such as that employed with Birnam wood make this kind of irony available to an audience seeing the play for the first time, a more detailed sense of such irony increases with an audience's familiarity with the story. Lady Macbeth's statement that "A little water clears us of this deed" takes its resonance, for a knowledgeable audience, from her later obsessive hand washing. The exchange between Macbeth and Banquo in which Macbeth urges him to "Fail not our feast" and Banquo promises "My Lord, I will not" (3.1.27-28) is grimly amusing to those who know that Banquo will keep this promise despite the impediment of having been slain in the meantime. The better an audience knows the story, the more capable they become of escaping the illusion of suspense in an "ignorant present" and approximating the perspective of the witches. The ability to see the playing out of a tale from which there is no possibility of deviation erodes any sense of morality; if there is no choice, there is no responsibility, and if there is no responsibility, there is no point to moral distinctions. As the sense of irony increases, partiality declines, and the foreshadowing of Banquo's death, although he is a "good" character, is more a source of black humor than of terror.

The play seems to begin and end happily, in each case with the victory of the "good" army, and its conclusion has encouraged traditional interpreters to overlook suggestions of cyclicity and to describe Macbeth as embodying a traditionally Christian story of the "temporary triumph of evil" but the ultimate restoration of "virtue and justice."20 But the characteristic wordplay of pun and echo in the play's final scene subverts the optimistic interpretation of its events, and reinscribes the story of the dominion of Wyrd, in which, as the witches say, "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." To their unearthly perspective, at the border where the entire tale of history drops into "nothing," all of history is a zero-sum game. This informs the detachment behind their initial plan to meet again "when the battle's lost and won" (1.1.4). To them, since the entire story is zero-sum, so are the individual events, or "words," and the play's language does much to reinforce this perspective. As we enter one of the camps to which it does matter who wins the battle, the supposedly "good" camp, moral distinctions seem nonetheless slippery. The first report of the battle is balanced, as the sergeant compares the two armies to "two spent swimmers, that do cling together / And choke their art" (1.2.8-9). The first character to be distinguished is "the merciless Macdonwald" (9), and this sounds like a condemnation, but then he is called "worthy to be a rebel" (10), and the usually positive connotation of "worthy" suggests for a moment that the sergeant may be praising Macdonwald for his valor. But then we find that "worthy" does not here mean "commendable" but only "appropriate," for, the sergeant says, "to that [name of'rebeL'] / The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him" (10-12). His opposite is then named as "brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)" (16), but so was Macdonwald worthy of his name, and the distinction between "brave" and "merciless" is difficult to maintain throughout the description of Macbeth's conduct on the battlefield:

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smok'd with bloody execution,
Like Valour's minion, carv'd out his passage,
Till he fac'd the slave;
which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th'chops
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.


Duncan complicates the matter even further when he uses that ambiguous word just applied to Macdonwald in praise of Macbeth, saying, "O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!" (24). These words echo again in the often-noted irony in which Duncan says of the executed traitor Cawdor, "There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust" (1.4.11-14), and then turns to greet Macbeth; his words of greeting are "O worthiest cousin!" (14).

The ironic perspective invites us to compare Macbeth with a rebel, and, in this case, one who has just been praised for the manner in which he faces death: first, because he repents his crimes ("frankly he confess'd his treasons, / Implor'd your Highness'pardon, and set forth / A deep repentance" [1.4.5-7]), and secondly because of his bravery, manifested in his ability to "throw away the dearest thing he ow'd / As'twere a careless trifle" (10-11). When Macbeth comes to face his own death in the play's final scene, he expresses, first, remorse, and then courage; he is at first reluctant to fight with Macduff because of having already shed too much of Macduff s blood; he says "get thee back, my soul is too much charg'd / With blood of thine already" (5.7.5-6), and then, after he learns of Macduff s unnatural birth and recognizes him as the inevitable agent of his own death, he rejects the terms of surrender and accepts that inevitable death, saying:

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou oppos'd, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last: before my body
I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff;
And damn'd be him that first cries, "Hold, enough!"


The subsequent valorization of Young Siward's courage in the play's closing scene serves further to blur the distinction between the forces of good and those of evil. The "good" characters attempt to enforce this distinction as they repeatedly refer to Macbeth in demonic terms just before his death. When young Siward confronts Macbeth, he says that he will not be afraid to hear his opponent's name "though thou call'st thyself a hotter name / Than any is in hell" (5.7.6-7). Then, when told that he faces Macbeth, he says, "The devil himself could not pronounce a title / More hateful to mine ear" (8-9). Macduff calls Macbeth "Hellhound" (5.8.3) and bids him relinquish "the angel"—meaning a fallen angel, a devil—"whom thou still hast serv'd" (14). While Macduff is dueling with Macbeth offstage, the onstage action consists of young Siward's death being reported; the proof given that "like a man he died" (5.5.9) is that he "Had . . . his hurts before" (12). This is obviously the way in which Macbeth is dying even as they speak, and if the contrast between "Hell-hound" and "man" isn't pointed enough, Siward says that his son's wounds, gotten "on the front" (13) in battle prove him to be "God's soldier" (13) and that there could not be a "fairer death" (15).

The echo of "fair" in this phrase is the subtlest and most ominous reminder of the spirits to whom "fair is foul and foul is fair"; Siward's belief, that there could be "none fairer" than his son's death, recalls Macbeth's early line "So fair and foul a day I have not seen." Other jogs to the memory at the play's close are the "Hails" with which Malcolm is greeted, recalling the witches'greeting of Macbeth, and Malcolm's reiteration of his father's metaphor of planting, last used when Duncan thought that, having suppressed a rebellion, he had ushered in an era of peace and stability. These verbal repetitions are a device used in the early scenes of the play, where the characters repeat the witches'words (as, "When the battle's lost and won" comes back as "What he has lost, noble Macbeth has won," and "Fair is foul and foul is fair" returns as Macbeth's "So fair and foul a day I have not seen") and represent a determinism without temporal development or causality. The absurdity of a world governed by Wyrd, as is the dramatic universe of Macbeth, does not depend upon the degradation of reality into unassimilable pieces; when Macbeth finds his experience to be surreal, it is because it seems too much like the experience of an actor playing a part in a prescribed story, where the pieces fit together so perfectly that they form a matrix of absolute, and unalterable, interdependence. This sense of internal coherence is given substantive, auditory presence through the device of iteration, while the failure of the play to provide fully formed psychological or philosophical answers to the questions it generates about its own nature makes it impossible to explain the whole through contexts of signification which exist beyond its borders. In Macbeth's words, this world "signifies nothing" beyond itself.

The explanations that reside within the play's own verbal context do not depend on causality; the witches do not "cause" the characters to repeat their words, and neither do they "cause" Macbeth to think of killing Duncan or cause any of the later action of the play. The determinism of "after word comes weird" operates without causality, because its agent does not really exist; the weyard sisters remain a hypothetical, rather than a reified, personification of the perspective which transcends time and sees past, present and future as simultaneous. At the play's conclusion, the time is not truly free, though it may look so from within the "ignorant present." In truth, the concluding action of the play remains within the ironic command of the representatives of Wyrd. They had provided two prophecies, one that told of the accession of a tyrant and a second that seemed, since it told of his displacement, to promise a liberation. But interpreters who have agreed with Macduff that at the conclusion of the play "the time is free" have underestimated the ability of the weyard sisters to speak in a double sense. The witches have told a literal truth, but through it they have inspired in interpreters, as in Macbeth, a false hope. The fact that they foretold Macbeth's inability to perpetuate his line places even the final action of the play within their vision, and makes the victory of Malcolm's forces just another word in the playing out of the story that the Weyard Sisters, if they really existed, would know comes in the long run to nothing.


1 Frank Kermode, in the introduction to Macbeth in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); Sylvan Barnet, ed., Macbeth (New York: New American Library, 1963) and Kenneth Muir, ed., The New Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth (London: Methuen, 1951) all give the play a fairly uncomplicated providential reading. There is an interesting change in emphasis away from the providential reading in the introduction to Macbeth in the The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992; formerly published by Scott, Foresman and Co., 3d edition 1980), possibly due to the addition of Jean E. Howard to the editorial advisory board for this play.

2 Harry Levin, "The Tragic Ethos" in The Question of "Hamlet" (New York: Viking Press, 1961), p. 134.

3 Stephen Booth, "King Lear," "Macbeth," Indefinition and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 83.

4 Bernard McElroy, "Macbeth: The Torture of His Mind" in Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 206-37; E. A. J. Honigmann, "Macbeth: The Murderer as Victim," in Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 126-49; Wilbur Sanders, "Macbeth: What's Done, Is Done" in Wilbur Sanders and Howard Jacobson, Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 57-94; Harry Berger, Jr., "The Early Scenes of Macbeth: A Preface To a New Interpretation," ELH 47 (1980), pp. 1-31 and "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth;" Genre 15 (1982): 49-79; Karl F. Zender, "The Death of Young Siward: Providential Order and Tragic Loss in Macbeth," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 17 (1975), pp. 415-25.

5 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; New York: Fawcett World Library, 1966), pp. 40-41.

6 Peter Stallybrass, "Macbeth and Witchcraft," in John Russell Brown, ed., Focus on "Macbeth" (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 189-210. Some recent un-Bradleyan studies of the symbolism of witchcraft in Macbeth are those of Dennis Biggins, "Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth, Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975), pp. 255-77; Luisa Guj, "Macbeth and the Seeds of Time," Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986), pp. 175-89, and Harry Berger, Jr.'s "Text Against Performance in Macbeth." While Biggins and Guj never seriously challenge the assumed Christian framework of the play, Berger sees a critique of a Christian ideology that valorizes machismo as it demonizes women. While I find Berger's essay acute at the level of social critique, I do not see why it is necessary, as Berger argues, to dissociate that critique from Shakespeare or from the dramatic structure of the play. Even Berger seems to have accepted, at least implicitly, Bradley's contention that Shakespeare was uninterested in or incapable of thinking in metaphysical terms.

7 Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Blindness," in Blindness and Insight, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 140.

8 L. C. Knights, Explorations (London: Chatto & Win-dus, 1951), p. 36.

9 Levin, "The Tragic Ethos," pp. 133-34.

10 D. H. Fawkner, Deconstructing "Macbeth" (Lon-don: Associated University Presses, 1990), p. 123; Booth, "King Lear," "Macbeth," Indefintion and Tragedy, pp. 114-15; Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 118; and Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986), p. 117.

11 Booth, "King Lear," "Macbeth," p. 94.

12 "In the beginning was the Worde, and the Worde was with God, and that Worde was God" (John 1:1, Geneva Bible, 1560).

13 Quotations from the play are from The New Arden Shakespeare: Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (New York: Random House, 1962).

14 I am presuming that "should" in this case means "would." This is a common locution in Shakespeare, which occurs at least eleven other times in Macbeth(2.3.2; 3.1.4; 3.1.5; 3.1.20; 3.6.19; 3.6.20; 4.2.61; 4.3.79; 4.3.82; 4.3.97; 5.3.62).

15 Under "weird," this is meaning 4a in the Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 12, p. 273.

16 Jacques Derrida, "Différance," in Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 1-27.

17 Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 297.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p. 281.

20 Kermode, introduction to Macbeth, p. 1307.

Susan Snyder (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Theology as Tragedy in Macbeth" in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1994, pp. 289-300.

[In the following essay, Snyder explores the question of causality in Macbeth through a discussion of the biblical narrative of Hazael, who learns from the prophet Elisha that one day he will be king of Syriaand who subsequently murders the reigning monarch. The critic proposes that in both stories the effects of supernatural prophecies cannot be established, for free will and fate are so entangled in each narrative that neither can be seen as ultimately responsible for the tragic imperative that drives each man to regicide.]

Modern chronologies of Shakespeare's works generally place Macbeth directly after King Lear. The two tragedies may even have been written in the same year, 1606. They are nevertheless very different, in a way that can be turned to account in structuring a course in Shakespearean tragedy. Macbeth's moral clarity stands out against King Lear's flirtation with nihilism. Macbeth from this point of view is seen as still very much in the tragic mode, but moving in a quite opposite direction from the earlier tragedy. Such an approach is akin to that taken by Alexander Leggati with the romantic comedies. Leggatt finds each successive play in this series sharply diverging from the one before, "as though the later play was created by taking the major impulses behind its predecessor and throwing them into reverse" (221).

The contrast is workable. On the one hand, King Lear sets forth not only personal tragedies but a tragic universe. Some of the wholesale destruction is significant—Edmund is killed by the brother he wronged. But some of it is random—Cordelia dies by accident. In the Fool's giggling non-sequiturs and in other flashes of deflating comedy, meaning itself keeps breaking down in absurdity. Though characters constantly appeal to the gods who rule over men's affairs to deal justly and restore order, the gods revealed by the course of dramatic action are not like that. They are indifferent, or actively malevolent, or just nonexistent. The action of King Lear takes its characters to the limits of moral apprehension and then propels them beyond, into uncharted and perhaps unchartable terrain. Individuals may make new sense of their suffering lives, forgive and be forgiven, rediscover the value of human community; in the great world, however, all order seems to crumble away, even the grim consequentiality of tragedy.

Possibly Lear's journey took Shakespeare too close to total chaos. In any case the play he wrote next seems to work in the opposite way, enclosing its personal tragedy in a universe that is not only morally comprehensible but even shares our ethical sympathies. When Macbeth kills his kinsman and guest in violation of his sacred "double trust," the natural world reacts violently with storms, earthquakes, unnatural behavior by animals. The sun, "as troubled with man's act" (II.iv.6), refuses to shine on the day following Duncan's murder—and for dramatic purposes darkness continues in Scotland until the usurper's reign comes to its violent end.1 To expel Macbeth and his wrongs, the natural world contorts its own laws: a dead man walks; a forest moves; a man exists who was not born of woman. When the tyrant is gone, the orderly processes that Duncan fostered—planting and growth, loyalty properly enacted and rewarded—can be renewed by Malcolm. The disintegration and chaos that Macbeth experiences inside this cosmic frame is peculiar to himself, and we understand it as the result of his own action, an action he recognized from the beginning as unambiguously evil. To do what he did, he had to suppress by force part of his own nature, what Lady Macbeth calls the "milk of human kindness" (I.v. 17), and separate himself as much as possible from his own criminal actions. When this violent, almost schizophrenic, repression leads him to nihilism and despair, his painful course makes sense psychologically and morally.

But this scheme, individual chaos enclosed in a larger moral order, is not the whole story about Macbeth. From a different perspective its moral frame appears troublingly unstable. Several years ago I team-taught, with a colleague from the Department of Religion, a course called "Tragedy and Theology."2 Our texts ranged from Sophocles to Fyodor Dostoevsky, from the Old English Genesis B to Carl Jung's Answer to Job. We focused on situations where divine justice was mysterious, where the ways of God to men seemed to call for a tragic understanding along with—or in place of—the traditional "justifying." We probed certain episodes in the Bible: the Fall of Adam and Eve with its curiously displaced responsibility; God's endorsement of Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's; the hardening of Pharaoh's heart while plagues rained down on Egypt; the God-initiated afflictions of Job. In this context Macbeth looked very different. Students who had grown accustomed to querying theodicies and become alert to problems in supernatural causality did not find Macbeth morally straightforward at all. And especially they asked, what about those Weird Sisters?

What about them, indeed? Where do they come from? Where do they go after they disappear from the action in Act IV? Why do they confront Macbeth with their prophecies? What is their place in the moral universe that the play seems to manifest? The Weird Sisters do not abide our question. They are unaccountable, in all senses: their nature is mysterious; their origins are inexplicable; they cannot be called to account (see OED 1a, b2). Most of all, their impact on the action is problematic. They know that Macbeth will be king. Does their foreknowledge make inevitable the action by which he achieves that state? Do they incite him, anyway, toward murdering Duncan by letting him know what the reward will be? Or do they merely spell out an end, leaving any decisions about the means to that end—active or passive—entirely to him? "If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me / Without my stir" (I.iii. 159-60).

The question of responsibility has, of course, been much canvassed in Macbeth criticism, especially the older studies. It is not my main concern here, and I do not propose to go over the pros and cons in detail. In trying to apportion reponsibility between the Macbeths and the Weird Sisters, it seems fair to say that the text does not place the blame entirely with either party. The witches do not compel or even urge Macbeth to his murderous course; but if they had not hailed him as future King of Scotland, he probably would not have killed the incumbent king. Between these extremes of black and white is a large grey area; and the grey, like the hell Lady Macbeth sees in her night visions, is murky.

In dramatic terms at least, the Weird Sisters have primacy as a malevolent agency. They open the play, and before we see Macbeth we hear of him from them, as the object of a plot already conceived. (The sense this creates in a theatre audience, that they take the first initiative and not he, is reinforced by contrast when he next meets them in Act IV. By then it is Macbeth, far gone in blood, who initiates the encounter and demands that they tell him what will happen.) Returning to the play's beginning, in the second scene we hear of Macbeth as a grimly effective captain of the King's forces, unseaming rebels from the nave to the chops. It is this loyal soldier Macbeth who finally comes onstage in the third scene. And yet, as editors and critics are fond of observing, his first line—"So foul and fair a day I have not seen"—echoes the "fair is foul" chant of the opening scene and thus suggests that something in him has affinities with the witches before they even meet. Or does it? Macbeth, after all, seems merely to be commenting on the bad weather in conjunction with the good outcome of the battle.

Perhaps Macbeth echoes the witches'linguistic reversal of values because he already harbors an intention, or at least a wish, that resonates with the prophecy they will give him—a wish to kill Duncan and take the crown for himself. Later Lady Macbeth, in a rage at Macbeth's indecision, accuses him of wavering from some earlier resolve:

What beast was't, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you.


She would have taken her baby from the breast and dashed its brains out, she says, "had I so sworn as you / Have done to this" (I.vii.66-67).

When did he propose "the enterprise" (one of those chilling euphemisms by which Lady Macbeth makes murder sound heroic)? Before the action of the play, as Coleridge thought (68-69)? In a scene that was cut from the text we have, as John Dover Wilson thought (xxxiv-xxxvii)? In an unwritten scene meant to have taken place some time after I.v, as Alwin Thaler supposed (89-91)? Or is she talking about the letter she read onstage in I.v, sent by Macbeth to his "dearest partner of greatness"? Like the witches'prophecies that prompted it, the letter told only of outcomes; but like her husband on hearing those prophecies, Lady Macbeth in her mind leaped easily from desired end to murderous means—so easily that she might well think later, or wish to think, that the letter actually talked of killing Duncan.3 Certainly, given the play as we have it, she is exaggerating when she says that Macbeth swore to do it. (Unless Thaler is right about the "unwritten scene," but would Shakespeare have left such a significant exchange unwritten?) There may well have been some predisposition on Macbeth's part to get rid of Duncan and take over the throne, but the play denies us any clear assessment of his guilty intentions before the encounter with the Weird Sisters.

I have been using two titles interchangeably for the mysterious trio, "witches" and "Weird Sisters." They are called witches in the stage directions, though not in the dialogue, and their appearance and activities are like those described in contemporary works on witchcraft (Curry 53-54, 223-24). Seen as human witches, they are fairly limited in power—allied with evil spirits, to be sure, but able only to abet the turn to evil in a fellow human, not to bring it about. In the language of the play, though, they are "the Weird Sisters," a repeated title that suggests actual control of events. And even in this area of their significance the murk descends again, because the First Folio printers sometimes spell the word weyard and sometimes weyward. Should we see them as versions of the Norns or Fates, or on a smaller scale as wayward, in the sense of "perverse" or "perverting"? The adjective that should define them instead mystifies their nature, situates them somewhere between causative power and mere ill-intentioned speech.

However the witches'prophecy figures in directing Macbeth toward the murder of Duncan, its import as a message is straightforward. They say he will be king hereafter, and he does become king. The oracles they give when Macbeth returns for more knowledge in Act IV sound to him equally direct in meaning: he should beware of Macduff; none of woman born will harm him; he will not be vanquished till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. But while the words, at least those of the second and third prophecies, confirm Macbeth's grasp on power, they encode alternative meanings that foretell his defeat. A baby that has to be taken from its mother's womb is not, properly speaking, "born." "Wood" may be understood as a fixed topographical designation, but it may also designate a substance that can be cut down and transported somewhere else. The Weird Sisters, as Macbeth will realize only later, use the slipperiness of language to foretell disaster in the guise of absolute security.4

Fiends, he calls them, when he finds out that Macduff was not "born" of woman, "fiends . . . / That palter with [him] in a double sense" (V.viii.23-24). But earlier, when the advance of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane showed that assurance to be false as well, he attacked the "equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like truth" (V.v.49-50). "Fiend," in the singular, reminds us that equivocation is the favored weapon of the capital-F Fiend himself, Satan. The first instance in human history of what Rebecca Bushneil has called "oracular silence"5 occurs in the primal words of temptation that caused the fall of our first parents. In the biblical narrative God warns Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." But the serpent assures Eve, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5). Like the Weird Sisters, the serpent gives three prophecies. All three will come true in some sense but not as the hearer imagines. "You will not die": no, not right away, but all life from this point will be shadowed by mortality, "a long day's dying" in the bleak phrase of Milton's fallen Adam in Paradise Lost (10.964). "Your eyes will be opened": yes, but the new awareness will be only of the body's shame and weakness. "You will be like God, knowing good and evil": yes, but this "knowing" entails subjection rather than mastery, apprehending evil by experience and good only in contrast with evil—and therefore not knowing like God at all. What Adam and Eve will know, to make use again of Milton's succinctness, is "good lost, and evil got" (9.1072).6

In the long view the witches may have their place in a moral universe. When the riddling prophecies eventually unfold their full meaning, they show us an organism purging itself of infected matter and regaining healthy equilibrium: Macbeth falls; Malcolm institutes good rule; Banquo's line will triumph.7 When in Paradise Lost the Archangel Michael foretells Christ's eventual redemption of man and the glory of his Second Coming, Milton's Adam too can see the place of temptation and transgression in a larger scheme of good:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good. . . .

Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring.

(12.469-71, 473-76)

Yet if the long view can reveal sin and suffering as God's instruments in bringing about an eventual larger good, that does not cancel out the tragedy of the short view: the perspective of the single individual who must act according to his limited human vision and take responsibility for the results.

The mystification of responsibility in Macbeth's story comes into clearer focus when that story is put in dialogue with one from the very repository of moral order in Shakespeare's culture, the Bible. In 2 Kings the account of Hazael, servant of the King of Syria, and Elisha, the man of God, similarly blurs the line between supernatural and human causality:

Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick; and when it was told him, "The man of God has come here," the king said to Hazael, "Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the Lord through him, saying,'Shall I recover from this sickness?'" So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, "Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying,'Shall I recover from this sickness?'" And Elisha said to him, "Go, say to him,'You shall certainly recover'; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die." And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. And the man of God wept. And Hazael said, "Why does my lord weep?" He answered, "Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set on fire their fortresses, and you will slay their young men with the sword, and dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their women with child." And Hazael said, "What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?" Elisha answered, "The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria." Then he departed from Elisha, and came to his master, who said to him, "What did Elisha say to you?" And he answered, "He told me that you would certainly recover." But on the morrow he took the coverlet and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, tilt he died. And Hazael became king in his stead. (8:7-15)

The short view here is murky indeed. The prophecy that prompts Hazael to murder his king comes not even from some Weird Sisters of mysterious origin but from God's own prophet. And along with this message for Hazael, God sends an assurance to Benhadad that will make the king feel falsely secure. Is God, through his prophet, engaging in entrapment? To give the dialogue I propose between Macbeth and the 2 Kings narrative some cultural common ground, it is useful to examine sixteenth-and seventeenth-century commentary on Hazael. Biblical scholarship around Shakespeare's time betrays some uneasiness over this passage. In the Hebrew, Hazael is to tell Ben-hadad "Living, thou shalt live," though God has shown Elisha that "dying, he shall die." The Geneva Bible translates the first part as "Thou shalt recouer" but then takes pains to clarify in the margin: "Meaning that he shulde recouer of this disease." This does not take care of the whole difficulty, since Ben-hadad does not, in fact, have time to recover before Hazael kills him. The Bishops'Bible also gives "Thou shalt recouer" with a similarly inadequate marginal explanation. The King James translators apparently saw the persistent problem even with the usual gloss and altered the passage to read, "Thou mayest certainly recover." That is, according to one later commentary, because the disease in itself was not mortal "he might have lived if no other thing had intervened" (my emphasis).8

Elisha's problematic prophecy to the sick king is at worst simply false, at best equivocal; it promises to Ben-hadad a safety that is totally illusory, as the Weird Sisters'equivocations did to Macbeth. The question of divine entrapment is even stickier. Did the prophet's double assurance, that the king would surely die and that his servant would be king of Syria, create in a previously blameless Hazael the will to murder Benhadad? The story's laconic brevity offers little help to commentators struggling to absolve God. But they make the most of verse 11, directly after Elisha privately foretells Ben-hadad's death: "And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed." Hazael is ashamed under the prophet's scrutiny, they reason, because he already harbors a guilty desire to kill his master. Alas, like the hazy reference in Macbeth to some earlier resolve of the hero to take Duncan's crown by violence, the evidence here of Hazael's previous bent to crime is ambiguous. "He stared at him, until he was ashamed": the first "he" who stares is Elisha, but, while the second "he" could indeed be Hazael, revealing his sinful intentions, it might equally well still designate Elisha, staring too long for politeness.9 Those who want to find Hazael already guilty in his heart must also account for his apparent shock and disbelief when Elisha describes the atrocities he will commit against Israel. Perhaps he is being hypocritical, or perhaps he lacks self-knowledge. One seventeenth-century commentator reflects, "It may be supposed that Hazael at this time did not think he should do such cruel acts: but no man knows the depth of his own corruption" (Downame L114v). Does this apply to the murder of Ben-hadad too? It was this act, as far as we know, that started Hazael on his bloody career, as Macbeth's murder of his own king led him into wholesale killing.10 We are back at the basic question for both Hazael and Macbeth: if both have the potential for corruption and are moved to actualize it by an authoritative prophecy, to what extent does the agency of that prophecy share with the human murderers responsibility for their crimes?

Beyond the murky short view, however, readers of the Bible see something larger, the great epic of God's dealings with his chosen people Israel. The wider context for these events is Israel's desertion of Yahweh to worship Baal, which began in the later years of Solomon's reign and took firmer hold under subsequent rulers of the two kingdoms. In the first book of Kings, the still small voice of the Lord has already given to his prophet Elijah three missions. He must call Elisha as his own successor, and he must anoint two rulers who will rain destruction on Israel for its apostasy—Jehu king of Israel, and Hazael king of Syria. "And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay" (1 Kings 19:15-17).

In the big picture, then, Hazael is the counterpart of Jehu, both instruments of divine chastisement. Their destructive acts receive their sanction from the "scourge of God" principle which shapes, in 2 Kings and elsewhere, prophecies of the Assyrian defeat of Israel and the Babylonian exile.11 Elijah in fact carries out only one of these three missions, casting his mantle on Elisha and implicitly leaving the other two tasks to this successor. But in the narratives that follow in 2 Kings, Jehu fits the pattern of God's scourge much better than Hazael. He is actually anointed by an emissary of Elisha, as Hazael is not. He is given divine orders to strike down Jezebel and the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9:1-10). And as he carries out his bloody program, which wipes out Ahab's entire family and purges the worshipers of Baal, Jehu directly invokes the divine word: Joram's body is placed on Naboth's vineyard in conscious fulfillment of Elijah's prophecy to Ahab, and when little is left of Jezebel's trampled body he recalls another of Elijah's prophecies, that dogs will eat her flesh.12 Nothing in Hazael's story indicates that he is aware of himself as a divine instrument, or that anyone else is. Jehu's inner motives in his carnage are not unmixed with greed and ambition, but the presentation makes it easy to keep his personal failings separate from his role as God's agent. Although he wiped out the worship of Baal, he kept on the golden-calf cult, and God deals with him accordingly. He says to Jehu, "Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel." On the other hand, the golden-calf lapse is punished with loss of territories (2 Kings 10:28-33).

Hazael's moral situation presents no such neat boundaries and distinctions. As a foreigner, not of Israel, he is of less interest to the narrator than Jehu, and we are told nothing of his motives. Was he already ill-disposed, waiting an opportunity to betray Ben-hadad? Or did the prophet's words give him a new goal, which he then went on to achieve by criminal means? Even if he can be understood in the long view as God's scourge,13 where does that leave the question of indi-vidual culpability? If God implants a goal in a man for His own larger purposes, can the man be said to choose his actions and thus to bear full responsibility? Hazael's story as set forth in 2 Kings, like Macbeth's, resists moral logic. If we understand it at all, it must be tragically, as a mysterious knot of fate and free will that cannot be disentangled. The seventeenth-century commentary I quoted above instructs us to understand Ben-hadad's murder on two levels at once: "The event was according to the murderer's intent and the Prophet's answer." Much virtue in "and." The commentators use a simple conjunction to glide over potential contradiction. In an earlier try they assert that Hazael must have already had an evil disposition, but they find that the prophecy "You are to be king over Syria" was necessary to move him to act on it: "This Sovereignty was it that not onely gave him the occasion, but also stirred him up to execute that cruelty" (Downame L114v).

This returns us once more to questions of motivation in Macbeth. What purpose do the Weird Sisters have for confronting the hero—or what is their masters'purpose, if they in fact have such masters? To these questions the play offers no answers. Even Macbeth's personal motives are mystified. In early soliloquies he explores at length the moral and political consequences of killing Duncan but not his reasons for doing so. Does he long to be king? Lady Macbeth says that he does, but what comes through in her speeches of I.v and I.vii is more her desire than his. Perhaps we should take it as self-evident that royal power and prestige are devoutly to be wished. Yet it is strange that, apart from one passing reference to "vaulting ambition" (I.vii.27), there is nothing in Macbeth's long soul-searchings about the sweet fruition of an earthly crown. He seems not so much consumed by desire as driven by some kind of obligation. Positive longings are oddly absent in him, as A. C. Bradley long ago observed: "The deed is done in horror and without the faintest desire or sense of glory,—done, one may almost say, as if it were an appalling duty" (358).

What duty? What obligation? Perhaps to be what he is meant to be, to fulfill his destiny.14 Macbeth does con-sider simply letting it happen to him ("If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me"). But his wife convinces him, by appealing to his manhood, to take the initiative. Not only will the promised crown render him more than what he was, but taking positive action to reach that crown will in itself make him "so much more the man" (I.vii.57-58). The laconic narrative of Hazael tells nothing of what he felt as he followed out his destined role, but it is clear enough that the prophecies Macbeth and Hazael encounter totally alter their sense of what they are, as if an enormous mountain had suddenly appeared on their internal landscapes. The mountain's very presence may be felt as an imperative, as Mount Everest challenges men like George Mallory to climb it "because it is there." Mallory died trying for the summit; Macbeth is lost because he reaches his summit. Hazael lacks his heroic stature but has a place with him nevertheless in a tragic theology.


1 All citations are from the New Folger Library edition of Macbeth. Most of the play's major scenes take place at night or look forward to night. Macbeth's early morning visit to the Weird Sisters is marked by stormy weather as well as the atmosphere created by the "secret, black, and midnight hags" themselves (IV.i.48). Significantly, only the one scene that takes place outside of Scotland, Malcolm and Macduff meeting in England, contains a possible reference to sunlight in the need to "seek out some desolate shade" (IV.iii.l).

2 I wish to record my debt in what follows to the stu-dents in this course, given at Swarthmore College in Spring 1978; and especially to my co-leader Patrick Henry, now director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Collegeville, Minnesota. It was Dr. Henry who first called my attention to the biblical narrative of Hazael, discussed below.

3 "She might naturally take the words of the letter as indicating much more than they said; and then in her passionate contempt at his hesitation, and her passionate eagerness to overcome it, she might easily accuse him, doubtless with exaggeration, and probably with conscious exaggeration, of having actually proposed the murder" (Bradley 483).

4 Bushnell observes that "the language of the witches becomes duplicitous as the play progresses, in proportion to Macbeth's own irony and hypocrisy" (202).

5 "Although oracular communication looks like dialogue, . . . unlike the human speaker, the oracle will only state the facts, but not interpret the causes, mechanisms, and results of these circumstances" (Bushnell 197).

6 On the specific equivocation involved in "knowing good and evil," see Blackburn. Renaissance commentators on Genesis 3 such as Pareus and Pererius note the serpent's equivocating promises, usually citing Rupert of Deutz's De trinitate 3.8. In Willet's paraphrase they are likened to oracles: "The deuill in euery one of these points speaketh doubtfully, as he gaue the oracles of Apollo, that euery word which he spake, might haue a double meaning: ye shall not die, that is, not presently the death of the bodie; though presently made subiect to mortalitie: your eyes shall be opened, so they were to their confusion: knowing good and euill, not by a more excellent knowledge, but by miserable experience after their transgression" (D6r). Sir Thomas Browne uses Satan's temptations to demonstrate words with multiple meanings: "This fallacy is the first delusion Satan put upon Eve, and his whole tentation might be the same continued; so when he said, Yee shall not dye, that was in his equivocation, ye shall not incurre a present death, or a destruction immediatly ensuing your transgression. Your eyes shall be opened, that is, not to the enlargement of your knowledge, but discovery of your shame and proper confusion. You shall know good and evill, that is you shall have knowledge of good by its privation, but cognisance of evill by sense and visible experience. And the same fallacy or way of deceit so well succeeding in Paradise, hee continued in his Oracles through all the world" (24). George Hughes agrees that "the Tempter dealeth in equivocations with double words and senses" (D3r).

7 And perhaps indirectly even when first given. Stally-brass notes that, unlike the riddling speech that accompanies them, the apparitions the witches display (the armed head, the bloody child, the child crowned with a tree, and the line of kings) convey with increasing clarity an ultimate "'good'dramatic fate." When "cursed witches prophesy the triumph of godly rule [a]t one level . . . this implies that even evil works providentially" (199).

8 These glosses on 2 Kings 8:10 appear in Downame L114r.

9 Coverdale sees both pronouns as referring to Elisha. So does Giovanni Diodati, who glosses "until he was ashamed" as "for a long time"—that is, Elisha was made ashamed by the continuation of his staring at Hazael (Cc3r).

10 Hazael's status under Ben-hadad is unclear in the bib-lical text but may be parallel to Macbeth's under Duncan. The Downame annotators find it likely that Ben-hadad would send on such a mission "the greatest in the kingdom next to himself and suggest that Hazael was commander of the king's armies. On Hazael's apparently easy ascent to the throne they remark, "It appears by this that none of the Syrians suspected this murder of their King, and therefore questioned not Hazael for it, but quietly suffered him to succeed in the throne, either because the King had no children, and Hazael was of kin to him; or because he was so powerfull as none durst oppose him, or so gracious with the people as they chose him" (L114r-v).

11 See especially 2 Kings 24:2-4 and Jeremiah 25:8-12 on Babylon as God's agent in punishing Judah: "Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold I will send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants. . . . This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity." Note that Babylon, though acting for God's purposes ("my servant"), does not escape punishment. Armstrong discusses the prophets'perception of God's hand in Israel's disasters as part of Yahweh's evolution from tribal war-god to the lord of all nations, chastising moral deficiencies in His people (Ch. 2).

12 See 1 Kings 21:19, 23, 29; 2 Kings 9:25-26, 36-37.

13 This argument raises another sort of question, di-rected this time to the biblical chronicler: why did Yahweh need the usurping Hazael as His chastising instrument when Ben-hadad was already making war on Israel? The chronicler cannot do a perfect job of retrospectively rationalizing history.

14 My thinking on this subject has been clarified by a discussion with Professor Paul Yachnin of the University of British Columbia.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Blackburn, Thomas H. "'Uncloister'd Virtue': Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise." Milton Studies III. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1971. 119-37.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1924.

Browne, Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Ed. Robin Robbins. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

Bushneil, Rebecca. "Oracular Silence in Oedipus the King and Macbeth." Classical and Modern Literature 2 (1981-82): 195-204.

Coleridge, S. T. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. T. M. Raysor. Vol. 1. London: Constable, 1930.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1937.

Diodati, Giovanni. Pious Annotations upon the Holy Bible. London, 1643.

Downame, John, et al. Annotations upon All the Books of the Old and New Testament. 3rd ed. London, 1657.

Hughes, George. An Analytical Exposition of the Whole First Book of Moses. London, 1672.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1974.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler. London: Longmans, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New Folger Library. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square, 1992.

Stallybrass, Peter. "Macbeth and Witchcraft." Focus on "Macbeth." Ed. John Russell Brown. London: Routledge, 1982. 189-209.

Thaler, Alwin. Shakespeare and Democracy. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1941.

Willet, Andrew. Hexapla in Genesin. Cambridge, 1605.

Wilson, John Dover, ed. Macbeth. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1947.

Further Reading

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Adelman, Janet. "'Born of Woman': Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth" In Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Rennaissance. Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Marjorie Garber, n.s. no. 11, pp. 90-121. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

An influential reading of Macbeth as a representation of male attempts to escape female domination. Adelman argues that the disappearance of female characters by the end of the play enacts a consolidation of masculine power as well as the male fantasy of achieving a family without women.

Battenhouse, Roy W. "Toward Clarifying the Term'Christian Tragedy.'" In Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, pp. 131-203. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Examines Macbeth as an example of Shakespeare's modification of Aristotelian premises concerning tragic catharsis. As the play progresses, Battenhouse contends, we become increasingly aware that Macbeth lacks a full understanding of the implications of his ambition; moreover, our pity and fear for him remind us of the desolation and despair awaiting all those who misuse their natural gifts.

Bayley, John. "Tragedy and Consciousness: Macbeth." In Shakespeare and Tragedy, pp. 184-200. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Asserts that because Macbeth is the consciousness of the audience as well as the tragic protagonist, we have a greater sense of intimacy with him than with any other character in Shakespeare. Bayley contends that since we perceive the hero through his own mind and thus he is "the most normal, the most comprehensible of men."

Benston, Alice N. "Freud Reading Shakespeare Reading Freud: The Case of Macduff." Style 23, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 261-79.

An evaluation of the characterization and motivation of Macduff, together with an assessment of the implications of Freud's frequent comments about him. Benston concludes that Freud's commentary reveals his unconscious anxiety that the poet has a superior understanding of the mysteries of the human heart.

Berger, Harry, Jr. "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth." In The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, pp. 49-79, Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982.

An analysis of Macbeth that asserts the value of textcentered readings of Shakespeare. In performance, Berger argues, the motif of gender conflict becomes part of the central opposition of good and evil, and women are presented as threats to social order, but in the play as script the reader sees that this notion is a male construct, fabricated to obscure masculine fears of being feminized.

Braunmuller, A. R. Introduction to Macbeth, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Discusses a wide range of topics, including English attitudes toward Scotland in the late sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century; likely sources of the play; the associated themes of time, procreation, and royal succession; the Weird Sisters as determinants of the dramatic action; the play's complex variety of rhetorical styles; and the history of Macbeth in performance.

Brooke, Nicholas. Introduction to The Tragedy of Macbeth, edited by Nicholas Brooke, pp. 1-82. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

An overview of questions concerning the date, sources, and text of the play, its language and imagery, and its stage history. Brooke also offers an extended analysis of dramatic illusion in Macbeth, explicating Shakespeare's use of illusion to reconcile natural and supernatural elements and to depict the ambiguous relation between credulity and knowledge.

Bulman, James C. "Bellona's Bridegroom or Dwarfish Thief?" In The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 169-90. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Examines different rhetorical styles in the play that underscore both the complexity of Macbeth's character and his stature as a tragic hero. Bulman traces the alternation of two antithetical idioms—one appropriate to the epic ideal of the conqueror hero and the other to the chivalric ideal of the ethical hero—as well as the recurrent idiom of equivocation or paradox.

Calderwood, James L. "Macbeth: Violence and Meaning." In If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action, pp. 71-114. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Analyzes the symbolic value of violence in Macbeth. When Macbeth progresses from sanctioned butchery on the battlefield to the murder of his enemies, Calderwood argues, Scotland becomes a diseased state; its only cure is purgation through the slaughter of a sacrificial victim: the mock king Macbeth. In the critic's estimation, Macbeth gains tragic stature through stoic acknowledgment of guilt and recognition of the self-destructive consequences of his actions.

Cohen, Derek. "Conclusion: Macbeth" In Shakespeare's Culture of Violence, pp. 126-41. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1993.

A political reading of the play that emphasizes the relationship between violence and patriarchal authority. From Cohen's perspective, Macbeth demonstrates the patriarchal culture's dependence on—and celebration of—violence, but it also shows how seemingly limitless violence dissolves hierarchical and sexual differences and brings society to the brink of chaos.

Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: A Guide to the Play. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997, 212 p.

Includes an extensive review of diverse critical approaches to the play—formal, linguistic, thematic, psychoanalytic and feminist, through character analysis, and in terms of historical circumstances or prevailing ideologies—with generous examples of each method. Coursen also provides a lengthy discussion of Macbeth's performance history, devotes a chapter to various thematic oppositions in the play, and summarizes the tragedy's sources and textual history.

Foakes, R. A. Introduction to William Shakespeare: Macbeth, edited by R. A. Foakes, pp. ix-xix. New York, Applause Books, 1996.

Discusses the ambiguous characterization of the protagonist, the depiction of Lady Macbeth, the role of the witches, the significance of the various apparitions, the topicality of the play, and its performance history.

——. "Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth" In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 7-29. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Contends that Macbeth is Shakespeare's most profound analysis on the theme of the ambitious hero, and claims that more than coveting the throne for himself, Macbeth is driven to murder Duncan because the act represents the greatest challenge he has ever faced.

French, Marilyn. "Chaos Come Again: Ideals Banished." In Shakespeare's Division of Experience, pp. 241-51. New York: Summit Books, 1981.

Proposes that the principal motif in the play is the conflict between masculine and feminine principles. In French's judgment, Macbeth dramatizes a world in which power and aggression are the supreme values, while compassion and nurturing are denigrated.

Garber, Marjorie. "Macbeth: The Male Medusa." In Shakespeare's Ghost Writers, pp. 87-123. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Combines psychoanalysis and mythology to interpret Macbeth as a play obsessively concerned with evoking what is forbidden—and then suppressing it. Garber maintains that gender anxiety is central to both the play and its protagonist.

Gearin-Tosh, Michael. "The Treatment of Evil in Macbeth." In Critical Essays on Macbeth, edited by Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, pp. 9-20. London: Longman Group, 1988.

Identifies specific dramatic strategies Shakespeare used to elicit the audience's pity for Macbeth. Gearin-Tosh argues that the protagonist's many soliloquies—which the critic looks at closely—bring us so close to him that we feel like his allies, even when we are revolted by his thoughts.

Greene, James J. "Macbeth: Masculinity as Murder." American Imago 41, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 155-80.

Explores the play as a representation of displaced sexuality. Greene declares that Macbeth questions traditional assumptions about male and female principles as it portrays a hero who attempts to use murder as a means of establishing his manliness and his sexual identity.

Hawkins, Michael. "History, Politics and Macbeth." In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 155-88. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982

A historian's perspective on the tension among different political forms in Macbeth. Hawkins contends that the play alternately portrays a perversion of pre-feudal bonds based on blood and kinship, the ambiguous values of feudal political structures, and significant issues associated with the centralization of power in the monarch—including the legitimacy of rule, the right of resistance to tyranny, and the relationship between private and public morality.

Holderness, Graham, Nick Potter, and John Turner. "Macbeth." In Shakespeare: The Play of History, pp. 119-49. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Explicates Shakespeare's use of the nationalist interpretation of Scottish history, which views the union with England as the end of Scotland's golden age of heroes. Describing Macbeth as a "tragic romance," Turner traces Shakespeare's portrayal of the decline of the Scottish monarchy from Duncan, a king who fosters belief in the reciprocal indebtedness of sovereign and subjects, to Malcolm, whose self-righteous condemnation of Macbeth and suspicion of those around him demean his own sovereignty.

Holland, Norman N. "Macbeth." In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 219-30. New York: McGraw Hill, 1966.

Provides a summary of psychoanalytic commentary on Macbeth in the first half of the twentieth century.

Jorgenson, Paul A. "Torture of the Mind." In Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth, pp. 185-216. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Regards Macbeth as a man crushed by unremitting mental agony and driven by fear to commit sin after sin until he suffers the loss of God's grace. Jorgenson traces the progress of Macbeth's spiritual deterioration to the point of despair, when he finds no meaning in his life on earth and no hope of personal redemption.

Margolies, David. "Macbeth" In his Monsters of the Deep: Social Dissolution in Shakespeare's Tragedies, pp. 80-102. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Discerns a ruinous conflict in Macbeth between principles and desires—between socialized attitudes on the one hand and individualistic behavior on the other. Macbeth is weak and impressionable, Margolies maintains, and when he loses social approval he also loses his sense of self.

McAlindon,T. "Macbeth" In Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, pp. 197-219. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Discusses the motif of unity and chaos as represented in both the world of the play and the character of its protagonist. In Renaissance cosmology, the ideal world is a reconciliation of antithetical elements, the critic explains, and this should be reflected in the harmony of oppositions within an individual; Macbeth's tragedy, McAlindon posits, stems from his inability to temper unlimited ambition with his innate appreciation of the bonds he shares with others.

Morris, Harry. "Macbeth: The Great Doom's Image." In Last Things in Shakespeare, pp. 163-204. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985.

Asserts that Macbeth is evil from the start of the play and that once he has murdered Duncan, redemption becomes impossible. Morris suggests that Shakespeare may be indebted to Dante for this portrait of absolute evil, as well as to church liturgy and medieval iconography for scenes that are reminiscent of the apocalyptic Day of Judgment.

Muir, Kenneth. Introduction to Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. xiii-lxv. Arden Edition. London: Routledge, 1984.

An updated version of Muir's earlier introductions to the Arden edition of Macbeth. After addressing the issues of text, date, the Porter scene, and likely sources, Muir focuses on the principal characters, viewing Macbeth as a man whose excessive ambition inspires the murder of Duncan—though he would not have acted on this impulse, the critic contends, without his wife's persuasion.

Norbrook, David. "Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography." In Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, pp. 78-116. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Discusses Macbeth in terms of three likely sources: the sixteenth-century Scottish histories written by George Buchanan, Hector Boece, and John Major. Norbrook argues that many of the play's anomalies and contradictions can be traced to Shakespeare's revisionary treatment of these accounts, which are hostile to the concept of absolute monarchy and openly debate the question of hereditary versus elective sovereignty.

Paris, Bernard J. "Bargains with Fate: The Case of Macbeth." American Journal of Psychoanalysis 42, No. 1 (1982): 7-20.

A psychoanalytic reading of the play that characterizes Macbeth as a man torn between conflicting impulses: greatness and rectitude. In Paris's judgment, Macbeth is driven to murder Duncan less by ambition than by anxiety over his wife's contempt and his own self-hatred.

Reed, Robert Rentoul, Jr. "Macbeth, the Devil, and God." In Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare, pp. 165-98. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Discusses the play as a depiction of the ascendancy of demonic forces in the soul of Macbeth and the kingdom of Scotland. Reed believes that Macbeth has a resolute moral nature, leading him to suffer torments of fear and guilt after he murders Duncan; he dehumanizes himself to escape his conscience, the critic maintains, and is ultimately defeated by agents of divine retribution.

Riebling, Barbara. "Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 31, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 273-86.

Compares Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcolm in relation to Machiavellian precepts of effective leadership. Riebling declares that Malcolm is the most complete Machiavellian in the play, for he is willing to subordinate conventional rules of ethical conduct to the urgent needs of his troubled kingdom—and ensure his own political survival into the bargain.

Simon, Bennett. "A Tale Told by an Idiot: Shakespeare's Macbeth." In Tragic Drama and the Family, pp. 140-76. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

A psychoanalytic study focusing on the motifs of time, procreation, and storytelling. Simon observes a pattern of irregular flow and sequence of dramatic time, thwarted and monstrous births, and distorted narratives that underscores the futility and meaninglessness of Macbeth's life.

Sinfield, Alan. "Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals." Critical Quarterly 28, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring-Summer 1986): 63-77.

Disputes the widely-held belief that Macbeth should be read as an endorsement of the absolute power and legitimacy of kings. While Sinfield grants that this ideology is one of the political motifs in the play, he calls particular attention to another: the political philosophy of George Buchanan, a Scottish historian who declared that sovereignty is an expression of the will of the people and thus they are free to depose a tyrant.

Willbern, David. "Phantasmagoric Macbeth." English Literary Renaissance 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 520-49

Employs a psychoanalytic approach to explore the implication of Macbeth's inherently equivocal nature. Focusing on the matrix of apparitions and illusions in the play, Willbern proposes that Shakespeare's complex representation of fantasy and dramatic reality mirrors the dynamic relation between unconscious and ordinary thought in the human psyche.

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Macbeth (Vol. 29)


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