Donald W. Foster (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Macbeth's War on Time,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 319-42.

[In the following essay, Foster offers an account of Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics and history.]

James I, in his preface to the Basilikon Doron (1603), notes that men must “be very warie in all their secretest actions, and whatsoeuer middesses they vse for attaining to their most wished ends.” This is especially true, he says, in the affairs of kings:

for Kings being publike persons, by reason of their office and authority, are as it were set (as it was said of old) vpon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders eyes are attentiuely bent to looke and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest drifts: Which should make Kings the more careful not to harbour the secretest thought in their minde … assuring themselues that Time the mother of Veritie, will in the due season bring her owne daughter to perfection.1

We have no record of James's critical response to Macbeth, but there are many who would applaud his meditation on the old figure of the “player-king” as a commentary on Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy: Truth, the daughter of Time, has at last a coming-out party in Act V, as riddling prophecies are unravelled, and as King Macbeth, “the secretest man of blood,” is shown to his countrymen for what he is, a fiendlike butcher, so unlike his spiritual opposite, that most sainted prince, young Malcolm.2 The sin, disease, chaos, and falsehood of Macbeth find their answer in Malcolm's piety, medicine, order, and truth. Macbeth, like those nineteenth-century French narratives discussed by Roland Barthes, raises “the question as if it were a subject which one delays predicating; and when the predicate (truth) arrives, the sentence, the narrative, are over, the world is adjectivized (after we had feared it would not be).” In short, Shakespeare in his Scottish play poses a problem and solves it, producing thereby a drama which follows Barthes' “classic” narrative pattern: “Truth, these narratives tell us, is what is at the end of expectation. This design brings narrative very close to the rite of initiation (a long path marked with pitfalls, obscurities, stops, suddenly comes out in the light); it implies a return to order, for expectation is a disorder.”3 This, some would say, is no less true of the disorder in Macbeth's Scotland than of the narrative's own “disorder” of expectation. In fact, the expectation of order is so strong at the close of Macbeth that critics for years have out-Malcolm’d Malcolm in their expressions of a beatific future. “Blood will cease to flow,” writes one, “movement will recommence, fear will be forgotten, sleep will season every life, and the seeds of life will blossom in due order.” “Virtue and justice are restored,” exclaims another. “The time is free, the ‘weal’ once more made ‘gentle.’” “The true cosmic playwright”—God—“now controls the world stage,” writes a third, “and is prepared to create pattern out of the chaos and significance out of Malcolm's victory. …” “No longer will innocent flowers shelter serpents,” writes a fourth. “Appearances will be attuned again with reality. … Macbeth's reign becomes the memory of a nightmare, scarcely disturbing Scotland's serene future.”4 All will be performed in measure, time, and place.


What interests me is not so much whether these critics are right or wrong in their unequivocal prophecies of bliss, but that such prophecies are made at all. It is not that I fault them for...

(This entire section contains 10319 words.)

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speaking of Malcolm and Macduff and company as “real” people with a “real” future, for insofar as the text comments on a past or future beyond the confines of narrative time, it is our business to discuss it as part of the fiction, as an inherent part of what defines the world ofMacbeth. But it is curious that the criticism, until very recently, has been so unanimous in its expectation of a return to order after Macbeth's demise. For how can we know, finally, what sort of world it is that Malcolm's Scotland has inherited? We have, of course, the testimony of Macduff that the “time is free,” which is perhaps the most oft-quoted line from the play outside Macbeth's “tomorrow” soliloquy; and most have taken his word as gospel, assuming either that Macduff is a man of astute judgment, or else that his words have a kind of magical efficacy in defining his world's future. Yet Macduff is the man who fled to England to escape Macbeth's bloody sword, while trusting his wife and children to the power of positive thinking; and though he declares that the time is free, he does so in a play in which the “good” characters are marked by their signal inability to learn from their mistakes. His declaration carries no greater freight of truth than Duncan's announcement in 1.2 that the Thane of Cawdor shall never more deceive his bosom interest.

From the play's opening line, the text glances repeatedly at Scotland's troubled future, as the natural harvest and inevitable repetition of a troubled past. In Malcolm we are presented with a future king whose speech—beginning with his self-impeachment (the only lie ever told by this “weak, poor, innocent lamb”), or perhaps even with his odd response to the news of his father's murder (“O, by whom?”)—displays nothing but an empty bosom, a cunning mind, and a ready tongue. And though we are not told which of the two princes laughed in his sleep as Duncan bled, in the end it makes no difference, for at the close revenges still burn in men, and it is “certain” that Donalbain is not with his brother (5.2.7-8). In fact, his conspicuous and pointed absence in the fifth act (by which Shakespeare refers his audience to Holinshed's familiar chronicles) might well prompt Malcolm to say of Donalbain what Macbeth once said of Fleance: his absence is material. Holinshed reports that Malcolm eventually died a gruesome death, his head skewered through the eye upon the spear of an English knight; after which Donalbain returned from Ireland, slew Malcolm's eldest son, and usurped the throne. Moreover, during Malcolm's reign, “all the laws that Makbeth had ordeined were abrogated”; the whole realm was given over to “intestine rebellion,” “slaughter in all parts,” “more crueltie than euer had beene heard of before,” “discommoditie and decaie,” “outragious riot,” “licorous desires,” “corrupted abuses,” “riotous manners,” and “superfluous gormandizing.”5 If art in this case imitates a life, Malcolm's crafty false-speaking against himself is only too true.

Nor can there be a “return” to order when there was none to begin with. We are given no hint in Shakespeare that Duncan's reign was ever anything but bloody and chaotic. Indeed, the King's opening question, “What bloody man is that,” might well be answered, “a Scotsman.” Word of rebellion, treason, betrayal, and killing come post with post, without so much as breathing space between. An ineffectual king, Duncan can do nothing but inquire after “the newest state” of a broil which seems to have no beginning or end. And insofar as the three weird sisters represent the forces of darkness, the first line of the play—“Where shall we three meet again”—suggests already that what we shall see on the heath, or stage, is a repetition, more of the same.

That Macbeth follows a narrative curve from order/goodness/truth to chaos/badness/falsehood and back again is the illusion of those who would have their drama serve, not as a metaphor for life (in which our search for a first cause or grammatical subject drives us ever into the dark backward and abysm of time), but rather as a metaphor for some fictive or dream reality that has, in fact, a beginning, middle, and end: that is, a neatly contained world without causality or transience. In this respect, the reader's demand for a narrative based on the diad of subject and predicate, noun and verb, on expectation and desire for its imminent closure, is kin to the old cry for “poetic justice,” for it demands that the poet belie his world in the interest of the reader's metaphysical comfort. In the end, of course, all poets, all tests, do belie life; but the old demand for hermeneutic narrative, in which “truth” predicates an incomplete subject, is the demand for a conventional lie, the expected lie, linked, as Barthes would say, “to the kerygmatic civilization of meaning and truth, appeal and fulfillment.”6

In Macbeth the predicate, as truth, never arrives; nor is the world adjectivized, except by characters within the fiction, all of whom are partial to the action, and hence, unreliable judges. Shakespeare never essays to articulate the truth of Macbeth's history, nor even offers us a sum of perspectives which, when viewed holistically, comprise the truth. What we get instead is a variety of conflicting interpretations expressed by figures who themselves exist (until our imagination amends them) only as interpretation, as words in a text. “Some say he’s mad; others, that lesser hate him, / Do call it valiant fury” (5.2.13-14). It is impossible to say, finally, whether Macbeth is aptly named “coward” or “brave,” “Bellona's bridegroom” or “bloody villain,” “royal lord” or “dwarfish thief,” “Majesty” or “monster,” “something wicked” or “angry god,” “noble partner” or “abhorréd tyrant.” Even the adjectives most frequently used to describe him—“good” (ten times) and “worthy” (nine times)—are neither true nor false, for all such words refer us not to any external reality but only to the figures who voice them, even as Macduff's “time is free” directs us not to truth, but to an interpretation, that is, to Macduff's own vision of a redeemed future, and to his sense that time past has been chained, hampered, enthralled by that cruel tyrant whose head is now mounted on a stick. Were the detached head able to speak in the final scene, it would, no doubt, say it was the other way around, that time was the tyrant, Macbeth time's fool and slave.

But if the passage of time in Macbeth fails to bring truth to perfection, the language of time may at least serve as a vantage from which to gain a new perspective: for time, in Macbeth, is the mother of many words. Nearly everyone is heard to “pay his breath to time” (4.1.99), from the lordly Malcolm to the lowly porter. Predictably, all this talk of time has generated a good deal of critical discussion as well; but according to the orthodox consensus (in essays by Stephen Spender, Roy Walker, Barbara Parker, Fred Turner, Ricardo Quinones, Francois Maguin, and Wylie Sypher, among others), this textual preoccupation with time and time's laws only serves to confirm Macbeth as a “closed” play (Sypher's term) in which the untimely Macbeths knock the time out of joint only to have the Malcolm-Macduff-Nature team knock it back in.7 As articulated by Frank Kermode, “The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and crushing them. This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil, however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence. Nowhere is this clearer than in Macbeth. The damnation of the principal characters involves murder and destruction, outrage not only upon the state but upon the whole cosmos; but the balance is restored.” Kermode goes on to survey the numerous references in Macbeth to time and time's laws, and concludes, “As in Spenser, Time, apparently the destroyer, is the redeemer; yet it is itself redeemed. It seems very characteristic … of Shakespeare that there should be, in the greatest of the plays about human guilt, these semantic complexities concerning time, the element in which human life succeeds or fails, in which virtue is tested and evil brought to good.”8 Thus Macbeth's true history, which begins with a capital crime, ends (to use a figure from Othello), in a “bloody period.” Be sure your disorders will find you out.

But when hermetic abstractions of Time-as-redeemer are set aside long enough for us to look at the actual language used, we find that Macbeth is plagued by a persistent though largely unconscious impulse to take revenge on time itself, as the chief obstacle to the human will, as the very devil from which man must be redeemed. Perhaps the most famous (though by no means original) formulation of his dilemma is that expressed by Nietzsche's Zarathustra:

‘It was’—that is the name of the will's teeth-gnashing and most lonely affliction. Impotent against what is transpired, the will is a resentful spectator of all that has passed.

The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time's covetousness—that is the will's loneliest affliction.9

But this passage is often misunderstood. The human will does not resent simply the “what was” of time, or the past. Time exists as past, present, and future, and contains not only an “it was” but an “it is” and an “it shall be.” By stressing the “it was” as the object of the will's resentment, Nietzsche is concerned not merely with time past, but with time passing, with transience. The past bears the brunt of the will's resentment only because the past most obviously is ground whereon the will cannot operate. That which has come before cannot be changed or recreated in any literal sense. Therefore, having stumbled over this immovable rock, the will yields to a counter-will, a willing-against, an impulse to “get even.” All sentiment becomes ressentiment. Seeking to liberate itself from its chains, the resentful will lashes out against time and time's laws, sometimes in foolish ways:

Alas, every prisoner becomes a fool! The imprisoned will, too,
releases itself in a foolish way.
It is resentful that time does not run back. … And so,
out of rage and ill-temper, the will rolls stones about, taking revenge on
him who does not, like it, feel rage and ill-temper.
Thus the liberating will becomes a felon, and upon all that
can suffer it wreaks revenge for its inability to go backwards.
This, yea, this alone is revenge
itself: the will's aversion to time and time's “It was.”(10)

Shakespeare's Troilus, in speaking of love, observes “that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (T&C, 3.2.80-82). Substitute the will to power for the sex drive, and we have the problem of Macbeth. Here is the figure of an infinite will trapped in a finite, transient body. The driving force behind Macbeth is not just a petty ambition to be named King of Scotland, but a far more radical impulse to be King over life itself, as indicated by his verbal obsession with time, causality, and transience. Macbeth would “entreat an hour to serve” his will, rather than vice versa (2.1.22). But for time's inexorable laws, his will “had else been perfect, / Whole as marble, founded as the rock. / As broad and general as the casing air.” Instead he finds his will “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in,” (3.4.25), “the servant to defect, / Which else should free have wrought” (2.1.17-18). Unable to stem the flow of time, or to clip the chains of causality, unable to alter or recover that which time has established as the order of accomplished fact, Macbeth feels compelled to express his resentment in acts of bloody execution.

Macbeth's rage against time, like his impulse to murder Duncan, lies hidden until that fateful meeting with the weird sisters on the road to Forres. Heretofore his resentment has been repressed, denied, locked away in the unconscious. Since present fears are less than horrible imaginings, this Thane of Glamis has cast himself into the thick of every fray, “Nothing afeard of what [him]self didst make, / Strange images of death” (1.3.96-97); he has preferred to blot out the inner impulse, or “horrible imagining,” with an external sign, or “image of death.” Therefore, when it comes to protecting Duncan from the daggers of ambitious men, Macbeth is the nonpareil. The bloody man who brings report “of the revolt / The newest state” (1.2.1-2) cannot imagine what has possessed the Thane of Glamis to fight so relentlessly against overwhelming odds, unless perhaps he “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” (1.2.39-40). But there is an element here of psychological realism, for according to Freud, drive (whether it be the will to power, sex drive, death drive, or poetic will) employs various mechanisms to defend itself against its own completeness, against its own need to look at what cannot be seen. Thus Macbeth's zeal in slaying the King's foes may be understood as a reaction formation by which he seeks to secure his ego against the return of bloody, repressed impulses from within.

The net effect of the witches' visit is that Macbeth is stripped forever of his ability to defend himself against his own black desires—which is why he “starts” when the weird sisters name him “King hereafter.” Their prophetic greeting is at once a fresh beginning and a cause of terror, for the suggestion that he may yet be King brings to mind, involuntarily, the repressed image of a bloody corse, a horrid vision of slain royalty which unfixes his hair and makes his seated heart to knock against his ribs, “against the use of nature.” He therefore attempts to dismiss the matter, and murder his murderous thought, with a chopped couplet, a failed attempt at closure: “Come what come may,” he says, “Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (1.3.147-48). That his words are spoken not in resignation, but with an edge of resentment, is made apparent not only in the potentially bloody verb, “runs through,” but in the swelling act which follows. Were he resigned, there would be no assassination, and no play.

By referring him to “the coming on of time, with a ‘Hail, King that shalt be!’” the weird sisters legitimize, as it were, Macbeth's claim to a kingly title. But every title—whether it be the name of king, father, god, or Thane of Cawdor—is a “former title” (1.2.65). We always arrive too late: someone else has always come first. Macbeth, likewise, feels a vague resentment that he has not come first, that another should be already that which he wishes himself to be. Like many of his contemporaries, he would like to be King, and he is nearer than most to the crown. Unfortunately, Duncan exists already as the thing itself. Macbeth has been deprived of the kingship, as it were, by his own “belatedness.” Since Duncan holds a prior claim to the title, having come first in time, Macbeth must wait on time, as time's slave, for that which is “rightfully” his. It is an injury to his will, and Duncan will suffer for it.

It is here on the road to Forres that Macbeth's conscious assumptions about time are first called into question, as the play begins to probe the nature of man's relationship to time and causality. For example, there is in Banquo's phrase, “the seeds of time,” a genitive, and generative, ambiguity. If the “of” signifies composition or content (box of alabaster, bag of groceries), if the seeds of time exist as sprouts of future time in potentia, the implication is that the future is not yet determined: men are the gardeners of their world, and as willful creators with “free hearts” they may cultivate this or that seed of time, causing it to flourish. That this is Duncan's view is made apparent in his words to Macbeth: “I have begun to plant thee,” he says, “and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28-29). If, on the other hand, the “of” is possessive, and time itself is the gardener, then it is left to the goddesses of destiny to say which grain will grow and which will not. The future then is fixed, contained in the present, and though man's seated, or “seeded,” heart may knock against the use of nature, time shall have its pleasure. This is Banquo's assumption, which is why he neither begs nor fears the witches' favors nor their hate.

Banquo's organic perception of time and stoic indifference to the chains of causality are foreign to Macbeth's mind. Macbeth advises men to plant themselves (3.1.129), and holds that man may be the master of his time (3.1.40). He therefore recoils before the witches' strange intelligence, for their words, their “shalt be” instead of “mayst be,” or even a “shalt be—if,” implies that all growth is foreordained. In this more than mortal knowledge the Thane of Glamis “seems rapt withal,” and wrapped as well, perceiving himself as, perhaps, a mere seed cast by time and fortune—a fearful meditation. Ironically, it is at precisely this moment, in which he hears himself named King hereafter, that the chilling thought first occurs to Macbeth that he may, in fact, be no more than time's slave.

That Macbeth cannot command transience is illustrated for him, as for us, in his command to the weird sisters: “Stay, you imperfect speakers,” he says, “tell me more / … Speak, I charge you” (1.3.70, 78). But the women promptly vanish, like the inhabitants of the earth, “Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted / As breath into the wind” (1.3.81-82). Macbeth's cry—“Would they had stayed!”—should, I think, be spoken on stage not wistfully, but with sudden and unexpected anger. Here was a vision of that earthly transience before which the self is nullified, and the assertive “will” reduced to “would.” Banquo and Macbeth, no less than these three old women, are among earth's “bubbles” (1.3.79), to be burst, sooner or later, by antic Death's little pin.

Lost in his contemplation of time's “it was,” Macbeth is overcome with a temporal vertigo that dizzies his speech. For example, when he learns that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, he says, “The greatest is behind” (1.3.117). Macbeth's conscious meaning is that the greatest is “to follow,” is yet to come, but the odd phrasing, which curiously conflates past and future, contains a suspicion that the greatest is irredeemably “behind him,” has come and gone.

Again, when he turns to those who stay upon his leisure, Macbeth excuses himself, saying, “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten” (1.3.149-50). The sentence itself is an attempt to murder the thought of killing Duncan. We might expect Macbeth to say, “My dull brain was wrought with matters that I will forget about for now. Let us toward the King.” Rather, his use of the past participle seems an attempt, in mid-sentence, to pronounce himself free of that horrible imagining which continues to shake him. Thus his lie to Banquo and company is a lie also to himself, for his mind is wrought with deeds, names, and men that are all but forgotten.

Having been referred to the coming on of time, Macbeth can see only time's “it was.” That which is great to be, is only a mirroring repetition of that greatness which lies behind. “Kind gentlemen,” he says, “your pains / Are registered where every day I turn / The leaf to read them” (1.4.150-52). But which way are the pages turning, forward or backward? He seems to mean, “Each day you perform new favors to be recorded,” but his words demand another reading as well: every day of his life he turns a new leaf, looking for a blank page on which to inscribe his name, only to find, already recorded there, the pains of kind (like-minded) gentlemen. As he speaks to his friends, Macbeth sees nothing before him but the spectres of the past. Every dread exploit, every heroic deed, every great name, is anticipated by time. Moreover, even if he does succeed in carving out a name and passage, his life will only fall into the sear, the yellow leaf of a tedious chronicle (5.3.22-23)—so that nothing is, but what is not.

In considering what motivates Macbeth, our vision has been too easily clouded by our own conventional goodness and perhaps, too, by the timidity of our evil. The traditional view of Macbeth as a man torn between his black desires on the one hand and Christian virtue on the other is too simple. For example, the thought occurs to Macbeth, “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-44). According to the customary reading of these lines, Macbeth has, then, good cause not to murder Duncan: if the weird sisters speak true, he need only wait, and the crown will fall into his lap—and that, perhaps, is Macbeth's conscious meaning. But we may perceive also in this short aside a spur to regicide: for if chance crowns him without his stir, what will he have gained? Only that which was foretold, a fruitless crown and barren sceptre. But he will have lost much. It is essential to Macbeth that he create himself as King, that he be crowned not passively by the hands of time and chance, but actively, by his own mortal hands. To be made King without his stir will not answer for him the question of whether or not he is simply time's slave, subject to experience whatever time has in store. Macbeth's question is not, Dare I do a wicked deed to gain the Scottish crown, but rather, Do I dare disturb the universe? Shall I resign myself as the slave of limit, or shall I seek to liberate myself, by jumping the life to come and seizing the future now, on my own terms? Lady Macbeth, therefore, says more than she knows when she chides her husband, saying that when neither time nor place adheres, he “would make both,” but when “they have made themselves,” their very fitness doth “unmake him” (1.7.51-54). The paradox of willful self-creation could not be more succinctly stated. Macbeth is nothing afeard of what he makes himself (1.3.96), but only of what makes him.

Macbeth's answer to his humiliation at the hands of the clock is to take a literal revenge: he will attack time with a dagger, will break time's laws, will take the future now in the ignorant present, seizing forcibly that which he has come already to perceive as his—the name and all the addition to a king. But the name of king, in Macbeth's mind, is no ordinary name, and his deed shall be no ordinary deed. Macbeth, like Cleopatra, wills “To do that thing that ends all other deeds, / Which shackles accidents and bolts up change”; but he is far from sharing Cleopatra's opinion that “’Tis paltry to be Caesar,” nor perceives that a king, “not being Fortune,” is but “Fortune's knave” (A&C, 5.2.2-6). Cleopatra wills to defeat time by transforming herself into an everlasting legend. Macbeth cares nothing for legend. He’ll defeat time literally, by creating himself King of the empirical realm whether or not Fortune wills to have it so. He’ll have a name greater than any name named under Heaven.

Harold Bloom, in his essay on poetry as a mode of lying against time, has followed the Gnostic Valentinius in noting that mortal man, desiring to transcend time and flesh and death, may fashion images, in the name of a god, which in turn become objects of fear to him, as for example, the idolator with his stone idol, or the terrified speaker of Blake's “Tyger.” This fear may be identified as the fear of a name, whether it be the artist's fear of a daemonic name (in having fashioned the unheimlich, or “uncanny”), or the pagan's creation of a god with a name greater than his own.11 Macbeth likewise, perceiving himself to be a slave of time, quakes not so much at the thought of mere killing as at the image, fashioned by himself, of “King” Macbeth, a being which seems, in his mind's eye, to transcend time. The name of King, pre-existent and immortal, and endowed with a power and freedom not available to Macbeth as subject, seems to offer the promise of a new temporality in which time and death become subject to the self. Macbeth, like the sublime poet, like the savage idolator, thus creates an image before which he may bow the knee, populating the empty vault with a god after his own fashion. If he trembles before the image of a fallen King Duncan, he trembles also before the image of King Macbeth, a being shaped not by time but by his own devices, a sublime creation, greater than himself, a King of kings, and killer of kings. It is this doubly frightening thought which makes his heart knock against his ribs, for having once fashioned in his mind the image of King Macbeth, that identity alone seems authentic. To be a self-made King is to be sublime. To be less is nothing.

It now becomes clear why Macbeth's mind is given to such marvellous soliloquies regarding the horror of the deed he is about to perform: Macbeth needs these images, as it were, to convince himself of the sublimity of his crime. His fecund imagination would rescue the intended act from time's abyss, and endow it with meaning. While “pity, like a naked newborn babe, / Striding the blast” and “heaven's cherubin horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air” appear strong against the deed, it is precisely such images that allow Macbeth to continue believing that a knife in Duncan will indeed break the bands of transience. Pale Hecate's offerings, images of withered murder alarumed by the wolf, Tarquin's ghostly presence, all help to reassure Macbeth's heat-oppressed brain that his crime will surely be a deed horrid and grand enough to free his will from its chains. For most men, such visions were enough to sickly o’er the native hue of resolution, but Macbeth's bloody dagger, a false creation, only marshalls him the way that he was going. He must allow nothing to “take the present horror from the time” (1.7.58). I do not suppose, of course, that Macbeth knows all this. Maybe Shakespeare knew it, in his own way, but the argument is not, finally, a “psychological” one, for it takes place in the interstice of a continuing textual preoccupation with time and causality.

Ironically, Macbeth's deed, crucifixion of sorts, does seem to shock time into a momentary stasis: “By th’clock tis day,” says Ross, “And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp” (2.4.6-7). It is a critical commonplace to note that the shock is only momentary; but the reaction is not, as in DeQuincey's formulation, a matter of the “human” making its reflux upon the “fiendish.” Rather, time and transience reassert themselves, as Macduff calls “timely” upon the King. Nor was time or the “natural order” ever really assaulted, though many Scotsmen would interpret it so. ’Twas a rough night, but the regicide, no less than Macdonwald's rebellion, Norway's invasion, the earthquake and storm, is a confused event “New hatched to th’woeful time” (2.3.53). There is no causal link between Macbeth's deed and the storm, any more than between Macdonwald's rebellion and the “contending ’gainst obedience” of Duncan's horses (2.4.17). Brutal violence, whether by man or beast, is very much a part of the so-called “natural order,” both before and after Duncan's death.

To seize the kingship had seemed to Macbeth a deed to stop “the spring, the head, the fountain,” the “very source” of natural succession, while halting also the flow of kingly blood (2.3.100-01). It is neither. If one man may seize the crown by violence without an apocalypse, so then may another. The sun has not yet come full circle before King Macbeth realizes that his fears in Banquo stick deep. Banquo, who in his sleep is given to cursed thoughts (2.1.7-9), has confessed that he, too, dreams at night of the weird sisters (2.1.20); and Macbeth notes that he “chid the sisters, / When first they put the name of King upon me”—an observation which suggests that Banquo resents Macbeth's priority, resents that the sisters did not first put the name of King upon him (3.1.58). Macbeth had hoped that his deed without a name would trammel up consequence. Finding it otherwise, he is vexed by every minute of Banquo's being (3.1.117), and resolves that it “must be done tonight” (3.1.131). If the assassination of Duncan proved nothing, the murder of Banquo and Fleance will, for the seeds of Banquo then will never grow as prophesied. Just two more murders will “Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond” which keeps him pale, the bond of causality, or “fate,” which subjects him as time's debtor, captive, and slave (3.2.49-50).

When he has come to terms with the killers, Macbeth exclaims happily, “It is concluded!” (3.1.141)—only to find, once again, that nothing is concluded. Lady Macbeth, for her part, would like to think that “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard: what’s done is done” (3.2.11-12). But she soon finds herself asking her lord, “What’s to be done?” (3.2.44)—as if to say, What’s yet to be done? What shall be done? What ought to be done? What can or does it mean—“to be done?”

When the murderers return and tell the King “how much is done” (3.3.22), his fit comes again, in the figure of Banquo's ghost; although “when all's done,” he looks but on a stool. The vision only hardens his resolve: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood. / Stones have been known to move and trees to speak”—or stones to speak and trees to move—“Augures and understood relations have by maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret’st man of blood” (3.4.123-27). Here again, the usual error is to hear in these words only the voice of fear, when there is, in fact, some metaphysical comfort (for Macbeth, as for us) in the thought that the natural order has risen up against him—else the sublimity of his crime threatens to vanish into a futile insignificance, as mere death and emptiness. Nature's supposed opposition will not, therefore, discourage Macbeth from doing his will: “… I will … / … I will … / … I will … / … For mine own good / All causes shall give way.” In other words, “All considerations shall be forgot as I take my revenge on all causation.” It will be a bloody, tedious business: for “I am in blood / Stepped so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.131-41). There is now only a “going o’er” (and over and over), and no “o’erleaping.” In the landscape of Macbeth's imagination there is a swift river of time, a tide of blood having as its source time's “it was” and all that has gone before. He once conceived himself as outside time, on the bank and shoal, seeking to o’erleap transience to reach the golden shore of a timeless present. But having once pricked the sides of his intent and spurred vaulting ambition, Macbeth has jumped the life to come, and—fallen in! If he makes it now to that other shore, it will only be by slogging through blood up to his ears.

The Thane of Fife is next to bleed. When Macbeth learns, from the apparition of the armed head, that he should “Beware Macduff,” he vows to “make assurance double sure / And take a bond of fate” (4.1.71, 83-84) to make fate prisoner and debtor to himself. Best to force the apparition to keep its word of promise: he will kill Macduff, and have done. But once again, Macbeth arrives too late, for the Thane of Fife is fled to England. “Time,” exclaims the King, “thou anticipat’st my dread exploits” (4.1.144). From now on, it will be an open battle. If Macbeth cannot make his time stand still, he will make it run:

The flighty 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.


And “Thus,” in Zarathustra's words, “the liberating will becomes a felon, and upon all that can suffer it wreaks revenge for its inability to go backwards.”12 Have I arrived too late to kill Macduff? Very well, I’ll kill “His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.152-53). This is a key moment in the history of Macbeth's reactivity, as we go from Macdonwald to Duncan to Banquo to the Macduffs. Macbeth turns again to frantic killing, as if on a battlefield, as a means of erasing the temporal interval between acts, by constantly acting, allowing time no interval for re-action, and no chance to anticipate him, like a boxer who flails his opponent against the ropes. His brandished steel will smoke in bloody execution until such time as he can say, “It is done.” Thus “Each new morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face” (4.3.5-6). What’s the newest grief? “Each minute teems a new one,” for each minute is itself a grief, a ceasing to be, an injury to the will that must be avenged with the sword (5.3.174-76). Yet Macbeth finds that with each bloody revenge, time will “close and be herserlf, whilst our poor malice / Remains in danger of her former tooth,” her “it was” (3.2.14-15).

Too late, Macbeth realizes that “He cannot buckle his distempered cause / Within the belt of rule” (5.2.15-16). Having willed himself to be a causeless man, a self-made king, he learns that causation resists the will as surely as “being” resists “being done.” There is stasis only in death. This recognition that being exists only as transience proves too great a burden for his will to bear. The formula, “Nothing is, but what is not,” turns upon itself: What is, is nothing, for all that is, is transient, a vanishing into the abyss:

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


Macbeth has always favored “tomorrow” as the blessed ground whereon the will may appear to operate freely: “We’ll take tomorrow” (3.1.22); “But of that tomorrow” (3.1.32); “Tomorrow / We’ll hear ourselves again” (3.4.32-33); “I will tomorrow, / And betimes I will, to the weïrd sisters” (3.4.133-34). But now his will seems extinguished by the stuttering repetition of a million deadly tomorrows endlessly the same. It does not matter, in the end, what history's “last syllable” is. Macbeth knows it only as a “like syllable of dolor,” a sound that signifies nothing. Three, or four, or a billion tomorrows cannot finally be distinguished from the plural yesterday which led like-minded gentlemen to their inevitable, and redundant, conclusion.

Thus Macbeth comes at last to cast off the sublimity of self-creation in spite of time, as he embraces the sublime necessity of dying in time. “Out, out, brief candle!” If a man cannot have, cannot be, the be-all and the end-all, better then not to be, better that no man should be, that earthly existence itself should cease to be. Thus spake Zarathustra: “Because the willer must suffer, because he cannot will backwards—thus willing itself and all life has been perceived as—punishment! … until at last madness preached: ‘Everything passes away; therefore everything deserves to pass away!’”13 “What’s done cannot be undone” (5.1.71)—which is precisely why Macbeth wishes that “th’estate o’ th’ world were now undone” (5.6.50). He’d have “nature's germens tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken” (4.1.59-60).

It is his weariness of time's petty procession which allows Macbeth finally to embrace his fate: “Blow wind, come wrack!” he cries. “There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here” (5.5.51, 48), no afterlife or permanence, nothing but death and transience, a passing away. He therefore leaves the safety of Dunsinane, a castle which might indeed have laughed a siege to scorn, and marches forth to meet his fate, come what come may, motivated no longer by “poor malice” and a will to revenge but by a profound acceptance of death—of his own and every man's.

Yet, as a man bound to Fortune's wheel, Macbeth has come around, at least, to perceive the futility of brandished steel and smoking execution, unlike those “good” men in his world who still look to revenge as the answer to their ills: “Be comforted,” says the future King. “Let's make us med’cines of our great revenge, / To cure this deadly grief” (4.3.213-15). Caithness likewise sees in Malcolm's burning revenge “the med’cine of the sickly weal” (5.2.27), with an unintended pun on “wheel,” for he fails to apprehend that literal revenges lead inevitably to revenges in kind. Revenge cannot, in fact, cure deadly grief, for it is revenge itself which makes grief deadly. Time's “it was” cannot be remedied in the empirical realm. Therefore, says Macbeth, “Throw physic to the dogs, I’ll none of it” (5.3.47). Having acknowledged his fate as time's fool, he is determined only to fight the course, to see the dismal story out, to meet his enemy on the field beard to beard, and let the gashes fall where they may; for though revenge as a physic may comfort the dogs that bait the bear-like king (5.7.1-2), Macbeth for his part has come to perceive it rather as a poisoned chalice which men raise to their own lips, a sickly wheel which returns to plague the inventor—though there is, of course, no “inventor,” no author, no prime mover. That was his illusion in Act I. All revenges are revenges in kind, more of the same, and every deed has a pre-existent name, including regicide.

Resolved still that he “must not yield / To one of woman born,” King Macbeth learns, too late, that his adversary was “from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped” (5.8.12-16). Macduff, the living consequence of Macbeth's revenges of the past, appears as the outcome of an untimely breach in nature. Macbeth must face him and perish, or yield, and live to be the literal fool of time, “the show and gaze o’th’time,” a poor player on a tether to be baited with the rabble's curse. “I will not yield,” he vows, “To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet” (5.8.27-28). The ground before young Malcolm's feet is Scotland's future, a dusty path which Macbeth has no will to see. Rather, he will continue to carve his own passage till he finds himself concluded on the bloody point of Macduff's sword: “Yet I will try the last … / And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” (5.8.32-34).

When Macduff enters with “King” Macbeth's severed head fixed upon a spear, he greets Malcolm, saying, “Hail, King! for so thou art: behold, where stands / Th’usurper's cursed head. The time is free” (5.8.54-55). Macduff means, of course, that Malcolm may now be called “King,” since the world has been liberated from the tyrant Macbeth. But the ambiguous “so” suggests a second, ironic, meaning: “O ‘King,’ behold this pitiful scarecrow, this death's head upon a stick: for so thou art. The man who would be king is a poor usurper, cursed by time; for time, in fact, is king, and time is free to work his will on all his human slaves.” Fortune thus has granted to Macbeth his wish that he “memorize another Golgotha”: for when his robes have been removed, we, like Malcolm, may behold Shakespeare's macabre caricature of the human potentate, “a new Gorgon,” the King of kings, in a grotesque crucifixion, “as our rarer monsters are, / Painted upon a pole, and underwrit, / ‘Here you may see the tyrant’” (5.8.25-27).

If indeed the late King's bodiless head may serve the usurping Malcolm as a mirror by which to view his own figure and fate (even as Macdonwald's might have done for Macbeth), then King Malcolm—Macbeth's first cousin once removed—is next in line to tread the dusty path to Calvary, as in the Chronicles. He has been revenged on his foes, and in his final speech vows to make himself “even” with his thanes and kinsmen in exchange for their several loves (5.8.62). But Malcolm will not be “even” with his subjects until he, too, lies like Macbeth, “planted newly with the time,” six feet beneath the earth, that another seed may grow. His revenge on Macbeth and time, his succession to the throne of Scotland, is not a redemption but another belated repetition, for in the world of Macbeth, all such literal revenges, unlike the poet's figurative revenge, in the end yield only death.

John Irwin has noted that this phenomenon, this impulse to take revenge on time and its inevitable failure, seems to be “the very essence of tragedy”: “for I take it that all tragedies are in a sense revenger's tragedies—actions in which the central figure (or the audience observing him) comes to the tragic awareness that, because of the irreversibility of time, man in time can never get even, indeed, comes to understand that the whole process of getting even is incompatible with time.”14 There is no better play to illustrate Irwin's point than Shakespeare's Macbeth. Having lashed out at time and failed, Macbeth's frustrated will gradually turns against itself, and yields finally to the nihilistic conclusion that all life is punishment, all existence incoherent gibberish to the last petty syllable of recorded time.


The will must be delivered from its aversion to time and transience if ever it is to be delivered from the impulse to degrade what is transient. But to deliver itself from all willing requires a plunge into the abyss, a deliverance from all earthly existence. Rather, the will must find a way to say “yes” to life, a “yes” that would have transience abide, and would not have it degraded to nothingness; a “yes,” not to being as being done, but to being as becoming. But to say “yes” to transience the will must no longer be limited in its temporality by the necessity of an irreversible and immovable past. One answer, then, is to seek a figurative triumph over time. Only through poetry and art—in a different sense, the syllables of recorded time—is the will able to transform “it was” into “it is,” and “thus did it happen” into “thus have I willed it!”

Harold Toliver, in his essay on “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time,” has said that “Perhaps the central paradox of the play is that the most depraved of Shakespeare's tragic heroes should have become also the most poetic.”15 For “depraved” let us read “degraded,” and for “paradox,” “irony”: the central irony of the play is that Macbeth, degraded by time, should have become also the most poetic, for Macbeth fails to realize his own powers of figuration. Though masterful in his use of figurative language, he neglects language as an alternate means of transcending time's inexorability. Although his imagination spawns timeless metaphors, his dull brain is, nevertheless, all too literalistic. Macbeth, in waging a literal war on the natural order, “chokes [his] art,” impressing language into the service of a literal revenge. (1.2.9).

What Harold Bloom says about sado-masochistic poets may be applied also to Macbeth, Shakespeare's poetic sado-masochist; to wit, when figuration and sadism are identified, “then we find always the obsession with … belatedness risen to a terrible intensity that plays out the poet's revenge against time by the unhappy substitution of the body, another body or one's own, for time. Raging against time, forgetting that only Eros or figuration is a true revenge against time, the sadomasochist over-literalizes and so yields to the death drive.”16 Bloom goes on to say that “Sadism and masochism are over-literalizations of meaning,” a “failure in the possibilities of figurative language.”17 As “a furious literalism,” sadism “denies the figurative representation of essence by act. … Lacking poetry, the sado-masochist yields to the literalism of the death drive precisely out of a rage against literal meaning.”18 Macbeth wills to degrade all that is, because he has failed to recognize in his own mythopoeic imagination the tool by which he may redeem actuality and say “yes” to life; he has not perceived that the only revenge on time's “it was” is figurative and poetic; to seek a literal revenge is to yield to the abyss. Thus, when his literal revenges on time have failed, he accepts literal death.

Against the literalism and compulsive repetition of Macbeth's death drive, Shakespeare has set his own sublime poetic will. In Macbeth the impotence of kings before time is contrasted with the dramatist's power to recover the past, and to impose upon it his own order, by means of poetic figuration. This is not, of course, peculiar to Macbeth. As Irwin has noted, “One might say that the purpose and point of … all narration is to use the temporal medium of narration to take revenge against time, to use narration to get even with the very mode of narration's existence in a daemonic attempt to prove that through the process of substitution and repetition, time is not really irreversible.”19 Historical narrative is, in its very essence, an argument against time, a willful recovery and revision of the past, a revengeful substitution of “it is” for “it was.” Moreover, Bloom's point is well taken that this argument inevitably splits in two, for after displacing time's “it was,” the poetic will “needs to make another outrageous substitution of ‘I am’ for ‘It is.’ Both parts of the argument are quests for priority.”20 The poetic will's revenge on time, no less than the empirical power thrust, is taken to avenge one's own sense of belatedness.

But what’s to be done, then, when time's “it was” is already recomposed by another? Shakespeare, in following Holinshed, is faced with a double perplexity, for he is preceded not only by time, but by recorded time. Shakespeare, therefore, in his dramatic narrative, must assert his priority over both history and “history,” transforming time past, and past narrative, into the timeless presence of an acted text. Doubly redoubling the strokes of his pen, he performs marvels of temporal dexterity throughout the drama, demonstrating that he is not, like his predecessor Holinshed, limited by time. For example: the script of Macbeth's performance against Norway and Macdonwald which King Duncan “reads” is, in fact, a tale told by a dramatist some 550 years later (1.3.90, 97). Again, when “Two truths are told / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (1.3.127-29), the act is at once a self-aggrandizing, bloody deed in the dramatic future, and the present grand dramatic performance of an historical deed already done. Macbeth, who has in his head “strange things … / Which must be acted ere they may be scanned” (3.4.140-41), alludes unwittingly to the day in which his thoughts shall be set to lines of blank verse, having been acted by him ere scanned by a player, and acted by a player ere scanned by the world at large. Again, the heavens which, “troubled with man's act, / Threatens his bloody stage” (2.4.5-6), are at once the “real” heavens over Macbeth's Scotland and the imaginary “heavens” over Shakespeare's bloody stage, some six centuries after the fact. Time and again we find that the dramatist need not be bound by terrestrial or by narrative time. Past, present, and future may be captured in an instant.

Any well-crafted play is, of course, bound to be more immediate, more “present,” than an equally well-crafted prose narrative of those same events. If dramatist and historian alike are friends that lie like truth, if both tell lies against time, at least the dramatist's “it is” recalls the past in a way that the historian's “what was” can never hope to match. But Raphael Holinshed tells many a sad story of the deaths of kings, some deposed, some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts that they deposed, some sleeping killed, all murdered by time. What, then, was there, given the six long volumes of the Chronicles, about the tale of King Makbeth that alone captured Shakespeare's imagination? Almost any story therein might have served as a vehicle by which to displace time's “it was” with the dramatic present. But what in Makbeth's life story suggested to Shakespeare a possibility to assert his own “I am?” The answer is not immediately apparent. His selection of Makbeth, at first glance, seems rather arbitrary, for as Holinshed tells the story, it would appear to have little in the way of dramatic potential: “To be briefe, such were the woorthie and princely acts of this Makbeth in the administration of the realme, that if he had atteined therevnto by rightfull means, and continued in vprightness of iustice as he began, till the end of his reigne, he might well haue been numbred amongest the most noble princes that anie where had reigned.”21 There was, of course, the murder of Duncan, the portents in earth and sky, and the attendant prophecy of witches to lend interest to the story, but regicides, omens, and prophecies are all but commonplace in Holinshed. If anything, the Makbeth of the Chronicles is distinguished not by his evil, but by his goodness, specifically by his “manie holesome laws and statutes.” Holinshed lists in all twenty laws enacted by King Makbeth for “the publike weale of his subiects.” But the statute which seems most to have intrigued Shakespeare is the King's decree that poor players should be heard no more: for Holinshed reports that Makbeth was the first Scottish king to outlaw such vain and foolish entertainments: “Counterfeit fooles, minstrels, iesters, and these kind of iuglers, with such like idle persons, that range abroad in the countrie, hauing no speciall license of the king, shall be compelled to learne some science or craft to get their liuing; if they refuse so to doo, they shall be drawen like horsses in the plough and harrows.”22

King Makbeth's hubris in asserting his supremacy over players, in licensing the few and demeaning the rest, thus lends to the “Tomorrow” soliloquy of Shakespeare's Macbeth a wonderful irony: we may see now why it should be especially galling to this great usurper that his life in retrospect should appear so like the antics of a poor player strutting and fretting upon a stage. The King is forced to turn to the player for a metaphor by which to express the meaning of his own meaninglessness—thereby giving to the player a possibility for value and meaning which he himself cannot seem to find. Holinshed, for his part, wholly approves of King Makbeth's diligence in having protected the commonwealth from such theatrical knaves.23 But it is here that Shakespeare makes his figurative revenge on time complete, for we find in Macbeth that the tables are turned. Counterfeit kings, with such like idle persons, may not range abroad without special license of the playwright, but are compelled to learn the art of playing to get their living. Macbeth, the man who begins the play as “Bellona's bridegroom lapped in proof,” the minion of his race, thus must die “with harness on [his] back,” not only as time's fool, but as time's jade, carving his bloody furrow at the crack of the dramatist's whip (1.2.19, 54; 5.5.52).

In their moment of defeat, most earthly kings, like the King of Norway, crave composition (1.2.59). Their fate, thereafter, lies in the hands of fiends who lie like truth. It is not the sort of immortality sought by King Macbeth. Unlike Hamlet or Cleopatra, Macbeth expresses no desire to have his story told, for it seems a tale told by an idiot. He would not have the moment of his greatness reduced to a flickering shadowshow for generations to come. Indeed, his aversion to Banquo's ghost appears to be, at least in part, the unspeakable horror of one day being pulled from his tomb by “these juggling fiends” (5.8.19), by players “and these kind of iuglers” (Holinshed), whom the historical Makbeth once outlawed; it is a fate which Macbeth cannot endure to think on. “Hence, horrible shadow!” he cries. “Unreal mock’ry, hence!” (3.4.107-08). Such imitations of immortality are not to his liking.

Seeing Banquo resurrected upon the stage, Macbeth cries out,

If charnel houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


Macbeth is thinking here of his own dusty death; when he passes, better that his flesh should be hacked and fed to birds than to be resurrected thus. If, in the false creations of heat-oppressed brains, men may rise again with twenty mortal murders on their crowns, it will surely push kings from their stools (3.4.80-83); therefore, Macbeth will none of it. He feels his secret murders sticking on his hands, and the intuition that such murders, too terrible for the ear, may be “performed,” leaves him sick and trembling—so that, when the vision passes, he is left only with the desperate hope that no one should “muse” at him (3.4.78, 86). The worst fate that Macbeth can imagine is to survive in time only as a display of “unreal mock’ry,” or as an illustration for an underwrit text which says, “Here you may see the tyrant.”

Macbeth's wish is not granted, for it was ordained otherwise. This once and future king, whose brain the playwright wrought with things not to be forgotten, is to be cast forever as a slave of time, his life transformed into a timeless act. In his hour upon the stage, he will speak the same lines, hear the same prophetic greeting, make the same futile gestures. Each time he is ushered forth, he will waver in his determination to kill the King, wondering if his will is truly free. His secret murders shall be performed not just once, but o’er and o’er, so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see. And, full of sound and fury, he’ll proceed to his own smoking execution, only to be heard no more—until the next performance.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all this, it is not the moral didacticism of a narrative which seeks to demonstrate the wickedness and chaotic consequences of ambition or regicide, but rather a living illustration of how far superior the poet is to the king, and the figurative to the literal revenge on time. Kings may like to think themselves the harbingers of the life to come, but when the hurlyburly's done, when kings and subjects are dead and rotten, it is the verbal jugglers, the poets and playwrights, who “give them all breath, / Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death” (5.6.9-10). In this regard, it is worth noting Shakespeare's final salute to his own magnificence, for Macbeth, having begun with one prediction, closes with another. Malcolm promises to use his time wisely:

Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen,
… —this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace
We will perform in measure, time, and place.


It is on this note that the play draws to a close, while drawing us, at the same time, to the play's beginning. Shakespeare asserts his priority one last time, pointing in advance to his own masterful triumph over temporality. When all's done, someone shall “muse” at Macbeth. Malcolm unwittingly looks ahead to the day in which the King's Men will produce forth Macbeth and his fiendlike queen and all their cruel ministers, performing the story in measured verse, at Hampton Court, in 1606, by the grace of his Grace, the King—and by the conjurations of a wizard poet, whose redemptive time is the timeless present of that measure itself.


  1. James I, “To the Reader,” preface to Basilikon Doron, in The Political Works of James I (New York, N.Y., 1965), 5.

  2. Quotations are from the Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1972).

  3. Roland Barthes, S/Z, tr. Richard Miller (New York, 1974), p. 76.

  4. Mark Van Doren, “Macbeth,” in Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 230; Frank Kermode, “Macbeth,” in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974), p. 1307; Richard S. Ide, “The Theatre of the Mind,” in ELH 42 (1975), 359; and Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg, Pa., 1976), p. 369. What makes these quotations the more remarkable is that I took them at random from the few sources available on my own desktop. A host of more egregious examples may be found elsewhere.

  5. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland: in six volumes, rev. John Hooker et. al. (1587; rpt. London, 1807-08), V, 289-94.

  6. Barthes, p. 76.

  7. Stephen Spender, “Time, Violence, and Macbeth,Penguin New Writing, III (New York, 1946), pp. 115-26; Roy Walker, The Time is Free (London, 1949); Barbara L. Parker, “Macbeth: The Great Illusion,” Sewanee Review 78 (1970), 476-87; Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford, 1971); Ricardo Quninones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 351-60; Francois Maguin, “The Breaking of Time: Richard II, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth,Cahiers Elisabethains 7 (1975), 25-41; Wylie Sypher, The Ethic of Time (New York, 1976).

  8. Kermode, p. 1310.

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Von der Erlösung” in Nietzsches Werke 2 vols., ed. Gerhard Stenzel (Salzburg, 1952), II, p. 421. (My translation of Nietzsche.)

  10. Nietzsche, II, p. 421.

  11. Harold Bloom, “Lying against Time: Gnosis, Poetry Criticism,” in Agon (Oxford, 1982), p. 53.

  12. Nietzsche, II, p. 421.

  13. Nietzsche, II, p. 421.

  14. John Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore, Md., 1975), p. 4.

  15. Harold Toliver, “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time,” JEGP 64 (1965), 250.

  16. Bloom, “Freud's Concepts of Defense and Poetic Will,” in Agon (1982), p. 140.

  17. Bloom, Agon, p. 139.

  18. Bloom, Agon, p. 140.

  19. Irwin, p. 4.

  20. Bloom, Agon, p. 124.

  21. Holinshed, V, p. 270.

  22. Holinshed, pp. 270-71.

  23. Holinshed, p. 271.

Joseph A. Bryant, Jr. (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Macbeth and the Meaning of Tragedy,” in Kentucky Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1987, Bryant takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy.]

For years the one tragedy that almost all Americans read, or at least encountered, was Shakespeare's Macbeth. High schools regularly included it in the curriculum for the senior year, perhaps preferring it to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare because of its brevity, its simple plot line, and its melodramatic appeal. Among professional critics, however, enthusiasm for the play has never been high. Robert P. Heilman in a 1966 essay, revealingly entitled “The Criminal as Tragic Hero,” set forth the principal reason for that.1 Tragedy, he argued, echoing centuries-old opinion, presents a “noble enterprise,” one of uncommon dignity and ethical sophistication, which fails, not because the protagonist is wicked or malicious but because he is afflicted by some recognizable human frailty that causes him or her to err. The reasoning has usually been that we who participate vicariously in that enterprise contemplate the protagonist's downfall with pity and terror but in the process achieve emancipation from the crippling effects which those emotions normally produce.

This, according to Heilman, is where the problem with the play Macbeth lies. After Act II the hero is an habituated criminal who in the end is destined to meet an appropriate punishment. Thus we cannot comfortably participate with Macbeth throughout his enterprise. At some point after Act II moral revulsion compels us to detach ourselves from his action and sit in judgment on it; and at that point our sympathies necessarily shift from Macbeth to Macbeth's victims. Even if we do not switch allegiances entirely, we look thereafter at the spectacle as if it were a melodrama (the alternative, by the way, that Roman Polanski exploited in his movie version) or at best a morality play. “This,” Heilman concluded, “is not the best that tragedy can offer”; and in view of the ontological and ethical assumptions that most of us, knowingly or unknowingly, have inherited from Greek philosophy and our Judaeo-Christian religion, we can hardly afford to disagree. In any case, today's scholar-critics, presumably in an effort to redeem for tragedy Shakespeare's most conspicuous hero-villains, have increasingly tended to look favorably on the view that Macbeth and his spouse were demonically possessed and therefore to some extent themselves victims.2 Following a similar line of reasoning, they have excused Hamlet for committing himself to an unholy and unethical vengeance by arguing that he was misled by a demon disguised as his father's ghost.3 Such evasions as these may preserve temporarily the principle that many modern readers mistakenly identify with tragedy, but they distort our perception of Shakespeare's text and confirm the repudiation of tragic vision that began when our ancient forebears abandoned Heraclitus in favor of Parmenides.

Genuine tragedy is a Western phenomenon, and since the time of Euripides it has been relatively rare. True comedy is much more common; for comedy is the appropriate literary mode for expressing that view of the universe which we in the West, whether Christian, Jew, or agnostic, seem to prefer. Most of the things that have gone by the name of tragedy, at least from Seneca to Arthur Miller, have been pale substitutes, sometimes more comic in essence than tragic: heroic plays, sentimental domestic fables, problem plays, moralities, or melodramas. Had it not been for the haven provided by the novel during the past two centuries, tragedy might have vanished altogether.

The seeds for genuine comedy and tragedy were both present in the perceptions of primitive man, who saw, first, that some things in this world recur and, second, that some things do not. As hunter first and later as agriculturalist he recognized that a regular recurrence of the seasons and their attendant phenomena was necessary to his survival; and as time went on, he developed gestures designed to signify, support, and perhaps even precipitate such recurrence. These gestures, we are told, hardened into ritual, and ritual gave rise to literary forms as we know them, all celebrating in various fashions the happy mystery of recurrence and renewal. The second perception of primitive man was less happy, since among the things that do not recur he inescapably saw himself and his wife and children. Moreover in time it prompted the reflection that annihilation is the destiny of all individuals in the universe, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. In some quarters of the globe, advancing mankind took that soberer perception and developed compelling expressions of it in symbolic ritual and corresponding art forms. In others, including our own, the fear of individual death prevailed over acceptance; and in these quarters men placed their faith, as I have already noted, in recurrence. More important, they placed it in the dream of permanence that an uncritical faith in recurrence engenders. The attitude we in the West call tragic appears whenever that faith, for whatever reason, ceases to be strong enough to obscure the perception of irreversible change that our senses will never let us absolutely deny.

By the time of Plato, however, faith in permanence had come to seem almost unchallengeable. Change or flux had become the mischievous illusion which human beings were enjoined to avoid either by exercising rational discipline or by expressing their confidence in some remote god of permanence. After Plato, the Stoicism which dominated much of Roman thought and then went on to achieve a second currency in Renaissance humanism reaffirmed for generations of intellectuals the view that “the eternal course of the universe is cyclical … [and] all change is imminent in [an unchanging] God.”4 Formal comedy automatically found support in such views, as did political and ecclesiastical establishments; and so long as nothing happened to shake popular confidence in the institutions that counseled people about eternal verities, writers who might be inclined to explore alternative views could do little. The pragmatic Machiavelli was vilified soon after his treatise on practical politics appeared, and the voice of a skeptical Montaigne went largely unheeded except by a handful of intelligentsia.

Of the Shakespeare was surely one. Near the end of his last play, he put what was most likely his own conviction about humanity's involvement in eternal change into the mouth of an aging and disillusioned but still unembittered Prospero. The old gentleman, having just dismissed abruptly the spirits who had been performing a prenuptial masque for his daughter and her spouse-to-be, dismissed the young people's disappointment with an unforgettable speech:

                                                            These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself.
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(The Tempest, IV.1.148-58)5

Heraclitus could not have put it better, but nothing could have been more inconsonant with the implications of the presumably formal comedy in which those words appeared. What Shakespeare had done in this play was to unite the two fundamental perceptions of primitive man in a single comprehensive view, thereby transcending the limitations of comedy and bringing that genre into harmony with the vision of his major tragedies, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. In these masterpieces of midcareer he had emulated his predecessor Euripides by dramatizing for his countrymen situations which discredited their confidence in a stable universe, moral or otherwise, and made plain the reality of perpetual change for all but the most naive to see.

Changing attitudes rather than naiveté have tended to obscure Shakespeare's presentation of that perception in the play Macbeth. Obsessed by dreams of order, we resist the vision of flux that is fundamental to tragedy and, when confronted by a character like Macbeth, look for causes, external or internal, to explain the changes that time alone is responsible for bringing to him. Macbeth to Shakespeare's audiences was not necessarily the criminal that modern sensibility often makes him out to be. We in the twentieth century need to be reminded that seventeenth-century Englishmen—the presence of a Scottish Stuart on their throne notwithstanding—habitually thought of their cousins to the north as uncivilized barbarians and so were prepared to see Macbeth's savagery as an example of cultural labeling and not as evidence of latent criminality. They could not forget that James's mother was supposed to have conspired with her lover to dispatch James's father by means of a well-placed charge of gunpowder; and Sir Christopher Piggott, member of Parliament from Buckinghamshire, who made a public allusion to what he believed to be the general Scottish practice of removing sovereigns by assassination, spent time in the Tower for his indiscretion.6 Shakespeare in dealing with Scottish material tactfully dramatized a subject set six hundred years in the past, when most peoples in that part of the world, English as well as Scots, were to some extent barbaric, and assassination was fairly common as a mode of achieving succession. For all that, however, Shakespeare's Macbeth was a Scot and, in English eyes, behaved like one.

The attempt to salvage something of Macbeth's character by declaring him demonically possessed derives from a similar aversion to a view of the universe indifferent to our notions of order. It usually involves interpreting the women on the heath as either devils or the devils' agents and thus the primary motives for Macbeth's behavior—a view that Shakespeare's contemporaries might have considered questionable, to say the least. Shakespeare found the three hags in Holinshed, and his retention of them in the play may have been prompted in part by a wish to flatter the King. James, it is said, liked to trace his ancestry to the murdered Banquo, who, those same hags had promised, should be father to a line of kings. We note that Shakespeare included in Act IV a reference to Edward the Confessor's practice of touching for the scrofula, something James had revived, reportedly with fair success; and this royal sanction of what amounted to faith healing had probably reinforced the popular belief, dubious but still prevalent, that James also believed in witches.7 Yet Holinshed himself never characterized the women as devils or witches. Initially he referred to them simply as “three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of an elder world”8 and then, after explaining that no one at first took their prophecies seriously, went on to say:

Afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say; the goddesses of destiny, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge or prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause everie thing came to passe as they has spoken.9

He referred to them once more, in passing, as “the three fairies or weird sisters”; but the important point is that Holinshed, who adapted the story from a source of his own (specifically the account by Hector Boece) avoided responsibility for saying that they were supernatural in any sense. He merely allowed “the common opinion was” that the hags were supernatural and let it stand that they were “three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of an elder world.” Kenneth Muir, a current student of Shakespeare's sources, is willing to let it stand there too;10 and thus Muir joins the company of A. C. Bradley, who, regardless of what one may think of his criticism, was one of the closest readers Shakespeare has ever had. Bradley had written of these creatures:

The Witches … are not goddesses or fates, or, in any way whatever, supernatural beings. They are old women, poor and ragged, skinny and hideous, full of vulgar spite, occupied in killing their neighbours' swine or revenging themselves on sailors' wives who have refused them chestnuts. If Banquo considers their beards a proof that they are not women, that only shows his ignorance. … There is not a syllable in Macbeth to imply they are anything but women.11

Bradley has more to say on this score, but this is the general drift of his argument. He notes that Shakespeare culled from books like Reginald Scot's enlightened The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) (writing today Scot probably would have called his book The Exposure of Witchcraft) popular notions that might serve as atmospheric enhancement, but he gave his hags no power to influence the action.

Ironically the one undeniably metaphysical detail in the play is probably not of Shakespeare's doing. This is the unexpected appearance of Hecate, the Greek goddess of sorcery and witchcraft, at two points in the play (III.v. and IV.i). Scholars, virtually without exception, agree that her language and meter are incompatible with the rest of the play; and, noting that the two songs she calls for appear in full in Thomas Middleton's The Witch (1614), assume that Middleton, who continued to write plays for the company after Shakespeare left it, was the interpolator. The point of interest here, however, is the probability that someone in Shakespeare's company recognized a need to provide supernatural reinforcement for three characters who otherwise would have come across to Jacobean audiences as they did later to A. C. Bradley: that is, as nothing more than skinny hags who fortuitously provided material for the superstitious minds of two ambitious Scottish warriors to feed upon. As Shakespeare originally wrote the play, Macbeth's initial encounter with those creatures was nothing more mysterious than encounters modern travellers have had in some third-world countries, where pathetic beggars still emerge from ditches or the underbrush to demand gifts in return for fortunes.

Thus the prophecies of Macbeth's hags were beggars' clichés, directed at the bounty of their famous hero, Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, who had crossed their path on his return to the King's palace, to hear that he was already Thane of Cawdor and would someday be king (I.iii.49-50). Their prophecy to the less well-known Banquo was also a cliché, second best perhaps but the best they could do under the circumstances (Macbeth having already received their prize promises). Like scavengers on battlefields the world over they were in a position to see things that would escape the notice of those preoccupied with fighting, and they could easily have known, as obviously Macbeth did not, of the defection and disgrace of the Thane of Cawdor. Hence, they promised Macbeth a prize which, knowing of its availability, he might have reached for on his own initiative, without any prompting. As for the crown, Macbeth was now clearly the strong man in the realm, regardless of his title; and this realm, after all, was Scotland. Thus kingship for Scotsman Macbeth was not beyond the expectation of a trio of beggars any more than it was beyond the expectation of Macbeth himself.

With all his valor, strength, and accompanying ambition, however, Shakespeare's Macbeth, as we have already noted, was superstitious—to Englishmen, simply another predictable Scottish characteristic. He was prepared, as sophisticated Englishmen would not have been, to see signs of the supernatural in old hags with fortunes on their lips. As they begin to slip away, he bids them stay; and when minutes later word of Cawdor's treachery reaches him, he immediately thinks of the second prophecy (“the swelling act / Of the imperial theme”) and confidently expects confirmation of that as well. Admittedly he pauses momentarily to reflect, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (I.iii.143-44); but even here he is already assuming that some divine, or diabolical, intelligence has determined to make him King of Scotland. Thus when Duncan back in his comfortable palace at Forres names young Malcolm immediate heir to the throne, Macbeth automatically begins to think of ways to remove what he takes to be a patent impediment to destiny. Of course, destiny, as ambitious Macbeth is prone to understand it, has nothing to do with any of these events, though with his first assumption to the contrary, the possibility of a tragic action begins to emerge. Macbeth's real destiny is simply the combination of ambition, superstition, and a hand accustomed to letting blood, all of which have now coalesced to direct his course.

What we see in the first act of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in short, is the inchoate tragic hero, the man who suddenly is able to believe that he has reached through the mists of circumstance to touch the hard rock of reality and for the moment does not dream that he can err seriously in feeling his way forward along what he takes to be a reliable surface. Macbeth's epiphany will come when he realizes that his solid rock is only one more illusion, when he begins to understand that there is no hidden agenda for him, perhaps no such agenda for anyone, that nothing on earth is determined, that in the end crowns go either to the strong or to the lucky, and that killing, however glorious the cause, is never anything more or less than simple killing.

Some may argue that the later prophecies in the play must surely be meant to suggest that a supernatural design of some sort lies behind that joke that the three hags play upon the gullible Scot. Actually Shakespeare gives no hint of such a design. The apparitions that deliver the prophecies on Macbeth's second visit are, like the dagger and the Ghost of Banquo, seen only by Macbeth. Unlike the ghost in Hamlet they are not confirmed by a second viewer, and they tell him nothing that he could not have known already. He hardly needed witches to tell him to beware of Macduff, who even on the night of Duncan's Scottish style murder was clearly the one who would in time go after Macbeth. Unknown to him the second prophecy, that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” also points to Macduff; but it makes use of information that would have been common knowledge among old wives in the countryside. It is the kind of gossip that a warrior chieftain would not have been likely to recall even if he had ever possessed it. Thus Macbeth took a midwife's conundrum for prophecy and went on to swallow a third pseudo-prediction, the meaning of which should have been clear to anyone whose sense of strategy had not been beclouded by a morbid concern for signs and portents:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.


Dunsinane, supposedly an impregnable fortress built on the highest hill in the region, provided an elevation well above the tree line and thus gave the possessor an advantage over any enemy who might seek to approach. The obvious strategy for such an enemy was to take advantage of the resources of the wooded flatlands below in precisely the way that even the inexperienced Malcolm thinks of and proceeds to implement with great success. Thus the wood moves, as it had to do, and Macbeth quickly falls before the superior forces of England, Northumberland, and such Scottish defectors as Macduff and Malcolm between them have managed to muster. In the end he is a victim of nothing more mysterious than a retribution that he himself has provoked in his repeated attempt to implement a force of destiny that exists only in his own superstitious (and Jacobean viewers might have added) Scottish mind.

Removing the possibility that the fate of Shakespeare's Macbeth is determined in some way should make it possible for most readers to consider the play a tragedy. The widespread objection about the protagonist's villainy will probably remain for those who find it difficult to see the play in its original context, but even that presents no real impediment. Aristotle expressed a preference for a hero who is “highly renowned and prosperous” and who, though not “eminently good and just,” meets his reversal because of some error or simple frailty rather than because of “vice or depravity”; but this should not be taken as evidence that the essence of tragedy resides in its ethical implications. Tragedy in the last analysis deals primarily with Western humanity's recurring need to be reassured that eventually a manifestation of universal order will somehow remove, at least for men of good will, the threat of indiscriminate annihilation. The characters that Shakespeare sets before us in his tragedies all seek in varying ways to satisfy that need. Like Samuel Beckett's clowns they tolerate the absurdity of their lives in the expectation that in time a Godot or his equivalent will appear and fit the pieces together; and the prelude to any enlightenment that Shakespeare may give them is the realization that the resolution they anticipate will never come—that, in fact, such a resolution may never have even been possible.

A character who experiences this dispiriting prelude and never goes beyond it is Lady Macbeth, who near the beginning of her last scene (V.i) declares chillingly, “Hell is murky!” Custom has often interpreted what follows as the presentation of a guilty soul morbidly contemplating its own damnation, but what Lady Macbeth is really contemplating is the involvement she shares with all humanity in the interminable process of existence, the Heraclitean flux, which simply goes on without reference to any pattern or plan that human beings may ascribe to it and like the rain in the Gospel (Matt. 5:45) affects just and unjust alike. The terror that makes chaos of her final moments is something she derives from her recognition that time is a continuum and refuses to divide into meaningful discrete units, a nightmare in which the dead king will never stop bleeding and the stained hand never return to sweetness, in which all the subsequent murderous activities can never, for her, entirely pass away, and in which friend Banquo and the innocent Lady Macduff must abide as perpetual memories, conditioning her every thought and action for the rest of her time on earth.

Macbeth, we may recall, contemplated briefly in Act I the possibility that a similar nightmare might be his, but he thrust the spectre of that aside to initiate a course which he hoped would enable him to escape into a future secure from the troubled past he was on the brink of creating for himself:

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 the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.


The expectation which temporarily deflects Macbeth's thinking at this point, as we later learn, consists of the “honor, love, obedience, and troops of friends” that he will wistfully speak of in Act V as blessings that have eluded him (V.iii.25). Here at the outset of his course he can easily imagine that such things as these are the normal consequence of the kingship that he thinks is destined to be his: once the crown is securely on his head, he believes, he will be able to live indefinitely in his hard-won comedy, “jumping,” at least for the time being, the thought of death and whatever else may follow. To do Macbeth credit, one must acknowledge that he has also begun to contemplate the unsavory consequences of his intended action when Lady Macbeth intervenes to redirect him to the murder; but he never quite recognizes that taking the crown, by whatever means, must involve living for a time in the fear of his friend Banquo's ambition, then, Banquo dead, in the fear of Banquo's children, and thereafter in the fear of challenger after challenger, until at last he will have no choice but to accept the joyless, sleepless existence awaiting a death he has spent the best part of his life avoiding. When at last Macbeth begins to realize that this is what kingship really means, he will cry out in a weariness that approaches despair:

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


What Macbeth wishes for desperately here at midcourse is a place to stop, and that is what he seeks and thinks he has found after his second visit to the old women.

Even at the beginning of Act V Macbeth still clings to his dream of a universe of absolutes inhabited by supernatural powers which can, and on occasion may, make those absolutes known. When told that his thanes have begun to defect, he reviews the latest prophecies for all within hearing concluding with the boast, “The mind I sway by, and the heart I bear, / Shall never sag with doubt, nor shake with fear” (V.iii.9-10). Yet the fear that Macbeth still cannot acknowledge has already stolen away any lingering taste of sweetness that life may have had for him. When an unidentifiable shriek within the castle proves to have signalled the death of his wife, that fear emerges in the twelve lines critics have sometimes read as marking the nadir from which Macbeth will recover triumphantly in his final moments:

                                        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.


The nadir, however, is bedrock; and the fear that brings Macbeth to it becomes the agent of his salvation. The vision he confronts in these lines that have sometimes terrified western audiences is nothing more than the long view which for many people of older cultures is the beginning of wisdom. Macbeth has put his faith in a veil of dreams, partly his heritage and partly fabric of his own devising. What saves him when circumstances rip that veil from his eyes is his ability to resist averting his gaze from a world that makes no promises and gives no guarantees and to accept, in the last minutes of his life, that world at face value.

Two details in the play, one early and one late, prepare us to see the conclusion of Macbeth in this light. In Act I Shakespeare goes out of his way to have young Malcolm report the last moments of the first Thane of Cawdor, who, like Macbeth, had betrayed King Duncan and was to pay for that defection with his life:

                                                            Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. 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.


This is the model of spiritual courage which Macbeth, whose physical courage had already proved itself in his confrontation with the “merciless Macdonwald,” will eventually be called upon to emulate. In addition to courage, however, tragic stature will require also achievement of that indifferent death which negates anxiety and can come only as the result of seeing that the human life by which we set so much store has all the glitter and all the transitoriness of a bubble in a stream.

To reinforce this brief image of a tragic Cawdor Shakespeare in the closing moments of the play gives us a compelling reminder. In Act V, Scene vii, Macbeth meets young Siward, son of the Earl of Northumberland, exults that the boy was born of woman, and promptly kills him. Later, in Scene ix, after the battle is over and Macbeth has been killed, the old man receives the news that his son is among the slain. At first he seems incredulous. “Then is he dead?” he asks; and the answer comes from nobleman Ross, a steadfast opponent of tyranny: “Ay, and brought off the field. Your cause of sorrow / Must not be measur’d by his worth, for then / It hath no end.” “Had he his hurts before?” old Siward asks; and Ross's answer comes, “Ay, on the front.” “Why then,” says Siward, “God's soldier be he! / Had I as many sons as I have hairs, / I would not wish them to a fairer death. / And so, his knell is knoll’d.” Malcolm, still the callous youth, interrupts: “He’s worth more sorrow, / And that I’ll spend for him.” But Siward quietly continues, “he’s worth no more; / They say he parted well, and paid his score, / And so, God be with him!” Undoubtedly for Siward and Cawdor, as for Macbeth, the universe remains a mystery, and Macbeth's comprehension of it at the end, is still best characterized as “a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” words that the play never contradicts. The death that he has feared and avoided for so long has turned out to be nothing more than the dusty conclusion to what must eventually become, for all human beings, a wearisome parade of tomorrows. The question that remains for those of us who watch this spectacle is this: Can one ever hope to achieve, much less retain, something resembling dignity in a universe that requires us to live and act in the face of certain dissolution but gives no unequivocal signs of controlling deities or of moral or even natural law to provide meaning either for our lives as a whole or for the single activities within it?

Tragedy's answer to this question (and tragedy is not required to give more than an implicit answer) has always been a qualified affirmative. From the beginning it has enjoined its Western audiences to emulate those millions in the Eastern half of the world, to say nothing of humbler sentient creatures worldwide, and accept gracefully the dissolution that was never the nightmarish annihilation we imagine it to be but simply part of the necessary accommodation of all life to existence in an unlimited continuum. To paraphrase an American author of this century, it has advised us to touch vicariously the great death and learn that it is, after all, only the great death.

Moreover, tragedy continually reminds all who see or read that human beings, whether they know it or not, whether they be saints or sinners, monks with begging bowl or world conquerors, achieve meaning for their lives existentially. This is true, tragedy says, whether one takes sword in hand or simply bows to the inevitable. What matters is the exercise of the will. Thus Macbeth, rising to tragic stature moments before the avenging Macduff kills him, abandons his delusion about a providence that would determine his course—whether diabolical or divine is not important—and lays down his life in awareness, for him newly achieved, that no life is more than a passing incident in the cosmic process:

                                                            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!”


So saying, Macbeth stands as a knowledgeable human being, fully if only briefly master of his destiny because he has at last recognized the nature of that destiny and accepted it. In this gesture he joins not only Cawdor and young Siward but Hamlet before him and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, who will come after in the succession of Shakespeare's tragedies. We Westerners who tend to stand in fear and embarrassment before the prospect of dissolution in the indifferent universe that gave us our fragile identities may still ask whether this is the best that tragedy has to offer. One must answer that if it offered better, it would be less than tragedy. In any case, this is what all the best tragedies have offered since tragedy was first invented to enlighten, console, and strengthen human beings frustrated at the collapse of their attempts to maintain a spurious dream of immortality. For those of us who have been led to think of the good death of tragedy as being contingent upon the elevated status of the protagonist and the nobility of his enterprise, it may be at least mildly comforting to think that good death has never been a respecter of persons and that the epiphany that tragedy brings, in poetry and in life, is available to all alike, young and old, woman as well as man, the unjust as well as the just.


  1. In Shakespeare Survey, ed. Kenneth Muir, 19 (1966):12-24.

  2. The best statement of this view is that by W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, 2d ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 53-93.

  3. For example, Roy Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy, Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1971) and Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2d ed. (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

  4. Philip Hallie, “Stoicism,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 8:21.

  5. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  6. See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 7:428-29.

  7. For an account of James's changing attitude on witchcraft see Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of “Macbeth” (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 90-130.

  8. Bullough, 494-95.

  9. Bullough, 495.

  10. “Folklore and Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare, Contrasts and Controversies (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 39, 47-49.

  11. Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1905), 341.

Janet Adelman (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, edited by Marjorie Garber, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 90-121.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Adelman suggests that Macbeth represents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power.]

In the last moments of any production of Macbeth, as Macbeth feels himself increasingly hemmed in by enemies, the stage will resonate hauntingly with variants of his repeated question, “What’s he / That was not born of woman?” (5.7.2-3; for variants, see 5.3.4, 6; 5.7.11, 13; 5.8.13, 31).1 Repeated seven times, Macbeth's allusion to the witches' prophecy—“none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80-81)—becomes virtually a talisman to ward off danger; even after he has begun to doubt the equivocation of the fiend (5.5.43), mere repetition of the phrase seems to Macbeth to guarantee his invulnerability. I want in this essay to explore the power of these resonances, particularly to explore how Macbeth's assurance seems to turn itself inside out, becoming dependent not on the fact that all men are, after all, born of woman but on the fantasy of escape from this universal condition. The duplicity of Macbeth's repeated question—its capacity to mean both itself and its opposite—carries such weight at the end of the play, I think, because the whole of the play represents in very powerful form both the fantasy of a virtually absolute and destructive maternal power and the fantasy of absolute escape from this power; I shall argue in fact that the peculiar texture of the end of the play is generated partly by the tension between these two fantasies.

Maternal power in Macbeth is not embodied in the figure of a particular mother (as it is, for example, in Coriolanus); it is instead diffused throughout the play, evoked primarily by the figures of the witches and Lady Macbeth. Largely through Macbeth's relationship to them, the play becomes (like Coriolanus) a representation of primitive fears about male identity and autonomy itself,2 about those looming female presences who threaten to control one's actions and one's mind, to constitute one's very self, even at a distance. When Macbeth's first words echo those we have already heard the witches speak—“So fair and foul a day I have not seen” (1.3.38); “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11)—we are in a realm that questions the very possibility of autonomous identity. The play will finally reimagine autonomous male identity, but only through the ruthless excision of all female presence, its own peculiar satisfaction of the witches' prophecy.

In 1600, after the Earl of Gowrie's failed attempt to kill James VI, one James Weimis of Bogy, testifying about the earl's recourse to necromancy, reported that the earl thought it “possible that the seed of man and woman might be brought to perfection otherwise then by the matrix of the woman.”3 Whether or not Shakespeare deliberately recalled Gowrie in his portrayal of the murderer of James's ancestor,4 the connection is haunting: the account of the conspiracy hints that, for Gowrie at least, recourse to necromancy seemed to promise at once invulnerability and escape from the maternal matrix.5 The fantasy of such escape in fact haunts Shakespeare's plays. A few years after Macbeth, Posthumus will make the fantasy explicit: attributing all ills in man to the “woman's part,” he will ask, “Is there no way for men to be, but women / Must be half-workers?” (Cymbeline, 2.5.1-2).6 The strikingly motherless world of The Tempest and its potent image of absolute male control answers Posthumus' questions affirmatively: there at least, on that bare island, mothers and witches are banished and creation belongs to the male alone.

Even in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, male autonomy is ambivalently portrayed as the capacity to escape the maternal matrix that has misshaped the infant man.7 The man who will become Richard III emerges strikingly as a character for the first time as he watches his brother Edward's sexual success with the Lady Grey. After wishing syphilis on him so that he will have no issue (a concern that anticipates Macbeth's), Richard constructs his own desire for the crown specifically as compensation for his failure at the sexual game. Unable to “make [his] heaven in a lady's lap,” he will “make [his] heaven to dream upon the crown” (3 Henry VI, 3.2.148,169). But his failure to make his heaven in a lady's lap is itself understood as the consequence of his subjection to another lady's lap, to the misshaping power of his mother's womb:

Why, love forswore me in my Mother's womb;
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back.


Richard blames his deformity on a triad of female powers: Mother, Love, and Nature all fuse, conspiring to deform him as he is being formed in his mother's womb. Given this image of female power, it is no wonder that he turns to the compensatory heaven of the crown. But the crown turns out to be an unstable compensation. Even as he shifts from the image of the misshaping womb to the image of the crown, the terrifying enclosure of the womb recurs, shaping his attempt to imagine the very political project that should free him from dependence on ladies' laps:

I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown
And, whiles I live, t’account this world but hell
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impalèd with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home;
And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air
But toiling desperately to find it out—
Torment myself to catch the English crown;
And from that torment I will free myself
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.


The crown for him is “home,” the safe haven. But through the shifting meaning of “impalèd,” the crown as safe haven is itself transformed into the dangerous enclosure: the stakes that enclose him protectively turn into the thorns that threaten to impale him.8 Strikingly, it is not his head but the trunk that bears his head that is so impaled by crown and thorns: the crown compensatory for ladies' laps fuses with the image of the dangerous womb in an imagistic nightmare in which the lap/womb/home/crown become the thorny wood from which he desperately seeks escape into the open air. Through this imagistic transformation, these lines take on the configuration of a birth fantasy, or more precisely a fantasy of impeded birth, a birth that the man-child himself must manage by hewing his way out with a bloody axe.9 Escape from the dangerous female is here achieved by recourse to the exaggeratedly masculine bloody axe. This, I will argue, is precisely the psychological configuration of Macbeth, where dangerous female presences like Love, Nature, Mother are given embodiment in Lady Macbeth and the witches, and where Macbeth wields the bloody axe in an attempt to escape their dominion over him.

At first glance, Macbeth seems to wield the bloody axe to comply with, not to escape, the dominion of women. The play constructs Macbeth as terrifyingly pawn to female figures. Whether or not he is rapt by the witches' prophecies because the horrid image of Duncan's murder has already occurred to him, their role as gleeful prophets constructs Macbeth's actions in part as the enactments of their will. And he is impelled toward murder by Lady Macbeth's equation of masculinity and murder: in his case, the bloody axe seems not an escape route but the tool of a man driven to enact the ferociously masculine strivings of his wife.10 Nonetheless, the weight given the image of the man not born of woman at the end suggests that the underlying fantasy is the same as in Richard's defensive construction of his masculinity: even while enacting the wills of women, Macbeth's bloody masculinity enables an escape from them in fantasy—an escape that the play itself embodies in dramatic form at the end. I will discuss first the unleashing of female power and Macbeth's compliance with that power, and then the fantasy of escape.

In the figures of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches, the play gives us images of a masculinity and a femininity that are terribly disturbed; this disturbance seems to me both the cause and the consequence of the murder of Duncan. In Hamlet, Shakespeare had reconstructed the Fall as the death of the ideal father; here, he constructs a revised version in which the Fall is the death of the ideally androgynous parent. For Duncan combines in himself the attributes of both father and mother: he is the center of authority, the source of lineage and honor, the giver of name and gift; but he is also the source of all nurturance, planting the children to his throne and making them grow. He is the father as androgynous parent from whom, singly, all good can be imagined to flow, the source of a benign and empowering nurturance the opposite of that imaged in the witches' poisonous cauldron and lady Macbeth's gall-filled breasts. Such a father does away with any need for a mother: he is the image of both parents in one, threatening aspects of each controlled by the presence of the other.11 When he is gone, “The wine of life is drawn, and the mere less / Is left this vault to brag of” (2.3.93-94): nurturance itself is spoiled, as all the play's imagery of poisoned chalices and interrupted feasts implies. In his absence male and female break apart, the female becoming merely helpless or merely poisonous and the male merely bloodthirsty; the harmonious relation of the genders imaged in Duncan fails.

In Hamlet, the absence of the ideal protecting father brings the son face to face with maternal power. The absence of Duncan similarly unleashes the power of the play's malevolent mothers. But this father-king seems strikingly absent even before his murder. Heavily idealized, he is nonetheless largely ineffectual: even while he is alive, he is unable to hold his kingdom together, reliant on a series of bloody men to suppress an increasingly successful series of rebellions.12 The witches are already abroad in his realm; they in fact constitute our introduction to that realm. Duncan, not Macbeth, is the first person to echo them (“When the battle's lost and won” [1.1.4]; “What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won” [1.2.69]). The witches' sexual ambiguity terrifies: Banquo says of them, “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (1.3.45-47). Is their androgyny the shadow-side of the King's, enabled perhaps by his failure to maintain a protective masculine authority? Is their strength a consequence of his weakness? (This is the configuration of Cymbeline, where the power of the witch-queen-stepmother is so dependent on the failure of Cymbeline's masculine authority that she obligingly dies when that authority returns to him.) Banquo's question to the witches may ask us to hear a counterquestion about Duncan, who should be man. For Duncan's androgyny is the object of enormous ambivalence: idealized for his nurturing paternity, he is nonetheless killed for his womanish softness, his childish trust, his inability to read men's minds in their faces, his reliance on the fighting of sons who can rebel against him. Macbeth's description of the dead Duncan—“his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood” (2.3.110)—makes him into a virtual icon of kingly worth; but other images surrounding his death make him into an emblem not of masculine authority, but of female vulnerability. As he moves toward the murder, Macbeth first imagines himself the allegorical figure of murder, as though to absolve himself of the responsibility of choice. But the figure of murder then fuses with that of Tarquin:

                                                            wither’d Murther,
… thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.


These lines figure the murder as a display of male sexual aggression against a passive female victim: murder here becomes rape; Macbeth's victim becomes not the powerful male figure of the king, but the helpless Lucrece.13 Hardened by Lady Macbeth to regard maleness and violence as equivalent, that is, Macbeth responds to Duncan's idealized milky gentleness as though it were evidence of his femaleness. The horror of this gender transformation, as well as the horror of the murder, is implicit in Macduff's identification of the king's body as a new Gorgon (“Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight / With a new Gorgon” [2.3.70-71]). The power of this image lies partly in its suggestion that Duncan's bloodied body, with its multiple wounds, has been revealed as female and hence blinding to his sons: as if the threat all along was that Duncan would be revealed as female and that this revelation would rob his sons of his masculine protection and hence of their own masculinity.14

In King Lear, the abdication of protective paternal power seems to release the destructive power of a female chaos imaged not only in Goneril and Regan, but also in the storm on the heath. Macbeth virtually alludes to Lear's storm as he approaches the witches in act 4, conjuring them to answer though they “untie the winds, and let them fight / Against the Churches,” though the “waves / Confound and swallow navigation up,” though “the treasure / Of Nature's germens tumble all together / Even till destruction sicken” (4.1.52-60; see King Lear, 3.2.1-9). The witches merely implicit on Lear's heath have become in Macbeth embodied agents of storm and disorder,15 and they are there from the start. Their presence suggests that the absence of the father that unleashes female chaos (as in Lear) has already happened at the beginning of Macbeth; that absence is merely made literal in Macbeth's murder of Duncan at the instigation of female forces. For this father-king cannot protect his sons from powerful mothers, and it is the son's—and the play's—revenge to kill him, or, more precisely, to kill him first and love him after, paying him back for his excessively “womanish” trust and then memorializing him as the ideal androgynous parent.16 The reconstitution of manhood becomes a central problem of the play in part, I think, because the vision of manhood embodied in Duncan has already failed at the play's beginning.

The witches constitute our introduction to the realm of maternal malevolence unleashed by the loss of paternal protection; as soon as Macbeth meets them, he becomes (in Hecate's probably non-Shakespearean words) their “wayward son” (3.5.11). This maternal malevolence is given its most horrifying expression in Shakespeare in the image through which Lady Macbeth secures her control over Macbeth:

                                                            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 image of murderously disrupted nurturance is the psychic equivalence of the witches' poisonous cauldron; both function to subject Macbeth's will to female forces.17 For the play strikingly constructs the fantasy of subjection to maternal malevolence in two parts, in the witches and in Lady Macbeth, and then persistently identifies the two parts as one. Through this identification, Shakespeare in effect locates the source of his culture's fear of witchcraft in individual human history, in the infant's long dependence on female figures felt as all-powerful: what the witches suggest about the vulnerability of men to female power on the cosmic plane, Lady Macbeth doubles on the psychological plane.

Lady Macbeth's power as a female temptress allies her in a general way with the witches as soon as we see her. The specifics of that implied alliance begin to emerge as she attempts to harden herself in preparation for hardening her husband: the disturbance of gender that Banquo registers when he first meets the witches is played out in psychological terms in Lady Macbeth's attempt to unsex herself. Calling on spirits ambiguously allied with the witches themselves, she phrases this unsexing as the undoing of her own bodily maternal function:

                                                            Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers.


In the play's context of unnatural births, the thickening of the blood and the stopping up of access and passage to remorse begin to sound like attempts to undo reproductive functioning and perhaps to stop the menstrual blood that is the sign of its potential.18 The metaphors in which Lady Macbeth frames the stopping up of remorse, that is, suggest that she imagines an attack on the reproductive passages of her own body, on what makes her specifically female. And as she invites the spirits to her breasts, she reiterates the centrality of the attack specifically on maternal function: needing to undo the “milk of human kindness” (1.5.18) in Macbeth, she imagines an attack on her own literal milk, its transformation into gall. This imagery locates the horror of the scene in Lady Macbeth's unnatural abrogation of her maternal function. But latent within this image of unsexing is the horror of the maternal function itself. Most modern editors follow Johnson in glossing “take my milk for gall” as “take my milk in exchange for gall,” imagining in effect that the spirits empty out the natural maternal fluid and replace it with the unnatural and poisonous one.19 But perhaps Lady Macbeth is asking the spirits to take her milk as gall, to nurse from her breast and find in her milk their sustaining poison. Here the milk itself is the gall; no transformation is necessary. In these lines Lady Macbeth focuses the culture's fear of maternal nursery—a fear reflected, for example, in the common worries about the various ills (including female blood itself) that could be transmitted through nursing and in the sometime identification of colostrum as witch's milk.20 Insofar as her milk itself nurtures the evil spirits, Lady Macbeth localizes the image of maternal danger, inviting the identification of her maternal function itself with that of the witch. For she here invites precisely that nursing of devil-imps so central to the current understanding of witchcraft that the presence of supernumerary teats alone was often taken as sufficient evidence that one was a witch.21 Lady Macbeth and the witches fuse at this moment, and they fuse through the image of perverse nursery.

It is characteristic of the play's division of labor between Lady Macbeth and the witches that she, rather than they, is given the imagery of perverse nursery traditionally attributed to the witches. The often noted alliance between Lady Macbeth and the witches constructs malignant female power both in the cosmos and in the family; it in effect adds the whole weight of the spiritual order to the condemnation of Lady Macbeth's insurrection.22 But despite the superior cosmic status of the witches, Lady Macbeth seems to me finally the more frightening figure. For Shakespeare's witches are an odd mixture of the terrifying and the near comic. Even without consideration of the Hecate scene (3.5) with its distinct lightening of tone and its incipient comedy of discord among the witches, we may begin to feel a shift toward the comic in the presentation of the witches: the specificity and predictability of the ingredients in their dire recipe pass over toward grotesque comedy even while they create a (partly pleasurable) shiver of horror.23 There is a distinct weakening of their power after their first appearances: only halfway through the play, in 4.1, do we hear that they themselves have masters (4.1.63). The more Macbeth claims for them, the less their actual power seems: by the time Macbeth evokes the cosmic damage they can wreak (4.1.50-60), we have already felt the presence of such damage, and felt it moreover not as issuing from the witches but as a divinely sanctioned nature's expressions of outrage at the disruption of patriarchal order. The witches' displays of thunder and lightning, like their apparitions, are mere theatrics compared to what we have already heard; and the serious disruptions of natural order—the storm that toppled the chimneys and made the earth shake (2.3.53-60), the unnatural darkness in day (2.4.5-10), the cannibalism of Duncan's horses (2.4.14-18)—seem the horrifying but reassuringly familiar signs of God's displeasure, firmly under His—not their—control. Partly because their power is thus circumscribed, nothing the witches say or do conveys the presence of awesome and unexplained malevolence in the way that Lear's storm does. Even the process of dramatic representation itself may diminish their power: embodied, perhaps, they lack full power to terrify: “Present fears”—even of witches—“are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.137-38). They tend thus to become as much containers for as expressions of nightmare; to a certain extent, they help to exorcise the terror of female malevolence by localizing it.

The witches may of course have lost some of their power to terrify through the general decline in witchcraft belief. Nonetheless, even when that belief was in full force, these witches would have been less frightening than their Continental sisters, their crimes less sensational. For despite their numinous and infinitely suggestive indefinability,24 insofar as they are witches, they are distinctly English witches; and most commentators on English witchcraft note how tame an affair it was in comparison with witchcraft belief on the Continent.25 The most sensational staples of Continental belief from the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) on—the ritual murder and eating of infants, the attacks specifically on the male genitals, the perverse sexual relationship with demons—are missing or greatly muted in English witchcraft belief, replaced largely by a simpler concern with retaliatory wrongdoing of exactly the order Shakespeare points to when one of his witches announces her retaliation for the sailor's wife's refusal to share her chestnuts.26 We may hear an echo of some of the Continental beliefs in the hint of their quasi-sexual attack on the sailor with the uncooperative wife (the witches promise to “do and do and do,” leaving him drained “dry as hay”) and in the infanticidal contents of the cauldron, especially the “finger of birth-strangled babe” and the blood of the sow “that hath eaten / Her nine farrow.” The cannibalism that is a staple of Continental belief may be implicit in the contents of that grim cauldron; and the various eyes, toes, tongues, legs, teeth, livers, and noses (indiscriminately human and animal) may evoke primitive fears of dismemberment close to the center of witchcraft belief. But these terrors remain largely implicit. For Shakespeare's witches are both smaller and greater than their Continental sisters: on the one hand, more the representation of English homebodies with relatively small concerns; on the other, more the incarnation of literary or mythic fates or sybils, given the power not only to predict but to enforce the future. But the staples of Continental witchcraft belief are not altogether missing from the play: for the most part, they are transferred away from the witches and recur as the psychological issues evoked by Lady Macbeth in her relation to Macbeth. She becomes the inheritor of the realm of primitive relational and bodily disturbance: of infantile vulnerability to maternal power, of dismemberment and its developmentally later equivalent, castration. Lady Macbeth brings the witches' power home: they get the cosmic apparatus, she gets the psychic force. That Lady Macbeth is the more frightening figure—and was so, I suspect, even before belief in witchcraft had declined—suggests the firmly domestic and psychological basis of Shakespeare's imagination.27

The fears of female coercion, female definition of the male, that are initially located cosmically in the witches thus find their ultimate locus in the figure of Lady Macbeth, whose attack on Macbeth's virility is the source of her strength over him and who acquires that strength, I shall argue, partly because she can make him imagine himself as an infant vulnerable to her. In the figure of Lady Macbeth, that is, Shakespeare rephrases the power of the witches as the wife/mother's power to poison human relatedness at its source; in her, their power of cosmic coercion is rewritten as the power of the mother to misshape or destroy the child. The attack on infants and on the genitals characteristic of Continental witchcraft belief is thus in her returned to its psychological source: in the play these beliefs are localized not in the witches but in the great central scene in which Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to the murder of Duncan. In this scene, Lady Macbeth notoriously makes the murder of Duncan the test of Macbeth's virility; if he cannot perform the murder, he is in effect reduced to the helplessness of an infant subject to her rage. She begins by attacking his manhood, making her love for him contingent on the murder that she identifies as equivalent to his male potency: “From this time / Such I account thy love” (1.7.38-39); “When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49). Insofar as his drunk hope is now “green and pale” (1.7.37), he is identified as emasculated, exhibiting the symptoms not only of hangover, but also of the green-sickness, the typical disease of timid young virgin women. Lady Macbeth's argument is, in effect, that any signs of the “milk of human kindness” (1.5.17) mark him as more womanly than she; she proceeds to enforce his masculinity by demonstrating her willingness to dry up that milk in herself, specifically by destroying her nursing infant in fantasy: “I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out” (1.7.56-58). That this image has no place in the plot, where the Macbeths are strikingly childless, gives some indication of the inner necessity through which it appears. For Lady Macbeth expresses here not only the hardness she imagines to be male, not only her willingness to unmake the most essential maternal relationship; she expresses also a deep fantasy of Macbeth's utter vulnerability to her. As she progresses from questioning Macbeth's masculinity to imagining herself dashing out the brains of her infant son,28 she articulates a fantasy in which to be less than a man is to become interchangeably a woman or a baby,29 terribly subject to the wife/mother's destructive rage.

By evoking this vulnerability, Lady Macbeth acquires a power over Macbeth more absolute than any the witches can achieve. The play's central fantasy of escape from woman seems to me to unfold from this moment; we can see its beginnings in Macbeth's response to Lady Macbeth's evocation of absolute maternal power. Macbeth first responds by questioning the possibility of failure (“If we should fail?” [1.7.59]). Lady Macbeth counters this fear by inviting Macbeth to share in her fantasy of omnipotent malevolence: “What cannot you and I perform upon / Th’unguarded Duncan?” (1.7.70-71). The satiated and sleeping Duncan takes on the vulnerability that Lady Macbeth has just invoked in the image of the feeding, trusting infant;30 Macbeth releases himself from the image of this vulnerability by sharing in the murder of this innocent. In his elation at this transfer of vulnerability from himself to Duncan, Macbeth imagines Lady Macbeth the mother to infants sharing her hardness, born in effect without vulnerability; in effect, he imagines her as male and then reconstitutes himself as the invulnerable male child of such a mother:

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


Through the double pun on mettle/metal and male/mail, Lady Macbeth herself becomes virtually male, composed of the hard metal of which the armored male is made.31 Her children would necessarily be men, composed of her male mettle, armored by her mettle, lacking the female inheritance from the mother that would make them vulnerable. The man-child thus brought forth would be no trusting infant; the very phrase men-children suggests the presence of the adult man even at birth, hence the undoing of childish vulnerability.32 The mobility of the imagery—from male infant with his brains dashed out to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth triumphing over the sleeping, trusting Duncan, to the all-male invulnerable man-child, suggests the logic of the fantasy: only the child of an all-male mother is safe. We see here the creation of a defensive fantasy of exemption from the woman's part: as infantile vulnerability is shifted to Duncan, Macbeth creates in himself the image of Lady Macbeth's hardened all-male man-child; in committing the murder, he thus becomes like Richard III, using the bloody axe to free himself in fantasy from the dominion of women, even while apparently carrying out their will.

Macbeth's temporary solution to the infantile vulnerability and maternal malevolence revealed by Lady Macbeth is to imagine Lady Macbeth the all-male mother of invulnerable infants. The final solution, both for Macbeth and for the play itself, though in differing ways, is an even more radical excision of the female: it is to imagine a birth entirely exempt from women, to imagine in effect an all-male family, composed of nothing but males, in which the father is fully restored to power. Overtly, of course, the play denies the possibility of this fantasy: Macduff carries the power of the man not born of woman only through the equivocation of the fiends, their obstetrical joke that quibbles with the meaning of born and thus confirms circuitously that all men come from women after all. Even Macbeth, in whom, I think, the fantasy is centrally invested, knows its impossibility: his false security depends exactly on his commonsense assumption that everyone is born of woman. Nonetheless, I shall argue, the play curiously enacts the fantasy that it seems to deny: punishing Macbeth for his participation in a fantasy of escape from the maternal matrix, it nonetheless allows the audience the partial satisfaction of a dramatic equivalent to it. The dual process of repudiation and enactment of the fantasy seems to me to shape the ending of Macbeth decisively; I will attempt to trace this process in the rest of this essay.

The witches' prophecy has the immediate force of psychic relevance for Macbeth partly because of the fantasy constructions central to 1.7:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.


The witches here invite Macbeth to make himself into the bloody and invulnerable man-child he has created as a defense against maternal malevolence in 1.7: the man-child ambivalently recalled by the accompanying apparition of the Bloody Child. For the apparition alludes at once to the bloody vulnerability of the infant destroyed by Lady Macbeth and to the bloodthirsty masculinity that seems to promise escape from this vulnerability, the bloodiness the witches urge Macbeth to take on. The doubleness of the image epitomizes exactly the doubleness of the prophecy itself: the prophecy constructs Macbeth's invulnerability in effect from the vulnerability of all other men, a vulnerability dependent on their having been born of woman. Macbeth does not question this prophecy, even after the experience of Birnam Wood should have taught him better, partly because it so perfectly meets his needs: in encouraging him to “laugh to scorn / The power of men,” the prophecy seems to grant him exemption from the condition of all men, who bring with them the liabilities inherent in their birth. As Macbeth carries the prophecy as a shield onto the battlefield, his confidence in his own invulnerability increasingly reveals his sense of his own exemption from the universal human condition. Repeated seven times, the phrase born to woman with its variants begins to carry for Macbeth the meaning “vulnerable,” as though vulnerability itself is the taint deriving from woman; his own invulnerability comes therefore to stand as evidence for his exemption from that taint. This is the subterranean logic of Macbeth's words to Young Siward immediately after Macbeth has killed him:

                                                            Thou wast born of woman:—
But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,
Brandish’d by man that’s of a woman born.


Young Siward's death becomes in effect proof that he was born of woman; in the logic of Macbeth's psyche, Macbeth's invulnerability is the proof that he was not. The but records this fantasied distinction: it constructs the sentence “You, born of woman, are vulnerable; but I, not born of woman, am not.”33

Insofar as this is the fantasy embodied in Macbeth at the play's end, it is punished by the equivocation of the fiends: the revelation that Macduff derives from woman, though by unusual means, musters against Macbeth all the values of ordinary family and community that Macduff carries with him. Macbeth, “cow’d” by the revelation (5.8.18),34 is forced to take on the taint of vulnerability; the fantasy of escape from the maternal matrix seems to die with him. But although this fantasy is punished in Macbeth, it does not quite die with him; it continues to have a curious life of its own in the play, apart from its embodiment in him. Even from the beginning of the play, the fantasy has not been Macbeth's alone: as the play's most striking bloody man, he is in the beginning the bearer of this fantasy for the all-male community that depends on his bloody prowess. The opening scenes strikingly construct male and female as realms apart; and the initial descriptions of Macbeth's battles construe his prowess as a consequence of his exemption from the taint of woman.

In the description of his battle with Macdonwald, what looks initially like a battle between loyal and disloyal sons to establish primacy in the father's eyes is oddly transposed into a battle of male against female:

                                                            Doubtful it stood;
As two spent swimmers, that do cling together
And choke their art. The merciless Macdonwald
(Worthy to be a rebel, for to that
The multiplying villainies of nature
Do swarm upon him) from the western isles
Of Kernes and Gallowglasses is supplied;
And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
Show’d like a rebel's whore: but all's too weak;
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
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.


The two initially indistinguishable figures metaphorized as the swimmers eventually sort themselves out into victor and victim, but only by first sorting themselves out into male and female, as though Macbeth can be distinguished from Macdonwald only by making Macdonwald functionally female. The “merciless Macdonwald” is initially firmly identified; but by the time Macbeth appears, Macdonwald has temporarily disappeared, replaced by the female figure of Fortune, against whom Macbeth seems to fight (“brave Macbeth, … Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel”). The metaphorical substitution of Fortune for Macdonwald transforms the battle into a contest between male and female; it makes Macbeth's deserving of his name contingent on his victory over the female. We are prepared for this transformation by Macdonwald's sexual alliance with the tainting female, the whore Fortune;35 Macbeth's identification as valor's minion redefines the battle as a contest between the half-female couple Fortune/Macdonwald and the all-male couple Valor/Macbeth. Metaphorically, Macdonwald and Macbeth take on the qualities of the unreliable female and the heroic male; Macbeth's battle against Fortune turns out to be his battle against Macdonwald because the two are functionally the same. Macdonwald, tainted by the female, becomes an easy mark for Macbeth, who demonstrates his own untainted manhood by unseaming Macdonwald from the nave to the chops. Through its allusions both to castration and to Caesarian section, this unseaming furthermore remakes Macdonwald's body as female, revealing what his alliance with Fortune has suggested all along.

In effect, then, the battle that supports the father's kingdom plays out the creation of a conquering all-male erotics that marks its conquest by its triumph over a feminized body, simultaneously that of Fortune and Macdonwald. Hence, in the double action of the passage, the victorious unseaming happens twice: first on the body of Fortune and then on the body of Macdonwald. The lines descriptive of Macbeth's approach to Macdonwald—“brave Macbeth … Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel … carved out his passage”—make that approach contingent on Macbeth's first carving his passage through a female body, hewing his way out. The language here perfectly anticipates Macduff's birth by Caesarian section, revealed at the end of the play: if Macduff is ripped untimely from his mother's womb, Macbeth here manages in fantasy his own Caesarian section,36 carving his passage out from the unreliable female to achieve heroic male action, in effect carving up the female to arrive at the male. Only after this rite of passage can Macbeth meet Macdonwald: the act of aggression toward the female body, the fantasy of self-birth, marks his passage to the contest that will be definitive of his maleness partly insofar as it is definitive of Macdonwald's tainted femaleness. For the all-male community surrounding Duncan, then, Macbeth's victory is allied with his triumph over femaleness; for them, he becomes invulnerable, “lapp’d in proof” (1.2.55) like one of Lady Macbeth's armored men-children.37 Even before his entry into the play, that is, Macbeth is the bearer of the shared fantasy that secure male community depends on the prowess of the man in effect not born of woman, the man who can carve his own passage out, the man whose very maleness is the mark of his exemption from female power.38

Ostensibly, the play rejects the version of manhood implicit in the shared fantasy of the beginning. Macbeth himself is well aware that his capitulation to Lady Macbeth's definition of manhood entails his abandonment of his own more inclusive definition of what becomes a man (1.7.46); and Macduff's response to the news of his family's destruction insists that humane feeling is central to the definition of manhood (4.3.221). Moreover, the revelation that even Macduff had a mother sets a limiting condition on the fantasy of a bloody masculine escape from the female and hence on the kind of manhood defined by that escape. Nonetheless, even at the end, the play enables one version of the fantasy that heroic manhood is exemption from the female even while it punishes that fantasy in Macbeth. The key figure in whom this double movement is vested in the end of the play is Macduff; the unresolved contradictions that surround him are, I think, marks of ambivalence toward the fantasy itself. In insisting that mourning for his family is his right as a man, he presents family feeling as central to the definition of manhood; and yet he conspicuously leaves his family vulnerable to destruction when he goes off to offer his services to Malcolm. The play moreover insists on reminding us that he has inexplicably abandoned his family: both Lady Macduff and Malcolm question the necessity of this abandonment (4.2.6-14; 4.3.26-28); and the play never allows Macduff to explain himself. This unexplained abandonment severely qualifies Macduff's force as the play's central exemplar of a healthy manhood that can include the possibility of relationship to women: the play seems to vest diseased familial relations in Macbeth and the possibility of healthy ones in Macduff; and yet we discover dramatically that Macduff has a family only when we hear that he has abandoned it. Dramatically and psychologically, he takes on full masculine power only as he loses his family and becomes energized by the loss, converting his grief into the more “manly” tune of vengeance (4.3.235); the loss of his family here enables his accession to full masculine action even while his response to that loss insists on a more humane definition of manhood.39 The play here pulls in two directions. It reiterates this doubleness by vesting in Macduff its final fantasy of exemption from woman. The ambivalence that shapes the portrayal of Macduff is evident even as he reveals to Macbeth that he “was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp’d” (5.8.15-16): the emphasis on untimeliness and the violence of the image suggest that he has been prematurely deprived of a nurturing maternal presence; but the prophecy construes just this deprivation as the source of Macduff's strength.40 The prophecy itself both denies and affirms the fantasy of exemption from women: in affirming that Macduff has indeed had a mother, it denies the fantasy of male self-generation; but in attributing his power to his having been untimely ripped from that mother, it sustains the sense that violent separation from the mother is the mark of the successful male. The final battle between Macbeth and Macduff thus replays the initial battle between Macbeth and Macdonwald. But Macduff has now taken the place of Macbeth: he carries with him the male power given him by the Caesarian solution, and Macbeth is retrospectively revealed as Macdonwald, the woman's man.

The doubleness of the prophecy is less the equivocation of the fiends than Shakespeare's own equivocation about the figure of Macduff and about the fantasy vested in him in the end. For Macduff carries with him simultaneously all the values of family and the claim that masculine power derives from the unnatural abrogation of family, including escape from the conditions of one's birth. Moreover, the ambivalence that shapes the figure of Macduff similarly shapes the dramatic structure of the play itself. Ostensibly concerned to restore natural order at the end,41 the play bases that order upon the radical exclusion of the female. Initially construed as all-powerful, the women virtually disappear at the end, Lady Macbeth becoming so diminished a character that we scarcely trouble to ask ourselves whether the report of her suicide is accurate or not, the witches literally gone from the stage and so diminished in psychic power that Macbeth never mentions them and blames his defeat only on the equivocation of their male masters, the fiends; even Lady Macduff exists only to disappear. The bogus fulfillment of the Birnam Wood prophecy suggests the extent to which the natural order of the end depends on the exclusion of the female. Critics sometimes see in the march of Malcolm's soldiers bearing their green branches an allusion to the Maying festivals in which participants returned from the woods bearing branches, or to the ritual scourging of a hibernal figure by the forces of the oncoming spring.42 The allusion seems to me clearly present; but it serves, I think, to mark precisely what the moving of Birnam Wood is not. Malcolm's use of Birnam Wood is a military maneuver. His drily worded command (5.4.4-7) leaves little room for suggestions of natural fertility or for the deep sense of the generative world rising up to expel its winter king; nor does the play later enable these associations except in a scattered and partly ironic way.43 These trees have little resemblance to those in the Forest of Arden; their branches, like those carried by the apparition of the “child crowned, with a tree in his hand” (4.1.86), are little more than the emblems of a strictly patriarchal family tree.44 This family tree, like the march of Birnam Wood itself, is relentlessly male: Duncan and sons, Banquo and son, Siward and son. There are no daughters and scarcely any mention of mothers in these family trees. We are brought as close as possible here to the fantasy of family without women.45 In that sense, Birnam Wood is the perfect emblem of the nature that triumphs at the end of the play: nature without generative possibility, nature without women. Malcolm tells his men to carry the branches to obscure themselves, and that is exactly their function: insofar as they seem to allude to the rising of the natural order against Macbeth, they obscure the operations of male power, disguising them as a natural force; and they simultaneously obscure the extent to which natural order itself is here reconceived as purely male.46

If we can see the fantasy of escape from the female in the play's fulfillment of the witches' prophecies—in Macduff's birth by Caesarian section and in Malcolm's appropriation of Birnam Wood—we can see it also in the play's psychological geography. The shift from Scotland to England is strikingly the shift from the mother's to the father's terrain.47 Scotland “cannot / Be call’d our mother, but our grave” (4.3.165-66), in Rosse's words to Macduff: it is the realm of Lady Macbeth and the witches, the realm in which the mother is the grave, the realm appropriately ruled by their bad son Macbeth. The escape to England is an escape from their power into the realm of the good father-king and his surrogate son Malcolm, “unknown to woman” (4.3.126). The magical power of this father to cure clearly balances the magical power of the witches to harm, as Malcolm (the father's son) balances Macbeth (the mother's son). That Macduff can cross from one realm into the other only by abandoning his family suggests the rigidity of the psychic geography separating England from Scotland. At the end of the play, Malcolm returns to Scotland mantled in the power England gives him, in effect bringing the power of the fathers with him: bearer of his father's line, unknown to woman, supported by his agent Macduff (empowered by his own special immunity from birth), Malcolm embodies utter separation from women and as such triumphs easily over Macbeth, the mother's son.

The play that begins by unleashing the terrible threat of destructive maternal power and demonstrates the helplessness of its central male figure before that power thus ends by consolidating male power, in effect solving the problem of masculinity by eliminating the female. In the psychological fantasies that I am tracing, the play portrays the failure of the androgynous parent to protect his son, that son's consequent fall into the dominion of the bad mothers, and the final victory of a masculine order in which mothers no longer threaten because they no longer exist. In that sense, Macbeth is a recuperative consolidation of male power, a consolidation in the face of the threat unleashed in Hamlet and especially in King Lear and never fully contained in those plays. In Macbeth, maternal power is given its most virulent sway and then abolished; at the end of the play we are in a purely male realm. We will not be in so absolute a male realm again until we are in Prospero's island-kingdom, similarly based firmly on the exiling of the witch Sycorax.


  1. All references to Macbeth are to the new Arden edition, edited by Kenneth Muir, (London: Methuen, 1972).

  2. I have written elsewhere about Coriolanus' doomed attempts to create a self that is independent of his mother's will; see my “Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 129-49. Others have noted the extent to which both Macbeth and Coriolanus deal with the construction of a rigid male identity felt as a defense against overwhelming maternal power; see particularly Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 151-92, whose chapter title—“The Milking Babe and the Bloody Man in Coriolanus and Macbeth”—indicates the similarity of our concerns. Linda Bamber argues, however, that the absence of a feminine Other in Macbeth and Coriolanus prevents the development of manliness in the heroes, since true manliness “involves a detachment from the feminine” (Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982], 20, 91-107).

  3. “Gowries Conspiracie: A Discoverie of the unnaturall and vyle Conspiracie, attempted against the Kings Maiesties Person at Sanct-Iohnstoun, upon Twysday the Fifth of August, 1600,” in A Selection from the Hadeian Miscellany (London: C. & G. Kearsley, 1793), 196.

  4. Stanley J. Kozikowski argues strenuously that Shakespeare knew either the pamphlet cited above (“Gowries Conspiracie,” printed in Scotland and London in 1600) or the abortive play on the conspiracy, apparently performed twice by the King's Men and then canceled in 1604 (“The Gowrie Conspiracy against James VI: A New Source for Shakespeare's Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 13 [1980]: 197-211). Although I do not find his arguments entirely persuasive, it seems likely that Shakespeare knew at least the central facts of the conspiracy, given both James's annual celebration of his escape from it and the apparent involvement of the King's Men in a play on the subject. See also Steven Mullaney's suggestive use of the Gowrie material as an analogue for Macbeth in its link between treason and magical riddle (“Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation and Treason in Renaissance England,” ELH 47 [1980]: 32, 38).

  5. After the failure of the conspiracy, James searched the dead earl's pockets, finding nothing in them “but a little close parchment bag, full of magicall characters, and words of inchantment, wherin, it seemed, that he had put his confidence, thinking him selfe never safe without them, and therfore ever carried them about with him; beeing also observed, that, while they were uppon him, his wound whereof he died, bled not, but, incontinent after the taking of them away, the blood gushed out in great aboundance, to the great admiration of al the beholders” (“Gowries Conspiracie,” 196). The magical stopping up of the blood and the sudden return of its natural flow seem to me potent images for the progress of Macbeth as he is first seduced and then abandoned by the witches' prophecies; that Gowrie's necromancer, like the witches, seemed to dabble in alternate modes of generation increases the suggestiveness of this association for Macbeth.

  6. All references to Shakespeare's plays other than Macbeth are to the revised Pelican edition, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1969).

  7. Richard Wheeler, Michael Neill, and Coppélia Kahn similarly understand Richard III's self-divided and theatrical masculinity as a defensive response to real or imagined maternal deprivation. See Wheeler, “History, Character and Conscience in Richard III,Comparative Drama 5 (1971-72): 301-21, esp. 314-15; Neill, “Shakespeare's Halle of Mirrors: Play, Politics, and Psychology in Richard III,Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 99-129, esp. 104-6; and Kahn, Man's Estate, 63-66.

  8. Impale in the sense of “to enclose with pales, stakes or posts; to surround with a pallisade” (OED's first meaning) is of course the dominant usage contemporary with Macbeth. But the word was in the process of change. OED's meaning 4, “to thrust a pointed stake through the body of, as a form of torture or capital punishment,” although cited first in 1613, clearly seems to stand behind the imagistic transformation here. The shift in meaning perfectly catches Richard's psychological process, in which any protective enclosure is ambivalently desired and threatens to turn into a torturing impalement.

  9. Robert N. Watson notes the imagery of Caesarian birth here and in Macbeth (Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984], esp. 19-20, 99-105); the metaphors of Caesarian section and Oedipal rape are central to his understanding of ambitious self-creation insofar as both imagine a usurpation of the defining parental acts of generation (see, for example, pp. 3-5). Though it is frequently very suggestive, Watson's account tends too easily to blur the distinction between matricide and patricide: in fantasies of rebirth, the hero may symbolically replace the father to re-create himself, but he does so by means of an attack specifically on the maternal body. In Shakespeare's images of Caesarian birth, the father tends to be conspicuously absent; indeed, I shall argue, precisely his absence—not his defining presence—creates the fear of the engulfing maternal body to which the fantasy of Caesarian section is a response. This body tends to be missing in Watson's account, as it is missing in his discussion of Richard's Caesarian fantasy here.

  10. In an early essay that has become a classic, Eugene Waith established the centrality of definitions of manhood and Lady Macbeth's role in enforcing Macbeth's particularly bloodthirsty version, a theme that has since become a major topos of Macbeth criticism (“Manhood and Valor in Two Shakespearean Tragedies,” ELH 17 [1950]: 262-73). Among the ensuing legions, see, for example, Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 51-91; Michael Taylor, “Ideals of Manhood in Macbeth,Etudes Anglaises 21 (1968): 337-48 (unusual in its early emphasis on the extent to which the culture is complicit in defining masculinity as aggression); D. W. Harding, “Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme,” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 245-53 (significant especially in its stress on women's responsibility for committing men to their false fantasy of manhood); Paul A. Jorgensen, Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in “Macbeth” (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), esp. 147ff.; Jarold Ramsey, “The Perversion of Manliness in Macbeth,SEL 13 (1973): 285-300; Carolyn Asp, “‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute’: Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth,Studies in Philology 25 (1981): 153-69 (significant especially for associating Macbeth's pursuit of masculinity with his pursuit of omnipotence); Harry Berger, Jr., “Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth,” in The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, special issue of Genre (15 [1982]), esp. 67-75; and Robert Kimbrough, “Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender,” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 175-90. Virtually all these essays recount the centrality of 1.7 to this theme; most see Macbeth's willingness to murder as his response to Lady Macbeth's nearly explicit attack on his male potency. Dennis Biggins and James J. Greene note particularly the extent to which the murder itself is imagined as a sexual act through which the union of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is consummated; see Biggins, “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 255-77; Greene, “Macbeth: Masculinity as Murder,” American Imago 41 (1984): 155-80; see also Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, 90. My account differs from most of these largely in stressing the infantile components of Macbeth's susceptibility to Lady Macbeth. The classic account of these pre-Oedipal components in the play is David B. Barron's brilliant early essay “The Babe That Milks: An Organic Study of Macbeth,” originally published in 1960 and reprinted in The Design Within, ed. M. D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), 253-79. For similar readings, see Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 81-82, 270-72, and especially Kahn, Man's Estate, 151-55, 172-92, and Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 144-49; as always, I am deeply and minutely indebted to the two last named.

  11. Harry Berger, Jr., associates both Duncan's vulnerability and his role in legitimizing the bloody masculinity of his thanes with his status as the androgynous supplier of blood and milk (“The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH 47 [1980]: 26-28). Murray M. Schwartz and Richard Wheeler note specifically the extent to which the male claim to androgynous possession of nurturant power reflects a fear of maternal power outside male control (Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” in Representing Shakespeare, 29. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 146. My discussion of Duncan's androgyny is partly a consequence of my having heard Peter Erickson's rich account of the Duke's taking on of nurturant function in As You Like It at MLA in 1979; this account is now part of his Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985); see esp. pp. 27-37.

  12. Many commentators note that Shakespeare's Duncan is less ineffectual than Holingshed's; others note the continuing signs of his weakness. See especially Harry Berger's brilliant account of the structural effect of Duncan's weakness in defining his (and Macbeth's) society (“The Early Scenes,” 1-31).

  13. Many note the appropriateness of Macbeth's conflation of himself with Tarquin, given the play's alliance of sexuality and murder. See, for example, Ian Robinson, “The Witches and Macbeth,” Critical Review 11 (1968): 104; Biggins, “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence,” 269; and Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, 100. Arthur Kirsch works extensively with the analogy, seeing the Tarquin of The Rape of Lucrece as a model for Macbeth's ambitious desire (“Macbeth's Suicide,” ELH 51 [1984]: 269-96). Commentators on the analogy do not in general note that it transforms Macbeth's kingly victim into a woman; Norman Rabkin is the exception (Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning [Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981], 107).

  14. Wheeler sees the simultaneously castrated and castrating Gorgon-like body of Duncan as the emblem of the world Macbeth brings into being (Shakespeare's Development, 145); I see it as the emblem of a potentially castrating femaleness that Macbeth's act of violence reveals but does not create.

  15. The witches' power to raise storms was conventional; see, for example, Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London 1584; reprint, with an introduction by Hugh Ross Williamson, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), 31; King James's Daemonologie (London, 1603), 46; and the failure of the witches to raise a storm in Jonson's Masque of Queens. Jonson's learned note on their attempt to disturb nature gives his classical sources for their association with chaos: see Masque, 11.134-37, 209-20, and Jonson's note to l.134, in Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 531-32.

  16. Many commentators, following Freud, find the murder of Duncan “little else than parricide” (“Those Wrecked by Success,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey [London, Hogarth Press, 1957], 14: 321); see, for example, Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, 106-9, Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” 276-80, 286, and Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, esp. 85-88, 98-99 (the last two are particularly interesting in understanding parricide as an ambitious attempt to redefine the self as omnipotently free from limits). In standard Oedipal readings of the play, the mother is less the object of desire than “the ‘demon-woman,’ who creates the abyss between father and son” by inciting the son to parricide (Ludwig Jekels, “The Riddle of Shakespeare's Macbeth,” in The Design Within, 240). See also, for example, L. Veszy-Wagner, “Macbeth: ‘Fair Is Foul and Foul Is Fair,’” American Imago 25 (1968): 242-57; Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Octagon Books, 1979), 229; and Patrick Colm Hogan's very suggestive account of the Oedipal narrative structure, “Macbeth: Authority and Progenitorship,” American Imago 40 (1983): 385-95. My reading differs from these Oedipal readings mainly in suggesting that the play's mothers acquire their power because the father's protective masculine authority is already significantly absent; in my reading, female power over Macbeth becomes the sign (rather than the cause) of that absence.

  17. For those recent commentators who follow Barron in seeing pre-Oedipal rather than Oedipal issues as central to the play, the images of disrupted nurturance define the primary area of disturbance; see, for example, Barron, “The Babe That Milks,” 255; Schwartz, “Shakespeare through Psychoanalysis,” 29; Berger, “The Early Scenes,” 27-28; Joan M. Byles, “Macbeth: Imagery of Destruction,” American Imago 39 (1982): 149-64; Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 147-48; and Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” 291-92. Although Madelon Gohlke (now Sprengnether) does not specifically discuss the rupture of maternal nurturance in Macbeth, my understanding of the play is very much indebted to her classic essay, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” in which she establishes the extent to which masculinity in Shakespeare's heroes entails a defensive denial of the female (in Representing Shakespeare: 170-87); in an unfortunately unpublished essay, she discusses the traumatic failure of maternal protection imaged by Lady Macbeth here. In his brilliant essay “Phantasmagoric Macbeth” (forthcoming in ELR), David Willbern locates in Lady Macbeth's image the psychological point of origin for the failure of potential space that Macbeth enacts. Erickson, noting that patriarchal bounty in Macbeth has gone awry, suggestively locates the dependence of that bounty on the maternal nurturance that is here disturbed (Patriarchal Structures, 116-21). Several critics see in Macbeth's susceptibility to female influence evidence of his failure to differentiate from a maternal figure, a failure psychologically the consequence of the abrupt and bloody weaning imaged by Lady Macbeth; see, for example, Susan Bachmann, “‘Daggers in Men's Smiles’—The ‘Truest Issue’ in Macbeth,International Review of Psycho-Analysis 5 (1978): 97-104; and particularly the full and very suggestive accounts of Barron, “The Babe That Milks,” 263-68, and Kahn, Man's Estate, 172-78. In the readings of all these critics, as in mine, Lady Macbeth and the witches variously embody the destructive maternal force that overwhelms Macbeth and in relation to whom he is imagined as an infant. Rosenberg notes intriguingly that Macbeth has twice been performed with a mother and son in the chief roles (Masks of Macbeth, 196).

  18. Despite some overliteral interpretation, Alice Fox and particularly Jenijoy La Belle usefully demonstrate the specifically gynecological references of “passage” and “visitings of nature,” using contemporary gynecological treatises. (See Fox, “Obstetrics and Gynecology in Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 12 [1979]: 129; and La Belle, “‘A Strange Infirmity’: Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea,” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 [1980]: 382, for the identification of visitings of nature as a term for menstruation; see La Belle, 383, for the identification of passage as a term for the neck of the womb. See also Barron, who associates Lady Macbeth's language here with contraception [“The Babe That Milks,” 267].)

  19. For is glossed as “in exchange for” in the following editions, for example: The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972); The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1951), rev. ed. edited by David Bevinton (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1973); The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974); William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969); The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1936), rev. ed. edited by Irving Ribner (Boston: Ginn, 1971). Muir demurs, preferring Keightley's understanding of take as “infect” (see the Arden edition, p. 30).

  20. Insofar as syphilis was known to be transmitted through the nursing process, there was some reason to worry; see, for example, William Clowes's frightening account, “A brief and necessary Treatise touching the cure of the disease called Morbus Gallicus” (London, 1585, 1596), 151. But Leontes' words to Hermione as he removes Mamillius from her (“I am glad you did not nurse him. / Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you / Have too much blood in him” [The Winter's Tale, 2.1.56-58]) suggest that the worry was not fundamentally about epidemiology. Worry that the nurse's milk determined morals was, of course, common; see, for example, Thomas Phaire, The Boke of Chyldren (1545; reprint, Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1955), 18. The topic was of interest to King James, who claimed to have sucked his Protestantism from his nurse's milk; his drunkenness was also attributed to her. See Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of “Macbeth” (New York: Macmillan Co., 1950), 387-88. For the identification of colostrum with witch's milk, see Samuel X. Radbill, “Pediatrics,” in Medicine in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Allen G. Debus (Berkeley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1974), 249. The fear of maternal functioning itself, not simply of its perversions, is central to most readings of the play in pre-Oedipal terms; see the critics cited in note 17 above.

  21. Many commentators on English witchcraft note the unusual prominence given to the presence of the witch's mark and the nursing of familiars; see, for example, Barbara Rosen's introduction to the collection of witchcraft documents she edited (Witchcraft [London: Edward Arnold, 1969], 29-30). She cites contemporary documents on the nursing of familiars, for example, pp. 187-88, 315; the testimony of Joan Prentice, one of the convicted witches of Chelmsford in 1589, is particularly suggestive: “at what time soever she would have her ferret do anything for her, she used the words ‘Bid, Bid, Bid, come Bid, come Bid, come Bid, come suck, come suck, come suck” (p. 188). Katharine Mary Briggs quotes a contemporary (1613) story about the finding of a witch's teat (Pale Hecate's Team [New York: Arno Press, 1977], 250); see also Wallace Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (Washington: American Historical Association, 1911), 36; and George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (New York: Russell & Russell, 1956), 179. Though he does not refer to the suckling of familiars, King James believed in the significance of the witch's mark, at least when he wrote the Daemonologie (see p. 33). M. C. Bradbrook notes that Lady Macbeth's invitation to the spirits is “as much as any witch could do by way of self-dedication” (“The Sources of Macbeth,Shakespeare Survey 4 [1951]: 43).

  22. In a brilliant essay, Peter Stallybrass associates the move from the cosmic to the secular realm with the ideological shoring up of a patriarchal state founded on the model of the family (“Macbeth and Witchcraft,” in Focus onMacbeth,” ed. John Russell Brown [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982], esp. 196-98).

  23. Wilbur Sanders notes the extent to which “terror is mediated through absurdity” in the witches (The Dramatist and the Received Idea [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968], 277); see also Berger's fine account of the scapegoating reduction of the witches to a comic and grotesque triviality (“Text Against Performance,” 67-68). Harold C. Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951], 512-13), Robinson (“The Witches and Macbeth,” 100-103), and Stallybrass, (“Macbeth and Witchcraft,” 199) note the witches' change from potent and mysterious to more diminished figures in act 4.

  24. After years of trying fruitlessly to pin down a precise identity for the witches, critics are increasingly finding their dramatic power precisely in their indefinability. The most powerful statements of this relatively new critical topos are those by Sanders (The Dramatist and the Received Idea, 277-79), Robert H. West (Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery [Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1968], 78-79), and Stephen Booth (“King Lear,” “Macbeth,Indefinition, and Tragedy [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983], 101-3).

  25. For their “Englishness”, see Stallybrass, “Macbeth and Witchcraft,” 195. Alan Macfarlane's important study of English witchcraft, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), frequently notes the absence of the Continental staples: if the witches of Essex are typical, English witches do not fly, do not hold Sabbaths, do not commit sexual perversions or attack male potency, do not kill babies (see pp. 6, 160, 180, for example).

  26. Macfarlane finds the failure of neighborliness reflected in the retaliatory acts of the witch the key to the social function of witchcraft in England; see ibid., 168-76 for accounts of the failures of neighborliness—very similar to the refusal to share chestnuts—that provoked the witch to act. James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1970), is the locus classicus for Continental witchcraft beliefs: for the murder and eating of infants, see pp. 21, 66, 99, 100-101; for attacks on the genitals, see pp. 47, 55-60, 117-19; for sexual relations with demons, see pp. 21, 112-14. Or see Scot's convenient summary of these beliefs (Discoverie, 31).

  27. The relationship between cosmology and domestic psychology is similar in King Lear; even as Shakespeare casts doubt on the authenticity of demonic possession by his use of Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, Edgar/Poor Tom's identification of his father as “the foul Flibbertigibbet” (3.4.108) manifests the psychic reality and source of his demons. Characteristically in Shakespeare, the site of blessing and of cursedness is the family, their processes psychological.

  28. Although his was a common form for the as yet unfamiliar possessive its, Lady Macbeth's move from “while it was smiling” to “his boneless gums” nonetheless seems to register the metamorphosis of an ungendered to a gendered infant exactly at the moment of vulnerability, making her attack specifically on a male child. That she uses the ungendered the a moment later (“the brains out”) suggests one alternative open to Shakespeare had he wished to avoid the implication that the fantasied infant was male; Antony's crocodile, who “moves with it own organs” (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.7.42), suggests another. (OED notes that, although its occurs in the Folio, it does not occur in any work of Shakespeare published while he was alive; it also notes the various strategies by which authors attempted to avoid the inappropriate use of his.)

  29. Lady Macbeth maintains her control over Macbeth through 3.4 by manipulating these categories: see 2.2.53-54 (“’tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil”) and 3.4.57-65 (“Are you a man? … these flaws and starts … would well become / A woman's story”). In his response to Banquo's ghost, Macbeth invokes the same categories and suggests their interchangeability: he dares what man dares (3.4.98); if he feared Banquo alive, he could rightly be called “the baby of a girl” (l. 105).

  30. In “Phantasmagoric Macbeth,” David Willbern notes the extent to which the regicide is reimagined as a “symbolic infanticide” so that the image of Duncan fuses with the image of Lady Macbeth's child murdered in fantasy. Macbeth's earlier association of Duncan's power with the power of the “naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast” (1.7.21-22) prepares for this fusion. Despite their symbolic power, the literal babies of this play and those adults who sleep and trust like infants are hideously vulnerable.

  31. See Kahn, Man's Estate, 173, for a very similar account of this passage.

  32. Shakespeare's only other use of man-child is in a strikingly similar context: Volumnia, reporting her pleasure in Coriolanus' martial success, tells Virgilia, “I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man” (Coriolanus, 1.3.15-17).

  33. De Quincy seems to have understood this process: “The murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is ‘unsexed’; Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman” (“On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Macbeth,’” in Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, 1623-1840, ed. D. Nichol Smith [London: Oxford University Press, 1946], 335). Critics who consider gender relations central to this play generally note the importance of the witches' prophecy for the figure of Macduff; they do not usually note its application to Macbeth. But see Kahn's suggestion that the prophecy sets Macbeth “apart from women as well as from men” (Man's Estate, 187) and Gohlke's central perception that, “to be born of woman, as [Macbeth] reads the witches' prophecy, is to be mortal” (“I wooed thee,” 176).

  34. See Kahn's rich understanding of the function of the term cow’d (Man's Estate, 191).

  35. Many comment on this contamination; see, for example, Berger, “The Early Scenes of Macbeth,” 7-8; Hogan, “Macbeth,” 387; Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth, 45; Biggins, “Sexuality, Witches, and Violence,” 265.

  36. Watson notes the suggestion of Caesarian section here, through not its aggression toward the female. Barron does not comment specifically on this passage but notes breaking and cutting imagery throughout and relates it to Macbeth's attempt to “cut his way out of the female environment which chokes and smothers him” (“The Babe That Milks,” 269). I am indebted to Willbern's “Phantasmagoric Macbeth” specifically for the Caesarian implications of the unseaming from nave to chops.

  37. The reference to Macbeth as “Bellona's bridegroom” anticipates his interaction with Lady Macbeth in 1.7: only the murderous man-child is fit mate for either of these unsexed, quasi-male figures.

  38. To the extent that ferocious maleness is the creation of the male community, not of Lady Macbeth or the witches, the women are scapegoats who exist partly to obscure the failures of male community. For fuller accounts of this process, see Veszy-Wagner, “Macbeth,” 244, Bamber, Comic Women, 19-20, and especially Berger, “Text Against Performance,” 68-75. But whether or not the women are scapegoats insofar as they are (falsely) held responsible for Macbeth's murderous maleness, fear of the female power they represent remains primary (not secondary and obscurantist) insofar as the male community and, to some extent, the play itself define maleness as violent differentiation from the female.

  39. A great many critics, following Waith (“Manhood and Valor,” 266-67), find the play's embodiment of healthy masculinity in Macduff. They often register some uneasiness about his leaving his family, but they rarely allow this uneasiness to complicate their view of him as exemplary. But critics interested in the play's construction of masculinity as a defense against the fear of femaleness tend to see in Macduff's removal from family a replication of the central fear of women that is more fully played out in Macbeth. See, for example, Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 146; and Berger, “Text Against Performance,” 70. For these critics, Macduff's flight is of a piece with his status as the man not born of woman.

  40. Critics interested in gender issues almost invariably comment on the centrality of Macduff's fulfillment of this prophecy, finding his strength here in his freedom from contamination by or regressive dependency on women: see, for example, Harding, “Women's Fantasy,” 250; Barron, “The Babe That Milks,” 272; Berger, “The Early Scenes,” 28; Bachmann, “Daggers,” 101; Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” 293; Kahn, Man's Estate, 172-73; Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, 146; and Victor Calef, “Lady Macbeth and Infanticide or ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth Murdered?’” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 17 (1969): 537. For Barron and Harding, Macduff's status as the bearer of this fantasy positively enhances his manhood; but for many of these critics, it qualifies his status as the exemplar of healthy manhood. Perhaps because ambivalence toward Macduff is built so deeply into the play, several very astute critics see the fantasy embedded in Macduff here and nonetheless continue to find in him an ideal manhood that includes the possibility of relatedness to the feminine. See, for example, Kahn, Man's Estate, 191; and Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” 294.

  41. The triumph of the natural order has of course been a commonplace of criticism since the classic essay by G. Wilson Knight, “The Milk of Concord: An Essay on Life-Themes in Macbeth,” in his Imperial Theme (London: Methuen, 1965), esp. 140-53. The topos is so powerful that it can cause even critics interested in gender issues to praise the triumph of nature and natural sexuality at the end without noting the exclusion of the female; see, for example, Greene, “Macbeth,” 172. But Rosenberg, for example, notes the qualifying effect of this exclusion (Masks of Macbeth, 654).

  42. See, for example, Goddard, Meaning of Shakespeare, 520-21; Jekels, “Riddle,” 238; John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 66; Rosenberg, Masks of Macbeth, 626; and Watson, Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, 89, 106-16. Even without sensing the covert presence of a vegetation myth, critics often associate the coming of Birnam Wood with the restoration of spring and fertility; see, for example, Knight, “Milk of Concord,” 144-45; and Greene, “Macbeth,” 169. Only Bamber demurs: in her account Birnam Wood rises up in aid of a male alliance, not the Saturnalian disorder of the Maying rituals (Comic Women, 106). My view coincides with hers.

  43. When Malcolm refers to planting (5.9.31) at the play's end, for example, his comment serves partly to reinforce our sense of his distance from his father's generative power.

  44. Paul attributes Shakespeare's use of the imagery of the family tree here to his familiarity with the cut of the Banquo tree in Leslie's De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum (Royal Play, 175). But the image is too familiar to call for such explanation; see, for example, the tree described in Richard II (1.2.12-21).

  45. As Wheeler notes, the description of Malcolm's saintly mother makes him “symbolically the child of something approximating virgin birth” (Shakespeare's Development, 146)—in effect another version of the man not quite born of woman. Berger comments on the aspiration to be “a nation of bachelor Adams, of no woman born and unknown to women” (“Text Against Performance,” 72) without noting the extent to which this fantasy is enacted in the play; Stallybrass calls attention to this configuration and describes the structure of antithesis through which “(virtuous) families of men” are distinguished from “antifamilies of women” (“Macbeth and Witchcraft,” 198). The fantasy of escape from maternal birth and the creation of all-male lineage would probably have been of interest to King James, whose problematic derivation from Mary, Queen of Scots must occasionally have made him wish himself not born of (that particular) woman, no matter how much he was concerned publicly to rehabilitate her image. See Jonathan Goldberg's account of James's complex attitude toward Mary and especially his attempt to claim the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, rather than Mary as his mother as he moved toward the English throne (James I and the Politics of Literature [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983], 11-17, 25-26, 119); see also Goldberg's very suggestive discussions of James's poetic attacks on women (ibid., 24-25) and his imaging himself as a man taking control of a woman in becoming king of England (ibid., 30-31, 46). Stephen Orgel speculates brilliantly about the ways in which James's concerns about his own lineage and hence about the derivation of his royal authority are reflected in The Tempest: James “conceived himself as the head of a single-parent family,” as a paternal figure who has “incorporated the maternal,” in effect as a Prospero; the alternative model is Caliban, who derives his authority from his mother (“Prospero's Wife,” Representations 8 [1984]: 8-9). Perhaps Macbeth indirectly serves a cultural need to free James from entanglement with the problematic memory of his witch-mother (portrayed thus, for example, by Spenser in book 5 of The Faerie Queene), tracing his lineage instead from a safely distanced and safely male forefather, Banquo.

  46. Although neither Berger nor Stallybrass discusses the function of Birnam Wood specifically, I am indebted here to their discussions of the ideological function of the play's appeal to cosmology in the service of patriarchy, Berger seeing it as “a collective project of mystification” (“Text Against Performance,” 64), Stallybrass as “a returning of the disputed ground of politics to the undisputed ground of Nature” (“Macbeth and Witchcraft,” 205-6). If, as Bradbrook suggests, witches were thought able to move trees (“Sources,” 42), then we have in Malcolm's gesture a literal appropriation of female power, an act of making the unnatural natural by making it serve patriarchal needs.

  47. See Erickson's fine discussion of this geographic distinction (Patriarchal Structures, 121-22).


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Most likely written in 1606 and based on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. Many critics have speculated that Shakespeare compressed the action and time frames of the tragedy for increased dramatic shock. Macbeth has often been praised for its artistic coherence and the intense economy of its dramatic action, which is replete with vivid scenes of violence and treachery. Although many critics have remarked on the overwhelming nature of the violent action in the play, it has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Early critical scholarship of the play focused mainly on comparative analyses of Macbeth with traditional medieval morality plays, as well as Shakespeare's treatment of topical and political issues. Many of these analyses focused their attention on examining Macbeth as primarily a political play that focused on and was written expressly to commemorate the accession of James I to the throne of England. While interest in studying the play as a political allegory continues to interest critics, it is the contrast of opinions between critics who perceive Macbeth as a tragic hero and critics who see him merely as an evil and egotistical character that has evolved into one of the most enduring themes of modern critical scholarship regarding the play. Other areas of critical interest include the study of ethics, political ideology, and gender issues in the play, as well as psychological approaches to Macbeth’s character.

Many scholars suspect that some of the scenes in Macbeth were added and other scenes were modified by someone other than Shakespeare. David Lowenthal (1989) proposes that despite this possibility, all the disparate scenes combine to present a unified vision of human life. According to Lowenthal, Macduff and his family present a Christian contrast to Macbeth and the supernatural elements in the play, relying on natural order and God for their own preservation. In the end, the play divulges that the world is not the dark or unintelligible place it seems, and that although there are contrasts and evil in the world, the forces of good are more fundamental and lasting and eventually overcome the chaos to reestablish a coherent human existence. Joseph A. Bryant (1988) takes issue with critics who maintain that Macbeth is more of a melodrama or morality play than a tragedy due to Macbeth's wicked and malicious character. Bryant maintains that whether wicked or noble, “the epiphany that tragedy brings … is available to all alike … the unjust as well as the just.”

Much of the twentieth-century scholarship of Macbeth has focused on both the political ideology and ethical considerations of the play. In an essay discussing these issues, Alan Sinfield (1986) stresses that the play focuses on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil. For example, Macbeth's victory over Duncan's enemies in the beginning of the play is violent, yet it is not considered evil because it is in the service of the prevailing power. However, Macbeth's later actions, especially Duncan's murder, represent evil because it disrupts established power. In England, at the time Macbeth was written, this would have been an extremely topical matter because of such contemporary events as the Essex rebellion in 1599 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, both of which had resulted in many years of state violence. Barbara Riebling (1991) also discusses Macbeth as a political play and feels that while most scholarship has focused on the contextual ideologies prevalent at the time it was written, it can also be read as a discourse in civic humanism. Riebling feels that in Macbeth, Shakespeare studies the consequences of misrule in a Machiavellian context rather than a Christian one. Therefore, though Duncan is a Christian ruler, it is his very Christianity that invites disaster in the Machiavellian world.

Recent scholarship has also increasingly focused on Shakespeare's depiction of women in his plays, and Macbeth has been central to this analysis for many scholars. Joost Daalder (1988) contends that although Shakespeare did not portray men more favorably than women, he did have a strong sense of which traits and actions were “male” and which were “female,” and believed that women should not attempt to cross over into the male domain. The critic points to Lady Macbeth's attempt to adopt a male role and deny her womanhood, which proves disastrous and harms both herself and others. Similarly, William T. Liston (1989) maintains that the play presents a conflation of sex roles and gender, where, if men and women step outside their roles, they lose their humanity. In Liston's opinion, it is the liberation from their defined roles which destroys both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. In contrast, Janet Adelman (1987) theorizes that Macbeth presents a powerful fantasy of escape from an absolute and destructive maternal power. According to Adelman, maternal power permeates the play via the figures of Lady Macbeth, the witches, and Macbeth's relationship to both, and that his relationships to these women represent primitive fears about the loss of male identity and autonomy. Adelman stresses that the issue of male autonomy was a common thread in many other Shakespearean plays, including King Lear and Henry IV, and that Macbeth presents his most powerful introduction to the realm of maternal malevolence unleashed in the absence of paternal protection.

The level of violence and chaos that permeates the play has led to numerous psychological interpretations of the characters and action in Macbeth. Pierre Janton explores the theory that the fear of assuming manhood is Macbeth's tragic flaw. The critic contends that it is this flaw that leads him to annihilate all the potential and virtual father figures in the play. Robert L. Reid (1992) proposes that the play is fundamentally concerned with showing the horrific consequences of a truly heroic spirit embracing evil. From Reid's perspective, the three murders in the play denote the three stages of the evolution of evil in Macbeth's psyche. According to Reid, Macbeth's victims ultimately represent the human bonds he breaks, and his degeneration into evil is deliberately worked into the psychological and dramatic design of the play.

Alan Sinfield (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 63-77.

[In the following essay, Sinfield contends that Macbeth is a political play that centers on the distinction between violence that the state considers legitimate and violence that it considers evil.]

It is often said that Macbeth is about ‘evil’, but we might draw a more careful distinction: between the violence which the State considers legitimate and that which it does not. Macbeth, we may agree, is a dreadful murderer when he kills Duncan. But when he kills Macdonwald—‘a rebel’ (I.ii.10)—he has Duncan's approval:

For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
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. O valiant cousin! worthy


Violence is good, in this view, when it is in the service of the prevailing dispositions of power; when it disrupts them it is evil. A claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence is fundamental in the development of the modern State; when that claim is successful, most citizens learn to regard State violence as qualitatively different from other violence and perhaps they don’t think of State violence as violence at all (consider the actions of police, army and judiciary as opposed to those of pickets, protesters, criminals and terrorists). Macbeth focusses major strategies by which the State asserted its claim at one conjuncture.

Generally in Europe in the sixteenth century the development was from Feudalism to the Absolutist State.2 Under Feudalism, the king held authority among his peers, his equals, and his power was often little more than nominal; authority was distributed also among overlapping non-national institutions such as the church, estates, assemblies, regions and towns. In the Absolutist State, power became centralised in the figure of the monarch, the exclusive source of legitimacy. The movement from one to the other was of course contested, not only by the aristocracy and the peasantry, whose traditional rights were threatened, but also by the gentry and urban bourgeoisie, who found new space for power and influence within more elaborate economic and governmental structures. Because of these latter factors especially, the Absolutist State was never fully established in England. Probably the peak of the monarch's personal power was reached by Henry VIII; the attempt of Charles I to reassert that power led to the English Revolution. In between, Elizabeth and James I, and those who believed their interests to lie in the same direction, sought to sustain royal power and to suppress dissidents. The latter category was broad; it comprised aristocrats like the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland who led the Northern Rising of 1569 and the Duke of Norfolk who plotted to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots in 1571, clergy who refused the State religion, gentry who supported them and who tried to raise awkward matters in Parliament, writers and printers who published criticism of State policy, the populace when it complained about food prices, enclosures, or anything.

The exercise of State violence against such dissidents depended upon the achievement of a degree of legitimation—upon the acceptance by many people that State power was, at least, the lesser of two evils. A principal means by which this was effected was the propagation of an ideology of Absolutism, which represented the English State as a pyramid, any disturbance of which would produce general disaster, and which insisted increasingly on the ‘divine right’ of the monarch. This system was said to be ‘natural’ and ordained by ‘God’; it was ‘good’ and disruptions of it ‘evil’. This is what some Shakespeareans have celebrated as a just and harmonious ‘world picture’. Compare Perry Anderson's summary: ‘Absolutism was essentially just this: a redeployed and recharged apparatus of feudal domination, designed to clamp the peasant masses back into their traditional social position.’3

The reason why the State needed violence and propaganda was that the system was subject to persistent structural difficulties. Macbeth, like very many plays of the period, handles anxieties about the violence exercised under the aegis of Absolutist ideology. Two main issues come into focus. The first is the threat of a split between legitimacy and actual power—when the monarch is not the strongest person in the State. Such a split was altogether likely during the transition from Feudalism to the Absolutist State; hence the infighting within the dominant group in most European countries. In England the matter was topical because of the Essex rebellion in 1599: it was easy for the charismatic earl, who had shown at Cadiz that Englishmen could defeat Spaniards, to suppose that he would make a better ruler than the aging and indecisive Elizabeth, for all her legitimacy. So Shakespeare's Richard II warns Northumberland, the kingmaker, that he is bound, structurally, to disturb the rule of Bolingbroke:

                                                            thou shalt think,
Though he [Bolingbroke] divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all.(4)

Jonathan Dollimore and I have argued elsewhere that the potency of the myth of Henry V in Shakespeare's play, written at the time of Essex's ascendancy, derives from the striking combination in that monarch of legitimacy and actual power.5 At the start of Macbeth the manifest dependency of Duncan's State upon its best fighter sets up a dangerous instability (this is explicit in the sources). In the opening soliloquy of Act I scene vii Macbeth freely accords to Duncan entire legitimacy: he is Duncan's kinsman, subject and host, the king has been ‘clear in his great office’, and the idea of his deposition evokes religious imagery of angels, damnation and cherubins. But that is all the power the king has that does not depend upon Macbeth; against it is ranged ‘Vaulting ambition’, Macbeth's impetus to convert his actual power into full regal authority.

The split between legitimacy and actual power was always a potential malfunction in the developing Absolutist State. A second problem was less dramatic but more persistent. It was this: what is the difference between Absolutism and tyranny?—having in mind contemporary occurrences like the Massacre of St Bartholomew's in France in 1572, the arrest of more than a hundred witches and the torturing and killing of many of them in Scotland in 1590-91, and the suppression of the Irish by English armies. The immediate reference for questions of legitimate violence in relation to Macbeth is the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This attempted violence against the State followed upon many years of State violence against Roman Catholics: the Absolutist State sought to draw religious institutions entirely within its control, and Catholics who actively refused were subjected to fines, imprisonment, torture and execution. Consider the sentence passed upon Jane Wiseman in 1598:

The sentence is that the said Jane Wiseman shall be led to the prison of the Marshalsea of the Queen's Bench, and there naked, except for a linen cloth about the lower part of her body, be laid upon the ground, lying directly on her back: and a hollow shall be made under her head and her head placed in the same; and upon her body in every part let there be placed as much of stones and iron as she can bear and more; and as long as she shall live, she shall have of the worst bread and water of the prison next her; and on the day she eats, she shall not drink, and on the day she drinks she shall not eat, so living until she die.6

This was for ‘receiving, comforting, helping and maintaining priests’, and refusing to reveal, under torture, who else was doing the same thing, and for refusing to plead. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about the State violence to which the present essay refers. Putting the issue succinctly in relation to Shakespeare's play, what is the difference between Macbeth's rule and that of contemporary European monarchs?

In Basilikon Doron (1599) King James tried to protect the Absolutist State from such pertinent questions by asserting an utter distinction between ‘a lawfull good King’ and ‘an usurping Tyran’:

The one acknowledgeth himselfe ordained for his people, having received from God a burthen of government, whereof he must be countable: the other thinketh his people ordeined for him, a prey to his passions and inordinate appetites, as the fruites of his magnanimitie: And therefore, as their ends are directly contrarie, so are their whole actions, as meanes, whereby they preasse to attaine to their endes.7

Evidently James means to deny that the Absolutist monarch has anything significant in common with someone like Macbeth. Three aspects of James's strategy in this passage are particularly revealing. First, he depends upon an utter polarisation between the two kinds of ruler. Such anthitheses are characteristic of the ideology of Absolutism: they were called upon to tidy the uneven apparatus of Feudal power into a far neater structure of the monarch versus the rest, and protestantism tended to see ‘spiritual’ identities in similarly polarised terms. James himself explained the function of demons like this: ‘since the Devill is the verie contrarie opposite to God, there can be no better way to know God, then by the contrarie’.8 So it is with the two kinds of rulers: the badness of one seems to guarantee the goodness of the other. Second, by defining the lawful good king against the usurping tyrant, James refuses to admit the possibility that a ruler who has not usurped will be tyrannical. Thus he seems to cope with potential splits between legitimacy and actual power by insisting on the unique status of the lawful good king, and to head off questions about the violence committed by such a ruler by suggesting that all his actions will be uniquely legitimate. Third, we may notice that the whole distinction, as James develops it, is in terms not of the behaviour of the lawful good king and the usurping tyrant, respectively, but in terms of their motives. This seems to render vain any assessment of the actual manner of rule of the Absolute monarch. On these arguments, any disturbance of the current structure of power relations is against God and the people, and consequently any violence in the interest of the status quo is acceptable. Hence the legitimate killing of Jane Wiseman. (In fact, the distinction between lawful and tyrannical rule eventually breaks down even in James's analysis, as his commitment to the State leads him to justify even tyrannical behaviour in established monarchs.)9

It is often assumed that Macbeth is engaged in the same project as King James: attempting to render coherent and persuasive the ideology of the Absolutist State. The grounds for a Jamesian reading are plain enough—to the point where it is often claimed that the play was designed specially for the king. At every opportunity Macbeth is disqualified ideologically and his opponents ratified. An entire antithetical apparatus of nature and supernature—the concepts through which a dominant ideology most commonly seeks to establish itself—is called upon to witness against him as usurping tyrant. ‘Nature’ protests against Macbeth (II.iv), Lady Macbeth welcomes ‘Nature's mischief’ (I.v.50) and Macbeth will have ‘Nature's germens tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken’ (IV.i.59-60). Good and evil are personified absolutely by Edward the Confessor and the Witches, and the language of heaven and hell runs through the play; Lady Macbeth conjures up ‘murth’ring ministers’ (I.v.48) and Macbeth acknowledges ‘The deep damnation of his [Duncan's] taking-off’ (I.vii.20). It all seems organised to validate James's contention, that there is all the difference in this world and the next between a usurping tyrant and a lawful good king. The whole strategy is epitomised in the account of Edward's alleged curing of ‘the Evil’—actually scrofula—‘A most miraculous work in this good King’ (IV.iii.146-7). James himself knew that this was a superstitious practice, and he refused to undertake it until his advisers persuaded him that it would strengthen his claim to the throne in the public eye.10 As Francis Bacon observed, notions of the supernatural help to keep people acquiescent (e.g. the man in pursuit of power will do well to attribute his success ‘rather to divine Providence and felicity, than to his own virtue or policy’).11Macbeth draws upon such notions more than any other play by Shakespeare. It all suggests that Macbeth is an extraordinary eruption in a good State—obscuring the thought that there might be any pronity to structural malfunctioning in the system. It suggests that Macbeth's violence is wholly bad, whereas State violence committed by legitimate monarchs is quite different.

Such manoeuvres are even more necessary to a Jamesian reading of the play in respect of the deposition and killing of Macbeth. Absolutist ideology declared that even tyrannical monarchs must not be resisted, yet Macbeth could hardly be allowed to triumph. Here the play offers two moves. First, the fall of Macbeth seems to result more from (super)natural than human agency: it seems like an effect of the opposition of good and evil (‘Macbeth / Is ripe for shaking, and the Powers above / Put on their instruments’—IV.iii.237-9). Most cunningly, although there are material explanations for the moving of Birnam Wood and the unusual birth of Macduff, the audience is allowed to believe, at the same time, that these are (super)natural effects (thus the play works upon us almost as the Witches work upon Macbeth). Second, in so far as Macbeth's fall is accomplished by human agency, the play is careful to suggest that he is hardly in office before he is overthrown. The years of successful rule specified in the chronicles are erased and, as Paul points out, neither Macduff nor Malcolm has tendered any allegiance to Macbeth.12 The action rushes along, he is swept away as if he had never truly been king. Even so, the contradiction can hardly vanish altogether. For the Jamesian reading it is necessary for Macbeth to be a complete usurping tyrant in order that he shall set off the lawful good king, and also, at the same time, for him not to be a ruler at all in order that he may properly be deposed and killed. Macbeth kills two people at the start of the play: a rebel and the king, and these are apparently utterly different acts of violence. That is the ideology of Absolutism. Macduff also, killing Macbeth, is killing both a rebel and a king, but now the two are apparently the same person. The ultimate intractability of this kind of contradiction disturbs the Jamesian reading of the play.

Criticism has often supposed, all too easily, that the Jamesian reading of Macbeth is necessary on historical grounds—that other views of State ideology were impossible for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. But this was far from being so: there was a well-developed theory allowing for resistance by the nobility,13 and the Gunpowder Plotters were manifestly unconvinced by the king's arguments. Even more pertinent is the theory of the Scotsman George Buchanan, as we may deduce from the fact that James tried to suppress Buchanan's writings in 1584 after his assumption of personal rule; in Basilikon Doron he advises his son to ‘use the Law upon the keepers’ of ‘such infamous invectives’ (p. 40). With any case so strenuously overstated and manipulative as James's, we should ask what alternative position it is trying to put down. Arguments in favour of Absolutism constitute one part of Macbeth's ideological field—the range of ideas and attitudes brought into play by the text; another main part may be represented by Buchanan's De jure regni (1579) and History of Scotland (1582). In Buchanan's view sovereignty derives from and remains with the people; the king who exercises power against their will is a tyrant and should be deposed.14 The problem in Scotland is not unruly subjects, but unruly monarchs: ‘Rebellions there spring less from the people than from the rulers, when they try to reduce a kingdom which from earliest times had always been ruled by law to an absolute and lawless despotism’.15 Buchanan's theory is the virtual antithesis of James's; it was used eventually to justify the deposition of James's son.

Buchanan's History of Scotland is usually reckoned to be one of the sources of Macbeth. It was written to illustrate his theory of sovereignty and to justify the overthrow of Mary Queen of Scots in 1567. In it the dichotomy of true lawful king and usurping tyrant collapses, for Mary is the lawful ruler and the tyrant, and her deposers are usurpers and yet lawful also. To her are attributed many of the traits of Macbeth: she is said to hate integrity in others, to appeal to the predictions of witches, to use foreign mercenaries, to place spies in the households of opponents and to threaten the lives of the nobility; after her surrender she is humiliated in the streets of Edinburgh as Macbeth fears to be. It is alleged that she would not have shrunk from the murder of her son if she could have reached him.16 This account of Mary as arch-tyrant embarrassed James, and that is perhaps why just eight kings are shown to Macbeth by the Witches (IV.i.119). Nevertheless, it was well established in protestant propaganda and in Spenser's Faerie Queene, and the Gunpowder Plot would tend to revivify it. Any recollection of the alleged tyranny of Mary, the lawful ruler, prompts awareness of the contradictions in Absolutist ideology, disturbing the customary interpretation of Macbeth. Once we are alert to this disturbance, the Jamesian reading of the play begins to leak at every joint.

One set of difficulties is associated with the theology of good, evil and divine ordination which purports to discriminate Macbeth's violence from that legitimately deployed by the State. I have written elsewhere of the distinctive attempt of Reformation Christianity to cope with the paradoxical conjunction in one deity of total power and goodness, and will here only indicate the scope of the problem. Macbeth, in the manner of Absolutist ideology and Reformation Christianity, strongly polarises ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but, at the same time, also like the prevailing doctrine, it insists on complete divine control of all human events. This twin determination produces a deity that sponsors the ‘evil’ it condemns and punishes. Orthodox doctrine, which was Calvinist in general orientation, hardly flinched from this conclusion (for example, James said in his Daemonologie that fallen angels are ‘Gods hang-men, to execute such turnes as he employes them in’).17 Nevertheless, fictional reworkings of it often seem to point up its awkwardness, suggesting an unresolvable anxiety. Traditional criticism registers this factor in Macbeth in its inconclusive debates about how far the Witches make Macbeth more or less excusable or in charge of his own destiny. The projection of political issues onto supposedly (super)natural dimensions seems to ratify the Absolutist State but threatens also to open up another range of difficulties in contemporary ideology.

Macbeth also reveals a range of directly political problems to the reader rendered wary by Buchanan's analysis. They tend to break down the antithesis, upon which James relied, between the usurping tyrant and the legitimately violent ruler. Many of them have been noted by critics, though most commonly with the idea of getting them to fit into a single, coherent reading of the play. For a start, Duncan's status is in doubt: it is unclear how far his authority runs, he is imperceptive, and his State is in chaos well before Macbeth's violence against it (G. K. Hunter in the introduction to his Penguin edition (1967) registers unease at the ‘violence and bloodthirstiness’ of Macbeth's killing of Macdonwald (pp. 9-10)). Nor is Malcolm's title altogether clear, since Duncan's declaration of him as ‘Prince of Cumberland’ (I.iv.35-42) suggests what the chronicles indicate, namely that the succession was not necessarily hereditary; Macbeth seems to be elected by the thanes (II.iv.29-32).

I have suggested that Macbeth may be read as working to justify the overthrow of the usurping tyrant. Nevertheless, the awkwardness of the issue is brought to the surface by the uncertain behaviour of Banquo. In the sources he collaborates with Macbeth, but to allow that in the play would taint King James's line and blur the idea of the one monstrous eruption. Shakespeare compromises and makes Banquo do nothing at all. He fears Macbeth played ‘most foully for’t’ (III.i.3) but does not even communicate his knowledge of the Witches' prophecies. Instead he wonders if they may ‘set me up in hope’ (III.i.10). If it is right for Malcolm and Macduff, eventually, to overthrow Macbeth, then it would surely be right for Banquo to take a clearer line.

Furthermore, the final position of Macduff appears quite disconcerting, once we read it with Buchanan's more realistic, political analysis in mind: Macduff at the end stands in the same relation to Malcolm as Macbeth did to Duncan in the beginning. He is now the king-maker on whom the legitimate monarch depends, and the recurrence of the whole sequence may be anticipated (in production this might be suggested by a final meeting of Macduff and the Witches).18 For the Jamesian reading it is necessary to feel that Macbeth is a distinctively ‘evil’ eruption in a ‘good’ system; awareness of the role of Macduff in Malcolm's State alerts us to the fundamental instability of power relations during the transition to Absolutism, and consequently to the uncertain validity of the claim of the State to the legitimate use of violence. Certainly Macbeth is a murderer and an oppressive ruler, but he is one version of the Absolutist ruler, not the polar opposite.

Malcolm himself raises very relevant issues in the conversation in which he tests Macduff: specifically tyrannical qualities are invoked. At one point, according to Buchanan, the Scottish lords ‘give the benefit of the doubt’ to Mary and her husband, following the thought that ‘more secret faults’ may be tolerated ‘so long as these do not involve a threat to the welfare of the state’ (Tyrannous Reign, p. 88). Macduff is prepared to accept considerable threats to the welfare of Scotland:

                                                            Boundless intemperance
In nature is a tyranny; it hath been
Th’ untimely emptying of the happy throne,
And fall of many kings. But fear not yet
To take upon you what is yours: you may
Convey your pleasures in a spacious plenty,
And yet seem cold—the time you may so hoodwink:
We have willing dames enough; there cannot be
That vulture in you, to devour so many
As will to greatness dedicate themselves,
Finding it so inclin’d.


Tyranny in nature means disturbance in the metaphorical kingdom of a person's nature but, in the present context, one is likely to think of the effects of the monarch's intemperance on the literal kingdom. Macduff suggests that such behaviour has caused the fall not just of usurpers but of kings, occupants of ‘the happy throne’. Despite this danger, he encourages Malcolm ‘To take upon you what is yours’—a sinister way of putting it, implying either Malcolm's title to the State in general or his rights over the women he wants to seduce or assault. Fortunately the latter will not be necessary, there are ‘willing dames enough’: Macduff is ready to mortgage both the bodies and (within the ideology invoked in the play) the souls of women to the monster envisaged as lawful good king. It will be all right, apparently, because people can be hoodwinked: Macduff allows us to see that the virtues James tries to identify with the Absolutist monarch are an ideological strategy, and that the illusion of them will probably be sufficient to keep the system going.

Nor is this the worst: Malcolm claims more faults, and according to Macduff ‘avarice / Sticks deeper’ (lines 84-5): Malcolm may corrupt not merely people but property relations. Yet this too is to be condoned. Of course, Malcolm is not actually like this, but the point is that he well could be, as Macduff says many kings have been, and that would all be acceptable. And even Malcolm's eventual protestation of innocence cannot get round the fact that he has been lying. He says ‘my first false speaking / Was this upon myself’ (lines 130-1) and that may indeed be true, but it nevertheless indicates the circumspection that will prove useful to the lawful good king, as much as to the tyrant. In Holinshed the culminating vice claimed by Malcolm is lying, but Shakespeare replaces it with a general and rather desperate evocation of utter tyranny (lines 91-100); was the original self-accusation perhaps too pointed? The whole conversation takes off from the specific and incomparable tyranny of Macbeth, but in the process succeeds in suggesting that there may be considerable overlap between the qualities of the tyrant and the true king.

Macbeth allows space for two quite different interpretive organizations: against a Jamesian illustration of the virtues of Absolutism we may produce a disturbance of that reading, illuminated by Buchanan. This latter makes visible the way religion is used to underpin State ideology, and undermines notions that established monarchs must not be challenged or removed and that State violence is utterly distinctive and legitimate. It is commonly assumed that the function of criticism is to resolve such questions of interpretation—to go through the text with an eye to sources, other plays, theatrical convention, historical context and so on, deciding on which side the play comes down and explaining away contrary evidence. However, this is neither an adequate programme nor an adequate account of what generally happens.

Let us suppose, to keep the argument moving along, that the Jamesian reading fits better with Macbeth and its Jacobean context, as we understand them at present. Two questions then present themselves: what is the status of the disturbance of that reading, which I have produced by bringing Buchanan into view? And what are the consequences of customary critical insistence upon the Jamesian reading?

On the first question, I would make three points. First, the Buchanan disturbance is in the play, and inevitably so. Even if we believe that Shakespeare was trying to smooth over difficulties in Absolutist ideology, to do this significantly he must deal with the issues which resist convenient inclusion. Those issues must be brought into visibility in order that they can be handled, and once exposed they are available for the reader or audience to seize and focus upon, as an alternative to the more complacent reading. A position tends to suppose an opposition. Even James's writings are vulnerable to such analysis, for instance when he brings up the awkward fact that the prophet Samuel urgently warns the people of Israel against choosing a king because he will tyrannize over them. This prominent biblical instance could hardly be ignored, so James quotes it and says that Samuel was preparing the Israelites to be obedient and patient.19 Yet once James has brought Samuel's pronouncement into visibility, the reader is at liberty to doubt the king's tendentious interpretation of it. It is hardly possible to deny the reader this scope: even the most strenuous closure can be repudiated as inadequate. We are led to think of the text not as propounding a unitary and coherent meaning which is to be discovered, but as handling a range of issues (probably intractable issues, for they make the best stories), and as unable to control the development of radically divergent interpretations.

Second, the Buchanan disturbance has been activated, in the present essay, as a consequence of the writer's scepticism about Jamesian ideological strategies and his concern with current political issues. It is conceivable that many readers of Macbeth will come to share this outlook. Whether this happens or not, the theoretical implication may be taken: if such a situation should come about, the terms in which Macbeth is customarily discussed would shift, and eventually the Buchanan disturbance would come to seem an obvious, natural way to consider the play. That is how notions of appropriate approaches to a text get established. We may observe the process, briefly, in the career of the Witches. For many members of Jacobean audiences, Witches were a social and spiritual reality: they were as real as Edward the Confessor, perhaps more so. As belief in the physical manifestation of supernatural powers, and especially demonic powers, weakened, the Witches were turned into an operatic display, with new scenes, singing and dancing, fine costumes and flying machines. In an adaptation by Sir William Davenant, this was the only stage form of the play from 1674 to 1744, and even after Davenant's version was abandoned the Witches' divertissements were stagged, until 1888.20 Latterly we have adopted other ways with the Witches—being still unable, of course, to contemplate them, as most of Shakespeare's audience probably did, as phenomena one might encounter on a heath. Kenneth Muir comments: ‘with the fading of belief in the objective existence of devils, they and their operations can yet symbolize the workings of evil in the hearts of men’ (New Arden Macbeth, p. lxx). Recent critical accounts and theatrical productions have developed all kinds of strategies to make the Witches ‘work’ for our time. These successive accommodations of one aspect of the play to prevailing attitudes are blatant, but they illustrate the extent to which critical orthodoxy is not the mere response to the text which it claims to be: it is remaking it within currently acceptable parameters.21 The Buchanan disturbance may not always remain a marginal gloss to the Jamesian reading.

Third, we may assume that the Buchanan disturbance was part of the response of some among the play's initial audiences. It is in the nature of the matter that it is impossible to assess how many people inclined towards Buchanan's analysis of royal power. That there were such may be supposed from the multifarious challenges to State authority—culminating, of course, in the Civil War. Macbeth was almost certainly read against James by some Jacobeans. This destroys the claim to privilege of the Jamesian reading on the ground that it is historically valid: we must envisage diverse original audiences, activating diverse implications in the text. And we may demand comparable interpretive license for ourselves. Initially the play occupied a complex position in its ideological field, and we should expect no less today.

With these considerations about the status of the Buchanan disturbance in mind, the question about the customary insistence on the Jamesian reading appears as a question about the politics of criticism. Like other kinds of cultural production, literary criticism helps to influence the way people think about the world; that is why the present essay seeks to make space for an oppositional understanding of the text and the State. It is plain that most criticism has not only reproduced but endorsed Jamesian ideology, so discouraging scrutiny, which Macbeth can promote, of the legitimacy of State violence. That we are dealing with live issues is shown by the almost uncanny resemblances between the Gunpowder Plot and the 1984 Brighton Bombing, and in the comparable questions about State and other violence which they raise. My concluding thoughts are about the politics of the prevailing readings of Macbeth. I distinguish conservative and liberal positions; both tend to dignify their accounts with the honorific term ‘tragedy’.

The conservative position insists that the play is about ‘evil’. Kenneth Muir offers a string of quotations to this effect: it is ‘Shakespeare's “most profound and mature vision of evil”; “the whole play may be writ down as a wrestling of destruction with creation”; it is “a statement of evil”; “it is a picture of a special battle in a universal war …”; and it “contains the decisive orientation of Shakespearean good and evil”’.22 This is little more than Jamesian ideology writ large: killing Macdonwald is ‘good’ and killing Duncan is ‘evil’, and the hierarchical society envisaged in Absolutist ideology is identified with the requirements of nature, supernature and the ‘human condition’. Often this view is elaborated as a socio-political programme, allegedly expounded by Shakespeare and implicitly endorsed by the critic. So Muir writes of ‘an orderly and closely-knit society, in contrast to the disorder consequent upon Macbeth's initial crime [i.e. killing Duncan, not Macdonwald]. The naturalness of that order, and the unnaturalness of its violation by Macbeth, is emphasized …’ (New Arden Macbeth, p. li). Irving Ribner says Fleance is ‘symbolic of a future rooted in the acceptance of natural law, which inevitably must return to reassert God's harmonious order when evil has worked itself out’.23

This conservative endorsement of Jamesian ideology is not intended to ratify the Modern State. Rather, like much twentieth-century literary criticism, it is backward-looking, appealing to an earlier and preferable supposed condition of society. Roger Scruton comments: ‘If a conservative is also a restorationist, this is because he lives close to society, and feels in himself the sickness which infects the common order. How, then, can he fail to direct his eyes towards that state of health from which things have declined?’24 This quotation is close to the terms in which many critics write of Macbeth, and their evocation of the Jamesian order which is allegedly restored at the end of the play constitutes a wistful gesture towards what they would regard as a happy ending for our troubled society. However, because this conservative approach is based on an inadequate analysis of political and social process, it gains no purchase on the main determinants of State power.

A liberal position hesitates to endorse any State power so directly, finding some saving virtue in Macbeth: ‘To the end he never totally loses our sympathy’; ‘we must still not lose our sympathy for the criminal’.25 In this view there is a flaw in the State, it fails to accommodate the particular consciousness of the refined individual. Macbeth's imagination is set against the blandness of normative convention and for all his transgressions, perhaps because of them, Macbeth transcends the laws he breaks. In John Bayley's version: ‘His superiority consists in a passionate sense for ordinary life, its seasons and priorities, a sense which his fellows in the play ignore in themselves or take for granted. Through the deed which tragedy requires of him he comes to know not only himself, but what life is all about.’26 I call this ‘liberal’ because it is anxious about a State, Absolutist or Modern, which can hardly take cognizance of the individual sensibility, and it is prepared to validate to some degree the recalcitrant individual. But it will not undertake the political analysis which would press the case. Hence there is always in such criticism a reservation about Macbeth's revolt and a sense of relief that it ends in defeat: nothing could have been done anyway, it was all inevitable, written in the human condition. This retreat from the possibility of political analysis and action leaves the State virtually unquestioned, almost as fully as the conservative interpretation.

Shakespeare, notoriously, has a way of anticipating all possibilities. The idea of literary intellectuals identifying their own deepest intuitions of the universe in the experience of the ‘great’ tragic hero who defies the limits of the human condition is surely a little absurd; we may sense delusions of grandeur. Macbeth includes much more likely models for its conservative and liberal critics in the characters of the two doctors. The English Doctor has just four and a half lines (IV.iii.141-5) in which he says King Edward is coming and that sick people whose malady conquers the greatest efforts of medical skill await him, expecting a heavenly cure for ‘evil’. Malcolm, the king to be, says ‘I thank you, Doctor’. This doctor is the equivalent of conservative intellectuals who encourage respect for mystificatory images of ideal hierarchy which have served the State in the past, and who invoke ‘evil’, ‘tragedy’ and ‘the human condition’ to produce, in effect, acquiescence in State power.

The Scottish Doctor, in V.i and V.iii, is actually invited to cure the sickness of the rulers and by implication the State: ‘If thou couldst, Doctor, cast / The water of my land, find her disease …’ (V.iii.50-1). But this doctor, like the liberal intellectual, hesitates to press an analysis. He says: ‘This disease is beyond my practice’ (V.i.56), ‘I think, but dare not speak’ (V.i.76), ‘Therein the patient / Must minister to himself’ (V.iii.45-6), ‘Were I from Dunsinane away and clear, / Profit again should hardly draw me here’ (V.iii.61-2). He wrings his hands at the evidence of State violence and protects his conscience with asides. This is like the liberal intellectual who knows there is something wrong at the heart of the system but will not envisage a radical alternative and, to ratify this attitude, discovers in Shakespeare's plays ‘tragedy’ and ‘the human condition’ as explanations of the supposedly inevitable defeat of the person who steps out of line.

By conventional standards, the present essay is perverse. But an oppositional criticism is bound to appear thus: its task is to work across the grain of customary assumptions and, if necessary, across the grain of the text, as it is customarily perceived. Of course, literary intellectuals don’t have much influence over State violence, their therapeutic power is very limited. Nevertheless, writing, teaching, and other modes of communicating all contribute to the steady, long-term formation of opinion, to the establishment of legitimacy. This contribution King James himself did not neglect. An oppositional analysis of texts like Macbeth will read them to expose, rather than promote, State ideologies.


  1. Macbeth is quoted from the New Arden Shakespeare, 9th edn., ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1962).

  2. See Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes, translation editor Timothy O’Hagan (London: New Left Books, 1973), pp. 157-68; Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolute State (London: New Left Books, 1974).

  3. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolute State, p. 18. For further studies of the scope of Absolutist ideology in England see V. G. Kiernan, ‘State and nation in Western Europe’, Past and Present, 31 (1965), 20-38; W. T. MacCaffrey, ‘England: the Crown and the new aristocracy, 1540-1600’, Past and Present, 30 (1965), 52-64; Alan Sinfield, ‘Power and ideology: an outline theory and Sidney's Arcadia’, English Literary History, 52 (1985), 259-77. On attitudes to government and Macbeth see Michael Hawkins, ‘History, politics and Macbeth’ in Focus on ‘Macbeth’, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge, 1982).

  4. King Richard II, ed. Peter Ure, New Arden edn. (London: Methuen, 1956), V.i.59-61.

  5. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, ‘History and ideology: the instance of Henry V’, in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985).

  6. John Gerard, The Autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. Philip Caraman (London: Longman, 1951), pp. 52-3.

  7. The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 18.

  8. King James the First, Daemonologie (1597), Newes from Scotland (1591) (London: Bodley Head, 1924), p. 55.

  9. See James, The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, in Political Works, ed. McIlwain, pp. 56-61, 66.

  10. Henry Paul, The Royal Play of ‘Macbeth’ (New York: Octagon Books, 1978), p. 373.

  11. Francis Bacon, Essays, introduction by Michael J. Hawkins (London: Dent, 1972). See further Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (Brighton: Harvester, 1984), specially ch. 5; Alan Sinfield, Literature in Protestant England 1560-1660 (London: Croom Helm, 1983), ch. 7.

  12. Paul, The Royal Play of ‘Macbeth’, p. 196.

  13. See W. D. Briggs, ‘Political ideas in Sidney's Arcadia’, Studies in Philology, 28 (1931) 137-61, and ‘Philip Sidney's political ideas’, ibid., 29 (1932), 534-42.

  14. See The Tyrannous Reign of Mary Stewart, George Buchanan's Account, trans. and ed. W. A. Gatherer (Edinburgh University Press, 1958), pp. 12-3; James E. Phillips, ‘George Buchanan and the Sidney circle’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 12 (1948/9), 23-55; I. D. McFarlane, Buchanan (London: Duckworth, 1981), pp. 392-440.

  15. The Tyrannous Reign of Mary Stewart, p. 49; see also p. 99.

  16. The Tyrannous Reign of Mary Stewart, pp. 72, 86, 91, 111, 119, 145, 153; cf. Macbeth, III.i.48-56; V.vii.17-8; III.v.130-1; V.viii.27-9.

  17. King James, Daemonologie, p. 20. See further Sinfield, Literature in Protestant England, specially chapters 2, 6.

  18. However, as Jim McLaverty points out to me, the play has arranged that Macduff will not experience temptation from his wife. In the chronicles Malcolm's son is overthrown by Donalbain; in Polanski's film of Macbeth Donalbain is made to meet the Witches.

  19. The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, in Political Works, ed. McIlwain, pp. 56-61; referring to I Sam. 8:9-20.

  20. See Hunter, Macbeth, Penguin edition, pp. 33-4; Dennis Bartholomeusz, ‘Macbeth’ and the Players (Cambridge University Press, 1969). On the Witches and the ideological roles of women in the play see Peter Stallybrass, ‘Macbeth and witchcraft’, in Brown, ed., Focus on ‘Macbeth’.

  21. See further Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare (Manchester University Press, 1985), chs. 7, 9, 10.

  22. Muir in the New Arden Macbeth, p. xlix, quoting G. Wilson Knight, L. C. Knights, F. C. Kolbe, Derek Traversi. See also Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1960), p. 153; Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (University of Wisconsin, 1965), p. 230; Hunter, Penguin edition, p. 7.

  23. Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 159.

  24. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 21.

  25. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd edn. (London: Macmillan, 1965), p. 305; Wayne Booth, ‘Macbeth as tragic hero’, Journal of General Education, 6 (1951), revised for Shakespeare's Tragedies, ed. Laurence Lerner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 186. See also Hunter, Penguin edition, pp. 26-9; Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 282-307.

  26. John Bayley, Shakespeare and Tragedy (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 199; see also p. 193. I am grateful for the stimulating comments of Russell Jackson, Tony Inglis, Peter Holland and Jonathan Dollimore.

David Lowenthal (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Macbeth: Shakespeare Mystery Play,” in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philology, Spring, 1989, pp. 311-57.

[In the following essay, Lowenthal examines the mysteries in Macbeth—including character reversals and questions of fact and motivation—and concludes that the play “mixes pessimism with a more fundamental optimism.”]


In its date of composition, Macbeth falls about midway between Julius Caesar and The Tempest, and like them is known only from the First Folio. Its condition, however, seems not to be as good as theirs, or so say the editors, some of whom find it too short—it is one of the shortest of the plays—and suspect paring by hands other than Shakespeare's. All the editors are sure there have been additions by another hand in at least one or two scenes (see K. Muir's Arden edition, pp. xii-xiii, xxiii-xxxiii). Despite such scholarly uncertainties, Macbeth, along with Caesar, and some of the history plays, is popularly considered one of Shakespeare's most political plays, as well as one of his best. To Abraham Lincoln it was the best: “Nothing,” he said, “equals Macbeth.” How simple and moral is its story! Led on by the prophecy of witches, Macbeth and his Lady succeed in secretly murdering King Duncan and gaining Scotland's throne. Yet they never enjoy the happiness they anticipated from this cruel regicide. Macbeth becomes engrossed in a series of additional murders, one worse than the other, until opposition to him mounts. When Malcolm, Duncan's elder son, returns to Scotland at the head of an English army, he is joined by those suffering under Macbeth's tyrannies, and together they lay siege to his castle. Shortly afterward, Lady Macbeth commits suicide, and Macbeth himself dies in face-to-face combat with Macduff, leaving Malcolm as Scotland's next king.

This is the obvious dramatic action of the play, but there are also signs of a deeper philosophical subject. In a play better known for memorable lines or phrases than speeches, no doubt the most memorable speech is one of Macbeth's last, just after the queen's death. Launching into a very abstract reflection on life, with its endless and aimless “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Macbeth cries

                                                             … 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.

According to this “atheistic” speech, as it has been called, Macbeth finds that life itself, like a tale told by an idiot, is completely unintelligible. Now he could not mean by this simply that life has no moral plan or purpose, for he thinks of himself as deeply immoral, and might easily have concluded, from his wife's fate and his own imminent downfall, that injustice is always punished, that the world is indeed moral—which is the conclusion usually drawn by the audience. But Macbeth has something else in mind when he calls life a “tale told by an idiot,” something very radical, and going far beyond the atheism often attributed to him at this point. For an idiot cannot tell a tale: his words do not hang together, or, better, are not words at all, but only noises, only fury. When an idiot “speaks,” one noise follows another unpredictably, and so, Macbeth seems to think, is it with life. Life too has no connections among things, no intelligible sequences of cause and effect. What made Lady Macbeth sick? Why is she now dead? Why is he about to be overcome? Why have they both failed? Macbeth finds himself completely unable to explain this turn of events. To him it is simply unintelligible.

In fact, the play does contain a real and great puzzle of causality, for, knowing what Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were like when they planned Duncan's murder, could we have predicted their ultimate fate? No one has stated the problem better than Sigmund Freud, who found it inexplicable that, over so short a span of time, the remorseless Lady Macbeth should be suicidally “borne down” by remorse, while the fearful Macbeth ends up “all defiance.” Freud criticizes Shakespeare because he finds these apparent reversals of character unintelligible; quite rightly he refuses to allow the dramatist any leeway that “breaks the causal connection” (Macbeth Casebook, pp. 132, 136-37). If Freud is correct in his diagnosis, Shakespeare seems to have constructed an unintelligible play, almost as if to corroborate Macbeth's view of life's unintelligibility.

Freud may well be correct on one point: the changes Shakespeare depicts in his protagonists could not naturally have occurred over a brief span of time—certainly not if Freud has accurately gauged the time involved (he thinks it a mere matter of days). But it is possible Shakespeare has consciously sought a kind of compression in the play—that what by nature would take much longer he has caused to occur within not only a relatively short period of time but in a very small number of pages as well. If he could do this while providing the thread of intelligibility—of cause and effect in the seeming reversal of the main characters—better than Freud thinks he does, he will have engineered a special kind of dramatic shock, and a special goad to searching out these causes and effects, much as would a scientist or philosopher like Freud himself. The cause of Macbeth's oft-noted brevity would then lie not in paring by others but in Shakespeare's dramatic and philosophical intentions combined. If we can prove, further, that the scenes thought to be superfluously added by someone else are also intrinsic to Shakespeare's overall plan, the play will be completely freed from the kind of editorial censure it has received.

But there is more. What would life be like if it is not a “tale told by an idiot”? In what sense is life a “tale” or story at all? If it is a tale told by a non-idiot, a normal man, life must be intelligible and capable of being understood in terms of cause and effect. But does its being a tale suggest an overall purpose or meaning to life? Is life intelligible in the higher sense of being what reason or wisdom would choose? Is it conclusively moral, directed by a providential supreme power working for the just and the good and guaranteeing their triumph? Certainly this would be the case if the God Christians believe in ruled the world. Macbeth does have a number of minor characters who seem to be the very embodiment of Christian belief and conduct, and who trust in a universe where good inevitably triumphs over evil. Duncan (and earlier, his queen as well) is said to have been like that; at first Lady Macduff is, and also the English king, who miraculously cures men of a disease known as the Evil (IV, 3: 108-11, 146-60; IV, 2: 73-79). In fact, there is a strong element of this belief in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well: Macbeth fears what will happen to him in the life to come, and knows he has lost his “eternal jewel”; Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking, thinks she is in hell. Yet the witches opening the play, and giving it its essential atmosphere, seem to personify evil rather than good, and it is they, rather than any invisible good God, that, by arranging Macbeth's doom, seem to triumph in the play.

Macbeth is a mystery play—like a mystery story or novel—in more ways than one, and not simply in the sense that all Shakespearean plays are mysteries. Beyond the mystery of its character reversals and of imposing elements like the witches, it is filled with mysteries of fact left to the reader's notice and investigation. To mention only the most prominent: to whom does Ross refer (toward the beginning) by the term “Bellona's bridegroom”? What makes Macbeth decide to slay the sleeping guards when he goes up to see the dead Duncan (since it was not part of his plan)? To whom does Banquo so insistently travel the day of Macbeth's banquet, and who is the third murderer involved in his slaying? Why does Ross turn up at Lady Macduff's castle shortly before her murder, and who sends the messenger to warn her? What brings Ross to England? These questions of fact and motivation are essential to the understanding of life—of human affairs—and we must not be willing to notice an unexplained gap in the sequence without trying to pursue it. We cannot remain satisfied with the chaotic surface of things, or with superficial and apparent motivations. In ways small as well as large, we are given incentives to observe and think, to search for cause and effect, and thus to confirm life's intelligibility in at least this sense. We are also given sufficient information to decide upon its intelligibility in the higher sense of rational or moral order.


More than any Shakespearean play that is neither English history nor Roman, Macbeth derives its content from historical narratives. It is amazing to find how much of the characters, and of their speech and action, Shakespeare drew from Holinshed's Chronicles and like sources. It is even more amazing, and instructive, to discover the changes he made, using certain features but not others, inventing new ones, and putting them all together in a manner conducive to his own purpose. The general outlines of the story of Macbeth are followed, but many of the details of Duncan's murder come from Donwald's earlier murder of King Duff. Various witches and wizards are already in the story, waiting to be congealed into three witches, to whom Shakespeare, defiantly anachronistic, adds Hecate. Most of Macbeth is already there, and even Macduff. But Lady Macbeth had to be constructed out of a few lines referring to her ambition and her inciting Macbeth to murder Duncan. And while Ross and Lady Macduff are present in the story, their character and role had to be wholly invented. (See the Furness edition (Dover), pp. 379-95, and Shakespeare's Holinshed (Dover), pp. 18-45.) Let us begin by examining those eerie yet contemptible witches.

The play opens with a brief appearance of the three witches and then a much longer one two scenes later. Their meeting with Hecate, so universally spurned by the editors, occurs at the end of Act III and the beginning of Act IV. There, after a reproving lecture from Hecate, the witches are directed to prepare for a final glorious deception of Macbeth, which all four then consummate together. The details of word and deed provided in all these scenes are more than “atmospherics,” though they certainly create a most particular atmosphere and mood. The reader is intended to think seriously about the witches: What kind of beings are they? Are they real? What is their significance? Who is Hecate, and why is she needed? In their very first lines, the witches show a predilection for bad weather (“thunder, lightning or in rain”), a taste for paradox (“when the battle's lost and won”), and a gift of prophecy (knowing that the battle will be finished “ere the set of sun”). Their “fair is foul, and foul is fair” seems to reek of moral as well as meteorological paradox; their answering the call of little spirits (“I come, Graymalkin!”, “Paddock calls”) propounds an equally perplexing metaphysical paradox—that of the greater being seeming to serve the lesser, like a pet owner his pet. And, of course, why they are intent on meeting Macbeth is never discussed or divulged.

When they have convened again a little later to meet Macbeth, the witches begin a rather lengthy conversation, asking each other what they had just been doing in the interim. They address each other as “sister,” indicating a kinship either of blood or kind, but they use no first names, and give the impression that they may lack such names, even though their petlike spirits have them. And since they must ask about each other's doings, some drastic limits to their foreknowledge are indicated: perhaps it extends only to the doings of men, or to the things receiving their attention. Their answers are equally interesting. One has been killing swine—evidently an activity needing no further explanation. The other begs for chestnuts from a sailor's wife, who interrupts her chewing only to dismiss the witch quite airily, fully aware she is a witch. Out of what looks like a desire for revenge, this one—knowing the wife's husband is the master of a ship at sea—will pursue him in a sieve and “do” something to him. One thing she will clearly do is use the wind she commands, and the winds offered by her two sisters, to blow his ship about for “nine times nine” (that is, eighty-one) weeks, tossing it in a tempest, but unable to destroy it. Suddenly, she interrupts this train of thought to show her sister, childishly eager to see it, the thumb of a wrecked pilot. Hearing, then, a drum, they dance around three-times-three times to make up nine, and set the charm for Macbeth's appearance before them, apparently not knowing, or caring, that Banquo will be with him.

What, so far, has Shakespeare told us with these witches? Remembering Macbeth's later claim that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” it cannot quite be said that the witches talk like idiots, since their conversation makes some sense. But it makes very little sense, and what strikes us most of all is their childishness, combined with a singular inclination to relish acts (or relics) of human harming, even while exhibiting kindness toward each other. We do not know what they look like yet, but they seem to have certain human needs (for example, the desire for food) and therefore bodies. They have command of the winds and can travel anywhere swiftly, but their powers of destruction seem oddly restricted—swine yes, but the master of the Tiger, no. The net impression overall remains one of unintelligibility and hence impossibility: their powers or traits seem inconsistent with each other. Above all, we do not perceive—nor would it be at all consistent with what we do perceive—any link between these witches and the devil. Satanically bent on evil, in defiance of God's commands, these witches are not. There is nothing Christian about them.

What the witches look like we must wait to learn from Banquo, the first to see them. They are withered, wild in their attire, female yet bearded, standing on the earth yet looking not like its “inhabitants.” They can understand Banquo's “Live you? or are you aught that man may question?” though by placing wrinkled fingers on their thin lips they apparently signal him to remain silent. Only when Macbeth, both commanding and asking, says “Speak, if you can. What are you?” do they break their own silence and give him the famous “hails.” To Banquo they say nothing, but at his subsequent urging also address their hails to him, prophesying his destiny, and making comparisons between it and Macbeth's. With their final “Banquo and Macbeth, all hail,” they refuse to answer Macbeth's further questioning and disappear.

Why the witches seem originally concerned with Macbeth alone, and why they accede to Banquo's demands, cannot be known, nor even whether they anticipated those demands—which seems unlikely. The “hails” given Macbeth mention three heights of place and power, two of them—the thanedoms—already achieved, one—the kingdom—to be gotten in the future. Since we have just witnessed (in the previous scene) the bestowal of Cawdor's title on Macbeth, in his absence, by King Duncan, and learn from Macbeth himself that he is already Thane of Glamis due to his father's death, two-thirds of what the witches tell him are not prophecies at all, though the power of the witches to know even these seems beyond any human power. Only Macbeth's becoming king can be considered a prophecy, which, as the story unfolds, turns out to be true. But the “hails” to Macbeth contain utterly no reference to any evils he may encounter along the way, or to any defects in his greatness. These emerge only with the prophecy given to Banquo, which is actually stated in terms of comparison with Macbeth. Banquo will be lesser or greater, not so happy, yet much happier, a begetter of kings but not a king himself. These too are largely confirmed by the further action of the play, but the evil Banquo will encounter along the way—being murdered with twenty gashes in his head and thrown in a ditch, all by command of his friend, Macbeth—could hardly be gathered directly from what the witches say.

At this point in the play, we have no idea whether it is the purpose of the witches to praise and please the great humans they single out for their attention, or—as it turns out—to tempt them by the promise of great good into actions that lead to a doom concealed from them. We have no idea whether the witches form part of a large organized group or are out there uncoordinated, in unknown numbers, perhaps even working at cross-purposes to each other, in a kind of chaos. To clarify the larger framework of their operations, Shakespeare later arranges for them to meet with Hecate, in the scene (penultimate in Act III) that most editors seem intent on extruding as spurious. Duncan has already been murdered and replaced by the Macbeths. Banquo (but not his son, Fleance) has also been murdered, and Macbeth, still shuddering after seeing Banquo's ghost at the banquet, and anticipating his need for still further murders, has just declared his intent to visit the “weird sisters.” He is “bent on knowing, by the worst means, the worst”—and this we only learn indirectly when the visit takes place. He wants to learn what will happen to him now that he has again waded, and will continue to wade, in blood.

When the witches meet Hecate, Macbeth has already indicated to Lady Macbeth his intent to visit him, and Hecate is aware of it. The first witch has the first and last lines of the scene: all the rest are Hecate's. Told by the first witch that she looks angry, Hecate begins by explaining and justifying her anger, which is directed at them. She takes command of their further operations, indicates her own general principle and the one underlying their future strategy regarding Macbeth, and concludes by responding to the call of her “little spirit.” Of these three parts of Hecate speech, the first has caused the most trouble:

Have I not reason, beldams as you are,
Saucy, and overbold? How did you dare
To trade and traffic with Macbeth,
In riddles, and affairs of death;
And I, the mistress of your charms,
The close contriver of all harms,
Was never call’d to bear my part,
Or show the glory of our art?
And, which is worse, all you have done
Hath been but for a wayward son,
Spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do,
Loves for his own ends, not for you.

An earlier American editor named W. A. Rolfe presented one of the strongest attacks on the authenticity of this scene. To begin with, Rolfe notes that Hecate speaks in iambics, whereas “the eight-syllable lines that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of supernatural beings are regularly trochaic.” Furthermore, in what sense could the witches have been said to “trade and traffic” with Macbeth, since no bargain or exchange has transpired between them? What were the “gains” in which they were all to share, according to Hecate (said a little later, at IV, 1:43)? And how has Macbeth proved a “wayward son, spiteful and wrathful”? These and similar considerations lead Rolfe to conclude that the part of Hecate is the work of some “hack writer in the theater” (Furness, pp. 232-33).

Rolfe's criticisms are sensible, and deserve an adequate response. In accusing the witches of “trading” (“trafficking” emphasizes the same idea), Hecate seems to look upon their presentation to Macbeth as something like a rational exchange, where the trading partners both have in view an end or benefit to themselves. But the gravamen of her complaint comes in the next lines: You failed, Hecate says, to bring me into the action; I, who both control your charms and secretly contrive all harms; I, who alone can show the full “glory” of our art. In short, you set up shop on your own, so to speak, and were therefore “saucy, and overbold.” And the complaint has a second even stronger component, for, “which is worse,” you have done this for a “wayward,” not a loving or devoted “son,” who loves selfishly, “for his own ends” (but not different from others in this respect), rather than “for you.” In this part, the image of commerce or rational exchange is dropped, and replaced by that of love, with Hecate picturing the witches as Macbeth's mother, who loves her son and expects both love and devotion from him. In both cases, Hecate seems, rather paradoxically, to presume that the witches are bestowing a benefit, not inflicting a harm, on Macbeth—a benefit they expect to result in some good to themselves, either in the form of a benefit rationally exchanged or one bestowed through love.

What can possibly be the reason for such complications? Shakespeare has Hecate call herself the “close contriver of all harms,” almost along the way, not unproudly, yet matter-of-factly. What she means is that all the harm—at least the human harm, and perhaps harm to all beings capable of being harmed—is under her control. Hecate is not Satan—she is very unlike Satan—but she affords Shakespeare something like a substitute for Satan through whom he can raise, more guardedly, the questions that ought to be directed at Satan himself. Satan had to be brought into existence to help explain the persistence, gravity, and frequent success (short of domination) of evil in a universe completely created by a good God. Since he could not create himself, he must have been created by God, as a good being that somehow manages to derange itself, thus leaving God without responsibility for evil. Satan must, to oppose God completely, represent evil loved for itself. Hecate demonstrates the impossibility of this idea. Once one postulates beings that bring evil into the world, and contrive all harms, they do so for the sake of either harming or benefiting. But a being that wants only to harm must want to harm itself, and such a being contradicts the very notion of being. Every being must therefore want to benefit at least itself. This is also why Hecate can later say to the witches, “O, well done! I commend your pains, and everyone shall share i’ the gains” (IV, 1:42-43)—leaving us wondering what possible gains they can obtain either from this successful performance before Macbeth or from his ultimate downfall. Will Macbeth become something like that wrecked “pilot's thumb” the first witch carries around in her pocket? What needs of Hecate and the witches—and how must they be constructed to have such needs—are satisfied by the contriving of harm?

While Hecate may look “angerly,” and is clearly angered, it is surprising how little of the punitive or vindictive she manifests toward her “saucy” minions. On the contrary, all she asks is that they “make amends now” by following her directions. She plans a great display of their art, in all its glory, and is engrossed in the thought of it—but not as a malevolent Satan, anticipating with joy the pain, suffering, and destruction to be brought about. Hecate is, above all, an artisan—or, better still, an artist who must create all the elements necessary to a successful charming of Macbeth. And the shortness, lightness, and rhyme of her lines are perfectly in keeping with this approach to her job as “chief contriver of harms.” We never learn whether there is a “chief contriver of benefits,” or by whom—other than themselves—the “glory of our art” is to be appreciated. Nevertheless, she gives the impression that bringing about harm is a difficult and complicated thing, and hence in need of a complex and glorious art. She is therefore characterized by something like the human love of excellence—an excellence which in her eyes remains untarnished because harms, presumably, are a necessary part of the nature of things. The witches seem to do, by impulse, what Hecate does out of a sense of rational necessity, and by art. They can therefore be pictured as childlike, she as a mature adult.

Yet Shakespeare wants us to see an essential kinship between them as well, and therefore makes her leave in response to the call of her “little spirit,” just as they had in the very first scene. Not only must one wonder how a devotion to harming is consistent with this love of pets, but also how the higher and greater being can seek to serve the lower. This touch is meant to draw even more sharply the contrast between Hecate and these witches, on the one hand, and Satan and his witches—viewed in the context of Christianity—on the other. Satan is all evil, from top to toe, but Hecate and her witches are peculiar combinations of good and evil, and hardly reek of malevolence in their evildoing. Their peculiarity provokes our interest not only in their motive for doing harm but in their motive for doing good. Is there a counterpart to Hecate responsible for causing good, and if so, what is the relation between the two? Or is evil subservient to good—somehow more difficult to bring about than good? Applied in the context of Christianity, what causes God to do good? What possible want or desire in Him could make Him create a world, and then suffer for one of His creatures?

Rolfe is quite right in his criticism of Hecate's speech, so long as one considers it a set of charges against the witches that, in a literal and simply factual sense, are either true or false. In this sense they are false, and seem entirely wide of the mark—hence the work of some hack writer. But the sheer poetry should have told him better than that, and if one thinks of Hecate's lines primarily as a vehicle for exposing the general problem of the relation between good and evil in the universe, Rolfe's objections disappear. That Shakespeare wants to confront this problem is shown, much more graphically than ever before, in the next witches' scene, set, as Hecate had told us, at the “pit of Acheron,” where Macbeth will soon come. Here we find the witches boiling in a cauldron a stew made of things that would utterly and instinctively repel the audience as evil: hideous animals that crawl and fly, run and swim, poisoned entrails, poisonous plants, parts of Jews, infidels, and the strangled offspring of prostitutes.

These ingredients are not selected in accordance with the strictest of principles, however. Some—like toads, snakes, bats, sharks—may be considered clearly repellent by nature, but others—Jews, Turks, and Tartars—only by divine law, or from a Christian point of view, and still others—poisoned entrails and prostitutes' strangled offspring—at least partly by human intervention. None are simply characteristic of a universe evil by nature or in itself. In fact, as if to remind us faintly of those parts of the universe that do not repel, or that even attract, Shakespeare has the witches include in their stew items of questionable repugnance, like “toe of frog” and “tongue of dog.” Later, as if to make sure the mood of the horrid is sustained, the witches throw into the cauldron the blood of a sow that has devoured her nine farrow, and grease from the noose of a murderer's gibbet, reminding us, with the last, of the most repellent spectacle in the play—that of the murderous Macbeth and Lady Macbeth themselves.

Macbeth insists on being answered by the witches concerning the future even if all things must be destroyed by the winds they command. But even before he can frame his question, the First Apparition knows how to answer it. The spectacle now presented to Macbeth—evidently Hecate's masterful contrivance—is in fact much more complicated than what the witches had originally presented on their own. In each of three cases, an unnamed and puzzling apparition explicitly tells him how to act, practically calling for injustice, and apparently promising him impunity. Finally, at his own insistence, he is given shattering confirmation of the earlier prediction that Banquo's issue will reign in this kingdom, which leads him to call for this “pernicious hour” to “stand aye accursed in the calendar!” But Hecate has done her job well, and, true to her word, led him on “to his confusion” by assuring him security for his crimes. This she has done not through outright lies but through equivocation, using words that in their ordinary meaning give guarantees, while in some unusual meaning withdrawing them.

Toward the play's end, on discovering these extraordinary meanings, Macbeth senses the “equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth,” and exclaims against these “juggling fiends” that “palter with us in a double sense” (V, 5:50; V, 8:25-28). He ends up dead and headless, after the wife concerning whose destiny he had never inquired has already committed suicide. But his last meeting with the witches, at the pit of Acheron, concludes in their effort to cheer him up with music and dancing, as he stands distracted. Their spell is now complete, and its ultimate consequences guaranteed, without any necessity on their part to check later. Hecate and her helpers—beings whose function and good it is to do harm, without malice—must be satisfied with their success. And Shakespeare must have been satisfied with his. For by this point he has clearly distinguished the witches in Macbeth from Christian witches, and plainly entitled them to be headed by Hecate rather than Satan. At the same time, he has deepened our interest in the problem of evil in the universe. How is it to be accounted for? Why are so many things in nature repellent to man? Why is evil so important a feature of all human affairs? What causes evil in people like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?

Clearly the perspective from which Shakespeare views these matters, in the play, is not Christian, although the protagonists are. With the help of his witches, Shakespeare can illuminate the problem of intelligible being (to help us decide whether life is a tale told by an idiot), using as a specimen case the nature of beings supposedly dedicated to the contrivance of harm. At the same time—allowing the witches to tempt men by promising security for injustice—Shakespeare can study, as if under artificial laboratory conditions, the rapid amplification and intensification of tyrannical evildoing, and the state of soul motivating and accompanying it. He will have recourse to important elements of Christian expectation—the porter as hell's gatekeeper, Lady Macbeth thinking hell murky—but only to show the natural hell, the hell on this earth, to which wickedness can lead. And he will have his little joke: a character named Seyton is suddenly introduced toward the end (and as suddenly disappears) to serve simultaneously as a bringer of bad news and Macbeth's assistant, in the process showing a supernatural ability that makes it impossible to identify him as a mere man (see M. Levith, What’s in Shakespeare's Names? pp. 20, 56).


We must now turn to two bold plans of which we learn early in the play. The Macbeths' plan to murder Duncan, while paraded before our eyes, is poorly planned and executed, but successful. On the other hand, Duncan's plan to frustrate Macbeth's ambition is almost invisible, well planned, and well executed—but unsuccessful. We must begin with Duncan's plan, since it shows itself almost at once, in Act 1, scene 2. Duncan has always struck the careless reader as even less capable of forethought than King Lear, who had at least constructed a plan for the succession in Britain. Duncan seems old, weak, impetuous, too trusting, and too ready to distrust. We first see him in the midst of a combined revolt and invasion, relying not on his own efforts in battle but on Macbeth, Banquo, and his older son, Malcolm. Looks can be deceiving, however, for Duncan's support among the thanes is amazingly solid: only Cawdor has joined the rebel, Macdonwald. The chief problem facing Duncan, once we put all the facts together, has to do not with the invasion or the rebellion, as might first appear, but with the succession. Scotland was not then a strict hereditary monarchy, and, with its feudal aristocracy, obviously needed a mature soldier at its helm. Not only was Malcolm young for this task, but his military ineptitude has just shown itself for all to see: only the efforts of the bleeding sergeant keep him from being captured in this battle. At the same time, the sergeant's story testifies to the unrivaled military prowess of Macbeth, who proves himself to be the kingdom's salvation against the rebels.

This predicament accounts for a series of apparently disparate actions on Duncan's part that, taken together, display the coherence of a plan—and a good plan. Duncan had not yet made his son Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland—that is, he had not yet publicly made him his heir. Since hereditary succession (as shown by this very fact) was still not automatic, the king had perhaps delayed to keep from seeming selfish for his family and insufficiently devoted to the public good, hoping for some impressive military accomplishment from Malcolm that might justify his choice. But the king's own advanced age, Malcolm's youthfulness and incapacity as a soldier, and Macbeth's recent successes on the battlefield make Macbeth rather than Malcolm the all but irresistible choice for the throne. In these circumstances, what can Duncan do, and do instantly? We do not know for sure whether Duncan, like Macduff and others we learn about later, was already suspicious of Macbeth's moral character (for example, Macduff at II, 4: 88, Banquo at I, 3: 121-24 and III, 1: 1-3; even Banquo's prospective murderers at III, 1: 76-79). It is quite likely that he was, or he may have simply favored his own sons. In any case, he must quickly proclaim Malcolm Prince of Cumberland, and thus his heir, but in such a way as to prevent violent dissidence and opposition from Macbeth.

Already Duncan had tried to dilute Macbeth's influence by the unusual step of making him and Banquo co-captains in the war: we can see this motive in his question, after hearing of Macbeth's prowess alone, as to what effect the entrance of the Norwegian force into battle had on “our captains, Macbeth and Banquo”—thus bringing Banquo to the center of attention along with Macbeth. But the presumed treason of the thane of Cawdor gives Duncan a new and much more substantial opportunity, for Macbeth can instantly be invested with his title and lands just at the time the announcement about Malcolm is made. It strikes the reader as most precipitate on Duncan's part to call for Cawdor's death, especially on a mere verbal report of his treason by Ross. But the action had to be calculated, and Duncan speaks truly—of himself if not of Cawdor—when he says, “There’s no art to find the mind's construction in the face.” His plan, as we must reconstruct it, is to make Macbeth obligated and grateful to him publicly—to double his thanedom—at the very moment that his own son, Malcolm, is openly and legally set in line for the throne.

These conjectures can be confirmed by scrutinizing the events immediately surrounding Duncan's proclamation of the succession in scene 4. He has already sent Ross and Angus to greet Macbeth, on the way to Forres, where the king is staying, with the title “thane of Cawdor.” When Macbeth enters, the king calls him “O worthiest cousin,” thus indicating a family kinship later confirmed by Macbeth himself, and of course all the more dangerous in light of the succession problem. Duncan then talks of how much he owes Macbeth, without going into details, and ends with “More is thy due than more than all can pay.” Notice no mention yet of the title of Cawdor, amid large but vague promises of reward. Macbeth responds dutifully, expressing—to excess, it seems—the obligations generally owed not only to Duncan's “throne and state” and his children but to his servants as well! “Welcome hither!” responds Duncan. “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour to make thee full of growing.” Again, large but vague promises, this time permitting the inference that until then he has not “planted” Macbeth. In short, Macbeth—and we can understand why—had not been one of his favorites hitherto.

Then Duncan addresses Banquo as of equal deserving, and he embraces him, leading the reader to wonder whether anything he had just said to Macbeth indicated an embrace for him as well. By this point Duncan seems to have tears of joy in his eyes. Suddenly, without warning, he launches into the announcement naming Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and heir to his estate and, without saying so explicitly, his throne. The nobility of others shall also be honored. Then, with suddenness again, and striking brevity: “From hence to Inverness.” What this means is that he has just invited himself to Macbeth's castle! Probably as surprised as anyone, Macbeth says he will ride ahead and bring the good news of Duncan's coming to his wife, and only then does Duncan say: “My worthy Cawdor!” That is, only after receiving Macbeth's earlier public commitment of duty, and now his acquiescence in receiving him as a guest in his castle, does Duncan publicly confirm by his own words the honor he had had Ross bestow on Macbeth. Once at Inverness, Duncan's plan culminates in his sending Banquo to Lady Macbeth with the gift of a diamond that night, just before going to sleep. Nor has he been without protective care for himself, even then, for his grooms are just outside his bedchamber, and he has asked Macduff to call upon him early that morning (II, 1: 13-16; II, 3: 50-51). So there is the plan in full: another high honor for Macbeth, a bauble for his wife, the appointment of the next king (so killing Duncan, as Macbeth realizes at once, still leaves an equally large obstacle in the way), and then arranging to become Macbeth's guest, taking some precaution nonetheless. It is an excellent plan and would have worked, even in spite of the witches' favorable prophecies, had it not been for the extraordinary ambition and persuasiveness of Lady Macbeth, coupled with her and her husband's stupidity, and one other unanticipated factor, to be discussed below.

This is the well-conceived plan that did not work. Now let us see the ill-conceived one that did. If one examines carefully Macbeth's written and oral communications to his wife, one will discover that he never reveals to her two important facts—the prophecy the witches made for Banquo, and the naming of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland. Had he done so, their task in usurping the throne would have looked at least doubly difficult and far less promising. This is why they make no overt plan for killing Malcolm, though both he and Donalbain, his younger brother, are at Inverness with their father that night. And it is also why—after luck, not brains, catapults them into the throne—Macbeth plans Banquo's murder alone, without the queen's help. In the case of Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth must first persuade Macbeth to do a deed they both acknowledge to be deeply immoral, and also convince him it can be done with impunity. To prove the latter, she suggests that by plying the two chamberlains with alcohol she can put them into a deep sleep, leaving Duncan at their mercy. Macbeth adds a touch of his own: they will use the chamberlains' daggers for the dead, and then spread blood on their bodies as well. In the ensuing clamor, their guilt will be accepted by all.

As it turns out, although her plan called for their doing the deed together, it ends up wholly in Macbeth's hands. And some improvisations are made. From Lady Macbeth the audience learns that she has drugged the grooms' wine and only then done her part in laying out their daggers for Macbeth's use immediately thereafter. But, stricken with terror after committing the murder, Macbeth forgets to smear the grooms with blood and leave the bloody daggers with them—a task that must then be undertaken by Lady Macbeth, whose hands are bloodied in the process, like Macbeth's. And a final improvisation, wholly uncalled for in the perfected plan, occurs when Macbeth goes up to see the king after the murder has been discovered and on his own kills the grooms. This is the real reason why Lady Macbeth, upon hearing Macbeth blurt out his account to those assembled in the castle, faints straightway.

How good is this plan, both in its original and its improvised variations? The weak point of the former was its blaming the chamberlains, who, if they had any motive for killing the king, would not be so obliging as to lie down immediately in the very spot where they were expected to stay for the night and fall asleep there, defiled with blood. And, of course, once awake the chamberlains would stoutly deny they had such a motive, would tell of being plied with liquor by the queen, and might receive support from those in the king's trust (see Lennox's allusion at III, 6: 11-16). Now, for some reason we never learn from Macbeth's own lips, he quickly decides to kill the guards when he goes up to see the dead king. From Lenox, who accompanied him, we learn that the guards “star’d, and were distracted.” Macbeth must have observed this himself, and perhaps thought it unnatural that they were not simply asleep (the drug applied by Lady Macbeth may have caused this unusual condition). What, he might have wondered, would happen if they were shaken and still would not awaken from their drunken stupor? Did he guess that they had been drugged—a fact of which he was not informed by Lady Macbeth? Did he fear that an inquiry into their condition might lead back to Lady Macbeth and himself?

By killing the guards, Macbeth does something exceedingly strange, and hardly justifiable on the grounds of the righteous indignation to which he pretends. But he takes this risk, and Lady Macbeth—not seeing what it can accomplish for them—swoons. At this point, a huge piece of unanticipated luck falls their way: Malcolm and Donalbain, fearing for their own lives after their father's murder, flee, which, as Macduff later tells Ross, “puts upon them suspicion of the deed,” it being thought—no doubt with much urging from the Macbeths—that the chamberlains were suborned by them to murder their father. The story is still highly improbable, but another accident helps make it accepted. It was Macduff who demanded that Macbeth explain why he killed the grooms; after he does, Lady Macbeth's apparent fainting spell may have kept him from pursuing the matter further. That Macduff did indeed harbor suspicions is shown by his later refusal to be present at Macbeth's coronation. But there was one person in the castle that morning who had much more solid grounds than Macduff for suspecting Macbeth, and who had actually concluded the murder was done by him. This, of course, was Banquo. Just after Lady Macbeth's collapse, Banquo calls for everyone to get dressed and return “to question this most bloody piece of work, to know it further.” But we can easily guess why he never gives voice to his suspicions (explicitly admitted at the beginning of Act III): he must have thought the witches' prophecy about the future kingship of his sons would be realized after their prediction about Macbeth's gaining the throne is. We can therefore imagine that the Macbeths unexpectedly found in Banquo a strong supporter for their effort to condemn the king's sons and then install Macbeth in Duncan's place. This, too, was how the Macbeth overcame the obstacle Lady Macbeth had never been told about—that of Malcolm's being named Prince of Cumberland. In other words, by one and the same piece of luck, wholly unanticipated, Malcolm could be blamed for Duncan's murder and removed from the line of succession! His flight became the key to Macbeth's success.

Why all this emphasis on plans? For one thing, it tells us something about Duncan and about the Macbeths—about their mental stature. It permits us to distinguish further between a tyrannical usurper like the Duke of Gloucester (in Richard III) and the Macbeths, the latter being more superstitious, more moral, and a good deal less intelligent than the former. But there is a general purpose as well, for it refines the reader's perception and understanding of human affairs generally, and moves him closer to being able to say whether life is a tale told by an idiot or not. To the extent that intelligent purpose, human or nonhuman, directs life, it is not such a tale—in fact it is the precise opposite of such a tale. In The Tempest we see the wise, premeditated plan of its hero, Prospero, determine the action of practically the whole play. In Macbeth we learn how one serious bit of miscalculation or ignorance (of Lady Macbeth's character by Duncan) can thwart an otherwise excellent plan, and how chance can make a very poor one succeed. These are important features of human life, but in neither case does life lose its causal intelligibility. In other words, we can see just what it is that makes the two plans develop and eventuate as they do, showing that no part of life is a tale told by an idiot. And the part of life least deserving that description is the perfectly designed work of art—the philosophical drama—which allows no part of itself to bear any but a necessary relationship to all other parts and the whole. The play Macbeth itself is an entirely sufficient proof that life is not unintelligible sound and fury!


Macduff and Ross are cousins, but they are very unlike each other. Much of Macduff's character was already available to Shakespeare in Holinshed's Chronicles, whereas Ross was barely named and had to be built up from scratch. We see Ross before we see Macduff. With Angus, he comes riding in from Fife. There, according to the account he gives King Duncan, the traitor Cawdor and the King of Norway himself were defeated in battle by someone Ross refers to as “Bellona's bridegroom.” Bellona was the goddess of war, and most commentators take this hero to be Macbeth again. But Fife is a great distance from the area near Forres where the first battle has just taken place—the battle involving the bleeding sergeant, Malcolm, Macbeth, Banquo, Macdonwald, and the Norwegian lord. For that simple reason Macbeth could not also have been the hero of Fife—a conclusion fortified by the fact that Macbeth knows nothing of Cawdor's disloyalty (I, 4: 11-12). And who a more likely candidate for this role than that other great warrior, the thane of Fife himself? For reasons unknown to us, Ross' strange reference to “Bellona's bridegroom” seems to have had the purpose of concealing from Duncan's view the heroic deeds of that other thane and Ross' own cousin, Macduff.

Macduff himself has not yet arrived at Forres, nor is he present when Duncan makes his announcement about the succession. But he must have ridden in from the battle at Fife before the king's party leaves for Inverness, because he is with that party as it arrives there. Within the castle, he and Lennox have been quartered in a kind of annex, and we first hear Macduff speak in the famous porter scene early the next morning, when he and Lennox knock at the gate to be admitted into the main part of the castle. Minutes before, both Macbeths had heard the knocking just as Lady Macbeth leaves to return the chamberlains' daggers. Macbeth goes to the gate and is greeted rather coolly by Macduff: “Is the king stirring, worthy thane?” He adds that the king had commanded him “to call timely on him. I have almost slipp’d the hour.” Hearing this the reader once again senses the importance of accident: a few minutes earlier, and the Macbeths might have been caught red-handed, literally.

Calling alone on the king, Macduff is the first to find him murdered, and from his exclamation we learn that he is a very pious man: “Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope the Lord's anointed temple”—the last phrase combining elements from the Old and New Testaments. He rouses the whole house, calling by name Banquo, Donalbain, and Malcolm, but not Ross or Lady Macbeth. It is Macduff who asks Macbeth why he had just killed the guards, and who then seconds Banquo's proclaimed opposition to the “undivulged pretense … of treasonous malice.” The next we see of him is at a meeting with Ross, apparently as he emerges from Macbeth's castle. For some reason Ross must have left the castle quickly after the murder, for he asks Macduff what happened there. Macduff tells him that the flight of Malcolm and Donalbain cast suspicion of their father's murder on them, that Macbeth had already been named king (presumably by a council of the thanes, unattended by Ross, in the castle) and that he has already left for Scone to be invested. Asked by Ross whether he will go to Scone, Macduff says he will go instead to Fife, his own castle. And to Ross' declaring his own intention to follow Macbeth to Scone, Macduff bids him see that things are well done there, “Lest our old robes sit easier than our new!” Either suspecting Macbeth of murder, or knowing of his character otherwise, Macduff is clearly uneasy, and is courageous—or imprudent—enough to reveal his state of mind by absenting himself from the coronation.

In Act III Macbeth has Banquo murdered, and in Act IV, the family of Macduff. The editors are never able to make out where Banquo and Fleance are riding the afternoon of their murder, and think it unimportant to boot. A guess could be hazarded rather easily, had they not followed one of the earliest editors (Capell) in locating Macbeth's palace at Forres, not far from Cawdor and Inverness in northern Scotland. In all likelihood, they do so not because of any stage directions, of which there are none, but because they assume Macbeth's second visit to the witches (at the end of Act III) takes place where he originally met them—a heath near Forres. From Inverness (near Forres), however, he had gone to Scone to be crowned, and no direction of any sort ever has him coming away from there (historically, the Scottish kings were likely to reside in Perth, close to Scone). If one also realizes that the final action of the play, in Act V, plainly takes place in or near the castle he had been busy fortifying at Dunsinane—close to both Scone and Perth—one will not have Macbeth spend all his time in Acts III and IV one hundred or more miles to the north at Forres. Moreover, he seeks out the witches not at the heath near Forres but at something called “the pit of Acheron”—a fictitious location derived from the Bible (2 Kings i, 2-7). Like its Biblical archetype, this pit seems to be known for its supernatural clientele. Nor should we forget that the three witches in the play are associated with the various winds and can therefore meet anywhere with one who seeks them—all the more if they are, so to speak, hovering over him and watching his destiny, as they are with Macbeth.

If Macbeth's castle in Act III is actually located at either Scone or Dunsinane, it is also within twenty or thirty miles of wherever it was in Fife that Macduff had his castle. Could this have been Banquo and Fleance's destination, so mysteriously left unidentified when Macbeth questions Banquo about their ride the day of the banquet? The reason for Banquo's reserve is perfectly clear: Macduff had refused to attend Macbeth's coronation and was already under suspicion. No doubt Banquo had worries to share with a close friend—only Banquo calls him “Dear Duff” the morning of Duncan's murder—and therefore, despite being Macbeth's chief guest, and despite Macbeth's strong and repeated urgings that he stay, Banquo insists on departing for several hours, perhaps until the early evening. This, and possibly the news of Banquo's murder as well, may have contributed to Macduff's decision to rebuff Macbeth's messenger and flee to England—a decision of which we learn very shortly afterward (II, 3: 94; III, 6: 39-43).

On his visit to the witches, Macbeth is told both that he should beware the thane of Fife and that (as he interprets it) he can be harmed or defeated by no human hand. Despite this last guarantee, he decides to kill Macduff, just to make sure. Discovering Macduff's flight to England, however, he decides immediately, and without any reason, to slaughter his wife and babes instead. The next scene is as mystifying as it is pathetic. Last present at the banquet, Ross is suddenly found in conversation with his cousin Lady Macbeth (and her son) in her castle, hearing her castigate her husband for leaving his wife, babes, mansion, and titles “in a place from whence himself does fly. …” Ross says he will return before long, hints he would burst into tears at their plight if he stays longer, and then departs—leaving the reader, as well, in complete ignorance as to the purpose of his visit. A moment later an unidentified messenger enters, warning Lady Macbeth to flee with her children, and in another moment the murderers themselves appear to kill her and the boy.

Let us try to explain these puzzles. The murderers, of course, were sent by Macbeth, and the messenger could only have been sent by Lennox, whom we know to be in Macbeth's confidence, yet opposed to him. But why Ross? Why has he come to Macduff's castle? He offers his cousin no assistance, gives her no warning, tells her nothing of Macbeth's hostility and tyranny. Only one possibility remains: Ross had to be sent by Macbeth, for Macbeth could not know in advance how Macduff had left his castle guarded, and only someone Lady Macduff trusted—in this case a cousin of hers—could easily gain access and find out. Of course, this casts Ross in the worst possible light as a tool of the tyrant and a traitor to his relatives and friends. (Furness cites M. F. Libby's old suspicions of Ross in Some New Notes on Macbeth [1893].) Whether he actually returned (per his promise) as one of the murderers is hard to say, though not impossible, since they may be masked, and only one of them speaks. But startling as this deduction is, one fact is even more startling: Macduff had left his castle entirely unprotected! No army, no guards, no servants at the gates or door, as shown by the fact that both the messenger and the murderers are able to enter without the slightest interposition, obstruction, or disturbance. There is no one else around, so that Lady Macduff hardly exaggerates when she pictures her situation as one of complete and unnatural abandonment, and her husband as a traitor to his family.

Before trying to explain this, let us examine the last scene coupling Ross and Macduff, at the very end of Act IV. Macduff is already with Malcolm in England, and has passed the test of his loyalty to which he has been subjected by a suspicious young Malcolm, who explains to the older but rather simpleminded and naive man that “Devlish Macbeth by many of these trains hath sought to win me into his power, and modest wisdom plucks me from over-credulous haste.” Suddenly Ross appears and is greeted by Macduff as his “ever-gentle cousin.” Ross speaks of their poor country, Scotland, groaning in oppression and suffering, and is then asked directly by Macduff: “How does my wife?” Answer: “Why, well.” Question: “And all my children?” Answer: “Well, too.” Question: “The tyrant has not batter’d at their peace?” Answer: “No; they were well at peace when I did leave ’em.”

Only with this last answer does Ross indicate—though Macduff does not seem to notice—his earlier presence at Macduff's castle. But that answer has one or more of three possible defects: either it is politically naive, or much less cognizant of Macbeth's intentions toward the Macduffs than Ross should have been, even as an innocent; or it is technically true, since when he left them they had not yet been assailed; or it is only metaphorically true—wickedly true—since their being “well at peace” would be consistent with their being dead, if he left them a second time as one of their murderers, or immediately afterward. In any case, it seems entirely odd that Ross should not know of, and report upon, the horrible fate of Macduff's family.

Very shortly afterward, this last peculiarity is shown to be such by an astonishing reversal. In line 178, Ross had just spoken of Macduff's family as “well at peace.” In line 201 he prepares Macduff for hearing the worst possible news, which he then delivers, full force, in 204: “Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes savagely slaughtered. To relate this manner, were, on the quarry of these murder’d deer, to add the death of you.” Incredulous, Macduff asks, “My children too?” Answer: “Wife, children, servants, all that could be found.” Macduff: “And I must be from thence! My wife kill’d too?” And finally:

Did Heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff!
They were all struck for thee. Naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls: Heaven rest them now!

By this point, we have learned quite a bit about both Macduff and Ross. First, Ross knows about the complete extermination of Macduff's household, down to the last detail. He speaks as if he could even “relate the manner” of it, though he is never pressed to do so. Since he himself makes no claim to have learned this from others, after he left the Macduff castle, he must have learned it while he was there, at the time of the murders themselves.

As for Macduff, notice that he and Ross both confirm our suspicion that he had left no soldiery, no guards to defend the castle. How could this possibly happen, particularly since Macduff is not without suspicion that the “tyrant” might have “batter’d at their peace.” Only one explanation seems possible, and it may be seen in the line “Did heaven look on, and would not take their part?” Macduff is portrayed as having trusted to heaven to defend his family—trusted, that is, to the God of Christianity, the “gentle heavens” he even now begs to let him confront Macbeth in personal combat. That God, Macduff's lines suggest, could be expected to defend innocent people against attack, and only failed to do so not because of any sins of theirs, which were nil, but because of his, Macduff's, sins! In short, Macduff takes it to follow from his Christian belief that God permits harms, or at least injustices, only to those who have sinned against Him, or to those for whom a sinner cares. Nor does it strike him that some question about God's justness is raised by the latter case—the case he takes to apply to his own family.

If one responds to this conjecture that it is entirely unrealistic to suppose a man like Macduff so fanatically given to such beliefs as to take no precautions for his family, one would be correct—on the level of real psychological probability. But Shakespeare frequently makes a motive unrealistically extreme in order to display it, to bring it to our attention, even at the risk of a certain unrealism. Or better, he gives up a more superficial realism for a deeper one. Many examples can be cited to show this. In real life, would a Jew (Shylock) really try to cut a pound of flesh out of a Christian (Antonio)? Would a friar be likely to give Juliet an apparently fatal potion? Could there be a girl so naive as Miranda? Would Enobarbus, after deserting Antony, drop dead out of a sense of guilt? Or, from Macbeth itself, would Lady Macbeth never have complained to Macbeth of her increasing isolation from him? Is it realistically possible, in the superficial sense (as Freud, taking this to be the only sense, denied it was), for Macbeth to have changed so rapidly after becoming king? Still a murderer by premeditation, as he showed with Banquo, he knowingly becomes, only a short time later, a murderer by impulse with Macduff's family, announcing that “From this moment, the very firstlings of my heart shall be the firstlings of my hand.”

The exaggeration in Macduff's motivation must have some relation to the subject of the play as a whole, which is the extent to which human life, and the universe, are intelligible, reasonable, moral. Christianity represents one pole among the possible conceptions, for, whatever place it allows to evil and sin, it insists on the supremacy of good, and of good manifested more through love than through justice, though both must be combined in the ultimate divine dispensation and governance. The primacy Christianity gives to love, and thus to “gentleness” (again, as in Macduff's appeal to “gentle heaven”), is an element closer to the feminine than the masculine; it results in excessive trust, excessive confidence that a good God will come to our rescue, so that we need not make sure we ourselves are stronger than, and smarter than, the human forces of evil.

This problem is explicitly brought to our attention in Macduff's castle just before the murders. Lady Macduff is talking to her cousin Ross, whom Macduff later addresses as “my ever-gentle cousin,” but who—we now know—intends, in but a moment, to have her murdered. She complains bitterly that her husband has acted unnaturally in leaving his family unprotected. Her example is that of the mother wren, most diminutive of birds, that will fight to protect her young against attack. Ross, of course, tells her to have confidence in her husband's judgment—just as his actions are about to confirm hers. After Ross leaves, a conversation occurs between Lady Macduff and her small son, in which she talks as if his father is dead and asks how he will survive. He says, like the birds she has just been talking about—that is, by foraging on his own, by nature. But what about the traps men have laid for birds, she asks. He responds that such traps are laid not for “poor” birds but (by implication) for rich ones, and he has become a poor bird. What she means, of course, is that children cannot take care of themselves, nor can good people generally, and he—naively—thinks that only the wealthy must protect themselves against attack, since the poor offer no temptation to would-be attackers.

Asked what he will do for a father, the son asks, in turn, what she will do for a husband. Her joking reply that she can buy twenty (and his, that she could then equally sell them) tells us something about the inner core of human life, which is founded, necessarily, on ties far stronger than those of commercial advantage and exchange. The family, the root of society, is based on love and loyalty, on mutual devotion and protection. Otherwise it cannot last, children will receive neither proper nurture, nourishment, or protection, and all will fall asunder. To strengthen this loyalty, men take vows, and are held to them by a moral sense they themselves heighten, supported by the most drastic sanctions. This is why Lady Macduff can tell her son that his father was a traitor, one who swore and lied. She is thinking of his loyalty to her and the children, not to Macbeth, of whose relations to Macduff she seems entirely ignorant. A traitor must be hung—though, as the boy shrewdly reports, this will require that there be more honest men than wicked ones. And when she says, “Now God help thee, poor monkey!” we realize that their discussion of human affairs, up to that point, had included no reference to and shown no need for, an almighty Being, a God or gods. But the inherent instability, and insecurity, of human affairs seems—as her prayerful remark shows—to require the belief in some supreme and stable power that can be appealed to when all else fails, that can strengthen the dedication of human society itself to its necessary bonds and institutions. Society requires religion—and Christianity seems to be the main example here—but religion can also make men too dependent on God, and insufficiently dependent on themselves.

After the mysterious messenger comes in to warn her of grave danger, Lady Macduff asks why she should fly if she has done no harm, and immediately corrects herself by acknowledging what “this earthly world” is like, suggesting a distinction between it and the afterworld. It was a “womanly defence,” she says, to have thought that because she has done no harm, she would not be harmed. No, this earthly world is not like that, for here “to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly.” In a moment, she and her son will be subjected to the most blameable harm of murder—to deter or repel which it would have been most proper, most laudable to harm the would-be attackers. Similarly, to do good to enemies is not only accounted but is most dangerous folly—Lady Macduff does not speak strongly enough. She too remains under the influence of her Christian upbringing, which asks that evil not be resisted and that all men be loved, thus making it hard for her to acknowledge the crucial political distinction between friends and enemies, the former to be benefited, the latter harmed. This accounts for her hoping her husband is in “no place so unsanctified” that murderers such as these could find him. This is the same thought Macduff himself must have had when he left his family unprotected, thinking it a place sanctified by their innocence. But of course there is no place which by any sanctification whatsoever could keep men like the murderers from committing their crimes.

The scene's end shows not only the immoral strong slaying the moral weak, but gives us another view of the problem of treason. Like Lady Macduff before, the murderers accuse Macduff of treason. She, of course, had in mind his apparent disloyalty to his family, but the murderers his supposed (by them) disloyalty to Macbeth. Disloyalty is sometimes merited, however, as the latter case shows: it may be necessary to averting, or expelling, great evil. The moral laws, which society necessarily thinks of as absolute—and which are stated most absolutely, if unpolitically, by Christianity—must bow to a larger understanding of justice, looking to the real benefits and harms of society. The spirited loyalty of Macduff's son is necessary, but not enough; his mother's affection and moral demands are necessary, but not enough: both must be directed by a wisdom capable of suppressing the wicked and advancing the good. In this play, Malcolm, young as he is, represents such a wisdom.


By its outcome, Macbeth gives the impression of being an extremely moral play—a play in which two murdering usurpers at first succeed but ultimately, and by some kind of cosmic necessity (or so its appears) come to horrible ends, the one killing herself, the other meeting a violent death in battle, with both utterly miserable in the final period of their lives. Why then Ross? What does he stand for in this play? Having come to know Ross for what he is in the two last acts, we are anxious to return to the earlier parts of the play and reexamine his entire career. This Ross is perhaps the most successful scoundrel in all of Shakespeare, and never, from beginning to end, does he suffer misfortune or defeat. Not only is he never discovered: at the very end he even reaps the rewards of the thanes who opposed the tyrant, being elevated, with them, to an earldom!

Let us see whether Shakespeare provides any sign of Ross' true colors early in the play. If he did not, would he be Shakespeare? But we must look with eagle eyes, for men like Ross are most difficult to penetrate. After all, he is, to simple eyes like Macduff's, the “ever-gentle” Ross—a tribute to his powers of deception. When he first arrives at Forres, in Act I, scene 2, Duncan does not recognize him, but Malcolm does. Ross and Angus seem to have just ridden up, and Duncan asks him from where, again not knowing. It is at this point that Ross tells about the battle at Fife—a battle editors often place Macbeth at both because Ross names no one but “Bellona's bridegroom” as its hero and because they have not consulted a map. We have conjectured earlier that Ross uses this rhetorical invention to keep from naming Macduff—the logical person to be fighting at Fife—but we do not know why. He certainly has no hesitation to go to greet Macbeth, coming from a battle scene not too far from Forres, as the new thane of Cawdor. He says, “I’ll see it done,” but when it is done, Angus is there again accompanying Ross.

The words Ross first addresses to Macbeth, when they meet, are peculiar. He mentions the king's “reading” of Macbeth's personal success in the fight against the rebels, and finding him responsible for many deaths among the Norwegians. “As thick as hail came post after post” praising Macbeth's defense of Duncan's kingdom—but this is queer, for Ross was not in the scene when the bleeding sergeant spoke, since he seems to have entered with Angus just afterward. Yet he never mentions the sergeant, speaks as if only written messages appeared, and exaggerates the number of them (“post after post”). This leads us to think that Ross may have at least overheard the bleeding sergeant but does not wish to mention it, and then flatters Macbeth by overstating the number of messengers. In that case, perhaps Ross, from the beginning, wanted to see Macbeth elevated, and had no wish to see Macduff—his own cousin—elevated. This inclination (his flattery of Macbeth, and his playing on his ambition) even shows itself at the beginning of Ross' speech to Macbeth, where he says the king did not know whether he should be praising Macbeth or himself (as the one Macbeth serves)—something the king certainly never expressed, but bound to have a subtle effect on Macbeth. And the same tendency shows itself in Ross' last words on that occasion, when he says that “for an earnest of a greater honour, he [the king] bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor. …” This “earnest” or promise is certainly a bald invention by Ross, meant to play upon Macbeth's ambition, and flatter—the opposite of Angus' intention, which was to reduce, rather than to add to, the king's words.

It is interesting that when Macbeth, Banquo, Ross, and Angus enter the king's presence together, the king speaks to both Macbeth and Banquo, makes his crucial announcement about Malcolm (as we have already seen), but says nothing at all to Ross and Angus, who simply stand there without a word. We shall see the importance of this in a moment. The next time Ross' name is mentioned, he is simply numbered among those nobles who accompany the king into Macbeth's castle, and the time after that is one some overbold editors want to undo. Here is why. We must realize that the king's chamber was in a hall of the castle that had several adjoining rooms, and that was probably approached by mounting a staircase. When Macduff and Lennox come in from the annex early in the morning, Macduff is shown to the king's chamber by Macbeth, who must then be presumed to return to the central area at the foot of the staircase (off of which, incidentally, must be his own bedroom). When Macduff comes out, he must run at least to the head of the staircase, if not to the floor below, and shout out about the murder. Macbeth and Lennox then go running up and Macbeth kills the guards, but, according to the stage direction in the folio, they come down with one other person—our old friend Ross. Ross says nothing, and, throughout the excitement, still says nothing. Rub him out, say some editors and critics: what purpose does he serve? How could he appear out of nowhere and then say nothing? In the Arden edition he is expunged, without a word of explanation.

We can turn this apparent chaos into an intelligible pattern by thinking along with Shakespeare, instead of presuming ourselves superior to him. In the two previous scenes where Ross was present (because named in the stage directions there too), he also said nothing. Here he surprises us by his very appearance even more than his silence. Looking ahead, we know that in the next scene he has quite a bit to say, telling Macduff he will follow Macbeth to Scone, despite Macduff's veiled warning. But he lets us infer that he had been mysteriously absent from the castle when the discussion of Duncan's murder took place and the other thanes decided upon Macbeth as his successor. Now, in the castle, just after the discovery of the murder, he does not go up with Macbeth and Lennox, but he does come down with them. What does this suggest? In the rooms in the hall before the king's, we had already been rather curiously told there was a second chamber Macbeth had to pass on his way to, and back from, the king's. We learn from the queen, responding to Macbeth's inquiry, that in it were Donalbain and someone else—the second person is not named by the queen. Editors who suppose that Malcolm and Donalbain were lodged together, since they are shown together after the clamor, ask why Lady Macbeth mentions only Donalbain (Arden edition, p. 53, note 25). But let us assume she knew what she was saying. This means Malcolm was in still another room—a third chamber, probably beyond the king's, either alone, or, like his brother, with someone else. In one of those chambers was probably Angus, and in the other, Ross.

Given the attention Donalbain and his unnamed partner get from Shakespeare, through Macbeth's narration, we would have to say that Ross is more likely to have been Donalbain's than Malcolm's chambermate. Why such apparently irrelevant details, as telling us what Macbeth heard outside the door of the second chamber? It is, I suspect, to cause us to put two things together: the problem Malcolm posed for Macbeth (without his wife's knowing it), and the character of Ross, which we have begun to suspect, and which later on becomes as clear as Shakespeare can allow in such a case. Macbeth understood that the Prince of Cumberland would inherit the title from his murdered father, yet he could not dispose of Malcolm the same night without giving himself away. What he could do is begin a relationship that at some point would lead to Malcolm's undoing, and Ross, already so useful, might be glad to associate with the young men, preferring Donalbain, perhaps, because it seemed less direct, and because of his youth, but really with Malcolm in mind from the outset. It is then interesting to speculate which of the two men Macbeth heard was Ross and which Donalbain. In any case, Ross would not be told of Duncan's intended murder—he was hardly enough of an intimate for that—and so, when the clamor broke out, might be expected to bolt, as a person whose sense of self-interest was peculiarly keen. That is why he comes flying down the stairs with Macbeth and Lennox!

Why did Ross absent himself from the ensuing meeting of thanes by which Macbeth's fate was decided? He could not know in advance, for sure, how that meeting would go—after all, the possibility that suspicion would be directed at Macbeth himself could hardly be ruled out. Nor could he be sure just how he himself was perceived, just then, by others—that is, whether the group headed by Macduff would sense his recently having favored Macbeth over his own cousin. As it turns out, he need not have feared. In response to his inquiry, Macduff tells him that Macbeth has already left for Scone—but Ross, somewhat nervous up to the point of decision, and outside the castle, might already have observed Macbeth's departure himself. And if anyone doubts Ross' capacity as a most thoroughgoing liar and deceiver, let him look at the cruel way he talks to the superstitious old man in that very scene. First he assures the old man that Duncan's horses broke out of their stalls that night, an apparent omen of the disobedience soon to be demonstrated in the murder. Then, hearing the old man report, from hearsay, that those horses ate each other, Ross—no doubt enjoying himself immensely—extends his lie quite a bit further, saying: “They did so, to th’amazement of mine eyes that look’d upon’t.” After this, no word of Ross' should be viewed without suspicion by the reader, and, as we soon learn, there is much more to be suspicious of.

True to his word to Macduff, Ross follows Macbeth to Scone, and is next seen at the banquet Macbeth has prepared in his palace for Banquo, and just after Banquo's murder some distance from the palace. Throughout that banquet scene, Ross shows himself to be a most serviceable courtier, almost always saying just the sort of thing Macbeth would want him to (a possible exception is his asking about the strange sights Macbeth reports seeing). But by that point another flagrant mystery has been waved before us, like a bloody flag, and that is the identity of the Third Murderer. Without going into all the details, Macbeth has been shown directly talking to two men, convincing them to murder Banquo, and Fleance as well. He tells them he will advise them of where to stay and the exact time for the deed. This he actually does, at least in part, through the Third Murderer, with whom he is never shown talking, and who comes independently of the other two to the scene of the crime. Why so much mystery about this man? The first two murderers are from some other part of the country than the palace area, and have been chosen because Macbeth placed greater trust in the reliability of revenge as a motive, rather than profit. These men think they have been wronged by Macbeth, but he persuades them that Banquo was responsible, not himself. It is the Third Murderer who knows his way around the palace and knows the habits of visitors, such as the strange one of leaving their horses a mile from the palace and walking the rest of the way. He must also make sure Fleance does not escape. As it turns out, all three set on Banquo, whose denunciation of one of them as a “slave” suggests that he was known to him. Perhaps not unintentionally, the First Murderer puts out the torch Fleance was carrying, allowing his escape into the night, unpursued.

Even Macbeth has been suspected of being the Third Murderer, so great has been the urge to solve this mystery. But Macbeth will not do for more reasons than one, the foremost being that he seems spontaneously surprised at hearing the First Murderer's report about what happened, particularly in connection with Fleance. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Macbeth would have arranged for independent reports from both the First and the Third Murderer—and that the Third Murderer was able to find his way back to the palace before the First, who knew little of the area. This might account for a certain jocular quality in Macbeth when the banquet scene opens, though his good humor also suggests that the Third Murderer could not have told him the whole truth, that he reported Banquo's death, but perhaps said of Fleance only that one of the others was in pursuit of him. It is also possible, however, that the Third Murderer did not get a chance to report to Macbeth, or perhaps preferred not to, knowing that Fleance had escaped. Macbeth's good spirits at the banquet could have been based on expectation rather than report. In either case, Ross might well have been the Third Murderer. His aptitude for such concealment we learn shortly afterward, when he visits the Macduff castle for hidden and murderous reasons. Whether, or what, he reported to Macbeth before the banquet—and before the First Murderer reports—is much less certain.

We need not recapitulate the role Ross must have played in the Macduff murders, nor the deft but striking change in his story about that tragedy when, again mysteriously, he shows up in England. Let us try to explain the reason for that change, between lines 178 and 193, growing to a climax at 204, where Ross had first denied, and then admitted, what in fact happened to Macduff's family. To begin with, why is he in England at all? His reason is given in line 186: “now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland would create soldiers, make our women fight, to doff their dire distresses.” But we must realize that by “your eye” Ross means Macduff's eye, not Malcolm's: Ross has come to win Macduff's return. Why? So that Macbeth can kill him. Ross thus turns out to be precisely the kind of person Malcolm feared Macduff might be, that is, someone sent by Macbeth to trick him into returning. Why Macbeth took such interest in Macduff can easily be guessed: Macduff was a potent soldier, and the only living person against whom the witches had warned him.

At this point, the conversation—as Ross must have viewed it—takes an unexpected turn, for Malcolm, not Macduff, responds: “Be’t their comfort we’re coming thither. Gracious England hath lent us good Siward and ten thousand men; and older and a better soldier none that Christendom gives out.” And in the very next lines, Ross begins his shift. Having just learned that he will not be able to separate Macduff from Malcolm, and that both are about to invade Scotland with a very powerful English army, it is “Goodbye Macbeth, hello Malcolm!” From this point onward, in the course of the last act, Ross' history is all told in stage directions. Scene 4 shows that he is absent from Malcolm's invading army, but in the final scene (scene 8) he appears out of the blue, alongside Malcolm and Old Siward, flattering the latter and his son, receiving—along with the other thanes—the title of earl, and avoiding being classified among the “cruel ministers of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”—in short, apparently crowned with success.

Ross is the consummate opportunist, always looking out for himself, content to remain in the shadow of great men, and completely unscrupulous in their service, willing to do anything, however foul, that they require of him, yet so good at appearing otherwise, and deceiving everybody, that he is never detected and never punished. Whatever the forces in human nature or the world at large that are working for justice, they are not so powerful as to prevent the coming into existence, and even the flourishing, of men without a speck of justice in them. Ross is also important because he makes us even more aware of the hidden motive, the secret action in human affairs, linking together and making intelligible a whole series of events. These events, stretching from the very beginning to the very end of the play, would have to be considered unintelligible mysteries were it not for the clues, carefully left by Shakespeare, pointing to a solution in the character and deeds of Ross. Thus understood, Ross is not a mere superfluity, or of merely marginal interest in the play, but an essential element, staking out one pole of evil in human affairs that must never be forgotten, either by political practitioners—statesmen—or moral and political philosophers. As for the judgment to be placed on this apparently happy scoundrel, we would have to consider not only the evil done to others, so manifest in the play, but the state of his soul in itself, the full deformity of which Shakespeare was compelled to leave to the reader's surmise. Alone, without friends, caring for no one, willing to kill anyone, never in open command of events, completely dependent on the rise and fall of the great, always calculating, never at ease, exulting only in the success of his machinations—here is not a whole man but a narrow part of a man, worked to a peak of efficiency within that narrow range, and sacrificing all else to it.


The central focus of the play is on Macbeth and his wife—not only on their words and actions, but on the state of soul from which these emanate. Of all the mysteries in the play, the chief, by far, is how their internal condition at the beginning can develop into what it becomes by the end. The paradox was well stated by Freud: their conditions seem to interchange, with Lady Macbeth becoming much more like what Macbeth had been, and Macbeth becoming much more like what she had been: “She becomes all remorse, he all defiance.” Freud does not regard such a transformation as psychologically impossible in itself, but he does think it impossible within the very compressed time frame of the play (one week, he says), and on the basis of the motives explicitly suggested there. For psychological plausibility, Freud prefers the historical account in Holinshed, where Macbeth, after his usurpation, rules justly for ten years, and only then begins the murders of Banquo and others. That chronology would be consistent with Macbeth's increasing desperation as the childless condition of his marriage persists.

Freud is mistaken about the actual time frame of the play, but he is correct about its felt duration, which certainly seems exceedingly short, with actions swiftly succeeding each other from beginning to end (see Furness, pp. 504-07 for a time analysis and some of its complications). In either case, his charge of lapsed causality against Shakespeare would be devastating, because the states of mind of the protagonists are so obviously at the center of Shakespeare's attention, and the general problem of the intelligibility of human affairs so particularly important in this play. A gap or void in causal explanation would, in fact, be fatal, despite the play's dramatic effectiveness. But let us remember Lincoln's praise: “I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.” Given Lincoln's inclination to search deeply for causes, he must have found in the play all the connections necessary to explaining its outcome. Let us see.

Both Macbeths want the crown badly, and immediately think of murder as the means of getting it. Clearly this is the case with Macbeth once he receives his prediction from the witches, and with his wife once she receives word of it by letter from him. In fact, it seems they had spoken of assassination even before the action of the play begins, and that he had then been the author of “this enterprise,” not she (I, 7: 47-48). Clearly also their present views of the enterprise are sharply divergent. She is absolutely determined to do everything required for the purpose, tarrying for no moral or religious compunctions. On the other hand, the thought of murdering Duncan makes Macbeth's very soul tremble with fear and foreboding. While his conscience tells him that the act is immoral and irreligious, he would risk the life to come (I, 7: 1-28; I, 3: 130-42) were it not for the likely consequences of the assassination here on earth. To kill such a king as Duncan, under such circumstances, would make Macbeth himself hated and the likely victim of a second assassination.

Until that point Macbeth had evidently not considered concocting a plan both to keep from becoming known as the murderer and to lay the guilt on someone else. We can also see from his great “If it were done …” speech that he partly conceals direct moral considerations, as such, from himself by trying to think of them as merely prudential: thus all he says about being Duncan's kinsman, subject, host (he omits beneficiary here), and about Duncan's virtues is taken up under this head. Yet, Macbeth does seem to be “too full of the milk of human kindness,” as Lady Macbeth had told herself earlier. These decent moral sentiments, and his wish to enjoy the “golden opinions” coming from his recent accomplishments and honors, do not win out. They succumb to a combination of his own “vaulting ambition,” Lady Macbeth's attack on his manliness (through relentless accusations of cowardice), and her suggesting a way of pinning guilt for the murder on others (the guards). He is made ready to do what both religion and reason tell him is deeply wrong by her appeal to ambition, pursued with courage, as the most profound element of his nature as a man. No longer fearing detection or failure, they lose the last restraint on immoral conduct, and the process of murder begins (I, 7: 30-82).

Yet it would be wrong to think of Lady Macbeth, even then, as wholly without conscience. Someone wholly without conscience would not have to think of conscience—of the “compunctious visitings of nature”; someone utterly lacking in the gentleness of her sex would not have to ask to be “unsexed,” and for the milk in her breasts to be replaced by gall; someone unashamed of her deed would be willing to look upon it herself, and would not ask that it be hidden in night, darkened further by the smoke of hell, so that her “keen knife will not see the wound it makes,” nor heaven be able to see the act and call a stop to it. This impression is strengthened by small facts strewn along the way by Shakespeare. Watched with care, Lady Macbeth is first shown saying that the whole murder should be left to her, then that the two of them will do it, and finally arranging for Macbeth to do it alone, with only auxiliary help from her. As further extensions of the same pattern, we learn that she had to strengthen herself with some of the same wine she gave the guards, and that she would have killed Duncan herself when she went up to prepare the daggers for Macbeth “had he not resembled my father as he slept.” So all of Lady Macbeth's coldness before and immediately after the murder, her pedestrian literalness, her apparent firmness of purpose, hide another kind of element in her—gentler, weaker, conscious that the murder is a horrible deed, believing in the afterlife. Viewed in this light, her swooning at Macbeth's improvised slaying of the guards is much more likely to have been involuntary than deliberate. For a moment, after all the keyed-up effort and tension, it looked like the whole plan they had concerted would come crashing down. The swoon, rather than a sign of rational strength, is a small indication pointing in the direction of her later sleepwalking and suicide (I, 5: 53; I, 7: 69; II, 2: 1, 13-14).

We are not told what made Lady Macbeth so ambitious, but we do get some idea of what she and Macbeth looked forward to. Macbeth thinks about “the imperial theme” when he thinks of the kingship; his letter to his wife calls her “his dearest partner in greatness,” and speaks of the “greatness” promised her by the witches' prophecy, even though it can only be indirectly, since her name was never mentioned. As she sees it, the murder that night “shall to all our nights and days to come give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.” When Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to surrender his compunctions, she does not do so by magnifying his vision of what ruling would bring, but by castigating his inconsistency, his weakness in wanting it—which she simply takes for granted—yet not being willing to do what is necessary to get it. Along the way, they say nothing about their children enjoying the succession, even though there are other allusions to children. Macbeth has asked Banquo, “Do you not hope your children shall be kings … ?” Lady Macbeth says, “I have given suck, and know how tender life ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (another sign she is gentler than she makes out). Macbeth tells her to “Bring forth men-children only.” But if any children have already come from this union, they have not survived, and others are not consciously anticipated or discussed by these peculiar would-be parents. The ambition motivating both Macbeths therefore seems primarily for themselves, and of very moderate, even ordinary, scope. They want to be king and queen in the way Duncan and his predecessors have been, want the power and the honor (not any increase in wealth), want to be the commanding force at the top—but that is all. They have no plans for conquest, or for domestic political changes; they have no past injustices or even slights to avenge. They certainly do not anticipate being involved in a series of grizzly murders: on the contrary, their notion seems to be that they will simply step into Duncan's shoes and rule in a most ordinary way—so weak are their powers of understanding and foresight (I, 3: 86, 117; I, 7: 54-55, 73-75. See also V, 2: 22-28).

We have no reason to believe Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to be anything but a loving couple, and, despite certain appearances, even to the end. The puzzle, however, is to explain their mutual attraction. Coriolanus was also an outstanding soldier, also a spirited and ambitious man, but his wife, Virgilia, was utterly unlike Lady Macbeth. She was the soul of gentleness, and meant to be quite different, in this respect, from the only other woman in Coriolanus' life, his mother Volumnia. Macbeth's marriage would be comparable to Coriolanus' choosing a mate modelled on his mother. This suggests a peculiar weakness in Macbeth, who too readily thinks of greatness as something that must be shared equally with his wife, perhaps because she possesses some element lacking in him. He may think of her as more realistic, of greater resolve, more daring, steadier. He certainly does not regard her as bringing to political rule the typically feminine virtues: on the contrary, he senses in her more of what he considers manliness—the manly virtues—than he possesses. This coincides with her conception of herself, as necessary to suppressing his weaker elements, only thereby enabling him to realize his potential for greatness. What he admires in her is strength in areas where he is weak, and vice versa: he could not rise to the heights without her, nor she without him.

We can only speculate whether Lady Macbeth became lividly ambitious because of not having children, or whether not having children—children who survived and grew up—was due to (or symbolic of) a masculinity in her that was already there, and that would have given any children of hers two fathers, rather than a father and a mother. Coriolanus and Virgilia have a small son. In Macbeth, Banquo has a son of some years, the Macduffs a small son and other children as well, and Duncan two older boys. The Macbeths' lack of issue is therefore far from accidental. Whatever its cause, it certainly helps to explain their capacity for subsequent acts of inhumanity. Duncan reminded Lady Macbeth of her father, which made it impossible to kill him. And, as Macduff later exclaims upon learning the fate of his family: “He has no children”—which, if it is a reference to Macbeth, probably means that Macbeth was able to kill mere children only because he had none himself (IV, 3: 216). Being a child tended by parents, and tending children of one's own, seem to strengthen the sense of moral limits or the natural conscience. In further support of this, Ross is portrayed as utterly without family—without father, mother, wife, children. And the witches, also without progenitors or progeny, have what moral feelings they possess only because they are, or regard themselves as, sisters.

While the Macbeths are very close—perhaps too close—prior to murdering Duncan, their paths immediately start to diverge once they are king and queen. Macbeth's thoughts are all on Banquo: “There’s none but he whose being I do fear,” both because of his “royalty of nature” and the witches' prophecy. That prophecy left Macbeth only “a barren sceptre” and therefore made his murder of Duncan, his sacrifice of “mine eternal jewel”—his soul—serve only “Banquo's issue.” After this reflection Macbeth consults and incites the two men he has chosen for murdering Banquo and Fleance. No longer is his conduct at least consonant with the prophecies, as in the case of Duncan's murder: he now tries to defy the prophecy for Banquo by making its fruition impossible. All this is done secretly, and without any prior discussion with Lady Macbeth. He had not been frank with her about the prophecies originally, narrating only the favorable ones applying to him (and hence to her) while withholding Banquo's, which was unfavorable to them in the longer run. Tempted by the favorable good prospect, he might have thought he could overcome the unfavorable evil one. He would grasp the former first, and worry about the latter afterward.

Here we see him doing just that. But his separation from his wife involves more than simply planning an important operation without her: he becomes physically less available to her, compelling her practically to make an appointment to speak with him. Already, by this separation, and his giving himself (as she thinks) to fearful solitude, worrying still about the murder of Duncan, she begins to sense the happiness they both thought easily within their grasp slipping away:

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, 2: 4-8).

Her ensuing interview with Macbeth reads queerly. He speaks as if they are still in danger, as if they cannot eat without fear or sleep without “terrible dreams,” as if he is preoccupied not with Banquo's murder but with those who might be conspiring against the throne now, and as if the whole frame of things in this and the other life may need to be “disjointed” in order to free them from these fears. Nothing he says, of course, could possibly strike Lady Macbeth as being directed against Banquo. No names are named—he must speak vaguely—and if anything his remarks seem directed against Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain.

She tells him to be “bright and jovial among your guests tonight”; he tells her to give “eminence” with eye and tongue to Banquo, and then seems to return to the theme of their needing to flatter and disguise out of a fear for their safety. “You must leave this,” she says, probably not comprehending the drift of his remarks. Then: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”—but the scorpions are horrible things that might kill others as well as fill Macbeth himself with loathing and fear. His addition, “Thou know’st that Banquo and his Fleance lives,” must have struck Lady Macbeth as quite irrelevant, and her reply, “But in them nature's copy's not eterne,” should not be read as extending to Macbeth a license to have them killed—certainly not now. Impressed, perhaps, by a strong note of concern in his voice, she may have wished to calm him, as if to say: “If ever they become worrisome to us, we know that they are not immortal, that things can happen to them.” Macbeth's rejoinder—that “they are assailable”—might have comforted him but certainly not her. His words start to become the poetry of death, and at her inquiry, “What’s to be done?”, he tells her to be “innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,” and continues to talk with funereal but poetic expectation.

The last times we see Lady Macbeth, prior to hearing about and then seeing her plight in Act V, are at and just after the banquet scene. Macbeth's vision of Banquo's ghost sitting in his place is the last such vision he will have. The scene starts off quietly enough, with Macbeth apparently in a good mood—probably because he expected good news about Banquo and Fleance, and perhaps also because he thought he had received some sign of acquiescence from the queen. The First Murderer reports: Banquo is dead, Fleance escaped. Suddenly, he sees Banquo sitting in his seat and is completely unnerved and terror-stricken: the murdered no longer stay put, as they had both before and after human laws were instituted to protect the common good. Lady Macbeth, of course, thinks his visions cowardly and womanly. She tells him to act like a man, which he says he would do in the face of any natural challenge from beast or man. After his guests leave, he shows what deeply worries him—that the universe is so made that it reveals, one way or another, the identity of secret murderers. The universe is on the side of the just! All the more startling, then, Macbeth's next thought, which concerns Macduff. Banquo's ghost has just scared the living daylights out of him, but his mind moves, by some spontaneous inner force, to the next possible source of opposition. He will send for Macduff and visit the “weird sisters” to learn—what, he does not say. As we can now guess, and later discover, it is whether any evils will occur to him (that is, whether, unlike Duncan, he will die a natural death), and whether the prophecy about Banquo's sons still holds. He will do anything now “for mine own good,” including murder after murder, so steeped in blood is he already (he does not mention again his lost soul). He has in mind “strange things” that will be acted upon without delay, without even being “scann’d.” He expects his strange “self-abuse” to cease as he grows inured to the doing of evil. This, not the sleep Lady Macbeth says he lacks and needs, will do away with his visions (III, 4: 128-44).

Lady Macbeth seems utterly unaware of their need to protect themselves; she simply wants to relax and enjoy sovereignty. Macbeth, on the other hand, is gripped by excessive insecurity. Having killed his own king, he seems deeply convinced that murderers cannot get away with their deeds, not only in the afterlife but in this life as well. He now engages in a struggle against this moral power of the universe, refusing to bow to it, and striking out against all he thinks might oppose him. His very courage leads him to rashness and cruelty, whereas less impulsiveness and greater understanding of the world would have made him solidify his position by acts of beneficence and justice. Macbeth is hardly a politic man. His successful and secret usurpation leads into tyranny, but he differs from the tyrant Socrates describes in The Republic. Macbeth is not dominated by erotic and other appetites aimed at uninhibited pleasure or gain. There is no riotous living. Only in ambition and fear does he seem excessive, and these, unguided by superior intellect, lead him to actions that make his ultimate success increasingly unlikely. By apparently guaranteeing him impunity, the witches only accelerate a tendency that was plainly in him before his second visit, just as their very first message to him only intensified an ambition that was already there.

Now for the end of this amazing and mystifying story. After her absence from all of Act IV, Lady Macbeth sweeps back into our purview most dramatically. Only her nighttime activity is disclosed, all of it done unconsciously, in sleep. Either she silently writes and seals a letter, or she walks with a light in her hand—a light she always has next to her. She is trying to rub out a spot on her hands, just as she had said a little water would wash off Duncan's blood from her hands and Macbeth's. But this blood will not wash off—and it is literally a “damned spot,” since it has helped land her in hell. The candle is meant to help her see through the murkiness of hell. And each utterance, in this marvellous reconstruction of her consciousness, is tied to a particular point in her experience, from the time Duncan was killed up to the recent past, when Macbeth was still fearing Banquo had emerged from his grave, and news of Lady Macduff's murder had come to her ears. Quite properly, the doctor fears she may do harm to herself, and the next thing we hear is a wail of women, signifying the queen's death.

The letter she writes in her sleep can only be to Macbeth, who has now undertaken the murder of Banquo and the Macduff family on his own, in a headlong rush he explains to no one. Would the letter simply ask to see him? Would it in any way express her deep confusion? The reason why Lady Macbeth thinks in unconnected pieces is that she believes herself lost and damned, yet without being able to understand how it has all happened. She is in utter misery and can only recollect points along the way. But, having importuned Macbeth to murder Duncan against his will, and having so often told him what to do in the course of that great action, she is in no position to criticize now. Nor will she complain of being left alone. Strong in the midst of her unhappiness, convinced it will not diminish, she will take the one way out available to her: suicide. At her own urging, Macbeth did indeed murder sleep, the “season of all natures”—her sleep.

That Macbeth still loves his wife is shown in his conversation with the doctor he has called in to observe her. He knows she has a “mind diseased,” and asks whether “physic” or medicine can, with physical remedies, cure such a condition. Clearly he wishes deeply for her cure, but he is also preoccupied with the English forces coming to defeat him and place Malcolm on the throne. He has told himself the prophecies keep him secure and free of fear, but he is shaking inwardly with fear as he humiliates the messenger who comes to report the approach of the English army. And he admits to being entirely “sick at heart,” convinced that

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

(V, 2: 22-28).

This is the most pathetic passage in the play. It shows how decent and ordinary were the ends Macbeth had sought to achieve through ambition, all unattainable because he had pursued his ambition through murder. It is amid this fear that he puts on his armor and takes it off again, and gives orders to “Hang those that talk of fear.”

A moment later, Macbeth hears a dreadful cry, and remarks that “I have almost forgot the taste of fears,” remembering how easily set off his fears used to be, and thinking he has gotten so used to plotting horrible murders that such cries can no longer startle him. Informed that it was the cry of women at the death of the queen, Macbeth says “She should have died hereafter; there would have been a time for such a word.” And this leads him into “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”—the most memorable speech in the play by far. Macbeth has not forgotten the taste of fears: the cry fails to startle him because he is already brimming over with fear, a fear with a more obvious and pressing claim on his attention. His speech, it is true, says nothing directly about his wife, but this does not mean he feels nothing, or would not have had more to say (and think) had she died “hereafter”—that is, at a less frantic moment. But neither does he dwell upon himself or his present preoccupations. Instead, he gives voice to a reflection that covers them both, and all other men as well—or so his thinks. Tired, desperate, concealing both his sorrow and his fear, he seeks a vantage point external and superior to life's strivings.

Still, it is surprising that in a great speech at this point Macbeth does not reaffirm the moral nature of the universe—its finally detecting his wife and himself, gravely criminal, and meting out condign punishment. This would correspond to that deep strand in him that used to regard the world in this fashion. And we must also admit to something peculiar in the manner of his delivery, with its air of a set declamation. Macbeth's greatest stupidity, his greatest self-deception, one is tempted to say, comes in his finding the world, not his wife and himself, to blame. Life may be like a brief candle, but our tomorrows, todays, and yesterdays do not constitute a patternless sequence with no end but death. Just like his wife, Macbeth seems not to understand how what happened to them both could possibly happen. As several critics have remarked, his speech is to be read with the counterpart of the Bible in mind. It charges the Bible—the book that more than any other affirms the moral nature of the universe—with error. Replacing the Bible is an almost equally apodictic statement deposing the perfect God, and enthroning aimless idiocy as the ruling principle of the universe.

Those who find this great speech unsuitably pronounced by Macbeth, at this moment, are not entirely wrong. We should bear in mind, however, that the one person before whom it is delivered—Seyton—has certain unique characteristics. Seyton appears in only two scenes (3 and 5 of Act V) in the entire play. Before the former, no one knew Macbeth had an attendant or assistant by that name; in the latter, after announcing the death of the queen, he is heard from no more: following the “Tomorrow” speech, spoken, apparently, in his speechless presence, he completely disappears. When Macbeth first calls Seyton, he repeats his name three times within one speech, making sure the audience catches it. When he finally appears, he confirms the bad news about the coming of Malcolm and his English army. When Macbeth asks him for his armour—as if Seyton were also a kind of armour-bearer, a protector of the body—he asserts, rather pertly and knowlingly: “’Tis not needed yet.” In scene 5, when Macbeth hears what the stage direction calls “a cry of women within” and asks what that “noise” was, Seyton presently tells him: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.”

At this point the editors run into an obvious difficulty, for in the text no call is made for Seyton to go out, discover the queen to be dead, and return. Nor is he asked to do so by Macbeth, who, lost in a reverie about himself lasting seven lines, only then asks “Wherefore was that cry?” and receives Seyton's answer immediately. To make this answer physically possible, the editors add stage directions to the text calling for Seyton's exit after he says “It is the cry of women” and his reentrance just before Macbeth's “Wherefore was that cry?” But tinkering with the folio is always dangerous, as we have already seen with the character of Hecate, whom so many editors consider spurious and expendable. Here we must go by Shakespeare's mischievous indications and try to make sense of them. Seyton would not have to leave if he is Satan in disguise—a character with supernatural capacities, whose primary function in the play is witnessing and confirming the coming of evils. Without taking a step away, Satan knows the queen is dead. And after he hears the “Tomorrow” speech, he is gone—his function in the play ended. As something like an extension of Hecate and the witches, he is there to make sure that all—that is, all harm-doing—is going well.

Because of the presence of this unusual being, the “Tomorrow” speech may have to be interpreted in a special way. It is almost as if the view of life expressed in the speech must please Satan—as if the forces of harm and evil have no desire to make the world wholly evil, but are content if they can keep it from being understood as a moral place, directed by a good God. In reality, however, to convince men that “Life is a tale told by an idiot” is to disarm them utterly, and to make life itself impossible. It is, in fact, the view the forces of evil, by a stroke of genius, might have hit upon to harm men the most! So when Macbeth expresses this general conception, it is almost as if a mind not given to philosophizing suddenly sets forth a profound alternative to all religious and rational views of life. Considered from the standpoint of Macbeth's psychology, this view could only be the consequence of a mind fearing the existence of a good God, yet still unable to understand how two such criminals as himself and his wife come to the end they do. And the end comes soon enough for Macbeth. Sensing that he is doomed in body as well as soul, and despite learning of the witches' equivocation, earlier working in his favor but now against him, he fights on, lifting himself, by this courage, above the execrable and pathetic. Even when all is lost he refuses to bend or break.

Let us return to Freud's observation about the reversal of roles in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth goes from initial remorselessness to becoming “all remorse,” whereas Macbeth, who became “all defiance,” had earlier been filled with compunctions and fear. But does Lady Macbeth show remorse at the end? Keeping a light by her side is not remorse but fear. And when she is rubbing out the “damned” blood spots on her hand, or rueing the smell of blood on her “little” hand, what does she have in mind? At that point, her sigh—“oh, oh, oh!”—is taken by the doctor to mean that “the heart is sorely charged,” but, again, is it regret at actions that have led to deep disappointment and misery, or is it repentance, remorse at having done unjust and evil things? Her reference to her hand and her sigh may be evidence of femininity, gentleness, and moral conscience trying to express themselves, but such is the pride Lady Macbeth still takes in her masculinity, and in the hardness of her ambition, that she cannot openly acknowledge them. What she does is relive some of her own words and actions, particularly in connection with Duncan's murder, but all the while she senses herself damned in hell, undergoing punishment for her part in the murder, and trying desperately to undo the signs and symbols of her part in it. She undoubtedly connects her suffering with her crime, but of direct remorse, direct contrition, she gives no sign.

It is particularly remarkable how little of Macbeth's recent conduct, or of their recent relationship, is at the forefront of her mind. A word here about Lady Macduff, and there about Banquo, is all. Her present misery, the rupture in their closeness, are never mentioned directly. Her mind returns, again and again, to the past, to the words and deeds that set the awful train of events in motion. Nor can we presume that her daylight hours are free from care. After all, she keeps light by her continually—that is, day and night—and her suicide itself occurs during the day. But we learn directly of her nocturnal life alone. We gather from her gentlewoman's remarks that her nocturnal movements are repeated again and again, indicating that she is completely unable, on her own, to find a way out of her misery. Nor does her literal or pedestrian cast of mind alter at the end: the audience is aware of the symbolic importance of what she remembers, much of it having to do with how easily involvement in a grave crime can be cleansed and forgotten. Still, her own awareness of this is at best subconscious, and her mind does not expand into ramifications of what she remembers: there are no reverberations of belief or sentiment even in the stricken Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth is quite different. Initially he experiences both compunctions and extravagantly fearful visions at the thought of murdering Duncan, and during the murder. But with Banquo and Macduff's family there are no compunctions, and his visions of the former's ghost is not repeated with the latter. Originally, Macbeth's fears, and to some extent his compunctions, were based on his religious belief—on the deep sense that the good God of the Bible protects the good and punishes the evil, and that the world as a whole hunts down murderers. As he moves successfully from murder to murder, with apparent impunity, he does become hardened. Considering himself irretrievably destined for hell, his compunctions disappear as his fear for his earthly security mounts. Nevertheless, we cannot say with Freud that he is “all defiance.” At the end, he is sick at heart about what his life has turned into, and while he does not complain of being separated from his wife, he remains deeply concerned about her health. Nor does his remark at learning of her death, and the ensuing “Tomorrow” speech, breathe defiance but, rather, an awareness of hopeless and contemptible unintelligibility. Only at the very end, when he knows he must die, is he defiant, spurning suicide and choosing to die in battle.


It is disconcerting to realize that Macbeth's Christian belief helps worsen his tyranny. Thinking himself already damned beyond redemption for murdering Duncan, fearing punishment here as well as in the afterlife, he plunges into a series of heinous murders he did not foresee originally. Having grown somewhat hardened to these crimes, he finds no security in them. Judging by the fears that continually agitate him during the day, his nights must be as miserable as his wife's: together they had indeed murdered their own sleep. And while she thinks of herself as already undergoing divine punishment in hell, he never ceases to anticipate a similar destiny for himself. Recognizing this, Macduff, at the very end, addresses him as “hell-bound,” and refers to the angel he has served—meaning the fallen angel, Satan. Jose Benardete argues that Macbeth's last words “Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” imply that Macbeth did not think of himself as necessarily damned by his murders, or at least thought that acts of courage or cowardice on his part could still be decisive in determining his eternal fate. While the words are subject to this interpretation, it does not jibe with Macbeth's actual outlook that day. He is filled with fear and foreboding, and neither speaks nor acts with the optimism this view of bravery and victory should instill in Scotland's greatest warrior. (See “Macbeth's Last Words” in Interpretation, Summer 1970, pp. 63-64.)

The importance of hell to the play had been prefigured in a very humorous scene some editors have also thought un-Shakespearean and sought to delete. It involves the famous knocking-at-the-gate, the dramatic effect of which De Quincey so admired. The scene occurs just after Duncan's murder, as Macduff and Lennox seek to enter the main part of the castle early that morning. The porter imagines himself the “porter of hell-gate,” and fancies himself answering, in the name of Beezlebub (and Lucifer), the knocks of those who deserve to sweat in hell. He finally gives up the task, exclaiming:

But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire.

The castle is too cold for hell, says the porter, but frigidity would not prevent it from being considered part of hell, as every reader of Dante's Inferno knows. There, in the ninth and deepest circle of hell, held by a frozen sea of ice, Lucifer is eternally fixed for his treason against God, and Judas, Brutus, and Cassius for like sins. Of course, what has just occurred in Macbeth's castle is an act of treasonous murder. The hell begun with that act in the castle may be said, in fact, to constitute one of the play's main themes, closely linked to its central issue of the intelligibility of life. But the hell Shakespeare describes is the natural hell to which these simpleminded murderers unknowingly bring themselves: their suffering, fear, and sleeplessness is their hell.

By all appearances, an equally irrelevant episode dealing with a related religious theme occurs toward the end of Act IV, and some editors retain it for reasons that, were they the only ones, would hardly suffice. Macduff had just tried to persuade Malcolm to return to Scotland and save it from Macbeth's tyranny. Testing him, Malcolm claims to be a very vicious man himself—lecherous, avaricious, with none of the virtues, and eager to

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

Somewhat strangely, Macduff is willing to accommodate the first two of these vices, but he gives vent to anger and despair at the rest, and perhaps particularly at the last. Finding Malcolm so “accurs’d,” he compares him with his parents:

Thy royal father
Was a most sainted king; the queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day that she liv’d. Fare thee well!
These evils thou repeat’st upon thyself
Hath banish’d me from Scotland.

That Macduff is a deeply Christian man is again shown by these lines. Concord, universal peace, the unity of mankind are living ideals for him—however little realized in practical political life. And the queen's spending her days on her knees, and dying every day, the thane of Fife considers great virtues. His despair comes from thinking that the evils of Macbeth have counterpart evils in Malcolm, and that Scotland is doomed to suffer on interminably.

This induces Malcolm to reveal that he spoke as he did to test Macduff and make sure he had not been sent by Macbeth. No doubt with some exaggeration, Malcolm now denies he has the vices to which he had so vehemently confessed and lays claim instead to their opposite virtues. He adds that Siward was on the point of leading ten thousand Englishmen against Macbeth, but now they will all return together, hoping “the chance of goodness” being achieved is as great as their quarrel with Macbeth is warranted. At this point in the final scene of Act IV a doctor enters—the first to show himself in the play, and very soon to be succeeded, at the beginning of Act V, by the doctor in attendance on Lady Macbeth. After the brief incident with the English doctor is concluded, none other than the ever-gentle (the ever-evil) Ross arrives. What happens during this brief interlude with the doctor? Malcolm asks whether the English king will come forth, once he is finished curing a “crew of wretched souls,” whose malady defeats the medical art, but quickly amends at his touch—“Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand.”

We are not told, of course, what a doctor was doing there if the king's touch had such efficacy: perhaps the testimony of a doctor to the superiority of supernatural (to natural) capacities serves as the most effective of all testimonies. The doctor departs, leaving Malcolm to explain to Macduff that the disease the king cures is called “the evil,” and that he has seen the king work these miracles with his own eyes. Malcolm does not know how the king gets heaven's help, but he cures people with sickly and deformed bodies by “hanging a golden stamp about their necks” and pronouncing certain “holy prayers.” This “healing benediction,” says Malcolm, is rumored to be a legacy the king will leave to his successors. He also has a “gift of prophecy,” and is shown to be “full of grace” by “sundry blessings” that “hang about his throne.” Toward the very end of the scene, after the exchange with Ross, Malcolm is still intent on seeing the English king, but not to ask for his “healing benediction,” or to solicit his “gift of prophecy.” It is to bid farewell and then march on Macbeth with the help of the English army the king has provided.

Nothing in a Shakespearean play is irrelevant to its central theme, and here the relevancy lies almost at the surface. How is human evil (symbolized by a disease called “the evil”) to be cured? By his actions, Malcolm makes it clear that he will not depend on Christian prayers, love, or miracles. The evil of Macbeth must be fought against, outsmarted, overpowered, and only in this way can it be eradicated and the good established in its place. Another variation on the same theme occurs later when the besieged Macbeth asks his doctor “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug, would scour these English hence?” (V, 3: 54-55) Just as it is absurd to purge military evils by medical drugs, so is it absurd to purge political evils by either medical drugs or religious rites. Politics may benefit from widespread religious belief, but only if that belief permits the political art to cope with political evils as part of the natural world in the broad sense of the term. Macduff is pictured by Shakespeare as having false and dangerous confidence in God's interventions, much in the spirit of Malcolm's mother. But Malcolm himself is wary, distrustful, sober. He directly asks Macduff, “Why in that rawness left you wife and child, those precious motives, those strong knots of love, without leave-taking?”—referring to his having hurriedly abandoned them to the “rawness” of Macbeth (IV, 3: 24-28). Yet while Malcolm will not solicit secret prayers and amulets from the English king, and sees the political danger of Macduff's piety, he is not above playing on that piety. He adroitly makes himself seem, in Macduff's eyes, to be a wholehearted believer in the practices of the English king, and therefore a fit successor to his own “sainted” father and kneeling mother.

After the final scene in England, at the end of Act IV, we are shown Malcolm in Scotland four brief times. Three of these are in battlefield scenes, the fourth in the finale. In the first, he orders the army to deceive the enemy about its numbers by camouflaging themselves with branches cut from Birnam Wood. In the second, he sends Old and Young Siward into the vanguard of the battle, keeping back with his fellow Scotsman, Macduff. The third occurs after Macduff goes off hunting for Macbeth, with Malcolm learning from Old Siward that the castle has been surrendered, and that they have been assisted by the thanes and many of Macbeth's own people. At no point is there any sign that Malcolm himself entered the battle: he seems to have remembered full well the occasion with which the play began, when he was almost captured by the enemy. So Malcolm's contribution to Scotland will not consist in abilities of the sort Macbeth and Macduff preeminently possess. He will be a smarter, less superstitious leader than them both. He will need all his wariness, since his first act—one of beneficence as compared to Macbeth's murder of Banquo—is to reward his thanes by making them all earls, including Ross. Yet Ross may not have escaped completely, for Malcolm intends not only to call home exiled friends (he does not mention his brother by name) but also to find and punish the “cruel ministers” of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. And in a final contrast to Macbeth and Macduff again, he vows that, whatever else is needful, “by the grace of Grace”—that is, apparently by God but in fact by his own resources, his own acumen—he will perform “in measure, time, and place.” The firstlings of his heart will not, like Macbeth's, be the firstlings of his hand, and he will not be as impetuous and trusting as he knows Macduff to have been.

Macbeth may be said to be a play about two defective extremes of evil, one “masculine,” one “feminine,” and its setting is most suitable to this purpose. Eleventh-century Scotland contains two powerful and mutually antagonistic elements: a feudal aristocracy, devoted to the virtues of courage and manliness, best shown in war, and the Christianity in which the nobles believe, with its absolute demand for love and peace. As a practical matter it might seem that the former needed the restraint of the latter—that warlike thanes would be constantly in revolt against their king, and in contention with themselves, were it not for the influence of Christianity. It was Christianity that made them regard their king as the vicar of God, and themselves as fellow believers in Christ. In the play, obedience to Duncan is plainly strengthened by the Christian belief of men like Macduff, who refers to the murdered king as “the Lord's anointed temple.”

Macbeth, who begins by killing the rebel, Macdonwald, and then himself rebels against Duncan, is moved to this act by Lady Macbeth's appeal to his valor and manliness, traits on which she prides herself above all. The question as to whether this manliness—connected to war, ambition, mastery, the love of superiority and honor—is the highest good, or is itself subordinate to the virtue of justice, keeps animating events in the play. Excessive manliness occurs when the ends and qualities of manliness are made to rise superior to all. Not only does it show itself in the Macbeths, but also in Old Siward, who is perfectly happy to lose a son who has died bravely, and even in Macduff, who refuses to cry at the news of his family's murder, and whom Malcolm somewhat unsympathetically tries to goad into manly action against Macbeth.

Almost equally dangerous to human life is the opposite extreme, which denies the difference between friends and enemies, and exhorts men to love all men as they love and trust the good God. Warned about her imminent murder, Lady Macduff first asks why she should flee if she has done no harm, and then berates herself for having used this false “womanly defence.” But it is her husband, Macduff, who much more than she embodies trust in God for the protection of good human beings. Neither Macbeth's excessive manliness, nor Macduff's excessive womanliness, can form the basis of human society (compare Jose Benardete's account of these opposites, op. cit., p. 68). The former turns everyone into enemies and leaves no room for friendship—for the concord of good people in a body politic. The latter turns everyone into friends and offers no protection against enemies, internal or external, again subverting the body politic.

In the play these defective views of human life seem to be associated with opposite views of the universe at large. One is expressed by Macbeth in the form of “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but it is also related to an older view, first formulated by the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heracleitus, according to which “War is the father of all things.” Heracleitus generalizes into the first cause of everything the contention and vying for mastery that are characteristic of warring men. Nothing is simply at rest or in harmony. All states of seeming concord and rest are only temporary phases—the resultants of clash themselves—in a never-ending sea of change. The difficulties with Heracleitus' view, so much at odds with the rule of mind in Anaxagoras, and the self-sufficiency of being in Parmenides, received much attention from Plato and Aristotle. It cannot account for the coherence of individuals or species, for the causal interconnection of things, for the existence of human knowledge, or for the range of beings in the universe. Even while granting the existence of individuals, it cannot allow for their holding together, for the persistence of any classes, unities, or wholes, or for any transcendence of the flux whatsoever. Its defect comes from its very simplicity. It says war is the father of all things, not the partial cause of all or some things. Its whole intention is to make war the cause of things it does not seem to be the cause of—to make it the supreme and sole cause. And not the least of its weaknesses is its inability to account for itself as an eternally true and universal thought about flux in a world of flux.

By having Macbeth compare life to the unintelligible sound and fury of an idiot, Shakespeare takes Heracleitus' thought to its logical conclusion. He seems to have realized that the very idea of nature—of kinds of things and their necessary developments—could not be sustained on the basis of a philosophy of total flux: Heracleitus' natural philosophy destroys nature. In this respect, Christianity may at first seem to be the very opposite of Heracleitus. It considers the universe an essential harmony and even unity founded in the good will of God. But if nothing happens without God's active will and its imperative for ultimate good, Christianity and Heracleitus may in fact have something in common. Heracleitus' view, taken full strength, would deprive human life of its nature and render it unintelligible sound and fury: nothing makes life exist or change in ascertainable ways; nothing holds it together. But from the Christian view as well the world, constantly subject to God's exercise of his will and miraculous power, is undetermined by anything like the independent natures of things. Both views make nature in its original and proper sense impossible.

Everything in Macbeth is bound by the natures of things (and by chance). Even Hecate and the witches have a nature they are bound by—a nature filled, perhaps, with mutually inconsistent elements and therefore physically impossible, but a nature imagined, nonetheless. Not that the working out of the natures, particularly in the case of man, is simple. Over and above the general, sexual, and individual parts of our nature, we are affected by life in society, and particularly by the high commanding voices of politics and religion. To such causes must be added the range of invention and choice available to each of us, along with the mind's unique ability to control its face and hide its purpose. The consequence is an amazing complexity of human affairs, where motives, actions, and plans are frequently concealed, and where idiotic chaos might appear to rule rather than intelligible causes of any kind. This is why the play is filled with mysteries of fact and cause, and the hovering presence of the witches almost prepares us for such a world. Nevertheless, on closer scrutiny, the mysteries vanish. We can discover Duncan's good plan and see why it failed; we see why the unsound plan to kill him happened to succeed. We can guess why Banquo had to take his trip. We are no longer mystified by Ross' descent from the level of the royal bedchambers, by his remaining outside the castle, by his appearance at Lady Macbeth's castle and soon afterward in England, by his return with the invading forces, his disappearance in the subsequent battle, and his reappearance among the thanes at their final elevation to earldoms.

Shakespeare is also interested in determining the place of reason within human nature, and the extent to which it guides human conduct. This is why the play gives much more prominence to involuntary visions, incoherent sleep-talking, impulses, and passions that reason does not master than it does to deliberate planning. By having Macbeth degenerate to the point where his impulses become the basis for action, untested and undirected by reflection, he brings life as close as it can get to the behavior of an idiot. The witches at the outset prefigured much of this irrational impulsiveness, and no better symbol of the return to a more completely human life can be found than Malcolm's accession to the throne. With him comes not only an avoidance of the extremes of both masculinity and femininity but a restoration of rational calculation and deliberateness dedicated to the common good—in short, of justice under the direction of prudence. Malcolm will not make the mistake made by the obviously Christian “Old Man” when he says to the departing Ross, “God's benison go with you; and with those that would make good of bad, and friend of foes!” (II, 4, at the end)—a lesson in benignity that can only feed the malignity of the morally worst character in the play. Malcolm will not follow excessive masculinity in making foes of friends, nor excessive femininity in making friends of foes.

Of course Shakespeare is particularly anxious to trace the causal lines that bring Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to their surprising fates. Quite clearly the witches do not put ambition into these would-be murderers but play upon an ambition already there, promising it success, and later assuring Macbeth that he cannot be conquered or killed. As a general matter, they facilitate courses of action already prepared for in the souls of men by removing obstacles to their success, and in this respect function very much like the ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic (Book II, 359-61). But all the while, hidden from their own eyes, the characters and circumstances of Macbeth and his wife are at work, leading them to their peculiar and separate dooms. And it all happens within a span of time compressed even further by Shakespeare's dramatic art, with indications given in speeches that unnaturally accelerate a process already unnaturally accelerated by the witches' guarantees of success and security. It would be easy to conclude that this is what happens to murderers: God catches up with them and punishes their crimes. And the confidence that such is the case may be politically salutary. But the real fate of the Macbeths is entirely natural, just like that of the Macduffs. It stems from the fixed nature of things, and not essentially from accident or external supernatural intervention of any sort, demonic or divine.


Despite the optimism associated with Malcolm's final accession to the throne, the atmosphere of Macbeth is generally dark, repellent, threatening. This effect is achieved by an unnatural poetic exaggeration, emphasizing those elements of reality most in keeping with the problem of the play, and omitting those that would point in other directions. The sunlight, summer, flowers, plain enjoyment of life, jocularity, even the use of moonlight for romantic associations that color so many other plays are for the most part absent from this one. Instead, we have fog, darkness, blood, and foreboding. The witches embody the subject by their visible ugliness and their proclivity to harm. They also combine unnaturally, and therefore confuse, not only masculinity and femininity but old age and childishness, purpose and purposelessness, even a kind of wisdom and folly. When they receive Macbeth's visit much later in the play, a palpable magnification of their connection with the humanly repellent occurs. Hecate is certainly quite matter-of-fact in her approach to their art, but once she steps in the results are much more powerful than in Act I. And as the witches add to their cauldron the parts of so many abhorrent things, we can see the kinship these things have with the Macbeths themselves, whose distortion of their own nature makes them frightful and horrifying to behold.

What bearing does the existence of so much that is abhorrent have on the nature of the universe? Why are abhorrent human beings possible? Clearly, the universe is not simply the theater or home of human happiness, and many beings exist despite the fact that man fears and detests them. Nevertheless, like man's potential for good, the many splendid things in the universe—the ones understated in this play—may not be available without allowing for those that repel as well. In a material world, a world of separate beings and classes of beings, the possibility of harm and evil derives inevitably from the presence of benefit and good, and the good of some things will be the harm of others. To ask for a world in which all men are always rational, always in control of their passions and appetites, never errant, is to ask for a world that is physically impossible. To ask for a world filled only with things attractive and beneficial to man—for cows and dogs but not rats, for health but not disease, for growth but not decay—is also to ask the impossible. Moreover, man has a natural place in this world. While sharing characteristics, moral and physical, with various parts and gradations of the world, he also adds something necessary to its completion. Without him the world would lie there unknown, uncelebrated, unrhymed; and poets, like philosophers, would never be called upon (with Hecate) “to show the glory of our art.”

That the Macbeths meet with such bad endings seems to prove the world emphatically moral, but it does not. If the world were good in a simple and unqualified way, the Macbeths could not have gone wrong in the first place. And while it may be said that Banquo's conniving in Macbeth's crime made him deserve a punishment almost as serious as the harm he receives from Macbeth, the same cannot be said of Lady Macduff and her children. They prove that some good people perish solely through the evil of others, and the example of Ross shows that some evil people are never punished for their evil. So evil—human evil—is a permanent feature of the human world. Nor is an abhorrence of even the worst evil-doing—a conscience—to be found in all human beings, though it is most unusual to find it completely lacking. Shakespeare seems to associate the growth of conscience in us with family upbringing—Lady Macbeth finds she cannot kill Duncan because he reminds her of her father. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both do what they do despite their consciences: the former knows murder is a crime that God and human societies have always condemned most strongly, and the latter refers to ambition's need for such instruments as an “illness.” Only Ross is the kind of man likely to have no conscience or contrition, and we know less about him than we do about Richard III and Iago, his greater but less successful peers in evil-doing.

But what is this evil of which we speak? Do evil men have a conscious will to do evil for its own sake? Are they lovers of harm rather than good? In the case of the Macbeths, evil is not sought for itself. They commit murder not because they enjoy slaughter but because they are willing to do something wrong in order to achieve something they know to be good. The goods they seek are all too ordinary: to rule, to be admired and loved. Even in the case of Macbeth's most irrational undertaking—the Macduff family murders—his motives, while far from clear, do not include any kind of sadism. He expresses no reasons, not even any wish to strike at Macduff in some way, or to warn others against deserting to Malcolm. From his failing to act instantly against Macduff he has concluded that he must in the future act on impulse rather than on slower-moving reflection if he is to prevail. We must imagine that Ross himself probably enjoys his superior ability to deceive and defeat more than the pain of those he hurts: in short, human evil is primarily the consequence of seeking some good at the cost of harming others, whether the good is sovereignty, superiority, or any of many other goals that entice men. What defects of upbringing or nature could bring a Ross to be what he is we can only guess. Nor does this play contain any direct evidence (as The Tempest does, for example) of a way of life—philosophical or poetical—rising superior to politics per se and making the soul essentially gentle rather than rough. The closest to this, in the play, is Hecate's devotion to the excellence of her craft—the craft of contriving harm. Hecate speaks in rhymed couplets, as if to remind us of the kinship between her mastery of “charms”—using combinations of words and apparitions—and the poetic art. (See III, 5, and IV, I, where the witches do Hecate's bidding and receive her praise.)

This dependence of harm on good accounts for the peculiar work and character of Hecate and her witches, for there is nothing satanic about them, not even the slightest sign of an urge to do evil for the sake of evil. Is arranging Macbeth's doom on a par for the witches with cherishing a pilot's thumb? Hecate's motive seems to be her art or craft itself: paradoxically, it is only her love of excellence that makes her enjoy the contrivance of harm, for no other motive for her activity is ever given. Shakespeare never ascribes either to her or the witches any need of their own nature requiring them to bring harm to others. It is false, moreover, to consider harm an independent and separate element in the universe. By nature men seek only good, and it is their limited intelligence and their passions that cause them to do harm. They rarely understand what is really good in general or for themselves in particular, and often miscalculate the actual consequences of their actions. They are not so solicitous of the well-being of others as to avoid harming them if an important benefit to themselves is at stake. These characteristics often cause men to engage in acts of grave injustice that bring grave harm to themselves as well. Exaggerated, magnified, and compressed for dramatic effect, this is certainly the most obvious moral lesson of Macbeth.

If we put together what the play divulges directly with what it consciously keeps from our view, the world is not the dark place it seems, and certainly not unintelligible. It is intelligible because the natures of the things in it are, and must be, intelligible. With its amazing array of beings, culminating in man, it is even the kind of world reason would choose, given what is possible. It contains ugliness because it also contains beauty, baseness because it also contains nobility, evil because it also contains good. But it is far from a moral order in the simple sense, where forces internal or external to it guarantee the flourishing of good and the failure of evil. Life is not a tale told by an idiot, but neither is it a parable told by a perfectly good and all-powerful God. It is a dangerous place for men, who are subject not only to natural perils but to those deriving from themselves. All too readily tempted into distortions of their nature and harboring false or imperfect notions of good, they are the source of their own greatest misery. Political, religious, and social institutions can do much for them, but they may also do harm, and, like all other things, are subject to decay. Human happiness is therefore very difficult to achieve, and even modest contentment may not easily be within man's grasp. At the end of the play Malcolm returns to a wise and just course, but we are never told what it is in Malcolm that will resist temptations and hold him to this course.

The darker side of life does not seem to have embittered Shakespeare, despite his having had as full a view of it as anyone can have. He seems to have concluded, as a general matter, that good is more fundamental than evil in the world, whatever the practical difficulties in the way of realizing it, and however great the actual predominance of evil. From this came the composure making it possible for him to write both tragedy and comedy, and even to commingle them appropriately. And his confidence in the good must have been confirmed, or given its highest expression, in his own philosophizing and poetry, which perhaps more than anything else show man's connection with the divine. If Macbeth's great “Tomorrow” speech expresses the deepest pessimism, the conclusion to which Shakespeare himself points in this play mixes pessimism with a more fundamental optimism.

Joost Daalder (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Attitude to Gender in Macbeth,” in Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Journal (AUMLA), No. 70, November, 1988, pp. 366-85.

[In the following essay, Daalder examines Shakespeare's attitude toward women as portrayed in Macbeth.]

With the new interest in ‘women's studies’ there has been a whole flurry of works devoted to the question whether Shakespeare in any significant way discriminated against—or in favour of—women.1

In my view, discussion of this issue is much clarified if we remember what Ruth Kelso wrote some thirty years ago concerning the debate about the matter which was conducted during the Renaissance itself:

Four attitudes can be distinguished in this confused debate. Some thought woman at best a necessary evil, some admitted her good in a limited and humble way but of inferior value compared to men, some took her as good and necessary equally with men, and some claimed superiority for her over men.2

I think that Kelso is amply supported by relevant evidence from the Renaissance (which we must carefully distinguish from the assertions of twentieth century commentators), and that her useful statement for one thing makes it very difficult to generalize about a supposedly universal ‘Renaissance attitude to women’. And, in view of that fact, we must also be cautious about accepting any argument based on the assumption that there actually was such an attitude, to which—it is then also often maintained—Shakespeare must surely have subscribed, or which he was peculiarly individualistic in resisting.

Of course, if there had been some universally accepted view, it would indeed be tempting to see Shakespeare as automatically conditioned by it, or as heroically—and Romantically—opposing it. Either conclusion would not necessarily have been justified at all, of course; but it is much easier to reject modern simplifications when we can point to complexity in the past.

I think that fortunately those who are not ideologically committed to any particular view of the world, and who are acquainted with both the Renaissance and recent studies of the period, are less and less inclined to think that it is fruitful to speak of what scholars like E. M. W. Tillyard and others who wrote several decades ago saw as ‘the Elizabethan world picture’. Even on a purely theoretical basis it surely is not likely that all Elizabethans would have felt and thought the same about everything, but the evidence is, even in very broad terms, conspicuously against such an assumption: the Renaissance was, in fact, a period of profound chance in just about every aspect of life.

Those of us who, like myself, were brought up on the thinking of such scholars as Tillyard, and who have only recently come to concern themselves with attitudes to women in the Renaissance, may well have gone through the following pattern of development in their beliefs. The first stage, in my own case, was that I accepted that ‘the’ world picture of the Elizabethans was hierarchical. This did not mean that I thought that Shakespeare felt that men were so superior to women that the latter should be seen as ‘a necessary evil’, to use Kelso's phrase. But I did consider it likely (without really probing the matter) that Shakespeare thought women were sufficiently inferior to men to deserve no more than a subservient role in what he saw as essentially a male world. In fact, then, I imputed to Shakespeare something like the second view mentioned by Kelso, according to which in principle women were ‘good in a limited and humble way but of inferior value compared to men’. The notion that Shakespeare's world picture was hierarchical was so firmly implanted in me that I never contemplated the possibility that Shakespeare saw men and women as equals before I moved on to my own second stage (Kelso's fourth view) and came to believe that Shakespeare saw women as superior over men. In these matters, it is difficult to develop a totally dispassionate view, and I must admit that my enthusiasm was in no small measure sparked by irritation with those who believed that Shakespeare was contemptuously ‘sexist’ in his attitude to women. More importantly, though, I felt I was really led by the evidence in Shakespeare's own works.

As I held this view for some years with real conviction, and have only very recently abandoned it, I should just briefly like to mention some of the evidence in favour of it. It does seem, to speak sweepingly, that whenever one thinks of a character in Shakespeare who is both morally good and intellectually formidable the example that comes to mind is a woman. For instance, in The Tempest the most admirable character, in all respects, is Miranda, and it is surely no accident that Shakespeare presents her as willing to carry logs for Ferdinand and able to catch him out when he cheats at chess: obviously, Shakespeare wishes to shatter any stereotyped view of her as possibly inferior to Ferdinand, and, on the contrary, sets her up as at once superior and his own ideal of what, at our best, we humans can be like. In several plays, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to suggest that women are totally capable of such things as are conventionally often thought to be above their reach. Rosalind in As You Like It is a perfect instance. To indicate that she combines the best ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, Shakespeare presents her as a woman in a man's clothes who retains, by implication, everything positive that she was able to show when presenting herself as a woman, while yet she demonstrates that, given the chance, she can fully hold her own, as a ‘man’, in a male-dominated world. There are several such characters, of course, and their existence always appears to suggest this same message.

It is possible that Shakespeare was personally fascinated with the image of a male-female hybrid because he idealized the young man in the Sonnets as having both male and female characteristics. Sonnet 20 provides the most telling evidence in this regard, and if we believe that Shakespeare was bi-sexual, we will find it the easier to persuade ourselves that to him the perfect human being—if such a creature could be created—would be both male and female. At all events, Shakespeare's interest in a male-female being was intense and persistent.

Intriguingly, however, there is a contrast between Shakespeare's attitude in the Sonnets and that in the plays. In the Sonnets, it is the young man who is described as a hermaphrodite. It would thus be possible to believe that Shakespeare's main preference is for a male, and indeed his feeling for the dark lady could well be described as misogynist. On the other hand, in the plays the hermaphrodites are invariably female, suggesting that Shakespeare admires women more than men. Or are we to believe that his attitude is, after all, consistent?

I think we can, and that the seeming inconsistency is not real. The young man of the Sonnets, we must remember, lets Shakespeare down, and in the end does not live up at all to the ideal of sonnet 20. Assuming—not unreasonably, I think—that the Sonnets describe events more or less chronologically, this early sonnet would indicate that one reason why Shakespeare was so attracted to the young man was that that person was so much like a woman. But, not being a woman, the young man cannot sustain the level of people like Miranda and Rosalind. I do not suggest that Shakespeare disapproves of all men, or approves of all women. But I do contend that his preference is for women, and not so much sexually but because he views them as superior creatures.

That, to speak rather crudely and generally, would make Shakespeare ‘sexist’, of course. And I still think that the argument which I have outlined has merit, but I have now come to believe that it needs to be severely modified.

My change of mind has been brought about by my former student Pauline Carter and her recently completed M.A. thesis, Between Two Spheres of Authority: The Interregna of Shakespearean Heroines.3 Carter has extensively studied the way Shakespeare presents young women during the period which intervenes between the time when they were under the control of their fathers and the new stage when they will be under the authority of their husbands. Rosalind is merely one of several such women. Carter does not deny that Shakespeare sees these women as superior during their interregna. What she does refute, though, is the thought that Shakespeare therefore allows them general superiority. I may perhaps legitimately quote the following passage as illustrative of Carter's thesis:

Shakespeare's obedient Renaissance daughters become, after a short interval, obedient Renaissance wives. The freedom he allows them through the medium of their interregna, and the superiority he claims for them, place Shakespeare amongst the progressive thinkers in relation to the position of women in Renaissance society, but such progressive thinking is modified when his heroines approach marriage. In their submission to their husbands they conform to the ideal advocated by Church and State and supported by the orthodox.

(p. 50)

Upon reflection, the submission of the heroines to their husbands is indeed striking. One reason for it, as Carter argues, is no doubt that Shakespeare felt that women with independent means, like Portia and Olivia, could afford not to submit to the authority of a man, but that their position was exceptional. We may add, though, that even they are keen to get married, and to submit, at least outwardly, to the authority of their husbands. Portia, admittedly, will no doubt rule the roost. But, in general, the meekness with which women in Shakespeare accept marriage and the authority of husbands which the institution will bring with it is disconcerting to a feminist, and contrasts most oddly with the independence of mind which Shakespeare grants so many heroines during their interregna.

At the outset, I expressed my approval of Kelso's view that there were essentially four different attitudes held by Renaissance thinkers concerned with the status of women. My chief reason for satisfaction is that I think she is right. But that fact also helps me greatly in other ways. It enables me to see that, if attitudes in the Renaissance were so varied, we should not be at all surprised to find them varied now. Furthermore, it is of course not at all unlikely that a critic with a particular ideological commitment may well wish to find that reflected in Shakespeare. But, especially, where several views existed, it would not seem at all unrealistic to expect that Shakespeare's own view is complex rather than simplistic. To say that it is complex (as I believe it is) is not, however, to suggest that it is confused, or that it is indecisive. Shakespeare seems to be very clear in his mind that, although it is desirable for a woman to develop ‘male’ qualities as well as female ones, ultimately the role of a woman is quite distinct from that of a man. And this is not something we can confidently ascribe to conditioning by society: Shakespeare's women actively want to get married, and, normally, to play the part traditionally associated with being a wife. We have no reason for supposing that he sees this desire as something other than internal and innate. As far as we can tell, Shakespeare does not believe that women and men are psychologically identical, or should be.

I must therefore reluctantly part company from Robert Kimbrough, who has written some very interesting and valuable articles on androgyny, the most relevant for my present purpose being the one which he called ‘Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender’, Shakespeare Studies (1983), pp. 175-90.4

I use the word ‘reluctantly’ because Kimbrough's view of what life should be is appealing, as Shakespeare's would be if he agreed with Kimbrough. The latter's outlook is androgynous, and he believes Shakespeare's is too. Kimbrough holds that ‘female and male differences are, for the most part, matters of mind’, and that ‘through all of Shakespeare there runs the theme that both male and female must be liberated from the restrictions inherent in the concept of the two genders’ (p. 175).

Kimbrough emphasizes the importance of the fact that Lady Macbeth is afraid that her husband's nature will not allow him to kill Duncan:

                                                            Yet I do fear thy nature:
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.


Kimbrough comments:

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

(p. 179)

As it seems to me, Kimbrough is too optimistic about Shakespeare's optimism. Certainly characters like Lear and Gloucester believe that it is natural to be kind; Edmund's vision of what is natural, however, is quite different, and Lear does not present us with a world in which kindness wins out. But, in the context of this essay, I object yet more strongly to Kimbrough's blurring of the distinction between the two sexes, and in particular of the physical difference which lies at the root of that distinction. Lady Macbeth is afraid that Macbeth is too full of the milk of human kindness. Throughout his article, Kimbrough in effect ignores the importance of the word ‘milk’, and the fact that the speaker is a woman.

My concern, by contrast, is not to show that Shakespeare thought women superior to men, or vice versa, but that he considered that there are vital physical differences between them which in turn make for important psychological distinctions. A man may well have the upper hand in certain spheres (e.g. the battlefield) and a woman in others (e.g. the home), but, while this is significant, it does not mean that in sum one of the two genders is superior to the other.

Let us be clear that it is Lady Macbeth who sees the milk of human kindness as something undesirable, not her husband. This is not because her husband is less sensitive than she, but because Shakespeare wants us to understand that it would be, in principle and ideally, natural for a woman to associate human kindness with milk. Significantly, and inevitably, Lady Macbeth does associate the two, and her perversion is the greater in rejecting her own natural feeling and projecting it onto Macbeth as though it is something perverse. Of course, she has a shallow rhetorical point: it would indeed be inappropriate for Macbeth to be too full of the milk of human kindness, because he is a man.

Lady Macbeth's attitude, therefore, is not just anti-human, as Kimbrough would make us believe, but violates essential concepts of manhood and womanhood that we should have. A little later, she says:

                                                            Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here:
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty.


As Shakespeare sees things, for a woman to be unsexed automatically carries with it loss of good. We cannot distinguish, in this respect, between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. As many readers have noted, the spirits invoked by Lady Macbeth may well be those which make witches what they are. They are, obviously, devilish. When those ‘women’ are first met in the play, Banquo says to them:

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


The word ‘should’ here is interesting. No doubt there is some physical evidence that the witches are not men, but presumably Banquo also means that they ought to be female: he reacts to what is unnatural and wrong about them. (Significantly, Macbeth does not.) Shakespeare is far removed from any androgynous vision. If he were really interested in obscuring distinctions, and believed that essentially men and women are/should be the same, he would not stress that the beards are a major physical oddity. One—perhaps the—reason why these women are evil is that they deny their female nature.

I think that Shakespeare implies that there is a real choice involved. The women ought to be female: if they were, they would not have beards. I believe that this is what Shakespeare intends because of his attitude to the unsexing of Lady Macbeth. In this connection, we ought to consider the curious matter of Lady Macbeth's offspring.

Ever since the time that L. C. Knights made a mockery of the question ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’, critics have been timid about tackling the very real problem in interpretation that arises from Lady Macbeth saying ‘I have given suck’ (I.vii.54), whereas Macbeth himself complains about his ‘barren sceptre’ (III.i.61).

Certainly no naturalistic reading is likely to make sense of this strange discrepancy. Shakespeare apparently does not ask us to postulate (for he provides no hint to that effect) about a child which Lady Macbeth had before her marriage to Macbeth, about a child which was theirs but which has meanwhile died, etc. One might feel inclined to read something into the fact that Macbeth considers his sceptre barren because no son of his will succeed (III.i.63), but he does not put any emphasis on the gender of the child himself, and we have absolutely no evidence for believing that the Macbeths have a daughter.

Often, and naturally enough, critics suggest in cases like this that there are times when Homer, or Shakespeare, nods, and that there is some untidiness in the writing. And again and again we are reminded that Shakespeare's drama is not ‘realistic’, so that we should not look into this kind of inconsistency too closely.

I would agree that Shakespeare is probably not ‘realistic’ in a case like this, but that is not to say that we must not pay close attention to the oddity that apparently at one time Lady Macbeth had, according to her own admission, a child while no such child occurs in the action of the play, anywhere.

What symbolic significance is the discrepancy likely to have, supposing that it is deliberate on Shakespeare's part? I think there is an obvious explanation which fits in well with Shakespeare's general intention in the play. We probably are asked to believe that by nature Lady Macbeth was fertile, and indeed the sort of woman who wishes to have children, in one part of her mind. For she not only claims that she has ‘given suck’, but that she knows ‘How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me’ (I.vii.55). Her natural inclination is, therefore, maternal, if only she followed her instinct. But, in her conscious mind, she rejects this inclination. It is not as though her society has taught her to be ‘male’ in any sense. Rather, she does not accept the role which her nature would assign to her, but, of her own volition, denies her deepest instincts to herself. She opts not to act on her physical and mental womanhood, but to turn herself into a ‘man’ instead. The consequence, thus Shakespeare implies, is loss of womanhood to the extent that she makes herself infertile. Thus, whether she ever had a child or not, she certainly cannot have one when once she adopts the mentality which the play shows her as having chosen for herself. Thus inevitably Macbeth's sceptre is indeed ‘barren’.

Traditionally, we perhaps associate the wish to have children with women rather than men. Men, it is often felt, can manage without offspring in that, at any rate prior to the time when women began to look for work outside the home, their mind is filled with concern about their career, while to women children are essential if they are to have faith in the value of their existence. It is worth remembering, in this respect, that on the whole, in Shakespeare's time, a woman's ‘place’, to use the modern expression, was, in fact, ‘in the home’. It therefore would not be illogical to suppose that, however enlightened Shakespeare may have been in principle, it would have been difficult for him to imagine a situation in which women could find fulfilment by working outside the home and not having children, or by having children as well as a job. This is not to say that Shakespeare could not understand Lady Macbeth's wish to be like a man—to be successful in a non-domestic sphere. But, clearly, in adopting that goal, Lady Macbeth sacrifices her womanhood. And this is the more so because her idea of what it means to be a man is absurdly restricted in its ‘macho’ emphasis: to be a man, she feels, one has to be prepared to kill, and not just on the battlefield, but also in one's own home (a major irony, here) and in the criminal cause of satisfying one's ambition against all considerations of what is proper when one entertains one's king and one's kinsman, as well as one's guest and someone who has borne his faculties so meek, has been so clear in his great office, etc., etc. (cf. Macbeth's ‘If it were done when ’tis done’, I.vii.1-27).

It is one of the more interesting features of this play that Shakespeare does not present Macbeth as a man who wishes to have no children. On the contrary, he clearly would like to have them, and it is his being without them which is one of the driving forces in his destructive course of action.

The main force, of course, is his ambition. In this respect, we must not forget that, typically, it is Macbeth himself, not his wife, who initiates the idea of killing Duncan. His guilty conscience is obvious the moment the witches, very early in the play, hail him as a future king, and Banquo says:

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


And again a little later, when he has just been made Thane of Cawdor, and he reflects in an aside:

                                                            Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor!
The greatest is behind.


Still in this scene, when he is found to be absentminded, he excuses himself by saying that his ‘dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten’ (lines 149-50). But perhaps the most conclusive proof of his initiative comes in I.vii, when Macbeth says ‘I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none’, and his wife replies:

                                                            What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?

(lines 46-48)

Prior to this scene, there is no evidence within the play of Macbeth breaking the enterprise to her, and we are clearly asked to believe that he mentioned it to her at some stage well into the past. This should come as no surprise to us. As a man, Macbeth can be expected—presumably for what are essentially biological/psychological reasons—to wish to advance his career.

But once he has killed Duncan and is king, he does not stop murdering. And it is at this stage that Macbeth's preoccupation with children becomes obvious. Again, I do not think that the play in any sense leads us to consider it unnatural for him to want to be a father. Such a desire is not at all incompatible with manhood. But this wish is one of the most important things to set Macbeth apart from his wife. Later in the play, the Macduffs are shown as both caring for children. Lady Macbeth, however, has no children because she wishes to kill; Macbeth kills because he has no children, and cannot stand those who have. While I have no wish to defend Macbeth, I think that Shakespeare sees him as perverting his manhood less than Lady Macbeth does her womanhood. It is, indeed, a contrast between them that Macbeth is more closely in touch with both his own deepest wishes and the workings of society. The two are no doubt connected, possibly because as a man he is more exposed to contact with other members of society than his wife is, and therefore, understanding the reality around him more, is also more likely to understand himself better.

The chief reason which Macbeth offers (in the soliloquy ‘To be thus is nothing’) for murdering Banquo is that he fears his being. But he is not at all specific about what Banquo might undertake against him, and it soon becomes clear that in fact he is jealous of Banquo because Banquo does have a son, and the witches have prophesied that his children will be kings:

They hail’d him father to a line of kings.
Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If’t be so,
For Banquo's issue have I fil’d my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murder’d.


Macbeth has considerable understanding of what tortures him about the existence of Banquo and his son. It is part of his manhood, however, that he seeks the resolution of his problem in violence. I think we have little reason for believing that Shakespeare does not see violence as much more characteristic of men than of women. The sergeant who at the beginning of the play gives an account of the way in which Macbeth kills Macdonwald, one of the rebels against King Duncan, comments how Macbeth fought

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to th’chaps,
And fix’d his head upon our battlements.


We may well want to question Duncan's immediate response: ‘O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!’ But it is not evident that Shakespeare disapproves of Macbeth's action, or Duncan's comment; and in any case, whether or not he does, he appears to be in no doubt that this is how men behave. Thus, in principle, the action of killing is more congenial to Macbeth than to his wife—not because of individual differences between them, but because it is part of the role of a man to engage in violence. Therefore, despite Lady Macbeth's ‘macho’ talk it is Macbeth who is the murderer in the play.

The play shows how his character deteriorates as he moves from lawful killing to increasingly evil butchery. At first, he is presented very much as a courageous soldier (Duncan's ‘valiant cousin’). When he kills Duncan, the thought of progeny is not yet important to him, though it is not absent. In I.vii, Macbeth firmly resolves upon the murder of Duncan. His wife has rejected offspring:

                                                            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 … 

(lines 54-58)

Macbeth does not respond to this terrifying denial of motherhood, but, when his wife later persuades him that there is no danger of failure, Macbeth says:

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

(lines 72-74)

We may dislike the fact that he praises his wife for being like a male, as well as his wish for ‘men-children’; but he is quite unlike his wife in that he does not reject fatherhood.

Even so, at this stage it is Duncan's death only which he has in mind, not that of children which he cannot have. This changes when he plans the murder of Fleance, and especially when Fleance escapes. Yet even then Macbeth's attitude is less bizarre than when he decides to have Macduff's wife and children killed. Fleance, after all, may wish to take his crown away from him (‘the worm that's fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed’—III.iii.29-30). But he has absolutely nothing to fear from Macduff's family; yet he decides:

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


Obviously, in a crazy way, his fear that others may oust him from his throne is connected with his wish to kill their children even if those cannot harm him, and a yet more potent reason for that wish, even if unconsciously, must be that he has no children of his own to succeed him.

Macduff, I think, understands this factor in Macbeth's psychology. Critics are often puzzled by Macduff's remark, upon hearing that his wife and children are dead: ‘He has no children’ (IV.iii.216). Indeed, in the context ‘He’ might seem to be Malcolm. But it is much more likely to be Macbeth, and to mean: ‘He, Macbeth, has no children—and that is why he has killed mine.’

Shakespeare thus sees a wish for fatherhood as a perfectly normal thing in a man, and he explains that, in Macbeth's case at least, that wish is in fact a desire to continue one's own existence into the future. Presumably, Lady Macbeth finds it easier to deny her maternal instinct because she does not share Macbeth's typically male preoccupation with such a continued existence. Indeed, it is one of the most important elements of her mental make-up that she lives for the moment, for the immediate here-and-now, rather than for anything larger, in time or place. I believe that Shakespeare sees this tendency in her character as typically female. I do not mean that he shows himself misogynist in this. Rather, he appears to imply throughout the play that it is inevitable, given their role in society and possibly the way they are made, that women have a more restricted vision than men. Neither should we see it as admirable in Macbeth that he can look further; as a male, he has simply been equipped to do so.

Examples of Lady Macbeth's curious shortsightedness are abundant in the play. She herself would like to overcome it. When we first see the Macbeths discussing the possibility of murdering Duncan, in I.iv, Lady Macbeth declares that she will herself take charge of it: ‘you shall put / This night's great business into my dispatch’ (lines 64-65). Yet, in the event, she is not up the task she has set herself, as the instinct which she tries to ignore asserts itself: ‘Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t’ (II.ii.12-13). It appears to be typical of her, as a woman, to try and cast herself into a role which she thinks she should assume. Therefore, she sets herself goals of which she has no real understanding. Shakespeare seems to believe that a woman is more prone to make this mistake than a man as she is only superficially in touch with the world outside the home: things are done for the sake of appearance without real thought as to the consequences. Thus, for example, after the murder of Duncan Lady Macbeth says to her husband: ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ (II.ii.67). She not only thinks (foolishly) that she can wash off her sin in the eyes of God, but also that it will be far from difficult to hide their crime from the view of others (her next words are ‘How easy is it then!’). But the people around her are far more suspicious than she thinks. Although she tries to bury her fears in her unconscious, she does not succeed in keeping them there. It would appear that Shakespeare considers that this situation is more likely to occur in the case of a woman than a man. A man is less likely to hide things from himself for two reasons: he is in closer contact with the outside world, and he is less sensitive to other human beings (Lady Macbeth does know, in a way that no man can, how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks her). Thus, despite her attempt to be more ‘macho’ than her husband, Lady Macbeth ends up with her unconscious asserting itself. When she walks in her sleep (V.i), she expresses her surprise that Duncan had so much blood in him, and raises the possibility that her hands will never be clean.

Macbeth is often seen as someone who has more imagination than his wife. I do not think that is quite the point: rather, he is more directly in contact with the reality of things, and therefore his unconscious sends its messages to him more quickly, no matter whether the message is one of desire or of fear. That is why he so readily sees a dagger, or Banquo's ghost. I think it is a mistake to believe that he has better knowledge of right and wrong than his wife and acts more on his conscience. Let us for example examine some of his reasoning in his famous soliloquy before the murder of Duncan, ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ (I.vii.1-27):

                                                            If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here—
But here upon this bank and shoal of time—
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague th’inventor.

This is not the talk of someone who cares about right and wrong, but who is speculating on the consequences of his deed. He first wonders whether he can escape unhurt here on earth; if so, he’d ‘jump the life to come’. Punishment in the after-life, in other words, is hardly of concern to him; his mind is on his mortal existence. The lack of regard for metaphysics is not, as it would be in the case of his wife, due to a restricted vision: he rejects what he is aware of, but he is aware of it nonetheless. He is similarly aware of the fact that it will be very difficult to gain what he wants ‘here’ in this life. He realizes that his action may serve as an example to others, so that it may rebound on him. He is not in any sense morally superior to his wife, but merely has a different, more ‘male’ kind of insight.

But, we may wonder, does he not show similar confusion in allowing himself to be swayed by the witches? I do not think so. Lady Macbeth psychologically does not need the witches, as she is fully capable of engendering her own evil and believing in it as something she can get away with. Macbeth is no less evil, but worries more about the consequences of his actions. Hence the witches, like his wife, serve the function of strengthening him in his evil inclinations, of providing a reality (as it seems) in which he can believe. We must note that they do not actually lie: it is true, for example, that Macduff is not ‘of woman born’. We may think that the witches trick him, and so indeed they do, for they are evil, but they can only make Macbeth believe what he wishes to believe anyway. We may well once again see Shakespeare making an important comment on gender in this. The man is more doubtful than the woman (Lady Macbeth) about the results of his actions because he knows the ways of the world better. But, unlike Lady Macbeth, he is incapable of coming to conclusions independently: he needs female comforting, from both his wife and the witches.

Lady Macbeth is not, however, herself a witch, and hence she comes to a very bad end. It would be wrong to say that Macbeth was able to predict at all completely what their life would be like after the murder of Duncan. Even so, he had a better notion, and indeed understands the misery of his situation fairly clearly immediately after the murder: ‘from this instant, / There’s nothing serious in mortality’ (II.iii.90-91). Lady Macbeth, however, has more suffering in store for her exactly because she has tried to repress all female feeling which, therefore, will inevitably create havoc in her unconscious and finally seek a violent way out. Thus she must die. Her tragedy is the greater because of her loneliness. Shakespeare implies that after the murder of Duncan Macbeth treats her with typically male disdain. Planning Banquo's murder, he will not tell her about it: ‘Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed’ (III.iii.45-46). It is probably significant that Macbeth is now king and that this new murder is to be committed outside the domestic sphere; as he judges, this leaves no place for his wife.

Healthier notions of manhood and womanhood exist in the case of the Macduffs. The first thing we may notice about them as setting them apart from the Macbeths is that they have children, and deeply care about them. This appears to make for a less violent outlook, although it is to be observed that this is a far more pronounced phenomenon in the case of the women than in that of the men. Lady Macbeth's violence seems to be strongly connected with her infertility; presumably Shakespeare wishes us to believe that her violence was always a feature of her character, that it caused infertility after initial fertility, and that her barrenness then in turn further increased her violence. Lady Macduff is both fertile and non-aggressive. In fact, while Lady Macbeth has an unnatural desire to mingle in men's affairs, Lady Macduff does not understand them. When Macduff leaves for England, Lady Macduff reacts with puzzlement and indignation:

Lady Macd. What had he done
to make him fly the land?
Ross. You must have patience, madam.
L. Macd. He had none;
His flight was madness. When our actions do not,
Our fears do make us traitors.


Superficially, Lady Macduff may have a point about her husband's fear. In truth, however, she does not know what world she is living in. Shortly afterwards, a messenger warns her that she is in danger; but she stays where she is, and gets killed, with her children. Macduff's flight should thus be seen as, for one thing, an act of caution. The realm would not have been served if he had been killed. For, and this is a second major point that his wife fails to grasp, his wellbeing is essential to that of Scotland. It is his male responsibility to establish contact with Malcolm so that the two of them can restore order in the kingdom, a process in which Macduff plays a vital part by not only assisting Malcolm generally—as the future and lawful king—but also by killing Macbeth.

It is possible to make a good deal of Macduff's sensitivity to his wife and children when he hears of their death. Certainly, his attitude is contrasted with Macbeth's when the latter says about his wife, ‘She should have died hereafter’ (V.v.17). Macduff, when informed of the loss of his family, is admonished by Malcolm:

Dispute it like a man.


Engagingly, he replies:

                                                            I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.

To be male does not mean that one cannot and should not feel human grief. In an instance like this, Shakespeare rejects the ‘macho’ stereotype. However, there is time for momentary grief only, as his male duty calls Macduff. Malcolm encourages him to turn his grief into anger, which Macduff does proceed to do, whereupon Malcolm can say with satisfaction:

This tune goes manly.


At the end of the play, we become strongly aware that Shakespeare's world is male-dominated. If Macduff had to lose his wife and children that was a serious matter, but one for private grief; and private grief is less important than his role as a warrior who must secure a harmonious state of affairs in Scotland. I do not think that Shakespeare leaves us in doubt that Macduff must do what he does.

Lady Macbeth, who so much tried to live up to an extreme ‘macho’ image, has failed miserably. She has perverted her womanhood, and shown that she could not successfully maintain herself in a male-dominated world. Her death is, we must surely concede, less glamorous than her husband's. I do not, of course, mean that Shakespeare idealizes Macbeth's violence. Nevertheless, violence is more appropriate in him than in his wife, and it is difficult to avoid some admiration for his bravery (against all logical odds) at the end of the play.

My case is not that Shakespeare offers us a ‘sexist’ view which amounts to a simple preference for men. Obviously, we are not asked to view Macbeth more positively than Lady Macduff; the latter may well be wrong in her assessment of her husband's motives, but this is a pardonable misjudgment which is far less serious than Macbeth's set of crimes. But, even though Shakespeare is anxious to avoid anything like blunt stereotyping (so that, for example, he stresses that Macduff must feel his grief as a man), he appears to have a very strong sense of certain traits of mind and actions as ‘male’ and others as ‘female’. It would not do, of course, to suggest that Shakespeare's view as developed in this play is necessarily identical to his attitude as embodied elsewhere in his work. But even the joyous comedies, which might temporarily give us the feeling that women like Rosalind or Viola are really not unlike men, must be read with an awareness of the fact that in the end Shakespeare does not allow them a role similar to that of a man.

Macbeth is crucially important, in our context, for enabling us to see that Shakespeare above all relates the differences between male and female roles to the significant fact that women are childbearers and men are not. But he does not stop there. He also appears to emphasize that there are certain spheres of activity in which it is disastrous for a woman to interfere, not only in that such an adoption of a ‘male’ role harms others, but also in that it injures the woman herself: Lady Macbeth possibly hurts herself more than anyone else.

Shakespeare sees it as a distinct disadvantage that our male-dominated society is inclined towards violence—a tendency which good women like Lady Macduff do not share. Nevertheless, order in such a society can only be maintained by men, and, although they should not be unfeeling, and fight in the right cause, they must be prepared to secure peace by engaging in battle and bloodshed. There is no evidence that Shakespeare can imagine a society in which women would be, and do, much the same as men.


  1. See, as examples of recent studies, especially: Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Woman (London: Macmillan, 1975); Lawrence Stone: The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977); Carol J. Carlisle, ‘The Critics Discover Shakespeare's Women’, Renaissance Papers (1979), pp. 59-73; Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, ed., The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois, 1980); Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1980); Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981); Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Univ. Press, 1982); Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982); Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1983); Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984).

  2. Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1956), p. 10.

  3. Flinders University of South Australia (South Australia 5042), 1987. At the time of writing, the thesis had been awarded an M.A., but not yet been accepted for publication. It certainly is to be hoped that it will be. I am much indebted to Ms Carter for what I have learned from her during the last two years or so.

  4. His other important studies in this area (at the time of writing) are: ‘Androgyny, Old and New’, The Western Humanities Review (1981), pp. 197-215, and ‘Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise’, Shakespeare Quarterly (1982), pp. 17-33.

  5. I quote from Peter Alexander, ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1951), which still seems very satisfactory. I have not yet been able to make a thorough investigation of what will no doubt prove an important text: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, gen. eds., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

Barbara Riebling (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 273-86.

[In the following essay, Riebling analyzes Macbeth as a discourse in civic humanism, contrasting the principles of Machiavellian governance to those of Christianity.]

“I love my city more than I love my soul,” Machiavelli wrote in a letter to a friend. If we take him at his word—including the belief that he has a soul—Machiavelli is describing the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. In both of his major theoretical works, The Prince and The Discourses, he presents this sacrifice as more likely the deeper one ventures into politics, and as virtually unavoidable for the prince. Machiavelli's works shocked sixteenth-century audiences, who were accustomed to seeing Christian and civic virtue as interchangeable; in his version of truth, “la verità effettuale,” political virtù is ineluctably at odds with religion and its rules. The English were particularly appalled by Machiavelli's ideas; hence the enormous popularity in the late sixteenth century of the villainous “stage Machiavel.” For centuries medieval and Renaissance citizens had been assured of an essential harmony between religious and political truths—any apparent conflicts were resolved either by a rejection of worldly values or their procrustean fit to the Decalogue. English audiences by Shakespeare's time would have been familiar with a number of traditional religio-political models: the de casibus theme carried forward from Boccaccio through writers like Lydgate, that valorizes the contemplative life and presents earthly power and glory as transitory vanities; the providential view of political history in works like Mirror for Magistrates or the play Cambises, that sees divine justice acted out in the political realm; the picture of virtuous statecraft drawn by Christian humanists like Thomas Elyot and Erasmus, who equate effective rule with upright behavior and advise the prince to be nothing more nor less than a good Christian. In sharp contrast, Machiavelli boldly states that any prince who would take such advice and let go of what is done for what should be done studies his own ruin (The Prince, 15). In The Discourses he even goes so far as to blame Christianity for the triumph of evil in contemporary politics.1 Clearly, Machiavelli's views are not in harmony with the religious beliefs of his time. After his advent, Renaissance audiences are confronted by two antipathetic philosophies of state. Political life is played out either in a world bound to Christian rules of conduct or a delegitimized world cut loose from any rule but survival. The question I would like to raise is: which world does Macbeth inhabit?

For many years Macbeth was read as one of Shakespeare's most unambiguous works and analyzed as if it were a political-moral fable.2 More recent scholarship has attempted to place Macbeth within the context of conflicting ideologies of early seventeenth-century England and Scotland—as a response, for instance, to the clash of absolutism and resistance theory.3 I would like to suggest another context for the politics of the play, the discourse of civic humanism. In this context, Macbeth can be read specifically as a response to Machiavelli's most controversial models for effective rule. By the beginning of the seventeenth century in England, the real Machiavelli started to replace the “Machiavel,” opening the way for both the republicanism of The Discourses and the “ragione di stato” arguments in The Prince.4 An analysis of the portraits of kingship in Macbeth suggests that the play participates in this shift in political consciousness, reflecting standards of conduct that are far more Machiavellian than Christian.

Political tragedy studies the consequences of misrule, and Macbeth is no exception, censuring two extremes in civic malpractice. Although the majority of the play is taken up with Macbeth's criminal reign—a regime at odds with both Machiavellian and Christian precepts—Macbeth begins its exploration of tragic politics in Duncan's chaotic realm, presenting a brief but succinct portrait of the consequences of political innocence. Measured by traditional Christian values, Duncan's behavior is impeccable. By Machiavellian standards, it is a menace to himself and his people. Because Duncan's kingship can be admired from one perspective and condemned from the other, it serves as a locus for uncovering the play's ideological sympathies, particularly since Macbeth provides an alternative model of political virtue in Malcolm. At the beginning of the play, Duncan “rules” by the rules; later his son will “rule” by breaking them. These opposing images of the good king frame the portrait of Macbeth and his criminal regime, and it is Malcolm's politic practice that emerges as the normative standard against which both Duncan and Macbeth are measured.

The rebellion that almost destroys Duncan's kingdom is set in a Machiavellian context. A central theme of The Prince is Machiavelli's new take on the classic opposition of fortune and virtue. In late medieval philosophy Christian virtue could defeat the goddess Fortune by making a man indifferent to her blows. Machiavelli, however, argues that although a private individual can afford to hold the world in contempt, a prince has aggressively to impose his will upon it. He inverts the standard virtue-fortune model, stating that a man with sufficient virtù can violently conquer Fortuna (The Prince, 25). In the first act of Macbeth, the goddess Fortune is a battle prize tossed back and forth among virile warriors. Initially, Fortune is the “rebel's whore” who aids the traitorous Thanes (I.ii.15).5 But she is finally conquered by Macbeth, who “Disdaining” her, prefers instead to be “Valor's minion,” “Bellona's bridegroom” (I.ii.17, 54). Significantly, Duncan is left on the sidelines; in the delegitimized world of power struggle, his Christian virtue cannot come into play. In order to conquer Fortune he needs the virtù of men like Macbeth. However, according to Machiavelli, a prince cannot maintain his power by relying on the virtù of another; like the goddess, the state belongs to the man who wins her by force. It is for this reason Machiavelli advises that every prince should be his own best general and “never lift his thoughts from the exercise of war” (The Prince, 14). In Machiavelli's view, Duncan's delegation of the violent arts of war would be consistent with both Christian values and the eventual loss of his kingdom.

Machiavelli does not dismiss Christian virtues; he understands their appeal and acknowledges their prestige. In The Prince he instructs the ruler in the proper “use” of traditional virtues. If the times are peaceful and all men trustworthy, the prince can afford the luxury of moral practice. If, however, his state is insecure, he must cultivate an appearance of virtue while being willing to practice its opposite. In chapter 18 Machiavelli explains why it is dangerous for the prince to possess in actuality the virtues that he must always project:

Nay, I dare say this, that by having them [virtues] and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able to know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under the necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion.

As this passage makes clear, Duncan, however admirable a man, is by Machiavellian standards a dangerous king—a ruler whose gentle and trusting character has invited treason, civil war, and foreign invasion. By being a perfect Christian, Duncan succeeds in becoming a perfect lamb—a sacrificial offering on the altar of real-world politics.

Given the potentially deadly environment a prince must inhabit, Machiavelli recommends that his nature should combine two less endearing animals, the lion and the fox: “Thus, since a prince is compelled of necessity how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion … one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten wolves” (The Prince, 18). Because he sees survival as a prince's first duty, Machiavelli selects for emulation animals known for their survival skills rather than their service to others. Although this advice may seem to be nothing more than the glorification of self-interest,6 it can be argued that altruistic virtues will be of little value to the prince or his kingdom if they open the way to his destruction and die with him, along with countless subjects. At the beginning of Macbeth Duncan displays the kind of fatal näiveté characteristic of a prince who possesses virtue rather than virtù. Mystified by Cawdor's treason, he states,

                                                            There’s no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.


Duncan admits that he cannot penetrate appearances, yet he tries to build his kingdom on relationships of “absolute trust.” The Machiavellian prince, on the other hand, has mastered the art of seeing into others while remaining a mystery himself, and he is utterly self-reliant. In chapter 17 of The Prince, Machiavelli warns against depending on the love and loyalty of one's followers. He calls the generality of men “ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers,” and urges the prince to build his kingdom on fear rather than love since love is “held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you” (The Prince, 17).7

Duncan's faith and trust cost him his life. But it is through his death that his son Malcolm learns the art of survival. Machiavelli considered the prince fortunate to found his state in adversity since the struggle instructs him in the ways of maintaining power (The Prince, 20). Indeed, by the end of the play, Malcolm's fortunes seem to have transformed him into a total Machiavellian. Immediately following his father's murder, Malcolm wishes to speak his heart, but his brother stops him, considering it more prudent to run than to stay and protest against a hidden and deadly enemy (II.iii.118-25). By Act IV, scene iii, Malcolm has acquired virtù, which is above all else the art of prudence.8 He tells Macduff, who has come from Scotland to offer his services to the prince in exile, that he cannot depend on a mere verbal assurance of Macduff's virtuous intent. After all, as Malcolm points out, “This tyrant whose sole name blisters our tongue / Was once thought honest” (IV.iii.11-12). He suspects that Macduff may be trying to ingratiate himself with Macbeth by offering him up “a weak, poor, innocent lamb / T’appease an angry god” (IV.iii.16-17). However, unlike his father, Malcolm is more fox than lamb, and although he maintains that he cannot know what is in a man's heart, he has learned to attain some measure of control over a world of deception by turning dissimulation itself into a tool.9 In other words, he has learned to “rule” by breaking the rules of Christian conduct. He tests Macduff's virtue by pretending to every vice a tyrant proverbially possessed.10 In this Machiavellian test, a virtuous man dissimulates (a non-virtuous act) that he is not virtuous in order to prove that the object of his test is virtuous. And it is not until Macduff violently rejects him (“Fit to govern? / No, not to live”) that he can accept Macduff. Malcolm has put into practice what Machiavelli recommends in chapter 18 of The Prince: “How laudable it is for a prince to keep his faith, and live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands. Nonetheless one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men's brains with their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty.”

The exchange between Malcolm and Macduff is not only interesting as a Machiavellian demonstration of “how to get around men's brains,” it also reveals the extent to which conventional rule-bound notions of ethical conduct have yielded to moral concepts that are prudential or ends-oriented. In the area of religious practice, late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England is witness to a growing adiaphorism which relegates to the realm of things indifferent all matters that do not directly affect salvation. At the same time, James I asserts a political adiaphora which contains any royal vice that does not directly affect the state.11 These developments in English religious and political ideology harmonize with Machiavellian notions of civic virtue that subordinate personal morality to considerations of political consequence. Thus during the testing scene, Macduff can promise that Scotland will accommodate a series of personal vices—deceit, lust, avarice—but he rejects Malcolm as a king when his vices turn political:12

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


The scene between Malcolm and Macduff not only illustrates concepts of virtue that subordinate traditional rules of Christian conduct to the pressing needs of troubled times; it also succeeds in cloaking Malcolm's true nature in an impenetrable veil. When Malcolm “unspeaks” the crimes he has just laid upon himself, claiming that he is a virgin who has never before lied or broken faith, Macduff is struck dumb with confusion. Malcolm's claims of perfect innocence and honesty are incredible under any circumstances but particularly since they are belied by the speech that asserts them. After this virtùoso display of politic dissimulation, it becomes impossible for Macduff, or the audience, to get a precise fix on Malcolm. He has successfully cultivated the “mystery of state” that is characteristic of both Machiavellian theory and absolutist practice.13

Before Malcolm tests Macduff's honesty by lying, the breakdown of an easy equivalence between being “true” literally and politically has been introduced in a conversation where the subject is also Macduff's loyalty—the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son moments before their murder. The boy asks if his father is really a traitor, and when his mother replies that he is, he wants a definition of treason:

Son. What is a traitor?
L. Macd. Why, one that swears and
Son. And be all traitors that do
L. Macd. Every one that does so is
a traitor, and must be hang’d.
Son. And must they all be hang’d
that swear and lie?
L. Macd. Every one.
Son. Who must hang them?
L. Macd. Why, the honest men.
Son. Then the liars and swearers
are fools; for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and
hang up them.


Lady Macduff's definition of treason is never meant to be taken seriously, quickly collapsing in the face of her son's simple “reality test.” However, her explanation of the supreme crime against the state echoes the political writings of Christian humanists, who insist that political evil is identical to religious sin. Lady Macduff's equating treason with breaking the second and ninth commandments has serious philosophical precedent, and the ease with which that equation is dismissed by her son is a reflection of the erosion these views have undergone by the early seventeenth century. Thus Shakespeare's domestic exchange illustrates that by this time even a child knows what political writers from Cicero to Suarez vigorously deny—lying is not treason; as the world goes, it is a ubiquitous tool of survival.

Given his strength, courage, and willingness to commit evil, Macbeth might seem to be Machiavelli's ideal prince. Actually, he manages to fall short in several regards, not the least of which is his inability to dissimulate. From the moment he hears the witches' prediction, his ambition becomes transparent. He attracts Banquo's suspicion early on, and he has to be instructed by Lady Macbeth to hide his feelings from the first moment she sees him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters. 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.


His acting abilities hardly improve once he becomes king. The play is filled with references to Macbeth's ill-fitting costumes (I.iii.144-46; V.ii.20-23), references which are usually read as symbols of Macbeth's inability to “fill Duncan's shoes.” I would like to suggest that these costumes which never seem to fit may also refer to Macbeth's incompetence at maintaining illusion. The mask of the “mystery of state” keeps slipping, revealing Macbeth's naked face—filled with ambition, fear, hatred—for anyone to read. He reveals fear and guilt in the banquet scene in front of the assembled lords of Scotland, and Macduff senses danger in time to escape his grasp. The sarcastic exchange between Lennox and another lord in Act III, scene vi, reveals that not one of his attempts to shift the blame for his crimes has succeeded. One tactic for which Machiavelli praises Borgia is his use of Rimirro de Orca; Rimirro commits all of the crimes necessary to pacify the Romagna, and once the people begin to hate him for his cruelty, he is killed, leaving Borgia both secure and popular. Unlike Borgia, Macbeth carries the personal stigma of every crime in his realm.

However, by Machiavellian standards Macbeth's greatest sin would probably be not his inability to dissimulate but his initial reluctance to commit totally to the course of wrongdoing that his position as usurping prince has made essential. In The Discourses Machiavelli praises the wisdom of those who prefer to live as private citizens rather than suffer the guilt all kings must incur. He goes on to warn against the greatest danger, the desire to have it all—the clean conscience of a private man and the power of a prince. Having just described the means by which Philip of Macedon made himself prince of Greece, Machiavelli states:

Such methods are exceedingly cruel, and are repugnant to any community, not only a Christian one, but to any composed of men. It behoves, therefore, every man to shun them, and to prefer rather to live as a private citizen than as a king with such ruination of men to his score. None the less, for the sort of man who is unwilling to take up this first course of well doing, it is expedient, should he wish to hold what he has, to enter on the path of wrong doing. Actually, however, most men prefer to steer a middle course, which is very harmful; for they know not how to be wholly good nor yet wholly bad.

(Bk. 1, chap. 26)

Machiavelli's complaint about men's longing to attain power without sacrificing personal virtue sounds very much like Lady Macbeth's fears concerning her husband's double desire:

                                                            Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win.


One can see Macbeth's deep desire to be “holy” and yet “wrongly win” in Act II, scene ii, where, incredibly, he seeks a blessing by trying to join his own “Amen” to the prayer of two sleeping innocents seconds after he has murdered Duncan; it seems genuinely to surprise him that the “Amen” sticks in his throat (II.ii.24-31). Macbeth is like the Porter's “equivocator,” a man who wants it all and “could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven” (II.iii.8-11).

It is a delicate issue to argue that Scotland would have been better off had Macbeth been more thoroughly evil—especially since Macbeth becomes evil incarnate by the end of the play. What Machiavelli would argue is that Macbeth's conversion comes too late for himself and for the kingdom. In Act I Macbeth wants his murder of Duncan to be a single, limited crime, and he alternates between fantasizing an assassination that “Could trammel up the consequences,” and the realization that he may not be able to control what will follow.14 By murdering Duncan, and Duncan alone, Macbeth's worst fears come true. He unleashes a flood of events that so outrace his efforts at containment that he finally resorts to a reign of terror. In what must be the most troubling passages in The Prince, chapters 7 and 8 on Borgia and Agathocles, Machiavelli distinguishes between cruelties that are well or badly used:

Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles and anyone like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live for a long time secure in his fatherland, defend himself against external enemies, and never be conspired against by his citizens, inasmuch as many others have not been able to maintain their states through cruelty even in peaceful times, not to mention uncertain times of war. I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Those who observe the first mode can have some remedy for their state with God and with men, as had Agathocles.

Machiavelli's condemnation of “cruelties badly used” could easily serve as a gloss to Macbeth, where the crimes are few in the beginning but do indeed grow with time. It is particularly interesting to note that Machiavelli brings in the judgment of God as well as men; both distinguish between these two cruelties and both find only the latter beyond remedy. Machiavelli can praise Borgia and Agathocles, and even offer them a kind of divine dispensation, because his perspective is “of the people” (The Prince, dedicatory letter). He is not interested in the personal virtue of the prince, only in the effect of his actions on the kingdom. Since the civil chaos and terror that follow innocent blunders and half-hearted crimes are more deadly to the people than the quick and ruthless pacification of a kingdom, Machiavelli saves his condemnation for those princes whose actions cost the most lives.

Machiavelli warns against the dangers of traveling the “middle course” throughout his works. He states in The Prince that men should either be “caressed or eliminated” (3). In both The Prince and The Discourses, he particularly emphasizes the importance of eliminating the blood line of the former ruler when founding a new kingdom (The Prince, 3; The Discourses, Bk. 3, chap. 4). Macbeth's failures in this regard are obvious. He lets Malcolm and Donalbain escape after having done them the gravest injuries. And because he feels insecure from the moment he seizes power, he continues to murder in order to feel safe: “to be thus is nothing / But to be safely thus” (III.i.48-49). When he speaks to Lady Macbeth about his fears, he illustrates the escalation of violence that follows from half-hearted measures:

We have scorch’d the snake, not kill’d it;
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear.


He ends the scene with a reiteration of the same concept—increased evil to secure their shaky position: “Thou marvel’st at my words, but hold thee still: / Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.ii.54-55). But after his initial crime, no matter how willingly or quickly he kills, it never seems to be enough. Having begun his crimes by killing Duncan while allowing his heirs to escape, he will crown them by killing all of Macduff's heirs after allowing Macduff to escape. The violence increases exponentially, but its efficacy decreases at an even higher rate.

Machiavelli never praises brutality for its own sake; he advocates its politic use as a necessary evil, a prophylactic against widespread and indiscriminate violence. He is particularly critical of the kinds of cruel actions that breed mayhem; and more than any other political writer, he understands the destructive power of vengeance. When in chapter 17 of The Prince he advises that it is better to be feared than to be loved, he adds an important caveat—one should be feared but never hated. In chapter 20 he discusses fortifications and concludes, “the best fortress there is, is not to be hated by the people, because although you may have fortresses, if the people hold you in hatred fortresses do not save you; for to people who have taken up arms foreigners will never be lacking to come to their aid.” By committing acts like the massacre of Macduff's family, Macbeth has become universally hated. He faces an avenging army, aided by a foreign king, with nothing at his back but a fortress, soldiers in revolt, and “Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not” (V.iii.27-28). Shortly after this speech, Macbeth will be defeated and decapitated. Machiavelli would have predicted his violent end, but not on providential grounds. He would have seen Macbeth's destruction as no more or less inevitable than Duncan's—both of Shakespeare's portraits in political disaster could have found a place among his vast collection of object lessons in virtù and the art of survival.


  1. In The Discourses Niccolò Machiavelli rails against Christianity's effect on political life. Unlike the state religion of the Romans, Christianity holds the world and its glories in contempt:

    Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It has assigned as man's highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things [cosi umane], whereas the other identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything else that conduces to make men very bold. And, if our religion demands that in you there be strength, what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than the strength to do bold things.

    This pattern of life, therefore, appears to have made the world weak, and to have handed it over as prey to the wicked, who run it successfully and securely since they are well aware that the generality of men, with paradise for their goal, consider how best to bear, rather than how best to avenge, their injuries.

    (Bk. 2, chap. 2)

    (All citations from The Discourses are from Leslie J. Walker's translation, New York: Penguin, 1970; all citations from The Prince are from Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.'s translation, cited by chapter. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985).

  2. See among others L. C. Knights, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth,” in Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), pp. 1-39, and Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973).

  3. See David Norbrook's “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 78-116.

  4. The reception of Machiavelli in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a welter of contradictions; however, it is clear that by the seventeenth century his philosophy was beginning to gain respectability. For detailed accounts of the extent and levels of Machiavellianism, open and covert, see Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge, 1964), and the recent study by Peter S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). As Donaldson's investigations have confirmed, there were a number of avid followers of Machiavelli in the early Tudor courts—among others, William Thomas, who wrote a secret work of royal pedagogy based on Machiavelli's works for the young prince Edward VI, and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who wrote a Machiavellian treatise for Mary's consort, Philip of Spain.

    By the late sixteenth century many of Machiavelli's most controversial ideas were also gaining ground in public political discourse, although authors often avoided defending him by name. For instance, in an English translation of The Six Bookes of Politickes or Civil Doctrine (trans. William Jones, London, 1594), Justus Lipsius, a writer noted for his piety, praises the politic use of deception and actively defends Machiavelli (identified in a marginal note):

    Surely when one is not strong enough to debate in the matter, it is not amisse secretly to intrappe. And as the King of Sparta teacheth us, where we cannot prevaile by the Lions skinne, we must put on the Foxes. … Of such a person we shall easily obtaine this; neither will he so strictly condemne the Italian fault-writer, (who poore soule is layde at of all hands) and as a holy person sayth, that there is a certaine honest and laudable deceipt.

    (p. 114)

    For seventeenth-century adoption of Machiavelli's republican theories, see Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1945).

  5. All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  6. Machiavelli's attitude towards self-interest is clearly expressed in one of his poems, “Tercets on Ambition” in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, 3 vols., trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1965), 2: 735-39. He sees personal ambition as a great evil unless it is harnessed by the state and its energies turned against her enemies. If it is allowed to rage unchecked within a kingdom the results are reminiscent of Macbeth's Scotland: “Wherever you turn your eyes, you see the earth wet with tears / and blood, and the air full of screams, sobs, and sighs” (lines 157-58).

  7. It has long been noted that Machiavelli has a very “Protestant” conception of human nature. See for example, Hiram Haydn's The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Scribner's, 1950) for a discussion of Calvin and the Florentine school. One can also see an affinity with Luther, whose bleak view of humanity is the basis on which he justifies the need for coercive government: without rule by force, “seeing that the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian, men would devour one another, and no one could preserve wife and child, support himself and serve God; and thus the world would be reduced to chaos.” Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 370. These views of man's nature, along with the antinomianism inherent in the doctrine of election (which does not contain a rule-bound view of virtue), contribute to a world-view receptive to both absolutism and civic humanism. Thus as England became more Protestant and more absolutist, it became more hospitable to Machiavelli.

  8. For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Machiavellian virtù and prudence see Eugene Garver's Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987). Garver states: “Machiavelli ‘empties’ virtù of its conventional semantic, moral, and intellectual associations in order to substitute a prudential structure for understanding it” (p. 31).

  9. See Victoria Kahn's article, “Virtù and the Example of Agathocles in Machiavelli's Prince,Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 63-83, for a discussion of the breakdown of the Ciceronian equation of honestas and utilitas (if a statement is true it will be effective) subscribed to by Christian humanists. Kahn points out Machiavelli's adoption of an ironic mode of discourse that achieves its ends by seeming to speak against them.

  10. See Rebecca W. Bushnell's Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990) for a detailed discussion of the character of the tyrant in classical and Renaissance political theory and theater. He was conventionally conceived as a slave to desire and therefore subject to any number of appetitive vices.

  11. In Basilikon Doron, James I separates the King's personal conduct from the rest of the work in a book labeled, “Of a King's Behaviour in Indifferent Things.” Earlier in the work he admits every king has his faults, but insists that they are to be kept between him and God and “should not be a matter of discourse to others whatsoever.” The Political Works of James I, 1616, intro. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 21.

  12. Bushnell notes the relationship between absolutist notions that relegate personal sins to the adiaphora and this turn in Macduff's attitude (pp. 140-42).

  13. See especially Donaldson's Machiavelli and the Mystery of State for an exhaustive study of the role of mystery in both Machiavelli's political theory and his reception and use in England. See also the treatment of the arcana imperii in Jonathan Goldberg's James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), and Stephen Orgel's connection of Machiavellian illusion with the celebration of power in the Jacobean masque in The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).

  14. In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), J. G. A. Pocock notes the mixed nature of virtù; its cardinal characteristic, innovation, can easily turn against its practitioner:

    On the one hand virtù is that by which we innovate, and so let loose sequences of contingency beyond our prediction or control so that we become prey to fortuna; on the other hand, virtù is that internal to ourselves by which we resist fortuna and impose upon her patterns of order, which may even become patterns of moral order. This seems to be at the heart of Machiavellian ambiguities. It explains why innovation is supremely difficult, being formally self-destructive; and it explains why there is incompatibility between action—and so between politics defined in terms of action rather than tradition—and moral order.

    (p. 167)

William T. Liston (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “‘Male and Female Created He Them’: Sex and Gender in Macbeth,” in College Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 232-39.

[In the following essay, Liston examines gender issues and sex roles in Macbeth, and theorizes that when men and women step out of their defined roles they lose their humanity.]

Probably none of Shakespeare's plays is so explicit in demarcating man from woman as is Macbeth. Man (including the plural and such obvious derivatives as manly, manhood, and unmanned) appears more than 40 times, almost always with a conscious sense of defining the term—or rather, of defining a person by the term. Woman (including similar formations) appears about a third as frequently, with a similar sense of precise definition.

The most obvious examples of this defining process appear in the preparations for the murder of Duncan and in the discovery of it (1.7 and 2.3); in the preparations for the murder of Banquo and the Banquet scene (3.1 and 3.4); and in the scene in which Malcolm tests Macduff's loyalty (4.3). In all of these scenes, what is at issue is a definition of human nature. (Nature and derivatives appear 27 times; and kind, with similar meaning, as in the “milk of human kindness,” appears a few times also.) In several instances the words take on a highly sexual meaning, as when Lady Macbeth challenges Macbeth's manhood prior to the murder of Duncan and questions it during his apparent hallucinations in the Banquet scene. Similarly, she is highly conscious of her own sexuality when she speaks of her “woman's breasts” while calling on the “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here” so that she will not be impeded in her plan by “compunctious visitings of nature” (1.5).1 What presents itself here is a conflation of sex roles and of gender, and a demonstration that human beings are by nature sexual beings. When men and women step outside these sex and gender roles, they lose their humanity. Their liberation from definition destroys them; paradoxically, in fact, it confines them. After their great crime, Macbeth feels “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears” (3.4.23-24), and Lady Macbeth is imprisoned within her own sick mind.

After the witches' short opening scene, the first line of the play is Duncan's “What bloody man is that?” The man in question is the sergeant who reports brave Macbeth's bloody deeds. And immediately we are on the way to a definition of man as Bellona's bridegroom, a being who is valiant, courageous, and essentially a person committed to direct, unreflective physical action. Just as immediately, however, this simple definition is undermined as Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches, who “should be women” (1.3.45) but whose beards belie their sex. It is further undermined a few moments later as Macbeth, yielding to the suggestion that he actively try to bring about his accession to the kingship, finds “my seated heart knock at my ribs, / Against the use of nature.” The thought shakes his “single state of man” (134-140). Single here is glossed by most modern editors as “weak,” but Kenneth Muir notes “Grierson [in his 1914 edition]—I think rightly—says that single here means ‘indivisible’ and the phrase as a whole ‘my composite nature—body, spirits, etc., made one by the soul.’”2 Though either sense can be correct—and possibly both are—my sense of the lines accords with that of Muir and Grierson. Integrity is the word that the entire phrase “single state of man” suggests. (This is precisely the contention of Richard Horwich in “Integrity in Macbeth: The Search for the ‘Single State of Man.’”3)

Oddly, though Macbeth is ostensibly concerned with regicide and kingship, with the fate of a kingdom, the play proceeds on the values of a domestic tragedy. Whereas the history plays and the Roman plays enact their public values in public spaces, several of the tragedies—this one especially—seem to take place indoors and to focus on the values that are defined by and embodied in personal and familial relationships. Certainly the play begins on the battlefield where the integrity of the nation is called into question, and it ends there also, even if the final scene is staged in Macbeth's castle. But the scenes we remember most—those in the great middle of the play—are indoor scenes, dependent upon the relationship of husband and wife, of man and woman.

The word man first appears near the end of 1.4, as Macbeth tells Duncan that “I’ll be myself the harbinger, and make joyful / The hearing of my wife with your approach” (45-46). The Folio opening stage direction for the next scene reads “Enter Macbeths Wife with a Letter.” Though it is true that Lady Macbeth's speech prefix is consistently Lady, and that several other stage directions (e.g., 1.6.10 and 1.7.28) read enter Lady, Lady Macbeth is not initially defined in her own right but regarded as an extension of her husband.

Likewise, the first appearance of husband is Lady Macbeth's anxious breaking off from “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” to greet “My husband!” (2.2.13) as Macbeth enters to announce “I have done the deed.” But the word has ironically been anticipated by Banquo's statement at the beginning of the preceding scene that “There’s husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out” (4-5). There is husbandry on earth also, and the snuffing of Duncan is its product.

As Macbeth's wife, Lady Macbeth is perceived and judged according to the roles and functions that a proper wife fulfills and performs. Given her station, there are two: to provide heirs to her lord, and to be his hostess. It is in the latter capacity that Duncan regards her as he arrives at Inverness: “See, see, our honor’d hostess!” (1.6.10). Surely it is no accident that Duncan's exclamation completes a speech of Banquo's that alludes to the child-bearing role:

                                                            This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting marlet, does approve,
By his lov’d mansionry, that the heaven's breath
Smell 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.


The scene concludes with subtle but nevertheless insistent emphasis on the role of both the hostess and the host, Duncan asserting “Fair and noble hostess, / We are your guest to-night” (24-25), and finally going off with—

                                                            Give me your hand.
Conduct me to mine host, we love him highly,
And shall continue our graces towards him.
By your leave, hostess.

Host and hostess appear only once more each, in the immediately succeeding scenes. As Macbeth contemplates the murder of Duncan—“If it were done,” etc.—he pauses to consider arguments against the murder.

                                                            He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host.


The crime of regicide is in Macbeth's mind, but not prominently. He is conscious of Duncan's “great office” (18) and of his own subjection to that office, but much more conscious of the domestic demands imposed upon kinsmen and hosts.

In the following scene, shortly after he notes the “husbandry in heaven,” Banquo informs Macbeth that

                                                            the King's a-bed.
He hath been in unusual pleasure, and
Sent forth great largess to your offices.
This diamond he greets your wife withal,
By the name of most kind hostess.


In this apparently simple statement, just moments before the murder, the offices of host and hostess, the roles of wife, and nature—alluded to in kind—are all mentioned, casually; and all are about to be violated.

That Lady Macbeth is ambitious is unquestioned. But what is she ambitious for? She first appears in 1.5, reading Macbeth's letter, and chills us as she starts to lay the plans that will culminate in Duncan's death after his fatal entrance “Under my battlements,” the instrument being “my keen knife.” Yet nowhere, neither here nor elsewhere, does she ask for anything for herself, in her own right. She apostrophically addresses Macbeth with,

                                                            Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.


At the end of the scene, but not before, she finally includes herself in the profit to be gained from the enterprise, and then only in general terms:

                                                            and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely soverign sway and masterdom.


The terms of simple domestic relationships dominate 4.2, in which Lady Macduff and her son are murdered. In this scene, the great world is in the distance, but not forgotten. What we are concerned with here is father, mother, husband, wife, babes, and, as always, natural, as well as man and woman. The point of the scene comes to focus in Lady Macduff's speech immediately after she is warned of the approaching danger by the “homely man”:

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


Perversely, “womanly defense” should be “manly defense.” Her defense—that only those who have done wrong need fear danger—is perfect logic, ideal logic: the kind of logic that reasonable men, rather than emotional women, supposedly use. But Macbeth has so perverted “this earthly world” that logic no longer obtains, and a reasonable defense, a “womanly defense,” is absurd. The innocent, and innocence, are destroyed in such a world.

Not a particularly attractive scene in performance (one wonders if Shakespeare had ever seen or heard a real child) because so much of it is dominated by Macduff's “witty” child playing straight-man to his mother, this scene more than any other concentrates on the familial relationships and the disruption of these bonds and relationships.

An equally difficult scene, both in reading and performance, immediately follows; it is an almost actionless scene likely to bore both a reader and a spectator, and yet it brings together all the values and concerns of the play. The scene divides into two halves, Malcolm's testing of Macduff's loyalty, and Macduff's responses (and reactions) upon being informed of the slaughter of his family. These scenic beats are separated by lines concerned with the king's evil (140-159).

In his testing of Macduff, Malcolm accuses himself in general terms of being as bad as Macbeth. Finally, he focuses on “The cestern of my lust” (63) as the defining sin of his viciousness. Macduff's reply—“Boundless intemperance / In nature is a tyranny” (66-67)—is as good a statement of the theme of the play as can be found, and yet it seems almost a throw-away line, hardly noticed. Scotland can absorb such intemperance: “We have willing dames enough.” The simplicity and honesty of women has given way to the pretentious dames in this debasing context.

Malcolm goes on to claim other vices such as avarice, but still Macduff raises no serious objection: “All these are portable” (89). Malcolm then disclaims all virtues, asserting—

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


And at this point Macduff proves his loyalty to Malcolm and to virtue in rejecting Malcolm as unfit to govern.

Is it the word milk that affects Macduff so strongly? The word has been used thrice earlier in the play, always by Lady Macbeth (“th’ milk of human kindness” [1.5.17]; “take my milk for gall” [1.5.48]; and “the babe that milks me” [1.7.55]), and in every case the image has amounted to a perversion of nature. Here, for the fourth time in the play—more than in any other Shakespearean play—the word appears again, and the equation is made through the image that peace is a feminine function and concern. Certainly the chief concern of Macduff's wife was peace.

Having convinced himself of Macduff's virtue, Malcolm denies all the intemperate desires of which he had accused himself as “strangers to my nature,” and goes on to assure Macduff that “I am yet / Unknown to woman” (125-26). Ludicrous as this statement seems to be in equating ignorance (or innocence—both words reverberate throughout the play) of woman with manly goodness and virtue, it cannot be ignored. Does it mean that sexual knowledge is the knowledge of good and evil? This is a simplistic answer, especially in this play, which aims at a much richer definition of man, but no better answer suggests itself.

As Ellen J. O’Brien says in an article on teaching Shakespeare, Macduff's “understanding of the ambiguity of things intensifies in this scene”; Malcolm's testing of him amounts to a development of the “fair is foul” theme.4 Following the clarification of his misconceptions regarding Malcolm, he is informed of the savage slaughter of his wife and babes, and the familiar terms of familial relationships come to the fore again, as do the terms of gender.

Momentarily reduced almost to inarticulateness and broken lines—in fact, after trying to forget the humanness of his wife and children by referring to them as chickens and their dam (218)—Macduff is urged by Malcolm to “Dispute it like a man.” His reply—“I shall do so; / But I must also feel it as a man” (220-21)—signals the broader definition of man as someone capable of sympathy usually conceived of as feminine. Macduff goes on to say that “I could play the woman with mine eyes” (230), countenancing tears as a legitimate part of a warrior's psyche. When, a moment later, upon Macduff's resolution to pursue Macbeth at once, Malcolm approvingly states “This tune goes manly,” he is of course referring to Macduff's warlike determination; but we sense also a larger and more encompassing definition of manly than had been present earlier in the play, even if Malcolm is not aware of the full implications of what he says. It is easy to agree with Robert Kimbrough, who says, “I would like to think that Malcom [sic] has understood the full significance of what he has seen and heard and intends ‘manly’ to mean more than bravely—but I doubt it.”5

Though the play belongs to the Macbeths, the assertion of the fuller and more complex values of peace and family and humanity are stated and dramatized most positively in the Macduffs, despite Lady Macduff's complaint that in leaving her and their children Macduff “wants the natural touch” (4.2.9). Macduff's willingness to regard as natural to man the possession and even the expression of emotion posits a richer definition of man than merely that of a male capable of unflinching courage in battle and in the face of death. This definition counters that implied by the First Murderer—“We are men, my liege” (3.1.90)—as beings capable of killing remorselessly out of mere envy and resentment. Lady Macduff's instinctive resort to the procreant birds in her desperate plight—

                                                            the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest—


alludes to the barren and unnatural Lady Macbeth whose castle bears the outward signs of a pleasant seat in providing safety for the marlet but no protection for humanity: indeed harbors no humanity.

In short, the norm against which Macbeth works is a traditional definition of man as valorous, firm, commanding, humane, and limited; and a traditional definition of woman as soft, maternal, nourishing, a help meet to her husband, humane, and limited. The proper man and the proper woman are both richer than the simplistic stereotype even in the fairly restricted world of this play; but essential to full humanity is limitation within that defined role.6


  1. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton, 1974). All quotations are from this edition unless otherwise specified.

  2. Macbeth, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1962).

  3. Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978): 366.

  4. “Inside Shakespeare: Using Performance Techniques To Achieve Traditional Goals,” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 629.

  5. “Macbeth: The Prisoner of Gender,” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 178.

  6. After sending this paper off for publication, I read Laurence Olivier's autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982; New York: Penguin, 1984), in which, after telling us that he and his wife Vivien Leigh promised during the summer of 1954 to play Macbeth at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, he adds the comment that “as Sybil Thorndike always said, ‘You must be married to play the Macbeths’” (198).

    This paper had its genesis in a Seminar on Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender organized by Shirley Nelson Garner for the 1987 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, and profited from the criticism of that group.

Criticism: Psychological Approaches

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SOURCE: “Macbeth's Three Murders: Shakespearean Psychology and Tragic Form,” in Renaissance Papers 1991, edited by George Walton Williams and Barbara J. Baines, The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1992, pp. 75-92.

[In the following essay, originally delivered in 1991, Reid contends that the three murders committed by Macbeth are representative of the three distinctive stages of evil that evolve in his psyche.]

Macbeth is a milestone in man's exploration of … this “depth of things” which our age calls the unconscious.

Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare

Interpreters of Macbeth have focused almost exclusively on the first murder, the killing of a king in Acts I-II, as the basis for understanding the play—its social, psychological, and metaphysical meanings. Macbeth's subsequent two assassinations, of Banquo in Act III, and of Macduff's wife and children in Acts IV-V, are either ignored, or are treated simply as efforts to secure the usurped crown, or perhaps as a kind of Freudian “repetition compulsion”—the blooded man's first heinous kill engendering serial slayings.1 Neither of the subsequent murders has been accorded its own distinctive meaning and psychological motivation; they are seen as mere shadowy reenactments of the Oedipal complex which is presumed to underlie the one essential crime, the slaying of the patriarchal king.2

As R. A. Foakes puts it, “the murder of Duncan was the equivalent in mountaineering terms of scaling Everest, and after this [Macbeth] has no trouble with lower hills.”3 This exclusive highlighting of the regicide (as the “be-all and end-all” of the play) entails, however, that the final three acts must dwindle from real theatrical power to melodramatic spectacle4—a result of the victims' shrinking symbolic import and, correspondingly, the shrinking spiritual grandeur of the protagonists, who deliver fewer and fewer eloquent soliloquies, consign their villainies to hired thugs, and finally are swept aside by the nobler (but less charismatic) avengers, Macduff and Malcolm. Many astute critics of the play—including Bradley, Rossiter, Heilman, Sanders, Jorgensen, Mack, Kirsch, and Muir—have struggled with this central conundrum: can the playwright sustain great tragedy if the only true kingly spirit is dispatched at the outset?5

Like most of these critics, I believe that Macbeth's capacious mind, despite its moral degeneration, remains at center stage, showing the horrific consequences of a truly heroic spirit embracing evil. But instead of conceiving the tragedy as one great cosmos-shaking act of regicide followed by two subordinate aftershocks, I would characterize the Macbeths' journey into darkness as three equally significant stages of spiritual catastrophe, three distinctive and theatrically-potent dimensions of evil as it evolves and festers in the human psyche. Macbeth murders first a parental ruler, then a brotherly friend (his “chiefest friend” according to Holinshed), and finally a mother and her children.6 His victims thus represent the three fundamental human bonds, together comprising (in reverse order) the three basic stages of human maturation, or the three essential cathexes of the human psyche. Thus, in the course of the three murders Macbeth deconstructs the entire psychological infrastructure of human identity. Shakespeare's awareness of this pattern is underscored by its earlier prototypical appearance in Richard III, where that villain-hero similarly kills a king (Henry VI), then a brother (Clarence), then children (the Princes).7 In Macbeth, however, the playwright is much more fully apprised of the scheme's psychological implications, which he methodically exploits.

The dramaturgical design of Macbeth precisely emphasizes this three-phase pattern: Acts I and II present, in a continuous sequence, the regicide and its immediate consequences; Act III shows the murder of Banquo and then its impact on Macbeth at the banquet; Acts IV and V, another continuous cycle of action, presents the slaughter of Macduff's family, then its social and psychological consequences.8 This 2-1-2 structure, the dramaturgic pattern of all of Shakespeare's mature tragedies, perfectly accommodates his treatment of Macbeth's three murders.

To attain this neatly coherent pattern of psychological devolution, Shakespeare has drastically altered Holinshed's Chronicles9—first, by condensing all the major crises of Duncan's six-year reign and of Macbeth's seventeen-year reign into the two-hour traffic of the stage. The entire battery of wars and assassinations seems to transpire in a matter of days, rather than a quarter of a century, making the three murders (as well as the broader framework of political violence in Acts I and V) seem closely and causally connected.

Equally striking is Shakespeare's moral reshaping of the victims, casting them as iconically benevolent members of the human family, in order to accommodate his three-fold tragic pattern. Instead of the chronicles' portrait of a weak, cowardly, and greedy king, about the same age as his cousin Macbeth, Shakespeare portrays Duncan as aged, humble, and generous—an ideal, almost saintly monarch.10 Similarly Banquo, in the chronicles a co-conspirator in regicide, is recast as a devoted friend in life's warfare, modestly resisting each temptation to which his colleague falls prey.11 Likewise Macduff, who in the chronicles enters the story belatedly, mainly seeking personal revenge, is transmuted into an ever-present touchstone of charitable social compassion—the Man of Feeling who best embodies what his wife and babes, those “strong knots of love,” represent: the most primitive human bond. It is Macduff's horrified response to Duncan's murder that initiates the knocking of conscience in the Macbeths; and it is his patriotic opposition to the usurper that galvanizes Scotland and England into a retributive force.12 Shakespeare's radical reconstruction of the chronicles, especially his amelioration of the victims' moral character, thus emphasizes the destruction of three primordial human bonds. This three-phase sequence of psychological disintegration (and implicit affirmation of the values destroyed) provides a paradigm of Shakespeare's mature tragic form.


In presenting an initial assault on regal or parental authority in Acts I-II, Macbeth is comparable to all the tragedies from Hamlet to Coriolanus. The murder of a parent-like king, reflecting the Macbeths' aspiration to God-like greatness and power, is an Oedipal repudiation of superego (as commentators since Freud and Jekels have acknowledged). Yet the gender implications of Duncan's rule have been too reductively construed by Oedipal-oriented psychoanalysts. For centuries it has been assumed that Duncan's fatherliness forms the basis of his comprehensive social identity (Scotland) and of his Christ-like spiritual identity (“The Lord's anointed temple,” II.iii.70)—that as patriarch he, like Lear and Cymbeline, represents the acme of psychological development, the mature conscience of the race, or in Freudian terms, “superego.”13 Critics persistently construe the regicidal motive as an Oedipal antagonism, citing Lady Macbeth's distress at Duncan's fatherly appearance during the assault (II.ii.12-13), to which one might add Macbeth's condemnation of the murder as a “parricide,” projecting his own Oedipal urges onto Malcolm and Donalbain (III.i.31).

Yet the Macbeths envision Duncan not just as a father (who “hath been / So clear in his great office,” I.vii.17-18), but also as a mother (who vies with Lady Macbeth in expressing love for her husband and for the other thanes, and who is cast as Lucrece to Macbeth's “ravishing Tarquin” with his phallic dagger). In addition, both Macbeths at critical moments in their soliloquies envision the monarch as a vulnerable and soul-like child (the heavenly infant which Lady Macbeth would deny the chance to “peep through the blanket of the dark, / To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’”; and which Macbeth projects apocalyptically as a “naked new-born babe” of Pity). Thus, in psychoanalytic (or “object relational”) terms Duncan is not just the father, but all aspects of the human family—perhaps most poignantly, mother and child.14 By their own gender obsessions, the Macbeths have promoted the erroneous and reductive conception of kingship as a pure patriarchy. As recent critics have noted, the Macbeths' urge for kingly greatness is expressed as a fantasy of becoming exclusively “manly” by taking up phallic weaponry to eliminate womanly and childlike characteristics.15

The Macbeths' notable series of monologues in Acts I-II is fueled by willful hyperbole, which accommodates their male-oriented aspiration to “greatness” (a word whose variants appear 17 times in Act I, more than in the other four acts combined). To the extent that we as audience identify with the Macbeths' grand speechmaking, hypnotic role-playing, and cosmic aspiration for greatness in these acts, we must also experience the ironies that emerge in the actual performance of the murder: pettiness, furtiveness, cowardice, and utter deceit.

As the hyperbolic fantasy of these early soliloquies reveals, the type of ego functioning that informs this regicidal-parenticidal stage of Macbeth's career in villainy is sublimation but in its most perverted form. Anna Freud describes sublimation as the highest phase of psychic functioning in the construction of selfhood, the ultimate means of enriching the ego.16 Ideally, sublimation resolves the ongoing Oedipal struggle (a struggle for the final, genital stage of sexual maturation), not by evading bodily consummation of sexual energies, nor by suppressing the female aspect of those energies, but by promoting comprehensive and free interplay between gender-components of the self. Thus the Macbeths' brutish rape of kingly greatness works exactly contrary to authentic sublimation. By furtively killing the king they not only destroy the bond with this androgynous parent, but they also violate the illuminating and consolidating powers of their own superego or conscience, thus inducing a deeper regression into self-divisive and annihilative ego defenses.


The murder of Macbeth's “chiefest friend” in Act III is motivated not by further aspiration to greatness, but by rivalrous envy of a brotherly alter-ego.17 According to Aquinas, “After the sin of pride [whereby Lucifer aspired to be a deity] there followed the evil of envy … whereby he grieved over man's good.”18 Envy, and the rivalrous doubling and splitting which necessitates confronting distasteful mirror-images of the self at the center of each of the tragedies, is secondary to that earlier violent effort to displace divine-regal-parental authority. The regicide-parenticide thus leads to fratricide-amiticide, a chronologically secondary but equally universal phenomenon, which carries its own momentous psychological implications.

This assault on a warrior-friend who is virtually the mirror-image or double of Macbeth (“all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! / Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!” I.iii.68-69) is a direct violation of ego, involving a psychological “splitting” into self and shadow-self, as Macbeth perversely identifies with the darker, more illusory component. Though he rationalizes the murder of Banquo in only one soliloquy, far less grandiose than the monologues of Acts I-II, Macbeth throughout Act III continues the fiery expression of his inner powers by a number of intense dialogues in which he no longer effectively communicates his deeper meaning either to his auditors or to himself.19 They can only guess at the dark nuances in his spate of bestial images: serpents and scorpions (III.ii.13-5, 36; III.iv.28-30); bat, “shard-bound beetle,” and crow (III.ii.40-2, 50-3); “greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs” (III.i.92-4); “Russian bear, arm’d rhinoceros, or th’Hyrcan tiger” (III.iv.99-100); “magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks” (III.iv.121-4). If Acts I-II show a perverse mode of hyperbolic aspiration (appropriating sublimation as a means of overthrowing the superego or conscience), this furtive imagery of Act III shows Macbeth's regression to the prior psychic function of projection, the defensive externalization of his depraved and problematic qualities onto others, which enforces a general process of “decomposition” and “splitting” of the ego.20 At its best, projection (an expulsive psychic function deriving from the anal stage of infancy) plays a key role in the development of selfhood, enabling one to influence others by projecting onto them one's own ego ideals and inadequacies, and also enabling one thereby to experiment with and test those values and identities. But at its worst, as in malicious rituals of murder and scapegoating, projection revises reality so drastically that “nothing is, / But what is not,” and the murderer's own selfhood, his “single state of man,” is increasingly shaken and disjoined (I.iii.134-42).

Envy, and the resultant splitting of selfhood, dictates the entire sequence of Act III: Macbeth's spiteful soliloquy in which he feels “rebuked” by Banquo's “royalty of nature”; his strange ranking of dogs in the abusive hiring of the assassins, humiliating them, even as he claims to raise and “make love” to them; his furtive insecurity even with his wife (rehearsing her part while concealing his full intent); his “half-participation” in the murder itself, perhaps as the third murderer;21 and of course the self-division which builds to a climax during the banquet. Macbeth's schizoid vacillation between noblemen and assassins, between true and feigned selves, gradually gives way to a deeper vacillation between conscious and unconscious realities. His obscene praise of the missing guest (“And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss”) serves the psychic function of invoking his double's macabre presence, filling the central seat to which Macbeth himself is inexorably drawn.22

Throughout Act III Macbeth's insecurity focuses no longer on the proud aspiration for kingly greatness, but on envious rivalry with his antithetical friend Banquo, who is to him what Edgar is to Edmund, Hal to Hotspur, Orlando to Oliver: the child favored with a loving heart, who thus calls into question the unloving self's entire “being” and must be utterly eliminated:

                                        every minute of his being thrusts
Against my near’st of life: and though I could
With bare-faced power sweep him from my sight,
And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,
For certain friends that are both his and mine,
Whose loves I may not drop.


Instinctively Macbeth envisions the bond with his “chiefest friend” in the context of a universal siblinghood, making the murder of Banquo as broadly symbolic as that of Duncan: first he eliminates the universal parent or greater-self, then the archetypal sibling or mirror-self. In each of the mature Shakespearean tragedies, this shattering confrontation with an antithetical self-image occurs at the play's center, the middle of Act III: Othello's temptation by Iago (III.iii), Lear's discovery of “Poor Tom” (III.iv), Macbeth's spectral encounter with Banquo (III.iv), Antony's battle with Octavius (III.vii). As in Lear's meeting with the mad beggar, Macbeth's rencontre with his mutilated alter-ego engages him in full awareness of fraternal Otherness; but while this stunning encounter leads the kingly Lear instinctively to affirm the oneness of human souls, it provokes the usurper Macbeth to repudiate “that great bond” (III.ii.49).23 In discarding Banquo, Macbeth thus divests himself of brother-love, the homoerotic bond, the second crucial cathexis forming the normative identity of the human psyche.


In Acts IV and V, focusing on the slaughter of a mother and children (and the immediate social and psychological consequences of that deed), Macbeth eliminates the third and most fundamental human bond, as he violates the primitive core of selfhood, what Freud called the id. Most critics treat this third assault as mere “fourth-act pathos,” as a dim echo of the previous kills, or as a hasty and illogical afterthought testifying to a kind of madness in the tyrant, since these victims offer neither militant opposition nor patrilineal threat to Macbeth's royal claim.24

But Macbeth's essential motive for the third murder is not a reenactment of the Oedipal struggle (casting Macduff as the new parent-power to be deposed); nor is it another envious rivalry with a mirroring sibling (seeing Macduff's goodness, like Banquo's, as a galling comparison to his own evil). Rather, building upon and blossoming out of those two previous modes of aggression, Macbeth's “black and deep desires” now enter a third and culminating phase: scornful annihilative hatred of the simple passional core, the mother-and-child matrix of selfhood—the healthy “oral-narcissist” bonding which contrasts the perverse narcissism now unfolding in Macbeth.25 Macbeth's contemptuous repudiation and perversion of the affective-cognitive human core (the “id”) informs this final sequence of psychic degradation in Acts IV and V. The ego function which dominates this earliest phase of psychic development (and which most pertinently informs the final two acts of Shakespeare's mature tragedies) is introjection, the ego's incorporation of desired aspects of the nurturant other in order to construct its own identity.26 Introjection of the beloved, for the purpose of achieving (or re-achieving) total selfhood, is the psychological principle which is either violated or embraced in the final phase of each of Shakespeare's major tragedies. Acts IV and V invariably draw their cathartic and transforming energy, not from the killing of a king, but from the heroic male's reaction to the destruction of a beloved maiden (Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia) or, in the final tragedies, a mother with children (Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth; Cleopatra; Virgilia and Volumnia).27

A wholesome mode of introjective bonding informs the poignant scene of Lady Macduff and her son (IV.ii), where in the father's absence she frets over the child's continued sustenance. But the boy's affirmation that Providential if not parental care will feed him, echoing Matthew 6.26, suggests the dignity of what he has thus far introjected from his parents. This humane and spiritual nurture contrasts with the strikingly perverse mode of introjection in the preceding scene: the witches' materialistic, cannibalistic ritual. Into their womb-like cauldron's mouth (the vagina dentata)28 they fling fragments of poisonous and ravenous beasts (toad, snake, dragon, wolf, shark, tiger) and parts representing the erotic and sensory powers of non-Christians (Jew's liver, Turk's nose, Tartar's lips)—including those lower senses of smell and taste involved in feeding.

The final and focal object in the witches' catalog of dismembered parts is “Finger of birth-strangled babe, / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab” (IV.i.26-31). Thus, from the “pilot's thumb” of the witches' early scene (I.iii.28), symbolizing the perversion of parental guidance or superego,) Macbeth regresses inexorably to the aborted potency of the child (or id), as symbolized by the foetal “finger” or phallus, “strangled”-castrated-devoured by the cauldron-womb-mouth of the Voracious Mother, the “drab” or prostitute. Introjection (an incorporative mode of identification deriving from the experience of sucking and swallowing during the oral stage of infancy) is thus materialized and brutalized by the witches to secure worldly power.

From the vicious opening ritual of Act IV (which provokes the entire cycle of action in Acts IV-V), Macbeth embraces the witches' omnivorous perversion of the primal introjective principle. Each of his three murders has been associated with imagery of feasting, but it is particularly in his impulsive butchering of mother and babes that Macbeth has willingly and unhesitatingly “supp’d full with horrors” (V.v.13). Thus the third murderous assault, a Herod-like massacre of innocents from which Macbeth completely distances himself, but which Shakespeare exposes to the audience with the most excruciating intimacy, brings us to the peak of horror, the breaking of the deepest taboo, which violates the very rudiment of selfhood and of social bonding.

Far more than King Duncan and Banquo, whose entrammelment in political motivations partly cloaks their essential being, the intimacy of mother and child brings us closest to the core of human nature. In each of Shakespeare's mature tragedies, the final cathartic sequence of Acts IV-V jeopardizes the primal psychic ground of being, the inception of love: the drawing of woman, “fool,” or child into the web of deceit and violence promotes in the male authority-figures not merely revulsion against evil, but clear and intense awareness of the rich essence of life which has been lost. Macbeth himself, in his finest show of inner light, envisioned the soul's greatest power in its early innocence and in its affective mode of “pity”: “like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast” (I.vii.19-20). As he loses touch with that child-like and woman-nurtured essence in himself, Macbeth also loses his capacity for true kingship.


  1. Freud's argument for the second instinctual drive, the aggressive death-wish, grew out of his reflections on the “repetition compulsion”—obsessive reenacting of a pleasurable sensation, or of a painful and self-destructive behavior. The motive, he felt, was not simply to sustain pleasure or pain, but subconsciously to use it as a means of recovering primal experience, especially in the case of the aggressive and destructive obsession, which he attributed to a desire to return to peaceful nothingness. See “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-through” (1914), Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud [hereafter SE], trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1957) 24 vols., 12:147-56; “Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), SE 18:7-64; Edward Bibring, “The Conception of the Repetition Compulsion,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 12 (1941), 486-519; Hans W. Loewald, “Some Considerations on Repetition and Repetition Compulsion,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis [hereafter IJP], 52 (1971), 59-65.

  2. See especially Freud, “Those Who Are Wrecked by Success” (1916), SE 14:318-24; and Ludwig Jekels, “The Riddle of Shakespeare's Macbeth” (1917), The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. M. D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), pp. 235-49. A survey of such readings is provided by Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw, 1964), pp. 219-30. Recent treatments of the Oedipal theme include Northrop Frye, “My Father as He Slept,” Fools of Time (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), pp. 3-39; Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 101-10; Janis Krohn, “Addressing the Oedipal Dilemma in Macbeth,Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986), 333-47; Pierre Janton, “Sonship and Fatherhood in Macbeth,Cahiers Élisabéthains 35 (1989), 47-58.

    Important revisionary studies of gender-psychology (either shifting attention from embattled father to devouring mother, or totally reevaluating the parental roles) include David Barron, “The Babe That Milks: An Organic Study of Macbeth,” (1960), in The Design Within, pp. 251-79; D. W. Harding, “Women's Fantasy of Manhood: A Shakespearean Theme,” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969), 245-53; Robert Kimbrough, “Macbeth: Prisoner of Gender,” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1972), 175-90; Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Ballantine, 1981), pp. 242-53; Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 151-5, 172-92; Carolyn Asp, “‘Be bloody, bold, and resolute’: Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth,Studies in Philology 78 (1981), 153-69; Patrick Colm Hogan, “Macbeth: Authority and Progenitorship,” American Imago 40 (1983), 385-95; James J. Greene, “Macbeth: Masculinity as Murder,” American Imago 41 (1984), 155-80; Arthur Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” ELH 51 (1984), 269-96, esp. 276-80; C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 11-13, 242, 266-9; Janet Adelman, “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1987), pp. 90-121; Dianne Hunter, “Doubling, Mythic Difference, and the Scapegoating of Female Power in Macbeth,Psychoanalytic Review 75 (1988), 129-52.

  3. Foakes, “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth,Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 18.

  4. Julian Markels, “The Spectacle of Deterioration: Macbeth and the ‘Manner’ of Tragic Deterioration,” Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961), 293-303.

  5. Heilman, Sanders, Mack, Muir insist on Macbeth's greatness of spirit, but also on the sordid depths of his degradation. Cf. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedies, 2nd ed. (1905; rpt. New York: Macmillan, 1949), pp. 349-65; A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey (New York: Theatre Arts, 1961), pp. 209-34; Robert B. Heilman, “The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods,” Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966), 12-24; Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Eng., 1968), pp. 253-316; Paul A. Jorgensen, Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in Macbeth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 185-216; Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 138-85; Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide”; Kenneth Muir, introduction, Macbeth, New Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. xliii-liii, lxv.

  6. This “object relations” pattern was (in slightly different form) first noted by L. Veszy-Wagner, “Macbeth: ‘Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair,’” American Imago 25 (1968), 242-57. In her brief discussion of the pattern's implications, she subordinates each victim to a patriarchal version of the Oedipal struggle; but she acutely observes that Macbeth's “main problem is … uncertain identity” with regard to gender.

  7. Cf. Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 195-224.

  8. For detailed treatment of this three-part structure of Macbeth, see Jones, Scenic Form, pp. 195-224. On Shakespearean tragic structure as three stages of self-discovery, see Maynard Mack, Jr., “The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations of the Construction of the Tragedies,” Stratford upon Avon Studies: Jacobean Theatre, ed. John R. Brown and Bernard Harris (London: St. Martin's Press, 1960), pp. 11-42. Arguments for both a three-part and a five-part structure of Shakespearean tragedy are debated by Ruth Nevo, Shakespeare's Tragic Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 3-30, 314-57.

    My interpretation of the structure of mature Shakespearean tragedy is as follows: Acts I-II, like Acts IV-V, each work as a cyclical unit, in which the latter act “answers” the former. In King Lear, e.g., the lengthy opening scene of Act I, in which Lear divests, humiliates, and exiles Cordelia, is answered by the lengthy concluding scene of Act II, in which Lear himself is, in precisely analogous manner, stripped, humiliated, and exiled—thus completing a cycle of worldly empowerment and divestiture. Acts IV and V of the play similarly work as a unit, the latter “answering” the former, but now enforcing a cycle of spiritual empowerment and divestiture. Act III is always a coherent unit in itself, its action revolving around a climactic central encounter which is the axis of the entire play.

  9. See Muir, pp. xxxvi-xliii; Muriel C. Bradbrook, “The Sources of Macbeth,Shakespeare Survey 4 (1951), 35-48; David Norbrook, “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography,” Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of 17th-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zavicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 78-116.

  10. Though some recent critics, in the radically revisionist spirit of New Historicism, interpret Duncan's “womanliness” as Shakespeare's indication of his unkingly impotence, I believe Norman Sanders' view is correct: Duncan's nurturing, fertile, self-mortifying traits contribute positively to Shakespeare's portrait of “a most sainted king” (IV.iii.109). Duncan begins where Lear and Cymbeline end, as a king who can “see feelingly.” Cf. Harry Berger Jr., “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH 47 (1980), 1-31; James L. Calderwood, If It Were Done: Macbeth and Tragic Action (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), pp. 119-21; Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Skepticism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), pp. 244-50; Adelman, “‘Born of Woman,’” pp. 93 ff.

  11. Banquo's probity, even more than Duncan's, has been subjected to repeated questioning and qualification: see, e.g., A. C. Bradley, pp. 379-87; Roy Walker, The Time Is Free (London: Andrew Dakers, 1949), pp. 89 ff; Richard J. Jaarsma, “The Tragedy of Banquo,” Literature and Psychology 17 (1967), 87-94. Berger's and Calderwood's subtle criticism of Duncan's “aggressive giving” (n. 10) would similarly qualify Banquo's lavish praise of his warrior-colleague (I.iv.54-58). Yet that Duncan's and Banquo's compliments are benevolent is underscored not only by their repeated association with “royalty” and “grace,” but also by the contrast with Macbeth's deceitful, murderous mode of “aggressive giving”—especially his forceful invitation of Banquo to the feast (III.i.11-39) and flattery of the missing guest (III.ii.30-31, iv.41-44, 91-92). Though Shakespeare implies political shortcomings in Duncan's aged weakness and in Banquo's Hamlet-like inertia after the regicide (thus qualifying the playwright's compliment to James I), nevertheless in revising the chronicles Shakespeare has taken pains to idealize the moral character of both victims; their frailties, like Hamlet's, derive more from warring evils of the world than from their own innate urges.

  12. Adelman and Hunter (n. 2) devalue Macduff's moral probity by taking seriously Lady Macduff's anxious but wittily-exaggerated accusations of her husband (IV.ii.6-14, 44-45); yet even the child appreciates the irony of her remarks. In spite of the pointed criticisms levelled at Macduff by his wife, by Malcolm (IV.iii.26-8), and, most emphatically, by himself (IV.iii.224-7), it is clear that he is moved by generous compassion for Scotland as a whole, and that his compassion grows out of the intense family feeling manifested by his wife and child.

  13. In Acts I-II of each mature tragedy, Shakespeare portrays an assault on conscience or synteresis [Freudian superego], not merely as a fatherly or kingly power, but increasingly as a consolidating, androgynous figure of authority: Othello-Desdemona, Lear (whose initial attempt to arrogate female nurture confirms the flaw in his sovereignty), the bi-gendered Duncan, Antony-Cleopatra. On the nature and symbolization of superego, see S. Freud, “The Ego and the Id” (1923), SE 19:3-66; Manuel Furer, “The History of the Superego Concept in Psychoanalysis,” in Moral Value and the Superego Concept in Psychoanalysis, ed. Seymour C. Post (New York: International Universities Press, 1972), pp. 11-62; Alex Holder, “Preoedipal Contributions to the Formation of the Superego,” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child [hereafter PSOC] 37 (1982), 245-72.

    On the Renaissance view of conscience or syntheresis as a means of consolidating mental powers and gender-components of human nature, see Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French Academie (London, 1618), Part 2, pp. 364-511, especially on restoring of the Edenic communion between heart's affective powers (pp. 437-511) and head's intellective powers (pp. 364-436).

    Both Elizabeth I and James I exploited the idea of monarchy as an androgynous consolidation of paternal authority and maternal nurture, as noted by Stephen Orgel and Louis A. Montrose in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 58-9, 65-87.

  14. Cf. David Willbern, “Phantasmagoric Macbeth,” English Literary Renaissance 16, (1986), esp. pp. 520-27.

  15. See, e.g., Harding, Kimbrough, French, Kahn, Adelman, Hunter in note 2.

  16. “Some Remarks on Infant Observation” (1952) in The Writings of Anna Freud, 8 vols. (New York: International Universities Press, 1968), 4:509-85. In her most important work, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, 1936, Anna Freud began to establish that ego-functions serve not only defensive but constructive purposes. In much current Ego Psychology, “sublimation” is no longer a fashionable term, being displaced by “neutralization” and “desexualization.” These latter terms, however, emphasize the defensive nature of the ego's workings (especially its pacifying of the ever-clamorous libido) rather than identifying the essentially constructive purpose of this ultimate ego function, particularly its contribution to the Kohutian struggle for “grandiose selfhood” (the evident goal of the Macbeths). On the ego's defensive postures and mechanisms, see Willi Hoffer, “Defensive Process and Defensive Organization: Their Place in Psychoanalytic Technique,” IJP 35 (1954), 194-8; and Heinz Hartmann, “The Development of the Ego Concept in Freud's Work,” IJP 37 (1956), 425-38. On the ego's constructive functioning (especially in the closely-related processes of sublimation, superego formation, and therapeutic transference), see Hans W. Loewald, Sublimation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), ch. 1-2; Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), pp. 309-24.

  17. Rivalrous envy becomes Macbeth's dominant motivation only during Act III, in the deliberations over murdering Banquo. In Acts I-II Macbeth's basic motivation is not envy, either for Duncan, Banquo, or Malcolm (though the basis for later envy is obviously established): in spite of anxiety at Duncan's appointing of his son as Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth never considers killing Malcolm along with Duncan (leaving the unappointed Donalbain to shoulder the guilt). In his initial embracing of evil Macbeth is preoccupied with the sublime fantasy of regicide as the “be-all and end-all,” conferring inviolable supremacy; only on discovering its failure to provide such aggrandizement does he turn to bitter envy of “fraternal” rivals.

  18. Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 2 vols., 1.63.2. Macbeth's rivalrous fury toward the fraternal Banquo is thus a second stage of evil, resulting from the failure to satisfy the hunger for greatness, just as Cain's envious fratricide stemmed from his parents' frustrated desire to emulate God. For a different perspective on the analogy between Cain and Macbeth, see Jorgensen, pp. 47-51, 190-5, 200, 213.

    On the pervasiveness of envy in human motivation, see Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude (New York: Basic Books, 1957); and René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (1972; rpt. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), especially pp. 56-168. On the persistent use of this envy principle in Shakespeare's “enemy twins,” see Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray W. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 70-109.

  19. Jorgensen (p. 194) calls these speeches (like the similar ravings of Lear in Act III) “soliloquys made public.” Equally important, they are soliloquys made obscure through intense repression, so that neither Macbeth and Lear, nor their auditors, can easily fathom their speeches' profound self-reflections. Cf. Barry Weller, “Identity and Representation in Shakespeare,” ELH 49 (1982), 356 ff; Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 218 ff.

  20. On the key role of projection in developmental psychology see The Writings of Anna Freud 4:509-85; and Darius Ornston, “On Projection,” PSOC 33 (1978), 117-66. Melanie Klein, in “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” IJP 27 (1946), 99-110, and in The Psychoanalysis of Children, trans. Alix Strachey (1932; rev. ed., New York: Delacorte Press, 1975), pp. 142-8, 178, observed a pattern in childhood development of introjection-projection-reintrojection. But I believe that the “reintrojection” occurs on a higher level, as in sublimation, and that this higher level is made possible by the stimulating effect of projection. Thus reintrojection, like Wordsworth's “recollection in tranquillity,” is a culminating mode of psychic internalization and identity-construction occurring on a more comprehensive, controlled, and “sublime” level. Cf. Robert P. Knight, “Introjection, Projection, and Identification,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 9 (1940), 334-41; A. Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (New York: International Universities Press, 1966), pp. 50-53.

  21. In spite of Macbeth's show of surprise at Fleance's survival (III.iv.20-24), it is tempting to believe that Macbeth is the “third murderer” [first advanced by Allan Park Paton, Notes and Queries (1869), and lucidly reformulated by Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960), 2 vols., 2:122-6]—so that he only “half-participates” in the second murder. That Macbeth can hardly admit (even to himself) his involvement suggests the extent of his splitting psyche: for if he is the third murderer, it reveals both a deepening insecurity and a growing obsession with rational control (utter self-repression, anal attentiveness to detail, and a host of other defensive mechanisms aimed at sustaining to others and to himself the illusion of kingship, including the pretense of shock on learning of Fleance's escape—which resembles his extravagant show of dismay on learning of Duncan's death). Macbeth's furtive pretense of uninvolvement even for his own cutthroats would thus demonstrate his increasing cowardice, alienation, and lack of a stable central self. Hence, for the second murder Macbeth both is and is not an active participant, owing to his descent into psychic bifurcation.

    George Walton Williams, however, in “The Third Murderer in Macbeth,Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972), 261, observes that “The supposition that Macbeth is the third murderer … necessitates a staging that twice violates the ‘Law of Reentry.’” Thus, though the third murderer clearly indicates Macbeth's growing anxiety, and may vicariously represent his grasping for control (attending more closely than the others to the usurper's crucial purposes), stage convention would seem to argue against Macbeth's schizoid reappearance as monarch-cutthroat-monarch in such rapid sequence. Yet if we consider the extraordinary liberties and experimentation in the staging of other Shakespearean plays of this period (e.g., the Dover cliff scene in King Lear), one wonders at the theatrical ingenuity of having Macbeth immediately reenter, perhaps with a dark cape only thinly disguising his kingly garments, so that the audience would actually be aware of his devious schizophrenic “doubling.” If so, it is the most stunningly purposeful violation of the Law of Reentry in the Shakespearean canon.

  22. In “Macbeth: King James's Play,” South Atlantic Review 47 (1982), 12-21, George Walton Williams astutely observes that the ghost of Banquo, rather than of Duncan, holds sway in the drama's central scene, thus heightening the compliment to King James I, even though it subverts decorum. Williams (pp. 20-21, fn. 12) notes the symbolic suggestiveness of the seating which underlies the doppelgänger effect at the banquet: “Macbeth does not sit in his throne [the “state” where Lady Macbeth remains]—to which he has no spiritual right; he does expect to sit at the table—a level to which he does have a right.” The “place reserved” for Banquo, to which Macbeth is drawn as to his own natural place, is centrally located: “Both sides are even: here I’ll sit i’ th’ midst” (III.iv.11). Almost exactly the same event occurs in Dostoyevsky's The Double, and similar psychic displacements occur in James' The Turn of the Screw and Conrad's “The Secret Sharer”; but only Macbeth confronts a double who represents not his sinister shadow, but the ruination of his better self.

    No critic has fully considered Banquo as Macbeth's “double.” Robert N. Watson briefly mentions Banquo as “doppelgänger,” in “‘Thriftless Ambition,’ Foolish Wishes, and the Tragedy of Macbeth,William Shakespeare's Macbeth, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), pp. 142-7; James Kirsch, in Shakespeare's Royal Self (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1965), pp. 331 ff, comments on the “participation mystique” of the two men (Macbeth being more attuned to the unconscious, but the weaker ego); Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 76-78, describes the good Banquo's ghost “as a kind of analogy for Macbeth's mutilated soul.”

    On literary uses of the “double” and the general process of “decomposition,” see Doris L. Eder, “The Idea of the Double,” Psychoanalytic Review 65 (1978), 579-614, esp. 587-9; and Robert Rogers, A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), including a provocative but misleading identification of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as doubles. Rogers does not distinguish between the homoerotic phenomenon of mirror-transference (between close friends, sibling rivals, or hero and alter-ego), and the more complex psychic transference between heterosexual partners, especially in marriage.

  23. The positing of an “indissoluble tie” (Macbeth III.i.15-18) between self and shadow-self (or alter-ego) occurs at the exact center of Othello and Macbeth (and, with more benevolent implications, at the center of King Lear). At this moment each protagonist confronts the darkest possibilities of selfhood (the imputed treachery of Desdemona, the feigned sins of Poor Tom, the butchery inflicted by Macbeth himself).

  24. See, e.g., Hogan (n. 2), who interprets the slaughter as a transference of the on-going Oedipal struggle, an indirect blow at Macduff as threatening authority and as fertile progenitor.

  25. We must carefully distinguish Macbeth's tyrannous infantilism (culminating in narcissistic rage) from the healthy oral-narcissicistic bond, involving mutual recognition and respect between parent and child during the sucking stage. For the potentially negative aspects of infantile narcissism, see S. Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” SE 14: 69-102; Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: International Universities Press, 1975); and the important Shakespearean studies of aberrant narcissism by Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” and Adelman, “‘Born of Woman’” (n. 2), and “‘Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,Representing Shakespeare, pp. 129-49. On the positive mode of narcissism and of maternal oral-narcissistic bonding, see Kohut, “Forms and Transformations of Narcissism,” JAPA 14 (1966), 243-72; and Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 11-50. Shakespeare seems particularly attuned to this primitive cathexis which forms the core of human identity, emphasizing not just negative but positive aspects of motherly nurture in the cathartic sequence of each of his mature tragedies, most strikingly in Cleopatra's death-scene (“Dost thou not see the baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?”).

  26. On “introjection” (as well as the related functions of “incorporation,” “internalization,” and “identification”), see, in addition to the writings of A. Freud and M. Klein cited in note 20, S. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), SE 14: 237-58; Hans W. Loewald, “Internalization, Separation, Mourning, and the Superego,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 31 (1962), 483-504, and “On Internalization,” IJP 54 (1973), 9-17; Roy Schafer, Aspects of Internalization (New York: International Universities Press, 1968); William W. Meissner, “Internalization and Object Relations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 27 (1979), 345-60, and Internalization in Psychoanalysis (New York: International Universities Press, 1981); Rebecca Smith Behrends and Sidney J. Blatt, “Internalization and Psychological Development throughout the Life Cycle,” PSOC 40 (1985), 11-39.

  27. Though the cathartic valuation of womanly/matronly nurture in Acts IV-V holds true for all of Shakespeare's major tragedies, Hamlet requires qualification. Never fully reunited with Ophelia or Gertrude, Hamlet only incipiently comprehends the meaning of a grave holding his “fool” and his beloved. The play's final focus on the killing of a false parent-king, of an inadequate sibling-double (Laertes), and of a disloyal nurturing mother, suggests unresolved Oedipal (and pre-Oedipal) anxieties and an incomplete quest for identity.

  28. On the castration threat as a vagina dentata fantasy, see Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth (New York: Robert Brunner, 1952; orig. 1924), pp. 48-49; Sandor F. Ferenczi, The Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis (New York: Basic Books, 1925), pp. 278-81; Leonard Shengold, “The Effects of Overstimulation,” IJP 48 (1967), 403-15; C. Philip Wilson, “Stone as a Symbol of Teeth,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 36 (1967), 418-27; Daniel B. Schuster, “Bisexuality and Body as Phallus,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 38 (1969), 72-80; and especially Roy Schafer, Language and Insight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 153-60, who provides the context of a broad gender analysis.

    Note, however, that the demoniac symbolism in Macbeth IV.i is an alliance of male and female perversions: the witches' devouring cauldron (vagina dentata) is shortly joined by their demon masters' “armed head” (penis dentata) which similarly tempts Macbeth to annihilate children (IV.i.69-86). This satanic collusion of perverted gender components, a marital travesty which promotes mutual deception and annihilation rather than mutual support and procreation, evolves throughout the play.

This study is indebted to Professor Arthur Kirsch and the members of his 1988 NEH Seminar at the University of Virginia.

Further Reading

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Baldo, Jonathan. “The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth.English Literary Renaissance 26, No. 3 (Autumn 1996): 531-60.

Discusses Macbeth in the context of Jacobean politics.

Berryman, John. “On Macbeth.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 319-34. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.

Analyzes Macbeth in the context of Elizabethan and Jacobean cultures, including an overview of the play's major themes and action.

Callaghan, Dympna. “Wicked Women in Macbeth: A Study of Power, Ideology, and the Production of Motherhood.” In Reconsidering the Renaissance: Papers from the Twenty-First Annual Conference, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, pp. 355-69. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

Explores the cultural conflict between patriarchy and the rule of mothers, as well as skepticism surrounding witchcraft as it is portrayed in Macbeth.

Fox, Alice. “Obstetrics and Gynecology in Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 127-42.

Focuses on the frequent use of the vocabulary of obstetrics and gynecology in the language used by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

Guj, Luisa. “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 175-88.

Explores Shakespeare's treatment of the theme of time in Macbeth, tracing its origins in Renaissance myths, icons, and emblems.

Helms, Lorraine. “The Weyward Sisters: Towards a Feminist Staging of Macbeth.New Theatre Quarterly 8, No. 30 (May 1992): 167-77.

Studies the role of the witches in Macbeth, exploring the difficulty in staging the play in the absence of theater conventions that were prevalent in Shakespeare's day.

Janton, Pierre. “Sonship and Fatherhood in Macbeth.Cahiers Elisabethains 35 (April 1989): pp. 47-58.

Explores the theory that fear of assuming manhood is Macbeth's tragic flaw, leading him to annihilate all the potential and virtual father figures in the play.

Love, H. W. “Seeing the Difference: Good and Evil in the World of Macbeth.Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Journal (AUMLA) 72 (1989): 203-28.

Examines Macbeth as a morality play, with special focus on the use of supernatural elements and vice figures.

Lynch, Kathryn L. “‘What Hands Are Here?’: The Hand as Generative Symbol in Macbeth.Review of English Studies 39, No. 153 (February 1988): 29-38.

Explores the significance of the hand motif in Macbeth.

Richardson, Brian. “‘Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’: Inversions of Chronology and Causality in Macbeth.Philological Quarterly 68, No. 3 (Summer 1989): 283-94.

Suggests that the inversions of chronology in Macbeth are designed to mirror the central concerns of the play and that Shakespeare uses time as an integral part of his narrative technique.

Waters, D. Douglas. “Catharsis as Clarification.” In Christian Settings in Shakespeare's Tragedies, pp. 79-118. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 1994.

Discusses Shakespeare's tragic plays, and proposes that catharsis as clarification is the reader's main response to Shakespearean tragedies in Christian settings.

Willbern, David. “Phantasmagoric Macbeth.English Literary Renaissance 16, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 520-49.

Sketches a three-dimensional map of Macbeth in a visceral, psychoanalytic, and phantasmagoric context.

Wintle, Sarah and René Weis. “Macbeth and the Barren Sceptre.” Essays in Criticism 41, No. 2 (April 1991): 128-46.

Explores the topical nature of the action recreated in Macbeth, including references to such contemporary incidents as the Gunpowder Plot and other Jacobean political concerns.


Macbeth (Vol. 44)


Macbeth (Vol. 69)