George William Gerwig (essay date 1929)

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SOURCE: Gerwig, George William. “Lady Macbeth.” In Shakespeare's Ideals of Womanhood, pp. 133-50. East Aurora, N.Y.: The Roycroft Shops, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Gerwig interprets Lady Macbeth as a psychological “study in ambition,” albeit a self-sacrificing form of ambition that risks everything for another.]

Shakespeare's negative studies are as interesting and as valuable as his positive, for often the lessons of life may be learned quite as well from an example of what not to do as from an example of what to do.

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth represents the extreme of one form of temptation that may beset a woman, ambition; Cleopatra, the extreme of another, passion.

The life and crimes of Macbeth and his wife are so closely connected that the study of one necessarily embraces a study of the other. Here, as always, Shakespeare has differentiated his characters, and so successfully in this instance that Lady Macbeth will stand for all time as an example of one phase of woman nature, with all its intricacies of thought and feeling, while her husband, so close to her in every way, is yet a man in each of his processes as characteristically as she is a woman.

In its structure the drama of Macbeth is nearer the modern short story than anything else Shakespeare has written. In no respect is this more true than in the skill with which it presupposes the comparatively unimportant portions of Lady Macbeth's life—her girlhood, the wooing of Macbeth, the birth and death of her child—and takes up the story just at the artistic beginning of the soul's crisis.

As an introduction to the study of Lady Macbeth, and indeed of any one of Shakespeare's heroines, no one can do better than to read the proper chapter in The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines. These studies, in a remarkably sympathetic way, deal with the earlier life of each of the heroines up to the point at which the particular drama opens. They not only supply much additional data regarding the times, the circumstances of the play and the earlier relations between the actors, but they also help materially in understanding the development of the characters.

All those who attempt to enact the part of any of Shakespeare's characters not only learn the words, but strive, as fully as possible, to put themselves into the actual place of the particular character, living the part, in the scenes presented in the play, as well as in the days which precede or follow.

It is a comparatively simple task to present an incident in the middle of a human life. It requires, however, both an artist and a genius to mirror such an incident so that it will really be a cross-section of a life's vital history, reflecting alike not only the present status of the character development, but likewise suggesting how each character cause may be traced back to its origin. Each inevitable consequence may be foreseen, or at least understood and appreciated when it comes.

Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth are individually and jointly among the very keenest minds of their time. They stand high in the esteem of King Duncan to whom they are bound by ties both of blood and of patriotism. King Duncan is a lovable, but not a strong monarch. He is kept on his throne almost entirely by the ability and the military genius of Macbeth, who is his leading general. The throne of Scotland, at this time, is not entirely hereditary, but elective from a certain group, of which Macbeth is the leading member. Neither he nor his wife, however, are content to rest their chance of promotion entirely upon their merits. They each feel keenly the weakness of the king and superiority of Macbeth. They keep harboring in their minds the desire for something which is wrong, until, as is always the case in such instances, their consciences are corrupted, and their characters utterly honeycombed with evil. They keep giving themselves, in imagination, to pictures of what might be, if the things which they know are right are ignored. So they first determine that if an opportunity comes to place Macbeth on the throne they will seize it. Then they contribute toward making such an opportunity, murder King Duncan while he is their guest and seize his throne. Neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth, however, have fully reckoned with the consequences of their evil action. They learn to their sorrow that the task of appearing innocent, while actually guilty, is one to which they are unequal. The tragedy is a story of the self-punishment of crime.

Shakespeare never wastes words, and least of all in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is first introduced to us reading the latter portion of a letter she has just received from her husband, telling her of his meeting with the witches and of their prophesy that he is to be king. The letter, and Lady Macbeth's soliloquy which follows, describe Macbeth's character and interpret her own. They show us many things—that Lady Macbeth is the source of his mental strength and resolution, that they have talked over the situation of affairs in the kingdom, with all its possibilities, both those which may be depended upon to come unaided and those which may be forced to an issue. The extent to which the consciences of both have been undermined by harboring unlawful desires is evident. That Macbeth holds himself in readiness to be beguiled by the witches is made apparent by the fact that Banquo, who is present at the time, who is given by the witches equally alluring prophetic promises, but whose soul is too true to be corrupted by the virus which infected the self-weakened conscience of Macbeth, comes away from the identical encounter absolutely uncontaminated.

It is equally evident from the letter and Lady Macbeth's words that both she and her husband stand mentally committed to any action which will further their ambitious schemes. When any one has mentally consented to an unlawful action the committing of it only awaits a fitting opportunity.

This soliloquy, following the reading of the letter, gives us one of the best views we have of Macbeth, and indirectly of Lady Macbeth. She has analyzed this husband of hers to the last trace of character. She knows that he wants the throne more than he wants anything else in the world; she knows that, unaided, he will in all probability fail to secure it on account of the milk of human kindness in his heart and a remnant of conscience which makes him hesitate about doing a thing he knows is wrong. All her tenderness for her husband takes the form of a desire to do something for him. She makes, not the typical sacrifice of a woman, that of her body to the man she loves, but the greater sacrifice of her soul itself. She has been endowed with a regal imagination, along with superb and daring resolution. She wants this kingdom, not in any sense for herself, but for her husband. She has set her heart supremely upon this, thinking that she has counted the cost, but, woman-like, really seeing nothing between her wish and its fulfilment.

Ambition has laid its stealthy fingers upon her conscience. Yet it is the self-sacrificing ambition of a woman, rather than the selfish ambition of a man. It has benumbed her woman's sensitiveness so effectually that most readers take her words literally, assuming that they represent the normal manner in which her mind works. Instead she is constantly saying and doing things to herself which stimulate her to do things for her husband. She desires to do these things for him. She feels that they must be done, and be done by her, to further his success.

If her words and actions were really indicative of her usual mental and spiritual state, instead of the mistaken stimulus of a really disinterested purpose, she would indeed be the monster of cruelty and selfish ambition she is often pictured. She is instead the extreme example of a finely organized sensitive woman who, with no possible thought of the consequences to herself, gladly places her all on the altar of service for her husband.

Time after time Lady Macbeth has gone over the situation—the deserts of her husband, the weakness of the king, the opportunity which may perhaps come to place her lord upon the throne. In imagination she has already signed and sealed with the blood of her soul the compact with Satan to do his bidding if he will but grant this boon, not for herself but for her husband. For her own selfish benefit she would probably hesitate to violate the lightest of the laws. But for her husband she is all too willing to lose even her soul forever.

So, when the opportunity of which she has dreamed, and for which she has prayed has actually come—as opportunities, good and bad ever come to those who court them, she is for the moment fairly crazed at the prospect of the possibilities that come with it.

                                                            The raven himself is hoarse,
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. 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!

She thinks she realizes fully where she stands; she believes she has counted the cost; she declares herself ready to pay it, if she may but have this boon for her husband. The lines Shakespeare uses in making Lady Macbeth equal to the task of forcing her husband to murder King Duncan contain over thirty terms and phrases of darkest and direst association.

Macbeth's first words to his wife indicate that his mind, too, is filled with the possibilities of the opportunity which, thus far, has come without any guilt on their part:

                                                                                                                        My dearest love,
Duncan comes here tonight.

But they also indicate that in his case no corresponding resolution has been taken. It is Lady Macbeth who comes to the point, who nerves him to action.

                                                                                                    He that's coming
Must be provided for: and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch;
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.

So he puts himself entirely in her hands—as she intended he should. It is not sufficient, moreover, that she point out for him the way. It is she, rather than the Thane, who must welcome the King, and at every turn, both before and after the murder, it is she who must be both thoughtful and resolute for both. All too well has she estimated the amount of the milk of human kindness in his nature. Left to himself he would never have taken the steps necessary to secure the crown. Between his conscience and his recognition of the inevitable consequences he would have hesitated. But his wife has determined, once for all, that he shall have the crown, and that she will pay whatever the penalty may be. So she holds him relentlessly to his portion of the task.

Nothing is more interesting, more significant, and often more dramatic in life than the way the same fact or situation will affect different persons. It is one of the most fascinating ways of studying the difference between objective and subjective life. One of these contrasts, pregnant with meaning, the dramatic effect of which an audience always grasps, is King Duncan's peaceful entrance under the stone archway of the castle of his kinsman. Confidingly and unconsciously he walks to his doom.

Lady Macbeth, speaking of the same spot had called them her battlements. But King Duncan says:

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

And Banquo follows with one of those bits of nature-lore for which Shakespeare is forever famous.

Scarcely less fine, in the way of human contrasts, is the presentation of the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at this point. The character of Lady Macbeth is often, and indeed usually, misinterpreted in two important particulars. She is charged with being both selfishly ambitious and cruel, because her words, on their face alone, seem to warrant such an interpretation. A woman, however, who is as selfishly ambitious and as cruel as Lady Macbeth is alleged to be, would simply act, without the necessity of stimulating herself to action either by words or by wine.

The history of Lady Macbeth's ambition, its beginnings, its full development and its consequences, is clear enough. The prize, however, had no value whatever for her. There is not a line in the play which indicates that Lady Macbeth desires that Macbeth have the throne because of any possible advantage to her. She is never shown either wishing for it on her own account or in the enjoyment of it. Lady Macbeth seeks the throne for her husband, and stands ready to sacrifice her very soul in order that he may have it, purely and solely from a woman's desire to give her husband the one thing in the world which he wants most.

It is mistakenly assumed too that she is naturally cruel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No woman, cruel by nature, could suffer as she suffered in the final scenes of her life. The stimulation of cruelty is merely one of the prices she must pay, and which she stands ready to pay, in order to be able to present this much-desired gift to her husband. Macbeth is a tragedy of the inability to endure the consequences of crime.

Macbeth's soliloquy, which corresponds with Hamlet's famous soliloquy, gives not only the innermost elements of his nature but of all human nature in its struggle with temptation. No one is wholly good or wholly bad. The King is kind, good, innocent. The crime Macbeth is about to commit is a violation of all that he has heretofore held sacred in his life. He argues it all out with himself, as which of us has not, and feels that he can not acquiesce in his wife's determination. The game is not worth the candle. He craves the crown as much for himself as his wife does for him. But his life has taught him, as the life of man will, that the cost of crime and of violation of conscience must be paid. Lady Macbeth understands nothing of this. She has never had the same experience with the consequent results of the violation of right. She merely assumes that she will be able to pay the cost because she is willing to do so. That crime ever brings its own self-punishment is a proposition of which she is as yet ignorant.

The union between Macbeth and his wife is temperamentally an ideal one, for each is the complement of the other. The misfortune was that their joint lives were not consecrated to some holy end. Had their child lived it might have been different. Lady Macbeth has divined that her husband is hesitating, so she comes to strengthen his resolution. She has had to do this before; she will have to do it again. Her intuition, as well as her experience with, and thorough knowledge of men tell her how to go about the matter in the most effective way. Macbeth is proud, and justly proud, of his bravery; but it is physical, rather than mental or moral bravery, as is abundantly shown by what he says when confronted later by the ghost of Banquo. So Lady Macbeth appeals to his fear of seeming afraid.

                                                                                Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire?
                                                            I have given suck, and know
How tender 't is to love the babe that milk's 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.

Their babe is dead—yet she can say this! Her resources, and the relentless way in which she employs them, are simply appalling, unless we bear constantly in mind that it is not for herself, but for her husband that she is striving so hard.

Macbeth begins to yield; she assumes his consent, and he is at last forced into the crime in spite of all his scruples.

Macbeth has not a murderer's heart; he is already suffering more than his victim will, and this is only a prelude to the suffering which will come to him.

The necessity of taking the wine, which emboldens her, is one of the great proofs that Lady Macbeth is not of coarse fibre. If she had been brutal enough to act without the stimulus of wine the sleep-walking scene would have been impossible.

Macbeth has gone on his errand of murder, but has not dared to shut the door behind him. He hears, or thinks he hears, some one moving. He calls out, in a last hope of being interrupted. But Fate is pitiless and at length he strikes the blow which Lady Macbeth is waiting, trembling to hear. She has made all the preliminary arrangements, even to laying out the daggers. But she finds that she is not quite so strong as she supposed, for a fancied resemblance between King Duncan and her father keeps her from striking the blow with her own hand.

The reaction is upon them both at once. Macbeth is unnerved, perplexed, horrified, and Lady Macbeth can only for the moment echo her husband's half-coherent words. She is the first to recover, however, and the progress of her return to her former daring tone is one of the finest psychological studies in the language.

Macbeth has forgotten all his directions and has fearfully endangered their lives by bringing the daggers with him. They must be returned, and at once—but he is abjectly unequal to the task, and his wife assumes it. Then comes one of the most dramatic climaxes in literature. Macbeth is trembling, alone, shut up in his castle with the consciousness of his crime, and the outside world in the form of the tipsy porter comes suddenly, but relentlessly knocking for admission.

Lady Macbeth saves the day, as usual, and is by this time a miracle of cool, collected thinking. Her location of the knocking as at the south entry is one of the wonderful examples of the incisive way her mind works. The tragedy is full of examples of condensation, of appeals to the imagination, of those challenges for an emotional explanation which are of the very essence of art, many of them the finest in the entire realm of dramatic writing. It is not especially hard to kill a king, nor indeed to commit any crime. The real difficulty begins with the attempt to act naturally the part of one who is innocent, and continues with the task of carrying, day and night, the consciousness of the crime. Macbeth blunders at once and continually, adding the first of his long line of subsequent murders. Even the keen wit of Lady Macbeth fails under the ordeal and strikes a false note in regretting that Duncan's murder occurred in their house, as though that were the unfortunate feature. A moment later her swoon prevents Macbeth from betraying the entire state of affairs.

After all, we see Macbeth as king but once and even then it is but a sorry spectacle. The real tragedy is beginning to develop in different ways in the consciences of the pair. Once begun, Macbeth's moral disintegration proceeds apace. Another soliloquy shows us his abject fear of Banquo, as well as the determination to have him killed. So much has Macbeth suffered, and so completely is his mind obsessed with the murder that he is constantly on the point of speaking out to the world. Lady Macbeth continually does her best to rally him, and succeeds while she is with him. But more and more he is coming to need support. He generously shields her, however, from the knowledge of his later crimes. That he disguises himself and is the third murderer seems apparent from a close study of the lines.

At the banquet scene he falsifies a desire to have Banquo present. His punishment comes swift and sure, for the ghost of Banquo appears in answer to his challenge. Macbeth's terror is abject and marks for us the degree of his previous suffering, the amount of sleep he must have lost. His words tell us that his courage is physical, not mental or moral. So intense is his agony that he talks openly of his secret. Lady Macbeth can do no more than hurry the guests off, leaving them to conjecture what they will. That Macbeth is the confessed murderer of King Duncan is now an open secret. When he forgets that his secret is a secret what must have been his state of mind?

The guests are gone at last, and the guilty husband and wife are alone. There is no chiding on Lady Macbeth's part. Each has failed in a way, and there is only a difference of degree between them. The things which creep into his speech show Macbeth's mental attitude—he keeps a spy in every house; he is always expecting to sleep, always failing. The two have the reckoning with themselves to make, and in addition to this, their reckoning with the world, which is becoming more and more clamorous.

In the first act the witches come to Macbeth; in the fourth he goes to them. Shakespeare gives us a group of the most powerful evil associations in all literature for the purpose of bringing down our hero at a stroke. As king of Scotland he is bound to stamp out witchcraft, yet we find him intimately associating with witches. And we hold him responsible for the company he keeps. In Shakespeare one only becomes the victim of fate in so far as one permits one's self to be victimized. The witches were merely the occasion, not the cause of Macbeth's downfall. Banquo had a soul which was immune.

Shakespeare shows us both his own fondness for children and Macbeth's utter oblivion to all the dictates of humanity by the murder of Macduff's family. How universal this law of the soul is, will be remembered from the events of the great war. The execution of Miss Cavell, and the outrages against women and children, instead of terrorizing the hearts of freemen, only served to steel their determination as this murder did the heart and arm of Macduff. This incident in the drama serves the double purpose of exhibiting the gratuitous cruelty of Macbeth and of providing an instrument for his punishment.

Both dramatically and psychologically the sleep-walking scene is the greatest scene of the play, if not the greatest in all Gothic literature. It would have been utterly impossible with a woman of coarser fibre. It shows both the depth and the helplessness of her despair. She lives over again, as she has countless times, each incident of the tragedy, and, like an x-ray, the artist reveals for us, through the broken lines that all can interpret, the innermost tragedy of her soul. She keeps ever washing the hands that will never be clean. The spots of blood are indelible. She hears once more the strokes of the bell which were to be the signal for the murder. She trembles again at the blood gushing from the wounds of her king. She bravely attempts to rally Macbeth. She returns, again and again to the task of cleansing the stain from her hands. She dies a thousand deaths before the great conqueror comes to end her sufferings. In scarcely more than a dozen lines she has given the greatest challenge to the imagination ever made in English, and preached the greatest sermon on the self-punishment of crime to be found in literature, sacred or profane.

The degree to which Macbeth must have suffered is measured by the effect produced upon him by the announcement of Lady Macbeth's death. She had been the life of his life. Yet so completely has his soul been lost to all finer sensibilities that the news of her death comes to him as a mere fact, leaving him to go to his doom without trace of emotion.

Life, dealt with through mere facts, either physical, mental or spiritual, is dull, cold and uninteresting. It is only as those facts are interpenetrated by ideals, and inspired, quickened and interpreted by the light of these ideals, that life has power, meaning and beauty.

What happens when the finer sensibilities of the soul are permitted to atrophy until they are so weak they almost die, is the basis of all tragedy of the life of the spirit. Shakespeare has shown it in the disintegration and downfall of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The world war shows what happens when a whole nation deliberately teaches its people to neglect and ignore their finer sensibilities of the soul, generation after generation, in pursuit of materialistic standards. No possible lesson is more needed by the world today than that taught by Shakespeare in his depiction for us of the manner in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lost their souls, unless it be the opposite and constructive lesson that the souls of men and of nations are aroused, quickened, strengthened and finally saved for themselves and for the world, by supplying to every one, day by day that soul-manna which will properly nourish, invigorate and energize the spirit. All reforms must begin first in the hearts of men. The proper training of the emotions and the sensibilities through the fine arts is the best method.

Lady Macbeth then, is a study in ambition, just as Cleopatra is a study of passion. There was the same temptation to misread one of the eternal laws of the spirit. The world is full of instances which seem to prove, to a superficial observer, that they prosper best who sin most. But Shakespeare shows us so plainly that he who runs may read—so forcefully as never to be forgotten—that man or woman, born with Anglo-Saxon conscience, pays to the last farthing the penalty fixed for every transgression. Nothing in life brings real happiness unless received under proper conditions. Live as we may, we are in no danger of forgetting Lady Macbeth with her sin-stained hands and her sleepless eyes. The supreme lesson that every crime brings inevitably its own reward is taught once and forever.

It is not for his graceful diction that we prize Shakespeare most, not for the magic of his numbers, the fire of his eloquence, the force of his logic, neither for the regal beauty of his poetry, nor for the crystal clearness of his prose, but because, next to the Saviour himself, he has taught the men and women of the world their greatest lessons in living.

Richard S. Ide (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: Ide, Richard S. “The Theatre of the Mind: An Essay on Macbeth.ELH 42, no. 3 (fall 1975): 338-61.

[In the following essay, Ide observes the seemingly divided structure of Macbeth as both the psychological tragedy of Macbeth and a symbolic/cosmological tragicomedy of good and evil—two perspectives that intersect in Duncan's murder and are integrated in Act V of the drama.]

Certainly one of the most difficult problems facing the critic of Macbeth is its bipartite structure. The play appears to be two plays. The striking change in tone and perspective at the structural seam1 shifts emphasis away from the psychological tragedy to a symbolic pattern of retribution; the personal tragedy of crime and punishment is assimilated into a broader pattern of death and regeneration. For three acts the audience has thought with Macbeth and looked at the world largely through his eyes; but now at the end, when his heart is hardened and initial engagement is turned to detachment, the audience must readjust to a counter-movement of light, hope, and grace. The play progressively opens upon a cosmic panorama. Heaven, virtue, and divine kingship return to Scotland, and those who once looked with Macbeth are asked to look at him, to judge the murderer from an enormous distance, from God's eye, as it were, who so clearly directs the forces of restoration.

These radically disjunctive points of view, the perspective from inside the hero's psyche and the godlike ken from afar, can be isolated most clearly on either side of the play's structural divide; but in reality, as I will argue, they have been contemporaneous perspectives throughout. From the beginning Shakespeare's “daring poetry” and scenic technique create the illusion of a double stage for Macbeth's tragedy. The double perspective from which the audience is initially asked to view the play casts a discomforting ambiguity over the dramatic action, a fair and foul confusion that will be rewarded later when the psychological tragedy (the theater of the mind) and the symbolic tragicomedy (the world stage), the two perspectives and the two structural movements, are superimposed at the regicide and finally placed in clear focus in the restoration battle of act V.


The witches who open the tragedy must be taken to some extent as its progenitors. They stand far removed from the current battle and look ahead to a future meeting with Macbeth as if they knew the outcome of the present and commanded the future. But while their relationship to the world stage conveys this vague sense of determinism, their immediate effect is to evoke wonder and puzzlement: who are they and what is happening? The remarks are strangely cerebral, both colorless and paradoxical: “lost and won,” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.i.4,11).2 The large paradox will “hover” over the entire play, but for the moment the audience can see nothing through the “fog and filthy air”; the battle, the sunset, and the name Macbeth are absorbed into the hurlyburly of a metaphysical realm symbolized by the storm, the blank stage, and the ministers of verbal paradox. In effect, the witches place the audience at their own equivocal distance from the world stage and heighten anticipation that the future will bring clarity to the chaos.

It is the more disturbing, therefore, that the sergeant's grotesque exposition provides little relief from doubt and uncertainty.3 His bloody images are confounded in a surrealistic haze (“broil,” “doubtful,” “choke,” “multiplying villainies,” “smoked,” etc.), producing a visual equivocation to stand beside the verbal paradox of the story overture. From the witches' distance the battle is ambiguous, both lost and won, both foul and fair; so, too, the sergeant's distant overview compares the armies to “two spent swimmers” moving indistinguishably in a sea of blood. The superimposition of perspectives here and in the remainder of the passage (I.ii.7-23) is striking and noteworthy. This initial overview superimposes on the ant-like “broil” the outlines of two gigantic swimmers. The poetry then tends to equate one swimmer with Macdonwald, but his gigantic outline soon dissolves into a swarm of humanity, into tiny creatures struggling successfully under Fortune's equivocal smile. At first glance the second swimmer is buried under the swarming armies. “Disdaining” the deity looming over the world stage, with enormous courage and great effort a diminutive Macbeth hacks his way into the forefront of our imaginations. The poetry zooms in on the flashing sword carving a passage through the massed armies; and when Macbeth himself finally does emerge from the “broil,” the shift in physical perspective has enlarged him to gigantic proportions, creating a startling and appallingly vivid closeup for his conclusive victory: “Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops, / And fix'd his head upon our battlements” (I.ii.22-23).

Once again, however, Macbeth's “fair,” if terrifying, victory is cast into doubt by a return to a wider temporal and spatial perspective:

As whence the sun 'gins his reflection,
Shipwracking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring, whence comfort seem'd to come,
Discomfort swells.


For a moment the sergeant becomes both commentator and visionary, stepping back from the close-up experience of Macbeth's victory to relate his “fair is foul” sententia with prophetic authority (“Mark, King of Scotland, mark”). The conclusive action, the “fair” victory, fades into the ambiguous fog of a distanced point of view.

The second half of the sergeant's narrative diminishes (rather than enlarges) the hero through a similar manipulation of perspective. The audience imaginatively focuses on the two figures of Macbeth and Banquo setting out to meet the Norweyan threat as “canons overcharg'd with double cracks”:

Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell—
But I am faint, my gashes cry for help.


Perspective and meaning are blurred as if in the smoke of the cannons. Here one visualizes human figures ready to bathe, yet the water becomes blood and the cleansing stream a reeking wound. The perspective shrinks Macbeth and Banquo (they are bathing … in a wound), and the entire concept is short-circuited (to wash clean … in blood). “Or memorize another Golgotha” complicates the conceptual distortion. The context of the blood-bath becomes a ritual cleansing in that the blood from Christ's wounds on Golgotha was redemptive; at the same time, however, Macbeth and Banquo are the agents of execution. Lustral sacrifice or bloody slaughter? fair or foul? win or lose? The bloody sergeant cannot tell and neither can the audience. Like the voice crying out from the sergeant's gashes, the hero is once again swimming in a sea of blood. He has been distanced by a shift in physical perspective and, once again, his actions have become ambiguous.

Although it would be unwise to pin much significance on a fairly subtle analysis such as this, it seems clear at the very least that Shakespeare's conscious artistic strategy places an enormous burden on his audience. It is difficult and discomforting to maintain a double perspective, to have figure and ground, close-ups and vistas, in liquid dissolution. One final example may help to establish the rationale behind the dramatic strategy:

Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
Weary sev'n-nights nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine:
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tost.


This preview of Macbeth's curse merges a natural hurlyburly with a psychological hurlyburly. Like the gigantic warrior emerging from the swarm of humanity or the little creature swamped in another's wound, the conjunction of the eyelid and the penthouse roof conveys a sense of double perspective and double identity. On the one hand, the witches curse the man inside the penthouse and toss the sailor in his boat; the supernatural creatures assert control over the sleepless or storm-tossed creature on the world stage. But on the other hand, we simultaneously glimpse the diminutive figure inside the eyelid and the little man inside the body-bark who is tossed by a psychological tempest. From one perspective the man peaks and pines under the witches' curse; from another, he is the captive of his own psychological nightmare.4

Here, I think, we have come to the central point. From a panoramic perspective the audience recognizes the existence of a supernatural playwright who oversees the storm and battle and conceives the play's large ironies: the ambiguous fight of Macbeth and Cawdor, Macbeth's entrance at Duncan's ironic cue (I.iv.11-13), the decision of the king to spend the night at Inverness, and many more. The cosmic playwright is initially associated with the witches and their diabolical “charm” which appears to predict events with unfailing accuracy and to control Macbeth's actions and responses: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I.iii.38). And yet, a second perspective also recognizes a little creature on a second stage which we will soon come to associate with the inner theater of Macbeth's psyche. For Macbeth is also the playwright of his own tragedy, one whom we must assume anticipates the witches' prophecy (I.iii.51-52), whose “foul and fair” perhaps demonstrates a psychological affinity with the diabolical forces, and if Banquo's warning is heeded (I.iii.122-26), whose will is open to the solicitations of the witches.5

Both Macbeths, the actor on the world stage and the playwright of his own psychological theater, are present in his first significant aside:

                                        Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme. …

But although Macbeth confidently places himself in the witches' drama, his visual imagination anticipates the “swelling act” by translating it into a “horrid image,” thus casting a fearful ambivalence over his role:

                              This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good:—
If ill, why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man,
That function is smother'd in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not.


The witches' stormy overture and the sergeant's bloody turmoil, both the verbal and the visual equivocation, have prepared the audience to enter into Macbeth's psychic chaos. One startling, bloody image flashes across Macbeth's psychological fog with such intensity that the frightful thought cannot be articulated. The witches' prophecy in the stormy chaos of scene iii may have set the tragedy in motion, but Macbeth's aside placed against the scenic backdrop reveals a second creation from chaos. For a moment the drama controlled by chance and the witches “yields” to Macbeth's imaginative dramatization of the imperial theme. And ultimately, although “chance” will prepare the stage, Macbeth as dramatist will bring the “horrid image” to realization.

In Macbeth's extraordinary aside he creates a picture of the future so powerful that present thought is absorbed into the horrible imagining. Macbeth's imaginative “rapture,” however, does more than relocate reality in the psychological world (“And nothing is, but what is not”); it tends to transform present things into future visions, to interpret present images as symbols of future consequences. Later, for example, the real dagger will gravitate towards the imaginary dagger his imagination has already bloodied, as if the present moment were dictated by the future vision; at the same time, Macbeth will dress himself in the murderer's role and in a state of trance, as if following a visual script, will stride off stage to fulfill his “horrid image.” At the moment of the murder, in other words, function will no longer be “smother'd in surmise”; it will rather be an instrument under the imagination's command.

The more immediate point, however, is that Shakespeare's tragic hero exhibits a genius for symbolism. His visual imagination is capable of superimposing picture upon picture to an extent that it becomes impossible for him to delineate present from future, perspective from perspective. This is why I think Helen Gardner is ill-advised in limiting the context of those striking passages in act I, scene vii,6 passages which have been tirelessly explicated but to which I must again return:

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


Despite an earlier logic and syntax of cool objectivity and despite explicit protestations to the contrary, Macbeth's fear of heavenly retribution is so powerful that it swells up from the subconscious to smother the virtues' plea against the regicide: “Duncan's virtues pleading at an earthly tribunal, because of their strength of innocence, are like angels (both innocent and strong), angels who shall herald a heavenly tribunal which shall damn Macbeth for Duncan's murder.” One image triggers a second, the second a third, each succeeding image superimposed on the former, until the original vision has been transformed into a charged symbol containing at once present thought and future imaginings, fear of earthly judgment and fear of heavenly judgment.

And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's Cherubins, hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.


The imaginative process in this passage is similar, yet the visual leap from the weak “new-born babe” to the powerful figure “striding the blast” is elliptical. The babe of pity seems to trigger once again the forensic power of innocence and virtue which in turn recalls the powerful angels with their trumpets of judgment. Hence, the vision of a Christ-like child, at once pitiful victim and powerful judge, the naked babe who will stride the blast, flashes across Macbeth's mind: “He rode vpon the Cherubyns and did flye: / he came flyenge with the winges of the wynde” (Psalms 18:10).7

The fearful images of earthly and apocalyptic retribution spring from Macbeth's imaginative contemplation of Duncan's murder (“Besides, this Duncan …”). It is ironical that these psychological prohibitions against the regicide are precisely what define Macbeth's slaughter of innocence. In Macbeth's imagination Duncan is a charged symbol; but it is not until the discovery scene, when Shakespeare allows Macduff choric stature, that the full dimensions of the “horrid image” are presented in symbolic stasis. At this crucial moment in the play Macduff sees more and infers more than he could possibly know in propria persona; what he reads out of the murder are the symbolic perspectives Macbeth had read into the murder.

O horror! horror! horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot conceive, nor name thee!
MACB., Len.
What's the matter?
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious Murther hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed Temple, and stole thence
The life o'th' building!
What is't you say? the life?
Mean you his Majesty?
Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.—Do not bid me speak:
See, and then speak yourselves.—
                                                                      Exeunt Macbeth and Lenox.
                                                                                                                        Awake! awake!—
Ring the alarum-bell.—Murther, and treason!
Banquo, and Donalbain! Malcolm, awake!
Shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit,
And look on death itself!—up, up, and see
The great doom's image!—Malcolm! Banquo!
As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites,
To countenance this horror!
                                                                                                                        Bell rings
Enter Lady Macbeth
                                                  What's the business,
That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley
The sleepers of the house? speak, speak!


As the visual emphasis of the passage makes clear, the murder scene is a picture, terrifying in itself and terrifying for the symbolic perspectives Macduff sees in it. Like the visual tyranny of Macbeth's “horrid image,” sight delivers meanings that cannot be conceived or named. And yet, of course, Macduff's choric pronouncement does conceive and name the regicide and in the process allows the audience full imaginative freedom to visualize what it could only glimpse through vague and shifting perspectives from the moment of its inception in Macbeth's mind to its bloody execution in the previous scene.8 Macduff's passage, then, is pivotal not only to our understanding of the symbolic perspectives of Duncan's murder but to our understanding of the larger structural relationship between the world stage and the theater of the mind. It is with Macduff's discovery passage as backdrop that I would like now to discuss the symbolic characterization of Duncan and the double perspective which views Macbeth as actor on one stage and playwright of a second stage.


Shakespeare has created an expansive and suggestive context for the dramatization of Duncan's kingship. In act I, scene iv, Duncan appears as a liege lord who is quick to reward the faithful service of his vassals, as a paternal figure who accepts the duties of his “children and servants” and folds them to his heart, and as a sovereign planter who nourishes his servants in love and banquets on the harvest of their service. When Duncan next appears in scene vi, he radiates an aura of innocence and benign propriety which is enhanced by the imagery of the “holy supernatural.”9 But just prior to his arrival at Inverness, however, Lady Macbeth had uttered a black invocation, praying that the “murth'ring ministers” unsex her and frustrate her natural instincts that she might forward the murder plot. The dark context creates a pointed irony for the king's advent. The lyric song of fertility, bounty, and natural grace which began the scene is meant to celebrate the arrival of the innocent victim.

In this context, then, Lady Macbeth confronts Duncan with outrageous deceit and mock homage. Her husband had made his formal account of stewardship earlier (I.iv); now Lady Macbeth returns to the master-servant, liege lord-vassal relationship:

                                                                                                                        All our service,
In every point twice done, and then done double,
Were poor and single business, to contend
Against those honours deep and broad, wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house: for those of old,
And the late dignities heap'd up to them,
We rest your hermits. …
                                                                                                              Your servants ever
Have theirs, themselves, and what is theirs, in compt,
To make their audit at your Highness' pleasure,
Still to return your own.


This impersonal, formulaic language which troubled Coleridge has suggestive overtones. Lady Macbeth is unworthy that her Lord come under her roof. The harvest imagery—“loads our house,” “heap'd up to them”—recalls the shower of blessings the sovereign planter bestows on his servants, while the language of accounting—“twice done,” “compt,” “audit”—evokes the theme of “The Parable of the Talents” (Matt. 25:14-30). Indeed, when considered together with the formulaic language and gesture of homage to the liege lord, the allusive echo suggests a kind of mock offertory. Two themes stressed repeatedly in Offertory Verses were: 1) man's absolute dependence on the Sovereign, and 2) man's duty to make a just accounting of God's blessings:

… all that is in the heavens and in the earth is thine. … Both riches and honor come from thee and thou rulest over all.

(1 Chron. 29)

Everyman shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you.

(Deut. 16:16)10

At the Offertory we offer back to the Sovereign ourselves and all He has given us, this reckoning the first fruits of the final account of stewardship. That is the point of “The Parable of the Talents” and there is a faint suggestion of the final harvest and final audit in Lady Macbeth's language.11

Additionally, the paradox implicit in offering the liege lord what is already his parallels precisely the paradox of the Christian sacrifice. For example, at the prayer of Oblation following the Communion, we offer the Victim to Himself, and at the same time we beseech the Liege Lord to accept “this our bounden duetie and service.”12 And later in the prayer we ask God to respond to our offering by filling us with grace and heavenly benedictions. Duncan had accepted Macbeth's homage earlier; his language at the close of this scene reiterates his acceptance and suggests its sacramental meaning: “We shall continue our graces towards him” ( The innocent Duncan has been deceived by the mock homage and unwittingly begins to carry out his role as sacrificial victim. He accepts the offering of himself.

At Duncan's exit Shakespeare moves immediately to the supper setting and to Macbeth's soliloquy “If it were done, when 'tis done.” The sacramental implications of scene vi, of course, make more compelling the tentative associations of the royal banquet with the Last-Supper and of Macbeth with the betrayer.13 The stage has been set for Macbeth's foul deed. Chance has provided the opportunity, Lady Macbeth the spur, and the cosmic playwright associated initially with the diabolical witches has woven into the luminous dramatization of Duncan's ideal kingship a black counter-order of unnatural murder, treacherous deceit, and sacramental blasphemy. But it remains for Macbeth to poison the chalice. Ironically, his psychological prohibitions against the regicide have worked hand-in-glove with the cosmic playwright's dramatization of order and counter-order; while they have testified to Duncan's innocence and virtue, they have also helped to define the awful proportions of the crime. Nevertheless, if Macbeth is to play the role in the witches' “imperial theme,” he must dupe his conscience and his will, those prohibitive powers which warn that he is about to enter a “drama of chaos.” This he does, and it is important to note that he carries out the self-deception by creating his own equivocal stage in the psychological theater of the mind.

In the moments before the murder (II.i), Banquo has palled the time with frightful dreams and psychological burdens. Still, he has kept his allegiance free and fought off the sympathy with evil which seems a property of the night and the witching hour. Macbeth, however, has blotted his allegiance. At the telling moment he wishes to be alone with his thoughts: “Go, bid thy mistress, when my drink is ready, / She strike upon the bell” (II.i.31-32). The murder weapon appears to Macbeth in vision, and his imagination soon dresses the dagger in its bloody role. Macbeth himself appears drawn to the future vision, as if it dictated present activity (“Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going”). And yet, before he can go, he seems compelled to shroud the instrument, the moment, and the approaching deed in a beautiful prayer to darkness and evil:

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


Macbeth attempts to purge deep-seated misgivings about the murder by transmuting them into the solemnity of a black liturgy and attempts to free himself for the deed by identifying with the “murdering creature” of the surrealistic world of night.14 In his present state of rapture, he makes the “horrid image” more palatable to his prohibitive conscience by wrapping the deed in a ceremonial liturgy and dressing himself as celebrant. Through an extraordinary act of self-incantation (at the same time a self-equivocation), Macbeth becomes a ghastly priest awaiting the signal which will call him to the sacrificial chamber. The Communion bell rings, and Macbeth draws near to his “drink”: “I go, and it is done”—consummatum est. “The bell invites me”—the Invitation was a formal prayer in the liturgy prior to the Communion: “Drawe nere and take this holy Sacrament to youre comfort.”15

At the moment of the murder, Malcolm and Donalbain wake from their bad dream to utter a strange benediction (“God bless us”) and soon after occurs a parodic Ablution, the washing of hands after the sacrifice: “Go, get some water, / And wash this filthy witness from your hand” (II.ii.45-46). Finally, the knocking at the gate acquires a similar significance in this symbolic pattern of sacrifice. Many critics have parallelled the scene to the dramatic set-piece of the Mystery Play tradition, the Harrowing of Hell,16 which took place after Christ's death and before his Resurrection.

Macbeth had assumed at the crucial moment a self-created role in the theater of the mind, one which was absolutely congruent to his role on the world stage as minister of the witches' black counter-order. His parodic sacrifice fulfills the pattern of black ritual the larger drama had established and undoes the sacramental relationship between God and King, God and Scotland. Duncan's bloodletting has loosed a graceless and godless reign of sin, tyranny, and death on Scotland. The regicide has been a “sacrilegious Murther” indeed, a Black Communion with Macbeth as High Priest.

Shakespeare's symbolic overlay becomes clearer, I think, when one considers some of the supporting emphases in the tragedy: on blood and slaughter, for example, and on the numerous perversions of eating and drinking.17 These vivid and insistent images serve as a naturalistic chorus for Macbeth's crude sacrilege, the bloody perversion of the Lord's Supper. After the regicide the concepts of feasting and slaughter are inseparable. Macbeth invites Banquo to a state dinner, but the invitation is a front for his murderous designs; later, the appearance of the cutthroats and the gruesome vocabulary of murder comment upon the “feast” as pointedly as the bloody ghost comments upon the banquet table. The Scottish Lord who wishes to “free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives” (—recalling the murders of both Duncan and Banquo—unites feasting and slaughter as surely as Macbeth himself does: “I have supp'd full with horrors” (V.v.13). Finally, all these metaphoric emphases seem drawn together in a restatement of theme by the witches' “hell-broth,” the “charm” made of flesh and blood and concocted in accordance with an infernal liturgy, the source of those deceitful visions which promise Macbeth life and bring him death.

Macduff's description of the bloody chamber, however, reveals more than the “sacrilegious Murther.” To approach the other symbolic perspectives of the regicide it will be necessary to return to the moments after the murder when Macbeth's blasphemy releases a psychic wave of heavenly retribution. His earlier fears had anticipated the consequences, and as he did in his earlier poetry, Macbeth now reads damnation into the images of the present moment. This psychological retribution he cannot “jump.” The self-accusation surfaces immediately. “God bless us” was a charm against sorcery and witchcraft, a prophylactic against evil thoughts, and, more specifically, an invocation for protection against the devil.18 Macbeth, however, has been the minister of those diabolical forces. When the voices from the second chamber break through his trance, Macbeth is left naked, deserted by his role. Guilt seizes him and “Amen” sticks in his throat. The yearning for a former innocence is asserted in that lyric voice of accusation (“Macbeth doth murther Sleep”) which signals that conscience has awakened to judge the self-deceived dramatist, to flood his mind with guilt and fear, and to transmute the washing of hands into a terrifying vision of judgment: “No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine” (II.ii.60-61). The murder has been a spiritual suicide;19 Macbeth has drunk judgment upon himself: “… bewayle your sinnes, and come not to thys holy Table; lest after takying of that holy Sacrament, the Devill entre into you as he entred into Judas, and fill you ful of al iniquities, and bring you to destruccion, both of bodye and soule.”20 In poisoning the chalice Macbeth has betrayed his former innocence and prohibitive conscience, that better part of himself, which he had dressed as celebrant in the liturgical theater of the mind.

Now that Macbeth's reawakened conscience enables him to judge his actions from a distance, the self-doubts and self-recriminations knock at his ribs as fearfully and as forcefully as the knocking at the gate. While Macbeth drifts further into painful introspection, the dramatic symbol of his guilt, the booming knocks, become more insistent. He sees clearly the ugly sacrilege behind the liturgical charade, and he cannot face the damned, terrifying creature who from center-stage in the theater of the mind mocks the self-deceived dramatist. The spiritual damnation is acknowledged, and in another state of rapture Macbeth gazes upon the hell within. The porter scene, perhaps Shakespeare's most sophisticated and brilliant dramatic inset, allows the audience a glimpse of that horrible psychological stage. When Macbeth exits, lost in himself, the porter of hell-gate stumbles before us to play out the murderer's psycho-drama.

“Who's there?”—precisely what Macbeth asks of himself. And as the petty citizens pass in review—the farmer-suicide who betrays himself while expecting too much, the equivocator whom heaven has damned, the dwarfish thief who has stolen clothes—the answer is insistent: Macbeth is there, the several faces of the damned murderer are there. Macbeth's little “castle” is under siege, and the drunken porter, the Vice-like impresario himself, reflects obliquely on the wretched master within. At the knocking at the gate, the porter wakes from a drunken stupor with hell and damnation on his mind, a dramatic counterpoint to Macbeth's own experience after the crime. The “base carousing till the second cock,” the urine, and the vomit—all perverted forms of nourishment—supply an ugly, naturalistic commentary on Macbeth's activity during those same hours. From one perspective, in other words, the knocking at the gate and the porter scene announce the arrival of the retributive forces who will eventually pay Macbeth in kind for his crime; but from a second, superimposed perspective, we see on stage a hellish dramatization of Macbeth's psychological theater.

This abrupt shift from sacrilege to judgment in the murder scene is reemphasized by Macduff's shift from the “sacrilegious Murther” to the explicit imagery of Doomsday at the discovery:

Banquo and Donalbain! Malcolm, awake!
Shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit,
And look on death itself!—up, up, and see
The great doom's image!—Malcolm! Banquo!
As from your graves rise up, and walk like sprites,
To countenance this horror!


The metaphors begin a process of equation relating a daily sleep with an eternal sleep, the bed with the grave. Following the apocalyptic portents Lennox had described (II.iii.55-62), the imaginative vision of waking from the grave prepares for the double reference of Lady Macbeth's trumpet:

                                                            What's the business,
That such a hideous trumpet calls to parley
The sleepers of the house?


The primary image conveys a call to a conference of war, and this is the first assembly of the retributive forces. But a heavenly trumpet is superimposed on the military symbol. While the trumpet anticipates the restoration in historical time, it also prefigures a heavenly retribution at the final audit. This apocalyptic “trumpet” is reinforced by the hurlyburly on stage: Lady Macbeth is the first to “wake” from her sleep, to rise up from her grave at Macduff's command, and join the chaotic assembly of judgment.

The “trumpet,” of course, is psychic. Lady Macbeth wakes psychologically to the alarum bell with hell and damnation on her mind. She has shared her husband's “drink,” which for her as for Macbeth and the porter who reflects upon him will become the cup of staggering, “the cup of the wine of wrath.”21 Though Lady Macbeth is play-acting here, the psychological validity of the moment will become clear in the sleepwalking scene of Act V.22 She is eventually shut up in a psychic world of torment, and like her husband's “torture of the mind” and “restless ecstasy” (III.ii.21-22), her tortured sleep here on this “bank and shoal of time” prefigures her eternal sleep: “Hell is murky” (V.i.35).23

But more important for our purposes, the “trumpet” inevitably recalls the imaginative power which translated virtues pleading at an earthly tribunal into “angels, trumpet-tongu'd, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off.” Macbeth's psychological damnation had been evident in the moments following the murder; later, he bluntly acknowledges the consequences of the regicide:

For Banquo's issue have I fil'd my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murther'd;
Put rancours in the vessel of my peace,
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common Enemy of man …


He is assured of damnation. What rankles him, however, is that he has not solidified his hold on the kingship. Banquo and his royal lineage threaten Macbeth's lease on life and on the crown (III.i.47-71). They represent the earthly retribution Macbeth had feared, and for this reason he falls to pieces at the sight of Banquo's fearful resurrection:

                                                                                                    … the time has been,
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now, they rise again,
With twenty mortal murthers on their crowns,
And push us from our stools.


As might be expected, Macbeth's excited imagination reads the ghost symbolically: Banquo, “crowned” with murders, rises in revenge as symbol of the lineage which will unseat Macbeth.

Nevertheless, Macbeth's fear and guilt seem to stick deeper than this. The ghost symbolizes more than its royal offspring. Macbeth refers repeatedly to Banquo's fearful resurrection from the grave (III.iv.70-72, 78-82, 92), for the ghost represents the proof and embodiment of the life-after-death which Macbeth is so anxious to deny (III.iv.69, 92-94, 105-06). In fact, in the tragic hero's psyche, Banquo came first as a figure of accusation at a tribunal of judgment: “Thou can't not say, I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (III.iv.49-50). The resurrection from the grave and the silent accusations, as much as the threat of earthly retribution, throw Macbeth into a psychic hurlyburly. The discord imaged in the theater of the mind is projected on stage, translating the facade of nourishment, concord, and social order into another prefigurement of the chaotic assembly of judgment.

Macbeth's self-estimation had suffered a terrifying diminution after the regicide; he had since played out the hoax of the dwarfish thief and despicable murderer with the assurance that the witches had destined him to become king and with the assumption that he would remain king through his natural lifetime. As in the case of Duncan's murder, however, the dramatist's initiative in killing Banquo has flooded the psychological theater with fear and guilt. And what is perhaps worse, he has been “unmanned” by the presence of Banquo, miraculously risen from the dead by a supernatural power Macbeth can neither understand nor outface. After the banquet, therefore, Macbeth is forced into two decisions. The decision to cross the river of blood betrays the utter desperation of a damned and tormented soul who must either drown his conscience or forever remain its hostage. The decision to learn the worst from the witches betrays Macbeth's utter helplessness on a stage directed by supernatural powers beyond his control. The dramatist's attempts to determine the future had twice led to self-betrayal; he now must annihilate that psychological theater and place all in the witches' hands. In the final acts of the play Macbeth emerges on the cosmic stage as a stereotypical villain, every inch the ranting tyrant of a drama he blindly hopes or desperately believes the witches have written.


At the discovery of Duncan's murder, Macduff's vivid images articulate the horror of the crime and prefigure the inevitable judgment. Macduff has been a prophet of doom for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Her bloody and hellish role in the witches' drama is ultimately introverted into the private theater of a distraught psyche; the sleepwalking scene dramatizes her fearful damnation. Macbeth's damnation runs counter to hers. The initial mental curse is ultimately projected into the world; he becomes the creature his psyche has created, a damned satanic tyrant reigning over the hell on earth. As I suggested at the outset, however, there is a wider perspective by which to judge Macduff's description of the “horrid image.” For the counter-movement of the play, the pattern of Christian tragicomedy, Macduff's announcement bears good tidings. He has come to wake the king; we hear him cry out “Awake, awake,” and there shall be an awakening. Shakespeare has patterned the counter-movement of the play on the resurrection promise of the Easter liturgy and on the concept of Duncan's anointed kingship. Before proceeding into an admittedly speculative portion of the essay, it would be helpful to recall that Macbeth was in many respects a royal play and that as nearly as it can be dated it was composed in February-March-April of 1606.24 With this in mind, we return again to Duncan's symbolic portrayal.

Duncan was the “anointed” king, he was the christus of the Lord. Richard II indicates that Shakespeare knew the king's role was in imitation of Christ. James I, of course, also knew it. In an address to the First Parliament in 1603, James makes explicit use of Christological language and analogy: “I am the Husband, and the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife; I am the Head and it is my Body; I am the Shepherd, and it is my flocke.”25 The allusions are to Christ as the groom of the Church, as the head of the Mystical Body, and as the Good Shepherd of Scripture. Further, as Ernst Kantorowicz has documented, from the analogy of Christ's double nature as expressed in the Athanasian Creed, Elizabethan jurists had drawn the analogy of ‘the King's two bodies’: the King dies as man, but the King, the anointed office, is immortal.26 In this political sense, then, Duncan has never died. Macduff had come to wake the king and, though it seems a Providential equivocation worthy of the witches, he does wake the King in the figure of Malcolm. And it is Malcolm who remains rightful king through Scotland's darkest hours.

But clearly, the political justification for completing the sacrificial pattern with an Easter morning resurrection would remain little more than hollow and appliqued historicism were it not for Duncan's more important role in imitation of Christ. Duncan has been sacrificed as his exemplar was. Macduff's image of “sacrilegious Murther,” culminating a pattern of diabolical invocation, mock Offertory, and Last Supper, describes a black parody of Christ's sacrifice. Macbeth has “broke ope / The Lord's anointed Temple, and stole thence / The life o'th' building”; the rending of the bed curtain, the forced access through Duncan's flesh, the rape of the tabernacle—those superimposed pictures Macduff asks us to imagine—have been the blasphemous perversion of the Blood Sacrifice of the New Law.

At Christ's death the rending of the curtain which isolated the Holy of Holies signified that a heavenly sanctuary had superseded the Old Testament type. The curtain itself typified Christ's flesh: “seeing therfore brethren that by the meanes of the bloud of Jesu, we have liberty to enter into the holy place by the newe and livyng waye, which he hath prepared for us, through the vayle (that is to saye, by his fleshe): … let us drawe nye. …”27 Christ (as High Priest) allowed His flesh to be rent (as Victim) that we might have unimpeded access through the curtain to the heavenly sanctuary. Moreover, the “wine of life” which flowed from Christ's flesh was redemptive; it promised future life. For this reason, his death on Good Friday woke the dead to the promise of a final awakening: “And beholde, the vayle of the temple did rent into two partes, from the top to the botome, and the yerth did quake, and the stones rent, and the graues did open, and many bodies of the saintes, which slept, arose and went out of the graues after his resurreccion, and came into the holy city, and appeared unto many” (Matt. 27: 51-53).28 As the Easter Anthem states, Christ's death enabled us to conquer death: “Christ is risen againe: the first fruits of them that sleep: for seeing that by man came death, by man also cometh the resurreccion of the dead. For as by Adam all men doe die, so by Christe all men shalbe restored to lyfe.”29 Macbeth's blasphemous murder of the “anointed” king had anticipated a resurrection to judgment; Duncan's sacrifice in imitation of Christ promises a resurrection to life. Both the “fair” and the “foul” perspectives of the regicide are reflected in Macduff's imagery and in the symbolic hurlyburly on stage.

The dramatic allusion to the Harrowing of Hell evokes the context of Christ's victory over Satan, and the explicit imagery of apocalyptic portents, sacramental sacrifice, and awakening from the grave recall the final resurrection to life promised in His death and resurrection. These reverberations, together with Duncan's political and sacrificial imitations of Christ, justify the reading of Macduff's “foul” images as “fair” images which prefigure good tidings. This grand equivocation, the “fair and foul” ambiguity at the heart of the tragedy, supports the two structural movements of the play. Both the psychological tragedy of crime and punishment and the tragicomic movement of death and regeneration are adumbrated in the discovery scene. And perhaps equally important, the distanced perspective which recognizes the “fair” promise implicit in Macduff's “foul” tidings recognizes as well that a cosmic playwright more powerful than the witches is asserting control over the world stage and guiding the forces of restoration, his ministers on earth:

                                                                                Thither Macduff
Is gone to pray the holy King, upon his aid
To wake Northumberland, and warlike Siward;
That, by the help of these (with Him above
To ratify the work), we may again
Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights,
Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives,
Do faithful homage, and receive free honours …


The restoration will reestablish the rightful relationship of God and his earthly servants and return to Scotland the fruitful and gracious kingship which Duncan had embodied.

It is in this sense, then, that Duncan is resurrected on earth in the figure of Malcolm. In act IV, scene iii, a scene symbolic of Malcolm's awakening to kingship,30 the son comes to embody the innocence and saintliness of his father much as he renews his role as king. Duncan had earlier pronounced his son heir apparent, indeed almost “planted” his son heir apparent in that peculiarly rich context of sowing and reaping. Then and throughout the play the natural cycle which turns from seed to harvest to seed calls to mind the double meaning of the scriptural tradition. For Christ and for Duncan as well: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The scriptural reverberation seems appropriate because Malcolm not only renews Duncan's kingship, he brings it to maturity.31 The father had promised “signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers” (1.4.41-42); Malcolm fulfills the promise in a verbal recollection of the sovereign planter's recompense and bounty:

                                                                      My thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be Earls; the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour nam'd. What's more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time, …
                                                                                by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place.


The continuation and the perfection of Duncan's earthly kingship and his symbolic resurrection in the figure of his son signify what the play insists on time and again: the saintly Duncan has been resurrected to eternal life. Duncan sleeps in peace; his death has borne much fruit on earth and in heaven.32

Banquo also takes part in the Christian paradigm of death and resurrection. He fathers a line of kings. Macduff had called on Banquo to rise up from his grave, and the “sprite” of Banquo is resurrected in time as dramatic symbol of his plentiful offspring.33 James I, of course, is the fruit of this rich Christian harvest. Finally, Scotland itself is raised from its death-bed. The day of deliverance is at hand. Malcolm and the forces of restoration are the medicine for the “sickly weal,” and significantly, blood is the restorative agent. Cathness suggests to the others: “… pour we, in our country's purge / Each drop of us,” and Lennox replies, “or so much as it needs / To dew the sovereign flower, and drown the weeds” (V.ii.28-30). Blood is both a restorative agent which brings life and a punitive agent which brings death: fair or foul, lustral sacrifice or bloody slaughter, the vessel of peace or the poisoned chalice. The theme of “miraculous cure” had been introduced explicitly into the play with Edward the Confessor in Act IV, but it had been implicit in Duncan's sacrifice and foreshadowed in Macduff's poetry. The tragicomic movement of the play had been patterned on such a “miraculous cure,” Christ's blood sacrifice and the Christian promise of a resurrection to life.

The “sovereign flower” shall be separated from the “weeds,” the wheat from the chaff, both at the earthly reckoning on the battlefield and at the final reckoning. Macbeth had no issue on earth; in direct contrast to Duncan and Banquo, his death shall bring forth no fruit. Yet the earthly significance figures forth the symbolic one: unlike the father of kings, Macbeth shall die to eternal death.

Is ripe for shaking, and the Powers above
Put on their instruments.


The divine playwright of the world stage will enact his decree through his earthly instruments, Malcolm and the forces of restoration. Yet the allusive language recalls the final harvest and the “Babe's” injunction to the angels of judgment: “… for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe” (Joel 3:12-13).34

The double reference to restoration and Apocalypse, to earthly and heavenly retribution, is recurrent throughout the final scenes of the play. Macbeth snatches confidence from the witches' equivocations and relegates the threat of Banquo's ghastly apparition together with the movement of Birnam wood to a time outside the natural cycle of life:

                                                                                                              Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellious dead, rise never, till the wood
Of Birnam rise; and our high-plac'd Macbeth
Shall live the lease of Nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom.


Later, the theme is restated in a description of the restoration forces: “Revenges burn in them; for their dear causes / Would, to the bleeding and the grim alarm, / Excite the mortified man” (V.ii.3-5). The “rebellious dead” and the “mortified man” join forces with God's soldiers of restoration. Macbeth's hyperbolic bravado and apocalyptic oaths notwithstanding (III.ii.16-19; IV.i.52-61), the symbolic spirits of vengeance will rise when Birnam wood moves and nature runs amuck, just as Macbeth had earlier predicted: “And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature / For ruin's wasteful entrance' (II.iii.113-14). Putting aside the present false confidence, the symbolic perspective which recognized that the forced entry through Duncan's flesh led to an earthly and apocalyptic hurlyburly has forecast the “bleeding” and “grim alarm” of act V. Macbeth will once again be swimming in a blood-bath, one whose ambivalent signification signals life and regeneration for Scotland and death and damnation for Macbeth.

The decision to cross the river of blood and to smother surmise in function35 had momentarily drawn the curtain on the theater of the mind. He had drowned his conscience through habitual blood-bath and with it his imaginative vision of the world. The conjunction of hand and head obliterated the interior distance he once had on his actions. The cold, objective tone of “the yellow leaf” (V.iii.22-28) is not that of “rapt” self-appraisal; Macbeth looks at his life as a tired old actor looking at his role. Lady Macbeth's death gives the actor a similar pause:

                                                                                                    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.


Macbeth sees himself, finally, as a ranting tyrant on an absurd world stage. He has been an instrument of chaos in a diabolical scenario, a poor player (like all the rest) whose life can have only one meaningful issue—death. The double reference of the imagination has collapsed in the end to an absolute literalness: life is totally without significance. The witches and the supernatural “idiot” they represent have betrayed the actor into the irrational drama he had mistaken for “the imperial theme.”

But never has Macbeth been so wrong. He himself has been the “idiot,” his drama one of self-betrayal, and his actions charged with symbolic significance. When Macbeth learns that Birnam wood approaches and that nature has run amuck, a final psychological reflux floods his little theater. The witches' equivocations throw Macbeth back on his own resources, and he once again writes the script for his own tragedy. With death at hand, in utter desperation and with bestial defiance, he forfeits the security of the castle, reads apocalypse into the moment (“Blow, wind! come, wrack!”), and dares the hurlyburly. The irrational playwright creates a closing movement for the absurd drama of chaos which he himself had written all along. And yet, from a second distanced perspective on the action, the audience recognizes that the true cosmic playwright now controls the world stage and is prepared to create pattern out of the chaos and significance out of Malcolm's victory and Macbeth's defeat. Ironically and pointedly, Macbeth's psychological stage this time complements hand-in-glove a wider symbolic drama not of the witches' making as he had earlier hoped, but of God's as he had earlier feared. The alarum bell rings once again, and five times in the sixty lines before the tyrant's death we hear that psychic trumpet, now dramatic symbol of Macbeth's damnation and Scotland's resurrection.


  1. Act III, scene vi introduces the counter-movement of the play. The structural divide is so prominent that Henry N. Paul thinks the conclusion of the play was written several months after the start; see his The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950), pp. 36ff., 304ff.

  2. Citations are to the Arden edition of Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir, 9th ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

  3. The ambiguities and ironies of the sergeant's narrative have been pointed out often. See especially John Holloway, The Story of the Night (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 58ff.

  4. I am referring only to the dramatic function of the witches in this paragraph. Shakespeare seems to have left open the more difficult and perhaps extraneous question of their ontology; see, for example, A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Macmillan, 1904), pp. 340-49, and Madeleine Doran, “That Undiscovered Country,” PQ [Philological Quarterly], 20 (1941), 413-27. I hope to make clear, however, that although the witches convey an initial impression of determinism the audience soon recognizes that Macbeth is self-betrayed and that the witches who know the future do not determine the future.

  5. See Muir's note, p. 20.

  6. “A Reply To Cleanth Brooks,” included in Approaches To Shakespeare, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), pp. 90-98.

  7. I follow Muir who quotes from Coverdale. See also Matt. 24:31 and 1 Thess. 4:16.

  8. Shakespeare could not risk an on-stage murder like that in Julius Caesar, for example, where the bare-faced treachery and bloody slaughter mock the ritual sacrifice Brutus had envisioned. “Shakespeare magnifies the horror of the dead by continually shifting its outlines, else it would find a fixed lodgement in our imaginations and become a vulgar crime. We are never allowed to see its real face”—quoted from Macbeth, ed. Mark Harvey Liddell (New York: Doubleday, 1904), p. 51.

  9. L. C. Knights, Explorations (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), p. 22. See also G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 140ff., and D. A. Traversi, An Approach To Shakespeare (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 153-54, 167.

  10. The verses are taken from the Scottish Liturgy of 1637; see Anglican Liturgies of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. W. Jardine Grisbrooke (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 168-69. I am not offering a textual allusion but a conceptual analogy in citing the anachronistic 1637 Liturgy. Perhaps the best explanation of the Offertory symbolism is found in the rubric of a late 17th century liturgy: “It being the Ancient Holy rite, among all mankind, to pay Honour to God, by making their Address to Him with Presents and Offerings, in Recognition of his absolute Dominion, and their dependence upon and Subjection to Him (as with us Freeholders, pay their chief rents to the Lord of whom they hold) … the People are to be instructed and admonished to present their Offerings with Reverence, as the Offerings of God, and to God, for the Purpose aforesaid, and as Symbolical Oblations of Themselves, and all they are or have, unto Him. …”; see the “Liturgy of Edward Stephens” (c. 1696) in Anglican Liturgies, p. 210.

  11. M. Moelwyn Merchant, “His Fiend-Like Queen,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey], 19 (1966), p. 78, notices the double reference of human justice and Last Judgment in the “audit” passage and cites Romans 14:12—“So each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

  12. Quoted from The First and Second Prayer-Books of King Edward The Sixth, ed. E. C. S. Gloucester (New York: Dutton, 1910), p. 390. Shakespeare frequently quoted Psalms from the Prayer-Book and was no doubt familiar with the liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer (1559) was probably Shakespeare's edition, but it was substantively based on The Second Prayer-Book of Edward VI (1552) and, for our purposes, indistinguishable from it. See H. R. D. Anders, Shakespeare's Books (Berlin: Reimer, 1904), chap. 6; and Richard S. H. Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (New York: Octagon, 1970), pp. 14ff., 76ff.

  13. See especially Roy Walker, The Time Is Free (London: Andrew Duckers Ltd., 1949), pp. 53-55. Walker similarly stresses the sacramental symbolism of the regicide. See also Muir's note, p. 37.

  14. Arnold Stein, “Macbeth and Word-Magic,” Sew, 59 (1951), p. 275. See also Matthew Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 64; Paul A. Jorgenson, Our Naked Frailties (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 62-66. Macbeth's trance-like state at this moment (noted by Bradley, Kittredge, Dover Wilson, et al.) emphasizes his need for role-playing. On the importance of role-playing to Macbeth and the theatrical metaphor to the play, see John Lawlor, The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960), pp. 137-46; and V. Y. Kantak, “An Approach To Shakespearean Tragedy: The ‘Actor’ Image in Macbeth,ShS, 16 (1963), 42-52.

  15. Prayer-Books, p. 386.

  16. See John W. Hales, Notes and Essays on Shakespeare (London: George Bell, 1884), pp. 284-86; John B. Harcourt, “‘I Pray You, Remember the Porter,’” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 12 (1961), 393-402; and especially, Glynne Wickham, “Hell-Gate And Its Door-Keeper,” ShS, 19 (1966), 69-74.

  17. From the eating of the “insane root,” to the banquet betrayal (I.vii), to the slaughter of sleep (chief nourisher of life's feast), to Duncan's horses devouring one another, to the maws of kites and the supper of horrors—eating is perverted throughout. So, too, the metaphors of drinking—from the poisoned chalice, to the drunken hope, to the limbec of reason. Everyone seems to be drinking the night of the murder, including Lady Macbeth (II.ii.1), and the effect is to frame Macbeth's blasphemy with an ugly perverted naturalism.

  18. See Liddell, pp. 66-67; Kittredge, p. 137; and The New Shakespeare Macbeth, ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 122.

  19. I slightly redefine M. C. Bradbrook's perceptive comment in “The Sources of Macbeth,ShS, 4 (1951), p. 46.

  20. Prayer-Books, p. 385. See also the Holy Thursday Epistle (1 Cor. 27).

  21. See Rev. 14:17-20; Isa. 51:17, 51:22, 63:1-6; et al.

  22. B. L. Reid links the imagery of the discovery scene with the sleepwalking scene in “Macbeth and the Play of Absolutes,” Sew, 73 (1965), pp. 30, 42.

  23. An excellent discussion of the “hell on earth” in Macbeth can be found in Paul A. Jorgensen's Our Naked Frailties, esp. pp. 27-39, 137-39.

  24. This is not to say that it is only a royal play. The approximate dates of composition are Henry N. Paul's; see The Royal Play of Macbeth, p. 237ff.

  25. “Speech of 1603,” quoted from The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918), p. 272.

  26. The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), esp. p. 165ff. and chap. 7.

  27. Heb. 10:19-22; quoted from Prayer-Books, p. 103. The passage was recited in the Good Friday Epistle.

  28. Quoted from Prayer-Books, p. 85. This was the Palm Sunday Gospel.

  29. Ibid., p. 371.

  30. Shakespeare has telescoped Malcolm's coming-of-age in England into the opening confrontation with Macduff. The audience last saw Malcolm after his father's murder; he was weak and cowardly, fleeing personal danger and, in effect, abdicating his election to the throne. As the scene opens, the audience recognizes once again the weak, ineffectual boy; it does not know, any more than Macduff, that Malcolm is testing him. For Macduff and for the audience as well, Malcolm is transformed in the course of the scene from weakness to strength, from personal degradation to sainthood. The test is for Malcolm a symbolic purge of weakness and sin, a preparation for kingship; for the audience, it is a symbolic awakening to kingship. For the first time in the play Malcolm assumes the stature of his saintly father and his saintly mother. She also, one notes, “dies daily” in imitation of Christ: “O God, who for our redemption dyddest geue thyne only begotten sonne to the death of the Crosse: and by his glorious resurreccion haste delyuered us from the power of our enemye: Graunte us so to dye dayle from synne, that we maye euermore lyve with him in the joy of hys resurrecftion; through the same Christe our Lorde. Amen.” Easter Anthem, quoted from Prayer-Books, p. 110.

  31. A similar point is made by M. C. Bradbrook, “The Sources of Macbeth” (p. 38), and by Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (pp. 177-78). The earthly “fruit” Duncan's death engenders and the king's “perfection” in the figure of Malcolm are related, I suspect, to Malcolm as founder of the Scottish dynasty.

  32. W. A. Murray thinks that the “perfection” of Duncan's earthly life in heaven is suggested by the image of his “golden blood.” This would be consistent with the play's symbolism and with Macbeth's imagination. He looks at the real blood and in gilding it in the gold perfection of heaven reads the future into it: “Here lay Duncan, / His silver skin lac'd with his golden blood” (II.iii.11-12). See “Why Was Duncan's Blood Golden?,” ShS, 19 (1966), 34-44, esp. p. 42.

  33. The metaphor of “perfection” may also apply here. Banquo's “blood-bolter'd” head, the twenty mortal murders on his “crown,” seems to be perfected on earth in the “gold-bound brows” of his lineage; see IV.i.112-24.

  34. As I understand the passage, “Macbeth is ripe for shaking” as the grain harvest is ripe for threshing. The angels take up their sickles for the final harvest in which the wheat shall be separated from the chaff. I cite Joel 3:12-13, but the harvest of judgment imagery is recurrent throughout the Old and New Testaments.

  35. Arnold Stein's phrase in “Macbeth and Word-Magic,” p. 284.


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Among Shakespeare's shortest and most visceral dramas, Macbeth was most likely written in 1606. Principally based on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), the play details the rapid and brutal rise of the warrior Macbeth to the throne of Scotland, followed by his subsequent intrigues, atrocities, and eventual demise on the field of battle. 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 violent action in the play, its nightmarish atmosphere, and the enigmatic nature of its hero, the drama has received almost universal acclaim as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil. Representing such a view, L. C. Knights (see Further Reading) evaluates the foul consequences of an unchecked “lust for power” in the drama, allowing Shakespeare to outwardly dramatize the internal distinctions between good and evil and the human potential to pervert moral order. Similarly, Richard S. Ide's (1975) structural analysis of the work highlights a dichotomy between the psychological tragedy of Macbeth and the symbolic interplay of good and evil in the drama, which Ide argues are integrated in the play's final act. Nicholas Brooke (1990) evaluates the rich poetic language and abundant interpretive signification in the play, elements that have been the primary interest of generations of critics.

Modern analyses of Macbeth have generally concentrated on its principal character—his struggles with his conscience and fate, his descent into corruption, and his ambivalent status as a tragic and sympathetic figure. Dolora G. Cunningham (1963) elucidates what is essentially an orthodox view of Macbeth as a pathologically ambitious individual who repudiates his humanity, and though confronted by remorse, ultimately acquiesces to a base desire for evil. Peter Ure (1974) takes a somewhat different approach, regarding Macbeth as less a study in villainy than a tragic and horrifying glance into the imagination of a man who, having murdered once only to be ravaged by guilt, resolves to think no more. In a complementary analysis of Macbeth's character, Lisa Low (1983) asks why audiences seem to identify with this violent murderer, arguing that Shakespeare's drama allows spectators to imaginatively enter the recesses of Macbeth's mind, to associate their feelings of guilt with his, and to find in his defeat the possibility for redemption. While Shakespeare's violent Thane of Glamis and short-lived King of Scotland continues to draw the vast majority of critical attention, to a much lesser degree twentieth-century commentators have also focused on Lady Macbeth. Representing what is generally viewed as a traditional estimation of the character, George William Gerwig (1929) interprets Lady Macbeth as a psychological portrait of unchecked, “feminine” ambition, projected toward the motivation and achievement of her husband.

Although Macbeth has enjoyed a long and storied stage history, the end of the twentieth century has witnessed a relative paucity in accomplished theatrical performances of the tragedy. Filling in this gap, many critics have turned their attention to the equally rich history of Macbeth as the subject of film, video, and television. Kenneth S. Rothwell (2000) examines the enduring appeal of Trevor Nunn's 1979 film production of the drama, occasioned by its digital rerecording at the end of the century. Praising Nunn's cinematically innovative direction and skilled evocation of the play's nightmarish dramatic and psychological landscape, Rothwell also admires the outstanding performances of Ian McKellen as an anguished Macbeth and Judi Dench as his manipulative wife. Arthur Lindley (2001) discusses the influential 1948 film version of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles. While former critics have generally decried the film as reductive and un-Shakespearean, Lindley instead concentrates on its ahistorical evocation of medieval Europe, and its lasting impact on subsequent cinematic interpretations of the epoch. Considering other filmed productions of Macbeth, David G. Hale (2001) observes that even as numerous critics have asserted that the drama suggests a harmonious ending in the downfall of its protagonist, a number of BBC television and feature film productions of the tragedy have tended to imply a continued state of historical instability that persists long after Macbeth's defeat.

Late twentieth-century interpretation of Macbeth has continued the process of studying the complex thematic nuances of this tragedy, particularly in its combined and potentially apocalyptic treatment of evil, violence, and sexuality. Sheldon P. Zitner (1964) comments on the generic status of Macbeth as a work that, despite its depiction of the extremes of human wickedness, remains a tragic narrative rather than a melodramatic representation of evil. R. A. Foakes (1982) offers a complementary view, regarding the drama as an intricate exploration of ambition and its tragic consequences, while highlighting its evocative imagery of death. Displacing the thematic concentration on ambition, Bert O. States (1985) looks to Macbeth's so-called ‘pity’ soliloquy in Act I, scene vii, to uncover the apocalyptic implications of the drama. Violent contradiction and disguised evil lie at the center of Franco Ferrucci's (1980) estimation of Macbeth. Presenting an unorthodox reading, Ferrucci contends that Macduff, who is generally seen as the embodiment of virtue and justice that balances Macbeth's sinful ambition, is just as despicable as his rival. In true Machiavellian fashion, Macduff plays at being good more convincingly than the usurping Scottish king, according to Ferrucci. The link between violence, debased sexuality, and the supernatural is the focus of Dennis Biggins's 1976 analysis, illuminating the process by which these motifs, personified in the Weird Sisters, drive the action of Macbeth. Margaret Omberg's (1996) psychological study revisits the perennial question, asked flippantly by L. C. Knights decades earlier: “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Taking the inquiry seriously, Omberg maintains that Macbeth's failure to produce an heir is psychologically and thematically fundamental to the tragedy. Turning to the religious and philosophical implications of Macbeth, Jan H. Blits (1996) studies the drama's concern with the limits of virtue and the violation of human and natural order.

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Rothwell, Kenneth S. “Shakespeare Goes Digital.” Cineaste 25, no. 3 (June 2000): 50-2.

[In the following excerpted review of Trevor Nunn's 1979 production of Macbeth recorded on video, Rothwell praises the haunting performances of Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, as well as Nunn's skilled direction.]

The critically acclaimed Trevor Nunn Macbeth (1979), re-recorded on VHS for HBO, returns theater to primal ritual. Macbeth is Shakespeare's journey into the heart of darkness, which probes into the nether regions of the unconscious where shameful desires lie hidden like the damned frozen in ice at the center of Dante's Inferno. Macbeth (Ian McKellen) and his Lady (Judi Dench) wring the last drop of misery out of the nightmare human condition in which there is no hope but only remorse and eventual extinction (“Out, out brief candle! / Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player …”).

Nunn shatters all dogma about the inadequacies of television by brilliantly transforming the original 1976 stage production at Stratford's experimental The Other Place theater into scintillating video drama. This is no simple-minded aiming of cameras at a cluster of talking heads but a creative and shrewd orchestration of camera and action. From an opening overhead shot of the actors arranged in a small Druidic circle, the camera then plays endless variations on the interplay between and among the actors and even the audience. Staging and costume are minimalist to the extreme, Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, for example, being garbed in a tent-like garment with a black skull cap cloth on her head. When a still confident Lady Macbeth snatches the daggers away from her quailing husband (“Infirm of purpose! / Give me the daggers.”), no barrier intervenes between the Macbeths' anguish and the audience's own anxieties. The intruding and intrusive camera often moves in tight and almost embeds itself in the principal's bodies, as when a writhing Ian McKellen and Judi Dench make a fetish out of virtually melting into each others' flesh.

At the disastrous dinner party, when Banquo's ghost impudently appears, the rhythm of the editing acts as a metronome timing the emotional escalation of host and hostess as Lady Macbeth suffers unspeakable humiliation from her husband's weird behavior. Ian McDiarmid as the Porter with the thickest of country dialects turns in a spectacular performance when he appears in braces over a bare chest to answer the knocking at the gate, and then doubles as Ross. Not to be overlooked, either, is the straightforward way that Nunn identifies Seyton (Greg Hicks), Macbeth's loyal retainer, as the mysterious Third Murderer. This is not just Shakespeare at his best but video at its best. Not to be missed.

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Zitner, Sheldon P. “Macbeth and the Moral Scale of Tragedy.” Journal of General Education 16, no. 1 (April 1964): 20-8.

[In the following essay, Zitner comments on Shakespeare's ability to present the numerous evil acts perpetrated by Macbeth without letting his tragedy degrade to the level of melodrama.]

The nemesis of tragic drama is not comedy—which also rests on a doubt of human powers—but melodrama. Melodrama reduces our sinful excellence to an unmixed, therefore untestable and unalterable, criminality or virtue. And its “happy” outcome arouses, not fear or pity—which comedy parries only with lucky blunders—but recklessness and self-approval, for melodrama assumes that men can act wholly outside evil, and so triumph over it without a self-defeat. Melodrama is what happens when tragic writing tires of common humanity.

The “story” of Macbeth conspicuously invites such a fatigue. Its murders are gross and frequent, and, though realized or alluded to in passionate language, they are not humanized by the passional. But the “story” is not a given against which Shakespeare had to contend. As Arthur Quiller-Couch pointed out, “instead of extenuating Macbeth's criminality [which the sources of the story gave him warrant to do] Shakespeare doubles and redoubles it.” He omits almost every event Holinshed's Chronicle suggests for pardoning Macbeth, and grasps much that imagination can provide to damn him. Yet the play is tragedy, not melodrama; we are never thoroughly alienated from its protagonist. How Shakespeare went about preventing this alienation is the particular form of the play: its representation of some events, its narration of others; its use in some scenes of agents rather than the protagonist himself; its evocation of witchcraft and prophecy to magnify the power of evil; its suggestion of passional motives through Macbeth's relation to his wife. Above all, in maintaining what has been called Macbeth's “unrealistic” sensitivity—his “normal” reactions—to crimes that “should” harden him, Shakespeare joins his protagonist to common humanity. But this has been pointed out before, and it is useless to ballast arguments that already sink under agreement. Rather one ought to ask why Shakespeare chose to work so much at odds with himself, to pile up the very difficulties he would have to overcome.

One partial answer is that this is the essential strategy of art. But Oedipus Rex is no less an achievement because Sophocles places the crimes of his protagonist outside the dramatic time of the play. Another partial answer is that Macbeth is a virtuoso-piece. But this is more description than explanation. One must account for the choice of materials, and the butcheries of a Scottish tyrant hardly suggest themselves as inevitable matter for a jeu d'esprit. The primary answer lies elsewhere, specifically in one of Shakespeare's tactics for keeping Macbeth inside the pale of humanity. At significant points in the play he lowers the horizon of behavior against which Macbeth's crimes are to be judged.

There are at least two scenes which have this alteration of scale as their primary function: the Porter's scene, and the interview between Malcolm and Macduff. The Porter's scene puts before us the pervasive criminality of men. It occurs immediately after the murder of Duncan (benefactor, guest, King), when Macbeth seems most divorced from common humanity. The Porter's lurching and delay remind us that no Lady Macbeth, no conspiring evil, is needed to transform “memory, the warder of the brain,” into a “fume,” disarming duty. Man's nature, “uncultivated,” is a ready accessory to the fact of evil. But this is not the most relevant point of the scene. “If a man were porter of hell gate [says the Porter] he should have old turning of the key,” “old” here meaning tiresomely frequent, and with such a frequency as to call up the final adjective that describes the mortal career. Both Macbeth and his wife have found their way to Hell by extraordinary crimes, but the Porter insists on how many more death will undo. His “Have napkins enow about you; here you'll sweat for it,” reduces to the commonplace and domestic a damnation we have been viewing as spectacularly outside ordinary experience. The Porter tells us that he had “thought to let in some of all professions …” and, concluding the scene, he says, now speaking to us directly: “I pray you remember the porter.” We are to applaud him as actor, to tip him as Porter on our own ways to Hell, and to refrain from the self-indulgence of imagining ourselves wholly outside the frame of the play, only observers at a spectacle.

Similar inferences may be drawn from the interview between Malcolm and Macduff. The scene is subtitled in commentary “the testing of Macduff.” But the course of the fable does not necessitate this testing. Malcolm does not yet know of the murder of Macduff's children (nor does Macduff), nor does Malcolm know of the development of Macduff's opposition to the tyrant. But what should control the decision to present scenes in drama is not what the characters, but what the audience must know. The marshalling of forces against Macbeth might well have proceeded without the testing scene, though it occurs in Holinshed. To us the motives for an alliance between Malcolm and Macduff are clear enough. So the function of the scene must lie not so much in furthering what must occur, as in specifying how we are to look at it. The testing of Macduff and the manner and extent of that testing prompt us to see Macbeth's crimes against a lowered horizon of human behavior.

Malcolm's first speech:

Let us seek out some desolate shade, and there
Weep our sad bosoms empty.

has the precise accent of moral enervation we associate with Richard II at the moments he is least capable of rule. (The scene is also a testing of Malcolm as future ruler.) And Macduff's reply, urging action when

                                                                                          Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry. …

forces us to raise again the question of Macduff's responsibility in exposing the lives of his wife and children. These lines do not permit us to grant him the extenuation of a lack of foresight. Further, Malcolm's distrust of Macduff exemplifies that general and well-grounded suspicion of men toward one another, a suspicion whose pathology in Macbeth is a matter of degee, not kind. When Malcolm goes on to say that:

A good and virtuous nature may recoil
In an imperial charge,

he points to a pervasive human weakness. But the richness of the last phrase and especially the ambiguity of the preposition, allow us to connect this weakness with Macbeth's own fall under the pressure of the idea of power.

The passages following are full of Malcolm's self-accusations. Beside him, he states, “black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow.” Malcolm's catalogue of vices is significant in what it specifies (a state of mind to be inferred also from Hamlet's similar self-accusations as he “tests” Ophelia in III, i, 121 ff.) but even more significant in its premises as a mode of testing Macduff. Ultimately Macduff “passes” the test; that is, he rejects Malcolm, the self-invented monster, as unfit to rule. Yet we are made to observe how many evils a man of more than ordinary goodness—active, not merely docile, goodness—will tolerate and connive at before he stands fast. Is Malcolm a very “cistern” of lust? Why, then, Macduff responds, he may “convey (his) pleasures in a spacious plenty,” covering them with hypocrisy, for Scotland “has willing dames enough.” Is Malcolm avaricious, would he destroy his nobles for their lands, set thane against thane for the spoils of confiscation? Why, then, Macduff answers, “Scotland hath foisons to fill up” the desires of such a man.

Just as important as Macduff's willingness to accept Malcolm's vices is the tone of bland hypocrisy this acceptance entails. He quotes copybook maxims at Malcolm: “Boundless intemperance / In nature is a tyranny.” “This avarice / Sticks deeper, grows with more pernicious root / Than summer-seeming lust.” His stance is that of Macbeth at the outset of the play. The exchange between Macduff and Malcolm goes on so long that it has seemed to some to disrupt the moral alignments of the fable. Many acted versions of the play omit the scene as an embarrassment to the melodramatic sweep of the concluding action. So it is. For what emerges from it is Malcolm's premise (not only his suspicion, but his certainty, of how far “good” men will go in accepting and conniving at evil), and a justification of that premise (how far Macduff actually does go). The scene precisely fixes the behavioral scale of the play, and it does so only shortly before we are to make our final evaluation of Macbeth.

In addition to these particular scenes, there are other means by which Shakespeare lowers the behavioral horizon in Macbeth. The stage is almost continually dark; evil spreads, as in the single medium of a pool, from protagonist to agent, from agent to event. The “good” characters in the play (with perhaps one exception), are specifically tainted, and the taint in several well-known passages is generalized to include all mankind. It would be superfluous to say more of Macduff or to do more than allude to the understandable, and perhaps barely pardonable, flight of Malcolm, which finds an ironic echo of the enervated opening speech of the “testing” scene. More crucial are the cases of Banquo and Duncan.

Banquo's initial reaction to the murder is the speech which ends:

In the great hand of God I stand, and thence
Against the undivulg'd pretence I fight
Of treasonous malice.

But his second reaction, incorporating the near-certainty of Macbeth's guilt, is that if the wiches told the truth to Macbeth,

(As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine),
Why, by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my oracles as well
And set me up in hope?

One must first observe here Banquo's confusion of “fair” and “foul” in the verb “shine.” But he ventures not only this slight movement into the inverted imagery of evil; he also expresses, as Bradley pointed out, an attitude similar to that of Macbeth in Act I, and a willingness to profit from evil. This last is apparent in the “mouth-honour,” of his next speech to Macbeth:

                                                                                          Let your Highness
Command upon me, to the which my duties
Are with a most indissoluble tie
For ever knit.

Though unintentional on Banquo's part, there is a suggestiveness in a later speech that can be no accident of the poet's hand in a play whose imagery of light and dark is so consistently wrought. Banquo has indeed become “a borrower of the night.” That Banquo is an active danger to Macbeth is something we do not learn from the man himself. By neither word nor deed does Banquo express clear opposition, though he fears Macbeth's guilt. After the murder his virtue is all in the mouths of others.

Further, though he states more clearly and emphatically than Macbeth the evil possibilities in the witches' predictions, though he warns Macbeth that he intends to keep

My bosom franchis'd and allegiance clear,

before the murder he is not proof against awful images, those “cursed thoughts” he calls on “merciful powers” to restrain. He is not proof against them because these are the thoughts that human “nature gives way to in repose.” Moreover, with Macbeth, he shares the mixed impression made on us by the Sergeant's speech in I, ii. Like Macbeth, he has defended the crown in the defeat of the traitor Macdonwald. But like Macbeth's, his eager violence moves the Sergeant to describe him as apparently intending “to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha.” We must see him, therefore, not only as a good man whose active nature sometimes resists evil, sometimes not, but as the human being whose nature “in repose” is full of latent evil, and whose activity, even in a just cause, can be morally ambiguous.

If there is a representation of some polar good in the play it is Duncan. That he is murdered at the outset of Macbeth, that Cordelia survives until the last act of Lear, and that Edgar, Kent, and the Fool function throughout it, are summaries of the difference in the structures and themes of the plays. But Duncan's presence as a behavioral standard is brief indeed, and he has no surrogate. Malcolm is not wholly his successor, nor his equal in spirituality. The testing of Macduff raises doubts about the plausibility of Malcolm's character. Shakespeare tries to keep these doubts from diverting our attention by putting them into the mouth of Macduff.

Such welcome and unwelcome things at once
'Tis hard to reconcile.

But though this speech makes the scene appear more plausible, it does not satisfy our questions about Malcolm. The subsequent dialogue on the cure of King's Evil through the royal “touch” only avoids, it does not still, these doubts. The purpose of this passage on the King's Evil is, I think, primarily to convey the tactful compliment to James I that scholars have seen in it. Such a compliment might well have been thought necessary after the peculiar light in which the “testing” scene had placed the character of James' predecessor on the Scottish throne. But to argue that the passage on the King's Evil implies a moral coherence in Malcolm's character is, I think, to miss the effect of its introduction of the idea of transcendental sources of power. Insofar as such power is accorded royalty, it is to be seen as distinct from the human weakness Malcolm exhibits. It is the Malcolm the man in whom we find perfect chastity and truth “difficult to reconcile” with his flight, with the premises of his self-accusation, and with the “testing” of Macduff. And this “testing”—“tempting” is an equally good word—it is no great distortion to describe, inverting Malcolm's words of self-justification, as something like an attempt to “betray / The devil to his fellow.” But if one sees imperfect humanity in Malcolm, perhaps one sees it also in Duncan.

Shakespeare has not wholly transformed the politician of the Chronicle into the holy image of royalty embedded in so much of the imagery associated with Duncan. Holinshed's inept King shows behind the behavior and language of grace, however faintly. Duncan's speech to Macbeth:

                                                            O worthiest cousin!
The sin of my ingratitude even now
Was heavy on me.

contains not only the dramatic irony Walker points out. It is also inappropriate in the light of the rewards already given Macbeth; its language is far too strong. However, immediately after the praises of Macbeth and the promise of still further honors for him, Duncan “establishes” his estate on Malcolm. The question of elective succession to the throne is not emphasized (for this would tend to justify Macbeth's claim to the throne and thus in some slight measure extenuate his guilt). Yet it is clear that Duncan has chosen this particular moment to insure Malcolm's ascendancy. Kittredge calls the choice “an irony of fate.” Yet, to quote Kittredge further, Duncan takes occasion to signalize his joy over Macbeth's victories by nominating Malcolm. Is this only “fate” in a play where supernatural agency is so carefully controlled, or is it some slight memory of the ineptness described in the Chronicles? Or does the choice of this moment to elevate Malcolm, coupled with the excessive feeling of “sin” and “ingratitude,” suggest, however faintly, a moral defensiveness? If this last possibility is going too far, it is not too much to assert that there is a secular dimension in Duncan and that in this he exhibits some imperfection that exposes men to Fortune. Whatever may be said of this aspect of Duncan's behavior, the fact is that the behavioral scale of the play is not set by him, and that against the pervasive scale of behavior, Macbeth, though “black Macbeth,” is not wholly alienated from his fellows. The “mouth-honour” of the courtiers, the desperate sadism of the murderers, the “ambition” of his wife, and the minor advantage-seeking of underlings show how much Macbeth partakes of the play's other characters and they of him. What he looms blackest against is the light of his own conscience—a light often feeble in others. So much has been made of the meaning of the “delays” in Hamlet, that one must struggle to recall that in Macbeth, too, a King's foul murder is long unpaid for.

The behavioral scale of the play is also lowered by “chance” remarks. Most of these, like some already cited, suggest the sinfulness of man's “nature in repose.” (A major irony of the play is that for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, once their crimes have begun, it is the active mind which seeks evil; the mind in repose—in dream or rapt inwardness—gropes toward the good of remorse. So do guilt and pity indeed stride the blast of sin.) But, crucially, before the murder of Macduff's children we learn from a babe's mouth that in this world

the liars and swearers are fools; for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them.

And, brooding over his crimes, Macbeth tells us how “Blood hath been shed ere now … and since too,” and that what distinguishes his offense is that in his case (“now”), the bleeding ghosts return. The whole strategy we have been discussing is summarized in this speech. Macbeth's criminality is not shown as a special horror that alienates him from historical man. His story is unusual because of what unites him with moral man—the anguish of conscience. In part, through this strategy, which required some “graying” of common humanity, some “whitening” of Macbeth, Shakespeare managed to prevent a tragedy from lapsing into melodrama.

But the strategy was not employed merely for the sake of the dramatic problem it solved. Rather, I think, Shakespeare undertook the dramatic problem for the sake of the strategy. Though it insists on the painfulness of Lear's evolution and Edgar's, even Lear deals in polarities—in an apparent, fixed good (Cordelia, Kent) and an apparent, fixed evil (Goneril, Regan). We can distinguish clearly the Sanely Vile from the Impractically or Madly Good. In Lear we are provided with as many of the comforts of melodrama as a great tragedy may safely contain. And we want such comforts, for the reduction of men to melodrama's mere “forces” mitigates the hard necessities of self-consciousness and choice, which the fable urges. In one respect, therefore, Macbeth is more “painful” than Lear, despite all Lear's suffering, for in Macbeth there are no polar moral figures. Duncan dies almost at once; Macduff's children are mere counters. The play plunges us almost entirely into a world without the narcotic of melodrama; it continually connects the common with the worst, and embodies in that worst our best sensitivities. The crisis of conscience, which in Lear was embodied in ethically “mixed” figures, is shown to be operative in the most extreme of men. The play allows us no vileness in which we cannot recognize the force of our aspirations, and no “common” humanity free of what we believe is monstrous. Thus Macbeth represents a further journey into the natural abyss explored by the earlier tragedy. Its formula, “fair is foul and foul is fair,” refers not only to the deceptiveness of appearances, but to a moral ambivalence that is made to seem permanent. At a time when Bonn, Jerusalem, and Washington alike seek in an Eichmann self-absolving images, it is possibly useful to recall that Shakespeare, conjuring up the visage of Macbeth, saw in it something of Everyman.

Dennis Biggins (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Biggins, Dennis. “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 8 (1976): 255-77.

[In the following essay, Biggins studies the links between sex and violence in Macbeth, as well as the association of both with the Weird Sisters.]

The consensus of critical opinion appears to be that sexuality has little structural or thematic importance in Macbeth. Thus, for example, a recent critic can refer to the play as “the purest of Shakespeare's tragedies,” in which the Porter's remarks about drink and sex might easily seem incongruous.1 Some later writers, however, have drawn attention to a sexual element in the exchanges between Macbeth and his wife. Jan Kott remarks that Lady Macbeth “demands murder from Macbeth as a confirmation of his manhood, almost as an act of love,” and that the “two are sexually obsessed with each other.” Ian Robinson sees a perverse passion as the source of Lady Macbeth's influence over her husband in the murders of Duncan and Banquo: “the scene in which Banquo's murder is envisaged is a kind of love-passage between the Macbeths of which the natural consummation is the murder.” D. F. Rauber comments on Lady Macbeth's strategy of questioning Macbeth's manliness in I.vii: “Her attack is saturated with sexuality, and her main weapon is clearly a kind of sexual blackmail: ‘From this time / Such I account thy love’ (I.vii.38-39).”2 These are valuable perceptions, but they are mostly isolated and incidental to the critics' main purposes. It is my chief contention in this paper that there are important structural and thematic links between sexuality and the various manifestations of violence in Macbeth; moreover, that these in turn are associated significantly with Shakespeare's dramatized treatment of witchcraft.

The atmosphere of upheaval peculiar to the Macbeth world is partly created by Shakespeare's evoking violence in terms of sexual behavior and of the supernatural, both seen as perverted and disordered. This evocation is poetically appropriate: if Duncan (and, more equivocally, Banquo) represents the good with its potential for beneficent increase in a divinely sanctioned world-order, then Macbeth and his wife, who reject that order, are fittingly characterized in terms of the sexually aberrant and unfruitful.

In the first place, there are some passages in the Weird Sisters' speeches whose full purport has not been grasped. Everybody agrees that the Weird Sisters are something other, or at any rate something more, than the malevolent old women of Jacobean witch superstition—they are Lamb's “foul anomalies”—yet many of their characteristics are those traditionally associated with European witchcraft. They are not simply common- or garden-variety witches of the kind described by contemporary witch lore, as Thomas Alfred Spalding alleged (although he rightfully rejected the view that they are Norns). There is a demonic aspect of the Weird Sisters, but their powers are too limited for them to be seen in Walter Clyde Curry's terms as full-fledged demons or devils.3 They occupy a kind of twilight territory between human and supernatural evildoing. Arthur R. McGee observes that there is much evidence that to Shakespeare's contemporaries “witches, Furies, devils and fairies were virtually synonymous.”4 Nevertheless Shakespeare carefully avoids portraying a Macbeth helplessly caught in the grip of irresistible demonic forces; the Weird Sisters' malice is evident in all their traffickings with him, yet nowhere are we shown invincible proof of their power over him. As Robert H. West puts it:

The almost self-evident truth is that we simply cannot be sure of much about the Weird Sisters, though beyond a reasonable doubt they are representations of some genuinely superhuman evil. …

[Shakespeare] treat[s] both Macbeth's fall and the Weird Sisters' part in it as awesome mysteries to the ignorant and the learned alike—mysteries that we may all feel and in part observe, but for which not even the most knowledgeable have a sufficient formula.5

Although the Weird Sisters may wear their witchcraft with a difference, they nonetheless exhibit many of its trappings. What has not hitherto been noticed is their claims to participation in those sexual malpractices which are standard evidences of witchcraft with the demonologists. In I.iii the First Witch (I use this label for convenience) announces her enmity toward a sailor's wife who had refused her chestnuts. The Witch refers to this woman as a “rumpe-fed Ronyon” (l. 6).6 These abusive terms have been variously explained, but they may be used here to express, among other things, sexual antagonism. As Nares suggested, rumpe-fed “means, probably, nothing more than fed, or fattened in the rump,7 or full-buttocked. The usual gloss of ronyon is “a mangy, scabby creature” (Muir, New Arden ed., p. 12), although the other Shakespearean instance (Wiv., IV.ii.163) couples the word with witch, hag,8baggage, and polecat, the first two of which are interesting in relation to Macbeth, and the last two of which have marked sexual meanings in Elizabethan-Jacobean English, including Shakespeare's.9 The Witch derisively sees her enemy as a sexual object whose role she intends to usurp, as her later remarks confirm. She states that in retaliation for the slight offered her by the sailor's wife, she will follow the latter's husband to Aleppo.

And like a Rat without a tayle,
Ile doe, Ile doe, and Ile doe.
.....Ile dreyne him drie as Hay:
Sleepe shall neyther Night nor Day
Hang vpon his Pent-house Lid:
He shall liue a man forbid:
Wearie Seu'nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peake, and pine:
Though his Barke cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be Tempest-tost.

(9-10, 18-25)

There are a number of single or double meanings here that contain sexual components referring specifically to witchcraft or demonic practices. The more or less generally accepted interpretation of these lines is as follows: The Witch will assume rat form in order to creep unobserved aboard the Tiger, where she will work evil spells on the ship and its master; she will harass him and waste him away by means of her magic, although she cannot destroy either his vessel or himself. I should not wish to deny that the passage has some such meaning, but this coexists with or is subordinate to meanings heralded by the First Witch's announcement of her quarrel with the sailor's wife. Her threats are peculiarly specific in comparison with the Second Witch's generalized maleficence in killing swine. The key statement here is “Ile dreyne him drie as Hay” (l. 18), which most editors leave unexplained, assuming, apparently, that its meaning is self-evident. Furness, in the New Variorum, quotes Hunter (1853): “This, it was believed, it was in the power of witches to do, as may be seen in any of the narratives of the cases of witchcraft” (p. 35). This is hardly an enlightening comment, possibly owing to the writer's excessive reticence, although it is unclear whether or not he really understands the line. Dover Wilson, in the New Cambridge edition (p. 101), supposes that the reference is to the Witch's imposing thirst upon the sailor. This may be its surface meaning. But the line also undoubtedly refers to her intention of draining the unfortunate man of his semen, through her grossly inordinate exploitation of him as a succubus.

The belief that witches and the demons they served and were served by could experience sexual relations with one another or with ordinary mortals of both sexes was an old one. St. Augustine mentions “Silvanos et Panes, quos vulgo incubos vocant … et quosdam daemones, quos Dusios Galli nuncupant,” as having sexual intercourse with women.10 St. Thomas Aquinas explains how offspring may result from the unions of demons with humans:

Si tamen ex coitu daemonum aliqui interdum nascuntur, hoc non est per semen ab eis decisum, aut a corporibus assumptis, sed per semen alicujus hominis ad hoc acceptum, utpote quod idem daemon qui est succubus ad virum fiat incubus ad mulierem. …11

Demons, being sexless like angels, could assume either the male or the female role in sexual intercourse with humans, as St. Thomas states, and thus collect as succubi semen from men for later implanting as incubi in women.

Later writers on witchcraft and demonology develop these ideas. In a work commonly known as the Formicarius (c. 1435), the German friar Johannes Nider expatiates learnedly on the existence and nature of incubi and succubi. His argument is conducted in the form of a dialogue between Piger and Theologus. The latter explains that the demons who act as incubi and succubi do so out of their malicious joy in harming man's body and soul.

Causa autem quare Daemones se incubos faciunt vel succubos, haec esse videtur, ut per luxuriae vitium hominis utriusque naturam laedant, corporis videlicet, & animae, quae in laesione praecipuè delectari videntur.12

The formidable Sprenger and Kramer, who jointly compiled one of the most influential of all European witchcraft treatises, the Malleus Maleficarum (c. 1486), see insatiable lust as the driving force in witches' coitus with demons.

Omnia per carnalem concupiscentiam, quae … in eis est insatiabilis. Prouerb. penultimo, Tria sunt insatiabilia, &c. & quartum quod nunquam dicit, Sufficit, scilicet os vuluae. Vnde & cum Daemonibus, causa explendae libidinis, se agitant.13

The Weird Sisters have characteristics of both witches and demons, so that there is nothing incongruous in the First Witch's avowed intention of acting as succubus to the sailor, although the treatises on demonology mostly discuss this practice as the work of devils.14 In the colloquy between the Sisters in I.iii there is a mingling of the motifs of unnatural evildoing and of lust that are to recur later in the play with reference to Macbeth and his wife. That “Ile dreyne him drie as Hay” refers to sexual impotence is confirmed by a parallel use of the simile in Spenser's Faerie Queene. In Book III, canto ix, stanza 5, the narrator comments on the deficiency in the old miser Malbecco that makes him keep a jealous eye on his lovely young wife.

But he is old, and withered like hay,
Vnfit faire Ladies seruice to supply;
The priuie guilt whereof makes him alway
Suspect her truth, and keepe continuall spy
Vpon her with his other blincked eye;
Ne suffreth he resort of liuing wight
Approch to her, ne keepe her company,
But in close bowre her mewes from all mens sight,
Depriu'd of kindly ioy and naturall delight.(15)

The First Witch seeks to render the master of the Tiger impotent by sexual exhaustion, so that his wife, too, may be “Depriu'd of kindly ioy and naturall delight.” The Witch's motives are purely those of revengefulness and malice. Nider's Theologus cites the opinion of “Gvilelmus” as to the maleficence prompting incubi and succubi to seek human partners: “quod verisimiliter nec succubi, nec incubi, amore concubitus, nec desiderio voluptatis, talia viris & mulieribus faciant, sed potius malignitatis studio, videlicet ut utrimque polluant eos & eas spurcitia” (p. 626). Like the Porter's demon drink, the succubus plays havoc with a man's sexuality: it “equiuocates him in a sleepe, and giuing him the Lye, leaues him” (II.iii.39-40).

The Weird Sisters' proposed vengeance on the sailor's wife embraces another maleficent activity that witches were alleged to practice. This is the prevention of lawful sexual relations between man and wife, technically labeled ligature or, more picturesquely in English witchlore, “tying the points.” The authorities have elaborate accounts of this variously manifested process. Nider's Theologus remarks it as one of the seven principal ways in which maleficiati work harm, “ne vi generativa uti valeant ad feminam, vel viceversa femellae ad virum. …” Piger later comments on the same topic:

inter sexum utrumque, matrimonii sacramento conjunctum, nonnunquam experti sumus odia talia suscitari per maleficia, & similiter infrigidationes generativae potentiae, ut nec redditio, nec exactio debiti matrimonialis locum pro prole valerent habere.16

Theologus explains that although God does not allow the Devil to work directly on the human understanding or will, he does permit him to act on the bodily senses and powers, whether internal or external (p. 564). He describes, after “Petrus de Palude,” the various ways in which the Devil can act on the powers of imagination, fancy, and generation in order to prevent coition:

Secundo modo, hominem potest inflammare ad actum illum, vel refrigerare ab actu illo, ahibendo occultas virtutes rerum, quas optime novit ad hoc validas. … Quarto, reprimendo directe vigorem membri, fructificationi accommodi, sicut & motum localem cujuscunque organi. Quinto, prohibendo missionem spirituum ad membra, in quibus est virtus motiva, quasi intercludendo vias seminis, ne ad vasa generationis descendat, vel ne ab eis recedat, vel ne excitetur vel emittatur, vel multis aliis modis.17

The First Witch's intended course of action against the sailor and his wife economically combines the maleficia of the succubus with that of the devilish practitioner of ligature. As Daneau remarks, witches practice ligature “to thintent they may sow discorde and contencion betweene them, betweene whom ought to be sounde and great agreement” (sig. E.viiir&v). Boguet observes that besides its offense to God, a further consequence of copulation between a succubus and a man is that

par ce moyen la semence naturelle de l'homme se pert, d'où vient que l'amitié, qui est entre l'homme & la femme se conuertit le plus souuent en vne haine, qui est le plus grand malheur, qui pourroit arriuer au mariage.18

The Weird Sisters' proposed sowing of discord between the spouses looks forward both to Macbeth's murderous acts of disorder and to their ultimate issue in barrenness and estrangement between his wife and himself. The Witch's course of revengeful action for a trivial gesture of exclusion—the sailor's wife's refusal of her chestnuts—is a parodic anticipation of Macbeth's murderous wresting of the crown from the Duncan who had named as his heir not Macbeth but Malcolm. Here, too, the witchcraft theme coalesces with the themes of fruitfulness and offspring, which are associated particularly with Duncan and Banquo, and of unfulfillment, sterility, and the destruction of progeny, associated with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The latter, in her disillusioned fretting after the attainment of her goal, voices her baffled sense of failure to achieve fulfillment through destruction. Her language is markedly sexual.

Nought's had, all's spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
'Tis safer, to be that which we destroy,
Then by destruction dwell in doubtfull ioy.


Rauber comments: “the ‘all's spent’ operates both on the levels of failure to accomplish purpose and of sexual impotence” (Criticism, 11 [1969-70] 62). But there is more to the passage than this; “had” includes the idea of satisfying carnal possession, “all's spent” suggests a useless discharge of sexual energy (literally, of semen), and “our desire is got without content” further implies failure to achieve sexual satisfaction. As I shall try to demonstrate later, “destruction”—the murder of Duncan—has earlier in the play been envisaged with growing emphasis as a quasi-sexual act (compare also Kott and Robinson, quoted above). Baffled desire is a recurring motif of Macbeth. In the powers of witches “hominem inflammare ad actum illum, vel refrigerare ab actu illo,” there is another parallel with the Porter's drink: “Lecherie, Sir, it prouokes and vnprouokes: it prouokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much Drinke may be said to be an Equiuocator with Lecherie: it makes him, and it marres him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it perswades him, and dis-heartens him; makes him stand too, and not stand too. …” (II.iii.32-39).

The reference to sexual maleficia is strengthened by other sexual meanings in the Witch's lines. In Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1929) G. L. Kittredge explains “like a Rat without a tayle, / Ile doe, Ile doe, and Ile doe” merely as the Witch's intending to assume rat shape in order to slip on board the Tiger unnoticed, then to bewitch the craft and lay a spell upon the captain (p. 13). Muir cites this explanation in his note, adding that it “is doubtless correct” (New Arden ed., p. 12). But the demonologists held that demons could assume animal shapes for the purpose, inter alia, of copulation with humans as incubi or succubi. In English witch lore the domestic animal familiar is a common phenomenon. “We find that animals of all kinds were regarded as familiars: dogs, cats, ferrets, weasels, toads, rats, mice, birds, hedgehogs, hares, even wasps, moths, bees and flies” (Summers, p. 101). The power of witches to assume animal shapes is frequently asserted by the authorities—for example, by Bodin and Boguet. These metamorphoses were often undergone by incubi and succubi. Boguet writes of a witch's copulation with the Devil: “Françoise Secretain a confessé qu'il auoit esté accouplé auec elle quatre ou cinq fois, & que pour lors il estoit tantost en forme de chien, tantost en forme de chat, & tantost en forme de poule” (p. 19). The familiars addressed by the Witches in the opening scene of the play, “Gray-Malkin” and “Padock” (ll. 8, 9), may be incubi as well as attendant spirits. From the beginning, the connection between inverted sexuality and the turning upside-down of moral categories is established.

Nicolas Remy points out that whatever guise the devils assume, some defect invariably gives them away: “insolita, atque insigni aliqua nota, quae naturae immanitatem prodat, conspicuos se ostendunt.”19 Thus the rat's lack of a tail will denote its demonic origin. There may be a further significance in this deficiency. Discussing the various metamorphoses of witches, Boguet mentions cases of the appearance of wolves without tails (pp. 139, 149). Summers comments: “The sexual power of a wolf was popularly supposed to lie in his tail. … A wolf without a tail was sexually considered exceptionally unlucky and malign.”20 It is possible that Shakespeare's tailless rat is intended to suggest similar sexual malignity in the succubus-incubus exchange of roles.

Certainly the thrice-repeated verb doe has sexual meaning, besides denoting more general maleficence. Do in the sense of “copulate with” is a common Shakespearean usage, mostly in transitive constructions, to be sure: “Villain, I have done thy mother (Tit., IV.ii.76); “… what has he done?—A woman” (MM, I.ii.83-84); “Do't in your parents' eyes” (Tim., IV.i.8). But do is sometimes used intransitively in this sense: “Isbel the woman and I will do as we may” (AWW, I.iii.19-20); “You bring me to do, and then you flout me too” (Tro., IV.ii.26). The last instance, in which a woman (Cressida) uses do in its sexual sense, parallels the First Witch's employment of the verb.21

The sailor will be subjected to the Witch-succubus' unremitting coital exactions day and night for a year and a half; he is to “liue a man forbid.” While forbid doubtless has as its primary meaning “under a curse,” as Theobald glossed it, the secondary sense of “forbidden [to have conjugal relations with his wife]” seems also to be present. Muir suggests, after earlier editors, that “dwindle, peake, and pine” refers to the Witch's use of a waxen image to make the sailor waste away; more probably it alludes to the debilitating effects of the prolonged sexual assault she plans for him. The “Barke” seems to be both literal and figurative; at the figurative level its significance is plural. In general terms of supernatural maleficence it indicates the Weird Sisters' limited powers: the Witch cannot destroy either the body or the soul of the master of the Tiger, but she will give him a rough time. As critics have noted, there is here a proleptic parallel, and contrast, with Macbeth, whose bark will be lost. The particular significance of the tempest-tossed ship draws a further parallel, and implies an added contrast. When the Witch says that the sailor's “Barke cannot be lost,” she is also expressing the demonologists' contention that while witches could successfully practice ligature upon married couples, they could not undo the sacrament of marriage. This notion is stated by Hecate in Thomas Middleton's The Witch, a play that seems to have been influenced in its witch scenes by Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, and very possibly by Macbeth also.

                                                                      we cannot disjoin wedlock;
'Tis of heaven's fastening. Well may we raise jars,
Jealousies, strifes, and heart-burning disagreements,
Like a thick scurf o'er life, as did our master
Upon that patient miracle; but the work itself
Our power cannot disjoint.(22)

Similarly, the First Witch in Macbeth cannot destroy the sacramental bond between the sailor and his wife, whereas the crimes of Macbeth and his lady eventually result in an isolation of one from the other that mutely points to the self-destruction of their relationship.

Addressing the Weird Sisters, Banquo says “you should be Women, / And yet your Beards forbid me to interprete / That you are so” (I.iii.45-47). In Elizabethan-Jacobean folklore a woman's possessing a beard betokened a witch.23 In Macbeth this physical anomaly perhaps also emphasizes, in the light of the Weird Sisters' plans for the sailor, their demonic bisexuality.

It is interesting to note that elsewhere in Shakespeare, witchcraft is associated with sexual domination and unnatural sexual infatuation. In 1 Henry VI Talbot refers several times (and Burgundy once) to Joan La Pucelle as a witch and sorceress, and in V.iii. she confirms their descriptions by summoning her demon familiars. After she has beaten him in fight on their first encounter, Charles the Dauphin is smitten with passion for her. When Joan asserts that “Christ's Mother” has helped her to overcome him, Charles replies, “Who'er helps thee, 'tis thou that must help me. / Impatiently I burn with thy desire; / My heart and hands thou hast at once subdu'd” (I.ii.106-9). In “Who'er helps thee” there is an implied suggestion as to the real origin of Joan's power. The ghost of Hamlet's father sees Claudius' conquest of Gertrude as a kind of bewitching:

… that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wits, …
                    … won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.

(Ham., I.v.42-46)

Brabantio likewise claims that Othello has won Desdemona by enchantment: “For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not” (Oth., I.iii.62-64).24

The parallel between the Weird Sisters' program of harassment for the sailor and Macbeth's subsequent course after he meets them has often been noted. This parallel extends to the sexual aspect of the Witches' maleficence. Their spiritual seduction of Macbeth will deprive him of true manhood. His violence against Duncan is a more extreme form of the Witches' violence against the master of the Tiger. The “terrible Dreames” (III.ii.18) that afflict Macbeth after the murder of Duncan correspond to the Witch's oppression of the sailor, for nightmares were thought to be caused by the assaults of incubi and succubi.25

The unnatural reversal of sexual roles characterized by the Witch's treatment of the sailor is echoed in the scenes where Lady Macbeth rouses herself and her husband to commit the act of regicide. As the critics I quoted at the beginning of this paper remark, Lady Macbeth's murderous appeal to Macbeth is couched in sexual terms. She goads him into action by scornfully questioning his manhood, which she evokes equivocally as both virility and valor. Macbeth fails to realize that it is not merely the “Iugling Fiends” who “palter with vs in a double sence” (V.viii.19, 20). The slaying of Duncan is, indeed, to be the proof of Macbeth's manliness in this particular double sense, of sexual potency and courage. At first it appears that Lady Macbeth will herself take the initiative in the crime, with Macbeth functioning as a mere agent of her murderous will (as the assassins of Banquo in turn later function on behalf of Macbeth). In her invocation of the powers of darkness (I.v) she begs to be sexually transformed, dewomanized into an inhuman (yet somehow masculine) destroyer. She entreats the demons to usurp her body, transforming its natural life-giving powers to unnatural purposes, as the succubi-incubi exploit and abuse their victims.26 When she exclaims, “Come to my Womans Brests, / And take my Milke for Gall, you murth'ring Ministers” (I.v.48-49), the invitation does not merely announce her desire to free herself from natural bonds of mutuality, tenderness, nurture, and all the other life-enhancing associations that the image of breast-feeding carries with it, although this is a major aspect of the lines. As W. Moelwyn Merchant has shown, “take my Milke for Gall” means “‘bewitch my milk for gall, possess it and complete the invasion of my body at its source of compassion.’”27 But this is not the only meaning of these words. There is at the same time an evocation of a hideously perverted sexual relationship; as the succubus receives a man's seed to use it for evil purposes, as the First Witch will drain the sailor dry, so the demons, at once lovers and sucklings, are invoked by Lady Macbeth to take her milk and leave gall in its place, or perhaps, to take it away for conversion into gall.28 The monstrous birth produced by this unholy union is the murder, the “Nights great Businesse” (I.v.69), which is finally accomplished by Macbeth—but only after she has aroused him to it as to an act of ghastly love.

It may be asked where Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of the sexual aspects of witchcraft. There are dangers on both sides in evaluating the extent of his reading, although the unlearned Shakespeare is less heard of nowadays than formerly. For a mind as quick and an imagination as fertile as his, Scot and King James's Daemonologie provide all he needed to know; yet he may well have had access to other writers, including some of the continental authorities.29

It is not only in Lady Macbeth's soliloquy that the murder of Duncan is pictured as a deed of quasi-sexual violence. Very early in the play the imagery establishes a link between sexuality and the physical violence of rebellion. The Captain evokes Macdonwald's rebellious nature in the first of the play's many images of fruitfulness and increase (here it is the spawning of evil that is expressed): Macdonwald is “Worthie to be a Rebell, for to that / The multiplying Villanies of Nature / Doe swarme vpon him” (I.ii.10-12). Of this man, fecund in evil qualities, the Captain further remarks, “And Fortune on his damned Quarry30 smiling, / Shew'd like a Rebells Whore” (ll. 14-15). Macdonwald's paramour, the strumpet Fortune, ultimately betrays her lover. A few lines later we are told that Macbeth “(Like Valours Minion) caru'd out his passage” (l. 19). The usual gloss of Minion here is “favorite,” and this is certainly a frequent meaning of the word in Shakespeare. But it often has a sexual implication, mostly with feminine but sometimes with masculine referents: “Mars's hot minion” (of Venus: Tmp., IV.i.198); “You minion, you, are these your customers?” (to Adriana: Err., IV.iv.57); “minion, your dear lies dead” (to Desdemona: Oth., V.i.33); “this your minion, whom I know you love” (to Olivia, of “Cesario”: TN, V.i.118); “O thou minion of her pleasure!” (to the Friend: Sonnet 126, l. 9). So, too, “Valours Minion” carries sexual overtones: Macbeth disdains meretricious Fortune in his triumphant slaughtering of the rebels, for he is the chosen lover of Valor.

This linking of martial violence and savage bloodshed with sexuality and love is extended in Rosse's later description of Macbeth as “Bellona's Bridegroome” (l. 54). In his role as newly wedded mate of the war goddess, Macbeth is said to have subdued the Thane of Cawdor, another traitorous rebel (and so perhaps, like Macdonwald, another paramour of Fortune), “Curbing his lauish spirit” (I.ii.57). The usual gloss for lauish here is “insolent,” but at least one other Shakespearean occurrence of the word (2H4, IV.iv.64) is in a context that supports the meaning “licentious, lascivious.” Since spirit is used to mean “semen” in the opening line of Sonnet 129 (see Partridge, s.v.), it is at least possible that Rosse's phrase includes a sexual implication: as one wedded to Bellona, Macbeth outperforms Cawdor and terminates his liaison with Fortune. Lady Macbeth's “High thee hither, / That I may powre my Spirits in thine Eare” (I.v.26-27) employs the same kind of pun: in her mood of masculine aggressiveness she sees herself as impregnating Macbeth's consciousness with her own ruthless ambition for sovereignty.31

There is a similar metaphor of fertilizing through the ear in Cleopatra's “Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, / That long time have been barren” (Ant., II.v.24-25). A submerged instance of this metaphor may be present in Banquo's “That trusted home, / Might yet enkindle you vnto the Crowne” (I.iii.120-21). In Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), Professor M. M. Mahood support's Coleridge's interpretation of enkindle here: “The modern editors gloss enkindle as ‘incite,’ a figurative use of the sense ‘to set on fire’; but Coleridge thought the image was taken from the kindling, or breeding, of rabbits. Coming from Banquo, the words gain strong irony from this connotation, which fits well into the play's pattern of sterility-fertility images” (p. 139, note 2). Further support for this reading may perhaps lie in its extending the metaphoric use of the idea of fructification through what is heard: the Weird Sisters have, in effect, poured their spirits into Macbeth's ear.

The exchanges between Macbeth and his wife that lead up to Duncan's murder, tensioned as they are by an eroticism that is sometimes submerged, sometimes overt, but continuously present, culminate in the decisive act of violence, which is envisaged as a kind of rape. In one of the play's moments of charged proleptic irony, the saintly Duncan himself provides a bridge between the opening scenes' association of violence with sexuality and that of the later scenes presenting Macbeth's transformation into a murderer. He says to his welcoming hostess, of Macbeth: “his great Loue (sharpe as his Spurre) hath holp him / To his home before vs” ( Duncan is praising both Macbeth's loyal service and his marital devotion—his love for him and for Lady Macbeth—but there is a deeper significance in his words. They not only are unconsciously ironical (since we know that Macbeth has another motive for swiftness besides the ones Duncan gives him) but they also serve to develop the thematic link between sexuality and crime. Macbeth's “black and deepe desires” (I.iv.51) include murderous impulses that are “sharpe as his Spurre.” The latter phrase is an image of sexual passion, as well as of ambition (as in “I haue no Spurre / To pricke the sides of my intent, but onely / Vaulting Ambition”: I.vii.25-27).32 Macbeth has hastened home under a stimulus that is both keenly erotic and deadly.

When Macbeth balks at the consummation of his criminal desires, his wife seeks to urge it by an appeal in terms of the same violent eroticism:

Was the hope drunke,
Wherein you drest your self? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so greene, and pale,
At what it did so freely? From this time,
Such I account thy loue. Art thou affear'd
To be the same in thine owne Act, and Valour,
As thou art in desire?


Here Lady Macbeth explicitly parallels sexual action with murderous action. She appeals to Macbeth's sense of his own virility, in sexual terms. The metaphorical complexity of the passage leaves the reference of line 38 ambiguous: what is partly the contemplated murder, but partly also an intoxicated act of sexual passion, shamefacedly repented on the “morning after.” Dover Wilson quotes the Oxford editors' gloss on such (l. 39): “‘so great in promise, so poor in performance’” (New Camb. ed., p. 115). Lady Macbeth scornfully equates Macbeth's quailing from regicide with sexual nonperformance. The drunkenness and hangover images connect this speech with the Porter scene, where drunkenness is linked with lechery and with the impotence paradoxically accompanying the impetus one gives to the other. Macbeth's reply to his wife's sneer is “I dare do all that may become a man, / Who dares no33 more, is none.” She retorts:

What Beast was't then
That made you breake this enterprize to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man:
And to be more then what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They haue made themselves, and that their fitnesse now
Do's vnmake you. …


At one level of meaning Macbeth's claim refers to his injured sense of honor and noble manhood: “is none i.e. must be superhuman or devilish, which it suits Lady M. to interpret as subhuman” (Dover Wilson, New Camb. ed., p. 115). But at the same time there is a continuing undersuggestion of sexual potency and the proper natural expression of it. Murder is like an unnatural, or nonhuman, sexual act, as Lady Macbeth's further taunt also implies.34 Her do it (l. 49) includes the notion of coitus, although its primary reference is to Duncan's murder; vnmake (l. 54) likewise plays upon the double meanings “undo, unnerve” and “render sexually impotent.”35 Building on her earlier soliloquy of erotic self-abandonment to the forces of evil, Lady Macbeth's sexual innuendoes invoking virility as a token of manliness now lead her into an appeal to her mate through horrifyingly violent images of a depraved rejection of womanly ties:

                                                            I have giuen Sucke, and know
How tender 'tis to loue the Babe that milkes me,
I would, while it was smyling in my Face,
Haue pluckt my Nipple from his Boneless Gummes,
And dasht the Braines out, had I so sworne
As you haue done to this.


Macbeth's resounding acceptance of her challenge is appropriately ironical in its language of natural increase, motherhood, and virility: “Bring forth Men-Children onely: / For thy vndaunted Mettle should compose / Nothing but Males” (ll. 72-74). His infatuation with her sees nothing strange in thus acclaiming such a tainted source of manly offspring.

All these associated themes of sexuality, witchcraft, and violence are brought together in Macbeth's final soliloquy immediately prior to the murder of Duncan. One would not wish to press unduly the air-drawn dagger as a phallic symbol, although, as I hope to show, Macbeth's regicide has overtones of an act of sexual ravishment. He himself (unconsciously, one presumes) speaks of the murder in this light after it has been discovered. Whereas Macduff announces the crime in religious terms—“Most sacrilegious Murther hath broke ope / The Lords anoynted Temple, and stole thence / The Life o'th' Building” (II.iii.72-74)—Macbeth reveals it to Duncan's sons in the language of procreation: “The Spring, the Head, the Fountaine of your Blood / Is stopt, the very Source of it is stopt” (ll. 103-4). He seeks to justify his murder of the king's chamberlains in words that suggest another act of uncontrolled sexual passion: “Th'expedition of my violent Loue / Out-run the pawser, Reason” (ll. 116-17). Most strikingly of all, Macbeth transfers his act of ravishment to the slain innocents in an image much criticized by commentators, ancient and modern: “their Daggers / Vnmannerly breech'd with gore” (ll. 121-22). One may or may not agree with Dover Wilson's adverse criticism in his note on “Vnmannerly breech'd”: “indecently clothed. With this oxymoron Macb.'s hyperbole topples to absurdity. Cf. TN III.iv.251, ‘strip your sword stark naked’” (New Camb. ed., p. 129). At any rate, the indecorous metaphor is exactly right as an involuntary indication of Macbeth's own feeling about his crime: it implicitly likens the daggers to phalluses whose nakedness is clothed, most improperly, with the royal blood. Dover Wilson appositely cites the Twelfth Night passage, for it contains an allusive quibble on sword meaning “penis.”36

After the lines on the hallucinatory dagger, Macbeth's soliloquy in II.i continues:

                                                            Now o're the one halfe World
Nature seemes dead, and wicked Dreames abuse
The Curtain'd sleepe: Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Heccats Offrings: and wither'd Murther,
Alarum'd by his Centinell, the Wolfe,
Whose howle's his Watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquins rauishing sides,(37) towards his designe
Moues like a Ghost.


The death of Nature, a suspension of all natural vital and moral processes (for Nature here surely means more than merely the natural world; it includes what Banquo means by Nature in his lines at the beginning of the scene—human nature and its natural moral discriminations), is an essential preliminary to the unnatural assaults contemplated by the Weird Sisters, by Lady Macbeth, and now by Macbeth himself. The wicked dreams that “abuse / The Curtain'd sleepe” are due, inter alia, to the visitations of the nightmare, of incubi and succubi (abuse can have sexual meaning in Shakespeare: see Partridge, s.v.). Hence the transition in thought to the rites of witchcraft, which also hark back to the earlier Weird Sister scenes and their implications of demonic sexual possession. The word wither'd also recalls the Weird Sisters, as described by Banquo (I.iii.40); at the same time, this peculiarly suggestive epithet, coupled with the personification, conjures up a vision of the murderer as an elderly psychopath, a sort of Jack the Ripper. This impression is strengthened by the Tarquin allusion, which clinches the suggestions built up, not only in this soliloquy but also through the earlier structural coupling of sexuality with violence, that murder approximates to rape. Indeed, Shakespeare's presentation of Macbeth's plunge into violent criminality might have for its motto the words of Pericles: “Murther's as near to lust as flame to smoke” (Per., I.i.138).38 There is at any rate poetic justification for Malcolm's applying the epithet Luxurious (i.e., “lustful”: IV.iii.58) to Macbeth.

Yet while Shakespeare sees analogies between lust and its most brutal form of gratification, on the one hand, and murder, on the other, his perceptions are characteristically subtle and fresh. Although Macbeth's act of regicide originates in an atmosphere of disordered sexuality, we are not to see him as simply moving from lust to murder in a chain of violent passions (there is a contrast here with Shakespeare's portrayal of Claudius, whose regicide is motivated by adulterous sexual appetite linked with unlawful hunger for the crown). Shakespeare carefully avoids the glib moralizing of his contemporaries, whose diatribes against the evils bred by lust are cited by Dickey. In the world of Macbeth, disordered sexuality is a function of a deeper moral disorder. There is no assertion in the play of a simple connection between lust and crime, as in, for example, Marston's The Insatiate Countess, which hammers home the apothegm “Insatiate lust is sire still to murther.”39 Pericles's comment on the kinship of lust and murder belongs to the same uncomplex ethical framework: having observed the incestuous passion of Antiochus, he reflects that “One sin … another doth provoke” (I.i.137), lust will lead to murder, and his life is in danger unless he flees from Antioch. What we have in Macbeth's criminal career is much less straightforward: a richly suggestive evocation of the complexity of evil, of the close interdependence between seemingly opposed natural impulses. We are shown a world of human action in which the barriers between creation and destruction are less sharply defined than we habitually suppose and the borderland between what is natural and what seems unnatural is shadowy. It is a world where violence is taken for granted, alongside the piety and the respect for hierarchical social forms that are reflected in the graciousness of Duncan's court. In such a milieu of mingled barbarism and civility moral sanctions may well appear fragilely based. At the same time, the barely resistible quality of Macbeth's impulse to murder is very powerfully suggested by Shakespeare's metaphorical identification of it with warped sexual passion.40

The thematic and structural associations of sexuality, witchcraft, and criminal violence are used chiefly in the shaping of the action up to and shortly after the murder of Duncan. In the Porter scene that immediately follows the murder scene, sexuality is further linked with crime (and in this context its punishment): “‘Faith, here's an English Taylor come hither, for stealing out of a French Hose: Come in Taylor, here you may rost your Goose” (II.iii.16-18). There are a number of double-entendres here that establish the link: Taylor may be a euphemism for “penis”; stealing includes the ideas of “urinating” and, possibly, “whoring”; rost your Goose has among its meanings “treat your venereal infection.”41

Some later passages continue the sexuality-witchcraft-crime associations. One of these appears in the first of the Hecate scenes, which are generally held to be spurious. Hecate chides the Weird Sisters for their trafficking with Macbeth without calling her in:

And which is worse, all you haue done
Hath bene but for a wayward Sonne,
Spightfull, and wrathfull, who (as others do)
Loues for his owne ends, not for you.


Dover Wilson's note on this passage states: “No relevance to Macb.; but seems to echo jealous speeches by Hecate in I.ii of Middleton's Witch” (New Camb. ed., p. 144). The indebtedness of the Hecate scenes in Macbeth to The Witch is a moot point; the debt may be Middleton's. The apparently meaningless reference to Macbeth as one who “Loues for his owne ends, not for you” perhaps suggests that Macbeth's relationship with the Weird Sisters is not the sort to be expected of a mortal and his succubus; more immediately, that Macbeth does not love the black arts and the Devil who commands them per se, as the maleficiati were believed to do, but only as means to his personal goals. If the scene is spurious, its author has at any rate perceived the sexual component in Shakespeare's presentation of both the Weird Sisters and Macbeth.42

Several of the ingredients in the Witches' cauldron have connotations of lustfulness, violence, and the unnatural termination of increase—an appropriate complement to Macbeth's wild desire to know “By the worst meanes, the worst” (III.iv.135), “Though the treasure / Of Natures Germaine,43 tumble altogether, / Euen till destruction sicken” (IV.i.58-60). The cauldron scene begins with references to familiars (incubi, possibly). Included in the materials for the charm are

Liuer of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of Goate, …
.....Nose of Turke, and Tartars lips:
Finger of Birth-strangled Babe,
Ditch-deliuer'd by a Drab. …

(IV.i.26-27, 29-31)

The Weird Sisters further strengthen the mixture: “Coole it with a Baboones blood”; “Powre in Sowes blood, that hath eaten / Her nine Farrow” (ll. 37, 64-65). The liver was regarded as the seat of sexual passion (this is surely too well known to need documentation); the Jew is perhaps mentioned not only because he was unchristened, like the Turk, Tartar, and birth-strangled babe, and so useful to witches, but also because of the Jews' reputation, in anti-Semitic tradition, for obscene rites with (and the murder of) Christian children. The goat, like the baboon, was believed to be a particularly lustful animal. Turks and Tartars were celebrated exponents of inordinate lustfulness and heartless cruelty. The drab exemplifies degraded sexuality; both she and the sow have killed their young (Birth-strangled being taken to mean “strangled at birth”) in a gross denial of natural affection. These last are the most sordid of the various instances in the play of what we might call the “destroyed progeny” theme, which so frequently characterizes the world of the Weird Sisters, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth, and is set against the fertility theme, which likewise occurs repeatedly, as in Banquo's often-quoted speech, “This guest of summer …” ( ff.).

There is a sense in which “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” is a pertinent question. For an overriding impression, built up by the various associations throughout the play between witchcraft, sexuality, and violence, is that sexuality perverted by malice, human or superhuman, issues in an ultimate, life-denying barrenness. Macbeth has, and can have, no children: Rosse's comment on Duncan's supposed murderers, Malcolm and Donalbain, is a profoundly apt description of the self-consuming sterility that is the fate of the real ones: “Thriftlesse Ambition, that will rauen vp / Thine owne liues meanes” (II.iv.28-29). As if to stifle his own awareness of this truth, Macbeth plunges into an orgy of destruction of all who may take his stolen crown away from him. Not only Banquo but Fleance, too, must die; Malcolm must be trapped: “Diuellish Macbeth, / … hath sought to win me / Into his power” (IV.iii.117-19); and when Macduff escapes him, Macbeth resolves that “From this moment, / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand”; whereupon he orders the destruction of “His Wife, his Babes, and all vnfortunate Soules / That trace him in his Line” (IV.i.146-48, 152-53).44 This apparently pointless slaughter has a savage logic about it, from Macbeth's point of view: it cuts off a possible source of future retribution. It is strictly relevant to Macbeth's preoccupation with the menace posed by others' off-spring that the murderer of Macduff's son should address the boy as “you Egge? / Yong fry of Treachery?” (IV.ii.84-85; italics mine). Yet for all of Macbeth's efforts to make assurance double sure and destruction sicken, his comment upon the Weird Sisters' prophecy proves to be exactly correct: “Vpon my Head they plac'd a fruitlesse Crowne, / And put a barren Scepter in my Gripe” (III.i.61-62). By a consummate paradox it is Macduff, the “Bloody Childe” of IV.i, who finally ends Macbeth's vain hopes of succession along with his usurped rule, for “Macduff was from his Mothers womb / Vntimely ript” (V.viii.15-16). The man who gained “the Ornament of Life” (I.vii.42) through an act of life-destroying, quasi-sexual violence, loses it at the hands of an antagonist whose entrance into the world was effected through another act of sexually related violence, but in this instance a life-rendering one.

Violence is an integral aspect of nobility in the society with which the play begins and ends. Properly channeled and directed, by cohesive social forces involving service and selfless courage, it preserves order, upholds just rule, and is a power for good. When released by the individual with the headlong force of overmastering sexual passion and at the urging of evil forces from within and without, violence brings destruction, social disintegration, and personal damnation. Sonnet 129, to which I have already alluded, is surely remarkably apt as an evocation of Macbeth's homicidal career, which, like lust,

Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad—
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.


The one jarring phrase here is “A bliss in proof”—Macbeth has no joy in his crimes, and it is part of his tragedy that he realizes this before, while, and after he commits them. That aside, it is fair to say that Macbeth gains a major part of its power through its continued suggestion that “Murther's as near to lust as flame to smoke.”


  1. John B. Harcourt, “‘I Pray You, Remember the Porter,’” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 12 (Autumn 1961), 397. Cf. also Eric Partridge: “Macbeth is the ‘purest’ of the Tragedies, and, except for the Porter Scene, pure by any criterion” (Shakespeare's Bawdy, rev. and enl. ed. [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969], p. 46). I realize that these comments refer principally to a felt absence of bawdry, but their implication is that allusions to sexual matters in general are few.

  2. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski, 2nd ed., rev. (London: Methuen, 1967), pp. 71, 72; Ian Robinson, “The Witches and Macbeth,” The Critical Review, 11 (1968), 104; D. F. Rauber, “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth,” Criticism, 11 (Winter 1969-70), 61. Since this article was accepted for publication I have seen Roger L. Cox's Between Earth and Heaven: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and the Meaning of Christian Tragedy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969). In his chapter on Macbeth, Cox draws attention to various hitherto unnoticed sexual meanings in the play. A number of these coincide with my own readings, and I am reassured to find an independent confirmation of them. Cox does not, however, link sexuality in Macbeth with witchcraft and violence, as I seek to do; he is, rather, concerned to make biblical connections.

  3. Thomas Alfred Spalding, Elizabethan Demonology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880), p. 86 ff.; Walter Clyde Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, 2nd ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1959), p. 60.

  4. “‘Macbeth’ and the Furies,” ShS [Shakespeare Survey], 19 (1966), 57. Cf. also Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950), pp. 82 ff.

  5. Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1968), pp. 76, 78. (These passages are from a revised version of the author's “Night's Black Agents in Macbeth,RenP [Renaissance Papers], 1956, p. 24.) Cf. also Ch. X, “Supernature and Demonism in Elizabethan Thought,” in Wilbur Sanders' The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968).

  6. Macbeth quotations are from the First Folio, as printed in The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile, prepared by Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968). Long s has been modernized. Act, scene, and line numbers are those of the Globe edition. Reference is sometimes made also to the New Cambridge edition of John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1947), and the New Arden edition of Kenneth Muir, 9th rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1962). Other Shakespeare citations are to Peter Alexander's edition of the Complete Works (London: Collins, 1951).

  7. Quoted from the note on I.iii.9 in the New Variorum Macbeth, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1873), p. 32. None of the commentators remarks on the significance of chestnuts in this context, though the New Variorum edition quotes Dyce's friend's speculation that rump-fed may mean “nut-fed,” citing Kilian's Dictionary for Rompe meaning “empty nut” (ibid.). I have nothing in the way of explanation to offer, but there may well be some special point in the reference to chestnuts.

  8. The F reading is Ragge. This makes sense (“worthless person”), but “you Witch, you Hagge” occurs a few lines earlier. Dover Wilson in the New Cambridge edition and H. J. Oliver in the New Arden edition retain the F reading.

  9. As, for instance, in “The poor Transylvanian is dead that lay with the little baggage” (Per., IV.ii.21-22); “The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't / With a more riotous appetite” (Lr., Ronyon is an obscure word. The only OED citations of it are the two Shakespearean instances and the form Runnyon, from a 1655 imitation of Chaucer, where it means “penis.” In Chaucer ronyon/ronyan may have ribald connotations: see the note on Seint Ronyan, CT, VI, 310, and the references there given, in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 728.

  10. The City of God against the Pagans, XV.xxiii, Loeb Classical Library, IV (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), 548.

  11. St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae …, IX, ed. Kenelm Foster O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), Prima Pars, 1 a., Quæstio 51, art. 3, p. 42.

  12. Johannis Nideri, … de Visionibus ac revelationibus opus rarissimum … recensente Hermanno von der Hardt (Helmstädt, 1692), pp. 616-17.

  13. Mallevs Maleficarvm …, I (Lyons, 1615), Pars Prima, Quaestio vi, 70. Contractions are expanded in this quotation and in all subsequent ones from older writers, with other slight modernizing. Accounts of incubi and succubi, their sexual relations with witches and other humans, their motives in the practice, and their methods of obtaining and using human semen appear in the following representative writers on witchcraft, besides those already mentioned: St. Bonaventura, Sententiarum, Liber II, d.viii, Pars Prima, a. 3, q. 1 (quoted by Montague Summers in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology [London: Kegan Paul, 1926], n. 34, p. 105); Ulrich Molitor, Tractatus de Lamiis et Pythonicis [1489] (Paris, 1561); Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584); Jean Bodin, De la Demonomanie des Sorciers, rev. ed. (Anvers, 1593); King James VI, Daemonologie (Edinburgh, 1597); Henri Boguet, Discovrs des Sorciers (Lyons, 1602); Peter Binsfeld, Tractatus de Confessionibus Maleficorum et Sagarum, 2nd rev. and aug. ed. (Trèves, 1605); Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum [1608, 1626], ed. Montague Summers, trans. E. A. Ashwin (London: John Rodker, 1929); Thomas Cooper, The Mystery of the Witch-Craft (London, 1617); Martin Del-Rio, Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex (Cologne, 1633); Lodovico Maria Sinistrari, De Daemonalitate et Incubis et Succubis [c. 1670], ed. and trans. Isidore Lisieux (Paris, 1875: English trans., 1879). See also Russell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (London: Spring Books, 1959), s.v. Incubus, Succubus.

  14. Sinistrari observes that the Devil has sexual relations not only with witches but also with ordinary men and women: “Prout autem apud diversos Auctores legitur, et pluribus experimentis comprobatur, duplici modo Dæmon hominibus carnaliter copulatur: uno modo quo Maleficis et Sagis jungitur, alio modo quo aliis hominibus minime maleficis miscetur.” (Lisieux, 1879 ed., p. 21). See also Section 25, p. 30.

  15. The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912), p. 189. Italics mine.

  16. De Visionibus ac revelationibus, pp. 542, 564.

  17. Pp. 567-68. Discussions of ligature also appear in Malleus, Molitor, Lambert Daneau (A Dialogue of Witches … [London, 1575]), Scot, James VI, Boguet, Binsfeld, Guazzo, Cooper, and Del-Rio. Guazzo and Del-Rio both list as witches' means of achieving ligature the enforced separation of spouses and the drying up of the husband's semen. The First Witch plans to practice both these evils.

  18. Discovrs des Sorciers, p. 29.

  19. Nicolai Remigii, … Daemonolatreiae libri tres … (Lyons, 1595), Liber 1, Cap. vii, p. 77.

  20. An Examen of Witches …, by Henry Boguet, trans. E. A. Ashwin, ed. Montague Summers ([London: John Rodker,] 1929), note, pp. 311-12.

  21. See further Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, p. 95. In Our Naked Frailties: Sensational Art and Meaning in “Macbeth” (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), which I read after having completed this article, Paul A. Jorgensen points out (without illustration) the bawdy sense of doe (p. 120).

  22. I.ii.171-76: The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen, V (London: Bullen, 1885), 375.

  23. Cf. e.g., The Honest Whore, Part 1, IV.i.184-86 (The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, II [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955], 77); The Honest Man's Fortune, II.i (The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, ed. A. Glover and A. R. Waller, X [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1912], 221); Wiv., IV.ii.169-72.

  24. Cf. also Ant., II.i.22, IV.xii.47, and further Daniel Stempel, “The Transmigration of the Crocodile,” SQ, 7 (Winter 1956), 67-68. In an interesting article, David Kaula notes various Shakespearean instances of the association of love with witchcraft (“Othello Possessed: Notes on Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Witchcraft,” ShakS [Shakespeare Studies], 2 [1966], 115).

  25. Cf. Lr., III.iv.118-22:

    Swithold footed thrice the 'old;
    He met the nightmare and her ninefold;
    .....And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee!

    In Middleton's The Witch there are references to incubus and succubus activities by Hecate and the witch Stadlin, and Hecate's son Firestone seeks permission “to ramble abroad tonight with the Nightmare, for I have a great mind to overlay a fat parson's daughter” (I.ii.90-92: ed. cit., V, 371). Italics mine. See also Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, s.v. Nightmare.

  26. Marion Bodwell Smith comments on Lady Macbeth's reversal of sexual roles in Dualities in Shakespeare (Toronto: Toronto Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 172 ff. In The Dramatist and the Received Idea, Wilbur Sanders analyzes the “Come you Spirits” speech (I.v.41 ff.) in terms of its sexual undertones: Lady Macbeth offers herself to erotic invasion by her demonic lovers; she sees the deed of darkness as an act of sexual fulfillment (p. 268). Dover Wilson had earlier remarked that Lady Macbeth is “invoking the Powers of Hell to take possession of her body, to suck her breasts as demons sucked those of witches” (Introd., New Camb. ed., pp. lvi-lvii).

  27. “‘His Fiend-Like Queen,’” ShS, 19 (1966), 76.

  28. Daneau, discussing the various means by which “Sorcerers can cast their poysons” (Ch. III), remarks, “I haue seene them, who with onely laying their handes vpon a nurses breastes, haue drawne foorth all the milke, and dryed them vp” (A Dialogue of Witches, sig. E.iiij.v).

  29. It seems clearly wrong to say, as K. M. Briggs says, that “The alleged sexual perversions of the witches did not lodge in Shakespeare's mind” (Pale Hecate's Team [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962], p. 82).

  30. Hanmer's emendation, quarrel, is practically certain.

  31. Kaula (ShakS, 2 [1966], 118), remarking that Shakespeare “provides several indications that Iago's hatred for Othello is in fact an inverted love and his campaign against him a kind of sadistic sexual assault,” cites as one of these, “I'll pour this pestilence into his ear” (II.iii.345). In a note on the latter passage Kaula states: “That Iago's pouring of poison in Othello's ear represents a kind of impregnation is borne out by the symbolic identification of poison with semen, an identification recognized not only by the modern psychoanalyst … but also by Shakespeare's contemporary, Dr. Jorden.” Kaula quotes in this connection from Jorden's Discourse of the Mother. In Iago's metaphor we have a blend of the actual poisoning through the ear, perpetrated on King Hamlet by Claudius, and the fertilization images cited in this paper.

  32. Vaulting can likewise be a sexual metaphor: cf. e.g., “vaulting variable ramps” (Cym.,

  33. Rowe's emendation, do, is necessary here for the antithesis; the assertion as it stands is meaningless.

  34. The Shakespearean association of depraved sexuality with beasts is too common to need much illustration, but cf., e.g., “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” (Ham., I.v.42); “O you beast! / … Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” (MM, III.i.137,139); “the beast with two backs” (Oth., I.i.118).

  35. Cf. again the Porter on drink and lechery: “it makes him, and it marres him” (II.iii.36: italics mine).

  36. Cf. Partridge, p. 196, s.v. sword. Lady Macbeth's Knife (I.v.53) is likewise phallic, as Wilbur Sanders points out: “… she will do the deed of darkness, in her sexually inverted state, with her ‘keene Knife’, under the ‘Blanket of the darke’; and there is to be no interfering moralistic heaven to bring about coitus interruptus—she will have her fulfilment” (p. 268).

  37. Pope's emendation, strides, is as certain as these things can be: sides is nonsense.

  38. In Appendix D of his New Arden edition, Muir notes various parallels between Mac. and Luc. and comments: “These parallels may possibly be explained by Shakespeare's belief that ‘murder's akin to lust as fire to smoke [sic]’” (p. 195). On the prevalence of this idea in Renaissance literature see Franklin M. Dickey, Not Wisely but Too Well: Shakespeare's Love Tragedies (1957; rpt. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966), pp. 40 ff.

  39. IV.ii.78: John Marston: The Works, ed. A. H. Bullen (1887; rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Ulms Verlag, 1970), III, 209.

  40. My colleague R. P. Laidlaw has suggested that there may be further ramifications of the succubus-incubus-violence association in Duncan's murder and related events. He writes: “Developing from your interpretation of ‘dreyne him drie as Hay’ (I.iii.18) it seems possible to see significance in Lady Macbeth offering drink to the attendants, turning them into ‘spungie Officers’ (I.vii.71), since there is a strong emphasis on the draining of Duncan's blood—‘who would haue thought the olde man to haue had so much blood in him’ (V.i.44-45)—and upon drought imagery after the discovery of the murder—‘the Wine of Life is drawne, and the meere Lees / Is left this Vault, to brag of’ (II.iii.100-101) and ‘The Spring, the Head, the Fountaine of your Blood / Is stopt’ (103-4). The link between drinking wine and shedding blood is made explicit in the first of these two latter quotations. If the attendants can be seen as sham succubi (and at the least they share Duncan's bed) as well as sham murderers, Macbeth's act of killing them takes on a double significance, since he is not only severing himself from his guilt but also from the powers which led him on. Your own interpretation of the bloody daggers in phallic terms and a further link with the Witch's speech (‘Sleepe shall neyther Night nor Day / Hang vpon his Pent-house Lid’: I.iii.19-20), ‘Sleep no more: / Macbeth does murther Sleepe’ (II.ii.35-36), may suggest that Macbeth himself takes on the dual role.”

  41. See further Harcourt, SQ, 12 (Autumn 1961), 398-99 and the references there given. Steal and stale were homophonic in Shakespeare's English (see Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953], pp. 148, 175, 198); stale (v.) meant “urinate” but possibly also “whore”: Shakespeare certainly uses the noun stale to mean “harlot, trollop” (see Partridge, s.v.). On tailor meaning “penis” see also Hilda M. Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language (London: Longmans, 1962), pp. 99 ff.

  42. Cf. Merchant: “… Hecate broods over this play, whatever the status of the ‘interpolated scenes’” (ShS, 19 [1966], 81).

  43. The Globe editors' emendation, germens, and the deletion of the comma are obviously correct (the Q. and the F. texts of Lr., III.ii.8 have Germains and germaines respectively).

  44. Miss Mahood comments: “Firstlings can mean ‘firstborn young’ as well as ‘the first results of anything, or first-fruits.’ Macbeth has no children but acts of violence against the children of others” (Shakespeare's Wordplay, p. 135). Paul A. Jorgensen also remarks on the sterility of the relationship between Macbeth and his wife (Our Naked Frailties, pp. 153-54).

Dolora G. Cunningham (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: Cunningham, Dolora G. “Macbeth: The Tragedy of the Hardened Heart.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 1 (winter 1963): 39-47.

[In the following essay, Cunningham views Macbeth in terms of his repudiation of his own humanity and subsequent surrender to a compulsion for evil.]

At the closing of the fearful scene in which Macbeth decides to murder his king, he himself foresees the tragic distortion to which he has committed his human nature (I. vii. 79-82):

I am settled and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show;
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

He has given his heart away to the worst, to that which is beneath human love. From now on, he is bound to a false appearance and to a false reality in which his moral sensitivity will be considered weakness and his callousness will be strength: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” In order to do the deed and in order to live with the accomplished fact, Macbeth must cut himself off from “that great bond” of nature: he must harden his heart and cease to feel as a man.

This defeat of human feeling, though surely an effect of Macbeth's evil actions, seems to be also an important element in the tragic decision itself. No choice can be completed in action without the movement of the passions, and Macbeth, left to his own devices, says clearly that he has only the desire without the energy to move it (I. vii. 25-26): “… I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, …”1 His desire for the kingship, he concludes, is impossible, primarily because he cannot work up the nonhuman feeling which is necessary to get what he wants. It is Lady Macbeth who supplies the emotional power that enables him to settle his will and so complete the act of moral choice that leads ultimately to the catastrophe. If it is this false choice that starts him toward the tragic end, it is the failure to turn back from the choice, to renounce it, that makes ruin inevitable (III. ii. 55): “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Macbeth, shown in the beginning as having a genuine sense of human kindness, gradually so hardens himself in the custom of evil that he becomes eventually incapable of altering the pattern in which his very being and, for awhile, the total action of the play are fixed.

Appalled by the murder of Duncan, he is driven to seek ease for the tortured mind through deliberate attempts to take himself altogether out of the natural order2 (III. ii. 49-50): “Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale! …” He suffers so intensely his fall from where he belongs that he sets out to make himself at home in hell, among the mere dregs of this vault. Already he is sufficiently brutalized to desire universal destruction, if only he can feel safe and at peace:

But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly. …

(III. ii. 16ff.)

To be set free of that great bond is to achieve the hardened heart that not only dares do more than becomes a man but can also support the non-human actions without fear or pain or remorse. Imagining, then, that further bloody deeds will inure him to such painful consequences, Macbeth resolves to strengthen himself in the custom of evil.

The murder of Banquo, undertaken partly from fear and resentment but also in the wild hope of destroying natural feeling (III. i. 47ff. and III. i. 16ff.), does not, of course, bring the desired peace. But it does strengthen him in the habit of evil to an alarming degree. Its immediate effect is so far to numb his conscience that he resolves to step up the program for making himself a hardened veteran of terrible deeds:

                              … My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use:
We are yet but young in deed.

(III. iv. 142-144)

And so the ghost of Banquo is explained away as a sign of understandable stagefright, which can be easily overcome by further performances, as a beginning actor overcomes his initial nervousness through repeated appearances. The hardening of Macbeth's nature is accompanied by a withdrawal from human kind; the divine light of reason in him darkens to the point where he is no longer in touch with others, and he is thrown back upon a horribly misdirected self-love where the self is conceived as the only reality (III. iv. 135): “For mine own good / All causes shall give way.” Even as he rededicates himself firmly to the worst, however, he remembers briefly that there is still an alternative course open to him:

More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know
By the worst means the worst. For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

(III. iv. 134ff.)

It is possible, he says, to turn back toward the “blessed time” he seeks to erase from memory; but he has already gone so far that returning is as difficult as—indeed more difficult than—to go on his now accustomed way. Where to begin with he had lacked the hard core of feeling for the murder of Duncan, he now lacks the energy to change a course of action he knows to be fatal to his eternal well-being. And he lacks this energy precisely because he has achieved the hard core of feeling; the custom of evil has fastened itself upon him, making it easier and apparently as desirable for him to continue in the groove of compulsive action, where what he does is determined by the will alone and must be done without being thought about:

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.

(III. iv. 139-140)

His will, formerly worked upon from without by Lady Macbeth's emotional appeals, is now bent from within, being moved to evil largely of its own accord, without the incitement of passion or the counsel of reason. He does not fear Macduff, for example, yet he will kill him anyhow from an excess of will in order to perfect himself in the habit of evil—to overcome the initiate fear by hard use—for he still suffers the horror of a divided self which M. Gilson has called the inner tragedy of the sinner's life.3 The decision not to turn back but rather to go ahead with the murder of Banquo commits Macbeth almost entirely to Lady Macbeth's philosophy of man as a beast-like creature of non-rational will: being a man means getting what one wants.

In a comprehensive view of the dramatic action, this decision not to change his course may be taken as the point of no return for Macbeth, as the point from which the catastrophe inevitably follows. His rejection of the briefly considered alternative is closely followed by his own accurate judgment that going on will further harden him, since the particular decision is in itself both the result of previous acts and a token of the hardening they have induced in his human faculties. In deciding not to repent at this time, he makes any later change of heart all the more unlikely, for, as he knows, what the theologically minded psychologists of another day called “long custome of sinne” is a notorious obstacle to repentance.4 To put off this basic discipline of the Christian life is a perilous putting off, as all Christendom knew full well, being continuously warned in sermons that they knew not at what hour their Maker would call them to the final accounting. Elizabethan moralists and psychologists moreover—as those of our own day talk about the unconscious and guilt feelings—frequently discuss the commonly accepted psychology of the hardened heart, in which the sinner becomes so fortified and confirmed in the custom of sin that it becomes a habit, corrupting one's human faculties and, as a popular sermon of the 1580's has it, “plunging one ever deeper in the stinking puddle of iniquitie. …” “For long custome of sinne taketh away all sense and feeling of sinne, and maketh as it were another nature unto us.”5

There are several analogues to Macbeth's predicament in English tragedy before and during Shakespeare's career,6 the most famous being that of another murdering usurper in the prayer-scene of Hamlet. In considering the plight of his soul, Claudius does not repent, because he chooses not to detach his love from those things he has gained by his crime; although the fruit of Macbeth's crime has become dust and ashes, his energy has been exhausted in the service of that which he has wrongly desired, so that he, too, is unable to give up his winnings. They cannot as Claudius clearly sees, continue to eat their cake and be forgiven for having stolen it. In each case, the heart is so encumbered by the burden of its own fulfilled desires that it cannot be turned away from them. These decisions of Macbeth and of Claudius are of essentially the same order and exert similar effects upon the quality of the following dramatic action. Claudius' failure to repent, like Macbeth's, hardens him to commit further evil actions and so contributes its important share to the developing tragic momentum. For if Shakespeare had made either of them repentant, then he would have decided to write a comedy—a play like The Tempest—and would have made other changes accordingly.

Macbeth's decision to go o'er into more blood quickly plunges him still deeper into the iniquity and corruption of another nature. By the end of the banquet scene, he has given himself to the powers of hell, in whose service he hopes to find ease, even if nature be poisoned at its source. Macduff must die “That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies / And sleep in spite of thunder” (IV.i.84-85). He has come a long way from the defense of his manhood against Lady Macbeth's provocations. Now he will murder for no reason other than to habituate himself to the terrors of his corrupted state and make himself comfortable among them. He will murder Macduff in order to make his heart insensible to its own pain.

The very firstlings of his heart become the firstlings of his hand (IV.i.145ff.), without the review of thought; his will moves automatically, with increased swiftness and violence, toward the solipsistic condition he has set for his goal. The only consideration is a distorted personal consequence, and he becomes the creature of events determined by his previous actions and by their destructive effect upon his soul. Having thus abused his human faculties, he takes on the aspects of another nature, which, as Macduff says, is that of the devil himself:

Not in the legions
Of horrid hell can come a devil more damn'd
In evils to top Macbeth.


As the catastrophe draws near, there are various comments on Macbeth's shrunken and disordered condition:

                                        Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
.....Who then shall blame
His pester'd senses to recoil and start,
When all that is within him does condemn
Itself for being there?


Although he has become hardened in evil to a hellish degree, he continues to feel the horror of what he has done to himself—to suffer, that is, the inner tragedy of the sinner's life. The remnants of his human nature—for he never escapes it entirely—cause even the corrupted nature to condemn itself for being there. These lines of commentary upon Macbeth's inner conflict draw upon a long established and subtle psychology, as some words of St. Bernard on the subject easily demonstrate: “The ills the soul now suffers after sin do not replace that native goodness which is the original gift of the Creator, but they are super-induced on that goodness, and disturb it, deforming an order they can in no wise destroy.”7 The other nature that Macbeth has acquired through evil cannot dissolve the image of God in which all men are created. As he remains necessarily conscious of this true nature, he cannot forget either its capacity for excellence or his wilful destruction of that excellence. The only escape from this agonized consciousness—if the only method of recovery is rejected—would seem to be Lady Macbeth's flight into the dumb suffering of insanity. Presented in the beginning as fairly well advanced in hardness of heart and accustomed to the ways thereof, she is spared the anguish of Macbeth's awareness; yet in the end the bitterness of her mortally diseased nature kills her, and it might well be said that she dies of an unbroken heart: “I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body” (V.i.61). The logical extreme of the hardened heart is insanity, the complete denial of one's identity as a human being.

Although Macbeth manages to loosen his human bonds, he never escapes them, and so toward the end he feels an appalling loneliness:

                                                                                                    I am sick at heart.
.....I have liv'd long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; …


Here once more is the comprehensive Shakespearian vision at work: the judgment of Macbeth as a murdering butcher stands firm—and he himself concurs in it—but the judgment includes also pity and fear for the lonely human being confronting his withered heart and counting up the awful losses of having loved for his own ends. Our pity and fear are further directed and enlarged by the method of direct comment to remind us, as in Hecate's reprimand of the Weird Sisters, that Macbeth's kind of loss is essentially a universal human experience:

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.


Although he courts it ardently, he never does achieve the love of evil for its own sake, and he remains to the end conscious of all he has lost.

But the possibility of redeeming his losses is once more raised, and the extent of the damage he has inflicted upon himself can be measured by the careless rejection of the Doctor's advice to purge his own soul: “Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it!” (V.iii.47). The warning to pause and minister to his impoverished spirit passes by almost without notice as he taunts Heaven with the boast that he is immune from the fear of death. The pursuit of indifference has smothered but not removed his moral sensitivity; he has supped so full with horrors and the disposition to evil is so fixed in him that nothing can move him now, or almost nothing. The sight of Macduff does move him to a terrified remorse: his soul is too much charged already with this man's blood, and Macduff's very presence is a cruel reminder, for us as for him, of the greatness he has lost. Even now Macbeth is able to feel insufficient abhorrence for his sins against the human image to refuse at first to fight, as if he would renounce at last the long war to destroy it. But he has sabotaged the powers of his soul too effectively to move beyond the hopeless self-knowledge that is despair, and we feel that the weary decision to fight Macduff after all is determined almost automatically by what Macbeth now is. As he sees it in his blindness, there are only two alternatives open to him: continuance in his present way of life, henceforth in public disgrace, or death. But a third possibility of escape to heavenly forgiveness is freely offered by Macduff, who has asked Heaven to forgive even “this fiend” if he should escape Macduff's avenging sword (IV.iii). Macbeth, however, does not see that this magnanimous and profoundly charitable offer of life provides a last chance to recover what has been lost—or, perhaps more accurately, he sees the hard work of recovery as too tedious to be endured. Lear prays at the end for Cordelia's life that all sorrows may be redeemed, but here the opportunity to live and redeem his losses is repugnant to the habitual torpor of Macbeth's sick heart. Not to fight Macduff means that he must live on, and he has lived long enough.

The whole point of Macbeth's desperate state is enforced by the quality and position of Macduff in the latter part of the play, as the abnormality of Macbeth's response to the Witches is partly defined by Banquo's reasonable attitude in the opening scenes: Banquo and Macduff dramatize what ought to be in the circumstances—and this is surely Banquo's function in the second witch scene (I.iii), however one may view his later development.8 The shaping of Macduff as an even more important normative contrast begins with his flight to England to seek support from the saintly King Edward against the instruments of darkness who guide Macbeth. Macduff is described as “noble, wise, judicious”, and as his departure is the first positive action toward freeing Scotland from tyranny, it is also the beginning of his dramatic movement toward direct conflict with the hero.

The following stages in this development include the memorable view of Macduff's “pretty ones” in action (IV.ii.), which rapidly enlists our sympathy with Macduff; Malcolm's test of Macduff's integrity (IV.iii), which ends with the rightful heir to the throne placing the sacred enterprise against the usurper under Macduff's direction; and Macduff's fully human response to the reported slaughter of his family (IV.iii). By this stage of the action, Macduff stands out clearly as a man who has acted nobly and wisely for the common good, as a character whose dramatic stature has been skillfully developed in recent scenes so that the remaining action is shaped by the conflict between himself and Macbeth. But these scenes, including the moving exhibition of Macduff's grief, have a good deal more than superficial value in organizing the last part of the play for the restoration of order, and the form of the conflict has significance beyond increasing our horror of Macbeth's cruelty: the single state of man which the hero has destroyed in himself is dramatically rendered in the characterization of the antagonist.

The news of the high price he has paid for acting nobly in a brutal world, anchors Macduff's grief firmly to a deeply felt principle of what is proper to man. When Malcolm exhorts him to dispute like a man the loss of those who were most precious to him, he insists, first of all, upon the importance of feeling as a man should feel, and he says that to feel as a man is to be deeply aware of the importance of human beings in themselves and to each other:

                                                                                          I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. …


In this carefully prepared scene, Macduff exhibits a firm allegiance to his human ties and a beautifully ordered capacity for feeling rightly in the circumstances; his response shows how a man ought to feel and emphasizes the importance of feeling humanly.

The tragic movement of the play is illuminated by the ennobled humanity of Macduff as well as by the horrible consequences of Macbeth's repudiation of his human role. It is precisely Macduff's capacity for feeling as a man which the hero has set out to destroy in himself, and a frightening measure of his success can be taken from his response to the death of Lady Macbeth. The almost complete failure to respond emotionally to his wife's death is a striking contrast to Macduff's attitude toward the loss of his family. The quality of Macduff's response renders concretely the proper human feeling which Macbeth has abandoned; when considered beside the weary “She should have died hereafter” (V.v.18ff.), it gives a dramatic reference point for judging the desperateness of Macbeth's condition. The event seems little more than another proof of the meaninglessness of life, an occasion for lacerating himself with his own hopelessness. He not only suffers from an inability to feel for others, but he is also fundamentally unable to feel for himself, to care what happens to him; he has lapsed into indifference, even to his most intimate concerns. Macbeth's inability to feel as a man is a concomitant of the hardening of the heart to which, from the decision to kill Duncan onward, he has deliberately subjected himself. The custom of evil has so damaged his human faculties that he lacks the energy to move in his own vital interests.

The encounter with Macduff presents a mirror in which Macbeth sees with awesome clarity the state of his own soul. Since the antagonist's character has been dramatically formed on the human principles whose violation has led to the hero's ruin, it is altogether appropriate that Macduff should be the focus of this final vision. Their climactic meeting embodies the tragic conflict between what Macbeth should be and what he is, and presents in compressed form the entire tragic process: the attempt to destroy one's humanity must necessarily end in one's own destruction. Faced with a last opportunity to seek grace to save himself, Macbeth can only repeat the habitual pattern of rejection and going o'er, to which he is now a slave. Even in the naturalistic framework of modern psychology, the disorganized personality cannot by its own unaided efforts handle chaotic feelings, whose pressure must generally be relieved by therapy before the mind can assume normal control. As construed within this play the human person, like the human society, cannot function effectively without sharing in the supernatural energy which is grace; and Macbeth, for whom “renown and grace is dead”, is accordingly unable to use his mind for the urgent task of restoring himself to working order. The self-inflicted hardening of his nature has raised a deliberate obstacle to grace, so that the understanding is darkened and the affections frozen, and the man feeds upon himself. It is this failure to alter perverted feeling and turn back in the right direction, as defined by Macduff's attitude and by Macbeth's own awareness, that makes the tragedy inevitable.

The inability to overcome the surrender to evil and to cope with its consequences is the fundamental tragic pattern of Macbeth, as I think it to be, in varying ways, in Shakespearian tragedy generally. The evil he chooses and its consequences are outside Macbeth's control to the extent that his reason is darkened and his affections hardened by the choice. The course of evil is likewise beyond the capacity of good men to control, except as they are enlightened and strengthened by the powers above, in whom Malcolm and Macduff place their faith, thus resolving the problem of evil with the traditional Christian answer. Evil, consisting as it does of the non-reasonable, is incalculable both to the evil-doer and to his victims, and cannot be dealt with by purely reasonable means—as those of us who recall Hitler's mad reign know full well. Macbeth makes his spirit inaccessible to the light of grace, as do practically all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, in their various ways. If they had not done so, they would not finally be tragic, and the plays would not be tragedies, but would belong rather with the group often called romances—Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest—in which the threatened catastrophe is forestalled by the working of grace in potentially tragic circumstances and by the consequent ordering of otherwise destructive events to a peaceful resolution. Such a comparison suggests that a helpful distinction might be drawn between Shakespearian comedy and tragedy in terms of the effective operation of grace as one method of organizing the happy ending and its rejection or delay as a formative principle of the tragic ending. Although several critics have observed the themes of forgiveness and mercy at work in the romances, very little attention, to my knowledge, has been paid to their implication for our understanding of the significance of tragic and comic form in Shakespeare's work.

The hardening of the heart against itself that covers Macbeth with irrevocable loss, is, I should judge, a formative element in Shakespearian tragedy generally; and it is so at least in the sense that a perversion of human faculties accompanies, in one way or another, the irrational action which sets the tragic events in motion, and makes them progressively less subject to peaceful resolution. Although I should not, of course, argue that Claudius' inability to repent accounts for the tragic outcome of Hamlet, still his decision not to alter his course makes it all but impossible for the hero to set things right. There are explicit comments on the steadily increasing helplessness of Lear and Othello to control the deepening disorders which their mistaken choices have inaugurated, and which they renounce too late to avoid the tragic results. And, finally, there is an important resemblance between the tragic pattern of Antony and Cleopatra and Shakespeare's use of the psychology of the hardened heart in Macbeth. Unless one accepts the distorted modern view of the play as a sermon on the glories of a noble love transcending everything in this world and the next,9 one sees that Antony and Cleopatra are presented as being so accustomed to the worship of sensual love as an absolute that they are unable to change this obviously fatal allegiance, that, in fact, they would rather lose everything than change their ways. The tragic outcome of Antony and Cleopatra is as firmly shaped as that of Macbeth by the failure to alter misguided affections and destructive choices. Both plays end in tragedy because the heroes and the heroine give their hearts completely to those things (worldly glory, worldly love) which, however attractive, are defined in the plays as unworthy of such ultimate allegiance and as destructive of the proper state of man, and because they fail to turn back their loyalties to that which is considered worthy of being loved by human beings.


  1. On the functions of the passions in the traditional process of moral choice, see Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, I. vii. 3-6; Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Mind (1604), Ch. III; W. Jewel, The Golden Cabinet of true Treasure (1612), sigs. R2-4.

  2. On the concept of natural order in Macbeth, see W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns, 2nd ed. (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 123ff.

  3. Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (Scribner's, 1940), p. 296.

  4. Cf. G. R. Elliott, Dramatic Providence in Macbeth (Princeton Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 142-143, et passim. Professor Elliott's argument that the possibility of repentance is a major source of dramatic suspense seems to overlook the dramatically established point that Macbeth is able to view the possibility only remotely; his inability to consider repentance seriously would serve therefore to intensify the tragic movement of the action rather than to raise doubts as to the outcome.

  5. The Conversion of a Sinner (G. Cawood, 1580), sig. F3; Arthur Dent, A Sermon of repentaunce (John Harrison, 1583), sig. D5v. Among numerous discussions of the psychology of custom which repeat these Puritan statements, see George Gascoigne. The Dromme of Doomes Day (1576), Works, II, 316 (considered by some to reflect a Puritan viewpoint); Bishop John Fisher, Treatise concernynge the sayings of David (1555), sig. C4; Richard Hooker, EP [Etudes Philosophiques], I. vii. 7.

  6. Apart from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus and such imitations as A Knacke to Knowe a Knave (1594) and The Merry Devil of Edmonton (1598), interesting examples of tragic impenitence are to be found in Nathaniell Woodes, The Conflict of Conscience (1581) and in Barnabe Barnes, The Divil's Charter (1607).

  7. From In Cant. Cant., 82, 5; as translated by E. Gilson, p. 295.

  8. For a discussion of Banquo's function as normative contrast to Macbeth in this scene, see Virgil K. Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning (The Huntington Library, 1953), pp. 289ff.

  9. In an essay on “The Characterization of Shakespeare's Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Quarterly, Winter, 1955), I interpret the final act as being shaped by Cleopatra's unsuccessful—hence tragic—attempt to change to a better way of life. The three comments which have appeared in later issues of the journal (Winter of 1956, Summer of 1957, Summer of 1958) treat the Christian ethos as if it were only a simple-minded list of commandments, and Shakespeare's play as if it were only a narrow glorification of romantic love. Two recent books encourage the hope that this fashionable modern view of the play may receive a needed examination: Franklin M. Dickey's Not Wisely But Too Well (The Huntington Library, 1957), Chs. X-XIII, presents historical evidence for the interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra as a tragedy of irrational desire; and Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (Columbia Univ. Press, 1956), Ch. X, discusses the play as a combination of satire and tragedy.

Nicholas Brooke (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Brooke, Nicholas. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, edited by Nicholas Brooke, pp. 1-82. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Brooke surveys the importance of stage illusion to Macbeth and examines Shakespeare's rich use of language in the drama.]


Macbeth was first produced at a time of radical theatrical change in England. It seems to have been written during 1606 and to have been presented at the Globe Theatre fairly late in that year, and so to have been conceived for performance in daylight, in a constantly light space which could not be physically transformed into darkness. Two years later, in 1608-9, Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, took over the Blackfriars Theatre which had been adapted from the hall of the medieval friary and was therefore basically a dark space into which artificial light had to be introduced—which has been the normal state of all European theatres ever since. From then until the London theatres were finally closed in the 1650s after repeated injunctions from Cromwell's government the repertory had to be adapted for performance in both theatres, in both conditions. Shakespeare's last plays, from The Winter's Tale to The Tempest (including his collaborations with Fletcher) show remarkable ingenuity in devising spectacular effects which could take advantage of the dark theatre and of the experience of the company in participating in Court masques, while still being performable at the Globe. Most of Shakespeare's earlier plays could no doubt have been easily adapted for revival in the new situation since the basic configuration of the stage seems to have been much the same, but Macbeth was a special case: about two-thirds of this play written for the daylight theatre is set in darkness.

All theatre depends, in one way or another, on illusion, but Macbeth is exceptional in affirming continuously a direct contradiction of the natural conditions: the transformation of daylight into darkness is a tour de force which establishes illusion as, not merely a utility, but a central preoccupation of the play, dramatically announced by an opening unique in Shakespeare's plays, the use of the non-naturalistic prologue by the Weïrd Sisters in 1.1. There follows a carefully controlled range of forms of dramatic illusion which needs to be enumerated, not only because it is so frequently mutilated by the naturalistic tradition of modern theatre, but also because it clarifies the study of illusion as a structural foundation of the play.

1. Darkness in daylight is established symbolically by torches and candles whose effect depended on the power of theatrical convention to which a modern audience cannot respond so directly as a Jacobean one, but that is greatly extended linguistically by direct statements, allusions, or indirect suggestion of verbal imagery. The sequence of dark scenes is initiated in 1.5 by Lady Macbeth's invocation to the powers of darkness (39-53), and by her later reference to ‘This night's great business’ (67); it is sustained through all major scenes until the end of 4.1. The Folio text calls for Hautboys and Torches at the beginning of 1.6, but that is probably a book-keeper's anticipation of props needed to open 1.7, where they stress the arrival of darkness alongside a dumb-show of preparations for the evening feast; 1.6 opens in dialogue that reverses the illusion of darkness, Duncan and Banquo exchanging descriptions of the castle's pleasant seat, air, jutty, frieze, the martlet's procreant cradle, etc. This is regularly quoted as an example of Shakespeare's use of words to set a scene, but in truth it is not typical; it is quite exceptional in its invitation to detailed visualization; what we must visualize is not there, of course, but the implied daylight literally is. The illusion of darkness can be withdrawn at will (and then resumed), but with the significant irony that Duncan and Banquo misread the signs: there is nothing gentle or procreant here.

2. The Weïrd Sisters are visible to us, and to Macbeth, and to the less questionable sight of Banquo (a touchstone of common sense, like Horatio in Hamlet, even if less solid). The Sisters cannot be reduced to projections of Macbeth's mind, they are not mere delusions; though just what Macbeth and Banquo see is very questionable. Banquo describes them while they are on stage:

                                                                                                              What are these,
So withered, and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th'inhabitants o'th' earth
And yet are on't?


No wonder presentations in the theatre vary so much, since they cannot be made to ‘look like’ this; and if they could, Banquo's words would be redundant. Word, here, is against sight: we are bound to see that they are not what Banquo says; but it is more likely that his description influences our perception than that we conclude that his sight is different from ours. The ambiguity extends to their nature: there is still argument as to whether they are supernatural, or merely village witches, strange old women, as Banquo's later words suggest:

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


They call themselves the Weïrd Sisters, and Banquo and Macbeth refer to them as such; the only time the word ‘witch’ is heard in the theatre is in l. 6 of this scene, when the First Witch quotes the words of the sailor's wife as the supreme insult for which her husband must be tortured. ‘Weird’ did not come to its loose modern usage before the early nineteenth century; it meant Destiny or Fate, and foreknowledge is clearly the Sisters' main function. But the nature of their powers is still ambiguous: they are actively malicious to the master o'th' Tiger, but have not the power to destroy him:

Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.


They can appear to Macbeth at will (theirs or his), but confine their interference to prediction. All these powers were, of course, attributed to village witches, but the Weïrd Sisters are more decisively supernatural; confusion has largely arisen because the Folio text refers to them in stage directions and speech prefixes as ‘witches’. Their ambiguity, of nature and of power, is fundamental to the ambiguities of experience and knowledge which the play develops.

The conflict of words and appearance is repeated at their exit: we must ‘see’ them go, but we cannot this time (when they are no longer there) verify the description:

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them; whither are they vanished?
Into the air; and what seemed corporal melted
As breath into the wind.


Whether they actually go into smoke, down a trap, or flying, it cannot ‘look like’ this; sight ceases to be rationally reliable:

Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner?


3. The dagger is an opposite case: the Weïrd Sisters are attested by sight (ours and Banquo's, besides Macbeth's) but are indefinite in form; the dagger is entirely specific in form though not literally seen by anyone—even Macbeth knows it is not there:

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?


This kind of optical illusion is well known, especially in feverish conditions—the brain registers as sight what is not directly stimulated by optic nerve. Macbeth proceeds to confuse perception further by drawing his actual dagger and then seeing the illusory one as still more vivid, with ‘gouts of blood, ❙ Which was not so before’ (47-8)—which is how the actual one will be in the next scene.

Words play a great part here, but not words alone: the invisible dagger is necessarily created also by his body, gesture, and above all by his eyes, which focus on a point in space whose emptiness becomes, in a sense, visible to the audience.

4. Banquo's ghost is different again: it is seen by Macbeth, it was seen by Simon Forman at the Globe in 1610-11, and it has been seen by audiences in most productions since. Thus far it contrasts with the dagger, but it is also in a different case from the Weïrd Sisters because it is seen by no one else on stage:

LADY Macbeth
                                                                                                    When all's done,
You look but on a stool.


This differs from the dagger because the emptiness here is not of our perceiving, and from the Sisters because here the ‘reliable witnesses’ contradict our sight. Scepticism, therefore, becomes as questionable as credulity. The whole effect is aborted if, as so often nowadays, no physical ghost appears on stage.

5. The apparitions in 4.1 are a climax to this sequence of stage illusion tricks, though the formal elaboration is not technically the most surprising or exciting (it neither requires nor gets the conjuring-trick surprise of the others). It can use elaborate machinery, but it can equally be done with simple effects—cauldron, smoke, a trap, or even less. It is the Weïrd Sisters' fullest scene, and it is their last; but however superbly nasty their incantation and however spectacular what follows, it does not aim at mystification, and the recapitulation of their disappearance in 1.3—Lennox seeing nothing of their departure (4.1.151-2)—does not this time conflict with our sight since he was off-stage at the time.

From this point on there is a radical change in the presentation of illusion: rational sight progressively displaces potential deception.

6. Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking in 5.1 is essentially about delusion, but caused by psychological disturbance not by supernatural agency; our recognition of a natural phenomenon is endorsed by Doctor and Nurse, who also recognize a connection with guilt dreams in its jumble of displaced memories. The mysterious is being progressively dissipated and is finally eliminated in

7. Birnam Wood, whose moving is an exercise in camouflage (5.4.4-7) of a kind which is still a commonplace of infantry tactics. Illusion is being reduced to rational explanation, and the cheating account of Macduff's birth (5.7.45-6) marks the end of this process. There are, in Macbeth's words, ‘no more sights’ (4.1.170); the audience is given a full explanation of Birnam Wood before the event, and will scarcely be surprised by the revelation of Macduff's birth.

The Tempest follows a remarkably similar pattern through a varied range of stage illusions to their formal climax in the masque of goddesses (4.1.39-142), and thereafter a progressive withdrawal until the final ‘magic’—Ferdinand and Miranda discovered playing chess (—is magical only to that part of the stage audience which believed them dead; to us it requires only the pulling of a curtain. At the end, Prospero's epilogue has the actor asking for applause to release him finally from his role. But The Tempest opens with an exceptional display of realism, the presentation of a shipwreck on stage, which is then immediately revealed as the dramatic illusion which, of course, it has to be:

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.


That calls immediate attention to the nature of dramatic illusion, and establishes it as mediator between Magus controlling his spirits, and naturalistic rationalism. In Macbeth it is the opening by the Weïrd Sisters which proposes a relation between supernatural and natural phenomena. No amount of quotation from King James's early and credulous Demonology1 will transfer the Sisters from a category of belief into one of verifiable knowledge. The Weïrd Sisters are, like Ariel and Caliban, essentially creatures of drama, not merely naturalistic representations of old women.

8. Macbeth does not begin with an illusion of realism, but it does end with one: ‘Enter Macduff, with Macbeth's head’ (—presumably stuck on the end of a pike (see ll. 84-5). That direction proposes a trompe-l'œil head, an art like that attributed to Giulio Romano at the end of The Winter's Tale, achieved here, no doubt, by a life-mask of Burbage. That final effect is peculiar, for Malcolm, always an equivocal figure, capitalizes briskly on the decapitation ‘Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’ (l. 99). When last seen sleep-walking, Lady Macbeth was anything but fiend-like, and the only visible butcher here is not Macbeth but the ‘heroic’ Macduff with the grotesque head he offers to Malcolm's ‘Christian’ triumph.

9. The eight distinct forms of dramatic illusion discussed so far are all dependent on staging: darkness in light, the Weïrd Sisters, the dagger, Banquo's ghost, the apparitions, Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking, Birnam Wood, Macbeth's head. The ninth, recurrent throughout the play, is the purely verbal creation of a highly visual but unseen world of babes and cherubim, rooky wood, murdering ministers, and horses eating each other; the unusual stress on sensory actuality leaves audiences with an undefined sense of having seen, smelt, touched far more than we have, though, as with Macbeth's dagger, we know there's no such thing.


The most elaborate instance of spectacular linguistic effect is Macbeth's soliloquy at the opening of 1.7, which is striking not only for the achievement of its climax, but also for the process by which that is arrived at, and the rapid transpositions of language involved. It opens with a notably plain vocabulary, but a syntax so contorted as to amount to word-juggling:

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly;


The tongue-twisting implies mental conflict, with a growing desire to suppress the knowledge of guilt:

                                                                                if th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success,


The pattern of conditional clauses is extended, but the vocabulary is now mixed with a number of polysyllabic words emphasizing the evasion of thought: ‘assassination’ and ‘consequence’ act as euphemisms for murder and guilt which emerge in the word-play that translates ‘surcease’ into ‘success’, and so leads to the conditional

                                                                                                              that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,


The apparent resolution is very similar to ‘'twere well ❙ It were done quickly’, and equally superficial; the sentence is apparently complete, but an attempt is made to strengthen it by syntactic doubling of the last word which functions both as end of that clause and beginning of the next (hence the editorial problem of punctuation):

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come.


The monosyllables return to close, finally, the long contorted sentence. But the simplicity is deceptive, for the strong rhetorical gesture allows another suppressed level of thought to emerge, religious fear. It is immediately withdrawn, at the expense of reopening the argument:

                                                                                                    But in these cases
We still have judgement here,


A third ‘here’ takes us back to the false hope of resolution, and refutes it, but ‘judgement’ does not immediately signify the law, or rather is not allowed to, for the obscure words that follow deal apparently only with the inevitability of revenge:

                                                                                                                        that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th'inventor.


‘Bloody’ and ‘plague’ betray the evasions, and the language expands to reveal the power of what has been evaded:

                                                                                This even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips.


The emblematic justice leads to ‘ingredience’ and ‘chalice’, both words with strong ecclesiastical associations. Justice and religion have both emerged again, in a language more expansive and elevated than any before. It is, once again, returned to a manageable level, of socio-moral orthodoxy, the ties of kinsman, subject, and host; but what follows after is quite extraordinary:

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


It is the process, here, which is all-important: the process of amplification from Duncan's virtues to ‘the sightless couriers of the air’ is startling in its strangeness. Cleanth Brooks, in a celebrated essay on the naked new-born babe,2 noted the strangeness but after enumerating the other references to babes in the play (which are indeed striking) concluded as though the significant image-train resolved the superficial strangeness. It does not, because it is not simply the individual images that are strange, but the very structure in which they emerge, and explanation must not dispel that.

Language has been under pressure from the beginning of the speech: here that is even more marked and more concentrated in syntax, words, and images; the argument is sustained, with the suppressed allusions to law and to religion emerging through what are in effect puns, though very far removed from jokes, and to them is now added a dimension of rhetorical grandeur which may have been implied before, but has never yet been allowed to develop. The primary sense of ‘plead’ here is the legal one, but associated with angels it immediately takes on the sense of ‘beg’ which leads towards ‘pity’ two lines later. The angels themselves appear first as a simple cliché metaphor, but immediately become concrete, blowing trumpets, and transpose through the babe into Heaven's cherubim; simultaneously the ‘blast’ is the jet of air on which the babe strides, and which can be seen as the jets blown through the trumpets, and it is also the sound which the trumpets make; in both senses it ‘blows the horrid deed’.

The main image-trains are therefore of sight and of sound. The sound is an obvious crescendo from ‘plead’ through ‘trumpet’ to ‘blast’. Sight is equally achieved as crescendo, first by becoming progressively more specific from the vague ‘angels’, through ‘trumpet-tongued’ into the insistently detailed ‘naked new-born babe’, and then by literal enlargement from ‘babe’ through cherubim, ambiguously represented either as cherubic babies or as androgynous adolescents in paintings of the period, which in final glory mount the sightless couriers of the air. ‘Sightless’ means both ‘blind’ (as winds move blindly) and ‘invisible’, and at this point the whole visual structure dissolves into the unvisualizable ‘Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye ❙ That tears shall drown the wind’. Sight and sound equally disappear in this rhythmic cadence, and distinct sense with them; the tears should be such as angels weep, but that sense is lost in the diminuendo which follows the climax; it is possible to rationalize the lines in various ways (wind causes eyes to water), but it is clearly irrelevant to do so: the grand vision has dissolved.

But Macbeth's speech does not end there, his argument is sustained in simple metaphor:

                                                                                                    I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition …


The whole passage is, of course, constructed out of metaphor, but in a peculiar way: the vision is a self-sustaining structure of words closely related by juxtaposition, but not by syntax. The repetition of ‘like’—‘plead like angels’, ‘pity, like a … babe’, extended by implication in ‘or [like] Heaven's cherubim’—divides tenor and vehicle so emphatically that these should function as simple expository metaphors where all the stress is on the tenor, Macbeth's moral argument. In fact, we almost lost sight of that until it re-emerges in the final lines where the horse metaphor is indeed used again, but now it really is expository, affirming the nature of ambition. In the mean time the extraordinary baroque vision has been entirely created out of the metaphoric vehicles. The eruption stresses, certainly, the legal and (paramount here) the religious thoughts which Macbeth has tried all along to suppress, and thus far a Freudian account of the speech will satisfy; but only thus far. We certainly credit Macbeth with religious fears, but to credit him with the specific images of them would inevitably lead to Bradley's error of assuming him to be an exceptionally imaginative man. That would make him a poet, and depend on the same fallacy as believing that because most of Shakespeare's characters speak in blank verse they are all poets.

This constitutes an exceptional difficulty for the actor: not all the words he has to speak as Macbeth can properly be said to constitute part of his sub-text for the role. Macbeth and Richard III both demand virtuoso acting, but whereas Richard is a show-piece for the actor's skills, Macbeth offers virtually no scope for an actor's egotism. His language is, and is not, the property of his role, for it recurs in other speakers, most conspicuously Lady Macbeth. It is unique to the play, not to the man. Ben Jonson wrote in Timber ‘Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee’,3 and applied this principle in his plays, creating distinctive languages for his major characters; they often speak verse, but their poetry is an extension of their idiosyncratic speech, as with Mammon or Subtle, or commonly enough of the role they are for the moment playing, as with Doll, Face, or Volpone. There is almost no problem in Jonson's plays of characters speaking a language which is rather a property of the play than of themselves. Nor is there with some of Shakespeare's most obvious ‘character’ roles, such as Juliet's nurse or Shylock: their very distinctive speech intensifies into its own verse, but that verse remains distinctively their own and finds no reflection in other utterances (except by direct parody). That is, however, a fairly rare distinction in Shakespeare's work; minor members of the cast are always liable to break out into language of which, it is clearly understood, they can have no personal experience—the Welsh Captain, for instance, in Richard II, or Vernon in 1 Henry IV:

All plumed like ostriches, that with the wind
.....Baiting like eagles having lately bathed,
Glittering in golden coats like images …


They are images: images of the show that Henry is putting on; and, because it is not simply show, images of a glorious honour which is one co-ordinate of the play; but they are not at all images of Vernon, whose language elsewhere is plain and undistinguished—we see the images and not the man.

But at least there the language is not in necessary contradiction of the man, an undefined soldier who may be supposed to rise to fine sights. Shakespeare sometimes went further:

The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day.
Now spurs the lated traveller apace
To gain the timely inn …


There has been wild speculation on the identity of the Third Murderer in Macbeth, but none about the First, who speaks these lines; they belong absolutely to the play and are alien to the speaker.

It is a large step from what can loosely be called ‘choric’ speeches for minor characters to the major soliloquies of the principals, for they are certainly men and women and unquestionably shown by their speech. But the mode of showing, and the degree, still varies substantially. Richard III's opening soliloquy is composed out of two much older conventions, that of the Presenter (or Chorus), and that of the self-declaration of the Vice; it becomes more than either in the knowing self-projection of Richard into both roles, yet it still serves both functions as well. Hamlet's soliloquies are usually discussed as direct self-revelations of a very self-conscious man, and that seems appropriate: he speaks a variety of languages, and when he waxes most poetical it is always recognizable as self-dramatization. All his languages do echo elsewhere in the play from speakers as diverse as Horatio, Polonius, Claudius, and the Ghost; the inner and outer bearings of man and environment are significantly equivalent, and just as the man has no easily recognized integrity, so also the play has no single language by which it can be identified. Othello is a different case, for what Wilson Knight dubbed the ‘Othello music’4 does substantially characterize the play; but it is spoken by Othello alone and so generates the well-worn critical problem that only Othello can articulate his own valediction: he alone has the language worthy of it—or, as T. S. Eliot suggested, he is ‘cheering himself up’.5 That is not a problem in Antony and Cleopatra, for although the play's characteristic magnificence is distinctively embodied in hero and heroine, their language is heard in various other mouths: in Philo's opening speech (1.1.1-13), Enobarbus's ‘The barge she sat in’ (2.2.197-246), and even from Caesar when he reminisces about Antony in the Alps (1.4.55-71). It adumbrates an imperial theme in the largest terms, yet it is always used by or about the man and woman: the principle that it ‘shows’ them is not violated. The fact that an actor may speak a language remote from the individual he represents is very clear here, yet it is not conspicuously a problem.

Macbeth is a different matter. We know the First Murderer speaks for the play, not for himself; so, really, do Duncan and Banquo in 1.6:

This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
                                                                                This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the Heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here …


The benignity may fit Duncan; it is not especially characteristic of Banquo (nor necessarily inappropriate either). Ross and the Old Man in 2.4 function like the Welsh Captain, but with a language so like Macbeth's own that the distinction of man from words is even more striking:

                                                                                                              By th' clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp;
Is't night's predominance, or the day's shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it?


The characteristics amplify as they describe Duncan's horses:

Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would
Make war with mankind.


That is not said about Macbeth, but it might perfectly be said by him. He sees strange sights, but they are not distinctively his. We do not credit all his words to his distinct consciousness, and frequently do not know whether to do so or not. An obvious case is his speech after the murder is revealed:

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


The words so perfectly extend his private musings before the event that it is quite ambiguous whether they are here a private utterance or a public speech. Kenneth Muir argued that Macbeth was unconscious of the truth of his words, but he quoted Middleton Murry to the opposite effect: ‘Macbeth must needs be conscious of the import of the words that come from him.’6 The choice is vitally important for an actor, since it involves the difference between an aside and an address to others on the stage. I am positive that Murry was wrong, but not positive that Muir was right. The ambiguity remains, and the actor need not eliminate it. But this is certain, that Macbeth may speak words beyond his consciousness; which means that his language may show us things other than the man.

I have shown that ambiguity in the opening soliloquy of 1.7; it does not only affect Macbeth: Lady Macbeth frequently uses a very similar language, and the actress has similar problems to contend with. They are made more acute by the more positive form of statement to which she is prone:

                                                                                I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me …


The question whether Lady Macbeth ever had a child has been so much discussed that it is hard now to tell how odd her words should sound. In theory it should be impossible to go behind the direct assertion of a dramatic character and question its veracity unless the context gives her the lie. Macbeth does not retort ‘When did you ever give suck?’; so there it is, she did. Or did she? Dover Wilson quoted Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe for 18 April 1827: ‘Whether this be true or not does not appear; but the lady says it, and she must say it, in order to give emphasis to her speech.’7 Exactly: and it is impenetrably ambiguous whether she means it, let alone whether it is true or not. But as an imaginative fact that babe is certainly very vivid to us in ways that are no part of Lady Macbeth's consciousness: it takes its place, with Macbeth's naked new-born babe, and all the other babes of the play, in a dimension well beyond the reach of the characters.

I do not believe that that example need be any special problem to the actress; but Lady Macbeth's earlier soliloquy, in 1.5, unquestionably is:

                                                                                                              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.


The actress's problem is whether to make this a literal invocation of the spirits, in which case she must enact some appropriate ritual on the stage, or to project it as at least partly metaphoric, an extreme form of autosuggestion. Kenneth Muir argued decisively for the first, believing that it was Mrs Siddons's interpretation, quoting her ‘Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth’: ‘[She] having impiously delivered herself up to the excitements of hell … is abandoned to the guidance of the demons she has invoked’.8 But I am not certain this is quite literal: Mrs Siddons invoked her spirits in a whisper, and the effect is rather that the demons turned out more real than she imagined—as conscience does later in the sleep-walking scene (5.1). If she does literally enact a ritual, it becomes odd that no other such ritual ever occurs, just as the solitary reference to her child becomes odd if it is literally believed. Muir commented that we need not necessarily assume that Shakespeare himself believed in demoniacal possession; I agree, but would add that we need not necessarily believe that Lady Macbeth did either. If, on the other hand, the speech is allowed a primarily metaphoric force, then its extraordinary language tends to divide its reference (never, of course, precisely) between a relatively simple level corresponding to her consciousness, and a far more obscure level in which her words reverberate with images we do not specifically understand to be hers.

Lady Macbeth's speech therefore resembles Macbeth's of fifty lines later in its double focus—on herself, and far outside herself. It resembles it also in structure. She began, before the Messenger's entry, with a direct discussion of Macbeth's tricky conscience:

                                                                                What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win.


a syntactic tangle which is closely echoed in Macbeth's tongue-twisting opening. From there, as Macbeth's images amplify through deep damnation to the naked new-born babe and Heaven's cherubim, so hers expand from

                                                            The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.


to ‘Come, you spirits’ and so to ‘Make thick my blood’ and

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


The spirits have become ‘murd'ring ministers’ and finally ‘thick night’ as the speech reaches its climax in Hell and Heaven:

                                                                                                                        Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, ‘Hold, hold’.


The one verbal echo in Macbeth's speech is of the striking use of ‘sightless’ meaning both ‘blind’ and ‘invisible’—‘sightless substances’ and ‘sightless couriers of the air’. Finally, Lady Macbeth ends, as Macbeth does later, in plain language, though in both cases it is unclear whether the thought is complete or is interrupted: she ends ‘To cry, “Hold, hold”’ and he enters, while he ends ‘which o'erleaps itself ❙ And falls on th' other’ and she enters. In both speeches the extraordinary imagery is left behind, and the thought-trains extend beyond it, so that the effect is as though the thought-trains represent the consciousness of the speakers while the image-train in its specific form has been raised above and beyond their distinct consciousnesses. Only, of course, in its specific form; they are understood to use metaphor, and to be able to see ‘sights’, but not necessarily to be aware of these specific sights.

We, on the other hand, are vividly aware of them, of the likeness between them, and of the likeness to other utterances by the Macbeths and by other people in the play—Duncan and Banquo, Ross and the Old Man, the First Murderer, and so on. The situation resembles that of a traditional mode of painting where human figures are shown at ground level in a rapt contemplation in which they may well see visions, but do not seem to be seeing the specific angels, devils, or other images which are painted around and above them. Pictorially that is a common enough convention; dramatically it may often be partially realized, but in such a fully developed form Macbeth is unique, as it is unique in the extent of specific visualizing it demands of its audience. The effect is achieved by an ambiguity of reference: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do ‘see’, and they do use metaphor, yet the extraordinary visual details strike us as not actually theirs, as in fact a property of the play which exists outside them. Not merely outside them, but almost in opposition to them, as of something which it would be better for them if they did see: ‘nothing is ❙ But what is not’ (1.3.142-3) has more meanings than Macbeth assigns to it, and ‘what is not’ eventually destroys him.

Their languages are finally brought together in 3.2. Lady Macbeth opens, as both of them had in Act 1, with a see-saw structure:

                                                            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.


She is interrupted by Macbeth's entry, and he seems to amplify her meaning:

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


But their understandings are exactly opposite; she proposes to beat down the fear, ‘Things without all remedy ❙ Should be without regard—what's done, is done’ (ll. 12-13); while he hints at further action:

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife—
Thou know'st that Banquo and his Fleance lives.


She meets that with ambiguity: ‘But in them nature's copy's not eterne’ (l. 41). She, it appears, understands ‘they won't live for ever’, whereas he takes her words to imply ‘they can be killed’: ‘There's comfort yet, they are assailable’ (l. 42); and so goes on to, ‘there shall be done ❙ A deed of dreadful note’ (ll. 46-7). His meaning is patent, and she retreats from it, refusing rather than failing to grasp it, as he instantly recognizes:

LADY Macbeth
What's to be done?
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed …


As he advances in ruthlessness, she retreats in fear; the roles established for them earlier in the play are reversed here, and he proceeds to develop an invocation that follows hers in 1.5 in form, word, and image so closely that in the theatre we need no special training to have at least the feeling that we have heard its like before:

                                                                                                    Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to th' rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.


The connection is by no means confined to the opening phrase; ‘scarf’ recalls the ‘blanket’ of the dark; ‘tender eye of pitiful day’, the ‘compunctious visitings of nature’; ‘invisible’, ‘sightless’; ‘light thickens’, ‘thick night’; ‘crow’, ‘raven’; and, of course, the opposition of Night and Day is the foundation of the amplifying oppositions on which both speeches are constructed.

In one respect this speech does differ from its predecessors: they were soliloquies interrupted by the other's entrance; here both are on stage, and Macbeth concludes his thought in couplets which are superficially conclusive:

—Thou marvell'st at my words; but hold thee still,
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill—


‘marvell'st’ is ambiguous; she might well marvel at his images, but at the plain level to which he has now returned, she is only said to be bewildered by what he is talking about—which is Banquo's murder; the point of their dialogue remains unmentioned and unmentionable, as Duncan's murder was in Act 1. This, as before, is the point at which Macbeth's thought-train runs out beyond the image-train, which here never seemed to suggest such literal invocation of spirits as Lady Macbeth's in 1.5. What the couplet establishes is not an accord but the reverse, the final breakdown of communication between them. Macbeth is unique among Shakespeare's tragedies in centring on an intimate marriage (Othello's was never that). In Act 1 they did not hear each other's soliloquies, but always knew each other's thoughts. It is some while before Duncan's murder is made explicit between them, but they know at once that it is in each other's mind. That has, in the past, caused speculation about a missing scene or scenes in which they should have explained their thoughts to each other—which is absurd, because there is nothing even faintly unusual about this degree of understanding between any couple who live together (which is not to say that couples don't often find it remarkable, or that it does not function as part of the structure of supernatural hints in the play; only that it is as natural as sleep-walking). The characters of the two principals are simply and clearly defined, which has made them a favourite topic for junior exams; it is their relationship which is the focus of real interest in the play. It changes radically in 3.2, and they are never intimate again; simultaneously their roles are reversed, and he now displays the determination on blood which was once hers alone, but which she can no longer sustain.

This requires that they shall act very closely together; but the way in which the text presents it gives actors problems. Inevitably, seeking to enlarge the intimacy, they look for further expression of it. In the last fifty years or so this has tended towards sexuality, whether of the crudely obvious kind of Polanski's film (1971), or the more subtle embraces of Jonathan Pryce and Sinead Cusack (RSC 1986-7). The attempt is natural enough, but however it is done it seems curiously extraneous; it calls attention to an important fact: no play of Shakespeare's makes so little allusion to sex. There is none at all for the editor to explicate in the main scenes, allusions arise only in two places (besides the songs), the Porter's drunken bawdy in 2.3, and Lady Macduff's witty interchange with her son in 4.2. Both are striking interludes of ‘normal’ humanity offsetting the play's obsessive abnormality: the Porter ushers Macduff in to the hell of Duncan's murder; Lady Macduff's family domesticity gives way to slaughter. Where sexuality might most be expected, between the Macbeths, or in the Weïrd Sisters' obscenities, it is completely absent. There is another significant absence from the play: although it is politically sensitive and perceptive about the hell of tyranny, it is so exclusively within the narrow society of the thanes; there is no sign of the populace, or of any concern for people at large. Even the laments for Scotland in 4.3, Macduff's ‘Bleed, bleed, poor country’ (l. 31) and Ross's speech at 164-73, treat the country as an emblem without specifying its people. The Weïrd Sisters, again, do not invite thought about the social problems of old women on their own, nor about witchcraft as an attack on women altogether, though the best known of Elizabethan studies of witchcraft, Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), concentrated on both, and castigated the witch-hunters for the evil manifestation they were; even King James, though he had been all too credulous in his early Demonology, became increasingly sceptical later, and though he never shared Scot's total scepticism, yet came to fancy himself more as an exposer of fraud than as a persecutor of witches.9 Once again, it is the Porter alone who, in his brief scene, reminds the audience of the world that the play elsewhere so completely excludes; as he had from at least the fourteenth century onwards, the drunken clown inverted the assumed hierarchical order of things to assert human concerns supposed to be suppressed; his role and his language, coarse and bawdy prose, are indivisible, and the derisive laughter he so unexpectedly secures (when well played) radically adjusts our perspective on the play, illuminating the exclusions which otherwise we could only suspect. His role as devil-porter relies on the Harrowing of Hell in the mystery-play cycles, though he abandons it before he admits Macduff:10 however effective it may be to identify Macbeth's castle with Hell, it is not possible to see Macduff as Christ.

The language that I have analysed as characteristic of the play is extraordinarily rich in what it does develop, and remarkable too in its exclusiveness; in politics, Macbeth contrasts strikingly with Julius Caesar before it and with Coriolanus after; they both offer Rome as an entire city-state, and Lear indicates a whole society through the curious range of Edgar's disguises; Antony and Cleopatra, probably written in the same year as Macbeth, is as comprehensive in its political concerns as it is insistent on sexuality. The contrasts identify the peculiar concentration of this play, represented not only in its brevity overall, but also in the density of language which makes commentary so difficult and so rewarding. But this language is closely related to another that recurs in the play, where apparent density turns out only to be tortuous courtesy, where commentary is laborious and unrewarding. The bleeding Sergeant's inflated rhetoric in 1.2 has the function of the classical messenger to explain its diffusion, but Ross's obscurity in 1.3 is more typical:

The King hath happily received, Macbeth,
The news of thy success; and when he reads
Thy personal venture in the rebels' fight,
His wonders and his praises do contend
Which should be thine, or his.


Superficially this may resemble Macbeth's language, but in fact it is its opposite, and the difference is felt when Macbeth speaks aside a few lines later:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?


Macbeth's words amplify through horrid imaginings to murder, and he concludes that ‘nothing is ❙ But what is not’ (142-3). The whole process, however diffuse and rhetorical it may superficially appear, is at once logically clear and expressively condensed. Ross's speech was neither; his language is an elaborate mask which conceals no substantial meaning.

Later in the play, however, the mask does develop a function, when the conditions of tyranny deprive any communication of mere courtesy, and meaning must be obscured because no man can be trusted. This characterizes 3.6, when Lennox and another lord fence verbally with each other before their mutual sympathy is established:

How it did grieve Macbeth! Did he not straight
In pious rage the two delinquents tear,
That were the slaves of drink, and thralls of sleep?
Was not that nobly done? Ay, and wisely too—
For 'twould have angered any heart alive
To hear the men deny't. So that I say,
He has borne all things well …


A similar double-talk baffles Macduff when Malcolm receives him in England in 4.3, and is put to a different purpose as Ross delays telling of the murders of Macduff's wife and family.

The primary language of Macbeth, that of the thanes, divides into three distinctive usages: the empty elaboration of courtesy, the masked talk of potential conspirators, and, above all, the condensed approach to what is not that is most distinctive of the play. In total contrast is the Porter's prose; and another contrast, equally strong, is provided by the Weïrd Sisters' short-lined verse, variable in rhythm and in rhyme, elliptical and enigmatic in sense. They do not joke, and they are not bawdy, yet their weirdness has a comic edge to it which intensifies the sinister malice they engender. It was probably a particular tradition in their performances before the Commonwealth which led to their being still played by men after the advent of actresses, and they continued to be the province of clowns until the nineteenth century. The eighteenth century came to question the pertinence of their antics, and Kemble restrained what he found an affront to the play's dignity—his dignity as the hero. No doubt eighteenth-century ‘Sisters’ got out of hand, but male actors still sometimes take one or more of the parts, and I should record that a notably camp performance by the Second Witch at Stratford, Ontario, in 1971 was more effectively mysterious than any other I recall. It is not only in appearance that the Sisters present puzzles for performance, and any account of their language should recognize this.


  1. Edinburgh, 1597; London, 1603.

  2. ‘The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness’, in The Well Wrought Urn (New York, 1947; London, 1968), 17-39.

  3. Timber: or, Discoveries … (1641), in Works, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson, viii (Oxford, 1947), 625.

  4. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930), 107-31.

  5. T. S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ (1927), in Selected Essays (1932), p. 130.

  6. See note on ll. 89-94 in his edn.

  7. Wilson, commentary note on 1.7.54.

  8. Muir, Introduction, pp. lviii-lix; Thomas Campbell, Life of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols. (1834), ii. 12.

  9. See pp. 78-9.

  10. See pp. 79-81.

Arthur Lindley (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Scotland Saved from History: Welles's Macbeth and the Ahistoricism of Medieval Film.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2001): 96-100.

[In the following essay, Lindley considers Orson Welles's film version of Macbeth as a powerful influence on later filmic representations of the European Middle Ages.]

I want to consider Welles's Macbeth in a different frame from the usual ones, viewing it less as a Shakespearean or Wellesian film than as a medieval one. From its opening words, the film stakes a claim to historicity—claiming to depict the period of Christianity's first penetration of a barbarian world—that is belied by virtually everything that follows: the visual invocations of westerns and film noir, the anachronistic grotesqueries of costuming, the fabular simplification of character to the demands of a parable about the resistible rise of gothic tyranny, what Michael Anderegg (84) has called the “post-nuclear” devastation of its landscape. In creating this notional and abstract version of the Middle Ages as a theatre in which to play out an estranged version of the political concerns of the late 1940s, Welles works against Shakespeare to suppress the Renaissance context of the original play, substituting in particular a myth of the eternal return of tyranny—“Peace, the charm's wound up”—for the linear and progressive development of Scotland and England invoked in Shakespeare's text. In Welles's version, as in Polanski's later and better one, Macbeth doesn't lead to King James; he leads to another Macbeth.

In so doing, Welles both conforms to and helps to shape the conventions that have controlled the depiction of the Middle Ages for at least the last fifty years of film history. Arguably, this film has had a greater impact, for better or (mostly) for worse, on medieval films than on Shakespeare or Shakespearean film. Part of that impact has been to reinforce the prevailing confusion of “dark ages” with Middle Ages; this Macbeth is, after all, an extreme example of that equation of the medieval with mud, murk, monks, and bloodshed common to people who know little about the period and care less. Welles's own attitude toward the period is concisely expressed in the version of the coming of the Renaissance given in his Introduction to The Mercury Shakespeare:

Down in Italy … men had taken the hoods of the dusty, dusky old Middle Ages off their heads and begun to look around. … Books were being written instead of copied; people had stopped taking Aristotle's word for it and were nosing around the world, taking it apart to see what made it run.

(Qtd. in Kodar 210)

Cruel as it is to cite a man's popularizations against him, this constitutes fair warning. If you start from this view of the Middle Ages, you are unlikely to use them as anything except a pretext for talking about something else. In that, unfortunately, Welles is the precursor of an entire genre of medieval films. I want to put his Macbeth in the context of that genre.

For five years at the National University of Singapore I taught an honors-year seminar in Film and History, originally designed to compare and contrast the ways in which films of the Middle Ages and those dealing with recent history reconstruct the past. I quickly figured out that almost all the “history” was in the latter, modern half of the course. Soon after, I realized that virtually none of my medieval films—Welles's included—was reconstructing the past at all, at least not in the detailed, furniture-fixated way of, say, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993). Also unlike Scorsese but more importantly, the medieval films did not work from the assumption that the past was of inherent interest or historically connected to the present. While the recent past is customarily presented as causatively connected to the present, the medieval past is virtually always presented as an analogue—usually for our basest behavior—a distant, alienating mirror, as Welles's Scotland is an estranged version of Germany or that more abstract place, Fascism-land.

To see what I mean, let's look at one of the most familiar opening sequences in nominally historical film: the one from Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957), a work which shares to a remarkable extent the stylistic vocabulary of Macbeth. Let me remind you of the elements of that famous sequence: the hawk hanging in the stormy sky accompanied by a notably shrill version of the Kyrie Eleison; a rocky shore under dark cliffs between an empty sea and an empty sky; two isolated figures, one with a dagger at hand, waking on the rocks; a Wellesian, voice-over reading of Revelations 8; the chess set with the sea behind it; Block's failed attempt to pray; the appearance of the monastically robed Death; the two figures sitting down to play.

Is this the Middle Ages? While notionally in 1349, we are actually in Beckett-time (that is, Any- or No-time), the major difference being that in this case Godot has come and turned out to be just what we thought he would be, though disguised as Mephistopheles. The place, nominally if namelessly Swedish, is a beach midway between T. S. Eliot's and Neville Shute's. The actors we meet later are on their way to Elsinore, presumably to entertain Fortinbras. We are looking, in short, at the painfully familiar Never-never-but-Always land of mid-twentieth century European high modernism, the same territory inhabited by Jeanette Nolan's furred and Freudianized Lady Macbeth. If we are in any historical period, it is less the 1340s of the plot premise than the sub-atomic early 1950s, with universal death looming out of the northern sky. As Peter Cowie has written, the film “reflect[s] the trepidation of the Cold War era.” A child of the fifties myself, I react to that hawk by wanting to crawl under my school desk.

The music is medieval—if you assume that the Kyrie is automatically “medieval”—but filtered through modernist, electronic distortion. Even Block's chess set has clearly been borrowed from another, more highly polished age. And, of course, Antonius and Jons have landed on this beach conspicuously without ship or other means of transport, called, like Death himself, by the needs of allegory, and landed in a notional 1340s derived more from mystery plays and woodcuts—and an earlier Bergman play—than from any but the flimsiest of historical records. Even the meals they later eat will be symbolic: from beatific (and intertextual) strawberries and milk to bitter bread. Not to labor an obvious point too long, we are looking—as we are in Welles's Macbeth—at a version of the Middle Ages that has been carefully lifted out of historical sequence in order to serve as an alienating device for viewing the mid-century present and/or the timeless present of parable. This is not a fault, merely a fact. What is perhaps more striking is how many films, even those ostensibly committed to reproducing the medieval past—Vincent Ward's The Navigator (New Zealand 1988), even Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995)—put it to similarly ahistoric purposes. In so doing, they reflect a way of seeing enshrined in Macbeth and perfected in The Seventh Seal. I once thought the ahistoricism of Bergman's film an exception; in fact, it's the rule. The Age of Innocence manages to be both a meticulous (re)construction of its recent period and a meditation on the evolution of modern sexual mores and visual codes. There is no inherent reason why medieval films could not do likewise—those, at least, with the money Welles lacked to afford meticulous reconstruction—but, in my experience, they don't.

Not, of course, that one can imagine Welles wanting to do that sort of film. Virtually every significant stylistic element in Macbeth serves the common purpose of de-historicizing its world; the elaborately and insistently expressionist setting (a castle of dripping, subterranean rock whose layout persistently refuses to make literal sense); the self-reflexivity which regularly calls our attention to the soundstage and the diorama against which Banquo's murderers are posed; the use of simultaneous and/or abstract staging which allows Macbeth, for example, to change scenes by crossing directly from one part of the set to another, and which constantly invokes the stage versions from which the film evolved; the anachronistic and cross-cultural voodoo doll picked up in Welles's passage through Harlem; the extensive cross-referencing to other genres about other times—galloping horseback riders out of Republic westerns or Jeanette Nolan's embarrassing attempts at film noir seductiveness; the erasure of historical references, especially the sequence of kings from Macbeth's last encounter with the Witches; the parabolic simplification of Macbeth to a transhistorical type, even as immersion in his point of view encourages us to view the film as psychodrama, concerned with the psychology of evil, not its history.

The cumulative effect of all these devices has registered on even the film's most sympathetic critics, such as Jean Cocteau:

Clad in animal skins like motorists at the turn of the century, horns and cardboard crowns on their heads, his actors haunt the corridors of some dreamlike subway, an abandoned coal mine, and ruined cellars oozing with water. … Sometimes we wonder in what period this nightmare is unfolding.

(Bazin 29)

André Bazin located it in “a prehistoric universe,” even while noting that it could be seen as a transposition of the drama of Citizen Kane (101). More recently, Michael Anderegg has suggested both that “insofar as it resembles anything other than a studio set, the world [of the film] suggests postnuclear devastation,” and that “Welles's Scotland is not so much prehistoric as outside history; his specific time and place exists as a blur; indeed we are beyond history” (84). Scotland, in my formulation, is rescued from mere history—a presumptively dead past—and lifted onto the plane of eternal, or at least contemporary, relevance: the allegorical landscape of Godot and The Seventh Seal.

If that is so, why—aside from a fidelity to the text nowhere else shown in this film—should Welles bother to place Macbeth in the Middle Ages at all? Basically, because that is where old archetypes go to die and be reborn. Once they have done so, you can—untrammeled by the demands for plausibility, surface realism, and characterization made by more recent, better known periods—stage the sort of conflicts Welles was always drawn to: superstition vs. religion, barbarism vs. civilization (at least civilization in a barbaric, i.e., medieval form), id vs. superego, Witches vs. Holy Father. (The merely individual Macbeth, remember, is equivalent to that voodoo doll: a grubby little object in the hands of the capitalized Forces of the universe.) This is, of course, the strategy of a film like John Boorman's Excalibur, where Malory is restaged as a Jungian psychodrama whose archetypal figures play out rites of passage in a once and future world. It is the strategy of Ladyhawke, with its courtship of boy/wolf and girl/falcon. The prevalence of this mode may explain why archetypes of essential sexual identity persist in medieval film when correctness has expunged them from virtually every other mode. It certainly explains why films about Robin Hood outnumber even those about St. Joan, virtually the only historical figure from the Middle Ages to have a body of films devoted to her, by so vast a margin.

I am, of course, aware that Shakespeare's Macbeth is not (quite) an historical figure, though he is one located in the linear sequence Shakespeare took from Holinshed. One problem with the film is that Welles wants to historicize that legendary figure—by placing him at the notional point of victory by the Christian force he has invented the Holy Father to embody—and to de-historicize him at the same time. That Bergman faces no such conflict of impulses may suggest that the rules of the medieval film game were more set by 1957 than they were for Welles ten years earlier.

I am also well aware that the “reconstructions” of the past are inherently constructions, shaped, as Hayden White has taught us all, by the genres of literature.1 And, while the value of film creations of the past is far better understood than it was, say, ten years ago when Robert Rosenstone had to struggle to get the American Historical Review to accept a panel of essays on historical film, it is less well understood that there are fundamentally different ways of creating these pasts. Those ways, it seems to me, are differentiated chiefly by whether we are trying to imagine only ourselves and our concerns or our ancestors—a.k.a. other people—and theirs. In both cases, the bottom line of interest may be present relevance—historical film is always about the present—but in one case you imagine something different—Newland Archer and his society, say—becoming like you; in the other, you admire (or cringe from) your own image in a distant mirror. There is, I suspect, an ethical difference (as well as a psychological one) between the two modes.

In a sense, we are dealing with a simple difference between two discursive constructs of history, one linear and the other non-linear. However, that the type of construct exemplified in Welles's Macbeth incorporates a denial of historical process and connection, and that that is the one usually applied to the filming of the Middle Ages. The dominant mode of medieval film—regardless of country of origin or degree of commercial calculation—is fabular, whatever claims, usually unfounded, a given film (Macbeth or its more sophisticated descendent Braveheart) may make to factuality. And, in practice, we automatically privilege the current signified over the medieval signifier, referring the boat people who are attacked and driven off by the villagers in The Navigator, for example, to their 1980s equivalents. The historical accuracy of that scene is clearly not the point. When we ask casually what the film of The Name of the Rose (Italy/Germany/France 1986) is “about,” we usually mean “what's the relevance?” (Nazis? Red Brigades? Liberal impotence in times of terrorism? Parallels enforced by the color-coding which equates Benedictines with Blackshirts and by the casting of Sean Connery in the role of tainted liberal). When Film Comment interviewed F. Murray Abraham about his role as the Inquisitor, Abraham talked exclusively and automatically about Nazis (Bachmann 16-20). If we ask what The Navigator is about, the most obvious answers are AIDS, environmental and spiritual devastation, and the ills of modern technology. While Braveheart gets an occasional fact right—some of the tactics at Stirling Bridge, for example, or the carnival elements of medieval executions—historical chronicle is not the mode in which it operates, its occasional ventures into accuracy serving only to license critical abuse. Its subject, clearly signaled, is not Scotland in the 1290s but Ireland and the rest of the Celtic fringe in the 1990s, prominently including Scotland, that “nation colonized by wankers” memorialized in Trainspotting (UK 1996), Braveheart's anti-heroic bookend. Why else has Wallace been given a fictive Irish colleague devoted to talking—in conspicuously modern dialect—about the liberation of his island? Why else does Wallace paint his face with the colors of a Scottish football supporter and lead an army that resembles nothing so much as a soccer crowd on the terraces at Ibrox Park? This war is the continuation of football by other means. Of course, Wallace's appeals to “Freedom” are anachronistic; surely in the context of so many proleptic reference—even down to the substitution of Irish pipes for Scottish on the soundtrack—they are meant to be? The opening line of the film's voice-over warns us that this is not so much a true story (though “some say” it is) as a contending fiction. It is a fiction, however, which acts by almost allegorical substitution: thirteenth-century struggles do not lead to twentieth-century ones, but mirror them. The real connection is through an ahistorical essentialism: the English always torment the Scots because it is in their eternal, sexually inadequate nature to do so; Celts resist so erratically because it is in their lovable, virile but shambolic nature to do so. Ever and always. Superficial changes of technology or dress serve only as distancing devices, allowing a Scottish audience in particular to see with renewed clarity what might be hidden behind a common currency. The past is the present and so, by an obvious extrapolation, is the future. Or, in the Welles version, “the charm's wound up”; the plot—ever and always—loops back to its beginning.

The difference between the modes of modern and medieval historical films can be summarized in a brief example. When Daniel Vigne shot The Return of Martin Guerre in its original sixteenth-century context, he treated it as a timeless parable of acting and identity. Natalie Zemon Davis, who collaborated on but later rejected the film, says that she wrote her later study, in fact, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it” (Davis 8).2 When that story is remade as Sommersby (1993) and is reset in the post-Civil War American south, its hero becomes an early proponent of racial integration and agricultural cooperatives persecuted mainly for his progressive views; i.e., he is historicized as an agent of social evolution; he is located in linear history as part of that fable of progress so common to films of recent history—think, for example, of Glory, Little Women, The Age of Innocence, or virtually any Merchant-Ivory film—and so strikingly absent from medieval films. When you think of the distant past as an estranged equivalent to the present (as Welles does) or as superior to it by virtue of faith (as Ward does), you are unlikely to think of history in terms of progress or indeed of any kind of linear development whatsoever. Having positioned his film at a point of historical change—the triumph of Christianity over the chthonic forces represented by the Witches—Welles is compelled by the conservatism of his vision not only to make the Holy Father nearly as barbarous as what he opposes but to kill off the supposed winner so that the Witches can have the last word, which is, of course, that nothing has changed.

Such a version of history inevitably entails some losses; in the case of Welles's Macbeth, those losses include Shakespeare, that awkward Renaissance intervention in the otherwise seamless connection of ancient barbarism with modern. As is widely recognized, Welles largely excludes references to the play's Elizabethan cosmology and historiography. He not only marginalizes the saintly King Edward even more than the original play does, but, as we have seen, substitutes a closed loop of evil begetting further evil for the providential pattern by which the natural order expels Macbeth in order to return to its proper condition, and by which Macbeth's crimes beget the line of Banquo, stable kingship, and the eventual union of Scotland and England. Shakespearean providentialism, however severely qualified it is in the play, fits awkwardly with the film's simplified and ahistorical primitivism. As a result, Shakespeare is present in the film mostly as a transmitter of messages from the unconscious translated into the Viennese of Welles's psychologizing and as a dignifying pretext for the substitution of Welles's cruder cosmology. “Scotland,” a notional and subjective place, is thus rescued from Elizabethan as well as medieval history and relocated in the same timeless landscape as the Godot-influenced opening scenes of The Seventh Seal with its two chivalric tramps bereft on the barren shore of '50s high modernism. And, yes, that does seem to me a form of solipsism (as well as a rejection of the work of memory) that is common to the genre of medieval film, at least in part because of the influence of Welles filtered through Bergman.3


  1. See especially The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987) and, of course, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Johns Hopkins, 1973).

  2. Davis's full account both locates the original story in the specific context of the peasant culture of Foix in the 1550s and treats it as a chapter in the evolution of gender identities and what she regards as Protestant attitudes toward clerical authority.

  3. An earlier version of this paper was read at Shakespeare on Screen: The Centenary Conference, Malaga, Spain, 21-24 September 1999. Four paragraphs of this article appeared in slightly different form in my article “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film,” in the electronic journal Screening the Past 3 (May 1998), URL: <>.

Works Cited

Anderegg, Michael. Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Bachmann, Gideon. “C.I.A.: F. Murray Abraham Interviewed by Gideon Bachmann.” Film Comment 22:5 (Sept.-Oct. 1986): 16-20.

Bazin, André. Orson Welles: A Critical View. London: Elm Tree Books, 1978.

Cowie, Peter. “The Seventh Seal.” Voyager Website, April 1998.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1983.

Kodar, Oja, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Bogdanovich, eds. This is Orson Welles. New York: Harper, 1992.

Lindley, Arthur. “The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film.” Screening the Past 3 (May 1998). Online. <>.

David G. Hale (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Hale, David G. “Order and Disorder in Macbeth, Act V: Film and Television.” Literature/Film Quarterly 29, no. 2 (2001): 101-6.

[In the following essay, Hale discusses Macbeth's final act in various televised and cinematic versions of the play, many of which suggest a less positive conclusion than Shakespeare's original text provides.]

Critical attention to the nature of ending in drama has been with us at least since Aristotle defined an end as “that which is inevitably or, as a rule, the natural result of something else but from which nothing else follows …” (Poetics 2.5; trans. Fyfe 31). Some sort of re-established family and/or political order is represented to indicate that an appropriate stopping point has been reached. This component of plot partially defines the difference between tragedy and history and their respective truths. In practice, however, literature (and not just modern and postmodern) has a great many endings which wholly or partially depart from Aristotelian completion. This is especially true of plays which, like Greek tragedy, derive from what is thought to be history. In Aristotle's favorite example, Sophocles's Oedipus, the plot is complete in that the Theban plague has been dealt with by identifying the murderer of King Laius, leaving Creon to pick up the pieces. The appearance of Antigone and Ismene and the references to Oedipus's sons, however, remind us that the story of Thebes will continue, going from bad to much worse.

Shifting quickly to Shakespeare, we see a considerable variety in the balance of present order and future disorder at the ends of the histories and tragedies. Most positively, at the end of Richard III, the victorious Richmond promises “smooth- fac'd peace, / With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!” (5.5.33-34). In Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar predicts that “The time of universal peace is near” (4.6.4), anticipating both the pax Augustana and the peace promised through the birth of Christ in his reign. In Hamlet and King Lear, Fortinbras and Edgar move into vacuums created by the annihilation of the ruling families and have relatively clean slates with which to work, a basically neutral situation. Henry V and Henry VI, Part 3 end with assertions of peace which are substantially qualified. Henry V has great hopes for diplomacy and marriage: “And may our oaths well kept and prosp'rous be,” a promise which the Chorus immediately reminds us is not kept (H5 5.2.374). For Edward IV, “Here I hope begins our lasting joy”; the audience remembers Richard of Gloucester's earlier soliloquy about getting the crown (3H6 5.7.46, 3.2.124-95). At the end of Richard II, the new King Henry IV faces all sorts of problems including guilt for Richard's murder, the Bishop of Carlisle's prophecy, Northumberland's possible perception of ingratitude, and Henry's “unthrifty son.” Similarly, Julius Caesar ends with a recognition of future conflict between Antony and Octavius Caesar. The extreme case, Troilus and Cressida, ends with the death of Hector, making inevitable the fall of Troy.

I wish to consider Macbeth, about which critics and directors are of two minds as to where to place the ending of the play on the spectrum of future order and disorder. Read simply, the text seems to place itself at the positive end, with peace and political legitimacy restored after Macbeth's interval of usurpation and tyranny. Some critics and directors, however, have found ways to qualify a harmonious ending by suggesting the continuity of history—that something negative necessarily or probably will follow the end of the play. I shall summarize briefly the restorative elements in the text and main arguments of the critics before considering how restoration is undercut in many of the performances available on video for research and teaching. These perfomances use the reappearance of previously established characters, primarily the Witches but also, and unhistorically, Donalbain and Fleance. Reinserting the tragic plot into its historical sources authorizes using history to comment on the results of this procedure.

Opposition to Macbeth includes three elements: the Scottish-English army, criticism of Macbeth's tyranny in both general and specific terms, and characterization of a positive alternative for Scotland. The first substantial statement of the positive comes from an anonymous Lord in act 3, scene 5. That Macbeth “holds the due of birth” from Malcolm indicates the priority of legitimate inheritance (3.5.25). From Macbeth's overthrow the Scots may again

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


These images encapsulate motifs from earlier in the play which define a vision of a restored future. As the forces assemble, Caithness adds a traditional medical metaphor:

Well, march we on
To give obedience where 'tis truly ow'd.
Meet we the med'cine of the sickly weal,
And with him pour we, in our country's purge,
Each drop of us.


In the next scene Macbeth ironically echoes this metaphor when he wishes the Doctor could “purge [my land] to a sound and pristine health,” which is exactly what Caithness and the others have in mind (5.3.53). As the army approaches Dunsinane, Malcolm “hope[s] the days are near at hand / That chambers will be safe,” alluding to the chamber in which Duncan and his grooms were murdered (5.4.1-2). In the closing minutes of the play, Macduff displays “th' usurper's cursed head,” asserts that “the time is free,” and addresses Malcolm: “Hail, King of Scotland!” (5.9.21, 25). This is repeated by the on-stage thanes, a positive alternative to the more problematic salutations by the Witches and others earlier in the play. It is the “faithful homage” the Lord wished for in act 3 (5.36). His “receive free honors” is realized when Malcolm creates Scotland's first earls (5.9.28-30). He then proposes to call “home our exil'd friends abroad,” mentioning no names, although Donalbain and Fleance are possibilities in the text. He also proposes justice for Macbeth's “cruel ministers,” also unnamed, although Seyton and the murderers of Banquo and Lady Macduff are possibilities. Malcolm concludes by inviting everyone to his coronation at Scone, the next step in the restoration of social and political order which have been hoped for since act 3.

A variety of critics in the last two decades have found ways of qualifying or undercutting the ending. For instance, Janet Adelman writes (or complains) that “the natural order of the end depends on this excision of the female” (145). The deaths of Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth mean that there are no women involved in (or available for) the restoration of order, which is therefore unnatural. As a convenient recent example, Deborah Willis lists other reasons why “a truly restorative alternative for Scotland is not forthcoming” (235-36). Malcolm is young and inexperienced; his “healing” is military, not the magic of Edward the Confessor in England. She regards the creation of earls as “an empty, inflationary move,” and sees “inner tensions” in an “honor-driven patronage system controlled by the king” and dependent on “the vicissitudes of patrilinearity.” Therefore “the collaboration of witches and traitors is one of [the] predictable byproducts” of Malcolm's rule.

It is quite possible to end the play without indicating future problems. Among the video-taped performances which do so are these directed by and starring Maurice Evans (1954), Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellen (1979), and Charles Warren with Michael Jayston (1988). Many more performances make some effort to illustrate one kind of political instability at the end. The most common approach is, as Willis and others notice, to bring back the Witches. Although they have not been seen since act 4, scene 1, Macbeth refers to them constantly thereafter, including his last appearance in act 5:

And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.


The present tense signals that the Witches remain alive and presumably capable of further words of promise. Macbeth's phrasing suggests that someone else may indeed believe “these juggling fiends.” Malcolm's concluding speech does not mention doing anything about them; he may not know of their existence. They certainly do not receive the fate of Margery Jordan in Henry VI, Part 2 (2.3) or the Scottish witches whose burning during the earlier reign of King Duff is recorded by Holinshed (Bullough 7.480).

The simplest approach is exemplified by John Gorrie's 1970 BBC production with Eric Porter. The last scene is set in the courtyard of the castle. As Malcolm and the new earls exit stage left, the camera pans in the opposite direction to an open door through which the Witches are looking. The camera slowly zooms to them as the credits roll. Confirmation of their presence is enough. A slightly more substantial use of the Witches is in Sarah Caldwell's Lincoln Center production (1981). The two female Witches (the third is played by a man who doubles as a soldier) enter armed as soldiers, meet at center stage during the final tableau, touch shields, and exit. Their participation in the battle has not directly influenced its outcome, but their presence indicates a contribution and implies a future role for them (also Rosenberg 654-55).

The fullest appearance by the Witches is in Arthur Allan Seidelman's Bard production (1981) in which the three Witches and their three male familiars appear on the balcony above and cheer on the Anglo-Scots army in act 5, scene 3. The Witches are back to enjoy the combat between Macbeth and Macduff. At “from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd,” two familiars grab Macbeth's legs, indicating the paralyzing effect of Macduff's words (5.8.15-16). During the final tableau, with Malcolm and Siward on the balcony, the Witches weave unnoticed through the crowd, signifying their permeation of the Scottish aristocracy. Two familiars climb ladders, signifying future political ambition.

Roman Polanski's film (1971) combines the Witches and Donalbain. Although the text specifies that Donalbain is not present for the assault on Dunsinane (5.2.6-7), Polanski brings him back from Ireland. After the salutation of Malcolm as king, Donalbain travels, glaring and limping like Richard III, through the rainy countryside for his own meeting with the Witches at the place where Macbeth found them in act 4 (Jorgens 168; Crowl 24; Pearlman 255; Petersen 40-41). The Witches' chanting is heard faintly. Like Macbeth, Donalbain clearly knows where and why to seek them. Several critics see the tradition of Jan Kott in this epilogue, continuing the political violence in another cycle more or less like that begun when the witches hailed Macbeth. Kott himself, however, distinguishes the “Grand Mechanism” of the English histories from the nightmare of Macbeth, from which it is possible to awaken (75-79).

I would also suggest that Polanski is giving us another bit of the historical foreshortening which characterizes the play generally. According to Holinshed, Donalbain (Donald Bane) remained in Ireland through his brother's long and generally successful reign (1057-92), but returned after his death and became king, temporarily dispossessing Malcolm's sons. Donalbain might be hailed by the Witches as “King hereafter” but follow Macbeth's view that “chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3.143-44). The historical King Donald was initially regarded as an improvement over Malcolm, who was thought to have brought in too many English refinements (“riotous maners and superfluous gormandizing”), a view hinted at in Macbeth's jibe about “English epicures” (Holinshed sig. P6v; 5.3.8). As several critics have pointed out, Polanski further destabilizes the accession of Malcolm by assigning the presentation of the crown to Rosse, the political opportunist whom Polanski involves in the murders of Banquo and Lady Macduff, deserting Macbeth only when he is not rewarded for the slaughter at Macduff's castle (Pearlman 254-55).

The Witches and Fleance have roles at the ends of Orson Welles's film (1948) and Jack Gold's BBC production (1983), as well as other stage productions (Piatt 23). Gold's Witches are limited to appearing briefly in silhouette before the battle. In the last scene, Macbeth's body is at the foot of the throne. Macduff has given Malcolm the crown which he has picked up after Macbeth's death. Standing over the body of Macbeth is Fleance, who has not been heard of since he escaped being murdered in act 3. He has been present for the revenge which Banquo commanded, though not directly involved (3.3.18). As he looks back to Malcolm, the camera cuts to a series of head and shoulder shots of the earls. Recognizing a threat in Fleance, Malcolm nervously lowers a little the crown he has been holding. The final shot, with ominous music, is Fleance looking back to Malcolm.

Welles's film involves the Witches in two ways and has two appearances by Fleance. The death of Macbeth is represented by the decapitation of the Witches' crowned doll, which has appeared frequently before. After the enthusiastic hailing of King Malcolm by the thanes, the camera dissolves to a long shot of the castle, then pulls back to behind the Witches with their pronged staves looking at the castle. After a dissolve to clouds, we have a medium shot of the Witches, one speaking the relocated line “Peace, the charm's wound up” (1.3.37), paltering in a double sense that their charm on Macbeth has ended and that a new one has been created.

A youthful Fleance first appears between the Holy Father and Siward when the besieging army approaches the walls of Dunsinane to be mocked by Macbeth (5.5.1-4). Siward pulls Fleance to safety as Macbeth kills the Holy Father by throwing his spearlike scepter. Later, in a jumble of images, the crown from the doll becomes Macbeth's crown, bouncing at Fleance's feet. During the enthusiastic hailing of Malcolm, there is a quick shot of Fleance holding the crown and looking impassively upward (Kliman 28, 30). If the Witches have wound up a new charm, is it for Malcolm or Fleance? The Witches predicted to Banquo that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (1.3.67). Welles and Gold suggest that Fleance will or wishes to be the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The historical problem with using Fleance emerges from Holinshed:

Fleance … fled into Wales … at length also he came into such familiar acquaintance with the said princes daughter, that she of courtesie in the end suffered him to get hir with child; which being once understood, hir father the prince conceived such hatefull displeasure towards Fleance, that he finallie slue him. …

(sigs. P2v-3; summarized by Bullough 7.499)

Although the child, known as Walter the Steward/Stewart, works out well enough, Fleance's activities in Wales suggest why Shakespeare ignores him in the second half of the play, not a reason why he might reappear at the end (cf. Rosenberg 653).

The reappearances of Donalbain and Fleance may also be regarded as surrogates for the initial difficulty King Malcolm III had establishing his rule. As Holinshed reports,

Thus while Malcolme was busied in setting orders amongst his subjects, tidings came that one Lugtake surnamed the foole, being either the sonne, or (as some write) the coosen of the late mentioned Makbeth, was conveied with a great number of such had taken part with the said Makbeth unto Scone, and there by their support received the crowne, as lawful inheritor thereto.

(sig. P4v; summarized by Bullough 7.433)

This Lugtake, or Lulach, was in fact Macbeth's stepson, the child of Lady Macbeth's first marriage to Gillacomagin, Mormaer of Maray (Bullough 7.433). If one wishes an answer to the question how many children had Lady Macbeth, at least this one. According to Holinshed, Macduff, now earl of Fife, defeated Lugtake's forces and killed him in 1058. Macduff turns out to be more reliable than the two Thanes of Cawdor.

In these performances, the other potential problems seen by recent critics such as Adelman and Willis do not appear and would be difficult to justify historically. For example, Willis's contrasting the magic healing of King Edward the Confessor needs tempering by the fact that Edward's death left an unsettled political situation leading the Norman Conquest in 1066. Adelman's view about “eliminating the female” (146), especially in any positive sense, might be balanced by knowledge that Malcolm married the woman now known as St. Margaret of Scotland, whose chapel may be seen at Edinburgh Castle (Mackay). Three of her six sons eventually reigned in Scotland; a daughter and a granddaughter were queens of England. I am not aware of a production which introduces her, but she could appear in some of act 4, scene 3, with Malcolm in England where he first met her, or in the last scene. A similar expansion of a woman's role is in Richard Loncraine's recent film of Richard III, in which Princess Elizabeth of York is on camera frequently throughout; her wedding is celebrated and consummated just before the ultimate battle.

Contemporary critics who see many possible kinds of instability as the consequence of the end of Macbeth represent a widespread tendency to suspect the promises and performances of political leaders. Some of these suspicions appear in many productions using the Witches, Donalbain, and Fleance to blur the distinction between the ending of a tragic plot and the continuity of history. Consideration of Shakespeare's historical sources suggests the limits to some of these stagings.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1932.

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Franco Ferrucci (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Ferrucci, Franco. “Macbeth and the Imitation of Evil.” In The Poetics of Disguise: The Autobiography of the Work in Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, translated by Ann Dunnigan, pp. 125-58. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Ferrucci focuses on Act V, scenes i and ii—which involve Macduff, his family, and Malcolm—as they illustrate key elements essential to the thematic structure of Macbeth. The critic argues that in this drama of violent contradiction, Macduff shows himself to be a dissimulator rather than a benevolent foil to Macbeth's evil.]

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

—i, i, 11

In the course of his lengthy conclave with the witches (Macbeth, iv, i), Macbeth learns that Macduff had fled to England after the murder of Duncan, leaving his castle unguarded, his wife and children defenseless. Macbeth resolves to seize the opportunity to annihilate “His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (ll. 151-152). In the following scene, Macduff's cousin Ross, after trying in vain to calm Lady Macduff's alarm at the news of her husband's flight, leaves her alone with her small son. The brief dialogue between the mother and child is cut short by the arrival of the murderers, who swiftly discharge Macbeth's order to do away with them.

This entire episode is dominated by images of birds and flight. In his use of the verb “to fly,” with its secondary meaning “to flee,” Shakespeare conveys all he intends to suggest. Used initially in the former sense, gradually the word begins to imply the latter. How can Macduff flee the land, his wife protests, leaving us here defenseless?

                                                                                                                        He loves us not,
He wants the natural touch. For the poor wren,
The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

[iv, ii, 8-11]

Unlike the male bird, Macduff has fled the nest, and it is as if he were dead to his loved ones. “Your father's dead,” the mother says to the child after Ross has gone. “And what will you do now? / How will you live?” And the son echoes the New Testament parable: “As birds do, mother. … With what I get.” Thinking of the pitfalls, of the lime and the net, the mother exclaims: “Poor bird!” (iv, ii, 31-34).

At the opening of the scene, Lady Macduff is certain that her husband's flight was irrational (“His flight was madness”) and that he has become a traitor as a result of fear.

                    When our actions do not,
Our fears do make us traitors.

[iv, ii, 3-4]

The words express the contempt reserved for the rash and the cowardly. Ross's unexpected reply is pregnant with meaning:

                                                                                                    You know not
Whether it was his wisdom or his fear.

[iv, ii, 4-5]

At this juncture, Lady Macduff's amazement is justified. What sort of wisdom or sagacity can possibly underlie Macduff's action? If such there be, she is unable to conceive of it; not even birds leave their nests unprotected. Her attack is so forceful, so explicit, that Ross is again compelled to come to his friend's defense, and in so doing leaves her in no doubt about her plight.

This episode has long been misinterpreted, mainly because it has been considered of secondary significance to Macbeth's great tragedy, whereas in fact it is one of the drama's focal points and decisive for an understanding of the work as a whole.

The essence of Ross's defense of Macduff is in the lines:

He is noble, wise, judicious, and best knows
The fits o' th' season.

But having gone thus far, Ross realizes that he cannot prove what he asserts without making a complete revelation, which is proscribed, and adds: “I dare not speak much further.” And why not speak? This is not the time to conceal the truth. Ross then makes a slight concession to Lady Macduff's perplexity by adding:

But cruel are the times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves.

The word “traitors” appears for the second time, here in a context fraught with ambiguity and with at least a partial admission: Macduff may be a traitor, and Ross too perhaps, either unwittingly or feigning lack of awareness. The latter seems more likely; indeed, the haste with which he leaves is, at the very least, suspect:

                                                            I take my leave of you.
Shall not be long but I'll be here again.

Then, with sinister prescience and foreboding, he declares:

Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward
To what they were before.

[iv, ii, 16-25]

No one takes any action to protect the doomed victims, nor does anyone remain with them. Their fate has been decided; Lady Macduff realizes this at the end of Ross's discourse. If, in fact, Macduff was “judicious,” his heedless flight, leaving his castle and family unguarded, would have been unthinkable. “Fathered he is, and yet he's fatherless,” she says of her son, then bluntly says to him: “Your father's dead. / And what will you do now?” He will live “As the birds do,” he replies, afterward declaring that his father is not dead. The mother insists that he is, even though she knows he is not. Yet there is something more she wants to say, and sensing it the child inquires: “Was my father a traitor, mother?” (iv, ii, 31-44).

Again the word appears—the third time spoken without hesitation. “That he was,” replies the mother. “What is a traitor?” the boy wants to know. One who swears an oath and fails to keep it, and so must be hanged. And who hangs him? “Honest men.” The son declares, “Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them” (iv, ii, 45-58).

These words of the “poor monkey,” as the mother fondly calls him, contain perhaps the most profound meaning of the tragedy of Macbeth, and it is not by chance that they are entrusted to the voice of innocence, for it is the innocent who judge the world for what it is: the theater of an impracticable justice and of the inevitable triumph of evil. When a messenger comes to warn them of the approaching murderers, the mother cries:

                                                                                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?

[iv, ii, 73-79]

Her words, though more impassioned, confirm those of the child. When the first murderer enters, the scene becomes paradoxical. “Young fry of treachery!” the murderer insults the boy even as he stabs him, and, ironically, he is right. Be that as it may, Macduff's real treason, the betrayal of his family, will go unpunished, as his wife intuitively knows. No one will brand it as treason.

This scene (iv, ii) and the following one, which presents the dialogue-confrontation between Macduff and Malcolm, are, in my opinion, two monumentally important passages in the autobiography of the work, comparable to no other scene in the Shakespearean universe but that of Hamlet's advice to the actors. In these few pages of Macbeth, the entire tragic edifice is shaken and all but shattered. The blow is violent and difficult to disguise, but Shakespeare succeeds in controlling its effects. It is my intention to show why and how he does this. If we recall first certain basic historical facts concerning the tragedy of Macbeth, they will help us to understand what takes place on the creative level.

In the summer of 1606, King Christian of Denmark paid a royal visit to England, and Shakespeare was commissioned by King James to write a tragedy in honor of the occasion. Written in haste, Macbeth betrays signs of its immediate purpose. First, the play is short: the royal guests must not be wearied, and the king's distaste for lengthy dramas disregarded. Second, the theme of darkness, rich in symbolic resonances, is amply developed; a gloomy setting is more easily produced at court than would have been feasible in a daylight performance at the Globe. Furthermore, several allusions link the spectators to the action of the drama: Duncan's visit to Macbeth's castle contrasts with Christian's reception by James; the English king's forebears (beginning with Banquo, who, in Holinshed's Chronicles is an indefensible traitor) are all portrayed as patently honorable men.

The drama may be an apology for the good king and his right to reign and an emphatic condemnation of the usurpation of power. Duncan represents the good king; he speaks exactly as a good king ought to speak, according to the Basilikon Doron, a tract on the nature of royal authority written by King James. The king had earlier concerned himself with the subject of witchcraft in a work entitled Demonology, and it is clear that at the time he believed in the malign influence of witches. By the year 1606, he may no longer have held these beliefs, as is suggested by H. N. Paul, but he did not make his views known. We understand the significance of the witches in Macbeth—they pose the problem and incite the protagonist to action; but what was Shakespeare's purpose in giving them such prominence in a tragedy designed primarily to be performed before the king and his court?

The answer is somewhat ambiguous. It seems to me that Macbeth is assailed by contrasting exigencies which at times intersect with violence, and only the extraordinary poetic power, perhaps unmatched in the whole of the Shakespearean theater, unites them. Contradictions and improbabilities are dissolved by a mystical force, and it requires a cold, objective effort on the part of the reader to bring them to light. Almost every phrase is an allusion, every verse an epigraph; as the long years of a reign are reduced to a maelstrom of bloody days and sleepless nights, the kind of argumentation that characterizes Hamlet's long delay becomes in Macbeth the expression of a frenzy of action that consumes itself. A spasmodic haste replaces the brooding idleness. Yet no sooner do we pause to reflect, as in our opening comments on the scene at Macduff's castle, than questions arise.

Macbeth is rich in references to contemporary events. Among the most important are the thwarted Gunpowder Plot, which occurred only a few months prior to the drafting of the play; the trial of the Jesuits who supported the “Machiavellian” doctrine of equivocation; the hurricane of 1606; and the witch trials. As any thoughtful reader knows, an aesthetic appreciation of a work like Macbeth is not dependent on this sort of information, but the awareness of being faced with a complex system does induce a certain desire for knowledge.

The laudatory allusions to King James are, for the most part, not hard to recognize; those to the traitors who conspired in the Gunpowder Plot are no less obvious. And the elements of the play designed to gratify the royal need for adulation show that Shakespeare, as a thorough professional, did not shirk an obligatory task. Clearly, Malcolm and Duncan are brought in as proof of the legitimacy of the Scottish king's succession to the English throne, but we are left in a quandary as to the witches. The subject unquestionably held a fascination for James. Shakespeare, following Holinshed, accomplished two aims with one stroke: he satisfied the emotional needs of the sovereign while giving him an opportunity to condemn the protagonist. The fact remains, however, that James had believed in the power of witches, as evidenced by his writings, so the supernatural aspect of the play would appear to be a rather dubious medium of felicitation for his changed attitude. Or does the author wish to convey something other than this, something that comes to him only in flashes of a disquieting intuition?

This supposition is magnified when one turns to another episode: the sleep-walking scene that precedes Lady Macbeth's death (v, i). This is the climax of the prolonged obession with insomnia that torments the protagonists. As has frequently been remarked, sleep, like food, has a fundamentally symbolic quality in Macbeth: to sleep and eat regularly and well is to be in harmony with nature and oneself. The banquet interrupted by the appearance of Banquo's ghost—the uneaten repast—portends a sleepless night. In the course of the play a curious exchange of roles is effected. In the beginning it is Macbeth who appears to be plagued by insomnia; after the murder of Duncan he hears a voice cry, “Sleep no more!” and later, after Banquo's murder and the appearance of his ghost, has to be led away by Lady Macbeth to seek tranquillity in repose. But the malady originally manifested in Macbeth is transmitted to his wife, and it is she who is stricken by an extreme and irremediable form of ravaged sleep. Various interpretations have been offered for this unexpected transformation in so cold and obdurate a woman. Nothing in the play has prepared us for her final breakdown, which might rather have been expected of her husband, who instead bears up and retains his lucidity even in the face of catastrophe.

The most ingenious of the explanations, advanced by Sigmund Freud among others, is of a critical-aesthetic nature, and suggests that Shakespeare strove for metaphorical rather than psychological consistency, sometimes shifting a quality from one character to another without great regard for verisimilitude. But such an explanation is hardly convincing here, and becomes even less so when one simple but well-documented fact is considered: King James himself suffered from insomnia and was very much interested in the phenomenon of somnambulism, in which he saw an element of magic that fascinated him. A knowledge of these traits clarifies the picture: once again Macbeth adumbrates a characteristic of the king, but at the point of carrying the similarity to its logical conclusion the author's discretion gains the upper hand. Let us not go too far, he seems to imply; if there must be insomnia, attribute it to Lady Macbeth rather than risk having the sovereign see himself in the protagonist. If true, this interpretation only serves to confirm the fact that Shakespeare was quite conscious of his allusions to James—allusions that could scarcely be termed benign by the reader, the cloak of ambiguous adulation notwithstanding.

All this would be of only relative importance were it not for the fact that it throws a new light on the intentions, and still more on the significance, of the tragedy. In this context it is useful to recall the climate in which the works belonging to the “great period”—from Hamlet to Timon of Athens—were born. According to Theodore Spencer, Hamlet represents a decisive development as far as the representation of human nature is concerned: the harmonious vision that had inspired the previous works is fractured, and there unfolds an irrevocable conflict that is rooted in the universe itself. In the progression to a more mature phase, Hamlet occupies a place of paramount importance, and I should like to add a few considerations to those already advanced by the many perceptive interpreters of this major drama.

Hamlet is the first Shakespearean tragic hero to doubt the legitimacy of his own role. His destiny is that of witnessing. Having witnessed his father's glorious reign, he is then witness to the corrupt rule of the fratricidal Claudius when he assumes the royal prerogatives. In the atmosphere of regal pomp, Hamlet affects the disquieting posture of the fool, without ceasing to be the court intellectual, poet, and subtle rhetorician, whose imaginative faculty surpasses that of his philosopher friend Horatio. Hamlet alone talks with his father's ghost; he alone is in contact with a world whose truths are revealed in hallucinations and lightning flashes, a world of unconscious certitudes prefigured in the form and raiment of the murdered king. Hamlet is the court artist. And the other artists are the itinerant players he will use to unmask Claudius. It is Hamlet's destiny to be present at the collapse of one dynasty and the beginning of a new order which he dimly senses is to be perfidious, and in order to expose it as such he needs proof. His reproaches to his mother are addressed to the very concept of the royal crown: Are you a whore, then, giving yourself to everyone, being passed from hand to hand?

Is it worth recalling that at the time of the writing of the great tragedies power was being transferred from the Tudors to the Stuarts, from Elizabeth to James. The fascination exercised upon her subjects by Elizabeth need not be emphasized. One has only to remark that the flourishing of the theater during that period would not have been possible without the sense of stability, security, and absolute legitimacy that her long reign had communicated to her subjects, to noblemen and artists alike. It cannot be mere chance that immediately after her death (and even immediately before, as can be seen in certain intimations in Hamlet and Julius Caesar), Shakespeare's work reflects a kind of inner agitation. By means of theatrical schemes already tested, his poetic force ends in endowing the problems that afflicted England during those years with a cosmic density. The unaccustomed insecurity, the sense of being present at the end of a halcyon era, the cumulative foreboding rumbling through a kingdom that felt itself divested of genuine protection—all these are deeply etched in the pages of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, the great dramas of power overthrown. Nature too becomes the stage of a universal drama. An apocalyptic air, as of the imminent end of the world, must have had political as well as personal motivations. Timon of Athens marks the point of perhaps the greatest pessimism in the entire Shakespeare oeuvre; the nature of power emerges in all its horror.

By the year 1606, the immediate repercussions to the succession lie in the past. The general discontent, however, has deepened, and with it a sense of having entered upon a period of irreparable decadence (one need only think of the evolution of a man like John Donne toward an increasingly desolate vision of life). In Shakespeare, too, beginning with Hamlet, one notes a pervasive climate of nostalgia: the land is now “a sterile promontory,” the kingdom “an unweeded garden.” Court festivals have deteriorated to drunken revels, and ceremonial to mere sham. The wisdom of Polonius is banal pedantry; Claudius and the Queen are an imitation of a happily married couple; and Laertes is an impersonation of spirited, valorous youth. In Hamlet's compulsion to unmask the lie, Ophelia, incapable of pretense, is reduced by him to genuine madness. From this point on, in Shakespeare's tragedies madness becomes the destiny of those who, like Ophelia and Lear, see things for what they are. Even Hamlet requires a fiction to “catch the conscience of the King,” and at the close of the tragedy, begs Horatio to “draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story.”

It is Horatio who takes the situation in hand when Fortinbras arrives; Horatio announces that he will recount “How these things came about.” The tragedy of Hamlet seems about to begin again: “call the noblest to the audience,” cries Fortinbras; “Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage.” The audience includes the spectators as well, and the stage is also that of the theater. Among so many fictions, at least art survives.

But of what will this story speak?

Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads.

[v, ii, 384-388]

We are now in the realm of the “poor player” later hypothesized by Macbeth; we are in the poetics proclaimed by the witches in the opening scene of Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” Through his perception of the incomprehensible tragedy of life, Hamlet is the first of Shakespeare's characters to challenge tragedy as a literary genre nourished by classical moral and intellectual lucidity. There begins a chapter of Shakespeare's work that reflects hopeless confusion and that will reach its climax in that “comedy of the grotesque” which will be King Lear. What G. Wilson Knight says of King Lear can be generalized to apply to Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello as well: “The tragedy is most poignant in that it is purposeless, unreasonable. … It faces the very absence of tragic purpose.” (The Wheel of Fire, pp. 174-175).

When Shakespeare goes to the royal court to present Macbeth, he finds himself in a situation not unlike that of Hamlet in the third act: now Shakespeare's will be the play “to catch the conscience of the King.” But Shakespeare will have to be even more adroit than Hamlet; there must be no mistake; one false step will mean his ruin. Once again, necessity proves to be the mother of invention—even of genius. Macbeth emerges as a masterpiece of contradictory meanings unified by a violence that leaves the spectator no time to catch his breath. The expedients contrived to gratify the sovereign are undeniably obvious yet at the same time subtly venomous. Let us take the murdered King Duncan as one example. If he is meant to represent the “good king” (conforming to James's Basilikon Doron), his brief appearances, sketched in somewhat idyllic tints, seem almost a travesty in the atmosphere of the drama's violence. Rather than good, Duncan seems merely inept, not even a warrior king, since his battles are all won for him by others.

There is also the whole question of the legitimacy of power. Banquo emerges as somewhat better than his prototype in Holinshed, and it is quite clear why: he is the founder of the house that has put James on the throne. But quite apart from the fact that this Scottish king cannot possibly represent a legitimate English king to Shakespeare's contemporaries, there remains the fundamental question: How is this legitimacy to be proved? For instance, do those who rebel against Macbeth after he becomes king transgress the laws of loyalty? It is no easy matter to determine where treason begins and ends. Whereas Hamlet is haunted by a nightmare of legitimacy violated, Macbeth is animated by an unbridled will to violate a recognized hereditary right. If both are guided by specters and visions, it is because their reasoning is lost in a labyrinth of hypotheses. The will to act that animated both heroes is transmuted into ghosts and a chorus of witches that voice the precepts of the dramas.

This grotesque objectification is crucial. It seems clear to Hamlet that the principles of tragedy are rooted in the irrational, and this is why he, the sophistic intellectual and lover of hair-splitting wordplay, equivocates throughout the entire development of the work. Indeed, he has no great desire to enter into a drama as inconclusive as that enjoined by a ghost avid for revenge. This Hamlet who, through Shakespeare, had read Montaigne and can always find a reason for deferring the act of vengeance, only resolves to act after realizing that he is caught in a trap and may die before he has consummated what he wishes.

Macbeth also finds himself constrained to enter into a hopeless drama. The difference is that whereas any lack of logic is contrary to Hamlet's discriminating sensibility, the distraction and chaos of Macbeth's tragedy are largely of his own making. The famous monologue after Lady Macbeth's death is the quintessence of the play's central theme: once good and evil, fair and foul, have been conjoined, the direction of the action consigned to the witches, and Macbeth made the royal protagonist, what can be expected if not a chaotic, clamorous spectacle? It is this that Shakespeare presents to his audience: a drama “signifying nothing,” in which all in turn lament its absurdity. “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece,” says Macduff, on discovering Duncan's murder. And it is not only a question of moral chaos, of an ethical harmony destroyed, but of an aesthetic principle violated. We are immersed in the brew conjured by the witches according to their infernal recipe in Act iv. This too is an ars poetica, a jumble of everything thrown together in a weird, repellent mixture in which nothing relates to anything else.

The two protagonists of Macbeth anxiously set about trying to activate their drama from the outset. In vain does Lady Macbeth give her husband a lesson in dissimulation; in vain does she prescribe the very expression of his face. Macbeth is fated to betray himself, for, having entered upon the drama of life as actor-king, he wants to live it with passion, and therein lie the seeds of his failure. He stumbles onto the stage like a clown, assuming “borrowed robes,” “a fruitless crown,” “a barren sceptre.” The dialogue between the husband and wife while they prepare to execute their crime has the timbre of actors about to make an entrance on the stage. The wife even speaks of changing her sex—an oblique allusion to women's roles being played by boys in the Elizabethean theater.

The metaphor of the actor, which runs through all of Shakespeare's work, finds in the king (or aspiring king) its most apt and cogent use, for there was a general acceptance of the analogy between the two vocations. Macbeth's maladroit haste in donning the royal robes is a symptom of his unfitness to interpret the role of the protagonist. Like a second-rate actor, he is incapable of emerging from his assigned role (an insight that will also be found in Diderot's Paradoxe du comédien). Once embarked upon his bloody course, he cannot stop himself; the action of interpreting (to act means both to take action and to play) possesses him, giving him no respite. He commits murder almost blindly; he is the actor who cannot relinquish his persona. When, during her raving, Lady Macbeth tries to wipe out the blood spot on her hand, it is as if it were some sort of stage makeup resistant to removal; what had once been action and memory now becomes passion and remorse.

Furthermore, the time is “out of joint,” for everything happens at the wrong time in the famous drama “signifying nothing”: cues are picked up too early or too late; the actors' timing is off. In Lady Macbeth's words:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.

[i, v, 56-58]

And Macbeth himself, before the murder of Duncan, says:

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'd jump the life to come.

[i, vii, 1-7]

These lines show the two protagonists' chimerical sense of time, immured as they are in a visionary notion of its essence. In fact they are in search of absolute time, which can be attained only through hallucination, through a leap into a present beyond the future. The actual present coincides with the imbalance of the reeling action: when Macbeth asks, “What is the night?” his wife replies, “Almost at odds with the morning, which is which” (iii, iv, 126-127). And when the present is past it becomes irreparable; it is neither rectified nor made acceptable. The action becomes part of the past, but not of incontrovertible time. In the monologue after his wife's death, Macbeth describes life as divided into yesterdays and tomorrows, which transform the recurrent present into a chaos, “full of sound and fury.” This realization produces another visionary leap beyond the future: if his wife had died hereafter, “There would have been a time for such a word.” This time can be nothing less than unattainable time, beyond choice, beyond remorse. The mechanism of haste, in which this perception is expressed, is that of the guilty conscience.

Through reflection on the problem of power, nature itself is brought into question. Macbeth's speech to the murderers who are to kill Banquo is the focal point of this reinterpretation of man.

FIRST Murtherer:
We are men, my liege.
Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, waterrugs and demi-wolves, are clipt
All by the name of dogs. The valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him clos'd, whereby he does receive
Particular addition, from the bill
That writes them all alike; and so of men.

[iii, i, 92-102]

This nomenclature of distinguishing qualities within a species bears a striking resemblance to a passage in Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (Modern Library College Edition [New York: Random House, 1950] pp. 56-57).

I state that all men, and especially princes, who are placed at a greater height, are reputed for certain qualities which bring them either praise or blame. Thus one is considered liberal, another misero or miserly … ; one a free giver, another rapacious; one cruel, another merciful; one a breaker of his word, another trustworthy; one effeminate and pusillanimous, another fierce and high-spirited; one humane, another haughty; one lascivious, another chaste; one frank, another astute; one hard, another easy; one serious, another frivolous; one religious, another an unbeliever, and so on.

The philosophical kernel of both the above passages lies in the notion of man as an empty vessel that must be filled with qualifying attributes—attributes which all relate to an action. Man is nothing until he acts; indeed, only action renders definition possible. Action is the vital manifestation that defines a man while at the same time imprisoning him in a role, which may engender a metaphysical anxiety, as in the case of Hamlet, for whom the great enterprises he dreams of “lose the name of action.” Machiavelli's prince too is defined through his action, which is at the same time being and seeming, taking action and playing a role; which shows that Macbeth is deeply indebted to the Machiavellian philosophy of power.

Looking back, we can see in Shakespeare's plays the nature of the progression in this conception of power. The description of the kingdom as a well-cultivated garden, which is found in Richard II, represents a stage of optimism at which political harmony is adduced as a possible “imitation” of natural harmony; therefore the apologue is related as truth and accepted as such by the writer and the character. But this is certainly not true of the crisis in Hamlet. Ulysses' famous speech in Troilus and Cressida” (i, iii, 75ff.), frequently cited by critics as exemplifying Shakespeare's creed, is raddled with falseness and deceit; and it is not without reason that the author assigns it to Ulysses, the proverbial liar. The sun king at the center of the universe, a Ptolemaic vision, cannot appear to be simply naïve in Shakespeare's eyes. At the moment, the harmony and legitimacy of power are defensible only through the medium of the well-spoken lie, through a persuasive rhetoric that is inspired by the desecration of the farcical Trojan War, in which it seems strange that the only serious element should be Ulysses' discourse. The great tragedies take another forward step: power is viewed as substantial illegitimacy that is self-perpetuating, and as apparent legitimacy that is redeemed by success and guaranteed by the form in which it is presented to the world. When Lady Macbeth says to her husband, “look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent underneath 't,” she is trying to give him a lesson both in acting and in imitating nature, as if nature were to act its own innocence. Here the evil within man seems to reproduce the evil of reality outside him. Falsity is natural, and to be a traitor is most normal.

The predicament of Macbeth and his wife is that, in contradistinction to the serpent, they are crushed by their guilt. They have “bad dreams,” as Hamlet would say, and these will bring them to their ruin. In fact they are not playing the roles of goodness at all, but rather those of evil. They feel from the outset that they are doing something profoundly unnatural, and even to themselves become images of nature outraged. Macbeth concludes his final speech in Act i with the words: “False face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Take note of this “false heart”; it is the weak link, the infirm pillar of the argument. A true Machiavellian might feel that he had a false face, but never a false heart; the heart is what it is. If both are felt to be false, a contradiction arises, and one enters the realm of bad acting—that is, of evil that aims at being discovered. The entire second act of Macbeth is an illustration of this destiny of failure. The success of the criminal enterprise is only an apparent success. In the scene that follows the assassination of Duncan (ii, ii), Macbeth and his wife are already assailed by so much remorse that they court punishment and damnation. Suspicion immediately falls upon them: Malcolm and Donalbain, after clearly hinting at treason, depart in haste, as do Macduff and Ross in the following scene. In that scene an old man appears and closes the act with words of proverbial wisdom:

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

[ii, iv, 40-41]

“Make good of bad” is a highly ambiguous phrase. It can mean the actual transformation of evil into good, which would conform with the traditional interpretation of Macbeth as a tragedy of the formidable struggle between the forces of good and evil (the former “natural” and the latter “unnatural”). But it can also mean “Blessed are those who make good of evil, making it appear so by altering its face”—a new Machiavellian precept addressed to a Macduff who later will evoke the damning epithet of traitor from Lady Macduff.

Meanwhile Macbeth, impetuously and for no apparent reason, has Banquo murdered. He then falls prey to hallucinations; when, at the banquet, his victim's ghost appears, his reaction betrays his guilt, and everyone realizes that it was he who perpetrated the crime—a realization he subconsciously desires. Devastated by remorse, the husband and wife rush headlong to their ruin. They now resemble the serpent, though without the flower, and all their efforts to imitate nature notwithstanding, their actions end in becoming disimitation. To disimitate nature is to commit evil in such a way as to direct it against oneself. By the middle of the third act, Macbeth's days are numbered:

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

[iii, ii, 19-22]

Machiavelli taught that the virtù of the leader is judged by the effect of his action: if he loses his kingdom, he becomes a negative person, and all his sins will be revealed, as on Judgment Day. But the reverse is equally true: if he becomes a person who is manifestly negative, he inevitably loses his kingdom. In Richard III, an earlier tragedy in which there prevails an essentially anti-Machiavellian climate of conflict between the forces of good and evil, it is precisely the villain, who displays his acting ability. Vaunting his Machiavellianism, Richard will be routed by those forces he is incapable of counterfeiting: goodness triumphs over evil as truth over a lie, for in contrast to vice, goodness cannot disguise itself. Even when skillfully wielded, the power of the wicked endures only for the length of the performance; its life span is ineluctably limited. In Hamlet, however, it is the good character who must simulate in order to rend the fiction of the evildoers, those who perform well but not well enough to last to the end—an intuition that is halfway between the insights of Richard III and those of Macbeth. In the last play the villain has become a synonym, not for the actor, but for the bad actor. What happens to the positive characters in Macbeth? Are they like Richard's vanquishers? Or do they in turn go through a metamorphosis? For if the conflict between an actor and his opposite is one between fiction and truth, the contrast between a bad actor and his opposite must manifest itself as the difference between a bad performance and a good one. We are then in a world composed entirely of actors, and if Macbeth is imperfect, who are those who manage with the skill of the accomplished actor?

Let us first consider Duncan. He does not appear to be taking part in a tragedy. Arriving at Macbeth's castle, he perceives it in an idyllic landscape (Banquo's observations on the delicate air and singing birds furnish an ironic commentary on Duncan's simplicity). The king is gentle and trusting, and it is his fate to let himself be killed. If the theme of the play were the struggle between good and evil, it would end at this point with the categorical victory of evil.

But now let us consider Malcolm, Duncan's son and claimant to the throne, and Macduff, a Scottish nobleman. In the roster of the drama's characters, these two are arrayed on the side of the just; when they meet (iv, iii), their animosity toward Macbeth is expressed in terms of harsh moral judgment. This scene immediately follows the massacre at Macduff's castle, and though the news has not yet reached them, it is in the air. Their dialogue is, in the main, taken from Holinshed, with Shakespeare adding certain allusive and strikingly ambiguous lines of his own. Not sure that he can trust Macduff, Malcolm repeatedly provokes him, and their exchanges become a skirmish in which the most dissimulated blows are the most decisive. Macduff's decision to flee, though he knows Macbeth's character and leaves his family defenseless, lacks all justification and can only be interpreted as either thoroughly unconscionable or deliberately criminal. I tend to accept the latter hypothesis, believing that the author himself had arrived at this conclusion in the course of writing the play.

Let us reconstruct this process of the play's composition: in the feverish haste with which Shakespeare composed the text—submerged as he was in the singular climate of the times and because of the personal and ideological crisis caused by his complex, contradictory feelings about the man who had commissioned the play—he followed Holinshed's plot for the first three acts, providing it with a fantastic and metaphorical form. The positive and negative characters were already prescribed, and there was no reason to alter their roles except for precautionary considerations about James, and then only in part. Meanwhile the play had acquired vertiginous contradictions in all of the established roles and a unique psychological penetration in the exploration of the nature of evil. When Malcolm and Macduff reappeared upon the scene in Act iv, it was difficult to present them as two new incarnations of “the power of good,” in the manner of Duncan, because Shakespeare now knew that this form of goodness is destined to fail, and knew too that the type of problem created by Macbeth's actions cannot be resolved by an antinomian counterpoising of black and white, chaos and rectitude, treason and legitimacy.

At this point Shakespeare must have been somewhat surprised by the Chronicle's description of the massacre at the castle, which furnished him with the only possible pretext for a reinterpretation of the character of Macduff. Shakespeare has made of this brief scene the center of an adamant problem which restates the question of life from the side of the good—that is, of the inevitable victims. This is done without parody, for Lady Macduff and her child are not trying to preserve any sort of power. They are genuinely and irrevocably betrayed, as Cordelia will be in King Lear; they are the truly good, the pure in heart spoken of in the Gospels, the foolish ones with neither hope nor reward in this world. As the child senses, an “honest” power cannot exist, and it is precisely the contradiction between honesty and power that the meeting of Malcolm and Macduff will help resolve.

Malcolm's first allusion to the question is in the following lines:

This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues,
Was once thought honest; you have lov'd him well;
He hath not touch'd you yet. I am young; but something
You may discern of him through me.

[iv, iii, 12-15]

Thus the Waith edition, (The Yale Shakespeare) which follows the 1623 folio; but the majority of modern editors of Macbeth have substituted the word “deserve” for “discern” (among others, Kenneth Muir in the Arden Macbeth and J. Dover Wilson in the Cambridge edition). Even those who like Waith's rendition have been faithful to the folio, have entered into tortuous explanations of this passage, unable to accept the simplest implication of its meaning, which is: But you can see (recognize) in me (Malcolm) something of him (Macbeth). And if Macduff sees in Malcolm something he has in common with Macbeth, he will try to win his protection in the same way he would Macbeth's.

The text continues:

                                                                                                              and wisdom
To offer up a weak, poor, innocent lamb
T' appease an angry god.

[iv, iii, 15-17]

In the light of the previous semantic construction, the traditional interpretation of this passage too needs revision. What Malcolm implies is: You have long been in the service of Macbeth; now join me. But where is your credibility? Thus far, we know, he has not touched you, but what guarantee can you give me of your new fidelity—the lives of your dear ones perhaps? However involuted and ambiguous his expression, this, it seems to me, is his meaning. If the words “innocent lamb” refer to Macduff's family, then the “angry god” to be appeased is not Macbeth but rather Malcolm, who makes a show of defending himself while in fact attacking. Macduff grasps his meaning at once and retorts, “I am not treacherous” (l. 18). Malcolm now broadens the attack: That may well be true, but Macbeth is, and it is possible that you have been subjected to his malign influence; though you have a good and virtuous look, the brightest angels can come to ruin through sin. In short, I may conceivably trust you on the strength of your appearance. Malcolm is temporizing, inviting Macduff to reveal himself more fully but his interlocutor is a match for him. I have lost all hope, Macduff exclaims, taking refuge in a phrase that is intentionally vague. For Macduff is not in haste; he knows that soon there will be conclusive evidence of the hostility between him and Macbeth, and he will have no further need for words. Malcolm persists, however, seeking to anticipate him:

Perchance even there where I did find my doubts.
Why in that rawness left you wife and child,
Those precious motives, those strong knots of love,
Without leave-taking? I pray you,
Let not my jealousies be your dishonors,
But mine own safeties. You may be rightly just,
Whatever I shall think.

[iv, iii, 25-31]

This is a direct enough hit: Now you see that I know quite well what is going on—which still does not mean that I blame you. It all depends on what you have in mind. In his reply, Macduff guards against giving his reason for leaving his family unprotected, and instead, launches into a rhetorical apostrophe on the misfortunes of his country, after which he feigns a desire to leave: “I would not be the villain that thou think'st.” Which means, again translated into explicit terms: If you have grasped my meaning, I'll not let you say so openly. Detain me if you wish.

And Malcolm detains him (“Be not offended”) with a fresh and unexpected reversal. At this point in their confrontation a significant development is apparent: each knows that the other is aware of his performance. To refrain from committing an error in the presentation means to affirm the measure of one's stature, to be accepted for something beyond the words that are no more than the actor's disguise.

The power of this dialogue lies in its covert meaning; the two men are like chess players bent on settling a score, executing a series of brilliant tactical variations with false attacks and defensive retreats. The height of this exercise in skill is reached in Malcolm's famous profession of villainy. The episode is found in Holinshed, but Shakespeare, with unfailing mastery, places it before the disclosure of the massacre. Why do you wish me to be king? asks Malcolm. I am inordinately lustful; all your wives and daughters would not be enough to gratify my appetite. We can see to that, replies Macduff, still waiting to find out what he is driving at. I am excessively avaricious, continues Malcolm; I will possess myself of all your properties. A pernicious vice, responds Macduff, yet Scotland can satisfy it if you become king. After all, you have other merits. None, declares Malcolm; I am a sink of iniquity, a dunghill of depravity; nothing speaks in my favor. Then Macduff appears to abandon hope, delivers an eloquent monologue, and is on the point of parting from him for good when Malcolm confesses to having lied in order to test him.

When Holinshed's version of this episode is compared to Shakespeare's, several points of similarity are evident, but there is one decisive difference which seems not to have been remarked before. Holinshed's record of the dialogue gives credence to Macduff's good faith; both his alarm and his disillusionment are portrayed as sincere. In Shakespeare's play, however, they seem to me to be presented in a very different light. Here Malcolm is not trying to provoke Macduff's indignation, but to ascertain the degree to which he is capable of simulating indignation at a given moment. In short, he is testing him again, not as an upright man, but as an actor. Their dialogue, in a disguised form, echoes that between Richard and Buckingham in Richard III.

Come, cousin, canst thou quake, and change thy colour,
Murther thy breath in middle of a word,
And then again begin, and stop again,
As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror?
Tut! I can counterfeit the deep tragedian,
Speak and look back, and pry on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw,
Intending deep suspicion: ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles.

[iii, v, 1-9]

Here Richard is the stronger and asks for a concrete demonstration of his ally's performing ability. The relation between the two characters has, in this instance, been explicitly defined, and the audience is not left in doubt. They are villains and must be revealed as such, whereas Malcolm and Macduff must continue to play their roles and can be understood only through the veil of words. Moreover, the audience—particularly that royal audience to which the author originally addressed the tragedy of Macbeth—must be reassured, and only one who so desires can penetrate the truth.

The essence of Malcolm's inquiry is: What will you do if I simulate such a monstrous character? And Macduff replies: For my part, I'll portray indignation. Malcolm is sufficiently satisfied with his response to launch into a monologue on his own virtues, which for the most part are of Shakespeare's devising. It is this speech that, in my opinion, offers conclusive proof of the author's transformation of the scene. In Holinshed, Malcolm is restricted to saying: “Be of good comfort Makduffe, for I haue none of these vices before remembered, but haue iested with thee in this manner, onelie to prooue thy mind.”

But Shakespeare's Malcolm says a good deal more:

                                                                                                                        I am yet
Unknown to woman, never was forsworn,
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own,
At no time broke my faith, would not betray
The devil to his fellow, and delight
No less in truth than life. My first false speaking
Was this upon myself.

[iv, iii, 125-131]

A similar and equally extravagant self-portrait, with many points in common but with opposite intent, is that of Boccaccio's Ceppelletto (Decameron, i, 1), the first ante-litteram Machiavellian figure of the Italian tradition and one unquestionably representative of diabolical dissimulation. The catalogue of virtues turns out to be no less incredible than that of vices. Needing to find a definition of himself, the future monarch resorts to the idealization of the prince sanctioned by a secular literature. It is the portrait of a new Duncan. But Malcolm is not Duncan and knows the difference—a distinction absolutely clear to Machiavelli—between being good and seeming to be good; the distinction is decisive when a kingdom is at stake. In short, the meeting between Malcolm and Macduff represents the passage from black to white magic, from diabolic witchcraft to holy sorcery. Even the episode of the king as healer (a bow to James) can be viewed in this perspective. He embodies qualities of power and of ambition masked by saintliness which were seen in Malcolm and Macduff. This is in direct contrast to the witches, who expose the weakness of Macbeth, the criminal who appears to be exactly what he is.

The shedding of Machiavellian light over the entire play cannot help but alter its meaning. The antiprince polemic in Richard III indicated a remarkable faith in the possibility of separating the worlds of darkness and light, the heaven of virtue and the realm of fallen angels. Gloucester, the future king, who has already proclaimed himself a disciple of Machiavelli in Henry VI, Part III, proceeds to show himself for what he is in the opening monologue of Richard III, thus establishing the premises of his inevitable downfall. His personality exudes evil, as is instantly apparent in the symbolic deformation of his body, which causes dogs to bark at him as he limps by, as though they have caught the scent of sulphur. The frenetic crescendo of his actions transforms him into a monstrous bloodstained puppet. Clearly, he wants to reveal himself; the sanctimonious mien that has won popular sympathy is so obvious to the audience that it will become apparent sooner or later to his enemies. His defeat is proof of how a professed Machiavellianism fails to work. Evil, like a started beast, is brought to bay. The villain never ceases to be the villain: this is his theatrical destiny; hence in Richard III the struggle is still between the just and the unjust, the legitimate and the illegitimate. Richard and Buckingham are not only evil; they are the buffoons of evil. There is a kind of cheerful professionalism about their performances, at the conclusion of which they seem to execute a graceful pirouette and exit into the darkness, there to reside among the other puppets of evil.

Hamlet has brought to a crux a similar situation by opposing a world falsely shaped to the measure of harmonious and legitimate men: the court of Claudius, which conceals the infamy of a Richard. Yet Hamlet preserves a trace of the ancient optimism: evil is finally exposed, even at the cost of bringing the good to their ruin. Claudius' mise en scène cannot withstand the blows dealt it by Hamlet's mise en scène, and in the revelation of this truth is inscribed the destiny that awaits the usurper. A king who proclaims his Machiavellianism (Richard) paves the way for his own downfall; a king whose Machiavellianism is exposed by others (Claudius) is on the brink of downfall. But a king who is genuinely Machiavellian—what is his image, his fate?

In the first place, his nature should not be perceptible either to the audience or to the other characters in the drama. The spectators and the actors form a system of communication within the theatrical experience: what is known to one group will be revealed to the other. An awareness by some of the characters cannot be withheld from the others except for a period of time in the course of the play's action. When Richard's wickedness is conveyed to the audience, it is only a matter of time before it is revealed to the characters in the play. As the protagonist of evil, Macbeth follows this same trajectory: the audience witnesses the evolution of his iniquity and confidently waits for its unmasking; were this not so, the tragedy would become a glorification of royal criminality, which is not Shakespeare's intention. With great circumspection and ambiguity, he ventures to represent, not the conflict between the forces of good and evil, but the conflict between evil well performed and evil poorly peformed. If Macbeth and his wife, the two characters representing evil, succeed in achieving their goal, their victory will be total, and the audience too will be caught in the trap of verisimilitude.

The true Machiavellian prince is not one who seems to have read the treatise of that name, but one who, if anything, will write the anti-Machiavellian work, one to whom the Florentine's pages do not seem to apply, for a true Machiavellian prince must always appear to be good. Therefore Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fail in performance on the battlefield of power. The genuine leader is distinguished by a want of feeling for the afflictions of mankind. Remorse, not guilt, is the undoing of this homicidal couple; it is passion that renders them clumsy and fanciful, quick to succumb as soon as they are confronted by an effective foe. Let us examine the double prediction of the witches (this too has its origin in Holinshed) that harm can come to Macbeth from “none of woman born,” and that he will meet defeat only when the surrounding wood shall come to Dunsinane. The second prophecy is, above all, a spectacular device: Malcolm's army, screened by leafy boughs, advancing on Dunsinane is a splendid coup de théâtre, a translation into images of a truth that has risen to the surface of Shakespeare's consciousness—to wit, that Macbeth's enemies will defeat him on the plane of simulation and disguise. As for “none of woman born,” Macbeth takes the witches' augury as a guarantee of his invincibility, since there can be no such man. Apart from the literal explanation (before killing him, Macduff will disclose to Macbeth that he “was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd”), the phrase means that only he who is able to defeat Macbeth on the plane of his inhumanity will be able to defeat him politically and militarily.

Does Macduff conform to this qualification? This is the question that Malcolm has been trying to solve by means of his verbal maneuvers with Macduff. Malcolm does not attempt to elicit a confession, which would be of no use to him in any case, but rather to understand his future lieutenant. Finally, the two men reach an understanding without having compromised themselves. At this point, following a brief laudatory reference to Edward the Confessor, Ross—he who was in such haste to take his leave of Lady Macduff—arrives on the scene. Coming from Scotland, he first gives them news of the state of the kingdom; but here again the real dialogue lies beneath the surface. Ross has been informed of the massacre of Macduff's family and has come to report it; finding Macduff in conclave with Malcolm, and ignorant as to whether or not they have reached an accord, he delays his announcement. His conduct, even before the murder of Lady Macduff, makes it clear that he is cognizant of Macduff's intentions. The first question put to him by Macduff—“Stands Scotland where it did? (iv, iii, 164)—it is strange, to say the least, inasmuch as he himself has just left that country. Is he perhaps asking something of a more specific nature? Ross dares not reply, deterred by the presence of Malcolm, who asks, “What's the newest grief?” to which he gives a vague and circumspect reply: “Each minute teems a new one.” Whereupon Macduff intervenes and speaks plainly:

How does my wife?
Why, well.
And all my children?
Well too.

[iv, iii, 176-177]

These four lines of dialogue are rather extraordinary, however they are understood. According to the common interpretation, Ross has come in a state of extreme anguish at having to report the horrifying tragedy. If this were true, a more cruel and unfeeling response would be hard to imagine. To say to Macduff that all is well with his family, then to tell him a few minutes later that they have been murdered, can hardly be construed as a sign of friendship. Moreover, Ross gives no evidence of being overcome by confusion; having just made a fine speech reverberating with elaborate imagery on the state of Scotland, he now does no more than repeat the one word “well,” sounding more like a dispassionate messenger than an anguished friend. In short, it seems to me quite evident that the two cousins are endeavoring to convey certain information to each other and are hindered from doing so by the presence of Malcolm—to say nothing of the presence of the principal spectator, a Scottish king only recently crowned king of England, and an audience that has come to witness the cathartic rite of evil punished and virtue rewarded. How would such an audience react were Ross to announce that the cousins' scheme had succeeded, that Lady Macduff and her children were dead, and that nothing stood in the way of Macduff's being appointed Malcolm's lieutenant and the murderer of Macbeth? In the light of certain analogies, the scene becomes less ambiguous. Ross's reply chillingly echoes an earlier moment in the play when Macbeth asks of Banquo's murderer (iii, iv, 26-27), “But Banquo's safe?” and elicits a similar if more explicit and heinously ironic answer: “Ay, my good lord: safe in a ditch he bides.”

Macduff perseveres: “The tyrant has not battered at their peace?” So he expected it. Why then did he do nothing to prevent the crime? This is Lady Macduff's question and Malcolm's too, though phrased more circumspectly. Ross adroitly extricates himself by playing on the double meaning of the words “at peace”: “they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.” Macduff cuts short this circuitous method of communication and brusquely demands: “Be not niggard of your speech: how goes 't?” Before replying, Ross seeks Malcolm's intervention in the conversation by announcing that conditions in Scotland are such that the country is ripe for revolt against Macbeth, and Malcolm instantly concurs. Now that the situation is clear and the two men of one mind, Ross no longer hesitates to reveal what everyone already knows. There ensues a dolorous recital by Macduff with the appropriate rhetorical exhortations to revenge. Enunciated by true professionals, it is concise, decorous, and assured. One rather revealing allusion appears in Macduff's speech concerning the staging of the enterprise:

O, I could play the woman with mine eyes,
And braggart with my tongue.

[iv, iii, 230-232]

This has already been done, however, and now it is time to act, time for the final catastrophe. When Macbeth has at last been dispatched, Malcolm proclaims his plan of action, concluding with the words: “We will perform in measure, time, and place.” He has referred to the Aristotelian principles of tragedy—even using the word “perform.” Here is the actor-king triumphantly reinstated after the poor performance of Macbeth, which he himself acknowledged in the words: “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player. …” The great performance of sovereignty reaffirms its right; yet the problem remains: Is this choreography only meant to deceive the ingenuous?

If our reading of the dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff is given credence, their restoration to legitimacy is the restoration of a “correct” imitation of natural processes in which an apparent order cloaks the chaos of violence; according to the vision Shakespeare is evolving, “the serpent” is under “the innocent flower.” Macbeth had succeeded in imitating only the serpent, not nature's conjunction of the two; in imitating evil, he disimitated nature, arriving at an incomplete and vulnerable evil, like a serpent coming out into the open and making itself vulnerable. Let us recall the series of betrayals in the play. First there is the betrayal by the thane of Cawdor—a betrayal known to all and punished at the outset of the drama; this is followed by Macbeth's betrayal, immediately made known to the audience, then gradually to the other characters, and destined (theatrically destined) to be punished; finally there is Macduff's betrayal, known only to the victims and to those directly or indirectly implicated in the crime. And if the betrayal is not clearly revealed to the audience, it will go unpunished.

Here we see why Shakespeare gives only hints and clues to Macduff's behavior: the mysterious words muttered by an old man, Lady Macduff's sudden realization of the truth, the confrontation of Macduff and Malcolm. I also believe that another advance signal has been posted: the Porter's scene (ii, iii). Critics have recognized the historical references in his monologue and the symbolic dimension of the character: doorkeeper of Macbeth's castle is equivalent to doorkeeper of hell. If this is true, whoever is knocking at the gates at that moment is probably a damned soul. The words “Remember the porter” at the end of the monologue would seem to be an exhortation to remember the symbolism of the scene—that men are knocking at the gate of hell, where Beelzebub awaits them. And who is knocking? None other than Macduff, the first to speak to the Porter. Who indeed should it be if not this future traitor, of whom it might be said, as of an equivocator, that he “committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” It is no mere chance that Macduff's companion in this scene is another traitor, Lennox, who will convey the news to Macbeth that “Macduff is fled to England” (iv, i).

It is difficult to say when Shakespeare conceived the idea of including this scene in the play; the general opinion is that the Porter's monologue was a later addition, creating what amounts to a break in the action of the drama. One might venture a guess that these lines were composed when doubts about the character of Macduff arose in the mind of the author, and when the device of playing with allusion was woven into the texture of the play. Taken alone, any one of the episodes that I have analyzed would be inconclusive, but together they create a picture which does not correspond to the usual interpretation of Macduff as a positive hero. The new picture is rather appalling. The good are murdered (Duncan, Lady Macduff); the villains who kill them are themselves crushed (Macbeth and his wife); the archvillain lets the villain destroy the good, then destroys the villain and assumes the role of the good. All joust to win the leading roles in the cast of life.

In the course of their dialogue, the characters of Malcolm and Macduff acquire a new reflective consciousness; the action is momentarily interrupted as they take each other's measure. The masks and disguises handed down from the oldest theatrical tradition are now become flesh and blood, part of the characters' identity. The king is an actor. The extent to which this identification is linked to the transition of power in England is shown in Measure for Measure, which appeared in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth. The play is interlaced with allusions to contemporary conditions, but sufficiently altered to avoid giving offense. The new leader, in the person of Angelo, appears to be nefarious, but the duke, who disguises himself as a monk and keeps watch from the shadows, returns to set everything right. This was perhaps what Shakespeare's contemporaries expected; but such hopes could be satisfied only in the realm of fable. Where does lost sovereignty end? On some remote island, and one must travel to the end of Prospero's world in The Tempest to rediscover it. The shipwreck, the terrifying opening scene, is the destruction of royal hopes; the tragedy is conveyed in a few lines, in a cry of horror and in silence. For the action to continue, the setting must be transposed to myth. This solution implies an altered awareness of sovereignty.

After the revelation of Macbeth, and Ulysses' speech in Troilus and Cressida, which we have defined as a well-spoken lie, there are two other decisive ideological moments in Shakespeare's theater. The first is Menenius Agrippa's apologue in Coriolanus. Near the beginning of the play, (i, i, 100ff.), Menenius, a reincarnation of Polonius, explains to the mutinous citizens the function of the senate-belly, inventing the famous tale of the body's members. He is listened to with understandable impatience; the speech is a parodic distortion of Ulysses' florid eloquence. Here the concept of social harmony is supported by a lie ill-spoken and is patently absurd. This speech is but a step to the second instance, represented by the rage in Timon of Athens. In the protagonist's desperate monologues, the social harmony that justifies power is ultimately revealed as substantial inharmony camouflaged by virtuous appearance: “for there is boundless theft / In limited professions.” Further, Timon says to the bandits:

                                                                                          Yet thanks I must you con
That you are thieves profess'd, that you work not
In holier shapes.

[iv, iii, 431-433]

Here, with unmistakable precision, is what Macduff's son had intuited. The universal social larceny is but a reflection of the natural cosmic inharmony. Timon says:

                                                            I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From general excrement: each thing's a thief:
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Has unchecked theft.

[iv, iii, 441-450]

Only in his late works does Shakespeare attempt to move beyond this extreme conception and toward an ideal of timeless harmony. This attempt involves a re-examination of the very concept of life, and is increasingly represented as an allegorical function of a mysterious justice which is cadenced by the “music of the spheres” announcing the happy ending of Pericles; by Ariel's song accompanying his prodigies as a sprite in The Tempest; by the secret music ending Cymbeline and Henry VIII; and by the music awaking Hermione from her statue-like sleep in The Winter's Tale. We are now well beyond Macbeth, on a horizon that calls for fresh explorations, new explorers.

As for Macbeth, with his mind “full of scorpions,” he is a lion incapable of transforming himself into a fox, and is propelled toward a death he accepts as a deliverance. His monologue after Lady Macbeth's death would not be accepted by his enemies: for the victors, the world regains meaning. Only in defeat is life seen for what it is; but the cry of anguish is proof of nothing but defeat itself. This is perhaps true of life as well as of art. Thus The Prince would appear to be an ars poetica helping to define a world where pure sentiments are annihilated like innocent victims, where excessive ambition is mere folly, and where artifice and cunning conquer, leaving their audiences bewitched. Is he who rules by the word perhaps he who has penetrated most deeply into reality? Are the words of Timon to be trusted?

                                                                                                              … all is oblique;
There's nothing level in our cursed natures
But direct villainy.

[iv, iii, 18-20]

Peter Ure (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Ure, Peter. “Macbeth.” In Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays by Peter Ure, edited by J. C. Maxwell, pp. 44-62. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Ure follows the development of Macbeth's character throughout the play, suggesting that he is a tragic and sympathetic, rather than evil, figure.]

                                                  Who then shall blame
His pester'd senses to recoil and start,
When all that is within him does condemn
Itself, for being there?

Macbeth, v.ii.22-25

In the three previous tragedies the protagonists are faced with situations which are not, essentially, their own creation. Hamlet and Othello both seem to themselves to have dread commands imposed upon them, the one to avenge his murdered father, the other to punish his faithless wife; even Lear, although his conduct provides a kind of excuse, is placed at the mercy and ordering of others. All of them have to wrench their behaviour and force their souls into reinterpreting roles which they did not initiate. But Macbeth has to nerve himself to perform a task which he invented for himself in the first place; the seed, it appears, grew in his own mind and not anyone else's. Shakespeare shows us both the genesis and the fulfilment of what begins as a stretch, almost a sudden physical shudder, and then grows. Macbeth has an extra load to lift—everything must begin with him and must be shaped and created by him. The play is the most exhausting and violent of them all, and much of this exhaustion springs from the feeling that Macbeth has to create everything step by step as he goes along out of what is at first a mere chaos of revolt, obscure promises, and lost names. There is a kind of analogy between Macbeth's struggles and the struggles of the artist, the Michelangelesque hewing out of the perfected shape resident in the marble block, or Yeats's struggles with tenth-rate scrawls as he works toward the complete realization of the hidden image. Perhaps this is one reason why we feel Macbeth is, in H. S. Wilson's words, ‘a poetic person’.1 Macbeth is poetical not only because of the poetry of his utterance, and not only because of ‘his power to grasp fully and concretely what is happening to himself’,2 but also because he voluntarily puts his hand to the work of creating his own role and situation and seems constantly to be making claims, though of a blasphemous kind, to reorder Nature and Nature's germens into his own patterns. There are parts of the play in which Macbeth can be seen as evilly parodying the artist's entitlement to a creative function analogous to that of the Creator himself, just as Milton's Satan is a dark antithesis of the Almighty, establishing an infernal kingdom and begetting hideous angels.

The Witches rhyme powerfully upon his name in the first scene: it is the climax of their chant—‘There to meet with Macbeth’. But Macbeth begins the play by acquiring an additional name, ‘Thane of Cawdor’, and it is this circumstance, perhaps more than anything else, which starts Macbeth off imagining himself as a murderer—that long exercise of the imagination in which he tries to see himself in the role of murderer and tries to work himself up to it. The smallness and apparent insignificance of this germ contrasts with the lengthy and explicit imposition of his task upon Hamlet by the Ghost, with Iago's ‘evidence’, or with the total reversal of circumstance that forces Lear into unaccustomed self-examination and imaginative recreation of himself. Macbeth, beginning with this tiny speck, is observed accreting everything else around it. Duncan's rewarding Macbeth with this title is indeed the only event in the second scene of the play in the sense of being the only thing that that scene contributes to the forward movement of the plot. The scene itself is a curious combination of orderly calm and deliberation with wild, baroque disorder and gesture, like waves breaking at the foot of a monument. The antithesis of foul and fair, of discomfort swelling from comfort, which runs through the language and metaphor, is thus supported by the larger design of the scene. This, at any rate, is the impression that the scene gives on the stage; Duncan is confined to the spot, listening, mostly silent, yet central and in control as the news breaks upon him; the first speech of the bleeding Captain culminates in the first presentation of Macbeth as the man of blood who

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.


Before the next wave of verbal and pictorial violence can be hurled against Duncan, the Captain collapses, and Ross, after a pause of intensifying suspense, carries it to a greater height than the first had reached. In the manner of speech of both Ross and the Captain there is a kind of dramatic, attention-calling excess and excitement which seems consciously to build up to the ‘happy’, victorious ending. The violence of the waves is not entirely real; they are waves in a story, in a Senecan messenger's speech. They express, like baroque art, a contrived disorder, and I do not therefore feel that we need take too seriously the image of Macbeth as the man of blood which is presented in them. Unseaming enemies from the nave to the chops is a violence which belongs to the descriptive facility of the messenger rather than very closely to Macbeth himself, and there is not really very much in this scene which leads us to qualify the epithets of ‘noble’ and ‘brave’ (somewhat neutral ones in the circumstances—it was the least they could say) which are applied to him in it. But the scene does of course present blood and disorder, even if it is firmly controlled and set in a frame. The act of order which emerges from it at the end, Duncan's

No more that Thane of Cawdor shall deceive
Our bosom interest.—Go pronounce his present death,
And with his former title greet Macbeth.


concludes the episode, seals up the revolt as something over and done with; Macbeth, on behalf of Duncan's order, has suppressed the revolt, and Macbeth gets his reward, and that is the end of it.

Yet, with an irony which the imagery of this scene has already sufficiently introduced to us, from this comfortable return to normality swells the whole subsequent storm. When the Witches greet Macbeth with the equivocal titles, his ‘start’ and ‘fear’, on which Banquo comments, may be—and usually are—taken as an indication that something has been germinating in Macbeth's mind, and yet we cannot be really certain that Shakespeare intends us to understand this: it is perhaps a bit naïve of Banquo to suppose (as he seems to) that Macbeth ought to receive the incredible invocation with a beam of satisfaction—would not the most virtuous of men be somewhat taken aback, sense a threat or an evil joke, at being greeted in a fashion which ‘stands not within the prospect of belief’, at having his destiny sketched out in a way which seems so wildly unlike probability? The doubt at any rate, if at all valid, merely underlines Shakespeare's intention of showing us the ‘something’ in its most microscopic, its barely identifiable, germinal state and emphasizing how much the vision of himself as a murderer and a king, which he is shortly to start building up, is Macbeth's own imposition upon himself. Shakespeare shows us the building process from the very beginning when we only suspect, and cannot be certain, like Macbeth himself, that there is something there to be seen. For it is when the Witches keep one part of their word of promise to his ear that Macbeth really begins to face the possibility of nerving himself to his role, to labour with the unspeakable possibility. The new title of Thane of Cawdor comes up again, proudly borne in, as it were, by Ross and Angus, and Macbeth's response is unequivocal: he wants to be able to hope. The title now bears on its underside the hidden promise of the ‘greatest’ (for the name of Cawdor is growing in a sinister way since it left Duncan's hands in the previous scene), and such are the circumstances that Macbeth perhaps might be excused for coupling it with a yet greater title, were it not that Shakespeare has very strikingly contrasted Banquo's responses with Macbeth's and put into Banquo's mouth a direct warning to Macbeth that the two names must be kept separate (i.iii.120-6). Again we are returned to Macbeth's nature, to the fertile ground there. And then finally we have the first soliloquy, the first painful symptom of germination. His heart thumps, his skin crawls; the new name, so proudly and orderly handled by others, as it presses upon him (‘I am Thane of Cawdor’) confuses his sense of his own identity, and leaves him momentarily nameless and robbed of action, wholly intent upon something that exists only in his imagination. This soliloquy is as near as Shakespeare could get, within the limits imposed by the extreme articulacy of his form, to portraying the first surge of an idea in the moment of its birth. Beside it Brutus' soliloquy (Julius Caesar, ii.i.61-69), with which it naturally invites comparison, seems like a commentary upon it, rather than an actualization of even faintly comparable power. It is the birth of Macbeth's vision of himself as a murderer that we are watching; it is physically disorganizing, ‘against the use of nature’, ‘horrible’, because of its own essential horror or because it is being resisted; it is formless because it has not yet been properly born or because Macbeth cannot bear to look at it properly. In each case the second alternative points at a determinate, basic fact that Shakespeare wants us to know about Macbeth: that he is not a man to whom such a vision can be other than revolting, fit for instant rejection. Yet the internal events leading up to it have been revealed in such carefully calculated glimpses that we know that some element in Macbeth is alone responsible for what another element in him struggles to suppress. It seems the most desperately private moment anywhere in the plays, if we except the last soliloquy of Richard III; Macbeth, like Richard, is in communion with nothing but the struggling elements within himself, whereas Lear's or Othello's or even Hamlet's soliloquies tend to become invocations to outside powers (including the audience) or somewhat objectified versions of themselves. This is perhaps because we are taken further back into Macbeth's history than we are into that of any of the other characters, and this is because the role is created by the protagonist's own nature in a more fundamental sense than is the case with Hamlet and Othello or even with Lear. Such a condition cannot last long, and Macbeth falls away from it into a kind of Stoic apathy—‘Perhaps I don't need to do anything to make it happen’;

… chance may crown me,
                    Without my stir.

And his next remark is, in the context, an almost pointless aphorism:

                                                                                                    Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Certainly nothing has been decided; Macbeth must of course dissemble his ‘rapt’ condition (i.iii.150-1); the speech to Banquo may be a feeler towards a sinister alliance, but Banquo (unless he has here momentarily become a relic of Holinshed's Banquo) doesn't recognize it as such.

As a potential murderer, in the next scenes Macbeth struggles to behave in what he considers an appropriate way, one suited to an idea of the role. This is an effort of the imagination, which endeavours to overlay conscience, which in Macbeth is itself imaginative. He composes passages about the role as though to verbalize the vision of himself as murderer were a means of countering that other impulse (and all the powerful reasons as well) which say that he ought not to undertake the role at all. We have the first of these passages just after Duncan has bestowed another of his fatal titles:

The Prince of Cumberland!—That is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires;
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.


This language of rhyming invocation is not Macbeth's usual style; these monosyllables move with an uneasy formality which half-suggests the stage villain shrouding his face melodramatically in his cloak. It is a gesture, the striking of an attitude, whose unreality is immediately emphasized by Lady Macbeth's intimate account of a much more complex Macbeth (i.v.15-30) who needs her inspiriting before he can genuinely feel himself in the role of murderer to which in this speech he is only pretending. Lady Macbeth's own invocation is quite different and carries instant conviction as having all her will and imagination poured into it. Her prayer to the demonic spirits signalizes her passionate wish to become an instrument wholly adapted to getting the murder done, for her nature to be transformed and become as cruel as the deed; there is to be complete consonance between performer and performance, an integrity so absolute as to make her the human equivalent of the murthering ministers themselves, who are evil by metaphysical device. Her prayer, as the play goes on to reveal, is not wholly answered; but it shows that she, unlike Macbeth, commits herself completely to the task, allowing the nature of the deed itself to determine her own nature; the role shall be her master, infusing her with its own life and driving out her own. Lady Macbeth does not attempt to excuse or justify the deed, or indeed to look at it at all; she simply allows its evil, which is clearly realized by her, to take charge. This is, as it were, the degree of commitment to which Lady Macbeth would like to pledge her husband as she looks forward to pouring her spirits into his ear and chastising him with the valour of her tongue. To effect it, she must remove the impediments which she has described in the soliloquy about his character, the essential human kindness, the ‘fear’ (perhaps more rightly to be called ‘scruple’—we must allow for her point of view), the ambition that won't be logical, all that essentially normal mixture of good and bad which earlier had allowed Macbeth to rest in

If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me,
Without my stir.

And when Macbeth enters, for what in the play is his first meeting with her, we see that he is as uncommitted as ever, that he has scarcely moved a step by the end of the scene from his position at the end of the first scene with the Witches when he says to Banquo, as he now says to his wife, no more but ‘We will speak further’. In spite of her entirely specific references to ‘this night's great business’, he is remarkably reticent; but that he makes no gesture of repudiation also suggests that he sees in Lady Macbeth a figure of the Chance that may crown him ‘without his stir’: ‘Leave all the rest (apart from behaving with the smiling countenance of a host) to me’, she says; Macbeth has from the first felt that if he could just let it happen without having to commit himself to doing it, that would be a tolerable way.

There is not much evidence that Macbeth can play even the minor part of smiling host that Lady Macbeth has set down for him. She takes it on herself in, and Duncan remarks upon his absence with surprise. What is most surprising about the soliloquy in the next scene is the way in which it ‘jumps the life to come’, that is to say disregards the possibility of retribution and punishment for sin in another world. In facing the act of murder Macbeth considers its consequences, that it is hard to ‘get away with murder’, but the traditionally supreme sanctions are dismissed right at the beginning:

                                                            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.


The remark is strangely impersonal, as though it were the fruit of Macbeth's observation of what really motivates men: they are afraid to commit murder because it sets a bad example of which they themselves may in time become the victims. The thought of the deed itself no longer inspires the physical horror which it once aroused. It is rejected because it breaks a social bond which keeps the individual safe from others. Then Macbeth thinks of his obligations as kinsman, subject, and host—another series of social bonds, which argue to the same end. Then he turns from himself to think of Duncan and his virtues. The great image with which the passage ends is not an image of supernatural vengeance but of all humanity weeping with pity for Duncan. The soliloquy rises through prudential considerations to an overwhelming expression of Macbeth's social and moral sensibility. The idea of murder occupies his whole mind, is received there, and can be defined; and this shows how hugely the original minuscule seed of i.iii has grown. The idea of himself as murderer is no longer something ‘fantastical’, but real enough to be rejected, so that the soliloquy serves the double purpose of showing how his imagination has shaped what was once shapeless and how he cannot commit himself to what he now sees does really exist in his mind as an ‘intent’. Macbeth from now on is someone conscious of a task, even though he rejects it; he is in communication with his role as a living thing in his imagination. It is the paradoxical effect of this soliloquy, which so cogently expresses Macbeth's reasons against murder, to make us feel that he is nearer to enactment of it than he has ever been before. He is seeing murder, after all, as an act within the context of the life he participates in, the life of society, with its moral and kingly bonds, its logic of the bad example, and its human grief, and not as something unidentifiably shocking and nameless. It has changed from a ‘horrid image’ to ‘th' assassination’. If this is now the condition of Macbeth's sensibility, it is less surprising that his wife, in the ensuing passages, is able to commit him. He does not try to bring into his communion with her the broader aspects of his moral sensibility or ‘nature’ (although, if her soliloquy in i.v.16-25 is any evidence, she may be said to know about them and to calculate accordingly), but his refusal draws upon the area, his life and position in society, upon which his soliloquy was centred:

We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people …


In a sense, this makes it easier for her, for all she has to do is to replace Macbeth's image of himself as host, kinsman, and subject with another human image—the ‘man’ who dares, who takes what he wants, and is the more the ‘man’ because he does so. When Macbeth says,

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none,

it is man defined as he defined himself in the soliloquy that he is offering. But as she overwhelms him with her will and disposes of the practical objections, it is her definition of ‘man’ that he finally takes with complete acceptance when he cries:

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


The step from one definition to the other is not so very great (most societies, indeed, seem to be able to recognize both without notable difficulty, especially if they are, like Macbeth's, militarily inclined). By means of this trick Macbeth is committed to seeing himself in terms appropriate to the enactment of murder. His last words in the scene have that hollow and slightly melodramatic ring which characterized ‘Stars, hide your fires!’—they consciously override with a Senecan declamatory effect the more complex poetry of the Macbeth who conceived the ‘Pity’ image, of the Macbeth whom the audience knows can be described, in language which objects to this new, stiff bravado, as ‘too full of the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way …’:

Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.


In the murder scenes Shakespeare specially exploits these varieties of speech.

Now that he has come to it, the Macbeth of the soliloquy about the dagger is the Macbeth to whom murder is a horrid image, born out of some atavistic place within himself in a context of lost identity and supernatural soliciting. It is obvious that this Macbeth, the one who sees ghosts and whose hair stirs with horror, has not been overridden by the ‘man’ in either of its senses. Yet it is against this Macbeth that Lady Macbeth's man screws up his courage, and the language of the speech passes insensibly into another mode. Macbeth works himself up into the mood of ‘I will be as wicked as I ought to be’ in words that are designed to have something of the inspiriting function of an alarm to battle, the cry before the charge.

                                                            Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep: Witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's off'rings; and wither'd Murther,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost.—Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my where-about,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.—Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.


This is the Macbeth who deliberately composes about himself, with, as he recognizes, ‘words’ consciously ordered, as though he were a kind of poet. The scene is carefully set and objectified and curiously distanced: the abstract ‘Murther’ is amplified in controlled parenthesis with his attendant wolf, who is, in a quite elaborate conceit, a sentinel whose watchword is his regular howl; and Murther is further illuminated with the rare, classical, poeticizing image of Tarquin, an image amplifying the idea of might, breathless silence, and striding evil. He invokes the earth, as formerly he had invoked the stars, and concludes his poem with an objective vision of himself in which he is assimilated to the figure of Murther playing his part in a scene which must uphold him by being appropriately set. Yet the poem is not entirely satisfactory to Macbeth, does not quite tip him over the edge, and he covers the moment by leaving the stage with another of those stretched, resounding declamations:

Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to Heaven, or to Hell.


It seems that this passage is Macbeth's method for making the task bearable to himself; he can just reach it, sufficiently narrow the gap between assumption and enactment of the role, adequately prick the sides of his intent, by using this spur and raising himself on these stilts of art. But it is a very precarious achievement recognized as such even in the moment of its attainment, while its artificiality, its conscious and deliberate formality and single vision, can be seen merely to put in abeyance, without abolishing, the Macbeth who is more complex, and much harder to satisfy.

This is the Macbeth we see after the murder, his artificially stimulated ‘strength’ unbended (ii.ii.44) and his ‘constancy’ (ii.ii.67) fled. The deed has become again a ‘horrid image’, but much worse than before because it is now completely projected and actualized; Macbeth's imagination of rejection works hard upon all its circumstances, which are raised in his mind to symbols of retributive alienation from the ordinary life of man, praying, or sleeping, or washing his hands. As he faces his deed in retrospect, there is a specially vivid intercommunion between his inward self and the part he has played, but it is not really different in kind, only in degree, from what obtained before, when he was contemplating the deed in prospect with the ‘nature’ of the true Macbeth, not the Macbeth who deliberately assimilated himself to Murther in order to get the deed done. That posing and attitudinizing Macbeth, a development of Lady Macbeth's ‘man’, falls away at a touch and leaves the Macbeth who, like Hamlet or Brutus continually ‘thinks’ before and after.

The murder of Duncan, of course, condemns Macbeth in realms that range beyond his characterological pattern. What to him is a horrid image is elsewhere a subversion of the natural order, which in time reasserts itself and brings his punishment. This awe-inspiring process is greater than Macbeth, but it is a process rather than a person, even though it expresses itself first through storms and maddened horses and finally through such equally functional personages as Malcolm and Macduff. It is vital to the total effect and memorability of the play and has been properly emphasized by the commentators. But Macbeth himself still strives to live as something more hopeful and vital than a condemned man awaiting the end; although everything he now is dwells, in the audience's knowledge, beneath that dark shadow, and colours our apprehension of him, he concentrates a special kind of attention by unfolding, in further story, the relationship between his inward self and his deeds.

The murder of Banquo, although the story of the episode in all its details is quite a different one, seems to show the same pattern of character in Macbeth as the murder of Duncan. The soliloquy (iii.i.47-71) counterparts the ‘If it were done …’ soliloquy. Macbeth weighs the deed responsively, considering the relation between himself and his victim; just as his thoughts were once concentrated on murder in relation to his social position as host and kinsman, so now they link it with his kingly position, particularly as the begetter of a royal line. Rejected, as it was formerly, or accepted, as it is here, murder is something that can be thought about in relation to the self as a course of conduct which may disadvantage or advance him, ensure his safety among men, or rob him of men's golden opinions. Both soliloquies are the words of a man who wants to keep what he has got: his safety (common to both), respect, royal position, an idea of himself as an integrity, a creature whose acts are meaningful, not self-cancelling. They give contrary answers to the same question: will murder achieve such ends? And yet both have a quality much less constricted than this description implies, which is peculiarly Macbeth's: it expresses itself in his free-hearted recognition of his victims' virtues and in the way in which each speech rises to a glimpse of religious myth (‘heaven's cherubim’, ‘mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man’). Because it entertains the thought of murder as a possible means to an end, Lady Macbeth, as we have seen, had not found it too difficult to replace the more fully human image of the self with her version of what it means to be a man. There is a similar transition here in the Banquo episode when Macbeth puts it to the Murderers: are they merely men, as the catalogue has it, or are they the kind of ‘man’ Macbeth wants, the kind that will strike secretly at their enemies? Yet Macbeth, as his conversation with Lady Macbeth (iii.ii) makes clear, is still the haunted victim, whose frame is shaken by terrible dreams and whose mind is full of scorpions; the definition of safety passes insensibly from being safe on his throne to being saved from horrid images. And again he covers this up by a formalization of imagined murder, composing with conscious art a passage about the murder of Banquo which has many resemblances in feeling and style to his ‘poem’ about the murder of Duncan:

Then be thou jocund. Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister'd flight; ere to black Hecate's summons
The shard-born beetle, with his drowsy hums,
Hath rung Night's yawning peal, there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note …
                                                            Come, seeling Night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful Day,
And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,
Cancel, and tear to pieces, that great bond
Which keeps me pale!—Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood;
Good things of Day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles Night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
Thou marvell'st at my words: but hold thee still;
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.

(iii.ii.40-44, 46-55)

This is primarily an invocation to Night to aid the accomplishment of the murder, as he had previously conjured Earth to be silent during the murder of Duncan. But the invocation serves him by objectifying the moment and giving him control over his restless mind. Calling forth a dark enchanter's power, it sets the scene for an act which will, he hopes, assure his safety, and create an illusion that he stands at the centre and controls his fate. By formally signalizing his dedication to the murder of Banquo, it is meant less to chill our blood than to show us Macbeth freezing his doubt-ridden soul into an attitude of mastery, a fixed shape of gloomy terror that will dominate the event and make it run his way.

His experiences after Banquo's murder force Macbeth back into his old condition of stultified horror. The order ‘whole as the marble, founded as the rock’ that he has tried to create he continues to uphold in the banquet, struggling against the ‘saucy doubts and fears’ which the news of Fleance's escape have aroused. The banquet itself and Macbeth's toasts to Banquo are not the bravado of the villain, or even merely excitements of the spectators' sense of irony, so much as declarations that he can master events by imposing upon them a semblance or order with himself unchallengeably at the centre. But the ghost's appearance breaks through this from the world of the horrid image; it is as though Macbeth's instinctive rejection of murder has created ever more elaborate forms—the shuddering bewilderment of the first soliloquy developing through the nightmare visions before and after Duncan's murder into the completely uncontrollable phantasm of the murdered Banquo. All these seem to come from some deep place in Macbeth's own personality, the part that is at war both with the Macbeth who can rationally and morally consider murder as a means to an end and the Macbeth who endeavours to master both the inner and outer worlds with the strained and exalted language of his invocatory poems. Banquo's ghost is the most desperate of these creations of his heat-oppressed brain, and Lady Macbeth recognizes its provenance and kinship:

This is the very painting of your fear:
This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said,
Led you to Duncan.


He is convinced that it has objective reality, and it confuses his sense of his own identity and of the nature of the world in which he lives. It is the moment where the drama of Macbeth's inner life actually takes the form of two personae: the haunted man and that which haunts him, so that we feel ourselves looking at a kind of allegorical embodiment of his relationship with his deeds. Banquo is not only the ghost of a murdered man, but a figure of ‘fantastical’ Murther itself:

Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes,
Which thou dost glare with.


The ‘horrid image’ of the first soliloquy, the ‘wither'd Murther’, the ‘horrid deed’, ‘the terrible feat’, and the ‘deed of dreadful note’, the ‘dark hour’ have all risen up to appal Macbeth with an actualization of what he has so often named and used and thought about. His chosen role, the crime to which he gave birth, the special act which brands him, is now complete before him.

Macbeth breaks away from this repeated pattern of character in an excess of despairing vigour. Shakespeare closes up like a fan all that complex intercourse between character and deed, each shaping the other, which has presented Macbeth's life to us. This, it seems, happens quite suddenly in the play, and it is as easy to ascribe it to an authorial intervention as it is difficult to identify its cause in what is shown to us of the motives of the character. It is true that Macbeth's isolation has increased (in his refusal to share the secret of Banquo's murder with Lady Macbeth) and that he has partially at any rate learnt what he was not at all practised at previously, to make his face a vizard to his heart. These are signs of the hardening of his nature, but he certainly fails each time he tries to act a brazen part; after Duncan's murder, Malcolm, Donalbain, and, of course, Banquo are not really deceived, and Macbeth's failure to sustain his poise after Banquo's murder is his worst and most public. The Macbeth who is so continually on the rack up to the ending of iii.iv cannot be said to have grown as cruel as his deeds, although he darkens them deliberately with the persuasive trappings of Hecate, Night, Murther—trappings which may be described as deliberate attempts to make his inward self of the same nature as the deed that's done but which so completely fail to sustain him when he really sees the deed for what it is. If the new brutality and directness of Macbeth's resolution after iii.iv do not appear arbitrary or in any way diminish the play, it is because the spectators have already had the two murders directly brought home to them in their full horror: it is mediated to them, paradoxically enough, by Macbeth's own horror, which we share, but also by the direct evidence of Duncan's graciousness, Banquo's virtues (and the witnessed annihilation of them), the storms and portents of outraged nature, and the general sense of a movement of recoil amongst the gathering forces of restoration and retribution. Acts which so cogently persuade us of their evil character lead easily to the inference that the man who can do them must quickly come to the point of no return and become a creature like his deeds. He does so; but we are not shown the antecedents of his transformation. The murderer of Banquo, who is fundamentally the same sort of person as the murderer of Duncan, becomes the murderer of Lady Macduff without our really being forced to ask what has altered the pattern of his character, why the long adjustment to the deed and the horrid imagination breaking through after it are no longer there. A practical motive for his abridgement of the whole process can be sought for—the need to check the gathering revolt at once; or we can say that it is born out of sheer despair, a wild lashing-out at Fate. But these are inferences, too, and only refer us back to the larger inference, that the nature of the criminal must be hardened and narrowed into despair by unrepented crime. Macbeth suddenly discovers this hard nature and drives on with it. But he could—the potentiality is there up to iii.iv in his remorse, his heavy disliking of his task, the continual rebirth of the horrid image—just as easily, had Shakespeare's story permitted it, have turned to repentance—more easily, since it is the remorse and horror in his character that continually makes the toughness which he assumes give way before it. It is the fact that he has murdered rather than the way in which he has murdered which shuts off any escape route from him. This may be a very sound assumption about the nature of things, as it is certainly a true rendering of the rule that appears to apply in Macbeth's Scotland and Macbeth's cosmos, and it is plainly a good sort of deterrent against those intending murder from whatever motive. But it does not exactly offer the terms for explaining, in the light of what we already know about Macbeth's character, how he can suddenly alter that character and devise a new, more brutal—one could almost say ‘uncharacteristic’—approach to murder.

In future, then, Macbeth will ‘think’ no more:

Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd.


The gap between ‘head’ and ‘hand’ is to be ferociously narrowed; scanned has the double sense of examined ‘by myself’ as well as discovered ‘by others’. Macbeth goes to the Witches in order to ‘know, / By the worst means, the worst’, in order to direct his course the more unswervingly, and his sense of how much this is the ‘worst’ means is mediated by his willingness to bring about ultimate destruction in order to have his path clear (iv.i.50-61). Yet he faces this, out of his frantic desire for the simultaneity of his thought with his doing, which is intensified by the news of Macduff's escape:

Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits:
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.


This conjunction of head/hand, heart/hand, thought/act leaves no space for the old Macbeth, whose characteristic vitality, interest, and appeal derived precisely from the complex and changeable inner life of head and heart called forth by his prospects and retrospects of the work of his hand. By eliminating all that area of Macbeth's activity Shakespeare has shown us not so much a change of character (for we never actually see the process of change—the area is not gradually but sharply shut off) as the result of such a change. A different Macbeth is revealed, and the interest and pathos that it has depends heavily upon the fact of our knowing that he was not always like this. Macbeth's character is like a portion of a spectrum in which the two colours are quite sharply distinguished from one another but are none the less harmoniously related in the sense that they form an aesthetically satisfying spectacle—but perhaps a morally less satisfying one.

How much of the life of the play resides in Macbeth's imaginative actualization of his own deeds is pretty clearly demonstrated by what may be called the Macduff episode (iv.ii,iii). The destruction of Macduff's family is the most pointless and horrible of Macbeth's crimes; but since Macbeth's feelings are not engaged in it (that, indeed, is the point, and what he has come to), it lacks a dimension which the murders of Duncan and Banquo possess. Even Bradley seems to have felt it to be unnecessary, except as having ‘a technical value in helping to give the last stage of the action the form of a conflict between Macbeth and Macduff’,3 but defended it on the grounds that it, and the scene of Macduff's grief, permits us to escape from ‘the oppression of huge sins and sufferings into the presence of the wholesome affections of unambitious hearts’.4 If this is so, the scenes, including the episode between Malcolm and Macduff, represent the order and values which Macbeth has violated, and which are now gathering head against him. Thus the primary element in the scenes, even though Macbeth is in the plot their cause, is something which flows against rather than from Macbeth, and has little relevance to the definition of his character in the sense in which it has been discussed in this chapter.

Macbeth's actions in the last phase of the play are shallow and short-breathed. They are harshly limited in being mostly reactions against the threats from outside (‘They have tied me to a stake’), and at the other end are ridden on the short, rotten rein of the Witches' prophecies. Both the defiance and the confidence fail to rise out of the personality from any depths in the man; they are animal-like; reflex actions to situations and stimuli whose originating agents lie outside Macbeth's control. That he can discover nothing in himself which will respond at any deeper level is shown by the passive, exhausted way in which he takes the news of Lady Macbeth's death. For to set against the confidence (which is sometimes near to hysteria) we have Macbeth's exhausted commentary on the failure of his whole enterprise and the meaningless play-acting of life. Like Richard III he sees life as a succession of parts to which no real self is dedicated, which do not communicate with anything in the mimic, for the mimic is a shadow without substance, ridiculously shortened by time. This other mood of Macbeth has no relation in the man himself—only that which the audience may infer—with the defiant Macbeth; the two states do not interpenetrate. Their separation shows what has happened to the complete man, the man whose pattern of experience gave at least evidence that the conflicting elements in him arose from a personality that was still a full circle, not two broken halves. Macbeth's last state is no worse—and no better—than this. It is the common experience: the need to keep on, the sense of the failure and pointlessness of it all. Macbeth cannot integrate the two even enough to bring him to the point of suicide (there perhaps Lady Macbeth has the advantage of him). Is this ‘Hell’, as some think? Surely not, if we expect Hell to be something more out of the common, more preternaturally defined. Macbeth's huge crimes, which rouse all Nature against him, are in ironic contrast to the ordinariness of his final state; that woods should march and prophecies be ironically confirmed seems an immense labour for the destruction of so unterrifying a thing. That master shape, that colossus brooding over a nightmare world—Macbeth even in his most determined imaginations never achieved so large a stature; he ends by merely hitting out, a child tragically armed with weapons that can destroy a country. The monster of evil that Macduff and Malcolm need to see, and that some of the commentators require also, is in the end simply not there; Macbeth never quite succeeded in imagining him.


  1. On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), p. 69.

  2. V. Y. Kantak, in Shakespeare Survey 16 (Cambridge, 1964), p. 44.

  3. Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), p. 391.

  4. Ibid., p. 392.

R. A. Foakes (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth.” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 7-29. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

[In the following essay, Foakes characterizes Macbeth as Shakespeare's most complex examination of ambition and its brutal potential.]

Macbeth is Shakespeare's last and most original play on the theme of the ambitious prince finally overthrown. Its roots lie deep in the medieval and Renaissance preoccupation with tragedy as the fall of great men or women, brought low by fortune's wheel and so exemplifying the mutability of human life, or overreaching themselves and illustrating the retribution visited upon the proud and sinful. It was natural for Shakespeare to explore the possibilities for tragedy of

          sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murder'd.

(Richard II, III.ii.156-60)

In writing his early plays he had the impact of Marlowe to absorb, who had broken the moralising pattern of such stories as mirrors for magistrates by showing Tamburlaine striding on to ever further conquests, and endowed with a mind aspiring to beauty and poetry as well as to power and an earthly crown. The Henry VI plays are full of aspiring princes, and culminate in the rise of Gloucester, whose ruthless ambition is qualified by his wit and energy; these plays, and Richard III, nevertheless remain within the conventional pattern. A much more complex study of an ambitious prince is realised in Bolingbroke, who, without seeming to recognise the extent of his ambitions, overthrows and effectively murders Richard II, and achieves the throne, only to be punished by ill health, by constant rebellions, and by the vagaries of Prince Hal. A further variant is developed in Brutus, whose confidence in his own rectitude, the name of ‘honour’ for which his line has always been noted, blinds him to the true nature of the murder of Caesar. Then, in Hamlet, Shakespeare was to develop still subtler variations, in Claudius, a ‘good’ and effective monarch who, we discover, has gained the throne by murder, and in Hamlet himself, driven by events to act as if he were indeed, as he says to Ophelia, ‘very proud, revengeful, ambitious’ (Hamlet III.i.124), but delaying and avoiding action in an attempt to escape from the implications of what he feels he must do, kill Claudius.

Superficially, Macbeth seems to return to a more conventional mode, and on one level it is much more straightforwardly a play about an ambitious prince who overreaches himself in murdering the King, and who brings about his own downfall in the end. But it goes beyond Shakespeare's earlier treatments of the theme, notably in two ways. One is the new dimension given by the witches, and the sense of evil which is generated largely through their presence in the play; for this enables Shakespeare to show a more profound spiritual change in Macbeth than in any of his earlier protagonists. Bolingbroke and Claudius feel their guilt, but Macbeth is shown as creating his own hell. In this the play has links with Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, but whereas Faustus achieves nothing in return for selling his soul, and in the end, terrified at the prospect of punishment, is whisked off by devils into a traditional stage hell-mouth, Shakespeare expresses dramatically through his presentation of Macbeth that subtler idea of hell verbalised in Mephistopheles' description of it as ‘being depriv'd of everlasting bliss’ (Scene III, l.82). Faustus himself seems to begin to understand this in his curses at the end:

                                                                                                                                  curse Lucifer
That hath depriv'd thee of the joys of heaven;

(Scene XIX, ll.181-2)

but in Marlowe's play hell as deprivation remains merely a concept. It remained for Shakespeare to realise on stage what this means in terms of character.

A second way in which Shakespeare breaks new ground in Macbeth is in his deeper study of the nature of ambition, which is the special concern of this essay. Ambition is usually understood in its straightforward sense as an eagerness to gain promotion and power, to rise in the world, and, as Duncan's general in the field, Macbeth might be expected to fit Bacon's conception in ‘Of Ambition’: ‘Good Commanders in the Warres, must be taken, be they never so Ambitious. … And to take a Soldier without Ambition, is to pull off his Spurres.’ Charles Lamb saw further than this in a striking comment provoked by the actor G. F. Cooke's playing of Richard III as a ‘very wicked man’ who kills for pleasure:1

The truth is, the Characters of Shakespeare are so much the objects of meditation rather than of interest or curiosity as to their actions, that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters—Macbeth, Richard, even Iago,—we think not so much of the crimes which they commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual activity, which prompts them to overleap those moral fences.

Lamb was led to notice something especially significant in Macbeth—that the emphasis when we read the play is less on what he does than on the activity of mind connected with his deeds. Lamb strikingly linked, perhaps equated, ambition, aspiration and intellectual activity, in a way which now may seem a little eccentric. For on the one hand, the meaning of ambition is more restricted than this on the one occasion when Macbeth speaks the word, at that point towards the end of Act I when he comes nearest to abandoning the murder of Duncan. At this moment of revulsion against the killing of the King,

We will proceed no further in this business,


Macbeth reduces all that has been exciting him in the contemplation of the death of Duncan to ‘only vaulting ambition’, the mere desire to be King. This would seem to justify the claim that2

Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown.

On the other hand, Lamb's comment reduces to a subordinate role the moral issues which to many have seemed of primary importance. The play has been seen as effectively a morality, with an action that can be summarised thus:3

Its hero is worked upon by forces of evil, yields to
temptation in spite of all that his conscience can do to
stop him, goes deeper into evil-doing as he is further
tempted, sees the approach of retribution, falls into
despair, and is brought by retribution to his death.

This way of regarding Macbeth as an exemplary play displaying the degeneration of a great criminal who has ‘no morally valid reason for killing Duncan’,4 has satisfied many, although it does not account for a sense that somehow, in spite of everything, Macbeth retains an heroic stature at the end, when ‘in the very act of proclaiming that life “is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing” personal life announces its virtue, and superbly signifies itself.5 Lascelles Abercrombie's extraordinary use here of the word ‘virtue’ may be related to Wilson Knight's view that Macbeth ‘has won through by excessive crime to an harmonious and honest relation with his surroundings. … He now knows himself to be a tyrant confessed, and wins back … integrity of soul.’6

The word ‘ambition’ is used only three times in the play, and always in simple relation to the idea of worldly power, of gaining the throne, as when Lady Macbeth says her husband is ‘not without ambition’ (I.v.16), or Ross explains the supposed guilt of Malcolm and Donalbain for the death of Duncan in terms of ‘thriftless ambition’ (II.iv.28). The compulsion that drives Macbeth is more complex than this, and requires further analysis. A better understanding of why Macbeth does what he does may in turn help to explain the curious contradictions that tend to emerge in the common moralistic accounts of the play, which are torn between condemning him as a criminal and rescuing a grandeur, integrity, even virtue for him at the end. A sense of this difficulty has in part prompted a recent account of Macbeth as lacking ‘the requisite moral sense and agony of conscience that any proper tragic hero must have’;7 this is a response to critics who see Macbeth as essentially good, when he has ‘neither moral sense nor awareness of its existence’.8 Such an account of Macbeth may seem a strange, even perverse, reading, but it stems from a genuine problem, and involves an important recognition, that Macbeth's ‘imagination is not under his control; he is its creature.’9 For another common assumption about Macbeth is that because he has great poetry to speak he must be an ‘intellectual giant’;10 when a very important question the text raises is how far Macbeth understands his own words.

Moralistic accounts of Macbeth as falling into temptation, committing a terrible crime and ending in despair, pass too readily by the question that haunts the first two acts, why does Macbeth kill Duncan? It seems plain that he has thought of such a possibility before meeting the witches, or at least that his starting at their greetings of him (I.iii.51) registers his awareness at this moment that what they say gives conscious expression to a half-formed image; and this is confirmed by the first scene in which Lady Macbeth appears, for the death of Duncan is already an idea familiar to her, even to the murder weapon, the ‘keen knife’ that is to do the deed (I.v.49). If the thought of murdering Duncan is already there, so to speak, in the minds of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, then the notion of Macbeth as tempted needs further scrutiny. The Weird Sisters announce that Macbeth will be king, and since their other prophecy, that he will be Thane of Cawdor, is immediately fulfilled, what they say might rather prompt him to sit tight than to plot to murder the King. Whatever it is that tempts Macbeth to do the deed is in himself and in his wife. And yet, hard on receiving notice of his new ‘honour’, the title of Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth reveals that he is already thinking of murder.

The context for all this is the opening of the play, with its emphasis on the butchery of war. According to Holinshed Macdonwald killed himself in his castle, and Macbeth, finding the dead body, and ‘remitting no piece of his cruel nature’,11 cut the head off and sent it as a present to Duncan. In the play the bleeding Captain describes a much stranger image of death. Macbeth, brandishing his sword, ‘which smok'd with bloody execution’, as if burning with rage, or steaming with hot blood, ‘carv'd’ a passage through men to confront the living Macdonwald:

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 suggestion of ripping Macdonwald's flesh like cloth from the navel to the jaws completes an image of startling ferocity, quite overshadowing the attribute of courage in ‘brave Macbeth. … Like Valour's minion’. It is as if Macbeth delights in such brutal killing, and loves

          to bathe in reeking wounds
Or memorize another Golgotha,


Is the force of this to suggest that in the heat of battle Macbeth and Banquo destroy all indiscriminately who come in their way, turning the battlefield into another place of a skull, or dead bones? Are they being likened to the soldiers who crucified Christ?

The bleeding captain's narrative of the battle is supported by the report of Ross, who, on the immediate sentencing of Cawdor to death, is sent to greet Macbeth from the King:

He finds thee in the stout Norweyan ranks
Nothing afeard of what thyself didst make,
Strange images of death.


Here, in these opening scenes, if anywhere, Macbeth comes near to being represented as a ‘butcher’ (V.viii.69), so habituated to the horror of the battlefield that he is untroubled by the ‘strange images of death’ he makes and sees all round him.

Yet it is at this point he learns he is Thane of Cawdor: the Weird Sisters have told two truths—he is Thane of Glamis ‘by Sinel's death’ (I.iii.71), and Thane of Cawdor because the previous holder of the title has just been executed. Shakespeare omits to tell his audience that Sinel was, according to Holinshed, Macbeth's father, and so leaves us to suppose that Sinel too may have met a violent end. Within a short space Macbeth has his first soliloquy12 in the form of a long aside on ‘the imperial theme’ (I.iii.129) which has already been troubling his imagination, and he now sees an image of death he cannot face so easily:

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


The ‘horrid image’ of murder is stranger than any of the earlier images of death, and it both terrifies him and excites him. It is part of the ‘swelling act Of the imperial theme’, with the promise of the crown as reward, and at the same time it fills him with present fears and horrible imaginings. He attributes the suggestion or image to ‘supernatural soliciting’, as if the Weird Sisters have incited or importuned him, and are responsible for the disturbance of his mind; but they have merely announced that he will be King, and as Macbeth knows, ‘chance may crown me Without my stir’ (I.iii.143-4). He has realised a new kind of challenge, one which so shakes his ‘single state of man’, suggesting something like an earthquake afflicting his individual little kingdom or ‘state’, that ordinary activity is stifled, and only ‘what is not’, those ‘horrible imaginings’, seems real. The speech records Macbeth's horror at, and fascination with, a new vision of death—not the brutal and casual slaughter of the battlefield, but the calculated murder of a king.

In Holinshed's account,13 the Weird Sisters first appear after the conclusion of peace between the Scots and the Danes, when Macbeth and Banquo meet them. Shakespeare introduces them in the opening scene, so that they contribute to the creation of atmosphere right away, and establish a sense of distance from the world of the audience. The first few scenes build up the suggestion of a barbaric and violent world, one in which Macbeth is habituated to images of death. The new image that first confronts him in I.iii, ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical’, fascinates him as a new challenge. In Holinshed,14 Macbeth only thinks of using force against Duncan after Malcolm has been nominated as ‘successor in the kingdome’, but in the play Macbeth has already imagined the death of the King before the advancement of Malcolm is mentioned in I.iv, echoing in his word ‘fantastical’ Banquo's question to the Weird Sisters, ‘Are ye fantastical, or that indeed / Which outwardly ye show?’ (I.iii.53-4). The boundary between the fantastical, the imaginary or illusory, and actuality is indeterminate, as Macbeth proceeds to create a new image of death.

For Macbeth the gap between the familiar images of death on the battlefield or by execution and the new image is terrifying, and his speeches, especially the soliloquies, in the scenes leading up to the killing of Duncan, record his difficulties in bridging that gap. His sense of the enormity of the act is made all the more impressive in relation to the Weird Sisters, whose stark malevolence is brought home in their vindictiveness towards the ‘master o’ th' Tiger' (I.iii.7); it is also presented in sharp contrast to Lady Macbeth's coolness, for her unfamiliarity with images of death perhaps makes it easy for her to contemplate the murder of Duncan without anxiety. Coleridge thought of her as having a ‘visionary and day-dreaming turn of mind’, ‘accustomed only to the Shadows of the Imagination, vivid enough to throw the every day realities into shadows, but not yet compared with their own correspondent realities’;15 it seems to me rather that Shakespeare presents her as lacking a fullness of imagination, as able only to envisage the deed as a triumph of the will. In her terrible soliloquy in I.v she turns herself by an act of will into another Weird Sister, shedding her sex (‘unsex me here’, I.v.38) and suppressing pity and remorse, so that when Macbeth enters at the end of it she greets him with an echo of the Weird Sisters' greeting in I.iii:

          Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!


She has indeed been ‘transported’ beyond the present, and feels ‘The future in the instant’, as if she were a wizard; so she has no thought of him as a man, of his battle-scars, of what he has endured,16 and overleaps the past and present in the glow of anticipated success. At the same time, she has no experience of death itself, and her confused image of the murder obscures it as if she is unable to see the deed:

                                                                                          Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, “Hold, hold.”


‘Thick night’ is so to obscure ‘thee’ (Duncan? or the knife?) that the wound will not be seen; and the distancing of the deed from herself under a pall of smoke is accentuated by the transference of vision from herself to the knife, which is not to ‘see’ what it does. Metaphorically the knife becomes a free agent acting on its own; her words evade the deed, as if she cannot bear to see the weapon, or the wound it makes, or the actual shape of the man to be murdered.

Macbeth, by contrast, sees the weapon and the deed clearly enough. Familiar as he is with images of death, the unpremeditated slaughter of the battlefield, this new image, requiring the planning of a murder, makes him ‘afeard’, and brings a new strain to bear on the courage and imagination of ‘brave Macbeth’. He has to contemplate what he is about:

                                                                                He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject—
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.


It is more than a ‘double trust’—Duncan is his kinsman, his King, his guest in his own home, and, Shakespeare suggests, a surrogate father-figure, and a holy man. Here again Holinshed's account is transformed, in which Duncan and Macbeth are roughly the same age, while Duncan, ‘soft and gentle of nature’,17 is merely a rather weak and incompetent monarch. Shakespeare changes their relationship so as to maximise the horror and challenge in the killing of the King. It is no ordinary murder, but rather the equivalent in its own kind of, say, breaking through the sound barrier for the first time. Macbeth fully recognises the ‘deep damnation’ of such a deed, and sees what it will give birth to, the ‘naked babe’ of pity, stirring universal sorrow for the victim, and hatred for the murderer.

His soliloquy at the beginning of I.vii ends with his one reference to ambition, as the only ‘spur’ to prick on his intention, and at this point he has talked himself into abandoning the project. Lady Macbeth enters to rouse him by calling him ‘coward’, invoking a concept of manliness, and reducing the issue to gaining the crown:

                                                                      Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’?


As earlier, she avoids confronting the murder itself, or translates it into a more familiar, if revolting, image of what she might have done, in dashing out the brains of her own child. For her it is a matter of Macbeth screwing ‘his courage to the sticking place’, and she seems to miss a dimension present in Macbeth's,

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.


What does it ‘become’ a man to do? In one sense this suggests actions that grace a man, as in the penitent death of Cawdor,

                                        Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.


At the same time Macbeth's words raise a question about the limits of human action; at what point should daring stop? Daring is what Macbeth is known for, as ‘valour's minion’ (I.ii.19), and Lady Macbeth effectually prompts him in terms that remind him of this; she displaces his brooding on the enormity of the deed and its consequence with the renewed sense of challenge, and he goes off resolved to

                                                                                                                                  bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.


She is oblivious to the terror of the feat, but succeeds in making it again for him part of the fascination of a daring beyond anything he has faced before.

This is brought home in his soliloquy in the next scene, in that ‘fatal vision’ (II.i.36) of the dagger, fatal as deadly, as foreboding his own as well as Duncan's death, and as inescapable, fateful. The dagger of the air is terrifying, but embodies too Macbeth's desire to achieve the deed. The dagger of the mind is, in its way, as real as the one Macbeth draws, though conjured out of words. At first it is a duplicate of the one he holds, but as it ushers him towards Duncan the illusory dagger changes:

                                                                                                                        I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.


At first symbolising his terror and desire to do the deed, it then becomes an emblem of the deed achieved, and as the vision fades, Macbeth's soliloquy ends with a series of images willing his identification with the powers of darkness, even as they register the ‘present horror’ of the moment. The lines suggest a link with the Weird Sisters, in their reference to witchcraft and to Hecate, and mark Macbeth's awareness that he is aligning himself with evil; but his full sense of the terrible nature of the murder he is about to do also makes the overcoming of his own scruples, of the horror he feels, of all the large part of himself that rebels against it, so much the greater challenge. The central lines of his soliloquy register this:

Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses,
Or else worth all the rest.


These lines reaffirm the double nature of that image of the death of Duncan which Macbeth sees here in the visionary dagger; his eyes are worth all the other senses in so far as they show through this illusion what is compelling him from within. When in the next scene Macbeth returns from the murder with two bloody daggers, one in each hand, the vision of his soliloquy here is made actual on the stage, and characteristically, this moment of triumph is also the moment when his sense of terror and guilt are maximised:

I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on't again I dare not.


This scene powerfully registers Macbeth's feelings immediately after the murder, when he is appalled by what he has done. The revulsion of the moment, marvellously expressed in the image of the blood on his hands staining the seas and ‘Making the green one red’ (II.ii.63), confirms the magnitude as well as the horror of the deed. But this quickly passes, for we learn in the next scene that Macbeth has returned to the scene of the crime to confront another image of death when he kills the grooms, accounting for it in terms of anger and love for Duncan. Whatever other explanations may be adduced for Lady Macbeth fainting at this point, the news of the killing of the grooms is enough to account for it. Here Macbeth's explanation shows how far he has gone beyond her in taking the initiative on his own; killing the grooms in addition to the King was not in her thoughts, and this marks the point at which she begins to lose him. He was at first horrified at his own deed in killing Duncan, but can return to look on the dead King and kill the grooms without a qualm:

                                                                                                              Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin lac'd with his golden blood;
And his gash'd stabs look'd like a breach in nature
For ruin's wasteful entrance: there, the murderers,
Steep'd in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech'd with gore. Who could refrain,
That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make's love known?


Killing the grooms is nothing for him after killing Duncan, but paradoxically it shocks Lady Macbeth as a consequence she had not foreseen when she said, ‘The sleeping and the dead Are but as pictures’ (II.ii.53-4). For Macbeth the murder of Duncan was the equivalent in mountaineering terms of scaling Everest, and after this he has no trouble with lower hills; but Lady Macbeth never feels the magnitude or the horror of killing the King,18 whose murder is for her merely the means of fulfilling her ambition that her husband shall wear the crown, ‘the golden round’ (I.v.25), and she supposes that the death of Duncan finishes the business:

A little water clears us of this deed;
How easy is it then!


The further killing of the grooms begins also to bring home to her what Macbeth has felt all through, not how easy, but how difficult it is both to kill a king, and then to be ‘clear’ of the deed, and ‘trammel up the consequence’ (I.vii.3).

Although Macbeth felt the weight of the consequences of the murder,

                                                                                                    that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught return
To plague th'inventor,


he did not foresee what they would be. The worst is that having scaled Everest, he finds soon that he must overcome an obstacle almost as great, another kingly figure who fills him with dread:

                                                                                Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep; and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd.


The ‘bloody instructions’ he gives the murderers return to plague him in the banquet scene, when the ghost of Banquo sits in his place.

When Simon Forman saw the play at the Globe in the spring of 1611 he recorded the way in which the first entry of the ghost was played:19

The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had bid to a feast to the which also Banquo should have come, he began to speak of Noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he thus did, standing up to drink a Carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he turning about to sit down again saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury.

Lady Macbeth, who does not see the ghost, relates this apparition to the ‘air-drawn dagger’ Macbeth saw in II.i, and many leading actors, from John Philip Kemble in 1786 and Edwin Booth in 1828 down to Ian McKellen in 1976, have treated the ghost as another figment of Macbeth's ‘heat-oppressed brain’.20 A good actor can indeed create a sense that he alone sees some appalling vision which terrifies him, and perhaps this is more acceptable to modern audiences less ready to believe in ghosts; but it seems that in Shakespeare's time an actor played the ghost, and Macbeth and the audience actually witnessed here another image of death. The ghost with his ‘gory locks’ echoes visually the First Murderer who came with blood upon his face (III.iv.13) to report the death of Banquo, and the blood smeared upon the faces of the grooms accused by Macbeth of killing Duncan (II.ii.50, 56; II iii.114). Macbeth recognises the Ghost simultaneously as real, ‘Avaunt, and quit my sight!’ (III.iv.93), and unreal,

                                                            Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mock'ry, hence!


It is appropriate that the audience should have this sense too, and see embodied on stage the cause of Macbeth's fear. Macbeth can boast with reason ‘What man dare, I dare’ (III.iv.99), for he has achieved a most ‘terrible feat’ in killing Duncan and Banquo; but the consequences include something he had not bargained for at all, the ‘strange infirmity’ (III.iv.86) that unmans him in trembling, as his murders leave him still ‘bound in To saucy doubts and fears’ (III.iv.24-5).

The banquet scene brings him to an important recognition about his condition:

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


This picks up again the image of the multitudinous seas stained with blood, but with a difference marked especially in the word ‘tedious’: now, wading in that flood of blood he has spilt, he begins to realise that the excitement has gone, and the only way left for him is the repetitive boredom of further bloodshed as he ensures that ‘All causes shall give way’ (III.iv.136). His next move is to bully the Weird Sisters, confronting them as if he could command them; ‘More shall they speak’ he had said at the end of the banquet scene (III.iv.134), and his imperative echoes in ‘I conjure you … answer me’ (IV.i.50-1). Perhaps the best justification for the Hecate scene is that it exposes Macbeth's desperation and the emptiness of his imperatives, which are countered by those of Hecate:

          that, distill'd by magic sleights,
Shall raise such artificial sprites
As, by the strength of their illusion,
Shall draw him on to his confusion.


The three apparitions produced by the Weird Sisters rise and descend, if the Folio directions are followed, requiring actors to play them, or perhaps a kind of voice-over or ventriloquism by one of the witches. They must be seen by everyone on stage and the audience. The first, an armed head, both suggests Macduff (‘Beware the thane of Fife’), and anticipates the bringing on of the head of the dead Macbeth at the end of the play. The second, a bloody child, seems at once an image of birth and death, saying to Macbeth that none of woman born shall harm him, but connecting for the audience with the other images of the spilling of blood in the play, and anticipating Macbeth's readiness to murder even the children of Macduff. The third, a child crowned with a tree in its hand, seems to promise security to Macbeth, but symbolises too what is brought home in the final ‘show’ of kings, that Banquo's line will inherit the throne. These are all externally created shows, stage-managed by the Witches, culminating in another appearance of the Ghost of Banquo, bloody as in III.ii, who must be played by an actor,

For the blood-bolter'd Banquo smiles upon me,
And points at them for his.


So the visions Macbeth imagined earlier, the air-drawn dagger, and the Ghost of Banquo unseen by the others at the banquet, were more ‘real’ and emotionally disturbing than those apparitions or shows witnessed by all. This scene marks the change in Macbeth; the dagger and the Ghost terrified him as images of murder that appalled him, and these figures of his imagination embodied his moral fear, his conscience and sense of guilt as well as his deep desire and compulsion to achieve the ultimate in killing. Now, in seeking out the Witches, and demanding to see the worst they can show, he is no longer afraid of such images. The culmination of the scene is the return of Banquo's ghost, an image which sears Macbeth's eyeballs, but not with terror any more, merely with anger. Macbeth's ability to face these images and ask for more until he is confronted again by the murdered Banquo, shows how far he has travelled morally and mentally since the opening of the play; once unable to look on what he has done, or to think of what he was about to do without perturbation, he is now no longer troubled by sights that might appal. He has lost his sense of fear, and is no longer shocked or disturbed by blood and killing. He has found his routine, and the tedium that goes with it.

At this point, the end of IV.i, Shakespeare removes his protagonist from the stage for the equivalent of about an act of the play, or roughly 420 lines. This is in accordance with his practice in the other central tragedies, and quite apart from giving the leading actor a well-earned rest, it serves a deeper function. Macbeth has passed beyond the point of no return, and terrible deeds no longer shock or disturb him. What remains in action is the confirmation of this in the murder of Lady Macduff and her children, and the gathering of the forces that will bring about Macbeth's downfall; for Macbeth himself there is yet to come the full recognition of what has happened to him, of the wasteland he has created for himself. The destruction of the innocent mother and children can be seen as analogous to Richard III's murder of the princes in the Tower, as marking the last degradation of the criminal, but in Macbeth's case the effect is more complex, for it is also in some sense a breakthrough for him, a liberation from the ‘terrible dreams’ and ‘torture of the mind’ (III.ii.18,21) which afflicted him. In relation to this Shakespeare's finest stroke of irony is to place Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene before the reappearance of Macbeth. The two have moved in opposite directions mentally, and she is now in a condition not unlike that of Macbeth before the murder of Duncan; when he saw visionary daggers and imagined nothing could wash away his blood-guilt, she had no apparent sense of horror; but as he has moved from a state of emotional turmoil and moral anxiety to one of blank indifference, so her cool self-command has given way, and the disturbance of her mind is now expressed in nightmare images like that of the blood on her hand and the bell striking ‘One, two; why then 'tis time to do't’ (V.i.33-4).

Here the horror of the murder of Duncan is borne in on us again just prior to the return of Macbeth, who, by contrast feels nothing, so that even the news of her death has no effect on him, except to prompt his last and most profound acknowledgment of his loss of all sense of guilt or feeling for others. The difference between Macbeth in IV.i and Macbeth in V.v lies not in his condition, but in his discovery of its nature and implications, and of the price he has paid for his liberation from fear. This is most marked not in the merely selfish disappointment at losing the social rewards and pleasures of growing old, such as ‘honour, love, obedience, troops of friends’ (V.iii.25), but in the wider reverberations of his inability to respond to the death of his wife:

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.


Here the collapse of time, the future (‘to-morrow’), the present (marvellously signalled in the word ‘creeps’), and past (‘All our yesterdays’), into the boredom of mere repetition betrays Macbeth's crushing sense of deprivation, and now what reverberates is not the loss merely of social rewards, but of any reason for remaining alive.

In this speech too the image of the ‘poor player’ is especially poignant. It daringly reminds us of the actor playing the King, and by extension of ourselves playing roles, strutting and fretting, and so generates sympathy for Macbeth; at the same time, it brings home to us, through the weight of the action of the play that lies behind the lines, how inadequate such a definition of life is. For life had meant more for Macbeth than this, in his ambition to be King, to rule in Scotland and found a dynasty, to be a ‘man’, an heroic warrior, to be honoured and loved. Another meaning for life has been established for the audience through the play's Christian frame of reference, notably the sketching in of Duncan as a ‘most sainted’ monarch (IV.iii.109), and the account of Edward the Confessor, both showing up the image of the ‘poor player’ as reductive against a proper sense of the purpose and value of using time to a good end, against fulfilment to be thought of in the terms in which Edward is described:

          sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace.


The play ends, as it began, with a battle, in which Macbeth again confronts death as a warrior, killing young Siward before he is himself slain by Macduff. The last image of death is one Macbeth has not looked for, when his head is brought on, probably as in Holinshed's account, on a pole, recalling the armed head among the apparitions of IV.i, and the bloody head of Banquo's ghost. If Macbeth's head was brought on in this way at the Globe (a possibility hinted at in Macduff's lines at V.viii.25-6, ‘We'll have thee. … Painted upon a pole’), it would have suggested the image of an executed criminal, like the heads mounted on London Bridge; this marks the devaluation of Macbeth for Malcolm and his allies from the powerful tyrant of Scotland into ‘this dead butcher’ (V.viii.69). It is the last irony of the play that Macbeth should himself become an image of death that no longer terrifies anyone. The audience knows more than Malcolm, however, having experienced with Macbeth all that has happened; Malcolm sees merely the death of a hated tyrant and usurper, which is certainly what Macbeth has become for his own people. But this is to conceive Macbeth's ambitions on a basic and elementary level as merely concerned with power. What we have witnessed is something much more complex. If anyone embodies this cruder sense of ambition it is Lady Macbeth, whose one thought in the early scenes is to gain the crown for her husband.

The action of the play reveals how little Macbeth understands himself when he says ambition to leap into Duncan's seat is the only spur that pricks him on to murder. The phrase occurs in one of his great soliloquies which expresses an emotional turmoil rather than a grasp of issues. Here, as in his incantatory speeches in III.ii in relation to the murder of Banquo, his words express more than he understands, and the sense is so complicated that, as I have put it elsewhere, theatre audiences cannot fully comprehend what is being said:21

in the theatre the rhetoric dominates over the sense, which permits only tortured glimpses into the dark recesses of Macbeth's state of mind, and establishes a mood in which, with Lady Macbeth, we marvel at his words; and the point of it all arguably is to bring home the extent to which Macbeth himself understands the force of what he says, but not the implications.

So, in Macbeth's soliloquy in I.vii, the final images are muddy and compressed, and reverberate with significances which can be teased out through pages of commentary;

          pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on th'other


The sudden shifts from the ‘babe’ to cherubs ‘horsed’ on the winds, to tears flooding to ‘drown’, to another kind of horse in the spur-pricking intent, do not allow any clear grasp of Macbeth's meaning, and dramatically establish that he does not fully understand himself; his words and images convey the anguish of his tortured mind, and a sense of bewilderment.

Macbeth does not comprehend the reasons why he is drawn, in spite of his full consciousness of the ‘deep damnation of his taking-off’, to murder Duncan. If the spur were merely ambition for the crown, he could overcome it; he has in any case the prophecy of the Witches that he will be King. The play explores more profoundly the compulsion that drives him in the series of ‘strange images of death’ it presents. A warrior, accustomed to killing on the battlefield, Macbeth, to be fully a ‘man’ in this limited sense, is driven to face the challenge of killings of a different kind, and his inner drive, embodied in the air-drawn dagger that marshals him towards Duncan, overcomes for him his revulsion at the deed. It is reinforced by Lady Macbeth:

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


Her desire is for the crown, but his is larger, the urge to fulfil himself, as we now say, and in pursuing this Macbeth appals by what he does, and excites admiration for his ability to meet such a challenge, for the sheer daring of it. In order to bring this across to an audience, Macbeth has to be established as a rugged fighter, whose world is that of slaughter, as opposed to the saintly, gentle Duncan, whose world is that of the court. Macbeth is young as imagined in the play, as Duncan's lines show:

I have begun to plant thee, and will labour
To make thee full of growing;


but Macbeth has begun as a killer, and his growth and fulfilment lie in confronting further and more terrible images of death. The play reveals, of course, the price Macbeth pays in achieving his desire, and exposes too the inadequacies of self-fulfilment as a goal; and yet there remains a sympathy for the tough and indomitable figure who ends in a hell of his own creating. The ‘great intellect’ of the play is Shakespeare's, realising dramatically through the magnificent compressed poetry given to Macbeth the inner impulses that he does not fully understand, but which drive him to overcome his scruples and fulfil himself in terms of what he is good at, killing. So finally Macbeth is a play that escapes from ordinary moral boundaries and judgments; it is less about a criminal who must be morally condemned than about a great warrior who breaks through the fear-barrier only to find on the other side not the release and fulfilment he looks for, but a desert of spiritual desolation.

In this way Shakespeare adds a new dimension to the theme of the ambitious prince finally brought low. He had earlier shown an awareness of the mixture of emotions and motives that could be involved in ambition, as, for instance, in his treatment of Caesar and Brutus in Julius Caesar. He understood the contradictory viewpoints which might make ambition appear sinful, foul, pitiful or thriftless, on the one hand, and ‘divine’ (Hamlet, IV.iv.49) on the other, as Macbeth himself begins from ‘the big wars That makes ambition virtue’ (Othello, III.iii.353-4). In Macbeth he went further. To start with he brilliantly dramatised that state of the man seized by ambition, ‘a proud covetousness, or a dry thirst of honour, a great torture of the mind’, as Burton was later to define it. In coveting the throne, and plotting the death of Duncan, Macbeth is like those Burton describes as ‘seeking that, many times, which they had much better be without; … with what waking nights, painful hours, anxious thoughts, and bitterness of mind, inter spem metumque [i.e., between hope and fear], distracted and tired, they consume the interim of their time.’ Burton's analysis, however, was confined to the perpetually unsatisfied aspirers, always seeking to rise, and swelling in the end until they burst or ‘break their own necks.’22 Macbeth achieves his aspirations, gains the throne, all at one throw, or so it seems when he kills Duncan, before the end of Act II; but Shakespeare's concern was to probe further in the last three acts into what happens then, into the way he becomes a prisoner of his own imagination, bound into doubts and fears, and is able to achieve release from these only at the appalling cost of losing his capacity to care. In daring to do all that may become a man, he destroys the best part of himself; and in showing the process by which Macbeth comes to realise this, Shakespeare makes his most searching analysis of the effects of ambition.


  1. Charles Lamb on Shakespeare, ed. Joan Coldwell (New York, 1978), p. 35.

  2. Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (1951), Introduction, p. 1vi.

  3. Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1950, reprinted 1963), p. 79.

  4. Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, 1965), p. 52. Proser is interested in the inadequacy of such a comment to explain Macbeth's deeds, and he too finds the centre of the play's complexity in Macbeth himself, emphasising the manliness required of the soldier-hero, and describing the action in terms of a conflict between conscience and desire; for him Macbeth moves ‘toward enacting without moral reservation—the ethic of pure desire’ (p. 74).

  5. Lascelles Abercrombie, The Idea of Great Poetry (1925), p. 178; see also R. A. Foakes, ‘Macbeth’ in Shakespeare Select Bibliographical Guides, ed. Stanley Wells (1973), pp. 190-3.

  6. The Wheel of Fire (1930), pp. 171-2. In his fine account of Macbeth, relating it to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Wilbur Sanders takes off from Abercrombie and Wilson Knight in trying to ‘avoid separating the act of judgment which sees through Macbeth, from the act of imagination which sees the world with him’, and finds, in the courage and honesty of his bearing in facing ‘the realities of his situation’ at the end, an important positive element, in a ‘tremulous equilibrium between affirmation and despair’; see The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 299-307.

  7. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford, 1979), p. 221.

  8. Ibid., p. 215.

  9. Ibid., p. 219.

  10. Richard David, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge, 1978), p. 95; David, in contrast to Abercrombie, Proser, Wilson Knight and Sanders, thinks that after the early part of the play ‘there is little for Macbeth to do but decline’ (p. 92), and praises Laurence Olivier's performance in the part for the sense it conveyed of ‘enormous undeveloped capabilities’, as opposed to Ian McKellen's playing of it, which did nothing of the kind.

  11. Holinshed's Chronicle, ed. Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll (1927, reprinted 1969), p. 208.

  12. John Russell Brown, in Shakespeare's Dramatic Style (1970), pp. 162-9, has a full and interesting analysis of this speech emphasising especially the function of the antitheses in it in showing Macbeth losing ‘his present bearings, and the ability to act’.

  13. Holinshed's Chronicle, p. 210.

  14. Ibid., p. 211.

  15. Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2 vols (1930; revised 1960), II.221 (a lecture of 1813), and I.65 (notes made for a lecture given in 1819).

  16. Coleridge noted that Lady Macbeth showed ‘No womanly, no wifely joy at the return of her husband’ (Shakespearean Criticism, I.65).

  17. Holinshed's Chronicle, p. 207.

  18. While this is, I think, true, it could be misinterpreted as an over-simplification; it needs to be said that at the point when we realise the extent of her complicity in the deed, in laying ready the daggers of the grooms, she shows a moment's vulnerability:

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


    Although she can abstractly talk of dashing out the brains of her own babe (I.vii.58), when faced with such a deed she cannot bring herself to do it. Her mettle is not so ‘undaunted’ as she leads Macbeth to suppose.

  19. Cited in E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols (Oxford, 1930), II. p. 338.

  20. See Dennis Bartholomeusz, Macbeth and the Players (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 133-4, and A. C. Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors The Stage Business in his Plays (1660-1905) (Cambridge, Mass., 1945), pp. 256-8.

  21. R. A. Foakes, ‘Poetic language and dramatic significance in Shakespeare’, in Shakespeare's Styles Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and G. K. Hunter (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 82-3.

  22. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, section 1, member 3, subsection 11; Everyman edition (3 vols, 1932), I. pp. 280-2.

Lisa Low (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Low, Lisa. “Ridding Ourselves of Macbeth.” Massachusetts Review 24, no. 4 (winter 1983): 826-37.

[In the following essay, Low contends that Macbeth is sympathetic to audiences in his remorsefulness, and that he guides the drama toward a possible path of redemption.]

But where there is danger,
There grows also what saves.


Unlike most tragic heroes, Macbeth is much less sinned against than sinning, which makes him a strange candidate for our affections.1 He does not fall prey to infirmity like Lear, nor is he ignorant of what he does like Oedipus. He is not like Romeo, well-intentioned but too hasty; nor is he like Hamlet, Romeo's inverse, too cool. Too hot to stop, too cool to feel, Macbeth is no Romeo and no Hamlet. He is a fiend and a butcher. Standing before him, we cannot but be paralyzed with fear.

And yet, almost against our wills, we are drawn to Macbeth. We should not be, but we are. We are with him in his darkest hours and though we cannot especially hope for his success, we share with him the uncomfortable feeling that what must be done must be done and that what has been done cannot be undone. Banquo, who we come to feel is a threat to ourselves, however good, must be eliminated. So must Fleance, Macduff's wife and children, or anyone else who stands in the highway of our intense progress. Thinking that “to be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus,” and wishing with “barefaced power” to sweep him from our sights, we straddle the play repelled by, but irresistibly drawn to Macbeth.

We listen to Macbeth as we listen to the beatings of our hearts. Engaged in the play, we think our hands are up to the wrists in blood and we startle at the knockings at our doors. Watching Macbeth, we suspect the height and depth of our own evil, testing ourselves up to the waist in the waters of some bloody lake. Allowed to do that which we must not do, guaranteed that we shall suffer for it, we watch Macbeth by laying our ears up against the door where our own silent nightmares are proceeding. There we see ourselves projected, gone somehow suddenly wrong, participating in the unforgivable, pursued by the unforgiving, which is, most of all, ourselves.

Why should this be? Why are we so drawn to Macbeth by whom we must be at last repelled? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, we identify with Macbeth because identification is the condition of the theatre, especially in a nearly expressionistic play like Macbeth where the stage is the meeting ground between the hero's psyche and ours. Second, we pity Macbeth because, like us, he moves within breathing distance of innocence.

As moral obscurity is the world in which Macbeth stands at the beginning of his play, so it is the world in which we are seated watching the play, for the stage is both an extension of Macbeth's mind and the field of our imaginations. There in the domed, dimly lit theatre we watch like swaddled infants, this two hour's traffic, this our own strutting and fretting upon a bloody stage. Before us the Macbeths move like shadowy players, brief candles, little vaporous forms sliding behind a scrim. As if standing in Plato's cave, we see, but at one remove, we listen, but only to echoes, until we find ourselves fumbling along the corridors of our own dark psyches. There, supping on evil, dipped to the waist in blood, we watch the Macbeths go out at last in a clatter of sound, pursued by furies. The play over and the brief candles out, night flees, vapors vanish, and light is restored.

We identify with Macbeth because the theatre makes us suffer the illusion that we are Macbeth. We pity him because, like us, he stands next to innocence in a world in which evil is a prerequisite for being human. Macbeth is not motivelessly malicious like Richard III or Iago. He savors no sadistic pleasure in cruelty. Rather, set within reach of glory, he reaches and falls, and falling he is sick with remorse.

To have a clear conscience is to stand in the sun. To have a clouded conscience, one hovering between good and evil, between desire and restraint, is to stand where most of us stand, in that strange and obscure purgatory where the wind is pocketed with hot and cool trends, where the air is not nimble and sweet but fair and foul. This is the world of choice where thought and act and hand and eye are knit, but in a system of checks and balances.

Set within reach of triumph, who is not tempted to reach? And who, plucking one, will not compulsively and helplessly pluck every apple from the apple tree? For the line dividing self-preservation from ambition is often thin and we walk as if on a narrow cord above an abyss. We have constantly to choose, almost against our wills, for good, for as it is easier to fall than fly, so it is easier to be like Satan than God. We identify with Macbeth because we live in a dangerous world where a slip is likely to be a fall; but in the end, we must rip ourselves from him violently, as of a curse, as of an intolerable knowledge of ourselves. Through him we pay our chief debts to the unthinkable and are washed, when we wake, up onto the white shores of our own innocence. Macbeth is an ironic Christ who absorbs our sins that we may return “striding the blast.” Redeemed through him, we ourselves must become the redeemers.


I have said that our sympathy for Macbeth is provoked by at least two factors: 1) the obscurely lit stage which is the meeting ground of Macbeth's imagination and ours; and 2) the condition of evil above which most of us manage to stand, but only by hard choice. I would like in the second portion of this essay to say something more about Macbeth's function as a restorer of the redemptive imagination and to describe the condition of terror into which, for our sakes, Macbeth falls.

Macbeth's damnation comes of a willed failure of the imagination. He permits himself, in spite of conscience, to kill his King. His eyes “wink” at his hands and in that dark moment all cruelties become possible:

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

Conversely, our redemptive victory over Macbeth and over ourselves results from the strengthening of the empathetic imagination which our participation in Macbeth's fall affords. The play restores in us pity which

                    … like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.

In short, we live and die by our imagination's willingness to comprehend and we comprehend with our eyes. The play is an acting out before our mind's eyes of ourselves participating in and then eschewing evil.

In Babi Yar, Andrei Kuznetsov writes that he did not hate the Nazis, it was only that they lacked imagination. Not feeling the sympathy which retards cruelty or the empathy which prevents it, the German soldiers at Babi Yar severed hand from eye and act from conscience in order to carry out daily rounds of slaughter. Day after day, Russian Jews were lined up along precipices and shot. Murder required only blankness of mind.

If sympathy retards cruelty, empathy prevents it. To be in someone else's skin is to startle at pain, to recoil with human pity from unkindness. Foolish enough to think it possible to commit black deeds and not to be held “to accompt” for it, Macbeth permits his imagination to fail. Considering himself outside his own human skin, Macbeth severs himself. He calls for darkness, commits evil, and is walled-in afterwards in the windowless dungeon of his imagination. A cord yanked from its socket, a chicken with its head cut off, Macbeth shrieks and jerks his way down the corridors of his maimed psyche into death's private cell.

Since cruelty depends upon the imagination's willingness not to see, it is best carried out in darkness. Night obscures witness, prevents the compassionate eye, the organ of pity, the cherub at the gate of sense, from mutinying against the hand. So Macbeth calls for night to cloak Duncan's murder with “Stars, hide your fires,” and so he prepares for Banquo's death with “Come, seeling night.” The world of the play is so black that light is a contradiction:

Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th' clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.

The sun is no more than a “travelling lamp” for Macbeth's birth-strangled mind, travelling in self-willed darkness, troubles even the heavens. After flickering tapers, brief candles, and stars in heaven blown out, the “tomorrow” speech “memorize[s] another Golgotha,” finally confirming the bloody stage as a sunless habitation where by the light of lamps, by the light of his own dimming intelligence, Macbeth's crimes have occurred. Macbeth has stood titanic in the way of his own sun and ours.

Darkness has its consequences. Once commit yourself to darkness and you are no longer eligible for light's sanctuary. Macbeth calls on darkness to prevent witness to his crime; he wills his eyes to “wink” at his hands, but when he does so, he slits his own wrists and throat. He blacks out.

Shakespeare explores this slitting, this recession into darkness, with physiological metaphors. The cords Macbeth severs—the umbilical one that runs from himself to his kingdom—and the veins and arteries that connect his brain and soul to his body—are the ones which allow him to thrive. Having cut these Macbeth travels through the play as death-in-life—blind, suffocating, stiffening in rigor mortis—toward his actual decapitation. Cut off, running beheaded, Macbeth loses internal and external equilibrium. Circulation and communication stop; his body survives, but only briefly, as a body will survive on the impulse of shock, when it has been severed from its head.

Shock has two countermotions: wildness and paralysis. Macbeth's wild power decreases inversely as he seeks to increase it; the larger the sweep of his hand, the more cribbed and cabinned his soul; the greater the space about his feet, as a throned king, the less room his mind has to run about in. Macbeth's reason is pushed from its stool and his body is repelled by the mind that commands it. His mind, in a “restless ecstasy,” tries to hold onto the wooden mask it no longer fits and his body scrambles within clothes it cannot shape. Mind and form stand at odds as a crown tilts lopsidedly on a brow for which it was not meant. Time is pushed from its center and runs elliptically. Eye and hand, moving and fixed are jarred and confused by fits and starts until, “as two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art,” spirit is wrenched from body and stutters from sublimity to silence.

Decapitation's “restless ecstasy” is succeeded by its counter motion rigor mortis, the gradual turning to stone. Because the dark plain Macbeth's mind rides is full of “strange images of death,” of “new Gorgon[s]” to destroy sight, Macbeth becomes himself a Gorgon. At the idea of murdering Duncan Macbeth's heart leaps, knocking at his ribs, and his hair stands on end:

                                        Why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?

This Medusa-like image of “unfixed hair” is repeated. Imagining Banquo has risen again with “twenty mortal murders on [his] crown [],” Macbeth gasps at the image he sees: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake / Thy gory locks at me.” Banquo's hacked hair stands up in the same snaky Medusa locks that Macbeth's hair had at the prospect of killing Duncan. We see the same head in the murdered Duncan. Announcing the King's death to the castle walls Macduff cries: “Approach the chamber and destroy your sight / With a new Gorgon.”

Were the person next to you in the theatre to knock your sleeve at this point and ask you the time, your eyes would be transfixed, comprehending nothing, as if you had been in another man's dream. Watching the play you are as the dead, for the eyes of the dead have no speculation, perhaps because they dream another dream. So Macbeth shrinks at his vision of Banquo:

Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

More than any other feature the eyes connect us to this world. They are the windows to the soul and the soul's windows to the world. Speak to someone's eyes and you will know who you speak to. Macbeth's eyes are as if rolled up into his skull for, dreaming a vision no one in his kingdom can dream, he is far away. Intoxicated, mad, trapped, Macbeth gazes permanently into the bloody narcissus pool of his own mind.

So does Lady Macbeth. She who chided her husband by saying

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

becomes herself a painted devil. Sleepwalking, haunted by her crimes, her “eyes are open … but their sense are shut.” Like Macbeth's, her mind has closed down around itself, admitting no light, and she sees only the blood upon her hands which, for all her rubbing, for all her “out, damned spot[s],” will not rub away. A “little water” cannot clear her of her deeds, nor can she wash the “filthy witness” from her eyes. Instead, the very water with which she tries to rinse her hands free will turn red, proclaiming she is a murderer.

The Macbeths run fast but not far. Macbeth's, unlike Lear's, is an eye for an eye world where to kill a king is to commend “th-ingredience” of the “poisoned chalice” back to the lips of the murderer. Thus, Macbeth's own body revolts against him as he considers the image of a dead Duncan. He wills his eyes to “wink” at his hands; later he wills his hands to “pluck out” his eyes. The smiling babe that Lady Macbeth promises to yank from her milkless breast returns striding the apocalyptic blast. The dead are nature's enfants terribles, rising again to push Macbeth from his stool:

                                                                                                                                  The time has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools.

The dead Banquo's face is mirrored in a prodigious series of child kings to come, and the trees at Birnam Wood, cut off at the root, walk toward Dunsinane to defeat Macbeth. The witches' riddles invert as Macduff strides not “of woman born” to behead the beheader. As the dead infant shrivels to a counterfeit, the screaming infant, hanging on its bloody root, the umbilical cord, becomes the world restorer.


I have said in Part One that we are drawn to Macbeth, almost against our wills, both because the theatre makes us dream we are Macbeth, and because, a villain against his will, he walks near innocence, anguished by remorse. In Part Two I have said that Macbeth is our ironic Christ who, absorbing our sins, allows us to be redeemed. In Part Two I have also described the conditions of darkness into which the damned Macbeth falls. I have described what it is like to commit terrible sins against the race and have hinted at the restorative powers of the redeeming imagination in a world where “blood will have blood.” It should be clear by now that Macbeth is a play which moves neither in the land of evil nor in the present, but rather in the land of good and in the future. In these last two brief sections I would like to describe the damned and the redeemed imagination, for we come to Macbeth and are entangled, but we leave Macbeth released, having learned not what we are, but what we must become.

The imagination is not bound by formal laws of nature. It can pass through walls, enter heaven, drive down into hell. It can make a villain of a hero, and a hero of a villain. When Macbeth stands at the beginning of his play in the fair and foul air of his private thoughts, he is standing between two such large ideas as heaven and hell. As it is heavenly to have new honors sitting upon the brow, so it is hell to stuff the mouth of praise with a dagger. It is hell, too, to be tied to the stake of one ambitious thought until flesh is hacked from bone.

Macbeth stands in the murky, chiaroscuro world of conscience and conscientiousness, between good and evil, a step toward heaven and a slip toward hell. There is but a thinly scratched line between right and wrong, between a sword smoking in a villain's blood and a villain smoking in the blood of a king. Here to “unseam” a man “from the nave to th' chops” may be either a moment of barbaric inhumanity or patriotic fervor. Here if death to the left is laudable, to the right it is enough to throw the self off balance, to push it from its stool and into the blackest abyss of hell. If Hamlet leans upon a question mark, Macbeth rides into an “if.” For this we empathize when we watch Macbeth “upon this bank and shoal of time … jump the life to come.” For this we feel pity as Macbeth does not “trammel up” but rather unravels “the sleave of care.”

Thoughts pass in the mind like crows to rooky woods. To catch at a thought, to snag it, to blow it up and become oppressed by it, is to subordinate the reason, the healthy remainder of the mind, to a static picture. It is to eat of “the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner.” Life stops. Instead of extirpating the “insane root” obsession, Macbeth cultivates it. Thereafter all else is choked out and the kingdom of his mind becomes not as it should be, a mass of impressions taken in from without, mingled with history and memory, but instead one single knotted mass. The mind's fundamental will, its overriding flexible complexity, cannot be so tethered and survive. The mind as a breathing organism in equilibrium with the world and with the social order stops. Or, infected with itself, it invents its own world.

Macbeth approaches the expressionism to which Shakespeare did not have access. Pressing up against the boundaries of its medium, the play explodes with the pressure of Macbeth's mind. Its language is clotted and heat-oppressed. As Macbeth's mind is “full of scorpions” so is the play's. As Buchner's Woyceck, Munch's The Scream, and Van Gogh's self-portraits present minds on the verge of madness, so does Macbeth. Shut off from the country of health Macbeth's brain, like a poison bag, distends and bursts, infecting its world. When Ross says,

But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and none

we recognize that the play occurs inside the upset equilibrium of Macbeth's panicking mind.

The mind is the deepest recess within the castle walls of the face; it is private, isolated, and vulnerable. We feel this play as we test electricity with one finger in water, or as if electric wires were tapping against the skull. Because we never feel, even for a moment, Macbeth's safety; because we hear him breathe in our ears his bloody imaginings, we watch the play, as we look at a late Van Gogh, as if we were studying a mind from inside out. In this Macbeth most moves and terrifies us. Watching the play, we voyage on “a wild and violent sea” of a mind made mad by its own cruelty. The terror of this passage:

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

is immense because, for him, all is unredeemable. Macbeth, having shut his eyes to pity, having “rapt” himself in turbanned darkness, is condemned to a plain darkened by the red seas of his own guilt. The water with which he tries to rinse his hands clean will condemn him. Macbeth is a painted devil before a mirror and the play, until he is decapitated, is his self-portrait and ours.


We come to the play and our imaginations are tethered to Macbeth as to our own guilt. We leave the play, after having ripped ourselves free of him, with imaginations redeemed. The play teaches us how to become what we can become, for we live, like Macduff, not ultimately within Macbeth's imagination, but within the greater imagination of God—within the greater will to goodness in ourselves. When the play is done, when vapors vanish and light is restored, Macbeth lies, titanically defeated, within the vast circumference of the audience's redeemed and redeeming imagination.

In this last section I would like to say something about the providential vision toward which Shakespeare is moving. The nature of his vision in this pivotal play is oddly Miltonic. That is, good wins because good is the life force, the elan vital. Evil, to the contrary, can only mimic good, feed off of its motifs parasitically. In the end, ripped free of good, evil withers at the root. The function of drama, of Macbeth, is to have evil painted upon a pole underscored as “the tyrant.” Through witnessing evil we are exorcised of it, becoming good. Ultimately we rise free not only of Macbeth, but of death, as if by our willing it, death itself could die.

If Macbeth's mind is earthly, a globe where fair and foul, welcome and unwelcome vapors are mixed, it is also limited. Macbeth's imagination stands within the greater imagination of miracle, the providential vision toward which, as O. B. Hardison and Emrys Jones have recently demonstrated, Shakespeare is moving. The play is acted out within the compressed and dark quarters of an earthly hell, but it moves finally toward the city of infinite good. Macbeth's Satanic mind, eyes, hands, and touch are contained within the supranatural forces of Macduff who was from his “mother's womb untimely ripped”; of Duncan, whose unearthly blood is like gold laced upon silver skin; and of Edward the Confessor, whose touch has “such sanctity” from heaven that he can heal victims of the bubonic plague. If there is a special poignance to Malcolm's dramatically ironic comment to Macduff, “He hath not touched you yet,” there is an ending to it and to the jurisdiction of the tyrant's grasp. For this play stands not in Macbeth's hand but in “the great hand of God.”

In Macbeth evil feeds off of good. Sin and death, here as in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, are not self-invented, but parasitic. Duncan enfolds, embraces, enriches and plants; he is the Christ-like incarnation of the Biblical blessing on human sexuality, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Macbeths, conversely, are sterile. They can neither be fruitful, nor multiply; instead they can only shrink, melt down, as the witch does in The Wizard of Oz and as Satan does in Paradise Lost. Macbeth shrinks within his armor. By his end he is a clanging bell of doom, a great clatter upon the stairs, a suit of armor that has become an echo chamber because it is hollow. Thus Macduff knows Macbeth by his sound, “That way the noise is. Tyrant, show thy face!” and “There thou shouldst be: / By this great clatter one of greatest note / Seems bruited.”

As the “juggling fiends … palter” with Macbeth in a “double sense” so does time. Foul meets fair and evil good. Eyes without speculation, rolled up, shut as if eternally inside, roll down at the sound of the apocalypse:

                                                                                                    Awake, Awake!
Ring the alarum bell! Murder and treason!
Shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit,
And look on death itself. Up, up, and see
The great doom's image. Malcolm! Banquo!
As from your graves rise up and walk like sprites
To countenance this horror. Ring the bell!

The dead are avenged, raised from graves to bear witness to the eternal damnation of the damned. The good wake to see the bloody Macbeth, the birth-strangled babe, death itself.

When Macduff reveals himself to Macbeth as the man who not “of woman born” was from his “mother's womb untimely ripped” Macbeth knows what we already know, that though he will fight until his flesh is hacked from his bones, he will be defeated. As Macduff raises his sword he proclaims Macbeth's role for us as redeemer,

                                                            Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o' the' time.
We'll have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit
‘Here may you see the tyrant.’

That Macbeth will be the “show … o' th' time” puns on the complex emotional effects which drama and visual art have upon us. Beheaded, gored, terrified, and terrifying, Macbeth shall “live” before an audience who shall know through him the true fruit of sin.

In a world of good where “stones … move and trees … speak” evil depends, for its lifeblood, upon good. The bloody babe from the womb, this play's Christ-like deus ex machina, makes of the birth-strangled babe a counterfeit. Because evil has of itself no godliness, because it cannot reproduce but only copy, borrowing for its temporary life blood and babes and roots, it can only be the inverse of live. Uprooted, severed, dependent, the bad is marrowless. If this is true, around random weeds the world will root itself, restore itself infinitely in an ecstasy of green, out of a bath of blood. Around the mask of evil the audience humankind will press, celebrating the exorcism of the devil from the self.

Because in the end “where there is danger, / There grows also what saves,” we rid ourselves of our Macbethness by necessity. Having merged ourselves with Macbeth in the private obscurity of the dimly lit stage, having said not, “This castle hath a pleasant seat,” but, “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements,” we have learned empathy; we have learned to bear the pain of others as if it were our own. In the end we rise naked and trumpeting above the gray trembling earth, shaking off “this downy sleep, death's counterfeit.” Lifted up bodily toward Malcolm and Macduff, we are within reach of Duncan. With trumpets to our lips and wings to support us, we stand like bloody generals for good and for God. Darkness and devils having been torn from us at last, the earth vanishes and we stand in eternity's light. For cruelty in us is a painted thing, life's counterfeit, a blight to be shaken off at the end of unredeemed time. These are the good “bloody instructions” of plays and players. Through Macbeth we learn what monsters are, what a monstrous thing it is to kill a king, God's infant man. When the play is done we shake off the “strange images of death” we have become to be the selves of our hereafter, seeing evil, even death, as Macbeth is: dominionless—a gored mask, a painted devil, a head of unfixed hair upon a post.


  1. All quotations from Macbeth are taken from Alfred Harbage's William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970). I would like to thank Normand Berlin for his enthusiastic support of this essay.

Bert O. States (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: States, Bert O. “The Horses of Macbeth.Kenyon Review 7, no. 2 (spring 1985): 52-66.

[In the following essay, States examines Macbeth's ‘pity’ soliloquy (Act I, scene vii) in order to discover an apocalyptic reading of the drama—rather than one based upon the theme of ambition.]

                                                                                Where's the Thane of Cawdor?
We cours'd him at the heels, and had a purpose
To be his purveyor; but he rides well;
And his great love, sharp as his spur, hath holp him
To his home before us. Fair and noble hostess,
We are your guest tonight.

(I, 6,20-25)

This speech of Duncan's occurs some half-dozen lines before Macbeth's great “pity” soliloquy.1 It is of negligible interest except for the word spur which is conspicuously repeated thirty-three lines later by Macbeth (“I have no spur …,” etc.). It is impossible to say whether Shakespeare wrote the speech before or after the soliloquy, but the proximity of the two spurs suggests that one owes something to the other. But what? The simplest explanation is that Shakespeare already had the soliloquy in mind, or at least the equestrian motif in it, and was anticipating the appearance of Macbeth's metaphysical horses by planting his real horse as a vaunt-courier. Needing some sort of ironical underpinning for Duncan's fatal entrance into this “pleasant” castle, he fell upon the theme of Macbeth's speed in getting home to prepare his guest's welcome, and for good measure, spur offered a sharp means of condensing the hidden opposition between Macbeth's “false face” and his “false heart.”

But it is just as possible that spur was in fact conceived as an innocent simile before the idea of the soliloquy had taken shape—that it somehow pricked Shakespeare's imagination and unconsciously led him to unfold his soliloquy around an act of horsemanship. In other words, the momentum of Macbeth's race home to plan the crime spills over into his second thoughts about it, vaulting him into the sky across the bank and shoal of time to the Day of Judgment itself.

Of course, if we look further into the Duncan scene we find other seeds for the soliloquy: teach, heaven's breath, twice done, then done double, deep and broad, and (earlier in the play) words like wind, success, catch, o'erleap, and sightless, all of which reappear prominently in Macbeth's vision and give it the extraordinary sense of being the ripe fruit of early plantings. But it is spur, I think, that gets Shakespeare off the ground and my preference for the second hypothesis—that the word inspired the form the soliloquy was to take—rests in a feeling that this is one of those curious places where we see an image breaking, by stages, out of what we might describe as a point of least resistance. Altogether, it has an effect a little like Empson's fifth-type ambiguity in which the poet seems to be discovering his idea in the act of writing, though I don't think we are dealing with an idea here as much as with a kind of energy or agitation that has been working in the play, in other forms, all along. The horses don't actually appear until the soliloquy is almost over, but we are potentially in horse country with “trammel up the consequence” (1, 3) and certainly with “jump” at line 7. Most editors read jump as meaning risk, and this is a valid interpretation. But jump also means jump, as in “jumping o'er times,” in which case Macbeth is not simply risking the life to come but actively challenging it, as a horseman might challenge a hedge or (in this case) a body of water. I suspect that editors prefer jump as risk to jump as leap because it is difficult to make sense of a leap in this context (where, either in or out of time, would Macbeth land?). But perhaps we can admit the possibility that jump works like a pun in allowing Shakespeare to do two different kinds of things with the same sound: if it means risk it mimics motion; it is a kind of forked word, its meaning going in one direction and its gesture, as Blackmur would say, in another. There would be no reason to worry this question if nothing came of jump in the sense of leaping, but a great deal does. In fact, the explosive energy of the soliloquy, the sense of its blowing a whole cosmos of retribution at us, arises from this subtextual gestation of the horses and their sudden birth in the sky, along with the naked babe, at line 22. We hear them long before they come into view. In fact, from the opening beat of the triple “done” everything is galloping apace and the French term enjambement takes on an almost graphic meaning as all of this tumbles from Macbeth's mind. By the time we have multiplied the possibilities of done, surcease, be-all and end-all, life to come, judgment, chalice, trumpet-tongu'd, angels, deep damnation, heaven's cherubins, blast, sightless couriers, and wind, and the fact that the vision is unfolding in the vault of heaven on the far side of time, we have good cause to see not only what Macbeth tells us was there—the cherubins and the figure of Pity—but what Macduff sees when the murder is discovered:

                              up, up, and see
The great doom's image!

(II, 3, 76-77)

The winds are the winds of the last day and the horses are four in number.

I am not interested in defending the idea that there is a vision of apocalypse here, intentionally or otherwise. But I am curious about what it is in the passage, and in the play at large, that makes me (and other readers) yield to the suggestion that there is. It is not so much any actual image of apocalypse that concerns me as the subtextual drive that throws the play in this final direction. One manifestation of this drive is the horse imagery, and if spur helped in the creation of the horse motif in the “pity” soliloquy, it was itself a symptom of a fury in the text that brought on many other such images of speeding, outrunning and leaping both before and after the murder. It might be argued that such an emphasis is to be expected in a play about such an urgent subject, but I think these images belong to the play in a more special way. Apocalyptic imagery is not on Macbeth's mind (or on Shakespeare's) in the hyperbolic way that the hurricane is on Lear's or death on Hamlet's, or in the sense that Shakespeare's people are always calling down the heavens. That is, it is not an analogous image that reflects the hero's state of mind onto nature so that we can see its emotional size. It is rather the state of mind itself, a particular physiognomy of consciousness (to use Lukacs' term) that belongs more properly to the sphere of motivation than to the sphere of metaphorical convention.

To come to my point in dwelling on the “pity” soliloquy, I wonder if, as the very pattern of Macbeth's “leaping” sickness, we might treat the speech as a motive for committing the murder rather than as a motive for not committing it. In light of the facts, this seems absurd. Macbeth is clearly so terrified by his vision that he vows to “proceed no further in this business,” and it is only through the intervention of Lady Macbeth that he is brought back on course. But somehow it seems trivial to say that Macbeth was talked into the murder by his wife. If one reads the play pathologically, as a bonding of deed and doer, one is led to ask if Macbeth could have done otherwise without radically modifying his nature. Did this rejection of the murder actually contain a rejection, or was it simply another oscillation in Macbeth's “restless ecstasy”? Could Macbeth, of all people, have sustained a state of conviction that the murder was inadvisable on moral and spiritual grounds? All of this opens onto the question of Macbeth's motive in killing Duncan and, more broadly, onto the question of motive itself as Shakespeare treats it in this and other tragic plays. I want to suggest, eventually, that the psychological complexity of Macbeth arises in great part from a peculiar relationship between the thing we call motive and the thing we call character. But first it is necessary to pursue the apocalyptic theme as it emerges in Macbeth's action and thought. To this end it would be useful to adopt a psychoanalytic approach since we are concerned primarily with the translation of symptoms into their determinants.

Let us look first at Macbeth as a successful warrior as viewed from the outside.2 Here our best source is the report of the wounded captain which serves the function of an overture to Macbeth's character. Here we see Macbeth for the first time, at second hand and necessarily speechless, wading (“hors'd,” I suggest) through a sea of mutilated men. Here is Macbeth, one might say, thinking with his sword—that is, not thinking at all but living the “single state” in which a man is perfectly at peace in the simplicity of war. Here, where head and hand come together in the warrior's trade, Macbeth is himself. Hence the emphasis on killing as work. There is nothing clever about the way Macbeth wages war. The enemy is an obstruction that stands in his way, and you can almost imagine one of those outrageous Homeric similes of the warrior, “like the farmer with brandished scythe,” cutting a swath through a field of men. Above all, within this unperturbed killing machine we see the thorough man, carving 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.

(I, 2,20-23)

Insofar as Macbeth is the tragedy of a great warrior gone wrong, this is the basis of his success. We must note, of course, that Macbeth is attended by Banquo, “no less” deserving, who carves at his side, though one is inclined to overlook this detail in the heat of Macbeth's wake. In any case, for these “strange images of death” it is Macbeth who is promoted, and we are left with little doubt that Macbeth's behavior coincides perfectly with the ideals of this society—brave Macbeth, well he deserves that name! The only possibly problematic passage in the scene:

Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,
I cannot tell—

(I, 20,40-42)

could easily be taken as a last, lavish hyperbole for the super warrior at his proper work. Its sense, a kind of praise by faint damnation, might be rendered: “So dedicated were they to our cause that an unknowing witness might think they had been unleashed out of Hell.”

But if we re-view the scene from an interior perspective, our picture changes radically. Reading psychoanalytically—that is, reading the play backwards—are we not entitled to see Macbeth's success in the field, however “brave” in the description, as the locus of an overdetermination in behavior? Following Freud, one could argue that we have a symptom rising from two different psychical systems: killing on the field is good, killing off the field is bad; one is encouraged, the other is prohibited and consequently suppressed. And when this coincidence of motive occurs in a single situation, as Freud says, the suppression releases itself through the door of the legitimate cause, a little as the Greeks got through the gates of Troy in the belly of a peace offering. Thus Macbeth's conduct on the field is “qualitatively justified but quantitatively excessive.”3 Of course we now have the problem of accounting for Banquo who, in these same terms, is just as excessive as Macbeth. But perhaps we can diminish the problem on two counts: first, there is no reason to assume that identical behavior implies identical determinants and Banquo is, in the end, proven innocent of serious excessiveness (there is no “inside” to Banquo's “outside”); and second, it is possible that Shakespeare, given his murky handling of the whole issue of the murder's origin, may have wanted to blur any clear picture of Macbeth at this early stage and seized upon Banquo as a way of concealing (and indirectly deepening) Macbeth's motive by putting the wolf, so to speak, in the company of the sheep.

These opposed views, from the outside and the inside, represent possible extremes of interpretation; they should be thought of as a kind of parenthesis which encloses the site of a mystery that is no clearer than the mystery of whether Macbeth had even thought about murdering Duncan before his “day of success.” Neither is right or wrong, or only right or wrong. Their relationship is one of compatible contradiction within which we might locate any number of determinants or combinations of determinants. If one wishes to read Macbeth as a tragedy of vaulting ambition, this “overcharg'd” behavior could be thought of either as Macbeth's last act of bravery or his first act of treachery; in the latter case it becomes an act of substitution and an unconscious rehearsal of the murder of Duncan. But it is just as possible that Macbeth's excessiveness in battle has nothing at all to do with the murder of Duncan but is, rather, the temperamental antecedent that will eventually supply the momentum for such a murder when the battle's won, Macbeth is promoted, impediments are again put in his “way,” and the Witches' charm is “wound up.” In other words, the slaughter of the Norweyans and the murder of Duncan are quantitatively interchangeable in that both are expressions of the same energy. Such a reading would not eliminate ambition as a cause, but it would complicate it: it would require that we see ambition as a drive without a single objective, or possibly even a drive in search of an objective. There is not an ounce of proof for such an idea but, as so often in Macbeth, there are odd resonances in the imagery that are never quite resolved as themes. For example, here and there, one gets glimpses of a “primitive” world,

                                                                                                    i' th'olden time,
Ere humane statute purg'd the gentle weal,

(III, 4, 74-75)

a world of raw instinct, “secret'st” blood and “bare-faced power” that has been interiorized,” as Nietzsche says in The Genealogy of Morals, or “cooped up” within the polity—until it bursts forth (again, if we consult Holinshed) in the coming of Macbeth. In fact, in the context of The Genealogy, Macbeth could be read as the re-emergence of Nietzsche's “beast of action” in the company of guilt and bad conscience brought on by “that most brilliant stroke of Christianity: God's sacrifice of himself for man.”4 Of course this is a heresy no one would wish on Shakespeare; but the hellhound and the crucified savior draw strangely close in Macbeth. Once we grant that the excesses of the later Macbeth are prefigured in the imagery of the battle scene—that bravery and blackness are but a “statute” apart—it is not so easy to explain the line:

                    bathe in reeking wounds,
Or memorize another Golgotha,

(I, 2,39-40)

as a flattering hyperbole. It is hard to know what, or how much, to make of this passage. Editors tend either to ignore Golgotha or to gloss it as “the hill of skulls,” which is etymologically correct but rather like glossing Buchenwald as a forest of beech trees. And “bathe in reeking wounds” (which belongs to a whole subsystem of images having to do with water, oceans and seas, swallowing up navigation, and crossing over, or through a body of water whose element is alternately conflated with blood and time) implies, in the light of all that follows, an act of pure will—not the will to power but the will, as Nietzsche puts it, to “poison the very foundation of things.” It is the egg of Malcolm's hatched beast at the other end of the play who would, if he had the power,

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

(IV, 3, 98-100)

and this, of course, is only Macbeth carried to his hypothetical absolute.

My suggestion is that “bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” is best conceived as a symbolic terminus ad quem of the Macbeth energy. We are not meant to insist on the letter of the images but on their spirit and extremity. “I cannot tell,” the Captain concludes: it may have been one or the other—that is, it was both and more, if words could piece it out, for there is a sense in which extreme images are always unsuccessful attempts to reach extremes. The point would be that both are unearthly motives; they have nothing to do with practical killing or with killing in anger or killing for a cause. Both belong to the category I am calling apocalyptic, partly because the holocaust was somehow on Shakespeare's mind as an extension of Duncan's murder, but mainly because as the agent of this theme he drew the portrait of an apocalyptic personality: a man obsessed by finality, by absolutes, and by his bondage to time. And it remains now to see how Macbeth's battlefield conduct and his career in blood are a prolongation of his mind's way of conceiving the world.

The distinctive quality of Macbeth's mind is the rapidity with which he leaps from extreme to extreme, leaving out, so to speak, the middle of thought. Even when he seems to be thinking in analytical stages—as in the “pity” soliloquy—one has the impression that he is catching up with something his imagination already knows and has planted in the form of a premature image (as, for example, when “trammel” matures into “sightless couriers”). One might almost describe Macbeth's mind as bicameral in the sense that he seems to be taking directions from another self or listening to his own nether-thought, as if in amazement that such things could have come out of him. In fact, my sense of the importance of the horse imagery, as a symbol of Macbeth's passional drive, is precisely consistent with Freud's idea that the relation of the ego to the id is like that of a man on horseback who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse. Often, however, the horse takes the bit and carries the rider where it wants to go, in which case the ego has no choice but to transform “the id's will into action as if it were its own.”5 This sense of a struggle between two parts of the mind is especially apparent in the “Two truths are told” soliloquy (I, 3,127-142) in which Macbeth's “ego” debates the extremes—“This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good:”—while his “id” is already committing the murder. But the basic structure of the speech is that of a set of escalating antitheses in which one term swallows the other and produces a new antithesis. First, ill versus good; then if ill, why good? then if good, why ill? Abruptly present fears give way to horrible imaginings, function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not. Within a dozen lines, as fast as thought, Macbeth is inhabiting the future.

So antithesis, for Macbeth, is not an orderly dialectical process that resolves itself in a synthesis of thought (as in Hamlet's “Thus conscience …”). It is an invasion of thought by the imagination which is continually spinning new images out of old fabric. Every conclusion is instantly inadequate: nothing is but what is not. It is this restless production of new images that brings on the condition of trance (“Look how our partner's rapp'd”) and the sense of Macbeth's having been plunged into the fantastical world he has involuntarily created, much as the dreamer may be said to be plunged fully into the world unfolding in his own head. In fact, Macbeth's thought process is much like the processing of images in the dream-work where, as Freud suggests, antithesis, or contradiction, is a major strategy that may serve the ends of censorship or wish fulfillment. What we see, finally, is a mind stretched on the rack of its own constructions: the contradiction is synthesized in the emotion, or in the commotion in the mind. In short, to have one such antithesis—as in not being able to make up one's mind about something (“To be, or not to be”)—is one thing; to be continually making antitheses, as a persistent structure of thought, is another. It is the torture, and possibly the thrill, of being (as Freud would say) a halfway house between actuality and possibility—an extratemporal being of sorts.

Another persistent characteristic of the dream is that the dreamer's consciousness, lacking the brake provided by the waking world, is continually spurred on to seize and transform its own images, bringing them to a fatal perfection. This phantasmagoric quality emerges most spectacularly in the “pity” soliloquy, which might have been painted by Salvador Dalí. It was Caroline Spurgeon who noticed the running pattern in the play's imagery of “the reverberation of sound echoing over vast regions, even into the limitless spaces beyond the confines of the world.”6 She offers only four examples from the play (two from the “pity” soliloquy), but she was looking primarily for images of reverberation rather than listening to the reverberation of images. If one looks closely at the evolution of the speech, her thesis is far better than her evidence suggests. For each image, by virtue of Macbeth's peculiar trick of mind, amends the previous image, and the direction of the amendment is always toward the more “limitless” implication. For example, the knife blow (1. 4) that will give Duncan his surcease is converted eventually into the horse / winds that blow the horrid deed in every eye. Life to come is initially intended by Macbeth to refer to the immediate aftermath of the crime, but once the trumpet-tongu'd angels enter the vision, that intention becomes obsolete, or at least secondary. Judgment here initially refers to Macbeth's fear of a bloody counteraction among the thanes, but here, in itself, converts it into a dialectical term that implicitly contains judgment beyond. Moreover, the surcease/success pairing not only converts to its opposite, the deep damnation of the life to come, but it reveals Macbeth's hoped-for success as standing under the aspect of eternity: what he imagines as a be-all and an end-all here is graduated to the end-all, or surcease, of time itself. In other words, present fears and hopes continually “echo” as terminal imaginings and the equivocation by which the fiends entrap Macbeth turns out to be the subconscious property of his own imagination. For there is, overall, a riddling quality in the soliloquy, if we think of the riddle as a puzzle that openly hides its torqued meanings in its own terms. The master equivocation, of course, is that in equating his murder with time—that is, a single and last murder, a murder that will murder time—it gets confused with its eschatological replica. Murder and universal atonement draw together in a relationship that is partly synecdochic and partly paradoxical—paradoxical because, as the final torque, there is the extraordinary closing image—“I have no spur,”—in which Macbeth replaces the cherubins with his own hors'd figure, riding in the sky with his smoking steel. One might argue that Shakespeare was simply keeping his horse image alive in the interest of poetic symmetry, that he didn't really mean to put Macbeth up there; however, there he is, on horseback again, the sense in the words having him stumble and fall to earth while the poetry vaults him into the heavens “beyond the confines of the world.” Here, if anywhere, Macbeth is in the predicament of Freud's poor ego trying to serve three masters at once: “driven by the id, confined by the super-ego, repulsed by reality, [the ego] struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it.”7

What this speech evokes, for me, is not a specific, subconscious motive but the sense of a man whose visions drive him relentlessly past his purposes and his hesitations. It is the nature of Macbeth's mind, not his earthly needs, that requires the murder, and continues to require murder as a new potentiation of self and will, a new sense of abridging the intolerable distance between head and hand. This aspect of Macbeth's momentum was beautifully understood by Kierkegaard who resorted to the play twice (and most pertinently to the line, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill”) in his treatise on “Continuation in Sin” in The Sickness Unto Death. There are, on one hand, Kierkegaard says, ordinary men who “take a hand in the game of life as it were, but they never have the experience of staking all upon one throw, never attain the conception of an infinite self-consistency.” They always talk about “the particular, particular deeds, particular sins.” On the other hand, there are the men who exist under “the rubric of spirit” for whom consistency of self is the essential gyroscope. For them, “the least inconsistency is a prodigious loss for with that in fact a man loses consistency.”8 Macbeth, he implies, is such a man, for the spiritual existence may be lived either by a believer or a demoniac, and:

as with the believer, so it is also with his counterpart, the demoniac man. … Only in the continuation of sin he is himself, only in that does he live and have an impression of himself. What does this mean? It means that the state of being in sin is that which, in the depth to which he has sunk, holds him together, impiously strengthening him by consistency; it is not the particular new sin which (crazy as it sounds to say it) helps him, but the particular new sin is merely the expression for the state of being in sin which properly is the sin … ; in the particular new sins the momentum of sin merely becomes more observable.

(pp. 239, 237)

I should say that this is not intended as an interpretation of Macbeth's career in crime. In Macbeth, Kierkegaard simply found the illustrative text for the momentum of sin, the sinner's loss of existential security, his need to “hold himself together” in new sin as a way of reifying his lost “single state.” It is a moot point as to whether sin is even the issue in Macbeth. But I think Kierkegaard's intuition is right: that Macbeth's “sin” should not be considered motivationally as a series of particular sins, each owing to some new cause (though he himself gives new reasons for each new sin: “My fears in Banquo stick deep,” etc.), but rather as a spiritual state that requires an infinite self-consistency, that possesses an infinite capacity for fear and an infinite sense of consequence and loss. “The more excellent the machine,” Kierkegaard says, “all the more frightful … the confusion.”

In less sinful terms, apocalyptic movement, as I have been tracing it here, is the movement toward nothingness or all-at-onceness, which in Macbeth's case is the time-hidden reverse side of “success” (equated by Macbeth with “surcease”). Thus Macbeth's career in crime is an attempt to finish off what was begun with the murder of Duncan whom he had brought to a saintly perfection in the tapestry of his vision; or, as Shakespeare puts it in The Rape of Lucrece, it is an attempt to “make something nothing by augmenting it” (1. 154). Murder is both a something and a nothing; that is, it is an act and a negation, with the side effect of the murderer's moral suicide. Murder is teleological. What happens after murder is that the neutrality of the world is cancelled; the world now bristles with “prating” signs, as in a dream—which is to say that the world becomes both witness and nemesis. There is no turning back and all going ahead is iteration because time is now permanently reallocated as the zone of “consequence.” Renown and grade are dead, and all the finite categories of honor, love, obedience, and troops of friends are extinguished forever.

My case for the apocalyptic theme rests here. But by way of a theoretical postscript, I want to turn now to a consideration of Macbeth as a symptom of its creator's method. Our question might be: what, apart from the citation of passages taken out of context, is the textual justification for such a reading? How does the apocalyptic theme arise from a text that has not quite proclaimed it openly, or at least as openly as Hamlet proclaims the theme of death or King Lear the themes of love and duplicity? Or even: is it possible to misread a text without falsifying it, on the theory that certain texts, being more algebraic than arithmetic, invite misreadings because they cast anagogic shadows beyond their local meanings? If so, what makes such a text algebraic? Let me begin with an observation that is commonly made of the play:

What is distinctly absent in Macbeth is a public element in its hero's life. Shakespeare gave him no scenes of friendship or intimacy (except with his confederate, Lady Macbeth), no political scenes, and—most important—no behavioral range; hence, no visible potential, in the eventuality of “success,” to enjoy the fruits of power, as Claudius does, once he has them. Here we encounter the well-known lacuna between Macbeth's motive and his behavior that formed the basis of E. E. Stoll's argument with Robert Bridges and J. I. M. Stewart's with Stoll. That is: there is a gap between the facts the play asks us to assume (Macbeth kills to obtain the crown and continues to kill in order to protect it) and the subjective drama the play sets before us. I am not suggesting that ambition is therefore invalid as a motive, simply that it is treated as a fact rather than a passion, and we must now try to see what the consequence of this treatment is.

We normally think of motive as the most direct subjective cause of an act. It is the word (hatred, ambition, jealousy) taken from the book of human passions that explains the act, or at least enables us to put it to rest in the causal order. But of course motive itself originates in character, or disposition, and it follows that having found the motive for an act we become amateur biographers and seek the motive for this motive in the wider province of character. One always wants to know what kind of person was motivated to commit the act. For example, I read in my encyclopedia that John Wilkes Booth was a “charming egomaniac” and “an ardent confederate sympathizer.” Here we have the essential ingredients of a biography: the former belongs to the sphere of character—something Booth was, something that led (among countless other things) to a career on the American stage; the latter belongs to the sphere of motive—something Booth wanted, and an act, as Sartre points out, always rises out of a desire to change the shape of the world in some degree.9 Even though we cannot keep the actor / egomaniac out of the Ford Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865—even though someone in the theatre might cry out, “Some maniac has shot the President!”—we would not be apt to attribute Booth's motive in killing Lincoln to egomania. The most we could say is that character may assume a conical shape with motive as the point, among many in a lifetime, at which it refines itself into a concern, and thence into an act.

My point is that if Shakespeare were telling the story of Booth's assassination of Lincoln, he would have given us a play about charming egomania rather than one about ardent sympathy for the confederate cause. Of course, he would probably have altered the nature of Booth's mania and charm to suit his own purposes, but he would certainly have shifted the emphasis from the “nearest” cause (as expressed in Booth's cry, “Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!”) to the characterological foundation on which it is formed. This is Shakespeare's habit, at least with respect to his major tragic figures: having inherited, say, jealousy or ambition or revenge as the primary causal factor of the fiction he has chosen to adapt to the stage, he ignores it as a passion or an appetite—he states it openly (“I have no spur … but vaulting ambition …,” or “O, beware the green-eyed monster” or “Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost. …”), thereby giving it validity on conventional de casibus grounds (sins, like virtues, are self-explanatory categories of motivation); then he finds a more interesting “motive” in the very construction and potency of the hero's personality to which the stated motive stands in a decoy and, in part, inimical relationship. It is a form of characterization almost directly opposite that of the humourist (Johnson and Molière, for example) who scrupulously avoids any departure from the appetite: greed and lust have no auxiliary or interior features—they are precisely what we see. To the humourist, motive and character are virtually identical.

I am thinking of something a good deal more specific than the commonplace that Shakespeare's heroes have depth of character, though the method (if we can call it that) certainly contributes to the effect of depth. But the true complexity of his heroes does not arise from a rich variety of traits or a “well-rounded” character but from his way of converting the motive supplied by his source into a form of reactionary intelligence. And this technique has at least two important consequences for the reader or viewer of the play. First, it is through this dramatic displacement of motive by nature—by the intensity of a nature, let us say—that we derive the impression of a “deep” subconscious filled with instincts, repressions, and infra-motives. In effect, there is a gap between motive and intensity: the two forces neither coincide nor are they completely incompatible. This gap serves a poetic function similar to that of the mind's preconscious screen where the work of censorship and displacement takes place, in Freudian psychology. It is here that we find the greatest lure to a psychoanalytic reading of character. For psychology is essentially a science of motives, and because Shakespeare's play contains so little psychology (in this sense) it becomes endlessly psychological in its appeal. To illustrate: Hamlet suspects that Claudius has murdered his father and sets up the play in which the murder will be imitated. The reaction is (predictably) a guilty one, and Claudius sweeps out in a frenzy. Yet Hamlet does not act on this almost certain proof. Instead, he becomes highly excitable to the point of doing violence to others. It is not that his behavior is inconsistent (Hamlet is being his old self) but that the causal connection is not articulated in language: the text has become algebraic in the sense of having produced (or having maintained) an unknown whose value is to be determined from the known quantities in the play, as one chooses to see them. Here we enter the deep thicket of repression, displacement, and the like, and one can get out of it by any number of hermeneutical paths—or, one can simply marvel at the truth in Hamlet's mystery without trying to pluck it out.

So it is with Macbeth—in reverse: the energy, the killing, are there, but the motive is weakly stated. Think how many of Macbeth's lines—for example: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd” (III, 4,38-39)—elude the whole province of self-explanation. What they leave us with is the verbal residue of an unspeakable motive that is, as Freud would insist, inadmissible to the consciousness. What can these “strange things” signal if not the death of motive, conceived of as the reasons the mind offers itself, and the emergence of something like brute will, or instinct, which is, as Freud says, “a certain quota of energy which presses in a particular direction.”10 It is interesting that Freud himself, who could easily see the murder of Duncan as “little else than parricide,” was so baffled at this stage of Macbeth's “unbridled” tyranny that he renounced any hope of “penetrating the triple layer of obscurity” of the play.11 But Freud's, I suspect, is a special case of disappointment that the play did not finally live up to a preferred “deep” reading (“the motive of childlessness”), and this apparently blinded him to other possible (even Freudian) readings that could be supported by dozens of texts, beginning with the literature of the demonic.

There is a second and equally important consequence of this method of characterization. It is through this relative freedom from motive and appetite—freedom from a logic of determinism, if you will—that Shakespeare's heroes are sprung free of the earth: free to contemplate the symbolism of their acts, free to convert all of the relatives of their particular “cases” into absolutes. In this connection, it is worth noting how frequently Shakespeare selects plots that contain, or can be made to contain, a powerful agency of external persuasion. Unlike Marlowe's heroes of the massive appetite, who seem to be born with motives in full flight, Shakespeare's tend, on the whole, to have motives thrust upon them. Metaphysical forces like the Witches, the ghost of King Hamlet, and (in a more earthly way) Iago, whatever other functions they perform, serve dramaturgically to take at least some of the causal burden onto themselves, leaving the hero not only with a partial mandate for action but an overcharg'd soul as well. For there is always a lightninglike speed in the way these forces “rap” the hero and ionize his world into a metaphysical field. And here we may note Shakespeare's habit of abruptly condensing the onset of his hero's fate into single lines which drop, like bane, into his life: “Ha! I like not that!” or “My lord, I think I saw him yesternight,” or “Nothing, my lord,” or “All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be King hereafter!” Such lines mark the entry of the hero into the ionized world: they are what Lukacs might call miracle moments in which the hero's “empirical” life leaves off and his “essential” or tragic life begins. Any sweet sleep that he “ow'dst yesterday” is gone, and reality becomes a projection of his overcharged imagination. Now the entire force of personality rushes into the opening made by the decoy motive. Character becomes a portable concentration of essence that applies itself to every new event in the hero's life; the prospect of the act, one might say, becomes the motive for his discourse with his Fate. Hence, Shakespeare's play, built upon the soaring pillars of the soliloquy, is, in Kierkegaard's term, a “dialectical lyric” in which the hero is driven continually to “go further,” like Heraclitus, ever moving to and fro in an insomnia of problemata. It matters little whether he is talking himself into his act or out of it. Everything flows toward the act, that foregone conclusion of the plot (thanks to which we have such a hero). It is only a question of the time required to purify the act (as Macbeth purifies Duncan) in the fire of his resistance. In this regard, Macbeth and Hamlet may be seen as fraternal agonizers between whom Shakespeare divides the ramifications of violent action: Hamlet gets the problematics of a good deed; Macbeth gets those of an evil deed. Even a speech as remote from vengeance as Hamlet's “What a piece of work is a man” is a preparation for the act; it all goes into the Hamlet dossier against the enemy (what went wrong with what was right) and constitutes a psychical step in Hamlet's unique movement toward the kill. Again, in the “deep” sense, one might say that Hamlet's vengeance is not in the least delayed but continually carried out against a complacent world that has, for example, produced such creatures as Claudius. And in an equally deep sense, as I have suggested here, Macbeth's ambition could be said to transcend its earthly and social manifestations (wanting this traitor's head, wanting this throne) and becomes a wholesale reaction to “the frame of things.” In short, if you extend the principle of ambition far enough, into ultimate spheres, you arrive at total “success,” whose synonyms are not kingship and power but surcease and end-all—a termination of longing for success.

This is only one possible reading, and I admit that it is made possible by modern doctrines of freedom that Shakespeare knew nothing about. But it is one of the enticements of Shakespeare's algebraic text, for better or worse, that it lures us into readings, or misreadings, of the kind that are less apt to arise with arithmetic texts in which the sum of meaning is not much altered by time. But to conclude: it is this unique relationship between motive and character that opens Shakespeare's play to such a remarkable degree, in one sense deepening it psychologically, in another expanding it metaphysically. In Macbeth these two dimensions are perfectly condensed in the symbol of the horse which haunts this play as the ghost of its motion, a nuance beautifully caught in Polanski's film version, by the way. Historically, there are two main aspects to the symbolism of the horse, and they are fused in Macbeth. The horse is, first, a symbol of psychical drive. We do not need Freud to validate this idea since he is only continuing a meaning that dates back at least to Plato's allegory of the charioteer. In all its attributes—speed, power, independence, wanton beauty—the horse bespeaks the energy of instinct and libido, the fire of the will, the capacity of the soul to break its civil stall. But also, of all the earthbound animals, it is the horse that we have endowed with wings. Put the horse against the sky and it becomes the emblem of the world's end: on it sit Death, War, Famine, and Plague. Now it confers riot on the world, as it does on the private soul of man. Thus in its mythic fury the horse defines two kinds of ominous space: interior and cosmic (just as in the history plays, where it is the obedient servant of warlike men, it defines the political space of the world). But in drama, where world is the creation of character, the distinction between these two kinds of space dissolves. Interior space, the unspeakable deep, is inverted: Macbeth's mind is spread out on the sky of his visions, and through the power of the image he becomes the contaminated soul of the world.


  1. Since the soliloquy is a key text in my essay, I quote it in its entirety:

    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'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 even-handed Justice
    Commends th'ingredience of our poison'd chalice
    To our own lips. He's here in double trust:
    First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
    Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
    Who should against his murtherer shut the door,
    Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
    Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
    So clear in his great office, that his virtues
    Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu'd, against
    The deep damnation of his taking-off;
    And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
    Striding the blast, or heaven's Cherubins, hors'd
    Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
    Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
    That tears shall drown the wind.—I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
    And falls on th'other—

    (I, 7, 1-28)

  2. The word success occurs only four times in the play, twice in connection with Macbeth's victory over the Norweyans and twice in connection with the murder of Duncan, all four in Act I. So for a short time it becomes a relatively active word that attaches itself to both a public and a secret endeavor, both featuring Macbeth as a killer.

  3. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Vols. IV and V of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), V, 479. Hereafter, SE.

  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 225.

  5. S. Freud, “The Ego and The Id,” SE, XIX, 25. Freud uses this same figure elsewhere in his work, for example, in “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality” in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, SE, XXII, 77.

  6. Caroline F. E. Spurgeon Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: The University Press, 1965), p. 327.

  7. The New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, SE, XXII, 78.

  8. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 238.

  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Books, 1966), p. 559.

  10. New Introductory Lectures, SE, XXII, 96.

  11. “Some Character-types Met with in Psycho-analytical Work,” SE, XIV, 323.

Further Reading

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Benardete, José A. “Macbeth's Last Words.” Interpretation 1 (summer 1970): 63-75.

Considers questions of guilt, damnation, and manly virtue in relation to Macbeth's character and that of the other principal figures in the play.

Braunmuller, A. R. Introduction to The New Cambridge Shakespeare: Macbeth, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Extended survey of the sources, themes, language, and stage history of Macbeth.

Calderwood, James L. “Macbeth: Violence and Meaning.” In If It Were Done: “Macbeth” and Tragic Action, pp. 71-114. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Offers a psycho-social analysis of violence in Macbeth as it contributes to an understanding of Macbeth's character and motivation.

Cantor, Paul A. “Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 315-51. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.

Argues that Shakespeare molds the tragic action of Macbeth out of a tension between Christian morality and the Scottish warrior ethos.

Carr, Stephen Leo and Peggy A. Knapp. “Seeing Through Macbeth.Publications of the Modern Language Association 96, no. 5 (October 1981): 837-47.

Observes the potential of Macbeth to directly challenge audiences with its tragic implications by comparing two eighteenth-century illustrations of a scene from the drama.

Carroll, William C., ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999, 394 p.

Collection of primary texts that are relevant to the historical and cultural context of Macbeth.

Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: A Guide to the Play. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997, 212 p.

Surveys the sources, contexts, structure, themes, critical reception, and performance history of Macbeth.

Daly, Peter M. “Of Macbeth, Martlets and other ‘Fowles of Heauen.’” Mosaic 12, no. 1 (fall 1978): 23-46.

Comments on Shakespeare's varied and sometimes ironic use of bird imagery in Macbeth.

Fox, Alice. “Obstetrics and Gynecology in Macbeth.Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 127-41.

Asserts the thematic significance of Macbeth's childlessness by exploring evocative allusions to Renaissance obstetrics and gynecology in the language of the play.

Huntley, Frank L. “Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 79, no. 4 (September 1964): 390-400.

Relates Macbeth's actions and subsequent demise to his violation of the historically pertinent theological doctrine of equivocation.

Katz, Leslie. “Rehearsing the Weird Sisters: The Word as Fetish in Macbeth.” In Shakespeare Without Class: Misappropriations of Cultural Capital, edited by Donald Hedrick and Bryan Reynolds, pp. 229-39. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Endeavors to destabilize gendered references in the interaction of Macbeth's witches in experimental performance and in the historical context of medieval witch hunts.

Knights, L. C. “Macbeth: A Lust for Power,” in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 39-57. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Evaluates the “philosophy” of Macbeth, that is, its concern with illusion, reality, and the human potential for evil.

Kottman, Paul. “Hospitality in the Interval: Macbeth's Door.” Oxford Literary Review 18, nos. 1-2 (1996): 87-115.

Presents a reading of hospitality in Macbeth employing the poststructuralist theoretical perspective of Jacques Derrida.

La Belle, Jenijoy. “‘A Strange Infirmity’: Lady Macbeth's Amenorrhea.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980): 381-6.

Examines the literal and psychological significance of Lady Macbeth's entreaty that she be “unsexed,” that is, that her menstrual cycle cease and that she become barren.

Mellamphy, Ninian. “The Ironic Catastrophe in Macbeth.Ariel 11, no. 4 (October 1980): 3-19.

Traces Shakespeare's use of irony in order to achieve catharsis in Macbeth.

Neuenfeldt, William J. The Making of the Cauldron: An Analysis of Witch and Witchcraft Power in Macbeth. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Humanities Honors Program, 1994, 75 p.

Examination of Macbeth's witches within the historical and cultural context of Renaissance-era witchcraft.

Tomlinson, T. B. “Action and Soliloquy in Macbeth.Essays in Criticism 8 (1958): 147-55.

Argues that in Macbeth Shakespeare fails to create the single-minded man of action necessary for the representation of a tragic hero.

Wills, Garry. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, 223 p.

Book-length study into the original context of Macbeth, with an aim toward making the unedited drama more successful in contemporary performance.

Margaret Omberg (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Omberg, Margaret. “Macbeth's Barren Sceptre.” Studia Neophilologica 68, no. 1 (1996): 39-47.

[In the following essay, Omberg contends that Macbeth's failure to produce an heir provides central thematic, structural, and psychological components to the tragedy of Macbeth.]

Ever since L. C. Knights held Bradley's interpretation of Shakespearean tragedy up to scorn in “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” the very title of the essay has been associated with the kind of irrelevant speculation that should not be pursued by serious criticism.1 Perhaps as a result of the inspired irony of this title there has been an understandable reluctance to return to the question of the Macbeths' children, which, far from being an unwarranted speculation, is a highly relevant issue in the development of the plot and the destiny of the main characters in Macbeth. As far back as 1916 Freud suggested in one of his early psychological studies that childlessness lay at the root of the tragedy of Macbeth and his lady2 but it is not a theme that has been taken up to any great extent by later scholars. G. Wilson Knight was the first to direct attention to the failure of natural activities in the play and the numerous child-references it contains while Cleanth Brooks has discussed the image of the babe as one of Macbeth's most important symbols.3 More recently Marvin Rosenberg has argued that “all of Macbeth's violence is in the service of a son of his own” and dismisses the suggestion of Macbeth's childlessness as absurd.4 My purpose in the following pages is to show that Macbeth's lack of a son and heir is both a major theme of the play and the key to many of the hero's actions. Certain recurrent patterns in structure and imagery seem to bear out Freud's contention that Macbeth is childless, as does the more central question of the protagonist's psychological development.

Shakespeare found the historical basis of Macbeth in Holinshed's Chronicle of Scotland, and combined it with the story of Donwald from the same source to form the plot of the play.5 In addition he was almost certainly acquainted with George Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum Historia6 and John Leslie's De Origine Scotorum, where great stress was laid on the unbroken succession of Stuart kings on the throne of Scotland.7 The interweaving of these various sources goes beyond the limits of this study but Bullough and R. A. Law have conclusively demonstrated that Shakespeare closely followed the Macbeth story in Holinshed's Scottish Chronicle for the structuring of the play's action.8 It is therefore particularly noteworthy when he departs from this outline, either to introduce information from another source or to add to the action from his own imagination.

A swift glance at the dramatis personae of Macbeth is enough to show us that all the notable male characters—with the exception of Macbeth himself—are fathers with sons who take an active part in the play. Duncan's Malcolm and Donalbain and Banquo's Fleance are to be found in the Chronicle of Scotland but Young Siward and Young Macduff do not appear here. The account of the death of Siward and his father's concern that he died honourably in battle occurs in Holinshed's Chronicle of England; while Young Macduff is Shakespeare's own creation. Holinshed simply states that Macduff had children: “Makbeth most cruellie caused the wife and children of Makduffe, with all other whom he found in that castell, to be slaine” (Bullough, 501). There is no mention of a son here, in Buchanan or in Leslie. Young Macduff is therefore a new creation based on the reference to children in Holinshed and the events of the scene where he appears are largely Shakespeare's own invention. It is particularly interesting that on both of these occasions Shakespeare has gone beyond his main source to see that all the main characters, most importantly Macduff, have sons, as though he were determined to underline the fact that Macbeth does not have one.

The structure of the play shows Macbeth constantly coming up against one father/son combination after another. The importance of having an heir is heralded by the Weird Sisters who promise Macbeth the crown but Banquo the succession. In Holinshed the Sisters are even more explicit regarding Macbeth, telling him that “neither shall he leave anie issue behind him to succeed in his place” (Bullough, 495). For all the drama of the murder of Duncan, it is quickly accomplished and Macbeth then moves on to the problem of the prophecy to Banquo and the continuation of the royal line. At this point Banquo and Fleance take over the roles of Duncan and Malcolm as the major threat to Macbeth's ambitions but they quickly suffer the same fater as their predecessors: the father dies and the son escapes.

With the exit of Banquo and Fleance, Macduff moves into the position of chief adversary to Macbeth, seconded by the son Shakespeare has provided to sustain the father/son pattern. This interpretation is given added credence by the content of the scene in which the boy appears (IV.ii) and the conversation between Lady Macduff and her son about the absent father who has left his family unprotected. This interlude in the main action is usually explained as being Shakespeare's portrayal of the good and innocent in life, and the killing of Lady Macduff and her children as indicative of the depths to which Macbeth has all too quickly sunk, becoming a tyrant who butchers innocent women and children.9 Yet the ruthlessness of these murders seems out of proportion to Macduff's offence or the threat he poses, particularly as he had no claim to the throne.10 Seen in the context of Macbeth's preoccupation with his own childlessness, however, his revenge on Macduff is more understandable and has been well prepared for during the first two scenes of Act IV.

In the first of these Macbeth returns to the Weird Sisters to hear what the future holds for him after the murder of Banquo and the flight of Fleance. As Brooks points out, the second and third apparitions he is shown take the form of children, foreshadowing Macbeth's most pressing need, which is to know if Banquo's issue will ever reign in Scotland. The answer is given in the form of a show of eight kings with Banquo indicating that they are his descendants. This sight draws from Macbeth the cry of despair, “What! will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?” (IV.i.117). Immediately afterwards the Sisters vanish, and Lenox arrives to inform Macbeth that Macduff has fled to England. Macbeth's response is to order the deaths of Macduff's “wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (IV.i.152-3). The repetition of the word line, used to describe Banquo's royal progeny shortly before, is an indication that it is the despair and rage created by the show of kings which is unleashed on Macduff's family and kinsmen. The violence of this attack can thus be seen as having a direct connection to the blighting of Macbeth's hopes of founding a dynasty and the futile reprisal taken out on the offspring of his enemy is nothing less than the culmination of his frustration at his own barren stock.

This interpretation of Macbeth's motivation for the killing of Macduff's family integrates the painful scene where the abandoned Lady Macduff talks with her son more satisfactorily with the rest of the action. In addition to the fleeting glimpse of normal family life their conversation affords, it takes up the theme of fatherhood and the responsibilities it demands. Young Macduff is “father'd … and yet he's fatherless,” a line that refers both to the biological and social aspects of paternity; and Lady Macduff's repeated question, “How wilt thou do for a father?” underlines the importance of the father's protective role and the vulnerability of his offspring in his absence. Even at the very moment of young Macduff's cruel death, the biological bond is reflected in the coarse words of his murderer, “What, you egg! Young fry of treachery!” (IV.ii.82-3). The child is then murdered on stage, accentuating the priority of disposing of the heir, while Lady Macduff is killed off-stage. The excessive cruelty of murdering the child in front of his mother (and the audience) is a visual manifestation of Macbeth's uncontrollable fury at his own barrenness which will mean the extinction of his own line.

With the harrowing death of Young Macduff still fresh in our minds, we are then transported to the English court to witness his father's attempt to persuade Malcolm to move against Macbeth. In Holinshed's account Macduff seeks out Malcolm as a result of the slaughter of his family, “… to trie what purchase hee might make by means of his support to revenge the slaughter so cruellie executed on his wife, his children, and other friends” (Bullough, 501). Shakespeare makes a significant change to this sequence of events by letting the murder take place during, and largely because of, Macduff's absence, but above all by leaving Macduff ignorant of the murder until he reaches Malcolm's court.11 Here he may well have taken a hint from the account of the same events in Buchanan where Macduff, forewarned of Macbeth's emnity, “commended the Care of his family to his Wife … passed over into Lothian … and from thence into England” (Bullough, 515).

Whatever the impulse, the gain in dramatic tension produced is immense. There is the obvious dramatic irony of Malcolm's suspicion of Macduff's motives, and his suggestion that only someone in league with Macbeth would have dared leave his family at his mercy. A new and terrible irony is produced when Ross enters to bring the news of the murders, providing the ultimate confirmation of Macduff's honesty when it is no longer needed. But the greatest gain produced by the new arrangement is the opportunity for the highly charged emotional second half of the scene where Macduff is given the news of the slaughter of his family. This section links back to the previous scene, now showing the father's grief and acceptance of his own guilt for what has happened to his wife and children. Manly action in the form of revenge is suggested by Malcolm as a palliative for sorrow; but for the first time in the play, the concept of manliness is given a wider implication by Macduff's insistence on the importance of feeling:

                                                                                                                        Be comforted:
Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children.—All my pretty ones?
Did you say all?—O Hell-kite!—All?
What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam,
At one fell swoop?
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me.—Did Heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff!
They were all struck for thee.


On two occasions in the above dialogue the young Malcolm is rebuked by Macduff for his insistence on the “manly” virtues at the expense of natural feeling. The first instance is when his suggestion that grief be dealt with by converting it to revenge is dismissed by Macduff's comment to Rosse, “He has no children,” and the second when the injunction to “dispute it like a man” is met with the swift rejoinder, “I shall do so; / But I must also feel it like a man.” The second of these two examples has never been a point of critical conjecture, but the first has been explained in three different ways, depending on whom “he” is taken to signify. Kenneth Muir in the Arden edition of the play summarizes these different interpretations in a footnote to the line. The first of them takes “he” to refer to Malcolm, who, Macduff implies, would not suggest curing grief with revenge if he had any children of his own; the second takes “he” to refer to Macbeth, who either has no children to be killed in revenge; or, as in the third interpretation, would never have contemplated killing another man's children if he had known the joys of fatherhood himself (135).

Muir himself supports the second interpretation which would seem to be an unlikely choice in the light of Shakespeare's portrayal of Macduff in Act IV as a man of exceptional integrity whose sense of justice and morality is well balanced by strong feeling and natural sensitivity. Are we to believe that a child for a child would be such a man's mode of revenge? In Act V his sense of fair dealing is to be further underlined when he refuses to fight hired soldiers, seeing Macbeth—and only Macbeth—as a justifiable target. It is surely psychologically implausible that a man who recoils morally from striking hierlings should contemplate taking revenge on defenceless children. There is the possibility that the comment might refer to Macbeth if Macduff delivered it with heavy irony at Malcolm's expense, as though following through his suggestion to its logical end; but this surely goes against the emotional grain of the moment as Macduff tries to sustain the shock of his loss. The third explanation is unconvincingly sentimental in view of Macbeth's atrocities already discussed in the scene. This leaves us with the first alternative, where the “he” referred to is Malcolm, not Macbeth, which, as indicated above, seems to be the likeliest explanation. It is both dramatically and emotionally convincing, and the fact that Malcolm's callousness, or at least lack of understanding, is repeated and then directly challenged a few lines later strengthens the case for the first alternative on the grounds of contextual suitability.

I would further suggest that this moment, when the good Macduff is forced to come to terms with his deficiencies as a father and husband, and in so doing shows true humanity, is one of the main reasons for Shakespeare's reorganization of the historical events he found in Holinshed. By making Macduff receive the news of his family's deaths at this point Shakespeare not only raises the dramatic and emotional temperature of what is a fairly plodding scene (nowhere else in the play does Shakespeare follow the language of his source with more fidelity) but re-emphasizes the importance of family and children, an importance which Macduff endorses and will ultimately avenge.

Thus the structure of the play with its careful counterpointing of fathers and sons throwing Macbeth's lack of progeny into relief is one of the strongest reasons for dismissing the notion that Macbeth also has a son. To claim, however speculatively, as does Rosenberg, that a baby son exists, despite the fact that he never appears or is even mentioned specifically, flies in the face of the evidence of the text and simple common sense. On the contrary, Holinshed's line noting the witches prophecy that Macbeth would not “leave anie issue behind him” has been made one of the themes of the play, eating away the hero's hopes and ultimately isolating him from his wife as well as the world at large. Lady Macbeth may well have given suck but not to a living son of her husband, yet it is the terrible lines which picture her wrenching the child from her breast that have been taken as proof of the existence of a young Macbeth. For this reason they warrant closer examination.

The historical Lady Macbeth did indeed have a son, a simpleton known as Luthlac, described by Holinshed as “the sonne or (as some write) the cousin of the late mentioned Macbeth.” In The Royal Play of Macbeth Henry Paul states his belief that “Shakespeare had evidently found out that he [Luthlac] was really the son of Lady Macbeth by Gilcomgain her first husband; for in the play although Macbeth is childless, Lady Macbeth speaks of her child”.12 Rosenberg, on the other hand, agrees with Bradley that Shakespeare either ignored or was ignorant of this previous marriage as he tells us “unequivocally—in a play full of equivocation—that they [the Macbeths] have had a child”; Rosenberg then further suggests a staging of the play where the presence of a baby in a cradle would give an added dimension to the text (671ff). However, such deductions and speculations as these cannot be seriously entertained. Shakespeare does not tell us unequivocally or any other way that the Macbeths have had a child; he tells us that Lady Macbeth has had one, and does so indirectly in the lines beginning, “I have given suck” (I.vii.54). What is certain is that no child of Macbeth is present in a play which otherwise makes much of children as characters in the action and that the hero is haunted by the fact of his inability to produce an heir throughout.

For it is clear that from the moment the succession is promised to Banquo that Macbeth's desire for a son becomes a living reality. Several instances in the first act show that the thought of children is not far from his mind. He twice refers to the prophecy of Banquo's sons becoming kings (I.iii.86,118) and in his speech of loyalty to Duncan he somewhat strangely likens feudal duties to children (I.iv.25). A more significant example is the “naked, new-born babe” of his first great soliloquy, the strongest image in the apocalyptic vision that makes him draw back from the brink of murder (I.vii.21-25). His change of heart is derided by Lady Macbeth who sees it as a sign of weakness, claiming that she would rather tear the child from her breast and kill it than show such infirmity of purpose:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.


This is the climax of Lady Macbeth's attack on her husband and the brutality of the babe image conveys not only the strength of her own resolution but the virulence of the attack on his virility which has just preceded it. If Shakespeare was indeed aware that Lady Macbeth had a child by a previous husband, her taunting of Macbeth takes on an added edge, the stress on the pronoun “I” not just indicating the closer bond between mother and child but her own biological superiority. In other words, the accusation of barrenness cannot be laid at her door.

Having thus humiliated him sexually, she then offers him a way back into her good graces if he will rise to the challenge afforded by her plan to murder Duncan. It is not surprising that his moral scruples about killing the king are overcome, combined as they are with the opportunity of reinstating his masculinity. The evidence for this combination lies in his exclamation of admiration at his wife's audacity:

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


This is no general compliment to Lady Macbeth's particular brand of courage but a spontaneous cry of hope that she will bear him a son to succeed him once he has gained the crown. It shows that the question of the succession is already looming large in Macbeth's mind before the murder of Duncan.

After the murder it becomes his main concern to the point of obsession until the end of the play. The first time we meet him alone again is at the beginning of Act III where all the frustration he feels at his fate is poured out in the soliloquy “To be thus is nothing … “(III.i.47 ff). For although this speech opens with Macbeth's avowal that he both fears Banquo's knowledge of his actions and resents his noble nature and personal charisma, it does not really catch fire until halfway through. Then the real reason for his hatred—the succession—rises to the surface:

Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
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 murther'd;
Put rancors in the vessel of my peace,
Only for them; and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common Enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!
Rather than so, come, fate, into the list,
And champion me to th' utterance!


That the fact of Macbeth's lack of an heir sticks deeper than any fear of Banquo is indicated by some of the words used in the passage. Brooks notes that the plant imagery here builds on that already used by Banquo and Duncan as a symbol of growth and development; Wilson Knight sees the crown and sceptre as “barren in every sense; barren of joy and content, barren of posterity;” while Rosenberg insists that it is the crown that is barren, not Macbeth.13 But here again, are not the images of the “fruitless crown” and the “barren sceptre” more specific and personal? The sterility is Macbeth's and his wife's and his latent frustration and fury at this condition builds up to erupt in the line, “To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings!” (my italics). The choice of the word seed when sons would have been a more normal alternative is telling. It reveals the biological bent of Macbeth's thoughts as he sees life reduced to its most basic elements, and the power of the word lies in its contrast to the images of infertility that precede it as well as in the dehumanizing ring of contempt it conveys.

Macbeth's attempts to eliminate the threat of Banquo's line fail when Fleance escapes and we have seen his immediate reaction to the show of the future eight kings when, unable to vent his rage on Banquo's line, he transfers it to Macduff's and eliminates the latter's family. His attempts to be revenged on life do not stop there, of course, as the horrors of his reign described in Act IV show only too well, testifying to his degeneration and indirectly to his inner despair. When we meet him in Act V his own survival has become his prime concern, but in the two final soliloquies, “This push will chair me ever” and “Tomorrow and tomorrow” we glimpse his total emotional and spiritual isolation. “Love, honour, obedience, troops of friends” he has forfeited in his efforts to secure his crown and the ultimate irony is that there is no filial head on which to place it. Human hopes of immortality have always lain either in religion's promise of an afterlife or in the thought that offspring will continue the line. Macbeth has neither consolation and in the great “Tomorrow” speech we see the despair of a man who sees himself condemned by both God and Nature to have no part in the future.

The importance of children in the structure of the play and in the development or rather the degeneration of Macbeth himself is reflected in the imagery throughout. It is now a commonplace of literary criticism of Macbeth that nature imagery helps to establish the dichotomies of order and disorder which underlie the action.14 Repeated images of babes and milk are used to signify natural goodness and innocence and references to plants, birds, and animals as well as to functions such as eating and sleeping build a background of the gentle flow of normal life. A closer look at these images reveals that many of them are not only connected with nature but with procreation and fecundity and can be seen on several occasions as supplying a specific contrast to the childless state of the two protagonists.

Examples of such highlighting appear in four consecutive scenes in Act I where the juxtaposition of various elements connected with procreation relates directly to Macbeth and his wife. First of all, Duncan, the father of two sons, is presented through images of planting, harvesting and feasting. There is undoubted fecundity in his “plenteous joys / Wanton in fulness” (I.iv.33-34). The scene then changes to Inverness and focuses on Lady Macbeth, who in her famous evocation to Evil in scene v speaks in images of female sexuality and parturition. In her desire to be “unsexed” she conjures up the repellent picture of suckling evil spirits (“Come to my woman's breasts …”) which links her to contemporary beliefs in the practice of the black arts, one of which was a witch's suckling of her familiar by a supernumerary teat provided for the purpose.15 As we have seen, she returns to the subject of breast-feeding later on in her taunting of Macbeth when she produces the repugnant image of the child torn from the breast and beaten to death (I.vii.54-9). It is highly significant that Lady Macbeth's mental processes should repeatedly produce images of babes and sucklings when she is ostensibly concentrating on murder and this shows that she too is affected by the pressing need to produce an heir. Her natural instinct to create and nurture, however, is consciously crushed by her perverted will and ambition for her husband and is never regained. Her desire to be unsexed works only too well resulting in sterility of both body and soul.

The theme of fertility is moved to the animal kingdom when Duncan arrives at the castle at Inverness, a scene praised as much for the atmosphere of peace and harmony it conveys as for its dramatic irony. Banquo's beautiful words about the house-martin, however, are too detailed to be merely providing atmosphere and are more convincingly explained as a specific eulogy to procreation:

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


The words loved, wooingly, pendent bed, procreant cradle, breed all combine to produce a picture of natural fecundity in the animal world outside the castle in contrast to the human sterility within; and almost as if to press home the point, Shakespeare immediately introduces Lady Macbeth whose entrance effectively cuts off Banquo's digression and destroys the harmonious atmosphere it has created. Macbeth's destruction of natural harmony and innocence is most graphically displayed in the scene where Lady Macduff converses with her little son and once again natural order is described with reference to birds. The wren will fight to protect her nestlings, despite her size; and young Macduff points to the example of the birds when asked how he will live without his father (IV.ii.9-11; 31-34).

Much of the impact of the serene and simple beginning of this scene comes from the contrast it makes with the foregoing one in which Macbeth meets the Weird Sisters or witches for the second time to find out the details of his destiny. The black art of the witches is first shown as they concoct their poisonous brew. Among the ingredients are the “finger of birth-strangled babe” and the blood of a sow that “hath eaten her nine farrow” perversions of natural order that hint at the procreation theme. Once Macbeth enters he immediately demands to know the future, whatever destructive means this may involve, such as the unleashing of the winds, storms at sea and the laying of corn, all powers associated with witches at the time.16 The final image of his speech once again harkens back to the procreation theme in the vision of the total confusion of the hidden seeds of nature: “… though the treasure / Of Nature's germens tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken” (IV.i.58-60). Confusion on this scale would result in monstrous births or even total barrenness and Macbeth's willingness to go to such lengths to gratify his own curiosity marks the nadir of his development.17 There can be little doubt that this image is drawn from the depths of frustration at his own sterility, and that there is an element of wreaking revenge on nature in the curse he invokes.

This necromantic scene is Shakespeare's own invention, using as a basis the prophecies mentioned by Holinshed that Macbeth “should neuer be vanquished, till Birnane wood were brought to Dunsinane; nor yet to be slaine with anie man, that should be or was borne of anie woman” (Bullough, 504). These lines are given dramatic form by Shakespeare in the three apparitions, the last two of which are children who prophesy Macbeth's fate: the bloody child representing Macduff, “ripp'd” from his mother's womb, who will avenge the murder of his own son; and the crowned child bearing the bough of a tree signifying the return of Malcolm and natural order. Encouraged by the equivocal answers they give him, Macbeth then demands to know if Banquo's issue will succeed him and is shown the long line of Stuart kings, the “seed of Banquo”. As we have seen, the sight turns Macbeth into a killer of other men's children, a destroyer of life when he cannot create it.

The success of the Stuart dynasty had reached its zenith when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in honour of the new king of England, James VI of Scotland. James's accession to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth in 1603 settled the question of the succession which had been a matter of concern and speculation during the last years of the English queen's reign. The whole subject of the extinction of a royal line and the necessity for the sovereign to provide a legitimate heir to secure the succession was thus one of long and intense interest. Macbeth's childlessness reflected that of Elizabeth, who never married and was well aware that her crown would go to the son of her arch-enemy, Mary Stuart, because she herself was a “barren stock”.18 The subject was thus a topical and exceptionally relevant one.

Macbeth is a play of such poetic richness and psychological subtlety that many strands can be distinguished in its fabric. This study has sought to focus on one such strand: Shakespeare's combination of the question of the succession with the growing psychological desperation of the hero so that Macbeth's want of an heir becomes a major concern on both official and personal levels. The structure, the hero's development and the images of procreation all have a part to play in emphasizing the natural rhythms of life that Macbeth and his wife have flaunted by committing murder; and their childlessness, resulting in the loss of the succession, is arguably Nature's retaliation. For Macbeth is not so much concerned with the killing of a king as with the murderer's gradual realization that it has all been done for nothing. The “fruitless crown” and the “barren sceptre” thus lie at the centre of the play, shaping a final desolation for the hero; and perhaps the compassion that we feel for Macbeth at the end, in spite of all his crimes, is in some part due to Shakespeare's subtle awakening of our sympathy for the most unnatural of troubles.


  1. L. C. Knights's essay (1933), reprinted in his Explorations (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946) criticizes A. C. Bradley's approach in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1904) and claims that Macbeth should be read as a “dramatic poem” rather than a study of character.

  2. Sigmund Freud, “Some Character-Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey, vol. 14 (London, 1957) 318-24.

  3. G. Wilson Knight, “The Milk of Concord: An Essay on Life-themes in Macbeth” in The Imperial Theme (1931; London: Methuen, 1965); Cleanth Brooks, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness” in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947; New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1975) 22-49.

  4. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley and Los Angeles: UCP, 1978) 672, 674.

  5. Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2 vols. 1577, 1587. All the quotations from Holinshed are taken from the passages reprinted in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).

  6. George Buchanan, Rerum Scoticarum Historia (Edinburgh, 1582) translated by James Aikman, 6 vols., Glasgow, 1827. Although the 1827 edition has been consulted, references are to the reprinted passages in Bullough.

  7. John Leslie, De Origine, Moribus et Rebus Gestis Scotorum (Rome, 1587). See Bullough for a description and reproduction of Leslie's family tree of Banquo, thought to have influenced Shakespeare (441).

  8. See Bullough, 423ff and R. A. Law, “The Composition of Macbeth” in University of Texas Studies in English 31(1952): 35-41.

  9. See the introduction to Act IV. ii in the Arden edition of Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (1951; rpt 1994) 117. All subsequent references to the play are to this edition.

  10. Macduff, Thane of Fife, was a powerful nobleman but did not belong to the royal line of Kenneth McAlpine from which the Scottish kings were elected. There is no indication either in the play or Shakespeare's sources that Macduff had any claim to the throne or ambition to be king. On the contrary, Malcolm later rewarded him for his loyalty by conferring special hereditary privileges on the Macduff family. See Alan Orr Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History. A. D. 500 to 1286 (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1990) 580.

  11. This has been pointed out by Bullough, 501 and by Muriel C. Bradbrook, “The Sources of Macbeth”. Rpt. in Aspects of Macbeth, ed. K. Muir and P. Edwards (1977) 13.

  12. Henry Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950) 224.

  13. See Brooks, 46-47; Wilson Knight, 131; and Rosenberg, 674.

  14. Wilson Knight, Knights and Brooks have all demonstrated this in some detail in their respective works cited in this study.

  15. See Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits (New York and Oxford: OUP, 1995) 80-83.

  16. See Pennethorne Hughes, Witchcraft (London: Longman 1952, rpt. 1972)134; 141-46. Hughes' discussion of the practices of witchcraft takes up their connection with birth (many witches were midwives) and abortion.

  17. It was W. C. Curry in Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (1937) who identified “Nature's germens” as the hidden seeds of life which cannot be destroyed but can be so confused by evil forces that they become barren or only produce monstrosities. Anthony Harris mentions this and other aspects of witchcraft in Night's Black Agents: Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980) 36-37.

  18. Elizabeth's words on hearing of the birth of Mary Stuart's son, James, are recorded as being: “The queen of Scots is this day leichter of a fair son, and I am but a barren stock” (Memoirs of Sir James Melville, 1583).

Jan H. Blits (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. Introduction to The Insufficiency of Virtue: “Macbeth” and the Natural Order, pp. 1-7. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

[In the following introduction, Blits studies Macbeth’s concern with the limits of virtue and the violation of human and natural order.]

Macbeth depicts the life and soul of a Christian warrior who first becomes his kingdom's savior, then its criminal king, and finally its bloody tyrant. Set in eleventh-century Scotland, the play portrays Macbeth within the context of a moral and political order rooted in a natural order that is established by God. Far from being merely a backdrop for the play (as is often suggested), this natural order decisively shapes both the characters and the action of the drama. Shakespeare shows that what a character thinks about the natural order affects how he understands the moral and political world, and hence himself and his life. It makes him who or what he is.

The natural order that we see in Macbeth is a distinctly medieval Christian cosmos. Characterized by God's providence, plentitude, and pervasive presence, it appears to be a hierarchical, harmonious unity in which all being and goodness flow from God and what everything in the world is depends on God and its place in his scheme of creation. Throughout the play, something's “place” is not merely its spatial location, but its fixed “degree” or “rank” in the established order of things. Place refers to hierarchical position as well as to whereabouts in space.1 Likewise, God is generally thought not only to see everyone's every action and to know everyone's most secret thoughts (“Heaven knows what she has known” [5.1.46]), but to protect the innocent, punish the guilty, and, indeed, to feed the birds of the air and supply their other natural needs. Nothing escapes Heaven's notice or concern. Even Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fear that Heaven will see them murdering Duncan and act to stop or to avenge the deed.2

Further, as God not only sees but foresees all things, and as he, moreover, does nothing directly that can be done through intermediaries, the world in Macbeth is pervaded by a profusion of preternatural beings with the power to prophesy and to produce magical changes or effects in things. Nature is surrounded or suffused by the supernatural. Witches, angels, devils, saints, spirits, and other such beings permeate the world and, bridging the gulf between God and the human soul, are able to see what lies ahead and to transform what human power is unable to change.3

Finally, since God wills and orders all things and nothing happens outside his providence, many of the characters in Macbeth believe that chance or fortune has little or no role in human affairs. Not only does the traditionally pious Old Man trust that good always comes of evil (2.4.40-41), but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, on the one side, and Macduff and Lady Macduff, on the other, show by their actions as well as by their words that they believe that virtue possesses the power to govern the world. Notwithstanding their deep and direct moral opposition in other critical respects, each of them sees the world as a morally consistent order in which the virtuous are always rewarded or protected and virtue alone determines one's fate.4

Shakespeare leads us, however, to examine the unity, harmony, and order of this medieval Christian cosmos. The medieval world—imbued with distinct and fixed ranks, the subordination and obedience of the lower to the higher, and a strong sense of plentitude, purpose, wholeness, and order in both the temporal and the spiritual realms—may set forth the natural order in high relief.5 But, in so doing, it also points up fundamental tensions that inhere not only within the medieval cosmos, but, by implication, within any unified, harmonious, natural order. In Macbeth we see two such tensions. One concerns the relation between two opposed forms of virtue; the other, the relation between virtue and life. The tensions themselves and the complex interaction between them, played out in the actions and the souls of the characters, form the essential core of the drama.

The first tension exists between the two contrasting forms of virtue esteemed in Macbeth's warrior, Christian Scotland: the manly virtue practiced by men like Macbeth (“brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” [1.2.16]) and honored so highly by his wife, and the Christian virtue evoked by the “most sainted king” Duncan (4.3.109) and devoutly revered by Macduff. Manly virtue honors bravery, boldness, and resolution (“Be bloody, bold, and resolute” [4.1.79]); Christian virtue exalts meekness, innocence, and trust (“Whether should I fly? / I have done no harm” [4.2.72-73]).6 The former emphasizes fear while honoring war; the latter emphasizes love while celebrating peace. Manly virtue speaks of courage, action, prowess, vengeance, and resistance. It demands action while disdaining fortune. Christian virtue speaks of pity, patience, guilt, forgiveness, and remorse. It demands innocence while trusting providence. What is fair in the light of one is foul in the light of the other.

In Macbeth, Christian and warrior virtue exist side by side not only in the same country, but often in the same individual.7 While Macbeth, for example, is “Bellona's bridegroom” (1.2.55) and is spurred to Duncan's murder by his wife's accusation of unmanliness (“When you durst do it, then you were a man” [1.7.49]), he nonetheless not only looks up to Duncan's meek, angel-like virtues,8 but, repulsed by his thoughts of murder and eventually tormented by his murderous deeds, he is finally destroyed by his own Christian conscience. Indeed, haunted by his guilty conscience, he tries to destroy it and, in so doing, ultimately destroys both his conscience and himself. If manly ambition leads Macbeth to his first crime, paradoxically it is Christian conscience that drives him to his last. Had he either listened to his Christian conscience in the beginning or never heard it at all, he would not have become a bloody tyrant in the end.

The most obvious example of these opposed virtues coexisting in the same person, each in an untempered form, is Macduff. Macduff is at once a manly warrior and a devout Christian. No one, not even Macbeth, speaks more often or more assuredly of his sword than he (“My voice is in my sword” [5.8.7]).9 Nor does anyone else, not even the pious Old Man in act 2, scene 4, describe Scotland's moral and political events in explicitly biblical, let alone apocalyptical, terms so frequently or so emphatically as Macduff repeatedly does.10 Macduff trusts his sword and the cross equally. Thus he flees to England to bring back an army to overthrow Macbeth (“Let us rather / Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men / Bestride our downfall birthdom” [4.3.2-4]). But, while doing so, he leaves his wife and children undefended, trusting their protection to God. And then, upon hearing of their slaughter, he does not doubt divine providence, but blames his own sinfulness for their fate:

                                                                                                    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.


Even while he believes that only the mortal sword can redeem Scotland's great wrongs, Macduff also believes in the existence of a moral order in which God guarantees the victory of goodness in the world and allows only sinners (or those they love) to suffer.

Similarly, Duncan, though completely lacking martial virtue, takes enormous delight in the bloody Captain's grisly account of the brave Macbeth. Disdaining fortune with his brandished sword, Macbeth carved his way through the rebels until he came face to face with their leader, whom he immediately ripped open from his navel to his jaw and whose head he then fixed upon the battlements. “O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!” (1.2.24), the “most sainted king” exclaims. And the bloody Captain himself, epitomizing the confusion, declares that he “cannot tell” whether Macbeth and Banquo “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” (1.2.42, 40-41). To this good and hardy Scottish soldier, a warrior's bloodbath seems indistinguishable from the Crucifixion.

The first tension, then, involves the unreconciled forms of virtue practiced and esteemed in Macbeth's Scotland and, ultimately, the different conceptions of human life underlying them. The second tension, though less apparent, is still deeper. It is the tension within nature between virtue or order, on the one side, and life, on the other. Where the first tension involves the coherence of virtue, the second involves the coherence of nature itself.

While the word nature occurs very frequently in Macbeth,11 only twice (and both times with great ambiguity) could “nature” be understood as the source of moral evil. The Captain, mentioning the word for the first time, refers to the rebels swarming to Macdonwald as “The multiplying villainies of nature” (1.2.11): “villainies” might be either scoundrels or peasants, or both. And Lady Macbeth, wishing to unsex herself, offers prayers to murdering spirits who, she says, “wait on Nature's mischief” (1.5.50): the mischief may be done by or to nature. Apart from this pair of possible exceptions, nature is associated throughout Macbeth with two things: with order and with life. The moral order is seen as part of the natural order,12 and the natural order is the source of, sustains, and, indeed, is characterized by, life.13 While in our day the prevailing view is that nature is essentially inanimate (inert matter in aimless motion) and freedom from nature, or even opposition to it, is the source of morality, in Macbeth's medieval Scotland, just the opposite seems the case. Nature is seen as embracing and sustaining both virtue and life. The source of the one, it is also the source of the other. It holds the moral and the biological realms together.

Thus, nature is often associated in Macbeth with gentleness (“the milk of human kindness” [1.5.17]), with pity and remorse (“the compunctious visitings of Nature” [1.5.45]), with nourishment (“great Nature's second course” [2.2.38]), with bountiful giving (“the gift [of] … bounteous Nature” [3.1.97]), and with a parent's love (“the natural touch” [4.2.9]). Its opposite is not so much convention or even the supernatural, both of which abound in Macbeth, as it is death or murder.14 “Death and Nature do contend about them,” says Lady Macbeth, “Whether they live, or die” (2.2.7-8).

Thus it is not surprising that the issue of children or of natural generation shapes much of the structure of the play. Both sets of the Witches' prophecies rest on it. First, Macbeth shall be king, but Banquo shall beget kings. The father will be happier, though lesser. Then, none of woman born shall harm Macbeth. Macbeth is invulnerable to anyone with maternal origins. And just as Macbeth tries to kill Banquo and his son so that his own son might succeed him on the throne, so his worst crime is the slaughter of Macduff's wife and children, for no reason other than that they are his wife and children—a crime for which Macduff, having been untimely ripped from his mother's womb, will kill Macbeth in return. Altogether, there are five father-son relationships in the play: Duncan's, Banquo's, Macduff's, Siward's, and Macbeth's own.15 Macbeth kills the first two fathers and the last two fathers' sons, while he himself, as Macduff pertinently notes, “has no children” (4.3.216).

And just as children and generation are crucial to the play, so, also, the central political issue in Macbeth concerns royal succession. Not only Macbeth but Duncan and Banquo as well seek to establish family dynasties—to “be the root and father / Of many kings” (3.1.5-6). Indeed, the last two, unlike Macbeth, eventually succeed. Their posterity become kings, while Macbeth, wearing “a fruitless crown” upon his head and holding “a barren sceptre in [his] gripe / Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,” dies without an heir, “No son of mine succeeding” (3.1.60, 61, 62, 63).

Now, it may seem obvious that there is a tension between life and at least one of the two forms of virtue. For Macbeth's warrior virtue aims not at sustaining life, but at wreaking death (“Nothing afeard of what thyself didst make, / Strange images of death” [1.3.96-97]) and accepting it courageously (“He only liv'd but till he was a man; … / [And] like a man he died” [5.9.6, 9]).16 It surely is no accident that Shakespeare rhymes Macbeth's name (which, ironically, in Gaelic means “the son of life”) with the play's first mention of death:

                                                            Go pronounce his present death,
And with his former title greet Macbeth.


Nor does it seem coincidental that the play's first description of Macbeth depicts “brave Macbeth” as cutting a man “from the nave to th' chops” (1.2.16, 22), from the sign of his birth to the jaws with which he eats.17 In a less obvious way, the same fundamental tension seems also to exist for Christian virtue. As Macduff approvingly reports, the “most sainted” Duncan's wife, a woman who was “Oft'ner upon her knees than on her feet,” “Died every day she liv'd” (4.3.109, 110-11). Her virtue made her dead to the world.18

Shakespeare also shows, however, that the tension within nature between order and life is not limited to virtue's aims or effects. While one aspect of the tension involves virtue's life-destroying consequences, another involves, even more fundamentally, the necessary conditions for a natural order in which virtue is sovereign or supreme and nothing is left to chance. Macduff is able to preserve the Witches' prophecy that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.80-81), because he is “of no woman born”:

Macduff was from his mother's womb
Untimely ripp'd.


Macduff is not the child of a woman. Scotland is his “birthdom” (4.3.4); his country is his “mother” (4.3.166). Free from birth and hence from chance, he can believe that virtue—whether of the sword or the cross—is everything, and that fortune, which has such a large role in births, plays no part in human affairs. Whatever happens has moral significance, since only what comports with moral order is possible. The unborn Macduff thus literally embodies an impossible but necessary condition for a natural order in which virtue governs all. An incarnation of what Aristotle describes as “a probable impossibility,”19 Macduff illustrates the inherent tension between virtue and life by surpassing the intrinsic limits of a perfectly ordered natural whole. Malcolm, by contrast, a man who more than once owes his life to chance, believes strongly in the power of fortune and hence in the need to rule rather than be ruled by either Christian or manly virtue.

Macduff is not alone in believing in the sufficiency of virtue. As already suggested, both his wife and Lady Macbeth, as well as Macbeth, share his view. The two women are, of course, quite different from each other. Lady Macbeth, the voice of manly, warrior virtue in its wholly untempered form (1.7.49-51), fears that her husband is too full of the milk of human kindness. She wishes to unsex herself—to have murdering spirits come to her breasts and take her milk for gall—so that she would be cruel enough to kill Duncan. Indeed, she would rather murder her own son than forswear her promise to murder the king. In direct contrast, Lady Macduff, the voice of womanly, Christian virtue in its untempered form (4.2.72-78), fears her husband's lack of human kindness. Identified by Shakespeare only as “wife” and “mother,” she is all maternal love (4.2.8 ff.).20 She even refuses to hear that any other of Macduff's loves could possibly compete with his love as a husband and father. One woman wishes that both she and her husband were all manly; the other seems to be all womanly and wishes her husband were more so. Yet, even though these two women—the only women of major importance in the play apart from the Witches—represent opposite sides of the tension within virtue, both believe in the sovereign power of virtue. Just as Macduff thinks that only sinners suffer, his wife thinks that innocence suffices for safety. Warned of approaching danger, she asks, “Whether should I fly? / I have done no harm” (4.2.72-73). Those who have done no harm to others need fear no harm to themselves. Only the “unsanctified” is unsafe (2.2.80). Similarly, Lady Macbeth, overcoming her husband's final resistance to murdering Duncan, suggests that courage guarantees success:

We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we'll not fail.


Both women believe in the existence of a moral order in which chance plays no part and virtue, the only truly valuable thing, rules all. Both risk everything on this trust, and lose. And both denature themselves for their virtue. While Lady Macbeth, wanting to be entirely cruel, would unsex herself, Lady Macduff, fearing no harm, forgets that she lives “in this earthly world” (4.2.74). One would expunge her bodily maternal function to become all male; the other forgets her home on earth while being all female.

Nothing, however, better epitomizes the tension within nature between virtue and life than their husbands. Macduff, all virtue, proves in the end to stand outside and against nature in its most obvious aspect. If his lack of natural birth is a precondition for his virtue, his virtue, in turn, leads to the destruction of all his children. A child without a mother, he becomes a father without a child. His own motherlessness results, finally, in his childlessness. In the end, his virtue proves entirely incompatible with natural generation.

Macbeth, by contrast, is childless from the start. Yet in what is no doubt the strangest and most revealing twist in the play, the childless Macbeth kills so that his own sons can succeed him on the throne (3.1.47-71). In the Republic, Socrates banishes not only families but human birth from the just city: virtue, not fortune, rules.21 Macbeth, in his own way, does the same. Collapsing both major tensions within the natural order at once, he makes manliness everything and subjugates generation to it. For him, we will see, virtue ultimately replaces sex, death replaces birth, murder replaces generation. Nature is entirely subsumed by virtue: the two senses of “blood”—lifeblood and deathblood—converge. Manly virtue itself produces sons. “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males,” Macbeth tells his wife after she persuades him to carry out Duncan's murder (1.7.73-75): manly men have sons. By murdering his rivals, the man called “Bellona's bridegroom” and “Valour's minion” (1.2.55, 19) aims to make his barren crown fruitful.22


  1. 1.4.35-36; 1.7.61-62; 2.4.11-13; 3.1.91-102; 3.4.1-8, 118-19; 5.9.39. References are to act, scene, and line. All references to Macbeth are to the Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (1951; reprint, London: Methuen, 1984). Where the Arden text differs from the First Folio, I have sometimes emended the quotations, based on the New Variorum Edition, ed. Horace Howard Furness Jr. (1870; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1966.)

  2. 1.5.53-54; 1.6.3-9; 1.7.21-25; 2.3.8-11; 2.4.4-10; 4.2.30-33, 72-78; 4.3.5-8, 141-59, 223-27.

  3. E.g., 1.1.5; 1.3.8-10, 48 ff.; 1.5.1-16, 29-30, 40-50; 3.1.1-10; 3.4.122-25, 131-34; 3.5.2-33; 4.1.48 ff.; 4.3.141-59; 5.3.1-10; 5.5.42-46; 5.8.8-22.

  4. E.g., 1.7.59-62; 3.1.56-63; 4.2.72-73; 4.3.223-27.

  5. As Sir Thomas Elyot wrote (1531), “[T]he discrepancy of degrees, whereof proceeds order, … in things as well natural as supernatural has ever had such a preeminence, that thereby the incomprehensible majesty of God as it were by a bright leam of a torch or candle is declared to the blind inhabitants of the world.” Sir Thomas Elyot, The Boke Named the Gouernour, ed. Henry Herbert Stephen Croft, 2 vols. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1883), 1:3. I have modernized the spelling.

  6. For “Whether should I fly” rather than “Whither should I fly,” see note 27, Act Four.

  7. The close juxtaposition of the two kinds of virtue leads some critics to suggest that Christianity is still vague and only newly emerging in Macbeth's Scotland (see, e.g., H. B. Charleton, Shakespearian Tragedy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971], 145 ff.; Paul Cantor, “Macbethund die Evangelisierung von Schottland [Munich: Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, 1993]). However, Scotland had been converted to Christianity by St. Columba nearly half a millennium earlier. Duncan is, in fact, the last, not the first, king to be buried on “Colme-kill” (Iona) (2.4.33-35; see also 1.2.63). Note also that Malcolm's name, in Gaelic, means “Follower of St. Columba.”

  8. By contrast, in Holinshed's account, Shakespeare's principal source, Macbeth speaks disapprovingly, and perhaps even contemptuously, of Duncan's soft qualities. See Raphael Holinshed, The History of Scotland, vol. 5 of Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1808; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1965), 265. I have modernized Holinshed's spelling throughout.

  9. Also 4.3.3, 87, 234; 5.7.19.

  10. 2.3.62-63, 65-68, 74-79; 4.3.55-57, 108-11, 223-27, 231-35; 5.8.3, 14; see also 2.4.34-35; 4.3.5-8. Macbeth comes closest, in describing his own affairs; see 1.7.16-25; 4.1.117 and 5.5.21. Macduff's moral character is largely Shakespeare's invention. Holinshed gives no hint at all of his devout Christian piety. Nor does he depict him so confident of his sword as Shakespeare does. See Holinshed, Hist. Scot., 274-77.

  11. Of all Shakespeare's plays, only Hamlet and King Lear, which are about twice as long as Macbeth, mention “nature” and its derivatives more often. Macbeth mentions them thirty-one times; Hamlet, thirty-nine times, and Lear, fifty times.

  12. E.g., 1.5.40-50; 1.6.3-10; 2.1.8-9, 49-56; 2.2.34-42; 2.3.53-60; 2.4.1-20; 3.1.49-50, 85-107; 3.4.121-25; 4.2.9-14, 30-35; 4.3.66-67.

  13. E.g., 1.7.68-71; 2.2.7-8, 34-39; 2.3.109-12; 3.4.25-27, 140; 4.1.58-60; 4.2.9-11; 5.1.9-10.

  14. The word “nature” derives from the Latin word for “birth” (natura, from nascor, “to be born”) and from the Greek word it translates, physis (from phyo, “to generate, to cause to come into being”). The native English word for nature is “kind,” which has a similar derivation. Hence “the milk of human kindness.”

  15. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 124.

  16. As the latter quotation contains the last mention of “man” in Macbeth, the first mention of the word is Duncan's question, “What bloody man is that?” (1.2.1). Duncan's question is also the first line spoken by a human being in the play.

  17. For Macbeth's only reference to natural death, which, in context, he suggests is unnatural, see 4.1.99, 100, and note 11, Act Four.

  18. See 1 Cor. 15.31 (RSV); all biblical references are to the Revised Standard Version. See also 1.2.40-42 and 4.2.72-78.

  19. Aristotle Poetics 1460a27, 1461b11.

  20. The now-common designation “Lady Macduff” is a modern editorial convenience. It is found in neither the First Folio's stage headings or stage directions nor in the play's dialogue.

  21. Plato Republic 415d8; see also Plato Critias 110c6, and Aristotle Politics 1264a25 ff.

  22. See also 1.7.38-39, 2.2.13.

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