Julian Markels (essay date summer 1961)

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SOURCE: Markels, Julian. “The Spectacle of Deterioration: Macbeth and the ‘Manner’ of Tragic Imitation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1961): 293-303.

[In the following essay, Markels reads Macbeth as a tragedy of personal degeneration, concentrating on Macbeth as a tragic figure according to the classical, Aristotelian definition and examining his potential to elicit sympathy and find redemption.]

Nor, on the other hand, should an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves. … There remains, than, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just. …

Aristotle, Poetics.

Macbeth, as a tragic hero, is a man with a capacity, one might almost say a taste, for damnation. This capacity … is not so very different from a capacity for salvation. Macbeth is a terrible play because its business is to give us some notion of what that damnation is which a man embraces when he is, indeed, man enough for it.

Arthur Sewell, Character and Society in Shakespeare.

To an age like ours, deeply concerned with the metaphysics of guilt, the disintegration of personality, and the waning relevance of our traditional criteria for civilization, Macbeth offers a peculiarly revealing image of human nature and experience. It is one of the few masterpieces in English whose protagonist grows in depravity without diminishing our pity for him, so that even when he stands before us unmistakably as a “butcher”, we do not condescend to him, but painfully share his guilt. We are able to apply to Macbeth the murderer that remark which we have usually reserved for the pitiful hero-victims of the drama, like Othello and even George Barnwell and Willy Loman: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

So unusual a response immediately raises for the critic one of those crucial and endlessly appetizing problems of technique. How does Shakespeare do it? How does he manage consistently to engage our sympathy on behalf of Macbeth even as he represents Macbeth's growing brutality and witlessness? How does he keep his protagonist from becoming a conventional stage villain, and his play from becoming the more usual and less moving “punitive” drama, in which we feel morally superior to the protagonist, his judges rather than his fellow citizens? Paradoxically, just because our response to the play is so unusual, we are prompted to examine not the moral implications of that response, but the dramatic technique which produces it.

Hence it is not surprising that the two critics who have most convincingly explained Macbeth's “degenerative” quality, Mr. Francis Fergusson1 and Mr. Wayne Booth,2 both should have concerned themselves (though in very different ways) with the structure of the play; and neither should it be surprising that both critics have grounded their arguments on precepts and assumptions set forth in Aristotle's Poetics. Mr. Fergusson demonstrates that the Aristotelian action imitated by Macbeth is “To outrun the pauser, reason”, which is perhaps the best way to embrace damnation. Mr. Booth, more directly concerned with the method of the play, shows that Shakespeare manages to imitate this “degenerative” action largely by his wisdom in knowing which episodes of his story to narrate only, and which to represent directly on the stage; that is, by his adroitness in manipulating what Aristotle calls the “manner” of tragic imitation. It is surely a tribute to Aristotle, and a rebuke to those critics who think The Poetics irrelevant to all drama except Oedipus, that two critics with a markedly Aristotelian bias may still greatly enhance our understanding of a Shakespearian masterpiece. And our enhanced understanding is evidence itself that The Poetics has for us a relevance which is not historically conditioned, that it can help us to understand the work of playwrights who themselves may not have read it, or, if they did, may have understood it differently from the way we do.

Yet if Aristotle's treatise is to retain and perhaps enlarge its relevance, if it is to remain for us a useful and elucidative instrument of criticism, then I think it must be scrutinized in turn as we use it, so that we may be continuously mindful of its limitations as a means of enriching our awareness of its potentialities. I am so thoroughly persuaded especially by Mr. Booth's analysis of Macbeth that I want to amplify it here, and particularly to extend its Aristotelian thrust: I suspect The Poetics is even more illuminating to Macbeth than Mr. Booth's argument has indicated. But my purpose is not so much to add “make-weight” to that argument as it is to test and I hope to clarify the Aristotelian criteria by which such an argument proceeds, to test Aristotle's theory by Shakespeare's practice. I think it is precisely in his discussion of the “manner” of tragic imitation, of that concept which does prove so illuminating to Macbeth, that Aristotle is contradictory, and especially unfortunate in his denigration of the visual machinery of the drama which he calls “Spectacle”; and I think that Shakespeare's incredible skill in handling the “manner” of his imitation, and especially its Spectacle, enables us to recognize the limitations in Aristotle's formulation of his concept, and thereby to recognize larger possibilities in that concept than a reading of The Poetics would readily suggest. Surely, if poor Shakespeare can be systematically tested by Aristotle, he should be permitted to strike back, as it were, and to provide what I hope to show is some needed light on The Poetics.

There is apparent in The Poetics a certain ambivalence of conception, in which Aristotle sometimes thinks of Tragedy as an object in nature whose form is “immanent”, and sometimes as a made object whose form is truly wrought and whose intention is more emphatically what we today call “affective” than simply imitative. This general ambivalence informs the discussion of the “manner” of imitation, where Aristotle characteristically equates “manner” with Spectacle and describes it quantitatively, as merely the visual trappings in which the tragedy is decked out, but where occasionally he describes it as a truly functional element, whereby the poet manipulates the audience's feelings by his choice of which episodes of the tragic action to narrate only, and which to represent visibly on the stage. This emphasis on Spectacle conceived merely as accidental stage machinery obscures the functional importance of “manner” in producing the tragic emotions and catharsis; and it obscures the importance of that element of visual apprehension which is common to both meanings of “manner”. This prevents him from anticipating that in a play like Macbeth, even the gross visual trappings of the imitation may indeed be indispensable to produce the desired tragic catharsis.

In the fundamental analogy of The Poetics, Aristotle compares Tragedy to a natural object:

Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either (1) in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or (2) in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1000 miles long—as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the beholder. Just in the same way, then, as a beautiful whole made up of parts, or a beautiful living creature, must be of some size, but of a size to be taken in by the eye, so a story or Plot must be of some length, but of a length to be taken in by the memory.3

He is speaking here of the Plot only, but the Plot is after all the “life and soul, so to speak of Tragedy”, the part wherein “unity and wholeness” must originate. As with the object in nature, so with the imitation, we are invited to perceive the relation of the parts to each other and to the whole: while an elephant and a Tragedy represent different principles of arrangement, each is admired as it manifests the arrangement proper to its kind. Several times in The Poetics Aristotle speaks about Tragedy's “natural form”, and he frequently reminds us not to expect of Tragedy “every kind of pleasure … but only its own proper pleasure.” We discover finally that the proper pleasure to be had from Tragedy in its natural form is a catharsis of pity and fear, produced by an arrangement of episodes which shows a good man “passing by a series of probable or necessary stages … from happiness to misfortune.”

This conception of Tragedy as a natural object implies a highly indirect relationship between the poet and his audience, in which the poet simply constructs a kind of machine (the Plot) whose end is in itself, whose automatic result is the arousal and catharsis of the tragic emotions, and in which the audience must discover the meaning of the play, and thereby achieve for itself the tragic catharsis, through a strenuous contemplation of the episodes of the Plot in their relation to each other. The audience is invited not so much to a communion with the poet as to the exhibition of an artifact.

Only in this light is it clear why Aristotle is concerned mainly with the “objects” of imitation, and devotes hardly more than passing attention to those parts of Tragedy by which the poet affects his audience in some direct fashion. Of the two “means” of imitation, Diction and Melody, he discusses at length only Diction, and even here he is more concerned with the syntactical than the poetic functions of language. Spectacle, the only part arising from the “manner” of imitation, he seems often to regard as an accidental and even regrettable constituent.

In the famous opening definition of Tragedy, Aristotle lists Spectacle among its six qualitative parts (Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Melody), implying that Spectacle is indeed a functional element, the “manner” of imitation distinctive of Tragedy. Yet from this point on, Aristotle consistently uses the term pejoratively, and treats Spectacle merely as visual embellishment or stage décor. He insists that the tragic catharsis may be achieved without an actual performance of the play, but merely by a recounting of its action, and suggests that Spectacle is more properly the concern of the costume-maker than of the poet. He implies that the need to consider visual effects often proves a burden to the poet, leading him to twist the episodes of the action and thereby to deform the Plot. He advises the poet to visualize his scenes, but only so that he “will devise what is appropriate, and be least likely to overlook incongruities”. And one of the few advantages which he claims for Epic over Tragedy is that Epic is not limited only to those episodes that make a convincing Spectacle.

Conceived simply as a matter of stage fitness, then, Spectacle would appear to be mainly a source of obstacles and incongruities in the making of Plots, and at best only a visual ornament. And if Spectacle is the one and only part arising from the “manner” of imitation, then its “manner” is no longer functional in Tragedy, but accidental and even irrelevant, without work of its own to do. But as I have suggested, Aristotle does not consistently regard Tragedy as a natural object whose form is directly “affective”. He frequently recognizes that to produce his catharsis the poet needs a more direct approach than the Plot alone affords him, that in fact the poet must be rather a busybody in manipulating the emotions of his audience. He is much concerned, for example, with the kinds of tragic deed and the kinds of discovery which will intensify the tragic emotions: the tragic deed must have not only its proper place and its probable connection with the other episodes of the action, it must also be horrible enough to arouse fear. Aristotle worries also about probability. He explains that tragedians often give their characters historical names in order to achieve greater credibility, and he insists that “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility.”

Such remarks throughout The Poetics provide a context in which it is possible to conceive of Spectacle as a truly functional element. One way, certainly, to make an “impossibility” seem likely is to actualize it on the stage, to present it visually as a fait accompli. The episode of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking, for example, might well be unlikely if we did not see it with our own eyes: though the plot of Macbeth makes the sleepwalking abstractly conceivable, we are convinced of the probability of this outcome only by the language and by the sight of Lady Macbeth distraught. Her extremity would seem incredible if simply reported by a messenger; nor would our pity and fear for her husband be nearly so intense as they are once we have seen her sleepwalking. No doubt the sleepwalking scene is highly melodramatic, grossly spectacular in Aristotle's pejorative sense of the term; but its main significance lies in the fact that the sleepwalking is apprehended in the dramatic present rather than recounted from the past, imitated rather than narrated. It is perceived in that mode for which Henry James, talking about the novel, had to invent the term “rendered”. Here Spectacle is a functional element, in that the sense of probability and the arousal of the tragic emotions depend upon the poet's choice of episodes to represent directly rather than to narrate.

On the one occasion when Aristotle speaks directly of the “manner” of imitation rather than Spectacle, it is precisely with this meaning. At the beginning of The Poetics, in distinguishing the various arts of imitation, he says:

A third difference in these arts is in the manner in which each kind of object is represented. Given both the same means and the same kind of object for imitation, one may either (1) speak at one moment in narrative and another in an assumed character, as Homer does; or (2) one may remain the same throughout, without any such change; or (3) the imitators may represent the whole story dramatically, as though they were actually doing the things described.4

Here he has clearly in mind that there are functional differences between narrating and representing, though he later forgets this in treating Spectacle merely as visual embellishment. But there is a certain pedantic oversimplification in this passage, which I think is the source of that general ambivalence of conception in The Poetics which I have been describing.

One can hardly think of a novel or epic in which the narrator “remains the same throughout, without any such change”, or of a play in which “the imitators … represent the whole story dramatically.” Even the “dear reader” novelists must resort to rendering in dialogue sometimes, while even the later Henry James must sometimes step out of his “centers of consciousness” and describe Merton Densher ironically as “our hero”. Similarly, it is hard to remember even a play of Ibsen's or Arthur Miller's in which no episodes are narrated rather than rendered. In fact, neither of the last two “manners” of imitation listed by Aristotle is really pure, and one might even place Gorboduc in the second category (narrative), and The Ambassadors in the third (dramatic).

When Aristotle equates Spectacle with “manner” he assumes that the choice whether to narrate or to represent the entire action is made irrevocably when the poet decides which genre to practice: narration is proper to Epic (though he perceives that sometimes Epic employs a mixed mode), representation to Tragedy. He does not anticipate that the tragic poet, having already chosen which episodes to put into his Plot, is not obliged to put every one of them onto the stage, but still must choose which to narrate and which to render. Tragedy may also employ a mixed mode, so that when the poet chooses whether to narrate or render a particular episode, his purpose is not merely visual ornamentation, but to reveal Thought, Character, and Action, to arouse the tragic emotions, and to work up the sense of probability. And just because such purposes may be well served by the poet's choice of what his audience should see, it seems entirely possible that even the visual fireworks of which Aristotle is contemptuous may be important to Tragedy. Since both meanings of “manner”, as the art of rendering and the art of stage ornamentation, have a common visual basis, both might have a truly functional significance. To test and establish the significance of both, I now turn to Macbeth.

The conception of Macbeth as a genuine tragic hero rather than a conventional villain is perhaps nowhere more justified than by an examination of Shakespeare's choice of episodes to render rather than narrate, and of the sequence in which to render them. Mr. Booth's argument demonstrates how Shakespeare's great tact in this matter consistently prevents the alienation of our sympathies from Macbeth: in none of the play's three great acts of violence is Macbeth himself seen committing the crime, the effect of which is to forestall our indignation, though certainly not to absolve him of guilt. What we do see following each murder is the almost unbearable suffering of Macbeth and his wife, which in Macbeth's case at least is intensified by explicit recognition of his guilt: after Duncan's murder, Macbeth's furtive pacing in the hall and his anguished speeches; after Banquo's murder, Macbeth's engagement with the ghost at the shattered ritual of the banquet; and Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking following the murder of Lady Macduff. In each case, by the choice and sequence of scenes rendered, Shakespeare draws our attention from the crime's effect on its victim to its effect on its perpetrator.5

In all of these scenes, of course, the language is important: in the sleepwalking scene we must hear “Out, damned spot!” in order to apprehend fully Lady Macbeth's agitation. But even without the words we see her agitation, and it makes all the difference that now we see her agitation when we did not see Duncan's. When we look over Macbeth's cringing shoulder at the ghost of Banquo, we hardly need the words at all.

The witches are the most spectacular figures in the play, and, in both Aristotelian senses of “Spectacle”, they offer the most striking visual evidence against regarding Macbeth as a villain. They appear only four times during the play, but twice in the first three scenes. In the play's first scene they are given the impressive place of the prologue, but not for the sake of the dozen lines which they speak among themselves. Their action is spectacular in Aristotle's pejorative sense of visual embellishment, in that it is almost wholly choreographic and dazzling to our sight. But it is also spectacular in the functional sense, in that the episode is dramatically rendered, and rendered before the episode in which Macbeth himself meets the witches. Merely to see the witches is to recognize in them an enormous power, a power not to determine a man's fate, but to stir his imagination, to influence choices for which he himself must finally be held responsible. And Shakespeare offers the audience its own visual transaction with the witches at the beginning precisely so that later we may view Macbeth's response to them with first-hand knowledge. In putting the witches directly before us, he informs us that even right-thinking men, even we ourselves, are susceptible to their influence. He deprives us not of the moral grounds, but of the smug conviction out of which we might otherwise be willing to condemn Macbeth for believing in them. We learn “fear for one like ourselves”, and how extraordinarily difficult it would be for even a good man to turn to the witches a deaf ear.

In performing the prologue, the witches play a role comparable to that of the chorus in classical drama, which represents a traditional moral community whose health is at stake in the career of the protagonist. Even an audience inexperienced in classical drama recognizes in the first scene of Macbeth that it is the community of Satan whose continuance is here to be challenged, and readily infers that any community represented by the witches is threatened not by men in whom crime is habitual, but only by good men who might prove incorruptible. For the witches to play for the soul of a villain would be merely to exhibit their impotence.

If Macbeth is not a villain, still he is but imperfectly exalted. Though Shakespeare deftly manipulates his rendering in order to emphasize Macbeth's suffering and to mask his depravity, he carefully distinguishes between Macbeth's suffering and his virtue, and at the beginning he chooses to narrate rather than render episodes which would make us strongly aware of Macbeth's manliness and courage. Instead of beginning with a battle scene in which Macbeth distinguishes himself before our eyes, he puts the report of Macbeth's heroism into the mouth of the bleeding sergeant. He desires that we shall not think Macbeth “preeminently noble” in any case, but especially that as we see Macbeth's deterioration we shall not be embarrassed by a highly deferential attitude toward him. For the same reason, in I.iii, Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor privately by the messengers Ross and Angus rather than in the public ceremony of the very next scene, where the King names Malcolm heir to the throne. On that occasion Macbeth stands to one side, having first been thanked by Duncan, to make way for the larger state business at hand. We learn just enough of Macbeth's bravery and status to make his coming deterioration significant, but nothing which would make improbable the fall of too noble a man or wholly alienate us from Macbeth when he launches upon violence.

At the end of the play Shakespeare's choice of episodes to render is calculated to have just the reverse effect. Having witnessed the full course of degeneration, now the audience needs to be rescued from too strong a revulsion from Macbeth the murderer. Now Shakespeare puts before our eyes Macbeth's courage in facing overwhelming military odds. In a group of short scenes in the fifth act he shows the matching of forces with extraordinary sensitivity to the visual effects of representation. In one series of scenes (V.ii, V.iv, and V.vi) we see the enemy army first small and stationary, then marching and swelled by the addition of the English force, and finally marching camouflaged by the boughs gathered from Birnam Wood. In the alternate scenes (V.iii and V.v) we see first Macbeth putting on his armor alone, as if to do battle single-handedly, and then joined by soldiers, but in a defensive stance within the castle. The sense of Macbeth's disadvantage is overpowering, and the moral imagination is superseded by the visual: when we see Macbeth finally as the underdog we do not excuse his crimes, but we sympathize with him in spite of them.

This redemption of Macbeth continues in the battle scenes which follow. Careful as he was not to represent directly Macbeth's valor in the first act, Shakespeare trails him around the battlefield in the last act. Now that Birnam Wood and Macduff have fulfilled the witches' prophecies, Macbeth has good reason to cease fighting and in effect commit suicide. Yet he does not flinch, and still commands enough strength and cunning to kill a valiant younger man, Siward's son. We last see him joined with Macduff in a struggle the adverse outcome of which we have good reason to believe occurs offstage.6 If that is true, then nothing in these final scenes more clearly shows Macbeth's heroism and even glory than Macbeth's killing Young Siward on the stage and Macduff's killing Macbeth offstage. The visible evidence of Macbeth's bravery in the face of a great disadvantage has been so impressive that now to see his physical humiliation would inopportunely outrage us against his enemies. Always Shakespeare's choice of episodes to render maintains a double attitude toward Macbeth: in the first act “noble Macbeth” is not advertised to our sight, so that later we may accept his brutality; and in the last act the valor of “this dead butcher” is put visibly before us, so that we will not be alienated from him.

Shakespeare is even more concerned with the problem of representation in his attempt to show a process of deterioration in the sequence of murders for which Macbeth is responsible. Actually the murder of Duncan is the most reprehensible of the three, but nevertheless it must come first. Again Shakespeare must maintain a double attitude and make the last of the three murders more wanton though less culpable than the killing of one's king, kinsman, and guest. He accomplishes this brilliantly, though not entirely by the visual effects of representation. Coming directly after Macbeth's first meeting with the witches and the revelation of his wife's pernicious influence upon him, the murder of Duncan is strongly if not justly motivated. But the murder of Lady Macduff and her son is gratuitous. It signifies nothing even to Macbeth. Part of a king's burden, after all, is the risk of assassination, and an audience needs little sophistication momentarily to withhold its outrage from the murderer of a king. But even the cynic might be shocked at the senseless murder of women and children.

Mr. Booth points out that the presentation of Duncan's murder, which occurs offstage to a man who has never been seen in a domestic relation like Lady Macduff's with her son, is designed to impress us abstractly with the severity of the crime, but not to evoke our sympathy for its victim.7 Furthermore, the scenes which precede and follow Duncan's murder also emphasize only the ethical implications of the crime. In I. vi, Shakespeare devotes a separate scene to Lady Macbeth's welcoming Duncan to Inverness, in which we are shown not an intimate personal relationship, but the ritual of hospitality, a visual embodiment of the obligation which Macbeth is to violate. Similarly, the appearance of the drunken porter immediately after the murder is a visual and ghoulish result of Macbeth's severing the great chain of being. Again it is the seriousness of the crime and not the character of its victim which is emphasized.

On the other hand, the staging of Lady Macduff's murder evokes overwhelming sympathy for the victims themselves. The helpless child is killed onstage, after a domestic episode which aroused our pity for him, and the scene ends with Lady Macduff running from her murderer. The visual details show the crime not in its abstract relation to a code, but as the despicable act of a depraved man. Yet in the delicate balancing of visual details, Macbeth does not commit this murder personally, so that we may fully witness his deterioration without experiencing a revulsion from him.8 The evidence of deterioration is in the visual contrast between Duncan's murder and Lady Macduff's.

I have been speaking of “manner” in Macbeth conceived as the art of rendering. But even in the use of visual trappings and machinery, to which Aristotle pejoratively applies the term “Spectacle”, Macbeth is Shakespeare's most flamboyant play. Again and again in the rich visual surface of the play—witches replete with cauldron and apparitions, the ghost of Banquo, Birnam Wood moving, Macbeth's head on a pike—Shakespeare uses Spectacle in precisely that manner of which Aristotle is contemptuous.

Yet this machinery seems indispensable to show Macbeth's degeneration. It was a fashion of nineteenth-century criticism to suppose that the witches objectify Macbeth's inner state, and especially the base motives for his action. In the contrast between Macbeth's and Banquo's first responses to the witches, for example, it is clear that Macbeth already had contemplated the career which the witches suggest to him. But many of the spectacular devices—the moving of Birnam Wood, for example—are not directly related to Macbeth's inner state, and most of them come late in the play, after he has fully expressed his motives. Beginning with the banquet scene, the play becomes nakedly spectacular in order to exhibit not Macbeth's motives or responses, but the irrational and hallucinatory world which his earlier conduct now forces him to inhabit, a world in which Lady Macduff's murder is not exceptional. Banquo's ghost, the apparitions, the moving wood, and the severed head are all a measure of Macbeth's fall. They show his membership in a community which is inexpressible in words, the Satanic community of the prologue to the play.

The final predominance of this dark atmosphere completes a pattern of Spectacle which has been developed throughout the play, a pattern which exhibits the collapse of rationality both in the external world and in the character of Macbeth. We know how completely the Elizabethans identified the fall of princes with the collapse of communities, and that almost invariably the imitation of such an action employed stock devices like the Machiavel. A set of court scenes and funeral processions could be seen almost daily in some London theater, so that long before Macbeth such episodes ceased to be merely diverting. The playgoers had seen them in other plays, and many were watching the present play for the second or third time. What they now wished to achieve for themselves is what Mr. Fergusson has elsewhere called the “mimetic perception of action”.

For such an audience the significance of the court scenes in Macbeth would lie in what they have in common with dozens of court scenes from other plays: to suggest in ritual form that the destiny of a community, and by analogy of all mankind, is here at stake. The first court scene, I.iv, begins with an assembling, and throughout the scene Duncan is surrounded by his court. The action moves swiftly to its climax in the gesture by which Duncan names Malcolm heir, while Macbeth stands aside. Perhaps we cannot know without words precisely what honor Duncan confers upon Malcolm. But we are aware, from the processional atmosphere, from the awe and approval which the assembly displays, that Duncan's gesture is a ceremonial proclamation of health and order. Here as in the opening of King Lear, we are invited to celebrate a rational order, the oneness of the kingdom and of all mankind.

In the second court scene, III.i, all this reassuring ceremony is missing. The scene opens with a disbanding of the court. Macbeth as king, stripped of his ceremonial dignity, paces the floor talking to himself. The climax is reached in the conspiratorial huddle where he engages Banquo's assassins, an unceremonious action of which the court-chorus must be kept ignorant. The royal gesture which was public and awesome in the first scene is here private and sinister. We see at once the deterioration in Macbeth and in the royal office.

This deterioration is completed in the banquet scene, III.iv. Here the miming shows not simply that the rituals of hospitality and kingship have been fragmented, but that rational discourse is no longer possible. We see three simultaneous conversations, in each of which the principal interlocutors are oblivious to the presence of others. Macbeth is transfixed by the ghost, and the others indicate that they are unaware of the ghost's presence and cannot participate in Macbeth's experience. We see Lady Macbeth pull her husband aside and speak to him out of the others' hearing. Finally Lady Macbeth speaks to the company even while Macbeth is speaking to the ghost. The visual effect is surrealistic, with everybody speaking not to but past one another. We see the failure of even the most essential domestic ritual, with Macbeth finally outside the company of men.

Now the shattered ritual of the state is replaced by the choreography of the weird sisters, and Macbeth is drawn swiftly into a maelstrom filled with fenny snake fillets, armed hands, bloody children, and Birnam Wood moving. Almost literally Macbeth and the witches dance their way through the last two acts. Witless motion must now supersede speech and rational action, since the extent of Macbeth's degeneration is now beyond words and expressible only in the highly spectacular devices of the end of the play. Our feelings of fear especially are aroused by the sight of Macbeth now putting himself irrevocably into the witches' grip, until nothing less spectacular than the parading about of Macbeth's head can provide a sufficient catharsis.

Only by this heavy reliance on visual trappings at the end of the play does Shakespeare exhibit in detail the degeneration of a hero with whom he means us to be consistently sympathetic. Yet where patterns of ritual and dance define rather than ornament the action, as they do at the end of Macbeth, Spectacle really usurps the function of Plot, and shows what Aristotle considers the worse and not the better poet. And for just a minute before we accuse Aristotle of a pedantic neglect of visual embellishment, we must recognize that there is something irregular in the spectacular ending of Macbeth. The psychological intensity of the first part of the play is not sustained after the banquet scene, precisely when the stage becomes crowded with visual devices. The ending seems too fully determined beforehand, and our attention is shifted from the hero's mind to the external events of his waning life.

To recognize this, however, is not to concede a lapse in Shakespeare's technique, for the shift in focus is essential to his purpose. The Spectacle of the end of the play keeps us outside the mind of Macbeth, denies us any glimpse of that final dignity and repose which make the deaths of Othello and Lear so richly satisfying, because to a mind destroyed such dignity and repose are impossible. Othello collapses, Lear goes mad, but the tragic experience makes them whole. In Macbeth we bear painful witness to a whole shattered, and while he never lets us forget what he was, his essential action is to “rend and deracinate”, until he has left us hardly more of himself than is visible. The “tomorrow” speech is great poetry partly because it exhibits a ruined spirit, whose characteristic quality is found earlier, in the speeches which precede and follow the murder of Duncan. When one reaches the mindless state reflected by that speech, there is nothing left of life but the witches' dance.

Hence we are justified in wishing Aristotle more inclusive, and in suggesting that “manner” in both its senses may truly be one of the determinative constituents of Tragedy. For we recognize that at least in a tragedy like Macbeth, both the choice of episodes to render and the visual machinery which is intrinsic to the rendering are indispensable to show the full extent of deterioration and to arouse the feelings of pity and fear which result from that perception. We do not finally think of Macbeth as a villain whom we are well rid of, but neither do we feel the effect of the play diminished when Spectacle carries the burden of Plot. We recognize that this usurpation is necessary, that the degenerative tragedy must end in a wild spectacle that signifies merely nothing.


  1. “Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action”, English Institute Essays, 1951 (New York, 1952), 31-43.

  2. “Macbeth as Tragic Hero”, Journal of General Education, VI (October, 1951), 17-25.

  3. Poetics, Ch. 7, trans. Ingram Bywater, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York, 1941), 1462-463. My emphasis.

  4. Poetics, Ch. 3, 1456-457.

  5. Booth, pp. 21-23. An exception, of course, is the murder of Lady Macduff's child, which I try to account for later. It should also be remarked that if from the Aristotelian point of view the choice of episodes to render is part of the Spectacle, the choice of a sequence in which to render them is strictly speaking a function of the Plot.

  6. The stage direction in the Folio has Macbeth and Macduff leave the stage fighting, but come back onstage for the killing of Macbeth. Many editors correct the Folio, on the grounds that it would be terribly awkward to have Macbeth killed onstage and then dragged off to be beheaded in the midst of the ongoing action. My interpretation here might be offered as additional grounds for this correction.

  7. Booth, pp. 21-22.

  8. Booth, pp. 22-23.

Miguel A. Bernad (essay date winter 1962)

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SOURCE: Bernad, Miguel A. “The Five Tragedies in Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 1 (winter 1962): 49-61.

[In the following essay, Bernad offers a thematic survey of Macbeth, emphasizing five distinct aspects of tragedy—physical, psychological, moral, social, and theological—within the play.]

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare's Macbeth is the artistry with which the playwright has woven five distinct tragedies into one. Hamlet is intriguing, King Lear is profound, but Macbeth is complex, and it is this complexity which gives the play its richness, making a study of it so rewarding and every stage performance a new discovery. Paradoxically, the play is complex despite an extremely simple plot. There are no sub-plots. But the action is made to advance at five different levels, each of which may be called a distinct tragedy because each involves a reversal of fortune in a particular order.


At the most obvious level is the physical tragedy—physical, for want of a better term—in which a person of high estate (to adopt Bradley's paraphrase of the well-known Aristotelian definition) falls into an exceptional calamity involving complete ruin or death. A matchless soldier, kinsman to the king, wins the king's battles and the king's praise; but prompted by inner ambitions and external urgings he murders the king and assumes the crown, which he soon finds to be a “sterile” crown. Since “to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus”, he plunges into an orgy of crime which eventually loses him his queen, his crown and his life.

This straightforward action makes for dramatic neatness. Everything is tucked in. There are no loose ends, as there are in Hamlet or in Lear. Its neatness of construction, unity of action, swiftness of movement, and great compression and brevity (at least in the state in which the text has come down to us) have prompted the critics to liken Macbeth to a Greek tragedy—in so far as the baroque could be likened to the classic.

But this simplicity is merely apparent, for a Shakespearian play is never thin. The simplicity of Macbeth is coupled with an intensity which made Bradley call it “the most vehement, the most concentrated, perhaps we may say the most tremendous, of the tragedies”.1 Macbeth's downfall involves more than the mere loss of life or crown. It involves another downfall equally real: the rapid and radical disintegration of two splendid personalities.


There can be no doubt that Macbeth is initially a splendid personality. His conduct in war is spectacular. He is “brave Macbeth”, “Bellona's bridegroom”. He is impervious to fear when merely natural foes confront him. For him there is no terror in the “rugged Russian bear, the arm'd rhinoceros or the Hyrcan tiger”. Even at the end, with defeat inevitable, he is still the soldier who will fight “till from my bones my flesh be hacked”. Only for one moment does he falter, as indeed any human being might.

Such a soldier commands respect. There is nothing puny about him. If his crimes are enormous, they are committed by a man who has the makings of greatness.2

Lady Macbeth, likewise, has the makings of greatness. Even if one were not prepared to accept Bradley's assessment of her as “the most commanding and perhaps the most awe-inspiring figure that Shakespeare drew”,3 one must acknowledge a greatness visible in the very distortion of feminine nature which in others is tender, yielding, dependent, but which in her is iron-willed, masterful, dominant. No ordinary woman could call upon the spirits of darkness as she does:

                                                                                                              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.


If this wickedness is horrible, it is the wickedness of the horribly strong.

Neither Macbeth nor his wife is “normal”, if by normal is meant the ordinary, the mediocre, the run-of-the-mill. No tragic hero or heroine is normal in that sense. Tragedy is the downfall of a person in high estate, but this “high estate” is not merely a political or social concept; it includes a personal dimension which has nothing to do with the physical. The hero must be a moral colossus, gigantic in moral stature, drawn on a “heroic”—therefore an abnormal—scale. Though other mortals be made of spirit and clay, in him there must be less of the clay and more of the spirit, even if it be the proud spirit of Lucifer. But Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are “normal” in another sense of the term, for they are not insane. Initially, they are not maniacs. They become progressively less sane as the story unfolds. Their personalities, initially splendid, disintegrate. Having tried to control others, they end by losing control of themselves. Magnificent at first, they become, in the one case, a monster of iniquity, in the other, a pathetic victim of hallucinations who ends by killing herself.


This gradual disintegration of character is fascinating to watch. It begins harmlessly and imperceptibly enough in a certain abstractedness: “Look how our partner's rapt.” It betrays itself further in a certain jumpiness, and even in hallucinations “proceeding from the heat oppressed brain”: Macbeth sees a bleeding dagger in the air; Lady Macbeth sees a resemblance of her father in Duncan; both start at the hoot of the owl, the cry of the wolf, the shout of a man—though apparently no one has shouted. Keyed up as they are, they lose nerve at the crucial moments: she at the point of delivering the fatal blow, he after it.

Lady Macbeth, who at the beginning is unaffected by imaginary fears and could laugh at apparitions, is later tormented by an imaginary spot. Macbeth, before his crime, is fearless of blood and could “doubly redouble” strokes upon the foe “as if to memorize another Golgotha”; after his crime, the sight of blood on his hands unnerves him, and the sight of Banquo's gory locks sends him into hysterics. The “sights” that overcome him “like a summer's cloud” become habitual, haunting him by day, torturing him at night, making him “eat his meal in fear”,

                                                                                                                                            and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly.


It is interesting to note that this permanent loss of sleep is ironic. Let them but gain possession of the throne, says Lady Macbeth (echoing what every ambitious person has said before and since), and there will be a lifetime of joy,

Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign away and masterdom.


Yet no sooner are the words spoken and the crime perpetrated than they find their nights and days no longer their own. Sleep is no longer possible. Macbeth's hysterical announcement is prophetic: “Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more.” In the end, they envy the very victims whom they have killed:

          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.


How much better off is Duncan, who is beyond the touch of any vicissitude, than is his murderer:

                                        Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.


After life's fitful fever he sleeps well: how enviable that must be to those who could not sleep!

In desperation, Macbeth seeks solace in blood. But it brings him no peace. He becomes perpetually restless, subject to fits and moods. One moment he puts on his armor, the next he pulls it off. One moment he bellows defiant orders; the next moment he whimpers in defeat. Edmund Kean, we are told, when acting Macbeth, would run out on the stage and shout in a voice of thunder, “Hang out our banners on the outward walls!” Then a pause. His sword drops to the ground. And he whispers: “The cry is still, ‘They come, they come.’”4

“What a noble mind is here o'erthrown”, says Ophelia of Hamlet. May not the same be said of Macbeth and his lady?


Oddly enough, after this disintegration has gone a long way, Lady Macbeth begins to elicit our sympathy and even our affection. There is nothing lovable about her as she chastises her husband “with the valour of her tongue”, or as she calls upon the powers of evil to unsex her. She is the ambitious, unscrupulous, cruel woman who would pluck the infant smiling at her breast and dash its brains out. But beneath this iron front is a heart of flesh that must eventually recognize its own weakness. To bolster up her husband's courage, she puts up a brave front; but when alone, she sees how empty-handed she is:

                                                            Nought's had, all's spent,
When our desire is got without content.


Obviously, no sympathy can be wasted on her when she is towering in her strength. But man is by nature compassionate and there is compassion for this evil woman when things have gone against her. She has become like a scared little girl, suddenly conscious of all the wrong she has done. When there was real blood on her hands, she had dismissed the matter lightly.

My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white.


Nothing seemed easier than to wash away both blood and guilt: “A little water clears us of this deed.” But after the blood is washed away, the blood remains. When she is asleep, when that iron control is relaxed, when sleep “that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care” no longer knits it, then all the suppressed fears and regrets come up to the surface, and what she could not or would not see when waking, she sees when asleep. She sees the blood on her hands. She smells it. All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten that little hand.5

It is then that she utters that triple sigh which must tax the acting ability of even the greatest actresses. “What a sigh is there”, says the doctor; “the heart is sorely charged.” To which the lady attendant replies: “I would not have such a heart in my bosom for the dignity of the whole body.”

At such a time, Lady Macbeth becomes an object of sympathy. She is the heart-broken little girl sitting on the doorstep, weeping over her broken doll. No man is so callous as not to have compassion on her weeping.

For Lady Macbeth, after all, is only a woman. And even her greatest ambition, criminal though it is, has a strangely unselfish quality. It is not for herself but for her husband that she wants the crown. “It is of him she thinks: she wishes to see her husband on the throne, and to place the sceptre within his grasp.” In this, Shakespeare departs from his sources, “purging his Lady Macbeth of the personal ambition that the Lady Macbeth of the chronicles appears to be full of.”6

In such a frame of mind, the spectator may find it easy to share Macbeth's anxiety over his wife's illness. He pleads with the doctor to cure her. He pleads wistfully, knowing that his pleading is in vain. For even the doctor is helpless: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?


The spectator of such a scene is not a dispassionate observer merely. He is involved somehow in the request to have her cured. He wants the patient cured. And he shares the frustration that Macbeth feels when told that his wife is dead: “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word.” Lady Macbeth, hateful in the hour of victory, becomes an object of affection in her hour of defeat. From a tragic, she has become almost a pathetic figure. And that is her tragedy: she, who sought to rule the world by ruthlessly crushing others, comes closest to ruling it when her own heart is crushed.


There is a third tragedy, a downfall in the moral order. On this point it seems necessary to take exception to what some of the better critics have said, who sometimes speak as if the characters of a play were static creatures who from play's beginning to play's end retain the same interior qualities. Thus Elmer Stoll, agreeing with Bridges, speaks of the “unpsychological contrast”, or contradiction of “a brave and honourable man plunged into cowardly and dishonourable conduct; an ambitious man, with his thoughts, both before and after the crime, set, not upon the reasons which would impel or justify him, but upon those which deter him”.7

But the point is, that the brave and honorable man becomes cowardly and dishonorable by committing a cowardly and dishonorable deed, and, in so doing, opens the door for greater cowardice and dishonor. The soliloquy

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


is that of a man who has already ceased to be honorable, at least in intention, although he is still aware of the demands of honor. Later on, even the idea of honor no longer means anything to him.

                                                            For mine own good
All causes shall give way.


The character of Macbeth has visibly deteriorated. The first suggestion of murder “unfixes” his hair and makes his heart pound against his ribs “against the use of nature”. But it is a principle both of moralists and of detective story writers that the first crime is the hardest, and that one crime leads to another with progressive ease. The murderer, having done violence to all that he holds sacred, finds it less violent to repeat the deed. He becomes used to the idea of murder and when occasion offers will resort to it again. “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.ii.55). So it is with Macbeth. The anguished soul-searching that precedes the murder of Duncan is entirely absent from the murder of Banquo. Murder becomes second nature to the murderer. He has “supped full with horrors”, until nothing becomes any longer horrible. He has waded so deeply in blood that “returning were as tedious as go e'er” (III.iv.138). The man who at first was aware of his “double trust”, not unmindful of the loyalty that he owed Duncan as king, as kinsman and as guest, the man who was not without a sense of gratitude towards so gentle and generous a sovereign, later on becomes so completely callous as to order the murder not only of his enemies but of their wives, children and servants, and he entertains the opinion that he has scarcely begun to do anything evil! “We are yet but young in deed” (III.iv.144).

Such a man eventually comes to hate, not only his enemies because they are evil to him, but any good man precisely because he is good.8 He orders Banquo's death because

                                                                                in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd:
… and under him
My Genius is rebuked, as it is said
Mark Antony's was by Caesar.


This gradual hardening of the heart, this blunting of the conscience, this obfuscation of the mind, this loss of a moral sense ending in a total callousness to evil, is not as easily perceptible as the downfall “of a person in high estate”: but it is a downfall none the less. It is a tragedy in the moral order as real (if not as spectacular) as the physical and political downfall of a king.

It is ironic that as the moral sense becomes more blunted, the person, instead of enjoying greater peace of mind, enjoys far less.


At this point the splendid craftsmanship of the Banquet Scene becomes apparent. It is one of the best constructed scenes in Shakespeare, and it is entirely his, since there is no mention of it in Holinshed. It is sometimes said that the turning point of the play is the escape of Fleance. This may be true historically but not dramatically. From a dramatic point of view, Fleance's escape is of little importance, hardly affecting the action of the play. The real turning point, or peripety, of the play is not Fleance's escape but the great Banquet Scene, in which, among other things, Fleance's escape is announced and the ghost of Banquo appears. Macbeth involuntarily reveals his secret crimes in the presence of his entire court gathered with the greatest pomp and circumstance for a state dinner.

It is a glittering scene, the kind that Shakespeare, with an eye for theater, gloried in. The lords and ladies of the kingdom, dressed in their robes of state, file into the banquet hall and are shown to their places—for protocol must be observed and the order of precedence followed minutely: “You know your own degrees.” There is a sound of trumpets, the lords and ladies bow, the attendants enter, and behind them, in full regalia, the king and queen. It is an hour of triumph for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They mount the dais. The queen sits down. Macbeth, smiling and in a hearty voice, bids everyone welcome:

                                                                                at first
And last, the hearty welcome.

There is a murmur of thanks, a sound of shuffled chairs, the lords help the ladies, then they themselves sit down.

The king does not sit down. He feels so carefree, he must descend from the dais and mingle with the guests. There is a heartiness in his voice and a smile on his countenance as he announces this.

Ourself will mingle with society,
And play the humble host.

The queen remains on the dais. She will keep her state, but “in best time” she will descend to mingle with the guests. It is of course dramatically ironic that when she does descend, it will not be “in best time” but in worst. This, however, is in the future. There is no hint of it as yet. There is no cloud on the horizon. Lady Macbeth is gracious. Macbeth is jovial. Both are the perfect host and hostess:

LADY Macbeth.
Pronounce it for me, Sir, to all our friends;
For my heart speaks, they are welcome.
See, they encounter thee with their hearts' thanks.

It is their hour of triumph. Why not? Are not all the lords and ladies here (Macduff, of course, and Banquo excepted), attired in glittering robes of state? And are not all here to acclaim Macbeth's and his queen's “solely sovereign sway and masterdom”?

There is of course another cause for rejoicing. Banquo at this moment is being put out of the way—Banquo the troublesome, Banquo who knew too much, Banquo and his son, Fleance, destined to beget kings. Macbeth has never felt more secure. He feels that from now on nothing can trouble his peace. He feels “perfect”:

Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.

There is a chair in the middle of the guests' table. It is the seat of honor, reserved for Banquo. With charming informality Macbeth goes to the chair and sits down with the guests.

Both sides are even; here I'll sit in the midst.

He urges everyone to enjoy himself. Later on he intends to propose a jovial toast:

Be large in mirth: anon, we'll drink a measure
The table round.

At this moment (Shakespeare likes to indulge in sharp dramatic contrasts) there is a little interruption. A liveried page comes into the banquet hall and whispers a message in the king's ear. Someone to see him outside. Macbeth stands up. The lords and ladies start to rise to their feet but he prevents them. He goes to the door. The murderer stands before him. “There's blood upon thy face”, says the king, anxiously. The reply is boastful: “'Tis Banquo's then.” Ah. That's fine. Macbeth can afford to joke: “'Tis better thee without than he within.” He says it with a chuckle, pointing with his thumb towards the banquet hall. But he wants explicit information: “Is he dispatched?” Dispatched. The thug does not know what the word means. His vocabulary is limited. He is a blunt man who calls a spade a spade.

                    My Lord his throat is cut;
That I did for him.

Macbeth chuckles. He indulges in a pun: “Thou art the best of the cut-throats.” And of course, without a doubt, Fleance must be dead too?

                    he's good that did the like for Fleance:
If thou didst it, thou art the nonpareil.

And then, for the first time during that glittering evening, something goes wrong. The murderer hesitates, looks down on his hands, shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “Most royal sir—” he breaks off and looks away. Macbeth stares at him. What can possibly have happened? Speak up, man! The murderer blurts it out. “Fleance is scap'd.” Macbeth is stunned. In a moment all his security has gone crashing to the ground. He now feels constrained, suffocated: “cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd”.

The fit, however, is momentary. After all, the essential thing has been done. Banquo is dead. If Fleance has escaped, at least he is not yet a full-grown serpent. He has no venom yet, “no teeth for the present”. Macbeth goes back to the banquet hall, and resumes the manner of the hearty host:

Now, good digestion wait on appetite,
And health on both.

He even gives a little speech, the type of flattering speech one hears at banquets:

Here had we now our country's honour roof'd,
Were the grac'd person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance.

It is safe enough to talk of Banquo. Safe in a ditch he lies. But something has again gone wrong. There had been an empty chair before. Now the table seems full.

                              Pleas't your Highness
To grace us with your royal company?

Why doesn't he sit down? Why does he look puzzled around the table? “The table's full!” Why, the man must be getting blind. Can't he see? “Here is a place reserv'd, sir.” Macbeth looks about him in bewilderment. “Where?” They point to the empty chair. “Here, my good lord.” But the king is staring at that empty chair. He is staring in an intent manner, his eyes bulging. What can be the matter? “What is't that moves your Highness?” Then the king speaks. His voice is unnatural. He is trembling all over:

Thou canst not say I did it: never shake
Thy gory locks at me.

There is consternation all around. Someone gets up. Someone shouts: “Gentlemen, rise! his highness is not well!” Everyone is on his feet. The queen rushes down from the dais. No, no. Sit down. Sit down everybody. This is nothing. Nothing at all. Go on eating, please! In a moment she is beside her husband. “Are you a man?” she whispers hoarsely. But he answers aloud, for every one to hear

Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the devil.

Oh nonsense, she says. This is another one of your hallucinations.

Why do you make such faces? When all's done
You look but on a stool.

But Macbeth sees more than a stool. And he proceeds to give more damning revelations as he continues to look on the horrible spectacle which he alone sees.

The apparition vanishes. Macbeth heaves a sigh of relief. He wipes the perspiration from his forehead. But the harm is done. The dinner is spoiled.

He tries to save the pieces by proposing a toast. Give me a cup. Fill full. Lords and ladies, I give you—Banquo. Would he were here. And of course he is there. The cup crashes to the floor. The wine is spilled. “Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!” He enumerates the blood-curdling details:

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

The queen tries to cover up. This is a common sickness of his. It is nothing. Pay no attention to it. But it is difficult not to pay attention to the shouting king:

                                                                      Hence horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!

The ghost vanishes again. And Macbeth recovers.

                                                                                Why so, being gone,
I am a man again. Pray you, sit still.

But the harm has been irretrievably done. The cat is out of the bag. Macbeth has revealed his crimes to the entire court. There is a pointedness to Ross's question: “What sights, my lord?” To prevent further revelations, Lady Macbeth has no choice but to dismiss the company peremptorily.

                                                                                          At once, good night.
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.

Few banquets have ended as precipitately as that. What had started as a royal dinner has ended as a shambles. And Macbeth, who began the evening with a feeling of confident cheerfulness, now feels that he is doomed. “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood.” You can't hide a murder. The birds, the trees, the very stones will reveal the “secretest man of blood”.

There is now no more hope. He will go betimes to the weird sisters to “know, by the worst means, the worst”. He has waded so deeply in blood, he might as well go in deeper. There is no backing out now. For his own good, all things must give way. If he is doomed to destruction himself, he can at least destroy others. He has just begun. He is but young in deed.

That is the Banquet Scene. It is a grand peripety. And it dramatizes effectively the moral tragedy of Macbeth.


If Macbeth's tragedy is a disturbance of right order in the physical, psychological and moral world, it is no less so in the social. It is a rending of the social fabric, an overturning of the right order, a twisting of the right relationship among human beings. This seems the significance of the repeated use of the word “unnatural”. The play is full of “unnatural” images: a mousing owl kills a soaring falcon; Duncan's horses, “beauteous and swift, the minions of their race”, turn wild and eat each other; darkness covers the face of day “when living light should kiss it”; and the weird sisters, who should be women, have the beards of men. Unnatural, too, is the suspicion that falls upon the grooms: they have killed the king whom they were supposed to protect. More unnatural is the suspicion that falls on Malcolm and Donalbain, who are suspected of killing their father. These are of course but images of the really unnatural thing: “the nearer in blood, the nearer bloody”.

The murder of Duncan is a multiple sin. It is a sin against God and against society on many counts: it is murder—a sin against justice; it is the murder of a kinsman—a sin against piety; it is regicide—a sin against fealty, a sin of sacrilege as the Middle Ages understood sacrilege, and of perjury since in medieval times it was the violation of an oath. Finally, it is the murder of a guest by his host—a sin against the rules of hospitality which all civilized nations deem sacred. “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (I.vii.82).

It is significant, as Stoll remarks, that Shakespeare soft-pedals what might have been considered a mitigating circumstance in Macbeth's crime. Duncan's appointment of Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland and heir-apparent was a violation of the rules of succession. That fact could well have given Macbeth a grievance which, though it could not possibly justify murder, might at least have elicited sympathy for him as an injured party. By glossing over this circumstance, Shakespeare deprives Macbeth of any grievance, and makes his crime stand out in stark heinousness, without any possible motive for it except “vaulting ambition”.9

The murder of Duncan is only the beginning of the eversion of the social order. Once the usurper is on the throne, the reign of law gives way to the reign of terror. The tyrant has a spy in every household. Every day

New windows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face. …


It is an unnatural state of affairs, and nature must reestablish itself. Order must be restored, but at the expense of those who violate it.

                                                                                Now o'er the one-half world
Nature seems dead


says Macbeth when he commits his first crime. But nature is far from dead. Nature is very much alive, and it is a vengeful nature.

                                                                                                    Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles.


So Lady Macbeth must walk in her sleep: “A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching” (V.i.10-12). And the tyrant himself must feel the tortures of anxiety: “O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (III.ii.36). Macbeth feels old age coming, perhaps prematurely. His way of life “has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf”. But he cannot hope for the natural consolations of old age. These are not available to him who has violated nature:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would feign deny, and dare not.


The land is sick; there is no medicinal herb or purgative drug that could purge it. There is only one cure: the tyrant's death.

The disease in the end is cured. The body politic is purged. Order is reestablished. It is ever thus in Shakespeare. No matter what upheavals may occur, in the end right order reasserts itself. Lear foolishly divides his kingdom, only to have it reunited under Albany. Caesar is murdered and a civil war ensues, only to have another Caesar give orders about the disposal of Brutus' corpse. Hamlet dies, as does almost everybody else, but Fortinbras arrives in time to assume the reins of state. Shakespeare is a believer in the social order. It is an order capable of reestablishing itself—but at the expense of those who have tried to destroy it. And in Macbeth, it is significant that the downfall of those who have violated the social order begins in that great symbol of social solidarity, the banquet.


There remains the theological tragedy, a distinct dimension of the moral and social drama we have been considering.

This theological dimension is seen, first of all, in the preternatural influences that are brought to bear upon the action. The weird sisters are a “supernatural soliciting” that act like a catalyst. They do not plant in Macbeth a desire for the crown, which presumably he has already entertained:

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


But if they do not give him the idea, they induce him “to catch the nearest way”. Later, they induce in him a recklessness arising from false security. “Be bloody, bold and resolute.” Hamlet's mistake (from a purely dramatic point of view) is in not heeding the ghost despite confirmatory evidence; Macbeth's is in paying too careful attention to these “juggling fiends”

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


But the theological dimension of Macbeth is likewise seen in another direction altogether. It is impossible to read Shakespearian tragedy without perceiving its theological implications. For Shakespearian tragedy deals with such things as sin and free will, guilt and retribution, fate and chance, good and evil, God and human destiny, God's goodness and the problem of human suffering, God's love and man's inhumanity to man. These are the basic problems of man, and these are theological problems.

There is a sense in which we may consider the story of Macbeth a special theological tragedy, over and above the moral, psychological and social tragedy already considered above. Although every mortal sin is (in a manner of speaking) a tragedy, since it entails the loss of God's friendship and the frustration of man's end; nevertheless repentance wipes away sin. “If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow: and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Is.i.18). For this reason, though every sin is a misfortune, it is not proper to speak of it as tragic. The Church herself, while condemning sin, speaks of Adam's sin as a happy fault—O felix culpa quae tantum meruit Salvatorem—as if Adam had actually done us a favor by sinning!

It is of course only a manner of speaking, but it illustrates the point we wish to make, namely, that although in one sense every serious sin is tragic, in another sense there is only one sin that is really and truly and hopelessly tragic—and that is final impenitence. Peter sinned, Peter repented, Peter is a saint; Judas sinned, Judas hanged himself. “It were better for that man never to have been born.” Judas' sin is tragic, Peter's is not.

In this sense, Macbeth is theologically a tragic figure. He is different from Lear or Hamlet: both are sinners, but both die repentant. Macbeth realizes his sin and its consequences. He deplores the uselessness of his crime:

                                                                                If't be so,
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,
To make them kings. …


But to regret the uselessness of a crime is not repentance. At no time is Macbeth repentant. Wilson Knight perhaps does not put the matter very happily when he says (with reference to V.iii.24 ff.), “Macbeth at the last, by self-knowledge, attains grace.”10 Self-knowledge is indeed a grace and is a first step towards repentance. With Macbeth the self-knowledge does not lead to repentance, but remains in the realm of self-pity.

In the end he gives way to despair. His crimes have brought him nothing but ruin. He grows weary of life itself. He finds it has no meaning: a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The point about these comparisons is not that they are literally true—for they are not—but that they are dramatically true. They express the meaninglessness of life to a man who has expected too much from it, and who, in trying to grasp all, has lost all. Having rejected life's true meaning, he finds it in the end meaningless.

The full horror of his sins is that they are committed with full knowledge of their being against the law of God, and with a deliberate decision to risk damnation in hell: “We'ld jump the life to come.” But one cannot jump the life to come. One must be ready to pay the consequences. One cannot deliberately turn one's back on God and expect to do it with impunity.

Within the framework, therefore, of Christian theology, which is the framework of the play, Macbeth's soul is damned. He dies unrepentant. He is no longer his own master. He has become a slave of “the common Enemy of Man”: “the angel whom thou still hast serv'd” (V.vii.43). Having gained the world, he has lost his soul. To the Christian that is the greatest tragedy.

When Shakespeare's other tragic heroes die, tender things are said of them. “This was the noblest Roman of them all”, says Antony of Brutus. Of the dying Othello it was said that “he was great of heart”. When Lear's great and foolish heart finally breaks, it is like the breaking of a dike, and all the hearts around him are overwhelmed in the flood. When Hamlet dies, he is called a “sweet prince”. But when Macbeth dies, he is called a “hell-hound”. And it is the only appropriate word. How “noble Macbeth” has turned into a hell-hound is a tragedy in the physical, psychological, moral, social, and theological order. It is the fearful downfall of a spirit that had the makings of greatness.11


  1. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), lecture 9. On the “simplicity” of Macbeth, see lect. 10; on its brevity, Appendix, Note AA.

  2. Robert Bridges among others has called attention to this heroic stature of Macbeth. The interest in Macbeth, he says, “is the perpetration of a crime by a man whose magnificent qualities of mind, extreme courage and poetic imagination, raise the villainies above common meanness and give occasion for a superhuman conflict of images and ideas.”—Apud E. E. Stoll, Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1933, reprinted New York 1951), p. 78.

  3. Shakespearean Tragedy, lect. 10.

  4. A. C. Sprague, Shakespearean Players and Performances (Harvard, 1953), p. 75.

  5. For an amusing anecdote that illustrates how real Mrs. Siddons made this blood seem on her hands, see Furness' Variorum Macbeth, p. 477.

  6. Mrs. Jameson, Characteristics of Women (London, 1833), apud Furness' Variorum, pp. 477-478.

  7. Art and Artifice in Shakespeare, p. 77.

  8. Wilson Knight has put it very well: “So he fears, envies, hates Banquo who has the reality of honour whereas he has but the mockery, a ghoulish dream of reality. He envies Banquo's posterity their royal destiny won in terms of nature, not in terms of crime …” The Imperial Theme (3rd ed. London 1951), p. 131.

  9. E. E. Stoll, p. 80 and elsewhere.

  10. The Imperial Theme, p. 128.

  11. Citations from the play are from the Oxford Shakespeare, ed. Craig.


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Among Shakespeare's shortest and most visceral dramas, Macbeth was likely written in 1606. Principally based on individuals and events described in 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. Spurred by the murky prophesies of three witches and the urging of his determined wife, Macbeth kills benevolent King Duncan, only to discover that this initial act of violence demands further bloodshed. Wracked by guilt while seeking to secure his tenuous position, he commits a string of atrocities that leads to his eventual death on the field of battle. Macbeth is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest tragedies, often praised for its artistic coherence and the intense economy of its dramatic action, which is replete with vivid scenes of carnage and treachery. Regarded as one of Shakespeare's most profound and mature visions of evil, critics of Macbeth often study the play's extensive violence, its nightmarish atmosphere, and the enigmatic nature of its hero.

Scholars have primarily concerned themselves with the drama's title figure, a skilled warrior whose battlefield virtues contrast with his unchecked ambition, moral blindness, propensity to violence, and tyrannical nature once he ascends to the Scottish throne. Plagued by obsessive guilt for his nefarious deeds, Macbeth exudes a tragic grandeur and elicits a perverse sympathy from audiences that has intrigued generations of critics. Julian Markels (1961) concentrates on Macbeth as a tragic figure according to the classical, Aristotelian definition, reading Macbeth as a tragedy of personal degeneration. For Markels, Macbeth's villainous acts exist within a frame of moral relevance that points toward his ultimate spiritual redemption, particularly as he regains his former heroic valor at the drama's conclusion. Macbeth's tragic undulation between primal destruction and Christian redemption also figures prominently in Michael Long's (1989) study of the character. For Long, Macbeth is a quintessential man of action. In the tragedy's ever-changing balance between primordial evil and Christian salvation, however, Macbeth struggles with an insatiable, primeval, and satanic desire for annihilation. While Shakespeare's brutal Thane of Glamis and short-lived King of Scotland continues to draw the vast majority of critical attention, to a lesser degree contemporary commentators have also analyzed Lady Macbeth. Although a relatively small role in terms of lines spoken, Lady Macbeth is generally considered one of the most fascinating female characters in Shakespearean drama. Garry Wills (1995) summarizes her dramatic appeal as a strange amalgam of unrepentant evil, repressed ambition, diabolical sexuality, and maddening guilt. Turning to a subordinate figure in the play, John Turner (1992) discusses the infrequently assessed King Duncan. Acknowledging that Duncan is generally cast as a weak figure in performance and virtually ignored by critics who see him as merely a virtuous ruler, Turner interprets the murdered king as a symbol for feudal ideology. A proponent of political bonds based on the ideal of mutual reciprocity and trust, Duncan and the social framework he represents collapse when confronted by the unrestrained malice of Macbeth.

A notorious work in production with a long and storied theatrical history, Macbeth continues to be one of Shakespeare's most compelling stage plays, in part due to its mystique as a powerful dramatization of evil. In recent years, the work has elicited a range of experimental approaches and demonstrated its international appeal. Reviewing a 1995 adaptation of the drama by Zen Zen Zo, an independent theater company in Kyoto, Owen E. Brady finds this interpretation to be an expressionistic mixture of horror and comedy, and a frenetic, ritualized performance that distilled Macbeth into an iconic representation of human corruption. Kit Baker witnessed a 1997 production of Macbeth in the Croatian capital of Zagreb under the direction of Henryk Baranowski. Baker notes Baranowski's concentration on the internalized brutality of Shakespeare's drama, capturing its strong psychological resonance with disturbing and provocative visual metaphors, particularly evocative in light of Zagreb's war-torn atmosphere. For Baker, the principal flaw of the production was its relentless gloom, which seemed to deaden any redemptive movement in the play. Bruce Weber attended a 2002 Japanese-language production directed by Yukio Ninagawa, which was long on style but short on substance according to the critic. Weber claims that the beautiful and graceful actors, dazzling spectacle, and breathtaking choreography ensured audiences would be entertained, but that Ninagawa left the deeper dramatic issues of the tragedy largely unexplored. Reviewing the 2001 season at the Shakespearean Globe, Lois Potter finds Tim Carroll's highly stylized staging of Macbeth as a contemporary upper-class social event effective by degrees, but at times uneven. Potter admires the believable interpretations of Macbeth and his wife as modern socialites, but contends that Carroll's attempt lacked any real context in which the events of the drama could logically unfold. Viewing the same production, Richard Hornby gives an even more negative evaluation. Although Hornby admires Carroll for his innovative interpretation of Shakespeare and praises the clearly articulated verse, he maintains that everything else—choreography, set, characterization, and costumes—led to unmitigated disaster. Looking back to the early twentieth century, Irena R. Makaryk (1998) examines a 1924 performance of Macbeth directed by the avant-garde Ukrainian Les' Kurbas. Kurbas's modernist approach employed extreme expressionistic and stylized methods, using them not to convey Macbeth's internal turmoil, but rather to question the relationship between theater and objective reality. The results scandalized bourgeois theatergoers. Still, the impact of Kurbas's modernism on stage interpretations of Macbeth remains evident in contemporary productions, in which a tension between expressionistic abstraction and psychological realism prevails.

Scholars are interested in uncovering the complex thematic structure of Macbeth, approaching the drama from many perspectives in order to embrace its combined psychological, moral, philosophical, social, and linguistic concerns. Miguel A. Bernad (1962) identifies five thematic levels in Macbeth, including the tragedies of Macbeth's personal disintegration, Lady Macbeth's guilty ambition, the moral collapse of a valiant soldier into a murderer, the inversion of social order precipitated by Macbeth's violent usurpation, and finally the theological component of the drama as a tale of mortal sin without repentance. Maynard Mack (1981) offers a complementary list of themes in Macbeth, seeing the work as the delineation of a usurper's rise and fall, a documentation of Renaissance concerns with witchcraft, a parable of pride, a metaphysical study of the distinction between what is real and what is unreal, an exposition of the collapse of communal bonds, and a moral tale of judgment focused on a deeply flawed human being. Macbeth is seen as a “tragedy of equivocation” by many critics, who generally view Macbeth's deep ambivalence and amorality as a central theme in the work. Irena Kałuża (1990) applies the concept of equivocation to the drama as a whole, interpreting Macbeth as a play that achieves its tragic balance through doubt, deception, hypocrisy, and hidden meaning. William O. Scott (1986) focuses on a process of recognizing and decoding equivocal statements, from the witches' inscrutable prophesies to Macbeth's own vague and deceptive self-avowals. A. R. Braunmuller (see Further Reading) also examines the play's varied language and imagery, noting that Macbeth's poetic, sometimes impenetrable speeches and Shakespeare's use of paradox, antithesis, and contradiction serve a thematic function by mirroring Macbeth's attempts to conceal and evade his murderous crimes, hiding them from others and himself. Taking a philosophical approach to theme, King-Kok Cheung (1984) applies Søren Kierkegaard's notion of existential dread to Macbeth, observing the effects of an ominous, ambivalent, and indefinable fear that suffuses the drama. Lastly, Leon Harold Craig (2001) studies Macbeth as Shakespeare's most metaphysical work. According to Craig, the foreboding evil that pervades the tragedy is a cosmological one that calls into question the nature of reality, appearance, time, contingency, and being.

Owen E. Brady (review date 1996)

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SOURCE: Brady, Owen E. Review of Macbeth. Theatre Journal 48, no. 1 (1996): 97-8.

[In the following review of a 1995 adaptation of Macbeth performed at the Zen Zen Zo theater in Kyoto, Brady discusses the expressionistic power of this bilingual English/Japanese performance and identifies several of the production's stylistic flaws.]

Seized by students in the 1960s and run by them still, Kyoto University's Seibu Kodo stands isolated in a pitted, unpaved lot strewn with refuse. This is the ramshackle headquarters for Zen Zen Zo, a theatrical experiment in cross-cultural form. A multinational troupe directed by Australian Simon Woods, Zen Zen Zo has experimented for three years with fusing Japanese performance techniques and classical Western theatre texts. Something new results: a performance text that might best be called a Butoh meditation on a Western classic.

With Shakespeare's Macbeth as metatext this season, the troupe's Japanese, Australian, and American actors created a performance text distilling Macbeth's deep and dark desires into a raw, expressionistic, Butoh-inspired hell broth of horror and fatality. With Shakespeare's text cut and fragmented into thematic shards of language, the production relies heavily on the human form, dance, and composer Colin Webber's driving, percussive music to communicate Macbeth's slide into hell. Supporting characters and plot lines have been pared away, revealing Macbeth's mythical core. To give symmetry to the bilingual aspects of the performance, there are four witches—two speaking in English, two in Japanese.

Inspired by Shakespeare's bloody man motif, the opening sequence uses images and nonverbal sounds, creating a lurid image of a man in hell. Macbeth, played by Hideyuki Hiraoka, appears sculpted in red light, shrouded in fog. To pulsing, percussive music and guttural sounds, he breaks from his frozen pose and moves a bamboo staff through a fluid series of slow-motion gestures, recalling both Butoh and the heroic poses of Kabuki samurai. In tattered black slips, the witches crawl through the audience hunting their prey. With Macbeth still upstage, they form a chorus downstage, performing a lewd, frenetic come-on. Thrusting hips and breasts frantically forward, then suddenly squatting obscenely, they tantalize and appall Macbeth, while chanting phrases from Shakespeare's text, alternately in Japanese and English.

As an expressionistic interpretation of character, this production elevates the witches' role. They are always present: often foregrounded downstage; sometimes twining themselves around characters; occasionally upstage observing, wrapped around the stark wickets of the stage design. When Macbeth and Banquo encounter them, the witches dance their prophecies; and Macbeth stands, eyes growing wildly wide, as the seeds of ambition take root. Macbeth delivers soliloquies contemplating the king's death in Japanese with the witches, sometimes crawling up his legs like serpents, repeating key phrases in English, representing his inner tension. Later, as the dagger surfaces in Macbeth's mind, they ensnare him in a net of bamboo staves. As emanations of his lust for power, they dance a ritual murder of the king while Macbeth kneels downstage in darkness bent by the music's driving percussion.

Lady Macbeth, too, serves expressionistic ends, more an emanation of Macbeth than an independent character. Throughout, the production links Macbeth, his partner, and the witches, creating a union of evil. He remains on stage as she reads his letter about the prophesies. Stripping the text to the “unsex me here” speech completes the chain of evil, linking Lady Macbeth visually with the witches. In a slow-motion recapitulation of their squatting earlier, she intones her lines about infernal motherhood. Helen Smith's Lady Macbeth squats as if to ditch deliver evil into the world; hands become claws as she encourages the murdering ministers to take her milk for gall. The sleepwalking scene turns into a ballet for the damned. Intoning only “Out, damned spot,” Smith's Lady Macbeth pirouettes into hell to percussive piano and drums, while the witches mouth fragments of her speech, English echoing Japanese. During Macbeth's “tomorrow” soliloquy, she remains on stage. Standing midway on a runway slanting from the back of the auditorium to the stage, Macbeth groans in Japanese while Lady Macbeth, arms outstretched, hovers above him, echoing his soliloquy in English like an infernal benediction on her doomed husband.

What is striking about this production is the power it draws from its roughness, the pulsing musical score, and the group's commitment to experimentation. An avowed experiment in cross-cultural cross-fertilization, it has what by conventional standards might be called artistic flaws. For example the banquet scene unsuccessfully mixes comedy and horror in a kind of youthful nose-thumbing at the Ur-text's sacrosanct cultural status. But even this overindulgence in conflicting effects reflects the group's vitality and commitment to a style that is internationalist in perspective because it is “beyond words.”

This performance strives for the elemental power of myth to comment on the contemporary scene. Stripping Shakespeare's Macbeth to essentials, it presents an icon of human depravity, a character daring to be more than a man, devoid of pathos, unclouded by morality. It transforms Shakespeare's Macbeth through bilingual collages, Butoh techniques, and music, into a fast moving, visceral reflection of the primitive, pan-cultural desire for power. The simple bamboo staves used effectively throughout as agents of destruction and fate are universalizing signs suggesting the technological extensions of power whether swords, AK-47s, sarin gas, or plastic explosives. In the process, this performance reminds us that Sarajevo, Tokyo, and Oklahoma City are all worlds where Macbeth's avatars walk with ravishing stride.

King-Kok Cheung (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Cheung, King-Kok. “Shakespeare and Kierkegaard: ‘Dread’ in Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 4 (winter 1984): 430-39.

[In the following essay, Cheung suggests that Macbeth suffers from Kierkegaardian “dread”—a fear of the indefinite that excites anxiety and a desire for the forbidden.]

Macbeth, in choosing to murder Duncan, exhibits what Kierkegaard would later diagnose as “dread.”1 Though centuries apart, both Shakespeare and Kierkegaard are steeped in the Protestant tradition; and in both, dogma is accommodated in psychology. Kierkegaard, who quotes Shakespeare regularly to illustrate his psychological concepts, has the advantage of coming after the playwright and incorporating his insights. Partly for that reason, interpreting the playwright with the hindsight of Kierkegaard may deepen our understanding of Macbeth's seemingly irrational behavior.

The Concept of Dread seems especially helpful in answering Walter Clyde Curry's question, “By what processes does this essentially noble creature, whose will by nature desire the good or reasonable, come deliberately to choose evil?”2 With few exceptions, answers that have been offered lean heavily on theology or faculty psychology. Such answers may be conducive to a moral judgment of Macbeth, but they do not account adequately for our emotional response toward the hero.

Suspending ethical judgment for the moment, I hope to account for our emotional response by seeing Macbeth's enigmatic choice in the light of Kierkegaard's notion of “dread.” Between possibility and reality lies the dread defined variously by Kierkegaard as “the alarming possibility of being able” (p. 40), as “the abiding state, that out of which sin constantly becomes (comes into being)” (p. 19), and as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy” (p. 38). It is the desire to do what one fears, the psychological state which precedes the leap into evil, even though dread “no more explains the qualitative leap than it justifies it ethically” (p. 45). The most succinct definition of dread appears in Kierkegaard's journal:

Dread is an alien power which lays hold of an individual, and yet one cannot tear oneself away, nor has the will to do so; for one fears, but what one fears one desires.3

Through drama and poetry, Shakespeare has shown what is thought out as a “concept” centuries later.


Although Shakespeare does not give it a name, dread informs the atmosphere, imagery, and diction of the opening act of Macbeth. As old hags who nevertheless captivate, the witches (the first to appear) seem to embody dread. The ambiguity of sympathetic antipathy and antipathetic sympathy is evoked by their chant: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”4 Like the stormy atmosphere in which the witches appear, the famous line conjoins opposites. It is both sinister and poetically enchanting, interfusing darkness and light, evil and good.

The three arrange to “meet with Macbeth” (I.i.8), who will be simultaneously repelled and attracted by them. Significantly, it is not a surprise encounter but a meeting that is to take place. Already there is a hint of intercourse between the witches and Macbeth, so that what seems to be an external temptation also can be interpreted, as many critics have done, as a psychological projection. That the words “fair” and “foul” will soon be echoed by Macbeth himself further suggests a liaison between the hero and the witches.

They alarm Macbeth with a possibility—the possibility of sovereignty. Whether or not Macbeth has already entertained this possibility, it is first enunciated for the audience by the witches, who hail him successively as “Thane of Glamis,” “Thane of Cawdor,” and “King hereafter” (I.iii.48-50).

The enunciation startles Macbeth. Banquo asks, “Why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” (I.iii.51-52). Why indeed? If Macbeth badly wants to be king, as many critics allege, the witches' words should first fill him with joy, even if the joy were to be contaminated later by the thought of violent means. But he already seems preoccupied more by the foul means than by the fair end. Macbeth is not seeing a crown on his head; instead his hair is bristling. The witches may not have indicated the means to kingship, but in Macbeth's mind it is immediately tied to crime. And the crime is engrossing. As much as he fears it, he also desires what he fears. In presenting kingship to Macbeth as a forthcoming fact, the witches have made the crown into a nagging possibility, henceforth ever in his mind, not to be relinquished till realized.

The ambiguity of the witches creates an apprehension—a dread which, as Kierkegaard keeps reminding us, does not cause sin but merely entices one with its possibility. On the one hand, the witches cannot be held responsible for Macbeth's evil decision. (Though greeted by the same weird sisters, Banquo refuses to succumb to their temptation.) But on the other hand, since the witches' words do come true, their prediction seems as ineluctable as fate; Macbeth seems destined to fulfill their prophecy. “In the Macbeth-witch equation,” as Marvin Rosenberg observes, “Shakespeare has created a dialectic between the extremes of control and free will that plays across the whole spectrum separating them”:

If we recognize the three as simply old crones pretending to be … possessed of magic, then Macbeth is mainly responsible for his acts, and his crimes fall heavily on himself—and on Lady Macbeth. Then the two choose … their fate. At the other extreme, if the Sisters … can determine behavior, Macbeth is a man trapped, helpless to choose good.5

As does Shakespeare in his presentation of the witches, so Kierkegaard “palters with us” in his concept of dread:

Just as the relation of dread to its object, to something which is nothing … is altogether ambiguous, so will the transition here from innocence to guilt be correspondingly so dialectical that the explanation is and must be psychological. The qualitative leap is outside of ambiguity, but he who through dread becomes guilty is innocent, for it was not he himself but dread, an alien power, which laid hold of him, a power he did not love but dreaded—and yet he is guilty, for he sank in the dread which he loved even while he feared it.

(Dread, p. 39)

In a sense the witches are nothing. They may be construed as “fantastical” (I.iii.53), vanishing “bubbles” (I.iii.79), arising from rainy fog and guilty imaginings, “Melted as breath into the wind” (I.iii.82). Yet they are apparitions perceived by both Macbeth and Banquo. In his first meeting with the witches, Macbeth seems both guilty and innocent; he is at once surprised by sin and bewitched by it. The dreadful meeting epitomizes the subtle interplay of compulsion and freedom throughout the play.


Dread suffuses Macbeth again upon his learning that he has become the Thane of Cawdor. The half of the witches' prophecy that has been fulfilled points in his mind to the imminent possibility of the other half: “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (I.iii.117-18). Since the witches rightly foretell Macbeth's promotion to Thane of Cawdor, their prophecy about his kingship may come true as well. But again instead of relishing the royal prospect Macbeth ruminates on the unsavory means:

                    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.


Macbeth's visceral description of his reaction to the witches pulsates with dread, experienced at once as an alien power and an intrinsic propensity. “This supernatural soliciting” suggests that the temptation comes from outside. But to be efficacious the soliciting requires a willing “client”; it remains something which can only lure but cannot force. Macbeth has read into the witches' prophecy an unutterable “suggestion”—surprising him from without—to which he must “yield.” Likewise “horrid image” is presented as something outside which wreaks havoc in him “[a]gainst the use of nature” and alien to his nature. But the “horrid image” merges into his own “horrible imaginings” three lines later. The “thought,” while explicitly autogenous, “[s]hakes so” the thinker that he becomes paralyzed.

Macbeth's reaction also evinces dread in the form of “sympathetic antipathy.” On the one hand, he welcomes the announcement of his promotion as “happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (ll.28-29). On the other hand, however, the announcement unmans him, shaking his “single state of man.” “Cannot be ill; cannot be good” is Macbeth's way of verbalizing what he experiences inwardly in response to the soliciting—an admixture of fascination and revulsion. The question “why do I yield” attests to the irresistible fascination of that appalling “suggestion.” Its “horrid image” unfixes his hair but fixes his gaze, as is evident from his vivid and prolonged description. He resembles “the individual in dread [who] gazes almost desirously at guilt and yet fears it,” for “though dread is afraid, yet it maintains a sly intercourse with its object, cannot look away from it …” (Dread, p. 92). Unnerved by the “suggestion,” Macbeth is at the same time mesmerized by it.

Kierkegaard distinguishes dread from fear, which for him refers to something definite. The object of dread is indefinite: “In dread there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms … and fascinates with its sweet anxiety” (Dread, p. 55). Shakespeare would have concurred. Macbeth's “fears” at this stage are “less than horrible imaginings,” yet so powerful that “function is smother'd in surmise.” He is immobilized by an imaginative projection, wherein “nothing is, but what is not.” Because what is taking place in his mind is only a possibility—something not grounded in reality—it “is not.” At the same time this possibility is so intense that it blots out everything else and becomes all there “is.” The blurring of possibility and reality suggests the “dizziness” of dread, which occurs when “freedom gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself” (Dread, p. 55). Macbeth's flurry portends that the possibility has become too “real” to be dismissed. Though thoroughly shaken, he is hopelessly riveted to his imaginings. Or, as Banquo astutely observes, Macbeth is “rapt” (I.iii.143).6


After Duncan's nomination of Malcolm as successor, however, the nebulous fears of Macbeth crystallize into guilty “desires”:7

                              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.


The erstwhile “suggestion,” along with its “horrid image” and “murther yet … fantastical,” has in the meantime developed into a full-blown vision of a violent act which Macbeth must hide from even himself.

With this sharpening focus dread reaches its apex, as is suggested by Macbeth's highly ambivalent diction. Macbeth bids the eye to wink at the hand, betraying at once his fear at what the hand will do and his wish to connive at the act when it is done. The fiat “let that be” suggests on the one hand that the possibility of murder has become so intense that it will occur almost spontaneously, showing the speaker's resolute commitment to the act and his wish for its instant fulfillment. On the other hand, the fiat suppresses the agent of the fell act, showing the speaker's aversion to it and his anxiety to dissociate himself from it.

The semantic divisiveness becomes even more pronounced in the next line. The eye vacillates between what it “fears … to see” and what it strains to see, depending on how much emphasis the speaker (or the reader) gives to the intervening clause—“when it is done”—which furtively transports fears to longings. The eye would avert itself from the action but would gape at the finished act. Cognizant of the blackness of his desires and intensely fearful, Macbeth is nevertheless driven to pursue the felonious course to be king.

No mere promise of the crown wins Macbeth to evil, however. Exploring his enigmatic choice in the shadow of dread, I am trying to show that Macbeth is fascinated by the deed itself, that his dread increases as the possibility of that deed looms progressively larger. Macbeth seems a captive spectator in the theatre of his mind, shielding his eyes from the bloody scenes, yet aroused by them.


But how can a treacherous act have such magnetic power? Commenting on the myth of the Fall in Genesis, Kierkegaard posits how God's prohibition awakens dread in Adam:

The prohibition alarms Adam [induces a state of dread] because the prohibition awakens in him the possibility of freedom … the alarming possibility of being able. … After the word of prohibition follows the word of judgment: “Thou shalt surely die”. … The infinite possibility of being able (awakened by the prohibition) draws closer for the fact that this possibility indicates a possibility as its consequence.

(Dread, pp. 40-41)

As different as Macbeth is from Adam, prohibition and judgment seem to have a similar psychological effect on both. In Genesis both the prohibition and the judgment are announced by God, whereas Macbeth's conscience dictates to him what is forbidden and what will be the punitive consequence. But the results in the two cases are similar: told to abstain, Adam eats the forbidden fruit; dissuading himself from murder, Macbeth makes the fatal decision. His anticipation of “judgment here” (I.vii.8) should deter him from murder, yet imagined as a “consequence” of the murder, the judgment draws the forbidden possibility closer.

The paradox that prohibition incites violation was propounded by the Apostle Paul in Romans (vii), but Kierkegaard makes us feel its psychological manifestation through his notion of dread: “Scripture says that sin takes its opportunity in the command or in the prohibition. Precisely the fact that something is commanded or forbidden becomes the opportunity. … The opportunity is like a middleman, a mediator, merely helpful in the transaction, only causing to be arranged something which, in another sense, already existed, namely as possibility.” He gives a telling example: “If one said to a child that it was a sin to break a leg, what anxiety he would live in, and probably break it more often.”8

True to both theology and psychology, Shakespeare fleshes out the paradox by having Macbeth commit the very act he sees insistently as forbidding and damning. Macbeth enumerates the reasons against murdering Duncan:

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—


The bloody deed yields quickly in Macbeth's mind to the consequent retribution, but the more he dwells on the woeful consequence, which should be his deterrent, the more he seems bound to the act that triggers the consequence. Kierkegaard is illuminating here: “The possibility of freedom announces itself in dread. An admonition may now cause the individual to succumb in dread … and this in spite of the fact that the admonition was of course meant to produce the opposite effect” (Dread, pp. 66-67). An admonition often combats its own intention, for “dread of sin produces sin” (p. 65). Although Kierkegaard's observation by no means justifies the “qualitative leap” of Macbeth—his decision to murder—the observation casts some light on his decision, which seems rationally perverse but psychologically compelling. Macbeth fosters his murderous intent in the very act of stifling it; dread increases with each warning till it provokes precisely what is being warned against.


The lines with which Macbeth begins the soliloquy—“If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly” (I.vii.1-2)—succinctly define his state of apprehension.9 Present and future dissolve in “If it were done, when 'tis done”; the movement from the subjunctive to the indicative reveals a subconscious desire to reify an importunate possibility, to make it come to pass. The apodosis—“then 'twere well / It were done quickly”—indicates more explicitly than the protasis his impatient longing and his wish to get the possibility over with—to leave dread behind. Being anticipated forward as an act to be performed and backward as an act already done, the imagined act teases Macbeth with instant performance.

The temporal merging of cause and effect is enacted on a figurative level, so that present images are viewed from the perspective of future consequences. Duncan's meek virtues, which Macbeth invokes to hold back his aggression, are blown up as clarion-voiced accusers: the pacifiers become the aggressors; the victim the judge. The bizarre image of an equestrian babe likewise coalesces deterrent and punitive agent, blurring the line between present thought and future imaginings: a “naked newborn babe,” a delicate object of pity and the very symbol of vulnerability, is conceived as riding roughshod over the blast, on a par with the vengeful “Cherubins” who, like the furies, rush blindly to “blow the horrid deed in every eye.”10 Even “tears,” the passive, impotent manifestation of pity, are transmuted into active, dynamic, tidal power with the incredible ability to “drown the wind.”

The transformation of pitiful images into aggressive ones turns deterrents into stimulants. As his dread mounts, Macbeth becomes increasingly carried away by a fantastic imagination, culminating in a poetic wish-fulfillment whereby the very deed he admonishes himself against is euphemized, rationalized, and symbolized in poetry as “Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself.” Macbeth gives ambition as his overt motive for murder and disclaims ambition as a spur in the same breath. Indeed by now he is too intent on the act to require any spur. Even though he later tells his wife “to proceed no further in this business” (I.vii.31), he himself already has proceeded too far.


Lady Macbeth's role in engineering the regicide has been stressed by many critics. Like the witches, she embodies dread's ambiguity: she is both the abettor and the alter ego of Macbeth.11 Furthermore, in projecting herself as the ruthless murderer she provides Macbeth with what Kierkegaard calls “the power of example,” which produces the desired effect through dread (Dread, p. 67).

Her first words to Macbeth echo the witches' greeting:

                              Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.


Being a nebulous, luring possibility, dread has its optimum climate in an “ignorant present” and entices one to realize “the future in the instant.” Lady Macbeth foreshortens and intensifies the possibility of murder by discussing it as an important task at hand and by focusing on its consequence:

                                                            … 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.


Presenting the murder as the “night's great business,” Lady Macbeth makes the act which is still under consideration seem imminent and pressing. Instead of looking closely at the horror, she looks beyond the horrid act into the power which will result from it. In this aspect she contrasts sharply with her husband, who drowns himself in horrid images and horrible imaginings despite his perfunctory profession of ambition.12

Had Lady Macbeth incited her husband solely by harping on the fair promises of sovereignty, she would not have gone very far. But she does more: she stands as a foul example to Macbeth and challenges his manhood. To bolster what she sees as her husband's flagging courage, she offers to “dispatch” the hellish business herself. And later she drains him of “the milk of human kindness” by figuratively proscribing her own:

                    … 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.


The speech is insidiously erotic. In stressing her dangerous power over the male and totally helpless infant, Lady Macbeth indirectly calls her husband's potency into question. Macbeth asks, following her speech, “If we should fail?” (l. 59). The question betrays fear and desire: fear of failure and desire to perform. The pronoun “we” suggests that Macbeth wishes to identify with and to appropriate his wife's absolute power, her ability to command performance. Playing on his dual anxiety over regicide and over virility, Lady Macbeth replies, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we'll not fail” (ll. 61-62). Her figure of speech couples readiness to kill with sexual prowess, confusing brutality with masculinity and displacing Macbeth's ethical notion of what “may become a man” (I.vii.46) with erotic anxiety.13

Dread, sexuality, and violence are inextricably fused in Macbeth. Norman Rabkin has called attention to Macbeth's image of himself as personified Murther moving with “Tarquin's ravishing stride” as though the murder of Duncan were an act of lust. Macbeth, Rabkin suggests, is motivated to kill the King (a symbolic father) “by a drive as fundamental and as irrational as that of sex” (p. 107). The analogy goes deeper, for Macbeth's murderous ferocity seems to feed on his sexual anxiety, an anxiety that is hinted at and probably aggravated by his not having any children. Yet he reacts to his wife's infanticidal avowal with stunned admiration—an antipathetic sympathy. Associating infanticide with procreation, he bids her to “Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males” (I.vii.73-75).

It is curious that a speech designed by Lady Macbeth to provoke murder should give rise to thoughts of patrimony in Macbeth, unless he too has come to equate virility with heartless aggression—males with mails of armor, mettle with steely metal. He is ready to prove his virility by translating his procreative impulse into a destructive one, his fear of female domination into masculine aggression. His destructive passion smacks of erotic self-abandonment: he is driven to perform “the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (I.iii.127-28).


Provoking effects of lust and dread are linked in the image of the hallucinated dagger. As a phallic symbol it suggests lust, in this case the lust for a perverted consummation; as an external object drawing Macbeth onward, it suggests dread, both as an alien power and as a personal susceptibility. Stained with blood, the dagger of the mind suggests the proleptic force of dread, which entices one with a future vision and presses one with its realization. Even so, Macbeth's real dagger will gravitate toward the imaginary dagger, as though the image of the bloody weapon dictates the bloody act: “Thou marshall'st the way that I was going” (II.i.42).

The line can also be addressed to Lady Macbeth. Faced with her “undaunted” example and overcome by her intoxicating provocations, Macbeth makes the evil leap:

                    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.


Macbeth's decision to murder, like the psychological process from which the decision issues, is couched in ambivalent terms. Though he is “settled,” his need to “bend up / Each corporal agent” conveys the immense effort required to overcome his mental resistance to an act still too unnerving to be named. His calling it a “terrible feat” sums up his ambivalent attitude: the term connotes attraction and revulsion, terror and grandeur, epitomizing the process by which Macbeth comes to his decision. His mixed reaction of sympathy and antipathy, so inseparable in the process, contrasts sharply with the deliberate dichotomy of “false face” and “false heart” after the decision.

What makes the decision so haunting is its “dreadful” evolution. Dread haunts both Macbeth and his spectators. Under the spell of Shakespeare's poetry, we too are startled by the witches, we too are fascinated by horrid images, we too are amazed by Lady Macbeth. While the scene of infanticide etched by her is inhuman and morally revolting, its graphic imagery is captivating. Shocked by the eidetic power of the grisly scene, we may be caught in a shuddering complicity. We are similarly taken by the entire play: appalled by evil, we nonetheless are fastened to its lurid dramatization.


  1. See The Concept of Dread, trans. Walter Lowrie (1944; rpt. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957). Subsequent references to this work will be given in the text. The latest translation by Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson of the same work is entitled The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980). Since the word “anxiety” connotes an emotion pertaining to something more definable than does the Germanic word angst used by Kierkegaard, I find Lowrie's translation—“dread”—preferable, especially when it is applied to the “unknown fear” in Macbeth. There is, however, no equivalent in English for angst as Kierkegaard uses it, which denotes a conjunction of fear and longing, unless one adopts the convoluted expression “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy.”

  2. Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1937), p. 109.

  3. Quoted in Lowrie's “Translator's Preface,” The Concept of Dread, p. xii.

  4. I.i.11. Citations are from the Arden Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1964).

  5. The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), p. 2.

  6. Macbeth's soliloquy resembles that of Brutus in the orchard before he kills Caesar (II.i.34). Both speakers are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the thought of murder, both are haunted by a dreadful possibility; both talk of insurrection in their mental states, and both confuse possibility with actuality.

  7. Norman Rabkin explains Macbeth's transition from inarticulate fear to explicit resolve in terms of sibling rivalry. The murder of Duncan, Rabkin suggests, is a form of parricide; see Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 105-8.

  8. Quoted in Kreston Nordentoft, Kierkegaard's Psychology, trans. Bruce Kirmmse (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1972), p. 67. Freud will later explain the attraction of the forbidden in terms of the pleasure principle: “The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed. The irresistibility of perverse instincts, and perhaps the attraction in general of forbidden things finds an economic explanation here.” See Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 28.

  9. Cf. Christ's words to Judas: “That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27). (See Kenneth Muir's note in the New Arden edition.) Both in the Bible and in Shakespeare, the bidding to “do” implies violation and precipitates it.

  10. Cleanth Brooks also discusses the incongruity of this imagery; see The Well Wrought Urn (1947; rpt. New York: Harcourt, 1975), pp. 29 ff.

  11. Freud suggests that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are “two parts of the mind of a single individuality”; see “Some Character-Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work,” Collected Papers, trans. Joan Riviere (New York: Basic Books, 1959), IV, 333. A. C. Bradley takes a similar line in Shakespearean Tragedy (Greenwich: Fawcett Premier, 1904), pp. 303 ff.

  12. This difference between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is noted by Rabkin; see Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, p. 102.

  13. For various discussions of the connection between sex and violence in Macbeth, see David Barron, ‘The Babe That Milks: An Organic Study of Macbeth,” American Imago, 17 (1960), 133-61; Dennis Biggins, “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies, 8 (1975), 255-77; Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), pp. 151 ff.

William O. Scott (essay date summer 1986)

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SOURCE: Scott, William O. “Macbeth's—and Our—Self-Equivocations.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 2 (summer 1986): 160-74.

[In the following essay, Scott explores the relationship between self-knowledge and verbal equivocation in Macbeth.]

                                                            For even now
I put myself to thy direction, and
Unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure
The taints and blames I laid upon myself,
For strangers to my nature. 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. …
Such welcome and unwelcome things at once
'Tis hard to reconcile.

(Macbeth, IV.iii.121-39)

[G. E. Moore] had a kind of exquisite purity. I have never but once succeeded in making him tell a lie, and that was by a subterfuge. “Moore,” I said, “do you always speak the truth?” “No,” he replied. I believe this to be the only lie he had ever told.

(Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, chap. 3)

The assignment of truth to one's statements about one's own truthfulness or falsity is a perilous business. Despite Russell's playful assertion, neither a yes or a no from Moore—assuming his perfect probity at all other times, and applying his present answer to itself as one instance—can be strictly false. In contrast Malcolm, who has disparaged his potential as king ostensibly as a test of Macduff's loyalty, has a hard time extricating himself from the admission of falsehood, which (especially in suspicious times) seems as unkingly as the actual content of the lies themselves. Believed or not, Malcolm's self-chastisement must weaken his position, both personally and in general. Wilbur Sanders says that “The very act of envisaging the corruption of his own nature has tainted him. …”1 Steven Mullaney writes that “For Macduff the experience is a discomposing one, for it reveals a family resemblance between authority and its other where no relation was expected,” and he reminds us that at some early time Macbeth too might have truly vouched for his own honor in much the way that Malcolm does.2 Indeed the problems of these self-descriptions become all the more intriguing if we consider that Macbeth meditates self-detractions to himself through soliloquy before verifying them in action by Duncan's murder, though we may well take his word for it that they are already true in thought. In this case does soliloquy then become something like self-fulfilling prophecy?

Malcolm's difficulty in freeing himself from falsehood must sound painfully like the experience of many in Shakespeare's troubled age. There are ample patterns in religious events of the day for extreme reversals of sworn views—and their holders may be less able than Malcolm to come out honorably. Samuel Harsnet, whose Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures left its mark on King Lear, prints the deposition of Anthony Tyrrell, a priest who took part in exorcisms, then recanted and gave information regarding the practice to the Lord Treasurer, later returned to Catholicism, and afterward renewed his testimony in the deposition. In his second Catholic phase the priests urged him to reaffirm the truth of the exorcisms he had denounced to the government. After the fact he explained that he “did willingly yeeld, nothing doubting but that, if God should once againe so draw his grace from mee, as that I should become to be as then I was (that is, wholy addicted to popery, as I trust in his mercy hee will neuer doe) I should be as ready againe to deny all that now I haue affirmed vpon my oath, as I was before.”3 Even now, engaged under oath and studied in self-denunciation, he gives little promise of stable truth.

Moreover, the Jesuits had a prime reputation as liars because of their doctrine of equivocation, alluded to in Macbeth, which allowed a Catholic pressed under oath to evade hard questions about the activities of priests and other specified topics by answering in a sense hidden from and contrary to the meaning of the questioner. The ex-priest Thomas Bell writes “that the Iesuites are notorious lyers, and that their owne fellowes can not tell when to trust them,” and the anti-Jesuit priest Christopher Bagshaw that “they are commonly held now adayes great lyars; and it is come to that passe, that though they sweare, men will not beleeue them.”4 William Clarke asserts that “the Iesuits ordinary practise in equiuocating, when they haue beene examined; is so manifest, and notorious, as in very deede almost euery ordinary officer vnder her Maiestie, hauing been acquainted with examining of them, are so well acquainted therewith, as ordinarily they will vrge them therewith; yea and commonly say, that they know not when to giue credite to theyr aunswers, making all the exceptions of such equiuocating they can. …”5 There is a reasoned basis in Jesuit doctrine to prompt such doubt: Henry Garnet, whose manuscript Treatise of Equivocation codified the practice for English Jesuits, argued that a Catholic under oath could “admitte the oath with this intention, that he will answere directly and trewelye (and if so they vrge hym), without all equivocation, so farre as he is assured, without all doubte or scruple, that he may or is bounde. And if they make hym sweare that he hath no private intention, or secreat meaning, lett hym sweare it also with that very same secrett vnderstandinge, that he hath no such meaning to tell them.”6 Thus, complains Thomas Morton, “this is the mouth of Satan, to sweare by an aequiuocation We do not aequiuocate; and vrged againe to sweare this without aequiuocation, to sweare aequiuocatingly we doe not aequiuocate, &c. Heere is contention without end, by this aequiuocation which is as bottomlesse as the pit of hell.”7 These severe comments reveal a problem the witnesses share with Malcolm: once the possibility of falsehood or of hidden or oblique meanings is broached, it becomes difficult to return to straightforward utterance (assuming there is such a thing) because that utterance will be subjected to the same suspicious interpretation as all the others.

The suggestion of falsehood or obliquity need not be explicit. Writing of situations where hidden meaning is implied by “particles” (i.e., particular details or qualifying circumstances), Garnet asserts that “the judge, if he be wise, hath cause alwayes to vnderstand these particles; for so the circumstance of place, tyme, and person do iustely afforde …” (p. 18). There is thus a tacit convention of interpreting speech by its author's circumstances, which imply an indirectness (however undefined the resultant meaning might be) that operates without a need for overt signals.

These examples clarify some problems of self-description in Macbeth. The equivocal oaths not to equivocate, and Malcolm's difficulty in persuading Macduff that he is not lying now in saying that he was lying about himself a few moments ago, show the emptiness of self-referential professions of truth: a statement such as “This very sentence is true,” with nothing but itself to support it, does not stand. And if meanings may implicitly be tailored to the situation of the speaker and, like Macduff with Malcolm, we are heavily reliant on the speaker's own self-descriptions (again, words supported by words), both the nature and the veracity of what is being asserted must be seriously qualified. Not far removed from the purportedly self-verifying example just given is the philosophers' model for a self-referential, self-undermining statement, the liar paradox, “This very sentence is false”; as the obverse of the previous example it reflects back on itself to seem false if true, and true if false. There is good reason to think that Shakespeare knew this paradox from Thomas Wilson's The Rule of Reason (1553 or later edition).8 He certainly knew a great deal of the controversy about equivocation, and his interest in the problematics of oaths and of known but tacit lying appears in Sonnet 138: “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies. …” In the language, logic, and polemic of his time, Shakespeare had (for what it is worth) a rich storehouse of unsupported and easily undermined oaths, and self-referring and self-canceling speech.

There is of course much that is worthy of question about the witches' triple salutation of Macbeth as Glamis, Cawdor, and king-to-be; the words are both dubious in their origin and only too easy and fearful in their validation. What first impresses Banquo, who is for the moment a disinterested interpreter, is that the greetings “sound so fair,” though his later questions, “have we eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner?” and “What, can the devil speak true?” betray a suspicion of the source (I.iii.52, 84-85, 107). Macbeth, though, is at once narrower in his scrutiny of truth: he thinks the Thane of Cawdor still alive, though we know otherwise and he soon will too. He hopes (as it seems) for falsehood in this message about Cawdor because of the way he takes the other one, which is clearly phrased as prophecy: he must fear that in foretelling kingship the sisters know his “thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical” (l. 139), and may even have the power to bring it about.9 When the title of Cawdor becomes a reality, even the traditional association of truth with good cannot assuage his worry that secret evil may also come true:

                                        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.


Not far beneath the surface is concern about his own possible role even if events are controlled by other forces. Both “soliciting” and “suggestion,” besides their other meanings, carry some overtones of temptation. As his fears grow into horrible imaginings, those imaginings themselves are to be feared: are the witches working on him by self-fulfilling prophecy, and must it therefore come true (verify itself in an etymological sense) merely because it is said? If the prediction is fated to be true, the best he can hope is for a guiltless passivity: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (I.iii.143-44). And if imaginings have so taken over his whole being that “nothing is / But what is not” (I.iii.141-42), the question is whether “what is not” is (though still within his own mind) in some way that will require that it be outwardly in his own conscious and willed action.

Strange too is the prospect that a horror can be a temptation. It becomes a more active temptation because it seems destined to be true. Yet so quickly and fully is Macbeth entered in, later obstacles do not lessen the allure. On hearing Duncan proclaim Malcolm Prince of Cumberland, he seeks to deceive not only heaven but himself: “Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires. / The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (I.iv.50-53). The passive voice tries to make the nameless act of the hand as impersonal as a deed fated by prophecy, even though Macbeth is now consciously considering action. His overt statement suggests positive effort to equivocate with himself: the tongue also (in an unavoidably mixed metaphor) conspires to wink at the hand. Reasoning about equivocation approaches the problematics of this kind of soliloquy or aside in this argument of Garnet as paraphrased by Morton: “Thus, If I were alone and should talke with my selfe, and say one thing, vnderstanding a thing different from that, this is not a lie” (p. 68; cp. Garnet, p. 15). Morton's reply not only denies implicitly the dramatic conventions but dismisses the kind of conscious self-deceit declared by Sonnet 138 and indeed any verbalized self-consciousness: “the vse of speech was not ordained for a looking glasse, whereby a man might see himselfe, but as the Interpreter of the mind, whereby he might be knowen of others. … And can any by any wilfull lie deceiue his owne selfe, as thereby be made ignorant of his owne meaning? This were to distract a man from himselfe.” Yet not only does Macbeth seek to describe such distraction, he tries to induce it. Macbeth wants consciously to deceive himself; and if such a wish cannot be articulated without an artificial dramatic convention, cannot even be expressed without undermining itself and thereby rending the self, we see all the more the extremity of his situation.10

It is true that Macbeth's great meditation on the consequences of murder seems to cultivate rather than suppress self-knowledge; but his manner of cultivation has its own subtle, perhaps necessary, forms of evasion if not suppression:

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 murderer 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 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—


One eventual outcome of the murder he contemplates here is the dramatically ironic one that Macbeth is in fact deposed and killed; and the interesting implication is that, as he predicts he will, Macbeth himself does teach these bloody instructions to, of all people, the fleeing Macduff and the pallid Malcolm. Indeed, these are perhaps the hardest kinds of bloody instructions to reckon with: not that others, seeing the success of Macbeth's ambition, will try to emulate him (as in the dramas about the Wars of the Roses), but that he will face, and be responsible for the actions of, forces claiming just revenge and supported by pity. Fully to imagine the crime with its attendant breach of trust is to see how its success becomes its failure; but Macbeth might well not envision pity thus without the actual intent of a murder that will rouse it. As Colin Manlove says, “In the very act of envisaging so fully the ghastliness of the deed to others, he has imagined himself as having done it.”11

So, more than ever before, his fears become imaginings, and even beget new imaginings of ruinous consequences. But if, to compare Freud, some unconscious impulses can become conscious only on condition of their being denied (a denial which for Freud actually reinforces their validity), Macbeth brings to mind his impulses perhaps also on the equivocal condition of their being denounced and shown futile, again without invalidating them.12 (Knowledge of futility is in another way not a deterrent for him: he knew all along the prophecy about Banquo's heirs, but only takes it to heart once he becomes king.) Peter Ure speaks of Macbeth as being a parody of an artistic creator;13 his masterwork may be forbidden fruit and the not-sufficiently daunting results of eating it, and the impact may be a mingling of allure and terror. To return to the liar paradox, what he says may ironically undermine itself precisely by being an instance of itself, and his words turn back on him from the fact and the circumstances of their use. Not only is he reminding himself that others will learn bloodshed from him, he is, as a person weighing the thought of murder, in the process of imaginatively teaching himself bloody instructions. His conclusion in the soliloquy proper is not actually a resolve not to do the deed, but an image of his self-destructive (yet not disavowed) motivation. Though consciously he seems to accumulate reasons not to act and declares them to his wife, he must know well from their brief reunion that she will overpower his qualms; he may unwittingly rely on her to do so. Indeed not only is he not finally dissuaded from bloodshed against Duncan by his misgivings, he even goes on self-taught to other bloody instructions: the guards, Banquo, Macduff's family. With results equivocally subversive of their supposed purpose, Macbeth's thoughts actually inure him to the spilling of blood. The witches do after all have their way through the workings of his mind, though he beguiles himself with a fully intended resistance.

This whole process by which Macbeth is drawn in is epitomized by his vision of the dagger:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
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-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
                                                  [Draws dagger.]
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. I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing.
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. …
.....                                        Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.

(II.i.34-50, 57-61)

The apt words of R. A. Foakes about this apparition can be turned back upon Macbeth's recent past:

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.14

The dagger seems to him as palpable as the witches' prophecies which have begun to come true. Foakes says of the next development, the allusion to the eyes and the other senses (ll. 45-46), that his eyes “show through this illusion what is compelling him from within”; the vision with its attendant self-knowledge wakes in him the action itself, here foreshadowed as he draws his own dagger. Then the blood standing on the airy vision reminds him again, as the encounter with the witches first had, of the murderous thoughts which are truly his own yet (he would like to think) seem somehow put upon him as if by unknown forces. But whatever incitement that blood, and the horror of the night, may be, he tries to deny the reality of the bloody vision and hide himself from his guilty surroundings. His imaginings impel him onward, yet he must refuse their actuality as they lead him.

In his struggle to undo himself while yet hiding knowledge of that action from himself, Macbeth relies, perhaps unconsciously, on his wife's unrestrained will and open acknowledgment of its force. Manlove says of Macbeth's matter-of-fact announcement to her of Duncan's plan to arrive and then leave “Tomorrow, as he purposes” (I.v.60), “He can pretend that everything he says of Duncan's visit is perfectly natural, can seek to divide himself from his evil purpose so that his wife will be his prompter” (p. 139) and will, for instance, exclaim, “O, never / Shall sun that morrow see!” She readily enacts and gives power to the impulses he feels obliged to resist, even if she must as a rationale unconsciously falsify his nature: he is by her standards too full of the milk of human kindness. Thus, as she ministers to his need for self-deceit, she forms an image of him that allows her the roles she herself craves of not only king-maker but devil-maker. This couple, whose relationship many critics have found highly charged sexually, unconsciously carry out variant hypothetical senses of the ending of Sonnet 138: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”15 The role Lady Macbeth chooses puts her effectively in rivalry with the weird sisters: as she reads of their message, which confirms for her too the reality of “fate and metaphysical aid,” she charges the absent Macbeth to “Hie thee hither, / That I may pour my spirits in thine ear” (I.v.25-26), a contrast not only between her spirits and Macbeth's, but between hers and the witches' in power over his ear. But she becomes adequate to the mission only by her dread prayer:

                                                                                          Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th' effect and it! …


Whether or not this happens, a terrible price is somehow exacted, as in the Sleepwalking Scene. But she gains her object, to outdo the witches by overwhelming Macbeth's last resistance to the tempting images they have stirred in him. Throughout, there are unknowing complicities of falsehood and flattery (some of it self-flattery) by husband and wife even in their frankly acknowledged commitments to evil. Thus it is that once again open warnings subvert or invert themselves and become incitements.

As he learns to do the deed that fills his imagination, Macbeth tries also to practice his wife's counsel to “Look like th' innocent flower, / But be the serpent under 't” (I.v.65-66). He hardly seems a success at it; the result is best described by Lady Macbeth's comment on the plan to accuse the grooms of Duncan's death, “Who dares receive it other?” (I.vii.78). In the two rumor scenes—II.iv and III.vi—Macduff and Lennox clothe their criticisms of Macbeth in irony (Lennox only partly, Macduff so fully that scarcely anything but his intention of going home instead of to the investiture gives him away). Irony, a circumspect figure of rhetoric that is still much used in politically repressive situations, gives the lie by convention to the surface meaning of what is said; it might be considered an implicit variant on the liar paradox, though it is only as fully unsettling as that paradox when it is (in Wayne Booth's terms) unstable and infinite.16 Here it discreetly unmasks actions that were themselves, as suggested by Lady Macbeth's rhetorical question, by no means totally hidden. The counterpart in deeds of the liar paradox is well described by these words of Brian Vickers on the events of the play: “once it has gained its desires, evil can afford to declare itself. Yet in Macbeth's case that declaration was not voluntary, or the result of carelessness. His guilt has been exposed by his own actions.”17 For whatever reasons—conscious or unconscious, voluntary or involuntary—supposedly hidden actions can disclose themselves and to that extent function like liar paradoxes, challenging the beholder in turn to enter into a “knowing” self-deception. As he acknowledges more openly to himself his commitment to evil and ceases to need his wife as a counterweight to his conscience, Macbeth takes the initiative in deeds and hides them from her, though by the time of the raid on Macduff's castle he is quite open in his intimidation of all the thanes. All these developments figure in his conclusion (which he does divulge in general terms to his wife) that “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.137-39). He has achieved, though at other great costs, release from doubts about his nature (so that secrecy from his wife is a kind of openness with himself) and about his ability to act out evil, and also release from the need for hypocrisy. His full commitment to evil makes for a new honesty with himself and implicitly the nation, though it is a self-undermining honesty.

Another of Macbeth's honesties consists in speaking lies which by his own actions, even the very words themselves,18 come true. Though there is a sort of honesty in the outcome, the starting point is outrageous hypocrisy with no intention of truth. There is thus a particular force in Macbeth's extravagant lament for Duncan:

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


Among several critics who have recognized senses in which these words come true, perhaps the best commentator is Wilbur Sanders:

… by making Macbeth spokesman for this insight, Shakespeare imparts a peculiar twist to the sense—Renown and Grace is dead. Though it is Macbeth's self-accusation that speaks, recognising how he has uncreated something which it is not within his powers to recall to life either in Duncan or in himself, nevertheless he has performed the murder of Renown and Grace for his world, as well as for himself. For the world of the play, too, these things are dead.

(pp. 257-58)19

Macbeth has indeed performed through these words (and thus made them an instance of what they announce) the same murder of virtues that he has in another sense enacted physically. His hyperbole—a figure that Puttenham calls “the loud lyer”20—must be heard by the thanes, whatever their suspicions, in the spirit of “Who dares receive it other?” Thus his rhetoric ensures that all court rhetoric hereafter will ring false, though its hearers or speakers may guess or even know the truth. And there is still more performative force to his words about Banquo. Even while trying to spy out his travel plans to plot his death, Macbeth charges Banquo not to miss the banquet (III.i.27). Then, when he knows Banquo lies in a ditch, he tells the company he wishes “the grac'd person of our Banquo present, / Who may I rather challenge for unkindness / Than pity for mischance” (III.iv.41-43). Though he is horrified when the spirit of Banquo responds to this reproach and invitation, he renews it with a toast and again sees the apparition, which this time also leaves at his bidding. The point is not only that murder will out, although that is the theme of most of his asides here; the guilt really becomes public only to the extent that Macbeth himself behaves strangely. In his compulsive repetition, Macbeth seems actually to be testing and fearing the power of his own words, as he had first shaken at the witches' imposing speech. So it is not surprising that he should now seek out the witches and desperately trust “to know, / By the worst means, the worst …” (III.iv.135-36). Having found against his will what seems a supernatural power to make evil come true by lying, he must trace this power to its apparent source and know the full range of that evil.

Macbeth's suspicions of the witches whom he has determined to consult again should have been an important context for his understanding of their messages, since, as Garnet argues, the circumstances of the speaker are a sufficient clue to the presence of equivocation. Macbeth had first believed the witches not because he wanted to (at least, one side of him) but because their prophecies began to come true in quite a literal sense and because they seemed to have access to the frightening secrets of his heart. Now he so craves foreknowledge, still of a literal sort, that he suppresses his doubts and better judgment. Though he had once been honest with himself about the consequences of evil while self-deceiving about his motives for thinking of them, he now is fully aware of his purposes but unwilling to give the foretelling of consequences a proper scrutiny.

The question of literalism is relevant because the issue is one of interpretive conventions (including the role of figurative meaning): the debates about equivocation, on their more intellectual level, rehearsed the canons of scriptural interpretation, which stood in those days for a semiotics. The Jesuit account of equivocation as a method of scriptural exegesis relied in a major way, as explained by Frank L. Huntley, on the concept of mixed propositions, part spoken and another part only thought or held as a mental reservation; the unspoken portion gave a new turn to the meaning.21 Mental reservation was claimed to be necessary to explain many scriptural passages as being not lies if rightly understood; the foremost Jesuit partisan, Robert Parsons, argued, for instance, among many examples, that John the Baptist's negative answer to the question “Are you a Prophet?” (John 1:21, translated differently in the King James version) was a model for priests to deny their office when unlawfully asked.22 Mixed propositions might also have a visual component: Huntley mentions an anecdote that St. Francis of Assisi helped a poor man escape his pursuers by looking the wrong direction while saying “He went that way,” but pointing the true way inside his sleeve: and Parsons invents a facetious instance that his opponent Thomas Morton might receive a bequest when a dying man says “I giue and bequeath vnto Thomas Morton,” then (his voice failing) writes “a thousand” and points to a gold angel.23

Morton's counterclaim is that the problematic scriptural passages can be interpreted figuratively through multiple verbal meanings rather than addition of understood phrases or clauses; thus John is not a prophet in the senses meant by the questioners but in another sense.24 He considers that the equivocations in Parson's examples “are not properly Mentall, but Verball, because the meanings which he calleth Reseruations, were implied in the words of those sentences, and in the circumstances thereof” and he generalizes that “there is no speech in Scripture, whether it be proper or figuratiue, but it accordeth vnto the vse of the outward words and the meaning may possibly be apprehended by an intelligent Reader, who can iustly obserue the phrase of speech, and the due circumstances thereof” (pp. 157, 129). The principle of latent double meaning to which Morton appeals is amphibology; it is a major concept for Parsons too, but he considers it only one form of equivocation, and he emphasizes that use of different meanings by different persons in scriptural examples creates misunderstanding among those persons.25 A basic assumption by Morton is revealed by this quotation he gives on the ethics of equivocation from Azorius, a Catholic casuist whom he frequently cites: “If the words we vse are not according to their common signification among men, ambiguous or doubtfull, and haue only one sense, we ought to vse them in that sense which they haue in themselues … but he doth lie who vnderstandeth his speeches otherwise than they do signifie in themselues.”26 Most words, it seems, have only a single meaning, which resides in the word itself (though some have more than one, also inherent in the word, and though there is also ambiguity of syntax). There is an obligation to use, and a right to interpret according to, these intrinsic meanings; the trouble with mental reservation is that deviant senses are not signaled.

The problem in interpreting equivocations is thus measured at least partly by the gap between mental reservation as a possible hidden tactic of the speaker or writer and the conventional resources of construing language available as well to hearers and readers, the latter exemplified by amphibology and the circumstances of the speaker or writer.27 In the scriptural examples the need for an equivocal reading is usually argued from the inadequacy of literal meaning; is evident literal falsity therefore a means of conveying figurative truth? Puttenham emphasizes the duplicity of figures, “because they passe the ordinary limits of common vtterance, and be occupied of purpose to deceiue the eare and also the minde, drawing it from plainnesse and simplicitie to a certaine doublenesse, whereby our talke is the more guilefull & abusing” (p. 154), and he sets forth the conventions for doing this (thereby reducing whatever “deceit” there might have been). The contradictory self-reference of the liar paradox is not fully present here, since the evident falsehood is literal whereas the truth it supposedly points to is figurative; but the two might come into paradoxical conflict if the equivocation were so thorough as to break down the barrier between figurative and literal.

The specific issue in the play is the nature of the equivocation, and the possibility for decoding it, in the apparitions and their messages given to Macbeth at his urging: the armed head that warns “Beware Macduff,” the bloody child that tells Macbeth to “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The pow'r of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” and the crowned child bearing a tree who advises and prophesies “Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care / Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are. / Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (IV.i.71, 79-81, 90-94). In one literal reading the last two of these prophecies describe impossibilities and thus misleadingly give hopeful messages; indeed, as Howard Felperin says, “It is only when we suppress their literal meaning (and our own literalism) and take the prophecies solely at a figurative level that they can be said to ‘come true’ at all. …”28 They are like the trick prophecies in Act I, Scene iv of 2 Henry VI, where Suffolk is warned of death by water (he dies at the hand of Walter Whitmore) and Somerset is advised to shun castles (the Castle Inn at St. Albans being the place of his doom), though we may sense more importance in the present tricks. Yet they are not wholly tricks, for taken literally the words conflict with the companion prophecy about Macduff; there is this much of a verbal signal to interpret them warily. And the mixed propositions of verbal and visual do somewhat more to express the nature of the verbal equivocation: as various critics point out (though it surely takes second-guessing to perceive it) the bloody child hints Macduff's caesarian birth and the crowned child holding the tree suggests the heir to the crown bearing a cut branch. But the spectacle too has its varied tonalities: apart from the blood and the content of the verbal messages, the babes and the tree could have been “life-themes” (G. Wilson Knight), or “the unpredictable future” and “the living green of nature itself” (Cleanth Brooks).29 The very proliferation of conflicting or doubtful messages and symbols should itself hint that there may be traps of interpretation.

The greatest trap of all is precisely in Macbeth's relation to what is told him. As Sanders remarks of all the prophecies in the play, including especially the earlier ones:

The very predictions seem to presuppose the effect they will have upon Macbeth—as if a deterministic net had been cast over the whole action. … The double nature of the prophecies (as merely descriptive and so powerless to effect what they predict, and yet binding upon Macbeth as a kind of Fate) is reflected in his equivocal attitude to them: in so far as he acts, he takes the future on his shoulders and undertakes to create it, thus becoming the accomplice, or even the master, of his fate; yet he persists in regarding the future as pre-ordained and Fate as his master.

(pp. 280-81)

This perception of Macbeth's involvement in the prophecies' completion is powerfully, if indirectly, true in the three predictions borne by the apparitions. Whatever the need to beware Macduff already, Macbeth greatly increases the danger by slaughtering Macduff's family. The spirits actually counsel against this by urging him to scorn the power of man and take no care about conspirers; yet the predictions on which that hopeful advice is based prove equivocal, though again there are warning signs. In any case, though, by a further ironic turn, Macbeth makes false hope and bravado a reason to discard after all the small bit of potentially helpful guidance among much that is deceptive:

Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder.


This resolution of his is redirected in a worse way still when news comes through that Macduff has fled, leaving his family unprotected. Thus Macbeth takes literally what needs to be figurative, fails to measure words by sights, and misplaces both doubt and trust. He mistakes a complex of deceptions, but one that by that same token should not be deceptive that it is deceptive. Though he is merely auditor and spectator of the apparitions, being denied direct intervention by speech, he breaks the plane of their self-contained reality in another way by helping to create his own deceptions and fulfill one prophecy literally by perceiving the literal impossibility of the others. In becoming a part of the self-deluding show and undoing some literalisms to confirm another, he skews the boundaries of literal and figurative and of perceiver and perceived, with paradoxical results.30

More paradoxical still is Macbeth's powerful meditation on hearing his wife's death, in words which reflect not only on themselves and the life they describe but on actor and audience:

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.


Although one impulse we may have is to dissociate ourselves from this view of life and say that life is meaningless to Macbeth only because he has made it so, the words here must bring to a crisis the general question posed by Bernard McElroy: “How can a man who violates his humanity tell us so much about what humanity is?”31 To this question we may add: “especially when he tells us that life signifies nothing?” The problem is further sharpened in Sanders's quotation from Lascelles Abercrombie as if to foretell the progeny of Saussure: “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” (Sanders, p. 303). The self-reference bothers Sanders, who wishes to avoid “the guillotine criterion of philosophic respectability, which would make Macbeth's sentiments appear self-condemned in the very utterance”; on the contrary, in the context of the liar paradox (a traditional challenge to philosophic respectability that is not considered by Sanders) letting the contraries battle each other need not really cancel them. It is the poor player acting Macbeth who tells, in words that signify that they signify nothing, of the poor player as a symbol of nothingness; there is then at least a double self-reference, one dimension of which is metadramatic. Thus David Willbern suggests that “Even that most desperate and apparently nihilistic statement of the nothingness of theatrical significance, which Macbeth utters at the end of his play, sounds some positive notes of affirmation: that it is the player, the stage, and the tale that signify, award significance to, exist within and create images for, nothing”; and from an actor's viewpoint (and less positively) Ian McKellen asks his audiences something like “If Macbeth thinks McKellen is wasting his time, what the hell do you think you're doing watching me?”32 It is right that the audience should be drawn in here: we somehow try to look for meaning not only in these words but in the whole play, and we presumably draw our criteria for meaning in some fashion from the life that is here said to be meaningless. All this would seem to dissolve reality in some more severe way than Puck's epilogue ever could; but Macbeth, the actor, and we all contemplate in some manner the minimal features of our humanity (not least of which is the ability to delimit what we are not in words which create their own limitations by denying themselves). Thus our common enterprise achieves a kind of essentiality through the excluding and self-annulling assertion of nothingness. If Lear achieves “the thing itself” by giving away all in folly and contemplating nothingness, Macbeth attains that negative vision by a commitment to evil that reduces his life to nothing; and it is such a vision that compels us to join in understanding though we would not or dare not in action. We share with the criminal because we care about (and are) the poor player. When, confronted at once thereafter with the deceptive truth of the prophecies, Macbeth denounces “th' equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth …” (V.v.43-44), we should recall that it is the function of the player to lie like truth and of the audience to believe what it knows to be equivocation. These thoughts apply though the apparitions in fact declared deceptive impossibilities (rather than apparent truths) and though Macbeth equivocated with himself in rejecting them. We ourselves must cannily credit the nothingness of the very drama that shows us the double vision, of the nothingness itself and of the means by which Macbeth reaches it.

At this distance the confidence of a Malcolm in veracity and of a Thomas Morton in the inherent meanings of words seems superficial. Macbeth “teaches” us far more than the circumstances of his own story would seem to allow—even if that “far more” is itself a sense of limitations shown by means that delimit themselves. Through the many equivocal analogues of the liar paradox—exposures of figurative meaning (be they metaphors, hyperboles, ironies, puns, or other equivocations), portrayals of self-deception (tacit or “open”), displays of acts or words that dare others to perceive their evident falsity, and exhibits of initially false but self-fulfilling prophecies which undermine the self and of lies which performatively become truths—we confront the metadramatic illusions with which the play both forbids and compels us to delude ourselves.


  1. The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 262. Quotations from Shakespeare come from David Bevington's edition of the Complete Works, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1980). I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the University of Kansas General Research Fund grant 3612-X0-0038.

  2. “Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation and Treason in Renaissance England,” ELH, 47 (1980), 42. Joan Hartwig sees Malcolm's self-misrepresentation as parody of Macbeth's degenerated nature (Shakespeare's Analogical Scene [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1983], pp. 57-65). Ninian Mellamphy compares Malcolm's well-meant deceit to his later camouflage with the branches of Birnam wood (“The Ironic Catastrophe in Macbeth,Ariel, 11 [1980], 12-13).

  3. Harsnet, A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures (London, 1603), p. 255: Mention of equivocation, my next topic, occurs on pages 165 and 167-68, and the doctrine is implicit in Tyrrell's comments following the quotation. Did Tyrrell perhaps try to sabotage his testimony, insofar as he dared, by presenting himself as untrustworthy? His career is briefly considered by D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), pp. 44-45. Discussions of Harsnet include Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950), pp. 96-102; William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966), pp. 89-94; Stephen Greenblatt, “King Lear and Harsnett's ‘Devil-Fiction,’” Genre, 15 (1982), 239-42.

  4. Bell, The Anatomie of Popish Tyrannie (London, 1603), p. 58; Bagshaw, A True relation of the faction begun at Wisbich (n.p., 1601), p. 73. Good guides to the various disputes and their participants are Peter Milward, Religious Controversies of the Elizabethan Age (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1977), and his companion volume on the Jacobean age (Religious Controversies of the Jacobean Age [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1978]). There are discussions of equivocation in Macbeth in Paul, pp. 237-47; Kenneth Muir's Arden edition, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. xv-xviii, xxv-xxvi; Frank L. Huntley, “Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation,” PMLA, 79 (1964), 390-400, with reply by A. E. Malloch, PMLA, 81 (1966), 145-46; Huntley, Essays in Persuasion (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 40-47; Mullaney; and Camille Wells Slights, The Casuistical Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 106-32.

  5. A Replie unto a certaine Libell, latelie set foorth by Fa: Parsons (n.p., 1603), fol. 90.

  6. A Treatise of Equivocation, ed. David Jardine (London, 1851), pp. 103-4. (Newberry Library copy.)

  7. A Fvll Satisfaction Concerning a Dovble Romish Iniqvitie; hainous Rebellion, and more then heathenish Aequiuocation (London, 1606), Part 3, p. 89 (I have deleted a period before the first italics). Morton obviously reacts also to the Gunpowder Plot. Michael Goldman writes thus about these two “iniquities”: “The destruction at one fell swoop of the entire ruling order of England, apparently averted only at the last moment; the readiness of priests of God to swear to a lie on principle—such discoveries must have seemed to many abruptly to open an abyss of evil possibility in the foundations of normal life” (“Language and Action in Macbeth,” in Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982], p. 144).

  8. The appropriate passage is in the edition of The Rule of Reason by Richard S. Sprague (Northridge, Calif.: San Fernando Valley State College, 1972), pp. 216-17. I have given reasons for Wilson's relevance in “The Paradox of Timon's Self-Cursing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), 290-304; to these should be added Wilson's mention of a dream which warns against believing dreams, like Mercutio's by-play in Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.50-51. “This very sentence is true” is a truth-teller paradox, like the examples in J. L. Mackie, Truth, Probability and Paradox (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 298. A later book on the liar paradox, to supplement my references in the article just mentioned, is Recent Essays on Truth and the Liar Paradox, ed. Robert L. Martin (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984).

  9. Sanders (see fn.1) speaks of “the coincidence, in the Witches, of apparent objectivity with a heart-stopping fidelity to [Macbeth's] inmost consciousness …” (p. 278).

  10. An alternative reading of Macbeth's character would find his soliloquies not necessarily reflective of his consciousness, or ambiguous whether they do represent conscious thought. (Nicholas Brooke, “Language most shows a man … ? Language and Speaker in Macbeth,” in Shakespeare's Styles, eds. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980], pp. 70-71.) If the choice is a matter of personal taste and one's own impression of the play, I should say only that I find conflict in Macbeth's mind both truer to my impression and more interesting in itself. Robin Grove sees in Macbeth “a conscience caught into self-destruction: suddenly and without warning caught into a state of disbelief or self-undoing, where previous certainties are lost and nothing holds as it used to at some sticking-place” (“Multiplying Villainies of Nature,” in Brown, Focus on Macbeth, p. 120.) Slights (p. 111) argues interestingly that recognition of equivocation turns it into paradox—though, like the other critics she cites, she does not deal in particular with the liar paradox in this play.

  11. The Gap in Shakespeare (London: Vision; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981), p. 144.

  12. Freud, “Negation,” trans. Joan Rivière, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, XIX (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 235.

  13. Ure, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. J. C. Maxwell (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974), p. 45.

  14. “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth,” in Focus on Macbeth, p. 17. Slights considers that in this soliloquy Macbeth retreats from the vivid image of evil to stage villainy (pp. 115-16).

  15. The sonnet is discussed by Christopher Ricks, “Lies,” Critical Inquiry, 2 (1975), 130-31.

  16. A Rhetoric of Irony, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 240-77.

  17. “Shakespeare's Hypocrites,” Daedalus, 108 (1979), 61.

  18. Here would be a wry turn to the performative speech acts of J. L. Austin. For self-undermining and self-referential speech acts in relation to the liar paradox, see my article “The Paradox of Timon's Self-Cursing.”

  19. Vickers says that “this speech is both self-fulfilling—Macbeth will not enjoy any ‘blessed time’ from this point onwards—and literally true, since ‘grace is dead,’ and Macbeth has killed it (one of its forms is sleep, which he has also murdered)” (p. 60). I think “performative” is more accurate here than “self-fulfilling,” but the close kinship of the two ideas is instructive.

  20. The Arte of English Poesie, eds. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936), p. 191. Macbeth's rhetoric here is worth contrasting with the tightly controlled litotes of I.iv.22-27, with which Macbeth fends off Duncan's hyperbolic praise. For Duncan's hyperboles, see Harry Berger, Jr., “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH, 47 (1980), 20-22.

  21. Essays in Persuasion, p. 42.

  22. A Quiet and Sober Reckoning with M. Thomas Morton (St. Omer, 1609), p. 487.

  23. Huntley, pp. 41-42; Parsons, A Treatise Tending to Mitigation towarde Catholicke-Subiectes in England (St. Omer, 1607), p. 326.

  24. The Encounter against M. Parsons (London, 1610), Bk. II, pp. 142-43.

  25. On amphibology, see Morton, Encounter, II, 127, I, 211; Parsons, Mitigation, p. 313; and Huntley and especially Mullaney. Though the fullest discussions of these issues in the religious polemics postdate Macbeth, the combatants appeal to the conventions of classical rhetoric and to scriptural interpretations by the Church Fathers.

  26. A Preamble vnto an Incounter with P. R. [i.e., Robert Parsons] (London, 1608), p. 83. The assumption of a standard literal meaning is usual in the rhetoricians' definitions of tropes, as in Puttenham's of metaphor as “a kinde of wresting of a single word from his owne right signification, to another not so naturall, but yet of some affinitie or conueniencie with it” (p. 178).

  27. Mullaney makes a connection between mental reservation and speaker's intention, but he rightly insists that in this play equivocal language gets out of Macbeth's intended control (p. 40).

  28. Shakespearean Representation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), p. 134. Stephen Orgel has suggested in correspondence that emphasis on “born” in the second prophecy could signal a restrictive but literal reading which Macbeth does not make. Likewise, he says, “Birnam wood” in the last prediction could mean simply “wood from Birnam”—though in that case one would be reading against the syntactical matching of “wood” and “hill.” Though G. Wilson Knight glances at the role of prophecies in 2 Henry VI and Macbeth (my next point), he does not compare their equivocal natures (“Notes on Shakespeare,” The New Adelphi, 1 [1927], 71).

  29. Knight, The Imperial Theme, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1951), pp. 150-51; Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947), pp. 46-47. (Brooks's second phrase applies actually to the branches carried by Malcolm's army rather than to the apparition that foretells them.)

  30. More paradoxical, but perhaps differing in degree rather than kind, are the techniques of contemporary metafiction, which include paradoxical self-reference. See Patricia Waugh, Metafiction (London: Methuen, 1984), esp. pp. 100, 133, 141-42. Also comparable may be the “strange loops” perceived in the arts and thought of various eras by Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach (New York: Basic Books, 1979).

  31. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 217. Norman Rabkin in effect describes a double bind as of the essence of Macbeth's situation: “the regicide's lack of pleasure in his accomplishments is presented not moralistically, as a judgment on evil deeds, but as a defining fact of the deeds themselves” (Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981], p. 102).

  32. Willbern, “Shakespeare's Nothing,” in Representing Shakespeare, eds. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 257. McKellen, one-man performance and commentary on selected passages from Shakespeare, quoted from memory of televised version. Rosalie Colie discusses this speech but without reference to the liar paradox, though she considers that topic elsewhere (Paradoxia Epidemica [1966; rpt. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1976], pp. 236-37).

Michael Long (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Long, Michael. “Doers of Deeds.” In Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Macbeth, pp. 30-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Long evaluates Macbeth as an archetypal man of action and analyzes his crimes in relation to other literary depictions of primal destruction and Christian redemption.]


Shakespeare often begins a tragedy with somebody's description of the protagonist before he comes on stage. We hear of Marcius as ‘chief enemy to the people’ before he bursts in full of fury. We hear of the ‘good and gracious’ Timon before he sweeps on distributing largesse. We hear of Antony falling into ‘dotage’ and then the great lover strolls on in leisured magnificence. We hear whispers of Lear's odd shifts of favour and then he comes on in state to express his ‘darker purpose’. And we are told that Othello is a vainglorious soldier full of ‘bombast circumstance’, as well as a lascivious, black lover who has stolen a white women, before the man himself appears as if to answer these nasty charges. The simple technique creates expectation. It also tells an audience whom to watch, and why.

Macbeth's introduction comes from the wounded Sergeant in I.ii. The Sergeant is a fine, epic soldier with a bent for vivid rhetoric, and the picture he paints is memorable. He evokes the rebel Macdonwald with the ‘multiplying villanies of nature’ swarming on him like flies on a carcase surrounded by an equally swarming horde of ‘kerns and gallowglasses’ drummed up for his cause in the Western Isles, and then he describes the tremendous irruption of Macbeth into these swirls of movement, cutting his way to the centre of things to dominate them with his deeds and his presence:

                              brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining fortune, with his brandish'd steel
Which smok'd with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion, carv'd out his passage
Till he fac'd the slave;
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th' chaps,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.

(I.ii. 16-23)

This ‘bloody execution’ sounds brutal; but the epic rhetoric also makes it sound magnificent.

The Macbeth we later meet does not disappoint the expectations raised by this dramatic opening account of him. He is brutal, but he has his epic magnificence too, and one of his chief roles is to be the sort of decisive doer, intervener or irruptive agent whom the Sergeant describes. The Sergeant makes us think about violent action, but also about action in itself, as he pictures Macbeth's terrible, thrilling intervention into things and his ruthless domination of the field. This will be a play about a man who does, and about the momentous deed that he does. It will be a play about doing, and about that spectacular, frightening spirit of ‘bloody execution’.

Macbeth cannot lie passive like Duncan ‘shut up in measureless content’, nor stand like Banquo ‘in the great hand of God’, waiting patiently for the unravelling of destiny. They may live in tranquillity at the slow pace of unfolding events, as the martlets do, suspended in their airy bed where ‘the heaven's breath / Smells wooingly’, but the restless Macbeth must be up and doing. Early on he hopes that chance may crown him, ‘without my stir’, but he soon realises that it will not. He must stir, and act, and thus confront the fatality of individual deeds.

Shakespeare makes this sense of the existential fatality of action resonate powerfully in the play, and his principal method for doing so is extraordinarily simple. Macbeth activates every possible resonance of the verb ‘to do’. ‘Do’, ‘did’, ‘done’, and the cognate noun ‘deed’, are words stirred into vivid life by an imagination dwelling profoundly on the fatal business of ‘bloody execution’, or indeed any kind of execution. They carry the play's cogent exploration of what it is to be a separate, acting individual rather than an unperturbed particle of social acquiescence or of the breath of nature's quiet.

They are aided in this by another word, almost as simple, and allied both conceptually and onomatopoeically with ‘do’ and ‘deed’. This is the verb ‘to dare’, upon which the play also dwells to wonderful effect. Macbeth does. Macbeth dares to do. These simple words are made to yield every gram of their poetic and philosophical potential.


In I.iii Macbeth entertains his hope that things might happen ‘without my stir’. But in the next scene Duncan names Malcolm as his heir, Macbeth's fond hopes die, and his imagination turns to the mechanisms whereby desires become deeds. He will have to stir, to ‘o'erleap’ the obstacle in his path, and he will have to act, hidden guiltily from the lights of the natural world:

                                                                                          Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

(I.iv. 50-1)

Banquo and the king stand before him talking pleasurably and easefully. They are still in the old, quiet world, but Macbeth has moved to another realm. This is the start of his career as an existential agent, and the start of the formidable poetic career of the verb ‘to do’:

                                                                                                                                            let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

(I.iv. 52-3)

In the next scene, when his wife receives his letter and the witches' poison starts to course through her veins, the keywords sound again in juggling conjuration:

Thou'dst have, great Glamis, that which cries
‘Thus thou must do’ if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone.

(I.v. 19-22)

Lady Macbeth conceives of herself as a natural doer, made for ‘business’ and ‘dispatch’, but we shall see how the stresses of the interventionist role will be too much for her. Macbeth's greater trepidation is well placed. It is more appropriate to the terrors attendant upon the business of doing, and to the explosive powers which lie within these fascinating words.

In the last scene of Act I the keywords come thick and fast. Macbeth wrestles with his fears and desires, and the keywords flicker hypnotically before his captivated eyes:

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

(I.vii. 1-2)

They draw him on with the idea of decisive, ‘be-all and end-all’ action. Then comes a counter-movement, equally strong, where he remembers the great taboos which speak ‘against the deed’ and shrinks in anticipation of the outrage which will be felt when ‘the horrid deed’ is revealed.

Then his wife chides him for his doubter's sense of ‘I dare not’, and he seizes on that word too and squeezes it tightly:

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

(I.vii. 46-7)

The word ‘man’ has joined the wrestling knot of words, and Lady Macbeth keeps it there to shame him into action:

When you durst do it, then you were a man.

(I.vii. 49)

By the end of the scene Macbeth is resolved, and a dark, subdued hymn to doing sounds beneath the couple's dialogue. Lady Macbeth talks horribly of an outrageous licence to do what one will:

What cannot you and I perform upon
Th' unguarded Duncan?

(I.vii. 69-70)

Macbeth hits on the clever idea of incriminating the grooms so that people will think ‘they have don't’, and Lady Macbeth chimes excitedly back that there will be none who ‘dares receive it other’. They chant together, work up their courage, and bring Macbeth to readiness for ‘this terrible feat’.


As Act II opens, the incantations stop while Banquo evokes the magically profound ‘pleasure’ and ‘content’ of Duncan's soul, but after this beautiful linguistic interlude the phantom dagger appears. It lures on the ‘heat-oppressed brain’ of Macbeth, rekindles ‘the heat of deeds’ and renews the fatal drive to action: ‘I go, and it is done.’

In II.ii the awesome words are whispered in terror in the dark. Lady Macbeth fears the attempt has been bungled (‘'tis not done’), and dwells on the awful irony whereby they might be confounded not by doing ‘the deed’ but by failing to do it. She too is now more alert to the scale of what is involved, increasing the weight on the key verb by using it in another momentous context:

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

(II.ii. 12-13)

By the time the crime is accomplished, the collocation of verb and noun is enough to sound the depths of irrevocability: ‘I have done the deed.’

The now appalling noun ‘deed(s)’ shudders in their minds three more times in the scene (‘these deeds’, ‘this deed’, ‘my deed’); and in the midst of them Macbeth finds another memorable collocation, linking doing with daring in an expression of the utmost horror:

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

(II.ii. 51-2)

Such simple words will never be simple again.

After this great scene Shakespeare lets the words go for a while, before bringing them back to close the act. In II.iv, with the Old Man's talk of ‘the deed that's done’, Ross's reference to ‘this more than bloody deed’ and Macduff's mention simply of ‘the deed’, we hear uneasy speakers probe the keywords suspiciously. They keep what has happened at arm's length by referring to it darkly as ‘the deed’, as if they wanted to keep their eyes averted from some abomination or their persons out of striking distance of it.

The atmosphere of their talk makes Macbeth's deed of destruction seem like the deed of Adam and Eve. All nature has fallen into darkness and savagery as a result of it. Macduff already knows that Ross will not see things ‘well done’ at Macbeth's coronation. From such catastrophe recovery cannot be so quick, for Macbeth has made ‘a breach in nature’ with his tremendous intervention into the settled state of things, and these three are now living amidst the ‘ruin’ which, as in Eden, gained its ‘wasteful entrance’ when that breach was made.


But deeds lead to deeds and in Act III the words return, with the Second Murderer ‘reckless what I do’ and Macbeth determined that his new deed, the killing of Banquo, ‘must be done tonight’. In III.ii Lady Macbeth tries to kill the words off with the finality of her statement that ‘what's done is done’, but it will be a long time yet before the terrible energy of these words has run down. Macbeth, better apprised than his wife of the enormity of what they have unloosed, promises to keep up with the race of things:

                                                                      there shall be done
A deed of dreadful note,

(III.ii. 43-4)

while his bewildered wife asks him ‘what's to be done?’; but he, as if sensing her inability to stay the course on which they are now set, decides to keep his doings to himself:

Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.

(III.ii. 45-6)

There is now a hardening in Macbeth. The fateful words no longer frighten him so much. He begins to use them with perceptible relish, sensing their menace and less awed than he was. That ‘dearest chuck’ is gross and sinister in a way that is new; and also new are some tellingly banal uses of the keywords in the next two scenes. In III.iii the murderers banalise the words with shop-talk about ‘what we have to do’ and the report they will deliver on ‘how much is done’, and in III.iv there is a thuggery in their professional talk of cutting throats (‘that I did for him’). Macbeth seems to catch this thuggish note from them like a contagion, hoping that they not only cut Banquo's throat but also ‘did the like’ for Fleance, and calling one of them a ‘nonpareil’ among men ‘if thou didst it’. At some level he seems to be enjoying this new brashness, as if it were man's talk for which his ‘dearest chuck’ is unfitted.

But he loses his swagger when the ghost appears to shake his ‘gory locks’ at him. The keywords are now used to cry helplessly ‘which of you have done this?’ and to disavow the role of agent altogether: ‘thou can'st not say I did it.’ To fight back this terror he will need the talismanic verb ‘to dare’. He will need to claim that he

                                                                                dare look on that
Which might appal the devil

(III.iv. 58-9)

and to face down the charge of cowardice with cries of ‘what man dare, I dare’ and ‘dare me to the desert’. These are cries that come swirling out of a mind in panic, until at last he regains some shreds of composure, enabling him to return to things that ‘must be acted’, and to the accent of menace: ‘we are yet but young in deed’.


To make himself less ‘young in deed’ in Act IV he returns to the witches, who were the original inspiration for the impluse to do. As he sets foot in their den he cries out with the verb: ‘what is't you do?’, and they chant back the noun as if in ritual response: ‘a deed without a name’.

While Duncan's court lived at the pace of acquiescence and unassertiveness, this den is the holy place of a religion of deeds. It is where Macbeth goes for inspiration when his heart ‘throbs to know’ and when, unable to wait upon the quiet rhythms of nature's evolutions, he is prepared to see

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

(IV.i. 58-60)

to satisfy his restless desire. He gets his inspiration. He emerges from the ordeal nerved again, resolved to kill for a third time and with the keywords on his lips:

The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it …

(IV.i. 145-6)

                                                                                                              And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done …

(IV.i. 148-9)

                                                            No boasting like a fool:
This deed I'll do.

(IV.i. 153-4)


The deed he does is the killing of Macduff's wife and children, and after it Shakespeare leaves the idea of doing alone, as if, after such an outrage, it could now have no further moral or poetic content. The remainder of Macbeth's life is led in Act V within the fortress of Dunsinane, where, incapable of any more doing, he paces out the long, halting soliloquy of his despair, interspersed with outbursts of rage against puny people like servants, unwilling followers, a messenger and ‘the boy Malcolm’. It is the nadir of the great doer, hemmed in and frustrated in every desire.

Here, as his way of life falls into the sere, there is no further activation of ‘do’ and ‘deed’, and the idea of daring takes on a desperate, last-ditch quality. He is tied to the stake, with only growls of defiance as evidence of his former courage and nerve. We have seen enough of deeds and doers. Doing has turned out merely to be butchery and the compelling rhythms of the keywords have run down.

As the rhythms of doing fade, a different rhythm, not felt since Duncan was alive, brings time round in its cycle again to make the autumnal Macbeth ‘ripe for shaking’. His fall does not feel like an act performed by men, attributable to human agency. It happens when the time is ripe, in accordance with some internal logic in events which is not subject to will and intervention. We wait until the long night of his deed-filled tyranny at last ‘finds the day’ and then we find the fortified castle being ‘gently rendered’ to beautifully unurgent men.

In harmony with the ease and gentleness of that phrase come two magnificent usages of the keywords which help slow the play to a less cruel pace. The first comes from Macduff, who has no quarrel with anybody except Macbeth and who, rather than fight against men innocently embroiled in the tyrant's career, would prefer to leave his sword ‘undeeded’. The second comes from Old Siward, inviting Malcolm simply to walk into the castle of Dunsinane, crossing its threshold effortlessly since, miraculously, ‘little is to do’. The tenor of these phrases is relievingly unassertive, as if what were occurring involved no more than acquiescence in the eternal cycles of things.

The human world comes back into contact with an inner, pre-conscious rhythm. Green branches bring the forest's silence and fertility back into human society and the young king promises that ‘what's more to do’ will, as if in response to the forest's presence, be ‘planted newly with the time’. Things will be done according to the old, quiet rhythm of things, ‘in measure, time, and place’, with no doing, daring, ‘bloody execution’ or ‘dispatch’ disrupting the free-flowing ‘grace of Grace’. We have not heard such sustained sounds of leisure and peace since Duncan was alive, or since Macbeth started to conjure the turbulent life out of dangerous words, or since the witches wound up the infernal plot with that frantic cry which has proved to be so laden with import:

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



In one realm Macbeth, deploying these keywords, shows us a great, criminal deed and then a chain of consequential deeds, each as horrible as the last and all leading to destruction. To that extent it contains a simple but extremely powerful moral vision according to which Macbeth is a damned and self-damned creature, ‘black Macbeth’ as Malcolm calls him, the ‘butcher’ with a ‘fiendlike queen’ at whose fall, in Johnson's words, ‘every reader rejoices’.

But there is another realm to the play, and another effect produced by its concentration on doing and daring. In this realm the keywords make us think not of these particular deeds but of deeds and doing in general, and here there is something about Macbeth which is beyond the range of the judgmental certitude expressed alike by Malcolm and Dr Johnson. In this metaphysically complex part of the play there is something fatal, doomed, but heroic about Macbeth, and something which makes him not the disruptive outsider of whom the world is well rid but the representative outsider, the outsider such as we all are, the archetypal representative of the fact that, as conscious, acting individuals, not trees of the forest, we cannot simply stand ‘in the hand of the great God’ but are fated to be involved in deeds.

In this respect the play echoes the Christian myth of the Fall. Macbeth and his wife re-enact the deed of Adam and his wife, and they also embody some aspects of Satan. There is a sacred play in Macbeth, dealing with the primal fact of doing and the primal offence of being a doer. But, as is often the way with attempts to tell the Christian story of the Fall, the apparent moral does not entirely survive the story's telling. The images of the story are apt to speak for themselves, and not always to the same effect as the moral, so that tales of Satan, Adam and Eve in revolt against God tend to be knotty. We are apt to see inalienable aspects of ourselves in these original sinners, and their fate represents to us tragic things about an imperfect world rather than simple, revelatory things about disobedience. We take to some extent the criminals' part, so that Malcolm's simple words are not quite enough to sum up what we feel about their careers.

In this sacred play of the primordial crime the hero's deeds are not only criminal. The doer, with his interventionist audacity, is a much more widely representative man, gifted and cursed with the human attributes of agency and consciousness. He has courage, individual consciousness, and will-power, and in his inability to acquiesce patiently in the primal order of things we sense a strong, restless energy which is compelling. He is still a terrifying criminal who spreads death and destruction about him. But there are aspects of his being to which we respond because, for better or for worse, they seem intrinsic to the business of being human. In the disturbing, tragic figure of the primordial criminal there is something which draws our empathy, something which Wilbur Sanders, in his powerful, Nietzschean reading of the play, calls a ‘compelling energy of defiance’. This elevates him above butchery, and takes him metaphysically out of range of simple verdicts.


This is why Milton's Satan, creator of the first breach in the Christian cosmos, owes so much to Macbeth. Milton once considered tackling Macbeth as a dramatic subject, and in a sense he did tackle it when he created the Satan of Paradise Lost. For Milton's Satan shares with Macbeth the paradoxical mixture of criminality and greatness, and this mixture makes them complex and difficult in similar ways. They both exhibit heroic nerve and unnerved despair. They both seem full of power and, almost at the same time, quite powerless. They can seem huge and menacing or pitifully puny. Sometimes they seem noble, sometimes contemptible.

As we read Paradise Lost we are often reminded of Macbeth and, as with Shakespeare's hero, we are often drawn in sympathy to Satan's side as he fights his doomed, ridiculous, magnificent battles with God. Both heroes arouse the same contradictory feelings about a destructive criminality which none the less compels some sort of admiration, and both arouse, very strongly, the same kind of pity. Macbeth looks at himself and his derelict life and decides that honour, love and friendship are things ‘I must not look to have’, while Satan looks at Eden or the unfallen Eve and, in the great soliloquies of his misery, thinks of everything he has lost and everything he has become:

                                                  Ay me, they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vain,
Under what torments inwardly I groan;
While they adore me on the throne of hell,
With diadem and sceptre high advanced
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery.

(Paradise Lost, IV 86-92)

The notes struck are very similar and the intense sympathy called up by each character is not to be denied. It tells us how far the living stories and characters take us from any simple judgement.

Milton is not, in Blake's words, ‘of the Devil's party without knowing it’, but he is notoriously restless with his myth, and the restlessness is creative. The author of Macbeth cannot be called restless, for the drama is of such limpidity that one cannot imagine a critic thinking its creator was of any party ‘without knowing it’. But the complexities and tensions in Macbeth do none the less serve to draw the play away from its powerful status as an account of evil and destruction and towards the concerns of a different, later world, less Christian and less assured, where, in a different metaphysic, the doing of deeds is fascinatingly problematic. Macbeth has its Christian, traditional and even archaic side, but within its traditional frame and alongside its traditional content, there also lie other intuitions, modern and intractable, which give it life as a forward-looking rather than a backward-looking text. Alongside the radiant, Christian assurance and optimism of the play, there are endlessly dark, pessimistic intuitions of the criminal but heroic nature of all human doing or agency; and in the world of Romanticism, which this part of Macbeth foreshadows, fully foregrounded contemplation of the heroic criminal became one of the mainstays of tragic thought.


A brief, introductory book like this should perhaps not digress too far into the difficult, speculative and slightly remote contexts of later art which contemplation of Macbeth none the less calls up to a modern reader; but a work of literature so immense in import cannot but stretch the mind that tries to comprehend it, so that forays and excursions beyond the boundaries of the play itself are sponsored by it, just as legitimately as close, exclusive scrutiny of its own details. Such forays into later art might set one thinking about Macbeth in relation to figures like Prometheus and Faust, by whose audacity as doers of deeds Romantic artists were repeatedly fascinated. They might set one thinking about him in relation to Melville's Captain Ahab, in Moby-Dick, whose black, destructive rage against a natural world he cannot subdue is as compelling as it is horrible and as daring as it is pointless. They might set one thinking about Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, as doomed by a single deed of murder as Macbeth, as criminally embroiled in violations of the inviolable, and as obscurely magnificent in his journey to the abysses of nowhere, where even the all-present God of Coleridge's Christianity is blasphemously absent.

In this later world, the greatest drama is not however to be found in Faust plays or Prometheus plays. The great drama of the world towards which Macbeth's modern subtexts draw us is the music drama. Even in comedy, such music drama, in the shape of Mozart's Don Giovanni, gave life to a figure whose compellingly unconditional energy, self-sponsored and unratifiable by any imaginable human morality, leagues him with the violators and extremists of what is normally a tragic vision; but for the greatest tragic exploration of audacious, criminal and wanton violation, committed at the extreme edge of the possible, we must turn to Wagner, to find, in The Ring of the Nibelung, primordial offences against the sacred quiet of the world which relate fascinatingly to the ‘deed’ of Macbeth that put ‘a breach in nature’.

There are two breakers of the primal quiet in The Ring. The first is Wotan who, as the Norns narrate in the Prelude to the last of the cycle's four operas, Götterdämmerung, set going the long chain of fatal deeds and offences with which The Ring is concerned. In the quiet of the primeval earth he stood out as ‘ein kühner Gott’, ‘a bold god’, and in his temerity he was ready to pay the required price of mutilation of his physical-spiritual self in order to get the power for which he lusted. He was ready to sacrifice one of his eyes, savaging himself as he savaged nature by tearing a branch from the great ash tree and leaving the sources of life to wither.

The second bold disrupter is Alberich. In a kind of reenactment of Wotan's original deed, further down the line of pollution in the dramatic present of The Ring rather than its narrated past, Alberich too acts boldly: ‘Alberich zauderte nicht’, ‘Alberich did not hesitate’. He too is ready to pay in a different kind of self-mutilation, by forswearing love, and he too savages nature by tearing the gold from the rocks of the Rhine and plunging its waters into darkness.

They are both, like Macbeth, bold doers and interveners. They are immensely powerful in will, doggedly resourceful in pursuit of their aims, and capable of sustaining the resulting loneliness. Wotan may be the Alberich of light, ‘Licht-Alberich’, whose despotism is more or less benevolent and who believes in law, while Alberich is the Alberich of blackness, ‘Schwarz-Alberich’, who is utterly malevolent and who believes in slave-driving and humiliation. There is an opposition between ‘Schwarz’ and ‘Licht’; but both text and music stress the parallels and connections between the two as well as the combat, and thus concentrate attention on the similarities of all beings, of whatever kind and colour, who disrupt the quiet.

Wotan and Alberich, like Macbeth, tear something from the primeval fabric of things and cut into its wholeness. They seek power in separation of themselves from what Wagner wonderfully evokes in the music of the forest and the spring, the music of unpolluted water and streaming light, the music of the vast, effortless, radiant quiet which precedes the interventions of his two fatal Alberichs. In the beginning was not the Word. In the beginning was the forest, with the great ash tree in it, and the Rhine flowing through it lit with gold. These things were then desecrated and polluted by the doers, caused to wither and darken as the lonely quest for power began. The Ring follows the consequences of that quest down the weary but grandiose logic of its unfolding. It contains a great vision of light; and then it contains another, terrible vision of the light seized, and then bent and compacted into the fatal ring of gold while the rest of the world falls into darkness.

That Wotan's mutilation of himself involves the loss of an eye is deeply symbolic, for the brightness of the eye is central to The Ring's evocation of the radiant world of light while the loss of the eye's brightness is a key image of the world's darkening. The Ring is about the loss of the light, and through it runs an imagery of eyes that shine and then darken, linking verbally all the great light passages in Wagner's music.

Wagner's sunlit world of bright rivers, forests and eyes is akin to Macbeth's innocent world of the martlets, the ‘delicate’ air and the green boughs of Birnam wood. The darkness into which it declines is akin to the murk and perversion of Macbeth's ‘fog and filthy air’. His profound, sombre vision of how the human mind and will ineluctably wound and pollute the world is in close congruence with that part of Macbeth which probes the keywords of ‘do’ ‘deed’ and ‘dare’ in its exploration of the nature of human agency. In both works the primal crime is the interventionist deed of a great and reckless creature. In The Ring that deed puts out all sorts of beautiful lights. In Macbeth it palls things in ‘the dunnest smoke of hell’. In both works it is a matter of stabbing at the beautiful, intricate pattern of things and making thereby ‘a breach in nature’.

In Wagner's operas, the primal crime is, as primal crimes are apt to be, of irreversible consequence, for Götterdämmerung, the last of the operas, does not sound like a work in which the world is saved. The Ring is thus sombre in the extreme, charting the irreversible logic of pollution, the unavailing efforts of Wotan to devise a means of recovery and the heart-breaking failure of Siegfried in the impossible task of redeemer assigned to him by the reckless god.

There is an equal sombreness in Macbeth, and an equal, tragic weight in its exploration of the fatality of deeds. It may end in the light, as The Ring does not; but while its closing light is radiant and the redemption it brings unforced and believable, our memory of the play includes the dark, uncancelled. In so far as it does, we derive from the play, or from a powerful subtext of it, something like the Wagnerian sense of an irremediable tragedy in the very fabric of things caused by the fact that deeds are endemic to the business of being alive and conscious, and yet at the same time are ruinous in their effects.


But if Macbeth's subtext prefigures a later world in this way, its main text is still traditional and Christian. ‘Romantic’ element is there, but tracing it involves comparing foregrounded, visible themes from the later works with material from, so to say, the hinterlands and substrata of Macbeth. Macbeth is, like Wotan, the bold creature who commits the primal crime, but unlike Wotan he is also a treacherous ‘butcher’, ugly and black-hearted where Wotan is always capable of creating beauty and splendour, even in the midst of his ignominy and his reckless selfishness. To pursue such a comparison for too long would thus distort and glamorise a character who, back in Shakespeare's own world, tends much more to be regarded without glamour as a traitor and killer.

Shakespeare's world is, as ever, poised on the threshold between the medieval and the modern, and it is time, after this first excursus, to come back to the play's older, traditional side. In many ways this is one of the most conservative of Shakespeare's plays. Its sacred aspects, and particularly its sacred conception of kingship, give it an ancient, tribal quality, with long roots reaching far back into medieval tradition. We must examine these roots to restore the balance between ancient and modern which the play maintains.

Contrary to widespread belief, Shakespeare is normally sceptical about sacred kingship, and the naïve side of Macbeth which reveres it is a rarity, if not unique, in his work. In the history plays, Richard II and Henry VI are the two kings most apt to claim divine sanction, but it does them little good. The plays in which they appear are more worldly and less innocent than Macbeth. The real problematics of power are to the fore and no symbolic faith in sacred sanctions and taboos is enough to make anyone look or sound like a king, let alone make the kingdom work.

Richard aspires to be regarded as a sacred object, the ‘anointed king’, with his ‘anointed body’; but while Duncan's subjects are sure that their king's body is ‘the Lord's anointed temple’, so that plunging a dagger into it is sacrilege as well as murder, Richard does not enjoy such unproblematic faith. He lives in a tough world of real politics where Bolingbroke, the secular, hard-headed usurper, is not so much a violator of the sacred as a potent, alternative image of what real power consists in, and the play looks calmly at him, biding its time as to what judgement might be made about the fascinating intrusion of the secular into sacred politics. In the unproblematic, naïve world of Macbeth, Duncan is never subjected to the mining doubts about the king's anointed body which are constantly present in Richard II.

Henry VI is a much finer and more profoundly religious man than the self-regarding Richard. He is gentle, innocent and pious, the ‘holy Harry’ of popular tradition, moved to tears by the sufferings of his subjects, while Richard is more taken by the sunset spectacle of his own misfortunes. But that, alas, does not underwrite holy Harry as king; indeed rather the opposite, for such otherworldliness makes him a liability as monarch, and peculiarly inept as a warrior-monarch in time of war. At his best he sounds almost like an early Hamlet, burdened with tormenting insights which more efficient men are spared, and through him Shakespeare begins to explore the Hamlet-like intuition that the real world is endemically inhospitable to men of profoundly reflective consciousness.

But Macbeth is different. It alone is not concerned with the problematics of real power. It alone defers to the sacred-royal imagery and sets upon the stage a living example of the divinity of kingship without subjecting him to sceptical analysis. ‘The royal play of Macbeth’, as H.N. Paul's study calls it, chooses to eschew Shakespeare's normal ironies about the anointed king. It remakes the old fiction and gives unique life to its traditional images. It asks no tormenting questions about the pragmatic efficacy of such a king but uses him instead as a symbol, an inalienable centre of solidarities and loyalties so basic that no questions or problematics arise. Murdering him is like striking at one of the elements of life itself. It is like murdering sleep, chief nourisher at life's feast.

No other Shakespearian king has this sort of status, more like a Prince of God than a leader of men. King Lear, as usual, shares something of this Macbeth quality; but, again as usual, it mingles it with other things and thus complicates what in Macbeth is simple. There is a moment in King Lear when the loyal, traditionally-minded Gloucester is horrified to think that Goneril will ‘rash boarish fangs’ in Lear's ‘anointed flesh’. It is a very Macbeth-like image, with the same sense of sacrilegious savagery as attaches to the ‘gash'd stabs’ in Duncan's body. But even in King Lear the image of the king as divine is far less fundamental than it is in Macbeth, and plenty of problematic questions are asked about the highly fallible individual who is by no means always given sacred overtones.

Macbeth alone guards its naïvety, its visionary simplicity and its radiant perception of a noble, heightened world, utterly distinct from the blackness which Macbeth's crime brings. One fumbles for words, but there is something of what Nietzsche called the ‘Apollonian’ about it, with a constant breath of the eternal in its images of nature, order and pleasure.

In this sense Macbeth is the least modern of all Shakespeare's political plays. Far from sending us forward to Wotan, Alberich, Prometheus, Faust or Giovanni, where a later world gave so much of its imagination to the solitary disrupter, it sends us back to an earlier art and an earlier world, where one of the literatures of the Christian Middle Ages regarded solitary disrupters as criminal deviants and gave its imagination almost exclusively to the settled world they betrayed. There is another, ancient side to Macbeth which relates closely to the primitive epic of the chanson de gestes, the ‘song of deeds’, that wonderfully naïve, epic literature of kingship and soldiering which knows nothing of problematics or irony and gives heart-whole commitment to bravery, loyalty, and Christian orthodoxy, all embodied in bright pictures of men who are the warriors of God and his King.

In many ways Duncan's nearest literary relative is the emperor Charlemagne from The Song of Roland, which was written down in twelfth-century France but dates from much earlier. The hieratic, venerable Charlemagne, white-bearded (‘blanche ad la barbe’) and hoary-headed (‘tut flurit le chef’), is Duncan to the life. He is the symbol of all Christendom, and hence, as far as his poet is concerned, of all that is true, beautiful and humane. His warriors serve him, as Banquo and Macbeth serve Duncan in the early scenes of Macbeth, with unquestioning, high-hearted valour. Their world is without hesitation, their poetry without shadows. Bright, tapestry colours sing the deeds of a king and his small, mobile court of warriors. All are untroubled by doubt, as ready as the unpolluted Macbeth to ‘unseam’ a battle opponent ‘from the nave to th' chaps’ and guaranteed like him to be called ‘valiant cousin’ and ‘worthy gentleman’ for so doing.

In literature like this the verse gives its heart entirely to the collective, with their solidarity and loyalty in defence of Christianity and ‘la douz France’. The poetry gives itself without doubt or irony to those who live loyally ‘in the hand of the great God’, and traitors to this world merit no regard at all. Ganelon, the poem's Macbeth-like criminal, is simply the black antitype to the fineness of Charlemagne's court. Little time is wasted exploring his possible motives, or the psychology of his treachery. He is just ‘Ganelon, who committed treason’, ‘Guenelun, ki traisun ad faite’.

The part of Macbeth which is painted in the earlier scenes, when Duncan is alive, has this bedrock sense of loyalty to tribe, brought to life in the poetry of grace and decorum which surrounds the king, and in the unsophisticated, drums-and-trumpets magnanimity of the wounded Sergeant's epic verse. So has the play's ending, when simple, uncomplicatedly loyal men like the Siwards fight with the aid of ‘the powers above’. To this part of the play the tragic hero is simply ‘devilish Macbeth’, and when his bleeding head is brought in against a background of green boughs we witness a scene similar to that at the end of The Song of Roland, where the blood of Ganelon is splashed on the green grass, ‘sur l'erbe verte … espant’, as the infamous renegade, the ‘fel recreant’, is torn to pieces by Charlemagne's horses.

This part of Macbeth is primitive, assured, and unshadowed. Its tenor could hardly be more remote from those elements in the play which, giving their exploratory, problematic regard to the great solitary rather than the group, send us forward to the lonely sinners of Romantic mythology. Not favourably inclined towards the mighty damned of Romantic tragedy and having no truck with the likes of Mozart's glamorous and brilliant nuisance, it brings the straying modernist to heel by celebrating the ordinary daylight with flawless conviction. This is the rugged, epic part of the play, stronger here than anywhere else in Shakespearian drama, and much stronger than anywhere else in the tragedies. It takes unqualified pleasure in the restoration of things to ‘measure, time, and place’.


But the truly astonishing thing about Macbeth is that both parts of it exist and hang perfectly together, making many long centuries seem to turn on it as on a hinge. It embodies a vision of destruction on the Wagnerian scale and engages a sense of the fatality of deeds which need concede nothing to the great pessimists of the nineteenth century. It gives profound attention to the doomed, the destructive and the solitary, and with that attention goes an emotional regard which is fully aware of their status and greatness. It thus gives the world a hero such as Melville might have tracked to hell, Coleridge followed to the extremities of death in life, or Wagner pursued down the relentless logic of his and his world's undoing.

Yet at the same time it does not break faith with the Duncan simplicities, ending with the beautiful, unforced optimism of its daylight recovery. After all that blackness and blood, all that unstinted engagement with vain striving and doomed heroism, it finds at the end a nearly miraculous sense of liberation and renewal, created with an unemphatic elegance and lightness all its own.

Perhaps only Mozart's Don Giovanni has so capacious a double regard, both for the extraordinary solitary who flouts the world and for the more ordinary, flouted people who must live with him and endure his violating presence. Don Giovanni is in some ways like Macbeth's comic twin, the supreme comedy of the night's disruptive mischief to match Macbeth's tragedy of its horrors. The two works tell of a passage through the night, the one brilliantly comic for all that a tragic shadow stalks its story at every turn, the other a horrifying tragedy whose story none the less follows the festive-comic pattern of eventual release into the daylight; and the wonderful thing about them both is the apparent effortlessness with which they achieve this balance.

As far as Macbeth is concerned, this effortless balance has everything to do with its double allegiance. It belongs equally to an ancient, secure, sacred world and to a modern, problematic one. Its wide embrace is thus given to something very much like the sombre pessimism of the Romantics; and then it turns back to its old, sacred traditions, lifted out of the dark by the Christian-sacred imagery of redemption and, even more, by a pagan-sacred vision of the woods' eternal re-greening.

Maynard Mack (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Mack, Maynard. “The Many Faces of Macbeth.” In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, pp. 183-96. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Mack examines many of the central thematic concerns of Macbeth, including usurpation, witchcraft, pride, crime, the blurring of the real and unreal, the collapse of community, and final judgment.]


After Lear, Macbeth seems at first glance a simple play. Seen in one light, it simply tells the brutal story of a Scottish usurper whom Shakespeare had read about in one of his favorite source-books, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Holinshed's Macbeth is an arresting figure, not so much because of his murderous career, which seems to have been only a little in excess of the habits of his time, as because he is said during his first ten years of rule to have “set his whole intention to mainteine justice,” and during his last seven years to have begun to “shew what he was, instead of equitie practising crueltie.”

Shakespeare, though no historian, knew that no man wears a mask of virtue for ten years, only to reveal that he was “really” a butcher all along. This oddity in Holinshed's conception may have challenged him to speculations that ended in a conception of his own: that of an heroic and essentially noble human being who, by visible stages, deteriorates into a butcher. The great crimes of literature, it has been well said, are mostly committed by persons who would ordinarily be thought incapable of performing them like Othello, like Brutus in Julius Caesar, like Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The hero that Shakespeare draws in Macbeth is no exception. At the beginning of the play, even the thought of murder stands his hair on end, makes his heart knock at his ribs (1.3.135). By the end, he is too numb to care. His wife's death scarcely stirs him, and the wild cry of her women in their grief only reminds him of what he can no longer feel:

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



Coming at the play from another angle, we realize that its medieval story of the rise and fall of a usurper has been colored by, and also in some sense mirrors, a number of contemporary interests and events. In 1605, for instance, just a year before the probable date of the play's composition and first performance, came the revelation of the Gunpowder Plot, a plan to blow up King, Lords, and Commons in Parliament as they convened for the new session of that year on the fifth of November. The plot was made known through an anonymous letter only ten days before the intended massacre, and the climate of shock and suspicion that prevailed throughout England, especially London, immediately thereafter has almost certainly left its mark in the play's haunted atmosphere of blood, darkness, stealth, treachery, and in the vividness with which it communicates the feeling that a whole community based on loyalty and trust has been thrown into terror by mysterious agencies (both unnatural and natural) working through it like a black yeast. Several of the conspirators were from Warwick, Shakespeare's own county, and may have been known to him. If so, there was no doubt personal as well as dramatic relevance in such observations of the play as Duncan's “There's no art To find the mind's construction in the face” (1.4.12), or Macbeth's “False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.82). At the very least, such statements, however they were meant by their author, would have held an exceptional charge of meaning for the play's first audiences in 1606.

Witchcraft, too, is among the contemporary interests that the play draws into its murderous web. Witchcraft was a live issue at all times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it loomed especially large in the public mind after the Scottish James I came to power, following the great Elizabeth, in 1603. James considered himself an authority on witches, had published a book on demonology in 1599 affirming their existence and their baleful influence in human affairs, and, in 1604, a year after his accession to the throne, inaugurated new statutes against them. Thus, the whole topic was accentuated at just about the time of the writing of the play.

Except in one phrase (1.3.6) and in the stage directions, the play always refers to the witches as weyard—or weyward—sisters. Both spellings are variations of weird, which in Shakespeare's time did not mean “freakish,” but “fateful”—having to do with the determination of destinies. Shakespeare had met with such creatures in Holinshed, who regularly refers to the supernatural agents with whom Macbeth has dealings as “the three sisters,” or “the three weird sisters,” i.e., the three Fates. The witches in the play, however, are by no means so unambiguously defined. They have considerable power of insight and suggestion, we gather, but they do not determine a man's will, and Macbeth never blames them for influencing what he has done, only for tricking him into a false security. They are presented to us, moreover, in a climate of suggestion that is fully as demeaning as it is aggrandizing. If they belong with one part of their nature to an extra-human world of thunder, lightning, rain, and demonic powers (1.1), and, as Banquo says, “look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth” (1.3.41), they have nevertheless some of the attributes of defeminized old women; their familiar demons assume shapes no more terrible than those of cat and toad; and the actions with which they identify themselves—killing swine, wheedling chestnuts, and persecuting the “rump-fed ronyon's” (1.3.6) sea-going husband—show a pettishness and spite that seem perhaps more human than diabolical.

On the other hand, the weyard sisters are obviously more impressive than the ordinary garden variety of seventeenth-century witch, the village crone or hallucinated girl, and their collusion with such dire agents as Lady Macbeth calls upon (1.5.45) and Macbeth invokes (4.1.50) seems unmistakable. The obscurity with which Shakespeare envelops their nature and powers is very probably deliberate, since he seems to intend them to body forth, in a physical presence on stage, precisely the mystery, the ambiguity, the question mark (psychological as well as metaphysical) that lies at the root of human wrong-doing, which is always both local and explicable, universal and inexplicable, like these very figures. In their relations with Macbeth, they are obviously objective “real” beings with whom he talks. Yet they are also in some sense representative of potentialities within him and within the scheme of things of which he is a part.

What is emphatically to be noticed is that the weyard sisters do not suggest Duncan's murder; they simply make a prediction, and Macbeth himself takes the matter from there. The prediction they make, moreover, is entirely congenial to the situation, requires no special insight. Having made himself in this last battle more than ever the great warrior-hero of the kingdom and its chief defender, what more natural than that the ambitious man should be moved in the flush of victory to look ahead, hope, imagine? Hence, while recognizing the objectivity of the sisters as diabolical agents, we may also look on them as representing the potentialities for evil that lurk in every success, agents of a nemesis that seems to attend always on the more extreme dilations of the human ego.

Besides the lore of witchcraft, in which he was intensely interested, and the great Plot which threatened to destroy him together with his Parliament, James's own tenure of the English throne seems to be celebrated, at least obliquely, in Shakespeare's play. His family, the Stuarts, claimed descent from Banquo, and it is perhaps on this account that Shakespeare departs from Holinshed, in whose narrative Banquo is Macbeth's accomplice in the assassination of Duncan, to insist on his “royalty of nature” and the “dauntless temper of his mind” (3.1.50). Many critics see a notable compliment to James in the dumb show of kings descending from Banquo (“What, will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom?” (4.1.117) which so appalls Macbeth at the cave of the weyard sisters. Some commentators, influenced by its Scottish background and its use of a story involving one of James's reputed ancestors, go so far as to suppose that the play was actually composed for a royal occasion and conceivably by royal command. What is certain, in any case, is that the playwright has effectively transformed a remote and primitive story—which at first looks simple—into a theatrical event tense with contemporary relevance. The almost routine assassination of a weak, good-natured king in Holinshed becomes, in Shakespeare's hands, a sensitive and terrifying exposition of the abyss a man may open in himself and in the entire sum of things by a naked act of self-will.


This brings us to the third face of Macbeth, its character as parable, as myth. For all its medieval plot and its framework of Jacobean feeling, the play has a universal theme: the consuming nature of pride, the rebellion it incites to, the destruction it brings. In some ways Shakespeare's story resembles the story of the Fall of Satan. Macbeth has imperial longings, as Satan has; he is started on the road to revolt partly by the circumstance that another is placed above him; he attempts to bend the universe to his will, warring against all the bonds that relate men to each other—reverence, loyalty, obedience, truth, justice, mercy, and love. But again, as in Satan's case, to no avail. The principles his actions violate prove in the event stronger than he, knit up the wounds he has made in them, and combine to plunge him into an isolation, or alienation, that reveals itself (not only in social and political but in psychological terms) to be a kind of Hell. As Milton's Satan was to put it later in Paradise Lost: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”

In other ways, the story Shakespeare tells may remind us of the folktale of which Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is one version: a man sells his soul to the Devil in return for superhuman powers only to find in the end that his gains are illusory, his losses unbearable. It is true, of course, that Shakespeare's hero is attracted by the Scottish throne, not by magic or by power in general; and it is likewise true that he signs no formal contract like his predecessor. Still, the resemblances remain. Macbeth does open his mind to diabolical promptings:

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?


He imagines himself, moreover, to have received immunities of a superhuman sort:

I will not be afraid of death and bane
Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane.


But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,
Brandished by man that's of a woman born.


And he finds in the end, like Faustus, that his gains amount to nothing:

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


The very immunities he thought had been guaranteed him prove deceptive, for Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane after all, and so does an antagonist not born of woman in the usual sense. In the end, Macbeth knows that what he had begun to fear after Duncan's murder, in the course of meditating Banquo's, is true: he has given his soul to the Devil to make the descendants of Banquo, not his own descendants, kings. All his plans have become instrumental to a larger plan that is not his:

They hailed him father to a line of kings.
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If't be so,
For Banquo's issue have I filed my mind;
For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered,
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 seeds of Banquo kings.



As Freud noticed long ago, the two Macbeths complement each other in their reactions to the crime. Her fall is instantaneous, even eager, like Eve's in Paradise Lost; his is gradual and reluctant, like Adam's. She needs only her husband's letter about the weyard sisters' prophecy to precipitate her resolve to kill Duncan. Within an instant she is inviting murderous spirits to unsex her, fill her with cruelty, thicken her blood, convert her mother's milk to gall, and darken the world “That my keen knife see not the wound it makes” (1.5.50). Macbeth, in contrast, vacillates. The images of the deed that possess him simultaneously repel him (1.3.130, 1.7.1). When she proposes Duncan's murder, he temporizes: “We will speak further” (1.5.69).

Later, withdrawing from the supper they have laid for Duncan to consider the matter alone, he very nearly decides not to proceed. It takes all her intensity, all her scorn of what she wrongly chooses to call unmanliness, to steel him to the deed. Throughout this first crime, we notice, it is she who assumes the initiative and devises what is to be done (1.5.64, 1.7.60). Yet we would certainly be wrong to see her as monster or fiend. On the contrary, she is perhaps more than usually feminine. She is conscious of her woman's breasts, her mother's milk (1.5.45); knows “How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.55); and, when she thinks to carry out the murder herself, fails because the sleeping King too much reminds her of her father (2.2.12). We may infer from this that she is no strapping Amazon; Macbeth calls her his dearest “chuck” (3.2.45), and she speaks, when sleep-walking, of her “little hand” (5.1.48). Thus such evidence as there is suggests that we are to think of her as a womanly woman, capable of great natural tenderness, but one who, for the sake of her husband's advancement and probably her own, has now wound up her will almost to the breaking point.

An equally important contrast between the two Macbeths appears sharply in the scene following the murder, one of the most powerful scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote. Their difference of response at this point is striking—not only because he is shaken to the core and cannot conceal it, whereas she shows an iron discipline throughout, but also because his imagination continues as in the past to be attuned to a world of experience that is closed to her. That world is visionary and even hallucinatory, we can readily see, but at the same time, it is the mark of a keener moral sense, a fuller consciousness of the implications of what they have done, than she possesses.

The difference between his and her responses is related to a form of double vision that extends thoughout the play. Shakespeare establishes for us from the beginning one perspective on his story that is symbolic and mythical, a perspective that includes both the objective weyard sisters, on the one hand, and the subjective images of horror and retribution that rise like smoke from Macbeth's protesting imagination, on the other. The play also establishes, as a second perspective, the ordinary historical world of Scotland, where Duncan is king, Macbeth becomes king, Malcolm will be king, and the witches are skinny old women with beards. In general, Macbeth enacts his crimes in the historical world, experiences them in the symbolic world, and out of this experience, new crimes arise to be enacted in the former. To put it in different terms, a force that seems to come from outside the time-world of history impinges on history, converting history into an experience for Macbeth that is timeless and mythical. We are asked to sense that his crime is not simply a misdeed in the secular political society of a given time and place, but simultaneously a rupture in some dimly apprehended ultimate scheme of things where our material world of evil versus good and virtue versus vice gives way to a spiritual world of sin versus grace and hell versus heaven.


The suggestiveness of Shakespeare's play in this larger sense is inexhaustible. Every element is contains lives with a double life, one physical, one metaphysical. Consider night, for instance. Night settles down halfway through the first act and stays there through much of the rest of the play: 1.6-7, 2.1-4, 3.2-5, 4.1, and 5.1 are night scenes, and several more, undetermined in the text, could be effectively presented as such, e.g., 1.5 and 4.2-3. All this is ordinary nighttime, of course, but it is obviously much more. “Thick,” “murky,” full of “fog and filthy air,” it “entombs” the face of earth (2.4.9), blots out the stars and the moon, “strangles” even the sun (2.4.7). Duncan rides into it to his death, as does Banquo. Lady Macbeth evokes it (1.5.48) and then finds herself its prisoner, endlessly sleepwalking through the thick night of a darkened mind. Macbeth succumbs to its embrace so completely that, in the end, even a “night-shriek” cannot stir him.

Or again, consider blood. “What bloody man is that?” are the play's first words, following the first weyard sisters' scene. Like the night, blood is both ordinary and special. It sticks like real blood: “His secret murders sticking on his hands,” says Angus of Macbeth (5.2.17). It smells as real blood smells: “Here's the smell of the blood still,” says Lady Macbeth (5.1.47) hopelessly washing. Yet it finally covers everything Macbeth has touched, in ways both qualitative and quantitative that real blood could not. The sleeping grooms are “all badged” with it, their daggers “Unmannerly breeched with gore.” Duncan's silver skin is “laced” with it (2.3.108), Banquo's murderer has it on his face (3.4.14), Banquo's hair is “boltered” with it (4.1.123), and Macbeth's feet are soaked in it (3.4.136). Perhaps the two most bloodcurdling lines in the play, when expressively spoken, are Macbeth's lines after the ghost of Banquo is gone: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood” (3.4.122) and Lady Macbeth's moaning cry as she washes and washes: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (5.1.35).

Macbeth's style of speech in the play has something of this same double character. The startling thing about much of it is its inwardness, as if it were spoken not with the voice at all, but somewhere deep in the arteries and veins, communing with remote strange powers.

                                                                                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.


Between the two battles that open and close the play, Macbeth's language seems frequently to lean away from the historical world of Scotland toward the registering of such experience as rises, timeless and spaceless, both from within his mind and beyond it. Thence come thronging those images that “unfix my hair” (1.3.135), the presences that will “blow the horrid deed in every eye” (1.7.24), the voices that cry “Sleep no more!” (2.2.34), the ghost that returns from the dead to mock him for what he has failed to achieve, and the apparitions that are called with great effort from some nether (but also inner) world only to offer him the very counsels that he most wants to hear.

These continuous blurrings of the “real” with the “unreal,” intrusions of what is past and supposedly finished into the present (Banquo's ghost, 3.4) and even into the theoretically still formless future (Banquo's descendants, 4.1), provide an appropriate sort of environment for Macbeth and his wife. Lady Macbeth is easily “transported,” we learn from her first words to her husband, “beyond This ignorant present” to feel “The future in the instant” (1.5.54). In a similar way, Macbeth's imagination leaps constantly from what is now to what is to come, from the weyard sisters' prophecy to Duncan's murder, from being “thus” to being “safely thus” (3.1.48), from the menace of Banquo to the menace of Macduff, and from a today that is known to an unknown “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow” (5.5.19). Shakespeare vividly records in these ways the restlessness of the Macbeths' ambition and at the same time the problem that ambition, like every other natural urge to self-realization, poses for human beings and their relationships to each other.


To understand this problem in the dramatic and poetic terms Shakespeare gives it, it is helpful to look at two of the play's most often noticed features. One is feasting. Macbeth withdraws from the supper he has laid for Duncan to weigh the arguments for killing him (1.7). The entertainment, which he has himself ordered, marks his adherence to the community of mutual service that we find implied in the scene at Duncan's court (1.4). Here is a society, we realize, that depends on thane cherishing king—“The service and the loyalty I owe,” Macbeth tells Duncan, “In doing it pays itself”—and on king cherishing thane: “I have begun to plant thee,” Duncan assures Macbeth, “and will labor To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28). When Macbeth withdraws, therefore, we see him retreating from the shared community of the supper that he has provided for Duncan and the other thanes into the isolation that his intended crime against that community implies. Once he has withdrawn and his withdrawal is sealed by murder, he can never rejoin the community he has ruptured. This he discovers at the feast in 3.4, when the ghost of Banquo preempts his place. The only community left him after this is the community of dark powers we see him appealing to in 4.1, where the weyard sisters dance about a hell-broth (also a feast?) of dislocated fragments. After 3.4, we never see Macbeth in the company of more than one or two other persons, usually servants, and in the last act his forces ebb inexorably away till there is only himself. Similarly, and with similar implications, after 3.4 we never see Macbeth and his wife together. Instead of being united by the crime, they are increasingly separated by it, she gradually lost in the inner hell that she finds so “murky” in the sleepwalking scene, he always busier in the outer hell that he has made Scotland into.

The other much commented on feature is children. Four children have roles in the play: Donalbain, Malcolm, Fleance, and the son of Macduff. Two children are among the apparitions raised by the weyard sisters in 4.1: “a Bloody Child” and “a Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand.” Allusions to children occur often. We hear of the child or children Lady Macbeth must have sometime had (1.7.54), of the son Macbeth wishes he had now to succeed him (3.1.64), and of pity, who comes “like a naked new-born babe Striding the blast” to trumpet forth Macbeth's murderous act till “tears shall drown the wind” (1.7.21). Plainly, in some measure, all these “children” relate to what the play is telling us about time. Macbeth, in his Scottish world (though not in his demonic one), belongs like the rest of us to a world of time: he has been Glamis, he is Cawdor, and he shall be (so the weyard sisters predict) “King hereafter” (1.3.50). The crux, of course, is hereafter. Macbeth and his wife seek to make hereafter now, to wrench the future into the present by main force, to master time. But this option, the play seems to be saying, is always disastrous for human beings. The only way human beings can constructively master time is Banquo's way, letting it grow and unfold from the present as the Stuart line of kings is to grow and unfold from Fleance. The more Macbeth seeks to control the future, the more it counters and defeats him (in Fleance, Donalbain, Malcolm, the bloody child, the crowned child) and the more he is himself cut off from its creative unfolding processes—having had children we are told, but having now only a “fruitless” crown, a “barren” scepter. “No son of mine succeeding” (3.1.64).

Toward the play's end, Malcolm and his soldiers move in on Dunsinane with their “leavy screens” (5.6.1), and very soon after this Macduff, the man who “was from his mother's womb Untimely ripped,” meets Macbeth (5.8), slays him, then reappears with his head fixed on a pike. What did Shakespeare intend us to make of this? All that can be said for certain is that the situation on stage in these scenes has some sort of allusive relation to the three apparitions that were summoned at Macbeth's wish by the weyard sisters. The first was an armed head—matched here at the play's end, apparently, by Macbeth's armed head on a pike. The second was a bloody child, who told him that none of woman born could harm him. This child is evidently to be associated with Macduff. The third apparition was a crowned child holding a tree—an allusion, we may suppose, to Malcolm, child of Duncan, who is soon to be crowned King, who is part of the future that Macbeth has tried in vain to control, and who now with his men, holding the green branches of Birnam Wood, seems calculated to remind us of the way in which Nature, green, fertile, “full of growing,” (1.4.29) moves inexorably to “overgrow” a man who has more and more identified himself with death and all such destructive uses of power as the armed head suggests.

If these speculations are at all well founded, what takes place in the final scenes is that a kind of Living Death, a figure who has alienated himself from all the growing processes, goes out to war encased in an armor that he believes to be invulnerable on the ground that nothing in the scheme of nature, nothing born of woman, can conquer Death. But he is wrong. Death can always be conquered by the bloody child, who, being ripped from the womb as his mother lay dying, is indicative of the life that in Nature's scheme of things (like the green leaves in Birnam Wood) is always being reborn from death.


To leave the play on this abstract and allegorical plane, however, is to do it wrong. What comes home most sharply to us as we watch these last scenes performed is the twistings and turnings of a ruined but fascinating human being, a human being capable of profound even if disbalanced insights, probing the boundaries of our common nature ever more deeply in frantically changing accesses of arrogance and despair, defiance and cowardice, lethargy and exhilaration, folly and wisdom. Underscoring this, we have the succession of abrupt changes from place to place, group to group, and speaker to speaker that marks scenes 2 to 8 in Act 5, an unsettling discontinuity which does much to dramatize our sense of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. In the background, too, we hear the gradually swelling underbeat of the allied drums, called for by the stage directions in 5.2, 4, 6, and 8, and audible elsewhere if the director desires. This gives a sensory dimension to the increasing prosperity of Malcolm's cause, and can be made particularly dramatic and significant in 5.5. Here, following the scene's opening, we hear Macbeth's drums for the only time in the play. Then comes the famous soliloquy, where he assures us that life is an empty fraud, a “tale told by an idiot.” If, at the close of this, when the door to Dunsinane opens to admit the messenger bearing the news of Birnam Wood, we hear again in the distance the steady beat of the allied drums signifying the existence of a very different point of view about the value of life, the impact is powerful.

Perhaps the most telling sensory effect in these final scenes is the call of trumpets. We hear them first on the appearance of Macduff, whose command may remind us of Macbeth's earlier prognostication about “heaven's cherubin” riding the winds and blowing the fame—or infamy—of the murder of Duncan through the whole world:

Make all our trumpets speak, give them all breath,
Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.


We then hear their alarums with the next entry of Macduff, who is now searching for Macbeth, and again with the exit of Malcolm; alarums once more when Macduff and Macbeth begin to fight and when they go fighting off stage; and finally, three massed flourishes of trumpets, one as Malcolm enters after the sounding of retreat, a second as Macduff and the other thanes hail Malcolm king, and a third as all go out, Macbeth's head waving somberly on Macduff's spear (5.8.35). The former age has been wiped away and the new age inaugurated, fittingly, to the sound of the trumpets of a Judgment.

All this, we understand, is as it must be. Alike as ruler and man, Macbeth has been tried and found wanting. Yet we realize, as we hear Malcolm speak of “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen” (5.8.69)—and we realize it all the more because of these last scenes, in which a great man goes down fighting, bayed around by enemies external and internal, natural and even supernatural, committed to the Father of Lies but taking the consequences like a man—how much there is that judgment does not know, and how much there is that, through Shakespeare's genius, we do.

Irena R. Makaryk (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Makaryk, Irena R. “Shakespeare Right and Wrong.” Theatre Journal 50, no. 2 (1998): 153-63.

[In the following review, Makaryk describes avant-garde Ukrainian director Les' Kurbas's 1924 modernistic, anti-bourgeois production of Macbeth, citing its ironic and expressionistic methods and stylized form.]

In an interview in Gambit in 1970, Edward Bond remarked that, as a society, “we use the play [King Lear] in a wrong way. And it's for that reason I would like to rewrite it so that we now have to use the play for ourselves, for our society, for our time, for our problems.”1 For Bond, “wrong” Shakespeare is academic Shakespeare, while “right” Shakespeare is a transformed and contemporary Shakespeare. Bond's clear-cut division of approaches to Shakespeare is quintessentially modernist in its rejection of “museum” Shakespeare in favour of a reworked classic for our time. His division of approaches into right and wrong also points to the main line of argument I wish to explore in relation to one particular production: the idea of style—the central issue of modernism—as not just an interpretive and ideological tool but also a moral one. The area of my special interest is the early Soviet period.

Within the general trend of modernizing Shakespeare in the West from the 1960s on, Macbeth has been the “trademark” avant-garde play, its primitivism and anarchism being particularly attractive characteristics. These are also some of the obvious attractions of this play for the high modernist period. In 1924, the great Soviet Ukrainian director Les' Kurbas (1887-1937) conceived of a production of Macbeth in terms almost identical to those of Edward Bond. Kurbas wrote that “Our approach to Shakespeare naturally must be the approach of our day. The restoration of Shakespeare in the manners and customs of his time is formally impossible and in essence unnecessary. The whole value of the scenic embodiment of a classical work in our day lies namely in the ability to present a work in the refraction of the prism of the contemporary world view.”2 For Kurbas, it was particularly important that the performance not “decline” into literature but that it remain theatre. The text should therefore remain only one of the materials at the disposal of the creative actor; it was to be a tool, not a tyrant.

A polymath, Oleksandr (Les') Zenon Stepanovych Kurbas was an actor, director, playwright, translator, pedagogue, theorist, cinematographer, musician, and costume designer. Himself an “epoch” in the Ukrainian theatre—as one of his contemporaries referred to him3—Kurbas influenced hundreds of artists involved with the theatrical and cinematographic arts. Introducing Shakespeare into Ukraine after a century of tsarist prohibitions, Kurbas prepared four plays (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear) and did preliminary work on five others (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Timon of Athens, Antony and Cleopatra), intending, eventually, to produce the whole Shakespearean canon; however, the only play which was actually staged in its entirety was Macbeth. Kurbas produced four variants of the play, the fourth of which, staged in 1924, was the most radical. Before proceeding further, it is perhaps necessary and useful to explain that I regard the avant-garde as both a radical, ground-breaking offshoot of modernism focussed on experimentation and process and, also, as the expression of a left-wing political stance aimed at the total repudiation of bourgeois culture. In Eastern Europe this repudiation meant the rejection, for the first time, of “the national character and didactic pathos of earlier literature,” as well as the erasure, as in other, Western modernist projects, of the boundaries between art forms and genres, between “high” and “low.”4 This double task may be seen in the work of Kurbas; thus, in his view, his 1924 production was both left and right; that is, inspired by a left-wing ideology but thoroughly “correct” in its view and use of Shakespeare.

Shortly after the première of Kurbas's Macbeth, one of the actors in the production, Vasyl' Vasyl'ko, recorded in his diary that a “bomb went off, throwing such sparks into the audience that even on the second and the third day [all of] Kyiv shouted ‘gvalt’”5 From the point of view of Vasyl'ko and many of the actors, as well as a good portion of the audience, Macbeth was a tremendous success, as the thundering ovations indicated. But not everyone loved the production. Those critics who detested the production accused Kurbas of “sacrilege,” “vivisection” and serious “error.”6 Why did this production elicit such sharply-polarized responses? In interviewing theatrical historians in 1995 in Kyiv, I was surprised to learn that even today this production has many detractors. What was it about the style which led critics then and now to categorize it in moral and religious terms as “wrong” and “blasphemous”?

First, let's consider the production:

The Macbeth which opened on 2 April, 19247 presented a full-frontal attack on the illusionist theatre. Disruptions, contrasts, juxtapositions, minimalist costumes, montages of stage action, atonal music—these were to help ironize the moral tale of an ambitious man. Kurbas employed various techniques to create a cubist expressionist production,8 which would reflect his beliefs about audience, actor, and art work. A self-conscious creation of fragments to be re-assembled by the spectator, this production (as one of the sympathetic critics observed), intended to kill the remnants of the bourgeois theatre.9

While only twenty-three pages of the director's copy have survived, they reveal a consistency in their cuts; these appear to be excisions aimed at simplifying the emotional range of the play by omitting small choral scenes and, most importantly, by eliminating Macbeth's heroic concluding speech. The whole production was austere and harsh. In Vadym Meller, the artistic director, Kurbas discovered a like-minded friend and colleague who shared his artistic interests and could translate them into reality. Like Kurbas, Meller studied in the West. After a very successful first exhibition, he had been invited to show his works in the Salon d'Automne together with Picasso, Gris and Bracque.10 For the 1924 Macbeth, Meller created enormous placards (4 × 4 meters high), bright green shields of stretched canvas, on which giant modernist red block letters announced “Castle,” “Precipice” (the translator's word for “heath”), and so forth, recalling both medieval-renaissance locality boards,11 and contemporary political posters. Their starkness urged the audience to creative completion: to imagining what each of these locations might be like. Their size dwarfed the actors, and diminished their usual centrality on stage, suggesting that the characters were subject to forces other than their own individual wills, to other discourses, interpretations, and frames. Raised or lowered when needed at the sound of a gong, the screens served as more than background. Lowered at the same time, they indicated the simultaneity of the action in different parts of Scotland. At other times, they moved in slow, stately rhythm to underscore the emotions of the lead actors, to emphasize tension, the dynamics of the action, or even to interfere in the action—as, for example, when they physically blocked off Macbeth's attempt to follow Banquo's ghost—represented by a searchlight beam.12 Fragments of furniture, chairs, and a throne were, like the screens, lowered and raised when needed. The actors were often lit by the harsh light of projectors, and moved in a “restrained” way, and the whole rhythm of the production followed this general style.13

Like the stylized and bare stage which both suggested place and yet also mocked any such certainty, so the costumes were spare and theatrical, emphasizing the duality of the actors (as characters and as people) and of their time frame (both time present and past). Wearing either militarized garb or contemporary work clothes very like those worn by many people in the audience, the actors were distinguished from them by only a few ancillary articles: stylized bits of medieval or renaissance clothing, such as tunics and cloaks, decorated with appliques in a modernist interpretation of heraldic designs.

At the centre of this production was the “naked” actor—the major experiment in this version of Macbeth. Kurbas's challenge to the actors was to display the perfection of their technique by turning their roles “on” and “off” at will. The pure craft of acting was laid bare without the attendant “mysteries” of sustained, realistic character, illusory sets, grand costumes, extensive music, and numerous props.14 In renaissance fashion and with similar effect, actors' roles were doubled or tripled. Thus Yosyp Hirniak, for example, played Donalbain, the Murderer of Banquo, and the Doctor; each role carried over associations from the previous one, contributing to the spreading of guilt in the realm, and limiting the audience's habit of dividing the characters into goodies and baddies. The mechanism of acting itself was openly displayed: each actor came on stage at his or her own pace, sometimes greeting the audience, and assuming his role only when he was properly positioned. Similarly, after performing his part, the actor exited as “himself.” Thus, in the first scene, the witches came on stage wearing wide blue-grey trousers and red wigs. Mysterious little electrical lights flickered in their costumes and around their eyes when they uttered their prophecies. A surreal violet blue light was used to emphasize their horrible grimaces. Like priests, they held censors in their hands, thus immediately announcing the bitingly satirical thread of the interpretation. But, after this eerie scene, the screen with the word “Precipice” disappeared from sight, the violet light vanished, and the witches calmly left the stage as actresses who have done their “‘number’.”15

The sleepwalking scene was performed with the same emphasis on actor in and out of role. Liubov Hakkebush proceeded to centre stage, where she placed her candle, took off her mantle, shook her head until her long dark hair tumbled around her shoulders, and only then proceeded emotionally to “Out, damned spot!” Similarly, after Macbeth delivered his powerful soliloquy in Act I, scene vii, he seized his dagger and turned to go to kill Duncan. Taking a few steps, he resumed his identity as Ivan Mar'ianenko the actor.

The “on-off” technique proved to be extremely hard on the actors. Actress Iryna Steshenko, who played one of the witches, wrote in her memoirs of the difficulty of maintaining a balance between restraint and involvement in the role,16 while Liubov Hakkebush, who played Lady Macbeth, was admonished at rehearsals for descending into pathology and bad taste in creating the sleepwalking scene.17 Indeed, the inclination to overdo their acting segments was one of the dangers of this technique, as Kurbas reminded them; all acting, he emphasized, proceeds from thought, not emotion.18

The “on-off” principle was repeated again and again in the production, thus isolating and drawing attention to key moments in the play, as well as to the points of transition—forcing the audience and the actor to a cerebral response to the play, to a focus on the constituent parts of theatre. Every aspect of the production was placed in quotation marks, every theatrical convention was questioned, including the idea of the tragic hero. The traditionally heroic Macbeth was portrayed by Ivan Mar'ianenko (hitherto noted for his tragic roles) as a common, unimaginative soldier, dressed in contemporary clothes, including sloppy puttees. This Macbeth combined simplicity of character with single-minded cruelty; his doubts were not indicative of a conscience, but were rather a revelation of his fearfulness, a fearfulness revealed right after the regicide, when he threw himself at his wife with the very same knife he used to murder the king. Duncan was presented as a drunken fool, whose death at first seemed, if not deserved, then at least not completely reprehensible. Both Macbeth and his wife counted on the fact that most of Scotland would not discover their crimes, and the knowing rest would keep silent out of fear. (The resemblance to Stalin's future institutionalization of terror, and the population's fearful, silent compliance seems uncanny in the whole interpretation.)

Lady Macbeth was more austere than her husband. Not a romantic young beauty, but a mature woman without passion for her husband—who seemed, rather, to annoy her with his fearfulness—Lady Macbeth was ugly and sharp-featured, in love only with power and herself. When Macbeth left to kill Duncan, she followed him, comfortably holding the dagger like a practiced killer.19 The Macbeths were understood as products of their time—a Scottish Middle Ages which Kurbas interpreted as inherently and instinctually spiritually hollow and cruel.

The only moment which contained a remnant of traditional tragedy was the sleepwalking scene. Dressed in white, Hakkebush seems Ophelia-like in photos taken of this scene. While in the rest of the production she was constumed in restrictive, unattractive clothing (a dark, shapeless three-quarter length robe over a white shift, pleated at the bottom, vaguely recalling a Ukrainian peasant's costume), and a severe headpiece (a white kerchief held in place by a metal band), in this scene, she wore only the long white shift over which cascaded her long, unfettered hair. Robbed of the dignity of her usual severity, she was subject to the hallucination of an imminent assassination on herself.20 The consequences of her past cruelty were apparent in the stark contrast to previous scenes. Here, she was palpably terror-stricken by her inability to achieve real power or to control events.21 That this was not a scene of pathos is suggested by the response of the drama critic I. Turkel'taub, who faulted Hakkebush for being too mannered and her acting too “cold.”22

Grappling towards a new relationship with the audience, Kurbas wished to break down drama into its constituent subsystems, forcing the audience both to re-examine the individual materials of the theatre and then to re-constitute them into a new whole. He employed some devices to destroy traditional audience expectations and engagement (as, for example, the “on-off” device), while others were to draw the audience in at moments when they least expected it. Thus, for example, he had the witches wired so that small electric lights lit up as they moved in their deliberately exaggerated “witchy” way. But, when it came for Banquo and Macbeth to speak to the weird sisters, the witches were lit up from behind, casting huge shadows onto the audience. The thanes spoke to these shadows and thus to the audience which, after being alienated and amused by the odd beings, now just as suddenly found itself implicated in the dark world of Macbeth.

The closest link between actor and contemporary audience was provided by major additions to the text: three intermedia and dumb shows. The Porter (played by Ambrosii Buchma), called the Fool in Kurbas's production, appeared in the intervals between the acts. During the first interval, Buchma was dressed in fool's cap and traditional fool's clothing, with exaggerated make-up, including a bulbous nose which occasionally lit up. The Porter's costume clearly linked him to the Old Vice of medieval drama, the attendant of the Devil—a connection confirmed and developed in an additional mimed sequence following Act 1 scene 3 (that is, just after Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the witches) in which cardinals cavorted on the stage and then turned into devils by the simple process of revealing their cowls on which were painted devilish faces.

Buchma as Porter performed clownish tricks, acrobatic jumps and dance-steps, after which he always spoke with individual members of the audience. In her memoirs, fellow actor Natalia Pylypenko compared Buchma to a rubber ball, which flew across the stage, seemingly weightless and unpredictable, at one time flying up to the ceiling, at another descending by the trap door and shooting up again.23 Buchma made seemingly impromptu speeches on contemporary political and social issues (such as the deposition of the Tsar, the League of Nations, various religious superstitions, even backstage theatrical disputes)—these were Kurbas's analogy to Shakespeare's references to the Jesuits' equivocations. Every day, the director insisted, the jokes and references had to be changed. The actor Stepan Bodnarchuk was responsible for transforming items in the morning newspaper into couplets by nightfall. In this, as in other elements of the theatricality of the production, Kurbas was consciously reaching back to the rich, old medieval and renaissance traditions of the audience-actor relationships. In permitting the Fool some creative freedom, Kurbas was also consciously drawing upon English fools like Will Kempe renowned for his impromptu conversations with the audience and his extempore comic remarks. Buchma shared with Kempe the lively combination of acrobatics, wit and physical clowning.

In the fourth act, during the intermedia referred to as “Haymaking,” Buchma entered as a Peasant, reaping energetically as he went and singing a harvest song. Here, from the scenes of bloody-mindedness, Kurbas moved the audience in a Shakespearean manner to consider the apparently undisturbed (or compliant) common man. Rather than any sentimental or folkloric association, the simplicity of the peasant's task both contrasted with the violent, over-the-top actions of the main characters, but also connected them. For, of course, the Reaper was also the Grim Reaper, mowing down “the rays of light, [and] extinguishing them with his broad sweeps.”24 Fatigued by the work, he would then approach members of the audience sitting on bleachers in front of him and take cigarettes from them; thus he connected the main plot and the intermedia to reality itself.

The Fool's third and last appearance occurred in the final moments of the play, when Macduff comes out carrying the head of Macbeth. Still wearing his Fool's makeup—the mocking, grinning face—Buchma came in costumed as a bishop, in gold tiara and white soutane. He then crowned Malcolm to the solemn music of an organ ironized by the delicate sounds of the piccolo and the rougher harmonium. Just as he did so, a new pretender approached, killed the kneeling Malcolm, and took the crown. Without pause, the bishop once again intoned the same words, “There is no power, but from God.” As the new king began to rise, a new pretender murdered him, and the ritual was repeated once again.25

The mixture of burlesque, acrobatics, buffonery, and Grand Guignol—linked to Futurism and Dadaism of the West—was intended to focus attention on and interrogate the material and form of the theatre most radically by employing a world classic—hence a text regarded with some piety. While in some quarters the production was acclaimed as a “great triumph” and a work of genius,26 in others, it was simply “a scandal.”27 The Kyivan audience, which had recently endured a Macbeth-like period of rapid and bloody exchanges of power (eleven between 1917 and 1920), was forced to exercise a very renaissance type of activity. This “history” play induced the spectators simultaneously to apprehend Ukraine, Shakespeare's England, and Macbeth's Scotland. Shakespeare was their contemporary. Was he also their prophet? Whom was the production satirizing? Whom was it destroying? How were the issues of conscience, power, loyalty, treason, silent complicity, and destruction of innocence supposed to be interpreted in 1924 with the recently (21 January 1924) dead Lenin, and with the backroom power struggles which ensued? How could it be that the bloodiness and ineffectualness of the Tsar (Duncan) was, in the end, indistinguishable from the Soviet power that took his place (the Macbeths and the Malcolms of the world)? Where was the morality of the new regime? Was it possible that regicide was neither romantic nor heroic, and that evil was simply banal, repeatable, and unconnected to ideology?

Kurbas's intention—to problematize all the elements of theatre (the classic, plot, role, character, hero, time, space, acting, prop, costume)—was, as I have already mentioned, an attempt to re-conceive the whole notion of theatre. In his view, this was the only right way of going about the task of creating a new Soviet Ukrainian culture. Whether one considers him a naive convert to the new order or an aesthetic idealist, Kurbas believed that the struggle had to be, could only be, the struggle to reinvent all systems; and this aim could only be achieved by constant experimentation. The avant-garde style was intended to make audiences think critically and to unite them in analytical thought through their complicity in the action. Devices which broke down the conventional barrier between stage and audience, actor and character, were, in Kurbas's logic, rupture on behalf of a new communion. But this harmony could only be achieved by the special cooperation of the audience which had to fill in the hermeneutical gaps. It required then, not a suspension of disbelief, but a very special and shared belief—a belief in the possibility of forms emptied of traditional associations and codes in order that they be recreated and filled with something entirely new.

Contemporary critics and spectators unsympathetic to modernism focussed on the discontinuity and unpredictability of the production. They found it cold, exclusionary, elitist. Even with his pre-production articles, puffs, and his brief statement of purpose before the curtain, Kurbas was not entirely successful at creating the kind of new audience-actor relationship he intended. The vociferous polemic launched in the press (which lasted over two months) was in part a debate about the modernist style and its relationship to the notion of the classic. Kurbas was accused of “blasphemy” in his treatment of Shakespeare, of completely annulling a theatrical classic, of presenting a “cold” and unfeeling production,28 of showing life as it shouldn't be, instead of how it should.29 Shakespeare in his hands, according to the critics, was simply Mr. Wrong.

But what was “right” Shakespeare? In an article castigating the production, Iakiv Savchenko defined the “correct” tradition of staging Shakespeare as, first of all, a realistic recreation of Elizabethan theatre; secondly, as a tradition of strong actors playing in a heroic-romantic style; and, lastly, as a production which centers all the attention on the main characters.30 “Right” Shakespeare, then, appeared to be very close to old traditions and conventions of the commercial theatre. Savchenko's prescriptions suggest the unity between audience and stage of a simple garden variety based on the idea of the stage as representing reality or, more accurately, a heightened reality. The idea of style as potentially wrong or right seemed to rest on the bedrock of a particular understanding of community and, further, on the strength of the social fabric. Considering itself under ideological siege from within and from without (not having yet recovered from world war, civil war and revolution), the “right-thinking” Bolshevik polemicists of the Soviet Union in 1924 had little tolerance for a notion of theatre (or art) that was not unifying or celebratory of great deeds. Ironically, in a country in which God was proclaimed dead, only moral and religious terms could be found to convey the depth of their condemnation of modernist Shakespeare.

Curiously (from Kurbas's point of view), his peers also attacked his Macbeth for being too bourgeois, for taking the “bourgeois aesthetic” to its “absurd” conclusion by not reflecting objective reality but only hinting at it, by presenting a system of signs, marks and ideas instead of concrete reality; and, finally, for creating overly abstract forms.31 Art for art's sake—the principle which really was under attack here—was a movement that did not strike deep roots in the East, where art had always generally been approached from an ethical (religious or social) perspective.32 The critics' offensives were, in part, a reflex regression to ethical models of criticism developed over the past two centuries (and perhaps most notoriously found in Tolstoy's critique of Shakespeare). The traditional, ethical approach to the arts also fed naturally into the new political terminology of error, heresy and deviation.

The Futurist Mykhail Semenko correctly pinpointed the cultural crisis of his time as a crisis of theory.33 With little thought given to the part culture would play in the Revolution, its leaders had no consistent cultural policy, let alone a theory. Lenin's only interest in culture, for example, was exhibited by his insistence that cities be plastered with slogans and that statues be erected to revolutionary leaders. The latter in particular evoked the most conservative of tsarist and neoclassical cultural habits. The avant-garde was appalled. But this conservatism or regression was of a piece with other kinds of turnings-back. For the Commissar of the Enlightenment, Anatolii Luncharsky, as for Lenin, the classics were national property and thus to be tampered with at peril. Lunacharsky's slogan, “new content in old forms”—must have given the modernists pause in their belief in a new order, as must have the critic Turkel'taub's slogan, “Backwards in art and culture.”

In the 1920s, the rhetoric of morality—modernism was wrong and destructive (Kurbas called it “cheap demagoguery”34)—soon drowned out intellectual debate. The unpredictability of modernism and its apparently cyclical view of history could hardly co-exist for long within a new, official master narrative: the story of “scientific,” inexorable progress toward a new paradise on earth. In such a narrative, in which the answers were already known, what point could experimentation possibly serve? Among the first to welcome the Revolution, the avant-garde had few allies. Dismissive of the old ethnographic school, of the bourgeois and much of the intelligentsia, the Ukrainian avant-garde worked itself into a political corner from which, by the 1930s, there was little possibility of escape.

The 1920s debate concerning Macbeth usefully points out many of the broader difficulties with modernist Shakespeare and the modernist project—at least in Ukraine. While modernism provides freedom in opening up space and, especially, time, and attempts simultaneously to distance and to draw in, often only its discontinuities and ruptures are immediately evident. By contrast, the mimetic approach to the theatre, although only a convention and without objective validity is, as Benjamin Bennett astutely pointed out, a “communal initiative”: “if the realistic begins by being discredited, if it is recognized from the outset as mere convention, then the conscious decision to accept that convention is undoubtedly communicative, shared with others, a communal process.” What is crucial, then, continues Bennett, “is not meaning, but style as the token of an ethical decision repeatedly taken in the theater.”35

Conservative, academic or commercial theatre with its apparently easy acceptance of “ordinary reality” thus functions in a seemingly harmonious manner; it provides a readily identifiable common ground for actor and audience. Such a desire for clearly-defined and understood concepts of communion was most obviously found in the first years of the Revolution. Thus, Nikolai Evreinov's staging of The Storming of the Winter Palace on the third anniversary of the October Revolution with at least 8,000 participants and 100,000 spectators (whose participation, observes Lars Kleberg, “was merely a question of degree rather than kind”36) was both an expression of this conflation of life and art and a harbinger of things to come. Inspired by the artistic precedents created during the French Revolution and by the ideas of Richard Wagner and Romain Rolland, such huge spectacles, mass festivals and glorifications of revolutionary leaders, it is true, did not last very long. But that does not mean that the desire for such “realism” and the communion which underlied it disappeared; rather, it found a less obvious outlet in the theatre's return to “realism” as the officially approved approach to art in the Soviet Union.

Rather than foreground the audience-actor connection, Kurbas's modernist productions presumed that the audience wished to co-create a new ground for interpretation and communion while creating a semiotic earthquake where nothing remained stable or certain. Modernism optimistically endowed the audience with the desire to work while at play, to think critically and to question in an individual way in order to achieve a long-term project of a new community. Thus, for many Ukrainian modernists, it was commonplace to think of the theatre as the church of literature, the best expression of collective ceremonial thinking.37 Here, we may see that the modernists themselves reverted to religious and, in other cases, to moral terms. For both camps, this emotion-laden terminology revealed the deeply-engrained belief in the monumentality and potency of the classic for our culture.

Yet modernism was also deeply skeptical of its communicative tools and signifying practices, as the interrogations of Kurbas showed. Using rhetoric while also drawing attention to its manipulations, modernism had enormous political and subversive force38—a fact which goes some way to explaining both Hitler's and Stalin's detestation of it.

Modernism's idealistic conception of the audience and its occlusion of the psychology of viewing—the perhaps overwhelming need for harmony, what we really like in mimesis—doomed Ukrainian modernist productions to a specialized or special audience. It is perhaps not surprising, after all, that, in 1995, Ukrainian theatrical historians remained uncomfortable with what one critic called Kurbas's “fireworks,” his “whimsies,”39 his too intellectual, too contemporary production.40 Tired of political interpretations of plays and anxious to rejoin the European community, Ukrainian theatrical artists and critics seem, at the moment, happiest with a psychological realism.


  1. Harold Hobson, Jane Howell, Irving Wardle, John Calder, “A Discussion with Edward Bond,” Gambit 17.5 (1970): 24.

  2. “Do postanovky ‘Makbeta’ v 4 maisterni M.O.B. (rozmova z Kurbasom),” Bil'shovyk (Kyiv) 1 April 1924: n.p. All translations are mine.

  3. Kh. Tokar, “Desiat' let ‘Bereziliia,’” Teatr i dramaturgiia (Moscow) 4 (1933): 61.

  4. Endre Bojtar, East European Avant-Garde Literature, trans. Pal Varnai (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1992), 37-38.

  5. Vasyl' Vasyl'ko, Shchodennyk [unpublished diary], vol. 5, 1 January 1923 to 14 May 1924, MS 10369, State Museum of Theatrical Arts and Cinema (Kyiv).

  6. Numerous reviews and memoirs attest to this view. A representative view is la[kiv] S[avchenko]'s “Shakespir dybom,” Bil'shovyk (Kyiv), No. 76 (974) 4 April 1924: 6.

  7. Although various scholars cite the opening of the play as 1 April 1924, in fact, according to Vasyl' Vasyl'ko's diary, it did not open until 2 April, because the costumes were not ready. On 2 April, even as the performance was proceeding, the costumes were still being completed.

  8. Benjamin Bennett, Theatre as Problem: Modern Drama and Its Place in Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 33.

  9. Vasyl' Desniak, “‘Berezil’,” Hlobus (Kyiv) 5 (1925): 116.

  10. Meller is the father of constructivism on the Ukrainian stage and was responsible for some of Kurbas's most inventive, original stage designs. He turned to stage design after his paintings were destroyed during World War I; his theatrical début took place in 1918. See V. Kucherenko, Vadym Meller, 1884-1962 (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1975) for a beautiful catalogue of his surviving works.

  11. Virlana Tkacz argues that these may have been influenced by silent movies. See Virlana Tkacz, “Les [sic] Kurbas's Use of Film Language in his Stage Productions of Jimmie Higgins and Macbeth,Canadian Slavonic Papers 36.1 (March, 1990): 59-76. Also see Iona Shevchenko, Suchasnyi ukrains'kyi teatr (Kharkiv: Derzhavne vydavnytstvo Ukrainy, 1929), 83, who argues that the notion of peretvorennia is linked to methods of cinematographic montage. He cites Eisenstein and his notion of “an attraction” in this relation.

  12. See Khanan Shmain's description, “Rezhyser, pedahoh, uchenyi,” in Les' Kurbas: spohady suchasnykiv, ed. Vasyl' Vasyl'ko (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1969), 137-42.

  13. Yosyp Hirniak, Spomyny (New York: Suchasnist', 1982), 196-97.

  14. Hirniak noted that the work of Viktor Shklovskyi was widely read by the members of Berezil'. Interview with Hirniak 10 August 1982 (New York), cited by Virlana Tkacz, “Les [sic] Kurbas and the Creation of a Ukrainian Avant-Garde Theatre,” M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1983, 65. Kurbas's practical use of “estrangement” techniques occurs first in this production of Macbeth, and, as Tkacz notes, predates Brecht's use by at almost ten years (Tkacz, M.A. thesis 68).

  15. Konstantin Rudnitsky, Russian and Soviet Theatre: Tradition and the Avant-Garde, trans. Roxane Permar (New York: Thames and Hudson), 112.

  16. Iryna Steshenko, “Pro navchytelia moho i druha,” in Les' Kurbas: spohady suchasnykiv, ed. Vasyl'ko, 170.

  17. Iryna Avdieva, “Pro naikrashchu liudyny, iaku ia znala v iunats'ki roky,” in Les' Kurbas: spohady suchasnykiv, ed. Vasyl'ko, 153.

  18. Polina Samiilenko, Nezabutni dni horin' (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1970), 64.

  19. Natalia Kuziakina, “Ledi Makbet ta inshi,” Vitchyzna (Kyiv) 3 (1969): 193.

  20. So, at least, my examination of the photos in the archival collection of the State Museum of Theatrical Art and Cinema seemed to me. In one, Hakkebush faces the viewer in a close-up which shows her heavily-made up eyes, and her whole face shrinking in terror from something. In the second photo, looking beautiful and innocent, she carries a light in front of her in her outstretched hand. This is the only photo extant which I have examined which shows her in an upright posture, her head back, her long hair streaming behind her. In other photos from the earlier parts of the play, she is never upright, always stylized in her movements, and usually hunched over, whether reading the letter from Macbeth, walking with him, or responding to his rage (probably after the murder of Duncan). In the sleepwalking photos, she is also shown sitting or, more accurately, reclining. Had I not known that these were photos taken of Lady Macbeth, I would certainly have thought that they were photos of Ophelia. The stage imagery of femininity—the white colour of her shift, the loose hair, the feminine and less stylized gestures—suggest this.

  21. On the three Lady Macbeths of the Soviet Ukrainian stage, all played by Liubov Hakkebush, see Iurii Smolych, Pro teatr (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1977), 155-66, and Natalia Kuziakina, “Ledi Makbet ta inshi,” Vitchyzna (Kyiv) 3 (1969): 190-98.

  22. I. Turkel'taub, “Hastroli M. ‘Berezil’ Ledi Makbet,” Kul'tura i mystetstvo, Visti VUTsVK 121 (Kharkiv) 30 May 1924: 4.

  23. Natalia Pylypenko, Zhyttia v teatri (New York: n.p., 1968), 15.

  24. So, according to Valentyna Zabolotna, a theatrical historian and great-grand-daughter of Ambrosii Buchma, who played the Fool in this production. See V. Zabolotna, Aktors'ke mystetstvo Ukrainy (1922-1927) (Kyiv: Institut teatral'noho mystetstva im. K. Karoho, 1992), 53. Also, similar views were voiced in an interview with me in Kyiv on 12 September 1995.

  25. The description of the intermedia, and of all of Kurbas's productions described here, is a composite derived from many sources including Hirniak, Spomyny; Zabolotna, Aktors'ke mystetstvo; Iurii Kosach, Dushi liuds'koi charodii (Kyiv: Veselka, 1973), 103; Ivan Kryha, “Samobutnii pedahoh,” in Les' Kurbas: spohady suchasnykiv, ed. Vasyl'ko, 190-93; Kuziakina, “Ledi Makbet ta inshi”; and her “Makbet Shekspira v postanovkakh Lesia Kurbasa” in P'esa i spektakl', ed. A. Z. Iufit (Leningrad: Gosudarstvennyi Institut teatra, muzyky i kinematografii, 1978), 50-66; and Savchenko, “Shekspir dybom,” each of whom recalls or writes about different elements of the production. The fact that both celebrators and detractors mention the final sequence, the crowning scene, is a good indication of its potency.

  26. For example, Mykhailo Mohylians'kyi, “Macbeth u Berezoli,” Chervonyi shliakh (Kharkiv) 4-5 (April-May 1924): 282; and Al. G-tov, “Kul'tura i iskusstvo Makbeta u Kurbasa,” Khar'kovskii proletarii (Kharkiv) 37 (30 May 1924): 6.

  27. Valerian Revutsky, in correspondence with me, letter dated 3 December 1992. The interpretation of the production as scandal is best indicated by I[akiv] S[avchenko]'s review, “Shakespir dybom.”

  28. Hirniak, Spomyny, 193, 197.

  29. For attacks on Kurbas, see the printed speeches from the Theatrical Discussions of 1927 and 1929 in Les' Kurbas u teatral'nii dial'nosti, v otsinkakh suchasnykiv, ed. Valerian Revutsky (Baltimore: Smoloskyp, 1989), especially 606. In one of the many defenses of Kurbas, Mykhailo Mohylians'kyi, “‘Makbet’ u Berezoli,” makes the sensible point that every production, including that of Shakespeare's company, in some way modifies the original play. Mohylians'kyi argues that it is pointless to stand on principle; rather, the attackers should simply respond to the “spring delight” of this “great artistic achievement” (6).

  30. Avanti, “Vid ‘Molodoho teatru’ do ‘Berezolia,’” Literatura i mystetstvo [sic], Visti VUTSVK (X), 16 May 1924.

  31. Hnat Iura, “Natsionalistychna estetyka Kurbasa,” Za markso-lenins'ku krytyku (Kyiv) 12 (December 1934): 48-61. This vicious attack appeared the same month in which Kurbas was arrested; however, it may have been written by someone else but conveniently attributed to Iura, who had often been unfavourably compared with Kurbas in the 1920s.

  32. This is a point many scholars of Slavic drama have made; most recently, Lars Kleberg, Theatre as Action: Soviet Russian Avant-Garde Aesthetics, trans. Charles Rougle (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1990), 4.

  33. M. Semenko, “Mystetstvo iak kult’,” Chervonyi shliakh 3 (1924): 222-29; cited in Oleh Ilnytzkyj, “Ukrainian Futurism, 1914-1930: History, Theory and Practice,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1983, 337.

  34. Kurbas, “Z pryvodu symptomiv reaktsii” (1925), rpt. in Berezil': Les' Kurbas iz tvorchoi spadshchyny, ed. M. Labins'kyi (Kyiv: Dnipro, 1988), 244.

  35. Bennett, Theatre as Problem, 26-27.

  36. Kleberg, Theatre as Action, 64.

  37. See Bennett, Theatre as Problem, 60-83, for a discussion of ceremony. The notion of theatre as church occurs frequently in the writings of Kurbas.

  38. Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 228.

  39. Zabolotna, Aktors'ke mystetstvo, 53.

  40. Ibid, 53-54.

Kit Baker (review date 1998)

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SOURCE: Baker, Kit. Review of Macbeth. Theatre Journal 50, no. 2 (1998): 242-46.

[In the following review of director Henryk Baranowski's Croatian-language production of Macbeth in 1997, Baker highlights the provocative setting and its eerie, preternatural mood.]

Theater 2000 is one of Croatia's first independent theatre companies, launched in a spirit of rebellion by leading actors yearning to break from the country's officially sanctioned theatre. Founder Vili Matula chose to debut his company with Macbeth, a suitably provocative choice—the play is, after all, the story of a bloodthirsty warlord, and local parallels would not be lost on a single audience member. Matula and Branka Trlin, the portrayers of the Macbeths, sold their Zagreb apartment to finance half the production, and the Istrian coastal resort of Pula, a town which shares Theatre 2000's occidental spirit, donated the use of a sprawling nineteenth-century fortress as the outdoor location for the play.

Theater 2000's choice of director was the Polish Henryk Baranowski. The director dressed his actors in Balkan combat fatigues and peppered the action with instances of physical and psychological brutality which are only faintly suggested in Shakespeare's text. Yet this Macbeth was not just about the Balkans—the dreamy, nonnaturalistic style of the production probed the psyches of Shakespeare's characters with astonishing precision and depth, making them both individualized and immediately recognizable.

A powerful tone of subconscious mayhem was set from the very start, and continued as the audience was led to the sound of kettle drums from courtyard to rampart, from tree-lined nook to moat. The lights came up on Duncan (the excellent Sreten Mokrovic) dressed in a white naval commander's uniform and puffing on a pipe as an electric guitar screamed Hendrix-like feedback over the speakers. Malcolm (Jasmin Novljakovic), machine gun strapped to his shoulder, performed a weird somnambulistic march as if he were a wind-up toy constantly playing out the end of its motion. Three vamps dressed in gaudy disco clothes and donning cheap wigs cavorted on the iron gate behind as MacDuff (Vojislav Stojkovic-Stole) Iurched his way towards this scary bunch along the ramparts above, his head thrown back, his feet shuffling. Until the very end of the play, it seemed that MacDuff's every move was constrained by invisible ropes of evil. Malcolm interrupted his sinister pacing to mock-strangle Duncan from behind as the doomed king continued to puff nonchalantly away. MacDuff finally collapsed center stage and began to deliver his report from the front; the suddenly alert Malcolm leapt forth and held a revolver to the exhausted thane's cranium, fearing treachery. Around five minutes had passed before the first word was spoken. With such strong moments, the fact that the Croatian text might be unintelligible to foreign ears proved a minor problem. Over half of Shakespeare's text had in fact been cut in favor of a constant flow of such stage imagery.

Another particularly potent sequence was set in Macbeth's castle immediately before Duncan's murder. Lady Macbeth (in a magnificent performance by Branka Trlin) emerged from behind a tarpaulin where Duncan, a tyrant with no qualms about exercising his royal prerogative, had just bedded her. After a postcoital wash, she plunged her hands into the water and pulled out two daggers which seemed to have materialized from the seed she had just rinsed off her legs. In an instant, the action shifted as Lady Macbeth leapt on top of a nearby well and began brandishing the knives in slow motion, her dripping legs bathed in a hellish green light filtering up through a grate. The effect was as if the murder weapons had sprung from Lady Macbeth's loins. The only sound was her breathing, a slow and rhythmic series of gasps. Banquo (Nebojsa Borojevic) then crept onstage with his son Fleance (Goran Borojevic), whistling intently at imagined forest beasts as the unseen Lady Macbeth continued to carve the air behind him. This turned out to be a premonition of the murder of Banquo, which in this interpretation was carried out by none other than Lady Macbeth, Banquo's old flame and mother of Fleance; Lady Macbeth insinuated herself into the murder plot as the unnamed third murderer in order to save her only son. Enter Macbeth for the “Is this a dagger” speech—the weapons he hs seen are those held aloft by Lady Macbeth, which he duly takes to murder Duncan. Lady Macbeth has thus knowingly spurred the only emotion that would arouse his passions to the requisite temperature: jealousy.

Baranowski's many bold strokes included making the incorporeal spirit of all characters just as real as their physical presence. Thus characters could instantly become witches or other apparitions—witness Lady Macbeth with her knives. In Macbeth's own words, “Nothing is but what is not.” Baranowski showed what happens if we take Macbeth at his word, and gave us a world where reality and phantasmagoria are on an equal footing. Other notable choices included Ladies Macbeth and MacDuff, Lennox, and a black-caped Duncan incarnated as witches, wallowing in each other's misery with orgiastic pleasure as a huge Croatian flag flapped in the breeze and a cross burned over the city behind them; Macbeth trying to burrow his way head first into the refuge of Lady Macbeth's womb, with then Ross doing the same to Lady Macduff; and the climax, an apocalyptic parody of a Balkan toast in which the blind drunk Malcolm and his lackeys smashed dozens of empty bottles on the ground in honor of his ascendancy as the latest warlord.

Perhaps the production's main weakness was precisely that amidst such unrelenting doom there was little or no moral movement, no recognizable loss and regaining of a state of grace. Yet simply experiencing the emotionally rich orchestration of movement, voice, and sound proved strangely cathartic and deeply moving. Those attending were apparently drawn in by this singular vision of Macbeth's inner world—by the end of the week the theatre was packed to the gills, with the local audience intently watching each new atrocity.

Irena Kałuża (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Kałuża, Irena. Introduction to The Language of Deception in Macbeth: A Study in Equivocation and Hidden Meaning, pp. 9-16. Kroków: Nakladem Uniwersytetu Jagiellonkiego, 1990.

[In the following essay, Kałuża summarizes pervasive patterns of hypocrisy, deception, and equivocation in Macbeth.]

Macbeth is a tragedy with a criminal as tragic hero. For such a tragedy to achieve the right tragic effect, the evil must be balanced by other elements. In Macbeth some of the balancing factors are to be found in the very quality of the language of the play. Thus in Acts I and II Macbeth's evil-doing is contrasted with his anguished introspective language, and later, when he becomes a hardened criminal, the horror of his crimes is, paradoxically, both accentuated and alleviated by the magnificence of his language. It is this ‘language of compensation’ that is generally thought of as the ‘language of Macbeth.

But in point of fact there exists also in this tragedy a more muted language associated with double-dealing, hypocrisy and deception. It is used to camouflage evil. It is often characterized by utter simplicity of form and an ability to communicate different meanings by one and the same utterance, depending on the person of the Hearer and the context of situation. As an example, take the following exchange:

                                                                      Fail not our feast.
My Lord, I will not.(1)

III i 27-8

Usually it has been Banquo's answer that commanded attention of the commentators (e.g. Bradley 1958:284) because of its later ironic realization when Banquo's Ghost appears at the banquet to terrify Macbeth. But the same ‘cataphoric’ method of interpretation (i.e. one working backwards by inference from what follows) yields interesting results also when applied to Macbeth's words. At the time of speaking, Macbeth's utterance communicates to Banquo and to the Audience or Readers of the play no more than a repetition of the invitation to the state banquet to be held that night. None of the recipients, within or outside the play, questions Macbeth's sincerity. Only as the play progresses does the Audience/Reader gradually discover the full import of Macbeth's words: they are meant to deceive Banquo and the attending lords and to indemnify Macbeth against a future accusation of instigating Banquo's death. The Reader infers this—when re-reading the text—from the immediately following soliloquy:

To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:
Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep, and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be fear'd …

III i 47 ff

and from the next movement of the same scene in which Macbeth persuades the Murderers to kill Banquo (III i 73-141).

We may observe, incidentally, that the application of cataphoric interpretation may lead to the discovery of new Hidden Meanings, each time we read Macbeth. Moreover, an accumulation of certain Hidden Meanings may lead to an intuitive recognition of an undercurrent of hypocrisy and double-dealing.

As another instance of the language that camouflages evil may serve any of the frequent euphemisms by means of which Macbeth and his Lady delude themselves as to the true nature of their thoughts and deeds. “He is about it” (II ii 4) she says innocently, shunning to name ‘murder’ by its appropriate name. Again the Audience/Reader must infer what she means from the context, and this time it can be done instantaneously, without resorting to a cataphoric interpretation.

Finally, the Witches' prophecies, by means of which these “Instruments of Darkness” deceive the Macbeths, belong most obviously to the language that camouflages evil. As is generally known, the enigmatic prophecies in IV i also need context and cataphoric interpretation to unravel the double meanings they carry.

What all these instances of the ‘language of deception’ have in common, i.e. the presence of Hidden Meaning, and the Intention to Deceive, may also serve to describe one type of a rhetorical device traditionally associated with Macbeth, that of ‘equivocation’ (cf 2.5). Macbeth has in fact been called a ‘tragedy of equivocation’ (for instance, by Mahood 1957:130) and this kind of locution appears to characterize the play in some unique way, just as, according to Doran (1976:32, 154-82), hyperbole—both as a figure and mode of thought—is typical of Antony and Cleopatra, and paradox and dilemma—of Coriolanus. It is worth remembering that at the time when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, equivocation or more precisely ‘Jesuitical equivocation’ was regarded in England as a damnable instrument of political struggle, connected in the popular mind with treason and regicide.

Indeed the studies that have been devoted entirely to equivocation in Macbeth are concerned mostly with historical or topical reference (the heading under which they are discussed by Hunter 1966:2-3), though they also offer remarks on the linguistic make-up and the role of equivocation in the play. Huntley (1964) deals precisely with ‘Macbeth and the background of Jesuitical equivocation’, but Rogers (Double Profit in ‘Macbeth’, 1964), for all his interest in topical matters, views the play itself as riddled with equivocations which create an aura of hypocrisy, duplicity, and double-dealing. His study suggests that equivocation is more fundamental to the design of Macbeth than has been so far shown.

Beyond doubt, equivocation in Macbeth deserves a comprehensive study that will analyse its linguistic form and pragmatic function, and its manifestations on other levels of dramatic structure (which, in some measure, are also controlled by language) such as plot, character, imagery, visual representation, stage business, etc. Only with the help of such micro-studies can we appraise the macrocosm of the equivocation-oriented total design of the tragedy with a criminal as hero.

Such matters go well beyond the ‘language of deception’ and it has not been my task to discuss them here. However, I should like to point out some examples of what may be called ‘extended equivocation’ which, together with the ‘linguistic equivocation’ underlies the Construction Principle of Macbeth.

The most readily observed is the fact that the Witches' equivocal prophecies meet with the protagonists' responses that shape the plot.

As instances of equivocal imagery, consider “Pity like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast” (I vii 21-2) and the Birnam wood coming towards Dunsinane (V iv, V v).

Then there are sound and sight equivocations which are non-verbal. As an instance of the former, take the sound which is a realization of the Stage Direction Knocking within (II ii). It occurs after Duncan had been murdered and Lady Macbeth has left to carry the daggers back to Duncan's chamber. The SD Knock is then repeated twice in the same scene at strategic points. It also opens the next scene, II iii (the Porter scene), and is repeated just before the Porter opens the gate to Macduff and Lenox. From the fact that the sound is repeated in various contexts it may already be inferred that it carries multivocal or uncertain meaning (cf 2.5). It is only in II iii 23 that the Audience finds that the Knocking was executed by Macduff and Lenox as an ordinary means of waking up the household and the porter in accordance with the King's command of last night. In contrast to this ‘realistic’ reading, the characters (and the Audience) who hear the sound of knocking much earlier, in II ii, are conscious mainly of its Hidden Meaning. Macbeth hears this sound, ominous to him, for the first time when he is alone, without the support of his wife. His reaction is one of metaphysical fear, mingled perhaps with suspicion that it is another of his hallucinations, as was the case with the bloody dagger in II i (a visual equivocation, by the way):

                                                                      Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me, when every noise appals me?
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.

II ii 56-62

Thus the fear aroused by the sound of knocking leads Macbeth again (after the “Macbeth does murther Sleep” speech) to the recognition of the irrevocability of his crime.

In contrast to this, Lady Macbeth's reaction when she hears the Knocking for the first time after returning from Duncan's chamber, is sober, practical and untinged with remorse. She even localizes the place where the sound comes from:

                                                                                          I hear a knocking
At the south entry:—retire we to our chamber.
A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it then!

II ii 64-7

The third dramatis persona who reacts to the knocking is the drunken Porter who imagines himself to be Porter of Hell Gate and in this capacity interprets the sound he hears to be the sound of sinners' knocking at Hell Gate. But at the same time he goes to open the gate of Macbeth's castle to ordinary earthly human callers. So his own reaction is intrinsically ambivalent.

Finally, let us consider briefly the interpretation the Audience or the Reader of the play may put on the sound of knocking. Similarly to Macbeth himself, the Audience in the theatre are startled by the first sound of knocking, the more so that it comes after a moment of silence when Macbeth is alone on the stage. The Naive Spectator may read it as a signal that the retribution for the Macbeths' evil-doing is at hand. On the other end of the hidden-meaning scale is De Quincey's famous pronouncement that the knocking marks the re-establishment of life after the crime:

… when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away … the knocking at the gate is heard; and makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

De Quincey, ‘On the Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth’, 1823. Quoted after Wain, ed. 1975:93.

A superb example of visual (or situational) equivocation is the stage business of Lady Macbeth sleep-walking in V i. It is based on antithetical contrast which may also characterize an equivocation. In her somnambulic state Lady Macbeth is seen by the Audience as neither properly asleep nor properly awake. She has a burning taper with her, because she is terrified of the dark, but she cannot see the light or any physical object of her environment. She rubs her hands trying to remove the “damned spot” which she sees all the time, but which cannot be seen by others because it is not physically there. Her abnormal condition is apprehended by the Audience mainly from the stage business, but her repetitions of “Yet here's a spot” and “Out, damned spot!” make it easier for them to grasp the hidden import of her equivocal behaviour: the change that has occurred in her since her saying “A little water clears us of this deed” in II ii. The observations made by the Doctor and the Gentlewoman, on the other hand, merely explain verbally what the Audience sees presented on the stage:

A great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching!

V i 9-10


… here she comes … and, upon my life, fast asleep.
… she has light by her continually; …
You see, her eyes are open.
Ay, but their sense are shut.
… Look, how she rubs her hands.

V i 18-26

Such explanations belong to old theatrical tradition. Today one is tempted, while reading the play, to ‘translate’ the stage representation of the type “her eyes are open” but “their sense are shut” into the terms of a cinematic close up, thus placing the equivocal contrast on a strictly visual level.

A measure of proof that Macbeth invites thinking in visual equivocations is provided by the stage managers and film directors who introduce visual equivocations of their own, not to be found in the text of the play. As an example I should like to mention Claude d'Ana's film version of Verdi's opera based on Macbeth (1987). Verdi's music is not congenial to Shakespeare's tragedy and the following two sequences must have been inspired by Shakespeare's original rather than by the music of the opera. The first sequence shows a closed litter brought to Macbeth's castle. When Macbeth approaches the litter to greet the occupant, only a hand is thrust out for Macbeth to kiss it. The Audience guesses that it is Duncan who in this way has made entrance to Macbeth's castle. The second sequence occurs after Duncan has been murdered and the nobles are leaving the castle. The closed litter appears again in the second sequence and again Macbeth approaches it, in a gesture of leave taking. At this very moment the hand pops out once more from under the curtain. Macbeth and the Audience alike experience a shock: the hand acts as if it were alive. Only on second thoughts is it possible to realize that the lifeless hand was exposed by a sudden swaying movement of the litter. The ‘extended’ equivocation resides in the second sequence and is of antithetical character; but the first, the ‘normal’ sequence is necessary to build the contrast between the living and the lifeless hand. Since this is a director's (and not the author's) equivocation, the Hidden Meaning cannot be externalized with direct help of the text as was the case with the sound of Knocking within and the spectacle of sleep-walking. In my interpretation the display of the lifeless/living hand demonstrates to Macbeth (and to the Audience) not only the horror but also the futility of his crime.

Finally, let us consider how ‘extended’ equivocation is used in the creating of character. Without joining the voluminous dispute on the protagonist as a dramatis persona (summarized, for instance, in Hunter 1966:9), I want only to point out that Macbeth himself is an ‘equivocal character.’ Such a statement can be supported by a careful consideration of Macbeth's idiolect, for instance by contrasting his ‘language of deception’ with his ‘language of compensation’. Another method would consist in contrasting other characters' opinions about him. For instance, in I v Lady Macbeth thinks him to be “too full o' th' milk of human kindness,” while Lenox (in III vi 22) and Macduff (in V vii 14) call him “tyrant.” Both methods, however, would require much space and would take us too far away from our main considerations. I have therefore decided to resort to a shortout of a literary critic's pronouncement. Robert B. Heilman in his paper ‘The Criminal as Tragic Hero: Dramatic Methods’ (Heilman 1966:12-13) writes:

The difficulties presented by the character of Macbeth—the criminal as tragic hero—have led some critics to charge Shakespeare with inconsistency, others to seek consistency by viewing the initial Macbeth as in some way morally defective, and still others to normalize the hero by viewing the final Macbeth as in some way morally triumphant … [Even] if intemperateness of eulogy or condemnation is exceptional, the opposing impulses are not altogether reconciled … [This] disturbing sense of discrepancy [is] not evoked, for instance, by Shakespeare's other tragic heroes.

And in conclusion Heilman complains that

Shakespeare first chooses a protagonist who in action is worse than the other main tragic heroes, and then tends to make him better than other tragic heroes. … He … follows, in Macbeth, the movement of what I have called a contracting personality. This is not the best that tragedy can offer.

(pp. 22-3)

I have underlined those of Heilman's phrases which point to what in my terminology amounts to extended equivocation, first in the process of the creation of Macbeth (Shakespeare makes him worse/better than other tragic heroes) and then in the process of reception by critics (eulogy/condemnation, opposing impulses, sense of discrepancy). Furthermore, my suggestion is that the discrepancy in Macbeth's character need no longer be considered a disadvantage and will become a merit of the play if we look at it from the point of view of the total dramatic design of a tragedy with criminal as hero rather than from the point of view of the individual psychology of a protagonist.

Consider, for instance, the following two tendencies in Shakespeare's presentation of Macbeth, the one opposing the other, and therefore resulting in equivocalness. The first refers to Shakespeare's blackening of Macbeth's character in relation to Holinshed's presentation. When Shakespeare makes Macbeth kill a Duncan who is old, weak, trustful and generous, asleep and defenceless at the time of murder, he changes the facts that he found in Holinshed's Chronicles of Scotland.2 Duncan was in fact a feeble ruler, much younger than Shakespeare's Duncan (of Muir, ed. 1983, reporting Holinshed in Introduction, p. xxxvii). But the effect—in dramatic terms—of assassinating such a colourless Duncan would have been ‘less terrible, less truly tragic’ (Stoll 1963: 187). So, if Shakespeare's alterations do blacken Macbeth's character, their main function is dramatic, not psychological.

The second tendency is to elevate and ennoble Macbeth. This is, executed, among others, through what generations of critics have called ‘a poet that is in Macbeth.’3 Thus Bradley writes that Macbeth has ‘the imagination of a poet’ (Bradley 1958:295), and Evans calls him ‘the most poetical of [Shakespeare's] characters’ (Evans 1966:160). Of course, from the point of view of the design of the tragedy, Macbeth can be held no more a good poet than Hamlet a poor poet on the account of being “ill at these numbers” as he himself says (Hamlet II ii 119). The poetry spoken by protagonists in poetic drama is an element of the whole design of the drama. Macbeth's introspective guilt-ridden poetry is not only a manifestation of his individual human psyche. It is a compensatory dramatic device by means of which Shakespeare makes it possible for a criminal whose character he has intentionally blackened to be a tragic hero of appropriate grandeur. In this way, protagonist and drama are integrated in their dependence on the ‘extended’ equivocation, which they share.


  1. All quotations of the text of Macbeth come from Kenneth Muir's Arden edition of the play, 1983, first published in 1962.

  2. The Reading List attached to G. B. Harrison's edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works (1952: 1664) gives the following bibliographic data. Holinshed, Raphael, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 2 vols., London 1577; 2nd edition 1587. Copious extracts of the passages Shakespeare used are given in Shakespeare's Holinshed, ed. by W. G. Boswell-Stone, London, 1896, and in Holinshed's Chronicles used in Shakespeare's Plays, ed. by A. and J. Nicoll, Dutton (Everyman), 1927.

  3. ‘This view, thus generally stated, is not original, but I cannot say who first stated it’, Bradley 1958:295, note 1.


Bradley, A. C. 1958 (1904). Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Macmillan.

De Quincey, Thomas. 1975 (1823). ‘On the Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth.’ In WAIN, ed. 1975:90-93.

Doran, Madeleine. 1976. Shakespeare's Dramatic Language. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Evans, Ifor. 1966 (1952). The Language of Shakespeare's Plays. University Paperbacks. London: Methuen.

Harrison, G. B. ed. 1952. Shakespeare—The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Heilman, Robert B. 1966. ‘The criminal as tragic hero: dramatic methods.’ Shakespeare Survey 19. 12-24.

Hunter, G. K. 1966. ‘Macbeth in the Twentieth Century.’ Shakespeare Survey 19, 1-11.

Huntley, Frank L. 1964. ‘Macbeth and the background of Jesuitical equivocation.’ PMLA LXXIX/1: 390-400.

Muir, Kenneth, ed. 1983 (1962). Macbeth. The Arden edition of the Works of William Shakespeare. London and New York: Methuen.

Rogers, Harold Lester. 1964. Double Profit in ‘Macbeth’. Melbourne University Press and Cambridge University Press.

Wain, John, ed. 1975 1968. Macbeth—A Casebook. London: Macmillan.

John Turner (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Turner, John. “Duncan.” In Open Guides to Literature: Macbeth, pp. 36-54. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Turner studies the figure of Duncan in Macbeth, focusing particular attention on this character's status as a signifier of feudal ideology and on performance interpretations made by directors Trevor Nunn and Roman Polanski in their productions of the drama.]

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was increasingly a ‘reinforcement of patriarchy’ in England and Scotland as the new Renaissance states struggled to secure legitimacy for themselves (Stone 1979: 109). By ‘patriarchy’ I mean a political system concentrating power in the hands of men, especially men within their families—power secured in the Renaissance by primogeniture and authorized by a network of mutually sustaining analogies between the powers of father, God and king. While the aristocracy of the middle ages had defined their power in terms of ‘dominance over kin and clientage’ (Stone 1979: 111), power under the new monarchies was increasingly celebrated as the prerogative of the father (the paterfamilias) within his own household and of the king (the pater patriae) within his own kingdom. This redefinition formed part of an ideological campaign designed to reduce aristocratic power and to reconstitute the kingdom as a constellation of small households turning upon its centre of the crown. Under James, the campaign was intensified still further; for, with continental theories and practice in mind, James idealized himself as the father of his people, demanding their absolute obedience and demonizing their dissent more than any of his predecessors had done. Increasingly under James, the great principles of patriarchy established the whole religious and political duty of mankind: to honour and obey one's father, one's king and one's God.

Two consequences of this increasing centralization and totalization of power concern me here. First, there was the severity of the punishment sanctioned against dissidence, especially in Scotland, where the witch-hunts illustrate the ferocity of patriarchy in defending its privileges and beliefs. Second, there was the evolution of a diffuse consciousness of times past when things were different. This consciousness took many literary forms: that of aristocratic romance, with its dreams of a larger, more spacious world; of satire, with its denunciation of a machiavellian present where reciprocity had been lost amid ‘the decay of the old social bonds’ (Thomas 1973: 672); and of history, with its gradually emergent recognition that there really had been a different world, a feudal world sustained by feudal law, in which the concept of reciprocity had been central. This feudal law, which codified the parcelling out of land by the monarch to his warlords in exchange for their promise of military aid, had been identified by Thomas Craig in his Jus Feudale, a book dedicated to James in 1603, as particularly the law of Scotland.

Let us turn now to Duncan in Macbeth. How important a character to the play is he, do you think? Often weakly cast in the theatre, and ignored in criticism, he may seem no more than a two-dimensional figure, a king cut out of cardboard only in order to be cut down: Macbeth's victim and no more. In Holinshed's Chronicles Duncane was ‘soft and gentle of nature’, ‘negligent … in punishing offendors’, with ‘too much of clemencie’ in him—a ruler whom the rebellious Makdowald could plausibly mock as ‘a faint-hearted milkesop, more meet to gouerne a sort of idle moonks in some cloister, than to haue the rule of such valiant and hardie men of warre as the Scots were’ (1587/1965: 265). You may feel that Shakespeare's Duncan too is excessively mild. Yet no one in the play makes this criticism: everyone, even the man who kills him, reveres him as a good man and a good king.

But what kind of goodness is it that Duncan embodies? Is he a model of the new Renaissance absolutism that James admired, or a figure from an imagined past, born out of Shakespeare's romantic idealization of vanished possibility, his satire upon a shrunken present, his historical curiosity about a kingship that today we should call early feudal? I want in this [essay] to discuss Duncan's kingship in the light of the social and political structures of the country that he rules, for I believe that his ideology and practice offer a model of feudal reciprocity with power to challenge the absolutist aspirations of James, whose writings show no more than the vestigial traces of such reciprocity.


Let us begin with I.ii. What is the nature of the crisis facing the Scotland over which Duncan rules?


As the play opens, Scotland is being attacked by the combined forces of an enemy without and an enemy within: a Norwegian invasion is being assisted by the rebellious uprising of two of its own most powerful subjects, Macdonwald and Cawdor. Duncan is thus involved at once in the two great duties of kingship that James identified in Basilikon Doron: ‘the sword is giuen you by God not onely to reuenge vpon your owne subiects, the wrongs committed amongst themselues; but further, to reuenge and free them of forraine iniuries done vnto them’ (1599/1965: 28).

Yet are not these two kinds of injury differently depicted in the text? Is not the external aggression of Norway described quite matter-of-factly beside the internal rebellion of Macdonwald and Cawdor? Foreign invasion is only to be expected in the competitive world of international politics, where kingly honour is won by conquest: it is only natural, we might say. But the rebellion of Macdonwald and Cawdor is described as something most unnatural—or, more accurately, as something natural in a quite different sense of the word. Cawdor is a ‘most disloyal traitor’ (I.ii.53) who deceived ‘our bosom interest’ (I.ii.66), while Macdonwald in pursuit of his ‘damned quarrel’ (I.ii.14) is considered ‘worthy to be a rebel, for to that / The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him’ (I.ii.10-12). A snake in the bosom, a man infested as though with lice: Cawdor and Macdonwald are demonized, diseased, and the imagery that gathers around them—‘shipwracking storms and direful thunders’ (I.ii.26)—recalls the Weird Sisters, who similarly nurture the multiplying villainies of nature.

I.ii thus raises at once the central theme of the play—the theme of betrayal: betrayal by the enemy within, in those nearest relationships where men and women have placed their dearest trust. Such betrayal cuts so deep because, in part, it shows the insufficiency of the taboos controlling our social behaviour; it shows the naturalness of what we like to call the unnatural.

What is Duncan doing about the war and civil war raging in Scotland? In Polanski we see a grizzled king in late middle age riding with a troop of followers across the battlefield, stopping to receive the latest despatches from the front; in Nunn we see him old and infirm, praying and receiving the news upon his knees. Which is truer to your own vision of Duncan in this scene?


It is uncertain from the text whether Duncan has been fighting or not. What is certain, however, is that his survival depends upon the success of his two most powerful warlords, Macbeth and Banquo. He is at the mercy of both their prowess and their loyalty, and this dependence emphasizes equally the instability of his kingdom and the vulnerability of his own position within it. No matter whether he fights, prays or passively waits upon events, the scene declares his vulnerability; and the older and more venerable he appears in performance, the more vulnerable he becomes. The most powerful man in the country is also the weakest—a paradox that Shakespeare has emphasized by making his Duncan much older than the Duncane of the sources.

To put the same point in a more theoretical way, one of the chief structural weaknesses of feudalism is the position of the monarch. Although needed by his aristocracy as a centre of political authority, his authority—when challenged—is wholly reliant upon aristocratic military power for its effectiveness. In Perry Anderson's words, there was ‘an inbuilt contradiction within feudalism, between its own rigorous tendency to a decomposition of sovereignty and the absolute exigencies of a final centre of authority in which a practical recomposition could occur’ (1974: 152); and this contradiction is crucial to Macbeth. Duncan, with no national army to call on, is wholly reliant upon his warlords; and yet the warlords upon whom he relies are his greatest rivals for the crown. The taboo on usurpation suggests the temptation it holds for an aristocrat jealous for the honour of his family—a temptation fuelled by the king's dependency. As Harry Berger Jr says, ‘the more his subjects do for him, the more he must do for them; the more he does for them, feeding their ambition and their power, the less secure can he be of his mastery’ (1980: 24-5).

Production choices about Duncan's age and military involvement will therefore be governed in part by the importance attached to this paradox of the vulnerable king. But other dangers attend Duncan too, apart from foreign invasion and internal insurrection. Read the Captain's speeches (I.ii.7-43). In what style are they written? Would you agree with Coleridge (1836/1987: 305) when he described them as epic in manner? What further dangers to Duncan do they suggest?


Epic aims at a narrative style suitable to heroic deeds; and the Captain, in speaking of ‘cannons overcharged with double cracks’ and the desire to ‘memorize another Golgotha’, is striving for a language adequate to the apocalyptic nature of the action he has just witnessed. Notice, however, how his first two speeches are rhetorically patterned so as to keep the issue of the battle in doubt until the very last moment. He relishes his account of the fighting as much as the victory to which it leads, and, in recreating both the violence and the uncertainties of war, he alerts us to the dangers besetting a society whose peace depends upon the equivocal benefits of military power.

The violence of the Captain's speech is quite remarkable: a violence whose barbarousness gives us our first impressions of Macbeth. The strained, heroic manner of the Captain, together with his depersonalization of Macbeth as ‘Valour's minion’ and his iconic representation of him with brandished sword smoking in hand, all work to create a tragic hero who seems a terrible, almost inhuman, force—as capable of devastating friend and foe alike as he is of defending the realm. Macbeth, like Cawdor, has a ‘lavish spirit’ (I.ii.58)—and this phrase, signifying excesses that range from bountifulness and prodigality on the one hand to insolence and licentiousness on the other, indicates an important ambivalence at the heart of the aristocratic code. For such lavishness, such extravagance, characterizes the aristocratic idea of virtue, exciting admiration even in excess. Perhaps Rosse has a secret undertow of admiration for Cawdor at I.ii.58. Certainly he admires Macbeth, as does the Captain, for the extravagance, the sheer excess of his fighting, the way in which he doubly redoubles his blows. It does not take this anticipation of the Sisters, who in IV.i doubly redouble their blows against Scotland, to remind us that there is danger here. The danger is that the forces that should defend a country might also be the forces that destroy it. The military code of honour espoused by the feudal aristocracy and their king promoted values and energies as dangerous to the common weal as they were beneficial.

Thus the Duncan of I.ii alerts us to the dangers attending both his kingdom and his crown. His military dependence and his enviable status, together with the competitive culture of his warlords, threaten a recurrence of civil war as a natural probability, despite his best attempts to make it seem unnatural. Between internal unrest and external aggression, it seems unlikely that Scotland will enjoy much peace; and so indeed it proves.

Duncan's response to the Captain's first speech offers the actor an interesting challenge. ‘O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!’ he exclaims (I.ii.24). How should this line be spoken? Is Duncan aware of the dangers of trying to build a peace upon the arts of war, do you think? or naïvely unaware? Is he a naïve and foolish king?


Duncan's gratitude is his response to the Captain's extraordinary description of Macbeth's refusal to shake hands or otherwise bid farewell to Macdonwald until he had ‘unseam'd’ him from the belly to the throat. Macdonwald might be no more than a suit of old clothes that the tailor has just ripped up. This juxtaposition of the civil and the savage is, as Brian Morris has noticed (1982: 52), deeply characteristic of Macbeth. But is Duncan aware of it? Does he sense the disjunction between the arts of war and peace, the styles of epic and civilized exchange? Does he see that his line might ring with grotesque comedy after the Captain's words: that it ‘jars oddly against the violence it approves’ (Mack 1973: 150)? How intelligent a ruler is he?

After Cawdor's death, the Duncan of Polanski's film enjoys a perpetual good humour, as though he were a friendly bank manager. Resolute in the business of kingship, relaxed after his triumph, he has no other distinguishing characteristics. And it is possible to act him in this way. But it is not the only way. Yes, we may underwrite his determination and goodness, as Polanski does. We may even ironize his naïvety by emphasizing his ignorance of the disjunction between the discourses of killing and courtesy: perhaps Polanski aims at such an irony by contrasting Duncan with the unsmiling and watchful Malcolm. But is there not another way of playing him too, in which he glimpses into the horrors of the society he rules before getting on with the job? Trevor Nunn's Duncan, old and infirm as he is, sees the horror, but seeks to bear it all upon his own back: ‘Mea culpa,’ he murmurs, like a saint or a scapegoat, a primitive king whose ritual sacrifice will purge the kingdom of its guilt. Almost too helpless to govern, his gratitude to Macbeth is spoken in the cracked voice of extreme old age. Yet it need not be so. May not his praise of Macbeth's valour and worthiness be offered in full knowledge of the threat he constitutes and in full determination to avert it? A pause before that difficult line above would do the trick and make it seem part of a policied way of dealing with threat.

Seen in this light, Duncan's attempt is to turn the soldier back into the gentleman. He is trying to reclaim the unceremonious energies of war for the ceremoniousness of peace, the equivocal values of the aristocratic code for the cause of civilization. Yet remember that it is a civilization in which he remains king. If all his behaviour in this scene, as he rewards ‘Bellona's bridegroom’ (I.ii.55) with the title of thane of Cawdor, may be seen as the expression of a virtuous gratitude, it may also be seen as a determined bid to stay on top in a highly competitive world. Trevor Nunn's Duncan lacks the competitive edge needed to survive in such a society. The king cannot determine who shall win or lose the battle—for that he is dependent upon his warlords—but, should he win, he can determine who shall win or lose honours. By such dispensation of honours the feudal monarch made good his lack of military power. Yet the irony of Duncan's unconscious echo of the Sisters in his closing line about things lost and won (I.ii.69) emphasizes the implausibility of his whole enterprise. The arts of peace cannot be served by the arts of war. Nor can they be served without them—and here is a contradiction crucial to the play.

Duncan, however, has more than the distribution of state honours to reinforce his authority: he has a fully articulated philosophy of kingship too. Let us turn now to I.iv to elucidate this philosophy, the official belief system of the Scotland which Shakespeare has imagined for his play.


Read I.iv. After his relative passivity in I.ii, Duncan now resumes his active kingly responsibilities. Polanski shows a king determined to be firm, Nunn a king too old to be so. Ask yourself what pieces of business Duncan has in hand, then how effectively he tackles them. What beliefs about the nature of kingship do his words and actions suggest?


There are three pieces of business that Duncan undertakes in I.iv: he receives the news of Cawdor's execution, he welcomes and rewards his thanes, and he settles the succession upon his son. Past, present and future must be seamlessly united, as Duncan grapples with the testing process of re-establishing social order after the turmoil of war. It is a dangerous time in the history of any society when the armies return home and the immunities of military life are surrendered to civic duty, and it is this transition that Duncan now has to negotiate. Surrounded by his court, he sets about restoring to currency the political ideology upon which his kingdom rests.

This ideology is feudal in a very pure form. We may approach it through the ‘compt’ rendered by Malcolm of Cawdor's death, which it is Duncan's first piece of business to hear (I.iv.1-14):

… very frankly he confess'd his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it: he died
As one that had been studied in his death,
To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd,
As 'twere a careless trifle.


Here is aristocratic lavishness expended in an honourable cause. The traitor had set up his own will and his own view of the world against those of his sovereign, but now in his death he honours the God and king whom he had formerly disobeyed. A personal crime against the body of the king has been avenged upon the body of its perpetrator; frank confession has replaced covert ambition; and the seamless political harmony which Duncan cultivates, extending from God through king to subject, appears to have been secured as Cawdor finally renounces his rebellious desires—a harmony, however, soon to be shattered as, with an irony disclosing the inadequacies of Duncan's ideology, the same ‘black and deep desires’ resurface in Macbeth at I.iv.51.

Both the duties of the feudal bond and the contradictions which it conceals are beautifully encapsulated for us by the concept of ‘owing’ that Malcolm invokes; for, in the late feudal society of Shakespeare's Britain, the verb ‘to owe’ might mean either ‘to owe’ or ‘to own’. According to feudal ideology, all property and office was held as trust: the nobility held their lands of the king for his service, and the king held his throne—either of God or of his people—for their better protection. Thus, as Cawdor implicitly confesses at the last, the subject had no right to his own will, his own view of the world. He did not even own his own life, he owed it; and now the king is calling his debts in. Yet, of course, the other sense of ‘to owe’ as ‘to own’ was always ready to assert itself, generally in the interest of the individual family against the state. Kin might always be preferred to king, and it is to guard against this possibility that Duncan is busy. Although disappointed in the ‘absolute trust’ which he had placed in Cawdor (I.iv.14), he will nevertheless continue to strengthen the bond between himself and his subjects by fostering trust. For trust—a moral virtue grounded in the realities of property relations under feudalism—offers him one way of turning his military and political weaknesses into strength.

The question to be faced in production, of course, is that of Duncan's good sense in affirming trust in despite of treason. In Nunn he is too infirm to do otherwise: grieved by Cawdor but grateful towards Macbeth, the moral contradictions of his experience overwhelm his failing powers. In Polanski it is rather the political contradictions of his society that defeat him. Here the figure of Cawdor frames the scene, beginning with a confession whose tones are wholly ambiguous and ending with the swinging body of his corpse as Macbeth avows his own treacherous desires. In neither film is trust sufficient; but shall we blame the weakness of the king or the tragic contradictions of his situation?

Turn now to Duncan's second piece of business, the welcoming and rewarding of his thanes (I.iv.14-35). Here he discloses the full ambition of his ideology, as he tries to weave man, nature and God into harmonious unity. Let us take his relationship with each of these in turn. First, his attitude towards his fellow-countrymen. Read Duncan's opening address to Macbeth (I.iv.14-21) and ask yourself what it shows of Duncan's feudal ideology.


Duncan expresses his gratitude to Macbeth and Banquo by declaring his indebtedness to them; and it is in this way that he reaffirms his commitment to the politics of trust:

… Thou art so far before,
That swiftest wing of recompense is slow
To overtake thee: would thou hadst less deserv'd,
That the proportion both of thanks and payment
Might have been mine! only I have left to say,
More is thy due than more than all can pay.


The relationship defined in these striking lines is not, as might first appear, primarily a financial one: Macbeth is no mercenary. His richest reward will lie in Duncan's increased sense of debt: payment will find its worth in thanks, not thanks in payment. Duncan declares his gratitude in open court, for he wants his relationship with his cousin to epitomize the principle of reciprocity upon which he would rule the whole country—a reciprocity in which debt can never be repaid but only deepened under the gentle discipline of gratitude. Therefore he entrusts himself to his most powerful subject at the moment of his greatest power; and therefore, fatefully, he determines to visit him at Inverness, indebting himself still further in his desire to ‘bind us further to you’ (I.iv.43).

Yet there is something else about these lines too, to which Harry Berger Jr (1980: 20) has drawn attention, and that is the competitiveness which they disclose between Duncan and Macbeth. The king humbles himself only in order that the subject should do the same: he is engaged upon a courtly game, a coercive ritual with whose requirements Macbeth is perfectly familiar, as the studied courtesy of his reply makes plain. They vie in self-effacement with one another; like two people who arrive at a door together and give way to one other, they defuse the fear of aggression by an elaborately patterned ceremony. ‘After you’: ‘No, after you.’ Macbeth has gone so far before, says Duncan, that he will never be able to catch him up. He has preceded him; and we shall appreciate the dangers of Duncan's strategy if we remember the importance of precedence to a hierarchical society. For Duncan is in effect, unconsciously, tempting Macbeth, his ‘peerless kinsman’ (I.iv.58), with the crown. His policy of trust—and I do not mean by this that he is insincere—may encourage the very treachery that he is trying to prevent. The social ritual in which he is engaged carries a high risk: the person who adopts a submissive posture may always get beaten up. Yet Duncan goes through with it: he dies true to his dangerous faith that Scotland might be ruled harmoniously as an extended family whose manners of deferential gratitude will defuse the malice of aggression.

Such a reading implies that Duncan is fully self-conscious about the strategies that he adopts, watchful (as perhaps all feudal monarchs were) of the power struggles threatening the courtly conversational rituals that evolved to contain them. Is Duncan watchful in this way, do you think, careful of his power? Or is he naïvely trustful? Or is the real point elsewhere, quite apart from Duncan's virtues or vices, in the perception that it lies tragically beyond the art of man, especially in a courtly world but maybe more generally too, ‘to find the mind's construction in the face’ (I.iv.12)?

Second, what do these same lines (I.iv.14-34) show of Duncan's attitude to nature? What do you learn from his metaphor describing the art of kingship in terms of farming (I.iv.28-9), and also from his metaphor at the start of I.vi, breathing life into the breeze before Macbeth's castle?


Nature, like the commonwealth, is also the field of human labour for Duncan, a site upon which the reciprocities of service and gratitude spin their soft webs of mutual indebtedness. When he says to Banquo that he has begun ‘to plant thee, and will labour / To make thee full of growing’ (I.iv.28-9), he is showing his faith in the complementarity of art and nature and the labour that binds them reciprocally together. King, thane and commoner alike, he implies, share the same ‘natural’ responsibility to tend the things in their trust in order to reap their promised reward.

But it is I.vi.1-3 that contain the loveliest illustration of Duncan's attitude to nature as, in ignorance of what lies within, he praises the beauty of Macbeth's castle:

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

Can you recognize the metaphor by which Duncan identifies the breeze here? Does he not see it as a servant, whose courteous alacrity he rewards by his own grateful notice? The metaphor has a double effect: it naturalizes the social relationship, and this in turn familiarizes nature, so that we sense no discontinuity between the natural and the social worlds. Characteristically, Duncan speaks of the recommendations of the breeze, as earlier he spoke of the commendations of Macbeth (I.iv.55); and behind both words we hear the technical feudal term of commendatio, the act whereby a freeman offers service to a lord in exchange for protection. For it is a language of feudal reciprocity that Duncan uses, picked up by Banquo in his own way when he goes on to speak of the temple-haunting martlet as the guest of summer, wooed by the breeze to make its home amid lov'd mansionry (I.vi.3-10). The king sees patterns of service that confirm him in his status; the guest sees patterns of invitation that confirm him in his. The ‘multiplying villainies of nature’ seem quite forgotten here, although of course they remain the hidden text behind this public reading of nature as the register of human reciprocity.

Lastly, what can you find in I.iv and in I.vi to illustrate Duncan's attitude to God?


At the heart of Duncan's vision of harmony lies his faith in God. When he speaks to Macbeth of the sin of his ingratitude, he implies that the pattern of debt and gratitude which he is trying to replicate finds its ultimate validation in the nature of man's relationship to God. Many critics of Macbeth believe, with Brian Morris, that ‘it is a moral, though not a religious, play’ (1982: 41). But can so sharp a distinction be made?

The feudal society that Shakespeare has imagined for Macbeth, as for King Lear, is a world united in a shared understanding of social bonds—a word difficult for modern audiences to grasp, since it mediates between areas of experience that today we commonly keep apart: ideas of duty and affection, of natural and social law, of spontaneous love and traditional attachment. The Latin word pietas perhaps comes closest to the English bond of the Renaissance, signifying as it does that desirable conduct towards God and man in which duty and affection meet, each in confirmation of the other. When Duncan speaks of the sin of ingratitude, he is declaring his faith in a world whose ordinary everyday pieties are transfused with religious meaning. It is a sacramental vision, denying the distinction between morality and religion, committed to reading the worlds of nature and ‘human nature’ as Nature, the sacred text of God.

Turn again to I.vi, and puzzle out Duncan's words of welcome to Lady Macbeth, as she advances with perhaps an overeffusive smile of welcome on her lips:

The love that follows us sometime is our trouble,
Which still we thank as love. Herein I teach you,
How you shall bid God 'ild us for your pains,
And thank us for your trouble.


In the difficult and elaborate courtesy of these lines, Duncan displays the laborious responsibility of kingship to find in every moment of life an example to instruct his subjects in the endless replication of debt and gratitude that alone has power to bond together in one society the Creator and the whole of his created world.

I have found some words of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss helpful in imagining the kind of society that Shakespeare has invented for Duncan's Scotland—a society where man, nature and God are built into a structure so perfect, and so frail, that the gentlest push might bring it down.

In these ‘early’ societies, social phenomena are not discrete; each phenomenon contains all the threads of which the social fabric is composed. In these total social phenomena, as we propose to call them, all kinds of institutions find simultaneous expression: religious, legal, moral and economic.

(Mauss 1966: 1)

In such a society, heavily tabooed and ritualized, each orderly action symbolizes and reproduces the order of the whole; and each disorderly action bodes its total destruction. As Mauss observes, ‘in these primitive and archaic societies there is no middle path. There is either complete trust or mistrust’ (1966: 79).

Let us now turn to Duncan's third piece of business in I.iv, the establishment of the succession on his son (I.iv.35-42). In Holinshed, the Scottish system of royal succession is a tanistic one, ‘whereby the succession to an estate or dignity was conferred by election upon the “eldest and worthiest” among the surviving kinsmen of the deceased lord’ (OED 1989). Such a system gave Mackbeth a legitimate hope for the throne and a legitimate grievance against Duncane for depriving him of it. But in Shakespeare this is not an issue: Duncan has power to nominate Malcolm his successor as the thanes have to nominate Macbeth after Malcolm absconds. Why then does he choose this moment to settle the succession upon his son? What effect does his decision have?


It is Duncan's timing in nominating his own son for the succession at this particular moment that raises most acutely the question of his wisdom or his folly as a ruler. Does he realize that he is facing powerful subjects at their most powerful, flushed with military success that might enkindle them unto the crown? And if he does know, is his announcement the ‘final misjudgment’ that Michael Hawkins thinks it (1982: 175), or the most prudent course of action to control those subjects and avert the danger of civil war? Is it perhaps yet another ritual to be defined by the risk that it runs?

These questions, although provisionally answered in every production of the play, are finally unanswerable. On the one hand, Duncan has been acted as childishly credulous, the victim of his own ‘almost incredible want of caution’ and ‘unguarded confidence’ (see Rosenberg 1978: 147). On the other hand, he has been acted as a canny ruler who stage-manages the distribution of honours in I.iv in order to practise the hoary art of dividing and ruling: by praising first Macbeth, then Banquo, then his own son above them both, he seeks both to exploit and to contain the competitiveness of court culture which is so dangerous to him (see Rosenberg 1978: 152-3). We may see something of these two extremes if we compare the Nunn and Polanski productions; for while Nunn's Duncan is almost childishly credulous, with a credulity which seems an aspect of his sanctity, as though he were a holy fool, in Polanski we see a determined ruler struggling to control a rivalrous court, and killed because his watchfulness does not extend to his own kinsman. Such interpretations clearly express an understanding of the play as a whole: the morality play of Nunn, with its weak but virtuous Duncan, highlights the villainy of Macbeth; while Polanski's more political film, with its stronger king, highlights instead the structural contradictions within the play's society.

In case Duncan's characterization seems to you unsatisfactorily vague, let me suggest finally that our ignorance serves a dramatic purpose: to remind us that, despite his commitment to the politics of trust and openness, Duncan's conduct in fact is ambiguous and reserved. Where there is power, there is mistrust: and the greatest mistrust of all surrounds the succession. As his verse ceremoniously exerts the discipline of place on those around him, restoring sons, kinsmen and thanes to their rightful order of precedence, it also confers a new pre-eminence upon his son. Is Duncan acting here for the good of the state or for the good of his own family? Is he serving the harmony of the whole or the interest of the part? These questions cut to the heart of Duncan's whole ideological enterprise, for they enable us to glimpse that ideology as a function of his power. They remind us that the religious harmony privileged by Duncan is one which privileges himself and his family too, and that this in turn breeds malice among his subjects. The structure of the scene makes the point for us: as Duncan reproduces the political order of the former world, he also reproduces in Macbeth those same ‘black and deep desires’ (I.iv.51) which have already led to civil war.


Turn again to I.vi. Duncan's last appearance in the play shows him upon the threshold of Macbeth's castle, greeted by Lady Macbeth. What meaning does this image hold for you?


When Duncan stands in courteous praise before the looming battlements of Macbeth's castle, it is a moment of dramatic irony typical of the whole of the play's first act: a dramatic irony betraying a deeper irony still, which we may trace to the moral nature of man or to the political structure of Scotland, or indeed to both together, but whose immediate material base is in the prestige and property relationships of feudalism—the irony that brings forth malice out of trust.

In Macbeth malice is given precedence over trust: it goes before, continuously creating dramatic ironies which disclose the implausibility of Duncan's hopes for peace. We met the Sisters in I.i before Duncan in I.ii, and here we meet the hostess in I.v before the guest in I.vi. Right from the start we see the paradox of the code by which Duncan lives: namely, that the mutual trust which he promotes is a powerful ideology when successful, but awesomely frail when it fails. There is no middle path, and its frailty seems all the greater when we remember the importance attached in feudal ceremony to who goes where to pay respect. For this is a more primitive, more dangerous, feudalism than that of Tudor and Jacobean England, where monarchs regularly progressed from stately home to stately home, both to honour and to exhaust the wealth of their wealthiest subjects. Here there is danger when the monarch comes to the subject, especially as a guest, putting himself in his host's protection. Duncan's praise of Macbeth's castle is the last time in the play that anyone will enjoy a relaxed relationship with the otherness of the external world, and Banquo's reply is the last time that a subject will be able to ‘do faithful homage, and receive free honours’ (III.vi.36) in exchange with his sovereign. After this, as Duncan makes his fatal entrance under the battlements, the light thickens and the atmosphere becomes claustrophobic, strained, hallucinatory.

Yet Duncan is true to his faith to the end. Perhaps something in him balks at the approach of Lady Macbeth; but heroically, or naïvely, he goes through with it. He turns his fatigue into a pattern of love, as we have seen, and then once more inverts traditional precedence in ritual self-submission. He had wanted to become her husband's ‘purveyor’, he says (I.vi.22), his servant, riding before him in order to prepare for his arrival. It is a benign inversion. What the Sisters do in malice, Duncan does to foster trust—or, in another language, to reproduce a symmetrical self-submission in his subjects. Notice the diamond which he gives to Lady Macbeth as he goes to bed (II.i.15): he dies as he lived, acting out his faith in the value of mutual indebtedness.

But Lady Macbeth is more than a match for him. In this dangerous society, where gestures of trust are ritualized in order to minimize misunderstanding and reduce risk, Lady Macbeth thrives upon the fact that the outward show of ritual may be simulated.

… 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:


These lines show her awareness of the competition in service which maintains the status quo in feudal society, and her next lines show her alacrity to account her possessions as debts to the king (I.vi.25-8). But, behind the dance of her courtesy, a quite different competitive spirit is astir, leading to a quite different kind of reckoning. If Duncan is prudently seeking trust from a position of power, she is treacherously seeking power from a position of trust. Nunn shows her horrified by her own treachery and reluctant to touch Duncan as she welcomes him; but in Polanski she revels in it, dancing with Duncan and smiling with appalling frankness upon him. It is a horror that we shall understand more fully in retrospect when the redoubled toil and trouble of which she speaks (I.vi.15) declares its secret affinity with the work of the Sisters. For its heart is malice, the excited and exciting betrayal of trust; and it is the vulnerability of trust that we see in that ironic picture of Duncan before the castle of Macbeth.


Trust and malice, Duncan and the Sisters: two sides of the same coin, fellow-contraries that perpetually reproduce one another within an ‘early’ society where the enviable status of king rests dangerously upon the military prowess of his warlords. The ideology of reciprocity by which Duncan rules is in fact a necessity of his political dependency, and it functions only by demonizing dissent. Shakespeare does not make the connection between the recent development of a centralized monarchy and the witch-hunts that we might make today. Instead, imagining a society more primitive than his own, he shows how Duncan's faith in reciprocity works to control the unstable competitive culture of which he is the head, how his gentleness works to occlude its violent hierarchy. It is the hidden violence of this hierarchy that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will now disclose as they act out their desires between the poles of trust and malice upon which their kingdom turns.


Anderson, Perry (1974). Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. London, New Left Books.

Berger Jr, Harry (1980). ‘The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation’, in ELH, 47.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1836/1987). ‘1818-1819 Lectures on Shakespeare’, in The Collected Works of S.T. Coleridge, 5(II), ed. R.A. Foakes. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Hawkins, Michael (1982). ‘History, Politics and Macbeth’, in Focus on ‘Macbeth’, ed. John Russell Brown. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Holinshed, Raphael (1587/1965). Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, vol. 5. New York, AMS Press.

James I (1599/1965). Basilikon Doron, in The Political Works of James I, ed. C.H. McIlwain. New York, Russell and Russell.

Mack Jr, Maynard (1973). Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Mauss, Marcel (1966). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, tr. Ian Cunnison. London, Cohen and West.

Morris, Brian (1982). ‘The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory in Macbeth’, in Focus on ‘Macbeth’, ed. John Russell Brown. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rosenberg, Marvin (1978). The Masks of Macbeth. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Stone, Lawrence (1979). The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, abridged edn. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Thomas, Keith (1973). Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Lois Potter (review date 2002)

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SOURCE: Potter, Lois. Review of Macbeth. Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 1 (2002): 95-105.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2001 Globe season, Potter returns a mixed evaluation of director Tim Carroll's Macbeth, approving of its unconventional setting as a contemporary formal event and its individual performances, while disparaging some of Carroll's directorial additions.]

Tim Carroll's production of Macbeth was described to me as a failure, sometimes an “interesting failure”—so of course I was bound to be pleasantly surprised, and I was. Its basic metaphor seemed to be that of a New Year's or Halloween party, with the entire cast in tuxedos and long dresses. Paul Chahidi, one of the witches, explained in an interview that eveningwear “both provides a neutral palate and immediately suggests night.”1 I wondered whether it might also be an equivalent to the Jacobean masque: performance plus social event. One of the witches' dances might have been a modern version of the “widdershins” antimasque dance by the witches in Jonson's Masque of Queens. The performance opened with the entire company dancing; Banquo was murdered in a game of blindman's buff; and, before killing Lady Macduff and her son, one of the murderers danced with her while the other pretended to be playing with the boy. The minimal props consisted of items that might have been found in any hotel. The Bloody Sergeant used a napkin to indicate his wounds; he later handed it to Macbeth; Macbeth in turn passed it to his wife as he went upstage, and she came downstage reading it: it had now become the letter telling her about the witches' prophecy. The sound of ripping napkins accompanied the final fight, and feathers—from the pillows on which Macbeth and his wife failed to find rest?—fell or were scattered by the characters during the battle scenes. Apart from this, there was only a platform that was lowered from time to time to create a tableau or a table—as in the grotesque banquet scene, where the guests, in their party hats, sat behind the table, visible only from the neck up.

Against the party music in the background, the witches (Liza Hayden, Paul Chahidi, and Colin Hurley) chanted some of their lines and sang others; one of them even went briefly into rap during the cauldron scene, and “Cool it with a baboon's blood” sounded for a moment like “Cool it.” (For some reason, I didn't mind this, whereas I was annoyed at the cheap laugh in the National Theatre's Winter's Tale when Florizel, having just smoked home-grown pot, commented on Perdita's “unusual weeds.”) The witches' comedy, and their rapport with the audience (to whom they addressed the theater's now-traditional warning that spectators should turn off their cellphones), made me wonder whether the singing and dancing witches that we usually blame on Middleton or the Restoration might after all have been part of the play's design from the start.

In the middle of all this stylization, Jasper Britton and Eve Best played the Macbeths as a surprisingly credible modern couple. Britton's previous successes at the Globe have been due to his comic gifts and ability to play off an audience: I wouldn't have been surprised if he had asked us to vote on whether or not he was seeing a dagger. He didn't do that, perhaps fortunately, but he did make his lines sound like something a man in a tuxedo might actually say. In this kind of production the terrifying thing about Macbeth is that he is a believable person in an unbelievable world. The same was true of his wife, no battleaxe but someone who depended on her husband for reassurance and who was seen nervously patting her hair before coming forward to greet Duncan. Far from being a steadying influence, she forced him to calm down in order to calm her down (often by holding her hands). She even sought reassurance from the audience, gently holding a spectator's hand as she confessed, “Naught's had, all's spent.” This moment had a touching echo in the sleepwalking scene, which was played on the swaying platform. On “Give me your hand,” she reached out toward an imaginary helper and seemed, for a terrifying moment, about to fall off her perch when she found no one there.

Not all the characters were clearly enough defined to be recognizable in a cast where everyone looked alike and most actors had to double. But some of the performances were surprisingly strong. Patrick Brennan's Banquo was a genuine danger in life and death: he welcomed the recollection of the witches' prophecy and laughed nastily in the cauldron scene where he shows Macbeth that it will be fulfilled. Some of the doubles were also effective. Duncan (Terry McGinity) returned as the Doctor in the sleepwalking scene and did not get the usual laugh on “She speaks”; here it clearly meant “Oh, I see, it's that kind of sleepwalking syndrome.” Macduff (Liam Brennan), apparently the only Scot in Scotland, also played his own son. The witches doubled other roles, including the Captain (or Sergeant) and Seyton. The uncanny effect of people merging and metamorphosing into each other culminated in the apparitions of the cauldron scene, where the person whose lips were moving was usually not the person actually voicing the words. Not all the effects worked as well. The dovetailing of the dialogue in England between Macduff and Malcolm with Macbeth's visit to the witches' den, though it brought out the parallel concerns about who was “fit to govern,” made the scene seem to last forever. By the end, too, the personal and unhistorical treatment of the story left no context in which Malcolm's closing speech could make any sense, even as part of a ritual.

Leon Harold Craig (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Craig, Leon Harold. “Living in a Hard Time: Politics and Philosophy in Macbeth.” In Of Philosophers and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear, pp. 25-111. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Craig claims that Macbeth is Shakespeare's most metaphysical work, and probes the play's concern with such philosophical issues as the nature of reality, appearance, time, contingency, and being.]


Macbeth is the only work in the canon in which the word ‘metaphysical’ occurs. Once one begins to discern some of the play's larger themes, its singular occurrence there cannot be regarded as incidental; neither can the context in which it is introduced and the ideas that are immediately associated with it. Lady Macbeth is musing to herself in response to her lord's report of his strange encounter with those Weyward Sisters, who (he assures her) have “more in them than mortal knowledge.” She wishes him speedily returned so that she may pour her spirits in his ear, and subdue his inner impediments to seizing the crown “which fate and metaphysical aid” so clearly seem to have reserved for him (1.5.26-30). Her wish is no sooner expressed than a servant announces, “our Thane is coming”—indeed, so hard and fast that the messenger bringing this news, “almost dead for breath,” was barely able to outspeed him. When Duncan arrives with his entourage, he too draws our attention to the speed with which this victorious warrior returned to his wife's side: “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” (1.6.21-4; cf. 1.7.25). In this respect, the behaviour of the play's eponym is symbolic. For Macbeth is not only the shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, it is generally acknowledged to be the most fast-paced. And haste suggests that time is of the essence.

The play repeatedly invites its readers to reflect on the basic features of the world in which we find ourselves, including what is distinctive about our own participation in it. It is seasoned from beginning to end with references to nature: to Nature as a whole, to the natures of species and of individuals, to the natural, the unnatural, and—especially fitting, it would seem—to the supernatural (Macbeth's characterizing the witches' greeting to him as “this supernatural soliciting” is one of only two uses of the term in the Shakespearean canon). Of special interest, of course, is the play's portrayal of human nature, as refracted in the natures of the various characters involved. The fact remains, however, one cannot adequately understand human nature (or natures) apart from some understanding of Nature as such. After all, the term, at least in its superficial meaning, is one of distinction: the natural, as distinct not only from the supernatural and the unnatural, but also from the artificial, from the merely conventional, from the accidental and arbitrary. Before one can truly begin to understand Nature, however, one must see it as a problem—one must become aware of what is questionable about the world of immediate experience, what is ‘strange’ about it (only in The Tempest is this word used more often than in Macbeth). There are several aspects to this problem of comprehending the world, and I believe the play touches on them all. But it suggests that the ultimate metaphysical or cosmological issue concerns how we are to understand the workings of Good and Evil in the natural order of things. And while Macbeth seems primarily focused on Evil, on “the instruments of Darkness,” on “thick night,” on “Night's black agents,” on those “murth'ring ministers [that] wait on Nature's mischief,” it nonetheless shows that the Good is more fundamental, that Evil is unintelligible except in light of the Good, and thus shows why one must see the Good as the ultimate source of everything—not simply of Right and Wrong, and Beauty and Ugliness, but of all Truth and Reality, all Knowledge and Intelligibility, even of Being itself.1

A tall order, to be sure. And how Shakespeare manages this is perhaps not altogether explicable. It is not difficult, however, to give some indication of the extent to which metaphysical issues pervade the play. Indeed, it begins with tacit reference to three of the most basic. Amid the flashing and clashing of lightning and thunder, “Enter three WITCHES” (as the Folio specifies):2

1ST Witch:
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
2ND Witch:
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
3RD Witch:
That will be ere the set of sun.
1ST Witch:
Where the place?
2ND Witch:
                                                            Upon the heath.
3RD Witch:
There to meet with … Macbeth.

When … When … When: the question of Time. Where the place: the question of Space. Followed by the answer to an unasked but understood question: Why, for what Purpose: to meet Macbeth (which, as is typical, only gives rise to another ‘why’ question). Time, Space, Purpose. But there is a fourth metaphysical question we might wish to ask such strange-looking creatures were we to meet them on some blasted heath, as do Macbeth and Banquo. It is the very question they ask. First Banquo:

                                                                                                    —What are these,
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th'inhabitants o'th'earth,
And yet are on it? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question?

Then Macbeth: “Speak, if you can:—what are you?” (1.3.39-47). What, indeed! That is, what kind of being are they? Are they material? Moments later they vanish (as if “the earth hath bubbles, as the water has,” according to Banquo; or as Macbeth puts it, “what seem'd corporal, melted as breath into the wind”; 79-82). Are they alive? Are they rational (“aught that man may question,” and they speak in reply, perhaps explaining themselves)? But first and foremost, are they real? If not, why not? If so, how so? In either case, how can one be sure?

The opening scene, then, incorporates reminders of those essential ontological categories in terms of which we attempt to bring intelligible order out the chaotic flux of immediate experience: Time, Space, Purpose, Being.3 One might in retrospect add Cause as well, for reflecting back on the play, one wonders whether these three weird and wayward Sisters are in fact the cause of anything. As Macbeth later challenges them, “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is't you do?” Their reply, like so many of their pronouncements, is ambiguous: “A deed without a name” (4.1.48-9). The only substantial information we can glean from their initial manifestation—that there is some sort of war going on—partakes of similar equivocality (“When the battle's lost and won”). So too their chant, which concludes this brief but supercharged opening scene: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair …”—an oblique first reference to the play's (and life's) all-encompassing theme of Good versus Evil.4

The second scene, and the first in which appear beings we are sure are human, introduces several more of the metaphysical issues out of which the play is woven: Nature, Fortune, Justice, and Mortality. The first person to speak is the King, presumably recognizable as such by the conventional trappings of his office, and he too begins with a question. With the name ‘Macbeth’ perhaps still reverberating in the fog and filthy air, he asks, “What bloody man is that?” His son Malcolm, recognizing him whom the King is inquiring about to be “a good and hardy soldier” who helped rescue him from captivity, asks the wounded man for “knowledge of the broil.” Whether the battle to which Malcolm refers is the same as that spoken of by the witches is not immediately clear; we soon learn there is more than one. Whatever the case, the gallant captain replies, “Doubtful it stood.” Doubtful! An interesting word with which to begin, given that our philosopher-poet has chosen this character—a bleeding warrior of proven virtue—to be the first to mention either Nature or Fortune, doing so with pejorative overtones in both instances: he refers to “the merciless Macdonwald” upon whom “the multiplying villainies of nature do swarm,” and then speaks of “Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling, / Show'd like a rebel's whore” (1.2.10-14). It is also into his mouth that Shakespeare has placed the first reference to Justice, more precisely, “justice … with valour arm'd” (29). And there is scarcely a sentence he utters that does not remind us of Mortality.

As for the problem that perhaps more than any other gives rise to metaphysical speculation, namely, the relationship—especially the frequent discrepancy—between Appearance and Reality, this pervasive issue is represented in the play primarily by its most taxing manifestation: in human beings. The problem is introduced, however, in connection with the three creatures whose humanity—indeed, whose very reality—is at issue: those wither'd, wild-attired, choppy-fingered, skinny-lipped, bearded but otherwise womanish beings of whom Banquo asks, “I'th'name of truth, / Are ye fantastical, or that indeed / Which outwardly ye show?” (1.3.52-4). Not that it takes an encounter with witches to start one wondering. Every competent person soon learns that often things are not what they seem. King Duncan finds Macbeth's castle at Inverness a pleasant sight; and the air about it “nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto [his] gentle senses.” His senses deceive him. Nor is Banquo's evidence that “the heaven's breath smells wooingly here” to be relied upon (1.6.1-10). In fact, on almost any credible philosophic or scientific analysis, our immediate perceptions of reality virtually never correspond to its true character.5 Thus the innumerable puzzles and mysteries confronting anyone who, like Macbeth, is drawn to ponder the workings of his surrounding world. However, compounding the inherent difficulties with understanding things in general are people's intentional manipulations of appearances, refined to the point of art—several arts, actually, ranging from cosmetics and tailoring to rhetoric and sophistry. We use ‘clothing’ of all sorts to hide “our naked frailties … that suffer in exposure” (2.3.124-5). It may be old (2.4.38), it may be new (1.7.34), it may be borrowed (1.3.108-9), it may be stolen (5.2.20-2). And as we know, how well one's clothes fit (1.3.145-7), how well they wear (3.1.106; 4.3.23, 33), how well they suit one's time and place (1.3.40; 2.3.131), depend upon a variety of factors, not least of all one's choice of ‘tailors’ (1.7.35-6). But as Macbeth's Porter reminds us, not all tailors go to heaven (2.3.13-15).

Duncan first directs attention to the human problem with his rueful lamenting, “There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face.” Variations on this theme recur throughout the play. Macbeth, having screwed his courage to the sticking point: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (1.7.82-3). Malcolm, conferring with Donalbain in the wake of their father's murder: “To show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy” (2.3.134-5). Macduff, replying to Malcolm's lecherous pretensions: “you may / Convey your pleasures in a spacious plenty, / And yet seem cold—the time you may so hoodwink: / We have willing dames enough” (4.3.70-3). It may be put to Macbeth's credit, however, that he (like Macduff; 34-7) has neither taste nor talent for dissembling; according to his wife, his face is an open book. A natural warrior, the warrior's code of honour is naturally appealing to him; hence, he prefers direct action and open fighting to treachery (see 1.7.10-16; 5.3.32; 5.5.5-7, 51-2; 5.8.1-3, 27-34). Thus his lady must exhort him, “To beguile the time, look like the time” (1.5.61-3). But he clearly is not comfortable with the necessity of doing so: “Unsafe the while, that we / Must lave our honours in these flattering streams, / And make our faces vizards to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (3.2.32-5).6 With all these explicit references to our penchant for masking inner realities with false seemings, one must be that much more alert to the possibilities of various characters—‘good’ as well as ‘bad’—actually doing so. The play is shot through with duplicity, with double-dealing, but especially with double-meaning, ‘equivocal’ speech (Shakespeare's use of the various cognates of ‘equivocate’ is almost exclusive to Macbeth). Of course, only because this all-too-human dissembling almost always takes the same direction: vice masking itself with the appearance of virtue (or as Malcolm puts it, “all things foul would wear the brows of grace” 4.3.23), only because people typically endeavour to appear better than they are, not worse, is Malcolm's deceptive testing of Macduff by means of self-slander as effective as it is.

Granted that all the great metaphysical issues figure thematically in the play, there is one, however, that has a special prominence—signalled in the successive iterations of its very first word: ‘When.’ Time is to Macbeth's philosophical story what Tyranny is to its political, and one of the interpretive challenges of the play is seeing why this should be so. All three of the witches are associated with time, the first with the past (“hail to thee, Thane of Glamis,” a title Macbeth had earlier inherited), the second with the present (“hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor,” a title he has just been granted), the third with the future (“that shalt be king hereafter”—she is the only one of the three that makes predictions; 1.3.48-50; see also 1.1.5; 1.3.67). Thus, it would seem that the Weyward Sisters are, whatever else, unlovely Scottish versions of the three Fates (what Holinshed called in his account, “the goddesses of destinie”). And as they begin the play with the most common question of time, so is Malcolm's concluding speech replete with temporal references: “We shall not spend a large expense of time, / Before we reckon with your several loves … Henceforth be Earls … 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.” Every one of the five acts of Macbeth begins with an explict allusion to time, as do fully one-half of its original twenty-seven scenes.

Once one makes a point of noticing them, it is remarkable how plentiful—and yet unobtrusive in their context—are the various measures and amounts and locations of time. To cite but one example, the conversation between the Old Man and Rosse begins thus:

OLD Man:
Threescore and ten I can remember well;
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful, and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
                                                                                                                        Ha, good Father,
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.


Then there are the various queries as to what time it is, such as that of Banquo to his son: “How goes the night, boy?” Fleance: “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” Banquo: “And she goes down at twelve.” Fleance: “I take't, 'tis later, Sir” (2.1.1-3). Or Macbeth's to his wife: “What is the night?” Lady Macbeth: “Almost at odds with morning, which is which” (3.4.125-6). And particular characterizations of a given moment in time, such as Macbeth's reaction when the witches disappear after showing him a line of Banquo-fathered kings: “Let this pernicious hour stand aye accursed in the calender!” (4.1.133-4); and Lady Macbeth's apology for her lord's bizarre behaviour at the banquet, as but “a thing of custom … Only it spoils the pleasure of the time” (3.4.95-7). Add to these the references to Time itself, such as Macbeth's “Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (1.3.147-8), or his “Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits” (4.1.144), or “these Weyward Sisters saluted me, and referr'd me to the coming on of time” (1.5.8-9); or Banquo's fateful challenge to these same witches: “If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow, and which will not, / Speak then to me” (1.3.58-9). Perhaps not incidentally, then, there are some unusual ‘timepieces’ mentioned: “the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, which gives the stern'st good-night” (2.2.3-4); the bat whose flight announces dusk, and the “shard-born beetle, with his drowsy hums [that ring] Night's yawning peal” (3.2.40-3); “the wolf, whose howl's his watch” (i.e., of “wither'd Murther” 2.1.52-4)—these natural harbingers of night and sleep supplement Nature's more familiar herald of the dawn and wakefulness, the cock (2.3.24).

Almost every character in the play at some point gives special attention to the ‘timing’ of actions. There is Macbeth, musing to himself about regicide: “If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly” (1.7.1-2); and instructing the appointed murderers of Banquo: “Within this hour, at most, / I will advise you where to plant yourselves, / Acquaint you with the perfect spy o'th'time, / The moment on't; for't must be done tonight” (3.1.127-30). Macduff, arriving early in the morning to awaken the King, explains, “He did command me to call timely on him: I have almost slipped the hour” (2.3.45-6). There is Lady Macbeth putting the spurs to her reluctant lord: “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” (1.7.51-4). And Rosse—himself the master of timing, switching sides at just the right moment—cynically exhorting Macduff: “Now is the time of help” (4.3.186). Having just learned of their father's murder, Malcolm and Donalbain quickly conclude that then is not the time to speak in their own defence, but instead to flee for safety (2.3.118-21). Macduff reports that he “was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd” (5.8.15-16). And certainly not to be overlooked are the witches:

1ST Witch:
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
2ND Witch:
Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin'd.
3RD Witch:
Harpier cries:—'Tis time, 'tis time.


One consequence of all these explicit references to the timing of actions should be a heightening of one's own sensitivity to that very thing. As noted earlier, the solutions to some of the more perplexing features of the play are to be found through analysing the temporal sequence of events.7

Several of the most memorable moments and speeches in the play are fairly steeped in the language of time. Consider the chilling conversation between the victorious lord and his lady upon his first arriving home from the wars:

LADY Macb:
                                                            Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.
                                                                                          My dearest love,
Duncan comes here to-night.
LADY Macb:
                                                                                          And when goes hence?
To-morrow, as he purposes.
LADY Macb:
                                                                                          O! never
Shall sun that morrow see!
                                                                                          [Macbeth must visibly react]
Your face, my Thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like th'innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't. 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.


Then there is the equally time-conscious conversation of Macbeth with Banquo, who unbeknownst to him is about to set off on his final journey:

Ride you this afternoon?
                    Aye, my good Lord.
We should have else desir'd your good advice
(Which still hath been both grave and prosperous)
In this day's council; but we'll take tomorrow.
Is it far you ride?
                    As far, my Lord, as will fill up the time
'Twixt this and supper; go not my horse the better,
I must become a borrower of the night,
For a dark hour, or twain.


                    … But of that to-morrow,
When, therewithal, we shall have cause of State,
Craving us jointly. Hie you to horse: adieu,
Till you return at night. Goes Fleance with you?
                    Ay, my good Lord: our time does call upon's.
                                        I wish your horses swift and sure of foot;
And so I do commend you to their backs.
                                                            [Exit Banquo]
Let every man be master of his time
Till seven at night;
To make society the sweeter welcome,
We will keep ourself till supper-time alone:
While then, God be with you.


What is so noticeable in speeches such as these is but an intensification of the most distinctive linguistic feature of the play as a whole, namely, the density of terms measuring and positioning things in time: then, now, hereafter, forever, never, always, often, morning, noon, night, nightly, presently, ere, anon, already, while, newly, betimes, henceforth, eterne, momentary, sooner, lated, till, until, sometime, after, since, still, yet, yesterday, today, tonight, tomorrow, olden, modern, at once, early, late (etc.).8 This sample from our plethora of temporal locators and descriptors—and no fewer than four hundred of the words that compose Macbeth refer to time—should remind us of how profoundly, how essentially, ‘temporal’ our very nature is, how ‘unconsciously conscious’ we are about time (if one may be permitted an oxymoron or two). What accounts for this, our pervasive sensitivity to time? It would seem to be due, in part at least, to our awareness of our mortality, to the realization (always present, however dimly) that we live now but will soon die, that judged in cosmic terms our time here is limited to but the wink of an eye—truth so memorably expressed in the most renowned speech of the play, Macbeth's nihilistic reflection on the ephemerality of human existence, its apparent insignificance in the great expanse of time:

                    … What is that noise?
It is the cry of women, my good Lord.
I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cool'd
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse, and stir,
As life were in't. I have supp'd full with horrors:
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?
The Queen, my Lord, is dead.
She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.—
                              … 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.


Fittingly, proud Macbeth, even though dispirited, chooses to end his life with “sound and fury,” provoked by Macduff's shrewd threat that, should he yield to capture, he will be made “the show and gaze o'th'time” (5.8.24).

Reflection on the foregoing suggests that, of all the metaphysical questions human beings confront, understanding time—or rather, human existence in time—is especially important, or especially challenging, or both. The other prominent themes of the play are each somehow bound up with time. For example, sleep and wakefulness in accordance with the natural rhythms of time, of night succeeding day, and of the practical necessity of nightly rest in the natural economy of life (“the season of all natures, sleep” 3.4.140), and thus of what it means to “Sleep no more,” to “murther Sleep”—that is, innocent, secure sleep, the kind that does knit up the ravell'd sleave of care, and recreate both mind and body—and to instead “sleep in the affliction of terrible dreams that shake [one] nightly,” one's life becoming a murky Hell (2.2.34-9; 3.2.17-19; 5.1.34). It may be worth noting that the first mention of ‘sleep’ is by the First Witch, boasting of her plan to torment the ronyon's sailor husband by somehow insuring that for eighty-one weeks he shall “sleep … neither night nor day” (1.3.19-23). Also, the various ‘horticultural’ allusions (and again, the first comes in conjunction with those three haggish Fates: 1.3.58-9; see also 1.4.28-33; 4.3.76-7, 85, 238; 5.2.30; 5.3.23; 5.5.40; 5.9.31) are so many reminders that all natural growth, and decay, takes time.9 Or to put the point more generally, that Being is only physically, perceptibly present—which is to say, naturally manifested—in its governing the perpetual flux of Becoming in space and time—Time itself being the moving image, the “walking shadow,” of Eternity (according to Plato's Timaeus 37d-e). Even the oft-noted ‘clothing metaphor’10 is tied into time, as when Banquo observes, “New honours come upon him, like our strange garments, cleave not to their mould, but with the aid of use” (1.3.145-7). And Macbeth protests to his wife, “He hath honour'd me of late; and I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people, / Which would be worn now in their newest gloss, / Not cast aside so soon” (1.7.32-5).

The main focus, however, is on the human awareness of time, and the consequences thereof. We all have some appreciation that our present is the result of our past, and that only part of this relevant past is consciously available as memory. Clearly, the particular historical situations in which we are born and nurtured were not of our own choosing or making. How much of our resulting selves, then, can we, should we, must we accept responsibility for? Of the past that produced us, what might we rightfully praise or blame, accept or repudiate, attempt to suppress or to preserve? These are vexing questions, and people differ greatly in how they stand towards these matters. In tacit awareness that the past unalterably closes behind us, that “what's done cannot be undone,” we tend to be future-oriented—to such an extent that as our allotment of earthly days dwindles, we may become increasingly inclined to consider an existence beyond the mortal one.11 It is only in the prime of life, and while dubious of any future life, that one is apt to profess as does Macbeth a willingness to “jump [i.e., ‘risk’] the life to come” in return for some great worldly success (1.7.4-7).12 In any event, the prospects of the future, like the establishments of the past, evoke different sorts of responses in different kinds of people, or even in the same people at different times in their lives. Why this is so, why one individual is confident where another is anxious, seems as much a reflection of a given person's nature, character, and beliefs, as of the objective qualitites of his circumstances.

Here, then, would seem to be the primary dimensions of our temporal nature (obvious enough, to be sure): how one stands towards one's past; how one stands towards one's future; and how one stands towards death. It is the resulting dynamic synthesis of these ‘stances’ or attitudes that colours and shapes one's ever-moving point of present experience. Reconciliation with human temporality, and especially with one's own perhaps variable but surely finite existence in time, is mainly a matter of having the right attitude towards the various sectors and features of one's temporal horizon. What is entailed in having it right is elliptically indicated in the Macbeths' getting it all wrong. Dogged by their past, morbidly preoccupied with a future finality as elusive as a rainbow, they are unable to enjoy any moment of the present.13 To understand their mistakes, we need to consider the main alternatives available with respect to each dimension. What does the play suggest these are?

Regarding the Past, Macbeth displays in the extreme what seems to some extent true of many, if not most people: they are more apt to be haunted by their mistakes than gladdened by their successes (rather as Machiavelli suggests they more readily remember grievances than benefactions).14 Even pleasant remembrances can be tinged with the sadness of things no longer being so. Memory might be conceived as Macbeth's own “sweet remembrancer” describes it: “the warder of the brain” (1.7.66; 3.4.36). But the extent to which it is subject to purposeful control is difficult to determine, and may well vary from person to person.15 Macduff defends his evident sorrow upon hearing of the death of his wife and children, “I cannot but remember such things were, / That were most precious to me” (4.3.222-3). When Macbeth asks of the Scottish physician who has been tending his wife, “How does your patient, Doctor?”, he replies, “Not so sick, my Lord, / As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies, / That keep her from her rest.” Whereupon Macbeth orders:

                                                                                                    Cure her of that:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?


No doubt sensing the reflexive possibility of Macbeth's query, the tactful doctor replies, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Ah, but how? The Porter (“remember the Porter”) might have added forgetfulness to his catalogue of things that “drink … is a great provoker of” (2.3.25-9). The effects of this common “oblivious antidote” are variable, however, and not selective, and only temporary unless pursued to mind-destroying lengths. With respect to past mistakes that one regrets, and wishes “were now undone,” what ministration is there for the chronic mental discomfort they can cause—which, as the the anguish of Lady Macbeth reminds us, can be so severe as to pall one in the dunnest smoke of Hell, making death seem preferable to life (5.9.35-7)? The play suggests only two alternatives. The first would be to school one's soul to accept, fully and finally, the reasoning so ironically placed in the mouth of the Queen herself (advice applicable to the entirety of life, not merely to one's own mistakes): “Things without all remedy should be without regard: what's done is done” (3.2.11-12). However, abiding by this policy of ‘reasoned disregard’ presumes a strength of the soul's rational part that is apparently beyond most people. They may have no practical choice but the second alternative: repentance, with the possibility of forgiveness.

Neither disregarding nor repenting are prominent in the play, and least of all by the protagonists most in need of one or the other. Unlike the condemned rebel Cawdor, who according to the report Malcolm passes on:

                    … very frankly he confess'd his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it: he died
As one that had been studied in his death,
To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd
As 'twere a careless trifle.


(He—or Malcolm—sounds downright Sokratic,16 although one must bear in mind that Cawdor's “deep repentance” was born in defeat.) Unlike Cawdor, however, Macbeth merely regrets, never repents. The one time he uses the word, he is lying, or at the least does not mean it in the way he wishes it to be taken; he announces his killing of the blood-badg'd grooms by saying, “O! yet I do repent me of my fury, / That I did kill them” (2.3.104-5). As for his forgetting what once filled his mind with scorpions—the memory of his crimes, along with the fear that he will become the just victim of his own “bloody instructions”—he eventually is successful to a point, but at the price of his humanity. With Banquo's shade at last banished (“Hence, horrible shadow! / Unreal mock'ry, hence!” 3.4.105-6), Macbeth vows to become immune to what he now regards as but guilt-induced delusions: “My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear, that wants hard use: / We are yet but young in deed” (141-3). Having thus committed himself (along with his now passive but worried wife) to becoming habituated—not to bloodshed, which as a seasoned warrior he is inured to from the time we first meet him—but to atrocities, he finally succeeds in turning his milk of human kindness to gall. Apparently she does not quite. As his criminal career approaches its climax, Macbeth can muse, “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (5.5.9). Apparently Lady Macbeth has not. She never expresses repentance (“the access and passage to remorse” perhaps stopp'd, as she prayed it would be; 1.5.44), hence she never seeks what she needs: the kind of self-reconcilation that could come only from a sense of having been forgiven by someone with the power to forgive. As the doctor who witnesses her “slumbery agitation” puts it, “More needs she the divine than the physician.—/ God, God forgive us all!” (5.1.71-2). Still, it is evident from her somnambulatory torments and eventual death that Lady Macbeth remains essentially human. Whereas the insensitivity and forgetfulness of Macbeth verges upon that of a beast, not a human being—to “dispute it like a man,” one must first “feel it as a man” (4.3.220-1). The only person who expressly repents his sins is also the only one to pray for Macbeth's forgiveness, albeit on decidedly unChristian terms:

                                                                                          But, gentle Heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front,
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland, and myself;
Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape,
Heaven forgive him too!

(4.3.231-5; cf. 5.7.14-16)

Respecting the Future, the play affirms what common experience would suggest, namely, that the principal factors determining a person's temporal posture are Hope and Fear. A preoccupation with the latter is certainly evident enough. Indeed, there are more mentions of ‘fear’ and its cognates (‘fear'd,’ ‘fearful,’ ‘fearing,’ ‘fears’) in Macbeth than in any other of Shakespeare's creations. However, its action pivots as much if not more on hopes, especially false hopes, we would say, knowledgeable after the fact—“hopes [borne] 'bove wisdom, grace, and fear” (3.5.31)—but our retrospective judgment points to the precise difference at issue: the absolute finality (hence knowability) of the past versus the opacity of a future more or less rich with possiblities for good and evil, the final causes of hope and fear. It is the “royal hope” excited by the witches that inspires Macbeth and his lady to act on their black and deep desires. Only in the final minutes of his life does he realize he has been relying on “juggling fiends” who “keep the word of promise to our ear, / And break it to our hope” (5.8.19-22). Macbeth's own first mention of ‘hope’ comes in a kind of congratulation to Banquo: “Do you not hope your children shall be kings, / When those that gave the Thane of Cawdor to me / Promis'd no less to them?” (1.3.118-20). Banquo does so hope (3.1.5-10), and it is a prospect Macbeth finds increasingly galling with time. Lady Macbeth's sole reference to hope is in chiding her husband: “Was the hope drunk, / Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since? / And wakes it now, to look so green and pale / At what it did so freely?” (1.7.35-8). Her taunting insinuation that he lacks sufficient natural (i.e., sober) courage to act on his—and her—royal hopes has its intended effect. Macduff's hopes in Malcolm are what carry him to England (4.3.24, 114), and Malcolm's hopes in victory carry him back to Scotland (5.4.1-2). It is left to the practical old soldier Siward to remind us that hopes aren't horses, however: “Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate, / But certain issues strokes must arbitrate …” (19-20).

Seeing the future as but through a glass darkly, the rational imagination is to the future what the rational memory is to the past. Macbeth's letters have so stimulated the imagination of his lady that she has been “transported … beyond this ignorant present, and … feel[s] now the future in the instant” (1.5.56-8). She has high hopes. Macbeth, too, speaks of the non-existent, merely imagined future as more real than the existent present, but with a distinct foreboding:

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.


Together, this ambitious couple span the range of humanity's attitudes towards the future, one hoping for what she regards as the best, the other fearing what he imagines could be the worst.17 Yet, both are contemplating the same prospect: Macbeth's doing whatever might be necessary to seize the kingship.

Precisely because we do not know ‘what the future has in store’ for us, but often would like to, we have a natural interest in prediction and prophecy—indeed, in some people the eagerness to “look into the seeds of time” and know beforehand “which grain will grow, and which will not” renders them exceedingly gullible. But even a sceptic would be impressed when what seemed a most unlikely prophecy is promptly confirmed. In any event, one can be sure it is no mere coincidence that the first mention of ‘prediction’ comes in the same speech as the first mentions of both ‘hope’ and ‘fear.’ The three witches having in turn “all-hail'd” Macbeth, it is Banquo who responds, “Good Sir, why do you start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?” Then turning back to the witches, he continues, “My noble partner / You greet with present grace and great prediction / Of noble having, and of royal hope, / That he seems rapt withal: to me you speak not” (1.3.51-7). Whereupon he solicits a prediction on his own behalf, and receives their fateful, equivocal answers:

1ST Witch:
Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
2ND Witch:
Not so happy, yet much happier.
3RD Witch:
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none …

It is the witches' array of predictions to these two warrior chieftains that sets in motion all the subsequent events of the play.

First, what both Macbeths prefer now to think has been “promis'd” them (1.3.120; 1.5.13, 16) congeals their determination to murder Duncan—and we must notice that this is Lord Macbeth's immediate interpretation of “shalt be King hereafter”: that it is a suggestion to do something “whose horrid image” makes his heart pound and his hair stand on end. This despite the Thaneship of Cawdor being so surprisingly confirmed “without [his] stir.” Only afterwards does it occur to him that “Chance” may also as readily crown him King (1.3.144). Almost surely, then, this is not the first time Macbeth has thought about regicide. It would hardly be surprising had the temptation of it been troubling his mind as he and Banquo tramped through the foul weather from those desperate battles in which they—not meek Duncan—saved the kingdom. Is this why the witches' pronouncements arouse in Macbeth the rapture which Banquo twice notes (57, 143), and why he is sure they have “more in them than mortal knowledge”—because they have read his mind (cf. 4.1.74)? On the surface, it might seem that Shakespeare's Macbeths merely re-enact The Fall of Man, with the primary responsibility that of the Temptress Eve, in keeping with the traditional account. Examined more closely, however, one detects the author's somewhat different view: his Adam is no innocent, seduced into an act for which he showed no prior inclination.

Second, Banquo's having been implicated in the witches' prophecies has compromised him, thereby facilitating the initial success of Macbeth's bid to gain the crown under a cloak of legitimacy. For Banquo is the one person who is privy not only to the prophecy, but also to Macbeth's suspicious allusion to “that business” the very night of Duncan's murder: “If you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis, it shall make honour for you”—a conversation cut short by Banquo's guarded “So I lose none in seeking to augment it” (2.1.20-9). Despite having suspicions about Macbeth's involvement in Duncan's assassination (as he later acknowledges), Banquo obviously does not voice them when at his own instigation they all “meet and question this most bloody piece of work, to know it further.” Probably it was at this same meeting that Macbeth was named the new Sovereign (2.4.30-32). Banquo's passive complicity is confirmed shortly thereafter in his troubled soliloquy:

Thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all,
As the Weyward Women promis'd; and, I fear,
Thou playd'st most foully for't; yet it was said,
It should not stand in thy posterity;
But that myself should be the root and father
Of many kings. If there come truth from them
(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.


That is, Banquo sees the fulfilment of his own prophecy as dependent on the fulfilment of Macbeth's—to validate the witches' predictive powers, at the least, but also quite likely as a necessary step towards his own offspring's eventual success (cf. 15-18).

That would seem to be the way Macbeth sees it, too—and so he resolves to foreclose any such prospect by extinguishing forever Banquo's line, thereby hoping to subvert that part of the witches' prophecy. He may not have noticed it before, but once he has succeeded in becoming King he sees in Banquo a “royalty of nature … that … would be fear'd”:

                                                                                                              He chid the Sisters
When first they put the name of King upon me,
And bade them speak to him; then, prophet-like,
They hail'd him father to a line of kings:
Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.


Fearing that Banquo may choose to further the realization of his prophecy the same way that Macbeth did, ‘wrenching’ crown and sceptre with an unlineal hand, he resolves to murder Banquo—the third pivotal consequence of the witches' initial set of predictions. That what Macbeth has in mind is paradoxical, even self-contradictory, should not be lost on us. For Shakespeare means hereby to show the paradox inherent in all human interest in prophecy, and consequently in the normal human posture towards the future. For the very possibility of predictive certainty, such that one can have complete confidence in whatever is foretold, presupposes that the future is strictly determined, or ‘fated,’ and as such cannot be altered. Yet our interest in it stems not simply from curiosity, but from the practical desire to further our own good while avoiding anything bad—which, of course, presupposes that future outcomes are not fixed, but subject to discretionary action on our part.18

Now, one might object that there is no logical contradiction between the future—and hence all that happens in time—being strictly determined, on the one hand, and our consciously choosing the actions that of necessity lead to those predetermined outcomes, on the other (and that it is simply part of the necessary, determined order of things that we act under the illusion that we are free to choose, that we have ‘free will’). Consequently, Macbeth is doing nothing illogical in taking an active role in pursuing the kingship once it has been “promis'd” him, rather than passively waiting for “Chance” to crown him: this can be seen—even by him—as doing his (predetermined) part to bring the prediction to its fulfilment, having ‘of necessity’ been moved to do so by its assurance of success. Ah, but what about his efforts to obstruct the prophecy regarding Banquo? True, one could argue that logically the cases are the same, that his ‘futile’ efforts are equally part of the Master Plan, essential to its final outcome. And for the sake of argument, it may be conceded that this might be so. But what about psycho-logically? No rational person acts out of a motive to ‘fulfill the future’ per se, regardless of what it may be. Neither we, nor other living things, are ‘neutral’ in our nature: we pursue what we perceive to be our good, not The Future. Macbeth may have seen his murder of Duncan as simply doing his part to further fate as it has been revealed to him, but he surely cannot see his murder of Banquo in this way. The point is, he, like most people, has a contradictory attitude towards predictions of the future. Those that seem to favour him do not just suggest a possibility, or merely inspire hope; they impart confidence and a sense of legitimacy, a feeling that ‘this is how things were meant to be.’ Thus, Siward can describe Macbeth ensconced at Dunsinane as “the confident tyrant” (5.4.8; cf. 5.3.2-10). Whereas predictions that threaten him arouse fear and a will to evade—not, that is, acceptance, resignation, and despair. This ‘double’ or ‘equivocal’ attitude towards predictions reflects his ambivalence about the future itself: sometimes (or in certain respects) regarding it as fixed by fate, other times acting as if it were undetermined, hence, amenable to the influence of human volition.

Several times Macbeth in effect admits as much. When after the Banquo-haunted banquet he resolves purposefully to seek out the Weyward Sisters (a fourth pivotal consequence of his first, apparently chance, meeting with them; 1.3.154), he tells his wife: “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” (3.4.133-5). He wants to know the worst in order to avoid it, in the pursuit of his own good (as would anyone). The possibility of there being such knowledge before the fact, however, presupposes a determined world-system, as unalterable (hence, predictable) as the planets in their motions—that the “causes” will not “give way.” When later at the Pit of Acheron the warning of the First Apparition (“beware Macduff”) is seemingly contradicted by the exhortation of the Second (“Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth”), his response betrays the quite normal, and in that sense, natural doubt in his mind as to whether his should be a passive or an active role in protecting himself:

Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I'll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of Fate: thou shalt not live;
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder.


Having been offered still further “security” by the Third Apparition (“Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him”), Macbeth insists on the witches telling him one thing more: “shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?” Because the answer they “show his eyes” does indeed “grieve his heart” (110), he reacts to their vanishing with a most ironic curse: “Infected be the air whereon they ride; / And damn'd all those that trust them!” (138-9)—for as his confidence almost to the bitter end proves, he continues to trust the parts of their prophecies that he wishes to be true, those that seem to guarantee him protection, and thus free him from fear. He is clearly shaken when Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane (“I pull in resolution; and begin / To doubt th'equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like truth” 5.5.42-4). Still, his “better part of man” is only finally cow'd upon learning that Macduff was not naturally born of woman, but “from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd.” Too late he realizes how the Instruments of Darkness have played upon his hopes and fears: “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” (5.8.19-22).


  1. Much as Plato has Sokrates attest in the Republic 509a-c.

  2. This may be as fitting a place as any to note a stylistic feature of Macbeth: it abounds in triads. For in addition to the three witches who “All hail” Macbeth three times (1.3.48-50), then likewise thrice “Hail” Banquo (prefacing their three-part prophecy regarding him; 62-7), and whose magical chants and charms involve multiples of three (“Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, / And thrice again, to make up nine”—35-6; and, “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.” “Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin'd”—4.1.1-2); there are Macbeth's three titles (Glamis, Cawdor, King), and his three portrayed crimes (the murder of Duncan, the ambush of Banquo, the slaughter of Macduff's household). Several triads figure in the Porter's scene: his repeated “Knock, knock, knock” (2.3.3, 12-13); his welcoming three sinners to Hell (farmer, equivocator, English tailor); the “three things” he reminds us that drink “is a great provoker of” (25-7). There is the surprising return of a trio (Macbeth, Lenox, and Rosse; 88), whereas only two left to view the site of Duncan's murder. There are three murderers who set upon Banquo and Fleance. Macbeth alludes to three avine instruments used by “Augures” (magpies, choughs, rooks; 3.4.124). There are Malcolm's three false self-accusations (lust, avarice, and a lack of all “king-becoming graces”; 4.3.60, 78, 91). It is on his third night of watching that the Scottish Doctor at last views the somnambulent, somniloquent Lady Macbeth (5.1.1-2). When Hecate arrives at the Pit of Acheron, she is accompanied by three more witches (4.1.38). And at the Pit, Macbeth sees a succession of three “Apparitions,” offering three prophecies (each of the first two begin “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!”; to the second, Macbeth confusedly replies, “Had I three ears, I'd hear thee”—77-8). Macbeth calls three times for Seyton before he finally appears (5.3.18, 20, 29). According to the Folio text, the play comprises twenty-seven scenes, i.e., 33. This triadic pattern lends further support to the surmise that there must be, not two, but three battles referred to at the beginning of the play, involving all three great warrior captains (Macbeth, Banquo, and Macduff).

    As for what significance one might see in this pattern, several possibilities suggest themselves. For example, one might suspect a kind of ‘black’ counterpart to Trinitarian Christianity. But it also reminds one of the ‘threeness’ so evident in the most famous Platonic dialogues (i.e., the Apology of Sokrates and the Republic). And given the prominence of Time in the play (a matter to be discussed at length in this examination of the play), its manifold triads are stylistic echoes of the ever-moving sectors of Past, Present, and Future. T. McAlindon, in Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), begins his useful discussion of the symbolic dimension of the play by observing: “One of the most remarkable features of this tragedy is the way in which number symbolism cooperates with nature symbolism in the process of signalling key ideas relating to the tragic theme of disunity and chaos. This may be largely due to the fact that here, as in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare the tragedian shows a more than usual interest in time, the movement of the heavenly bodies, and history. The tradition of numerical symbolism and the temporal sensibility were closely related in literature since there was a natural connection between the time sense, astronomy, and the art of exact measurement according to number” (200). McAlindon stresses especially “the traditional association of the number three with the rituals of witchcraft.”

  3. Each of the play's first three scenes begin with one of these questions: ‘When,’ ‘What,’ ‘Where.’ The first explicit use of ‘why’ is Banquo's query upon noticing Macbeth's reaction to the witches' all-hailing him: “Good Sir, why do you start, and seem to fear things that do sound so fair?” (1.3.51-2). Good question.

  4. Knights, in Some Shakespearean Themes, also views the witches' chant as announcing the play's primary thematic focus, but construes it somewhat differently: “In none of the tragedies is there anything superfluous, but it is perhaps Macbeth that gives the keenest impression of economy. The action moves directly and quickly to the crisis, and from the crisis to the full working out of plot and theme. The pattern is far easier to grasp than that of Lear. The main theme of the reversal of values is given out simply and clearly in the first scene—‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’; and with it are associated premonitions of the conflict, disorder and moral darkness into which Macbeth will plunge himself” (122).

    However, Bradshaw, in Shakespeare's Scepticism, questions whether the ‘main theme’ is really that simple and clear: “Yet ‘Faire is foule’ is ambiguous. Instead of providing an indirect confirmation of the conceptual abstractions it may assert their unreality, in relation to the elemental ‘Hurley-burley’ (that word suggests amoral Chaos rather than immoral Evil), and to the obscene, elemental savagery of battles which are (in a comparably ambiguous way) ‘lost and wonne’” (223).

  5. This is easily illustrated by the unreliability of sensory evidence with respect to the reality of Matter, which according to any plausible account (from those of Plato or Aristotle to that of modern physics) is very different from what we perceive it to be. According to modern physicists, this ‘too solid flesh’ is anything but: were the bodies of the earth's entire human population fully compressed in the gravitational field of a ‘black hole,’ the resulting ‘solid matter’ (they tell us) would scarce fill one fortieth of a tablespoon!

  6. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, sees this as the root cause of both his torment and his vice: “Whilst Macbeth lives in conflict with himself there is misery, evil, fear: when, at the end, he and others have openly identified himself with evil, he faces the world fearless: nor does he appear evil any longer. The worst element of his suffering has been that secrecy and hypocrisy so often referred to throughout the play … Dark secrecy and night are in Shakespeare ever the badges of crime. But at the end Macbeth has no need of secrecy” (156).

  7. The dramatic effectiveness of Shakespeare's oft-remarked ‘trickery’ with time, not noticeable to spectators but puzzling to reflective readers, is itself revealing about human temporality: how the felt experience of time need not correspond to ‘objective’ measures of time; and how much freedom the rational imagination allows in the manipulation of time.

  8. Francis Berry, in an essay entitled ‘Macbeth: Tense and Mood,’ calls attention to a related grammatical feature of the play in Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, J. E. Calderwood and H. E. Toliver, eds. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 521-9): “The Form of the Verb of Macbeth, that which controls the whole plot, is peculiarly striking. It is, of course, the Future Indicative. But the dominant form of the Verb ‘in’ Macbeth, that which animates not the main outlines but the detail of passage, is also significant. It is the Subjunctive. The Verb Form ‘of’ Macbeth and the Verb Form ‘in’ Macbeth struggle against each other, and from this struggle issues the tragedy” (521).

    Berry goes on to observe, “Indeed, the whole play is Future minded, thus. … Unlike Hamlet and Othello there are in it no temporal flashbacks, no protracted memories of earlier generations, no narrations of past events, but it purely and avidly pursues a Future, and that is why reader and audience derive from it a sensation of rapidity or hurrying” (522). As for Macbeth himself, he exists mainly “in the subjunctive realm of possibilities—the realm of hopes and dreads; of ‘if's’ and phantasies; of what may be and may not be; of what ought to be and what ought not to be. The Subjunctive is a private realm” (523).

  9. Michael Davis, in his article entitled ‘Courage and Impotence in Shakespeare's Macbeth,’ in Shakespeare's Political Pageant, Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, eds. (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), points to the broader connections and implications of Banquo's challenge to the witches (“If you can look into the seeds of time …”) by observing: “The witches must represent time past, present, and future because the future is not independent of the past. Time has seeds. Events done in the present grow in the soil of past events and have consequences for the future … The entire play subsequent to the regicide may be described in terms of Macbeth's struggle against the consequences of his earlier actions. His battle is not so much a battle for a specific future as a battle against the past. And yet his every attempt to right the situation sinks him deeper into enslavement by the past” (231).

  10. Examined at length in Cleanth Brooks's influential (and controversial) essay, ‘The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness,’ in The Well Wrought Urn (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1947).

  11. Epitomized by old Kephalos in Plato's Republic 331d-e.

  12. As Howard White puts it in his essay entitled “Macbeth and the Tyrannical Man,” Interpretation 2 (Winter 1971, 148), “I submit that the difficulty with Hamlet is similar to the difficulty of Macbeth. They are not sure whether they believe or not.” Macbeth's famous soliloquy (1.7.1-28) reveals the conflicting feelings at war within his soul. Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, however, sees Macbeth's confusion as more formless than it is: “With Macbeth it is almost impossible to fit clear terms of conceptual thought to the motives tangled in his mind or soul. Therein lies the fine truth of the Macbeth conception: a deep, poetic, psychology or metaphysic of the birth of evil. He himself is hopelessly at a loss, and has little idea as to why he is going to murder Duncan. He tries to fit names to his reasons—‘ambition,’ for instance—but this is only a name. The poet's mind is here at grips with the problem of spiritual evil—the inner state of disintegration, disharmony and fear, from which is born an act of crime and destruction” (121).

    F. R. Leavis, in Education and the University (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979; originally published 1943), seems to have a better grasp of what essentially is going on beneath the puzzling, yet strangely effective imagery Shakespeare provides Macbeth in this soliloquy:

    It is a speech that exhibits Shakespeare's specific genius—an essentially poetic genius that is at the same time essentially dramatic—at its most marvelous. The speech is that of the intensely realized individual, Macbeth, at the particular, intensely realized moment in the development of the poem. Analysis leads us directly to the core of the drama, its central, animating interests, the principles of its life. The whole organism is present in the part. Macbeth, weighing his hesitation, tells himself that it is no moral or religious scruple, deriving its disturbing force from belief in supernatural sanctions. His fear, he says, regards merely the chances of lasting practical success in this world. His shrinking from the murder expresses, he insists, a simple consideration of expediency. Then he proceeds to enlarge on the peculiar heinousness of murdering Duncan, and as he does so that essential datum concerning his make-up, his ignorance of himself, becomes plain. He supposes that he is developing the note of inexpediency, and picturing the atrocity of the crime as it will affect others. But already in the sentence invoking the sanctity of hospitality another note begins to prevail. And in the next sentence the speech achieves its unconscious self-confutation …

    What we have in this passage is a conscience-tormented imagination, quick with terror of the supernatural, proclaiming a certitude that ‘murder will out,’ a certitude appalling to Macbeth not because of consequences on ‘this bank and shoal of time,’ but by reason of a sense of sin—the radical hold on him of religious sanctions.


    This is an opportune point at which to address Evans's radical contention in Shakespeare's Tragic Practice that in Macbeth, Shakespeare uses his powerful poetry to ‘hoodwink’ us into believing that it is “the tragedy of an ‘essentially good man’ whose principles give way to overmastering ambition and who thereafter undergoes moral deterioration, experiencing all the while those agonies of conscience that, indeed, only an essentially good man can experience” (218). Whereas Evans insists that:

    What sets [Macbeth] most significantly below our level of vision is the fact that the idea of murder has invaded his mind. It is noteworthy that the witches have not mentioned murder or suggested any wrongful act …

    His plane is in fact not one of moral awareness, but of moral ignorance; and from this plane he never rises. From beginning to end of the action he remains oblivious of murder as a moral fault.


    Macbeth is not the tragedy of a good man's moral deterioration, but of a man who lives and dies without knowing what moral sense means.


    As for the famous soliloquy (1.7.1-28) Leavis so insightfully analysed, Evans sees in it only evidence of Macbeth's “fatal limitation: his lack of moral sense” (201). “Macbeth's flaw is not a defective moral mechanism that gives in to his overweening ambition; it is rather his total lack of a moral mechanism” (204). And in sum, “The crucial gap between Macbeth's awareness and ours is simply that we have a moral sense and he has none” (204); he is a “moral cripple” (221), a “moral idiot” (222). Much of Evans's chapter on Macbeth is devoted to explaining away textual evidence that could be interpreted as showing some moral concern—and he resorts to some dubious ‘practices’ of his own in doing so—but the real issue here is Evans's hypertrophied Kantian conception of what it means to be moral: something utterly divorced from consequences, such that every time Macbeth shows himself concerned with his actions' effect on him (e.g., his reaction to the thought of murdering Duncan, 200; his revulsion in the immediate wake of Duncan's murder, 206; his plea to the Doctor to cure Lady Macbeth, 212), it is discounted as having any genuine moral content—as if a perfectly respectable response to ‘Why be moral?’ is not ‘Because otherwise you will experience relentless psychic torment.’ Indeed, according to Plato's Republic, the effect of one's actions on one's own soul is the natural ground of what properly defines that which we call ‘moral’ (443c-e). But Evans, who seems unaware that his implicit Kantianism is anachronistic when applied to Shakespeare, apparently believes that every whole human being has a distinct ‘moral sensibility’ that is supposed to judge and rule without regard to consequences (blithely conflating it with ‘conscience’; 217)—that thereby everyone not radically defective ‘knows’ murder is just wrong (220). Consequently, even to ask ‘Why be moral?’ is evidence that one is defective. Evans simply could not take Machiavelli seriously, i.e., as possibly being right. Hence his chapter has a value he never intended, namely, that of demonstrating how radically impractical, thus impolitic—indeed utopian—this conception of morality actually is.

  13. In an essay pervaded by Shakespearean allusions, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,’ Untimely Meditations, R. J. Hollingdale, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), Nietzsche observes:

    In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness …, it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is—worse, he will never do anything to make others happy. Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming …


  14. The Prince, ch. 17: “For one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of dangers, eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children … when the need for them is far away; but, when it is close to you, they revolt. And that prince who has founded himself entirely on their words, stripped of other preparation, is ruined; for friendships that are acquired at a price and not with greatness and nobility of spirit are bought, but they are not owned and when the time comes they cannot be spent” (66). Also relevant is what is said in ch. 7: “And whoever believes that among great personages new benefits will make old injuries be forgotten deceives himself” (33).

  15. Jane Austen provides the heroine of Mansfield Park a pertinent observation on this matter. Fanny Price is reflecting on the humble topic of domestic landscape:

    ‘Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps in another three years we may be forgetting—almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!’ And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: ‘If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond our controul! We are to be sure a miracle every way—but our powers of recollecting and forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out.’

    (vol. 2, ch. 4)

  16. The view ‘that to philosophize is to learn how to die’ could be said to originate with Sokrates. Cf. Apology 29a, 40c-41d, Republic 486a, 500b-c, 604b-c, 608c-d. See also Montaigne's essay of that title (No. 20 of Book One in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Donald Frame, ed. and trans., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958).

  17. That Macbeth does not altogether welcome the “suggestion” which his own irrepressible ambition forces upon his imagination lends credence to R. S. Crane's view of his character, ‘Monistic Criticism and the Structure of Shakespearean Drama,’ in Approaches to Shakespeare, Norman Rabkin, ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 99-120: “For the essential story of Macbeth is that of a man, not naturally depraved, who has fallen under the compulsive power of an imagined better state for himself which he can attain only by acting contrary to his normal habits and feelings; who attains this state and finds that he must continue to act thus, and even worse, in order to hold on to what he has got; who persists and becomes progressively hardened morally in the process; and who then, ultimately, when the once alluring good is about to be taken away from him, faces the loss in terms of what is left of his original character” (116).

    Paul A. Cantor also emphasizes the importance of imagination in determining the behaviour of the Macbeths in his article entitled ‘Shakespeare's The Tempest: The Wise Man as Hero,’ Shakespeare Quarterly (Spring 1980), 64-75:

    The theatrical imagery of prologues and acts points to the element common to the real usurpers of Macbeth and the would-be usurpers of The Tempest: the way they plot out their crimes with the imagination of a playwright … Antonio tempts Sebastion in just the way the Witches and later Lady Macbeth tempt Macbeth, by making him imagine himself already a king … A ‘strong imagination’ seems characteristic of Shakespeare's usurpers: they can leap ahead in their minds to picture themselves already possessed of what they most desire …

    The usurper's strong imagination is what makes him potentially forceful as a character. Believing that what his imagination shows him is real, the usurper can proceed with strength and conviction to achieve his goals. But to impress us, the usurper must in fact act … The mere desire to rule proves nothing: to distinguish oneself, one must show the force of one's desires by acting upon them. As the term is ordinarily understood, one can be heroic only in deed, not in thought. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth undergo the heroic test of translating their thoughts into deeds. Though they both bend under the strain of trying to realize their dreams, and Lady Macbeth eventually cracks, they do have a chance to establish their heroic stature. They are not run-of-the-mill human beings; they are greatsouled figures, if only in the single-minded determination with which they pursue their ambitions.


    The treatment of usurpation in Macbeth and The Tempest reveals the limitations in the usurper's imagination, the way the force of his desires deceives him about reality. He thinks he knows what his crime will entail, but in his eagerness he underestimates the obstacles that stand in his way and overestimates his ability to live with the consequences of his deed.


  18. Michael Davis (‘Courage and Impotence’) recognizes that Macbeth's behaviour is contradictory, but doesn't quite get to the source of its inconsistency:

    On the surface, one who disdains fortune should have no truck with fortune-tellers. Macbeth feels this tension, and so his attitude toward the witches is throughout the play equivocal. On the one hand, he acts out of the belief that what they say is true; on the other hand, he acts on his own in order to be doubly sure … This attitude is certainly understandable—no use taking chances. At the same time, however, it is patently ridiculous. To know one's fate is to neutralize chance. To think that prophecy needs assurances is to doubt that it is prophecy … He believes [the witches] enough to worry about Banquo, but not enough to give up all attempts to forestall the future they predict. He doubts and does not doubt that what they say about the future is correct.


    But this is not the root of the problem. One can be dubious about prophecy, hence ‘cover one's bet,’ without being caught in a contradiction, so long as one is consistent. As we shall see, Macbeth's real confusion is about Time itself, and all that happens ‘in time,’ such that he finds security in some pronouncements while undertaking to forestall others. Davis goes on to speak of what he regards as “a more serious difficulty with Macbeth's view of prophecy. He traffics with preternatural beings, beings who do things no man can do, and yet it does not occur to him for a moment that, having defied the ordinary course of nature in one respect, they might well be able to do so in other respects.” Again, this is not strictly so; if the natural order is determined, knowledge of the future would in principle be possible without violating any natural laws (though gaining such knowledge may be beyond ordinary human capacities). However, in observing that “Foreknowledge, which appears to ensure courage, in the end makes it impossible to consider oneself courageous” (228), Davis does make an important point in as much as Macbeth's self-esteem is based on his courage.

Garry Wills (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “Lady Macbeth.” In Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, pp. 75-89. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wills considers Lady Macbeth as the “fourth witch” in Macbeth and emphasizes the distinctive qualities of this image in theatrical performances of the play.]

Though Lady Macbeth's is not a huge part—she speaks only a third of the lines that Cleopatra does, and under half of Portia's in The Merchant of Venice—two towering (but very different) theatrical reputations were built largely on performances as Lady Macbeth: Sarah Siddons's in the eighteenth century and Ellen Terry's in the nineteenth.1 Siddons was the lofty terrorizer of her husband, and Terry the pre-Raphaelite spectre who dooms him with her beauty. No actor of modern times—since, that is, the inception of the “curse” on the play—has won such general recognition for excelling in this part, though presumably even Siddons and Terry may have fallen short of the first Lady Macbeth, John Rice.

Shakespeare's greatest parts for women naturally cluster at periods when the playwright had an outstanding boy actor, and the lead boy in 1606-07 had three choice parts in a row—Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, as well as Barnes's Lucretia in The Devil's Charter.2 (The actor may, in fact, have had a fourth great role if the view that a boy played the Fool in Lear is right.)3

Who was that boy? All the evidence points to John Rice. He was singled out, along with the lead adult actor Richard Burbage, to appear before the King in an ambitious program financed by the Merchant Taylors of London in the summer of 1607.4 Rice was elaborately costumed for the occasion.5 Though his speech—specially composed by Ben Jonson—only ran to twelve lines, brilliant delivery was important to the spectacle. Rice's master, John Heminges, was paid forty shillings “for his direction of his boy that made the speech to His Majesty,” while the boy got five shillings.6

Burbage and Rice obviously made a winning pair, since they appeared together in at least one other special performance, three years later—this one to welcome Prince Henry's arrival in London. Anthony Munday wrote the lines performed by Burbage as Amphion, and Rice as Corinea.7 Rice, who went on to a distinguished acting career as an adult before becoming a clergyman, obviously had grace, good looks, and sweet diction in 1607, when Shakespeare wrote for him the demanding part of Cleopatra, performed at court in the Christmas season of 1606-07.8

That was an amazing season. It is known that the King's Men acted Lear on the day after Christmas and The Devil's Charter on Candlemas (February 2). There is growing belief that Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were also acted in the season—a break-out time after the long closing of the public theatres by the plague.9 A remarkable feature of all of these plays is their fascination with witchcraft. Antony constantly refers to Cleopatra as having witch-like powers.10 Lucretia in The Devil's Charter is not only the daughter of the conjuring male witch, Pope Alexander; she independently calls on hell's assistance for murdering her husband (lines 601-5):

You grisly daughter of grim Erebus,
Which spit out venom from your vip'rous hairs,
Infuse a threefold vigor in these arms,
Immarble more my strong indurate heart,
To consummate the plot of my revenge.

Compare Rice's other great role, as Cleopatra (5.2.238-40):

Of woman I have nothing in me. Now, from head to foot
I am marble-constant.

And compare those lines with Lady Macbeth's (1.5.42-43):

And fill me, from the crown to th' toe, topful
Of direst cruelty.

All these heroines ask to be made inhumanly “indurate” for their evil tasks.

                                        Make thick my blood,
Stop up th' access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose.(11)

This clustering of Rice's roles with a witch-like aspect (Lucretia Borgia, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth) would seem to support those who consider Lady Macbeth the “fourth witch” of the play.12 Directors have emphasized her evil nature by associating her with the witches visually, or even by having her double the role of Hecate.13 It is true that she invokes Night and “murth'ring ministers” (demons)—just as her husband invokes Night and Hecate. Her evil ministers are clearly the fallen counterparts of angelic “ministers of grace” called on by Hamlet (1.4.39).14

In fact, Lady Macbeth's grand invocation at 1.5.40-54 is full of “witch talk.” She orders the evil spirits to “unsex me here”—and witches were famously unsexed, a fact emphasized in Macbeth's three witches, played by men. Banquo remarks on their beards at 1.3.45-47, as Hamlet does on the boy actor who had grown up to adult (bearded) parts at Hamlet 2.2.423. The witches' sexual traffic with devils was considered one consequence of their loss of sexual attractiveness for men. Lady Macbeth plays with the idea of that sexual traffic with devils when she calls the demons: “Come to my woman's breasts / And take my milk for gall.”15 Witches nursed their familiars from their “marks,” considered as teats for diabolic nourishment. Since the marks were often near witches' “privy parts,” the nursing could be a kind of foreplay preceding intercourse.16 La Pucelle calls on her familiars with a reminder how “I was wont to feed you with my blood” (I Henry VI 5.3.14).17 Joan's familiars, when they abandon her, refuse the offered teats, unlike other familiars, who feed onstage. In The Witches of Edmonton, the dog-familiar is seen sucking a mark on Mother Sawyer's arm (2.1.147), and another character describes the way he will “creep under an old witch's coats and suck like a great puppy” (5.1.173-74). Mother Sawyer says her mark has dried up, and asks the dog (4.1.157-60) to

Stand on thy hind legs—up, kiss me, my Tommy,
And rub some wrinkles on my brow
By making my old ribs shrug for joy
Of thy fine tricks. What hast thou done? Let's tickle!

Hecate, who is a witch not a goddess in Middleton's The Witch, calls to her familiar, the actor in a cat costume (3.3.49-50):

Here's one come down to fetch his dues—
A kiss, a coll [hug], a sip of blood.

She has had sex with this familiar (1.2.96-97). In The Late Lancashire Witches, a witch is asked, “Hath thy puggy [little Puck] yet suck'd upon thy pretty duggy?” (line 2017).

The image of witches giving suck to animals was deep in the lore of Shakespeare's time.18 Some resist having Lady Macbeth use this image; but we should remember that John Rice's other part at the time, Cleopatra, involved a witch-like comparison of the serpent's bite to an animal familiar's sucking (Antony 5.2.309-10):

Dost thou not see my baby at my breast
That sucks the nurse asleep?

Even before her cry to the evil spirits, Lady Macbeth was associated with an animal familiar. Hearing a caw from offstage, she says: “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal enterance of Duncan / Under my battlements” (1.5.38-40).19 His entry is fatal, as Hecate works “Unto a dismal and a fatal end” (3.5.21). The raven was a regular “familiar,” and its loud cry from offstage had special theatrical effect. Indeed, one of the more spectacular sound effects of the Elizabethan stage was the massive cawing of ravens that fulfilled a prophecy and defeated an army in Edward III, a play to which Shakespeare may have contributed.20

It is likely that we have already heard the raven that crows over Lady Macbeth's castle. In the opening scene, when familiars summon their witches away, two spirits are named—Graymalkin, a cat, and Paddock, a toad. The third witch answers her spirit's call, “Anon.” The raven's cry was too (yes) familiar to make identification necessary. At 4.1.3, the third witch's animal is addressed as Harpier, an apparent nickname based on Harpy. The raven was a harpy, a food-snatcher.21 When carrion birds settled on corpses, popular fear and loathing depicted them as witches' familiars gathering body parts. The witch literature fostered that belief. In Ben Jonson's The Sad Shepherd, a raven waits as huntsmen corner a deer, and its witch is later seen in a chimney corner with a morsel the bird delivered to her.22 In The Masque of Queens, Jonson translated a passage from Lucan, in which a witch waits for a raven to snatch flesh off a corpse and then takes it from the raven.23 The raven is a particularly unclean bird, whose very presence acts as a curse on a house, as Othello notes (4.1.20-22):

                                                  It comes o'er my memory
As doth the raven o'er the' infectious house
Boding to all.

Thersites, when he dreams of cursing, does so as a raven in his own mind: “I would croak like a raven, I would bode, I would bode” (Troilus 5.2.191). Caliban uses the raven when he curses (Tempest 1.2.321-33):

As wicked dew as e'er my [witch] mother brush'd,
With raven's feather, from unwholesome fen
Drop on you both!

Thus, for Lady Macbeth to welcome the raven's portent puts her in accord with witches' thoughts, with the Hecate of Middleton's The Witch (5.2.40-42):

Raven or screech-owl never fly by the door
But they call in, I thank 'em. And they lose not by't—
I give 'em barley soaked in infant's blood.

Lady Macbeth's castle is an “infectious house” with fatal gates to welcome Duncan.

In all these ways, Lady Macbeth certainly tries to become an intimate of evil, a communer with murdering ministers, fatal ravens, spirits who will give her suck. Does that make her a witch? Not in any technically legal or theological sense that King James (for instance) would have recognized. She does not enter into supernatural dealings with devils or their agents. There is no reciprocal activity of the sort Macbeth engages in at the necromancy. She is a witch of velleity and gestures, while he is one in fact. She forms no pact with the devil. Hecate does not appear to comfort her.

All these are important indicators of the way the part should be played. Lady Macbeth's relation to her husband resembles that of Barnes's Lucretia Borgia to her incestuous father. We see Pope Alexander strike his bargain with the devil, and pay for it; but Lucretia's invocation of evil spirits is mainly a way of steeling herself to kill her husband. In that sense, it works. Like Lady Macbeth she is a murderess. Macbeth will take calculated steps deeper and deeper into collaboration with hellish forces, but Lady Macbeth falters early—as Macbeth realizes. After the murder of Duncan, he no longer relies on her help. He is looking to more powerful auxiliaries. “Be inn'cent of the knowledge, dearest chuck …” (3.2.45) was said with a kind of bemused tone of farewell by Olivier to Vivien Leigh. She is not hardened for the voyage he is taking by that time.24

Olivier seemed to some critics to underplay his early scenes because he was carefully counting the cost of his crime. He weighs the pros and cons of Duncan's murder. He observes his own reactions, testing his pulse as he moves forward. His moves are less impulsive—and less shallow—than his wife's immediate enthusiasm for the crime. When she wavers, it is from collapse, not calculation. She cannot kill the king because he looks like her father. She nerves herself with drink, claiming that it steadies her: “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold” (2.2.1). But the drink is wearing off after the murder. She faints in the discovery scene—a genuine faint, not some shrewd attempt to distract people from Macbeth's embarrassment. Some have said it is impossible for an actress to make it clear why she is fainting. But of Vivien Leigh's faint it was written: “Genuine? Feigned? No need to ask the question. Her collapse was as inevitable a result of the dramatic process as is the spark when two charged wires are brought together.”25

The trouble with the majestic Sarah Siddons approach to Lady Macbeth is that it plunges the character too abruptly into collapse after her time of splendid power. The long absence of Lady Macbeth from the play makes the contrast less bridgeable. The Byam Shaw production of 1955 made the later Lady Macbeth shine through the bravado of the earlier one. When Macbeth launched into his own baroque description of the way he executed the grooms, Olivier experienced a strange power in his ability to describe as well as to do the act—he was finding himself oddly at home in his crime, horrified but also fascinated. He is becoming a connoisseur of the sensations of evil. But Lady Macbeth is stunned by his glib description of the murder. As he speaks, she reacts hypnotically, moving toward him over an abyss. “The two seemed drawn together by the compulsion of their common guilt to the center of the stage.”26 She cannot complete the passage over the chasm opening between them. She faints just as she is about to reach him.

The two are similarly divided in the banquet scene—Macbeth living inside his murder of Banquo, his wife kept outside, trying (ineffectually) to mediate between him and the external world. They are never seen together again—in fact, she is seen only one more time. What explains her long absence from the play? One naturally thinks, in a theater so dependent on doubling (especially where boys are concerned), that John Rice must be busy in another role.27 We have already seen that some directors want the modern actress to double Hecate; but that was impossible for Shakespeare. “Poel's Rule” states that a character who exits at the close of one scene does not enter at the opening of the next.28 It is even less feasible, in the fluid conditions of Jacobean performance, for an actor to leave as one character and come right back on as another. Besides, Hecate would need some form of gorgeous costume to suggest her supernatural status—more than could be thrown on for instant reappearance.

But there is another role Rice could have doubled—Macduff's wife. The power of this doubling was suggested in Trevor Nunn's staging of the play in the close arena of Stratford's small Other Place. All the actors sat around the charmed circle of the play's action, stepping on when their parts called for it, watching the action when it did not. There was great power in the presence of Lady Macbeth at the murder of Lady Macduff's son. The woman who said she would tear her own child from her nipple and dash it to the ground now saw something like that imagined scene made real. This helped explain her disintegration in the sleepwalking scene.29 Modern cinema could accomplish the same thing by showing the queen's imagination of the infanticide when she first heard of it. Shakespeare accomplished it by having one actor play both the self-violative mother and the cruelly violated Lady Macduff.30

In the well-lit open condition of the theater in Shakespeare's time, audiences recognized a doubling actor in his new guise. In fact, their favorites were meant to be recognized—e.g., the comic actor Armin: the Porter's jokes were carried by a comic persona he had developed and made popular. The spectators would know he was also playing a witch. But they accepted the convention that a new costume created a new part—just as they accepted the convention that a boy was a woman. This made disguises “convincing” in a way that it is hard for modern audiences to accept. (It seems odd to us that Viola could be so readily taken as identical in appearance to Sebastian in Twelfth Night.)

But the piquancy of some doubling would strike an audience, even under those conditions. Others have noticed the appropriateness of King Lear's two loyal but truth-telling attendants, his quiet daughter, and his “allowed” satirist, being played by the same boy.

A similar increase in dramatic power comes from our seeing Lady Macbeth again only after Rice has played the womanly anguish of Lady Macduff. The impact of the sleepwalking scene was undoubtedly increased by that interval. We, in effect, fill up the void created by Lady Macbeth's absence with a communal female suffering. The fact that Lady Macduff was innocent and Lady Macbeth guilty just increases the pathos of the queen's repentance—for that, in effect, is what the scene amounts to. The first indication of this is the brief stage direction in the Folio: Enter Lady with a Taper. The punishment of a penitent witch involved her parading her crime by holding a taper (the symbol of witches' rites, which used candles as Catholic masses did, liturgically). Shakespeare made the Duchess of Gloucester submit to this form of “pillorying” in II Henry VI 2.4.17ff. The stage direction is: Enter the Duchess in a white Sheet, and a Taper burning in her hand. She tells her husband she is “mailed up in shame” by this penitential garb. We know this was the legal form of shaming, either before execution or (in lesser offences) as a substitute for it. The Chronicle of London describes the event Shakespeare put into his play:

Landed at the Temple Bridge out of her barge … [she] openly, barehead, with a kerchief on her head baring, she took a taper of wax of two pounds in her hand, and went so through Fleet Street, on her feet and hoodless, into Paul's, and there she offered up her taper at the high altar.31

The Duchess was a repentant witch—and so, in her own mind, is Lady Macbeth. The stage direction names the taper, a huge one in the Duchess's case (two pounds, the size of the taper was gauged by the seriousness of the crime). There is a suggestion of something out of the ordinary in the Doctor's question: “How came she by that light?” The woman has told us the queen threw on her nightgown, and the scene is usually played barefoot, like the Duchess's. The taper-barefoot-sheet cluster said, to Shakespeare's audience, “repentant sorceress.”

And we have other indications of Lady Macbeth's sense of guilt. She never became a witch, like her husband; but she entertained witch fantasies, which have come back to haunt her. She acts like a witch when she tries to rub out or efface her “damn'd spot” (5.1.35). The bloody spot most feared by those suspected of witchcraft was the devil's mark left on them when they sealed their compact.32 Marlowe made much of this bloody sign when he had Faustus's blood congeal at the horror of what he was doing (A2.1.61-72). When at last the mark is made, it becomes a damned spot indeed, forming the words “Fly, man!” (Home fuge). Spots were evidence of the devil's ownership, a brand, a seal that could not be disowned. People arrested for witchcraft tried to cut or rub off any moles or blemishes that could be used against them. A Staffordshire investigator found that one Alice Gooderidge had “upon her belly a hole, of the bigness of two pence, fresh and bloody, as though some great wart had been cut off the place.”33

Lady Macbeth, trying to rub out the sign of her guilt (while still holding the taper—there was no place to deposit it on the Jacobean stage as there is in modern productions), was a startling image of the captured witch. Her guilt made her act that role as she remembered the sight of “so much blood” streaming from Duncan's body. The image would soon be repeated when John Rice played Lucretia Borgia's repentance scene before her death in Barnes's play. Lucretia, too, sees the blood that streamed from her murdered husband, and cries out (lines 2283-88):

You see in my soul deformed blots.
Deliver me from that murthered man—
He comes to stab my soul! I murdered him.
O Gismond, Gismond, hide those bleeding wounds.
My soul bleeds drops of sorrow for thy sake.
Look not so wrathful! I am penitent!

Lucretia has been poisoned by her father, and her penitent death scene is contrasted with his despairing fall into the devil's clutches at the play's conclusion. Unlike Alexander or Faustus, she can still plead for forgiveness (lines 2312-15):

Merciful Father, let not Thy mercy pass!
Extend Thy mercy where no mercy was.
Merciful Father, for Thy Son's dear merit
Pardon my sinful soul. Receive my spirit.

Expirat Lucrece.

Shakespeare is more subtle than Barnes; but his sinning lady is also shown in penitent collapse, tortured by guilt and visions of blood. The pity of the physician, with his own hope for mercy, states indirectly the themes made blatant by Barnes: “Yet I have known those which have walk'd in their sleep who have died holily in their bed … God! God! Forgive us all!” (5.1.59-61, 75). It is a hope Macbeth, sealed up in the false confidence of his witches' assurance, has long ago forfeited. He must end like Pope Alexander, or Doctor Faustus—beyond repentance, defiant to the end.


  1. Line counts for the various roles are taken from the tables in T. J. King, Casting Shakespeare's Plays: London Actors and Their Roles (Cambridge University Press, 1992). They come to 263 lines for Lady Macbeth, by contrast with 693 for Cleopatra and 557 for Portia.

  2. Boy actors of the requisite diction, memory, and ability to sing and dance were hard to come by in the public theater, where their very presence was under continual assault by moralists (see Chapter 2, note 7). Good boy performers had a short time to learn and perfect their skills before losing the female parts when their voices changed. Shakespeare's great termagant roles of the early 1590s, and his roles for a matched comic pair (a tall boy and a short boy) in the middle nineties, indicate how Shakespeare tailored parts for the troupe's apprentices—as he did for its clowns, and for Burbage himself.

  3. See note 28 below.

  4. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford University Press, 1967), Vol. 2, p. 213.

  5. One of the Merchant Taylors' men was paid thirteen shillings “for things for the boys that made the speech, viz. for garters, stockings, shoes, ribbons, and gloves.” The Merchant Taylors Company's account books cited in Gerald Eades Bentley, The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time, 1590-1642 (Princeton University Press, 1984), 126.

  6. Compare the coaching of Moth, the “pretty knavish page,” in Love's Labour's 5.2.98-99:

    Action and account did they teach him there.
    “Thus must thou speak,” and “Thus thy body bear.”
  7. Chambers, op. cit., 4: 72.

  8. That Rice was still performing as a boy in 1610 means that he was probably no older than thirteen in 1607. The prime of a boy's acting years is illustrated in the case of John Honeyman, who played a woman in The Roman Actor when he was thirteen, and in The Deserving Favorite and The Picture when he was sixteen, but changed to an adult male part in The Soddered Citizen when he turned seventeen (King, op. cit., 77, 117, 119, 121, 122).

  9. See Appendix One [Wills, Gary. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth.]

  10. Antony twice calls Cleopatra a “witch” (at 4.2.37 and 4.12.47). Her soothsayer is called a male witch (1.2.40). Antony also calls her a “gypsy,” another word for witch (4.12.28), and cries, “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break” (1.2.116). For the connection of gypsy magic with Egypt, see Othello on his charmed handkerchief (3.4.56) and the reference to Egyptian magic at Pericles 3.2.84-86. Cleopatra is an “enchanting” figure (1.2.128) who makes Antony “the noble ruin of her magic” (3.10.18). Pompey describes her power over him (2.1.20-23):

                                                                                    All the charms of love,
    Salt Cleopatra, soften they wan'd lip!
    Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both.
    Tie up the libertine. …

    Binding and tying were the work of magic. Spells chain the enthralled—as Brabantio says Desdemona was charmed by Othello's spells (“if she in chains of magic were not bound,” Othello 1.2.65). Antony bids Cleopatra to “chain mine arm'd neck,” to leap into his breast and ride on its panting sighs (4.8.14-16)—like a witch riding the air. See also Chapman, Homer's “Odysses” 10.500: “Dissolve the charms that their forc'd forms enchain” (said of Circe's bewitchment of Odysseus' men).

  11. Macbeth 1.5.43-46. The thickening of blood, to stop its flow, was attributed to the black “humor” that caused both melancholy and diabolic incursions into the human system. Cf. King John 3.2.42-43: “that surly spirit, Melancholy / Had bak'd thy blood and made it heavy, thick. …” The “baked blood” keeps out mirth in the King John passage, as it keeps out compunction in Lady Macbeth's dark prayer.

  12. Mark Rose claimed that Lady Macbeth “practises witchcraft” (Shakespearean Design, Harvard University Press, 1972, 88). W. Moelwyn Merchant described “Lady Macbeth's willed submission to demonic power, her unequivocal resolve to lay her being open to the invasion of witchcraft” (Aspects of Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards (Cambridge University Press, 1977), 51).

  13. The witches hovered near Lady Macbeth in a 1964 Austrian production of the play (Rosenberg, 201). For the same actress doubling the Lady and Hecate, see ibid., 492.

  14. For ministers as angels, see Isabella's prayer at Measure for Measure 5.1.115: “Then, O you blessed ministers above. …” See also Laertes's “A minist'ring angel shall my sister be” (Hamlet 5.1.248). For devils as ministers, see “minister of hell” at I Henry VI 5.4.93 and Richard III 1.2.46, and Sycorax's “potent ministers” at Tempest 1.2.275. Prospero's intermediate spirits are “ministers of fate” (Tempest 3.3.61, 65, 87).

  15. “Take” can mean “blast” or “wither,” a witch-usage as at Merry Wives 4.4.31 (the phantom “blasts the trees and takes the cattle”) or Hamlet 1.1.163-64, on the blessed Christmas time:

                                                                                    then no planets strike
    No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm.

    Or the verb can mean take in exchange for—her milk becomes the watery “gall” that ran when witches' marks were cut into. A witch named Alice Samuels had her mark cut open in 1593, and it ran “yellow with milk and water,” then clear (non-white) “milk,” then blood. See C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witchcraft and Demonianism (Heath Cranton Ltd., 1933), 173.

  16. See Newes from Scotland (1591): “the Devil doth generally mark them with a privy mark, by reason the witches have confessed themselves that the Devil doth lick them with his tongue in some privy part of their body before he doth receive them to be his servants” (Barbara Rosen, Witchcraft in England: 1558-1618 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), 194).

  17. Joan fed several devils at once, since witches often had multiple mole-teats. Margaret Wyard confessed in 1645 that “she had seven imps like flies, dors [bees], spiders, mice, and she had but five teats, and when they came to suck, they fight like pigs with a sow.” C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (Kegan Paul, 1929), 306. Since devils were bodiless spirits, they could appear to men only if they created phantasms of “thick air,” spoke through dead human bodies, or used live animals' bodies. They could use human semen in incubus-intercourse, but they had to take it from animals' bodies to have real physical coupling. When Lady Macbeth invokes the murthering ministers' “sightless [invisible] substances” at 1.5.49, she is referring to demons who have not taken familiars' animal bodies.

  18. They also use their familiars to suck the life from others—the fair Rosamund was killed by toads, acting under orders from their witch. See George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (Atheneum, 1972), 182-83. The conjurer-pope in Barnes's play uses serpents at the breast to kill his pederastic victims (lines 2770-89). The evil Queen Elinor in Peele's Edward I (lines 2094-96) kills a critic of her acts the same way.

  19. Compare the “fatal raven” of Titus 2.3.97.

  20. King John in the play is given two portents (two adynata) to assure him, just as Macbeth was. John will not fall until stones fight men and birds defeat armies. Then, to a deafening clamor of birds sent ahead of the French army, the earth is darkened and the English army breaks and runs, done in by “a flight of ugly ravens.” Cf. The Raigne of King Edward III, edited by Fred Lapides (Garland Publishing, 1980). The ravens “made at noon a night unnatural / Upon the quaking and dismayed world”—like “night's predominance … When living light should kiss [the earth] at Macbeth 3.4.8-9. The ravens fly in “corner'd squares,” like the “brave squares of battle” at Antony 3.11.4 or “our squares of battle” at Henry V 4.2.28. For the possibility of Shakespearean authorship, see Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator (Barnes & Noble, 1960), 10-55, and Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Clarendon Press, 1987), 136-37.

  21. Harpy, from Greek harpazein, to snatch, corresponded with the Jacobean word “gripe” for carrion birds. (This word is used for Seneca's vultur in the Elizabethean translations.) “Harpyr” at I Tamburlaine 2.7.56 is emended to “harpy” by Marlowe's editors.

  22. Ben Jonson, Works, edited by C. H. Herford (Oxford University Press, 1941), Vol. 7, 23.

  23. Ben Jonson, The Complete Masques, edited by Stephen Orgel (Yale University Press, 1969), 127 (lines 142-45), with Jonson's own note at 532-33.

  24. “Macbeth” Onstage: An Annotated Facsimile of Glen Byam Shaw's 1955 Promptbook, edited by Michael Mullin (University of Missouri Press, 1976), 113, 131.

  25. Richard David, “The Tragic Curve,” Shakespeare Survey 9 (1956): 129.

  26. Ibid.

  27. None of the plays Shakespeare's troupe acted in the 1606-07 Christmas-to-Lent season needs more than three boys. In Macbeth, if Hecate appeared with three boys as the witches, that would make four women on the stage at once—an additional reason for concluding that the witches were played by men. The first witch would most likely be played by the expert in grotesque roles, Robert Armin, who would also double the Porter. In only two scenes are two boy actors on the stage at the same time—Lady Macduff with her son, and the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth with her woman attendant. In widely separated scenes, the same boy could play Macduff's son and the woman attendant. The shortage of boy actors in the public theater could be filled in private performances, where choristers were recruited for the large number of female roles in (for instance) A Midsummer Night's Dream. But in the festive calendar of the 1606-07 “twelve days of Christmas,” choirs and boy performers would have their own events to prepare for, making them unavailable to the public players.

  28. For Poel's Rule, see David Bradley, From Test to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 18. This forbids the most famous thematic doubling of the modern stage—Peter Brook's use of the same pair of actors to play Theseus with Hippolyta and Oberon with Titania. It does not interfere with the most famous supposed doubling, that of Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear. The long absence of each character from the action is hard to explain except by doubling. According to this theory, Lear's calling Cordelia his fool at 5.3.305 is an author's slip that confuses the actor's two roles. See Richard Abrams, “The Double Casting of Cordelia and Lear's Fool,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 27 (1985): 354-77. Armin, the regular fool, could play the grotesque part of “mad” Edgar.

  29. See Bernice W. Kliman, Shakespeare in Performance: “Macbeth” (Manchester University Press, 1992), 100.

  30. The shortage of boy actors helps explain another overworked mystery of the play—why Lady Macbeth's child or children do not appear. (Macduff's anguished “He has no children” is said to Malcolm, at that moment giving him cold comfort.) When Lady Macbeth says she has given suck, there is no reason to doubt her. Her husband says “Bring forth men-children only” (1.7.72)—something he could not say if she had already brought forth a girl child, but could if she had borne at least one son. Macbeth's frenzy at the thought of Banquo's heirs inheriting would be baseless if Macbeth had no heir to be supplanted. The progeny are mentioned but not dwelt on as a matter of theatrical economy. The same consideration explains why one child stands for Macduff's “children” in the murder scene (4.2).

  31. Chronicle of London, quoted in C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting, 40.

  32. See, for instance, Newes from Scotland (in Rosen, op. cit., 193): “They, suspecting that she had been marked by the Devil, as commonly witches are, made diligent search about her and found the Enemy's mark to be in her forecrag (or forepart) of her throat. Which being found, she confessed. …”

  33. C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witchcraft, 177. Even birthmarks could be a sign of a curse on certain people's offspring—like Richard III's portentous teeth formed in the womb (Richard III 4.4.49) or the “Vicious mole in nature” of the Hamlet Quarto (1.4.24) that predisposes its bearer to evil. Some held that people were marked at their birth hour by their stars' influence, and the astrologer Simon Forman noted his clients' markings when casting their horoscope—for instance: “She hath a wart or mole in the pit of her throat, or near it … She hath a wart under her right cheek” (Simon documents in A. L. Rowse, Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), 100, 207). The magic avoidance of such blots is the gift of Oberon to the offspring of Theseus and Hippolyta (Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.395-400):

    And the blots of Nature's hand
    Shall not in their issue stand.
    Never mole, harelip, nor scar,
    Nor marks prodigious, such as are
    Despised in nativity,
    Shall upon their children be.

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of Macbeth. Hudson Review 54, no. 4 (winter 2002): 657-63.

[In the following review of a 2001 production of Macbeth directed by Tim Carroll, Hornby maintains that nearly every aspect of the performance—including choreography, set, characterization, and costumes—was an unmitigated disaster.]

The Restored Globe Theatre in London continues to have the best spoken and worst directed Shakespeare company in the world. Artistic Director Mark Rylance's decision to have a speech expert, or “Master of Verse,” for each production has given us verse speaking that is clear, vigorously rhythmic, and nuanced. Although the actors are mostly unknowns, their speech is poetic in the best sense, never fluty or artificial, but natural, coming from within the characters themselves, as if we were hearing a troupe of native speakers from the Land of Blank Verse. Unfortunately, Rylance's directors (including himself, although he did not direct last summer) are mostly from the Land of Blank Imagination.

My favorite Globe director prior to last summer was Tim Carroll, the only one to bring a sense of ceremony to the productions. The very fact that Shakespeare's plays are written in verse implies a formal style of production, as does the unchanging, elaborately decorated stage of the Globe itself. Besides, most of Shakespeare's plays abound with ceremonies within them—banquets, weddings, funerals, coronations, abdications, trials, hearings, orations, plays duels—or depict events that have a ceremonial quality, like the murder of Desdemona. Most such scenes at the Globe have ended up looking like Piccadilly Circus on a busy afternoon, but Carroll's shows had precision and style. His production of Macbeth last summer, however, was an undiluted disaster. Style had become stylization for its own sake, at the cost of theatricality or even basic comprehensibility.

At the opening, the entire cast, male and female, entered wearing black double-breasted suits, with white shirts and black bow ties. Later, Eve Best as Lady Macbeth switched to a long gray gown, perhaps to give designer Laura Hopkins something to do, but the rest of the actors kept the same outfits on, despite multiple and even cross-gendered roles. (There may have been some other costume shifts late in the show; I could not bear to stay until the end.) Only rare extra bits of clothing, like a gold cummerbund on Duncan, gave you the slightest idea of who was who. The play is of course famous for its clothing imagery, most of which was made to sound ridiculous, as when Banquo described the witches, dressed exactly like himself, as “so wild in their attire.”

The entire cast was onstage most of the time, moving almost constantly in barren choreography. The witches pranced about like rock stars. Duncan and his entourage were perched on a hanging scaffold, like window washers. Actors lined up bentwood chairs across center stage, then played on them dead front, oblivious to one another. As with the costuming, the staging thus expressed nothing, except the overpowering whimsy of the director.

Giles Block, Master of Verse for the entire season of plays, coached the Macbeth actors well, so that all had the immaculate speech typical at the Globe. Jasper Britton as Macbeth, and Eve Best too, sometimes came up with strange phrasing (“He hath honored me … of late / And I have bought … golden opinions …”), plugging in caesuras where none belong, but they were always clear and rhythmic. But all in all, the visual elements of this Macbeth were so stupid and counterproductive that the production would have been better as a radio play.

Further Reading

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Belson, Ken. Review of Macbeth. New York Times (1 December 2002): AR7.

Reviews Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 staging of Macbeth in Brooklyn, focusing on Ninagawa's theatrical career and his thematic evocation of mortality in the production.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Macbeth. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 184 p.

Presents seven essays on Macbeth by Bloom and other noted contemporary critics on subjects including power, ambition, and Macbeth's criminal mind.

Braunmuller, A. R. Introduction to The New Cambridge Shakespeare: Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, edited by A. R. Braunmuller, pp. 1-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Surveys the language of Macbeth from its “extravagant rhetoric and dense metaphor” to its poetic devices and varied imagery.

Brooke, Nicholas, ed. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, pp. 1-81. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Surveys the language, sources, and stage and textual histories of Macbeth.

Carroll, William C., ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999, 394 p.

Presents dozens of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents that offer insight into the cultural, historical, and literary contexts of Macbeth.

Davis, Michael. “Courage and Impotence in Shakespeare's Macbeth.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 219-36. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

Explores Macbeth as a tragic incarnation of courage that, when pushed to its limits, is self-annihilating.

Iwasaki, Soji. “The Stage Tableau and Iconography of Macbeth.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Yoshiko Kawachi, pp. 86-98. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Discusses the stage architecture and iconography employed in the earliest stage productions of Macbeth.

Jack, Jane H. “Macbeth, King James, and the Bible.” ELH 22, no. 3 (September 1955): 173-93.

Probes the influence of the New Testament Book of Revelation and the writings of King James, including his Basilikon Doron (1603) and Daemonologie (1597), on Macbeth.

Lemon, Rebecca. “Scaffolds of Treason in Macbeth.Theatre Journal 54, no. 1 (2002): 25-43.

Comments on the “failure of didacticism” in Macbeth, examining parallels and contrasts between the execution of the Thane of Cawdor for treason in the first act of the drama and the means of Macbeth's own demise at its conclusion.

Levin, Joanna. “Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria.” ELH 69, no. 1 (2002): 21-53.

Presents a feminist, psychoanalytic account of Lady Macbeth that emphasizes her symbolic position as a hysterical mother and witch figure in the misogynistic social world of Macbeth.

Morley, Sheridan. Review of Macbeth. New Statesman 131, no. 4616 (2 December 2002): 40.

Provides a brief, positive assessment of Ed Hall's 2002 production of Macbeth at the Albery Theatre in London, lauding the director's ability to effectively convey the emotional sweep of the drama to modern audiences.

Waters, D. Douglas. “Catharsis as Clarification in Macbeth.Christian Settings in Shakespeare's Tragedies (1994): 141-73.

Discovers a cathartic finality in Macbeth's encounter with “ambition, murder, guilt, fear, and ultimate destruction” that draws audiences into an imaginative sympathy with him.

Zamir, Tzachi. “Upon One Bank and Shoal of Time: Literature, Nihilism, and Moral Philosophy.” New Literary History 31, no. 3 (2000): 529-51.

Comments on the hollowness and ambivalence of Macbeth's “vaulting ambition,” asserting that nihilism is the guiding philosophical principle in Macbeth.

Bruce Weber (review date 6 December 2002)

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SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Macbeth. New York Times (6 December 2002): B3.

[In the following review of director Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 Japanese-language production of Macbeth, Weber praises the dazzling and elegant qualities of the cast, set, and choreography, but questions the overall depth of Ninagawa's interpretation.]

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting Macbeth being presented as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is that the director, Yukio Ninagawa, is 67 and the best-known director of classical theater in Japan. For in its overall glam visage as well as in many of its hip particulars, it feels very much like the work of an enfant terrible, someone immersed in contemporary aesthetics and given to youthful excess.

The stage is embraced by enormous, angled walls of paneled mirrors, often hazed over with smoke and focused lighting. (Smoke and mirrors, literally.) Mr. Ninagawa has said of the play, “If there is a last day of youth, this is a story that occurs on that night,” and his Lord and Lady Macbeth are unusually young. They are played by Toshiaki Karasawa and Shinobu Otake, vividly beautiful performers with the chiseled cheekbones and gorgeous, calculatedly unkempt coifs of rising movie stars. Actors periodically roar down the aisles to make their entrances (sometimes followed timidly by late-arriving audience members). Two percussionists punctuate the play with rock’n’ roll bombast.

Geography is topsy-turvy and time is telescoped. With the sound of helicopters and machine guns lathered over a jungle set, the opening tableau recalls the Vietnam War, as if the Scots and the Norwegians were fighting at the Equator, suggestions of time and place that are undercut by the arrival of Duncan (Masafumi Sanoo) and Malcolm (Keita Oishi) on horseback. (Real horses!) And throughout, the sounds of modern war accompany the characters' shedding blood with swords and daggers.

Mr. Ninagawa's references to Christianity and martyrdom are so grandiose—like the huge cross of light that hovers over Macduff (Makoto Tamura) as he grieves for his murdered family—that it's hard to know if they're meant sincerely or sardonically. The costumes are of such luster as to elicit the overheard comment in the audience: “Shakespeare meets Vogue.” And the set design is of such clean elegance that even the witches' caldron would be fit for a celebrity loft in TriBeCa.

There seems to be a coup de théâtre, or at least some flashy stagecraft treat, waiting around every corner, whether it is the acrobatically choreographed three-against-one battle that results in the murder of valiant Banquo or Macbeth's lament for his dead wife, “Out, out brief candle,” performed beneath an enormous, swaying chandelier its individual flames extinguishing and recombusting as it moves forward and back, forward and back, barely over his head. Early on, you'll find yourself wondering, “How's he going to do the traveling Birnam Wood?”

There's no question of the dazzle here being entertaining. It's the quickest three hours of Shakespeare you'll ever see, even though you won't understand a word unless you speak Japanese. The production, which has two more performances, tonight and tomorrow night, at the academy's Howard Gilman Opera House, does provide English surtitles, but they're almost beside the point. (A rereading of the play beforehand isn't required, but it is recommended.)

Whether you understand the spoken text or not, this is Shakespeare without iambic pentameter or any other familiar poetic rhythm. The Japanese language, with its syllable-plenitude, and Japanese acting, with its fervid, declamatory idiom provides something wholly different, a whole new music. It takes a while to get used to; at Wednesday's opening performance, several audience members exited very early. (A couple of them nearly jostled Lady Macbeth as she entered, reading a letter from her husband, down the center aisle.)

That was their mistake; even without literal meaning, the language manages to illuminate situation and performance. The actors may be partly cast for their looks—the ensemble is full of terrific-looking people—but they're skilled; they do come through in their words.

Mr. Karasawa's Macbeth is a study in fierce self-questioning, a young man, like Hamlet, with an active conscience but with a different brand of immaturity, tragically impetuous rather than tragically immobile. Ms. Otake, a woman with Audrey Hepburn delicacy, is clothed and lighted so beautifully that you can't take your eyes from her, and that attention is rewarded. Her own eyes glow with the mercenary lust at the prospect of her husband's ascension to the throne, a frightening shallowness that echoes gruesomely when she goes mad with sleepwalker's guilt.

As Banquo, Naomasa Musaka begins as an overly excitable fellow, but by the time of his killing and his ghostly return, he has become a winning emblem of dignity. And Mr. Tamura's Macduff, who doesn't overdo the agony in his grief-stricken reaction to the killing of his wife and children (it's Mr. Ninagawa who overdoes the martyr business with that glowing edifice-size cross), makes a trim, athletic opponent for Macbeth in their mortal confrontation.

This is Mr. Ninagawa's final set piece, and though the fight choreography (by Masahiro Kunii), as it has been throughout the play, is both elegant and vicious, and theatrically fantastical yet sufficiently suggestive of bloody reality, he lets it go on too long. There are several times, in fact, particularly in the second half of the production, that the director slides over the edge of brass and into overblown effect. The scene in which the witches conjure the apparitions that give Macbeth his false sense of security is redolent of “The Wizard of Oz” and unintentionally funny.

Does all this result in revelatory Shakespeare? Well, this is a Macbeth that may have you thinking less about ambition, bloodshed, remorse and retribution than about Hollywood, MTV and the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. But there is a lot to be said for Mr. Ninagawa's show-offy imagination, which is largely what keeps the audience interested and in suspense.

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