H. W. Fawkner (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Fawkner, H. W. “The Assassination of Intentionality.” In Deconstructing Macbeth: The Hyperontological View, pp. 77-97. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Fawkner maintains that absence is the central structural theme of Macbeth and analyzes the protagonist as a character who remains distanced from his actions.]


As I now approach the dramatic crisis of murder itself, my criticism will situate itself inside what is loosely known as the “noble-murderer interpretation.” This is the reading favored by actors like Garrick and Olivier and discussed by quite a number of significant critics. The basic idea, here, is that Shakespeare's genius does not bother to stage the banal notion of a bad man entering evil but of a very good man entering evil. However, and this is a crucial dimension of the current enterprise, I do not myself read this transition (in the noble-murderer reading) from good to evil as a “fall” from good, as a common type of tragic “tainting.” I do not think that Macbeth at any point “becomes evil” in order to become a murderer (although murder in itself obviously is evil). I think, with John Bayley, that it “is essential to the hypnotic tension of the play that Macbeth should not seem in any ordinary way ‘responsible’ for his actions.”1 (The stress here is on “ordinary”; one is not freeing Macbeth from responsibility.) In short, my position is this: anyone arguing that Macbeth “turns evil” and that this inner darkening is the crucial trigger device for the murder and the tragic action is not only misconceiving Shakespeare's dramatic design but also disfiguring the imaginative and aesthetic potentials of the play.

In fact, that type of secondary-school reading also disfigures most of the enormous psychological potentials of Macbeth. Several critics are generously willing to acknowledge the greatness of the play, while at the same time voicing the curious prejudice that Shakespeare is a poor psychologist who sacrifices psychological truth for the sake of dramatic effect. One is willing to recognize the feeling of tragic greatness, but finding that this greatness does not fit any logocentric model of psychological causation, one decides that the play is successful in spite of its psychology. I hold precisely the opposite view. I think there is a very special psychology in this play, and I think that critics replacing this psychology (which is beyond their ken) with their own “temptation-and-fall” theories (taken from popular logic) are simply transforming the play into something that is more immediately manageable for them than it really is. E. E. Stoll has argued that the tragic thrill comes from seeing the good man falling into horror, but that Macbeth's deeds would be more in keeping with psychological realism had the hero had some real cause to dislike Duncan.2 This, to me, is the silliest possible notion. If Macbeth really has had a grievance, then the whole play called Macbeth, far from being one of the most brilliant dramas ever devised, would sink into mediocrity and indifference. In this same vein and fashion, Gustav Rümelin tells us that Shakespeare “exaggerates” at the expense of real “psychological truth” but still somehow creates a play that is his most powerful and mighty tragedy.3 In his review of these two positions, J. I. M. Stewart limply follows suit (with respect to this particular issue) by stating that Shakespeare was always prepared to use a “non-realistic” move4 and that tragic fall might be related to the fact that “everybody” is subject to weak moments of exposure in which some “lurking” evil runs through us.5

The idea that Macbeth is “treacherous” (in the ordinary sense) is no doubt promoted by his tendency, shown from the outset, to speak in asides. The “Cumberland” aside (1.4.48-53) is a case in point here: “Stars, hide your fires! / Let not light see my black and deep desires.” But two things need to be said about the incriminating asides. First, the “Cumberland” aside, as the only really “evil” one, is almost certainly an interpolation—as Granville-Barker, Fleay, and others have observed (KM, 25).6 I suspect that this interpolation was introduced by someone with precisely the kind of attitude exemplified by Stoll and Rümelin above: that Shakespearean psychology had to be “improved” (indeed introduced!) so that tragic intentionality could be “made clear.” Second, the hero's tendency to speak in asides is not necessarily a social event, denoting undercover action and withdrawal, but a technical necessity: Shakespeare wants to display a transition toward introversion, and the only way of giving the audience access to this introversion is to use asides and soliloquies.

My own view is this: that Macbeth never has had the intention to murder Duncan, and that throughout the play he never has any such intention. His intention is not only absent, it is structurally absent.

Absence, generally, is structural in Macbeth; and absent intentionality is the specific form that tragic crisis gives to this general absence. I cannot really see how the play as a whole can function in its specifically Shakespearean form of suggestion without there being a (conscious or unconscious) recognition of this peculiar organization.

In a sense—and this is what is truly terrifying in Macbeth—there is simply nothing of the murderer in the hero. Partly, this murderous emptiness inside the murderer can be explained in terms of constitutional weakness; one can posit a failure of nerve, of proper disposition, or even (as we have seen in Bayley's criticism) of dramatic suitability: the hero's mind is “unfitted for the role that tragedy requires of it.”7 But things can be taken much further—in a sense logically have to be taken much further. The murderous emptiness is not only the function of “weakness” but a function of strength—of an intensity of mind that is unprecedented. Tragic paralysis, in Macbeth, is not a merely passive event; on the contrary, it is highly active. Tragic action, while being interiorized so as to mostly take place inside the mind, does not dissipate its energies there, become mere misty sluggishness. Macbeth wrestles with a spell, and in a sense with a paralyzing one; but the paralysis affects his bodily actions and military readiness, not his mind. The spell, far from being something that drugs his intellect, is something that keenly awakens it to unprecedented acuteness and sensitivity. What this extra-lucid intellection now comes to engage with (as I shall argue in a moment) is the activity of an unthinkable watchfulness: Macbeth begins the weird process of watching the absence of his own intention (to murder).

Because of this Shakespearean move, the scene presencing the hallucinated dagger cannot (as Olivier and others recognized) be turned into a conventional horror scene, full of mere knee-knocking and guilt. In Olivier's performance, there was no melodramatic recoiling from the air-drawn dagger, and the soliloquy was spoken as if in dreaming. Delivering his speech as drugged whisper, Olivier managed to create a sense of total unreality. Although Macbeth appeared as a man of immense sensibility, this sensibility did not sensitize him to the murder itself but made him rather indifferent to it (indifferent to its presence). Sensibility was now directed toward something else. His comments after returning from the king's chamber were delivered in a strangely flat tone, signifying a lack of real self-involvement.8 It might be argued here that Macbeth is not actually interested in murder but in the aura of absences around it, that he is not hypnotized by murder as action but by the ever-receding (non)supports in which it is embedded. Macbeth's intellect is from this viewpoint a deepening of a process identified by Margaret Ferguson in Hamlet: the hero's tendency to be attentive to the passive rather than the active: “Hamlet does not inquire very deeply … into the meaning of his action [when killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, etc.]. This seems odd, since he has shown himself so remarkably capable of interrogating the meaning of his inaction.9 In spite of the larger inclination toward action of Macbeth, the remark remains relevant for him too—for as I will be continuing to argue, action for him tends to presence itself in terms of inaction. This fact applies to all the temporal phases: past action, present action, and future action. Thus the “dialectic” between action and inaction as it surfaces in Hamlet is here taken down into a deeper state of reciprocation, for here one side of the dialectic is often sensed to actually amount to its polar opposite.

The idea of Macbeth as one immersed in “ambition” seems to me to be a red herring in this general context. We are told that he is exceedingly ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that he is prepared to commit a terrible crime against a sovereign who is politically innocent and not even an ordinary “political enemy.” But while Lady Macbeth is the ambitious one, and the one trying to persuade her husband that he is her equal in this respect, Macbeth hardly ever displays political behavior that betokens ambitious thoughts. The end of the “If it were done” soliloquy is interesting from this viewpoint:

                                                                                                                                            I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on th'other—


From the orthodox perspective the meaning is that ambition is pure cause, the only cause. There is a circle of ambition, so that ambition itself causes ambition. But if ambition is circular and solipsistic in this sense, the circularity (“Vaulting”) surely refers to effect rather than cause. Ambition is circular as effect. In Macbeth there are in a sense only effects (as I shall presently argue). The ambition is “vaulting” and circular because it has no punctual source or origin; it does not originate from any empirical fact, whether of treacherous mind or political actuality. The “ambition” is ultimately empty of substance, of empirical content; and for this very reason it is nonambition. Macbeth does not say that he has “only ambition”—or only an ambition that, sadly, happens to be vaulting. He says that he only has vaulting ambition. It does not overleap its target (since it has none), it “o'erleaps itself.” It traces only the formal presence of its formal possibility. It “falls on th'other—” … what? Side? In any case it falls on something else, on something beyond itself, on something that has nothing to do with ambition.

I would now like to forward the first of the three main critical notions in this subsection. This is the notion that the idea of the murder is stronger for Macbeth than the murder, and that he therefore in a strange way has to perform the murder in order to murder the idea of it.

This line of reasoning presupposes certain assumptions similar to those made by John Bayley. “Macbeth may seem simple enough, but it is also in fact the play with the clearest and most terrifying discrepancy between inner consciousness and action.”10 This fracturing of the spirit, leading to extreme inwardization, is what I have been identifying as “metaphysical servitude”. In fact Bayley at one point happens to use this very word (“servitude”) in a similar fashion: Shakespeare shows us social chaos but he also shows us chaos in the mind, “its nightmare servitude to an irrevocable act.”11 My commentary would only add this single qualification: that it is not to the act that Macbeth ultimately is the slave, but to the idea of it. This difference may seem slender, “academic.” But in fact the whole drama pivots on it—and it is by ignoring this very difference that criticisms tend to prematurely wreck their logic. It is clear that if the “servitude” of the tragic hero is a servitude to the idea rather than to the actual act as such, the servitude can precede the act and thus in a sense come to be viewed as causal.

There are two main ways of explaining the crucial difference between a murder/idea nexus where murder is dominant and a murder/idea nexus where idea is dominant, and I begin with a procedure that discusses this particular notion in relation to the cardinal concept of the entire play: Truth.

Those favoring the theory of ambition will no doubt point to units such as: “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.116-17) and “Two truths are told, / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (1.3.127-29). The first of these units appears to indicate that Macbeth is now ambitiously looking forward to the remaining third of his monarchial career; but while I can agree with the fact that he certainly is looking forward, I cannot agree with the idea that he is looking forward mainly in terms of ambition. The forward-looking is engineered logically, not emotionally. If a gypsy looks in a crystal ball and tells me I win eight hundred dollars next Wednesday at seven o'clock, and that I win eight million dollars the following Wednesday at seven o'clock, then it is not particularly surprising that I will be looking forward with a thumping heart to that second Wednesday evening if the first Wednesday evening to my surprise brings me in exactly eight hundred dollars and exactly at seven o'clock. But what does this new thrill depend on? It depends exclusively on my quite normal ability to perform cognitive acts of simple induction. This is precisely the mechanism that Shakespeare is working with in Macbeth: and the brilliant point about it all is that subjectivity as causal agent in an important way can be bracketed. My hopes, just like those of Macbeth for the crown, are in a sense not monitored by a subjective act of will. Although we have come to desire the promised thing, the “approach” of that thing, its coming into the horizon of our ownmost view, its closeness, is not a function of desire. Instead a rather abstract and lofty mechanism of logic out there in the world has presenced these bewildering hopes; they are, as such, beyond my control and influence. Indeed, there can only come into action the sense of a really self-determined subjective mastery through a negation of the hopes: only by resisting them can I gain back the initiative that right now has slipped away into chance, weird predestination, or whatever you want to call it. “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind.” If the lines are spoken with the gluttony of poorly concealed expectation, then Macbeth, I admit, is already implicitly a murderer and a villain, a new Richard III. But I do not think the lines should be spoken with the dark glow of intense ambition radiating from the eyes, and I do not think that Macbeth in any significant way recapitulates Richard III. The words might better be spoken in stunned, mechanical, incredulous reverie.

The idea of the “happy prologues” does not really endanger this reading, for “happy” does not necessarily at all refer to an emotion (a growing happiness inside the cogito “Macbeth”) but, indeed, to “prologues.” It is not happiness (as a subjective state of mind) that is at stake here, but the idea of happiness; and this idea is an ideal: happiness as the completion of the perfectly drawn metaphysical circle Glamis-Cawdor-King. The happiness lies most of all in the completion of the circle, in the happy presence to itself of the circle's possible realization. The “prologues” are happy because their identities as prologues are quickly being enhanced by the general turn of events.

The second way of discussing the ascendency of “idea of murder” over “murder” is to call attention to certain psychological states involving delinealized temporality and reversed causation. Macbeth, we know, suffers right from the first encounter with the sisters from a “fit”—call it a “murder fit.” But this fit is not an emotion or passion in which he suddenly, like Mr. Hyde, realizes that he wants to murder; instead the fit is a state where he realizes that his identity-as-murderer is already formed “out there” in logical space. The entity Macbeth-as-murderer “exists,” immediately, as a ready-made thing out there. It is premature and trivial to call this thing an “idea” or a “thought”—because Shakespeare is perhaps in the final analysis shaking our confidence in being able to state what an idea or a thought is. What is a thought? What is an idea? These questions do not simply follow the Macbeth-problematic as “interesting points” to be made about a finished dramatic experience; rather, these questions are internal to the dramatic experience as such—not as questions, but as movements charged with questioning possibility.

The “fit” that seizes Macbeth can be compared with the one that seizes many people who come to a precipice. What is interesting here is the mechanism of “original reaction” or “originary fear.” It is related to what I discussed a while ago as “originary healing.” The psychological mechanism only appears in humans, though certain higher apes have similar tendencies. In this type of experience, there is not first a perception of the abyss, then a fear of it, and then a readiness to jump off—in order, as it were, to cancel the horrible swelling of the fear. Instead there is from the outset a sense of vertigo: the very first perception of the abyss is the perception of one's horrible fate at its bottom. That, precisely, is what the abyss is all about: that all along it has been waiting for you there; or, to make things more gruesome and Shakespearean: that all along you have been waiting down there. “You.” A corpse. The fallen you waits for you, just as in our play the fallen Macbeth (who already has murdered Duncan) “waits” for the not-fallen Macbeth. In a sense greets him, quite solemnly. “Hail Macbeth!” The existence of specters in such a world does not at all surprise one from this viewpoint: corpses, rising from the abyss; an absolute beyond speaking from inside the bosom of one's tightest self-presence.

This mechanism can be theorized in minute detail with reference to the hero's system of reflexes. Macbeth does not first feel that he might eventually want to murder Duncan and then see the bloody scenario in front of him and then finally find himself in full flight from the feeling/thought/image. This reassuring sequentiality is what afflicts Mr. Smith in the common horror story; but Macbeth is not Mr. Smith and Shakespeare is not “into” horror stories. What happens to Macbeth, instead, is that he begins with the horror/flight. He begins not with the flight from something, but just with “from”: the flight-from. He does not begin with the horror of something, but just with “of”: horror-of. Gradually he has to “fill in” the missing object, make it present and self-present.

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.


Here, it is not only that the consequences of murder have not yet been fully grasped; murder is not “fantastical” merely because it is unreal and unfamiliar as a fully developed notion. The unit “fantastical” instead indicates that murder at this point refuses to be, precisely, “a fully developed notion.” Thought, still, has not formed the idea “murder,” and conversely “murder” is not yet part of thought but part of what is “fantastical.” “Murder,” from this viewpiont is weird (“fantastical”), and the important word sequence “thought, whose murther” (which hits the spectator as word sequence, not idea) indicates that thought itself is drawn into the dangers, risks, and unrealities of “murder,” that “thought” and “murder” are coimplicative—but in a way that cannot yet (or perhaps ever) be understood.

The idea I am trying to promote, here, is that repulsion in a difficult sense is primal and originary in Macbeth; repulsion is “causal” as it is in cases of deathward anguish near the precipice. Because one is so frightfully repelled by the horrible abyss, one is sucked down into it. Analogously: because noble Macbeth is so frightfully repelled by the idea of murder, he is drawn relentlessly into it.

The important soliloquies of the opening act are all structured by this primacy of repulsion. Thus Shakespeare does not make us feel that Macbeth is a pulsional man, full of the blood-hot passion of murderous desire, and that metaphysical deliberation is some kind of hesitant latecomer, some mere process of deferral. Instead Shakespeare makes us feel that repulsion “organizes” pulsion, that the repulsive reflex is so dominant and intense that whatever eventually gets done in the name of its opposite (in the name of murder) really in a fundamental way is structured, determined, and limited by that original and irremovable repulsionism.

This queer organization can be felt in the important “If it were done” soliloquy. Here, already, and under the influence of Lady Macbeth's manipulations, the hero is beginning to try to think out his revulsion in terms of its opposite: “real” desire to murder. But precisely because revulsion still plays the leading part—the part it remains playing for the duration of the tragedy—the soliloquy does not take Macbeth where “he”/murder would have liked it to go.


If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence …


There is pragmatic calculation here, a man prepared to overlook transcendental issues (“jump the life to come,” 1.7.7) in order to carefully consider the worldly consequences of a mean deed. So goes the common reading. And it will be supported by critics like Bertrand Evans, theorists who argue that Macbeth has no moral awareness at all, and that this soliloquy reveals the shallowness of his moral capacities.12 We are told that Macbeth in no true way is raising moral objections to murder in this soliloquy, that his moral logic is lame and insufficient.13 I agree entirely. But for the opposite reasons. Why is this pro-and-con soliloquy empty of moral substance? Evans says it is because Macbeth lacks moral sensibility; I say that it is because Macbeth has moral sensibility. The moral debate is superfluous (and thus structurally empty for Macbeth as “dialectic” or inner tug-of-war) precisely because he has absolute insight into the immorality of the deed. If Evans's notion of Macbeth as a moral idiot were true, we would have no tragedy at all. In Shakespeare's complex organization of the tragic mechanism, the very murder requires an absolute recoil as a first trigger for its later effectuation. For Evans the hero's rhetoric only indicates that the murder is assessed as being “particularly risky,”14 and the unit “We'd jump the life to come” is identified as a “casual” pronouncement.15 Macbeth's feeling that the murder will be blown in every eye is said to refer to the villain's fear of punishment as a consequence of universal protest.16

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.


The trouble with distortions and simplifications of Macbeth's tragic mind is not only that the hero's subtle character gets ruined but also that we end up with a falsification and sentimentalization of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Because Bertrand Evans thinks that Macbeth is a moral idiot, he also thinks that Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth in a very deep manner. Indeed, in their conjoint “understanding” of Macbeth as a moral idiot (and therefore also a pathetic coward) Evans and Lady Macbeth form a perfect pair. Their readings of the man Macbeth and of the particular nature of his inner predicament are equally acute. This “superlative wife,” we are informed, reads Macbeth like a “primer.”17 His expressed reluctance to proceed with the evil plan is the function of “lame” rationalization, a pathetically “whining” set of excuses.18 She only has to tell him the “plain truth”19 and show him how to avoid getting caught in order to demolish his dams of resistance.20

Shakespeare, of course, is really doing something utterly different in this soliloquy. Murder is a completely monstrous thing for Macbeth, and the soliloquy ends up in the constatation that murder is out of the question. It may seem that this decision is a function of the foregrounding of all the nasty “consequences” of murder; yet as the end of the speech indicates, the final sensation has nothing to do with “consequences” but with the apprehension of a vast visionary nothingness in which the nullity of motivation and the nullity of desire are beginning to be indistinguishable.

                                                                                                                                  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—


Although murder (and not merely its “consequences”) is prominently horrible for Macbeth in the soliloquy, he permits some distant part of his mind to mechanically go through what amounts to an elaborate hypothesis of murder: quite simply to clarify the absurdity of the deed's possibility. The academic silliness of taking various linguistic units at their surface value quickly emerges from a consideration of “We'd jump the life to come” as it appears at the beginning of the speech (1.7.7). Far from indicating a callous readiness to obliterate the transcendental horizon, this unit merely indicates the highly provisional suppression of that idealist notion. It is obvious that instead of being a worldly pragmatist caring only for mundane consequences the hero is in deep levels of his being profoundly conscious of the transcendental dilemma. Macbeth remains a transcendentally oriented figure throughout the play. And, what is more, all his moments of crisis are in the final analysis monitored and organized by his intense transcendentalism—the very transcendentalism that Shakespeare troubled to clarify in his opening scenes. Indeed, none of the hero's moments of tragic crisis are adequately grasped if they are not viewed in relation to the hero's sustained idealism. Although he starts, in this soliloquy, with a lower-than-divine sphere of reference (“here, / But here”), it is eminently clear that the latter parts of the speech reveal a very strong sense of divine infringement: “The deep damnation of his taking-off” (1.7.20). In his misreading, Evans fails to see that rhetoric overpowers “meaning.” If you look at the end of the soliloquy, with all its images of “heaven's Cherubins” and nakedly new-born Pity, it is easy to see that the generally moral and religious frame of reference is precisely what is most vivid and important in Macbeth's state of mind. Who, in this speech, is not in “deep damnation” if not Macbeth?

But if part of the soliloquy can be viewed as a function of the very moral inclination in Macbeth that certain critics refuse to acknowledge, another part is a function of a vaster mechanism that is still not fully developed but which can nevertheless be intuited at this early stage. This mechanism is perhaps best described as a form of staging. Macbeth begins a highly imaginative process of self-projection where the extravagance of image and sentiment at once flattens and deepens the sense of personal involvement. This involvement, now at one and the same time growing more shallow and more troubled, is an engagement with a “new” Macbeth, or a Macbeth on the “other side”—a person somehow possible at the farther side of “murder,” behind and beyond its reality. In this staging—theatrical in an almost melodramatic manner that will not fade in subsequent scenes—it is not merely the question of nonmurderous Macbeth learning how to project himself into the cold-bloodedness of murder; rather, it is the question of quite stable Macbeth learning how to become the absence-from-Macbeth that he already to some extent is on account of prophecy and on account of the weird “original guilt” promoted in the what-is-not soliloquy.21 The more absent Macbeth learns to become, the more does he become present to the self-absence that already is his odd destiny and tragedy. This process of increasingly melodramatic and forced staging can be related to Bayley's notion (discussed recently) that the hero is unfit to play his part in tragedy. Michael Goldman thinks along similar lines when he speaks of Macbeth “learning to perform” the murder, “as an actor might.”22 In psychoanalytic terms: the more one “plays” being “the murderer” (whether positively or negatively, whether “sincerely” or hypothetically), the less does one have to answer for murder personally. But the play's mechanism does not exactly parallel the Freudian notion that revulsion from murder secretly indicates murderous desire; here, rather, it is the other way around: desire, curiously enough, betokens revulsion, betokens what I have referred to as “originary revulsion” or “originary repulsion.”

Two main “levels” can thus be identified in the “If it were done” soliloquy—and both of them unbalance the “stage-villain” reading forwarding this great speech as a discourse on worldly obstacles. First there is the clear view of Macbeth as a morally conscious man—a view deliberately and elaborately staged by Shakespeare. Macbeth, searching his heart, finds that murder is not tolerable as a political deed or human act. But precisely because Macbeth is so obviously moral, precisely because he himself is so profoundly conscious of his own ingrained idealism, the “moral dimension” of his thought is almost automatized: he does not have to carefully think out the reasons for not murdering Duncan but instead merely has to call them into view. Indeed, we feel that part of his mind is absent from this cataloguing of moral considerations. As we have seen, there are critics who prematurely rationalize this slight absence in Macbeth from the moral issues as a “moral lack.” But the lack is not a moral lack but a lack. Just that, a vacuity and minus. Macbeth listens to himself go through a routine act of logical argumentation, but what interests him is the astonishing fact that he can at all deliberate such matters in a reasoning manner. As the sense of dreamy unreality intensifies, he can fuel the absence-oriented process by permitting his sense of slipping foothold to merge with the “deep damnation” in Duncan's “taking-off.” Macbeth actually himself takes off, joining those equally unreal creatures in the aerial corridors of sightless couriers and heavenly cherubim.

It is clear by now that the “If it were done” soliloquy simultaneously forwards the sense of two opposite movements—and that discourse, deconstructing the oppositionality of this (dialectical) opposition, unifies and separates the “two” motions in one and the “same” operation. On the one hand the act in which Macbeth makes “murder” more present as an imaginatively developed structure of mind is indistinguishable from his desire to explode that structure and ride recklessly away on the fantastical improbability of its reality. On the other hand, and conversely, the very negation of murder has a striking suggestion of being an imaginative effort to dig into its possible reality, to discover its possibility as real. The real equivocation, in summary, is not produced by the pros and cons of murder, by advantages and disadvantages, but by the fact that the collapse of dialectical oppositionality opens a “unified” sphere of precarious suggestion in which the entire corpus of the soliloquy can work at once for and against murder. Macbeth desires the absence of his presence to murder, but he also desires the presence of his absence from murder. From the deconstructionist viewpoint these “two” movements are (1) the same thing, and (2) not the same thing. The space “between” these two last alternatives is unthinkable, or is to be thought only in terms of unthinkability. The space “between” these two last alternatives is not a space. It cannot be intellectually “visualized”—but exists “in” (or through) discourse as a non-spatio-logical “instance.”

Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.137-38). Yes. But the presence of the horrible imaginings themselves is at once a move in the reassuring direction of “present fears” and a move away from what can be present. It is this “double” (and yet not double) movement that I shall consistently track throughout Macbeth: that Macbeth in servile fashion frantically presses all entities into their reassuring presence; but that this presencing in a sense is a mock-presencing of mock-presences, since “what” is made present is somehow always already intuited as empty of (full) presence. Thus Macbeth in a sense walks into a trap (the trap of “presence”); but since he has darkly foreseen the abyssal absence in the bosom of all presence, we may be entitled to feel that his self-entrapment is partly self-organized. Macbeth rids himself of “Macbeth,” paradoxically, by setting out to find him: he vaguely realizes that the prey, once caught, will vanish and thus cease to bother him.


“Present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings” (1.3.137-38); “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (2.1.48-49); “My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear, that wants hard use” (3.4.141-42). Vainly, Macbeth will attempt to rationalize the unbalancing of presence by trying to explain it (to himself and to others) in terms of lower-order mechanisms: inexperience, guilt, and so forth. As I have pointed out, Macbeth often follows the cue of Lady Macbeth in attempting such rationalizations—and, as I also have pointed out, the critics who themselves have a vested interest in bringing down the entire play to lower-order logic inadvertently come to share the sterile “either/or-ness” of the logical Lady. Macbeth's submission to Lady Macbeth's general initiative is at its most conspicuous degree of dishonesty in the Ghost scene of act 3:

Sit, worthy friends. My Lord is often thus,
And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon a thought
He will again be well. If much you note him,
You shall offend him, and extend his passion;
Feed, and regard him not. Are you a man?
Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that
Which might appal the Devil.
                                                                                                                                  O proper stuff!
This is the very painting of your fear:
This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said,
Led you to Duncan. O! these flaws and starts
(Impostors to true fear), would well become
A woman's story at a winter's fire,
Authoris'd by her grandam. Shame itself!
Why do you make such faces? When all's done,
You look but on a stool.


A moment later:

Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends,
I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing
To those that know me.


The infirmity “is nothing.” That is an interesting unit. Indeed the word “in-firmity” is itself of interest, strategically placed as it is.23 But primarily, here, the infirmity is nothing to the “worthy friends,” to “those that know me.” One implication of this statement is that the Macbethian “fit,” as unthinkable “infirmity,” is a meaningless “nothing” once translated into the world of Lady Macbeth and the “worthy friends.” The fit simply does not exist there, for it is not even possible there. But the stress on the unit “know” is also significant. The fit is meaningless once translated into the world of those that “know me.” This unit is related to a previous one, appearing right after the assassination:

                                                                                                    —Be not lost
So poorly in your thoughts.
To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself.


Self-knowledge (and by implication also self-presence) is not compatible with the Macbethian condition. To know Macbeth is to be excluded from the dimension in which the in-firmity reigns. This situation cannot be reduced to a mere question of guilt, that he does not want to “know” about his naughty misbehavior; nor can it be reduced to a question of insanity, that the fit is loss of self-presence in the medical sense. Although both of these “explanations” are moderately relevant and operative, they do not at all cover the main thrust of the dislocation that Shakespeare is working with: Macbeth's encounter with the unthinkable, with the absolutely weird and uncanny.

Lady Macbeth's “diagnosis” of Macbeth's ailment is clearly reductive. But while she (with certain critics) is blind to the naiveté in this mechanically organized pseudodiagnosis, the hero is not. Indeed, a striking feature in his entire tragic comportment is that he is “convinced” while still remaining unconvinced. He is “convinced” that he wants to murder Duncan, “convinced” (by Lady Macbeth) that the deed will come off well, “convinced” that present fears will be less than horrible imaginings, “convinced” that his nerves will steady as political treachery becomes habitual, “convinced” that guilt is the cause of the hallucinated air-drawn dagger—but throughout all this conviction he remains secretly unconvinced. There is no conviction in Macbeth: and this, exactly, is what defines his metaphysical servitude. In metaphysics one is not convinced about anything; one doubts. And most of all one doubts oneself.

By being excluded, structurally, from the Macbethian fit and from the “radioactive” zone governing it through the Weird Sisters, Lady Macbeth is blind to the deconstruction of binary opposites that now unbalances presence and the possibility of presence. She thinks Macbeth ought to decide to be either sane or mad, either courageous or cowardly. Macbeth protests right in the middle of his fit that he is “a bold one” (3.4.58), and he is absolutely right—since Shakespeare, obviously, is forcing us to grasp an absolute quaking that is not a function of mere “fear.” Her intellect remains at the level of empirical positivism: “When all's done, / You look but on a stool” (3.4.66-67).

Through the curious sex-anthropology in this play, with its inversion of sexual distributions and of patterns of gender domination, Lady Macbeth comes to assume all the obnoxious aspects of patriarchal thinking. She patronizes Macbeth, seeks to bring him back into the logical system of masculine dialectic, male dominance in the name of order: “Are you a man?” (3.4.57). But this cheap trick of trying to coax Macbeth back into dialectical heroism founders on the fact that Macbeth's masculinity is not reducible to logical masculinity, to dialectic as mastery. There is a type of masculine affirmation, or affirmative masculinity, in Macbeth that outruns Lady Macbeth, “vanishes” from her presence and possible imagination. This masculinity, always already in touch with the weirdly androgynous (as monitored by the sisters), is only moved by her appeals to logical common sense in the most superficial way. Lady Macbeth's tragedy is that she thinks her cheap appropriation of Macbeth in the name of “male” logic prior to the murder (“you would / Be so much more the man,” 1.7.50-51) actually has a profound effect on him—actually could match the completely different influence exerted by the sisters. Again it is relevant to consider how Macbeth's tendency to be “convinced” reflects its opposite. But Lady Macbeth, dull to the play of opposites inside the soul of her husband, mechanically goes on dispatching her favorite medicine: the crude appeal to “maleness:” “What! quite unmann'd in folly?” (3.4.72).

Having assumed the pseudoheroic qualities of the dialectical male (“unsex me here,” 1.5.41), and having turned this maleness into the presence of what is “masculine” (“fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty!”, 1.5.42-43) Lady Macbeth organizes her own presence as that which must necessarily be absent from the depth-formula of the play: equivocation. As one negotiating sexual difference as a dialectical difference, she cannot in any vital sense engage with the sexual play of the drama; she can only play that play melodramatically, by means of overacting: “Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter! / Thy letters have transported me” (1.5.54-56).24 There is a tonal difference between this discourse and that similar one used by the Weird Sisters to greet the hero (1.3.48-69), and while the latter greeting casts a spell over him, the former almost has the effect of putting him off. Lady Macbeth speaks univocally, pointing to the target of what will need to be present, pointing to self-presence in ideal presence; but Macbeth is already attuned to a quite different appeal—so that his wife's effusions are slightly boring, almost embarrassing. When he finally agrees to move along with her empirical project (which she wants to make present immediately), he is much like a husband who agrees to go on a holiday with his wife while secretly realizing that he is not going to enjoy himself and that he has not really swallowed the “convincing” arguments for the enterprise. Ironically, by having prematurely abandoned her femininity in a simplistic fashion, Lady Macbeth removes herself from participation in the “woman's story” that she derides: “O! these flaws and starts … would well become / A woman's story” (3.4.62-64). The play Macbeth, as equivocal discourse promoted by the sisters, as undialectical action evading patriarchal logocentricity, is in a certain sense exactly that: “A woman's story.” Lady Macbeth not only fails to be able to actively participate in this story/play, not only becomes more and more disconnected from its principles and possibilities; she also is shown to be permanently falling away from a dialogue with its protagonist, from any vital proximity to him.

“O proper stuff! / This is the very painting of your fear: / This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said, / Led you to Duncan” (3.4.59-62). The connection that Lady Macbeth establishes here is important: not only does Shakespeare make us feel that the fit in the banquet scene (3.4) is related to the dagger-fit (2.1); he also makes us feel that Lady Macbeth's radical uncomprehension of the entity “fit” antecedes the murder as such: she is not only out of touch with a tormented post-murder Macbeth full of “remorse,” but also out of touch with the very Macbeth who saw murder as such presence itself in terms of its opposite (repulsion-from-murder) and absence (absurdity).

Significantly, it is Lady Macbeth who interrupts Macbeth (at the end of his “If it were done” soliloquy) at the very moment when he has realized that his attraction to murder is in an originary way organized by its unattractiveness, that he thinks about murder (more and more obsessively) because his purity of mind utterly forbids such thinking. But when Macbeth has come to the consolidation of the idea that “murder” is a cognitive circuit in his mind, no more than a self-determined nothingness, Lady Macbeth interrupts this line of thought and immediately turns things down into the lower-order levels of relevance: getting the business done, moving along the path of ambition without further inhibitions. The “surrender” of Macbeth to her acts of “persuasion” is less interesting here—on account of the emptiness of the surrender, its quality of theatrical staging—than the mind of the hero as, quite unaffected by the token-commitment to “murder,” it goes on exploring the future in terms of the absence of murder/future/commitment.

The soliloquy on the air-drawn dagger is now obviously a speech of great importance. The dagger makes its entry as an utter stranger (“Is this a dagger, which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” 2.1.33-34)—and, most strange of all, as an absolute stranger also to the business of murder!

So absent indeed is Macbeth from murder as volitional enterprise that he requires that pointing dagger as an indispensable connective link that is to attach him to the possibility of murder. He needs the dagger to connect him with the dagger; he needs the pointing of the dagger to feel its point. I am saying, in other words, that the hallucinated (and therefore “absent”) dagger presents Macbeth with the intention that he should have had.

The dagger is a dagger of intentionality. It points to the chamber; it signals the direction of an intention. But the intention is not in the subject, not in Macbeth. It is in the dagger, in the not-Macbeth. The dagger becomes present to Macbeth as Macbeth's absence from it.

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.
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.


The contradictory structure is obvious. On the one hand, Macbeth already knew the way he was to go (“the way that I was going”); on the other hand, the dagger has to point out this way. The dagger is a supplement. The marshalling is at once a supplementary necessity and an absurd surplus, it is at once purely dispensable and purely indispensable.25 On the one hand, the supplementary dagger (in hallucination) gives Macbeth the murder weapon he requires for murder's possible presence; on the other hand, he already has at his immediate disposal this very dagger that is to bridge the gap between nonmurder and murder—indeed he draws it and places it beside its visionary partner.

Curiously, but not insignificantly, we are made to feel that the absent dagger is more present than the present one. The one that Macbeth draws for comparative contemplation is a kind of inert equivalent that nevertheless is no equivalent: it lacks the power of its visible/invisible copy. The secondary (hallucinated) dagger acquires a hyperontological primacy, and the prime weapon itself—the one to be used in the butchery—remains behind in a world of uninteresting secondariness, drained of drama, equivocation, and tragic vision.

It seems to me, however, that the absent dagger (of hallucination) slides into the finite, real, and material dagger that Macbeth is ready to use. In this way, the absence of the dagger is carried over into the gesture of murdering itself: so that in an important sense that murder is never truly actual, never truly present. The air-drawn dagger fills with alien intention a Macbethian intentionality that is at bottom structurally empty; but conversely, the very unreality of that hallucinated weapon preserves murder as something nonempirical and “distant” in Macbeth's inner drama. It is interesting from this viewpoint that Macbeth “forgets” to leave the daggers he uses near the corpse (much to the surprise and frustration of his wife, 2.2.47). It is indeed as if the act of being hypnotized by “the dagger” continues to be operative even when “real” weapons have replaced “air-drawn” ones. Macbeth trembles at the sight of his bloody hands and bloody daggers (a fact suggesting mere retreat and repulsion); but as I shall argue later, there is a process of attraction beneath the fear—which is precisely why there is more than “fear” in motion here. Macbeth sticks to blood/hands/daggers, and he does so, I suggest, because these things maintain the work of absence (from murder) that the air-drawn dagger (as something absent) has inaugurated.

From an orthodox viewpoint, the sudden appearance of “gouts of blood” on the dagger (2.1.46) seems to call forth the horrible future of the impending deed: the knife's transformation from spotless innocence to gory sacrilege. But in my view a more suggestive movement is also being dramatized: the further filling of empty and absent intention with the “stuff” of its required order. Just as the hallucinated dagger provided Macbeth's absence-from-murder with a modicum of suggestive presence-to-murder, so the reddening of the abstractly dangling blade signals a deepening of a presentation of intentionality as such. Macbeth sees his intention gather into intention—into sanguine reality of purpose—but this very hardening, coloring, and materializing takes place outside him, in a sphere not quite inhabited by any self-present presence.

In summary, then, the dagger shows Macbeth the way, but it is of course Macbeth who is showing Macbeth the way. The “first” Macbeth, as heroic master committed to idealistic “struggle to death” for transcendental recognition, has an absence of intent to murder Duncan; the “second” Macbeth, the metaphysically servile cogito, has a full and self-present intent to murder. But this second, servile Macbeth, who is self-present and fully intentional, is quite absent, has to be “created”: has, indeed, to be dramatized and staged. Hence the dream of that self-presence and full intentionality will remain punctured by the spacings of dramaturgy and creative nonpresence. Macbeth seeking to clutch the dagger is Macbeth seeking to clutch Macbeth, desiring the palpable presence of his own self-present thought, some creature who could be the absolute monarch of his own intentionality. Yet as I have tried to show in this analysis, this act of wanting to presence a self-present cogito carries with it traces of the originary resistance to this process. I see the “air-drawn dagger” as such a “trace.”26 By pointing, it traces into the future what full presence has lacked from the outset.


  1. Shakespeare and Tragedy, p. 191.

  2. Quoted by J. I. M. Stewart in “Steep Tragic Contrast: Macbeth,” in Shakespeare: The Tragedies, ed. Clifford Leech (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 106.

  3. Ibid., p. 108.

  4. Ibid., p. 119.

  5. Ibid., p. 114.

  6. Muir argues that the eye-versus-hand imagery “is Shakespearian” (KM, 25); but it could be argued that the too-obvious Shakespearean stress here is exactly what looks suspicious. The passage contains the Shakespearean building blocks, but does it contain the Shakespearean way of assembling these blocks?

  7. Shakespeare and Tragedy, p. 69.

  8. See Bartholomeusz, Macbeth and the Players, p. 259.

  9. Hamlet: Letters and Spirits,” p. 299.

  10. Shakespeare and Tragedy, p. 69.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Shakespeare's Tragic Practice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 200-201.

  13. Ibid., p. 201.

  14. Ibid., p. 202.

  15. Ibid., p. 201.

  16. Ibid., p. 202. I should perhaps emphasize, here, that I am in favor of retaining the Folio punctuation. This is not the place to undertake a critique of the “emendation” currently institutionalized; all I can say at this moment, by way of a general remark, is that the grammatically “correct” punctuation that we now have is an ontologizing construct that spoils a number of crucial spacings in the text. The cryptoromantic and ultra-ontologizing “bank and shoal of time” instead of “bank and school of time” is another interesting “improvement”—especially from the viewpoint of a critique of metaphysical presence.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 203.

  21. It may be objected that in discussing a process of “absencing” in Macbeth, I am contradicting my main thesis: that the hero gradually shifts over into a quest for metaphysical presence. But matters cannot be oversimplified. It all very much depends on what we mean by “Macbeth.” There certainly is a Macbeth who in the most alarming and conspicuous manner falls into a quest for presence. But the name “Macbeth” is never reducible to a presence: “other” Macbeths are operative “offstage.” In addition, as I argue all along, the structural impossibility of (metaphysical) presence, of presence as absolute self-presence, ensures the production of an absent Macbeth by the production of a present one.

  22. “Language and Action in Macbeth,” p. 146.

  23. Cf. “Thou sure and firm-set earth” (2.1.56).

  24. Macbeth eventually makes his wife's melodramatic tone his own for a while: “Bring forth men-children only!” (1.7.73). Could it be argued that this tonal mimesis too is fragile?—that it too is not altogether convincing?

  25. Calderwood's definition of the Derridean “supplement” involves “an excess added to a sufficiency, but paradoxically, because its presence implies a prior insufficiency, also a replacement of a lack” (If It Were Done, p. 57). This process, as I argue too, is true for the play as a whole. The general movement traces the paradox of the work of the “supplement.” “Each fulfillment creates a lack to be filled,” and the “fullness of final presence—the apparent closure of an end—fades even as it appears” (ibid., p. 69).

  26. See the discussion of “trace” in Jacques Derrida, Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986), p. 192.


Bartholomeusz, Dennis. Macbeth and the Players. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. London, Boston, and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Calderwood, James L. If It Were Done. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. Parages. Paris: Galilée, 1986.

Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Tragic Practice. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Ferguson, Margaret W. “Hamlet: Letters and Spirits.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 292-309. New York and London: Methuen, 1985.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Language and Action in Macbeth,” In Focus on Macbeth, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 140-52. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Leech, Clifford, ed. Shakespeare—The Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Muir, Kenneth, ed. Macbeth: The Arden Edition. London and New York: Methuen, 1951; University Paperback 1983.

Stewart, J. I. M. “Steep Tragic Contrast: Macbeth.” In Shakespeare: The Tragedies, edited by Clifford Leech. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1965.


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Literary scholars generally agree that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth sometime around 1606—after James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne as James I in 1603 and before the tragedy's first recorded performance at the Globe Theatre in 1611. The principal source for the play is Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), although critics have pointed out that Shakespeare manipulated certain aspects of the historical record to reinforce James I's claim to the English crown. Given that Macbeth is Shakespeare's briefest tragedy by far, many literary historians have speculated that the 1623 Folio edition of the play is based on a substantially revised quarto version that has since been lost. Indeed, many late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century critics have continued to speculate on the play's uncertain textual and performance origins, but to date these scholars have discovered no new evidence to support their theories. Another recent critical trend has focused on a close analysis of the language in Macbeth, demonstrating that it exposes the discursive and the representational limitations of the tragic genre, that linguistic models of duplicity shape the play, and that the witches' poetic discourse is echoed repetitively by the other characters. In addition, a number of recent commentators have analyzed several dichotomies in Macbeth, such as the protagonist's vacillation between static philosopher and active murderer, the clash of nihilism and existentialism, and the conflict between a heroic pagan ethic and Christian values of conscience and meekness.

Several modern critical discussions of the character of Macbeth have explored various aspects of his inner psychological conflict. In his 1990 essay, H. W. Fawkner argues that absence is the central structural theme of Macbeth and analyzes the protagonist as a character who remains distanced from his own actions. Piotr Sadowski (2001) asserts that Macbeth is chiefly concerned with his masculinity as he progresses from a state marked by honor and conscience to a state in which he becomes preoccupied with remorseless ambition and the consolidation of power. Paul A. Cantor (2000) identifies a fundamental tension in Macbeth between the heroic pagan ethic and Christian values associated with conscience and meekness. According to Cantor, Macbeth's attempt to synthesize these antithetical values causes him to conceive of a debased form of absolutism that negates both ethics systems and corrupts his perspective of the natural order. Tzachi Zamir (2000) contrasts the philosophical implications of Macbeth's nihilistic preoccupation with the absence of value and temporality with Macduff's emotional and highly temporal existentialism.

Theater critics have praised Gregory Doran's 1999-2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth as one of the more successful attempts in recent years at staging Shakespeare's tragedy. Presented in modern dress, the production emphasized the stark, timeless influence of evil and the devastating impact of its corrupting influence on human ambition. Further, as Katherine Duncan-Jones (1999) points out, Doran's textual cuts successfully transformed the play “from historical melodrama to contemporary psychodrama.” Yet, despite their approbation for the production, many reviewers argued that Doran's visual style sometimes created a sense of dislocation or incoherence that undermined the overall integrity of his artistic vision. In contrast to Doran's production, Terry Hands's 2000 staging of Macbeth has been considered one of the most notorious modern interpretations of the tragedy. Conceived as a vanity project for the popular American television actor Kelsey Grammer, the production was a theatrical debacle marred by shabby production values, declamatory acting, and a lack of directorial insight. Critics nearly unanimously maligned Grammer's portrayal of Macbeth, arguing that while the actor spoke Shakespeare's verse clearly, he nevertheless recreated a one-dimensional, dispassionate, and dowdy tragic figure. Commentators were much more receptive to Yukio Ninagawa's 2002 touring production of the play, which included a hall-of-mirrors set, sumptuous costumes from a number of historical periods, choreographed fight sequences, and real horses ridden by Duncan and Malcolm. Most critics agreed that one of the director's most intriguing innovations was to cast young actors in the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As a result, David A. Rosenberg (2003) observed, “Shakespeare's tragedy became the story of a young couple who find themselves steeped way over their heads in blood.” Ultimately, theater reviewers applauded Ninagawa for presenting what Bruce Weber (see Further Reading) termed a “gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting” reading of Macbeth.

Many modern critics assert that the text of Macbeth reveals several clues about its genesis. Garry Wills (1995) examines the specific placement of stage directions, textual cues for clothing and props, and alternative emendations for proscribed editorial revisions to propose a number of ways in which Macbeth might have been more clearly perceived by a Jacobean audience than by a modern one. Similarly, Stephen Orgel (2002) comments on the dynamic theatrical processes and ideological concerns that might have influenced revisions of the play prior to the publication of the 1623 Folio. Orgel focuses on the evolving dramatic treatment of the witches as a reflection of the changing mores and cultural attitudes of each new generation that reinterprets the tragedy. Rebecca Lemon (2002) applies the notion of equivocation and Jacobean ideological concerns to the language of Macbeth, demonstrating that the duplicitous didacticism inherent in the scaffold speeches of condemned Elizabethan and Jacobean traitors shapes the political tone of the play. Lemon concludes that while such language infuses the speech of the traitors Cawdor and Macbeth, Malcolm also adopts this linguistic model of dissimulation to orchestrate his own claim to the Scottish monarchy. In another semantic study of Shakespeare's tragedy, David L. Kranz (2003) analyzes the structural and thematic implications of repetitive verse, indicating that the witches' words are echoed in the linguistic patterns of the other characters.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 26 November 1999)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “God's Murderer.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5043 (26 November 1999): 24.

[In the following review, Duncan-Jones calls Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Macbeth an interesting interpretation of the play as contemporary psychodrama.]

Gregory Doran's brilliant, though not quite faultless, production is designed for touring. The performance style is so mobile and energetic that it seems as if the players are limbering up to sprint all the way to Tokyo, where they will shortly arrive, as so many soldiers and assassins do in the course of the play, almost too breathless to deliver their urgent messages. The Folio's already short text has been considerably shortened, and it too gallops along, concluding in little over two hours. Major cuts to the final act are particularly crucial in transforming Shakespeare's text from historical melodrama to contemporary psychodrama. While the Folio's Macbeth explicitly rejects suicide as the cowardly act of a “Roman fool”, Antony Sher's bright-eyed psychotic is the agent of his own punishment, running forward to impale himself on a minuscule knife wielded by Macduff (Nigel Cooke). His number is up, and, as he is carried off like a stuck pig, he is closed in upon by thickening mist and a tree-welding army.

We are shown no “dead butcher”, but a manic obsessive who has imposed his own nightmares on the world around him, persuading us that they are our nightmares, too. Tamburlaine-like, he can even orchestrate his own death. Yet in its visual style this Macbeth seems at first bafflingly decontextualized, and it is hard to find our bearings. The excellent Witches (Diane Beck, Noma Dumerzweni, Polly Kemp) speak and move as one, but are so muffled up as to be mostly faceless, and their main distinguishing mark is that, like Eliot's Madam Sosostris, they all have bad colds. The play's world appears to be neither Jacobean, medieval, Scottish, nor even late twentieth-century, and the pervasive use of darkness, mist and dirty black uniforms from the RSC's rag-bag will cause some narrative confusion to that goodly proportion of every audience which is not already familiar with the play. Shaven-headed men in black look rather similar, whether goodies or baddies, and in the scene in which Macbeth urgently commands Seyton (here “Satan”) “Give me my armour”, it is by no means obvious that the dark flak jacket he wants to put on is significantly different from various black garments he has on already.

Insistence on any colour as long as it's black seems to extend even to the play's act of violence. The “bloody man” of Scene Two looks more muddy than bloody, and when Banquo's murderer arrives at the Macbeths' dinner party to be greeted with the words, “There's blood on thy face”, I couldn't detect a trace of redness. Nor does the Macbeths' frugal dinner table offer either red wine or red meat. Yet eventually this compelling but opaque production reveals its wider frame of reference. In the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech, which I have never heard better delivered, Sher opens up the line of desperately urgent communication between Macbeth and the audience which up to that point had seemed indistinct and crackly. We discover ourselves with him in the realm of peri-millennial angst. It's not just the Queen who is dead, but God—indeed, Macbeth has murdered him, along with sleep, friendship and moral value, and we are all together in the theatre of the world participating in a terrible shadow-play of nothingness.

There are three major exceptions to the muddy and “timeless” costuming. Lofty King Duncan (Joseph O'Conor) is hieratic and fatherly in gold brocade, and it was one of the production's few missed tricks that Macbeth as King did not assume the whole of his Byzantine priest-king outfit, which, given the difference in height between O'Conor and Sher, would have reinforced the recurring image of the usurper's “giant's robes / Upon a dwarfish thief”. Harriet Walter is a splendidly statuesque and dignified Lady Macbeth, arrayed in elegant long evening dresses, first black, then regal green velvet, then a fluid ivory night-shift for her sleep-walking and obsessive-compulsive hand-washing.

Everything about her performance is mesmerizing, and the nervous frailty that fuels her assured energy is hinted from the outset. She and Macbeth embrace with terrible eagerness, as if milking each other for strength and mutual reinforcement. This is an appallingly compelling folie a deux. The third differently costumed character is the Porter, alias Satan/Seyton (Stepnen Noonan), who clambers up from the cellarage looking like a shabby pulchinello or downmarket children's entertainer. Not everyone may enjoy his pantomimic, ad-libbing style, but I did, and suspect that he will be a winner with the school parties. The cringe-making awfulness of his attempts to get the audience to respond to his dreadful “Knock Knock” jokes suggests that Hell is an eternity of daytime television: a good message to all those who have taken the trouble to come to live theatre.

Garry Wills (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Wills, Garry. “Macbeth.” In Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, pp. 125-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Wills explains obscure passages and words in Macbeth—such as the specific placement of stage directions, textual cues for clothing and props, and alternative emendations for proscribed editorial revisions—and examines the ways in which the play might have been more clearly perceived by a Jacobean audience than by a modern one.]

Lady Macbeth asks of her evil spirits that they make her insensitive (stopping up the passages of remorse, 1.5.44), and she is relieved to see that wine contributes to that useful deadening (2.2.1). Macbeth wants his own psychic mechanism to be short-circuited. At first he simply observes that “function / Is smother'd” when his surmise leaps toward new possibilities (1.3.140-41). But he soon desires that the eye not know what the hand is up to (1.4.52), that events swallow up consequences (1.7.1-4). He marvels that acts could go forward without the spur of thought or decision (1.7.25-28). Once launched into action, he cannot look back (3.4.135-37), and he will not look any farther ahead than to the instant task, too horrible to contemplate, but not too horrible to do without contemplating it. He tells his wife to be innocent of such knowledge (3.2.45) and so far as possible keeps himself innocent of it. Bad must be treated homeopathically with further bad (3.2.55). Such cures “must be acted ere they may be scanned” (3.4.139). The first conception of the heart must leap to the hand, no sooner thought than acted (4.1.146-49).

He wants to leap into action automatically, to preclude fear, hesitation, or conscience—and he succeeds so well that the short-circuited parts of him atrophy, like an unused limb: “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (5.5.9). He has tried to skip past time at will, out-tricking it. “Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits,” he lamented at one point (4.1.144). By speeding past time, he has eliminated it. It is no longer articulated with any meaning but mere iteration, mere empty succession (5.5.19-28).

Macbeth engages in a self-refashioning that amounts to sabotage committed upon himself. He systematically disconnects the systems of reflection. He even has a short-circuited phrase to describe what he has done to himself: “my strange and-self-abuse” (3.4.141). It is telling that he explains his actions this way even when he is lying. Asked why he killed the grooms in their sleep, he answers (2.3.110-11):

Th' expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason.

The jiggering with his own psychic mechanism makes Macbeth's mind move in a blur of images, as if he were on “speed.” That makes his speeches hallucinatory, even when he is not seeing the dagger or Banquo's ghost. The words get tangled in their rush from him, in their plunge past obstacles into action. That is why the soliloquies present so many textual problems—far more than cluster in other sections of the play. We must doubt whether the text is sound in some place—unusual language is more apt to be jumbled in transmission. The “packed” quality of the speeches has led to misinterpretation as well as futile revisions.

A good example is the first speech where Macbeth discusses the jump-sequences he would like to introduce into time's flow. If the assassination could be an act out of sequence, with no antecedent or consequence, a be-all and end-all in itself, a means to the goal and the goal, so that one is contained in the other (a success by mere surcease)—then—what? Then, according to 1.7.5-7 (in the Folio),

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

How does one jump from a bank and school? Almost all editors adopt Theobald's famous emendation of school to shoal—disastrously, I believe.

Shoal means shallow water, as in “sounded all the depths and shoals of honor” (Henry VIII 3.2.436). How does one jump from the bank and the water? Theobald tried to make shoal mean “passage through shallow water,” or ford: “this shallow, this narrow ford, of human life.” So one jumps from the bank to the ford to what? One should arrive at the opposite shore, not avoid it, yet “jump” mean “skip over” or “cancel” here, not jump to or achieve. The picture is too jumbled to bear thought.1

What can be made of school if that is retained? Heath (see Variorum) wanted “bank-and-school” to mean “bench-in-school,” which goes nicely with the later “teach bloody instructions” but not so well with “jump the life to come.” What help is the physical furniture of a schoolroom to that process (whatever it is)? No one I know of has suspected that the corruption may be in bank, not school. F's “Banke,” with capital B, could well be a setter's misunderstanding of “Ranke.” We read at Lear 2.4.258 that not being vicious “Stands in some rank [kind or category] of praise.” It is the usage that survives in “rank and file.” A rank of time would be some category of time. School, then, would not be the physical building (with benches in it) but a body of interpretation, like “school of night” at Love's Labour's 4.3.251. “This rank-and-school of time” would be the kind-and-view of time suggested by what immediately precedes. “This” is a resumptive reference back, not a physical marker.

What was “this” interpretation of time? That it ended each act with the act, rather than leading on to consequences. If one could believe that, then (upon this view of time) one could skip or cancel succeeding time. It would be canceled by the surcease of the self-contained act. For jump as skip or cancel, see Cymbeline 5.4.179-82: “You must either be directed … or jump the after-inquiry on your peril” (another passage having to do with instruction).

But then Macbeth reflects that it is not so simple. He wants an exempt time, sealed off from the flow of time, in which to commit a consequence-less murder—like the exempt space marked out by the conjurer's circle, one that seals its ambit off from God's providential order all around the circle. But time flows on into consequential acts: murder calls for retaliation. The interpretation of time as making a single act “the be-all and the end-all here, but here” is not tenable. That “school of time” comes up against the fact that “We still have judgment here” [not surcease “here but here”]. We give others “bloody instruction”—to kill in return, just as Campion's “bloody questions” called for a self-killing response. The passage should be emphasized this way:

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 rank and school of time
We'd jump the life to come. But …

This is just the first of three difficult passages in this soliloquy. The second one is the famous “new-born babe” sequence, much discussed and argued over. Cleanth Brooks gave the passage an exhaustive “new criticism” analysis, connecting the babe with every other reference to children or male adulthood in Macbeth.2 Helen Gardner responded that Brooks had made the passage more, not less, obscure.3 Kenneth Muir tried to reconcile the work of his fellow critics.4 And the battles go on.

The passage is difficult. No phrase in it but has caused problems.

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

It may help to take minor points first, since they can give clues to harder matters.

1. How do “tears drown the wind”? Most editors take “drown” to mean “kill by immersion,” and conclude that, in Johnson's words, there is “remission of the wind in a shower.”5 That does not seem to be a meteorological fact, and it fits ill the context: passions should be raised, not allayed, by revelation of the regicide. Actually, “drown” can mean simply “drench” or “flood,” as in a passage with strong similarities to this one, Hamlet 2.2.562ff., where Hamlet says that a real (not a feigned) murder

                                        would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech. …

There is no question of killing the stage by immersion. So, in our passage, tears will drench the wind, be swirled along in them. Hamlet's actor splits ears with horrid speech; Macbeth's angels blow the horrid deed in every—eye, not ear. In both cases, horrifying testimony to a crime is delivered.

2. Why are the winds “sightless”? Muir, in his edition, glossed the word as invisible—which is clearly what it means at 1.5.49 (demons' “sightless substance”). But he changed his mind when editing King Lear, where winds snatch at Lear's hair “with eyeless rage” (3.1.8). Winds, which make people close their eyes, may be thought of as sightless—putti in the corners of old pictures, representing the four winds, sometimes close their eyes while puffing out their checks to blow.

3. How do angels blow a deed into eyes? Portents and apparitions mark the death of kings. The angels can either cause these portents, or be these portents. If the latter is the case, then the coursers cannot be sightless in the sense of invisible. We are dealing with visual evidence, not acoustic. I mentioned earlier that “blowing” was a charged word in the Gunpowder Plot days, related to the imagined portent of royal limbs flying through the air. The Plot was foiled, and that evidence had to be imagined; but Macbeth is supposing that Duncan's death does occur, and he fears what portents will follow. Some portents do, in fact, occur when the murder has been committed—an owl brings down a falcon, and horses go wild (2.4.11-18). The heavens protest what has been done on earth (lines 5-6):

Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threatens his bloody stage.

Macbeth is imagining some such revelation of the crime from above.

4. What is the division of labor between the babe and the cherubim? None, says Gardner—they are both symbols of innocence. She mocks Brooks's treatment of the babe as Pity and the cherubim as Vengeance. But cherubs can be judges—Hamlet threatens Claudius with the cryptic remark that he (Hamlet) sees a cherub who reads his (Claudius's) mind (4.3.48). Brooks rightly contrasts the babe, whose powerlessness is emphasized (it is not only new-born but naked), with powerful coursers guided by angels. The messengers seem fitted to give different testimony, raising pity and fear, just as Hamlet's imagined actor, with his “horrid speech,” can “make mad the guilty, and appall the free [from guilt].” Pity is paired by contrast with threats at Comedy of Errors 1.1.10 and Coriolanus 1.6.36.

5. What is a “naked new-born babe” doing out in a cruel blast of air? The babe stands on the blast, bestrides it in that sense. (The moon bestrides a cloud at Romeo 2.2.31 and Margaret says at III Henry VI 5.4.31: “Bestride the rock, the tide will wash you off”). The cherubim guide their coursers. The babe just stands helpless in the storm. This is a powerful image, and it was given powerful expression in a poem printed four years before Macbeth was performed. Robert Southwell's “The Burning Babe” has these features in common with Shakespeare's image. The babe is “newly born.” It “did in the air appear”—cf. “striding the blast.” It sheds “floods of tears”—cf. “drown with tears.” It makes “mercy blow the coals”—cf. “blow the deed.” The babe seems to be naked in the cold—it displays its “faultless breast.” Southwell's poem hangs the Christ child in the air over a wintry Christmas scene to have its heat of love melt the viewer's cold heart. Justice lights fires of vengeance which the babe's melting love puts out—as Shakespeare's babe offers compassion alongside the cherubim's justice. The blood that melts into the fire and puts it out fuses the image of the babe in the air and Christ hung on the cross—another meeting of mercy and justice.

I do not think that Shakespeare is imitating Southwell, but the extraordinary conjunction of similar elements suggests that Shakespeare may have been nudged by Southwell's poem toward this particular symbol of mercy and pity. Shakespeare's babe is not the Christ child. It is Pity in a personified form. But the iconography is the same.6

As I in hoary winter's night
                              Stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris'd I was with sudden heat
                              Which made my heart to glow.
And lifting up a fearful eye
                              To view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright
                              Did in the air appear.
Who, scorched with excessive heat,
                              Such floods of tears did shed.
As though his floods should quench his flames
                              Which with his tears were fed.
“Alas,” quoth he, “but newly born,
                              In fiery heats I fry;
Yet none approach to warm their hearts,
                              Or feel my fire, but I.
My faultless breast the furnace is,
                              The fuel wounding thorns.
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke.
                              The ashes, shame and scorns.
The fuel Justice layeth on,
                              And Mercy blows the coals.
The metal, in the furnace wrought,
                              Are men's defiled souls—
For which, as now on fire I am
                              To work them to this good,
So will I melt into a bath
                              To wash them in my blood.
With this he vanish'd out of sight,
                              And swiftly shrunk away.
And straight I called unto mind
                              That it was Christmas day.(7)

The difficulties in Macbeth's Act One, Scene Seven soliloquy continue to the very end, in these possibly corrupt lines (1.7.25-28):

                                        I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o'erleaps, itself,
And falls on th' other.

By contrast with the racing cherubim on their couriers, Macbeth is stalled. He cannot prod on his intent. The natural thing is to take itself as the object of o'erleaps, though a thing that can jump over itself belongs in the poems of Edward Lear not of William Shakespeare. Ambition needs no spurs—it leaps of itself, unprompted. What is the other that ambition falls on? Most people, trying to make sense of a jump over itself, have ambition fall down on some other—a horse on its rider, or a rider on the other side of the horse, etc. These are not convincing pictures. It is better to take “fall on” as “attack”—

The bold young men that, when he bids 'em charge,
Fall on like fire.(8)

Macbeth says he has no spur to guide a rational intent. All he has—and he is at the moment too wise to accept it—is a berserk ambition that spontaneously goes too far (o'erleaps) and attacks anything in its way (any “other”). That is not entirely convincing, and that last line should perhaps be athetized in a critical edition. But earlier interpretations seem even less tenable.

The nervous telegraphic style of Macbeth's speech deserves fuller study; but enough has been looked at to indicate the blowing of his linguistic fuses as he forces himself on into dreadful action, doing violence to “the pauser, reason.”

In the last act, some of Macbeth's words are obscure. But his actions also seem mysterious in the Folio text and directions. In Act Five, Scene Three he asks for his armor, and Seyton says, “'Tis not needed yet,” but Macbeth will put it on anyway. Fourteen lines later he says, “Come, put my armor on; give me my staff.” Six lines after that: “Pull't off [his armor?], I say.” Four lines on: “Bring it [the armor?] after me.” He exits, presumably still unarmed. Not till the end of Scene Five does he say, “Arm! Arm! And out!” Then, six lines later, he says: “At least we'll die with harness on our back.” Most directors have Macbeth arm between scenes, but that seems to destroy the point (whatever it is) of his alternating resolution and reluctance in arming.9 What stage business do these various starts and stops indicate?

Ever since Caroline Spurgeon's 1935 book Shakespeare's Imagery drew attention to the language about Macbeth's clothes—too alien, too large, too strange to fit him—directors have tried various ways of suggesting that their actor wears “borrowed robes” (1.3.109). Olivier came out in a large robe in the discovery scene after the murder and tried to “lose” his recently bloodied hands in it.10 Welles wore a crown that looked too large for his head. Trevor Nunn gave Duncan a huge priest-like cope which is carried or stationed near Macbeth when he is not wearing it, a shining symbol of the kingship he never quite makes his own.

The elaborate business with the armor, the circling of the language back to images of clothing, the general importance of emblematic costume on Shakespeare's stage—and especially of a king's emblematic dress—indicate that Macbeth's robing is important. We see him go from soldier to courtier to king to conjurer and back to soldier.

It is instructive to look at other scenes where there is important business having to do with costume. In The Tempest, Prospero's cloak is an important prop. He must take it off to speak as a man and father (“Pluck my magic garment from me,” 1.2.24) and resume it to compel the spirits. Faustus's cloak was important in Philip Henslowe's inventory (see Frontispiece).11 The actor Richard Alleyn first appeared as Faustus in clerical garb, a surplice with a cross on his breast.12 But after his contract with the devil is signed, the evil spirits bring him “rich apparel” and clothe him in it (Doctor Faustus A2.1.82-84).

But the most spectacular use of raiment is evident in the other play in the Shakespeare troupe's repertory of 1607, Barnes's The Devil's Charter. The play opens with Alexander being robed in the panoply of a pope. That the robe is an evil conjurer's is shown by the fact that the devils put it on him and then give him a magic book (like the book Mephistopheles brings to Faustus). As the chorus of the play put it (lines 70-71):

Satan, transfigur'd like a protonotary,
To him makes offer of the triple crown.

Later, when Alexander conjures, he resumes the robe and takes up the book, while telling an acolyte to put on his vestments (lines 1851-72). At the end of the play, we see Alexander sitting “unbraced” in his study, trying ineffectually to repent. Then he rises, goes to the curtain over the inner chamber, and pulls it aside—to reveal the devil throned and wearing Alexander's pontificals (lines 3339-42). It is a splendid coup de théâtre. Alexander knows he has lost all his power, now that the devil has reclaimed his proper garb (lines 3545-47).

My robes! My robes! He robs me of my robes!
Bring me my robes or take away my life!
My robes, my life, my soul and all, is gone.

Barnes's play is full of references to clothes, to things like Alexander's “cloaking” of his vices.13 And Caesar, his son, throws off his own clerical robes to show he is wearing armor underneath. The other Gunpowder play of 1606, Dekker's The Whore of Babylon, also used papal robes for the Whore's pompous court. Both Dekker and Barnes show the conjunction of papal and witch-like powers in the wizard's cloak.14 Another attribute of the wizard is his wand, or staff, or rod—the wand we see Faustus wield in the illustration to the 1616 Quarto, the staff Mephistopheles wields at B3.2.16; the staff Prospero must break when he abjures his magic (Tempest 5.1.54), the rod that Merlin uses to quell his enemies in The Birth of Merlin.

Given the expectations of a context where conjuring and witchcraft have been so important, it astonishes me that no one has suggested that the staff Macbeth calls for at 5.3.48 is a magic staff. Editors call it “either a weapon or a staff of office” (Brooke). How does one identify it as either from its appearance? There would be no problem identifying a magic staff from its association with a wizard's cloak—and that is just what Beerbohm Tree (in 1911) had Hecate's spirits put on Macbeth at the end of the necromancy scene, where the spirits come to restore his confidence.15 We have seen the precedent for this. Faustus, too, after his commerce with the devil, feels weak and regretful—so the devils dance for him and give him rich apparel, the wizard's garb that replaces his clerical garb. I suggest that Hecate's spirits do the same for Macbeth. The stage direction was lost at the same time Hecate's expanded song was added to the play (to be cued in short form by the Folio).

When Macbeth comes to the necromancy, he asks the witches to conjure for him in his own witch-speech. But he is, at this stage, still an initiate brought to his first conjuring—like the Duchess of Gloucester in II Henry VI. After his participation, he is both privileged and damned, given powers that will self-destruct. Just before his next appearance, before the only two scenes where he can wear the mantle, we hear Angus compare his title to “a giant's robe / Upon a dwarfed thief” (5.2.21-22).

The robe would look like a king's robe. Monarchs had emblems on their apparel—like the zodiacal signs and mystical symbols on Elizabeth's garment in the Rainbow Portrait, painted circa 1603, or the wondrous cloak of mirrors put on Edward III.16 The Titania (Elizabeth) whose court is contrasted with Rome's in Dekker's Whore has a “faery” court where symbols of “good” magic and providential order are contrasted with the trappings of the Beast's kingdom.

The magic cloak of Macbeth the conjurer may even help clear up a textual dispute. At 5.3.21, the Folio has Macbeth say, “This push / Will cheere me ever, or dis-eate me now.” Editors regularly alter “cheere” to “chair,” so it will match “dis-seat.” But the push is Macbeth's, not a challenger's—as it should be if a push, by failing, lets him keep his chair. He is not taking it. If we keep the text, with his garment in mind, it would remind us of the reason he was given it by Hecate (4.1.127):

Come, sisters, cheer we up his sprites!

What becomes, then, of the emphatically syllabified “dis-eate,” a non-word? Many since Rowe have accepted the Second Folio's “dis-ease.” Compare Chapman's “dis-ease” when he had Mercury take away the ease of sleep:

Then up his rod went, with which he declin'd
The eyes of any waker when he pleas'd,
And any sleeper, when he wish'd, dis-eased.(17)

Macbeth's loss will take away the cheering ease the witches brought him.

The long business with the armor reflects Macbeth's reluctance to surrender his robe and staff. He asks for armor, then says instead, “Give me my staff.” There are two possibilities in what follows. Either he says “Pull't off, I say” of his cloak—like Prospero's “Pluck my magic garment from me”—and then says “bring it after me” of the cloak. Or he begins to arm, stops, and says, “Bring the armor after me.”

I prefer the second choice. It takes Macbeth into a third scene wearing his cloak. He disrobes in the gathering doubts that follow on reports of his wife's death—perhaps during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. He becomes only a man again, like Prospero without his wand, like Faustus and Alexander trying to repent. Then he calls up his manic courage and arms with a desperate glee (5.5.51): “At least we'll die with harness on our back.”

The “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech (5.5.19-28) is a confession that Macbeth has been all too successful in canceling time. He has turned it into a meaningless succession of sameness. If conjuring is an attempt to master time and space by stepping outside both, to exert a power over the universe, this is a speech of supreme powerlessness.18 Its weary cadence seems to be an inversion of the message of Psalm 19 (verses 2 and 4):

Day unto day uttreth the same
                    And night unto night teacheth knowledge. …
Their line is gone forth through all the earth,
                    And their words unto the ends of the world.(19)

Yet Macbeth still clings to belief in his own preternatural immunities. He has a pledge on the future, what he called “a bond of fate” (4.1.84). Two impossibilities protect him—no man born of woman can kill him, and Birnam Wood must walk. But the fated end of contracting with the devil is to see that the contract was a trick. The assurance turns into a trap. As the Gunpowder Plotters saw their own scheme recoil upon them (those who dug the pit falling into it), so Macbeth finds that there was a meaning to the pledges that he did not grasp.

In both cases, it is a meaning traditional to witchcraft. Making woods move is a part of the witches' regular impossibilities (adynata). Even Macbeth hinted at this in his conjuring speech. Classical witches regularly boast Et silvas moveo. Macbeth should have suspected such portents, however contrived. He had said himself, “Stones have been known to move and trees to speak” (3.4.122).

The other portent is also traditional with witches. They especially prize unbaptized infants for creating spells. They steal them from cribs or ditches where they die. They even rip them from pregnant corpses, as Lucan said in the passage used by Marston for the necromancy scene in Sophonisba.

Volnere sic ventris, non qua natura vocabat,
Extrahitur partus, calidis ponendus in aris.(20)
By a stab to the womb, in a way nature never indicated,
The child is torn out to be offered on the flaming altar.

This is a passage Ben Jonson cited in his notes to The Masque of Queens.21

The witches formed their riddles in ways that could turn backwards on their victim. When the portents come true, however, it is not by some preternatural intrusion into the order of nature. The walking wood and man not born are fake miracles, as it were—natural events masquerading in odd language. The witches are equivocators in the most thoroughgoing way. Like the Jesuits, they use words that are true at some level but not in the way that their victim could understand. They “keep the word of promise to our ear / And break it to our hope” (5.8.21-22). It is what Banquo had predicted on the heath (1.3.123-26):

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

The unnatural thing is not Birnam Wood's moving or Macduff's non-birth birth, but the unnatural (Jesuitical) language of the witches, the destruction of reality in words misused. No wonder Macbeth says, when the wood moves, “I pale in resolution, and begin / To doubt th' equivocation of the fiend” (5.5.41-42).22

But Macbeth fights on, relying on the other portent, which is harder to fulfill in any conceivable natural sense. He can still boast to Macduff, “I bear a charmed life.” The charm is the magic spell woven around him by the witches in the necromancy scene. The marking off of “charmed” ground has occurred many times in the play—on the heath as the witches circled Macbeth, in “hell” as the Porter circled his imagined Jesuit, in the necromancy scene, in the fake spell cast by Malcolm on Macduff. The actual geometry of magic figures on the ground is important to scenes like those of Faustus's and Pope Alexander's conjuring or in the marked arena of Faustus's witchcraft illustrated in the 1620 Quarto (see Frontispiece). We should suppose that the charmed circle is a spot still definite on the stage as Macbeth, stripped of followers, retreats to his last redoubt of magic. Imagine him taking up that position as he prepares to kill Siward. His circle has become the ambit of a bear staked for baiting (5.7.1-2):

They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly
But bearlike I must fight the course.

The bear is circumscribed, and his circle can contract if the chain winds around the pole as he turns and backs away from baiting dogs; but Macbeth still sees it as a circle of power, and he kills young Siward with fiendish energy. The charges of diabolic power are made both by Siward and, especially, by Macduff: “Turn, hellhound!” (5.8.3). The bravery of young Siward and of Macduff cannot properly be gauged unless we take seriously the hellish aspect of Macbeth's power. These men are in the position of desperate pursuers who must “take on” a vampire in Dracula movies. Macduff acts like an exorcist (5.8.13-15):

                                                            Despair thy charm!
And let the Angel whom thou still hast serv'd
Tell thee …

Macduff forces Macbeth out of his charmed circle—which explains the odd Folio direction: Exeunt fighting. Alarums. Enter fighting, and Macbeth slain. This breaks Poel's Rule against actors' exiting and immediately re-entering. It has been plausibly suggested that Macbeth is forced out on the lower stage and reappears on the upper level, where the business of beheading him after he falls can more easily be feigned. The retreat to higher inner levels of a castle was a familiar concept to the audience—as if the bear's ambit were narrowing and narrowing around his stake—and the head could be brandished from the balcony as from battlements (Welles filmed it that way). The spell is broken, the circle shattered. “The time is free.”


  1. Defenses of “shoal” get desperate. Brooke writes “reference to the sea [!] springs from the fishing sense of ‘trammel.’” But “trammel” was used more of netting animals on land than of netting fish.

  2. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1947), 22-49.

  3. Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1959), 53-61.

  4. Kenneth Muir, Aspects of “Macbeth” (Cambridge University Press, 1977), 66-68.

  5. Johnson on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Sherbo (Yale University Press, 1968), Vol. 2, p. 767. Cf. Gardner, op.cit., 59, on “the wind dropping as the rain begins.”

  6. It is interesting that all the critics refer to the babe as “he,” though the virtues were normally female when personified. Blake, too, made the babe male in his large color print illustrating the passage. For a discussion of Blake's “Pity,” see Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (Clarendon Press, 1989), 125-27.

  7. The Poems of Robert Southwell, S.J., edited by James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown (Clarendon Press, 1967), 15-16. For date of the poem's publication, see pp. lxv and 124. The text available to Shakespeare in 1602 mistakenly printed “bred” for “fed” at the end of the third stanza. Christopher Devlin argued, on no very good evidence, that Southwell and Shakespeare were friends (The Life of Robert Southwell, 1956). But it is likely that Shakespeare knew the Jesuit's poems—there was a vogue for them just after the 1595 execution. It was the eighth edition of his poems in which “The Burning Babe” appeared (in 1602). See McDonald and Brown, op.cit., lv-lxvi.

  8. Two Noble Kinsmen 2.2.249-50.

  9. I suspect that the troupe had at the time a fine costume of armor that fit Burbage, since there is an elaborate arming scene in the contemporary Antony 4.4.1-18.

  10. Dennis Bartholomeusz, Macbeth and the Players (Cambridge University Press, 1969), 260.

  11. See David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Doctor Faustus, A and B Texts, 1604, 1616 (Manchester University Press, 1993), 92.

  12. Ibid., 49.

  13. Line 1134: “Those robes pontifical which thou profaned.” Lines 1822-23: “crimes / Lurk underneath the robes of holiness.” Line 2077: “Your sins more heinous, yet your robes conceal them.” Line 2132: “To cloak my vices I will pardon yours.” Lines 2430-31: “your reverend purple robes / Which should protect. …”

  14. It would have been theatrically effective to have the Whore (who was also the Pope) played by a man—to emphasize his unnatural aspect (the effect Shakespeare achieves with his witches played by men).

  15. Rosenberg, 510.

  16. Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (W. S. Maney & Son, 1988), 81-84, 92; and The Raigne of King Edward the Third, edited by Fred Lapides (Garland Publishing, 1980), lines 707-15. For Shakespeare's possible role in the composition of Edward III, see Chapter 4, note 20.

  17. George Chapman, Homer's “Odysses” 5.66-68. Cf. the similar use of “mis-ease” at 13.139. For the hyphen in dis-ease, see F's “dis-heartens” at Macbeth 2.3.33.

  18. The two lines preceding make no sense as normally delivered:

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

    Editors take this to mean, “I am too distracted to mourn now. If she died later, I could take in the meaning of that event.” But (1) he does not know there will be a later occasion, (2) “There would have been a time” seems to look to the past, not the future, and (3) Macbeth goes on to say there will be no special time to be marked in the future (made up of featureless tomorrows) or the past (yesterdays lighting fools). If the future and past are ruled out, only the present is left as a “time for such a word.” But he is saying that no time is a right time any more, distinguishable from other times. No kairos will exist for him, ever again. Then why does he say, “There would have been a time”? The first two lines must be questions, to which the rest of the speech gives a despairing answer:

    She should have died hereafter [in the future]?
    There would have been time for such a word [in the past]?
    [“No” understood]. Tomorrow, and. …
  19. The Geneva translation of 1560. The Psalms are the part of the Bible most echoed in Shakespeare. Richmond Noble wrote that “there is not a play in the Folio entirely free from a suggestion of a use of the Psalms” (Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (Octagon Books reprint, 1970), 47).

  20. Lucan, Pharsalia 6.557-58.

  21. Stephen Orgel, editor, Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques (Yale University Press, 1969), 535.

  22. “I pull in resolution” of F calls for a metrically clumsy emphasis on in to get either of the two suggested and contrary meanings (“I inhale new resolution,” or “I limit my former resolution”). Johnson suggested pall, but pale is as easy a setter's slip, and paling has been a regular theme in the play: “look so green and pale” (1.7.37); “wear a heart so white” (2.2.64); “bond which keeps me pale” (3.2.50); “look not so pale” (5.1.63); “cream-fac'd” (5.3.11); “linen cheeks” (5.3.16); “whey-face” (5.3.17).

Tzachi Zamir (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Zamir, Tzachi. “Upon One Bank and Shoal of Time: Literature, Nihilism, and Moral Philosophy.” New Literary History 31, no. 3 (summer 2000): 529-51.

[In the following essay, Zamir considers the thematic contrast between Macbeth's nihilistic preoccupation with the absence of value and temporality and Macduff's emotional and highly temporal existentialism. For the critic, Macbeth serves as an example of the significant role that literary texts can play in the didactic representation of fundamental philosophical concerns.]

They thought him honest and they “loved him well,” a valiant, worthy gentleman. A brave man, the bridegroom of Bellona, the Roman war goddess. He won “golden opinion from all sorts of people.” But all that changed. Instead, he became despised for his treachery and feared for actions that know no moral bounds. From murdering his king to killing his past friends and from that to infanticide, Macbeth's story, at least from the perspective of others, is one of a change in reputation.1 From his own point of view—an outlook which never experiences a good name or, for that matter, any other thing as an accomplishment—things are somewhat more complicated than a simple story of loss.

There is something hollow in Macbeth. What is missing is not motivation for his actions—his “vaulting ambition” is supposed to cover that—but a sense of motivational depth. What worries us as we read the play is, I think, the emptiness of Macbeth's ambition.2 He wants to be king, that much is certain. This desire, however, was not always in him. It overtook him only when a possibility appeared. The problem is not with the overwhelming nature of his ambition. The alien quality of Macbeth lies, rather, in the way in which he never enjoys his accomplishments. There is never happiness or satisfaction in the man. Not when he returns triumphant from fighting Macdonald. Not when he becomes a king. Not when he secures his reign. He never hints how he wishes to put to use the power he so desperately wants to have. Like Richard III, Macbeth never dwells on the object of his ambitions. However, whereas in the former one detects an unmistakable delight that accompanies his villainies, a sense of the proud performer calling attention to the atrocities he commits, Macbeth remains an unhappy, frightened man. One wonders why it was that he wanted to become a king in the first place.3

Nihilism—that, I shall soon argue, is the philosophical concern that underlies Macbeth—could be presented as a philosophical position. A nihilist rejects any process in which “things”—states of affairs, feelings, lives, actions, dispositions—are endowed with value. The position could take the form of dismissing any criteria according to which values may be ascribed. Another route is through showing that value is always relative to some perspective which one has no reason to privilege. At its extreme, the position seems irrefutable. The argument would be that since philosophical discussion is limited to rational debate, the best philosophy can do in answering a nihilist is to show that ascribing value is a rational—justified, beneficial, end-serving—act. However, philosophy is reduced to silence if the value of rationality—or the value of always being rational—is questioned. Put differently, since a nihilist would have to acknowledge the value of rational debate in order to listen to philosophy at all, an extreme nihilist who refuses to grant this presupposition would always win.

The impasse philosophy leads to when foundational questions of value arise should make us look hard for alternatives. Turning to literary works is one such route. In a discussion of Richard III, I argued that the play enables a deeper grasp of the sort of ethical skepticism it depicts.4 “Deep” there meant that through portraying a plausible existential framework in which immorality becomes an explicit choice, literature forces us to go beyond the sort of hypothetical smiling skeptic that haunts philosophy and that one never in fact meets. We grasp the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of moral skepticism as it arises in a life-like situation. We get to know how it is experienced and through such understanding get to experience the sort of impotence that consists in an inability to ultimately ground a condemnation of intentionally chosen villainy. However, whereas in that work the contributions of Shakespeare's text to philosophy are limited to understanding, in Macbeth we approach something close to a philosophical confrontation.

The first sections of this paper try to work out the details of a full vision of nihilism. The stress is not on the “position” as it is argued for, but rather on the psychological and existential aspects with which nihilism is connected when it plausibly emerges in a life. Through contrasting nihilism with its opposite, Shakespeare achieves one of the strongest moments of the play. In the closing sections I shall inquire into this contrast not only in aesthetic terms but mainly in terms of the way it creates a philosophically formative experience. The more abstract considerations that underlie this reading regarding the general relations between philosophy and literature will be presented in the end. I shall claim that some of the criticism that has been very recently leveled at the idea of ethical criticism can be avoided through endorsing a different understanding from the one we so far have regarding the links between philosophy and literature. More specifically, instead of regarding literature's unique contributions to moral understanding as stemming from a greater ability to focus on the particular, we should look for literature's nonparaphrasable contributions in terms of different qualitative structuralizations of knowledge.5 Changing the focus from ethics to epistemology would enable proponents of the ethical approach to maintain the idea of nonreducible ethical insight that some literary works yield, and yet avoid the risk of endorsing a pedantic, pre-Formalist conception of literature.


Let me begin with some of Macbeth's more revealing lines near the end of the play when he hears of his wife's death and his nihilism emerges as an explicit position:

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


We may see how, apart from the surface sense of a general belittling of life, the details of this speech expose some of the finer aspects of Macbeth's nihilism. The traditional signifier-referent hierarchy underlies life's shadowy insignificance for Macbeth. But more than a chain of sounds that signify nothing, life's empty value results from such sounds being part of “a tale” conducted on a “stage.” The histrionic, fictional context turns life from a chain of meaningless sounds into a semantic procession that is also charged with being ontologically inferior (“a walking shadow”). Even this, though, is not enough as the tale is being told by “an idiot,” the living are all “fools,” and so life ends up being not only a valueless copy, but also one which is foolishly tailored. In explaining these lines from the perspectives of an actor, Ian McKellen has ingeniously noted that, as the reference to the “poor actor” is actually mouthed by an actor, Shakespeare here enables the theatrical to merge into the real. A real actor has to give voice to lines that reflect on the temporal limitations of his effects before reaching the nihilistic conclusion.

Let us avoid the temptation to reduce all this to a philosophical position and instead move closer to the existential subtleties that make up this nihilism. If Macbeth ever cared for anything outside him, it is for his wife. However, hearing of her death he scolds her for dying at a time in which an approaching battle precludes mourning for her. More than signifying a simple lack of feeling (one suspects that, too), Macbeth says that dying at the right time would have enabled emotion to take place. It is not so much the possible belief in an ability to postpone feelings which should mainly interest us here, but the very idea of postponing as well as the connections the speech draws between postponing and nihilism. Consulting the temporal structure can yield insight into these links. We note that life's petty pace does not merely creep in day after day, but tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Macbeth first seems to be referring to life's petty stuff. However, the “this” in “this petty pace” also refers to the triple tomorrow of the previous line. The meaningless pace is thought oriented toward a future, a tomorrow. The speech thereby connects its semiotic theme with its temporal one in that in both, the given (present, word, sound) points beyond itself. In both, the end is either a dusty death, to which all yesterdays point (“light”), or a nonexistent referent. Times and signs point beyond themselves to nothing and enable a phenomenology of nihilism to surface. Nihilism is not merely an experience in which things are seen as valueless, but an avoidance.

Postponement is introduced in Macbeth's first (interrupted) aside in his “nothing is but what is not.” The oxymoron is supposed to capture thought smothered by “horrible imaginings” and “surmise” (1.3.140-44). The real and substantial in thought (“present fears”) gives way to the possible and hypothetical. To those who look at him in his rapt state, he makes the excuse that he was thinking of “things forgotten.” Lost in a future or a past, Macbeth's brand of nihilism involves circumventing times and things, a process that enables maintaining the belief in their worthlessness (the scene ends, incidentally, several lines later, when Macbeth postpones his talk with Banquo to a more appropriate time). A somewhat different sort of dismissal of the present resurfaces in Macbeth's aside when he decides to kill Banquo. The fact that the witches predicted that it is the latter's issue and not Macbeth who will be kings not only empties Macbeth's actual, present accomplishment in his own eyes, but causes a fascinating shift in his own self-narrative:

… Then prophet-like,
They [the witches] 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 rancours in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings.


Gone is his earlier admittance that he operates solely from “vaulting ambition.” He talks as if he murdered Duncan just for the sake of his own future children. Such remotivation and recasting of personal history reveals the mechanics of postponement and the strategies through which nihilism works. Deferring the experience of an achieved accomplishment is produced not only through endlessly relegating value to the future, but also through positing the accomplishment in a broader context than the one that would have conferred value upon it. The accomplishment becomes a means rather than the end it was initially conceived to be, and nihilism is enabled through this instrumentalization and value diminishing.6

I wish to return to Macbeth's relation to temporality.7 Lady Macbeth, so in tune with her husband, imparts the same sort of relation to time in her first words to him as they first meet: “Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant” (1.5.55-57). Then she makes the interesting instruction to him that in order “to beguile the time, / Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand your tongue …”(1.5.63-65). We shall shortly explore the reference to hands. But for the moment note the identification of time with the entire social context the Macbeths need to deceive. The instruction itself, describing the hypocritical acting she asks him to perform in terms of a simile between him and time is intriguingly complicated in terms of coherence between rhetorical and thematic concerns. Lady Macbeth employs the figure as part of what seems to be a simple opposition between appearance and reality that structures her lines (“… look like th'innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't”). However, looking like—later confirmed by his “Away, and mock the time with fairest show” (1.7.82)—is opposed to a sense of Macbeth's self that is itself expressed metaphorically rather than literally. Moreover, being the metaphorical “serpent” underneath is not a description of who and what Macbeth is, but an instruction. She both semantically and rhetorically avoids what she believes him to actually be: a highly ambitious man who is yet “too full o'th' milk of human kindness.”

The more one reads the play the more one suspects that she deeply misreads her husband and that these lines are, rather, a projection of her own submerged morality.8 Except from the moments directly after he murders Duncan, and his attempt to avoid fighting Macduff at the very end of the play, Macbeth is not that worried about the immorality of his actions, while she certainly is.9 Her moral scruples and ultimate collapse further on in the play turns her alarmingly cold lines in the opening act into a mode of collecting herself rather than an expression of unequivocal villainy. I am thinking here of the lines that all commentators cite:

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


Or the savage

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


We shall later return to these lines and the way in which they connect the unsettling of gender categories with emotion (which might also explain why they are cited so often). For now, returning to the theme of temporality, asking him to place himself beside the time and only look like it, parallels through rhetoric the relations between Macbeth and time, more specifically, his own avoidance of his time. All three lines Macbeth speaks through this entire scene are set in the future tense. We also note what should by now seem unremarkable: after she asks him to set himself by time and resemble it, Macbeth replies by asking her to postpone talk (“We will speak further”).


The last route I wish to discuss regarding postponement is through the play on the spatial and temporal “here” in Macbeth's deliberation before the murder:

If it were done when t'is 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 judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th'inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th'ingredience of our poisoned 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.


The first lines are hypothetical deliberations regarding a possible future as well as expressing the desire to have the future controlled. The first three uses of “here” designate a future-oriented present. The fourth and last “here” refers to relations that do actually obtain: Duncan being his guest and his king. “Here” usually designates self-situating. Shakespeare uses the word three times to paradoxically repeat Macbeth's avoidance of his present. This observation should be coupled with two thematic ones. First, in this speech, what are presented as his (present) obligations to Duncan flow into and are actually a part of what he sees as the case for his afterlife punishment. Second, Macbeth would soon decide to disregard the fourth use of “here” which does acknowledge the actual—his obligations to Duncan—in favor of possible success. This resets the same pattern; that of a present giving way to a future. Macbeth hardly sees what he has and what he is. (Postponement is also, incidentally, the fault for which his wife immediately blames him [1.7.51-54].)

Beyond simple avoidance of one's time, these lines further complicate Macbeth's relation to temporality by situating him outside time's flow. Upon a bank and shoal of time, stands this man and contemplates whether to jump the life to come. Like “here,” the indexical “this” is self-situating, the importance of which should not escape us. In the context of deferring the actual, we meet a figurative self-placing altogether outside time. More than alienating Macbeth further from his time, the figure articulates, I think, not only the noninvested way by which nihilism relates to life, but also the attitude of relating to life as if plunging into it is some kind of a decision that awaits the proper justification. Shakespeare also captures here the fear of losing control and connects it to nihilism. Such employment of the psychological coheres with the way in which the experience of life as valueless is not depicted in this play merely as an intellectual position. When Macbeth does eventually mouth it, nihilism comes over more as a sad outcome than as a philosophy (think, in contrast, of the sharp intellectual nihilism of the type endorsed by Turgenev's Bazarov). Nihilism is less of a brilliant cynicism and more of a disability connected with anxieties of loss of control that together form patterns of circumvention.

Postponement and extemporal self-placing do not, however, exhaust Macbeth's nihilism. Shakespeare connects these patterns of deferring to a pervasive hidden longing: the hope—perhaps always a silenced part of nihilism—that somewhere out there, value may still be found (Macbeth's vague “success”). He says that if success is assured, he should act. But the clever expository scenes, in portraying Macbeth not simply as a successful warrior and captain, but as outstandingly successful, prevent a nonproblematic approach on our part to this reference to “success.” While Macbeth does mention losing the “golden opinions” others have of him, we get no sense of accomplishment, of an occupation with present success. Moreover, Shakespeare later gives Lady Macbeth lines—“our desire is got without content” (3.1.6)—that point precisely to the emptiness (both in terms of lack of content and lack of contentment) of what she and her husband had actually achieved by attaining royalty. The fact that we miss any reference on his part to his present success makes his chasing a new success problematic. Success is experienced solely in terms of external praise, which, in turn, is experienced as something that may be discarded.

All this links success to a sense of emptiness, a frightening void that opens up when one is suddenly aware of the limitations of accomplishment. The psychological pattern itself—which Freud, in a discussion that includes Macbeth as one of its examples, termed being “wrecked by success”—is reiterated in both Lady Macbeth and Malcolm,10 the former in her collapse after gaining the power she was long after and the latter in the mode of self-abuse he practices when he senses that his wish to become king might well be fulfilled (4.3.46-102). However, regarding Macbeth's nihilism, it is less the psychic mechanism and more the way by which it is confronted that is stressed in the play. Macbeth never contemplates the hollow way in which he responds to his outstanding military achievement. He does what he knows only too well how to do: move on.


The paradox of fate that underlies the play and sets in motion the dramatic irony is that if the witches' prophecies are to be suspected, if they can be false, Macbeth should not act on or against them since they are unreliable. If they are, on the other hand, true, he cannot act on or against them since they would come about whatever he does. Either way he has a very good reason not to use the prophecies as motivations for action. Moreover, the more the play progresses, the more he discovers that what the opening prophecies predict is fulfilled to the dot. This makes his attempt to subvert fate by murdering Banquo and later deciding to kill Macduff, border on the irrational. What is interesting here is, I think, not so much the way in which the pattern coheres with or differs from other tragedies of fate that involve an attempt to avoid the unavoidable. It is, rather, the fact that he (and his wife) immediately dismiss this, I shall call it “fatalistic,” reasoning (it surfaces in 1.3.144, never to appear again). None of the murders he plans or commits are impulsive; they are, rather, planned and, regarding at least Duncan and Banquo, result from long deliberation. All of them involve emotional and moral costs as well as political and personal risks. In light of this, Macbeth's avoiding of fatalistic reasoning as a thought that should at the very least be raised becomes an inexplicable peculiarity.

So we have a nihilism that does not collapse into fatalism. Macbeth incorporates a view in which all is meaningless with an unhappy vitality. On its own, this sets a pragmatic contradiction between the abstract and the practical (if all is meaningless there is no reason to act; if one acts all is not meaningless). However, since Macbeth does act, the practical wins in this balance. The extemporality of the theoretical nihilist gives way to the seriousness of action. The centrality of action is also inherently a focus on its vehicle: the body (especially hands, the organs which, perhaps more than any other, associatively link the body to action). Macbeth's preoccupation with the somatic and particularly with blood, turns the body into a significant presence and realness that, according to the assumptions of his hazy world, cannot exist as an entity that truly has value. Hamlet or Richard III are also concerned with embodiment (Hamlet with the possibility of escaping it and Richard with the desire to be seen). However, in Macbeth these tensions remain raw, hesitant, indecisive, perhaps because he lacks Hamlet's depths of reflectivity or Richard's unfailing convictions.

Unlike Hamlet—or, for that matter, Duncan and Malcolm, who both explicitly formulate an appearance-reality tension and, at least in Hamlet's case, attempt to transcend embodiment—Macbeth's relation to the corporeal is one of encountering it. In his world everyone and everything is merely a means to an end which, when reached, turns itself into just another means. In these, Macbeth's circumstances, seeing another, an actual encounter, takes place when the body is suddenly perceived. For a man who persistently avoids reality, this appearance of the actual superficially manifests itself through various relations of sight. His inability to go back and look at Duncan's body (“I am afraid to think what I have done; / Look on't again, I dare not”) is the simpler of these (2.2.50-51). However, his attempt to stare back at Banquo's ghost, trying to meet his victim's gaze, is the more moving moment. He initially structures his ability to look back at the ghost in terms of bravery. To his wife's angry “Are you a man?” he replies with “Ay, and a bold one, that dare look on that / Which might appal the Devil” (3.4.57-59). Looking back at that which he irrevocably did, at that which looks back at him as a result and not as the instrumental moment which he initially conceived it to be, makes the act of looking involve a struggle. Daring to look—perhaps because in this man bravery can be manifested only through its links with the militant—immediately turns to threatening the ghost. But after he tries to intimidate the ghost, he returns to the ocular:

Avaunt, and quit my sight, let the earth hide thee—
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with.


Such a wish for bodies to be hidden, to disappear from vision, echoes his earlier accusations regarding graves as not fulfilling their purpose since they “send those we bury back.”

For Macbeth, the stronger of these encounters occur when the body lets its inside liquid be seen. Everything seems to wear off except the blood of victims.11 Blood is central in Macbeth's very first description by the captain:

. … but all's too weak,
For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valour's minion carved out his passage
Till he faced the slave—
Which ne'er shook hands nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements.


The bloody sword, the carving, ripping Macdonald the rebel apart from his navel to his jaws, decapitating him, this gruesome image is the first description of Macbeth in the play. The fact that Shakespeare supplies the details of Macdonald's killing may, of course, appear nonproblematic in the context of a military report that has to realistically capture the language of a captain and the fact that a rebel deserves violent retribution. However, when we hear of another incident in which Macbeth kills:

How it did grieve Macbeth! Did he not straight
In pious rage the two delinquents tear,
That were the slaves of drink, and thralls of sleep?


we suspect that the details of these offstage killings also impart a subtle characterization of Macbeth. This suspicion is strengthened when the commending report Duncan passes on to Macbeth regarding the latter's bravery in the battle, interestingly talks of Macbeth as making “strange images of death” (1.3.96). Duncan's praise for Macbeth thereby retains an allusion to the peculiarity of the specific ways by which Macbeth kills. The violence to the body, tearing it apart, opening up its borders (note the alarming metaphor of unseaming), is a violation which, in light of the depth-structure of the work to follow, is more than adequate punishment to a rebel. Rather, if we can look beyond the violence we may note something altogether extra-military that the contexts of battle and retribution permit, which would be impossible in other domains. The play connects disrespect for limits with a form of nihilism that never finds value or realness. Searching for some kind of resistance is expressed by stressing the way through which Macbeth repeatedly annihilates somatic borders.

The centrality of blood is also why the two scenes in which Macbeth and his wife fail to wash the blood from their hands create such a moving impression:

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.


Blood sticks to one's hands and would turn the ocean red before it would be cleaned. Lady Macbeth uses the same structural imagery. After asking, “will these hands ne'er be clean?” she says: “Here's the smell of the blood still—all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” (5.1.41, 48-49). Both references employ the hyperbolic “all” and make use of a synecdochic transporting of the guilt to one's part, to one's hand. It is not so much the crime that cannot be erased, that too, but more specifically the connection the body maintains between the crime and its perpetrator. More than articulating guilt, the image expresses the sense of one's crime as being a nonconfinable contamination. Shakespeare thereby captures the overwhelming nature of guilt, not only the feeling of transparency, but the sense that one's crime cannot be stopped from flowing into the entire world for all to see. Beyond an image of guilt, the nonwashable blood means that unlike all that can be removed, cast away, devalued, or postponed, blood is where Macbeth meets reality. In his angry world, in which success has little or no impact, in which power is pointlessly pursued, blood is palpable.

Through the estrangement to their hands via these uses of synecdoche, the Macbeths manifest the way in which guilt involves alienation from one's body. Embodiment is not only what exhibits that which performed the crime, but that which continues to follow the perpetrator around. Guilt, like shame, emotions that inherently have to do with others and being perceived by them, involve resetting the relations between body and self. The body as an intersubjective point of reference becomes something that one looks at anew and attempts relating to again (“What hands are here?”). The body, or more accurately, what “the body” has done, changes one's identity from a brave general to an executioner (“these hangman's hands”).

I want now to sum up Macbeth's ambivalent relation to the body as unavoidable realness. Through the characterization of Macbeth, Shakespeare conveys a general insight into nihilism in which the nihilist's preoccupation with borders and limits is more than practical skepticism; it is also a search for reality, for realness that the nihilist hopes would constitute resistance. Unlike his wife who speaks of the dead as nothing but pictures (2.2.52-53), Macbeth, who relates to everything around him as signs, cannot accept his wife's semiotic relation to corpses. Avoiding one's moment, along with all the gains of not relating to what is now—the gain of ignoring the inescapable process of forming a history that cannot be relived, the gain of avoiding happiness and grasping its limitations, the gain of avoiding the complications involved in acknowledging that people, actions, things have value and thereby losing the clear-cut polarities that structure the military achievements from which the play and this character begins—is not limitless. It is bounded by death, or more specifically, the deaths that he causes. His inability to look at Duncan's body or his struggle to look back at Banquo's ghost, is where his fears—the most pervasive state of mind he manifests throughout—suddenly connect him with what is present here and now.

Let me return now to Macbeth's lines in the closing act from which we began. In this scene Shakespeare brings the psychophilosophical pattern I have been tracking to the tragic outcome such dynamics prescribe. A man who persistently avoids, who endlessly defers emotion, a sense of accomplishment, someone for whom moments are only instrumental and thereby devoid of value, finally makes his nihilism explicit through identifying life with a tale signifying nothing. But the dynamics this play captures and develops are not limited to the movement of making explicit an underlying depth-structure. The direction is not only one of greater articulation but also of acceleration. Both his loving his wife and his fears, the two things he does consistently feel, finally disappear, and merge into the embracing nothingness of everything else. “I have almost forgot the taste of fears,” he says (5.5.9-15).

Moments later, when he gets word of his wife's death, he retorts with his “She should have died hereafter; / There would have been time for such a word” (5.5.18-19) Like everything else in his life, her death too is something he wishes to postpone. More significant is the reference to her death as a “word.” The import of this specific verbal choice can now be gathered by attending to the context. The line is embedded in an enveloping expression in which all are but signs that signify nothing. Given the hierarchy between being and representing that governs these lines, her death too becomes but a sign. Her death itself is postponed to the “hereafter” in which she should have died. But even “there,” in a future which shall never come, it is referred to as a “word” and thereby abstracted from the ontological event which it is to the semiotic device through which it is only supposed to be signaled. All dies. What now remains, as Macbeth's movement reaches its end, is absolute hollowness. In his own eyes he is naught but a faded old man who has lived “long enough,” a sapless “yellow leaf” (5.3.22-23).


And in the midst of all this circumvention, avoidance, and hollow action, Shakespeare situates one of his most moving scenes: the talk between Ross, Malcolm, and Macduff. More than an actual contribution to plot or means of informing, the length of the preliminary dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff, before Ross arrives to report to Macduff the death of his wife and children, makes possible a build-up of sympathy to Macduff's straightforwardness and simple decency. Shakespeare seems to have wanted nothing more complicated than this for Macbeth's victim.12 But more than opposing Macbeth's nihilism and Macduff's unsophisticated commitment, the strongest moments of the scene both capture the resistance to the desire to avoid emotion and convey something as to what emotion is.

Recall Ross' initial inability to tell Macduff of the murder of his wife and children:

How does my wife?
Why well.
And all my children?
Well too.
The tyrant has not battered at their peace?
No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.
Be not a niggard of your speech: how goes't?


Some things are impossible to say.13 Beyond capturing Ross' difficulties, the fact that the latter does express through the double meaning of his last line the information he needs to communicate, turns ambiguity into a means of bypassing the literal. But Macduff senses the evasiveness and—notice the present tense—asks for literal nonequivocal informing. Which he gets:

                                        If it be mine
Keep it not from me, quickly let me have it.
Let not your ears despise my tongue forever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.
                                                  H'm—I guess at it.
Your castle is surprised; your wife, and babes,
Savagely slaughtered—to relate the manner
Were on the quarry of these murdered deer
To add the death of you.
                                        Merciful Heaven—
What man, ne'er pull your hat upon your brows:
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'erfraught heart, and bids it break.
My children too?
Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.
And I must be from thence!
My wife killed too?
I have said.
Be comforted.
Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children.


Macduff's repetitious questions force Ross to mouth and mouth again the literal language he is made to use. Ross moves to avoiding directness through referring to what he has already said: (“My wife killed too?” / “I have said”). But it is Macduff's focus on grief and his rejection of too quickly endorsing future-oriented emotions such as anger and the “medicine” of some “great revenge” that impart the deeper contrast between what these moments stand for, and Macbeth's postponements. We first notice the way in which Macduff tacitly accepts Ross' suggestion not to relate the manner of the murders. Malcolm, in his haste to convert grief into revenge would not, if put into Macduff's place, spare himself the details. Macduff, in contrast, concentrates on loss and attachment and rejects Malcolm's attempts to exchange present grief for future revenge. Malcolm has no children and therefore cannot understand.14

After the pauses and questions comes feeling, itself structured through rhetorical questions:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
                              Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so:
But I must also feel it as a man;
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me; did Heaven look on,
And would not take their part?


On one level, we note the opposition between feeling and its avoidance expressed by Malcolm's militant remarks that in these lines border on scolding. However, these lines are also about something much less obvious, about what feeling might mean. It is here that the sort of neoromantic opposition between emotion and avoidance I have so far employed in this reading gains deeper dimensions. For, one may well ask, what is the type of oneness with the present I am opposing to a pervasive circumvention? And it is in Macduff's collapse to effeminate language, his “all my pretty chickens,” that provide us with one answer.

Indeed, the feminine ring of Macduff's metaphor does not escape Malcolm. This much is evident in his reproving: “Dispute it like a man” and in the mode of self-collecting that Macduff engages in the lines further on when he refrains from playing the woman with his eyes (along with Malcolm's approving “This time goes manly”). The fact that grief and feeling are identified with femininity would seem conventional enough. However, this is, at least in two ways, much less than what these lines are about. To begin with, Macduff, in his “I must also feel it as a man” reply to Malcolm, connects the feminine figure with feeling as a man. He is not a woman. Rather, he feels, and does so as a man. This attempt to encompass feminine contents within a stable masculinity—or, more radically, to redefine manliness through potentially subversive contents—ends when the options of crying and talk—much more directly associated with effeminacy—surface and are precluded as such:

I could play the woman with mine eyes,
And braggart with my tongue. But gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission: front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself.(15)


Emotion, and this is what I take to be the second, deeper meaning of these lines, is identified with a destabilizing of a determining formative category. Manhood shakes, is in danger of breaking down, needs to be constituted anew. It is not, moreover, a matter of changes that are made merely regarding the gender associated expression of emotion. Rather, Macduff's “feel it as a man” points to the ontological level; a weakening of identity categories is identified with the feeling itself. An unsettling of formative categories is what intensive feeling involves, is part of what such feeling is. And the Macduff scene allows us to be even more specific. The destabilizing of identity works through permitting an antagonistic voice to sound through one's own mouth. In some moments of intensive feeling, something altogether oppositional to one's sense of self becomes momentarily encompassed within, and projected as, what one is.16


In Macbeth Shakespeare patiently depicts a complete movement of nihilism. He does not restrict nihilism to a “position” or a “thesis,” but pictures it as existential hollowness, as a reaction to life that persistently bypasses the possibilities for meaning. The fact that nihilism comes over as unhappy, does not of course count as a “refutation” of it. Things are more complicated than confirming or refuting.17

Like all works of art, literary texts are invitations to a specific structuralization of experience. One aspect of such a structuralization is the way it accommodates in different ways the phenomenology of witnessing so central to the act of reading. Witnessing—when it is shaped by subtle forces of the literary text—cannot be thought of as withdrawn passivity. It is, rather, a position that accommodates moments of identification and involvement as well as moments of reinvestment and detachment. As literary witnesses, we project voices onto the scene and prevent such projections according to conscious choices, to subjective limitations of responsiveness, to what the text in fact invites. Witnessing is an active position in which activity takes the form of involvement, of saying yes and no to possibilities texts open up. An interpretation is, accordingly, the process of consciously following up such affirmations and negations and signing them as choices.

The phenomenology of aesthetic response many times takes this general shape. A case can be now made for one sort of nonreducible gain that engaging with art, with this work of art, produces for philosophy. Beginning with the opposition of telling and showing, literature in general and plays (in virtue of their iconic nature) in particular communicate through the latter whereas philosophy is mostly limited to the former.18 Moving on to the opposition between describing and conveying, philosophy can describe experience, while witnessing is the primal state in which experiences are conveyed.19 Before trying to give such too-broad oppositions particular content, we need to ask whether such differences are advantages. In one sense, an answer depends on the relative “strengths” (or “depth” to employ a different metaphor) that one is willing to ascribe to each mode of communication. But an answer need not be limited to appealing to actual subjective experiences with philosophical belief formation—though this is, no doubt, decisively important—but may also operate through agreeing with Plato, Nietzsche, and other philosophers who have connected unique modes of philosophical communication with conceptions regarding human understanding.20

But the previous reading of Macbeth allows for a stronger case that should be made on behalf of literature. Since nihilism challenges a first-truth there are no “strong” demonstrative arguments that are more appropriate to the case at hand. What is needed is to establish some acknowledgement that things are valuable. Such recognition cannot be grounded on reasoned argument without first presupposing the value of rational thought, an assumption that a nihilist would not grant. Indeed, for anyone who thinks that some first-truths are better than others, what is required, and rationally so, is a theory of rational, nonvalid argumentation, a rhetoric, which should be able to support a first-truth without pretending to constitute a proof. We are now in a position to see what such rhetoric might mean.

My reading sought to trace the powerful contrast Shakespeare draws between avoiding one's time and meeting it. Through Macbeth, Shakespeare captures an intellectual nihilism that is only a symptom of a psychological and existential depth-structure. Through Macduff, he embodies an opposite capacity for allowing the present to speak. The length of the Macduff scene—longer than any other scene in the play and twice as long as virtually all of them—suggests that whatever peek this scene includes requires a substantial build-up. Focusing on the peculiarities of Macbeth's nihilism should explain why such build-up is necessary. Duration is required in order to develop something altogether alien to the cold, dark, and bloody atmosphere the work transmits. This contrast is activated both between the heart of this scene and the rest of the play in setting the differences between Macbeth and Macduff, and internal to the scene in opposing between Macduff and Malcolm.

Macbeth meets philosophy through this contrast. Embedded within an overall nihilistic context, a setting in which all is instrumentalized and deferred, within a gory, selfish, indeed hellish universe, is a moment that makes reading stop. Nothing less than feminizing a general is needed in order for us to catch the different voice. Only then do we perceive the alternative metaphysics of time and commitment to value that makes this confrontation a moment in which, long before they fight, Macbeth and Macduff oppose each other through the philosophies they embody. The battle is not between some sentimental romantic and a calculated technocrat but rather—and this is what creates the force—between two hardened generals only one of whom allows attachment to have its space. The very disproportion between the unending textual time allowed for nihilism and the short but sharp moment in which it is contrasted creates the absorbing way through which a life that acknowledges value comes across.

As far as “philosophical interests” are concerned, the literary technique of contrast means that one position is presented as persistent background for another. The text does not “argue” for non-nihilism but allows this first-truth to momentarily appear in an opposing context. It is now up to us to decide between the options Macbeth and Macduff exemplify. The suggestive forces of the play do not aim at an impartial choosing on our part but are obviously hierarchical. In stressing the vacuous nature of Macbeth's world, his unhappiness, his essential dissatisfaction and the darkness of his universe, in opposing all this to the carefully structured Macduff scene in which emotion is not only established but also highlighted as a moving moment of oneness with what is real in one's time, the rhetoric of the text creates a reader position that responds to non-nihilism when it appears and closes itself more and more to Macbeth's nihilism as the play progresses. Literary contrast of this sort is “rhetorical” in the Aristotelian sense of rational, nondeductive argumentation since, while contrast can turn some alternatives into plausible choices (in our case, choosing to invest one's world with value), such reaction by no means necessarily follows from it. Employing means of this sort in the context of philosophy is rational because when first-truths are concerned, no stronger means are available. Moreover, unlike nonliterary rhetorical argument, we can perceive how encapsulating the move within an aesthetic context enables readers to allow themselves to be influenced and infiltrated when rigorous proofs cannot be given.21

Finally, apart from appealing to subjective experience with different modes of knowing, apart from arguing for an epistemology in which some of these modes are set above others, and apart from stressing literature's ability to function as rhetorical argument embedded within a suggestive context which, in the case of first truths, one has rational reason to respond to, an additional argument on behalf of literature should be made. This last thesis is that investigating patterns of belief formation is a necessary part of an inquiry into the concept of knowledge itself. What we take to know, what we think we are justified in believing, is not limited to beliefs gained through argument, but also includes beliefs that emerge from experience. Such experiential knowing should accordingly be investigated as part of any comprehensive theory of knowledge. Moreover, since some of these beliefs are philosophical ones, by studying their formation, philosophers do not simply enlarge their ideas about belief formation, but about belief formation in philosophy. Regarding belief formation through aesthetic experience, this means breaking up such experiential patterns into elements such as showing, conveying, witnessing, identifying, projecting, responding, and other constituents of aesthetic phenomenology. These still too-general categories need then to be further analyzed into specific and detailed cases. As for philosophy's need of literature, this last thesis is demonstrative in two ways. First, since belief formation through aesthetic response is distinct from other types of belief formation, studying it is necessary for philosophy when the discipline is envisioned as including an inquiry into knowledge. Second, showing that such experiences exist enables the beliefs that emerge regarding processes of belief formation and, ultimately, regarding the concept of knowledge itself, to be justified via appeal to such evidence. What matters, in this further respect, is not the truth of the beliefs I formed in my reading regarding nihilism, but the simple fact that I formed them. The claim that philosophical beliefs do, at least sometimes, get formed that way is justified through simply pointing out a case—a reading—in which such formation took place.

But is the specific response pattern created through the experience I described the only possible one in the context of Shakespeare's play? While at least one other commentator has responded to Macbeth in a similar way,22 the obvious answer is negative. The importance of this interpretive freedom should not, however, be over stressed. A literary work, I said, is a collection of possibilities for structuring one's experience. A fruitful interpretation should be both a discovery of one such possibility, and an invitation to engage it. Such a view enables circumventing the question of subjective response. According to my interpretation, itself only an invitation, Macbeth invites us to undergo a certain experience. The reader need not worry that I am generalizing from my own subjective experience (though that is no disaster when response patterns are discussed). Arthur Kirsch's interpretation (amongst other things a “documented” response) admits of the same experience. Such “data”—to employ a rhetoric some may prefer—is all that the last demonstrative thesis requires since it serves as “empirical evidence” that a certain process of belief formation repeatedly results from attentively reading this play.

It is now possible to connect all this to the recent Nussbaum-Booth-Posner debate regarding literature and moral philosophy. Focusing attention on epistemological processes rather than on ethical ones enables explaining the force that ethical criticism of the type produced by Nussbaum has without endorsing the instrumental view of literature which Posner has stressed in his critique of her approach. If my claims above are correct, we need not choose between what Novitz has called “a shamelessly didactic view of literature” on the one hand and an “Art for art's sake” approach that makes ethical features irrelevant on the other. Instead, we can identify reading literature with an aesthetic experience and regard that experience itself both as a proper subject matter for epistemological inquiry and as what contributes to unique, “deep,” moral belief formation. Thus, investigating salient features of aesthetic response becomes an inquiry into the epistemic conditions that can accommodate greater responsiveness to moral insight. When the moral claim itself is a first truth, such a shift in our responsive capacities can become a process we would rationally choose to undergo as a result of the impotence of conventional, argumentative philosophy.

Nihilism questions the very root of moral belief, the idea that some things have value at all. Philosophy can only answer this challenge through presupposing the value that rational inquiry is supposed to have. This means that nihilism makes us confront a philosophical limitation. Meeting nihilism cannot, therefore, be confined to argument. Through contrast, aesthetic experience allows a preference for value to be formed. Formation is not conclusive justification. Nevertheless, it is something that can be done. Nihilism can be met, as this play meets it, through creating an experience in which value can be perceived. Moving from this point on to preferring value is a matter of succumbing to the text's rhetoric, of letting it resonate for a while.

Deciding to listen is, of course, never necessary. It is a decision, a choice. Nothing stronger but nothing weaker.


  1. See, in the following order, 4.3.13; 1.2.24; 1.2.16; 1.2.54; 1.7.33. All references to Macbeth are to Nicholas Brooke, The Tragedy of Macbeth (Oxford, 1990).

  2. For similar impressions and suggestions as to why ambition cannot sufficiently explain Macbeth, see R. A. Foakes, “Images of Death: Ambition in Macbeth,” in Focus on Macbeth, ed. J. R. Brown (London, 1982), pp. 7-29, and A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns, and Other Shakespeare Lectures (New York, 1961), p. 218-19.

  3. For a suggestion according to which Macbeth's unhappiness results from his murdering the pleasure principle, see William Kerrigan's “Macbeth and the History of Ambition,” in John O'Neill's Freud and the Passions (University Park, Penn., 1996), pp. 13-24. Macbeth's pervasive unhappiness is one factor that should count against some suggestions regarding his underlying motivations. Kristian Smidt claims that his ambition stems from a desire for external praise, for “pomp and ceremony” (“Two Aspects of Ambition in Elizabethan Tragedy: Doctor Faustus and Macbeth,English Studies, 50 (1969), 235-48). Donald W. Foster's “Macbeth's War on Time” suggests that Macbeth wishes to create himself and not resign to gains got through chance and time (English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986), 319-42). Apart from being poorly supported by the text, the last two suggestions as to Macbeth's motivations cannot explain why Macbeth remains unsatisfied after he achieves what they suppose he is after.

  4. Tzachi Zamir, “A Case of Unfair Proportions: Philosophy in Literature,” New Literary History, 29.3 (1998), 501-20.

  5. I am thinking of the Nussbaum-Booth-Posner debate in Philosophy and Literature, 22.2 (1998) though the idea that literature's contribution is in focusing on the particular and thereby enhancing ethical understanding does not figure only in Martha Nussbaum's ongoing Neo-Aristotlien project, but in many other proposals. See D. Z. Phillips, Through a Darkening Glass: Philosophy, Literature, and Cultural Change (South Bend, Ind., 1982), p. 29; Cora Diamond, “Martha Nussbaum and the Need for Novels,” Philosophical Investigations, 16.2 (1993), 128-53, esp. 149; and Richard Eldridge, On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism, and Self-Understanding (Chicago, 1989), p. 4. pp. 19-21. In Shakespeare criticism this idea goes back to Richard G. Moulton's The Moral System of Shakespeare: A Popular Illustration of Fiction as the Experimental Side of Philosophy (New York, 1903).

  6. Regarding a different Shakespearean variation on the idea of losing value, see L. C. Knight's comparison of Macbeth's nihilism with The Rape of Lucrece (2.148-54) in Some Shakespearean Themes (Stanford, 1959), pp. 137-38.

  7. The centrality of time and Macbeth's relation to it has been repeatedly investigated. Luisa Guj's “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time” (Shakespeare Studies, 18 [1986], 175-88) counts forty-five uses of the word in the play. Foster, in “Macbeth's War on Time,” sums up much previous discussion of the idea that time serves as redeemer and contrasts it with his own view that Macbeth's conflict is with time and its limitations as such. Guj, too, explores this theme in stressing Macbeth's attempt to obliterate the past and stop the future. I shall concentrate on a different aspect of the relationship.

  8. See, for example, the striking way in which she misreads him in 3.2.5-28. She believes that he is worried about his immorality, where he is in fact concerned with his fears of Banquo.

  9. The tradition of regarding Macbeth as a noble, weak man tempted into evil by his wife, exemplified by readers such as Hazlitt and Johnson, or seeing him as deeply conscience-ridden, as does Bradley, disregards the way in which the two characters differ in the ways they later relate to what they did. Such a reading also confuses—regarding Macbeth's supposed temptation by his wife—being persuaded with allowing oneself to be persuaded. Against such readings, Richard Moulton (in Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist [New York, 1966], pp. 144-67) makes a persuasive case for Macbeth's moral shallowness, but in the strict division that he sets between Macbeth as externality and his wife as associated with the internal, his reading is in danger of simplifying both. What has not been stressed enough about the so-called temptation scene are Macbeth's short but semantically pregnant lines before his wife “tempts” him. To her question regarding Duncan's planned departure from their home he replies: “Tomorrow, as he purposes” (1.5.59).

  10. Sigmund Freud, “Those Wrecked by Success,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London, 1957), vol. 14, pp. 316-32. Interestingly enough, Freud discusses only Lady Macbeth as exemplifying the pattern and does not seem to notice the way in which Malcolm and Macbeth are variants of the same psychic type. Rossiter also perceives the links between success and emptiness in Macbeth, but unlike the suggestion I am pursuing, connects them to his own exemplification of the tradition of depersonalizing the characters and seeing them as part of one psychic entity.

  11. For one analysis of the centrality of blood imagery in the play, see G. Wilson Knight's two essays on the play in his The Wheel of Fire (London, 1930).

  12. G. Wilson Knight greatly exaggerates in thinking that Macduff was evil, or at least cruel, because he left his wife and children behind (Wheel of Fire, p. 151). In fact, Macduff has no reason to think that his wife and children are in danger (even if he is) and in that, shows that his fault is not moral, but of a more cognitive nature: it is that he underestimates the lengths to which Macbeth's disproportionate cruelty has gone. For a similar conclusion, see Arthur Kirsch's “Macbeth's Suicide,” ELH, 51 (1984), 269-96 and Smidt's “Two Aspects of Ambition.”

  13. Compare Macbeth's inability to say “Amen” after he kills Duncan.

  14. I am here following Brooke's reading of “he” in line 216 as referring primarily to Malcolm and not to Macbeth (see the Oxford edition, p. 192). There is a subtle development in Malcolm's character in the closing lines of the play. Shakespeare embeds a small episode in which Seyward receives news of his son's death. His startling cold response, in approval of the brave way his son died, creates a mirror-scene to the one discussed here, but note Malcolm's change in relating to the value of emotions unconnected to actions: “He's worth more sorrow, / And that I'll spend for him” (5.7.80-81).

  15. The literature on the uses of gender in this play is by now huge. For one discussion and many references see Janet Adelman's Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest (London, 1992), pp. 130-46. However, the reader may easily see that while what follows refers to sexual identity, the point I am aiming at has little to do with questions of gender.

  16. This is a pattern the play repeats. Lady Macbeth's reference to “unsexing” and her alarming antimaternal rhetoric regarding what she would do to a baby that she loves in the lines I have previously cited, iterates the same identification of emotion—this time a mix of ambition, coveting, determination—as a disruption of layers of identity expressed through voicing an alien rhetoric. Or, more obviously, note the way she picks out instances of unmanliness in Macbeth when he is afraid (1.7.41-51, 3.4.57, 3.4.74), thereby setting the conventional identification of fear with a retreat from the masculine. These moments have, I believe, less to do with gender and more to do with connecting emotion (ambition, fear, grief (with a momentary reshuffling of identity. They are, moreover, moments that are not instances of avoidance but of intensive confrontation with what is real in one's time.

  17. A more sophisticated version of an approach according to which a literary text may refute nihilism and thereby establish a first-truth, has been suggested by Jesse Kalin (“Philosophy Needs Literature: John Barth and Moral Nihilism,” Philosophy and Literature, 1 [1976], 171-82). Kalin proposes that not fiction, but the reader experience, when it is conceived as a recreation of the experience of characters, may function as a counterexample. If a philosophical thesis such as nihilism claims that nothing has value, experiences in which one feels that certain things are meaningful contradict the thesis. For all its elegance, Kalin's paper deals only with a “descriptive” nihilism and is oblivious to the much more plausible “normative” nihilism. That is, if a nihilist says that experiences of value do not exist, Kalin is right. However, the thesis is usually that such experiences exist but are irrational. No experience readers undergo would contradict a normative nihilism of this sort.

  18. Though showing need not be iconic and can be a verbal recreation of something that, unlike philosophical telling, in principle can be seen. The telling/showing opposition along with the preference of the latter is explicit in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece: “To see sad sights moves more than hear them told, / For then the eye interprets to the ear / The heavy motion that it doth behold …” (1324-26). John Roe (in The New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of The Poems [Cambridge, 1992], p. 206) relates these lines to Sidney and follows Malone in tracing the tradition of preferring the visual to Horace's Art of Poetry.

  19. The formulation of the describing/conveying opposition in Shakespeare commentary goes back at least to William Richardson in his A Philosophical Analysis and Illustration of Some of Shakespeare's Remarkable Characters (London, 1774; rpt. New York, 1966).

  20. For connections between style and implicit epistemology in Plato, see my “The Face Of Truth,” Metaphilosophy, 30 (1999), 79-94; for such connections in Nietzsche, see my “Seeing Truths,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 15 (1998), 80-87. The same connections between epistemological and rhetorical concerns also animates therapeutic visions of philosophy. I am thinking of the way in which arguments are subordinated to ethical therapeutic goals in Hellenistic thought as shown in Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, 1994). The medical analogy, so central to Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, implies that, just like a doctor in relation to a patient's body, the philosopher must always note the makeup of the recipient's mind.

  21. I make an analogous case regarding contingent claims in my forthcoming “Mature Love: A Reading of Antony and Cleopatra.

  22. See the closing paragraphs of Kirsch's “Macbeth's Suicide.”

Paul A. Cantor (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Cantor, Paul A. “Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, edited by John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, pp. 315-51. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2000.

[In the following essay, Cantor identifies a fundamental tension between the heroic pagan ethic and the Christian values associated with conscience and meekness in Macbeth. The critic maintains that Macbeth's attempt to synthesize these antithetical values causes him to conceive of a debased form of absolutism that negates both ethics systems and corrupts his perspective of the natural order.]

I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that [men were] bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change [they] ever experienced—that change which occurred when [they] found [themselves] finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. … Suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and “suspended.” … They felt unable to cope with the simplest undertakings; in this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect … they were reduced to their “consciousness.” … I believe there has never been such a feeling of misery on earth … and at the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their usual demands! Only it was hardly or rarely possible to humor them: as a rule they had to seek new and, as it were, subterranean gratifications.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Midway through Macbeth, the newly crowned king tries to convince some desperate men to murder his rival Banquo. Claiming that in the past Banquo thwarted their advancement, Macbeth questions whether the chosen murderers will take their injury lying down. More specifically, his challenge takes the form of asking them if they are prepared to turn the other cheek:

                                                                                                                                  Do you find
Your patience so predominant in your nature
That you can let this go? Are you so gospell'd,
To pray for this good man, and for his issue,
Whose heavy hand hath bow'd you to the grave,
And beggar'd yours for ever?


In Macbeth's remarkable use of the word gospell'd here,2 we hear the noble warrior's contempt for Christian forbearance and the tame willingness to endure injury without responding. The murderers understand what Macbeth is getting at, and, realizing that their very manhood is being questioned, they reply accordingly: “We are men, my liege” (III.i.90).

Macbeth goes on to articulate the concept of manliness the murderers are alluding to:

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


In its sense that all dogs are not created equal, this speech embodies the aristocratic or heroic conception of manhood.3 Macbeth is asking the murderers: are you merely run-of-the-mill human beings or are you real men, men who know how to stand up for themselves? The distinction Macbeth is making is best captured in Homeric Greek, in the difference between the terms aner and anthropos.4 The Homeric hero is an aner, a he-man, raised above the ordinary run of human beings (anthropoi) by virtue of his manly strength and courage. In Homer, the difference between the hero and the ordinary human being is often presented as the difference between two kinds of animals, like the contrast between noble and base dogs in Macbeth's speech, or even more like the contrast between tame and wild species drawn earlier in the play when a character talks of “sparrows” versus “eagles” or “the hare” versus “the lion” (I.ii.35). Macbeth sees a natural hierarchy among human beings: some are noble and some are base.5 Taking the view that a noble man would scorn to receive an injury tamely, Macbeth tries to shame the potential murderers into doing his will. But he realizes that this notion of noble heroism may be challenged in Scotland. A new gospel is abroad in the land, which teaches a Christian way of life, a gospel of peace and humility, opposed to the way of life of the warrior.

Shakespeare develops the tragedy of Macbeth out of this tension between the heroic warrior's ethic and the gospel truth. The story of Macbeth gave Shakespeare a chance to portray a world in which Christianity has changed the fabric of society, but in which some characters still think back nostalgically to the time before their nation was gospelled. Shakespeare seems to have been drawn to the situation of characters caught between two ways of life, an old and a new. In his tragedies, he often chose locales that allowed him to portray the clash of ethical alternatives; he liked to set the dramatic action at a point of intersection, a place where two antithetical ways of life cross. The Scotland of Macbeth is such a border land. It seems to lie at the crossroads of two different worlds, poised between warlike paganism and saintlike Christianity. At the beginning of the play, the peace of Scotland has been shattered by attacks by more primitive forces stemming from the west and the north, from the Hebrides and Norway (I.i.12, 31). These soldiers are referred to as “kerns and gallowglasses” (I.i.13), archaic terms that suggest foreign and barbaric troops.6 To the south of Scotland lies England, presented within the terms of the play as a more fully Christian land. In fact England is explicitly said to have a saint as a king, Edward the Confessor, who is repeatedly described in profoundly Christian terms:

To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace.


In the symbolic geography of the play, then, Scotland stands as it were midway between Norway and England, less barbaric than Norway but less Christian than England.8

This situation is similar to the symbolic geography Shakespeare creates in other tragedies. In Othello, for example, Cyprus stands as it were midway between the Christian civilization of Venice and the pagan barbarism of the Ottoman Empire, a situation that reflects the division within Othello's soul.9In Hamlet, Shakespeare's Denmark conveys the same sense of lying on the fringes of European civilization. To the north of Denmark lies, again, Norway, a land of warlike characters such as Fortinbras, and hence the source of the Homeric heroism of single combat. To the south lie the centers of sophisticated Christian civilization, such as Paris and Wittenberg. The geographic divisions in the play once again reflect divisions within the hero's soul. Hamlet is tragically divided between paganism and Christianity, especially when faced with the duty of revenge, a task to which the two ways of life dictate antithetical responses.10

The idea of geography as divided heritage permeates Macbeth. The Scottish characters in the play are on the whole presented as believing Christians. Christian expressions come readily to their lips, as, for example, in Macduff's report of the death of Duncan, when he speaks of how “Most sacrilegious murther hath broke ope / The Lord's anointed temple” (II.iii.67-68). Macbeth himself clearly shows the influence of Christianity, as his wife notes when she is wondering whether he really is up to the challenge of becoming king:

                                                                                          Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily.


Lady Macbeth here thinks of her husband in the same terms he later applies to the murderers of Banquo; his compassionate religion threatens to undermine his heroic manliness.

But there are signs that the Christianity of the characters in Macbeth does not always run deep, or that it may be confused with older, pagan notions. Consider Macbeth's bewilderment at his inability to join the grooms in their prayers:

One cried, “God bless us!” and “Amen!” the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
List'ning their fear, I could not say “Amen,”
When they did say “God bless us!”
                                                                                                    Consider it not so deeply.
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.


Someone might offer this passage as proof of Macbeth's Christianity, but in fact it points to a certain superficiality in his embrace of the newer religion. He thinks of Amen as a kind of pagan talisman, a magic formula that can be mechanically invoked, even by a criminal in the middle of his crime. Macbeth would gladly take any benefits he might obtain from Christianity, but he does not fully accept the moral demands the religion makes upon its believers. At least Claudius in Hamlet understands that his deeds are incompatible with his attempt to pray like a Christian. But here Macbeth seems to reduce Christianity to a mere set of verbal formulas. His case suggests that Christianity has not completely triumphed in the Scotland of Macbeth and is in fact in competition with and threatened by other forces. In the minds of warriors like Macbeth, older pagan ideas still maintain their force, strangely mixing with newer Christian beliefs.11

This analysis of the basic situation in Macbeth helps explain Duncan's problem in the play. Duncan is trying to act like a Christian monarch in a country that is not fully Christianized and that thus retains a strong element of an older, savage heroism. He is obviously not a warlike king; when we first see him (I.ii), he is allowing his nobles to do his fighting for him.12 When characters in the play speak of Duncan's good qualities, they never credit him with the kind of virtues associated with a king's military function. Rather they tend to speak of his generosity or, in a key speech by Macbeth, of his meekness and his ability to evoke pity (I.vii.16-25). In all these respects, he seems to resemble England's Edward rather than the bellicose king of Norway. By his own admission, Duncan is too trusting of humanity, blind to the ambition lurking in the hearts of his nobles (I.iv.12-15). Within the terms of the play, he is presented as an anomaly in Scotland.13 All the other leaders in Scotland are warlike men, great field generals like Macbeth, Banquo, and Macduff. Only Duncan does not lead his troops into battle;14 instead he must stand on the sidelines, receiving reports, asking like an outsider to the war: “What bloody man is that?” (I.ii.1). Duncan is crucially dependent on his great nobles to fight his battles for him and to stand up to the barbaric invaders.15

Hence Duncan's fatal error is not to recognize and acknowledge how weak and insecure his position truly is. The Scotland of the play is presented as a kind of elective monarchy, one in which the powerful nobles have a say in who becomes their king.16 The Scottish King cannot be said to serve at the pleasure of the great nobles, but he is so dependent on their military power that he must constantly work to maintain their allegiance. Duncan's generosity with titles, honors, and gifts to his thanes is a way of dealing with this problem. But he makes one key error: he nominates Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, thereby trying to ensure his son's designation as the next king of Scotland.17 Duncan acts as if he were already living under a system of hereditary monarchy, as if he were in fully civilized England rather than more primitive Scotland. By prematurely naming Malcolm as his successor, Duncan undermines one of the holds a king in his circumstances has on his thanes. They might remain loyal to him in the hope that he would eventually throw his weight in favor of one of them succeeding him to the throne. Duncan's designation of Malcolm as his successor proves disastrous as the action unfolds, provoking Macbeth into murdering the king, rather than waiting for events to propel him to the throne.

Duncan does not seem to understand the political necessities of the regime he rules. Moreover, he seems temperamentally unsuited to maintaining control of a land in which constant warfare has become a way of life. The civil war in Scotland with which the play begins is testimony to Duncan's failure as a king. Shakespeare found this point made explicitly in his source in Holinshed's Chronicles:

The beginning of Duncans reigne was verie quiet and peaceable, without anie notable trouble; but after it was perceived how negligent he was in punishing offendors, manie misruled persons tooke occasion thereof to trouble the peace and quiet state of the common-wealth, by seditious commotions which first had their beginnings in this wise.18

Holinshed blames the failure of Duncan's rule on his forbearance toward his subjects. The very meekness of Duncan, which makes him admirable as a Christian, works against his success as a king in a warlike society. The idea that the ethical principles of Christianity might not always work well in the rough-and-tumble world of Scottish politics is developed later in Macbeth when Lady Macduff finds herself in danger even though, or perhaps precisely because, she is morally innocent:

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


This idea of a double standard, of a conflict between worldly and otherworldly principles, is basic to Macbeth, often imaged, as here, in terms of manliness versus womanliness.

The germ of this conception can be found in Holinshed's contrast of Duncan's character with Macbeth's:

Makbeth [was] a valiant gentleman, and one that if he had not been somewhat cruell of nature, might have beene thought most woorthie the government of a realme. On the other part, Duncane was so soft and gentle of nature, that the people wished the inclinations and maners of these two cousins to have beene so tempered and enterchangeablie bestowed betwixt them, that where the one had too much of clemencie, and the other of crueltie, the meane vertue betwixt these two extremities might have reigned by indifferent partition in them both, so should Duncane have proved a woorthie king, and Makbeth an excellent capteine.20

By juxtaposing cruelty and clemency, this passage points to the contrast between the warlike spirit of paganism and the compassion of Christianity.21 We are used to concentrating on the tragedy of Macbeth, but the play also presents the tragedy of Duncan, tragically caught between the more civilized notion of Christian kingship embodied in Edward the Confessor and the more primitive notion of the king as battlefield warrior, embodied in both Macbeth and the King of Norway.

This contrast in notions of kingship is expressed most vividly in Shakespeare's source in Holinshed by the traitor, Makdowald, who calls Duncan “a faint-hearted milkesop, more meet to governe a sort of idle monks in some cloister, than to have the rule of such valiant and hardie men of warre as the Scots were.”22 This passage may have suggested to Shakespeare the theme of the heroic warrior's contempt for Christian meekness. Makdowald's taunt to Duncan resembles the speech of the usurper York to Henry VI in one of Shakespeare's history plays:

That head of thine doth not become a crown:
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff
And not to grace an aweful princely sceptre.
That gold must round engirt these brows of mine,
Whose smile and frown, like to Achilles' spear,
Is able with the change to kill and cure.

(2 Henry VI, V.i.96-101)

The contrast between Duncan and Macbeth recapitulates and deepens the contrast Shakespeare drew between the saintly Henry VI and the warlike Richard III in one of his earliest works (and his first study of tyranny).23

The outcome of Macbeth harks back to the result of the Wars of the Roses in Shakespeare's First Tetralogy. The destruction of the great aristocratic leaders in England, culminating in the carnage created by Richard III, made possible the centralizing of the English monarchy under Henry VII and the Tudor dynasty. Similarly in Macbeth, a sufficient number of potential rivals to the throne have been eliminated by the end of the play to give some plausibility to the idea that Malcolm may reign more peacefully than his father did. Such considerations might explain Shakespeare's dwelling on the moment when Malcolm attempts to reconstitute his feudal followers: “My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam'd” (V.ix.28-30). The transformation of the thanes into earls seems to represent an anglicizing of Scotland, an attempt to convert a barbaric consortium of feudal chieftains into a comparatively centralized monarchy, in which all honors and titles now flow from the throne.24 Thus, by inducing his enemies to call in English aid from the saintly Edward, Macbeth may ironically have completed the process of the gospelling of Scotland he scorns.25 Despite his contempt for the overrefinement of the “English epicures” (V.iii.8), Macbeth ends up giving them a foothold in Scotland. Malcolm anticipates that the English aid will bring about the domestication of Scotland: “I hope the days are near at hand / That chambers will be safe” (V.iv.1-2), and he strongly associates the English forces with the power of Christianity (IV.iii.189-92). Though Malcolm begins the play just as dependent as his father on help from his subordinates in warfare (I.ii.3-5), by the end he shows signs of having learned from Duncan's mistakes. In particular, judging by Malcolm's canny behavior with Macduff in Act IV, scene iii, he evidently has outgrown his father's overly trusting attitude. Perhaps Malcolm is ready by the end of the play to provide the synthesis of Duncan and Macbeth Holinshed projected. Having learned a certain toughmindedness from his enemies, Malcolm may be able to mediate between Christian and pagan kingship.26 Nevertheless, in the main action of Macbeth the tension between these two worlds remains acute. Duncan, never realizing his errors, goes blindly to his death, but Macbeth has some sense of the peculiarity of his situation. Consider his speech when he is terrified by the appearance of Banquo's ghost at his feast:

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


The horror of the occasion calls forth from Macbeth a strong sense of the contrast between the past (the “olden time”) and the present moment. He acknowledges that a kind of progress has been made in Scotland, a process of civilizing in which the Christian spirit has tamed the barbarism of its warriors (“humane statute” has “purg'd the gentle weal”). But Macbeth does not see this process as an unequivocal gain. And what troubles him about the new dispensation in Scotland is something specifically Christian: quite literally the new possibility of resurrection (“now they rise again”; see also III.iv.73-75). In this speech he is looking back with nostalgia to the pagan past, when a man, once dead, had the decency to stay dead.

Macbeth's reaction reflects the disorientation of the old-style pagan warrior faced with the new worldview and expanded cosmic horizons of Christianity.27 He has never had a problem dealing face-to-face with a living human opponent. That is the sort of situation he has been trained to handle as a warrior. What he cannot deal with is some kind of supernatural apparition, a power not of this world:

What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or th' Hyrcan tiger,
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble.


Nothing in or of this world could frighten the courageous warrior Macbeth, but forces that appear to come from another world terrify him, although as we shall see they also appear to touch—or perhaps even call into being—something deep within his soul. To be sure, one cannot simply equate supernatural apparitions with the force of Christianity; as Senecan drama reminds us, ghosts are possible in a pagan framework as well. Though Shakespeare evidently worked to reduce the element of the supernatural in his portrait of the early Roman Republic in Coriolanus, one way he dramatized the weakening of the old civil religion as the Republic waned was to emphasize supernatural forces in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.28 But even when they are confronted by ghosts, and genuinely shaken by the experience, Shakespeare's Romans do not react with the panic that seizes Macbeth. Brutus's cool encounter with the ghost of Caesar is representative:

Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That mak'st my blood cold, and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.
Thy evil spirit, Brutus.
                                                                                                              Why com'st thou?
To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.
Well; then I shall see thee again?
Ay, at Philippi.
Why, I will see thee at Philippi then. [Exit Ghost.]
Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee.


Though at first frightened by the appearance of Caesar's ghost, Brutus quickly pulls himself together. His calm and collected response—“Why, I will see thee at Philippi then”—is a good measure of the moderation with which Shakespeare's Romans accept the intrusion of the supernatural in their lives. Shakespeare was aware that the pagan world allowed for the possibility of the supernatural, but, as he shows, the gulf between the natural and the supernatural was not as wide or as sharply drawn in paganism. Strictly speaking, one might even say that paganism predates the genuine and full distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Allowing for a continuum between god and man, with all sorts of intermediary figures such as heroes and daimonia, paganism does not tend to separate a divine realm from a human realm in the radical way that Christianity does, with its transcendent conception of deity and hence its sense of the unbridgeable gulf between man and God. This is admittedly a complicated issue, but with all the necessary qualifications being made, it is accurate to say that Christianity is distinctly more otherworldly as a religion than classical paganism. Macbeth reacts more violently than Brutus to the supernatural apparitions in his life because he thinks of them as causing a radical rift in his existence, marking a kind of epoch (“The time has been, / That when the brains were out, the man would die”). In Macbeth Shakespeare explores what happens to a pagan warrior wrenched out of his narrow horizons and displaced into a Christian context, with its radical divide between this world and the next.

These speeches in Act III, scene iv highlight a peculiar fact about Shakespeare's Macbeth: for a courageous man, he is remarkably subject to moments of fear. He begins the play as a model of courage; no one could be braver on the battlefield. But in the course of the action, he is increasingly tormented by doubts and fears. Lady Macbeth states the paradox of his character succinctly: “Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier and afeard?” (V.i.36-37). Though basically a stalwart warrior, with his feet planted firmly on the ground, Macbeth finds himself living in a slippery world of ghosts and apparitions that haunt his waking hours and torment his dreams, leaving him in a confused state in which “present fears / Are less than horrible imaginings,” and “function / Is smother'd in surmise” until for him “nothing is / But what is not” (I.iii.137-142). Faced with a world where “the earth hath bubbles, as the water has” (I.iii.79), Macbeth constantly experiences the melting away of anything he thought provided a foundation for his existence. Shaken to the core of his being by the strange visions that come upon him, Macbeth is left at sea and wonders how his wife can keep her equilibrium:

                              Can such things be,
And overcome us like a summer's cloud,
Without our special wonder? You make me strange
Even to the disposition that I owe,
When now I think you can behold such sights,
And keep the natural ruby of your cheeks,
When mine is blanch'd with fear.


Macbeth undergoes an extraordinary transformation in the course of the play, from a manly hero to what he himself describes as “the baby of a girl” (III.iv.105).

At the beginning of the play Macbeth appears to be the most admired man in Scotland. In the second scene, people are singing his praises, celebrating precisely his courage as a warrior:

For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish'd steel,
Which smok'd with bloody execution,
(Like Valor's minion) carv'd out his passage
Till he fac'd the slave;
Which nev'r shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseam'd him from the nave to th' chops,
And fix'd his head upon our battlements.


Macbeth first appears in the play as a kind of Homeric hero, cutting his way through lesser men on the battlefield like a Scottish Achilles (the Homeric similes throughout this battle narrative give an epic feel to the passage).30 In our first glimpse of Macbeth, he is hacking a man in half—and is being commended for it.31 Even the meek King Duncan is favorably impressed by Macbeth's heroism, calling him “valiant cousin, worthy gentleman” and “noble Macbeth” (I.ii.24, 67).32 Later in the play, characters view Macbeth as a bloody, cruel, violent tyrant, but at the beginning he is praised for the same savage qualities—as long as they are directed against Scotland's enemies. Unfortunately for the warrior, how he is evaluated depends on the context of his violence, whether it is perceived as in the service of his own community or opposed to it.33 The epic language of Act I, scene ii suggests a situation typical of the genre. It involves a variant of the original epic conflict, what one might call the Achilles-Agamemnon problem, the dilemma of the legitimate king who is weaker as a military figure than one of his great warriors.34

But if Macbeth begins the play as a kind of Scottish Achilles, he certainly does not end that way. We cannot imagine Achilles plotting to murder Agamemnon in secret—if he decided to kill the king, he would do it openly. Achilles can be very cruel, but the Iliad builds up to the moment when he shows compassion to Priam. The movement of Macbeth is just the reverse—the hero becomes crueller as the play progresses. What accounts for this difference between Achilles and Macbeth as heroes? I want to make what will at first sound like a perverse argument, that the transformation of Macbeth can be traced to the impact of Christianity.35 This point is, to say the least, counterintuitive: as a gospel of meekness Christianity ought to tame the fierceness and savagery of a warrior, not inflame it. Indeed we witness this process happening in Scotland; as we have seen, it may explain Duncan's imprudent clemency and seems to have provoked Macbeth's contempt for gospelling.

But now I am not examining the case of the warrior tamed by Christianity. Rather I want to consider the more complicated case Shakespeare is intrigued by in Macbeth: what happens when a warrior retains his martial spirit, and yet allows it to be redirected or reconstituted in a new Christian context? Macbeth stays a warrior, and even expresses scorn for the new religion of meekness. And yet he is secretly affected by it, secretly accepts its premises, almost against his will. Macbeth is not immune to the Christian critique of heroism and hence he cannot remain true to the old-style pagan ethic in its pure form. Consider the moment just before Macbeth's death when he refuses to kill himself: “Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword?” (V.viii.1-2). Who taught Macbeth that the Romans were fools? My answer is: the Christian gospellers. Roman suicide was based on the principle that honor is more precious than life, and thus in certain circumstances a noble man would rather kill himself than live on in disgrace. To Christian thinkers, this principle was an example of pagan vanity, of placing the transitory value of worldly honor above the eternal value of one's immortal soul. Macbeth is obviously not approaching the issue as a theologian, but the way he abjures suicide and desperately clings to life does suggest something in him opposed to pagan attitudes.

What Macbeth has learned from Christianity is contempt for the transitoriness of pagan values and an appreciation of eternity. I am not saying that he behaves like a good Christian, in the way, for example, Duncan does. Rather he tries to remain true to a warrior's ethic, but he reinterprets that ethic with a distinctly Christian inflection, though this obviously involves a significant distortion of Christianity. Holinshed held out the prospect of a positive synthesis of pagan and Christian ethics, of combining “cruelty” and “clemency” and thus moderating the bad effects of both. In the figure of Macbeth, Shakespeare creates the demonic counterpart of this happy synthesis of pagan and Christian, a heroic warrior who turns tyrant in pursuit of a secularized version of the Christian Absolute.36

To clarify Macbeth's transformation of the heroic ideal, it is useful to contrast him with Achilles. Homer's hero is famous for having been confronted with a tragic choice between a long but obscure life and a brief but glorious one. His character is defined by his opting for the second possibility, and to many his decision has seemed the prototype of all tragic choices.37 But what is characteristic of Macbeth is precisely his refusal to be bound by the terms of Achilles' choice. Macbeth wants to have the best of both worlds; he obsessively pursues the goal of a long and glorious life. He is driven by the idea that any glory is worthless to him unless it can be prolonged, perhaps forever (through his posterity). This is the way Macbeth covertly accepts the Christian critique of pagan heroism. For Christian thinkers, Achilles is the archetype of pagan vanity, willfully embracing glory at the price of his own transitoriness. Macbeth rejects this pagan foolishness. At the peak of his success as King of Scotland, he says: “To be thus is nothing, / But to be safely thus” (III.i.47-48). This line is profoundly characteristic of Macbeth, and shows his peculiarity as a hero. He is an absolutist, with an all-or-nothing attitude; his achievement is worthless to him unless it is perfectly secure. Macbeth's scorn for the transitoriness of pagan values leads to a concern for safety that seems unheroic by classical standards. One cannot imagine Achilles saying at the moment of his triumph over Hector: “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus.” Achilles' scorn for his safety is the hallmark of his character and his distinctive brand of heroism.38 One can find no better measure of the transformation of the idea of heroism in the figure of Macbeth than his almost bourgeois concern for the security of his achievement.39

We can see the impact of the Christian context on Macbeth's thinking in the famous opening of his soliloquy contemplating the murder of Duncan:

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.


The simple fact that Macbeth is thinking about the “life to come” immediately suggests his difference from a purely pagan hero. As Shakespeare does in the key scene in which Hamlet is considering killing Claudius, the playwright indicates how the expansion of Christian horizons to include an afterlife changes the terms of heroic action.40 Someone might immediately object that Macbeth's point in this passage is precisely that he would like to “jump the life to come,” to exclude thoughts of the afterlife from his deliberations. As in his later complaint about the dead coming back to life, he seems to long for the contraction of his horizons back to pagan dimensions, so that he would only have to worry about what happens in this life. But the very fact that Macbeth wishes to exclude thoughts of the afterlife shows that Christianity has in fact altered his manner of thinking.

Indeed, no matter how unchristian the object of Macbeth's thinking in this soliloquy is, his thought processes display the influence of Christianity. Instead of unthinkingly plunging into action, he tries to analyze his situation with an almost priestly dissection of motive and consequence. The tortuous syntax of his speech reveals a mind turning inward, opening up its depths. If Macbeth is an Achilles, he is an Achilles with a conscience.41 As is even more evident later in his anguished reaction to having murdered Duncan, Macbeth has become aware of the moral dimension of human action, even though he does not act morally. That is why he strikes us as a more complex figure than a purely pagan hero. His exposure to Christianity has created a division in his soul, which makes it impossible for him to act singlemindedly or to face the consequences of his actions without flinching. The initial description of Macbeth on the battlefield might lead us to expect him to be a brainless fighting machine. Instead, in Macbeth's soliloquies in Act I, Shakespeare reveals a character with a richly developed psychological interior, torn by conflicting impulses and struggling with a nascent conscience.

Whatever else one may say about the impact of Christianity on the warrior hero, it gives him psychological depth.42 The length, frequency, and convoluted syntax of Macbeth's soliloquies give him a complex interior that is lacking in any of Shakespeare's Romans. Even as thoughtful a character as Brutus, who at first is clearly troubled by the prospect of killing Caesar, is not anguished by his decision to do so. To be sure, Brutus pictures himself as undergoing a psychic civil war when trying to decide whether or not to kill Caesar,43 but he never experiences the kind of inner division that tears Macbeth apart. Indeed, once Brutus convinces himself that he is justified in killing Caesar, unlike Macbeth, he never once wavers in his resolve, nor does he suffer pangs of remorse or even regret after the deed.44 That is why Brutus is able to confront the ghost of Caesar as calmly as he does, whereas Macbeth is tormented by his visions of the murdered Duncan and Banquo. Despite his initial doubts, Brutus kills Caesar with a sense of moral conviction; by contrast, Macbeth must resolve to kill Duncan against his own moral scruples, and thus approaches the deed with a deeply divided soul. The complexity introduced into Macbeth's situation by the conflict between pagan and Christian principles in his soul is what makes him a profoundly tragic figure. A purely pagan Macbeth might have killed his king without any pangs of conscience; a purely Christian Macbeth might not have murdered Duncan at all; it is the combination of paganism and Christianity in Macbeth that produces his peculiar tragic situation as a murderer with a bad conscience.

Moreover, in analyzing Macbeth's “If it were done” soliloquy, we can see how Christianity has given him new desires and in fact transformed his ambition in a subtle but profound way. Although Macbeth appears to be rejecting “the life to come,” what he is really doing is trying to gain here in this life what Christianity promises to believers in the afterlife, a kind of absolute perfection, an infinite satisfaction.45 As he first reveals in this speech, Macbeth is questing for what I will call the Absolute Act, what he calls “the be-all and the end-all,” a single deed that will give him everything he desires and give it to him securely and forever.46 What gives him pause at this moment in Act I, scene vii is the consideration that no human act is entirely self-contained; every deed has consequences, and hence a misdeed may come back to haunt its perpetrator. Macbeth would have done well to heed his own warning, which turns out to characterize prophetically the course of his career in crime. But he cannot close his eyes to the tantalizing vision of the Absolute Act that will yield him complete and perfect happiness.

Thus Macbeth kills Duncan in expectation of gaining at one stroke all he desires, only to have his hopes thwarted, since once in power he finds himself exposed to a new sense of insecurity as a tyrant. But the futility of his quest for the Absolute Act does not lead Macbeth to abandon it; rather he tries to reformulate it. Instead of focusing on Duncan, he starts to think obsessively about Banquo, and concludes that the only obstacle standing between him and perfect happiness is his rival general: “There is none but he / Whose being I do fear” (III.i.53-54); hence “his death” would leave Macbeth “perfect” (III.i.107). In his obsession with the royal succession, we can see the concern for eternity Macbeth has absorbed from Christianity. What troubles him is the thought that the Weird Sisters promised Banquo that he would found a “line of kings” (III.i.59). Macbeth cannot be content with having achieved his personal ambition of becoming king if it now appears to lead nowhere in the future:

Upon my head they plac'd a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench'd with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. If't be so,
For Banquo's issue have I fil'd my mind,
For them the gracious Duncan have I murther'd,
Put rancors in the vessel of my peace
Only for them, and mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man,
To make them kings—the seeds of Banquo kings!


In the most unchristian act of contemplating another murder, Macbeth thinks in Christian terms. He is tormented by the thought that he has given up his “eternal jewel” to the devil for the sake of Banquo's heirs, not his own. Once Macbeth has been told of the immortality of the soul, he cannot help conceiving of the issue of his happiness differently from the way a pagan hero like Achilles would. He comes to desire a perfection unimaginable to a pagan living in a world of finite horizons.

Having failed to satisfy his infinite desire by killing Duncan, Macbeth nevertheless feels that perfection is still within his grasp. All he has to do now is to have Banquo killed, together with his son Fleance. Shakespeare does not reveal the full extent of Macbeth's hopes until the second attempt at the Absolute Act goes awry. When the murderers are forced to report that, although Banquo is dead, Fleance escaped, Macbeth responds in despair:

Then comes my fit again. I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air;
But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.


This speech provides the most forceful expression of Macbeth's all-or-nothing attitude.47 He is constantly searching for a kind of pure perfection, an analogue to Christian salvation; in its absence, he feels himself left with nothing, trapped in a form of damnation. The height of Macbeth's hopes is thus responsible for the depth of his despair. He desires something infinite (“as broad and general as the casing air”), but he discovers that every human act is finite, something is always left over, like Fleance, to provoke further consequences. Contrary to Macbeth's hopes, no single act can “trammel up” all the consequences and forestall the need for future action. Hence Macbeth's quest for perpetual satisfaction yields only perpetual dissatisfaction. As his wife painfully sums up his situation: “Nought's had, all's spent, / Where our desire is got without content” (III.ii.4-5), and she correctly diagnoses her husband's problem as an inability to live with “doubtful joy” (III.ii.7). Yet despite the mounting evidence of the failure of his quest for the Absolute Act, Macbeth allows himself to be drawn into a series of deeds that only succeed in damning him further. Even toward the end of his life, when his world seems to be crashing down around him, he still hopes for some kind of enduring happiness and is willing to risk everything on one last gamble to achieve perfection: “This push / Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now” (V.iii.20-21).48

This analysis sheds light on what is probably Macbeth's most famous speech, his response to the news of his wife's death:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Struck by the profound nihilism of this speech, some critics have wondered whether to attribute this attitude to Shakespeare himself. But Shakespeare is careful to place Macbeth's nihilism in a specific context. Given what we have seen of his all-or-nothing attitude, it is not surprising that the collapse of his quest for the Absolute Act should generate this glimpse into a nihilistic abyss. This speech is surely not an expression of Christian sentiments, and yet once again we see how even in opposition to Christianity Macbeth turns out to be influenced by it. When he speaks of “the last syllable of recorded time,” he clearly is no longer thinking in pagan terms, but is rather haunted by the apocalyptic expectations of Christianity.49 Indeed in its feeling for time, this speech marks a turn from a pagan to a Christian outlook, as Macbeth learns to devalue this world from the standpoint of eternity.50

What is characteristic of Macbeth's words in Act V, scene v is that he speaks of tomorrow and yesterday, but he has no thought for today.51 He has lost the pagan ability to take pleasure in the moment, to live happily in this world, without looking beyond its borders to eternity. Futurity has cast a shadow over his life, driving him to leave the past behind (“what's done, is done”; III.ii.12) and in the process poisoning the present for him.52 The key to the transformation of Macbeth's heroism is his reorientation toward the future, brought about by the intervention of the Weird Sisters in his world, who in some way stand for the impact of the supernatural on human life and hence the subversion of the natural. Recall that when we first hear of Macbeth in the play, he is “Disdaining Fortune” (I.ii.17).53 Like any good pagan warrior, at first he is not obsessed with the future but fights for the glory of the present moment, oblivious to the consequences for his safety. But by suggesting to Macbeth that there may be some providential order to events in this world, the Weird Sisters shake his faith in himself and in his own efforts, and awaken his longing to ally himself to whatever force in the universe represents the wave of the future. Lady Macbeth quickly picks up the same attitude: “Thy letters have transported me beyond / This ignorant present, and I feel now / The future in the instant” (I.v.56-58).54 For both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the present moment becomes contemptible as soon as they think they can see beyond it confidently to a perfect future. Drawn inexorably into the future, Macbeth eventually sees all present moments voided of meaning, and, since in one basic sense life can be lived only in the present, this means that life itself loses all meaning for Macbeth.55 His contempt for the “brief candle” and the “poor player” who merely “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more” is one last reflection of the disdain for the transitory he has absorbed from Christianity. Ultimately Shakespeare shows that Macbeth's nihilism is the obverse of a kind of religious faith; this world becomes worthless to him when it fails to live up to an otherworldly standard of absolute perfection.

To understand more fully how Macbeth comes to be governed by a demonic parody of a religious faith, we must analyze the role of the Weird Sisters in the play. Of course, on the face of it, as witches, they appear to represent an anti-Christian force within the world of Macbeth. But although as “instruments of darkness” (I.iii.124) the witches must be viewed as enemies of orthodox religion, the principles in which they in effect instruct Macbeth are at least in one respect indistinguishable from Christian beliefs. What the witches teach Macbeth is after all a lesson in providence. The providential order they represent may be demonic and lead Macbeth to his damnation, but the fact remains that their prophecies embody for Macbeth a form of religious teaching, that earthly events are governed by higher powers.

As we have seen, Macbeth begins the play with the faith of a Homeric warrior—whether he succeeds in battle depends largely on whether he behaves bravely on the battlefield. But the Weird Sisters undermine Macbeth's belief that the outcome of his actions lies in his own hands, and teach him instead to rely on supernatural aid. As the play unfolds, Macbeth becomes increasingly hesitant to take the risks a hero normally accepts as a matter of course, and instead seeks guarantees from the witches that his success is assured because it is foreordained. One would expect that Macbeth's turn from heroic self-reliance to a faith in a providential order would lead him to act more virtuously in conventional moral terms. But in the paradoxical world of Macbeth, the hero's newfound faith in providence actually makes him crueller in his actions. As long as Macbeth believes that the outcome of single combat is a function chiefly of the behavior of the combatants, he acts nobly, as shown by the general admiration he initially evokes. But once Macbeth believes himself in league with hidden powers, he begins to act secretly himself, concealing his evil intentions behind false displays of good will (I.vii.82), working through proxies, and striking down opponents when they least expect it, rather than in honest open combat. Moreover, once Macbeth comes to believe that his victories are fated, he loses all restraint and becomes willing to do anything to achieve his goals, including murdering women and children. Macbeth develops a kind of fanaticism; he becomes so convinced that he is favored by providence that he comes to view his personal cause as universally valid (III.iv.134-35).

Thus the Weird Sisters, who seem to offer new power to Macbeth, in fact take away whatever power he originally possessed and turn him into a creature of their own ends. He thinks that providence is serving him, but in reality he ends up serving providence, or at least whatever order the witches represent. Macbeth's loss of freedom is reflected in the diminishing proportion of thought to deed that characterizes his behavior in the course of the play.56 As we have seen, at first a significant expansion and deepening of Macbeth's consciousness occurs. He agonizes over the decision to kill Duncan, running over in his mind all the moral objections to the deed. Speaking of meekness and pity with respect (I.vii.16-25), Macbeth comes closest to espousing genuine Christian principles in this speech. Even once he has killed Duncan, Macbeth cannot rest content with the deed or put it out of his mind. Although it may be inaccurate to speak of remorse in his case, he is clearly troubled by what he has done and convinced that he will never sleep peacefully again (II.ii.38-40). The way his conscience plays tricks on him, making him see visions and hear voices, is one more indication of his transformation from a purely pagan hero. His behavior provokes a reproach from his wife, who wants to see him act like an old-style warrior again: “You do unbend your noble strength, to think / So brain-sickly of things” (II.ii.42-43).

But the new interiority that has opened up in Macbeth eventually begins to close down under the pressure of events. To be sure, it is still evident when he is faced with the prospect of murdering Banquo. Shakespeare again gives Macbeth a long soliloquy before the deed, in which he reflects on why he must do it. And once Banquo has been killed, Macbeth's conscience wreaks havoc with his peace of mind, perhaps even producing the apparitions that haunt his banquet. Lady Macbeth once again tries to restore his heroic attitude by shaming him: “What? quite unmann'd in folly?” (III.iv.72). But Shakespeare introduces subtle variations into Macbeth's second murder, which suggest how his attitudes are changing. In considering the murder of Banquo, Macbeth dwells more on prudential than on moral considerations. Moreover, as he finishes his soliloquy, he has the potential murderers enter and indicates that they will be going matters they discussed the night before. It is thus clear that even before the soliloquy Macbeth had already reached the decision to kill Banquo. Unlike what happened in the case of Duncan, this time Macbeth's soliloquy merely confirms a choice he has already made. Furthermore, his decision to hire murderers to kill Banquo suggests that he is trying to distance himself from the deed and perhaps avoid the fits of conscience his murder of Duncan provoked (unsuccessfully as it turns out). Macbeth seems to be reacting against the moral scruples that go along with the opening up of interiority in his soul. As the banquet scene confirms, the warrior wishes he could return to an earlier state of affairs, when he was a simpler man and remained undisturbed by the prickings of conscience.

Thus at the end of Act III, scene iv, Macbeth proclaims: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, / Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd” (III.iv.138-39). Here we see Macbeth provoked into a willful contraction of his consciousness. Up to this point he has been characterized by the unusual amount of thought he gives to his deeds before acting (at least unusual for a warrior). Now he wishes to reverse this pattern: act first and then think about it. The new principle of interiority in his soul has clearly become painful to him, a burden from which he now wishes to escape. But the price Macbeth pays for this escape is his freedom. Reacting against the agonizing thought processes that have been going into his decisions, he starts to act mechanically, without thinking, and that means to act more brutally than ever before. The very fact that up to this point he has been deliberating at length about his deeds indicates that he has been free to act or not. But from this point on, he allows himself to be drawn into a pattern in which he reacts automatically to events, rather than planning them; thus he gradually surrenders his freedom of action.

When Macbeth is shaken by the news that Macduff has fled to England, he conceives the idea of what would today be called a pre-emptive strike: “Time, thou anticipat'st my dread exploits: / The flighty purpose never is o'ertook / Unless the deed go with it” (IV.i.144-46). This attitude follows from the Weird Sisters' success in increasingly convincing Macbeth that events in life are fated. If his destiny is already decided, then there is no point in Macbeth debating what is right or wrong for him to do; rather his one task becomes to try to figure out, with the aid of the witches, what is fated to happen next and act accordingly. Once he believes that he can have certain knowledge of the future, he comes to think that haste, and not due deliberation, will be the key to his success:

                                                                                From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done:
The castle of Macduff I will surprise,
Seize upon Fife, give to th' edge o' th' sword
His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls
That trace him in his line. No boasting like a fool;
This deed I'll do before this purpose cool.
But no more sights!


After debating at length killing both Duncan and Banquo, here Macbeth plunges precipitately into several murders, all of them crueller and more repugnant morally than his earlier deeds. But having had enough of moral scruples, Macbeth goes to the opposite extreme of unthinking action, which in this case leads him into indiscriminate violence.

One might be tempted to view this development as simply a return to pagan impulsiveness, an attempt to annual the new Christian principle of interiority. But lurking behind this speech is a model that cannot be traced to pagan sources. “To crown my thoughts with acts”—as several critics have noted, in this speech Macbeth is attempting to live out a dream of omnipotence.57 He fantasizes that he need only think something and it will instantaneously happen, a pattern fully embodied only in the Biblical God. Just as he has been attracted to the Christian idea of eternity, Macbeth feels the pull of the Christian idea of an omnipotent God, whose thoughts translate directly into actions. As part of the absolutism we have observed in Macbeth, he now covets the omnipotence of the Biblical God for himself. Reacting against his discovery of his vulnerability as a mortal, he goes to the opposite extreme of wishing to believe himself invulnerable, a desire which makes him fall prey to the Weird Sisters' schemes. Once he places himself entirely in their hands, he is able to overcome his unheroic sense of insecurity and in fact develops a remarkable faith in himself as unconquerable. Toward the end of the play, in a reversal of the way he is portrayed in the middle, Macbeth begins to sound conventionally heroic again: “The mind I sway by, and the heart I bear, / Shall never sag with doubt, nor shake with fear” (V.iii.9-10); he actually says: “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (V.v.9). But the irony is that Macbeth's sense of absolute power comes just before his experience of absolute powerlessness.58 Seeking to take total command of his world, he in fact quickly loses control of events, forced to watch his enemies seize the initiative, while he is reduced to waiting passively and reacting to their moves, precisely because of his faith in the witches' prophecies (V.iii.2-7). In the end, he even loses his freedom of movement: “They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, / But bear-like must fight the course” (V.vii.1-2).

As his speech in Act IV, scene i indicates, Macbeth repudiates thinking prior to acting in the hope of avoiding “more sights,” that is, he does not want to have to contemplate the moral consequences of his deeds. Thus his speech fulfills a wish that both he and his wife express earlier in the play—to be able to act without seeing, that is, without having to face up to the consequences of one's deeds.59 But the ultimate realization of this hope is Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking: “to receive at once the benefit of sleep and do the effects of watching!” (V.i.9-11). In Lady Macbeth we see literalized what happens metaphorically in her husband's case. He comes to sleepwalk through life, just going through the motions; his actions are provoked by his opponents' moves and lack any inner motive or meaning, even in his own eyes. The ultimate result of the deepening of Macbeth's consciousness is paradoxical—it leads him to act mechanically, without consciousness. As we have repeatedly seen, the opening up of Macbeth's consciousness causes a deep rift to develop in his soul, a painful division between what he wants to do and what his conscience tells him is morally right to do. Though for much of the play he wrestles with his new-found conscience, in the end he starts to repudiate it and all consciousness. Troubled by what he finds in the depths of his soul—“full of scorpions is my mind” (III.ii.36)—Macbeth searches for a way to heal the rift in his consciousness and “raze out the written troubles of the brain” (V.iii.42). But in seeking to extinguish consciousness, he leaves himself prey to the unconscious forces in his soul, which make him act more savagely than he ever did before. Chafing under the constraints of a new morality, he eventually repudiates all restraints on his actions, and becomes a slave to his basest desires. That is how his seemingly newfound freedom turns into a new form of slavery.

In examining the impact of the Weird Sisters on Macbeth's thinking, we have seen what he dimly suspects from the beginning and finally confirms to his horror—their effect is thoroughly ambiguous and equivocal. As Macbeth himself says: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good” (I.iii.130-31). It is of course notoriously difficult to pin down the exact role of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. As the opponents of the legitimate Christian forces in the play, they seem to represent a link to the older pagan forces in Scotland, as was of course historically true of witches in medieval Europe. But in many respects the Weird Sisters seem to be aligned with the tendencies that are leading Macbeth out of the pagan world—they concretely represent the impact of the supernatural, and above all they lead him to believe in particular providence.

Ultimately it is as difficult to place the witches squarely in either the pagan or the Christian camp as it is to place Macbeth. As we have seen, Macbeth is a strange hybrid, neither fully pagan nor fully Christian, but torn between the two worlds, combining aspects of both. In his case, Christianity does not, as it usually does, temper the fierceness of the pagan spirit, but paradoxically inflames it. Supplying an absolutism to Macbeth's pagan spirit, Christianity—or rather his distorted interpretation of it—turns him into a crueller and more devious figure. Convinced of the inevitability of his triumph, he lets nothing stand in his way, becoming a demonic parody of the crusading Christian warrior and hence a fiend in the eyes of the genuine Christians in the play. One might think that a combination of classical and Christian principles would produce some kind of higher synthesis, incorporating the best of both worlds. But Macbeth himself suggests the difficulty of synthesizing antithetical qualities: “Who can be wise, amaz'd, temp'rate, and furious, / Loyal, and neutral in a moment?” (II.iii.108-9). If Macbeth achieves a kind of synthesis, he might be said to combine the worst of both worlds, pursuing pagan goals with a Christian absolutism or, alternatively phrased, pursuing Christian goals with a pagan ferocity.60

The witches are similarly hybrids, walking violations of any category one is tempted to impose on them.61Macbeth may seem to deal in sharp and well-defined polarities: good versus evil, Christian versus pagan, male versus female, supernatural versus natural, and so on. But from their first appearance, the witches work to break down any simple sense of binary opposition in the play: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (I.i.11). The way they violate fundamental category distinctions is the first thing Banquo notices about them: they “look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth, / And yet are on't” (I.iii.41-42). Above all, the witches seem to cloud the normally clear distinction between male and female: “You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (I.iii.45-47). The masculine/feminine dichotomy is unusually important in Macbeth, in part because it becomes aligned with the pagan/Christian opposition. The pagan heroic ideal is associated with a vision of manliness in battle, while Christianity is associated with a softer, sensitive, more feminine view of life. When Macbeth worries that the murderers have become too gospelled, he might as well have questioned whether they have become too feminized. As we have seen, the fact that they reply “We are men, my liege” (III.i.90) shows that they are aware that Macbeth is calling their manliness into question.

The issue of what it is to be a man is raised frequently in Macbeth—whether it involves acting solely like a male, true to the warrior's code of aggressive behavior, or whether the notion of manhood needs to be extended to encompass a feminine, sensitive side of human nature.62 Lady Macbeth is able to taunt her husband into murdering Duncan early in the play by appealing to a narrowly masculine conception of manhood and speaking with contempt for compassion (I.vii.39-59), thus treating him as he later does the murderers of Banquo. But toward the end of the play, when Malcolm tries similarly to goad Macduff into savage action, the older warrior stands up for a broader definition of manhood as compassionate humanity:

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


We see here how complicated the masculine/feminine dichotomy becomes in Macbeth. Far from constituting a simple, straightforward opposition in the play, the boundary between male and female is always on the verge of dissolving, creating new hybrid forms. One of the signs of Macbeth's disorientation as a warrior is the degree to which he allows himself to be influenced by female forces—the Weird Sisters, of course, but also his wife, who plays a major role in determining his course of action. But even as the masculine is being feminized in the play, the feminine is being masculinized. This tendency is evident in the beards of the witches, or in Lady Macbeth's various attempts to act the part of a male, most fully demonstrated in her famous speech in which she desires to be “unsexed” and to exchange her compassionate femininity for a cruel masculinity (I.v.40-50). One cannot simply equate the masculine with the pagan in Macbeth or the feminine with the Christian. Nevertheless, the recurrent images of sexual ambiguity in the play, most fully realized in the Weird Sisters, suggest the larger point I have been making about Shakespeare's attempt in Macbeth to portray a world that is a hybrid of pagan and Christian elements.

One final aspect of the Weird Sisters' impact on Macbeth remains to be considered: the way they change his view of nature. As he is drawn into the world of what Lady Macbeth calls “metaphysical aid” (I.v.29), his increasing obsession with supernatural forces leads him to develop a contempt and even hatred for the world of nature. In part, this development reflects the fact that Macbeth's desire for the infinite leads him to despise anything merely finite in the world, and hence ultimately the natural world itself.63 Shakespeare establishes a connection between Macbeth's desire for the infinite and his tyrannical nature. In the long exchange between Malcolm and Macduff concerning the character of the tyrant, infinite desire emerges as his distinguishing trait: “Boundless intemperance / In nature is a tyranny” (IV.iii.66-67). Testing Macduff by pretending to be a tyrant, Malcolm accuses himself of “stanchless avarice,” indeed an insatiable desire for wealth: “my more-having would be as a sauce / To make me hunger more” (IV.iii.78, 81-82). He also presents himself as lecherous, and claims that his lust would brook no restraints:

                              but there's no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness. Your wives, your daughters,
Your matrons, and your maids could not fill up
The cistern of my lust, and my desire
All continent impediments would o'erbear
That did oppose my will.


As Shakespeare presents the tyrannical character, his infinite desire makes him fight against any limits set to his will.64 Thus the tyrant ultimately finds himself at war with nature itself, since the very idea of a natural order is that things have natures which define their behavior, thus setting limits to their actions. Macbeth seems characteristically to long for the moment when “Nature seems dead” (II.i.50).

As Macbeth plunges deeper and deeper into tyranny, Shakespeare reveals the titanic egotism that fuels the tyrant's actions: “But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear” (III.ii.16-17); “For mine own good / All causes shall give way” (III.iv.134-35). Ultimately Macbeth's tyrannical ego leads him to challenge all the forces of nature and even the natural order itself:

Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though the bladed corn be lodg'd, and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's germains tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.


This passage provides a profound insight into the character of Macbeth's soul and his tyrannical desires. His imagination leaps to picturing the dissolution of all order in nature, and that means particularly the dissolution of all natural boundaries. Macbeth's tyrannical soul cannot stand the way nature sets limits to all activity and especially to human desire. He would rather see the world in chaos than accept natural constraints on his will. Ultimately he rejects the idea that there can be any kind of order subsisting in nature, independent of human will. That explains his attraction to the idea of a supernatural order, the notion that what happens in the world is always the product of some will, even if it must be a sinister one. The more Macbeth feels in league with supernatural forces, the more tempted he is to look down upon the world of nature and view it as justifiably subject to his own will, destined to serve his purposes and his purposes alone.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Macbeth's speech is his curse on “nature's germains,” the seeds out of which all the world of nature springs. He despises the generative power of nature, its fecundity. Ultimately Macbeth turns out to be at war with natural generation. It is no accident that his most horrible crime is the murder of Macduff's wife and children. But there is a profound irony in Macbeth's attack on the children of Scotland—his own marriage appears to be barren, thus leaving him without the heirs he needs to perpetuate his line and hence his achievement. Even the tyrant cannot dispense with the power of nature, for he needs it to generate an heir. Early in the play Lady Macbeth unnaturally tries to deny her role as a woman (I.v.40-50) and in particular lays a curse on her natural potential as a mother (I.vii.54-59). Shakespeare seems to be establishing a pattern in which those who curse natural powers will live to regret it, for nature will come back to take its revenge. Having tried to deny the womanly side of her nature, Lady Macbeth finds herself unequal to the aggressively masculine role she tries to play and her mind snaps in the process.

In Act V, Shakespeare brings in a Doctor of Physic to treat Lady Macbeth. Perhaps he was aware that the root of physician is physis, the Greek word for nature (related to the Greek word for plant and thus emphasizing nature as a generative power). The doctor diagnoses Lady Macbeth's problem as “a great perturbation in nature” (V.i.9) and supplies a formula for the fate of both Macbeth and his wife: “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles” (V.i.71-72). The doctor suggests that, having turned against the natural order, Lady Macbeth can be helped now only by supernatural forces: “More needs she the divine than the physician” (V.i.74). Faced with the doctor's failure to cure his wife, Macbeth expresses his contempt for medicine: “Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it” (V.iii.47). Macbeth's rejection of the physician is consistent with the rejection of nature that has informed his whole career as a tyrant.

And yet in his attempt to reject the natural and embrace the supernatural, Macbeth turns out to be profoundly confused. The Weird Sisters prey upon his confusion in order to instill a false sense of security in him and lead him to his destruction. The riddling prophecies with which they deceive him build his confidence only because of his lingering faith in the power of the natural order. The prophecies suggest that Macbeth can be overthrown only by powers beyond the natural order, such as a man not born of woman. When Macbeth hears that he cannot be defeated “until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (IV.i.92-94), his reaction depends on his belief in the limits of the natural world:

                                                            That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac'd Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature.


We see here how truly egotistical Macbeth has become. He expects everybody and everything to be bound by the order of nature with one exception: Macbeth himself.65 As the last line in the passage shows, he is relying on the power of nature at just the moment when he conceives himself to be raised above it. To see how inconsistent his thinking has become, one need only note that here he is rejecting the possibility of resurrection that only two scenes earlier he himself had contemplated. Macbeth has become totally confused in sorting out the natural and the supernatural in his world. Having demanded to be above the limits of nature himself, he forgets that someone else might achieve the same power.

In the end it is purely natural forces that destroy Macbeth, even though the conclusion of the play is surrounded by a supernatural aura. The prophecies suggest that only mysteriously supernatural powers could defeat Macbeth, but in the event the forces that triumph have simple natural explanations.66 The man not born of woman turns out to be simply the product of a Caesarean section. And the miraculously moving forest turns out to be nothing more than a camouflaging maneuver. Having attacked the natural order, Macbeth finds himself ultimately defeated by it. And the deepest irony is that the Weird Sisters did not conceal his fate from him. As several critics have noted, the prophetic apparitions come with their own explanations.67 The prophecy concerning the man not born of woman is delivered by a bloody child, suggesting a Caesarean section, and the prophecy concerning Birnam wood is delivered by a child with a tree in his hand, suggesting the exact manner of Malcolm's later stratagem. Macbeth's problem is that he does not look carefully enough at what the Weird Sisters show him; he only listens to what he hears and interprets the prophecies in light of his own desires, above all, his wish to be invulnerable and omnipotent.

Earlier in the play, when Macbeth sees the apparition of the dagger, he says: “Mine eyes are made the fools o' th' other senses, / Or else worth all the rest” (II.i.44-45). This disjunction between sight and the other senses forms an important pattern in the play. Had Macbeth followed the advice of his eyes in this scene, he might have been spared destruction. His experience with the witches' apparitions suggests even more strongly that he would have been better off trusting what he saw with his own eyes, rather than allowing himself to be tricked into interpreting the revelations in light of his own hopes and desires. The ultimate trick the Weird Sisters play on Macbeth is to make him think that he is seeing with his own eyes when in fact he is interpreting what he sees in light of what he hears from the witches and their apparitions. As Macbeth finally comes to understand, the Weird Sisters only “keep the word of promise to our ear” (V.viii.21); perhaps the ultimate lesson Macbeth ought to learn is the difference between hearsay and seeing with one's own eyes.68 One might sum up the Weird Sisters' strategy this way: awakening Macbeth's infinite desire and appealing to his dream of omnipotence, they make him long for a supernatural alliance and breed a contempt for the natural world in him. Thus they blind him to the power of nature, which eventually destroys him.69

No interpretation will ever seem fully adequate to the mysteries and paradoxes of Macbeth. But I have tried to show that the strangeness of Macbeth, the many riddles that have puzzled critics of the play, can in part be traced to the peculiar situation of its hero. Macbeth is in the odd position of a heroic warrior whose ambitions have been redefined and redirected along lines suggested to him by the Christian influences in his world. Faced with the Christian critique of the transitoriness of pagan values, Macbeth can no longer settle for the kind of glory that satisfied Achilles and all those Roman fools. In particular, under the influence of the Christian idea of eternity, Macbeth feels a need for something absolute in his life, something absolutely secure and absolutely lasting. Transposed into a world with the expanded horizons of Christianity, he finds a desire for the infinite awakening within his soul, which Shakespeare links with Macbeth's new form of tyranny and his new attitude toward nature as subject to human will. If one were to analyze fully Shakespeare's portrait of the transformation of the pagan hero into the tyrant of infinite desire, one would see that he was prophetically looking to the future; the tragedy of the Scottish warrior prefigures the tragedy of modernity. Indeed, if Macbeth could have found a way to translate his personal hopes for heaven on earth into a political program, into what we would call an ideology, he might well have served as the prototype of the distinctively modern tyrant.


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). The original version of this essay was given as a lecture at the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich on November 28, 1991. An expanded version was published in German translation under the title “Macbeth” und die Evangelisierung von Schottland by the Siemens Foundation in 1993 (translated by Anke Heimann and edited by Heinrich Meier). I want to thank Dr. Meier for the opportunity to lecture in Munich and for the original publication of this Macbeth essay in book form. A significantly revised version of this text appeared in English in Interpretation, 24 (1997): 287-318. I have revised the essay further for republication in this volume.

  2. According to the concordances, this is the only appearance of the word gospell'd in all of Shakespeare.

  3. For an insightful discussion of the concept of manliness in Macbeth, see José A. Benardete, “Macbeth's Last Words,” Interpretation, 1 (1970): 63-75. For another good discussion of manliness in Macbeth, see Matthew N. Proser, The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 51-91.

  4. On this distinction, see Seth Benardete, “Achilles and the Iliad,Hermes, 91 (1963): 1-5.

  5. On this point, see Michael Davis, “Courage and Impotence in Shakespeare's Macbeth” in Shakespeare's Political Pageant, ed. Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), p. 221.

  6. The terms are taken directly from Shakespeare's source in Holinshed's Chronicles; see Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), Vol. VII, p. 490 (all references to Bullough will be to Vol. VII).

  7. See also III.vi.26-34.

  8. For a similar analysis, see David Lowenthal, “Macbeth: Shakespeare Mystery Play,” Interpretation, 16 (1989): 351. The best attempt I have seen to characterize the Scotland of Macbeth is by Wilbur Sanders in an imaginative essay entitled “Macbeth: What's Done, Is Done” in Wilbur Sanders and Howard Jacobson, Shakespeare's Magnanimity: Four Tragic Heroes, Their Friends and Families (London: Chatto & Windus, 1978); see especially pp. 59-65.

  9. See my “Othello: The Erring Barbarian Among the Supersubtle Venetians,” Southwest Review, 75 (1990), especially pp. 300-1.

  10. See my Shakespeare: Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially pp. 54-55.

  11. See Bob Stewart, Macbeth: Scotland's Warrior King (Dorset, UK: Firebird Books, 1988) on the historical Scotland of Macbeth: “Elements of this pagan quality to kingship remained in eleventh century Scotland, which had a curious mixture of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs and practices” (p. 13).

  12. Holinshed speaks of Duncan's “small skill in warlike affaires” (Bullough, p. 490).

  13. See Sanders, Shakespeare's Magnanimity, p. 69.

  14. Here Shakespeare departs from his sources to sharpen the contrast. At one point Holinshed writes of Duncan: “he set all slouthfull and lingering delaies apart, and began to assemble an armie in most speedie wise, like a verie valiant capteine: for oftentimes it happeneth, that a dull coward and slouthfull person, constreined by necessitie, becommeth verie hardie and active. … the king himselfe governed in the maine battell or middle ward” (Bullough, p. 492).

  15. See Sanders, Shakespeare's Magnanimity, p. 65. For an incisive critique of critics' tendency to idealize Duncan as a perfect ruler, see Harry Berger, Jr., “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH, 47 (1980): 1-31. For further analysis of Duncan's problems and weakness as a king, see Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Skepticism (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 244-49 and John Turner, “The Tragic Romances of Feudalism” in Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, Shakespeare: The Play of History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), pp. 130-31, 137.

  16. On Scotland as an elective monarchy, see II.iv.29-32 and Nicholas Brooke, ed., Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 74. On the complicated matter of the principle of succession in Scotland, see Bullough, pp. 431-32. Historically, Macbeth's reign marked Scotland's transition from an elective to a hereditary monarchy. See Stewart, pp. 8, 29-30.

  17. For a contrary view of Duncan's policy, see Lowenthal, pp. 321-23. Turner, pp. 125-31, also develops a positive view of Duncan's kingship.

  18. Bullough, p. 488.

  19. For a good discussion of this passage, see Lowenthal, p. 331.

  20. Bullough, p. 488.

  21. Although clearly Shakespeare derived his sense of Macbeth's cruelty from Holinshed, the idea of giving it a specifically anti-Christian inflection seems to be Shakespeare's own. At one point in Holinshed's account of Macbeth, he writes that “he also applied his whole indevor, to cause young men to exercise themselves in vertuous maners, and men of the church to attend their divine service according to their vocations” (Bullough, pp. 497-98). This passage comes from a section in Holinshed about a period of ten years during which Macbeth ruled Scotland justly and well, a part of the story Shakespeare chose to suppress. In general, Shakespeare found a confused mixture of pagan and Christian elements in Holinshed's account of Macbeth and Scotland; the playwright worked to sharpen and develop the contrast.

  22. Bullough, p. 489.

  23. Macbeth also appears to be returning to Shakespeare's Henry VI plays in the way it considers the influence of women on politics, and especially the question of witches, as originally embodied in the figure of Joan de Pucelle.

  24. On the historical Malcolm's “gradual but almost total anglicising of the country and its methods of government,” see Stewart, p. 30. The importance of the transformation of thanes into earls is suggested by a passage in Hector Boetius's The Description of Scotland (which may well be one of Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth, since Holinshed included it as a preface to his history of Scotland). Boetius discusses the decline of the virtue of the Scots as they came to imitate the English, specifically in their handling of aristocratic titles: “Furthermore as men not walking in the right path, we began to follow also the vaine shadow of the Germane honor and titles of nobilitie, and boasting of the same after the English maner, it fell out yer long, that whereas he in times past was accompted onlie honorable, which excelled other men not in riches and possessions, but in prowesse and manhood, now he would be taken most glorious that went loaden with most titles, whereof it came to pass, that some were named dukes, some earles, some lords, some barons, in which vaine puffes they fixed all their felicitie. Before time the noble men of Scotland were of one condition, & called by the name of Thanes … and this denomination was giuen vnto them after their desert and merit.” See Vernon Snow, ed., Holinshed's Chronicles: England, Scotland and Ireland (rpt. New York: AMS, 1965; London: J. Johnson, 1807-8), Vol. V, p. 26. For a discussion of this passage, see Turner, pp. 123-24. As Turner points out, this passage in Boetius sheds a new light on the end of Macbeth, suggesting something negative about Malcolm's renaming of the Scottish thanes as earls. In general, Boetius's Description may have contributed to Shakespeare's fundamental conception of Macbeth. As if he were a sixteenth-century Walter Scott, Boetius contrasts a primitive and barbaric but austere and heroic Scotland with a civilized and sophisticated but overrefined and effete England.

  25. Turner, p. 143, aptly characterizes Macbeth as “the heroic destroyer of a heroic age.”

  26. In a late exchange with Macduff, Malcolm indicates that he is at least aware of what a remarkable combination of virtues a true king must possess, in particular a synthesis of “mercy” and “lowliness” with “courage” and “fortitude.” See IV.iii.93-94. For helpful discussions of Malcolm's role in the play, see Lowenthal, pp. 353-54 and Turner, pp. 144-45.

  27. For a discussion of how Macbeth “is unnerved by what he does not understand,” see Howard B. White, “Macbeth and the Tyrannical Man,” Interpretation, 2 (1971): p. 149.

  28. For a fuller discussion of this point, see my Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), pp. 142-45.

  29. On the importance of this passage, see Bradshaw, pp. 219-20 and Davis, pp. 219, 223.

  30. On the “epic rhetoric” of I.ii, see Bullough, p. 426.

  31. On the importance of this moment and Macbeth's “pagan lightness of conscience,” see Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea: Studies in the Plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 297. The peculiar phrasing—that Macbeth and Banquo “meant to … memorize another Golgotha” in this battle (I.ii.39-40)—lends a strangely anti-Christian feeling, and hence a pagan aspect, to this action. On the oddness of this moment, see Bert O. States, “The Horses of Macbeth,Kenyon Review, 7 N.S. (1985), pp. 56-58. On the possible implications of the Golgotha reference, see also Berger, p. 11.

  32. For analysis of the complexity of this moment, see Bradshaw, p. 221, and James L. O'Rourke, “The Subversive Metaphysics of Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies, 21 (1993): 223-24.

  33. See Berger, pp. 10-11, and especially p. 14.

  34. For a general discussion of this theme in epic literature, see W. T. H. Jackson, The Hero and the King: An Epic Theme (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). That Shakespeare may indeed have had Agamemnon specifically in mind when writing Macbeth is suggested by the fact that critics have found a number of verbal echoes in the play of John Studley's 1566 English translation of Seneca's Agamemnon. See Bullough, p. 452: “This tragedy of Seneca's seems especially to have seized on Shakespeare's imagination.” The most remarkable of these verbal parallels can be found in the Act I Chorus of Studley's Agamemnon: “One hurlye burlye done, another doth begin” (Bullough, p. 523—Cf. Macbeth, I.i.3).

  35. See Lowenthal's parallel formulation: “It is disconcerting to realize that Macbeth's Christian belief helps worsen his tyranny” (p. 348).

  36. The phenomenon of religious wars, and especially the Crusades, shows that Christianity is not simply antithetical to the warlike spirit and may in fact be combined with it. Shakespeare explores the strange ways in which religion may supply motives for warfare throughout his history plays, especially in Henry V.

  37. See, for example, David Lenson, Achilles' Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

  38. The contrast between Macbeth and Achilles may seem to be blurred by the Greek hero's appearance in the underworld in the Odyssey, which would seem to undermine the distinction between pagan thisworldliness and Christian otherworldliness. But the afterlife Homer portrays is a pale shadow of this life, not a higher state as in the Christian vision. Far from being desirable, the afterlife in the Odyssey is so close to non-existence that Achilles says that he would rather be a slave on earth than rule in the underworld. As Achilles' case shows, unlike the Christian hero, the pagan hero does not take his bearings from the afterlife. When in this life, the Christian hero thinks longingly ahead to the afterlife; even when in the afterlife, the pagan hero thinks longingly back to this life.

  39. See Mary McCarthy, “General Macbeth” in Sylvan Barnet, ed., Macbeth (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. 229: “A commonplace man who talks in commonplaces, a golfer, one might guess, on the Scottish fairways, Macbeth is the only Shakespeare hero who corresponds to a bourgeois type: a murderous Babbitt, let us say.” Originally appearing in Harper's Magazine (June, 1962), this wrong-headed article nevertheless verges on interesting insights into Macbeth, though it loses sight of the heroic dimension of the play.

  40. See my Hamlet book, pp. 43-45.

  41. See Bradshaw's formulation: “Shakespeare's Macbeth is still the terrifying warrior—but a warrior with an intensely moral imagination” (p. 250).

  42. See Bradshaw, p. 252: “The ‘Christian’, decidedly unclassical and unSenecan, character of Macbeth appears in its terrors, rather than in certitudes or assurances, and corresponds with that sense of the psyche as something stratified, vertiginous, which [Erich] Auerbach analyses in Augustine.” See also p. 255: “Shakespeare has … sunk himself into the mindfalls of Macbeth's anguished imagination. … We are … intimately involved in the inner workings and processes of Macbeth's thought and feeling; and that difference corresponds with Auerbach's distinction between classical and Christian modes of feeling.”

  43. See Julius Caesar, II.i.61-69.

  44. One can grasp the difference between Macbeth and Brutus in the opening of their soliloquies. Whereas Brutus begins with the straightforward: “It must be by his death” (II.i.10), Macbeth immediately gets twisted up in the convoluted: “If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly” (I.vii.1-2). I discuss the distinctive nature of the soliloquies in the Roman plays in Shakespeare's Rome, pp. 113-16.

  45. See Maynard Mack's formulation in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), p. 194: “Macbeth and his wife seek to make hereafter now, to wrench the future into the present by main force, to master time.”

  46. The best discussion I have seen of this pattern in Macbeth is to be found in Gordon Braden, “Senecan Tragedy and the Renaissance,” Illinois Classical Studies, 9 (1984), 287-88. See also Terence Eagleton, Shakespeare and Society: Critical Studies in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Shocken, 1967), pp. 130-32. The use of the term Absolute may sound anachronistic in a discussion of Shakespeare, as if he were some kind of Elizabethan Hegel. But in fact Shakespeare does use the word absolute three times in Macbeth (I.iv.14, III.vi.40, IV.iii.38), and with something of the force the word was to acquire in German Idealism. Indeed, much of what I am arguing about Macbeth is contained in the movement it portrays between “absolute trust” (I.iv.14) and “absolute fear” (IV.iii.38).

  47. Macbeth's speech offers an interesting parallel to Hamlet's lines: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams” (II.ii.254-56). As different as Hamlet and Macbeth are, they share the all-or-nothing attitude I have been discussing. See my Hamlet book, pp. 50-52. For a provocative discussion of parallels between Hamlet and Macbeth, see Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), Vol. II, pp. 110-111.

  48. Macbeth's all-or-nothing attitude apparently even infects the murderers of Banquo, one of whom describes himself as: “So weary with disasters, tugg'd with fortune, / That I would set my life on any chance, / To mend it, or be rid on't” (III.i.111-13).

  49. See also Macbeth's mention of the “crack of doom” at IV.i. 117. For the importance of the apocalyptic mode in Macbeth, see States, especially his characterization of Macbeth as “an apocalyptic personality: a man obsessed by finality, by absolutes, and by his bondage to time” (p. 58). See also White, p. 154.

  50. For suggestive analogues to this process, see the essay “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism” in Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 320-40.

  51. “In a play which, from the premises of the plot, is Future-driven, Macbeth, especially, is one who cannot be in his Present.” See Francis Berry, Poet's Grammar: Person, Time and Mood in Poetry (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 53. This brief essay on “Macbeth: Tense and Mood” provides an insightful analysis of how Macbeth's distinctive sense of time is reflected in the grammar of the play. See also Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea, pp. 270 and 279.

  52. An analogue of this aspect of Macbeth's tragedy is provided by the Porter in his paradoxical tale of “a farmer, that hang'd himself on th' expectation of plenty” (II.iii.4-5).

  53. Similarly, when Macbeth first hears the witches' prophecies, he seems willing to accept the chanciness of the world order: “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (I.iii.143-44).

  54. On this point, see Mack, p. 192.

  55. For a similar analysis, see Arthur Kirsch, The Passions of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 95.

  56. On this subject, see Timothy Fuller, “The Relation of Thought and Action in Macbeth” in Shakespeare's Political Pageant, pp. 209-18.

  57. See, for example, Kirsch, pp. 94-95, and Turner, p. 138.

  58. Cf. Turner's formulation about Macbeth: “the magical sense of omnipotence is haunted by its fellow-contrary nightmare of impotence” (p. 141).

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


    LADY Macbeth.
                                                                                                        Come, thick night,
    And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
    That my keen knife see not the wound it makes.


    In both passages, the characters unconsciously reveal what they will in fact do, namely act blindly—act without fully realizing the consequences of their deeds.

  60. For the idea that a synthesis of classical and Biblical morality might produce an ethic very different from either, see Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 191.

  61. On this point, see Lowenthal, p. 354.

  62. For a thorough discussion of this issue, see José Benardete's essay.

  63. In this context, Lady Macbeth's line about Banquo and Fleance is suggestive: “But in them nature's copy's not eterne” (III.ii.38). Nature lacks eternity; like the pagan hero, nature appears defective in Macbeth's eyes when judged by the standard of eternity.

  64. There are interesting parallels here to Plato's presentation of the tyrannical soul in the Republic; see especially 571a to 580a. The central parallel is the idea that in seeking to liberate his appetites, the tyrant becomes a slave to the force of desire in his soul. For a discussion of these parallels, see White, especially p. 145.

  65. On this point, see Davis, p. 226.

  66. See Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 138-39.

  67. See, for example, Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 133, and Mack, pp. 194-95. Roman Polanski's film of Macbeth realizes this point in visual terms—Polanski intercuts a scene of a Caesarean section with the original prophecy of the man not born of woman.

  68. Cf. Romans 10:17.

  69. See C. S. Lewis' formulation of a similar point in a different context: “At the moment, then, of Man's victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. … Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man.” See The Abolition of Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 76.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Orgel, Stephen. “Macbeth and the Antic Round.” In The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage, pp. 159-72. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Orgel comments on the dynamic theatrical processes and ideological concerns that might have influenced revisions of Macbeth prior to the publication of the 1623 Folio. The critic focuses on the dramatic treatment of the witches in particular as a reflection of the changing mores and cultural attitudes of each new generation that reinterprets the tragedy.]

I begin my consideration of Macbeth some years before the folio, for what seem to me good historical reasons: while it is certainly true, as historians of the book from Stanley Morison to D. F. McKenzie and Randall McLeod have insisted, that works of literature do not exist independent of their material embodiment in texts, the printing of Shakespeare's plays is, nevertheless, really incidental. In their inception, in their conception, they are not books but scripts, designed to be realized in performance; and in this form they are not at all fixed by their material embodiment, whether quarto or folio (to say nothing of Riverside, Oxford, or Pelican), but fluid and open-ended. To realize them requires an infinite number of collaborative, often non-authorial, decisions, both textual and interpretive, which in turn eventuate in continual, increasingly non-authorial, revisions, excisions, additions. In this respect, Shakespeare plays have always been the free-floating signifiers of postmodern theory, standing for an infinitely variable range of signifieds. As I have argued in “What Is a Text,” the play, even in print, is always a process.

In the case of Macbeth, we are well into the process from the outset, since the earliest surviving version of the play, that included in the folio, is demonstrably a revision. It includes songs for the witches, given in the text only as incipits (‘Come away, come away, etc.’; ‘Black spirits, etc.’). These are songs from Middleton's play The Witch. In performance they would have been accompanied by dances, which means that in the theater these scenes took a good deal longer than they do on the page. The manuscript of Davenant's version of the play, prepared around 1664, includes the whole text of the witches' songs from Middleton—these are really musical dialogues, short scenes. The fact that Davenant did not supply his own witches' material at these points, as he did elsewhere, suggests that the Middleton material was already a standard feature of the play.1

The elaboration of the witches' roles could have taken place anywhere up to about fifteen years after the play was first performed, but the presence of the Middleton songs suggests that Shakespeare was no longer around to do the revising, which presumes a date after 1614. Why, only a decade after the play was written, would augmenting the witches' roles have seemed a good idea? To begin with, by 1610 or so witchcraft, magic, and the diabolical were good theater business—Barnabe Barnes's The Devil's Charter was at the Globe in the same season as Macbeth, and Marston's The Wonder of Women, with its sorcery scenes, was at the Blackfriars. Jonson's Masque of Queens, performed at court in 1609, inaugurated a decade of sorcery plays and masques, including The Tempest, The Alchemist, The Witch, The Witch of Edmonton, The Devil Is an Ass, and the revived and rewritten Doctor Faustus.

The ubiquitousness of theatrical magic is perhaps sufficient reason for the elaboration of the witches in Macbeth, but for me, it does not account for everything. When Macbeth, after the murder of Banquo, goes to consult the witches, and they show him a terrifying vision of Banquo's heirs, Hecate proposes a little entertainment to cheer him up:

I'll charm the air to give a sound
While you perform your antic round,
That this great king may kindly say
Our duties did his welcome pay.


The tone of the scene here changes significantly: the witches are not professional and peremptory any more, they are lighthearted, gracious, and deferential. We may choose to treat this as a moment of heavy irony, though Macbeth does not seem to respond to it as such; but if it is not ironic, the change of tone suggests that the ‘great king’ addressed in this passage is not the king on stage, but instead a real king in the audience, Banquo's descendant and the king of both Scotland and England.

The editors of both the recent Oxford and Cambridge editions have resisted the suggestion that this moment in Macbeth reflects the local conditions of a court performance, observing that nothing in the scene positively requires such an assumption. This is true enough, but I also see nothing implausible about it, and though there is no record of a court performance, King James surely must have wanted to see a play that included both witches and his ancestors. What are the implications if we assume that the text we have is a revision to take into account the presence of the king, and that his interest in witchcraft also accounts for the augmentation of the witches' scenes, so that the ‘filthy,’ ‘black and midnight hags’ become graciously entertaining after they have finished being ominously informative? Such a play would be significantly less author-centered than our familiar text: first because it is reviser-centered—and the presence of the Middleton scenes implies that Shakespeare was not the reviser—and second, because it is patron-centered, taking a particular audience into account. To this extent Shakespeare's Macbeth is already, in the folio version, a significantly collaborative enterprise. But if this is correct, it also means that this version of Macbeth is a special case, devised for a single occasion, a performance at court, not the play in repertory, the play for the public.

This leads us to another question: how did this text become the ‘standard’ version—why was it the right version to include in the folio? It needs to be emphasized that this is a question whether we assume that a performance before the king is involved or not: there is no denying that this is a revised text with non-Shakespearean material. Most attempts to deal with this issue beg the question, assuming that what we have is indeed the wrong text, and that Shakespeare's first editors would never have included it if they had had any alternative. The right text, the text we want (the promptbook, or even better, Shakespeare's holograph) must have been unavailable, lost—burned, perhaps, in the destruction of the Globe in 1613, as if only a conflagration could explain the refusal of Hemminge and Condell (who promise, after all, ‘the true original copies’) to give us what we want. But perhaps it was included precisely because it was the right text—whether because by 1620 this, quite simply, was the play, or, more interestingly, because the best version of the play was the one that included the king.

This would make it an anomaly in the folio, a version of the play prepared for a single, special occasion, rather than the standard public theater version. In fact, the play as it stands in the folio is anomalous in a number of respects. It is a very unusual play textually: it is very short, the shortest of the tragedies (half the length of Hamlet, a third shorter than the average), shorter, too than all the comedies except The Comedy of Errors. It looks, moreover, as if the version we have has not only been augmented with witches' business, but has also been cut and rearranged, producing some real muddles in the narrative: for example, the scene between Lennox and the Lord, 3.6, reporting action that has not happened yet, or the notorious syntactic puzzles of the account of the battle in the opening scenes, or the confusion of the final battle, in which Macbeth is slain onstage, and twenty lines later Macduff re-enters with his head. Revision and cutting were, of course, standard and necessary procedures in a theatre where the normal playing time was two hours; but if theatrical cuts are to explain the peculiarities of this text, why was it cut so peculiarly, not to say ineptly? Arguments that make the muddles not the result of cutting but an experiment in surreal and expressionistic dramaturgy only produce more questions, rendering the play a total anomaly, both in Shakespeare's work and in the drama of the period.

The very presence of the witches is unusual. Shakespeare makes use of the supernatural from time to time—ghosts in Richard III, Julius Caesar, and most notably in Hamlet, fairies and their magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Prospero's sorcery in The Tempest, Joan of Arc's and Marjory Jourdain's in the Henry VI plays, and Rosalind's claim to be a magician at the end of As You Like It—but there is no other play in which witches and witchcraft are such an integral element of the plot. Indeed, whether or not King James was in the audience, the fact that it is the witches who provide the royal entertainment can hardly be accidental. The king was intensely interested in witchcraft; his dialogue on the subject, Dæmonology, first published in Edinburgh in 1597, was reissued upon his accession to the English throne in 1603—there were three editions in that year alone. This and the Basilicon Doron, his philosophy of kingship, were the two works that he chose to introduce himself to his English subjects, and as I have argued elsewhere, witchcraft and kingship have an intimate relationship in the Jacobean royal ideology.3 This is a culture in which the supernatural and witchcraft, even for sceptics, are as much part of reality as religious truth is. Like the ghost in Hamlet, the reality of the witches in Macbeth is not in question; the question, as in Hamlet, is why they are present and how far to believe them.

Like the ghost, too, the witches are quintessential theatrical devices: they dance and sing, perform wonders, appear and disappear, fly, produce visions—do, in short, all the things that, historically, we have gone to the theater to see. They open the play and set the tone for it. On Shakespeare's stage they would simply have materialized through a trap door, but Shakespeare's audience believed in magic already. Our rationalistic theater requires something more theatrically elaborate—not necessarily machinery, but some serious mystification. For Shakespeare's audience, the mystification is built into their physical appearance, which defies the categories: they look like men and are women. The indeterminacy of their gender is the first thing Banquo calls attention to. This is a defining element of their nature, a paradox that identifies them as witches: a specifically female propensity to evil—being a witch—is defined by its apparent masculinity. This also is, of course, one of the central charges leveled at Shakespeare's theater itself, the ambiguity of its gender roles—the fact that on Shakespeare's stage the women are really male. But the gender ambiguity relates as well to roles within the play—Lady Macbeth unsexes herself, and accuses her husband of being afraid to act like a man. What constitutes acting like a man in this play? Killing, obviously, but anything else? Lady Macbeth unsexing herself, after all, renders herself, unexpectedly, not a man but a child, and thus incapable of murder: ‘Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't (2.2.12-13). Indeed, the definitive relation between murder and manhood applies to heroes as well as villains. When Macduff is told of the murder of his wife and children and is urged to ‘Dispute it like a man,’ he replies that he must first ‘feel it as a man’ (4.3.220-2). Whatever this says about his sensitivity and family feeling, it also says that murder is what makes you feel like a man.

The unsettling quality of the witches goes beyond gender. Their language is paradoxical; fair is foul and foul is fair; when the battle's lost and won. One way of looking at this is to say that it constitutes no paradox at all: any battle that is lost has also been won, but by somebody else. The person who describes a battle as lost and won is either on both sides or on neither; what is fair for one side is bound to be foul for the other. In a brilliantly subversive essay, Harry Berger, Jr., suggested that the witches are in fact right, and are telling the truth about the world of the play—that there really are no ethical standards in it, no right and wrong sides.4 Duncan certainly starts out sounding like a good king: the rhetoric of his monarchy is full of claims about its sacredness, about the deference that is due to it, how it is part of a natural hierarchy descending from God, how the king is divinely anointed, and so forth. But in fact none of this is borne out by the play: Duncan's rule is utterly chaotic, and maintaining it depends on constant warfare—the battle that opens the play, after all, is not an invasion, but a rebellion. Duncan's rule has never commanded the deference it claims for itself—deference is not natural to it. In upsetting that sense of the deference Macbeth feels he owes to Duncan, maybe the witches are releasing into the play something the play both overtly denies and implicitly articulates: that there is no basis whatever for the values asserted on Duncan's behalf; that the primary characteristic of his rule, perhaps of any rule in the world of the play, is not order but rebellion.

Whether or not this is correct, it must be to the point that women are the ones who prompt this dangerous realization in Macbeth. The witches live outside the social order, but they embody its contradictions: beneath the woman's exterior is also a man; beneath the man's exterior is also a woman; nature is full of competing claims, not ordered and hierarchical but deeply anarchic; and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge the reality and force and validity of the individual will—to acknowledge that all of us have claims that conflict with the claims about deference and hierarchy. This is the same recognition that Edmund brings into King Lear when he invokes Nature as his goddess. It is a Nature that is not the image of divine order, but one in which the strongest and craftiest survive—and when they survive, they then go on to devise claims about Nature that justify their success, claims about hierarchies, natural law and order, the divine right of kings. Edmund is a villain, but if he were ultimately successful he would be indistinguishable from the Duncans and Malcolms (and James I's) of Shakespeare's world.

Here is a little history: the real Macbeth was, like Richard III, the victim of a gigantic and very effective publicity campaign. Historically, Duncan was the usurper—that is what the rebellion at the beginning of the play is about, though there is no way of knowing it from Shakespeare. Macbeth had a claim to the throne (Shakespeare does know this: Duncan at one point in the play refers to him as ‘cousin’ (1.4.14)—they were first cousins, both grandsons of King Malcolm II). Macbeth's murder of Duncan was a political assassination, and Macbeth was a popular hero because of it. The legitimate heir to the throne, whose rights have been displaced by the usurping Duncan, was Lady Macbeth. When Macbeth ascended the throne, he was ruling as Protector or Regent until Lady Macbeth's son came of age (she did have children—it is Shakespeare who deprives her and Macbeth of those heirs). Macbeth's defeat at the end of the play, by Malcolm and Macduff, constituted essentially an English invasion—the long-term fight was between native Scottish Celts and Anglo-Norman invaders, with continental allies (such as the Norwegian king) on both sides. One way of looking at the action is to say that it is about the enforced anglicization of Scotland, which Macbeth is resisting.

Shakespeare knows some of this. In Holinshed, Macbeth not only has a claim to the throne, he also has a legitimate grievance against Duncan. Moreover, in Shakespeare's source, Banquo is fully Macbeth's accomplice, and the murder of Duncan has a good deal of political justification. All this would be very touchy for Shakespeare, because Banquo is King James's ancestor, and if Duncan is a saint, then Banquo is a real problem, the ancestor one wants to forget. Shakespeare's way of handling Banquo fudges a lot of issues. Should he not, as a loyal thane, be pressing the claim of Malcolm, the designated heir, after the murder? Should he remain loyal to Macbeth as long as he does? In fact, this is precisely the sort of question that shows how close the play is to Hamlet: in both plays, the issue of legitimacy remains crucially ambiguous. Nobody in Macbeth presses the claim of Malcolm until Malcolm reappears with an army to support him, anymore than anyone in Hamlet presses the claim of Hamlet. In both plays, there is deep uncertainty about the relation between power and legitimacy—about whether legitimacy constitutes anything more than the rhetoric of power backed by the size of its army.

The issue of legitimacy provides, in fact, a powerful tragic impetus in the play. Duncan tries to legitimize his son Malcolm's succession by creating him Prince of Cumberland, thus declaring him their to the throne. Macbeth is surprised at this, for good reasons: Prince of Cumberland is a title designed on the analogy of the Prince of Wales; but this is not the way the succession works in Scotland. Cumberland is an English county, which was briefly ceded to the Scottish crown, and Malcolm's new title is the thin edge of the English invasion—a Jacobean audience would have had deeply divided loyalties at this point in the play. James I himself became king of England not because he was the legitimate heir (he was one of a number of people with a distant claim to the throne), but because he was designated the successor by Queen Elizabeth; or at least several attendants at her death claimed that he was, and the people in control supported him. This is much closer to the situation in Hamlet and Macbeth than it is to any system of hereditary succession. And Macbeth is, even in the play, a fully legitimate king, as legitimate as Duncan: like Hamlet's Denmark, Scotland is not a hereditary monarchy; Macbeth is elected king by the thanes, and duly anointed. The fact that he turns out to be a bad king does not make him any less the king, anymore than the rebellion that opens the play casts doubt on Duncan's right to the throne.

Let us return to the witches' royal entertainment, with its songs and dances from Middleton. The Witch was written between 1610 and 1615; so by that time there was felt to be a need for more variety in the play, of a specifically theatrical kind, singing and dancing. I have suggested that witchcraft was good theatrical capital, but this does not really account for the revisions. Witchcraft was good theater no matter what the witches did—spells, incantations, visions, appearances and disappearances, diabolical music were their stock in trade. It would not have been at all necessary to transform them into the vaudevillians they become for Macbeth's entertainment. If variety was required, Duncan's hosts could have entertained him at dinner as the King of Navarre in Love's Labor's Lost entertains the Princess of France, with dances and a disguising; or Banquo's ghost, like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Hamlet, could have interrupted a play within the play; or like Prospero in The Tempest, Duncan could have presented a royal masque to celebrate his son's investiture as Prince of Cumberland. Why bring the witches into it? But, to judge from the play's stage history, the vaudevillian witches constituted a stroke of theatrical genius.

Or did they? Consider the play's stage history. How successful, in fact, was Macbeth in its own time? Though it seems inconceivable that King James would not have been interested in the play, there is, as I have said, no record of a court performance—nor is there, indeed, any record of any pre-Restoration performance other than the one Simon Forman saw at the Globe in 1611, and reported in his diary. The Shakespeare Allusion Book records only seven other references to the play before 1649; of these, only three, all before 1611, seem to me allusions to performances. A fourth, from 1642, is quoting it as a classic text. The remaining examples merely refer to the historical figure of Macbeth.5 This, it must be emphasized, is a very small number of allusions: for comparison, there are fifty-eight to Hamlet, thirty-six to Romeo and Juliet, twenty-nine to the Henry IV plays, twenty-three to Richard III, nineteen to Othello.

This is all we know of the stage history of the play up to the Restoration. So perhaps reinventing the witches was not a stroke of theatrical genius after all; perhaps all it did was undertake, with uncertain success, to liven up an unpopular play. When Davenant revised Macbeth for the new stage, he inserted the whole of the singing and dancing scenes from Middleton—this, as I have indicated, was at least arguably how the play had been performed on the public stage for two decades or more before the closing of the theaters in 1642, and it would thus have been this version of the play that Davenant saw throughout his youth. (Davenant was born in 1606, so he was going to theater in the 1620s and '30s). Indeed, since The Witch remained unpublished until 1778, it is likely that Davenant took his text not from Middleton at all, but directly from the King's Men's performing text of Macbeth. Pepys provides a good testimony to the success of these and Davenant's other additions (Pepys's response is discussed in more detail in “Shakespeare and the Kinds of Drama”). Between 1664 and 1669 he went to the play nine times. The first time he found it only ‘a pretty good play, but admirably acted’—the admirable Macbeth was Betterton, soon to be the most famous actor of the age, at the outset of his career. What Pepys saw on this occasion was certainly the folio text, with its Middleton additions. Thereafter he saw the play as Davenant refurbished it, and his response changed dramatically. It was, at various times, ‘a most excellent play for variety’; ‘a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy; which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here and suitable’; and finally, ‘one of the best plays for a stage, and a variety of dancing and music, that I ever saw.’

The interesting point here is the relation between ‘deep tragedy’ and ‘divertisement,’ which clearly for Pepys is a critical one. It is what he likes best about the play—indeed, it is what makes him revise his opinion of the play from ‘pretty good’ to ‘most excellent.’ And what Davenant added to the play—songs, dances, spectacle—is not simply something to appeal to Restoration taste. He expanded and elaborated elements that were already being added even before the folio text was published in 1623. So that is something to pause over: the really striking theatricality of the tragedy, its emphasis not just on visions and hallucinations, but on spectacle of all kinds, and even overtly—in scenes like the witches' dances—on entertainment, and its move toward the court masque. We see Macbeth as the most intensely inward of Shakespeare's plays, in which much of the action seems to take place within Macbeth's head, or as a projection of his fears and fantasies. But if we look again at the text we have, and fill in the blanks, we see that, as far back as our evidence goes, a great deal of the play's character was always determined by what Pepys called ‘variety’ and ‘divertisement.’ Perhaps for early audiences, then, these elements were not antithetical to psychological depth after all. In this respect Macbeth resembles The Tempest more than it does the other tragedies.

The play's ‘divertisement’ is a quality that is largely lost to us, partly because it is only hinted at in the folio text, which merely indicates that the songs are to be sung, but does not print them, and partly because it is so difficult to imagine doing the full-scale grotesque ballet they imply in a modern production. Pepys thought divertisement should have seemed radically indecorous too; but, to his surprise, he did not find it so. What is the relation between tragedy and the antic quality of the witches? Why does that antic quality keep increasing in size and importance in the stage history of the play from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century? Addison, for example, recalls his attention being distracted at a Betterton performance by a woman loudly asking ‘When will the dear witches enter?’;6 Garrick, despite his claim to have returned to the text as originally written by Shakespeare, kept all Davenant's witch scenes; and in 1793, when Mrs Siddons was the Lady Macbeth, Hecate and her spirits descended and ascended on clouds, and the cauldron scene constituted a long interpolated pantomime.7 Clearly Mrs Siddons did not think she was being upstaged. Can we imagine similar elements playing a similarly crucial role in the stage history of Lear or Hamlet? In fact, we can: in Lear, if it is the antic quality we are concerned with, there are Lear's mad scenes and the fool's zany speeches, which we find so hard to understand and pare down to a minimum, but which must have been popular in Shakespeare's time because new ones were added between the 1608 quarto and the 1623 folio. As for Hamlet, perhaps the witches externalize that anarchic quality that makes the prince so dangerous an adversary to the guilty king.

Suppose we try to imagine a Hamlet written from Claudius's point of view, in the way Macbeth is written from Macbeth's. Look at it this way: the murder Claudius commits is the perfect crime; but the hero-villain quickly finds that his actions have unimagined implications, and that the world of politics is not all he has to contend with. Even as it stands, Hamlet is a very political play, and does not really need the ghost at all: Hamlet has his suspicions already; Claudius tries to buy him off by promising him the succession, but this is not good enough. It turns out that the problem is not really conscience or revenge, it is Hamlet's own ambitions—he wanted to succeed his father on the throne; Claudius, Hamlet says, ‘Lept in between the election and my hopes.’ The ghost is really, literally, a deus ex machina. But in a Hamlet that did not center on Hamlet, Claudius's guilty conscience, which is not much in evidence in the play, would have a great deal more work to do. So would the ghost—who should, after all, logically be haunting Claudius, not Hamlet. This play would be not about politics but about how the dead do not disappear, they return to embody our crimes, so that we have to keep repeating them—just like Macbeth. In this version of Hamlet, Hamlet is hardly necessary, any more than in Macbeth, Malcolm and Macduff are necessary—the drama of Macbeth is really a matter between Macbeth and his ambition, Macbeth and the witches and his wife and his hallucinations and his own tortured soul, the drama of prophecies and riddles, and how he understands them, and what he decides to do about them, and how they, in themselves, constitute retribution.

What, then, about the riddles, those verbal incarnations of the imperfect speakers the witches? Macbeth is told that he will never be conquered till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane; and that no man of woman born will harm him. Are these paradoxical impossibilities realized? Not at all, really: the Birnam Wood prophecy does not come true, it just appears to Macbeth that it does—the wood is not moving, it merely looks as if it is. Or alternatively, we could say that ‘Birnam Wood’ is a quibble: Macbeth assumes it means the forest, but it could mean merely wood from the forest, the branches the soldiers are using for camouflage—it comes true merely as a stage device. As for ‘no man of woman born,’ maybe the problem is that Macbeth is not a close enough reader: he takes the operative word to be ‘woman,’—‘No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth’—but the key word turns out to be ‘born’—‘No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth.’ If this is right, we must go on to consider the implications of the assumption that a Caesarian section does not constitute birth. This is really, historically, quite significant: a vaginal birth would have been handled by women, the midwife, maids, attendants, with no men present. But surgery was a male prerogative—the surgeon was always a man; midwives were not allowed to use surgical instruments—and the surgical birth thus means, in Renaissance terms, that Macduff was brought to life by men, not women: carried by a woman, but made viable only through masculine intervention. Such a birth, all but invariably, involved the mother's death.

Macbeth himself sees it this way, when he defies Macduff and says,

Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born …,


where logically it should be ‘being not of woman born’: the key concept is not ‘no woman,’ but ‘not born.’ But Shakespeare seems to be conceiving of a masculine equivalent to the immaculate conception, a birth uncontaminated by women, as the Virgin's was uncontaminated by man.

So this riddle bears on the whole issue of the place of women in the play's world, how very disruptive they seem to be, even when, like Lady Macduff, they are loving and nurturing. Why is it so important, for example, at the end of the play, that Malcolm is a virgin? Malcolm insists to Macduff that he is utterly pure, ‘yet / Unknown to woman’ (4.3.125-6), uncontaminated by heterosexuality—this is offered as the first of his qualifications for displacing and succeeding Macbeth. Perhaps this bears too on the really big unanswered question about Macduff: why he left his family unprotected when he went to seek Malcolm in England—this is what makes Malcolm mistrust him so deeply. Why would you leave your wife and children unprotected, to face the tyrant's rage, unless you knew they were really in no danger?

But somehow the question goes unanswered, does not need to be answered, perhaps because Lady Macduff in some unspoken way is the problem, just as, more obviously, Lady Macbeth and the witches are. Those claims on Macduff that tie him to his wife and children, that would keep him at home, that purport to be higher than the claims of masculine solidarity, are in fact rejected quite decisively by the play. In Holinshed, Macduff flees only after his wife and children have been murdered, and therefore for the best of reasons. Macduff's desertion of his family is Shakespeare's addition to the story. Maybe, the play keeps saying, if it weren't for all those women … ? It really is an astonishingly male-oriented and misogynistic play, especially at the end, when there are simply no women left, not even the witches, and the restored commonwealth is a world of heroic soldiers. Is the answer to Malcolm's question about why Macduff left his family, ‘Because it's you I really love’?

So, to return to the increasingly elaborate witches' scenes, the first thing they do for this claustrophobic play is to open up a space for women—a subversive and paradoxical space. This is a play in which paradoxes abound, and for Shakespeare's audience, Lady Macbeth would have embodied those paradoxes as powerfully as the witches do: in her proclaimed ability to ‘unsex’ herself, in her willingness to dash her own infant's brains out, but most of all, in the kind of control she exercises over her husband. The marriage at the center of the play is one of the scariest things about it, but it is worth observing that, as Shakespearean marriages go, this is a good one: intense, intimate, loving. The notion that your wife is your friend and your comfort is not a Shakespearean one. The relaxed, easygoing, happy time men and women have together in Shakespeare all takes place before marriage, as part of the wooing process—this is the subject of comedy. What happens after marriage is the subject of tragedy—Goneril and Regan are only extreme versions of perfectly normative Shakespearean wives. The only Shakespearean marriage of any duration that is represented as specifically sexually happy is the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, a murderer and an adulteress; and it is probably to the point that even they stop sleeping together after only four months—not, to be sure, by choice.

In this context, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are really quite well matched. They care for each other and understand each other deeply, exhibiting a genuine intimacy and trust of a sort one does not find, for example, in the marriage of the Capulets, or in Iago and Emilia (to say nothing of Othello and Desdemona), or in Coriolanus and Virgilia, or in Cymbeline and his villainous queen (who is not even provided with a name), or in Leontes and Hermione. As I have suggested in “Prospero's Wife,” the prospects for life after marriage in Shakespeare really are pretty grim. And in this respect, probably the most frightening thing in the play is the genuine power of Lady Macbeth's mind—not just her powers of analysis and persuasion, but her intimate apprehension of her husband's deepest desires, her perfect understanding of what combination of arguments will prove irresistible to the masculine ego: ‘Be a man,’ and ‘If you really loved me you'd do it.’

But can the play's action really be accounted for simply by the addition of yet another witch? Macbeth's marriage is a version of the Adam and Eve story, the woman persuading the man to commit the primal sin against the father. But the case is loaded: surely Lady Macbeth is not the culprit, anymore than Eve is—or than the witches are. What she does is give voice to Macbeth's inner life, release in him the same forbidden desire that the witches have called forth. To act on this desire is what it means in the play to be a man. But having evoked her husband's murderous ambition, having dared him to stop being a child, she suddenly finds that when he is a man she is powerless. Her own power was only her power over the child, the child she was willing to destroy to gain the power of a man.

Davenant, redoing the play, does some really interesting thinking about such issues. His version has had a bad press from critics since the nineteenth century, but like all his adaptations, it starts from a shrewd sense not merely of theatrical realities, but of genuine critical problems with the play—problems of the sort that editors and commentators lavish minute attention on, but directors and performers simply gloss over or cut. Many of his changes have to do with elucidation, clarifying obscurities in Shakespeare's text, especially in the opening scenes. There is also a move toward theatrical efficiency in casting. In the opening, for example, Macduff becomes Lennox, Seyton becomes the Captain—it is difficult to see why these are not improvements. Davenant also worries a lot, to our minds unnecessarily, about the location of scenes and the topography of the action, matters Shakespeare is resolutely vague about. Thus when Lady Macduff fears that she is lost, her servant is able to reassure her that ‘this is the entrance o' the heath’ (2.5.3)8—do heaths even have entrances? Such moments are the price of adapting the play to a stage where topography is realized and location materialized in scenery.

The most interesting aspects of the revision involve the women. It has often been observed that since the Restoration theater employed actresses, it made sense to increase the women's parts; but this is hardly adequate to account for Davenant's additions: for one thing, the witches continued to be played by men. It is the moral dimension of the woman's role that Davenant rethinks. Thus in a domestic scene that has no parallel in the folio, Lady Macduff sharply questions Macduff's motives, accusing him of ambition: ‘I am affraid you have some other end / Than meerely ScottLand's freedom to defend’ (3.2.18-9)—doesn't he really want the throne himself? Lady Macduff here articulates the same critique of her husband that, in Shakespeare, Hecate does of Macbeth: that he is out for himself alone. Her fear articulates that perennial problem in the play, Malcolm's question about Macduff that never gets answered—where are your real loyalties; why is coming to England to join my army more important than the lives of your wife and children? The problem remains in Davenant, but is mitigated by the fact that Lady Macduff encourages Macduff to flee after the murder of Banquo. If it was a mistake, it was her mistake as well as his. Davenant's Lady Macduff also expresses a conservative royalist line, insisting that the only thing that can justify Macduff's rebellion will be for him to place the true heir, Malcolm, on the throne, rather than claiming it himself—the women, for Davenant, consistently articulate the moral position. Even Lady Macbeth, in a scene of love and recrimination inserted before the sleepwalking scene, accuses Macbeth of being like Adam, following her when he should have led her. But just as Davenant's women are more important, they are also less dangerous: the Restoration Malcolm does not claim to be a virgin.

Revisers and performers have never been happy with the way Lady Macbeth simply fades out, and Macbeth is perfunctorily killed. The play does not even provide its hero with a final speech, let alone a eulogy for Shakespeare's most complex and brilliant studies in villainy. Malcolm dismisses the pair succinctly as ‘this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen.’ Davenant added a rather awkward dying line for Macbeth (‘Farewell vain world, and what's most vain in it, ambition,’ 5.7.83), and tastefully resolved the problem of Macbeth's double death by leaving the body on stage and having Macduff re-enter with Macbeth's sword, instead of his head. By the mid-eighteenth century, Garrick—who was claiming to be performing the play ‘as written by Shakespeare’—had inserted an extended death speech for the hero:

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

This Faustian peroration went on being used until well into the nineteenth century.

The editors of Bell's Shakespeare in 1774 declared themselves pleased with the play's ending, observing, with characteristic condescension, that Shakespeare, ‘contrary to his common practice, … has wound up the plot, punished the guilty, and established the innocent, in such a regular progression of important events, that nothing was wanting but very slight alterations. …’9 But there is a puzzling element in Shakespeare's conclusion, which is less symmetrical and more open-ended than this suggests. Why, in a play so clearly organized around ideas of good and evil, is it not Malcolm who defeats Macbeth—the incarnation of virtue, the man who has never told a lie or slept with a woman, overcoming the monster of vice? In fact, historically, this is what happened: Macbeth was killed in battle by Malcolm, not Macduff. Shakespeare is following Holinshed here, but why, especially in a play that revises so much else in its source material? Davenant recognizes this as a problem, and, followed by Garrick, gives Macduff a few lines of justification as he kills Macbeth: ‘This for thy Royall Master Duncan / This for my Dearest freind my wife, / This for those pledges of our Loves; my Children / … Ile as a Trophy bear away his sword / To wittness my revenge’ (5.7.76-82). The addition is significant, and revealing: in Shakespeare, Macduff, fulfilling the prophecy, is simply acting as Malcolm's agent, the man not born of woman acting for the king uncontaminated by women. But why does virtue need an agent, while vice can act for itself? And what about the agent: does the unanswered question about Macduff abandoning his family not linger in the back of our minds? Does his willingness to condone the vices Malcolm invents for himself not say something disturbing about the quality of Macduff as a hero? Is he not, in fact, the pragmatic soldier who does what needs to be done so that the saintly king can stay clear of the complexities and paradoxes of politics and war? Davenant does not quite succeed in disarming the ambiguities of the ending. What happens next, with a saintly king of Scotland, and an ambitious soldier as his right hand man, and those threatening offspring the heirs of Banquo still waiting in the wings?


  1. The assumption is that the inclusion of the Middleton material dates from the revision printed in the folio. The complete text of the songs is printed in the Oxford, Norton and New Pelican editions of Macbeth.

  2. Quotations are from my edition of the play in the New Pelican Shakespeare.

  3. “Jonson and the Amazons,” in Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus, eds., Soliciting Interpretation (University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 119-39.

  4. “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” in his collection Making Trifles of Terrors (Stanford, 1997), pp. 70-97.

  5. The book tabulates seven allusions, but in fact includes eight. The Knight of the Burning Pestle and a play called The Puritan refer pretty clearly to Banquo's ghost, and The Two Maids of Mortlake, a parodic play by Robert Armin, the principal clown in Shakespeare's company, recalls Macbeth's “Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hands?” Since Armin's play was published in 1609, this must be a recollection of Macbeth on the stage. Sir Thomas Browne in 1642 saying that he begins “to be weary of the sun” is more likely a recollection of the printed text.

  6. Spectator 45 (1711).

  7. Described in The Dramatic Mirror, quoted in Gamini Salgado, Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare (Sussex University Press, 1975), p. 299.

  8. Davenant's Macbeth is quoted from Christopher Spencer's edition, Davenant's Macbeth from the Yale Manuscript (New Haven, 1961).

  9. Bell's Edition of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1774), 1:71.

Markland Taylor (review date 29 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 2 (29 May 2000): 35.

[In the following review, Taylor maintains that Terry Hands's minimalist staging of Macbeth lacked passion and energy. The critic further avers that Kelsey Grammer's portrayal of Macbeth was not the disaster that some critics called it, but merely pedestrian.]

If audiences are willing to accept a reasonably competent, underlit staged reading of Shakespeare's Macbeth in order to see Kelsey Grammer, aka TV's Frasier, play a leading Shakespearean role on Broadway for the first time, then the director, cast and producers of this production can relax. If, on the other hand, there are expectations of anything resembling a blood-red, deeply felt investigation of the play and its characters, there is much cause for concern. On the level of a staged reading, Grammer's performance of the title role is by no means a disaster, nor is it sufficient reason for mounting this production. Never for a moment does he become Shakespeare's anguished Scot, remaining instead a stolid, somewhat flat-footed middle-class, middle-aged man in a reading. Not that anyone else in the cast succeeds any better, Diane Venora being a major disappointment as Lady Macbeth.

Grammer, who has had more than a little Shakespearean experience including appearances in Broadway productions of Macbeth and Othello, has the very real virtue of projecting his lines cleanly, clearly and intelligently, but without any real urgency or passion. And neither his Macbeth nor the play as a whole ever comes alive, ever progresses from page to stage.

Experienced English Shakespearean director Terry Hands is certainly partly to blame, for though he has staged the production he certainly hasn't directed it. There's no sense of him or anyone else involved having any particular feelings one way or another about the play, and there's virtually no interaction between any of the actors.

The somewhat penny-pinched looking production itself can best be described as minimalist. The bare set, which exposes most of the rear wall of the stage, is black on black as are almost all of the costumes but for a few splashes of white. These costumes, which include long overcoats, helmets and, at one point, a black T-shirt for Macbeth, are blandly timeless as, indeed, is the production as a whole, taking place nowhere in particular at no particular time.

In order to bring the production as near to its audience as possible, a sharply angled corner of the stage floor has been projected out well beyond the proscenium into the audience, thereby doing away with 150 or so seats.

Hands has done the lighting himself, having great fun with rows of white spots slicing the gloom from both the rear of the stage and front of the house. This makes for some dramatic lighting, but it too often leaves the cast in gloom.

As for visual surprises, there are few. A flight of stairs is lowered from time to time and a high platform sometimes juts out from the wings. And when Birnam Wood advances on Dunsinane it does so by rows of green-leaved trees being dropped suddenly from the flies. This, however, does not suggest soldiers advancing by disguising themselves behind branches. At another point, the lighting paints a cross on the stage floor, but what this is meant to signify is not made clear.

Hands has kept the production moving swiftly, partly because there are so few props, so little set. And he does manage to keep his witches, three vigorous bag ladies who actively involve themselves in some of the battle scenes, from being ridiculous as they can so readily become.

But he hasn't worked anywhere near enough in helping his actors inhabit their characters. Venora urgently needs assistance, for she makes little impression. She garbles too many of her lines, and her sleepwalking scene is particularly unfortunate; barely a word can be understood, and she is proof that it's impossible to wring your hands and carry a candle at the same time.

The director also needs to do something about the underpopulated banquet-vision scene, which looks like nothing more than a four-character, plus one servant, wine party. Some of the supporting actors are a good deal better than others, but no one really distinguishes himself or herself. A limited use of sound effects (thunder, bird calls, etc.) and music is efficiently done.

This is the first of three productions of Macbeth to be seen in New England this year. It is scheduled to be followed by the RSC's highly acclaimed production starring Antony Sher and Harriet Walter (part of the Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven) in mid-June and then by one launching Michael Wilson's 2000-01 season at Hartford Stage.

Piotr Sadowski (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Sadowski, Piotr. “The Masculine in Macbeth.” In Gender and Literature: A Systems Study, pp. 297-325. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Sadowski asserts that the “masculine principle” is a crucial agent in Macbeth's progression from “statism,” wherein he is concerned with honor and conscience, to a state of “endodynamism,” wherein he becomes preoccupied with remorseless ambition and the consolidation of power.]

According to the working definition adopted in the previous chapter, tragedy as a literary mode describes events leading towards an irreversible disturbance of the protagonist's functional equilibrium, often realized in death, or at least to a permanent maladaptation in the form of his or her total alienation from social relations. The critic Bernard McElroy calls this maladaptation “the complete disorientation of the individual from his most basic assumptions about himself and the world around him.”1 Literary plots of this type are most likely to be generated by situations characterized by excessive competitiveness and the accompanying violence—both masculine, endodynamic features, as distinct from acceptance and love—features usually associated with the feminine Eros as the principle of relatedness. Such an understanding of the tragic mode in terms of gender and dynamism of character is fully borne out by the nature of events in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Here the predominance and extremity of the masculine principle, both in relation to male and female characters, account for the strong dynamic imbalance, which leads to a complete disintegration of the social relations involving the main protagonists, and to a serious crisis of the socio-political system.

This darkest and most sinister of Shakespeare's tragedies begins ominously with the magic evocation of thunder, lightning, and rain, the awesome atmospheric phenomena traditionally associated with masculinity and with the power of male, uranic gods. Even the fact that the incantation is pronounced by the female witches takes nothing away from the masculine principle in its most gruesome and violent aspect. Ostensibly women, the witches talk of the “hurlyburly” of battle, of wordly power and its inevitable ruin, in their confused gender creating “a murky atmosphere of blurred distinctions, mingled opposites, equivocations, and reversals.”2 The feminine principle signaled by their sex is entirely obliterated by the dark powers of masculine magic of violence, of confusion and chaos, where “fair is foul, and foul is fair,” and things “hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12). Even the witches' physical appearance, wild and otherworldly (1.3.40-1), belies their female sex, causing confusion and apprehension in the manly Banquo: “you should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so” (45-7). The witches' cauldron, this hell-broth betokening chaos and destruction, is an antithesis of the fertile female womb, producing poison and death instead of health and new life. In the opening scene therefore the feminine principle undergoes gender transformation into its opposite,3 setting the pattern, which culminates in the sinister figure of Lady Macbeth, of gender and moral inversion and confusion, where “nothing is, but what is not” (1.3.142).

Masculine violence materializes in all its gory terror in the second scene with a blunt question “What bloody man is that?” (1.2.1).4 The question is followed by a realistic if exaggerated report of the battle, full of upbeat military rhetoric of manly courage of the victors and the villainy of the traitors. It is in this context of unmitigated violence that the “brave Macbeth” is mentioned for the first time. He is highly regarded by fellow soldiers for his undaunted courage, fighting skills, and spectacular efficacy in battle, and is now publicly glorified in Homeric terms as an eagle, a lion, “Valor's minion” and “Bellona's bridegroom.” Valor in fighting for the just cause is a static virtue, and such is the opinion that the “valiant cousin” Macbeth enjoys in King Duncan's eyes. Macbeth's efficaciousness receives due praise because it helped to win the battle, but Macbeth's unceremonious killing of the traitor Macdonwald, with whom he “ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him” (1.2.21), signals an endostatic character of someone prepared to break the accepted rules if necessary. Macbeth's potentially dangerous endostatism is still unsuspected by others, who regard him as a “worthy gentleman,” that is, a static man of honor. Macbeth's aspirations are further suggested by a comparison and by an unintentional identification with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, whose title Macbeth now assumes as an immediate reward for his spectacular performance in battle (1.2.67-8). In dynamic terms, Macbeth's promotion from the Thane of Glamis to the Thane of Cawdor marks his transition from honest, honorable statism to potentially disloyal and self-serving endostatism.

The third and ultimate step in Macbeth's social advancement is announced in the witches' triple all-hails, which imply a natural progression from Glamis to Cawdor to King,5 and in dynamic terms supply the final, endodynamic phase in the evolution of Macbeth's masculine character. If the witches' prophesy reflects the development of Macbeth's character, their balanced, symmetrical equivocations also define the essentially static character of Banquo, whose fate is to be “lesser than Macbeth, and greater. / Not so happy, yet much happier” (1.3.65-66). The almost immediate confirmation of the middle element of the prophesy concerning Macbeth fixes Banquo's companion firmly in the role of the traitor (“I am Thane of Cawdor”), and defines his character as unequivocally endostatic. Macbeth's mental distance from the static and straightforward Banquo is marked by his absent-mindedness and the appearance of asides to hide his dark thoughts (“Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind,” 115-16). While Banquo prudently dismisses the prophesy as a temptation to “win us to our harm” (123), Macbeth is unable to control the ever-swelling flow of ambitious thoughts, experiencing, for a time at least, an acute dilemma.

The particular nature of Macbeth's dilemma has occasioned a considerable debate in the critical history of the play, caused by what the critics perceived as an inconsistency in Shakespeare's characterization of the figure: how could a man fully aware of the horror of his deeds be able to commit them? The critics did not deny Macbeth his deep moral sense, noting at the same time his ability to overcome his scruples, to commit one atrocious deed after another, and to live with guilty conscience. A. C. Bradley found in the play “the most remarkable exhibition of the [psychological] development of a character to be found in Shakespeare's tragedies,”6 but later critics accepted the view that Shakespeare sacrificed psychological consistency to theatrical effect. For example, according to J. I. M. Stewart, “for the sake of theatrical excitement the gap between character and action has been widened beyond credibility,” and “there is something like a deliberate omitting of clear and sufficient motives for action, there is a lack of discernible correspondence between the man and his deed.”7 In his analysis Stewart talks in fact about two Macbeths: the criminal and the hero.8 Kenneth Muir too concluded that “Shakespeare was not so much concerned with the creation of real human beings, but with theatrical or poetical effect,” and that the playwright was “fascinated by the very difficulty of making the psychologically improbable … appear possible.”9 In his characterization of Macbeth, it has been argued, Shakespeare made the bold experiment of mixing mutually exclusive qualities—a brave warrior who is a moral coward, and a brutal murderer who is racked by feelings of guilt.10 I would argue, however, that rather than sacrificing psychological realism for artistic effect Shakespeare achieved both. What the critics perceived as an inconsistency is in fact a classic endostatic dilemma of a man whose “conscious or reflective mind … moves chiefly among considerations of outward success and failure, while his inner being is convulsed by conscience,” as was perceived intuitively by Bradley.11

From the dynamic perspective, a state identified as dilemma occurs when an individual finds himself in a transitional state between two dynamic stages: between exodynamism and statism (exostatism), or between statism and endodynamism (endostatism). For example, the exostatic Hamlet is pulled in opposite directions by his exodynamic tendency to indulge his imagination, to play act, to brood and meditate, and by his static concern for justice, honor, and revenge. He is too much of an exodynamic to avoid thinking “too precisely on the event” and unpacking his heart with words, and at the same time he is too much of a static not to recriminate himself for neglecting his filial duty. The result is suspended decision, inaction, procrastination, and continuous self-reproaching. The endostatic Macbeth on the other hand is pulled in opposite directions by his static preoccupation with honor, conscience, and loyalty, and by his endodynamic tendency to act efficiently to achieve a profitable result, here to seize the crown. As Bernard McElroy put it: “the conscience-stricken criminals are in the agonizing position of being committed by their actions to one set of values while committed by their beliefs to quite another.”12 The result for Macbeth is a short period of indecision and suspension between scruples and ambition, until his endodynamic wife sways him towards decisive action. On the other hand, just as transitional dynamic types (exostatics and endostatics) have dilemmas, so statics have crises, that is, situations of painful choice between two irreconcilable alternatives in which a static person equally believes. This is a situation of Othello, caught tragically between his love for Desdemona and a belief that she is unfaithful, or of Brutus, for whom the plan to assassinate Ceasar involves a painful choice between the sacrilege of regicide and the public interest of ridding the state of possible tyranny. Finally, the dynamic characters, that is, exodynamics and endodynamics, have neither dilemmas nor crises but problems of how to achieve what they want: pleasure in the case of exodynamics and power in the case of endodynamics.

The dilemma of being caught between static loyalty and endodynamic thirst for power is borne out by Macbeth's introspective asides and by his indecision, until Lady Macbeth tips the scales in favor of manly action. The progression of social success and power promised by the prophesy appealed to Macbeth's already existing endodynamic appetites, and as basically an endostatic man of action he cannot resist the challenge to reach for the highest reward. Especially now that the victorious battle brought him promotion and raised him nearer the king than he was ever before. Accordingly, his soliloquies from Act I mark a progression from the domination of static scruples over the possibilities which Macbeth is still afraid even to verbalize, to the disappearance of the voice of conscience after Macbeth's endostatic character suppresses the uncomfortable thoughts, for a time at least, under his wife's influence. The terrible possibility first enters Macbeth's consciousness only as a 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 is yet but fantastical,
Shakes to my single state of man,
That function is smother'd in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not


At this stage the very “thought” of breaking the fundamental ethical laws can shake his moral sense profoundly, but it still stops him from acting upon the “horrible imaginings,” his “function” still “smother'd in surmise.” Macbeth's first soliloquy ends with a victory of static scruples over endodynamic ambition, and with a stoic resignation to leave the matter to fate: “If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (144-5). He is still addressed by Banquo as “worthy Macbeth,” and when he suggests to his companion that they “speak [their] free hearts each to other” (155-6), Macbeth means as yet no subterfuge.

But the full realization of Macbeth's endostatic tendency moves inexorably forward. By a stroke of dramatic irony, Macbeth's earlier identification with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor soon reveals a contrast between the two characters, to Macbeth's moral disadvantage. The report of the execution of “that most disloyal traitor” testifies in fact to the static character of Cawdor, who

very frankly … 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


First perceived as an endostatic traitor Cawdor thus turns out to be a misled static, while Macbeth, thought to be honest by the gullible Duncan, turns out to be a much more dangerous traitor, whose own ignoble death at the end of the play contrasts sharply with Cawdor's dignified departure. The static Duncan in turn is, like Othello, “trust incarnate,”13 whose main concern is the fair settlement of his accounts with the “worthiest cousin” to whom he owes victory in battle. Hence Duncan's genuinely apologetic rhetoric of “the sin of my ingratitude,” “recompense,” “the proportion both of thanks and payment,” “thy due,” and “pay.” This androgynous icon of regal dignity and justice, “the sacred embodiment of his country's life needing a reverent and tender protectiveness,”14 combines in himself the attributes of both father and mother. Duncan is the center of authority, the source of lineage and honor, but he is also the source of all nurturance, planting his children to his throne and making them grow. He also extends this “gardening” function to his cousin Macbeth: “I have begun to plant thee, and will labour / To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28-9). Tragically misled by appearances, he identifies Macbeth's castle as an idyllic place promising comfort and safety (“the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses,” 1.6.1-3). This illusion is also shared by the unsuspecting Banquo, who finds the air “delicate” and compares the castle to the fertile “procreant cradle” where the birds “most breed and haunt” (8-9). As an androgynous nourishing father concerned with the well being of his large family, Duncan stands in symbolic opposition to the female characters: the witches with their poisonous cauldron and the childless and murderous Lady Macbeth, as well as to Macbeth's “barren scepter.”15

Every next event stirs more and more Macbeth's awakened ambition and the endostatic urge to act. Duncan's official appointment of the eldest son Malcolm as his successor causes Macbeth's resentment, and for the first time the “black and deep desires” give rise to the thought of the deed itself: “yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.52-3). In this spirit Macbeth writes a letter to his wife about the witches' prophesy. It is not immediately clear why he should write to his wife at all, because the object of the letter is clearly not to inform her about the coming of Duncan to their castle,16 and Macbeth himself takes his early leave of the king to return to Inverness to make the necessary preparations. His ostensible reason is to let his “dearest partner of greatness” know about their good fortune as quickly as possible, so that she might not “lose the dues of rejoicing, by being ignorant of what greatness is promis'd” her. However, Macbeth's real albeit unconscious reason is to give his wife more time to strengthen her resolve on the right course of action, and to decide the matter for him. The almost child-like openness and frankness of the letter betrays a character who, notwithstanding his manliness, is still psychologically dependent on his wife. This would indicate a configuration of consecutive genders with its mixture of adoration and submission in the more feminine partner, and protection and domination in the more masculine partner, who in this case happens to be Lady Macbeth, the endodynamic masculine woman.

Her immediate resolve, so different from her husband's vacillation, resounds in the unshaken confidence with which she echoes the witches' prophesy, and confirms the progression of Macbeth's fortune as if it was already a fait accompli: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promis'd” (1.5.15-6).17 Where the endostatic Macbeth experiences a paralyzing moral dilemma, for his endodynamic wife the choice does not even exist: the crown must be seized and the only problem is how to do it. “Macbeth has a divided mind about some of the most fundamental issues of existence; Lady Macbeth is the voice of one side of it.”18 In this sense the spouses complement and need each other: she is most self-assured and able to take a firm decision when Macbeth's nerve is failing, but only Macbeth is capable of carrying out the plan and of dealing the fatal stroke. As a more mature partner in dynamic terms Lady Macbeth regards her husband as psychologically dependent on her, not unlike a mother guiding her adolescent son: “Lady Macbeth has to guide, protect and mother her husband, whose voice sounds pitifully human and almost child-like.”19 Some critics interpret the relations between the Macbeths in terms of gender inversion, which is not accurate given Macbeth's decisively manly gender, consecutive but not opposite to his wife's masculinity. In his Jungian analysis H. R. Coursen argues that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth “exchange characteristics,” and represent “opposite developments,” in that “the woman does not correspond to the feminine stereotype, and Macbeth has ‘unmanly’ scruples.”20 By extending the psychological distance between the characters beyond what the play can in fact support the couple is sharply polarized by the critic, for whom Lady Macbeth's “unconscious ‘maleness’ has forced Macbeth into the stereotypical role of yielding female.”21 Coppélia Kahn does not deny Macbeth his manliness, but at the same time she suggests that he “has not fully separated himself from the feminine source of his identity.”22 However, I would argue that if Macbeth depends on his wife in decision-making, it is his wife's masculinity, not her absent femininity that he depends on. The play provides enough cross-gender imagery to “unsex” Lady Macbeth and emphasize her “un-feminine character,”23 in which the inversion of gender is not a “fiction”24 but is at least as complete as in Regan and Goneril. In her famous evocation of evil spirits (1.5.38-54) Lady Macbeth suppresses all traces of femininity and motherhood (“take my milk for gall”), and acquires traits more characteristic of masculine sexual violence. She summons the Night and the smoke of Hell to hide her keen knife making the wound (51-2), while she transforms herself into a masculinized creature of “direst cruelty.”

Untouched by any scruples herself, Lady Macbeth correctly diagnoses her husband's nature as “too full o'th'milk of human kindness” (1.5.16-7), thus ascribing to him a feminine quality of gentleness deriving from the woman's nurturing function.25 This does not make Macbeth automatically a woman in psychological terms, as some critics suggest, and his “milky” kindness is indeed confirmed nowhere in the play. Lady Macbeth's assessment of her husband's character does indicate, however, that on the gender scale his manliness is more feminine than her masculinity, and now Lady Macbeth deliberately exaggerates her husband's weakness to steel his heart to action. The kindness she talks about refers to Macbeth's static scruples, his reluctance to “catch the nearest way” and to “play false.” At the same time she is aware of her husband's endostatic ambition to achieve what he is afraid to achieve. Her analysis of Macbeth's character touches the essence of his dilemma:

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


What she must do now is use all her psychological domination and power of persuasion (“that I may pour my spirits in thine ear”) to sway her husband towards action, by relieving him of the burden of taking an independent decision, which as an endostatic he is unable to do on his own. Macbeth unconsciously senses this psychological deficiency in himself, and this rather than the need to speed up preparations for the reception of Duncan is the real reason for sending the letter to his wife ahead of his arrival.

Lady Macbeth's onslaught on Macbeth is immediate. She greets him excitedly with the witches' prophesy and, full of elation, talks about the future as if it was already present (“I feel now / The future in the instant,” 1.5.57-8), unshaken in her conviction that Duncan will never leave their castle alive: “O! never / Shall sun that morrow see! (60-1). She instructs the novice in the political game in Machiavelian tactics: “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” (63-6). As an endodynamic she has no problems in hiding her real motives and taking full advantage of her “innocent” womanly appearance, but Macbeth is still too much of a static to be able to hide his true intentions: his face is “as a book, where men / May read strange matters” (62-3). As Bernard McElroy put it: “Macbeth is constitutionally incapable of tolerating false appearances, especially evil masquerading as good,”26 which explains his continual sense of self-loathing after committing the crime. Aware of her husband's static scruples, which she regards as an unnecessary hindrance in her plan, Lady Macbeth, her mind totally engrossed by the idea of “sovereign sway and masterdom,” takes full charge of the situation, reducing her husband to the position of an executor (and executioner) of her design: “Leave all the rest to me” (73).

The presence and vulnerability of Duncan lodging in Macbeth's castle provide the now-or-never opportunity, which the endodynamic Lady Macbeth cannot fail to seize, and which the endostatic Macbeth finds difficult to let slip, not so much as a means to achieve the aim as a challenge to prove his worth in action. The understatements and fearful equivocations of Macbeth's earlier soliloquies give way to the bluntness and directness of his monologue, as he uneuphemistically calls the deed by its proper name (“assassination,” “blow,” “bear the knife myself,” “the horrid deed”), and carefully weighs scruples against ambition for the last time. As an endostatic he is tantalized not so much by the ultimate material prize, but by the very possibility of doing that which is most expressly forbidden by all sacred and human laws. The absolute outrageousness and sacrilege of the deed committed in open violation of the most sacred feudal and familial bonds and of traditional hospitality, excite his boldness, his “vaulting ambition,” as the only motive for his action. Because his ambition is as ineradicable as his endostatic character from which it derives, Macbeth de facto cannot choose but act, not so much to become king as to become the man who dared to kill the king. The tragedy of Macbeth relies not only on his ultimate disappointment with what he has gained, on his isolation and his disgraceful death, but on the trap that the givens of the circumstances and of his character have arranged for him. He cannot abstain from action because he will loath himself for not daring to kill the king, and when he kills the king he loathes himself for having done it, no third option being available. The static and the endodynamic are battling in Macbeth's transitional character, and the crime marks a decisive shift of Macbeth's mind towards endodynamism. The critic Jan Kott phrased Macbeth's problem in terms of assertion of identity: “Macbeth has killed not only to become king, but to assert himself. He has chosen between Macbeth, who is afraid to kill, and Macbeth, who has killed. But Macbeth, who has killed, is a new Macbeth.”27 The problem of identity Kott talks about has clearly to do with dynamism of character. Suspended between two definite dynamic categories and unable to embrace either, Macbeth remains in a limbo of indecision, unable to define himself except by negation: in Kott's words, “to himself he is not the one who is, but rather the one who is not.”28

Still dependent on his wife to take responsibility for the decision, Macbeth provokes her persuasiveness by pretending to be more static than he is, as he did earlier by sending her a letter and giving her food for thought in advance of his arrival. With Duncan already under his “protection,” Macbeth admits greater resolve and ambition before himself than he does before his wife—precisely to provoke her strong, determined reaction to spur him to action. Almost contradicting his own ambitious thoughts, he tries to dissuade his wife from proceeding any further in “this business,” and mentions “honor” and “golden opinions from all sorts of people,” as if good reputation still mattered for him. This static pose is unconsciously calculated to provoke Lady Macbeth's vehement dismissal of Macbeth's remaining scruples as unmanly cowardice and a failure to act according to one's ambition: “Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valor, / As thou art in desire?” (1.7.39-41). As a woman more manly in character than her husband, she raises the standard of manliness above static concern for honor and reputation, and grades it on the endodynamic scale of ambition, competitiveness, and the ability to suppress “unmanly” scruples:

I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more, is none.
                                                                                                    What beast was't then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man.


Her ultimate argument is to taunt her husband with effeminacy and embarrass his manliness by presenting herself, a woman, as more of a man than he is, which, considering the dynamisms of their characters, is in fact true. She “unsexes” herself psychologically through a powerful and cruel image of the mother killing her own infant (54-9), thereby showing that if a woman, traditionally a weaker and gentler sex, can banish all tenderness and act “unnaturally” by destroying the fruit of her own body, then a man should have no compunction in acting according to his violent nature. To spur her husband towards action Lady Macbeth cleverly plays on gender stereotypes. The image of an innocent and vulnerable infant sucking its mother's breast is calculated to contrast in Macbeth's mind Lady Macbeth's female sex with her present unblinking manly resolution, and to embarrass her husband by showing that a woman can be even more manly than a man, if she puts her mind to it. If Macbeth does not fully appreciate his wife's true gender, other characters can be forgiven for making a stereotypical mistake of identifying a womanly appearance with a womanly gender. The trusting Duncan unsuspectingly lays his life in the hands of a “fair and noble hostess” (1.6.24), and later the static Macduff naively assumes that the news of Duncan's murder will “kill” the “gentle lady” (2.3.82-3). Lady Macbeth can even pretend a fainting fit to uphold the men's perception of her “weak” sex (2.3.117, 123). As is evident in the play, a woman by sex Lady Macbeth is in fact masculine in her gender, and remorse after Duncan's murder is as alien to her character as tender motherhood. Any vestige of familial sympathy in her occurs not in the context of motherhood, whose very idea is hateful to her, not even in relation to her husband, whom she patronizes and treats with contempt, but in relation to her father, for whom she reserves the final commitment of love.29 The cruel, masculine image of a mother plucking her nipple from the infant's boneless gum and dashing its brains out is thus calculated to make the right impression on the manly Macbeth, who will not be outdone in violence by a woman. The contrast between his wife's womanly appearance and her firm resolve does not fail to impress Macbeth, who acknowledges the manliness of her spirit and sees her “as a kind of man,”30 a woman of “undaunted mettle” who should “bring forth men-children only” (1.7.73-5). Her unshaken resolution, determination, certitude, cold planning, calculation, and optimism in the success of the enterprise finally tip the scales of Macbeth's dilemma decisively in favor of action and away from static scruples; he is now “settled” and ready to “bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (80-1).

With Duncan now practically at his mercy and with his mind now finally made up, the execution of “the terrible feat” is a matter of determinism beyond Macbeth's control. The vision of the dagger leading the murderer to Duncan's chamber betokens a mind no longer undecided, confused, or guilt-stricken, but clear of purpose and action-oriented. The visionary dagger embodying the murderous thoughts, “a dagger of the mind,” leads to the real dagger at Macbeth's side, now drawn for the murderous act, anticipated by drops of blood on the visionary dagger. “The bloody business” thus inexorably accomplishes itself in thought a moment before it is done in real action, as it now must be, all physical and psychological obstacles being removed: “I go, and it is done” (2.1.62). When the deed is done, its irrevocability confirms the tragic trap in which Macbeth has found himself after the revelation of the witches' prophesy. Just as the endostatic in him could not accept his failure to act, so his residual statism cannot now accept the crime and the violation of the most sacred laws that it represents. Since Macbeth was not interested in the profit of the crime to begin with; but rather in the challenge posed by the execution of an outrageous deed, the power gained as a result of the crime cannot outweigh the pressure of guilt caused by the crime. In other words, gone forever is the peace of mind, as indeed is perfectly clear to Macbeth, who has murdered his “innocent Sleep” together with the king. The earlier threefold progression of Macbeth's “good” fortune predicted by the witches, and echoed optimistically by Lady Macbeth, now reveals its true face to the guilt-ridden murderer: “Glamis hath murther'd Sleep, and therefore Cawdor / Shall sleep no more, Macbeth shall sleep no more!” (2.2.41-2), with “king” now appropriately replaced by “Macbeth.”

Where Macbeth is racked, for a time at least, by the sense of guilt, loses his nerve and almost botches up the murderous plan by bringing the blood-stained daggers with him from the scene of the crime, Lady Macbeth, entirely unmoved by the moral implications of the deed, displays perfect composure and self-control, upbraiding her husband for his infirmity of purpose and his “brainsickly” thoughts. While for the remorseful Macbeth “all great Neptune's ocean” will not wash the blood from his hand, for the remorseless Lady Macbeth the removal of blood from her hands has no moral or symbolic connotations, but is merely a practical problem, to remove the trace of implicating evidence: “A little water clears us of this deed” (66). For Macbeth no sooner is the deed committed than he wishes it undone, as he discovers, after it is too late, that it would have been easier to come to terms with the former Macbeth who was afraid to do a daring deed, than to accept the present Macbeth, the man who has dared to do it: “To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself” (72). The result is a terrible psychological self-injury that leaves Macbeth “a mutiliated human being,” a “shattered personality,” a victim as much as a villain who, according to E. A. J. Honigmann, deserves our sympathy as well as condemnation.31 Until the end Macbeth will feel painfully the loss of normal life, with the accompanying “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends” (5.3.25). But he has moved too far now from the static moral mean to even contemplate the need for reparation or penance, the privilege afforded the static Cawdor who atoned for his treachery by accepting his death with dignity. Macbeth's existential and moral limbo will only lead to philosophic nihilism, already signaled in his seemingly hypocritical public lament after Duncan's death, but which expresses, intentionally or unintentionally, his profoundest feelings:

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


The sudden escape of Duncan's sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, after their father's death is readily and unambiguously interpreted by the credulous and straightforward statics Macduff and Rosse as a proof of their involvement in the murder. The first to suspect foul play in Macbeth is Banquo, the only character apart from Macbeth and his wife privy to the witches' prophesy. The behavior of Banquo has puzzled critics, who at times have implicated him in the evil that the witches and the Macbeths have unleashed. Bradley found Banquo as a character “not very interesting,” a man who instead of playing the part of an honest man “has yielded to evil” by acquiescing in Macbeth's accession.32 G. Wilson Knight went further in his condemnation, speaking of “the evil in Banquo” and of “a bond of evil between him and Macbeth,” rather inexplicably ascribing “blood-lust” and “unprecedented ferocity” to the character (cf. 1.2.40).33 Nicholas Grene takes a more sensible approach by regarding Banquo as “a norm of approved orthodoxy,” which he represents in his calm, authoritative speech after Duncan's murder (2.3.124-30), and as a man whose “part is to wait upon events in a wise passiveness.”34 Basically, the opinions vary between regarding Banquo as another endostatic (Bradley, Knight), or as a static (Grene). The play seems to support the reading of Banquo as a static character, seen in his lack of “impulse towards transgression which drives on Macbeth,” and in his patience to watch and understand “without trying to resist what is felt to be an irresistible current of events.”35 Banquo is indeed Macbeth's accomplice in the chronicles (Holinshed), but he is exonerated by Shakespeare who tactfully did not want to show the legendary ancestor of King James I as a party to regicide. Besides, for purely dramatic reasons it was desirable to contrast Macbeth and Banquo, and give Macbeth and his wife no accomplices. It also makes greater dramatic sense to introduce another innocent static character suffering at the hands of the endodynamic villain, than to turn Macbeth's former soldier-friend into an active rival in the competition to “help” realize their fortunes as foretold by the witches.

Banquo's initial role is to provide a positive, heroic foil for his companion and to illustrate the sort of honor and good name that Macbeth has forfeited by moving away from the mean of static honesty. Their performance in the battle with the Norwegians is still equally impressive and courageous. They are both compared to eagles and lions for their ferocity (1.2.35), and are equally acknowledged for their valor by Duncan: “Noble Banquo, / That hast no less deserv'd, nor must be known / No less to have done so,” (1.4.29-31). Banquo and Macbeth are of course treated differently by the witches, but their predicted fortunes are equivalent in the long term, even to Banquo's advantage, as is borne out by the witches' equivocal, paradoxical but balanced pronouncements:

Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
Not so happy, yet much happier.
Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!
Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!


Where Macbeth and Banquo differ is in their individual reactions to the prophesies, and these reflect their endostatic and static characters respectively. Macbeth “starts” and seems to “fear” at the fortune that leaves him “rapt withal,” while Banquo is calmly skeptical, treats the witches as a hallucination (“have we eaten on the insane root,” 84), and is the first to include them among the Devil's party (107). The partial confirmation of the prophesy is for the eager and ambitious Macbeth a proof of its veracity, but for the prudent and cautious Banquo it is a warning of the Devil's trap: “oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of Darkness tell us truths; / Win us with honest trifles, to betray's / In deepest consequence” (123-26). After the entire prophesy concerning Macbeth has been fulfilled, Banquo no longer talks about the Devil and accepts the oracle as genuine truth, but stoically resigns himself to fate, refraining from any action with regard to his part of the prophesy (“But, hush; no more,” 3.1.10). Sententious and straightforward, Banquo believes in Providence and natural order, but he is also dull as a character in a play, and his pint-size rightness and decency are completely overshadowed by Macbeth's agonizing inner struggle and mammoth crime. To Macbeth's ambiguous proposal to Banquo to “cleave to [his] consent” and support Macbeth's claim to the crown in the event of Duncan's natural death, Banquo reasserts his loyalty (“allegiance clear”) to the present king, and intends to remain free from guilt (“keep / My bosom franchis'd,” 2.1.25-8). Banquo thus makes clear his commitment to honorable means in advancing his fortune, thereby disassociating himself forever from his former companion.

An ambiguous moment comes when Banquo begins to suspect Macbeth's foul play and neither does nor says anything to expose him, a circumstance that proved for Bradley that Banquo was accessory to the murder and now keeps silent out of ambition.36 But Banquo's private and unproven suspicion (“I fear, / Thou play'dst most foully for't,” 3.1.2-3), offers no grounds for open accusation, made even less likely now that Macbeth enjoys royal immunity and is, in the absence of Duncan's sons, a legitimate ruler. Kenneth Muir argues that Banquo “ought to have behaved loyally to Macbeth until Malcolm had set foot on Scottish soil,” because James I's theory of government condemned rebellion even against manifest tyrants.37 But professing loyalty to the ruler suspected of sacrilegious crime would not have been consistent with Banquo's static, honest character, and would have required an opportunistic, time-serving endostatic disposition which Banquo simply did not possess. Having his doubts and being unable to openly accuse or oppose Macbeth, all that Banquo as an honest person can do is to remove himself from the royal presence without appearing ostentatious or discourteous. This is precisely what he does by politely excusing himself from the banquet, and riding away with Fleance in an unspecified direction.38

But Banquo is trapped, firstly because of his knowledge of the Weird Sisters' prophesy, which makes him a menace to Macbeth, and secondly because of the promise that his descendants would inherit the throne, which makes him a political rival that Macbeth would not tolerate. These are the main practical reasons (for the now endodynamic Macbeth at any rate) why Banquo must be eliminated, rather than Macbeth's private resentment about Banquo's noble character, “his royalty of nature,” “dauntless temper of his mind,” his “wisdom,” and “valor” (3.1.49, 51-3), as Kenneth Muir rather naively suggests.39 Macbeth probably wouldn't care less about Banquo's character at this moment, and his sole concern is his personal safety and the future of his reign. Banquo's praises appear rather to exonerate once and for all King James I's reputed ancestor from all blame, and in the more immediate dramatic context they serve to contrast the victim's noble character with the murderer's cold-blooded callousness, as Macbeth calls Banquo his chief guest at the banquet after already arranging for his assassination.

Banquo's murder marks another step in Macbeth's development away from the early statism towards the endodynamic extreme of the dynamic spectrum. First as a static Glamis Macbeth was able to win his noble reputation by courageously risking his own life in a face-to-face battle. Later as an endostatic traitor Cawdor he still took a risk by murdering Duncan with his own hands. Now as an endodynamic king he no longer risks his own safety but hires assassins and gives orders to have his victims killed. With every crime Macbeth is more and more psychologically removed from his victims, has less and less scruples, and his motivation becomes less personal and more political. In Duncan he kills, not without remorse, his lord, his kinsman, and his guest. By hiring assassins to murder Banquo he kills a friend whom he envies and fears. And when he decides to destroy the house of Macduff he is motivated less by revenge but more by a desire to forestall the menace of future loss of power,40 and in doing so he causes the deaths of people he has probably never even seen.

The dynamic progression of Macbeth's character also affects the relationship with his wife. The characterization of Lady Macbeth does not evolve in the same way as Macbeth's, and while she is an endodynamic to begin with, he is becoming one in the course of the play. If the identification of Macbeth as king with endodynamism is correct, then by Act III he has psychologically “caught up” with his wife by attaining the same extreme masculine gender. This means that at this stage he is no longer dependent on his wife in decision-making, and in fact does not need her psychologically or emotionally or otherwise, which is indeed reflected from Act III onwards. The identical gender accounts for relations based on mutual understanding and solidarity in the pursuit of common goals, but it removes the element of psychological difference and dependence between the two characters, which gives so much dramatic tension in the first two acts of the play. Since the later acts focus primarily on Macbeth, his wife moves more and more to the background, at first reduced to being Macbeth's spouse and companion but no longer his support, and later disappearing from the plot altogether. The last opportunity for Lady Macbeth to exercise her earlier domination occurs when Macbeth loses his nerve at the sight of Banquo's Ghost, giving his wife an occasion to question his manliness (“Are you a man?” 3.4.57). But just as earlier on she was correct in ascribing Macbeth's scruples to his static nature, she is wrong now in attributing his fit to womanly fearfulness (62-5): now a hardened endodynamic, he is not afraid of ghosts (58-9) but of losing power. It is characteristic that while Lady Macbeth's domination and determination were crucial in convincing Macbeth to commit the first crime, he does not even consult her, let alone seek her decision or approval, in arranging for the next murders. The decision to assassinate Banquo is clearly Macbeth's own initiative, as is fully explained in the soliloquy (3.1.47-71), and confirmed in Lady Macbeth's uncharacteristically helpless “What's to be done?” (3.2.44), answered with her husband's confident and almost patronizing “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou applaud the deed” (45-6). It is now Macbeth who does all the reasoning and who independently takes all the murderous decisions, and the main thing that connects him now with his wife is the mutually shared and almost paranoid sense of fear and insecurity, so typical for endodynamics holding power. They eat their meals in fear, and their sleep is afflicted with terrible dreams (3.2.17-9). The most powerful man in the kingdom regards his power as nothing, unless it gives him safety and freedom from fear which he evidently lacks: “To be thus [i.e. the king] is nothing, but to be safely thus” (3.1.47). The sentiment is echoed by Lady Macbeth for whom likewise power is empty unless it gives security:

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


In his constant fear Macbeth is obsessively preoccupied with real and imagined dangers, and all his actions are designed as preemptive strikes to forestall possible threats: “We have scorch'd the snake, not kill'd it: / She'll close, and be herself; whilst our poor malice / Remains in danger of her former tooth” (3.2.13-5). Also gone are the last remnants of static scruples and a sense of guilt, and if Duncan's name is recalled it is because Macbeth envies the murdered king his peace, not because he regrets murdering him:

                                                  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. Duncan is in his grave;
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further!


The voice of static conscience, still strong in Act I, now vanishes without a trace, giving way entirely to endodynamic cruelty and unscrupulousness (“full of scorpions is my mind,” 36), which grow bigger and bigger: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (55). Even the Ghost of Banquo is not a projection of Macbeth's guilt, as is sometimes supposed,41 but of his paranoid fear and insecurity. During the banquet the Ghost sits in Macbeth's seat, replacing him as king, as was prophesied, a visible proof of the futility of Macbeth's efforts to dispose of his political rival, who now returns to push the usurper from his stool (3.4.81). While there was still a concrete, “rational” reason to assassinate Banquo, there is none in Macbeth's plan to pursue Macduff except the pretext of the latter's avoidance of Macbeth. State terror, as in Stalinist Russia, now gets out of control, becoming all-pervading, random, indiscriminate, and inescapable, motivated solely by the tyrant's insecurity and paranoid fear rather than by any pragmatic reasons. Macbeth has entered an insane, irrational phase of extreme endodynamism, in which he has severed all positive social ties and has completely alienated himself from all humanity, trapped in the ever-intensifying compulsion to commit more and more violence:

                                                            I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand,
Which must be acted, ere they may be scann'd


Even the visions induced by the witches confirm Macbeth's present sole obsession with security, power, and violence. The apparition of an armed head confirms his fear of Macduff, while the apparition of a bloody child strengthens his determination to “be bloody, bold, and resolute” (4.1.79), and verbalizes his wish to be invulnerable (“none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth”). The apparition of a crowned child again tells him to “be lion-mettled” and “proud,” and reiterates his irrational desire to remain untouchable (“until / Great Birnam wood …”), while the final show of eight kings confirms his fear concerning Banquo's predicted fortune. In this sense Macbeth learns hardly anything new during his second visit to the Weird Sisters. Understandably, neither his character not his actions change in any way: he was “yet but young in deed” (3.4.143) before consulting the witches, and now too “the very firstlings of [his] heart shall be / The firstlings of [his] hand” (4.1.147-8).

With the shift of Macbeth's character decisively towards endodynamism, his wife's dramatic role ends effectively in the scene with Banquo's Ghost (3.4), in which she has the last chance to rebuke her husband for his alleged lack of manliness. Unlike in King Lear, whose masculine women play an active dramatic role by fighting remorselessly with Cordelia's army and treacherously between themselves to the very end, from Act III onwards Lady Macbeth has really nothing more to do in the play in terms of plot development. In his portrayal of these “nightmarish” women Shakespeare appears to have taken poetic license by making their characters look more masculine and endodynamic than is probably psychologically possible. As shown in the graph of gender types …, the extreme masculine gender is reserved for men, while individual women can only attain manly, endostatic character. This probably explains why the behavior of Regan, Goneril, and Lady Macbeth is frequently described in the plays as “unnatural”: their cruelty, thirst for power, and complete lack of remorse and conscience can realistically be found in individual men but not in women. There seems to be no doubt that the Lady Macbeth of the first two acts is an endodynamic character, psychologically more masculine than her endostatic, manly husband. This rules out the possibility of her being ever moved by the voice of conscience, still felt by Macbeth before the murder of Duncan and later suppressed upon his attainment of the endodynamic character. In the light of these characterological configurations Lady Macbeth's famous sleep-walking scene presents something of a problem, because instead of hardened mercilessness, or insanity and paranoia, realistically expected in extreme endodynamics, we have the disintegration of personality caused by what looks like a long-stifled voice of conscience and pity.

With the sleep-walking scene in mind it was possible for Coleridge to read back into the early scenes of the play Lady Macbeth's repressed conscience: “she endeavors to stifle its voice, and keep down its struggles, by inflated and soaring fancies, and appeals to spiritual agency.”42 The apparent lack of consistency in the characterization of Lady Macbeth across the play has indeed baffled critics. G. Wilson Knight for example called her on the one hand a woman “possessed of evil passion,” “inhuman,” an embodiment of “evil absolute and extreme,” and on the other hand “a pure woman, with a woman's frailty.”43 It is as if the critics had difficulty accepting a literary female character of utter depravity, and were trying if not to exonerate her then at least to qualify her wickedness. There is a tradition of blaming not Lady Macbeth's conscious will but her demoniacal possession for the evil she commits, and even of sentimentalizing her as the loving wife with an affectionate and gentle disposition, a maternal figure, a sensual woman, and a neurotic.44 Without the sleep-walking scene Lady Macbeth's character would be as consistent (or even more so) than her husband's, but as it is the critics are faced with a paradoxical situation, whereby a visibly depraved, endodynamic character has to be denied its depravity. In the words of Kenneth Muir, “although it is true that Lady Macbeth is not naturally depraved or conscienceless … she deliberately chooses evil.”45

Despite its apparent characterological inconsistency, the sleep-walking scene on its own remains dramatically powerful and poignant. Lady Macbeth's somnambulism offers a version of complete alienation from life and human relations to which her complicity in Macbeth's crimes has led her. The Doctor describes her state as “a great perturbation in nature,” the oxymoronic “slumbery agitation,” a sort of living death in which she receives “at once the benefit of sleep, and … the effects of watching” (5.1.9-11). The paradox of being awake, active, able to speak, and at the same time unconscious and absent-minded provides a moving tableau of isolation and alienation. But it is difficult to interpret most of what Lady Macbeth says or does in her sleep-walking as an expression of her guilty conscience, and Bradley was probably right in saying that “in Lady Macbeth's misery there is no trace of contrition.”46 The letter she writes has been variously interpreted as a confession, a warning for Lady Macduff, or a message to Macbeth indicating that she still wishes to control him,47 but it could indeed be anything. For example, Lady Macbeth may be writing a reply to her husband's early letter informing her about the witches's prophesy (1.5.1-14), in which case she may be either dissuading him from taking any steps (the static variant) or, to the contrary, telling him to go ahead, the way she did (the endodynamic variant). The famous gesture of washing the hands, linked with Lady Macbeth's direct implication in Duncan's murder (2.2.66), can again be interpreted as a sign of belated remorse but also as a desire to escape detection: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” (5.1.33). The line such as “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to accompt?” (35-7) repeats the same cynical confidence in their invulnerability with which Lady Macbeth answered her husband's earlier fear of being found out (1.7.75-80). The only moment that can be interpreted as betraying Lady Macbeth's pity and regret is a “feminine” reference to the perfumes of Arabia unable to “sweeten this little hand” (48). It is linked back to Macbeth's regretful realization that “all great Neptune's ocean” will not wash the blood from his hand (2.2.59-60), and in Lady Macbeth's case the reference is indeed interpreted by the Doctor as an indication of a heart “sorely charg'd.” The poignancy of this scene lies therefore not so much in the alleged feelings of pity48 in the guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth, as in the reenactment of her past crimes and her present helplessness and isolation as indications of the ultimate pointlessness and futility of these crimes. In her loss of power and self-control, in her alienation even from her husband, and in her desperate suicidal death announced by “the cry of women” (5.5.8), Lady Macbeth appears to be womanized at the end of the play. This can be interpreted as another characterological inconsistency, which perhaps restores gender balance and psychological realism, disturbed earlier in the play by the poetic license of presenting a female character with a mind more masculine than the most manly man. According to Kenneth Muir, the seeming inconsistency in the characterization of Lady Macbeth “may reflect an ambiguity in Shakespeare's mind, which he cultivated for dramatic reasons,” but “the audience could take it either way.”49

The apparent indifference with which Macbeth greets the news of his wife's death (“She should have died hereafter,” 5.5.17) signals the next step in his own alienation from life, and in particular from Eros as the feminine principle of relatedness. With Lady Macbeth's death the last positive link with a fellow human being has been severed, the fact that occasions Macbeth's famous nihilistic reflection on the meaninglessness of existence (5.5.19-28). If masculinity as the opposite of femininity is to be pushed to an absolute extreme, then even a remotest relation with the feminine principle would have to be denied, including a man's dependence on his mother who brought him into this world. This denial becomes manifest in Macbeth's unconscious desire to place himself outside the natural scheme of things, and to achieve a quasi-divine immortality and invulnerability—the ultimate dream of an endodynamic individual who cannot tolerate any loss of power, here, the physiological power that sustains his life. It has always been some small consolation to the victims of tyranny that the tyrants, for all their formidable sociological power, could not compensate for the loss of their own physiological power indefinitely, and eventually had to die, like their victims. This explains the despots' irrational obsession with longevity and with all sorts of elixirs of immortality, with which they wanted to escape natural laws. Hence also Macbeth's illusion that he can practically live for ever, embodied in the vision of a bloody child reassuring Macbeth that no man born of a woman can harm him (4.1.80-1). The critic Madelon Gohlke50 reads Macbeth's nihilism, his childlessness, indifference to his wife's death, and rejection of all feminine values of trust and hospitality as a systematic attempt by the masculine hero to deny an awareness of dependence on women in general, including the mother with her procreative role. Similarly, Janet Adelman interprets Macbeth's desire to be invulnerable as a masculine “fantasy of escape from the maternal matrix,” and as an attempt to be exempt from the universal human condition of being “born of woman.”51 But even in this last illusion Macbeth is disappointed, as his dream of immortality is shattered by a last-minute revelation that Macduff, his principal personal foe, “was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd” (5.8.15-6), a circumstance that for some reason predestines Macduff to be, metaphorically, the medicine to purge the country's “sickly weal” (5.2.27-9).

In folklore, the child born through what later became called the Caesarian section was said to possess great strength, the power to find hidden treasure and to see spirits. In any case, the unusual circumstances of birth denoted an unusual character, a person singled out from others to perform some exceptional deed. In Shakespeare's play the special status of Macduff counterbalances and in fact cancels Macbeth's illusion of his special status as a man immune to injury and death, but there are more elements that place these two figures at opposite dramatic poles and set them on a collision course. The two names even sound similar, and although this fact is purely coincidental in the chronicles, it does acquire a special dramatic significance in Shakespeare's play, in which it links and contrasts the two characters. The static Macduff makes his first dramatic entry even before he appears in person in Macbeth's castle on the night of Duncan's murder, by famously knocking at the gates as many as ten times, while the Macbeths are washing their hands from Duncan's blood (2.2.56, 64, 68, 72; 2.3.1, 3, 7, 12, 15, 20).52 With his static insistence on punctuality Macduff was determined to be on time to wake the king, as he had been commanded to do, and one cannot help thinking that he narrowly missed preventing Duncan's murder, had he knocked at the gate a moment sooner: “he did command me to call timely on him: / I have almost slipp'd the hour” (2.3.45-6). The ultimate avenger of Duncan, he is the first to discover the murder and raise the clamor after entering the King's chamber, the first to do so after Macbeth, again because he was so commanded: “”I'll make so bold to call, / For 'tis my limited service” (50-1). It is also the role of “the good Macduff” to voice public outcry at the sacrilegious murder of “the Lord's anointed Temple” (2.3.67). A straightforward static, Macduff accepts without suspicion the official version that the King's sons committed the murder. Interestingly, however, unlike all the other Scottish nobles, including the already suspicious Banquo, Macduff does not attend Macbeth's coronation (2.4.36)—a dramatic device designed to remove him from the plot for some time, and especially from Macbeth's presence. Macduff's snubbing absence and his escape to England (3.4.127-8; 3.6.21-3, 29-31, 40; 4.2.142), combined with the witches' warning against the Thane of Fife (4.1.71-2), indeed provide the tyrant with an excuse to invade his castle and massacre his family, in an act of political revenge as much as of personal spite against Macduff's happy family life. Childless himself, Macbeth resentfully puts “to th'edge o'th'sword / [Macduff's] wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.151-3).

Macduff's absence is dramatically necessary, but it still has to be justified psychologically. To leave his family at the mercy of a vindictive tyrant looks unwise to say the least, but the decision was motivated by a noble desire to organize political support in England and Northumbria to free Scotland from Macbeth's oppression. It would appear therefore that Macduff's actions result from a choice between familial obligations and patriotic duties, a typical situation for a static, and once Macduff has chosen to serve the political cause all qualms about abandoning his family became suppressed.53 On the other hand the spirited, outspoken, and static Lady Macduff does not understand the political reasons of her husband's departure, and interprets it as a betrayal of his familial duties and as his lack of love (“He loves us not,” 4.2.8). G. Wilson Knight goes even further in his disapproval of Macduff, and makes his a person “involved in evil,” as seen in his “cruel desertion of his family.”54 Rosse, all too familiar with the grim realities of Macbeth's regime (“cruel are the times”), and with his own delay in deserting the tyrannous king, is nearer the mark when he praises Macduff for being “noble, wise, judicious,” one who “best knows / The fits o'th'season” (4.2.16-7). Unlike other time-servers like Rosse or Lenox, Macduff had the courage, if not the wisdom, to be the first to leave Scotland and organize opposition around Malcolm, before he was joined by other lords.

The long conversation between Malcolm and Macduff (4.3) stands out from the rest of the play for being perhaps too long, almost tedious, but in E. A J. Honigmann's view its deliberately slow tempo has a dramatic quality of arresting the play's onward-rushing momentum just before Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking, where time stands still.55 As a “choric commentary”56 the scene draws closer attention to the figures whose political importance, one as the avenger of Duncan and the other as Duncan's legitimate successor, has not yet been acknowledged by due dramatic prominence, given almost entirely to the tyrannous Macbeth. It is interesting to note that Malcolm, Macbeth's main political opponent, is also the latter's opposite in a dramatic and psychological sense; that is, in terms of gender type and dynamism of character Malcolm appears to be an exostatic, womanly man. During the initial battle with the Norwegians, in which Macbeth displayed such feats of heroic valor and efficiency, Duncan's eldest son was taken prisoner and had to be rescued (1.2.4-5), a circumstance suggesting lack of manhood and valor expected from an heir to the throne in a heroic society. Still it is the inept Malcolm who is officially announced as Duncan's successor, the fact naturally resented by the manly Macbeth, whose political ambitions have been whetted by his military victory (1.4.48-50). During the night of Duncan's murder the two royal sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, staying in the room next to their father's, are awaken from their sleep by a nightmarish dream of murder.57 However, instead of resolutely getting up and checking if everything is all right, they give in to unmanly fear, say their prayers, comfort each other, and fall back to sleep. When the murder is discovered, the royal sons are the last to arrive at the scene, they have practically nothing to say, nor are they consulted on anything, and their immediate reaction is to flee: “where we are, / There's daggers in men's smiles: the near in blood, / The nearer bloody” (2.3.137-9). Their cowardly escape puts the blame for the murder on them and removes the last obstacle in Macbeth's ascent to the throne. In this way, by shirking his responsibility as the appointed royal successor, the unmanly Malcolm has in fact contributed to the national calamity that was Macbeth's reign.

In the context of his early immaturity the long conversation with Macduff illustrates Malcolm's coming of age, as he gradually prepares himself for the assumption of his duties as the future King of Scotland. He has now enough statism of character to appreciate the seriousness of his task, but he is still too much of an exostatic to cope with the task effectively on his own. Malcolm is determined to save his country from tyranny, but he can only do so by enlisting a foreign power to his aid and by using Macduff as a personal avenger. Malcolm is now mature enough to initially mistrust Macduff's good intentions and to test his loyalty, but he arranges his test in the form of a spectacle, a bit like Hamlet, another exostatic figure, by pretending to be worse than he actually is. He openly talks of his “vices” that would make “black Macbeth … seem as pure as snow” (4.3.52-3), describing at great length his lust, avarice, and falsehood. His simulation of tyranny, however, is so theatrical that only someone as straightforward, not to say dull, as Macduff could take it literally. (A person possessing these vices would have an endodynamic character, in which case he or she would not be talking so frankly about them.) In this almost comic scene Malcolm's exostatic play-acting succeeds as a test of Macduff's integrity, whereupon the virgin boy-king hails the manly Macduff as the true champion of Scotland,58 leaving the latter quite confused at Malcolm's contradictory confession: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, / 'Tis hard to reconcile” (4.3.138-9). With the support of England and Macduff, Malcolm is now firmly in charge, more and more confident in his role as Scotland's savior and future king, as evidenced in his upbeat, commanding tone at the end of Act IV:

                                                            This tune goes manly.
Come, go we to the King: our power is ready;
Our lack is nothing but our leave. Macbeth
Is ripe for shaking, and the Powers above
Put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may;
The night is long that never finds the day


It is also Malcolm's idea to hide the number of his army under the branches cut from the Birnam wood, a clever endostatic trick not fully consistent with his exostatic character displayed so far. Dramatically, however, the association of Malcolm with the Birnam wood links him, together with Macduff, with the witches' threefold warning to Macbeth, and places him, indirectly at least, in the context of revenge for Duncan's death.

Macbeth and Macduff as the ultimate opponents are brought together at last in what looks like a fair, face-to-face combat, but while the static Macduff risks his life to fight his cause and avenge his family, the endodynamic Macbeth enters the fight additionally protected, as he thinks, by the spell of invulnerability. In his view therefore Macbeth is not risking anything, and can still inflict death on others, as he does by killing the young Siward. As said before, the deceptive magical protection is the ultimate expression of Macbeth's extreme masculinity, through which he wants to remain independent from the feminine principle of relatedness, even in owing his birth to a woman. But by a master stroke of Shakespeare's dramatic irony Macbeth turns out to be more vulnerable in his masculinity than is Macduff in his static androgyny. Bound up with femininity as a family man and as a person capable of feeling profound grief (4.3.221-30), through the unusual circumstances of his birth Macduff turns out to be less dependent on the feminine principle, and is consequently more manly than the self-deluding Macbeth. Indeed, the revelation of Macduff's extraordinary birth has an immediate emasculating effect on Macbeth: “Accursed be that tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cow'd my better part of man” (5.8.17-8), and for the first time he feels fear (“I'll not fight with thee,” 22). Deprived of the confidence afforded him by the magical spell, Macbeth now fights with Macduff on equal terms, and in his death proves to be less manly in his rejection of femininity than is Macduff in his more feminine personality and in his family feelings.

After the static champion kills the endodynamic tyrant, the exostatic young king safely takes his father's throne without having to fight for it. Even the young Siward, without any personal grudge against Macbeth, showed greater valor by dying a heroic death in direct combat, than Malcolm with the murder of his father to avenge:

Your son [young Siward], my Lord, has paid a soldier's debt:
He only liv'd but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd,
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died


The arrival of Macduff carrying Macbeth's head to hail Malcolm as the King of Scotland provides a telling tableau of the latter's ineffectuality and dependence on his executive branch, so to speak, and emphasizes the nominality of Malcolm's office. Having cowardly fled the country after Duncan's murder, he has returned on the shoulders of stronger and more efficient allies to take the office, and the last words of the play belong, ironically, to him. Now secure on the throne due to no credit of his own, Malcolm promptly adopts the royal plural, graciously promotes the thanes to earls, condemns “this dead butcher, and his fiend-like Queen” (35), officially invites the émigrés to return home, and promises, “by the grace of Grace,” a just reign, in which everything will be performed “in measure, time, and place” (39). If Malcom is his father's son, his present exostatism will evolve eventually into statism, with all the accompanying virtues of “Justice, Verity, Temp'rance, Stableness, / Bounty, Perseverence, Mercy, Lowliness, / Devotion, Patience, Courage, Fortitude” (4.3.92-4), and other “king-becoming graces” that no doubt characterized Duncan, and in this way the circle will close. In Roman Polanski's film version of Macbeth (1971), the last scene shows Donalbain, Malcolm's younger brother and successor to the throne, riding alone on a misty moor at the spot where Macbeth and Banquo had met the three witches for the first time …


  1. Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton, 1973), 242.

  2. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Male Identity in Shakespeare (Los Angeles, 1981), 176.

  3. Cf. Janet Adelman, “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth,” in Shakespearian Tragedy and Gender, eds. S. N. Garner and M. Sprengnether, 111.

  4. It has been observed (note on page 5 in the Arden Macbeth) on a number of occasions that the word “bloody” is mentioned over a hundred times in the course of the play. All quotations throughout are from the Arden Edition of William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Kenneth Muir (Walton-on-Thames, 1997 [1951]).

  5. Nicholas Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination (London, 1996 [1992]), 196. For Brents Stirling the triple prophesy reflects the progression of Macbeth's character marked by the growth of his pragmatic awareness (Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character [New York, 1956], 155).

  6. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (London, 1991 [1904]), 330.

  7. J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined (London, 1949), 87.

  8. Stewart, Character and Motive, 90-91.

  9. Kenneth Muir, Introduction, xlvii.

  10. Muir, Introduction, xlvii.

  11. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 324.

  12. McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, 206.

  13. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 195.

  14. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 195.

  15. Cf. Janet Adelman, “‘Born of Woman,’” 108.

  16. We are not given the whole of Macbeth's letter to his wife, but her surprise at the news about the king's arrival at Inverness delivered by a messenger after she has read the letter clearly indicates that the fact was not mentioned in the letter itself. Consequently, Macbeth had sent his letter before Duncan announced that he would stay in Macbeth's castle, for he surely would not have failed to mention this important fact to his wife. Upon his arrival home Macbeth brings the news about the king again, uncertain whether she knew about it (1.5.58).

  17. Lady Macbeth repeats the prophesy again when greeting her husband (1.5.54-5).

  18. McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, 223.

  19. E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies. The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response (London, 1976), 117.

  20. H. R. Coursen, “A Jungian Approach to Characterization: Macbeth,” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, eds. P. Erickson and C. Kahn, 240.

  21. Coursen, “A Jungian Approach to Characterization: Macbeth,” 241.

  22. Kahn, Man's Estate, 173.

  23. Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, 1984), 196.

  24. Juliet Dusinberre talks about Lady Macbeth's “fiction of masculinity,” arguing that ultimately her “sense of self is rooted in a traditional pattern of femininity—mother, wife, helpmeet” (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London, 1996 [1975], 284).

  25. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Brighton, 1984), 39 discusses the image of woman's milk as a symbol of gentle, nurturing qualities as a commonplace in the Renaissance.

  26. McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, 231.

  27. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1991 [1964]), 73.

  28. Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 74.

  29. Lady Macbeth would have killed Duncan herself, “had he not resembled [her] father as he slept” (2.2.12-13). On the theme of Lady Macbeth's filial dependence on her father see Marjorie Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London, 1981), 47.

  30. Kahn, Man's Estate, 173.

  31. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, 128, 129 ff, 135.

  32. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 353, 355.

  33. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1993 [1930]), 141, 151.

  34. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 209, 210.

  35. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 210.

  36. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 384-5.

  37. Muir, Introduction, lvi-ii.

  38. The purposelessness of Banquo's journey is made clear by his evasive answer to Macbeth's ominous, direct question concerning the destination: “Is't far you ride?” to which Banquo replies: “As far, my Lord, as will fill up the time / 'Twixt this and supper” (3.1.23-5). Given Banquo's suspicion of Macbeth the vagueness of his answer is also motivated by fear for his safety—the feeling promptly and tragically confirmed for Banquo.

  39. Muir, Introduction, lv-lvi.

  40. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 212. Honigmann notices a similar progression in Macbeth's character: “We observe a steady decline as he becomes hardened to murder … He struggles desperately against the killing of Duncan; he proceeds to the murder of Banquo without the same agonizing preliminaries … whereas Macduff's death means nothing at all to him … And he decides to massacre Macduff's family after even less preliminary hesitation, as a mere act of revenge” (Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, 136).

  41. Macbeth, note 49, page 91.

  42. Coleridge on Shakespeare, ed. T. Hawkes (1969), 218, quoted in Muir, Introduction, lviii.

  43. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 152.

  44. Discussed by Muir, Introduction, lviii-lx.

  45. Muir, Introduction, lviii.

  46. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 378.

  47. Macbeth, note 6 on page 137.

  48. “we need not deny her (what Shakespeare must have given her) pity,” Muir, Introduction, lx.

  49. Muir, Introduction, Macbeth, lx.

  50. Madelon Gohlke, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, eds. M. M. Schwartz and C. Kahn, 176-7.

  51. Adelman, “‘Born of Woman,’” 117.

  52. To emphasize the effect of knocking, interpreted by the Porter as knocking at Hell Gate (2.3.2), the word “knock” is repeated as many as sixteen times.

  53. Characteristically, when Ross announces bad news before Macduff, the latter's first thought is of the country, and only the second about his personal situation: “What concern they? / The general cause? Or is it a fee-grief, / Due to some single breast?” (4.3.195-7).

  54. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 151.

  55. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, 141,

  56. L. C. Knights, Hamlet and Other Shakespearean Essays (Cambridge, 1979), 297.

  57. Rather curiously, of the two royal brothers “one did laugh in's sleep, and one cried, ‘Murther!’” (2.2.22), but it is not clear which did what.

  58. Cf. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 214, 216.


Adelman, Janet. “‘Born of Woman’: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth.” In Shakespearian Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, 143-58. Bloomington-Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Penguin Books, 1991 (1904).

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

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan Press, 1996 (1975).

Garber, Marjorie. Coming of Age in Shakespeare. London-New York: Methuen, 1981.

Gohlke, Madelon. “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, 170-87. Baltimore-London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination. London: Macmillan Press, 1996 (1992).

Honigmann, E. A. J. Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies. The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response. London: Macmillan Press, 1976.

Kahn, Coppélia. Man's Estate: Male Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. London-New York: Routledge, 1993 (1930).

Knights, Lionel Charles. ‘Hamlet’ and Other Shakespearean Essays. Cambridge-London-Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Translated by Boleslaw Taborski. London: Routledge, 1991 (1964).

McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Novy, Marianne. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill-London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Edited by Kenneth Muir. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1997 (1951).

Stewart, J. I. M. Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined. London-New York-Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1949.

Stirling, Brents. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.

Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1984.

Charles Isherwood (review date 19 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 5 (19 June 2000): 38.

[In the following review of Terry Hands's Macbeth, Isherwood asserts that Kelsey Grammer gave an inadequate performance of the title role in an undistinguished production.]

If you're going on an ego trip, you might as well travel first-class. So why is Kelsey Grammer, the lovable star of TV's Frasier and a man who can certainly afford luxurious accommodations, returning to Broadway in a poor man's Macbeth? As star vehicles go—and the production is without question a star vehicle—this underpopulated, underdirected and practically undesigned Macbeth is the equivalent of a dilapidated Chevy Nova. The production's paltry texture might be forgivable—or at least forgettable—if it surrounded a central performance of great insight or vitality, but Grammer's Macbeth, though handsomely and intelligently spoken, is essentially an empty star turn, a series of fancy speeches magnanimously tossed to the audience as if Director Terry Hands plays up all the most familiar conceptions about Shakespeare's briefest, bluntest tragedy. Yes, Macbeth is an unremittingly dark journey into the mind of a man seduced into evil by his ambition, so the show unfolds on a gloomy, bare stage drenched in baleful black paint. A single torch—the light of good shining bravely in a benighted world—glimmers at the back of the stage throughout the evening.

And yes, Macbeth is a zippy play (for the Bard, anyway) that moves like lightning through its bloody paces, so Hands' production proceeds at a merciless clip, coming in at two hours without an intermission. Actors all but fall over each other making entrances and exits, while the play's disturbed psychological milieu, of the natural order corrupted in extremis, is dutifully evoked by innumerable ominous thunderclaps.

But beyond its speed, darkness and portentous soundscape, Hands' Macbeth offers us little. The supporting cast is largely undistinguished, although it may be hard for even the finest actors to create credible performances with no support from evocative staging, atmosphere or even props and costumes. (The wardrobe by Timothy O'Brien, who also designed the skeletal sets, consists of contemporary pants and T-shirts, the latter mostly black, sometimes wrinkled, and on occasion dressed up with belts—a seriously unflattering look.)

As an aesthetic, minimalism requires far more imagination than Zeffirellian splendor, but there's little in evidence in this production. Less is definitely not more here: The banquet scene, a key turning point in the play, is entirely drained of its dramatic impact by the skimpy production values—this regal repast is staged with three chairs around a small round table; you half expect someone to pass around a box of Wheat Thins.

The show's stark mise-en-scene cruelly exposes its performers, who must try to evoke a complex world and a variety of relationships in brief scenes with only the help of a few spotlights. And Hands, who also designed the lighting, seems to have lavished more attention on the disposition of these spotlights than on the performances of the people trapped within them.

Diane Venora, whose Shakespearean resume includes three Public Theater Hamlets (as the prince, Ophelia and most recently Gertrude), is merely adequate as Lady Macbeth. There are no surprising colors or nuances in her portrait of a cold-blooded, grasping termagant, and her sleepwalking scene hasn't much pathos, despite some fancy vocal variations she employs and a climactic, agonized wail.

Among the supporting players, Michael Gross stands out for the innate dignity and assurance of his Ross, and Peter Gerety handily seduces audience affection with his pungent comic turn as the drunken porter. But most of the performances are negligible, with Sam Breslin Wright's Malcolm, a key force for good against Macbeth's iniquity, coming across here as a risibly puny figure.

The title role is, of course, a dangerous seducer of ambitious actors. Macbeth is apportioned many of Shakespeare's most famous speeches (“Is this a dagger I see before me …,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow …”), each packed with rich imagery and beautiful phrases. And indeed, it's obviously the language that attracted Grammer to the role: He savors the monologues as if they were big pieces of rhetorical candy, delivering them up to the audience with admirable clarity in his potent and appealing baritone. Certainly he far outshines the rest of the cast in terms of vocal grace and textual articulation.

Nevertheless, this is an inadequate performance, because it consists of nothing but prettily intoned phrases. Grammer substitutes eloquent speechifying for authentic emotional involvement in Shakespeare's potentially gripping drama of a man's moral and psychological disintegration. Although the grim set of his square jaw and a tendency to growl indicates Macbeth's increasing brutality, Grammer's usurping king never really becomes a man driven to the edge and beyond by a corrupt soul warring with the specters of remorse. A truly tormented man couldn't continue to address the audience with such consistent vocal refinement, seemingly oblivious to the emotional context of the moment.

If lackluster audiences in previews are any indication, Broadway theater-goers aren't clamoring to see how a favorite TV star fares in one of the theater's most demanding roles. And those who do venture to buy tickets may feel cheated by this uninspired production and its cheesy trappings. They'd be justified in their irritation: For a $70 top ticket, audiences are buying the privilege of spending two hours as hostages to a star's ego.

Rebecca Lemon (essay date March 2002)

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SOURCE: Lemon, Rebecca. “Scaffolds of Treason in Macbeth.Theatre Journal 54, no. 1 (March 2002): 25-43.

[In the following essay, Lemon discusses the historicism of didactic “scaffold speeches” made by condemned traitors and examines examples of this kind of rhetoric in the language of various characters in Macbeth.]

Treason plagues Macbeth from its opening: by the second scene of the play, the first Thane of Cawdor has betrayed King Duncan, and, by the fourth scene, Malcolm confirms Cawdor's execution for treason. Reporting on the event, Malcolm declares of Cawdor that “very frankly he confess'd his treasons, / Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth / A deep repentance” (1.4.5-7).1 These lines reveal the dying last words of a traitor, familiar to its Jacobean audience as a monologue spoken from the scaffold by hundreds of prisoners.2 Such speeches were characterized by a confession of guilt and a prayer to the monarch as illustrated by Cawdor's own words.3 Recorded in chapbooks, ballads, and state papers, the “scaffold speech” was delivered by prisoners prior to execution, serving as a critical site for the apparent affirmation of the monarch and a re-establishment of communal, public order, as notably argued by Michel Foucault for early modern France, and J. A. Sharpe and Lacey Baldwin Smith for England.4

These speeches were meant to serve a didactic purpose. First, the spectacle of the prisoner on the scaffold itself instructed the audience to avoid such crime and its gruesome punishment. Second, the prisoner's speech often directly admonished the audience not to engage in criminal activity. Cawdor's scaffold speech within Macbeth thus serves as a warning within a warning, given that English Renaissance theories of tragedy, offered by writers such as George Puttenham and Sir Philip Sidney, stress the didactic effect of tragedy in cautioning its audience members against crime and tyranny. In his Defense of Poetry (c. 1581), for example, Sidney offers a theory of tragedy that, although based primarily on the classical model of Seneca and the contemporary model of Gorbuduc (1562), nevertheless both influences and anticipates the tragic playwriting of the next decades. He defines “high and excellent tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humors.”5 Sidney's theory posits tragedy as the exposure of “wounds” and “ulcers,” suggesting that the genre reveals faults in characters in order, in turn, to reveal or prevent such faults in the audience. While the well-known Aristotelian model of tragedy both provokes emotion in the audience and then purges this emotion through catharsis, Sidney's model of tragedy either teaches its audience to avoid vice or exposes those guilty viewers: like Hamlet's mousetrap play, tragedy causes abusive kings to “manifest their tyrannical humors.”6

On one level, Macbeth appears to confirm this exemplary model of tragedy, and indeed the early representation of Cawdor's scaffold speech could be read as a foreshadowing of the events of the play: a hero turns traitor and in dying teaches the audience to avoid his own treachery. Certainly the legend of the play's first performance would support this reading, as critics have long noted. On August 7, 1606, Macbeth was allegedly performed before Queen Anne and her visiting brother, King Christian of Denmark, in order to celebrate King James's triumph over the Gunpowder plot traitors.7 Although the play's role in the royal celebrations that followed the plot's discovery may be merely apocryphal, Macbeth's Porter directly refers to one of the plotters, Father Henry Garnet, suggesting that Shakespeare's portrait of treason emerged in part from the contemporary event.8 As Henry Paul argues in his groundbreaking study The Royal Play of Macbeth, the play celebrates James's exposure of the plot, serving as a contemporary compliment to the king and educating audiences in the ideology of legitimate sovereignty. Leonard Tennenhouse also astutely analyzes Macbeth as a panegyric celebrating sovereign power, suggesting that Shakespeare “mystifies the notion of kingship, reinvigorates the signs and symbols associated with the exercise of legitimate power, and makes the theatre speak a more conservative ideology.”9

The spectacle of Macbeth's severed head at the end of the play should serve precisely this didactic purpose, as Marjorie Garber reminds us, since the head will be displayed “[p]ainted upon a pole, and underwrit, / ‘Here may you see the tyrant’” (5.8.26-27).10 She notes how Macbeth “is to become an object lesson, a spectacle, a warning against tyranny.” Nevertheless, as Garber herself goes on to argue, his success as an object lesson is complicated by his uncanny role as a type of male Medusa: he is both familiar and monstrous, both male and female.11 This notion of Macbeth as a figure of inversion and contamination returns us to Sidney's definition of tragedy as a genre that “showeth forth the ulcers.” Although he most obviously characterizes the drama as an exemplum, Sidney also suggests how tragedy is a genre that turns things inside out: what should be inside the body spills out for external, public view in the form of an ulcer or wound. Specifically, tragedy externalizes inward, transgressive desires for all to see, and this simple mechanism of exposure produces complex results in terms of audience reaction and interpretive possibility. As Steven Mullaney's insightful analysis of the liminal place of the Elizabethan stage demonstrates, the “place of the stage,” both geographically, in the liberties of London, and historically, as a newly established site, allows the theatre to examine critically the culture of which it was marginally a part.12

This essay focuses on Macbeth's oppositional potential by analyzing Cawdor's execution in the opening scenes as a failure of didacticism, both on the state and theatre scaffolds: the exemplary traitor's speech does not instruct Macbeth to avoid treason but potentially offers him a model, a namesake even, for his own criminal desires.13 Even before Macbeth's treason, then, Duncan's Scotland reveals, following Jonathan Goldberg's powerful analysis, that “hegemonic control is an impossible dream, a self-defeating fantasy.”14 Not only does Cawdor's execution fail as an educational, hegemonic spectacle, but also, more importantly, the staging of this familiar genre of confession before death complicates the articulation of truth in the play. As a result, the play blends allegedly legitimate sovereignty with treasonous deception, ultimately producing a ruler in Malcolm who combines rather than opposes the knowledge of traitors and monarchs. Wilbur Sanders and, more recently, David Scott Kastan rightly note that Malcolm is a man of “smaller stature” and “reductive vision” in comparison to his father Duncan.15 He nevertheless represents, I will argue, a model of kingship produced out of Scotland's own fair and foul landscape: Malcolm adopts the villainous characteristics of Macbeth's own reign, employing the deceptive mechanisms typical of traitors in order to rule his kingdom effectively. Despite the deeply illuminating arguments of Janet Adelman and Peter Stallybrass, then, that the promised efficacy of Malcolm's rule emerges out of his association with the reactionary, patriarchal politics of “consolidating male power,”16 I instead propose that the future king's compromised methods attest to the radical, lingering effects of treason even beyond the errant Macbeth's death. Malcolm, as Alan Sinfield persuasively argues, “indicates the circumspection that will prove useful to the lawful good king, as much as to the tyrant.”17 Like Macbeth himself, the future king practices the traitor's arts of deception.

Rather than fulfilling Sidney's definition of exemplary tragedy, which should teach kings to fear tyranny, then, Macbeth provocatively illuminates Sidney's view of tragedy as a genre that “showeth forth the ulcers.”18 This contamination of the office of king by the traitor in the course of Macbeth exhibits the seepage between opposites in a manner that recalls Sidney's definition. Just as the internal ulcer exposes itself to light, so does the traitor infect the monarchy to the point where the hidden villainy becomes part of the public life of the state. By exhibiting hidden wounds to the public view, by penetrating the boundaries between internal and external, tragic theatre stages an epistemologically and politically unsettling spectacle of infectious boundarylessness that, in the case of Macbeth, leaves the audience convinced less of the crown's authority than of the dramatic power of the hero's own original script, a script which defies the scaffold that represents him.

To explore the tragic, political complexity of the scaffold as staged in Macbeth, this essay will first discuss the characteristics of historical scaffold speeches in order to elucidate their interpretive complexity. Turning to the episode of Cawdor's execution, I then argue that the duplicitous language at stake in the historical scaffold speech typifies the speech of traitors as represented in Macbeth, first in Cawdor's scaffold speech and subsequently in the witches' prophecies. This duplicitous, treasonous language of Macbeth and the witches reappears, I argue, in the mouth of Malcolm, the son of Duncan and legitimate king of Scotland. Examining the representation of Malcolm reveals the interconnection of treason and monarchy: rather than purging Scotland of Macbeth's errant leadership, Malcolm instead adopts the hero's traitorous speech, demonstrating how the linguistic duplicity typical of traitors proves necessary in sustaining Scotland's monarchs as well.


On June 2, 1572, the popular Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was brought to the scaffold for his execution. Guilty of attempting to secure marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots, Norfolk was the first prisoner executed by Elizabeth I. He paid the executioner to help ensure a job well done and offered a repentance speech that twice had to be silenced by the sheriff.19 According to the account, the Duke proclaimed from a scaffold erected on Tower Hill,

I do not excuse myself, but I come to discharge my conscience, and to acquit my peers, and not to complain of any injustice, for I have deserved this, and more a great deal, in that I have abused the queen majesty's mercy towards me; whom once again, with hands lifted up, I pray God long to preserve and reign over you.20

Here, Norfolk promises to disclose before the audience his immaterial thoughts, to “discharge [his] conscience” in his scaffold speech. Exposing his conscience for the audience, his supposedly authentic revelation has the effect of validating the charge of treason for which he stands accused, as he says, “I have deserved this, and more a great deal,” acknowledging the justice of his punishment and absolving the Queen and peers from implication in the violent spectacle. With Elizabeth having abolished the Catholic method of confession in 1563 with the establishment of the Anglican church, the scaffold speech functions as a secular confessional, offering an opportunity for the sinner to “discharge [his] conscience” in order to be forgiven, a point argued by Steven Mullaney in his brief but illuminating analysis of scaffold speeches in relation to Measure for Measure: “scaffold confessions were culturally produced and determined manifestations of an effort to secularize and theatricalize confession, to enter it into the repertoire of available forms of ideological control” (Place, 112).

The rest of Norfolk's speech exhibits such ideological control as he moves from his opening acknowledgment of the merciful Queen through his own confession of wrongdoing, ending with his final prayer for the monarch: “I pray God long to preserve and reign over you.” The formula evident in his dying last words appears in hundreds of speeches from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, each characterized by a confession of wrongdoing, a validation of punishment, and a final prayer to the audience. This pattern, for example, appears in the cases of the traitors associated with the Babington plot, the Essex rebellion, and the Gunpowder plot, three of the most sensational instances of treason in early modern England. Affirming that they have been brought forward to die, prisoners such as Christopher Norton, Thomas Salisbury, and Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, each then announced the justice of their punishments. Norton, executed in 1570, claimed that he was “justly condemned, by the laws of the realm.” He then claims, “I acknowledge and confess, my good Lord and Savior, before the Throne of thy majesty, my heinous offence.”21 Likewise, Salisbury, executed in 1586 for his role in the Babington plot, claimed, “I confess that I have deserved Death, and that I have offended her majesty, whom to forgive me I heartily beseech.”22 Finally, Essex too acknowledged his “just punishment” at his execution in 1601, offering a prayer to God: “I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternall Majestie for my pardon; especially for this my last sinne, this great, this bloudie, this crying, this infectious sinne.”23 Each of these prisoners begins with confession of guilt and ends with a plea to God, following the conventional rhetoric that ostensibly convinces the audience of the criminal's wrong-doing while warning them against committing treasonous acts.

The strict conventions of execution speech, as seen in the cases of Norfolk, Norton, Salisbury, and Essex served to validate the crown and control the audience, as historians J. A. Sharpe and Lacey Baldwin Smith have persuasively argued. Sharpe argues, for example, that these speeches were part of a theatre of punishment designed to articulate a set of values prescribed by the Stuart state: gallows speeches “were of obvious advantage to the state and the state church: they legitimized not only the punishment being suffered by the individual felon, but also the whole structure of secular and religious authority.”24 When, for example, the notorious Gunpowder plotter Henry Garnet appeared on the scaffold, he warned the audience against treason, telling his fellow Catholics, “I exhort them all to take heede they enter not into any Treasons, Rebellions, or Insurrections against the King.”25

Since these speeches ostensibly justified the crown's punishment, not surprisingly they were used as propaganda supporting the crown. Printed with the monarch's permission, and often by his or her printer, traitors' speeches circulated in pamphlets that narrated events from the arraignment of the prisoner to his or her execution, reminding the audience not to sympathize with the traitor. The didactic power of the scaffold speech is put forth in Henry Goodcole's record of the execution of Francis Robinson in 1618. Goodcole's preface states that “dying men's wordes are ever remarkable, and their last deeds memorable for succeeding posterities, by them to be instructed, what vertues or vices they followed and imbraced, and by them to learne to imitate that which was good, and to eschew evill.”26 He defends his own practice of circulating scaffold speeches, insisting on his interest in education over sensation. He is confident that “succeeding posterities” will learn the proper lesson from these prisoners, rather than mistakenly following their corrupt example: they will “imitate that which was good, and to eschew evill.”

While the crown or author may have manufactured a prisoner's last words for the purposes of propaganda, a point to which I shall return later, a prisoner may well have uttered a formulaic speech due to a set of political, economic, and spiritual pressures exerted on him during his imprisonment. Rather than capitulating to the crown's version of events out of obedience, he or she may have instead uttered such formulaic words in order to save family members, an estate, or his or her soul. First, the prisoner's family stood to gain economically if he confessed his crime. According to the statute law, the sentence for treason included forfeiture of the prisoner's entire estate to the crown, which meant that the prisoner's wife and children were deprived of their land, house, and any of their belongings.27 Since a woman's estate went to her husband upon marriage, she would become destitute if her husband were sentenced with treason. The crown, however, occasionally returned the wife's jointure to the family. This possibility effectively forced the prisoner to comply with the crown's judgment in the hopes of securing the estate for his surviving family. Before his execution for treason, for example, Gunpowder plotter Ambrose Ruckwood offered the conventional formula of confession, apology, and prayer, and he ended his speech by “beseeching the King to bee good to his wife and children.”28 Likewise, Everard Digby also requested “that his wife might have her jointer, his children the lands intailed, by his father; his sisters their legasies in his hand unpaid.”29

In addition to the economic pressure exerted on the prisoner, he would also experience spiritual pressure to deliver a conventional scaffold speech. Once in prison, he would receive visits from Anglican ministers intent on tending to the state of his soul. In a culture committed to the Christian belief in the afterlife, the confession of sins and expression of penitence were vital to gaining salvation after death. Shakespeare's Hamlet grieves that Claudius “took my father grossly, full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May” (3.3.80-81), and he acknowledges that if he killed Claudius at prayer, he would “this same villain send / To heaven” (77-78).30 Hamlet expresses the cultural belief that, in order to cleanse the soul of sins and ascend to heaven, a dying man must indicate penitence. Even if the prisoner did not share the Anglican belief in penitence and salvation, he had little to lose in expressing his contrition on the scaffold and rarely did a prisoner fail to offer a prayer.31

Finally, such religious pressure helps account for the utter conventionality of these speeches, since the long tradition of the ars moriendi helped prisoners to shape their deaths according to a model of penitence. The prayer reveals the prisoner's contrition before God, and hence his potential for salvation (“that my soule may be lifted uppe by faith”), a formula that evokes the ars moriendi, found in such devotional texts such as William Perkin's Salve for a Sicke Man (1595) and Christopher Sutton's Disce Mori (1600). Salvation comes as a result of penitence; as Thomas Becon writes in the popular text The Sicke Manne's Salve (1561), God will forgive any sinner: “we behold His tender mercy and loving kindnes toward penitent synners, and howe ready he is to forgeve, whansoever we tourne unto him.”32 The body of the dying criminal, despite its villainy, cannot prevent its penitent soul from reaching heaven, and this enables the prisoner to prompt his own spiritual ascension, making the scaffold a site of religious faith. As a stage on which both secular punishment and Christian promise are performed, the scaffold witnesses the prisoner physically destroyed by earthly authority while potentially ascending to heaven.

These political, economic, and spiritual pressures served in a large part to ensure that scaffold speeches conformed to the formula of confession, apology, and prayer. Yet, the utterly formulaic quality of such speeches could have raised doubts among the audience members as to their authenticity. Since the audience would be aware of the social pressures surrounding the prisoner on the scaffold, they might question the sincerity of the prisoner's highly formulaic language, understanding his performance on the scaffold as a false repentance born of a sincere desire to protect his family. As condemned subjects endlessly performed the same role on the scaffold, the crowd's faith in the authenticity of each confession may well have dwindled. Scaffold speeches are therefore problematic, not only because of their use as propaganda but also because the insincerity of the confession could be patently obvious to an audience. While the speeches may appear to reconstitute monarchical power, then, in the case of the scaffold genre a significant gap exists between the mouthing of the scaffold conventions and a full confirmation of the crown's position.

Indeed, early modern pamphleteers occasionally voice suspicions about the authenticity of scaffold speeches. In “A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors” (1606), for example, the author reports a phrase of Sir Edward Coke's, made at the arraignment of the Gunpowder plotters: “true repentance is indeed never too late: but late repentance is seldome found true.”33 Coke's pithy saying, which may have been a common expression, draws into question the sincerity of a prisoner's eleventh hour confession and prayer on the scaffold. His doubt about the authenticity of scaffold repentances mirrors that of the author F. W., who condemns the prisoner Ambrose Ruckwood for insincerity in “The Araignement and Execution of the late Traytors,” a pamphlet circulated after the Gunpowder plot. The author claims that Ruckwood “out of a studied speech would faine have made his bringing uppe and breeding in idolatrie, to have been some excuse to his villanie, but a faire talke, could not helpe a fowle deed.”34 He condemns Ruckwood's speech as “studied,” a term that suggests that the speech is a fictional expression akin to the memorized speech of an actor on stage. Such “faire talke” does not impress the author, who reminds his readers of Ruckwood's “fowle deed.”

As well as questioning the sincerity of formulaic repentance, these pamphleteers may have occasionally fabricated a prisoner's dying words. Given the propagandistic value of such pamphlets in justifying the crown's case, the authors would themselves have experienced pressure to record speeches according to the conventional formula. In an account of the scaffold speech of Henry Cuffe, executed in March 1601 for his role in the Essex rebellion, for example, the author condemns the prisoner for refusing to repent, only to report his utterly conventional final words on the scaffold. Cuffe initially reiterates his innocence on the scaffold, claiming, “I do here call God, his angels, and my own conscience to witness, that I was not in the least concerned therein, but was shut up that whole day within the house, where I spent time in very melancholy reflections.” Despite Cuffe's self-defense, however, the account, switching to third person, then records that he “began to apply himself to his devotions, which he managed with a great deal of furvour, and then making a solemn profession of his Creed, and asking pardon of God and the queen, he was dispatched by the executioner.”35 Similarly, in an account of the Gunpowder plot traitors, the author F. W. tells his readers that the prisoners “seemed to feele no part of feare, either of the wrath of God, the doome of Justice, or the shame of sinne; but as it were with seared Consciences, senceles of grace, lived, as not looking to die.”36 The prisoners “tooke Tabacco out of measure” and generally expressed little concern for their treason. When brought to court, they continued to be insolent, “craving mercy of neyther God nor the king for their offences” (sig. B3r-v). Yet F. W. reports that, on the scaffold, Edward Digby and Francis Bates asked forgiveness “of God, of the king, and the whole kingdom” (sig. C1r; C2r). The discrepancy between the prisoners's indifference or claims of innocence in jail and their subsequent repentance on the scaffold may have raised doubts in the reader's mind about the pamphlet's accuracy, since the author manages both to condemn the obstinacy of the men and to confirm their guilt through their own scaffold confessions.

The accounts of the Essex rebellion and the Gunpowder plot acknowledge the frequent opposition of sinful deeds and pious speech: as F. W. claims above, “faire talke could not help a fowle deed.” Explicitly demonstrating that a reported speech might be insincere, delivered by a prisoner concerned for his family's welfare, these pamphlets question the very formulaic, artful language that is the stock and trade of their own profession. These pamphleteers, then, implicitly suggest that their own reports, like the speeches themselves, might also be fabricated for propaganda purposes. If such speeches were meant to instruct the audience to avoid vice and to fear sovereign authority, the reports convey these formulaic, repentant dying words with the recognition that they are a convenient fiction. This sense of the scaffold speech as a fiction pushes on the vital work of Mullaney, who stresses the opposition of the state and theatre scaffolds. According to Mullaney, the last dying speech is “an exemplary manifestation of the power of the state to foster internalized obedience even among its most retrograde members,” while the “power of the stage was precisely the power of fiction” (112-13). Yet the scaffold speech, as I argue above, is itself a powerful fiction. Aware of audience skepticism, the pamphleteers nevertheless practiced their trade under the encouragement of an avid reader who may have been the only audience member willing to mistake the fiction for reality: the crown itself. Attempting to rely on the illusory sincerity of the speech to validate its punishment, the crown's scaffold instead produced a spectacle of physical violence and interpretive riddles, uncomfortably mingling “fowle” and “faire” in a manner that recalls the foggy heath of the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth.


The witches' phrase in the first scene of Macbeth famously announces the play's interpretive ambiguity in terms that match F. W.'s condemnation of Ruckwood: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.11-12).37 The play's next scenes, alternating between Duncan's bloody battlefield and the witches' foggy heath, swiftly confirm this interpenetration of foul and fair by presenting two treasonous spectacles: the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor, which Rosse reports to Duncan in scene two, and the witches' seditious prophecies to Macbeth in scene three.38 In both cases, fair news accompanies foul deeds or desires: first, the triumph of Scotland against Norway comes with the announcement of the first Thane of Cawdor's treason; second, the promotion of Macbeth to Thane of Cawdor provokes the birth of his treasonous desire. As Macbeth asks himself on hearing the witches' prophecy, “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?” (1.3.134-37).

The play powerfully establishes the parallelism between the heath and battlefield: in both sets of scenes, an onstage audience of two noblemen struggle to comprehend treasonous language. In one instance, Banquo and Macbeth hear the witches' prophecies, and in the other, Duncan and Malcolm respond to the report of Cawdor's treachery. While the witches' words provoke the birth of treason in Macbeth, however, Cawdor's scaffold speech presents the other end of the trajectory, reporting the voice of the condemned traitor. Having seen Macbeth lured by “instruments of darkness,” we now witness the first Cawdor denouncing his treasonous acts in a conventional, didactic speech. Malcolm announces Cawdor's death to his father,

                                                                                                              I have spoke
With one that saw him die: who did report,
That 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.

[1.4. 3-11]

According to Malcolm's report, Cawdor's final words consist of his confession of treason, his plea to the monarch and his repentant prayer. The precise correspondence of Cawdor's lines with extant speeches of historical traitors and the wide circulation of the speeches in pamphlets strongly suggest that Shakespeare, a dramatist intimate with the art of public speech, relied on such material in depicting Cawdor's last moments. This episode with Cawdor has received limited critical attention, however, possibly because scholars concur on its dramatic function: it foreshadows Macbeth's later treason in granting him the traitor Cawdor's title, and it alerts the audience to the accuracy of at least part of the witches' prophecy in the following scene, where they hail Macbeth as the Thane of Cawdor. While these lines may not strike a modern audience as problematic, this scaffold speech presented Shakespeare's contemporary audience with a familiar, yet complex, genre. Karin S. Coddon has helped illuminate the scene's interpretive richness; she argues that Cawdor's reported lines “paint a typical enough tableau, but it is ironized both by its narrative prematurity and by the fact that the new Thane of Cawdor is already contemplating treason.”39 Such formulaic repentance, she argues, should accompany tragic closure, rather than occurring in the play's first scene.

Indeed, Malcolm's report acknowledges the interpretive challenge of Cawdor's model repentance. Despite the “frankness” of Cawdor's speech, Malcolm expresses his reservation at the traitor's performance. Malcolm's first line, “[n]othing in his life became him like the leaving it,” dances between disdain and compliment for the traitor. Although he wryly dismisses the traitor, suggesting that death suits the treacherous Cawdor more than life ever did, he equally implies that the traitor earned an unprecedented glory in his final moment, making it the greatest achievement in his life. Malcolm maintains this tenuous balance between praise and contempt for Cawdor in his next line: “he died / As one that had been studied in his death.” Expressed through a simile, the line compares Cawdor's end to a stock death, “one that had been studied,” suggesting that the traitor appropriately prepared himself according to the tradition of the ars moriendi. The phrase “studied in his death” equally implies, however, an artful, or dissembling end, one of mouthing forms without belief, as F. W. suggests in his report of Ruckwood's death analyzed above. The use of “studied” in Malcolm's phrase could insinuate an even less favorable portrait if we interpret the following line “the dearest thing he ow'd” not as the body but instead as the soul, as suggested by Kenneth Muir.40

The conventional scaffold speech should educate the audience away from treason, but Cawdor's speech instead defies easy characterization since Malcolm appears to question the sincerity of the prisoner's “studied” lines. Further, when considered in light of early modern scaffold speech pamphlets, such a formulaic account raises doubts about the authenticity of the report itself. If such dying last words pamphlets elicited skepticism from their readership, then Malcolm's report may have provoked equal suspicion from the theatre audience. Like a pamphleteer, Malcolm demonstrates his ability to manipulate language, creating a convenient fiction for the benefit of the crown, a point to which I shall return below.

If Malcolm's report on the execution highlights the insidious power of treason to confuse truthful speech and “studied” falsehood, then Duncan is perhaps the only viewer who fails to learn this lesson. In response to the report, the king offers a short commentary, laced with dramatic irony as many critics have noted: “There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face: / He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust—[Enter Macbeth …]” (1.4.11-14). Unable to detect the “mind” in the “face,” the king becomes a victim of Macbeth's false hospitality at Inverness where he is murdered. On one level, Duncan here serves as a symbol of untarnished monarchy, unable to see, and therefore untainted by, treason.41 The play appears to reinforce Duncan's sanctified rule by highlighting his baffled response to Cawdor's treason, in contrast to the ambitious Macbeths: in the scene after Cawdor's execution, and immediately following Macbeth's promotion, Lady Macbeth recommends the treasonous duplicity between “mind” and “face” to her husband, urging him to “[o]nly look up clear” as he welcomes, and contemplates killing, Duncan (1.5.71). While Duncan's “gentle senses” (1.6.3) celebrate the sweet air at Inverness, Lady Macbeth summons an atmosphere of “thick Night,” filled with the “dunnest smoke of Hell” (1.5.50-51), anticipating Macbeth's own “Come, seeling Night” speech (3.2.46-55). In its portrait of the Macbeths, the play thus rehearses the most sensational portraits of treason, familiar from propagandistic texts such as Anthony Munday's “The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington” (1601) in which he writes “Muffle the eye of day, / Ye gloomie clouds (the darker than my deedes, / That darker be than pitchie sable night).”42 Munday's depiction of treason anticipates Shakespeare's Macbeths, sketching an atmosphere in which the secretive, murderous criminal threatens the innocent monarch.

The play's apparently stark opposition between the legitimate kingship of Duncan and the murderous usurpation of Macbeth has helped, however, to mask the ways in which the play questions the propagandistic portrait of treason's horror. First, the opening scenes of the play expose Duncan's political ineptitude, borne of his inability to read the political landscape that surrounds him.43 Although it may be objected that Duncan's struggle with treason does not suggest his inadequate leadership but instead the fallen state of Macbeth's Scotland, such an emphasis on Macbeth as the sole source of treason ignores the political turmoil that opens the play: at war with Norway, the Scottish troops have only recently succeeded in freeing Malcolm from captivity (1.2.4-5). Further, Harry Berger reminds us that by the fourth scene of the play Duncan has encountered two rebels, and these facts “have to be set against the persistent praise of Duncan as an ideal king, the head of a harmonious state.”44 Furthermore, as Jonathan Goldberg argues, while Duncan's language may appear to support the play's propagandistic opposition of sovereign and traitor, his lines find their source in Holinshed's witches; as a result, he claims, “the absolute differences and moral clarity that critics have found to be Shakespeare's are [instead] … Duncan's.”45

Duncan appears even more culpable if we consider, following the example of the scaffold speech pamphlets, that Malcolm's report itself may be a fabrication. If pamphleteers sought royal license and approval by producing the speeches of penitent traitors, then the very spectacle that should help reassert royal authority over the crown's subjects instead serves the opposite function: the subjects, in this case the pamphleteers, reassure the crown of its own authority through an arguably fictional genre. Duncan, a king threatened by treason from within and rebellion from without, attempts to reestablish his own political authority through his swift execution of Cawdor. Instead, not only does Cawdor's execution provoke Macbeth's treason, but it also exhibits Duncan's excessive dependence on his loyal subjects, including Rosse, who informs him of Cawdor's treason, and Malcolm who informs him of the execution. Rather than leading his subjects, Duncan, as Berger so persuasively argues, is continually in their debt, as when he proclaims to Macbeth immediately after the execution of Cawdor, “more is thy due than more than all can pay” (1.4.21). Rather than protecting his country, Duncan himself requires protection, and Malcolm's comforting but arguably fictive report of Cawdor's death only further highlights the king's heavy dependence on his own subjects.


While Cawdor's execution infects truthful speech in the early scenes of the play, it is the portrait of Malcolm that reinforces such linguistic and political contamination in the final act. Specifically, as I shall suggest, Malcolm's emergent leadership owes more to the deceitful tactics of Cawdor and Macbeth than to his vulnerable father's example. First, Malcolm's revolt against Macbeth is of questionable legitimacy, a point illuminated more clearly in Shakespeare's historical sources than in his play.46 On one level, as both the nominated Prince of Cumberland and Duncan's son, Malcolm appears to satisfy two systems of inheritance: tanistry, the traditional, Scottish system of indirect inheritance, and primogeniture, the newer system based on direct succession. Yet in nominating Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, Duncan ignores Macbeth's equal claim to the throne through indirect succession, thereby complicating issues of legitimate inheritance in the play; as David Norbrook argues: “there were still noblemen whose allegiance was to the older system according to which Macbeth, son of Malcolm's other daughter, would have had a strong claim” (88). In the case of Shakespeare's play, Norbrook notes that “[i]f Duncan has to nominate his son, presumably the implication is that he could have nominated someone else, that the system is not one of pure primogeniture” (94). Further, as both Michael Hawkins and David Scott Kastan perceptively maintain, despite Macbeth's usurpation of the crown, he nevertheless reigns as an anointed king and thus Malcolm remains bound to obey his rule. The doctrine of non-resistance, upheld by James himself in The Trew Law of Free Monarchies (1598), forbids rebellion: “the wickednesse therefore of the King can never make them that are ordained to be judged by him, to become his judges.”47

Malcolm, then, arguably emerges as a Cawdor and Macbeth figure himself. Most obviously, according to the doctrine of non-resistance, he treasonously attacks a legitimate monarch. Yet, the play occludes this issue in depicting his rebellion. Instead, Malcolm's role as a Cawdor figure develops more subtly: in each of Malcolm's appearances between his father's murder and his own ascension as king, he increasingly exploits the opposition of “mind” and “face” so that, like Macbeth, he deceives his audiences onstage in order to protect himself and eventually gain the throne. First, immediately after his father's murder he separates speech from sincerity, claiming that “[t]o show an unfelt sorrow is an office / Which the false man does easy” (2.3.134-35). His connection of performance (“to show”) and falsity (“unfelt sorrow”) recalls his ambiguous attitude toward Cawdor's studied speech, since in both cases he retains a skeptical distance from sirenic speech. While Macbeth openly, and deceptively, laments the king's death, Malcolm and Donalbain remain silent, causing Malcolm to ask his brother in an aside, “Why do we hold our tongues, that most may claim / This argument for ours?” (2.3.118-19). The image of the held, or controlled, tongue powerfully contrasts with the overflow of the scene, occurring at the level both of the body, seen in Duncan's blood and Lady Macbeth's emotion, and of the tongue itself, evident in the cries of Macduff and the Macbeths. Malcolm's initial image of the held tongue could stand as a symbol for the virginal prince who is, as Janet Adelman has noted in her influential reading of the representation of masculine power in the play, “yet / Unknown to women” (4.3.125-26).48

Initially questioning the association of speech and sincerity, Malcolm then begins to exploit the duplicitous potential of language as he establishes his allies in the fight against Macbeth. His exchange with Macduff in 4.3 most clearly reveals this linguistic deception; here, as Norbrook persuasively argues of Malcolm, “[p]aradoxically, it is only by modeling himself on Macbeth's own strategies of dissimulation (4.3.117-19) that he can prove Macduff's virtue” (111). Characterizing himself to Macduff as an uncontrolled libertine who would “pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell” (98), Malcolm claims that his own vices are so heinous that “when they shall be open'd, black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow” (52-53). He ends his list of multitudinous sins by insisting to Macduff's disbelief, “I am as I have spoken” (102). Malcolm's self-characterization directly contradicts his own behavior in the play (he is a man who is known more through silence than speech), inverting his identity in a manner parallel to the equation plaguing Scotland: “fair is foul and foul is fair.” His own statement “I am as I have spoken” ironically recalls Duncan's belief in authentic speech, invoking the earlier faith in the correspondence of speech and intent as a ruse to expose deceit.49

Finally, having manipulated his audience through false speech, Malcolm ends by tricking Macbeth's troops with his illusionist battle tactics. According to the witches' prophecy, Macbeth is safe “until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.92-94). Such a statement reassures Macbeth, who cannot imagine this geographical impossibility: “That will never be: / Who can impress the forest; bid the tree / Unfix his earth-bound root?” (94-96). By the next act, however, we learn that it is Malcolm who “can impress the forest” and “bid the tree / Unfix” its root when he tells his troops, “Let every soldier hew him down a bough, / And bear't before him: thereby shall we shadow / The numbers of our host” (5.4.4-6). While Malcolm is ignorant of the witches' speech to Macbeth, his command nevertheless fulfills their prophecy. In attempting to “shadow / The numbers,” he implements devious tactics in order to conquer treason, since he, like the Macbeths, proves willing to haunt the darkened shadows in order to obtain royal power.

Using deception to test Macduff's loyalty and triumph over Macbeth, Malcolm adopts the traitor's art. Ironically, while the Macbeths began the play by using language as a medium through which to deceive Duncan, as the play continues they increasingly betray themselves by speaking frankly of their treasons. Macbeth unwittingly discloses his murder of Duncan and Banquo to his nobles in the banquet scene, and Lady Macbeth famously confesses her crimes to her doctor and maid while sleepwalking. Further, unable or unwilling to recognize the witches' prophecies as misleading half-truths, Macbeth desperately clings to their speeches as authentic statements about his future, repeating “I will not be afraid of death and bane, / Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” as a means of consoling himself (5.3.59-60; see also 1-10). If Macbeth's demise comes in part from his unwillingness to recognize the witches' prophecies as riddles, Malcolm acknowledges and employs the riddles of language, both in the opening scene where, as I have argued, he highlights the indecipherability of Cawdor's dying words, and in the closing scenes with Macduff.

As well as exposing Malcolm's use of arguably treasonous deception in gaining the throne, the play also reinforces his distance from pious kingship, thereby frustrating our attempts to read his victory as a restoration, or establishment, of sovereign order. The scene of his misleading exchange with Macduff, for example, ends with the portrait of England's saintly King Edward whose methods deeply contrast with Malcolm's own. Describing Edward's god-given power to cure, known as “the king's touch,” the doctor reports how, “at [Edward's] touch, / Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand, / They [the ill] presently amend” (143-45). Malcolm elaborates, saying to Macduff that the king can heal

                                                                                                                        the Evil:
A most miraculous work in this good King,
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven,
Himself best knows; but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures.


In treating “the Evil,” namely the physical malady of scrofula, the king heals “strangely-visited people,” a descriptive phrase that recalls Scotland's own trauma under Macbeth, himself the object of strange visitations in the form of the witches, ghosts, and visions. Indeed, the description of England's “Evil” powerfully resonates in the context of Scotland's own plague with the crime of treason, a point persuasively argued by Susanne L. Wofford, who writes that the play “nostalgically invokes the English King as healer of the body private and politic—the successful doctor missing in Scotland is found in the English King who can heal by the laying on of hands.”50 While Duncan attempts to excise the treasonous plague through violent surgery, executing the criminal Cawdor, “the Evil” only multiplies, becoming “[t]he mere despair of surgery.” Edward's ability to heal through the divine gift of touch imaginatively provides a cure, fulfilling Duncan's earlier longing for an art to heal the Evil that haunted his kingdom and resulted in his death.

The model of monarchy presented in this short, idealized portrait of Edward's reign offers a powerful antidote to the bloody tyranny of Macbeth, suggesting a form of pious rule for beleaguered Scotland. Although Edward receives Malcolm in England and therefore symbolically purifies the Scottish heir, nevertheless the connection of monarchy and treason established with Cawdor's opening scaffold speech argues against the possibility of a divine monarch, independent of treasonous machinations. Juxtaposing the two episodes of 4.3, one of deception, in which Malcolm slanders himself before Macduff, and one of healing, in which Malcolm depicts Edward's curative powers, throws into high relief the contrast between the English and the Scottish contexts. Malcom's testing of Macduff exposes the tragic condition of Scotland's monarchy, which combines strong rule with traitorous arts. The contrasting portrait of Edward thus represents the illusion of divine kingship that Malcolm and his countrymen can no longer experience.

Although the play struggles to assert a model of divine kingship in the figures of Duncan and Edward the Confessor, it ultimately challenges the ideological opposition of monarch and traitor by intertwining these roles. Macbeth's own rule most clearly undermines the distinction by combining the tactics of traitor and king. Yet even before he succeeds to the throne, Scottish kingship appears compromised by Duncan's imperceptive, vulnerable rule. Duncan dismisses interpretive arts, in part because he sees his political landscape in terms of absolutes, dividing his soldier friends from his foreign enemies. Such oppositions fail to account for the conceptual fog that hovers over Scotland, blurring the distinction between male and female, as with the witches and Lady Macbeth, and ally and traitor, as with Macbeth himself. If material, gendered bodies become indistinguishable in the play, as Marjorie Garber has so effectively argued, so too the immaterial categories of truth and falsity lose their definition: the witches' speeches defy such rigid characterization, hovering between accurate prophecy and alluring deceit. As a result, the nation's successful king combines the attributes of monarch and traitor, negotiating between legitimacy and deceit in order to establish his rule. Despite Norbrook's astute analysis that the play ends with the recuperation of authentic, public language, evident when “Macduff is able to proclaim an end to dissimulation” (111), Malcolm's trajectory from silent witness of his father's murder to deceptive leader who tricks Macbeth undermines such assurances. Rather than offering, as Norbrook suggests, “not just a restoration but the foundation of a new and more stable order” (112), Malcolm's accession in the play tragically demonstrates that only by adopting the tools of the traitor can the king triumph on Scotland's foggy heath.

Ironically, if state spectacles should instruct potential traitors to abstain from transgressing, in the case of Macbeth, the traitor's tricks instead educate the country's future rulers. Specifically, the initial spectacle of Cawdor's execution backfires, since rather than inspiring loyalty it teaches Malcolm the value of deceptive rhetoric and bolsters Macbeth's ambition for the crown. Staging Malcolm's tragic education at the hands of Cawdor and Macbeth, the play presses on the boundaries of English Renaissance model of tragedy. Rather than confirming the didacticism implied in Sidney's definition, the play instead reinforces the more radical implications of his model: tragedy imagines a theatrical world in which the political and epistemological oppositions between king and traitor, innocent and guilty, internal and external, bleed into one another. The tragic genre as represented in Macbeth thus exposes how the transgressions of witches and traitors lie in the tissue of each spectator as well, hidden just beneath the surface and waiting to be exposed on the tragic scaffold.


Opening with the failed didacticism of Cawdor, Macbeth ends with Malcolm's alleged triumph over treason. But amidst the celebration of Malcolm's victory lies a ghost plot, haunting the final scene. This ghost plot concerns the manner of Macbeth's death, a topic that plagues him for the second half of the play. Given the doubling of Macbeth and Cawdor, both in name and in deed, Macbeth's death has already been written in Cawdor's in the first act. To make the spectral relation complete, Macbeth should follow his namesake's example, didactically confessing in the final scene, and allowing his title to pass to yet another presumably traitorous Cawdor. This plot-not-taken remains a possibility until the end, a possibility that seems all the stronger given the historical precedent of traitors who, despite their fierce challenges to authority, appear to repent in their final moments.

Juxtaposing the deaths of the two Cawdors highlights the tragic power of Macbeth's decision to embrace bloodshed as a means of carving his own end. His manner of dying opposes that of his earlier namesake: while Cawdor's speech recalls the dying last words of the vast majority of traitors, Macbeth becomes a bestial fighter who defies human expectation. His death betrays a fiendish intensity challenging not only the state that the king had formerly ruled but also the religious faith to which he is expected to turn. Realizing that the riddling prophecies of the witches are fulfilled, Macbeth, like Marlowe's Faustus, condemns himself to hell on stage, presenting the audience with a vision of terror: the transgressive subject refuses or is unable to repent, therefore damning himself before our eyes. Cawdor, in the conventional manner, offers himself to a theatre of execution watching rapt as he utters his last words, be they authentic, insincere, or entirely fictional. In violent contrast to this allegedly docile subject on the scaffold, Macbeth cries “before my body / I throw my warlike shield” (5.8.32-33). In doing so, he challenges the relation of spectator and actor that operates on the scaffold by forcing us to examine our own generic expectations for repentance and restoration even as we gaze at him. As with Perseus's triumph over Medusa, Macbeth turns his spectral shield to the audience, opposing the conventions for pious death and allowing himself, momentarily, to triumph. Denying expectation, damning himself, yet famously inventing his own plot, Macbeth reveals Cawdor's formula to be weak art indeed.


  1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, in The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1951; reprinted 1984). All citations from the play are to this edition.

  2. The speeches appear individually in contemporary printed matter, and are also catalogued in John Cobbett and William Howell, ed., Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Vols. 1 and 2 (London: T.C. Hansard, 1809). For other editions containing primary materials on execution, see C. G. L. Du Cann, English Treason Trials (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1964); Joseph H. Marshburn and Alan R. Velie, Blood and Knavery: A Collection of English Renaissance Pamphlets and Ballads of Crime and Sin (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973); Donald Thomas, ed., State Trials: Treason and Libel, Vol. 1 (London: Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1972).

  3. On the representation of execution in Shakespeare, see Karin S. Coddon, “‘Suche Strange Desygns’: Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture” in Case Studies in Contemporary Literature: Hamlet, ed. Susanne L. Wofford (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1994), 380-402; Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 111-14.

  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1978); J. A. Sharpe, “‘Last Dying Speeches’: Religion, Ideology, and Public Execution in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 107 (1985): 144-67; Lacey Baldwin Smith, “English Treason Trials and Confessions in the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15 (1954): 471-98; and Smith, Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986). The analyses of Sharpe and Smith, while not directly engaging with the work of Michel Foucault, nevertheless corroborate his argument that execution practices staged an invincible display of state force. Foucault, however, goes on to analyze how the tension of the ceremony occasionally worked against the sovereign; particularly toward the end of the sixteenth century, the audience increasingly rioted at the scaffold spectacle (59-69). On continental execution, see also Lisa Silverman, Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth and the Body in Early Modern France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), especially ch. 6; Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  5. Philip Sidney, “The Defence of Poesy” in Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Prose and Poetry, ed. Robert Kimbrough (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 102-58; 129.

  6. George Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), shares Sidney's view of tragedy as educative, writing how “the bad and illawdable parts of all estates and degrees were taxed by the Poets in one sort or an other and those of great Princes by Tragedie in especial, and not till after their deaths … to th'intent that such exemplifying (as it were) of their blames and adversities, being now dead, might worke for a secret reprehension to others that were alive, living in the same or like abuses …” (D2v).

  7. Scholars continue to debate the occasion of the first performance. See Kenneth Muir, “Introduction,” Macbeth: The Arden Shakespeare, xv-xxv; Henry Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan Company, 1950), 15-24. On the Gunpowder plot, see Paul Durst, Intended Treason: What Really Happened in the Gunpowder Plot (London: W. H. Allen, 1970); Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (New York: Doubleday, 1996); Alan Haynes, The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion (Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994); Mark Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991).

  8. Scholars cite the equivocation jokes within the Porter's scene as topical references to Father Garnet's infamous equivocation when questioned about his role in the Gunpowder plot. See Philip Caraman, Henry Garnet 1555-1606 and the Gunpowder Plot (London: Longmans, 1964); Haynes, Gunpowder, 133; Frank L. Huntley, “Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation,” PMLA 79 (1964): 390-400; Muir, “Introduction,” xx-xxii; and Garry Wills's important study of Macbeth in relation to the Gunpowder plot, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). As a central figure in the English Catholic community and a proponent of equivocation, Garnet was one of the crown's most important prisoners, despite the fact that he played only a minor role in the Gunpowder plot itself. See Henry Garnet, “A Treatise of Equivocation,” also published as “A Treatise against Lying and Fraudulent Dissimulation,” Bodleian, Laud MS., misc. 655; also edited by David Jardine (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1851).

  9. Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (London: Methuen, 1986), 130; see especially the chapter entitled “The Theater of Punishment: Jacobean Tragedy and the Politics of Misogyny.” See also Antonia Fraser, who writes that the play “is a work redolent with outrage at the monstrous upsetting of the natural order, which is brought about when subjects kill their lawful sovereign,” Faith, 280, and Alvin Kernan's forceful argument, in Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), that Shakespeare transformed Holinshed “to fit his patron's political myth,” creating a story that conveys “a sacred event in the history of divine-right legitimacy” (78).

  10. Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), 87-123; 114, quoted in Shakespeare's Late Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Susanne L. Wofford (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996), 74-103; 98.

  11. See also Janet Adelman, who offers a powerful reading of Duncan's corpse as a Medusa figure in Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 133, especially the chapter entitled “Escaping the Matrix: The Construction of Masculinity in Macbeth and Coriolanus.

  12. Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage. Although Mullaney argues that the liberty of the theatre to comment on dominant cultures diminishes as it becomes a more permanent feature of the London landscape, his chapter on Macbeth nevertheless demonstrates the play's oppositional potential. My analysis of the play is indebted to his own. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.

  13. I am indebted to those scholars who have analyzed the play's radical potential before me, including Karin S. Coddon, who offers a compelling analysis of madness and treason in “‘Unreal Mockery’: Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth,ELH 56 (1989): 485-501; Marjorie Garber, “Macbeth: the Male Medusa”; Jonathan Goldberg, who offers a skillful, Derridean reading of the play in “Speculations: Macbeth and Source,” Shakespeare Reproduced: the Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (London: Methuen, 1987), 242-64; Ned Lukacher, Daemonic Figures: Shakespeare and the Question of Conscience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 162-93; Steven Mullaney, “Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason in Renaissance England,” ELH 47 (1980): 32-47; 41, reprinted in Wofford, Shakespeare's Late Tragedies, 61-73; Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  14. Goldberg, “Speculations,” 244.

  15. Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 258; David Scott Kastan, “Tragic Closure and Tragic Disclosure,” Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (London: Macmillan, 1982), 79-101; 95.

  16. Adelman, “Escaping the Matrix,” 146; Peter Stallybrass, “Macbeth and Witchcraft” in Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge, 1982), 189-209; esp. 200-202. For further analysis of the play's gendered outcome, see Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 224-30, esp. 229; Carol Thomas Neely, “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture,” Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

  17. Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 95-108; 103, especially the chapter entitled “Macbeth: History, Ideology, Intellectuals.”

  18. Interpretations of tragedy's radical potential have been presented eloquently by Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985); Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 1984) and Franco Moretti, “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty” in The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, a special edition of Genre 15 (Norman: Pilgrim Press, 1982): 7-40.

  19. See John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 271-78 for an excellent account of Norfolk's end.

  20. “The Trial of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk at Tower Hill: Elizabeth I a.d.1572” in Cobbett and Howell, Cobbett's, vol. 1, 1032-33.

  21. “The several Confessions of Thomas Norton and Christopher Norton, two of the Northern Rebels, who suffered at Tyburn” (London: William How for Richard Jones); ibid., 1085.

  22. Ibid., 1158-59.

  23. “Account of the Execution of the Earl of Essex,” State Papers Domestic, Elizabeth I: 12/278, no. 12 (February 25, 1601). See also the account of his execution in SPD 12/278, nos. 113 and 114.

  24. Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches,” 163.

  25. “A True Relation of all such things as passed at the Execution of M. Garnet, the third of May, anno 1606” in “A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings against the late most barbarous traitors” (London: Robert Barker, 1606), sig. Fff3v.

  26. “A True Declaration of the Happy Conversion, Contrition and Christian Preparation of Francis Robinson, Gentleman. Who for Counterfeiting the Great Seale of England was Drawen, Hang'd and Quartered at Charing Crosse, on Friday Last, being the Thirteenth Day of November, 1618” (London, 1618), sig. A4r. For a mention of Francis Robinson, see Sharpe, “Last Dying Speeches,” 150.

  27. Edward III had defined treason and its punishment in 1352, in a statute that served as the basis for early modern statutes on treason. See 25 Edw. III st.5 c.2, cited in Statutes of the Realm, Volume I (Record Commission, 1810-28), 319-20. On treason law, see John Bellamy, The Tudor Law of Treason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).

  28. “The Araignement and Execution of the late Traytors” (London: Jeffrey Chorlton, 1606), sig. C3r. The Folger Shakespeare Library copy of the pamphlet contains a signature of “Wilbury Shakespeare” on the title page.

  29. Ibid., sig. B4r.

  30. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982; reprinted 1984).

  31. The form of his spiritual contrition, however, could break convention and provoke the audience, as in the case of Catholic prisoners who uttered prayers while making the sign of the cross. The Catholic prayers of Gunpowder plotter Sir Everard Digby were condemned by the pamphleteer who recorded the incident as “vain and superstitious crossing” in “The Araignement and Execution of the late Traytors.”

  32. Fol. 229. Quoted in Nancy Lee Beaty, The Craft of Dying: A Study in the Literary Tradition of the Ars Moriendi in England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 121. See also Ars moriendi (ca. 1450); The Craft to Live and Die Well (1505); Frances M. M. Comper, ed., The Book of the Craft of Dying, and Other Early English Tracts Concerning Death (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1917), 5-6; Clare Gittings, Death, Burial, and the Individual in Early Modern England (London: Croom Helm, 1984); Sister Mary Catharine O'Conner, The Art of Dying Well: The Development of the Ars Moriendi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942). For readings of the ars moriendi in Shakespeare, see Harry Berger Jr., “Ars Moriendi in Progress, or John of Gaunt and the Practice of Strategic Dying,” The Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities 1.1 (1987): 39-67; Duncan Harris, “Tombs, Guidebooks and Shakespearean Drama: Death in the Renaissance,” Mosaic 15.1 (1982): 23.

  33. “A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors” (London: Robert Barker, 1606), sig. K2v.

  34. “The Araignement and Execution of the late Traytors,” sig. B4r.

  35. Cobbett and Howell, Cobbett's, vol. 1, 1413.

  36. “Araignement and Execution,” sig. B2v. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.

  37. For an analysis of the demonic onstage in Macbeth, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare Bewitched” in New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts, Representing History, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Larry J. Reynolds (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 108-35. See also B. J. Sokol, “Macbeth and the Social History of Witchcraft,” The Shakespeare Yearbook 6 (1996): 245-74.

  38. Early modern law condemned the prophecy of a sovereign's death as treason since, according to 25 Edw. III, st.5 c.2 and Eliz. I, c.1, it was to “imagine … bodily harme to the King or Queene or heires apparent” or “deprive them of the dignity, title, or name of their royal estates.” Cited in Statutes of the Realm, Vol. 1 (Record Commission, 1810-28), 319-20; and in “An Exposition of Certain Difficult and obscure words and terms of the Lawes of this Realme” (London: 1592).

  39. Coddon, “‘Unreal Mockery’: Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth,” 494. On Cawdor's speech, see also Henry N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth, 233 and George Steevens, quoted in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Macbeth, ed. Horace Howard J. Furness (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963), both of whom briefly compare the dying speech of Cawdor to that of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex.

  40. Kenneth Muir, “Image and Symbol in Macbeth,Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 45-54. Also see Roy Walker, The Time is Free: A Study of Macbeth (London: Andrew Dakers, 1949), 23, who compares the phrase “the dearest thing” to the phrase “eternal jewel” from 3.1.67.

  41. I am grateful to Susanne L. Wofford for help with this point.

  42. “The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington” (London: R. Bradock, 1601). See Kenneth Muir, Arden edition of Macbeth, 30-31.

  43. The example of William Parry's attempted treason against Elizabeth helps verify the association of monarchical authority with exposing ‘the mind in the face,’ further suggesting Duncan's inadequacy. Parry had conspired with Mary, Queen of Scots to assassinate Elizabeth in 1585, yet finding himself alone with the Queen, rather than murdering her as he had planned, he instead confessed his plot, perhaps under the mistaken assumption that he might receive a reward. See Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (London: J. Johnson, 1807-8) Vol. 4: 561-63; Guy, Tudor England, 332, 444; Wallace MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I (New York: Edward Arnold, 1993), 344.

  44. Harry Berger, Jr., “The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH 47 (1980): 1-31; 4. See also his “Text against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth” in The Forms of Power in the English Renaissance, 49-79.

  45. Goldberg, “Speculations,” 249. On Duncan's faults, see also Michael Hawkins, “History, Politics and Macbeth,” 155-87 who notes that “many of the attributes ascribed to Duncan have a questionable double edge in a king” (173) and David Norbrook, “Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography” in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 78-116, who writes that “Duncan is no very impressive judge of character” (94). Subsequent references to Norbrook will be included parenthetically in the text.

  46. On the relationship between Shakespeare's play and historical accounts such as Holinshed and Buchanan, see, for example, the illuminating analyses of Norbrook (ibid.) and Arthur F. Kinney, “Scottish History, The Union of the Crowns, and the Issue of Right Rule: The Case of Shakespeare's Macbeth” in Renaissance Culture in Context, ed. Jean R. Brink and William F. Gentrup (Aldershot: The Scolar Press, 1993), 21.

  47. The Trew Law (Edinburgh, 1598). See also Hawkins, “History,” 177 and David Scott Kastan's insightful reading of the play, which notes the doubling of the Norwegian rebellion that opens the play in Malcolm's rebellion in the final act in Shakespeare After Theory (London: Routledge, 1999), 177.

  48. Janet Adelman, “Escaping the Matrix,” 144-46.

  49. While the scene with Macduff has been characterized as a perfunctory paraphrase from Holinshed, Marvin Rosenberg has reminded us of the theatrical success of this suspenseful scene, particularly for spectators who do not know the outcome in advance; see The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 543. On the relationship between the texts of Shakespeare and Holinshed, see also Goldberg, “Speculations”; Hawkins, “History”; and Norbrook, “Macbeth.

  50. Susanne L. Wofford, “The Body Unseamed: Shakespeare's Late Tragedies,” Shakespeare's Late Tragedies, 3.

I am grateful to many scholar-friends for their assistance with this piece; I would like to thank in particular Susanne L. Wofford, Heather Dubrow, Bob Darcy, Emma Mason, William Kuskin, and Richelle Munkhoff, as well as David Román and the two anonymous readers at Theatre Journal.

Ben Brantley (review date 22 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Fierce Kindred Spirits, Burning for a Throne.” New York Times (22 June 2000): E1, E5.

[In the following review, Brantley commends Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Macbeth as insightful and assured, particularly citing the intense performances of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.]

Their glittering, too-open eyes are scary, so luminous that you expect them to glow in the dark. But while the usual witches and ghosts are in attendance, it is something less supernatural that gives this power couple's gaze its intensity in the Royal Shakespeare Company's thrilling new production of Macbeth, which runs through Sunday at the Long Wharf Theater here.

Come now, you've seen the look that beams so unnervingly from the faces of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, the show's splendid stars, and if you're a New Yorker, you encounter it daily. It's a ravenous, lusty look that even the most sycophantic smile can't camouflage. Stronger than any sex drive, it is pure, simple ambition, and these Macbeths are positively drunk on it.

Without making the obvious bids for topical relevance, the director, Gregory Doran, has shaped Shakespeare's tale of regicide and its discontents into a harrowing and disturbingly funny parable for the dawn of the 21st century. This Macbeth, which bears scant resemblance to the stodgy oratorical exercise now on Broadway under the same name, finds its taking-off point in its protagonist's declaration that he has “only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other. …”

Though Macbeth famously never finishes that sentence, this adrenaline-pumping interpretation amply fills in the blank, carefully and vigorously charting the landscape where leaping ambition finally falls. That's the realm of madness of course, but I have never seen a Macbeth that makes such a specific and convincing case for its leading lord and lady's increasingly demented behavior as a natural outgrowth of their characters as we first see them.

Be careful what you wish for. Truman Capote, a devoted chronicler of people with warping appetites, spent his life accumulating evidence of the wisdom of that warning. Not that these Macbeths have any choice in the matter. Their compulsiveness and their bottomless need to reach the throne are all too evident long before King Duncan (Trevor Martin) is slain.

Take, for example, the moment when Macbeth—freshly covered with laurels from his triumphs on the battlefield—appears at an assembly where the king announces his successor. Mr. Sher puffs himself like a nominee on Oscar night, clearly in anticipation of hearing his own name. And the winner is, alas, the king's son, Malcolm. For a sharp second, this Macbeth appears to have had the wind knocked out of him. But then, like many an Oscar loser, he is the first to lead the applause with a hearty smile.

In like manner, when we first see Ms. Walter's Lady Macbeth, reading aloud a letter from her husband, she runs through the text with a breathless sexual urgency; when she comes to the word “king,” in reference to the witches' prophecies for her husband, she can't even speak it at first, she's so excited. Ooo baby, we're almost there.

Mr. Sher and Ms. Walter are much celebrated for their vital portraiture on the London stage. (Mr. Sher, the better known in the States, appeared indelibly on Broadway several seasons ago in Stanley.) The intensity they bring to the murderous thane and his wife isn't surprising in itself. What is, is how they are able to begin at an improbable fever pitch and then keep growing hotter, moving imaginatively forward when you think they have reached a dead end.

The entire production, in New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, sustains a martial urgency that only rarely slackens, underscored with propulsive drum-driven music by Adrian Lee. In keeping with the suffocating nighttime imagery woven throughout the tragedy, the evening begins in utter darkness.

The chanting weird sisters (Diane Beck, Noma Dumezweni, Polly Kemp) who begin the play are at first only seen, not heard: whispering, as it were, in our ears. The first visual image is of soldiers and of a bloodied man hurled into their midst as if by a catapult. The image is apt, since the news this man bears, of Macbeth's bloody successes on the field, sets off a missile that won't self-destruct until the evening's end, and perhaps not even then.

Mr. Sher's Macbeth is introduced as a revved-up conquering hero, borne on the shoulders of his comrades, instead of making the customary entrance with no one but Banquo (Ken Bones). This Macbeth is the image of the popular soldier: rowdy, virile, collegial.

He's a brusque, blunt-spoken type, and if you asked him, he would probably tell you he is not by nature introspective. (He treats his horror-conjuring imagination as an unwanted guest.) What makes him stand out from the crowd is his energy, which burns a shade too bright for comfort.

Ms. Walter's designing Lady is, correspondingly, a bundle of electromagnetic nerves, and it makes sense that when these two reunite, a statewide blackout follows. While some interpretations present Lady Macbeth as the prime motivator of the crimes to come, this production makes it clear that the spouses share, er, strong common interests.

Like many couples they have a seesaw relationship of support: when one's down, the other's up. That is, until the final acts, when they both come spectacularly unglued.

Mr. Doran and his team ensure that their production is not only a portrait of a marriage. Whereas I often leave a Macbeth hard pressed to remember who played whom in the supporting cast, this version offers a gallery of cleanly and specifically defined characters, not all of whom are immune to the plague of o'ervaulting ambition.

Mr. Bones's tough, shrewd Banquo, for example, clearly has his own mighty thirst for regal glory, a trait made to figure ominously in the evening's final tableau. And in that usually tedious scene in which the exiled Malcolm (John Dougall) and Macduff (a Sam Shepard-like Nigel Cooke) discuss the traits required for kingship, you get the idea that the passive, pure Malcolm doesn't really have what it takes.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's set designs and Tim Mitchell's lighting conspire to create a world in which a Grand Guignol darkness dominates and the fantasy of majesty glows with ecclesiastic mystery. Simple props are used to resonant poetic effect: a child's pacifier, military medals and, particularly, the king's crown. Notice also the use of Macduff's dagger in the climactic fight with Macbeth.

There are a few elements that feel overdone. Making the drunken porter an audience-baiting comic in the manner of the M.C. from Cabaret breaks the play's rhythm in unwelcome ways, though Stephen Noonan handles the part expertly. And Mr. Sher, whose Macbeth later assumes a gangsterish menace that recalls Bob Hoskins at his most splenetic, may be a shade too bogus in his rhetorical lamentations after the body of Duncan is discovered.

These are very small sins. In the big moments this Macbeth delivers grandly. Both the sleepwalking scene, rendered as an autistic frenzy by Ms. Walter, and the “tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue, to which Mr. Sher brings a simple, all-flattening nihilism, have the painful, grotesque immediacy of lanced blisters Even more impressive, you are always aware of the chain of emotional logic that has brought these two to this jagged point.

The evening's boldest moment, both its darkest and its brightest, comes when Macbeth and his Lady, weary with the burdens of monarchy and murder, agree that all they really need is a good night's sleep. Sleep? The very word sends them into paroxysms of laughter that fleetingly confirm the couple's bond as kindred souls Mamtaining power, as any C.E.O. or magazine editor will tell you, is a full-time job. There's no rest for the supersuccessful.

David L. Kranz (essay date summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Kranz, David L. “The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth.Studies in Philology 100, no. 3 (summer 2003): 346-83.

[In the following essay, Kranz examines the structural and thematic implications of Shakespeare's use of repetitive poetry in Macbeth, particularly emphasizing how the witches' words are echoed in the linguistic patterns of the other characters in the play.]

It is a commonplace among critics of Macbeth to point out that the eponymous hero's first words echo a similarly antithetical line chanted by the witches in the opening scene of the play. Macbeth's “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.38) is noteworthy not only because it reiterates a paradoxical statement, but because it refers back to the very beginning of the play rather than to the sorceries which have just preceded Macbeth's arrival in the third scene.1 Macbeth cannot have overheard the “fair is foul” antithesis of the witches; instead, it seems to come to his mind out of the very thick air. Whether readers and audiences infer that Macbeth and the witches speak the same language by mere chance or that the latter's words have infiltrated the hero's mind simply by proximity, a close and mysterious connection between the hero and the supernatural hags is established well before the actual staged temptation of the former. Thus it is by means of verbal echo, not dramatic confrontation, that Shakespeare first connects Macbeth to the Weird Sisters.2

What is repeated in Macbeth's iteration is obviously morphemic and semantic, a matter of individual words and their juxtaposed contrary meanings. But the repeated words “foul and fair” are part of a line that has distinct rhetorical and rhythmic properties as well. Fricative alliteration reinforces the repetition, and the completely monosyllabic nature of the line crisply highlights its iambic meter. Poetic patterns, not simply repeated words, play a part in suggesting to an audience the mysterious source for Macbeth's subjective commentary on the day's battle or its weather.

Later in the third scene, Shakespeare calls explicit attention to the poetic continuities that exist between the supernatural and human characters. Fifty lines after Macbeth's words on the day's vicissitudes, after the witches hail Macbeth and Banquo three times and give them three predictions, and after the witches vanish, the two soldiers reiterate the gist of the surprising prophecies:

Your children shall be kings.
                                                                                                    You shall be King.
And Thane of Cawdor too; went it not so?
To th' selfsame tune, and words. Who's here?


This brief stichomythia is followed immediately by the arrival of Rosse and Angus, who announce that Macbeth actually has been named Thane of Cawdor. The audience, of course, has known of Macbeth's advancement since the end of 1.2, where in words and rhyme reminiscent of the witches' opener, Duncan orders in one breath the “death” of Cawdor and the removal of his title to “Macbeth,” after which Rosse responds, “I'll see it done,” and the king redundantly notes in closing, “What he hath lost, noble Macbeth hath won” (1.2.66-69). At the end of 1.3, this repeated announcement sends Macbeth into rapt asides so intriguing that little, if any, attention has been focused on the words of Banquo and Macbeth I have quoted.

The lines, however, clearly imply an intimate relationship between the witches' words and the hero's words. Banquo's answer to Macbeth's query about the accuracy of his remembrance of the witches' prophecies, moreover, refers not only to the repeated “words” themselves but to the “tune” with which Macbeth has accompanied them. Banquo says that Macbeth's rendition is “selfsame,” although on the page neither word nor rhythm is perfectly identical to the earlier predictions. The order, for example, is exactly reversed, and all the hailings are gone. Perhaps, then, Banquo is only joking. It is more likely, however, that Macbeth has imitated the speech of the witches. That he has done so, or rather that Banquo and Macbeth have together done so, is hinted in the repetitive rhetorical structure of the lines: three separate phrases, the second of which repeats the first with nearly identical syntax and the same end-word, “King.”

Metrically, the Scots' remembrance does not recapitulate exactly the largely iambic (with some trochaic) feminine pentameters characteristic of the witches' prophetic greetings to Macbeth, nor the largely trochaic (with some iambic and ambiguous, possibly spondaic) tetrameters characteristic of the prophecies about Banquo, nor the flexible seven-syllable verse heard in the chiasmic repetition of final hails to both Scots. But in the soldiers' later colloquy, the strong iambic regularity of the three three-foot phrases preceding full-stop caesuras and the two mirrored (trochee-iamb) two-foot phrases at the ends of the first two lines adumbrate the major meters of the sisters' speeches and emphasize the repeated two- and three-foot phrases distinctive in them. Thus, as Macbeth's first words call attention to a strange linguistic similarity, so do the lines that close the hero's initial confrontation with the Weird Sisters. In these lines, however, Shakespeare has Banquo comment on the form and style of Macbeth's reiteration, and since we already know what Macbeth says is true, only how he says it matters here.

What follows is an analysis of poetic repetition, verbal sameness (but not exactitude) in Macbeth. Beginning with a look at the witches' tune and then showing several ways that weird music shows up (and sometimes does not appear) in the speech of other characters throughout the tragedy, I shall attempt to expose the thick clusters of repeated sounds that help express whatever it is the witches represent and serve. While purely dictional echoes of the language of the witches in the mouths of the two main characters and general patterns of linguistic repetition throughout the tragedy have long been noted, this analysis will delineate for the first time a variety of repetitive formulae, their common shape, at what points in the play they are strong or weak, and how they operate in characters, like the Porter, whose surname is not Macbeth.3 The mapping suggests that the influence of the witches extends itself substantially to the inner thoughts of key figures at Inverness and also, but much less so, to the public pronouncements of more overtly orthodox Christian characters. The witches' tune and words are heard, however slightly, in almost every scene, and are even perceptible in the speeches of the anti-tyrannical Scots toward the end of the play. This range and distribution suggests that the poetic patterns represent powers that include but go beyond the demonic. Finally, I will explore the contextual complexity of the poetic phenomena and suggest how the distinctive style of Macbeth, more fully understood, might help mediate between conflicting interpretations of the tragedy in the last century.


If Macbeth can imitate the Weird Sisters both unconsciously and consciously in 1.3, so can the play's audience, for it has heard the witches' tune in at least two (if not all) of the first three scenes. In fact, an audience has only to witness the always significant and proleptic Shakespearean first scene and experience the sisters' “sickening see-saw” speech to have their repetitive poetry indelibly imprinted on its collective mind:4

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
                                                            Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin!
Paddock calls.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.


Most critical discussion of this dialogue has been concerned with the paradoxical semantic quality of the witches' language and the obvious rhetorical dualities that support such polarities.5 The “fair is foul” antithesis and other paradoxes have often been seen as linguistic reflections of the witches' diabolical purpose to create not just stormy weather but cosmological disorders of great magnitude. Language full of antithesis and inversion, that is, reflects in its grammatical fusion and confusion of opposites a world without difference and thus without the individuation so necessary to make orderly sense of things.6 From a Christian perspective (not the only one licensed by the play's text, of course), a day that is “foul and fair” suggests the state of that primordial ocean in Genesis which necessitated, besides light, the firmament of God's creation to establish boundaries for understanding. Thus, the paradoxes in the witches' language are a perfect expression of the essence of forces in the world that work against the rational order God created in the beginning. These chaotic dimensions are explicitly stated in a number of lines, most notably in Macbeth's conjuring of the witches in the cauldron scene (4.1.50-61). Moreover, the repeated imagery of day and night or light and dark, like the play's focus on time, is implicitly relevant to the biblical version of the origin of the cosmos. As many have noted, Macbeth makes clear the resultant disorder in the universe when degree is shaken by forces that speak in antitheses.

But this interpretation, while somewhat compelling, is incomplete. For the language of the Weird Sisters is not simply polar and paradoxical; it is not simply double-talk. Rather, the tune and words of the witches' lines are dominated by poetic repetitions as well as semantic oppositions. Through the most self-conscious manipulation of poetry—including diction, rhyme, alliteration, anaphora, chiasmus, rhythm, and meter—Shakespeare clogs the witches' verse with repetitive forms, doubling, tripling, and even quadrupling them. Indeed, the manner of the Weird Sisters' speech is at least as prominent as its meaning.

Opening scenes are supposed to “set the scene,” giving the audience temporal and spatial bearings. Here, the witches ask the right questions (when, where, how), but their answers are terribly vague and unsatisfying (sometime after the battle and before sunset, on the heath, and by hovering). Their tune, however, provides something memorable to fill the ideational blanks: repeated sounds. As far as rhyme is concerned, there are three couplets, one triplet, and three short unrhymed lines. If we look at the beginning of the lines, in addition, we find an unlikely “Where. … There” (1.1.6-7) rhyme, which is eventually picked up in “Fair” (11). Lines 3-6, the triplet, contain the internal rhyming of “hurly-burly,” the second and third repetition of the opening “When” clause, and the rhythmically similar short sentences, “Where the place? Upon the heath.” Finally, the famous eleventh line is a chiasmus, a reversed repetition, and the line's alliteration is repeated a third and fourth time in the “fog and filthy air” phrase that follows (11-12). No other lines in Shakespeare, neither the fairies' talk in A Midsummer Night's Dream nor the satirized bad poetry of Love's Labor's Lost, much less the verse of supernatural characters elsewhere in Shakespeare, can match this concatenation of sounds, this poetic compulsion to repetition.7

The meter is even more interesting. One scholar calls the major metrical form here trochaic tetrameter catalectic but thinks it “is better described as a seven-syllable verse—used with the freedom of doggerel in a way characteristic of a child's mind.”8 In a play full of children and the lack thereof, the childish appeal of a nursery rhyme is not inappropriate. As the child's mind is often distinguished both by its imaginative capacities and its love of poetic repetition, moreover, it is not surprising that the witches' words so easily seduce Macbeth, whose imagination so dominates his character, whose achievement of manhood is always in question, and whose repeated attempts to demonstrate the independence of imagined adulthood so often involves attacks on the children of others. Western European fairy tales, of course, consistently present witches seducing children into danger.

Carefully scanned, however, not much of the verse of the witches here and elsewhere is as rough and jerky as doggerel, though it is heavy-footed and variable.9 Six of the first seven lines, for example, are very regular trochaic tetrameter catalectic, the only variant being the spondee in the second foot of line 1, which emphasizes both the word “three” and the internal e rhyme in the line. (The sixth line, of course, is shared by two speakers.) Line 2 is iambic tetrameter, though broken into three phrases by caesuras, and the seventh is either trochaic trimeter with an iambic third foot or two amphimacer feet, an alteration that underlines the off-rhymed consonance (heath-beth) in line 8 which adds finality to the locational questions posed and answered by the sisters. Overall, the dominant trochaic tetrameter catalectic lines function to underscore stylistic repetitions. Lines 2 through 4, for example, besides offering an isomorphic metrical triplet, highlight with heavy stress both the done-won-sun rhyme and the last two of the three “When” openers that begin the play.

The final lines of the scene, as printed by most modern editors, begin with short outbursts in prose from each of the three witches and then a unison chant of two lines, the first in trochaic tetrameter catalectic and the second in either iambic tetrameter with a trochaic first foot (if “Hover” is elided) or trochaic tetrameter with an extra syllable. I think, nevertheless, that lines normally numbered 8 through 10 are a triple sharing of one iambic pentameter line: “I come, Graymalkin. Paddock calls. Anon.” While taking nothing away from the triplicity of the prose reading, such a scansion is consistent with the sisters' verse overall. The witches are seldom prosaic in any sense of the word. (The Folio, however, has all three witches prefix “Padock calls anon” to line 11, creating a six-foot line with a heavy caesura that breaks the pattern of the preceding lines, thereby obfuscating the usual triple sharing of them and their metrical pattern while also reducing the symmetry of the final couplet. I think that modern editors, for logical and structural reasons, have improved the text but have fallen short of a typography that would enable visualization of the pentameter.) Finally, the metrical construction of the famous final couplet functions to highlight the chiasmic antithesis in the two pairs of f-alliterated words heard in the first line, only to emphasize the explanatory consistency of the third pair of f-alliterated words in the last line. (Simultaneously, the caesura in line 11 breaks the alliterated pairs into three phrases.) Also, the stress of the last lines falls heavily on the “fair” repetition/internal rhyme and the fair-air end rhyme, another stylistic doubling and tripling.

What is the significance of this? On the one hand, the tune clearly distinguishes the witches from the human characters, who always speak in blank verse, rhymed iambic pentameter, or prose. But like their human counterparts, on the other hand, the witches speak with neither perfect metrical regularity nor with the “freedom of doggerel.” They speak in a variety of unusual but largely regular meters, including iambic pentameter. Their verse does not, as some have supposed, render them wholly diabolical and inhuman. Most interestingly, their predominant line here, trochaic tetrameter catalectic with a strong caesura (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair”), is really an ambiguous conflation of both trochaic and iambic feet. It begins strongly trochaic but feels iambic after the break, a kind of metronomic seesaw as noted above. Their meter, then, is an appropriate rhythmic vehicle for the paradoxical semantics, occasional rhymes, and often chiasmic repetition of the words it underscores. The medium of poetry is, in part, the message of the witches; Shakespeare used all his poetic powers to craft this short opening scene.

By contrast, the second scene in act 1 has over five times the number of lines, and the stylistic patterns heard in the first scene are greatly diminished. Rhymes and repetitions per line are a fraction of what has been heard before, and the characters, now human simulacra, speak no childish tetrameters. The blank verse in scene 2 also contains numerous metrical irregularities, so-called “feminine” endings, extra or missing syllables, and sharply cauterized lines (1.2.20, 38, 42, 52, 60, 68) characteristic of Shakespeare's mature style.

There are, however, a few signs of similarity between the scenes; a small number of dictional and alliterative repetitions can be detected. For example, the bloodied and weakened captain describes in mirroring phraseology how “merciless Macdonwald / Worthy to be a rebel” is aided by Fortune “like a rebel's whore,” yet he is still unseamed by “brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),” who disdains Fortune “Like Valor's minion” (1.2.9-23). The wounded captain then reports that “Bellona's bridegroom” and Banquo, “As cannons overcharg'd with double cracks; / So they / Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe” (37-39), after which, as noted above, Duncan gives Cawdor's title to Macbeth in couplets, with help from Rosse (66-69). These lines, of course, unlike many delivered by the witches, are not full of paradox; they do not outrun pausing reason, our orderly cognition. Yet the lines contain our first description of Macbeth, and however diminished in quantity and mystery, the few doublings and triplings noted may unconsciously associate the titular hero with the Weird Sisters. Overall, however, scene 2 is a poetic contrast to its predecessor.

The next scene is marked by the immediate return of the witches and many more repetitive formulae: “And mounched” thrice (1.3.5), “I'll do” thrice (10), “show me” twice (27), “A drum” twice (30), “All hail” thrice and “hail to thee” twice (48-50), “Hail” thrice (62-64), and “So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo! / Banquo and Macbeth, all hail!” (67-68). Furthermore, the witches end their charm against the sailor with the following:

The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine
Peace!—the charm's wound up.


Both the tetrameter (trochaic catalectic and iambic) and the rhymed couplets underscore the dictional repetition here, as they do in most of the witches' verse throughout the scene. Thus the repetitive essence of the witches' tune is highlighted by their return in 1.3 as well as by Macbeth and Banquo's aforementioned imitation of them later in the scene.

But can anyone hear the witches' tune? H. N. Paul believes that the witches' poetry is “the controlling influence which the dramatist never lets the audience forget. This influence is felt by anyone who has ears to hear.”10 However, in our oculocentric age, not many in a typical audience (except, perhaps, some rappers) will recognize the repetitive stylistic formulae even after the witches' chanting and the attention paid to their tune and words by Macbeth and Banquo. Even fewer, if any, will recognize the occasional music in 1.2. By contrast, Renaissance English playgoers might easily hear these repetitive stylistic patterns. While the plays were spectacles for many, especially the poorest and least educated, we know from The Taming of the Shrew (Induction.1.92) that Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke also of “hearing” a play, and we know too that the highly rhetorical Renaissance education and the preponderance of poetry in the art of the age would train, by study and experience, a finer ear than we possess. Ann Cook argues for the predominance of “privileged audiences with superior educations,” and Coburn Freer suggests that Shakespeare's audience “would have been able to hear the meter of the verse and the rhythmic patterns superimposed upon it.”11 Even if audiences in public theaters were not all or always so sensitive and thoughtful, it is probable that Macbeth was written to be first presented in court, where one of the most cultured and intelligent audiences that could be assembled in England would hear it.12 Such an audience might be aware of the finest of rhythmic and rhetorical repetitions and knowledgeable enough to make educated guesses about their significance. Finally, the dramatic poet who deftly shifts between blank verse and prose in plays like 1 Henry IV or who embeds a sonnet in Romeo and Juliet must have some confidence in the ear of his audience.

Having re-established their characteristic music in 1.3, the Weird Sisters disappear, for Shakespeare if not for an interpolator, until the inception of act 4:

Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin'd.
Harpier cries:—'Tis time, 'tis time.


In the sisters' return here, their characteristic poetry contrasts immediately with the plain blank verse of Lenox and a Lord in the preceding scene. The witches' dictional doublings in unrhymed trochaic tetrameter catalectic soon give way to even more characteristic rhymed couplets in the same handful of meters analyzed earlier, though these verses repeat few words, even during the famous chorus: “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn; and, cauldron, bubble,” which is heard three times (10-11, 20-21, 35-36). While dictional repetition wanes, however, the sisters' brew of selected body parts from slimy, nocturnal, violent animals, from infidels, and from dead babies is flavored with rhyme (e.g., “double … bubble … trouble”), heavy alliteration (e.g., “Lizard's leg,” “Gall of goat,” “Turk, and Tartar's”), and largely mono- and disyllabic diction. As Macbeth approaches, moreover, we find internal rhyme (46-47, but a single line in the Folio) and three perfect iambic feet that immediately follow two iambs by the hero (49). This musical yoking of Macbeth and the Weird Sisters is repeated when the latter answer Macbeth's question by completing in one, two, and then three syllables a perfect feminine iambic pentameter line: “To what I ask you. / Speak. / Demand. / We'll answer” (61). Two more shared lines follow, one in a pentameter so unrhythmic it sounds like prose (62-63) and another in iambic pentameter with a trochaic opening foot (69). Finally, the witches respond individually to Macbeth's demand to see Banquo's descendants with a triple “Show!” (107-9), repeating the word again to begin their final joint couplet (110). Clearly, something close to the original version of the selfsame tune is back.

The apparitions created by the sisters and presented to Macbeth speak largely in iambic pentameter couplets, and the first two repeat the hero's name three times each (71, 76). They also match iambic trimeter lines (76-78) or link split pentameters with the witches and Macbeth (89, 94, 103). Meanwhile, Macbeth's verse by itself seems touched with weird repetition. Upon arrival, for example, his demands begin with “I conjure you … answer me” and end with “answer me / To what I ask you,” between which six “though” clauses intervene (50-61). He uses the phrase “assurance double sure” (83) in responding to the second apparition, moreover, and tacks on three iambic pentameter couplets to that apparition's two, sharing a fourth couplet with the crowned child (90-101).

Macbeth's reaction to the show of Banquo and the eight kings, however, is not couched in obvious repetitive formulae. This is perhaps appropriate since this vision, unlike the others, leaves him shattered by a fate he cannot control, one result of which is his frustration-driven attack on the dynastically irrelevant family of Macduff. Nevertheless, his words might be repetitive in performance since they redundantly verbalize the vision that he and the audience see, since he notes that the golden hair of the kings is much alike (113-15), and since he repeatedly interrupts his description with angry interjections (111, 115, 116, 118, 122, 124). Finally, although the last twenty lines of the scene, in which Macbeth returns to human company (Lenox), show little evidence of repetition, Macbeth's vow that “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand” (147-48) and the couplet that closes the speech (153-54) hint of the selfsame tune. As in the third scene of act 1, then, Macbeth's speech is linked to that of the witches in a number of ways, though his repetitions of word and sound are less intense and numerous than those of his supernatural solicitors.13

In summary, Shakespeare has clearly established unique auditory patterns at the very beginning of the play, called our attention to them, and brought them back later. The patterns become, I think, a kind of poetic signature for the ambiguous, partly supernatural characters who utter them. But Shakespeare has also suggestively linked some of the patterns to human characters. It is to further description of that linkage that I now turn.


While the witches disappear near the end of 1.3, many of the poetic patterns they engendered do not. The selfsame tune, the aural embodiment of their unholy spirit, makes its way into the mouths of several characters. Although now in blank verse, prose, or occasional pentameter couplets, many repetitions in word and tune emerge throughout the rest of the play, most notably in the lines of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the Porter, especially in private moments when their imaginations are relatively unfettered by the need to keep up public appearances. For example, when Macbeth exits from Duncan's presence after hearing the latter announce the succession of Malcolm, what were only modest repetitive notes (1.4.20-32) or none (33-47) in public conversation with Duncan become, in an aside, three rhymed couplets in which the titular hero invokes the stars three times to hide his evil desires while letting that be done which he fears to expose (48-53). Equally patterned are the soliloquies of Lady Macbeth in the next scene. She begins with an echo of the witches' prophecy and her spouse's report of it, caesuras highlighting the two titles achieved and the third which awaits: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou are promis'd” (1.5.15-16). There follows an analysis of her husband chock full of the selfsame tune:

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


She then makes her treble invocations to the “murd'ring ministers” and “sightless substances” to “Come” (three times) and invade her body (40-54), finally greeting Macbeth with another repetition of her opening triad, “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! / Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter!” (54-55), again in imitation of witches she has never seen.14

But the most striking example of the witches' tune in the human mind is Macbeth's famous soliloquy at Inverness:

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.


After merely minor repetitions in the intervening scene (1.6), the patterns in this speech (only a part of which I have quoted in the interest of brevity) seem crafted to bring the supernatural powers to mind. The first line and a half present an array of triples: three phrases beginning “it were” and three ending with “done” (perhaps echoing the first witch's “I'll do, I'll do, I'll do” at 1.3.10). The remainder of the long first sentence doubles the conditional nature of its beginning, repeating the “if,” and then presents its own series of doubled and tripled alliterative and repetitive terms: “could … consequences … catch,” “surcease success,” “but … blow,” “be … be-all,” “be-all … end-all,” and “here, / But here … / But … here.”

Alliterative verbal patterning continues occasionally in the rest of the speech, but more striking are the longer patterns taken by Macbeth's thoughts on Duncan in lines 12 through 25. Macbeth says Duncan is at Inverness “in double trust” but then gives three reasons for that trust—kin, subject, host—within two rhetorical structures (“First … then”). Next, Macbeth adds a third and fourth structure (“Besides”) when he cites Duncan's virtues and the likely universal reaction their “taking-off” will cause. These patterns, it should be noted, occur in speech that is not illogical in thought or antithetical in form, though it is full of conscience and wishful imagination. In fact, Macbeth decides on the basis of this meditation to call off the immoral deed. However, the music of his thought and the quantitative inexactitude of his reasoning subtly expose the strength of the unconscious wishes he has previously acknowledged to us, wishes his lady will count on.15 Thus, when Lady Macbeth attacks his manhood and reassures him of success a mere fifty lines after this resolution to be faithful to Duncan, Macbeth promises quite mysteriously and quickly to “bend up / Each corporal agent” (1.7.80-81) to do the deed, as though he harbors the same “sightless substances” his wife had called to invade her being. Interestingly, their dialogue contains some repetitive elements: for instance, “I dare do all … Who dares do more” (46-47), “then you were a man … be more than what you were … Be so much more the man” (49-51), “make … made … unmake” (52-54), “fail … fail? … fail” (58-61), and various alliterations (65-69). But it is Macbeth's final lines that most clearly echo the music of the witches in their diction, alliteration, and rhyme: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show: / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (82-83).16

The opening scene of act 2 gives us a clearer sense of Shakespeare's stylistic designs because when Banquo and Fleance speak with Macbeth, their lines exhibit no repetition and only minimal alliteration. The lines themselves, significantly, express what Banquo believes is a victory, supported by “Merciful Powers” (2.1.7), over thoughts stirred up by dreams of the witches (20). No evil desires, no music. But later, when Macbeth, in soliloquy, sees a visionary dagger, associates himself with witchcraft, and moves toward Duncan's chamber (33-64), lines reminiscent of the witches return: for example, the repetition of “Is this a dagger, which I see before me, … yet I see thee still … I see thee yet … I see thee still”; the alliteration of “world … wicked … witchcraft … withered … wolf … watch”; and two pairs of couplets at the end, separated by the ringing of a bell and a line acknowledging its invitation to get the deed “done.” Express evil desires in image and action, especially when alone, and bells ring during musical speech. The assassination, of course, is not seen: we know it only in its aftermath through the conversation of the conspirators. That is, the audience only hears about it through repetitions of “done,” “deed,” “sorry sight,” “Amen,” “sleep no more,” “hand,” and “knocking” (2.2.10-73).

The next heavy concentration of the selfsame tune and words in the speeches of Scotland's king and queen occurs in the final act, but it is now a vehicle for their pain. We last hear the strange rhythms during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene and her husband's soliloquy at her death. In the former, the Lady speaks the witches' sing-song with eyes open but sense shut, and we get a rare glimpse of her unconscious mind as it expresses the horror of compulsive guilt, symbolized as well in gesture by her repetitious, unsuccessful hand-washing. The nightmare that begins with repeated worry about a spot (5.1.30-33) ends with this extraordinary set of iterations:

To bed, to bed: there's knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand.
What's done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.


All of her words are fixed on past actions, which she relives in the unchronological, repetitive, and circular order suggestive of mental disturbance, of Freudian primary process brought to the surface of consciousness. For example, she begins with the blood stains discovered after Duncan's murder (30, 33), reverts to the bell that sends Macbeth to do the deed (33-34), goes back even further to the words by which she persuaded her fearful husband to act (35-37), comes back to the murder (37-38), speaks of Lady Macduff's demise (40), repeats her worries about bloodstained hands (41, 47-48) and post-mortem directions to Macbeth (42-43, 58-59), speaks “yet again” about Banquo's ghost (59-60), and finally returns to the knocking at the gate (63-65).

Poetic patterns reinforce these repetitive topics. Lady Macbeth demands twice that the “spot” clean itself “out” and counts to two, reliving the timing of the bell (30-33). Two phrases remind us of the witches: “Hell is murky” (34) and the nursery-rhyme line, “The Thane of Fife had a wife” (40). Moreover, she admonishes her lord twice with “No more o' that” (42), speaks of the smell of blood in two phrases (47-48), says “Oh” thrice (49), commands her husband three times (58-59), and ends her sleep-talking with a pair of demands to go “To bed,” four behests to “come,” the rhyming and repetitive claim that “What's done cannot be undone,” and three more commands “To bed” (63-65).

Meanwhile, the Doctor who has watched twice before but only seen her sleepwalk on this third night, analyzes the queen's nocturnal performance in repetitions too: “Well, well, well” (53), “Go to, go to” (44), “Unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles” (68-69), “God, god, forgive us all” (72), and “So, good night: / My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight” (74-75). In addition, the godly Gentlewoman who also attends (see ll. 46 and 54) no doubt supports his view that Lady Macbeth's “infected” mind more needs “the divine than the physician” (69-71); she closes the scene saying, repetitively, “Good night, good doctor” (76). Both the infected and the good speak the selfsame tune, though the queen's duplicated diction, rhyme, and alliteration are clearly more compulsive and illogical.

The last repetitive flourish for Macbeth is his famous speech to Seyton after the death of his wife (5.5.17-28). The tyrant, alone with his last loyal retainer (whose name may suggest satanic influence), waxes philosophical about meaningless repetition in action. The speech gives us “to-morrow” thrice, “out” and “time” twice, and “day to day,” along with the alliteration of “have … hereafter,” “petty pace,” “dusty death,” “poor player,” “tale / Told,” and “full … fury,” all adding to the idea of life's iterative futility. It is appropriate, I think, that elements of the witches' tune cluster in a final statement of the despair that results when one develops, by choice or fate, a relationship with the mysterious powers which the witches represent.

The most powerful expression of the witches' tune after the Macbeths' words comes in the Porter's speech. As many scholars have shown, this speech and its speaker do not function simply as comic relief; rather, the speech has been considered symbolic of the hellish quality of Macbeth's castle now that Duncan is dead, and the Porter has been called a descendant of the gatekeeper in the medieval mystery play about the harrowing of hell.17 I would argue further that the poetic patterns in the speech, the repetitive doublings and triplings we have seen before, hint of strange forces operating in the mind of this sleepy, inebriated fellow as he experiences, mostly in soliloquy, a supernatural hangover:

[Knocking within.]
Here's a knocking, indeed! If a man were Porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key. [Knocking.] Knock, knock, knock. Who's there, i'th'name of Belzebub?


The most striking element in the speech is the knocking, of course. Before they retire, Macbeth and his consort have responded to two knocks apiece with fear of the “knocking” (2.2.56, 64, 68, 73), and the Porter hears and responds similarly with a fifth gerund, thus linking the three characters and capping the second pair of knocks with a third. The Porter then responds to five more off-stage knocks, twice with “knock, knock, knock” (3, 12), twice with “Knock, knock” (7, 15) and once with “Anon, anon” (20) just before the entrance of Macduff and Lenox. Moreover, he asks, “Who's there?” three times (3, 8, 13) after three of the knocks (twice asking in the name of a devil), tells three imaginary visitants to “Come in” (5, 13, 15) thrice (cf. Lady Macbeth's soliloquy earlier), and recognizes his role as hell-porter three times (1, 17, 21), to mention the most obvious examples.

In his discussion with Macduff (22-40), furthermore, the Porter speaks of drinking until the “second cock” (24) and points out the “three things” (25) such drinking provokes, a statement which elicits from Macduff a repetition of the same phrase in the form of a question. The drunken doorman then lists the three results of drink, followed by a discourse on a fourth (lechery) in which he repeats the word “provokes” three times (once in the negative) and alliterates the term with “performance.” He then begins four sets of antitheses on the effects of liquor on lechery, framing these antitheses with remarks on drink as an “equivocator.” Finally, he puns on the word “lie” with Macduff three times. So it is not simply the Porter's dramatic heritage that allusively relates him to the witches; rather, his humorous prose is peppered with their music.18

The poetic repetition in the rest of the play is much less dense. For example, the rest of this scene contains some, but much less, repetitious language. Though there are somewhat repetitive morning greetings and questions about whether Duncan is awake, minor alliteration (2.3.56, 63), Macduff's triple “horror” (62) at the discovery of the king's death, Donalbain's realistic fear about “the near in blood, / The nearer bloody” (138-39), and Malcolm's closing couplet, only Macbeth's repeated orders to wake up others and his partly repetitious manner (“love” and “heart” twice, “breach” and “breech'd,” “gashed stabs” and “gore”) during the cover-up for killing the chamberlains (109-16) stand out much, if at all, in this lengthy public discourse of over a hundred lines. This diminution may relate to the public nature of the discourse and to the fact that most of the characters express orthodox medieval Christian belief as they react to the murder of the monarch. Lenox, for example, brings up simultaneous events in the natural kingdom that correspond, according to medieval cosmology, to the king's death in the political one (53-60). Macduff, moreover, calls it “sacrilegious” to destroy the “Lord's anointed Temple” (66-67), and Banquo, suspecting deceitful treason, claims to stand “In the great hand of God” (128). As at the beginning of 2.2, Shakespeare shapes the poetic language of his characters to fit their situation and beliefs: the more godly, the less repetitive.

The last scene in the second act confirms this view. As the Old Man and Rosse report correspondent “unnatural” astronomical and animal prodigies “like the deed that's done” (2.4.11), and as Rosse and Macduff discuss appropriate public responses to the murder and its aftermath, we hear almost no repetitions. Only minor alliteration, the repetition of “Scone” (31, 35), and the now-expected final couplets (37-41) remind us, if at all, of the witches. In a public scene full of “God's benison” (40), this should come as no surprise. While there remains a sense that all Scotland is bewitched, only Macbeth and those closest to him, especially those discovered in private moments, speak the recognizably repetitious language of the witches throughout the play.

Act 3 offers only a few moments of the witches' tune and follows the pattern already established. Act 4 is similar, but here Shakespeare's manipulation of repetitions in word and sound changes slightly too. At Macduff's castle, Rosse, Lady Macduff, and her son indulge in what might be called argumentative repetition. These repeated arguments are overtly more a matter of rational debate than a matter of wish, fear, or imagination, though the psyches of both family members are not secure. Yet only Lady Macduff's description of her son, “Father'd he is, and yet he's fatherless” (4.2.27), sounds like the witches' tune. This riddle, unlike those of the Weird Sisters, however, has been solved for an audience by information about Macduff's whereabouts imparted before the scene begins. In addition, there are no rhymes or other repeated sounds in the scene.

I should also point out that this scene includes a messenger (like the servant who fights Cornwall in King Lear) who tries unsuccessfully to save the family, framing his attempt in terms that imply belief in a benign divinity: “Bless you, fair dame!” and “Heaven preserve you!” (4.2.64-71). As before, when orthodoxy appears, the witches' tune is usually minimized, though never wholly absent. Such is also the case in the next scene, the longest in the play (240 lines) and the only one set in England. The presence of orthodox religious elements, such as Macduff's description of Malcolm's saintly father and mother (4.3.108-11), or Malcolm's calls to “God above” (120) to heal the rift with Macduff and later to “Good God” (162) for help in befriending Rosse, or the miraculous heavenly cure for scrofula the English monarch possesses and passes down to his successors (140-59), may explain why the middle of this scene is lacking in much poetic iteration. Of course, the sheer length of the scene, fitting as a slow contrast to the speed of Scotland's evils, reduces one's recognition of repetitive elements in the language as well.

There are still some repetitions, however, and their context and quality begin to change. First, repetitious constructions begin to emboss public descriptions of Scotland's butcheries, including the pain and paranoia they cause. Second, the selfsame tune and words also begin to be employed in public descriptions of Christian faith by the forces that oppose Macbeth. For example, Malcolm and Macduff's opening discourse on evil in Scotland and their consequent distrust is expressed in repetitive formulae: “new” four times (4.3.4-5), four “What I …, I'll …” clauses (8-11), and Malcolm's wary lines,

That which you are my thoughts cannot transpose:
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell:
Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace,
Yet Grace must still look so.


Unlike earlier iterative language from Macbeth, however, Malcolm's statement distrusting appearances makes easy sense in context and assumes the continued existence of bright angels and a God of grace.

After a period of little or no repetition during Malcolm's test of Macduff's morality and patriotism (44-137), the latter explains his silent response to the test as bewilderment in the face of “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once” (138). This repetition, unlike the witches' mysterious “fair is foul,” is a reasonable reaction to Malcolm's role-playing. Similarly, the scene ends with repeated understandable expressions of Macduff's emotional disbelief and horror at the murder of his wife and children: four uses of “all” (204-19), several questions about and prayers to “heaven” (207, 223, 227, 231), a few words on what is “manly” (220, 221, 235), and a final couplet, “Receive what cheer you may. / The night is long that never finds the day” (239-40). These reminders of the witches' tune are unambiguous and antithetical in meaning to the thoughts of the sisters or the Macbeths; they either acknowledge painful victimization, suggest faith in a benign providential power, make clear two different human (or male) responses to personal loss, or express hope for amelioration in time. Moreover, the number of these reminders is small, and the length of the scene may render them unheard.

Nevertheless, stylistic elements formerly associated with the house of Macbeth and before that with the witches are, if recognizable, now associated as well with the forces of redemption. Outside Scotland, in a land governed by a king whose supernatural skills, including “a heavenly gift of prophecy” (157), are similar in strength to the witches' powers, the selfsame tune becomes also the manly tune (235). This limited sharing of the weird language may be appropriate at this point in the play, for the prophecies of the apparitions created by the witches in 4.1 suggest the importance of Macduff and imply a kind of natural movement towards Dunsinane which threatens Macbeth. Just as Macbeth and those close to him had a hand in carrying out some of the witches' early prophecies, so Malcolm and Macduff will help bring to pass the prophecies in this late act. All who play out the mandates of time share some of the selfsame verse, however small the amount.

Aside from 5.1, the rest of the last act contains only sporadic sections of iterative formulae. The last eight scenes are so public and so brief, it is clear that Shakespeare is following his previous stylistic pattern.19 Still, each scene has at least one rhymed couplet, and most close with at least two. Macbeth speaks most of the rhymes, but Siward, the Doctor, Lenox, Macduff, and Malcolm also chime in. Much of the dictional repetition is simply Macbeth's reiteration of the prophecies made by the witches' apparitions. He repeats six times, for example, the prophecy about not fearing a man born of woman (5.3.4, 6; 5.7.3, 11, 13; 5.8.13). Other iterations involve rhetorical resurgence by minor rebels (“Now … Now … Now” and “march we … Meet we … pour we” in 5.2.16-29), Macbeth's calls to “Seyton” (5.3. 19, 20, 29) and to his armorers (5.3.33, 36, 47), and some minor alliterations here and there. Some of this might strike the ears of an attentive audience, but most of it lacks the condensed reiterative intensity found in Lady Macbeth's sleeptalking at the beginning of the act.

The pattern changes in the final scene of the play. As the repetitive tune has been associated with the witches and the Macbeths heretofore, its return in the mouths of those who oppose Macbeth represents in part an ironic suggestion of similarity between the apparently “good” rebels and the evil forces of tyranny. However, as the selfsame tune may also represent the seeds of time, a providential force or a destiny given voice by the witches, its return here in the mouths of the rebels also suggests their status as God's instruments. After some minor repetitive elements are sounded in remarks on Siward's son, Macduff, bearing Macbeth's head on a pole, hails Malcolm as king twice (5.9.20, 25), to which all repeat, “Hail, King of Scotland!” (25), thereby bringing the Weird Sisters' earlier hailing of Macbeth and Banquo, however progressively or ironically or both, to mind. Through this act and its particular language, the play seems to come full circle, with tragic, triumphant, and ironic significance for both past and future kings. Ultimately, Malcolm's closing speech doubles and trebles Macduff's exuberant claim that “the time is free” (21) by promising not to “spend a large expense of time” (26) before repaying his supporters and by assuring everyone that necessary political acts in the new era of earls will be “planted newly with the time” (31), done expeditiously but not unnaturally. Otherwise, says Malcolm, whatever necessity

That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace
We will perform in measure, time, and place.
So thanks to all at once and to each one,
Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.


The repetitive tune (“grace of Grace,” “Grace/place,” “once … one,” “one … Scone”) is couched here in an almost perfect iambic pentameter. Rhyme and repetition now adorn the creation of a monarchy, under God, that promises to operate in an orderly way. The music of Malcolm's invitation, especially its repetitive suggestion of divine oneness at the close of the tragedy, brings the witches' poetry together with its ideational opposite. However apparently antithetical to Scotland's flawed polity and morality and however ironically similar his poetry is to the selfsame tune of witches, earlier regicides, and hellish functionaries, Malcolm's graceful promise resonates also as a celebration of an abstract Christian ideal.


This review of the repetitive poetry of Macbeth suggests a number of possibilities for meaning. First, given that the most distinctive poetic repetitions are established by and identified with the witches, the characteristics of the style may have implications for understanding their nature and vice versa. The shape of the style—both repetition per se and its usual form, doublings and triplings—have much in common with some key characteristics of the witches. Second, that the witches' tune is next most powerfully heard in the mouths of the Macbeths and their porter, especially when they are wishful, imaginative, or drunk, may signify the presence of supernatural forces—“Spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” (1.5.40-41)—in psyches whose reason, God's viceroy, is besieged and weakened. Moreover, the form of the verse seems to have much in common with the character and actions of the infected characters. Third, that the least powerful expression of this repetitive music occurs occasionally in public scenes, especially when religious orthodoxies are invoked, establishes a group in opposition to, though also partly influenced by, the “sightless substances” (1.5.49). Fourth, since all Scotland is touched by the tune and especially since the revenging forces clearly sing it at the end, Shakespeare may be representing through the witches' stylistic signature a power inclusive of but greater than the merely demonic: a fatal or providential force.

First, the witches. While several scholars have tried to pin down precisely which witches Shakespeare copied directly when he wrote Macbeth, it is probable that his Weird Sisters imitate a number of models.20 The sisters have been identified exclusively with English or Scottish witches, with Fates or Furies, and even with Scandinavian deities.21 In the text, however, Shakespeare's witches are complex: human (petty, lowly hags), supernatural (capable of flight and instant disappearance), transsexual (bearded women), related to demons or fairies (by their familiars), and capable of reading or making fatal predictions (the seeds of time). That the witches are complex and mysterious accords with Shakespeare's treatment of the supernatural in other tragedies, which seldom allow for supernatural certainties.

In Renaissance England and the Jacobean court, furthermore, the reality of witches was not a foregone conclusion. Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) had exposed the superstitions involved, though King James's Daemonologie (1597) lent some credence to the facticity of witchcraft. But even the monarch's position in this matter is not perfectly clear. While his earlier personal involvement in the North Berwick case (held to be a plot by witches against his life while king of Scotland) may have strengthened his belief in witches, his later investigations as king of England exhibit growing skepticism on the question.22 Thus, ambiguity about the nature of the witches pervades both historical and dramatic contexts.

I believe that the witches' diverse, conglomerate nature and mystery is represented aurally by their tune, with its chant-like jangle of several special rhythms and repetitive formulae. But the main characteristics of the tune may help define, not merely reflect, what the witches are. The essence of the tune is repetition, which is often associated, of course, with childish and regressive character and action. Children take pleasure in doing something over and over, seeking immediate gratification without the burden of a memory that might find constant iteration uninteresting or fruitless. Moreover, as noted earlier, regressive repetition is compulsive, driven by instinctual needs. Macbeth's need for security leads to compulsive plotting and killing, for example. Thus, the tune suggests that those who spur Macbeth on are elemental beings who can infiltrate the unconscious minds of others.

Furthermore, repetition is also associated with the unthinking certainty of the habitual and the routine; through repetitive acts, for example, a child seeks a kind of secure autonomy in an uncertain world. Warriors, like today's athletes, also thrive on “second-nature” actions developed by repeated drill. Success in single battle comes by doing without thinking, as in Macbeth's unseaming of Macdonwald without courtesies (1.2.16-23). Finally, repetition partakes of the child's fantasy of timelessness, of never-ending returns that never change, a fantasy both Macbeths briefly share (1.5.54-58 and 1.7.1-7) and one that the witches live out as supernatural creatures.23 So the selfsame tune associates the witches with the psychological states of the characters they bedevil.

Beyond the consistent fact of repetition itself, the number of repetitions in rhymes, diction, alliteration, and so forth is remarkably consistent in all examples of the selfsame tune. As noted before, most repetitions are doublings and triplings of various formal elements. The multiples themselves are suggestive. The doubling may underscore the witches' ability to confuse, to conflate appearance and reality. As noted earlier, from a Christian perspective, the witches may be seen as confusing God's ways by means of chaotic antitheses and ambiguities, thus motivating human actions destructive of the cosmos, the created order. Macbeth clearly acknowledges this aspect of the sisters' being when, faced with the unexpected truth of Macduff's Caesarian birth, he tells himself in frustration, “And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd, / That palter with us in a double sense” (5.8.19-20). That is, poetic doublings reinforce the duplicitous semantics of the witches. Triplings, on the other hand, have a positive Christian association with the Triune God. But the number three has also been related to witchcraft and demonology. Dante's Satan, for example, is given three faces in one head, an obvious parody of the Trinity. Medieval sorcerers and necromancers, moreover, have always shown a predilection for odd numbers, particularly for three, as have, according to superstition, English witches.24

Of equal importance is the fact that three is the number of several classical figures with whom the Weird Sisters are associated in Elizabethan demonology (and in the text of the play). Hecate, for example, is a triple goddess in classical mythology, not merely the queen of night, ghosts, magic, and witches; she is a deity “supreme in Heaven, on earth, and in Tartarus,” who, though a Titan, joined the Olympians, was exalted by Zeus, became an intercessor for human prayers, and served as a benefactress in politics, war, sport, fishing, and farming.25 That Shakespeare understood her triune being is suggested by Puck's claim that fairies run “By the triple Hecate's team / From the presence of the sun” (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.370-71) and by Lucianus's statement, in the Mousetrap, that his drug “With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected / Thy natural magic and dire property / On wholesome life usurps immediately” (Hamlet 3.2.40-44). Macbeth's allusions to Hecate (2.2.49-56 and 3.2.40-44) explicitly associate her with witchcraft and murder, but nothing in her relationship to the three sisters and their verbal triplicities precludes her classical identification as well.

What I am trying to suggest is that the number three, as it applies to the witches, is not merely a diabolical parody but perhaps also a sign of more positive, or at least neutral, elemental and universal power. When we see what the witches' words do to Macbeth's conscience, we think of the painful but ultimately just Furies, of Hecate in hell. But we may think as well of the classical Fates, also a threesome and the final arbiters of all life. In Hesiod, the Moirae are the daughters of Zeus's union with Themis (law) and are signs of order like her other progeny, “the Hours—Good Order, Justice, and prosperous Peace.”26 Shakespeare's intention that these associations be recognized is implied by the fact that the initially ambiguous predictions of his Weird Sisters are fully worked out in the text and reinforced contextually for a Jacobean audience by the life of James I and knowledge of his ancestry. Indeed, Holinshed calls the sisters “goddesses of destiny,” and it is possible that Shakespeare was with King James at Oxford in 1605 when Gwinn's Tres Sibyllae, a play in which three fates prophesy that Banquo's descendants will hold power for eternity, was performed for the monarch.27 Finally, Shakespeare turned to the classics, to Ovid's story of Medea (where she is a sorceress of Hecate throughout) to develop his prophecy scene in act 4. English and Scottish witches apparently did not use cauldrons, but Medea and the Weird Sisters do. Moreover, in Golding's Ovid, all of Medea's rituals, and there are many of them, are done three times.28

The selfsame tune, then, in the syncretic, copious manner of Renaissance humanist writings, is appropriate to witches who are multifaceted creatures, synthetic of several traditions. Though the Weird Sisters are, by their destructive, revengeful designs and ambiguous sexuality, largely representations of “unnatural” evil, they are also part of Nature's plan, of the cosmic destiny. Like the devils who ultimately work for God, witches are part of a postlapsarian but still providential universe. Indeed, James's Daemonologie explicitly states that Scottish witches could be used by God to punish the wicked: witches work for the devil, and “where the devilles intention in them is euer to perish, either the soule or the body … God, by the contrarie, draws euer out of that evill glorie to himselfe.”29 Almost all Renaissance writings on witchcraft support the view that God's will allows the opportunity for demonic activity; to disagree would be to rejuvenate the Manichean heresy.30 Thus, however apparently antagonistic to God's order, the verbal patterns of the three sisters ultimately suggest a divine origin or fated plan. By the end of the play, it is apparent that the witches can read the “seeds of time” (1.3.58), the order of things, and possibly the blueprint drawn by that Christian fate or fury called Providence.

But why do vestiges of these poetic patterns show up in the minds of other characters? The conventional answer, as noted earlier, is that the Weird Sisters, like demons or Furies, penetrate the bodies and minds of those they mean to destroy; the verbal patterns are evidence of demonic possession and/or furious conscience. This could happen in two ways. First, the witches may be thought of as pawns of devils who, according to medieval demonology, take demonic possession of our bodies through our minds. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking has been called “demoniacal somnambulism.”31 Perhaps her sleep-talking is a sign of the mental gateway for this possession. A variant to this demonological explanation has the witches themselves capable of mental unrest. Scottish witches could apparently vanish, travel through the air, and give us nightmares; if so, the witches' tune could be implanted without demonic inhabitation.32 Macbeth's and Lady Macbeth's pangs of conscience could be seen merely as the result of harassment by the witches, acting like tormenting Furies.33

But the conventional reading is only part of the story. Shakespeare makes clear that the witches' words come to Macbeth before he meets them directly, and characters like the Porter, only tangential to any diabolical plot, or like Malcolm at the end, also sing the tune. Throughout the play, Shakespeare keeps the origin of the pattern a mystery, allowing an audience to think the repetitious language bubbled up independently in several minds. Thus, the pattern represents a power related to but sometimes independent of its manifestation in the witches. The verbal repetitions of three and two (and two doubled, or four) are a medium of cosmic design, manifestations of mysterious universal forces; their classical associations noted above lend support to this broader interpretation.

If the patterns represent cosmic forces at work both in the world and the minds of the characters, thereby adumbrating the play's repeated correspondence of macro- and microcosm, a correspondence at the center of the well-known cosmology of the previous age, there may be yet another way to look at the doublings and triplings in Macbeth. Shakespeare may have been trying to tap the occult numerological resources of his times, whether or not he believed in them or in the analogic providential system they usually supported. As others have shown, to do so would not be unusual for a poet or playwright; Spenser often alluded to classical and medieval numerological systems in his poetry, and the architecture and decoration of the Renaissance theater itself may have expressed occult numerological signification.34 Numerological systems, furthermore, are often integral to traditions of white magic, traditions of which Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and here in the figure of Edward the Confessor, shows some understanding. Though Macbeth is concerned largely with what, at first glance, is black magic, distinctions between the two were often blurred in the Renaissance. The occultist Cornelius Agrippa, for example, was a white magus to some, though to others, including Marlowe's Faustus, he was a black conjurer (Dr. Faustus 1.1.111-19).35 And many of Prospero's theurgic activities are indistinct from the actions of a witch or conjuror.36 Both the magus and the witch tried to take advantage of occult forces hidden in nature. As many incantatory conjurations imply, that control often involved the use of magic numbers.

Since many in the Renaissance questioned the inherited medieval cosmology, however, it is unlikely that the numerological tradition related to it was simplemindedly accepted either. Shakespeare's ironic handling of the Great Chain of Being in Troilus and Cressida or his questioning of providential politics in the Lancastrian tetralogy is undeniable. Therefore, I doubt very much that Shakespeare was an occultist in the tradition of someone like John Dee or Agrippa.37 But since Macbeth offers palpable witches as well as clear descriptions (e.g., 2.4.1-30) of the medieval cosmology once overrated by E. M. W. Tillyard and now out of critical fashion, it seems inescapable that Shakespeare knew something of the occult and its numerology. Many of his sources and analogues (such as Plutarch, St. Augustine, du Bartas, and Primaudaye) refer to magic numbers on occasion, and Shakespeare clearly knows something of Pythagoras, the father of numerology. Though Shakespeare's direct references to this ancient philosopher involve the transmigration of souls, not the theory of numbers (see Merchant of Venice 4.1.131 and Twelfth Night 4.2.50, 58), Rosalind associates Pythagoras with excessive rhyming in As You Like It (3.2.176-78), and the Pythagorean idea of the music of the spheres, through Scipio and Macrobius, inhabits the end of The Merchant of Venice (5.1.54-88). The selfsame tune may not represent our idea of celestial sounds, but it is full of poetic music.

The celestial music, of course, is integral to Pythagoras's founding belief that numbers express the principles or laws of the universe and the souls of men.38 Platonists were impressed by number too; being more formal, more like Plato's Forms, number was believed closer to ultimate reality than physical data; in the Timaeus, number determines the shape and order of creation. The idea that numbers were the reality behind or within the cosmos was the basic principle of numerologists from the Gnostics and Cabalists to the Renaissance, where Platonists, occultists, and poets continued to reflect the view. It is likely, then, that Shakespeare knew something of this belief and that the witches' tune in Macbeth is a reflection of the musica mundana, the numbers of time. Indeed, Shakespeare may have been thinking of St. Augustine's reprise of the Book of Wisdom in The City of God—“Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight”—when he wrote Malcolm's final speech.39

By the time of the Renaissance, of course, numerological systems were very complicated and self-contradictory; many meanings for many numbers made systematic claims impossible.40 But almost all systems shared certain key numbers: 1 through 10 and some of their multiples. Concerning the cosmos, the important numbers were 2, 3, and 4. These derive from the well-known Pythagorean tetraktys, or tetrad, believed to be the archetypal foundation of the universe. One, the monad, a point identified with God, extends itself to a universe of 2, the dyad, a line that divides all into contraries (light/darkness, good/evil, male/female, etc.) and 3, the triad, a two-dimensional surface area that supposedly reconciles the opposites. Two and 3 represent in themselves the famous cosmological principle of discordia concors, a harmony of conflicting opposites. Taken together, moreover, 2 and 3 are the harmonic middle that yokes the spiritual (1) with the material (4) in the cosmos. Four, the tetrad, a geometrical solid expressing volume, is an appropriate number for matter. It is consistent with the four elements of the cosmos and the timing of physical change on earth: the four seasons.

Adding these numbers up yields the Pythagorean perfection of 10, the decad, suggesting that the universe, one turned into many, or God's created world, is harmonious. Pythagoras assumed this harmony in his description of the diapasons of music, of which the numbers 1 through 4 were the foundational tuning system. This musica humana was, of course, a reflection of the music of the spheres, cosmic lubricant for the Ptolemaic geocentric spheres which were presumed to be in perpetual motion. Likewise, the tetrad was applied to man as microcosm (e.g., child, youth, adult, elder) and later to man's soul (e.g., the four humors). Finally, for the Pythagoreans, man's creations were evidence of his essence as number: mimetic art was “a persuasive demonstration that our lives are patterned according to number, weight, and measure—according to the same dimensions as the universe.”41 Therefore, despite growing empiricism and skepticism toward medieval cosmology in the early modern era, Shakespeare may have been alluding in the witches' selfsame tune to the ancient but still extant universal connections of Pythagorean numerology.

Beyond the symbolic possibilities found in stylistic repetition alone, then, the numbers of repetitions (doublings, triplings, and quadruplings) in the largely tetrameter lines of the witches and elsewhere may bring a mysterious cosmic dimension to the tragedy of Macbeth. As noted above, Pythagorean lore considered 2 and 3 the numbers by which the supernatural inhabited the material. But even more specific numerological associations are possible as well. The Renaissance found more than cosmological significance in 2 and 3, though complication and inconsistency prevent a precise reading. Two, for example, is usually considered a negative number but also has many positive and neutral associations. Cornelius Agrippa claims that two “signifies knowledge, memory, light, man (the microcosm), charity, wedding, and society,” and he also notes that there were two testaments, two tables of law, two first parents, two large planets (moon and sun), and two rational creatures (angels and humans), among other dyads.42 In general, however, 2 is associated less positively; as noted above, its symbolic essence is division, an evil, since 2 prevents the perfect unity of 1, the divine. Thus, Agrippa also includes as equivalences man's capacity to choose evil instead of good, the two sexes, “discord and confusion (division again), misfortune, impurity, and matter.”43 This is how Spenser sees things in book 1 of The Faerie Queene: Duessa, who is grossly physical, duplicitous, and discordant, is contrasted to the true faith, Una. Two is, essentially, the number of the lower, non-divine part of standard human pairings: the body as opposed to the soul, the willful imagination versus reason, and the female sex (often held incapable of reason).

Three, on the other hand, is usually associated more positively. First, as noted earlier, there are the number's obvious trinitarian overtones and use as diabolic parody. But equally important is the number's status in the classical tradition; as noted above, 3 unites what 2 divides, brings 1 (spirit) and 2 (matter) together, and thus is the number of harmony, of marriage (generative love), of the world perfected, and of the masculine (both passionate and rational) gender. Alistair Fowler describes the triad as the highest human and earthly perfection possible and relates the number to the Garden of Adonis in book 3 of The Faerie Queene.44

However clouded by implicit ambiguities and vaguities, then, these numerological associations suggest what several in Shakespeare's audience may have understood about the pervasive, repetitive dyadic and triadic verbal structures analyzed in this essay. First, the fact that the pattern involves two numbers which are, in a sense, symbolic opposites, not to mention the fact that one of them is the number of division and confusion, reinforces the ambiguity of the play. Conversely, the fact that the verse repeats, for the most part, two numerical patterns (disregarding the much less numerous fourfold patterns or considering them doublings of twofold ones), coupled with the fact that one of those two patterns usually represents divinity and a beneficent force which contains the discordant other, suggests that however ambiguous the world of the play, an invisible order still operates. The selfsame tune implies, then, both actual cosmic discord and potential harmony, or suggests that the fatal or providential forces operative in the cosmos include both divisive and harmonic power. (Of course, the presence of these powers is suggested to us without cognitive certainty, without being simplistically untrue to life, in which the divine is only mysteriously intimated if at all. Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature in more than one sense here.) Most importantly, the numbers chosen for adumbration are numerologically appropriate to basic issues in Macbeth: cosmic, natural, and social discord or harmony, sex and marriage, and the relationship of imagination and reason, among others.

As speech, of course, the witches' tune also reflects division in the souls of its speakers; given the analogical perspectives possible in the Renaissance, one would expect this microcosmic split to accompany macrocosmic discord. In this regard, it is especially suggestive to think in terms of medieval and Renaissance faculty psychology, since the structure of man's soul in most versions of that scheme is so obviously triadic and dyadic. The soul is held to be tripartite, as in Plato, while each of the higher parts (the sensitive and the intellectual) is split into two powers (apprehension and motion), themselves divisible into three parts (e.g., the apprehending part of the sensitive soul has three internal senses, and the same part of the intellectual soul includes intellect, reason, and understanding).45 Thus in Macbeth when the incantatory and regressive patterns, often mixed with equivocal, ambiguous signification, appear in the minds of the hero and heroine, a divisive imbalance in the faculty psychology of both may be implied. In the Macbeths, the masculine and feminine are not harmonized, a divisive rather than generative path to the crown is chosen, and the lesser imaginative and willful faculties in each “Outrun the pauser, reason” (2.3.109), which should rule. The most obvious instances of the witches' tune in the mouths of various characters, moreover, come in times of private agitation, when the imagination, that faculty so tricky yet so capable of strange constancy (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.1-27), is relatively unfettered by reason. The imagination, of course, was held to be the avenue by which the devil and the witches attacked their prey.46 In conclusion, I note that the largest repositories of the selfsame tune—Macbeth's and his wife's soliloquies, the Porter's inebriated remarks, and Lady Macbeth's sleep-talking—are in part manifestations of the characters' imaginations. Moreover, they have as little indebtedness to Shakespeare's known sources as any lines in the play: they are all inventions of the dramatist himself.

While numerological criticism must remain largely speculative, especially in drama, where unlike in poetry, the conviction of an argument based on ingenious and exact line counting (as in Spenser's Epithalamion) is impossible, the heavy repetition that the basic numbers receive and the appropriate connections they have to the themes, characters, and atmosphere of this play make it difficult to dismiss numerology as a signifier in Macbeth. This is especially the case because the architecture of the text and the historical context of its writing also support the play's repeated stylistic forms. First, the characters seem to be grouped appropriately; Macbeth is full of families of two and three. Though other plays share this feature (such as King Lear and the romantic comedies), audiences may notice the groups more in Macbeth. Simon Forman, the astrologer, alchemist, and inveterate playgoer, calls attention in his Book of Plaies and Notes to the fact that “2 noblemen” meet “3 women feiries” who hail him “3 tymes” in the opening of the Globe's 1611 production.47 Furthermore, at least one modern critic has shown that the structure of the play is dyadic and triadic.48 Indeed, dramatic actions are frequently repeated according to the pattern. For example, Macbeth's meeting with the witches is fully described three times: once dramatically, once in a letter, and once in conversation. Or the opening battle is won twice in the field and a third time at Cawdor's death.49 Or Rosse tells Macduff about his wife twice, and the latter's grief is expressed in three apparently disbelieving questions.50 Or Macbeth is defeated in action by two noble sons (Malcolm and Macduff) and in lineage by a third (Fleance). Additionally, the play offers strange twosomes and threesomes, like the waiting woman and doctor who watch Lady Macbeth sleepwalk, or (in language only) the “two or three” (4.1.141) Lenox says reported Macduff's flight to England. Finally, there are the two, then inexplicably three murderers, who meet Macbeth on stage for a second and third time, who are not numbered by Holinshed but who have no identity except number in Shakespeare. Perhaps, then, it is the number, not the identity, of the third murderer that Shakespeare wanted to emphasize, purposely leaving the name a mystery.

Beyond the text, we must think of James I. As previously noted, Macbeth may have been written for a first performance before the king. At the very least, it contains matters of some interest to the monarch: the witchcraft issue on which he wrote, questions of political usurpation and divine intervention in royal affairs, the “equivocation” material relating to the recent plot on his life, the presentation of an analogous earlier moment of unity between England and Scotland, and parallels to the so-called Gowrie conspiracy against James in the late sixteenth century. Kernan thinks that James may have set up the Gowries with a false story as part of a family revenge; the king clearly made political hay by celebrating its anniversary as Gowrie Day.51 Whether the story was mythical or not, however, the “murder of Duncan by Macbeth is presented in such a way as to evoke profound memory of the near murder of James by the Gowries. James' deliverance was acutely significant, indeed providentially confirming, because it represented the king's second escape—and very possibly even his third escape—from the treacherous designs of the House of Gowrie.”52 Interestingly as well, some contemporaries believed that the earl of Gowrie was a cabalist and associate of necromancers.53

The clearest link between Macbeth and Shakespeare's royal patron, however, is the Stuart genealogy represented by the show of Banquo and the eight kings (eight or nine figures, triple and double multiples respectively of 2 and 3) during Macbeth's last meeting with the witches. During this show, Shakespeare has Macbeth react with horror not only to a mirror picturing generations beyond the last king, but also to the “two-fold balls and treble sceptres” (4.1.121) some of those future monarchs carry. Within the drama, these symbols of royalty and sexual potency help stir Macbeth to revenge his impotence, his “barren sceptre” (3.1.60-63), by the murder of Macduff's wife and children. In addition, the balls and scepters might also have been symbolic outside the drama. Many in the Jacobean audience might have seen a direct reference to James and his several coronations. The twofold balls may have reminded the audience of orbs symbolic of James's double coronation (England and Scotland), while the treble scepters may have been interpreted as the two staffs used for investment in the English coronation at Westminster and the one staff used at Scone.54 Alternatively, the balls may represent the unity of the crowns of Scotland and England, while the scepters represent the union, in theory, of England, France, and Ireland under James.55 In either case, the reference, and by implication the verbal patterns of the same number, relate to the reigning monarch, perhaps reinforcing the mysterious providential identification which the verbal pattern possesses. Both in Shakespeare's play and in the minds of its first audiences, then, the selfsame tune of repetitive doubles and triples may intimate the existence of universal design amid cosmic, political, and psychological chaos.


Both late New Critical and postmodern analyses of Macbeth have, in the last two decades, considerably altered how scholars of the early modern era understand the play. From A. C. Bradley on, humanist and formalist critics writing in the first sixty years of the twentieth century generally saw the tragedy as a relatively clear and simple study of the human capacity for and retributive consequences of moral evil. Macbeth and his wife, though influenced by the witches' prophecies, voluntarily choose to commit an immoral and criminal act for which they justly, though not unsympathetically, pay a psychological and political price.56 Several historical critics, then and now, have buttressed this interpretation by making the case that Shakespeare wrote the play in support of the king and his policies.57 To the contrary, relatively recent formalist and historicist studies have argued for increased recognition of the play's ambiguity and complexity.58 Furthermore, what earlier critics saw in the last acts of Macbeth as a progressive cleansing of Scotland by its victimized good sons, Malcolm and Macduff, has more recently been interpreted as a cyclical return of violent, patriarchal, and oppressive figures who are not likely to be any better than Macbeth.59 The cause of strife, that is, may be found in the political hierarchy and patriarchal culture of Scotland.60 Indeed, several leading critics claim that the witches are heroines who successfully subvert a pack of male oppressors.61 While a few recent scholars incorporate but ultimately reject these postmodernist trends, and while both the underpinnings and the appropriateness of recent critical judgments about Renaissance literature have been heatedly challenged, the new readings dominate critical discourse on Macbeth today.62

In this critical context, what the selfsame tune of supernatural soliciting suggests is that Macbeth presents us with a paradoxical world that is both demonically cyclical and progressively orthodox in its design. The play is neither a simple expression of crime and punishment reflective of James's (or Tillyard's) biases nor a play as ambiguously dark and nihilistic as King Lear. Rather, the repetitive (possibly numerological) verbal patterns in Macbeth represent, in such a manner that divine will always remains a mystery, the existence of a supernatural order in which possible but indeterminate providential designs work through demonic and human actors to bring changes to the history of Scotland and England.63 Likewise, while there are no outright heroes in the bellicose society of the play, and almost all characters, largely blind to the patriarchal ideology and the cycle of revenge they enact, bear some responsibility for the bloody gore in Scotland, yet those who oppose the Macbeths are still distinguishable as better characters—morally, psychologically, and politically.64 Therefore, while the inscrutable and subversively cyclical forces so dear to recent criticism are clearly inscribed in the verbal patterns I have analyzed, the repetitive style in Macbeth also strongly suggests the existence of some kind of fated progressive order beyond the fog and filthy air. Indeed, the selfsame tune shows how deeply embedded in the text of the play is the universal “chaosmos,” the discordia concors of destructive repetition and providential creation. In Macbeth, there are furious sounds that signify something, a vision paradoxically diabolical and divine.65


  1. Quotations from Macbeth follow the Arden edition, Second Series, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1984). Quotations from other Shakespearean plays are also taken from Arden editions.

  2. George Walton Williams, “‘Time for such a word’: Verbal Echoing in Macbeth,Shakespeare Survey 47 (1994): 153-59, is the most recent of many to make this point.

  3. Williams notes the repetition of Macbeth's “fair and foul,” the king and queen's “hereafter,” and Banquo's “fear and fair,” suggesting that these dictional echoes show how the characters succumb unconsciously to the witches' evil (“Verbal Echoing,” 153-59). His limited focus on so few repeated words spread over several acts, however, raises questions about audience recognition of the patterns. Repeated diction, moreover, can be found in any play and does little to highlight the distinctive quality of Macbeth. Finding only evil in the play's many echoes also seems unnecessarily limiting. By contrast, Madeleine Doran's “The Macbeth Music,” Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 153-73, sees the play as a musical composition involving a number of “patterns of recurrence,” including theme, voice, diction, alliteration, assonance, paronomasia, rhyme, and isocolon. However, except to see this “music” as a vague circulation of moral ambiguity, Doran does little to analyze the style in detail.

  4. Quoted phrase from L. C. Knights, as quoted in Frank Kermode's introduction to Macbeth, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1311.

  5. See Margaret D. Burrell, “Macbeth: A Study in Paradox,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 90 (1954): 167-90, who finds a plethora of antonymic clauses, dual rhetorical constructions, and “contrapuntal rhythms,” which she labels the “double talk” of the play.

  6. See G. I. Duthie, “Antithesis in ‘Macbeth,’” Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 5-33.

  7. Many readers find the style of the play distinctive. I have discovered occasional sections of other Shakespearean dramas with similar doubling or tripling repetition, especially in Hamlet, but these plays have much less of the characteristic style overall, many fewer heavy concentrations of it, fewer repetitions per speech in those concentrations, and no lines that call attention to the verse at the start.

  8. H. N. Paul, The Royal Play of Macbeth (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 294.

  9. In scanning the verse of Macbeth, I have endeavored to follow the metrical views of George T. Wright, Shakespeare's Metrical Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

  10. Paul, Royal Play, 262-63.

  11. Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1596-1642 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 273-74; Coburn Freer, The Poetics of Jacobean Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 35.

  12. See Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 75-78 and passim, and Paul, Royal Play, 1-13, 317-31, and passim. More recently, Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 13-31 and passim, believes that Macbeth is a topical play, structured as a response to the Gunpowder Plot and written for James I's approval. For a qualifying counterargument, see Michael Hawkins, “History, Politics, and Macbeth,” in Focus onMacbeth,” ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge, 1982), 155-88, esp. 158, 176, and 185-88.

  13. Because textual scholars believe that 4.1.39-43 and 125-32, along with 3.5.1-35, were written either by Thomas Middleton or an anonymous dramatist, I have not included them in my analysis of poetic patterns in the play. Hecate, who is prominently featured in these sections, largely speaks quite regular iambic tetrameter, a verse form seldom used by the Weird Sisters. Her poetry and that of 1 Witch in 4.1.125-32 shows none of the verbal repetition characteristic of the witches, the apparitions, Macbeth, or other characters who seem to chant the selfsame tune. Nevertheless, if Shakespeare or a close collaborator did pen these suspect passages, a case could be made for the appropriateness of their form. The tetrameter couplets, for example, could be linked to the witches' speech elsewhere, and the iambic meter could be construed as a way to distinguish and elevate Hecate. Furthermore, the structure of the lines shows signs of characteristic repetition. Hecate's tetrameters in 3.5, for example, are framed at the beginning and the end by a set of three irregular pentameter lines consisting of a witch's unrhymed line and a couplet by the triple goddess herself (1-3 and 34-36). Likewise, the apparent interpolations in 4.1 frame, in tetrameter couplets, the witches' visionary shows, another structural repetition. Finally, both Hecate's appearances and the words of 1 Witch are followed by music (see the Folio SD at 3.5.33 and the hints of music and dance in 4.1), the first two including songs which, according to late seventeenth-century versions of the play, come from Middleton's The Witch. Could these musical interludes symbolically suggest that the divine Hecate is related to the music of the spheres, in which was inscribed the plan of the universe? Could the poetic framings suggest by their containment a similar classical and medieval orthodoxy?

  14. See Williams, “Verbal Echoing,” 154-56.

  15. See Huston Diehl, “Horrid Image, Sorry Sight, Fatal Vision: The Visual Rhetoric of Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 191-203, for the view that Macbeth fails morally because he creates but does not understand the images that seduce and haunt him. See also Arnold Stein, “Macbeth and Word-Magic,” Sewanee Review 59 (1951): 271-84, for the idea that Macbeth falls on account of his self-conscious verbal magic, powers he uses on and for himself alone. My own opinion is that Macbeth's use of language is as much out of his conscious control as in it, and that the rush of his poetry motivates his actions as much as the images his imagination generates.

  16. These closing lines and the earlier ones of Rosse and Duncan in 1.2 can be related, of course, to Shakespeare's well-known habit of ending scenes with couplets. But interestingly, Macbeth is second only to Richard II among the tragedies for the number of couplets that close its scenes; given its relative brevity, Macbeth is unusually full of these closing rhymes, particularly when compared to other late tragedies. Beyond following convention, why else does the Bard rhyme so much in this play? The question will never be answered definitively, but this increase in the play's repetition of sounds is probably not unrelated to the verbal music I have taken pains to describe. The selfsame tune may be the answer, and the affinity with Richard II may be instructive. Both plays are hierarchical tragedies involving regicide, and both give ample space to expressions of belief in a providential, hierarchical, and correspondent worldview while never endorsing that belief system overtly.

  17. Glynne Wickham, “Hell Castle and its Door-keeper,” Shakespeare Survey 19 (1966): 68-74.

  18. See Frederic B. Tromly, “Macbeth and His Porter,” Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 151-56, who contends that “the Porter describes the power of drink in terms which suggest demoniacal possession” (155), a state closely associated with Renaissance witchcraft and one that Lady Macbeth (1.5.40-54) and her husband (3.2.46-53) try to will for themselves.

  19. Scenes in the fifth act average 35 lines each, about half the length of scenes in act 1, the next shortest group, and less than one-third the average length of all scenes.

  20. See S. T. Coleridge, Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terrence Hawkes (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1959), 197. See Paul, Royal Play, 75-130, for an example of scholarly attempts to simplify and clearly define Shakespeare's witches.

  21. See Robert West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1968), 41-55 and 72-79; Kathryn Briggs, Pale Hecate's Team (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), 77-81, 222; Arthur McGee, “‘Macbeth’ and the Furies,” Shakespeare Survey (1966): 55-67; Robert Rentoul Reed, Jr., The Occult on the Tudor and Stuart Stage (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1965), 168-71; and Anthony Harris, Night's Black Agents Witchcraft and Magic in Seventeenth-Century Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), 33-63.

  22. See Paul, Royal Play, 75-130; Harris, Night's Black Agents, 7-19; and Kernan, King's Playwright, 83-87.

  23. See Bruce F. Kawin, Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972); and Donald W. Foster, “Macbeth's War on Time,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 319-42.

  24. Paul, Royal Play, 271-73.

  25. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: I (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1955), 124. See Hesiod, Theogony, trans. Norman O. Brown (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), 7.404-52.

  26. Theogony 12.899-901.

  27. Paul, Royal Play, 15-24, 162-82.

  28. Paul, Royal Play, 284; McGee, “‘Macbeth’ and the Furies,” 56-57; Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation (1567), ed. J. F. Sims (New York: Macmillan, 1965), book 7.

  29. James I, Daemonologie, in the Forme of a Dialogue (1597), ed. G. B. Harrison (London: Curwen, 1924), xiv.

  30. See Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 99-100.

  31. W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939), 86-87. Also, see Harris, Night's Black Agents, 53-54, who suggests that Lady Macbeth is possessed by a demonic nightmare and that her husband's insomnia and Donalbain's dream show the demon present throughout. Wills, Witches and Jesuits, 51-74, goes even further; he thinks Macbeth himself is a male witch.

  32. Paul, Royal Play, 299-300.

  33. See Harris, Night's Black Agents, 35, and Muir's introduction to Macbeth, lvii, which cites Timothy Bright, A Treatise on Melancholy.

  34. See Alistair Fowler, Spenser and the Numbers of Time (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964); A. Kent Hieatt, Short Time's Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Edmund Spenser'sEpithalamion” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960); and Frances Yates, The Theatre of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 67.

  35. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, in The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Irving Ribner (New York: Odyssey, 1963).

  36. Harris, Night's Black Agents, 142-47.

  37. Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), almost suggests as much.

  38. My discussion of numerology is indebted to Vincent F. Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism (1938; New York, Cooper Square, 1969); Christopher Butler, Number Symbolism (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970); S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Politics (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1974); and John MacQueen, Numerology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985); as well as to Fowler and Shumaker as cited in nn. 34 and 30 above.

  39. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, ed. Vernon J. Bourke, trans. Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), 11.30, and also quoted in Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism, 75, and Butler, Number Symbolism, 24-25.

  40. See Butler, Number Symbolism, 51-61.

  41. Heninger, Sweet Harmony, 194.

  42. Shumaker, Occult Sciences, 138.

  43. Ibid.

  44. Fowler, Numbers of Time, 18-23.

  45. Faculty psychology is a hodgepodge of slightly different constructions, but its Aristotelian and ultimately Thomist fundamentals can be discerned in such texts as Bright's Treatise on Melancholy (1586), Davies's Nosce Teipsum (1599), the English translation of Primaudaye's The French Academy (1600), and Wright's The Passions of the minde in general (1604). See Ruth L. Anderson, Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays, University of Iowa Studies 3.4 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1927); and E. Ruth Harvey, The Inward Wits: Psychological Theory in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London: Warburg Institute, 1975).

  46. K. Tetzeli von Rosador, “‘Supernatural soliciting’: Temptation and Imagination in Dr. Faustus and Macbeth,” in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Essays in Comparison, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 42-59, suggests that Renaissance witches are agents of cosmic conflict who operate by distorting their victims' imagistic perceptions. My analysis suggests that the witches do not thrive by images alone.

  47. Forman, quoted in Muir's introduction to Macbeth, xiii-xiv.

  48. D. F. Rauber, “Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth,” Criticism 11 (1969): 59-67.

  49. See Harry Berger, Jr., “The Early Scenes in Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation,” ELH 47 (1980): 17.

  50. This quizzical double disclosure (first a lie, then a terrible truth about the murder of Lady Macduff and her children) was brought to my attention by Professor Joyce East of West Virginia State College.

  51. Kernan, King's Playwright, 40-41 and 60.

  52. Stanley Kozikowski, “The Gowrie Conspiracy against James VI: A New Source for Shakespeare's Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 206.

  53. Ibid., 202.

  54. See Muir's note to 4.1.121 in his edition of Macbeth.

  55. E. B. Lyle, “The ‘Twofold Balls and Treble Scepters’ in Macbeth,Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 516-19, whose interpretation is based on panegyrics to James in Gwinn's Tres Sibyllae and George Buc's Daphnis Polystephanos.

  56. See A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; New York: Fawcett, 1966); D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938; Garden City: Doubleday, 1969); Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Invention of Man (1942; New York: Macmillan, 1961); Roy Walker, The Time is Free: A Study of Macbeth (London: Dakers, 1949); G. R. Elliott, Dramatic Providence inMacbeth” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958); Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); L. C. Knights, Some Shakespearean Themes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959); and Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns. The obvious exception is G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930; London: Methuen, 1962).

  57. See Paul, Royal Play; Wills, Witches and Jesuits; Kernan, King's Playwright; and George Walton Williams, “Macbeth: King James's Play,” South Atlantic Review 47.2 (1982): 12-21.

  58. The formalists include Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), who emphasizes the irreducibility of truth, especially with respect to the hero's motivation; and Stephen Booth, “King Lear,” “Macbeth,Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), who argues that indefinition in the play is barely contained by its tragic form. The New Historicists include Michael Hawkins, “History, Politics, and Macbeth,” in Focus onMacbeth,” ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 155-88; and Stephen Mullaney, “Lying Like Truth: Riddle, Representation, and Treason in Renaissance England” ELH 47 (1980): 32-47, who points out the “amphibology” (ambiguity) of treasonous discourse in early modern England.

  59. Another formalist, Berger, “Early Scenes,” contends that the shape of the play is ironic, that Cawdor, Macbeth, Macduff, and Malcolm are all rebels and/or regicides, and that the early scenes suggest how competitive warrior values assumed by all the characters render unsatisfactory simple moral distinctions between them. Moreover, Booth, “King Lear,” believes that Shakespeare manipulates theatrical experience to work against an audience's acceptance of the so-called good characters in Macbeth. Foster, “War on Time,” thinks Malcolm and Macduff are clearly part of a cycle of repeated revenge and disorder. Jonathan Goldberg, “Macbeth and Source,” in Poststructuralist Readings of English Poetry, ed. Richard Machen and Christopher Norris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 38-58, arguing from deconstructive principles about the limited hegemony of dominant discourses, says Shakespeare did not make his characters overtly good or evil; Malcolm and Macduff resemble Macbeth more than they differ from him. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays (London: Routledge, 1992), attributes the cause of all inhumanity and destruction in Macbeth to the play's absolutist fantasy of escape from female origins and power, a patriarchal wish of which Macbeth is the exemplar but to which Malcolm and Macduff are ambiguously or tangentially related.

  60. Karen s. Coddon, “‘Unreal Mockery’: Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth,ELH 56 (1989): 485-501, in a New Historical postmodern analysis, goes even further by suggesting that Macbeth should not be considered an individual person but, rather, the product of a social disorder reflective of the precarious political foundations of Jacobean England.

  61. Goldberg, “Macbeth and Source,” says the witches represent the “heterogeneity of uncontrolled duplication” and successfully subvert fantasies of dominance in the “hypermasculine world” of the play. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), believes the witches are culturally marginalized heroines who expose the foulness of an oppressive social hierarchy that blindly considers itself fair and just.

  62. See Arthur Kirsch, “Macbeth's Suicide,” ELH 51 (1984): 269-96; and Robert Reid, “Macbeth's Three Murders: Shakespearean Psychology and Tragic Form,” Renaissance Papers (1991): 75-92, for essays that incorporate but ultimately reject recent critical claims. See Graham Bradshaw, Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); John M. Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Brian Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), for attacks on contemporary literary theory and some of its Renaissance applications.

  63. See Robin Grove, “‘Multiplying villainies of nature,’” in Focus onMacbeth,” ed. John Russell Brown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), 113-39, who thinks that nature in Macbeth is equivocal; and John Stachniewski, “Calvinist Psychology in Macbeth,Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 169-89, who thinks that Calvinist predestination is the providential force that works in the psyche of Macbeth throughout the play.

  64. See James L. Calderwood, If It Were Done: “Macbethand Tragic Action (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), for a balanced view of the play. Calderwood believes that the structure of Macbeth is both progressively linear and cyclical, sees in its repetitions both barren augmentation and procreative increase, and finds that negative judgments of Malcolm and Macduff, while serious, do not obliterate the rightness of their actions at the end.

  65. Without a sense of the full power of the ambiguous cosmological forces represented in the “selfsame tune” of witches and Scots, in conjunction of course with an understanding of the hero's violent warrior values, patriarchal insecurities, and individual psychological idiosyncracy, audiences are unlikely to identify with or feel pity for Macbeth, thus forestalling the kind of catharsis that Shakespeare's other great tragedies inspire. I believe that these paradoxical universal forces are part of the hamartia of the play; they must be felt in the poetry, or Macbeth's tragic plight will not be fully experienced. Perhaps rhetorical and linguistic insensitivity on the part of contemporary directors, actors, and audiences is the reason why, as Professor Lois Potter of the University of Delaware recently told me, productions of Macbeth seldom, if ever, achieve the tragic feeling of Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.

Charles Isherwood (review date 26 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Macbeth. Variety 379, no. 6 (26 June 2000): 30.

[In the following review, Isherwood praises Gregory Doran's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) staging of Macbeth, singling out the portrayals of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter.]

It appears that Broadway got the wrong Macbeth. On the same night that Kelsey Grammer's production was opening to dismal notices in New York, the Royal Shakespeare Co. gave the first of about a dozen performances of its acclaimed new version of the tragedy as part of the New Haven Intl. Festival of Arts & Ideas.

Both productions are stark, dark and streamlined, both are performed in modern dress and without an intermission. But if the basic conceptions are similarly hued, there's a world of difference in the execution. In contrast with [Terry] Hands' desiccated, lifeless Broadway version, Gregory Doran's staging for the RSC's Macbeth is full-blooded and intense, compellingly alive in virtually every scene.

It's topped by a pair of riveting performances from Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Shakespeare's famously nefarious married couple. To see Sher's blazingly, almost confusingly human Macbeth is to realize that there may be no connecting the psychological dots of this maddeningly complex character. Macbeth ricochets inconsistently between bloodthirsty acts and anguished reflection, but Sher's jittery, mesmerizing performance makes both the bloodlust and the rhapsodic meditations seem to spring from the same roiling source as Macbeth's military prowess and ambition: a hungry heart whose feverish beating won't give him an instant's rest.

Macbeth's obsession with sleep has never seemed so heartfelt—Sher's pop-eyed Macbeth looks like he's been awake for months, permanently zonked on adrenaline to keep him battle-ready. Even in repose—as when Macbeth stands stock-still while King Duncan names his son as successor to the throne—Sher looks like he's about to jump out of his skin. And Macbeth's hysteria after killing Duncan is particularly finely rendered; it's agony to watch.

Gradually, however, the blood begins to cool, with the turning point arriving in the unexpectedly poignant wake of the banquet scene. Here, Macbeth and his equally high-strung lady cling to each other in wretchedness and exhaustion, mutually and individually taking stock of the unraveling consequences of their murderous acts. From this point on, Macbeth devolves into a coldly calculating monster, whose vestiges of humanity appear only in Sher's bleakly humorous line readings.

Lady Macbeth, ironically, moves in the opposite direction. The embrace at the close of the banquet scene seems instantly to infect Walter's implacably driven Lady M. with her husband's spectral visions—but also with his quickly evaporating humanity. She leaves the stage with candle in hand and, in one of the many felicitous linkings in Doran's staging, when we next see her she's still got the candle, but her rigid self-possession has deserted her.

Unhinged, she's finally human. Walter's sleepwalking scene is authentically haunting, not an actor's showpiece but a vivid rendering of a soul in flight from imaginary terrors born of bottomless guilt. The words spill from her in terrified spurts, and her hands pick at her gown in fluttery, birdlike movements.

The supporting cast is almost uniformly steady and at ease with the verse, with Trevor Martin's Duncan for once making the strong impression that he should. Doran's staging puts the right emphasis on his regal but benevolent nature, making the horror of his murder resonate significantly. The production's only major misstep concerns the inveterately tedious porter scene. Here, Stephen Noonan destroys the production's breathless sense of tension—and reality—with audience-baiting shtick and some shameless Clinton jokes that must have sounded fresher to English ears.

Further Reading

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Braunmuller, A. R., ed. Introduction to Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Presents an in-depth critical introduction to Macbeth, emphasizing the play's historical sources, major themes, language, and performance history.

Carroll, William C., ed. Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999, 394 p.

Locates Macbeth within its Jacobean cultural context, linking the tragedy thematically to a number of contemporary discourses on such issues as Scottish history, sovereignty, rebellion, and witchcraft.

Cartwright, Kent. “Scepticism and Theatre in Macbeth.Shakespeare Survey 55 (2002): 219-36.

Argues that Macbeth represents a confluence of the vividly intense, almost believable, theatrical experience with the emerging proclivity for skepticism which shaped the cultural attitudes of Jacobean playgoers.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Speculations: Macbeth and Source.” In Shakespeare's Hand, pp. 152-75. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Maintains that any study of the sources used in the writing of Macbeth must acknowledge their differing social and political bases.

Gooder, Jean. “‘Fixt Fate’ and ‘Free Will’ in Phèdre and Macbeth.Cambridge Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1999): 214-31.

Suggests that Jean Racine's Phèdre and Shakespeare's Macbeth anticipate modern fatalism.

Hays, Michael L. “Macbeth: Loyal Stewards and Royal Succession.” In Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, pp. 98-129. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003.

Asserts that Macbeth features some conventions of the chivalric romance tradition, particularly emphasizing the romantic “return-from-exile” motif inherent in Malcolm's triumph over Macbeth.

Hochberg, Shifra. “Genre and Self-Reflexive Enterprise in Macbeth: Writing the Text of Tragedy.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 9, no. 1 (1998): 1-13.

Maintains that Shakespeare demonstrated the limitations of the tragic mode in Macbeth.

Holderness, Graham. “‘To be observed’: Cue One Macbeth.” In Re-Visions of Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of Robert Ornstein, edited by Evelyn Gajowski, pp. 165-86. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Attempts to reconstruct a 1611 performance of Macbeth based on a detailed eye-witness account from a spectator named Simon Forman. The critic speculates that the performance Forman witnessed might have been based on a lost quarto version of the play that predates the 1623 Folio edition.

Kernan, Alvin. “The Politics of Madness and Demonism: Macbeth, Hampton Court, August 7, 1606.” In Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613, pp. 71-88. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Suggests that a royal performance of Macbeth was staged in 1606 for James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark. The critic maintains that the production would have been “a consummate piece of patronage art” which celebrated James's sovereignty and underscored his opposition to the politically and culturally destabilizing influence of witchcraft.

Kinney, Arthur F. Lies Like Truth: Shakespeare, Macbeth, and the Cultural Moment, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001, 341 p.

Provides a neuroscientific assessment of the sensory response to live drama, demonstrating how brain synapses process theatrical words and images from a play in performance. The critic applies this cognitive principle to “the cultural moment” when Macbeth was likely first performed in 1606, arguing that each auditor's response did not conform to any unified ideological criteria but rather produced infinite unpredictable and indeterminate meanings.

Kliman, Bernice. “Another Ninagawa Macbeth.Shakespeare Newsletter 52, no. 4 (winter 2002/2003): 93, 106.

Presents a favorable review of Yukio Ninagawa's production of Macbeth.

Levin, Joanna. “Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria.” ELH 69, no. 1 (2002): 21-55.

Discusses Shakespeare's characterization of Lady Macbeth in terms of contemporary thought regarding motherhood, witchcraft, and hysteria.

Rosslyn, Felicity. “Villainy, Virtue and Projection.” Cambridge Quarterly 30, no. 1 (2001): 1-17.

Examines the popularity of villainous characters in Macbeth and several other Jacobean plays.

Weber, Bruce. “Shakespeare as if Played in Vietnam with Style.” New York Times (6 December 2002): E3.

Calls Yukio Ninagawa's production of Macbeth “gaudily stylish but undeniably exciting.”

Worster, David. “Performance Options and Pedagogy: Macbeth.Shakespeare Quarterly 53, no. 3 (fall 2002): 362-78.

Recommends a dynamic strategy for teaching Macbeth.

David A. Rosenberg (review date 17 January 2003)

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SOURCE: Rosenberg, David A. Review of Macbeth. Back Stage 44, no. 3 (17 January 2003): 48.

[In the following review, Rosenberg maintains that Yukio Ninagawa's production of Macbeth was a gripping and intelligently crafted interpretation of Shakespeare's play.]

Scottish play, my eye! The Macbeth that the Ninagawa Company presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a fierce, exciting, harsh, and impassioned samurai drama set in a hall of mirrors that reflected not only the actors, but also the audience. As directed by Yukio Ninagawa, Shakespeare's tragedy became the story of a young couple who find themselves steeped way over their heads in blood.

This is the ultimate power duo, thrust into a chaotic world before experience can teach them how to handle their lives. As with any great work of art, the play opens up new meanings every time it's performed. Here the implication was that Macbeth is a callow, irresponsible youth whose physicality far outstrips his intellect.

The production also stressed that this is a work about fathers and sons. Bent on murdering Banquo and his son, Fleance, before they can produce heirs, or slaughtering Macduff's wife and kids, this Macbeth was a petulant, vengeful, rash adolescent. (“He has no children!” shouted Macduff upon learning of the king's crime.)

Performed in Japanese with occasionally prosaic English supertitles, the production also more than hinted about Vietnam and imperialism, of whatever nationality. The Macbeth of Toshiaki Karasawa and the Lady Macbeth of Shinobu Otake were attractive, jejune figures entangled in political situations beyond their control. But he grew in stature and emotional maturity the further into hell he went, and she morphed into a pitiful, lost woman-child. Indeed, his last speeches were spoken with repressed fear and dignity, not false bravado.

The swift production (even at three hours) was filled with striking stage pictures and spoken with the kind of guttural sounds we're used to from Japanese warrior films. Like Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's film version of Macbeth, this was a roaring, action-packed, but not shallow reading of the play.

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Macbeth (Vol. 80)


Time for Such a Word - Verbal Echoing in Macbeth