Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 815-88).
Act 1, Scene 2 (826-27, Macbeth’s warrior status)
Macbeth is already a hero when the play begins. Much of what is narrated in Scene 2 concerns his bravery during the battles against the rebel Macdonwald, Cawdor, and Norway. His martial valor exceeds that of everyone else in the field, and there’s an exuberant quality to his actions in the service of King Duncan: Macbeth, “Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like valour’s minion / Carved out his passage till he faced the slave [Macdonwald]…” (826, 2.17ff). So the pattern of the bold and loyal warrior is set, and Macbeth will be able to use it to his advantage against Duncan, just as the former Thane of Cawdor must have done.
Incidentally, on Shakespeare’s borrowing from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, as usual the poet plays fast and loose with his material—Duncan and Macbeth’s two reigns stretched from 1034-57, the time just before the Norman Conquest, but there’s a lot of conflation when it comes to the fighting. The idea of Macbeth’s being set on to the murder by his wife comes from the story of an earlier Scottish king, Duff, who was murdered by Donwald—that’s where the business of killing the chamberlains and blaming them comes from, for instance. Holinshed’s Banquo is a very bad fellow from the outset, and his Duncan is a weak young man, not a hallowed elder. Some of the references to witches can be found in Holinshed, and England’s Scottish-born King James I liked the subject of witchcraft and even wrote a book on it, entitled Daemonology. He traced his ancestry back to Banquo and Fleance, so he is part of the royal line that taunts Macbeth by stretching out “to the crack of doom.”
Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3 (825-26, 827-31, Witches prophesy, Macbeth’s first thoughts)
The classical Fates were Clotho the spinner, Atropos the “unturning” cutter, Lachesis the “allotter” or measurer, daughters all of Zeus and Themis. As the ancients sometimes saw it, the Fates or Moirai possessed a power over events independent even of the gods, who could not control them. But this conception of an externally imposed fate is impersonal and irrational; there’s no ultimate or ulterior meaning to it, and the Greek way of holding a person accountable for confronting a fate that can’t be altered is equally strange, if admirable. I’d say the witches in Macbeth are in a different category: they don’t possess deterministic power over mortals. The witches claim to know (and really seem to know) that Macbeth will first be Cawdor and then king, while Banquo will father many kings. But they don’t claim the direct power to alter events: note how one witch responds to an insult: she will plague the insulter’s husband, but can’t stop his ship from reaching port: “Though his barque cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” (828, 3.23-24). Neither do they force Macbeth to do what he subsequently does. He may seem almost hypnotized by the witches, but hypnotism only works because people secretly want to do the things they are supposedly commanded to do. That sounds like the correct way to describe the relationship between Macbeth and the witches. They can set forth a vision, but they can’t make Macbeth’s decisions for him. He understands that their bare statements don’t necessarily mean he ought to seize the crown by force. I suspect that what the witches know most intimately is Macbeth’s character. Their meeting with him isn’t an anonymous call or an accident; they know who he is and prepare to meet him at the end of the “hurly-burly” battle. (825, 1.3-4) They have given Macbeth the apparent certainty that he is to become king, and he will do exactly as he subsequently does. Perhaps the most important thing the witches know is that the measure of ambition in their man outweighs his conscience.
In his lectures, Coleridge says that the value of Shakespeare’s supernaturalism is to set an excited tone right away and thereby to prepare us for Macbeth’s central deed in Act 2. (He contrasts this movement with Hamlet, which starts out conversationally and moves to high rhetoric.) But the supernatural is more than a stage prop or plot device here: we are to understand the witches to be real. The witches (and the ghost of Banquo later) are more than a metaphor for states of mind. To use the romanticist framework, Shakespeare is an imaginative poet who brings together traditional beliefs and images in a more vital, dynamic way than a merely mechanical or fanciful poet. Such an imaginative poet will, suggests Coleridge, balance and reconcile “opposite and discordant qualities”: Macbeth’s ambition is material, and the supernatural forces are equally real. Neither cancels the other but instead both correlate or even mix in a way that leaves both Macbeth and us distinctly uneasy. The Norton editors make something like this point when they write that the witches are never apprehended or punished once Macbeth is dead and Malcolm inherits, and when they refer to the play’s “nebulous infection, a bleeding of the demonic into the secular and the secular into the demonic” (820).
The effect that the witches’ prophecies have upon Macbeth is profound and unsettling: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good” and “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not” (830, 3.129-30, 138-41). All that Macbeth had formerly taken for granted is now in play, and Macbeth’s murderous thoughts coexist uneasily with his hope that “chance may crown me / Without my stir” (830, 3.142-43).
Act 1, Scene 4 (831-32, Malcolm heir, Macbeth chooses violent path, self-division)
Duncan is still shocked by the treachery of the now executed Thane of Cawdor, saying, “He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (831, 4.12). Duncan makes Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne, which galls Macbeth, who apparently thought the crown might come to him just as honorably as the honors he has won up to this point: Malcolm’s preeminence is “a step / On which I must fall down or else o’erleap” (832, 4.48ff), and it makes a division within him: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires….” (832, 4.50-51)
Act 1, Scene 5 (832-34, Lady Macbeth’s unsexing; anxieties about Macbeth)
Lady Macbeth’s receptivity and determination are on display: she is exhilarated at the news of the great change to come, and calls on the heavens to “unsex” her, to make her as steely and strong as a male warrior, stopping up all portals of sentiment and leaving room and capacity only for necessary action. (833, 5.38-52) She has no doubt that the witches’ prophecy will come true and that it will require violent setting-on, but her role is that of the cunning woman, the plotter and seducer—Macbeth must do the deed, which causes her great anxiety: “Yet do I fear thy nature. / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (833, 5.14-16). As in classical tragedy, when a woman tries to take on the attributes of a male hero, she will be sorely punished. As the play proceeds and Macbeth steps up to become the hardened king his wife had asked for, she will lose the “unsexed” quality of the first act, and with it the capacity to steer Macbeth by means of taunts and reproaches.
Act 1, Scenes 6-7 (834-38, Macbeth ponders ethics, Lady Macbeth brings him round)
Duncan unsuspectingly arrives at Macbeth’s castle, praising its location as “a pleasant seat” (834, 1.6.1). In Scene 7, Macbeth’s initial reflections remind us of the play’s Christian underpinnings: Duncan is his feudal lord, his guest, and a good man. (835 7.12-16) The prospective deed is all ways damnable, and Macbeth is in no doubt of its source in wicked ambition or the likelihood of retribution: “we but teach / Bloody instructions which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor” (835 7.8-10) and “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition…” (836, 7.25-27). As Robert Bridges asks, how could someone so horrified by the prospective crime actually commit it? The Norton editors point out that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most self-aware villain; unlike, say, Richard III, whom we can hardly imagine doing other than what he does, Macbeth has the capacity to do good or ill; we know that his choice is sincerely meditated and deeply felt, and he understands the true nature of what he’s about to do.
Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth brings him round to his longstanding code as a warrior: his masculine honor, she convinces him, calls for him to take the crown, not sit back and wait for it to be delivered to him by good fortune. The basic conflict between Christian sentiment and pagan heroism we will find in the revenge play Hamlet obtains in Macbeth: Macbeth’s bloody Senecan ambition can only be satisfied by violating Christian principle. Faced with competing codes since he will have it so, he must make a moral choice. He has made division within himself, and in consequence must carefully manage the yawning divide between what is and what seems to be: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show. / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (837, 7.81-82).
Act 2, Scene 1 (837-38, Is this a dagger? Macbeth talks himself into the deed)
Macbeth utters some of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon: “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-oppressèd brain?” (838, 1.33-39) What is the status of the dagger? There are no stage directions telling us that the ghostly knife is actually before Macbeth, and he tries to firm up his sanity by insisting that “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (838, 1.48-49). Even so, the dagger seems real enough to him and the very double of the actual blade he has drawn in preparation for killing Duncan, and Macbeth admits that it “marshals” (838, 1.42) him where he was going, that it concentrates and gathers up his spiritual and bodily forces. The dagger’s power may seem to take on the cast of fate or necessity, but it may be more accurate to suggest that it makes manifest the weirdness of the world through which Macbeth now walks: the very objects speak to him, and torment him with animistic pranks.
He prays for an easy, quiet kill that accords with the silence and deadness of nature itself: “Thou sure and firm-set earth, / Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear / Thy very stones prate of my whereabout” (838 1.56-58) and seems quite resolved, saying “I go, and it is done” (838, 1.62), but we know that such facility in dealing violent death cannot be.
Act 2, Scene 2 (839-40, Macbeth’s reaction to murder: no “out of sight, out of mind”)
Macbeth’s initial reaction to his bloody act is one of horror: why wasn’t anything heard? (839, 2.14) He is shaken by his inability to say amen in response to the grooms’ sleepy “God bless us” (839, 2.26-27), and reports to Lady Macbeth that after stabbing Duncan, “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more, / Macbeth does murder sleep’…” (839, 2.33-34). He even has a touch of “Lady Macbeth’s disease,” as that later manifests in her: he asks, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (840, 2. 58-59) the hand-washing in this scene is both practical since the evidence must be eliminated and ritually significant, an act of forgetting, if not of attaining forgiveness. But it gives no relief, which is an ominous sign for Macbeth and his wife, in spite of her seeming confidence that “A little water clears us of this deed” (840, 2.65). Getting rid of the deed’s effects will not put the murder out of mind. The knocking at the gate “appals” Macbeth (840, 2.56); by now, his sensibilities are both heightened and deranged. Macbeth’s final words in this scene point the way forward: “To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself “ (840, 2.71). Necessary now is the deadening of his own consciousness, and certainly of his conscience, which is yet raw. But for the moment, Lady Macbeth has had to grab the daggers from him and take care of insinuating the grooms’ guilt for Duncan’s murder. (840, 2.51) She is the “man” at this point; she has been unsexed just as she had asked.
Act 2, Scene 3 (841-44, Porter; Macduff discovers murder, Macbeth explains)
The Porter’s scene (841-42) links well with the revelation of Macbeth’s crime. Romantic-era critic Thomas DeQuincey wrote in “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” that the Porter scene captures the moment when a murderous act beyond civilized existence is just beginning to give way to the ordinary dimension of life, to the quotidian. That’s why, he explains, the scene is so effective, even startling. In part, it provides comic relief after the murder and initial reaction on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and in part it heightens the tension of the next scene, in which the crime meets the light of day and Macbeth must explain to people not steeped in depravity and horrid intent his rash action in killing the grooms as they slept. But most significantly, I believe, the Porter’s comments teach us a lesson about desire: namely, ambition is like drunkenness. At first, it may seem as if the contrast is greater since drink “provokes the desire” but “takes away the performance” (841, 3.27-28). Macbeth the ambitious man doesn’t have much trouble acting on his ambition: he performs. But at a deeper level, he does run into trouble because he no longer controls his destiny. He “unmans” himself and becomes a violent fool; his boldest deeds are in truth passive reactions to necessity. Ultimately, then, ambition is a kind of madness, and it makes its indulgers lose free will and self-respect. In that way, then, ambition is perhaps as great an “equivocator” (841, 3.29) as “much drink.” Macbeth becomes as impotent as the drunken lecher of the Porter’s imagining, even as he hacks his way through the kingship he has wrongly won.
The other thing about the Porter’s interruption is that it widens the frame from the selfish little circle of Macbeth and his wicked wife. The old Porter couldn’t care less about the goings-on at the Castle. He has his own desires, his own problems, his own wisdom, and his play-acting as Satan’s gatekeeper cuts Macbeth’s role as “grand criminal” down to size, so that we may for a time see in it a damnably common act of betrayal, fueled by vile ambition and justified by knavish equivocation. This is a variation on the strategy we find in Lear, where the King is seldom left alone with his thoughts. Shakespeare wants to carry us along with Macbeth’s story, but he won’t let us merge our identity with that of the protagonist. Drama is a transpersonal form of poetic art: it stages and allows for the development of great personalities, but it doesn’t let them swallow up the stage. Shakespeare is interested to show how people respond to one another, how human behavior turns upon triangulations of desire and other basic elements of our nature. We don’t get from him the claim of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost that “the mind is its own place” (1.254) but rather John Donne’s statement, “No man is an island, entire unto itself” (Devotions, Meditation 17).
Seeming or appearing to be a certain kind of person is not necessarily to be that kind of person, and the cost of maintaining the gap is often ruinous, a form of slavery to one’s desires and deeds. This gap becomes still more apparent in Macbeth when Macduff discovers the murder (842, 3.59), and Macbeth, now returned to the world of normalcy, of forensic cause and effect, must justify his rash action: “I do repent me of my fury” (843, 3.103), he blurts out, but his words aren’t very convincing. Malcolm is inexperienced, but he’s a Machiavellian in the making: he heads for England. He and brother Donalbain are “the usual suspects,” and he knows somebody has a powerful interest in framing the two. But Donalbain gets the best summation of the state of affairs: “Where we are / There’s daggers in men’s smiles” (844, 3.135-36).
Act 2, Scene 4 (844-45, Nature’s first revenge: eclipse; Macbeth crowned)
An eclipse of the sun occurs, and an old man makes the connection: the eclipse is “unnatural, / Even like the deed that’s done” (844b, 3.10-11). The natural world will signify, it will have its revenge for the unnatural acts, the wicked artifice, just enacted by Macbeth and his wife. He will struggle with conscience and, at least for a time, will seem to have killed it altogether, along with fear. For the moment, he is a great success, and we hear that he has traveled to Scone to be crowned king. (845, 3.31)
Act 3, Scene 1 (845-49, “To be safely thus”: anxiety, seeking security)
Banquo’s ambition appears, but only as distrustful speculation of Macbeth: “Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the weird women promised; and I fear / Thou played’st most foully for’t. Yet it was said / It should not stand in thy posterity…” (845, 1.1-4). Macbeth’s stronger and more ruthless ambition—this time “to be safely thus” (846, 1.50) dominates the scene; he engages some flunkies with a grudge to cut down Banquo and Fleance (847-48), whose continued existence is unbearable to him: “For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (847, 1.66-67). Macbeth is confronting the hollow man image that he will soon become: the witches promised him only “a barren scepter” (847, 1.63), and at the cost of his soul, the “eternal jewel” (847, 1.69) possessed by even the humblest of men, that barren scepter is all he presently has.
In general, much of Act 3 is taken up with immediate consequences, with the need for security in the wake of Duncan’s murder. The play deals with the relationship between spiritual error and its material and psychological consequences. Good film versions such as Roman Polanski’s (starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis) or Philip Casson’s 1979 production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench handle the transformation of Macbeth from outwardly loyal thane into murderous fiend with appropriate abruptness. Power hates a vacuum, and Macbeth must fill up the vacuum forthwith. We see a transition from the initially pensive Macbeth to “Macbeth 2.0,” hard, resolute and ruthless, a man willing to betray and strike down anyone who threatens him. His busy wickedness at present is the flip side of acedia or apathy.
Act 3, Scene 2 (849-50, Terrible dreams, resolutions, Banquo taken down)
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reflect and strategize, and we see both the spiritual effects of the act and a determination to quell the psychological disturbance while at the same time continuing the trail of bloody securement: “But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly” (849, 2.18-21). The cost of keeping up the division between seeming and being shows again in this second scene: as Macbeth tells his queen, they must “make our faces visors to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (849, 35-36): the face must not betray what the heart contains—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both recognize this as an unsafe way to live, but they have no alternative if they want to keep the power they have falsely won.
“What’s to be done?” asks Lady Macbeth. (850, 2.45) She suspects that Macbeth will have Banquo killed, it seems, but he keeps this partly to himself. Why? We might ask, since the queen is already complicit in the worst that Macbeth has done. Still, the king is intent on keeping his precise plans to himself: “Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, / And with thy bloody and invisible hand / Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale” (850, 2.46-51). This is a hawking metaphor—the night (the falconer) will do the office of the falcon (day); the rational, humane day must give preference to the terror-laced opportunities of night. One bad deed calls for another: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (850, 2.56). As yet, Macbeth doesn’t seem to realize that no security for him or his queen will ever emerge. No matter—Banquo is killed at 3.3.17, though Fleance escapes.
Act 3, Scene 4 (851-54, Banquo’s ghost, resolve: all action; tedium of bloody future)
Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet, taking Macbeth’s place of honor, and the effect is immediate: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (852, 4.49-50). Macbeth’s guests see only a fit of madness that unmans the King. They don’t even know Banquo is dead, only that he’s missing. This scene directly undoes Macbeth’s attempt to play the smooth Machiavel—his behavior unsettles everyone around him; even his wife. His strange words pay tribute to the weirdness of the time: “The time has been / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end. But now they rise again…” (853, 4.77-79). But when he recovers, he determines to find out the worst and thereby discover the most brutal and efficient means to maintain his power: “I will . . . to the weird sisters. / More they shall speak, for now I am bent to know / By the worst means the worst” (854, 4.132-34). There’s no need to hold back since he’s already deep in evil, haunted by the dark forces to which he has succumbed: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (854, 4.135-37). He must now act so quickly that there’s no time left to analyze his actions beforehand. As quickly as the mind can conceive, the hand will act (854, 4.139). Macbeth’s words may remind us of Richard III’s resolution, “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.64–67). It would be tiresome to Macbeth to retrace his steps, to be penitent; the only way is forward, wading through more blood. But that way forward may also now begin to seem tedious. In the remaining few scenes, Hecate mocks human pretensions to permanence and safety (855, 5.32-33), we hear that Malcolm has found refuge at the court of England’s Edward the Confessor, and that Macduff has followed him there to seek help from Edward against Macbeth. (857, 6.21ff)
Act 4, Scene 1 (857-61, Witches’ three visions, Banquo’s line; Macbeth’s resolve)
Macbeth meets for the second time with the weird sisters. Three visions tell him to beware Macduff, that no man of woman born can harm him, and that only when Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill will he be defeated. (859-60) The first two of these prophecies actually reinforce each other, we later find out. The magic-mirror image of Banquo’s issue reigning forever unsettles Macbeth most: “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” (860, 1.133) Repetition is sin’s most savage punishment. Sin punishes itself, trapping unrepentant sinners in their wicked patterns of conduct and desire. This is a traditional idea: you can find it not only in Augustine’s Confessions but in Dante, Milton, Hopkins—just about any Christian literary artist. Macbeth considers his own life safe, but he is frustrated, perpetuity being like the fruit that turns to ashes when Satan and his legions, newly turned to serpents in hell, addict-like, cannot resist eating it (PL 10.538ff). He resolves to act his bloody deeds as soon as conceived: Macduff’s family to be slaughtered: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand… / The Castle of Macduff I will surprise…” (861, 2.163-166).
Act 4, Scene 2 (861-63, Lady Macduff & kids murdered: their perspective)
Before they are cruelly murdered, Lady Macduff and her son give us yet another perspective on the great events that overtake them and afflict the kingdom of Scotland: the boy’s innocence strikes home when he says in response to Lady Macduff’s insistence that traitors must be hanged, “the liars and swearers are fools, for there / are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang / up them . (863, 2.56-58) We hear and see the private consequences of public disorder; plus an emphasis on the natural affective ties that bind people and reinforce charity and social order: the dimension of humanity that Macbeth and his queen have scorned. Why, by the way, did Macduff leave the family unprotected? He seems culpable there, almost a “traitor” in putting affairs of state before family; this makes sense in the patriarchal context of English royal politics in Shakespeare’s time.
Act 4, Scene 3 (864-69, Malcolm’s “confession”; Macduff’s grief; Scotland’s misery)
Malcolm confesses to Macduff what an awful villain he is—next to him, he says, Macbeth is an angel. (865, 3.51ff) But this claim is ridiculous—in Holinshed, Malcolm does this only to test Macduff, and that’s the implication here as well. It’s probably also the case that he’s showing the proper use of speculation—to shore up one’s sense of virtue. Malcolm’s ploy serves to emphasize the crime Macbeth committed in moving from thought to act, and reassures us that while human nature is corrupted, the corruption’s effects can be kept in check. Macbeth’s “throne of blood” need not become the universal, irresistible pattern of royal conduct, even though we saw in the previous scene what happens to the innocent when royalty does not resist: derangement and denaturation of the very landscape and destruction of life and property, as is well indicated by Ross when he says that in Scotland, “good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken” (867, 3 172-74).
Macduff is relieved to hear that Malcolm was only testing him, and there is much helpful news thanks to the help coming miserable Scotland’s way from England. (867-68) In his attempt to harness Macduff’s grief (869) after he hears from Ross about the death of his wife and children, Malcolm again shows his inexperience—he’s a young man filled with valorous words from some classical manual of rhetoric. As Macduff says, “He has no children” (869, 2.217) and can’t feel the loss of them as a man should. Macduff, unlike Macbeth, is still human, and does not subscribe to the “hardness” doctrine of masculinity set forth by the wicked usurping royal couple. Nature’s bonds of affection are still powerful within him, and Macduff, ever the warrior, comes round to Malcolm’s program of action.
Act 5, Scene 1 (869-70, Lady Macbeth’s madness)
By now, Lady Macbeth has been driven mad by her guilt, and has obsessive-compulsive disorder, in this case a hand-washing compulsion: “who would have thought the / old man to have had so much blood in him?” (870, 1.33-34) Well, an average human body contains about six quarts of blood (1½ gallons). The queen’s physical manifestation reveals a psychic derangement: she can’t expunge her guilt, which shows up as imaginary blood stains on her hands, and her physician can do nothing to help her: “More needs she the divine than the physician” (870, 1.64). What is the point of showing Lady Macbeth’s insanity, a physiological problem, when the supernatural agents are real enough? This is not a pure psychodrama, but the witches are not causes of human evil; they only assist those who would do wickedness. What affects Lady Macbeth in the private sphere and in purely mental terms plays out for Macbeth in the broader material, public sphere that belongs to him. Action, battles and machinations constitute his attempt to scrub his hands and conscience clean, but violence and betrayal accomplish no such thing. Repetition rules the day: wedded to his illegitimate power, Macbeth will repeat the same pattern to the bitter, desperate end.
Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (871-73, enemy approaches, Macbeth’s brittle resolutions)
Macbeth’s opponents are on the march towards Birnam, but the king has deluded himself by now—he had earlier denounced the witches for the visions afforded him—and thinks he still leads a charmed life, (871, 3.1ff) so he dismisses those who are abandoning him: “fly, false thanes, and mingle with the English epicures!” (871, 3.7) But his claims ring hollow, as he himself reveals: “My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have…” (872, 3.23-27). The words are aesthetically pleasing, but hollow and not directly related to the realm of action: this man is tired of living. Macbeth resolves to steel himself in violence, saying, “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked” (872, 3.33) and remains distant from his wife’s sufferings: he asks the doctor philosophically, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” (872, 3.42) and rejects physic altogether when the doctor cannot give him a positive answer. As for his own situation, the witches’ charms are better than any medicine: “I will not be afraid of death and bane / Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane” (873, 3.61-62).
Act 5, Scene 4 (873-73, Birnam’s boughs advance: appropriate weirdness of nature)
Malcolm orders the soldiers each to cut down a tree bough (873, 4.4-7) and use it to deceive Macbeth’s defenders about the advancing host’s numbers. So Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, but we and Macbeth aren’t witnessing a violation of the laws of nature. Nature seems bizarre and uncanny to Macbeth because he himself has become unnatural. But this apparent weirdness in the behavior of nature serves as a way of giving him his desserts—he has betrayed his natural lord (his “father” in Jacobean political theory) and turned his marriage bond into a criminal partnership. In broad terms, the deployment of natural objects to pay Macbeth back stems from the fact that Shakespeare is working within a Christian framework where sin has deranged the entire Creation, just as it will later in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve “pluck’d, she ate, / Earth felt the wound” (9.781-82). Nature responds as by sympathetic magic to human error, reflecting that error back to us if we know how to interpret nature’s signs. The weird, the uncanny, is in this context a function of Providence, which makes use of whatever is at hand to punish those who transgress and fail to repent.
Act 5, Scene 5 (874-75, Lady Macbeth dies, Birnam comes to Dunsinane, life’s a “walking shadow”)
Even before he learns in the middle of this scene that Birnam Wood is on the move, Macbeth has begun to call for destruction and decreation; of the enemy, he says, “Here let them lie / Till famine and the ague eat them up” (874, 5.3-4). He pronounces his own spiritual death sentence with the line “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (874, 5.9) and can’t find it in himself to bewail the death of the queen (874, 5.16-27), for “She should have died hereafter” (874, 5.17). Her passing only leads Macbeth to say that life is ultimately meaningless, pointless repetition: “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” (874, 5.23-27). After a messenger informs him about the moving forest, Macbeth explicitly invites general destruction: “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun, / and wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (875, 5.47-50).
Act 5, Scenes 6-11 (875-78, Macduff’s revenge against “hell-hound”; Malcolm king)
Macbeth confidently kills young Siward, and rejects classical honor-suicide, choosing to direct violence at others instead. But then in Scene 10, he is confronted by Macduff, who reveals that he was born by cesarean section: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (877, 10.15-16). This new information causes Macbeth to lose his courage and momentarily drop his adamantine front, but he quickly recovers with curses against the witches on his lips—“be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense” (877, 10.19-20), only to be slain by the resolute revenger Macduff. In the end, the terms he and others use to describe him are mostly non-human: a baited bear, a hell-hound, and Lady Macbeth is described as “fiend-like” (878, 11.35). Macduff has sworn revenge, and he gets it.
In the eleventh and final scene, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had tried to kill all sentiment and sentimentality within themselves, the end of the play isn’t at all sentimental. Old Siward rejects mourning over his son in battle, and Malcolm, in accepting the crown, promises to do all the necessaries in the proper way. The kingdom has been set right, and the emphasis is on order and ceremony, spare and fitting words coming in advance. This seems appropriate given the derangement of the kingdom and of the dead king and queen’s psyches.
Finally, we might concentrate on Macbeth’s concluding musings and resolutions in the last several scenes. Do they constitute a classical recognition scene or not? Coleridge says the play is “pure tragedy” rather than reflective as Hamlet. But that doesn’t mean there’s no introspection or understanding coming from Macbeth. His tragedy involves the process of desiring honors and attaining them by unjust means, of buying into the epistemological / moral ambiguity served up by the Weird Sisters. Does Macbeth learn anything by the end of the play? I think he understands what he has done and why it was wrong, but it doesn’t matter to him anymore. This play shows its great maturity in the quality of Macbeth’s final musings in Act 5: the language accorded the isolated, brittle King is some of the finest Shakespeare ever gave to any character: its mixture of high aesthetic perception and utter hollowness of spirit shows an intellect undebased, but constrained now to describing and coming to terms with a situation that would horrify anyone with normal sensibilities. Macbeth’s fine words are insightful, but they are hollow, as if he himself can’t feel them and finds no comfort in them. They are empty words, not a curative and certainly no better than the “physic” he had earlier cast to the dogs because the doctor couldn’t heal his wife’s disorder. As always in Shakespeare, some interest is taken in the way a given character handles the relationship between actions and words: the words spoken by Macbeth to explain his situation to himself and his actions to others provide no relief, for that is beyond the power of language in such cases, at least when it is not accompanied by sincere sentiment.
Shakespeare’s plays have various ways of dealing with the consequences of tragic mistakes, with respect to the ability to act. King Lear, for example, gains insight at the expense of being able to wield power. By the end of the play, he and his daughter Cordelia are at the mercy of others, so even if they have become “God’s spies,” they can’t act in the political realm anymore. Macbeth follows a different pattern—once he makes his choice, he must take on the ruthlessness of the tyrant who holds his throne by injustice. Blood draws on blood until, as Macbeth says, there’s no point in going back. He acts boldly and dies fighting, but such desperation hardly makes him a hero. Instead, he’s the puppet of actions that stem from his own perverted will. The witches shoot an arrow into the heart of Macbeth, but that is not to say they are ultimately responsible for his crimes. Ambition is a kind of madness, but it is a lucid madness: images present themselves to Macbeth, truth comes in presentiment, and ambition drives him to inhabit the vision. The consequences of his behavior are predictable, if strange. Shakespeare’s genius is to take what might have been a stage villain and make him a three-dimensional character, but a three-dimensional character who is nonetheless a stunning failure as a human being.
As for the play’s politics, I can’t see how some critics’ claims that Macbeth is tinged with nihilism can be correct given that the play was in part written for King James. Why would Shakespeare deal with kingship in such a manner when he wanted an absolutist monarch to enjoy the play? The older, and probably more tenable, view of the play’s moral arc is that sin punishes itself inexorably, even if the interval between commission and punishment is sometimes longer than most of us would like. I think it is true that anarchy lurks in this play, but only in a narrow manner—the king is human, after all, even though political doctrine says he has two bodies, one mortal and the other immortal and representative of kingship itself. Macbeth makes a bad but entirely free choice, and from that point onwards his bad choice entraps him in a vicious fate that generates real chaos for others who must abide in his realm. He himself marches in linear fashion to his death, behaves like a beast (losing his title to humanity), and dies fighting. The Christian point is that free will, misused, becomes the slave of so-called fate, or necessity. As Wilde said, when we act we become puppets—Shakespeare might add, “well, only when we act badly.” Apparent disorder on the ground does not necessarily imply disorder in the heavens, in the fundamental nature of things. Still, I take the point of the Norton editors about the strangeness and equivocal quality of the supernatural realm in this play—it seems accurate to suggest, as they do, that the secular and the demonic, the physical / material and the spiritual, are by no means easy to maintain in strict separation. The witches’ “equivocation” is a power stalking human desire and endeavor.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake