English 366: Studies in Shakespeare
Introduction to Macbeth
[A lecture prepared for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC. This text is in the public domain, released July 1999. It was last revised in minor ways in June, 2001]
Some Introductory Considerations
Macbeth, as I have already mentioned, is in some respects a relatively simple play. Like Richard III and numerous pre-Shakespearean plays, its structure follows a standard conventional form: the rise and fall of a great man. The first part of the play follows Macbeth’s rise to power. By 3.1 he has assumed the kingship. The rest of the play follows the disintegration of all he has achieved, a process which culminates with his death and the installment of new king. In that sense, there is very little difference in the structure between Richard III and Macbeth.
But, of course, they are vastly different plays. And in this lecture I want to focus, in particular, on the key difference, the psychological portrait of the hero. Earlier, in the lecture on Richard III, I strongly suggested that in Richard there is an amalgam of different theatrical depictions of evil and that, from my point of view, the predominant one was the Vice-Machiavel, the Devil incarnate, who is presented in such a way that we are not encouraged to probe very much into his motivation, his psychological response to events as they unfold, and his disintegration. We do have some clear hints at a possible psychological source for Richard’s conduct (the opening soliloquy points to his deformity and his inability to love), but I suggested that these are more symbols of his evil than their cause. This approach to Richard’s character allows us to develop in more detail an appreciation for how much the effects of this play depend upon Richard’s theatricality, on his outward behaviour (which he invites us to admire in a shared understanding of how clever he is in comparison with everyone else), rather than on any inward complexity.
Macbeth is totally different. There is nothing at all theatrical about the presentation of his character. He does not, like Richard, confide in us or seek to establish any cozy relationship with the audience. There is nothing in Macbeth’s character or conduct which invites us to see any black humour in the play (other than the brief scene with the porter). Instead there is an astonishingly penetrating development of Macbeth’s character. The focus here is directly upon what he is thinking and feeling, why he acts the way he does, and what consequences his own evil brings about upon himself. And the profundity of Shakespeare’s examination of these questions makes this play immeasurably more complex than Richard III. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling characters, and the play is, of all Shakespeare’s great tragedies, the one which responds most immediately to character analysis. One quality, in comparison with Richard III which makes this difference very apparent, is that in Richard III most of the really effective drama takes place in the first half, during Richard’s rise to power (where the focus is squarely on Richard’s devilishly clever actions); in Macbeth, by contrast, the second half of the play, which features the disintegration of Macbeth’s world, compels even more attention than the first half.
So I would like to begin by examining some key questions of Macbeth’s character. I don’t want to suggest that there are not some vitally important themes being explored here, but I would like to defer an examination of those until we have dealt with the protagonist.
Macbeth as a Tragic Character
Macbeth’s story is obviously a tragedy in the formal sense. At the start of the play he is a very successful and highly esteemed member of a social group, loaded with honours and enjoying every prospect of further commendation. He has a loving wife and a secure home in his castle at Inverness. As the play opens, we learn of his heroic actions in defense of the kingdom. We see him interact with other nobles, and their friendship and esteem are evident, as is Duncan’s high regard, which expresses itself in terms of fertile growth, the beauty of natural processes, and spontaneous generosity (with promises of more to come).
At the end of the play Macbeth is totally alone. He has lost all his friends, he is universally despised, his wife is dead, and all his most eager hopes have been disappointed. He is a man without a place in the social community. He has become totally isolated. In Roman Polanski’s film, Macbeth stands alone in his castle to fight the entire army coming in to kill him, one by one. That image seems entirely appropriate given what has happened.
All this loss of things which made him a great man has come about because of his own free decisions. Nothing that Macbeth does in the play is forced upon him, and he is never deceived by some human agent (someone manipulating him). In that sense, he alone is the architect of his own destruction, and the more he tries to cope with what he senses is closing in on him, the more he aggravates his deteriorating condition. His death is thus the inevitable consequence of what he has chosen to do for his own reasons. Whatever the nature of his challenge to life, he destroys himself.
The Murder of Duncan
So one might usefully begin with the obvious question: Why does Macbeth decide to launch his bloody career by murdering Duncan? Why is he not sufficiently happy with the high social position he occupies and the honoured status he has acquired among his peers? There is a very simplistic answer to this (much beloved some teachers who do not wish to wrestle with complex issues), and that is to say his problem is that he is too ambitious. Ambition is a sin, of course, and therefore Macbeth is punished for his sins. If we are not prepared to probe much more deeply, this response to the question is almost entirely unsatisfactory, because it is much too simple and neat. It turns the work from an extraordinarily complex study of evil into a straightforward morality play and closes off discussion of the most challenging aspects of the work.
Now, there is some evidence for the charge of ambition. Macbeth does want to become king, and he refers to that desire as ambition (“I have no spur/ To prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other” (1.7.25-28). But we need to be careful here not automatically to take a character’s own estimate of his motivation for the truth, or at least for a completely adequate summary statement of all that needs to be said. We need to “unpack” just what that concept of ambition contains in the character to whom we apply it.
For a fascinating aspect of Macbeth’s motivation is that he is in the grip of something which he does not fully understand and which a part of him certainly does not approve of. This makes him very unlike Richard Gloucester, who announces his plans with glee and shows no scruples about what he has to do (quite the reverse: he looks forward to doing away with his next victim and invites us to share his delight). Clearly a part of Macbeth is fascinated with the possibility of being king. It’s not entirely clear where this desire comes from. The witches (whom we will discuss later) put the suggestion into the play, but there is a strong hint from Lady Macbeth that she and her husband have already talked about the matter well before the play begins–“What beast was’t then/ That made you break this enterprise to me?” (1.7.48-49). In that case, the appearance of the witches may be, in part, a response to some desire in Macbeth. He has not exactly summoned them, but they are responding to his innermost imaginative desires (more about this later).
What seems clear is that Macbeth is constantly changing hi
s mind. His imagination is in the grip of a powerful tension between his desire to see himself as king and his sense of the immorality of the act and of the immediate consequences, which he knows will be disastrous. Part of the great fascination we have with Macbeth’s character is that he has a very finely honed moral sense and never seeks to evade the key issues (rather like Claudius at prayer in Hamlet). He is no hypocrite in this respect. He knows he will have to violate what he believes. Moreover, he is intelligent enough to appreciate the public consequences of killing Duncan. In that sense he is totally different from Richard who seems to believe that once he is king he will have all that he wants. Macbeth knows, even before he does the deed, that he will have to pay and that the cost will be high. But he cannot shrug off the desire.
It’s not that Macbeth is averse to killing. He is famous as a warrior, and the first thing we hear about him, well before he enters, is that he is drenched in blood and has slit someone open from the nave to the chaps. His high social status comes from his effectiveness as a bloody warrior. So it’s not a compunction about killing that holds him back. It is rather a clear awareness that in killing Duncan he will be violating every rule that holds his community together. This awareness is accompanied by an intelligent appreciation for the immediate consequences to himself:
But in these casesWe still have judgement here, that we but teachBloody instructions which, being taught, returnTo plague th’inventor. This even-handed justiceCommends th’ingredience of our poisoned chaliceTo our own lips.
To act on his desire to become king is to drink from a poisoned chalice. No one knows that better than Macbeth. And when that awareness is uppermost in his mind, he determines not to carry out the murder but to enjoy his newly won social honours.
The problem is that his imagination just will not let go of the possibility that he can become king. Banquo, too, is also tempted by the witches (he would like to talk further about what they said), and, it seems clear, likes to remember what they have prophesied for him. But Banquo puts at the front of his consciousness an awareness that if he should try to act to bring about that favourable event, he will compromise his honour, that is, his place in the social community). So the rosy prospect of a royal line of descendants does not grip Banquo’s imagination; it does not, in a word, obsess him, as it does Macbeth, who cannot put from his mind so easily the vision of himself as king; it’s a possibility which will not leave him alone.
One of the chief functions of Lady Macbeth in the early part of the play is to keep this vision alive within him by any means at her disposal. She taunts him to act on his desires. What she is saying, in effect, is that he must not let any communal scruples stand in the way of his realization of everything which he wants for himself (in other words, he should not be like Banquo). Unlike Macbeth, she has no countervailing social conscience. In fact, she expressly repudiates the most fundamental social aspect of her being, her role as a woman, wife, and mother. Interestingly enough, part of her tactics with Macbeth is to urge him to be more of a man. She identifies his scruples as something unmanly.
We should not on that account blame her for Macbeth’s actions. He freely chooses to kill Duncan in response to his own deepest desires. Neither his wife nor the witches compel him to do what he does, and he is free at any time to refuse to carry out the murder or, having carried it out, to seek out various courses of new action. But his decision to carry out the deed is marked by a curious indecision. In a sense, Macbeth is never entirely satisfied with or firm about what he needs to do to become king or what he really wants to do. When he goes out to commit the murder, he is hallucinating the sight of a dagger leading him toward the deed, and he is filled with a sense of horror at what he is about to do. He is, it seems, in the grip of his imagination and is not serving some conscious rational decision he has made. But, in the very act of letting his imagination lead him on, he is aware that what he is doing is wrong. It’s as if the dagger is pulling him toward the murder (against his will)–he’s following an imagined projection of his desires, rather than being pushed into the murder by some inner passion.
For that reason, for a long time I found it difficult entirely to accept the fact that Macbeth is capable of killing Duncan. How can a man in such an odd state, with so many huge reservations about what he has to do, a man who is pulled toward his victim in a virtual trance, actually commit the violent act? My doubts were not resolved until I saw the Polanski film of Macbeth, which, unlike theatrical productions, shows us the murder. In that film, the moment is brilliantly realized, one of the greatest scenes in the history of movies of Shakespeare’s plays for the interpretative insight it provides.
Macbeth enters with the daggers, looks down on Duncan, and hesitates. It’s as if he suddenly realizes just what he is about. He starts to draw back, as though refusing to undertake something so horrible, changing his mind, as he has done before. Then, and this is an extraordinarily revealing interpretative moment, Duncan wakes up. He sees Macbeth standing over him with the daggers and is about to cry out. Macbeth now knows he has little choice. By following his imaginative vision and entering the room, he has already compromised himself; he has, in effect, already surrendered to evil, and to protect himself he murders the king (in a very bloody scene).
This interpretation of the murder is, as I say, quite brilliant, because it brings out something central to this entire play: Macbeth has freely chosen to embrace evil in his imagination. He has not resisted the impulse to imagine himself king and what needs to be done in order for that to come about (or he has not resisted it sufficiently). But he vacillates, knowing full well what the act means. For as long as he has not actually killed Duncan, he thinks he is free to imagine what being king would be like, that is, he is free to indulge in his evil desires, and yet he is also free to change his mind (as he does). But before he realizes it, his commitment to his evil desires has trapped him. By taking pleasure in imaginatively killing Duncan and letting that vision lead him into Duncan’s bed chamber, he creates a situation where he has to carry out the murder without having actually decided once and for all to do so. His imagination has committed him to evil before his conscious mind realizes that the decision has been made. As I shall mention later, this moment seems to me to express something powerful and complex about the nature of evil in the play.
It’s important to stress the imaginative tensions in Macbeth’s character before the murder and to appreciate his divided nature. That’s why summing up his motivation with some quick judgment about his ambition is something one should resist. That resolves the issue too easily. Macbeth, in a sense, is tricked into murdering Duncan, but he tricks himself. That makes the launching of his evil career something much more complex than a single powerful urge which produces a clear decision.
After all, one needs to notice clearly how he is filled with instant regret at what he has done. If driving ambition were all there was to it, one would think that Macbeth and his wife would not become morally confused so quickly. Macbeth’s entrance after the killing brings out really strongly a sense that if he could go back to the speech about the imaginary dagger, he would not carry out the murder. Lady Macbeth thinks a little water will solve their immediate problem; Macbeth knows that that is too easy. He cannot live with what he is done and remain the same person.
Macbeth As King
The tragic element of Macbeth’s character emerges most clearly from his career after the killing of Duncan, above all in his d
ecision that, having violated all the most important rules of communal society by killing Duncan, he will continue in the same course of action, even if that means, as it obviously does, that he will simply bring upon himself even greater suffering than the killing of Duncan occasions.
It worth asking ourselves what in Macbeth commands our attention throughout the second half of this play. After all, he is in many respects the least admirable tragic hero of all. In characters like Othello, Romeo, Cleopatra, Lear, Antony, Hamlet (to say nothing of Oedipus, Ajax, or Clytaemnestra) we can usually find something to admire. We may not like them (they are not very likable people), but there is something in their characters or their situation on which we can hang some sympathy, even if there is not enough for us to rationalize away their actions. But Macbeth is a mass murderer, who does away with friends, colleagues, women and children, often for no apparent reason other than his own desires. Why do we keep our attention focused on him?
The answer, I think, has to do with the quality of his mind, his horrible determination to see the entire evil business through. Having, with the murder of Duncan, taken charge of the events which shape his life, he is not now going to relinquish the responsibility for securing his desires. The most remarkable quality of the man in this process is the clear-eyed awareness of what is happening to him personally. He is suffering horribly throughout, but he will not crack or seek any other remedy than what he alone can deliver. If that means damning himself even further, then so be it.
This stance certainly does not make Macbeth likable or (from our perspective) in many respects admirable. But it does confer a heroic quality upon his tragic course of action. He simply will not compromise with the world, and he will pay whatever price that decision exacts from him, even though as his murderous career continues he becomes increasingly aware of what it is costing him.
It seems clear that what his murder has cost him is the very thing that made him great in the first place. For no sooner has he become king than he becomes overwhelmed with fear, nameless psychological terrors which will not leave him alone. We know that Macbeth has had enormous courage before, but there’s a powerful irony manifesting itself in the fact that his evil has made him terrified of his inner self. He stands up to that fear and that terror–in fact throughout most of the second half of the play Macbeth is obsessed with removing his inner torment. His later murders are motivated by that far more than by any political considerations or any desire for physical security. The fascination we have with his character stems, I think, from his increasingly futile attempts to resolve the inner pain which he has brought upon himself (and his accurate diagnosis of what is going on inside him). Those attempts lead finally to his self-destruction.
This quality sets him clearly apart from his wife. She has thought that a little water and a few lies will clear them of the murder of Duncan, but she cannot evade the psychological consequences of what she has encouraged Macbeth to do. She lacks his will power, his determination to continue, his ability to withstand the inner torment. And so as he becomes more and more determined to keep killing his way to some final solution, she falls apart. This begins with her fainting spell as soon as the news of Duncan’s death becomes public, continues in her anxious fretting before and after the banquet scene, reaches its clearest expression in her sleepwalking, and culminates in her suicide. This lack of inner will to confront fully the consequences of her and Macbeth’s actions makes her story one without the tragic significance of her husband’s.
The phrase “lack of inner will” above is not meant to indicate some serious limitation in Lady Macbeth. For at the root of her difficulty is her inability to divorce herself from her own human nature. She had thought that she could unsex herself, push away from her any of her deepest feelings about, for want of a better word, love of others, and become a pure agent of destruction. So long as the murders have not started, she plays that role with great rhetorical effectiveness (especially in her taunts about Macbeth’s manhood). But once Duncan is dead, she finds herself in the grip of the most powerful human feelings, without any of her husband’s determination to act to resolve those feelings. With this in mind, her reference to Duncan looking like her father takes on an important resonance.
What’s particularly noticeable, too, is the way in which, following the murder of Duncan, their relationship becomes estranged. We have every reason to believe that before Duncan’s murder, they are very close. Certainly Macbeth shares all his thoughts and feelings with her, and she feels quite equal to speaking candidly to him about what she thinks he must do. They are (and this, in my view, is an important point for a production to bring out) at first a very close and loving couple.
But right after the coronation of Macbeth, just before the banquet scene, Macbeth and his wife are clearly changing in different directions. He has further murders planned (of Banquo and Fleance), but he is not telling her about them. He is resolved to proceed alone, to do whatever is necessary to ease his mind without any moral scruple (although his body is still fighting that commitment to evil, hence the frequent references to a lack of sleep).
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleepIn the affliction of these terrible dreamsThat shake us nightly. Better be with the dead,Whom we to gain our peace have sent to peace,Than on the torture of the mind to lieIn restless ecstasy.
This declaration is worth close scrutiny. Macbeth cares less about the future of the world than he does about his own determination to “resolve” his inner torment. He is determined to set his life in order, to obtain what he set out to acquire with the first murder. And nothing in the world is going to stop him. The murder of Banquo and Fleance stem from this desire. It’s not that they present any immediate threat. Macbeth appears secure on the throne, and there is no talk anywhere of any immediate rebellion. But his mind is not at ease, and that is Macbeth’s overwhelming concern. The emphasis here is totally psychological rather than political.
However, he has not lost his moral sense. Again, he is under enormous tension, for he still feels the pull of the “that great bond.” His dreadful prayer to the night–a passage particularly eloquent for its evocation of the horror of what is happening–is a plea for the suppression or the elimination of the scruples he still might have:
Come, seeling night,Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,And with thy bloody and invisible handCancel and tear to pieces that great bondWhich keeps me pale. (3.3.47-51)
Just as his wife does before the murder of Duncan, Macbeth is here urging the dark powers of the night to take away any vestiges of human feeling he still has for the communal standard, the “great bond” which links him to his fellow creatures. Lady Macbeth made the prayer, but could not sustain that urge. Macbeth ends the speech with a key statement:
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.
What matters increasingly to him is not whether something is good or bad; for he is willing himself beyond those moral categories into a state of being in which acting on his own desires is all that concerns him. What matters now is the strength to keep going on the course where he imposes his desires on the world, even at the expense of any lingering connections he may feel to that society of which he was, only a short while ago, a very honoured part.
What we witness, as Macbeth continues to murder his way in the frantic desire for peace of mind, is his gradual dehumanization. His loss of physical relationships is accompanied by something even more horrible, h
is loss of any power to feel sensitively about life. In a sense, he gets what he has prayed for. The great bond that links him to other human beings does virtually disappear, so that the pursuit of his desire for inner peace makes him care less and less for anything life has to offer. In other words, the successful attainment of his human desires creates a life with no human value in it. What is the point of realizing one’s desires when there is nothing left in the world one finds desirable?
I have lived long enough. My way of life Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,And that which should accompany old age,As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but in their steadCurses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breathWhich the poor heart would fain deny and dare not. (5.3.23-29)
That is the reason why, when he receives the news that his wife is dead, he response is so low key and bitter. In one of the very greatest speeches in all of Shakespeare, he accepts the news with a horrifying calm:
She should have died hereafter.There would have been a time for such a word.Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrowCreeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)
This famous speech acknowledges fully the empty mockery his life has become. Once again, the remarkable quality of this passage is Macbeth’s refusal to evade the reality of the world he has created for himself. His life has become an insane farce, not because he no longer has any power or physical security (he has both and, as he remarks earlier, could easily withstand the siege), but because he has ceased to care about anything, even about his wife. There is no one to blame but himself, and he has learned too late the truth of what he understood would happen if he gave into his desires and killed Duncan. It’s not surprising that immediately after this speech, once he hears about the moving wood, he decides to end it all in a final battle, not because he has any desire to win but because wants to take charge of the final event, his own death. The life he has created for himself leaves him with nothing else to do.
As many people have observed, the theatrical metaphor in this famous speech resonates throughout the play. Macbeth has, in a sense, tried to seize control of the script of his life, to write it in accordance with his desires, in the clear knowledge that that’s probably going to be disastrous. Instead of living out his life, as normal people (including Banquo) do, in a drama out of his total control, he seeks to change the plot. And the result is a play that leaves him feeling increasingly pained, disoriented, and afraid (that we in modern terminology might call inauthentic). His returns to the witches and the murders that result are frantic attempts to keep rewriting the script, to turn it into something answering his needs. But all he succeeds in doing is to turn the play into a sinking nightmare of strutting and fretting (in which, interestingly enough, there are frequent references to how his clothes, like a poorly cut theatrical costume, just don’t fit).
This point above about Macbeth’s bringing about his own death is an important element in his tragedy. Having set himself above all conventional morality and prudence to tackle life on his own terms in answer to his desires, Macbeth will remain in charge until the end. Like so many other great tragic heroes (Oedipus, Lear, Coriolanus, Othello, and so on), he self-destructs (this makes his ending significantly different from Richard III’s). He has come to the full recognition of what taking full charge of his own life, without any concessions to his community, really means. And that realization fills him with a sense of bitterness, futility, and meaninglessness.
The Witches: Agents of Evil?
No discussion of Macbeth would be satisfactory which did not make some attempt to deal with its most famous symbols: the coven of witches whose interactions with Macbeth play such a vital role in his thinking about his own life, both before and after the murder of Duncan. Banquo and Macbeth recognize them as something supernatural, part of the landscape but not fully human inhabitants of it. They have malicious intentions and prophetic powers. And yet they are not active agents in the sense that they do anything other than talk and offer visions and potions. They have no power to compel. So what are we to make of them?
A good place to begin is to dispel at once any temptation to indulge in that misleading exercise which encourages us to think that we can only adequately deal with these witches by appeals to historical facts, like the beliefs of a seventeenth-century audience or the intense interest of James I in witches. All that may be true, but we are not in the seventeenth century, and the purpose of these lectures is not to take us back there. If we are to explore the significance of these witches we must do so by treating them as vital poetic symbols in the play, essential manifestations of the moral atmosphere of Macbeth’s world (like the ghost in Hamlet), and every bit as intelligible to a modern audience as to Shakespeare’s.
The most obvious interpretation of the witches is to see them as manifestations of evil in the world. They exist to tempt and torment people, to challenge their faith in themselves and their society. They work on Macbeth by equivocation, that is, by ambiguous promises of some future state. These promises come true, but not in the way that the victim originally believed. The witches thus make their appeal to Macbeth’s and Banquo’s desire to control their own future, to direct it towards some desirable ends. They have no power to compel belief, but they can obviously appeal strongly to an already existing inclination to force one’s will onto events in order to shape the future to fit one deepest desires.
Banquo’s importance in the play stems, in large part, from his different response to these witches. Like Macbeth, he is strongly tempted, but he does not let his desires outweigh his moral caution:
But ’tis strange,And oftentimes to win us to our harmThe instruments of darkness tell us truths,Win us with honest trifles to betray’sIn deepest consequence. (1.3.120-124)
Macbeth cannot act on this awareness because his desires (kept alive by his active imagination and his wife’s urging) constantly intrude upon his moral sensibilities. Hence, he seizes upon the news that he has just been made Thane of Cawdor, using that information to tell him what he most wants to believe, that the witches tell the truth.
This supernatural solicitingCannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,Why hath it given me earnest of successCommencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor. (1.3.129-132)
But Macbeth’s inner question here has already been answered by Banquo a moment before (in the quotation immediately above). Macbeth’s framing the question in this way is an indication, not that he has not heard what Banquo has just said, but that he doesn’t want to believe it.
The witches, in other words, appeal to what Macbeth wants to believe. They don’t make him believe it. And they do not tell him what to do in order to achieve what they prophesy. They say nothing about killing Duncan (or anyone else). In that sense, they cannot be the origin of the idea of the murder. They may be appealing to that idea (which we are given to believe originates in Macbeth some time previously), but they do not create it.
The same is true of their later prophecies about Birnam Wood and about no one of woman born being able to harm Macbeth. These confirm for Macbeth the fact that acting on his desires will keep him secure, that he can take charge of his future with nothing to fear. But these prophecies do not offer any specific instructions abou
t immediate actions. We must, thus, I think, resist any temptation to see Macbeth’s actions as determined or controlled by the witches. He is always free to choose how he is going to act.
Hence, these witches exist as constant reminders of the potential for evil in the human imagination. They are ineluctably part of the natural world, there to seduce anyone who, like Macbeth, lets his imagination flirt with evil possibilities. They have no particular abode and might pop up anywhere, momentarily, ready to incite an eternal desire for evil in the human imagination, the evil which arises from a desire to violate our fellow human beings in order to shape the world to our own deep emotional needs.
It’s important to note that the witches are not dealt with in this play. By the end, Macbeth has been defeated and killed, but the witches are still around, somewhere. Years ago, when I directed a production of Macbeth I considered the fact that nothing is said about the witches in the resolution and that the audience will naturally wonder about them. It struck me then that they must be observing the final celebration, there on the stage hovering around the solemn pieties and celebration at the end, and thus lending a powerful note of irony to the triumph of the forces of good over Macbeth. It’s as if such a conclusion is saying something like, “Yes, you have dealt with one evil man, but if you think you have therefore dealt with evil, you are indulging in illusory hopes.”
Polanski’s film of the play makes such a irony in the end even stronger by concluding the film with a scene of Donaldbain riding alone in to meet the witches, a scene which brings out a sense that the cycle we have witnessed is going to continue. Polanski links that with the rebellion of the Thane of Cawdor, so that we get a vision of human life which is a series of manifestations of evil and the corresponding efforts to deal with those who respond to it. Macbeth’s story thus is simply one episode in an endlessly bloody and repetitive struggle.
The cyclical nature of the recurrent visions of evil may be underscored by a predominant contrast throughout the play between light and darkness. Macbeth is an intensely dark play, metaphorically and literally. After Duncan’s conversation about the natural pleasantness of Macbeth’s castle, such references to nature as benevolent disappear, and we are plunged into a world of twilight and darkness, a constant sense that Macbeth’s prayers to the evil in the world are bringing out the gradual extinction of any life-sustaining light and growth. The forces of Malcolm are described in terms of regeneration and a newer and healthier vitality (the miraculous power of the English king to heal illness is an important image of that point). But there may be (depending on how the play is staged) no firm sense that the final triumph of the forces of goodness over this manifestation of evil have done anything to alter the recurring cycle. For the play has not banished the darkness; it has simply brought back a circle of light.
Postscript I: The Vision of Evil in Richard III and Macbeth
It should be clear from some of the above remarks that the vision of evil in Macbeth is considerably more complex than the vision in Richard III. The latter play places the evil in a particularly evil personality who, nevertheless, carries out God’s work in punishing past evildoers, like Clarence, Edward, Hastings, and so on, before he himself is finally destroyed by the forces of goodness. As I mentioned in the lecture on Richard III, this vision is a traditional allegorical understanding of history as the working out of God’s providence, a system in which evil itself works towards God’s final purposes in history.
I mentioned in our consideration of Richard III that there is a sense that Shakespeare, in writing the play, found this vision of evil in some respects too easy, for there are moments (like the seduction of Anne or Clarence’s dream) where we do sense much more complex reverberations. But such moments are not sustained, and the final movement which brings closure to the first history cycle is almost formulaic.
Macbeth offers us something much more complex and challenging. Here the potential for evil, manifested in the witches, is a permanent feature of the landscape, with no redeeming higher moral purpose like some providential scheme. The witches thus exist as a permanent threat, not only to particular individuals but also to the human community. They exert their effect through the deepest desires of human beings to set aside their shared sense of communal values, and they deceive those who listen to them with equivocating promises: they punish (if that is the right word) those whom they successfully tempt by giving them what they want, by living up to their promises, only to reveal just how empty and self-destructive life becomes for those who surrender to their egocentric desires.
Is Macbeth, then, a Christian play? There are many explicitly religious references and some strong suggestions of a Christian morality at work (especially alluding to Malcolm, the English King, and the forces moving against Macbeth). But the overt Christian belief system is not insisted upon (there is no institutionalized religious presence in the play, as there is in the history plays), and the sense that evil has an objective existence, over and apart from any divine purposes, both in the landscape and in the imaginations of individuals, is disturbing in a profoundly un-Christian sense. And there is no insistence at all upon any future judgment. The sense is explicitly that the judgment upon Macbeth is “here,” in this world, that Macbeth’s affirmation of himself at the expense of any communal morality brings its social and psychological consequences in this life. The great bonds of nature which Macbeth and his wife violate might be interpreted, I suppose, from a Christian perspective, but the play does not require that, and to the extent that such a Christian interpretation might ease the unsettling complexities of the vision of evil in the world (by imposing a reassuring doctrine upon the conclusion of the play), I would tend to reject it. If we see the metaphysical questions about good and evil as central to a religious sensibility, then Macbeth is a profoundly religious play, but it does not deliver an explicitly Christian message (here again there is an important difference perhaps between Macbeth and Richard III).
That may be the reason why in his extremely effective interpretation of the play, Polanski set Macbeth back in pagan times, in a very tough militaristic society dominated by assertions of force amid an unforgiving natural setting. Such a vision helps us see even more clearly (as many of the best tragedies almost always do) the fragile and perhaps illusory nature of those social institutions which we like to believe in at those moments when we feel we need an ordered and morally significant community. Macbeth’s decision to move beyond that morally significant community has failed, his attempt to impose a new order based on murder has failed, but his attempt has exposed the falseness of any complacent assumptions about the effectiveness of traditional order to hold evil easily at bay.
How we interpret the ending of Macbeth will, in large part, depend upon how we see the role of the witches at the end. Some (e.g., Goddard) see the end as an unambiguous triumph of good over evil. Scotland has been cleansed by the combined forces of the Christian English king, who has miraculous powers to cure disease, and the Scottish nobility. My own sense is that the ending is a good deal more ambiguous, for the witches are still around and have not been dealt with. If they are present on stage as the lights fade, then the victory over Macbeth will be a good deal more ironic.
I tend to see this play as insisting that the human community exists in a small arena of light surrounded by darkness and fog. In this darkness and fog, the witches endlessly circle the arena of light, waiting for someone like Macbeth to respond to his im
aginative desires and perhaps natural curiosity about what lies beyond the circle. There will always be such people, often among the best and the brightest in the human community. So overcoming one particular person is no final triumph of anything. It is a reminder of just how fragile the basic moral assumptions we make about ourselves can be. In that sense, Macbeth, like all great tragedies, is potentially a very emotionally disturbing play. It does not reassure us that the forces of good will always prevail, rather that the powers of darkness are always present, for all our pious hopes and beliefs.
One final point. To talk this way about a vision of evil is to offer a comment upon a thematic concern of the play. But one should not therefore think that Macbeth is somehow a coherent philosophical statement of such a theme, something which invites rational analysis. Macbeth is a work of art, and if it is effective, it does its work through our emotional responses to the poetry (and the action in a performance), not by making some closely argued case about the nature of the world.
Postscript 2: The Witches Once More: The Revenge of the Proletariat or The Revenge of the Id?
The above interpretative suggestions about the witches has deliberately ignored questions a modern reader might well raise: What about the witches as people? Why are they women? Is there any point to examining the social and political implications of the presence of these characters? Traditionally, these questions have not mattered very much, for the various approaches to Macbeth have treated them very much the way I have above (as symbolic manifestations of the potential for evil). However, an eminent modern literary critic, Terry Eagleton, raises a new possibility:
To any unprejudiced reader–which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics–it is surely clear that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches. The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little the play itself recognizes the fact, and however much the critics may have set out to defame them. (William Shakespeare, p. 2)
For Eagleton, the social reality of the witches matters. They are outcasts, living on the fringe of society in a female community, at odds with the male world of “civilization,” which values military butchery. The fact that they are female and associated with the natural world beyond the aristocratic oppression in the castles indicates that they are excluded others. Their equality in a female community declares their opposition to the masculine power of the militaristic society. They have no direct power, but they have become expert at manipulating or appealing to the self-destructive contradictions of their military oppressors. They can see Macbeth’s destruction as a victory of a sort: one more viciously individualistic, aggressive male oppressor has gone under.
This suggestion is not (I think) entirely serious (Eagleton observes that the play does not recognize the issue he is calling attention to), but it underscores a key point in the tragic experience of Macbeth, its connection to a willed repudiation of the deep mysterious heart of life, the place where sexuality and the unconscious hold sway. This aspect of life is commonly associated with and hence symbolized by women, for complex reasons which there is not time to go into here (but which would seem to be intimately bound up with women’s sexuality and fertility, contacts with the irrational centres of life which men do not understand and commonly fear). In seeking to stamp his own willed vision of the future onto life, the tragic hero rejects a more direct acquaintance with or acceptance of life’s mystery. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth intuit this point, because they both pray to the gods to make them “unnatural.” And they both pay the price, for nature will never subordinate herself for long to the individual’s desire to exercise control over her. In that sense, Macbeth, like other tragedies, might be said to call attention to the “unnatural” or “oppressive” understanding of life inherent in traditional tragedy.
The notion that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are, in a sense, punished by some life force drew a short comment from Freud (in Some Character-types Met With in Psycho-analytical Work, 1916), in response to questions about the accuracy of Shakespeare’s depiction of their motivation and subsequent psychic breakdown. While confessing himself at something of a loss to account for the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in detail, Freud sees an important suggestion in the notion of childlessness:
It would be a perfect example of poetic justice in the manner of talion if the childlessness of Macbeth and the barrenness of his Lady were the punishment for their crimes against the sanctity of generation–if Macbeth could not become a father because he had robbed children of their father and a father of his children, and if Lady Macbeth suffered the unsexing she had demanded of the spirits of murder. I believe Lady Macbeth’s illness, the transformation of her callousness into penitence, could be explained directly as a reaction to her childlessness, by which she is convinced of her impotence against the decrees of nature, and at the same time reminded that it is through her own fault if her crime has been robbed of the better parts of its fruits.
Freud notes that the compressed time frame of the play does not invite this analytical conclusion, so he does not push home this possibility. And he concludes his short remarks with the suggestion (developed from Ludwig Jekels) that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are, in effect, a single personality, so that, considered as a unit, “Together they exhaust the possibilities of reaction to the crime, like two disunited parts of a single psychical individuality, and it may be that they are both copied from the same prototype.” This final suggestion might help us to see that the impact of the tragedy is, in part, conveyed to us by the falling apart of the couple who, when we first meet them, seem entirely in harmony with one another (a point mentioned earlier).