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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

William Shakespeare: Macbeth


Blogger SMJ said...

On the Nature of Evil:

In the beginning, Macbeth is a celebrated hero, a great warrior who fights against the Norwegian invasion of Scotland. An encounter with three witches unleashes the demons of his ambition. By the end of his life, he is despised by all; a man fighting alone, for no cause other than a venal expression of his own corrupt nature. The movement of the play from triumph to ruin reflects the arc of moral decay within Macbeth's soul.

The story opens with a battle and a prophecy. The battle is won thanks to Macbeth, who preserves the throne of Duncan, King of Scotland. The prophecy, delivered by three witches, proclaims that Macbeth, himself, shall occupy the Scottish throne. This announcement surprises Macbeth, and unsettles him. As Banquo, a comrade in arms, notes: "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear things that do sound so fair."

This fearful reaction of Macbeth to the witches' prophecy is the first hint of what he's feeling. In fact, as will later be shown, Macbeth may already have entertained similar thoughts. If so, the witches represent a kind of wish fulfillment by Macbeth, who dares not voice his actual feelings on the matter. At least, not yet.

Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is an ambitious man, and his ambition is soon rewarded. Messengers from King Duncan announce the bestowal of another noble title, Thane of Cawdor, upon him, as a token of the King's gratitude. This second title follows on the heels of the witches' prophecy for Macbeth, that he would be Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor. Now, a prophecy that earlier seemed impossibly bizarre is sounding more plausible..."Glamis and Thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind."

With the news of Macbeth's "promotion," we get two different reactions to the prophecy. Banquo, whose children are said to be future kings, is suspicious of the witches' intentions..."What, can the devil speak true?" He clings to the popular belief that witches are evil and cannot be trusted...

"But 'tis strange! And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betrays in deepest consequence."

Banquo is not seduced by the prospect of power. He neither desires nor believes what the witches promise will transpire..."Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favors nor your hate."

Macbeth, however, is immediately attracted by what he hears..."Two truths are told, as happy prologues to the swelling act of the imperial throne." What seemed impossible moments earlier now seems somehow predestined. He allows himself to visualize a future in which he, instead of Duncan, rules Scotland..."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? thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical."

This moment marks a turning point in Macbeth's life. Before now, his ambition, though prodigious, was shackled to a moral acceptance of the world he inhabited. Never were his fantasies of imperial rule unleashed. But the witches have provided a kind of validation to his secret desires. Using Freud's vocabulary, we might say that the appearance of the witches for Macbeth is the voice of his unconscious expressing out loud what he is afraid to acknowledge in public. Possibly, he has voiced this idea even earlier to his wife, when she notes,..."What beast was't then that made you break this enterprise to me?" (Act 1. Scene 7) Here, even prior to learning of Malcolm's appointment as Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth is considering the idea of being king.

Of course, obstacles to the throne still lay in his path. But Shakespeare is allowing us to share Macbeth's private musing..."whose murder yet is fantastical." At the moment, no plan to unseat Duncan is contrived. But the possibility is certainly implied in Macbeth's soliloquy.

The idea now is but a seed. Dangerous, and fragile, it cowers in the privacy of Macbeth's own mind. But in due course, this seed becomes nourished with the anger at being passed over for the throne. Malcolm's elevation to prince ignites Macbeth's simmering frustration and unleashes the true force of his ambition...

"The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o'erleap, for in my way it lies...let not light see my black and deep desires."
(Act I, Scene IV)

This statement marks a confession by Macbeth of what he desires and what he may be forced to do to satisfy his ambition. From here on, the play depicts the unraveling of his conscience. Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, feels he must go forward, but another part of him resists the journey. His own wife, Lady Macbeth, says of him..."Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o' the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way." What separates Macbeth from other Shakespearean villains such as Iago or Richard III is his conflicted nature. He confuses what is desirable with what is actual, but his wife knows better. In order to translate desire into action, conscience is a ballast that must be jettisoned...

"Thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition, but without the illness should attend it."

Here, "illness" refers to the untidy business of murdering Duncan. Macbeth knows it must be done, and yet he hesitates to do it. Like Hamlet, he wavers because his conscience troubles him. But the compulsion of his base desires leads him on. He follows the specter of a bloody dagger into the king's bedchamber. Yet his imagination fails to unveil the consequences of his proposed action. His good sense has abandoned him. He is now set upon a course with no map and no means of navigation. But with Lady Macbeth's help, he finishes the deed. And once embarked on his demonic journey, he never looks back. Oh, he has trouble sleeping, and he sees the bloody ghost of one of his victims, but his resolution never falters.

Not so with Lady Macbeth. After Duncan's murder, other murders soon follow. From a palace whose air "Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses," Inverness has become a charnel house, a kingdom populated with the dead and those waiting to be murdered. Earlier, before the slaughter began, Lady Macbeth hardens herself for the task that lies ahead...

"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!"

Unlike her husband, she knows full well what becoming the King of Scotland requires, and she is quite willing to do it. But, alas, she is unaware of the spiritual debt she will pay. In the end, she is not able to live with the venality of her deeds. Her suicide, unlike Judas, almost redeems her. Though she commits murder, her suffering proves that her soul has not been entirely corrupted.

Macbeth, on the other hand, seems to have gone completely over to the dark side. His needless slaughter of Macduff's family serves no political purpose. It's simply the spiteful act of a man who will not be thwarted. When told of his wife's death, he responds..."She should have died hereafter," meaning at a more convenient time. By now, he is incapable of any human feeling. His speech, beginning

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time..." and ending with " a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Act V, Scene V)

is the final reflection of a man whose life is without meaning, whose prospects have all failed, and whose desire to continue living has vanished.

What started Macbeth down this path of destruction is, according to Shakespeare, the presence of a small idea—the idea that he could be king. And in his solipsistic mind, the notion of "could" became hopelessly entangled with "should." The desire to be king took flight in his mind and carried him aloft, like Icarus, to realms where mortals do not belong, where no idea is too extravagant or bold, and all virtue is lost. Aristotle could have warned Macbeth that a prudent man knows some ideas are indecent, and avoids them. Only a foolish man, a man who does not know his limits, who accepts no boundaries to his ambition, will pursue that which is shameful.

The evil that most plagues mankind is our inability to control the contents of our mind; along with the strange corollary that ideas are not real, so it doesn't matter what we think, only what we do. But ideas are precursors to action, so it should not surprise anyone that poisonous ideas lead inexorably to harmful actions. Macbeth depicts evil not as an external force that leads us astray, but as a failure in judgment. It occurs as a branch in the trail of life where we are given a choice to go one way or another. Our virtue, if we have any, informs us that some roads ought not to be taken.

In the moral universe where we live out our lives every action has a consequence, just as in the Newtonian world of physics every cause has an effect. Like Macbeth, we are faced with choices, to either act on our desires or not. What separates moral action from immoral is the quality of those choices. Virtue and civilization rely on the human faculty of judgment, the ability (and the will) to imagine the consequences of our actions. The path Macbeth chose cannot be understood or justified by saying that witches seduced him or that he was an evil man. A different reading of the play is required. Macbeth, although a deeply flawed individual, was not evil, at least not entirely. But he made the fatal decision to go down a path that led to the unraveling of all his dreams.

This is a play about ambition, morality, and the seduction of power. It shows what happens when human decency is corrupted by greed and excessive pride, and how good men are tempted to commit horrendous acts of carnage. But the tragedy of Macbeth is not that evil causes a good man to sin, as when Iago corrupts Othello to murder Desdemona; but rather, that man, himself, carries within his heart the seed to his own destruction. For Macbeth, the fatal seed which devours him, and all those who stand in his way, is desire. Desire in the absence of humility blinds us, leaving us to wander in the fog of our illusions. That Macbeth is unable to control his desire leads to much suffering and, finally, to his doom.

Note: I would like to give credit to Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College for providing a key insight into Macbeth's character, and for inspiring my own reflections on this play. I encourage anyone reading this to visit Ian Johnston's web page and read his excellent lecture entitled "Introduction to Macbeth."

3/30/2005 11:21 AM  

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