A recent community theatre performance and subsequent rereading of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has gotten me thinking. I see play as one of the darkest works in Western literature. Among Shakespeare’s plays, it may be second only to King Lear in regards to its negative view of existence. In addition, like several of the Bard’s creations, it also contains a character, Macbeth himself, of astonishing complexity.
For those unfamiliar with the work the plot is relatively simple. Macbeth and Banquo are Scottish nobleman and generals who serve the Scottish King, Duncan. While returning from battle where they have vanquished Duncan’s enemies, and while crossing a misty heath, they encounter three witches. The apparitions prophesize that Macbeth will soon become King of Scotland. In addition, they predict that Banquo’s descendants will also eventually sit upon the throne.
The prediction tempts both Macbeth and his ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth. They plot Duncan’s murder during an overnight stay at their castle. Though Macbeth hesitates in actually committing the act, Lady Macbeth chides him on. Macbeth does carry out the deed and puts the blame upon innocent parties. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become king and queen.
Next, paranoia prompts Macbeth to send assassins to murder Banquo and his son Fleance. The killers succeed in dispatching Banquo but Fleance escapes. Another encounter with the witches and other malevolent Beings prompt Macbeth to turn on another Scottish nobleman, Macduff. When Macbeth sends killers to Macduff’s castle, the nobleman escapes, but on Macbeth’s orders, Macduff’s wife and children are butchered. As an English army accompanied by Macduff and Duncan’s sons close in upon Macbeth and his forces, Lady Macbeth, now driven insane as a result of acts, commits suicide. In the climatic battle Macbeth is killed and beheaded by Macduff.
I will not attempt any comprehensive commentary on the entire play here, nor will I even try to examine all the aspects of Macbeth’s multifaceted character. I have however been pondering the role that guilt and conscience plays in making Macbeth such in interesting and unique persona. When I think about the ways that guilt and conscience have been handled by various thinkers throughout the ages I am led to the conclusion that Shakespeare has done something very different and exceptional with the character of Macbeth.
Probably the most common, but by no means exclusive form of villain depicted in fiction, long before Shakespeare’s time down through the present, is the “Sociopath”; that is the person who lacks a conscience or any sense of social responsibility. The bad guy commits evil acts and could care less that the deeds are immoral.
Another common archetype in fiction is the person who has committed evil but eventually has an epiphany, usually prompted by conscious or other virtuous thoughts or emotions, and is redeemed at the end of the day. Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge or the Star Wars’s films Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader being obvious examples.
Of course there are characters whose consciences and virtuous emotions prevent them from taking the path of evil early on. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry (Huck) Finn, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, and his dramatic decision to assist his friend Jim instead of siding with the brutal slave culture that Finn was brought up to be a part of, comes to mind.
There are even more permutations involving fictional characters wrestling or not wrestling with their conciseness and guilt. In The Oresteia Aeschylus may be the first of a long line of writers who examine the role of redemption for questionable acts through forgiveness. Another idea, that of a guilty person’s conscious haunting them into self - destruction can actually be found within Macbeth when we look at Lady Macbeth’s fate.
Macbeth the man fits none of these archetypes. Shakespeare’s creation is racked with guilt and assaulted by his own conscious. He is anything but a sociopath. Like Huck Finn, his better nature throws out red flags before he slaughters Duncan, which is his first act of malevolence.
“Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed: then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on the other. “
Unlike Huck Fin however, all of Macbeth’s soul searching is for naught as he goes ahead and commits the regicide anyway.
Later after having killed Banquo, the ghost of his victim arrives to haunt Macbeth who is driven to near madness by the specter. Throughout the play Macbeth is tormented by regret and guilt. Nevertheless he continues down a path of depravity with each act getting successively worse. At the point when he orders the death of Lady Macduff and her children, he even comments that he needs to give the command quickly, for if he hesitates his own better nature might forestall him.
Even at the very end, Macbeth’s very active conscious and awareness of his misdeeds is still with him. As he encounters Macduff, whose wife and children he has murdered. Macbeth comments:
“Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back; my soul is too much charg’d
With blood of thine already. “
There is however, no redemption here. Macbeth goes down fighting, in a way repentant, as he has been all along, but not redeemed.
To me this facet of Macbeth is fascinating. He completely understands what he is doing morally. It pains him and it tortures him. Macbeth has a moral compass. It would not be exactly correct to say that he ignores that compass, but rather, he disregards it. What is his motivation for the endless chain of murder and brutality? On the surface he is driven for lust for power, fear and paranoia. Shakespeare also throws out clues that there is more going on. There is something sexual, perhaps things buried within Macbeth’s psyche that ultimately wins out. The unique thing here is that through it all, Macbeth never loses his ability to understand and appreciate that all he has done is monstrous. It is as if a part of him, like the audience, is standing outside of the action and is appalled by what he observes.
This strikes a tone of darkness and nihilism. Macbeth exhibits all the emotions and reactions that we are led to believe that a balanced human being should experience. These affectations and thoughts, in many other fictional works, either lead a protagonist to a path of virtue, or at least result in some degree of redemption or punishment for the antagonist. Yet for all the seemingly noble and “right” aspects of Macbeth’s psyche, neither he nor his victims are saved. Macbeth is killed in the end but it is not his own consciousness that does him in. Even when someone feels the way that they are supposed to feel, sometimes national and personal cataclysms ensure. The picture painted by the great poet here, of the human mind as well as the world that we live in, is indeed very dark.
As usual, you have some very interesting observations on your current read (or re-read, in this case)!
How sad that, even though his conscience constantly troubled him, Macbeth still went on to commit such heinous acts. As you say, he was no sociopath. Why, I wonder, did he not 'catch' himself in time, if he knew that what he was about to do was totally wrong?
This play is one of those works I absolutely abhor, in spite of the brilliance of its author. I'm reminded of "Wuthering Heights", which is another masterpiece I loathe. I don't like to read about the horrible crimes of an obviously depraved mind. I think it's even immoral for an author to write about such things. Such literary works are very unpleasant to read. I remember that Sartre has a book titled 'Nausea', which refers to the basic existential angst felt by every human being. Well, I feel nauseated when I read something like "Macbeth", or "Wuthering Heights"! This is not the nausea mentioned by Sartre, unless he meant for it to include the horror and helplessness felt by sane, moral human beings in the face of depraved acts. I really can't take this type of thing...
I had to read both of these works in high school, and suffered through them. Some years after high school, I went back and read "Wuthering Heights" a second time, to see if I had simply 'misperceived it' somehow. No, I hadn't. Then, around four years ago, I read it yet again! Once more, I could find almost nothing in it to make me love it, or even like it. The only thing I could praise was Bronte's masterfully-written prose, and deft characterization. That was it...
Thanks again for your insights, which always make for very enjoying, intellectually-stimulating reading!! : )
(By the way, I have another blog, dedicated to nonfiction book reviews -- although I also review nonfiction on "A Night's Dream of Books" from time to time. This second blog is named "MindSpirit Book Journeys". I don't post on it much, because of time constraints. However, I will try to post a bit more often on it from now on. Hope you take a look. Thanks!!)
Hi Maria - thanks for your in depth and analytical comment! I understand and appreciate your position concerning evil minds and actions and the "nausea" type response.
Dis you ever read Plato's Republic? Plato argued that authors should never illustrate behavior that was not virtuous (I understand that your position does not go as far as Plato did).
Indeed sometimes it is very difficult to read and watch. As I alluded to I recently saw a community theatre production of Macbeth with amateur actors and the scene involving the murder of Macduff's family was very disturbing to sit through!
However, I think that we would diminish our ability to see and understand the world and people if we were to cease from these detailed and personal portraits of humanity's dark side. I even believe thats such portraits can at times deter people in real life from doing the wrong thing. I believe that art is about exploring the positive and the negative.
i will check out your non fiction blog. Your fiction blog is fantastic so I am sure it is just as good!
Hmmm...you make a great point when you say that NOT depicting humanity's dark side would "diminish our ability to see and understand the world and people". However, it doesn't make it any easier for me to read about such things... I suppose that art does indeed have to explore the positive and the negative -- after all, who would Harry Potter be without a Voldemort to fight against? I know I can tolerate the depiction of villainous acts if the author doesn't make them TOO detailed, and if the good guys win out in the end. Even in Harry Potter, however, some of the descriptions of evil perpetrated by Voldemort's minions got to be a little too much for me...
I wonder why Shakespeare created the character of Macbeth, and why Emily Bronte created the character of Heathcliff. Were they, perhaps, attempting to exorcise some of their inner demons? Does the fact that reading these works makes me uncomfortable indicate that they are mirroring some darkness within my own psyche? I don't know...this is something I might consider pondering.
Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks too for your compliments on "A Night's Dream of Books"!!! I hope you enjoy "MindSpirit Book Journeys" as well!! : )
Hey Maria - Thanks for the great conversation!
Reading this stuff often makes me uncomfortable too. I think I would worry about anyone who said that it did not.
This is interesting in that in a few weeks I will be posting something about a fictional work that depicts a malevolence was too much for me, in many of the ways that you describe. I do not want top give it away yet, please stay tuned!
I read something really funny about Macbeth the other day--and now I can't find it to quote it here.
Macbeth is one of my favs. I was lucky enough to see a fantastic performance of it in which the witches actualyl rose up within the audience. Incredible!
Hi Guy - The witches are really and incredible part of this play. they are strangely both horrifying and fun at the same time!
Hello Brian, and thank you for that.
I have been reading the above conversation between yourself and Maria behar with great interest. It is, as you both say, a deeply uncomfirtable work: indeed, "uncomfortable" is putting it too mildly. Maria, I think, hits the nail on the head with this:
"Does the fact that reading these works makes me uncomfortable indicate that they are mirroring some darkness within my own psyche?"
I think this is indeed why Macbeth is so disturbing a work. Most works that address the question of evil sees evil as something that is "out there": there are evil characters who do evil things because they are evil characters ... etc. But in "Macbeth", evil is not external: it is *inside* us. This does not mean that we all have a Macbeth inside us: thankfully, most of us don't. But nonetheless, what Shakespeare presents is an evil that is an internal force, that arises from the depths of our own psyches. The witches' prophecies are merely catalysts that develop the thoughts that are already in Macbeth's & Lady Macbeth's heads: the witches are not the *cause* of these thoughts.
I am particularly struck also by this passage in your post:
"He completely understands what he is doing morally. It pains him and it tortures him. Macbeth has a moral compass. It would not be exactly correct to say that he ignores that compass, but rather, he disregards it. What is his motivation for the endless chain of murder and brutality? "
Absolutely. And that's what's so fascinating, isn't it? Unlike, say, Richard III, Macbeth has a moral compass: he understands what he is doing, and, as you say, it pains and tortures him. And similarly with Lady Macbeth. She is not as strong mentally as Macbeth is: it is true that she urges him on at a point where he appears to be backtracking, but it is Macbeth who commits the murder: she can't - and for the most sentimental of reasons:
" Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had done't."
After the murder, the couple - the happiest married couple in Shakespeare, as Harold Bloom tells us - drift apart into their own private hells. Lady Macbeth is horrified to think of what she has done, and her mind collapses under the strain: she relives over and over again that terrible night on which she lost her soul for ever. No-one even in Dante's Inferno undergoes the torments that Lady Macbeth goes through while still on this earth.
Macbeth's reaction to it all is somewhat diferent. When the murder is discovered, he says:
"Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There 's nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys"
There is nothing serious in mortality - all is but toys. This is pure nihilism: nothing that happens in life really matters - it is all, as he says later, "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying *nothing*" (my emphasis). Macbeth has to convince himself of this: he has to convince himself that nothing really matters, that there is no signficance at all in anything - for, if there *were* to be significance in human actions, then Macbeth would not be able to live with the knowledge of what he has done.
Later, he explains why he goes on killing:
"I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er"
Tedious? What an unexpected adjective in this context! And yet, if life has no meaning at all, if nothing really matters, then, yes, it *is* tedious - as tedious not to commit murders as it is to commit more.
And yet, as you say, Macbeth is completely aware throughout of what he is doing. He convinces himself that nothing matters, and yet, even at the end, he is aware of all that might have been, all that he has lost:
"I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, 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 stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not."
Clear-sighted even to the end. There is no hiding from his own damnation.
"Macbeth" remains a profoundly disturbing world, but there is no aspect of human experience - not even this - that was beyond Shakespeare's scope.
Hi Himdari - Very, very wise and perceptive comments.
As you point out the nihilism is striking. "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" is one of my favorite lines in all of literature. How much more of a negative view of human existence and endeavors can one have? Thanks for bringing it up.
There is so much here! I did not even have the chance to delve into Lady Macbeth's psyche. As you say, the guilt and torment that she endures is horrifying beyond belief.
I completely agree that the witches. Catalyst is the perfect word. One imagines that had they not come along, something else would have.
Great reaview, Brian. I agree with you, this is one of the most interesting plays. This one and King Lear are my favourites of Shakespeare.
I always thought of Lady Macbeth as the more evil character, the motor behind it all. I never had a chance to see the play.
Hi Caroline - Lady MacBeth was indeed a force in her own right. I believe that Macbeth what not have acted as he did had she not prompted him. On the other hand ad Himdari pointed out above, her suffering from the guilt of her actions was monumental.
Shakespeare has a way to create character that are disturbing and vile ye at times they can gain the sympathy and love of the readers..I had to read Macbeth in my high school and absolutely loathed lady Macbeth, but then it also made me think if Macbeth had the real will to resist the hunger for power this may not happened at all...though there is connection I am reminded of Partrick Suskind's Perfume which had a disturbing plot and also about Xanthippe...great commentary as always
Hi VB - I have not read Partrick Suskind's Perfume but the Wikipedia piece on it looks really good!
i agree that Macbeth truly is the only one responsible for his actions. As we several have alluded to above, it is interesting how these evil characters have a certain attractiveness.
I love Macbeth--it's definitely one of my favorites among the tragedies, and agree that's there's so much going on that multiple readings and viewings of different productions always provide new insights.
At it's root, though, it is a fairly simple story, and in reading your post it occurred to me that it might be a retelling of the Adam & Eve story, in which Eve leads Adam into sin. Certainly, Lady M has a vast and negative impact on her poor husband.
Hi Jane - The Adam and Eve connection is very insightful. Though the witches only appear to Macbeth, perhaps there are analogous to the serpent. As you say there is so much going here that new angles become apparent with time.
The Scottish Play is wonderful. I think S really hit his straps with this, Othello, and Lear, which all delve deep into the dark side of human nature and madness. I think it must be a difficult play to perform: it's so intense. Although, the witches probably have a good time. :)
Hi Violet - I totally agree that Macbeth, Othello and Lear are portals into darkness and nihilism.
As i mentioned I recently saw Macbeth and the actresses who played the witches really seemed to be having fun!
This is a really interesting take on my favorite of Shakespearean play. I haven't read it many years and much of what you mention were themes and ideas I remember sharing with you when I read it last but have subsequently forgotten. Thanks for jogging my memory and reminding me that it has been far too long since I read Shakespeare.
Hi Ryan - It had been awhile for me too. Whenever i get the chance to see a live performance I try to complete a reading beforehand. I find that it enhances the experience. That is what happened here.
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