A recent community theatre performance and subsequent rereading of William Shakespeare’s MacbethI 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
“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.