Christendom’s English language and literature department welcomed recognized professor and author R.V. Young to campus for a 40th Anniversary lecture titled: “‘Light Thickens’: Political Tyranny and Personal Freedom in Macbeth.” The talk was held in St. Kilian’s Café on Thursday, April 19 at 4:00 p.m.
R.V. Young is Professor of English Emeritus, North Carolina State University and former editor of the quarterly review, Modern Age. He co-founded and for 25 years co-edited The John Donne Journal. His books include At War With the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education, and Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. In addition to academic work, he has published articles and reviews in such journals as The National Review, The Human Life Review, The Weekly Standard, First Things, and Touchstone, of which he is a contributing editor.
Thank you very much, Dr. Stanford, for that overly generous introduction. I do want to correct one item: he described me as the chairman of the English department—he would’ve been more accurate to say I was the English department. It was probably the most varied job I ever had, and the hardest one next to building metal buildings in Florida when I was a teenager.
It’s a very great honor for me to be here. As Dr. Stanford pointed out, I have a kind of sporadic history with Christendom, and all my memories are fond. It’s wonderful to be back here and see so many familiar faces—though I must say, like my own, they’re not as familiar as the once were, they’re a little changed—and so many new faces as well, hope for the future.
When I write a paper, I just sit down and start writing and go on and on and on. That’s the easy part, then I come back and have to cut a lot of it out. I cut a lot of this out in the hope that we’ll have sufficient time that some of you will be moved to ask questions or make comments or raise objections or, I don’t know, stop out in rage.
I should mention, just Sunday afternoon, before coming up here, I went and saw for the first time Verdi’s version of Macbeth, the opera. It’s not as good, though it has its virtues, but a little later on, if you’ll remind me, I’ll make a point about it, in relation to something I’m saying in this paper.
When we think of tyranny, we usually think of ways in which the tyrant oppresses and constrains the freedom of the people that he rules. In a number of his mature tragedies, Shakespeare complicates the issue by showing how even resistance to tyranny may imperil a man’s sincerity and integrity—qualities prized by Renaissance humanists summed up in Justus Lipsius’ fine phrase: “the special candor of a free mind.”
The tragic heroes of Julius Caesar and Hamlet, each after his own fashion, find their freedom of mind, their candor as men of integrity, imperiled or impaired by an entanglement with one kind or another of tyranny. But Brutus—who was arguably the tragic protagonist of Julius Caesar, despite the title—and Hamlet, are to some extent, tainted by the tyranny of their antagonists, Caesar and Claudius, with whom they struggle.
In the later play, Macbeth, however, the perspective is reversed. The attention of the audience is more intimately concerned with the embodiment of tyranny himself. And, instead of witnessing the struggle of virtue to resist contamination by the vice it confronts, we observe with horror the utter deterioration of virtue, and the protagonist’s descent into an abyss of evil. The result is that the tyrant, who threatens the freedom and integrity of his subjects, destroys the freedom and candor of his own mind by enslaving himself to his passions.
Even at its most overtly political, Shakespearean tragedy is thus concerned with the corruption of moral character, with the defilement of pure intentions, as much as with political institutions. While he was fully aware of the power of politics of his own day—the means Queen Elizabeth used to maintain her shaky authority—the clash between Parliamentary aspirations to independence and Stuart pretentions to royal absolutism enshadows these contemporary issues by dramatizing the political conflicts of the past.
What finally drives Shakespeare’s tragic vision is the spiritual destiny of human beings. What is ultimately tragic about tyranny is less the use of force to suppress public or political freedom than the spiritual degradation, the diminished mental candor, which afflicts tyrants and their supporters, as well as those who resist them. The heart of Shakespearean tragedy thus escapes the intensely political formulations that dominate academic literary study nowadays, whether they sail under the flag of cultural materialism or new historicism; whether the pressing agenda are feminist or Marxist. Nevertheless, the conception of literature as an exercise in power politics can have especially baneful results for the interpretation of a play such as Macbeth, precisely because of its superficial plausibility. The tragedy is, after all, about politics.
Stephen Orgel, for example, recommends the post-modernist’s power politics interpretation of the play by pointing out that the playwright altered his historical sources in ways calculated to please King James I, who was of course also King James VI of Scotland. I live in a condominium now called the “Royal Stuart Arm,” so I’m especially fond of dwelling on the Scottish play here. Orgel’s assumption is not unreasonable, but to approach the play in this fashion is analogous to considering Velazquez‘s masterpiece, “Las Meninas,” in terms of its appeal to the painter’s royal patron—an interesting enough inquiry in itself, but surely not a sound means of determining why the picture is counted among the glories of Baroque art.
Orgel further maintains, however, that the playwright’s undoubted deference to his sovereign fails to result in a play that ought, after careful consideration, to be agreeable to an advocate of submissive loyalty to royal power because Duncan fails as a king. Professor Orgel, in other words, thinks that poor James just didn’t get it. This is Orgel: “Duncan’s rule is utterly chaotic and maintaining it depends on constant warfare. The battle that opens the play, after all, is not an invasion but a rebellion. Duncan’s rule has never commanded the deference it claims for itself. Deference is not natural to it. In upsetting the sense of deference Macbeth feels he owes to Duncan, maybe the witches are releasing into the play something the play both overtly denies and implicitly articulates: that there is no basis whatever for the values asserted on Duncan’s behalf. The primary characteristic of his rule, perhaps of any rule in the world of the play, is not order but rebellion.”
As an account of the plot this assessment is not strictly accurate, neglecting not only the consistency of Shakespeare’s modifications of the historical sources of Macbeth, but also the religious and political contexts of the Jacobean era. In the first place, there is no indication in the play that Duncan’s rule is utterly chaotic, that its maintenance requires constant warfare. So far as we can ascertain from the text of Macbeth, the attack upon Duncan’s throne that opens the drama was not typical but an unexpected interruption of a peaceful reign of unspecified duration. Moreover, one of the rebels, the merciless Macdonwald, drew upon mercenary help from Ireland. And the second, that most disloyal traitor, the thane of Cawdor, is described as assisting an invasion by the king of Norway. While Orgel’s description of Duncan’s situation in the play is thus simply wrong, it applies reasonably well to the account of the 11th century Duncan in Shakespeare’s historical sources, principally Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland (or is it “England, Scotland, and Ireland”? Well, doesn’t matter).
Duncan was a much younger man, according to history, of Macbeth’s own generation, and the latter had a fairly strong claim upon the throne. Duncan was, in fact, an ineffectual ruler who damaged his country by a series of military defeats. The Scottish thanes seemed not to have been much troubled by Macbeth’s assassination of Duncan and usurpation of the throne because they seem to have regarded Macbeth as a just, competent king (for seventeen years, as a matter of fact, until somebody overthrew him).
Rather than trying to rewrite Shakespeare’s tragedy according to the “real” history, it makes more sense to consider the significance of the substantial changes the playwright made to the historian’s record. Shakespeare’s only plausible reason for making Duncan into an elderly, effective king, respected, even revered, by all the other characters, would be to darken the character of his murderers—and this is certainly the effect of the change on stage. To be sure, the sharp contrast between a tyrant and a good king would appeal to James I, since this was a principle theme of his own treatise on monarchy, Basilikon Doron. James thought of himself as something of a scholar and published a great many works, including another one on witchcraft, which obviously, he would have been interested in what Shakespeare does with witches.
Duncan’s excessive trust in Macdonwald and the thane of Cawdor, and subsequently of Macbeth, would doubtless vindicate James’ cautious measures against rebellion and assassination. But a change more obviously aimed at pleasing his sovereign was Shakespeare’s treatment of Banquo, who, according to the historical sources, was Macbeth’s accomplice in Duncan’s murder. Since the Stuarts traced their lineage back to Banquo, it behooved the playwright to convert him into a decent, loyal subject. Still, what is evidently an appeal for the king’s continued patronage, is also an effective dramatic device. Like Macbeth, Banquo has also heard an ambiguous prophecy regarding his relation to the crown of Scotland. But unlike his comrade in arms, Banquo resists the temptation to assure the prophecy will be fulfilled—trusting instead to Providence. Just as Shakespeare’s modification of the historical character of Duncan sharpens the dramatic contrast between a good king and a tyrant, so the playwright’s improvement of the character of Banquo emphasizes the difference between the integrity of a loyal subject and the deceit of a traitor.
While the pointed contrast between Duncan and Macbeth, between Macbeth and Banquo, resulting in Shakespeare’s revision of his sources, serves to remind us that we are dealing with drama, not historiography, these contrasts ought also to disabuse us of a more subtle misprision of the tragedy, equally driven by the urge to reduce the play to terms amenable to post-modern ideology. Such is the motive of Stephen Orgel’s attempt to judge Shakespeare’s dramatic simplification of the tale of Macbeth against the “real Macbeth” of history. To drive his point home, Orgel invokes, “finally not history, but Edmund’s invocation of nature as a goddess in King Lear.” If some of you have not read King Lear yet, I recommend that you forget about finishing your theses or whatever and go straight home and read it. It is one of the glories of English literature, though you wouldn’t know that from Stephen Orgel, who says as follows: “it is a nature that is not the image of divine order, but one in which the strongest and craftiest survive. And when they survive, they then go on to devise claims about nature that justify their success—claims about hierarchies, natural law, and order. The divine right of kings. Edmund is a villain, but if he were ultimately successful he would be indistinguishable from the Duncans and Malcolms and James the firsts of Shakespeare’s world.”
As I have pointed out elsewhere, post-modernist interpretations of Shakespeare take a contrarian approach to his plays because, for the most part, they share the moral and political views of his villains. And indeed, try to assure us that all the characters are villains, that’s the only kind of person there is. In order to recruit Shakespeare to their party, however, it is necessary for them to dismantle the careful distinctions among his characters that are the sources of his vibrant moral realism. Orgel offers no evidence, for example, that a successful Edmund would be no different from Duncan or Malcolm. Edmund’s counterpart in Macbeth, the eponymous villain, institutes a reign of terror which Duncan had not done and which Malcolm shows no signs of doing. Hence, the preoccupation with the historical Macbeth who was, ostensibly, an effective ruler with as good a claim to the throne as Duncan. Even so, he did murder Duncan and perpetuate the cycle of violence that too often attended transitions of power in medieval Scotland. While the theme of governmental stability provided by the institution of hereditary monarchy would doubtless appeal to King James, it is not therefore a negligible or contemptible theme.
Examples of the perils of uncertain measures for moving from one regime to the next abound in our time—all you do is read the newspapers or watch the news to see the truth of this. But Shakespeare is keenly interested, not in the institutional procedures of government, but in the character of men and women. The dramatic thrust of Macbeth depends upon the audience’s experience of the disintegration of a usurper’s character in contrast to men who maintain their loyalty and integrity. At the very beginning of the tragedy, a bleeding sergeant describes for Duncan and his attendants how brave Macbeth encountered the merciless Macdonwald (I can’t get enough of that phrase, it seems to resonate) and “unseemed him from nave to the chaps”—it’s just as well that action takes place off stage. Macduff’s killing of Macbeth at the play’s conclusion likewise takes place offstage, but the victor brings the head of the vanquished tyrant onstage to the acclaim of Malcolm and his supporters (I assume it was a fake head, otherwise they would have run through actors very quickly in performing this play). Both of these slayings are grisly, violent acts which would elicit a shudder in most of us. But unless they are accepted as works of valorous patriotism, essentially different from Macbeth’s killing of Duncan and his contriving the murders of Banquo and the wife and children of Macduff, the play is rendered meaningless.
Such, however, is the point of post-modern interpretations. An unvarnished assertion of this moral equivalence of these various killings is nonetheless difficult to sustain. The usual ploy is to digress deep into the weeds of ideological irrelevance. Stephen Orgel, for instance, leads us on a puzzling excursion into the characters of Macduff and Malcolm as he assays the scene in England in which the former, Macduff, seeks to persuade Duncan’s exiled son to lead the discontented Scots in a campaign to overthrown Macbeth. Malcolm at first suggests that Macduff may intend to entrap and betray the rightful heir on behalf of the tyrant. Malcolm is rather cautious about Macduff’s offer to aid him in recovering the throne that is rightfully his. Next, Malcolm condemns himself as lustful, avaricious, and utterly devoid of virtue. At this point, poor Macduff throws up his hands in despair: “What’s going to happen to Scotland if you are as bad as this?” It is only then, when he has tested Macduff’s virtue, discretion, and resolve, that Malcolm denies his self-condemnation and accepts Macduff’s offer to lead a military campaign against Macbeth.
This is Malcolm speaking: “I am yet / unknown to woman, never was forsworn, / scarcely have coveted what was mine own, / at no time broke my faith, would not betray / the devil to his fellow, and delight / no less in truth than life. My first false speaking / was this upon myself.” This is a powerfully moving and edifying scene, in which a young, inexperienced man in an equivocal, perilous situation carefully assesses what seems an emissary of hope with understandable caution. As Malcolm reminds Macduff, “this tyrant whose sole name blisters our tongues / was once thought honest. You have loved him well.”
Here is what Stephen Orgel makes of this interchange: “Why is it so important at the end of the play that Malcolm is a virgin? Malcolm insisted he is utterly pure, ‘as yet unknown to woman,’ uncontaminated by heterosexuality”—I am not making this up, by the way. You can read this in the original essay—“this is offered as his first qualifications for displacing and succeeding Macbeth. Perhaps this bears too on the really big, unanswered question about Macduff: why he left his family unprotected when he went to seek Malcolm in England? This is what makes Malcolm mistrust him so deeply.” Orgel answers this inuendo with an insinuating rhetorical question: “it is really an astonishingly male-oriented and misogynistic play, especially at the end, when there are simply no women left, not even the witches”—I miss the witches especially—“and the restored commonwealth is a world of heroic soldiers. Is the answer to Malcolm’s question about why Macduff left his family”—wait for it—“‘because it’s you I really love’?”—Again, I’m not making this up.
We might begin to answer these questions with a couple of commonsense observations. First, that the absence of women in the play’s final scene is not evidence of misogyny but of the fact that women were not usually on active battlefields in 11th century Scotland. Second, that Shakespeare probably kept the number of women’s parts in all his plays to a minimum because the stage conventions of the era required that they be played by boys, who may have been hard to recruit and had the notorious habit of growing up into men with beards and deep voices. Whatever the motivations of Orgel and the numerous others who have read feminist and gender issues into Macbeth, the actual effect of their ruminations is to obscure the obvious significance of the tragedy’s treatment of character. Macduff does, to be sure, imprudently leave his wife and children unprotected in Scotland, and Malcolm does mention it as a possible indication that Macduff is deceitfully in league with Macbeth. Nevertheless, the implied inference that Macduff’s intention was that his family be butchered in order to free himself from any inhibition to express his passion for Malcolm seems a trifle far-fetched.
A more plausible explanation for Macduff’s lapse in judgement is that, as yet, it had not occurred to him that even Macbeth was so depraved as to murder undefended women and children. This view has the additional virtue of dovetailing with the central theme of the tragedy: the deterioration of a man’s character, the perdition of his soul, the besmirching of that special candor of a free mind. It is candor that endows the testing scene between Macduff and Malcolm with such poignancy. Both the youthful Malcolm and the veteran warrior Macduff are, in their differing ways, sincere, even ingenuous men. Each wishes desperately to believe in the sincerity of the other, but as Malcolm admonishes Macduff: “Macbeth was once thought honest,” a remark that looks back tellingly on Duncan’s observation about the disgraced thane of Cawdor: “There is no art / to find the mind’s construction in the face. / He was a gentleman on whom I built / an absolute trust.”
When Duncan is again deceived in the absolute trust that he proceeds to build on Macbeth, post-modern critics find a rationale for maintaining that no one can be trusted; that power is everyone’s only motivation; that there is no difference between Edmund and Malcolm, between Macbeth and Macduff, and that all are representations of James I.
Millicent Bell—I’ve picked on Orgel enough, I’m going to go to somebody else. Millicent Bell argues that Macbeth, like Shakespeare’s other tragedies, embodies an absolute skepticism, which the playwright derives from Montaigne. Undermining not only the stability of human nature, but even the consistency of individual human identity. This is Bell: “The play invites a glance at the void over one’s shoulder, challenging skeptically those conventions that govern our negotiations with reality. Those fictions without which we cannot live. I am reminded, as I have been before, of Montaigne’s insistent denial of the constancy, even the reality, of human character.” Similarly, she maintains, “What kind of king Malcolm could prove in the future beyond the play remains an open question.”
An aside here, a sort of footnote: this is probably unfair even to Michel de Montaigne. There’s an excellent article that later becomes part of a fine book by a recently deceased friend of mine, Robert Ellrodt: Montaigne and Shakespeare. He wrote it in French but before he died, he put it into English himself. A Frenchmen who writes better English than I do. Quite an extraordinary man, I highly recommend that book.
“What kind of king Malcolm could prove in the future beyond the play remains an open question.” But a play is a self-contained world. As a dramatic character, Malcolm has no future beyond the play. Bell is leading us into such questions as “how many children had Lady Macbeth?” We don’t know. Or, there was a book written many years ago which I’ve only glanced at, I have to admit I haven’t read it through, called The Childhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. It’s a bit sentimental, and it’s utter fantasy, but in a way the most sophisticated of our post-modern critics want us to do the same thing: conjecture endlessly about what the characters would do offstage. If we really knew them as they actually were, without all the qualifications and obscuring of their characters that that rascal Shakespeare puts in. I’ve read essays in which Caliban has a whole life apart from the play in which he’s a really fine fellow that you’d like and invite to dinner.
Further, Bell’s skeptical deconstruction of Shakespeare’s characters essentially undermines the notion of tragedy. Remember, she’s saying there’s no consistency in a character at all—not only the ones on the stage, but presumably yours and mine. There can be no conflict, however, within a character lacking minimal consistency. In classical tragedy, the protagonist is confronted with intractable fate, an ineluctable external force drives him into an abyss that conflicts with his concept of himself. In Shakespeare’s essentially Christian tragedy, the conflict is between the protagonist’s knowledge of what he ought to be and what his sinful will desires. The moral deterioration of a man’s character requires in either case the existence of a consistent self that is vulnerable to ruin and the process is nowhere better exemplified than in Macbeth. If there isn’t an actual consistent Macbeth there, an identifiable Macbeth to deteriorate in front of our eyes on stage, then there’s no tragedy. Who cares? Nothing happened. He never was anything to go bad in the first place.
Hence, post-modern skepticism, which reduces all characters to common incoherence, grotesquely oversimplifies the play. As Malcolm tells Macduff, in the crucial scene that we have been considering: “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, yet grace would still look so.” Macbeth is thus a tragedy of the spiritual contingency of the human condition, and Shakespeare’s alterations to Scottish history are designed to highlight the contrasts that result from the divergent decisions that men make confronting the crises of their lives. While the elevating of the characters of Duncan and Banquo may have pleased King James, the dramatic effect of the changes is to provide a context of normal, decent behavior for Macbeth’s moral and spiritual fall. The prospect of royal honor is suggested to both Macbeth and Banquo by the witches on the heath, but their ultimate responses are strikingly different. Both are, quite naturally, puzzled, disturbed, fascinated, and there is nothing that we learn about the pair as they are described by their king and their comrades in arms that would indicate that either of them would succumb to the demonic suggestion that Duncan’s crown might be seized through treason and murder.
It is evident that Shakespeare has designed the tragedy with the aim of highlighting the dissimilar choices that two similar and similarly circumstanced men make in the face of similar temptations. The contrast begins as soon as Macbeth and Banquo learn that one of the witches’ prophesies has come true: that the former has been named thane of Cawdor: “What! Can the devil speak true?” Banquo exclaims. And as soon as the new title is explained, he admonishes Macbeth: “That trusted home / might yet enkindle you unto the crown, / besides the thane of Cawdor. But ’tis strange: / and oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / the instruments of darkness tell us truths, / win us with honest trifles, to betray / us in deepest consequence.”
In an aside, however, while he is in Banquo’s word, “wrapt,” Macbeth has already begun to rationalize an inclination that he knows intuitively to be evil: “This supernatural soliciting / cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill, / why hath it given me earnest of success, / commencing in a truth? I am the thane of Cawdor: / if good, 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?” Notice the trifling argument that a proposition that is factual is therefore good.
Our Lord warns us that to harbor lust in our heart is tantamount to adultery. To nurse anger is morally no different than murder. Macbeth is here analogous to a man who has been aroused by the allure of another man’s wife and fantasizes about committing adultery with her. The powerful final scene of act one, in which Lady Macbeth urges her husband to hasten the diabolical prophesy’s fulfillment reveals that his acquiescence in murder violates his natural inclination and his better judgement. Before she enters, he admits to himself that he has “no spur / to prick the sides of my intent but only / vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.”
In laboring to overcome his reluctance to commit murder, his wife does not refute his argument. She challenges his masculinity: “From this time / such I account thy love. Art thou afeared / to be the same in thine own act and valor / as thou are in desire?” Macbeth succumbs to her sexual taunting, but, as Dr. Johnson pointed out two and a half centuries ago, he knows better. In Johnson’s phrase, “Distinguishing true from false fortitude in a line and a half, Macbeth says, ‘I dare do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none.’”
Having thus chosen to commit murder despite his moral reason, Macbeth still has natural qualms about the deed. The phantasmal dagger that he sees before him as he enters Duncan’s bedchamber, and his admission to his wife after he had committed the murder that he could not utter “amen” when one of the sleeping grooms cried out, “God bless us!” are indications of his revulsions against what he is doing. But Lady Macbeth also discloses her own inhibitions in saying, “Had he [that is, Duncan] not resembled / my father as he slept, I’d done it.” It seems that her invocation of the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts to unsex her and to infuse her with direst cruelty, and her boast that she would dash her nursing baby’s brains against the wall before relinquishing her ambition are mostly bravado. Both killers have to overcome reason and repugnance to killing in order to carry out the assassination. What we ought to see in this inner conflict is a man and woman deliberately struggling to destroy their human nature. Their willful dehumanization is, moreover, a result of a lack or a collapse of faith. Millicent Bell is typical of contemporary critical opinion in asserting that, “Shakespeare’s play is sparing of religious reference.” This assertion is difficult to sustain.
Back to Verdi, one of the things I noticed was that Verdi, or at least his librettist, being the highly secularized 19thcentury liberal that he was, really diminished the religious reference in the play, in the opera. Lovely opera, but you can see that he’s altering it in subtle ways to reflect more his own view of things. This assertion about the lack of religion is hard to sustain. Macbeth’s incapacity to utter “amen” ought to recall an often overlooked remark as he’s still ruminating over the king’s murder: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / it were done quickly: if the assassination / could trammel up the consequence, and catch / with his surcease success; that but this blow / might be the be-all and the end-all here, / but here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / we’d jump the life to come.”
Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist pointedly considers “the life to come” and rejects it with Machiavellian insistence. Nevertheless, at the end of the speech when Macbeth takes into account Duncan’s goodness and all he owes him, his language betrays an explicitly Christian sense of the evil he is planning despite his earlier disclaimer: “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 newborn babe, / striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed / upon the sightless couriers of the air, / shall blow the horrid deed in every eye, / that tears shall drown the wind.”
It is difficult to conceive a purpose for this speech if not to apprise the audience of the intrinsically spiritual nature of Macbeth’s inner conflict. It is a commonplace of Macbeth commentary that the play is filled with images of darkness, beyond any of Shakespeare’s other works. But it ought to be noted as well that the protagonist and his wife are largely responsible for this imagery through their repeated invocation of darkness to hide their deeds: “stars, hide your fires; / let not the light see my black and deep desires,” Macbeth cries upon hearing Duncan name his son, Malcolm, heir apparent. In the next scene, as Lady Macbeth is determining to strengthen her husband’s resolve, she too calls upon the explicitly infernal powers of darkness: “Come, thick night, / and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, / that my keen knife see not the wound it makes, / nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark / to cry ‘Hold, hold!’”
Even a casual perusal of the play will turn up a number of additional instances of their sinister supplication of the powers of night. And a modest acquaintance with the Christian scriptures will supply an even more plenteous array of passages associating darkness and night with sin, day and light with grace and virtue—as, for instance, John 3:19: “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” As I said, I could multiply these, but I’m guessing in this audience I don’t have to. The culmination of this imagery comes at what may be the tragedy’s climactic scene—this is where you learn what you’ve all been waiting for: where on earth this title came from. When Macbeth seizes the initiative from his wife and determines to do away with both Banquo and his son Fleance in order to thwart the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s descendants will reign in the future: “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. Light thickens, and the crow / makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; / whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse. / Thou marvel’st at my words: but hold thee still. / Things bad begun make strong themselves in ill.”
“Light thickens.” Once editor glosses thickens as “dims.” This is accurate, but hardly adequate to convey the full horror of the phrase. It is as if the light itself were curdling and losing its luster. It’s as though in Macbeth’s perception of things, as he descends deeper and deeper in evil, the very light itself—God’s prime creation—is turning its nature, is deteriorating along with his character. It’s as if night’s black agents have succeeded in making the good things of day their prey. Macbeth has begun to see the night as the embodiment of the dark powers arrayed in his favor. Evil, he suggests, strengthens itself by repeated and intensified acts of evil. What it really does, of course, is distort his own vision. The light is not thickening, it’s his vision, his sight, his perception that is.
At first, nonplussed by the prophesies of the bearded, weird sisters regarding his fate, Macbeth now tries to take hold of fate and manipulate it to his own advantage—a surpassingly irrational act. Having attained everything the witches promised him, thus persuaded of their perspicacity, he is hardly consistent in thinking he can undo the promise to Banquo. When Fleance eludes the clutches of the hired assassins, the fruits of Macbeths’ foul deeds turn to ash in his mouth. He has only just learned of the boy’s escape when the specter of Banquo appears at the banquet for the thanes and, in Macbeth’s words, “shakes his gory locks” at him. Having gained his own crown by murder, Macbeth has unleashed a reign of death. “If charnel houses and our graves,” he exclaims, “must send / those that we bury back, our monuments / shall be the maws of kites.” A really grisly image.
The new king and queen thought that supreme power would be the same as absolute freedom to do whatever they wished, but that is because they never learned that true freedom is internal—the special candor of a free mind. Lady Macbeth cannot escape the imaginary blood stains on her hands and eventually takes her own life. Macbeth himself is trapped in the meaningless world that his tyranny has created and he is increasingly isolated in the final acts of the play. In the final scenes, he is rarely on stage with more than one or two people. He’s all by himself.
In a remark that reminds us of the practices of the repressive governments in our day, Macbeth boasts that he spies on all his thanes: “There’s not a one of them but in his house / I keep a servant fee’d.” But Macduff still manages to steal away to England to seek help against the usurper. Macbeth, now dependent on their dubious counsel, returns again to the weird sisters who will befuddle him with duplicitous ambiguities about moving forests and men not born of women. Illegitimate power, he learns, enslaves its possessor: “I am in blood / stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / returning is as tedious as go o’er.”—There’s no turning back now, I’m trapped. It’s as if I’m being engulfed in the blood that I have spilt.
At the play’s beginning, he could choose between taking the forbidden fruit proffered by the witches or retaining his loyalty and virtue. Now, however, he feels that he acts under compulsion: “The very firstlings of my heart” he vows, “shall be / the firstlings of my hand.” The result is the senseless slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children, which brings down upon their killer the wrath of a man “not born of woman.”
Macbeth dies spiritually, however, before Macduff presents his severed head to the restored Malcolm. The tyrant has created his own hell on earth, which he expounds in the tragedy’s most famous speech, delivered with a shrug of indifference upon the news of Lady Macbeth’s death: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / to the last syllable of recorded time, / and all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! / 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.”
Such is the world that the character Macbeth has devised for himself. But it is not, despite much recent commentary, the world of the tragedy Macbeth, devised by William Shakespeare. That thesis can only be maintained by smuggling in elements that are no part of the dramatic work. For example, the “real history” upon which the playwright drew for character and incident, or unwarranted conjectures about the behavior of characters after the action of the play closes. It appears that many contemporary scholars shared the grim view of life to which Macbeth is reduced—“it is a tale told by an idiot”—and are determined to foist it upon Shakespeare by confusing Holinshed’s historical Duncan with the king in the tragedy, or presuming that Malcolm will be as bad a king as Macbeth, or that Macduff, who shows such violence in dispatching the usurper, will turn usurper himself and assail Malcolm.
But to accept this nihilistic world as the world of Shakespeare’s play is to deprive it of its status as a tragedy. Macbeth is a tragic figure only because he is in conflict with an order that transcends his own devices and desires. If there are no moral distinctions to be made among the characters, if Macbeth really is no worse than the rest, then no tragedy is possible. What you get instead is theater of the absurd. He is tragic because, attempting to overturn the divinely ordained reality of the world that actually exists, he engineers for himself a realm of meaningless chaos. Shakespeare has thus derived from a seemingly random selection of historical details from an obscure period in Scottish history a parable of human pride, folly, and ambition disrupting the natural order of human life, but also he gives us the restoration of that order by the violent death of his tragic protagonist. In some ways, Shakespeare’s darkest and grimmest tragedy, in its denouement, is its most hopeful. Thank you.