Monday, August 24, 2009

The Imagination of A Poet: Macbeth

Go back to my previous essay on Macbeth and the lines I quoted from A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904): “This bold ambitious man of action has  . . . the imagination of a poet . . . and through it come to him intimations of conscience and honor [which] instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best part of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts, and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.” To use a phrase that seems to have only recently come into general use, Macbeth has a “moral imagination.”

This is a way of thinking about ‘the’ imagination—and using the word ‘imagination’—that would have surprised just about everyone until 1800, or thereabouts, when Coleridge and Wordsworth began to use the word as virtually synonymous with a kind of visionary power that we now refer to, rather weakly, as ‘creativity.’ Most people, before 1800, would have agreed with Theseus, in that most brilliantly imaginative play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he says, in effect, that the poetic imagination, unlike “cool reason,” produces fables and fantasies (like this play play, perhaps?) which no rational person would ever confuse with a true account of how things are:

                         I never may believe 
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact....
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of shapes unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppose’d a bear. 5.1.2-22

A strong imagination may indeed play tricks on us—or even a weak one, for that matter—but not in this play: all the trickery is right out in the open where the audience can see it. When people are fooled  they are fooled by others—fairies—who though they are not quite human, have motives and methods which cool reason can easily comprehend. 

For most of us, most of the time, Theseus’ distinction between illusion and reality seems perfectly clear: what we imagine may or may not be real or grounded in reality, and if you are a rational person you know which is which, the trickster from the trick. That sounds simpler than it is; there is nothing simple about illusions, however, and that I think is a good thing: if illusions were simple, the world would be a lot safer, to be sure, but also duller and more boring than it is.

Consider the little play that Bottom and his friends put on to entertain the aristocratic wedding party at Theseus’ court. A play is a dramatic illusion—an imitation, as Aristotle says; but Bottom’s play including the casting and rehearsal is an imitation of an imitation; and vastly more (or more differently) entertaining as a play about dramatic illusion than it would be if we were seeing it straight. 

Now the idea of an illusion of an illusion is something that Theseus’ rational theory of the poetic imagination is unprepared for—a knot that cool reason cannot easily untie. And there’s something else that reason cannot easily explain, or not in a way that has ever seemed enitirely satisfactory: how does imagination do what Shakespeare (or Theseus) here is saying that it does?—body forth the forms of shapes unknown and make them known; invent things or ideas that have never been thought of before, and give them a local habitation and a name. How, in other words, does the imagination take something that it has merely apprehended, and give it a form that reason can comprehend?

A case in point, oddly, is Macbeth who is the victim of truly malignant—and motiveless— supernatual trickery, and whose imagination doesn’t even begin to follow Theseus’ (or anyone else’s) rules. That epic image of pity, for example, like a naked new-born infant, astride a hurricane or tornado, is not an illusion, exactly; it is not merely a figment of his imagination for it is telling him a truth. And in general, Macbeth’s imagination always gives him and us a truthful account of the state of his soul—it is, as Bardley says, the best part of him, and nowhere more poignantly or beautifully than when, at last he fully comprehends the blind alley that the will to power has led him into.

1 comment:

  1. The witches, like Bottom, are practical jokers. Macbeth shouldn't have fallen into their trap, since he knew that their previous predictions had come true. All he needed to do was wait. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have enough imagination to think of that.