Monday, August 3, 2009

Macbeth's Better Self

It is generally agreed that this play was written a year or so after
King Lear (1605). If so, it is striking that, having in the former play
stripped the world of its supernatural beings and forces, Shakespeare
restores them in Macbeth, the only one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in
which supernatural agencies have roles to play and words to speak.
But the witches are an integral part of the story of Macbeth as
Shakespeare found it in Holinshed’s Chronicles, and it has long been
well understood that Shakespeare chose this particular story as a
polite tribute to his new king, King James I, who claimed to be
descended from Banquo and had written a book about witches.

Since Shakespeare’s theater company was at least partly dependent
on royal patronage, he would have wanted to show off his abilities
as a playwright to the new monarch. He may also have thought that
the supernatural elements were the only thing that was likely to hold the
attention of a man who was known to dislike long plays.

It is harder to be clear about the role of the witches in Shakespeare’s
play. Though they are literally part of the foul atmosphere of the play
from the beginning and do much to set its ominous tone, what do they
actually do? Do they make things happen like the prophecies in
Oedipus Rex, or do they, like an evil chorus, merely urge Macbeth on
in a direction he is already taking? Or are these questions irrelevant?
All we know for sure about these spiteful creatures is that they can see
into the future but are powerless to change it. Thus they resemble the
chorus of Greek tragedy: nothing happens that would not have happened
had the witches not existed. Though, like poetry, they make nothing happen,
they give us the illusion of “sightless substances” out there not only waiting
on and delighting in “nature’s mischief,” but actually making it.

Lady Macbeth, intoxicated by their predictions, cares only about “sovereign
sway and masterdom” now; whether or not her children, if any, will inherit
the “golden round” she lusts after, doesn’t concern her in the slightest.

According to Lady Macbeth, she has had at least one child: “I have given suck,”
she says, “and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me (1.7.54-5)
but we never hear another word about that unfortunate infant, who is only
referred to in these lines so that her husband—and of course the audience—
may be impressed by her heartlessly single-minded pursuit of power. And he is
impressed, so much so that it does not occur to him until after the murder
of Duncan, that his wife has missed the point: what’s the use of power if
you can’t hand it on to your children? (Notice that the rules of politics
these days make such dynastic scheming difficult, if not impossible.) It’s
 meaningless—and doubly so if there’s no chance you’ll ever have children.

Upon my head they [the witches] placed a fruitless crown
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thenced to be wrenched with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding. (3.1.61-4)

As soon as one begins to think about the Macbeths and children, babies,
children and images of babies and children start popping up all over
the place: the attempted murder of Banquo’s son, Macduff’s murdered
children, the spectral baby, covered with blood, who tells Macbeth to
fear no man born of woman; and then there’s the stunning image of
helplessness and power—of pity, like a naked newborn babe—that
comes from deep within his own mind and forces him to acknowledge
the true baseness of the crime he is contemplating, the triviality of his
pity, like a naked newborn babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin horsed
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 . . . (1.7.21-7)

A.C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904) said (and I quote at length from
this, one of the most penetrating essays ever written on this play) that Macbeth
 has “the imagination of a poet . . . . and through it come to him intimations
of conscience and honor. Macbeth’s better nature, instead of speaking
to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands and prohibitions,
incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is
thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious
thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe. But his wife quite
misunderstands it, and he himself understands it only in part.The terrifying
images which deter him from crime and follow its commision, and which are
really the protest of his deepest self, seem to his wife the creations of mere
nervous fear, and are sometimes referred by himself to the dread of vengeance
or the restlessness of insecurity. His conscious or reflective mind, that is,
moves chiefly among considerations of outward success and failure, while his
inner being is convulsed by conscience. And his inability to understand
himself is repeated and exaggerated in the interpretations of actors and critics,
who represent him as a coward, cold-blooded, calculating and pitiless, who
shrinks from crime simply because it is dangerous, and suffers afterwards
simply because he is not safe. In reality his courage is frightful. He strides
from crime to crime, though his soul never ceases to bar his advance with
shapes of terror, or to clamor in his ears that he is murdering his peace
and casting away his ‘eternal jewel.’”

Macbeth has the imagination of a poet. What kind of poet? Not a classic or
neoclassic poet but a romantic poet—a poet like, let us say, William Blake,
who said that Milton was of the devil’s party [as he, Milton, was writing Paradise 
Lost] and didn’t know it—didn’t know, in other words what the voice of his
deepest self, the voice of his imagination, was trying to tell him about the
poem he was writing.

Blake’s own poetry is always informing us about the great divide, between
the world of conscious, rational, moralistic will—the industial world, with its
“dark satanic mills” and its churches—and the imaginative world of the spirit.

Blake was writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.
The kind of romantic imagination that Bradley seems to take for granted as he
is attributing it to Macbeth at the beginning of the 20th, did not exist when the
play Macbeth was being written, almost 300 years earlier—or perhaps I should
say, the romantic idea of a deeper, imaginative self at odds with its more rational,
power-driven mind, didn’t exist at that time. This is not a criticism of Bradley: what
surprises me is  how unsurprised he is at finding the soul of a romantic poet in
this eleventh century warrior and murderer. Which is nothing to the surprise that
the actual Macbeth would have felt at such a discovery. But Shakespeare knew
what he was doing: almost every play, after about 1595, is a radically new thing. He
had created our first modern cynic when he invented Iago; in Macbeth he
developed a distinction, already implicit in Hamlet, between private and public selves:
between a superficial public, political self and a deeper, private self where the
important actions are going on and the ideas and images that drive that outer,
public self are mysteriously being created out of  . . .  nothing.

Bradley says that Macbeth only partially understands what those images are trying
to tell him; no voice, no images from Hamlet's inner self inform or disturb his conscious,
reflective mind: he knows as little about himself as we do. That's a point that the
play makes repeatedly—so often that, prodded by critics (beginning with Coleridge),
we have tried to fill this hole by constructing, on Hamlet's behalf, a substantial inner self.

If you want to see how the story would look and feel with an unimaginative hero,
read the nasty, brutish and fairly short accounts of Donwald and Macbeth in
Holinshed’s Chronicles,which are—or, at any rate, used to be—printed in the
Signet Classics edition of this play. Should you do so, you will find that the
witches and their carefully calibrated predictions are historical—that is to say,
you can read about them in the Chronicles, just as Shakespeare did—but you
won’t find a word about the extraordinary perturbations these predictions
cause in the minds—and marriage—of Lord and Lady Macbeth.

The differences between this husband and this wife become apparent

almost immediately. Macbeth, stunned at first by the witches’ salutations,
starts thinking hard when one of their prophecies is instantly
confirmed. Less cautious than Banquo, who is instinctively suspicious
of the witches’ motives, he is more cautious and more thoughtful than
his wife, who is so exhilarated by the idea that her dreams of “sovereign
sway and masterdom” are about to come true, that the only thing
she can think about is how to keep her husband from blowing their
big chance.

From her reflections, we can see that she doesn’t know her husband
very well. She thinks he is “too full of the milk of human kindness”
and too squeamish to do the things that have to be done in order to
attain a position of power in the real world. He’s the sort of person,
she thinks, who gladly accepts the results of someone else’s dirty-work,
but would rather not know how it was done, much less do it himself.
These opinions do not quite fit the troubled and somewhat sinister character
whom we have just heard telling the stars to
                                  hide [their] fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. 1.4.53

He is also a man who has acquired a modicum of self-knowledge by
paying attention to what his body and his feelings are telling him. So, for
example, he knows the witches’ “supernatural soliciting” cannot be good
because of the “horrid image” that invades his mind, and the violent
and unwonted beating of his heart. His inability to resist that image
and the thought that comes with it, a thought which up to now he has
been able to dismiss as mere fantasy—for it seems that the murder of
Duncan is by means a new idea—now frightens, confuses and fascinates

As long as this murder had been nothing but an improbable fantasy,
resistance had been easy. Now, all of a sudden, it no longer seems
“fantastical,” but possible. Looking within himself, like Conrad’s
megalomaniacal Kurtz, he finds nothing to hold him back: no will,
no passion, no principles. For a moment he clutches at the obvious,
common sense response to the witches’ prophecy: “If chance will
have me King,” as chance has made him Cawdor, “why, chance may
crown me, without my stir.” (1.3.144) Why get all excited? After all,
fatalism is best: what will be, will be. “Come what come may, time and
the hour runs through the roughest day.” But then the King
announces that he has settled the succession upon his son Malcolm,
and Macbeth thinks his hand is forced.

It is apparent that Macbeth is a good deal deeper than his wife supposes; she
is not deep at all. Desiring power —“sovereign sway and
masterdom”—with ruthless single-mindedness, she supresses any
feelings that might distract her from seizing this one great “ornament
of life” by the nearest way. Does something in her womanly nature
shrink from doing evil in order to get what she wants? Root it out, she
thinks; alter that womanly nature altogether. So she does her best to
dehumanize herself:
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! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! 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!” I.5.55

This is great poetry—Lady Macbeth also has the imagination of poet,
though she would hate anyone who dared to say so—
as well as a terrifying prayer to the “ministering” agents of strange and
terrible gods. A world entirely subject to the capricious ministry of
such gods or demons would not be fit for human habitation, but that
is the world that most people at that time thought they lived in. Satanic
agents were everywhere, waiting on “nature’s mischief” and listening
in “on mortal thoughts” in the hope of catching such a soul as Lady
Macbeth’s—a soul that is only too willing to be caught: if ever a woman
were out to sell her soul, it is she. But no one is listening, it seems.
Some of Shakespeare’s audiences must have noticed with interest
or surprise that this prayer goes unanswered. She is not filled
“top-full”—or not quite—“of direst cruelty.” Her milk of human kindness
is not entirely replaced by gall, for she is unable to murder the
defenseless Duncan in his sleep. “Had he not resembled my father as
he slept, I had done’t,” she tells herself, trying to find an excuse for
her last-minute weakness of will.

Neither of these two would have been able to commit this murder
alone, prophecy or no. No matter how tightly they screw up their
courage, it is not enough; Lady Macbeth, for all her steely will, is incapable
of killing a man in his sleep. Macbeth, on the other hand, can do just about
anything he wants; what he can’t do is control the images that come
crowding in upon his horrified mind as he thinks about the apocalyptic
crime they are about to commit. Notice that while human vengeance worries
 him, divine retribution is a possibility he virtually ignores.

Even Macbeth’s hired desperados seem to require reasons for the murder
of Banquo and his son; the money they will earn thereby is not enough.
Macbeth: Know
That it was he in the times past which held you
So under fortune, which you thought had been
Our innocent self. 3.1.80

Macbeth’s balderdash (and there is more, lots more, most of it insulting)
is not sufficient either; it falls flat, not because they don’t believe
it but because their lives have become so desperate that they are no
longer looking for anyone or anything to blame. Killing their enemy,
whoever it is, won’t make a bit of difference. No one person or policy
is responsible for their miseries; everyone and everything is to blame.
The world is their enemy. Macbeth, to them is just another self-serving
politician; religion, a pious subterfuge.

Second Murderer. I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.
First Murderer. And I another
So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,
That I would set my life on any chance,
To mend it or be rid on’t. 3.1.114

Their fellow murderers, Lord and Lady Macbeth, are trivial by comparison,
having no spur to prick the sides of [their] intent, but only
vaulting ambition. (I.7.25-7) That’s enough for Lady Macbeth, or so
she thinks, but not for her husband: he only agrees to go through
with their plan, at last, because she undermines his scruples and his
reason by questioning his manhood.

The murder of Duncan irreversibly alters the inner lives of the murderers
and totally rearranges their marriage. Though these facts are
not immediately apparent, the signs are there. Before the murder,
he can easily and powerfully imagine how this murder will affect others,
but he can’t imagine how it will affect him; he only feels the enormity
of his crime after he has done it. This point is made repeatedly in
II.2, as Macbeth emerges staring at his bloody hands. “This
is a sorry sight,” he says, to which his wife replies, contemptuously,
“A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.” The scene continues:
Macbeth. One cried “God bless us!” and “Amen” the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands:
List’ning their fear, I could not say “Amen,”
When they did say “God bless us!”
Lady Macbeth. Consider it not so deeply.
Macbeth. But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.
Lady Macbeth.  These deeds must not be thought
After these ways; so, it will make us mad.

Noticing that he is still holding the bloody daggers, she tells him to put
them back where they belong, in Duncan’s servants’ hands. This he is
unable to do: “I’ll go no more. I am afraid to think what I have done;
look on’t again I dare not.” At that she bustles off to do it herself with
a tart, “Infirm of purpose!” and a silly pun that sums up perfectly the
flatness and superficiality of what passes in her for moral imagination:
“If he do bleed, I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal, for it must seem
their guilt.” Guilt for her is only skin deep, like paint or gold-leaf. “A
little water clears us of this deed,” she says cheerfully as she returns,
in stunning contrast with what Macbeth has been saying while she
was gone:
What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes!
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. 2.2.60

The superficiality of Lady Macbeth has to be understood in a particular
sense. She is not without depth of feeling nor does she lack moral
sense or imagination; she suppresses, quells, forces into the service of
her conscious self, or discards entirely, those inconvenient aspects of
her nature that hold her back from achieving her ambitions. Like
socially and politically ambitious people everywhere, she lives on the
surface of her being. She thinks she has managed to dry up her milk
of human kindness, or shut down the sources in her nature that produce
it, but she is wrong. There are people who can do that—her husband
for one—turning themselves thereby into monsters, but she is
not one of them. Though she is able to nerve herself up for her great
“quell” (I.7.72) or slaughter by suppressing her natural feelings, she
can’t get entirely rid of them, because they are still part of her even if
they can only operate out of sight, out of mind. The word she uses,
“quell,” is unconsciously revealing: it could mean ‘slaughter’ but it
could also refer to the process of hardening herself and suppressing
her feelings.

No sooner does she acquire her crown, the “golden round” that she
has hungered for, than it turns to ashes, a golden nothing, a zero. The
feelings she has quelled return to haunt her. She becomes anxious,
fearful, distraught:
Nought’s had, all’s spent,
Where our desire is got without content:
’Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Subtle changes are occurring in her husband, as well, who turns
increasingly dour and moody. Like her, he has not been getting much
sleep. Soon he is spending lots of time alone. She tries, feebly, to cheer
him up:
How now, my lord! Why do you keep alone,
Of sorriest fancies your companions making,
Using those thoughts which should indeed have died
With them they think on? Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done is done.

Which draws this ominous and audacious reply:
We have scorched the snake, not killed it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,
Ere we will eat our meals in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. 2.2.5-22

This is not the man who had to invent a new verb, “incarnadine,” and
a new metaphor, in order to express his immeasurable guilt and woe,
and went off to bed and bad dreams, saying, “To know my deed,
’twere best not know myself.” (2.2.72)

Soon Macbeth will have decided that, since he has no choice but to
know his deed, he will just have to change the self that feels such
immeasurable guilt and woe and suffers nightly from terrible dreams.
If that means changing his own nature, that’s what he will do. And if
he can’t change his own nature without damaging the larger frame of
things that includes this world and the next, why he will take that on
too—anything, whatever it takes, just so long as he and his wife can
eat their meals, and sleep, in peace. Such bravado is strangely heroic,
such a motive strangely banal. ‘Strange’ because ‘heroic’ is not a term we
would ordinarily choose to describe Macbeth, the murderer and tyrant;
nor would we ordinarily call it ‘banal’ to prefer the destruction of the
cosmos to sleepless nights and unhappy meals. It is the same paradoxical
combination of the banal and heroic that we have already
noticed in Macbeth.

The Macbeths, possessed of a kind of deadly innocence, think they can
ignore or suppress the promptings of their own inner voices and
natures. They think that the moral and emotional ties that bind them
to others can be brushed aside. Or rather this is what the more superficial
Lady Macbeth thinks and her more cautious husband can be—
and is—shamed into thinking as well. They think that the only obstacles
to the fulfillment of their dreams of wealth and power are practical:
if someone is in the way, remove him. Simple. Macbeth knows it is not
so simple when the first voice he hears after he has murdered Duncan
is the voice of his own despair: “Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep!”
“What do you mean?” asks his wife impatiently. Macbeth knows what it means,
and has been trying to tell her: “the innocent sleep,/Sleep that knits up the
raveled sleave of care...” But she will have to find out for herself. He,
for his part, will never hear that voice again. Nor do we, though occasionally
we hear echoes of his despair coming through the new, hard,
hypocritical self that he promptly constructs. What he says fulsomely
and hypocritically on first hearing the news of Duncan’s murder,
sounds oddly as if it might be coming from the heart—or somewhere
near it:
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a bless├Ęd time; for from this instant
There’s nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead,
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of. 2.3.98

This lament will be heard once more, near the end of the play:
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 honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. 5.3.28

Such a grasp of the truth of the human condition—that it is above all
social and communal, built on and of reciprocal relations of honor,
love, obedience, friendship—does not come easily. The Macbeths take
it for granted that all one needs to have is power and money, and these
things will just naturally fall into place. They think they are completely
autonomous individuals, their lives theirs to do with as they please;
that if they have to hurt others to get what they want, why that’s just
the way of the world.

Lady Macbeth is not as tough as she thought, and pines away—
though she recovers just long enough to help her husband through a
particularly bad time, when the bloody ghost of Banquo appears at
their dinner party, terrifying Macbeth and ruining their evening. To
hear him talk, complaining bitterly at the injustice of it all, you’d think
you were listening to the aggrieved victim of some inconsiderate
The times has been
That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end; but now they rise again,
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. 3.2.83

Such indignation is funny—unintentionally of course, for Macbeth is
not a funny or humorous man.

Is Macbeth predestined to become a man of blood, and does foreknowledge
amount to divine “thrusting on” (as Edmund puts it)? Shakespeare leaves that
hopeless knot for the theologians and philosophers to cut or untie. It doesn’t
interest him. What does interest him, and what’s really interesting in the play,
is the process by which Macbeth, step by step, freely and actively reinvents

Though he can’t change Nature or “the frame of things,” he can
change his own nature. If there is something in him that is making
sleep impossible and ruining his appetite, he will root it out, destroy it.
The total reformation of her being that Lady Macbeth is unable to
accomplish, he can and will. The problem, he thinks, is a simple one:
a lack of experience, merely. He and his wife aren’t used to killing,
that’s all. “My strange and self-abuse,” he tells her after their disastrous
dinner party,
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.
We are yet but young in deed. 3.4.145

He has Macduff’s wife, children and household slaughtered as much to complete
his education as to intimidate other would-be rebels.

Eventually his hard work pays off and nothing bothers him anymore:
I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in’t. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me. 5.5.14

The news of his wife’s death is received with a shrug: “She should
have died hereafter.” Which could mean: ‘So what? She had to die
sometime, didn’t she?’ And/or: ‘I don’t have time to think about that
right now.’ He is right. Time is running out on him. He’s cornered in
a castle that he had foolishly believed to be impregnable, and he is
about to be killed by a man he had believed, even more foolishly, could
not exist. The spirits had told him to fear no man “born of woman,”
but what about a man not born exactly, but removed from the womb
by Caesarian section? Had he never learned to read the fine print on
the documents he signed? How could a man become as cruel and
treacherous as he without learning to suspect everyone and everything?
This man, who would not have hesitated to tear up any bond, treaty or
agreement, had he thought it was in his interest to do so, had in all innocence
trusted that the instruments of darkness would play fair.

Macbeth goes down, fighting gamely, determined to give as many
gashes as he gets. Before he exits, he steps back from his desperate
situation for just long enough to do what he has never done before:
take an objective look at his life and judge it. (Should you still be inclined
to doubt the idea that Macbeth has the imagination of a poet, these justly
famous lines just might convince you.)
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. 5.5.28

For a minute or two, the light of his miserable existence illuminates all
of human history and the sight fills him with contempt: all he can see
is his own story endlessly, tediously, meaninglessly repeated. It is not
of course the whole story, as he believes, just his own, and that of all
the others who have thought to catch the nearest way to power and
wealth and glory. Their name is legion; he is a sort of Everyman, and
he knows it. It is not a comforting thought, but a shameful one. How,
he wonders, could I have been so stupid as to take the bait just like all
the others, and go strutting out onto this great stage of fools? It is his
finest moment. And then the light goes out and he is still out on that
stage, fighting. For what? For nothing, because he is a soldier after
all—that was his proper role—and fighting is all he has left, all he
knows how to do.

Macbeth is killed, order restored, but no one could possibly think
that that is the end of the story. The Gunpowder Plot had only just misfired.
Evil is always lurking in the hearts of ambitious, greedy men,
women and ideologues. There’ll always be people like the Macbeths—
only less imaginative and less interesting. Even now, certain heretofore
unknown characters are waiting in the wings of a theater near you.

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