It’s not as long as Hamlet, and not as awkward as Romeo and Juliet (to teach), which makes it a good choice for the classroom.
Be that as it may, getting to grips with this tragedy of thwarted ambitions and supernatural theatrics is no walk in the park. There are some pretty complex concepts at play, such as fate, will, power, masculinity, temptation, regret etc., which a lot of adults don’t even understand.
Yet, 400 years later, Macbeth is still relevant to the human race, designated a compulsory text in English courses and otherwise widely read or acknowledged.
Legacy of Western imperialism, you say, which is fair, and not entirely untrue.
But the bigger reason, I suspect, is that Macbeth amplifies the behavioural extremities that we – every one of us – secretly wish to act out, but cannot for reasons of social civility, moral conscience, and – dare I say, sheer lack of opportunity.
After all, not many of us have been told by garrulous witches that we’ll one day become king (or queen / president / prime minister), and so 99% of us are simply never given the conditions to behave like Macbeth.
Already the Thane of Glamis at the start of the play, Macbeth shortly becomes Thane of Cawdor too after winning the war against Macdonwald’s troops.
For reasons both supernatural (the Witches’ prophecy) and psychological (his wife’s taunts and his own ‘dark’ desires), however, Macbeth realises that his ambition craves greater power, specifically in the form of Duncan’s throne.
He wants to be King of Scotland…
In the course of achieving this title, he kills and lies and kills some more, only to eventually die at the hands of Macduff, the Thane of Fife whose loyalty lies with Malcolm, Duncan’s elder son, who ascends his father’s throne at the end of the play.
Normally, we wouldn’t look on anyone who kills and lies with much sympathy, but Shakespeare’s genius makes us see Macbeth as a flawed human – a ‘tragic hero’ in Aristotelian terms, rather than as the devil reincarnate.
If we accept this, then, does Macbeth the flawed human deserve the audience’s sympathy, and if so, what or who else should we ‘blame’ for the tragic events in the play?
Culprit #1: “Fatal vision” – when a man gives in to the dangers of tunnel vision
It’s human nature to gravitate towards what we like to see or hear, and to discount or shut out opposite views.
A good example of this is news-watching ‘tribes’ in liberal-democratic societies: there are those in America who would only ever tune in to Fox News or MSNBC, and there are those in Britain who would only ever read the Telegraph or the Guardian.
This is fairly easy to understand: we embrace what we already agree with, and willingly consume the products of our confirmation bias.
And so the case with Macbeth when he first hears the Witches’ prophecy that he “shall be King hereafter”. Despite his obvious ambivalence that “this supernatural soliciting / cannot be good, cannot be ill”, part of the man’s subconscious has already been hooked on the suggestion that he will be King.
From then on, he seems incapable of thinking about much else apart from this possibility – and how he can render this possibility a reality. What’s interesting, though, is just how unsure and at times, almost unwilling, he is about killing Duncan, even after he’s performed the deed.
So his gut tells him it’s not a good idea to take out his boss, but his bias – the foreknowledge that he’s going to be King – clouds both instinct and judgement.
The dangerous impact of bias is reflected through the motif of ‘seeing’. For all the play’s frequent references to sight, not a single character – not even Banquo, who figures out early on Macbeth’s culpability – ‘sees’ very well.
Upon hearing the prophecy of his eventual kingship, everything Macbeth sees becomes a trigger for him to commit regicide and the subsequent string of ‘cover-up’ murders – the dagger, Banquo’s presence, the apparitions etc.
Of course, one could argue that the killings post-Duncan are more results of paranoia than of bias, but it was his prejudiced belief in the Witches’ pronouncement that first set the tragic ball rolling:
Stars, hide your 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.
(Act I Scene IV)
All too aware of what his “black and deep desires” imply, Macbeth externalises the source of his regicidal thought onto the personified “eye [that] wink[s] at the hand”. It is the teasing eye, not the power-hungry man, he suggests, that possesses the agency to kill.
The eye here – notice that it’s singular, which hints at incomplete sight – symbolises the bias that he harbours towards taking a course of action that will lead to his kingship.
But the anxiety of taking such dangerous action is ever-constant, and his hesitation seeps through the hyperbatonic construction of “Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (as opposed to “Which the eye fears to see, when it is done”). The mind’s eye, fearful even in the imagined doing of the act, seeks to postpone the seeing, because it in fact does not want “to see” what it has done.
Indeed, this reluctance is echoed immediately after Macbeth kills Duncan, when he characterises the scene as “a sorry sight”.
At every point in the play, then, Macbeth is perfectly aware of both the unsoundness of his desires and the reluctance he feels towards his actions. Yet, he proceeds with the “bloody executions” anyway, because neither heart nor head holds greater sway than heady ‘sight’.
Culprit #2: “Dispute it like a man” – when a man feels the need to prove he is a man
If there’s anything that men seem to be more sensitive about than women, it’s probably the suggestion that they don’t live up to ‘gender conventions’. While a lot of women do care about coming across ‘feminine’ (for obvious evolutionary reasons), the extent to which straight men care about asserting and validating their manhood almost always seems greater.
The need for men to validate their manliness is, of course, a prime evolutionary concern, men being homo sapiens who had their start on Earth as hunters.
In Shakespearean plays, this obsession with masculine ‘proof’ is rife, from Hamlet’s resolve to “swift… sweep to [his] revenge” for his father, to Othello’s humiliation upon believing that he’s been cuckolded, to Macbeth’s outward insistence on doing what’s appropriate for ‘man’.
In Macbeth’s case, his wife’s interference is a point of contention – is she the evil genesis behind all chaos, or did she maybe just go overboard with her taunting of Macbeth’s manhood?
If we consider Lady Macbeth’s words in her final appearance of the play, it seems that even she is ultimately taken aback by her husband’s sheer appetite for murder – a perverse manifestation of masculinity – not just that of Duncan, but of Banquo, Lady Macduff and Young Macduff, too:
Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.
The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?–
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?–No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
(Act V Scene IV)
“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” Of course, one could argue that the Lady is rather too naive not to have anticipated one death to follow another, or the necessity of coming up with more lies to cover up the first.
Ironically, Lady Macbeth’s emasculating rhetoric is perhaps viewed in too masculine a light by her husband (‘masculine’ in the sense of taking action, rather than the more ‘feminine’ sense of verbal play). Despite his initial clear-headed response (“I dare do more that may become a man,/Who dares do more is none”), Macbeth can’t help but receive her taunts as a challenge and a call to compete, and being a military man, he must of course oblige – and win, just as he had won in the battle against Macdonwald.
That, to him, is the only way to vindicate his identity, and the only way he’s ever known.
Considering Lady Macbeth’s later shock at her husband’s capacity for destruction, her earlier speech in Act I Scene VII – crudely ‘masculine’ as it may sound – is probably more histrionic bombast intended to goad action, rather than a genuine interrogation of her husband’s manliness (or even, an assertion of her own):
What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
Towards the end of the play, we know that Lady Macbeth is really incapable of doing anything close to plucking her nipple from a baby’s teeth or dashing an infant’s brains out (!). She’s still too human for that, which, in light of what happens to Duncan, is perhaps doubly ironic.
Uncannily, the image of a “baby” reappears – albeit in the opposite sex – when Macbeth tries to regain his composure after seeing Banquo’s Ghost in Act III Scene IV, which is a moment where he is forced to show fear in front of others and, as such, feels his manliness shaken:
What man dare, I dare:
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble: or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword;
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow!
Unreal mockery, hence!
GHOST OF BANQUO vanishes
Why, so: being gone,
I am a man again. Pray you, sit still.
Clearly, he’s in a desperate state here, and so he resorts to conjuring up hyperbolic extremes – “rugged Russain bear”, “the armed rhinoceros”, “the Hyrcan tiger” vs “the baby of a girl” – as an attempt to cloud not only his fear, but his guilt over Banquo’s assassination.
Ironically, this supposedly manly action ends up unmanning him, both in terms of gender and biology. In asserting “What man dare, I dare”, he unwittingly distinguishes himself – “I” – from “man”, as if these two are different categories of beings.
But if he ceases to be “man” in a moment, only to be “a man again” after the reminder of his bloody act vanishes, what is he in the interim?
A beast, perchance?
It seems, then, that in Macbeth’s pursuit to win at the game of manhood, he appeals not to the inner primate hunter that is the father of all civilised men, but goes one evolutionary cycle too far by associating himself with the apish beasts so devoid of feeling and compunction.
Culprit #3: “This supernatural soliciting” – when a man becomes the pawn of forces greater than himself
Finally, there is the perennial question of the supernatural presence in Macbeth.
Why are the Three Witches even there?
And if Shakespeare deliberately planted these troublemaking gremlins in the play, is he to some extent exculpating Macbeth of his crimes, suggesting that the tragic hero, morally lapsed as he may be, is also but a victim of devilish influences?
Or should our focus not be on these supernatural presences per se, but on the way man behaves and responds in the face of unpredictable, external temptations? The Witches are there as a versatile dramatic tool, at once propelling the play’s course of action and providing dark comic relief. But they are not to blame.
Consider this: while the Witches present themselves to Macbeth and Banquo in Act I Scene III, it is Macbeth who actively seeks out these “filthy hags” in Act IV Scene I, after he has killed both Duncan and Banquo. Why? Because he wants to know what will happen, or what his wife calls “the future in the instant” –
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.
But that’s precisely the problem: Macbeth wants to know what he as a mortal fundamentally cannot know, and from “unknown power[s]” too.
By this point, he already knows too much, and it was knowing too much that first pushed him down this spiral of no return.
This trope of intellectual trespass and the inevitable suffering that proceeds is elsewhere seen in Renaissance literature, most notably in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1592), wherein the eponymous character sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for necromantic knowledge.
So, in seeking what he would’ve been better off not knowing, Macbeth shows us why ignorance sometimes really is bliss. Adding to the fact that Shakespeare was writing in a deeply religious time, it is not surprising that the play should caution against the impious desire to obtain and act on foreknowledge – an epistemological domain exclusive to God. Macbeth has acted “against the churches”.
To quote Macduff’s question of theodicy upon his hearing his wife and son’s slaughter –
Did Heaven look on
And would not take their part?
In Macbeth’s case, the answer to this rhetorical question seems to lie all too firmly in the affirmative.
What do you think is the cause of tragedy in Macbeth? Who do you think should shoulder the most blame?
Comment with your thoughts below – I’d love to hear your views.
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Finally, if you want great tips on ‘How to read Shakespeare for pleasure’, this is a great post to check out.