By Dennis Abrams
It’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. And his darkest. But more than 400 years after it was written, it still retains its ability to shock. “The Scottish Play,” as it is superstitiously known in the theater, is attached by longstanding tradition all number and manner of unlucky events – quite apart from those in the script which are, let’s face it, more than brutal enough.
The play was probably written to honor King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 took over the English throne and whose ancestor Banquo appears in the play as the most honorable of Macbeth’s victims. But the tragedy itself refuses to be simply in terms of black and white; while Othello’s evil is found in the temper Iago, in Macbeth the hero steadily becomes the villain and our ethical compass (assuming we have one of course) is forced to recalibrate as a result. So too with the merciless Lady Macbeth, who despite being in many ways the most fearsome (and notorious) character of all (far more so than her husband) ends up being a victim of the play, her sanity broken by the horrifying march of events. And while many great productions (including Trevor Nunn’s famous 1976 version at the RSC with Ian McKellan and Judi Densch) have responded well to this unique tragedy’s otherworldly and eerie aspects, the play itself never lets us forget that the demons we conjure ourselves are the ones we need to fear the most. The clergyman George Gifford wrote in his Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcraft (1593), ‘the power of devils is in the hearts of men.”
From the play’s internal evidence – notably a somewhat cryptic reference to the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators – Macbeth was probably first performed in 1606, around the time that Antony and Cleopatrawas written.
And here I’m going out almost on my own. Most of the chronologies of Shakespeare’s plays place King Lear before Macbeth, which is then followed by Antony and Cleopatra. So why are we reading Macbeth first? First of all, these three plays were, and this fact astonishes me no matter how often I think about it, written within a year and a half of each other, so matters of chronology here really aren’t that big a consideration.
But more than that I have to agree with Harold Goddard who wrote: “Macbeth and King Lear were so nearly contemporary that the question of their exact dates is not of overwhelming importance. It is psychological development, not chronology, that counts. And the two are not the same. We frequently go back in going forward. There are eddies in the stream. Ascent and descent are not continuous. We may go down temporarily in climbing a mountain. The child often resembles a grandparent more than he does either father or mother, and there is a similar alternation of generations in the world of art. Because one work is full of echoes of another does not prove that it must have immediately succeeded it. The likeness of Macbeth to Hamlet is no obstacle to the belief that Othello came between them, nor that of King Lear to Othello to the possibility that Macbeth may have intervened.
But somehow the idea that King Lear was written before Macbeth seems to involve more than this. It is a bit like thinking that The Brothers Karamazov was written before Crime and Punishment. The analogy is not a casual one. Macbeth, like Crime and Punishment, is a study of evil through a study of murder. Each is its author’s most rapid, concentrated, terrific, and possibly sublime work. Each is a prolonged nightmare lifted into the realm of art. King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov are also studies of evil; but if they sound no lower depths, they do climb to greater heights than Macbeth and Crime and Punishment…”
And as Bloom says in The Western Canon: “For many readers the limits of human art are touched in King Lear, which with Hamlet seems to be the height of the Shakespearean canon. My own preference is for Macbeth, where I never get over my shock at the play’s ruthless economy, its way of making every speech, every phrase count. Still, Macbeth has only the one huge character, and even Hamlet is so dominated by its hero that all the lesser figures are blinded (as we are) by his transcendent brilliance. Shakespeare’s power of individualization is strongest in King Lear and, oddly enough, in Measure for Measure, two plays in which there are no minor characters. With Lear, we are at the center of centers of canonical excellence, as we are in particular cantos of the Inferno or the Purgatorio, or in a Tolstoyan narrative like Hadji Murad. Here, if anywhere, the flames of invention burn away all context and grant us the possibility of what could be called primal aesthetic value, free of history and ideology and available to whoever can be educated to read and view it.”
And that’s why we’re reading Macbeth first.
Raphael Holinshed’s massive Chronicles (revised in 1587) provided Shakespeare with the story of Macbeth and Duncan, as well as other material. George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582) possibly offered further information, and Matthew Gwynne’s pageant Tres Sibyllae (performed for James I in 1605) has, albeit tenuously, been linked with Macbeth,
Only the Folio version (1623) survives.
From Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:
“Theatrical tradition has made Macbeth the unluckiest of all Shakespeare’s plays, particularly for those who act in it. Macbeth himself can be termed the unluckiest of all Shakespearean protagonists, precisely because he is the most imaginative. A great killing machine, Macbeth is endowed by Shakespeare with something less than ordinary intelligence, but with a power of fantasy so enormous that pragmatically it seems to be Shakespeare’s own. No other drama by Shakespeare – not even King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest – so engulfs us in a phantasmagoria. The magic in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest is crucially effectual, while there is no overt magic or witchcraft in King Lear, though we sometimes half expect it because the drama is of such hallucinatory intensity.
The witchcraft in Macbeth, though pervasive, cannot alter material events, yet hallucination can and does. The rough magic in Macbeth is wholly Shakespeare’s; he indulges his own imagination as never before, seeking to find its moral limits (if any). I do not suggest that Macbeth represents, Shakespeare, in any of the complex ways that Falstaff and Hamlet may represent certain inner aspects of the playwright. But in the Renaissance sense of imagination (which is not ours), Macbeth may well be the emblem of that faculty in Shakespeare, a faculty that must have frightened Shakespeare and out to terrify us, when we read or attend Macbeth, for the play depends upon its horror of its own imaginings. Imagination (or fancy) is an equivocal matter for Shakespeare and his era, where it meant both poetic furor, as a kind of substitute for divine inspiration, and a gap torn in reality, almost a punishment for the displacement of the sacred into the secular. Shakespeare somewhat mitigates the negative aura of fantasy in his other plays, but not in Macbeth, which is a tragedy of the imagination. Though the play triumphantly proclaims, ‘The time is free,’ when Macbeth is killed, the reverberations we cannot escape as we leave the theater or close the book have little to do with our freedom.
Hamlet dies into freedom, perhaps even augmenting our own liberty, but Macbeth’s dying is less of a release for us. The universal reaction to Macbeth is that we identify with him, or at least with his imagination. Richard III, Iago, and Edmund are hero-villains; to call Macbeth one of that company seems all wrong. They delight in their wickedness, Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must going on doing ever worse. Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable. All of us possesses, to one degree or another, a proleptic imagination, in Macbeth, it is absolute. He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed that crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murders, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.
Why are we unable to resist identifying with Macbeth? He so dominates his play that we have nowhere else to turn. Lady Macbeth is a powerful character, but Shakespeare gets her off the stage after Act III, Scene iv, except for her short return in a state of madness at the start of Act V. Shakespeare had killed off Mercutio early to keep him from stealing Romeo and Juliet, and had allowed Falstaff only a reported death scene so as to prevent Sir John from dwarfing the ‘reformed’ Hal in Henry V. Once Lady Macbeth has been removed, the only real presence on the stage is Macbeth’s. Shrewdly, Shakespeare does little to individualize Duncan, Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm. The drunken porter, Macduff’s little son and Lady Macduff are more vivid in their brief appearances than are all the secondary males in the play, who are wrapped in a common grayness. Since Macbeth speaks fully a third of the drama’s lines, and Lady Macbeth’s role is truncated, Shakespeare’s design upon us is manifest. We are to journey inward to Macbeth’s heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit.”
From Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All:
“The play is about transgressions and witches, unleashed powers that have, as theatrical events unfold, already crossed the threshold into the supposedly safe space of the stage. Any idea the audience may have had that events onstage would act as a safety valve, a buffer, or a social astringent, drawing out the poison, making things happen onstage so that they do not have to happen offstage in our ‘real’ world and lives, has already been challenged in a Shakespearean context by the unintended murder of Polonius in Hamlet. Safely stowed, as he thought, on the other side of the arras, or curtain, and thus situated as ‘spectator’ rather than participant or combatant, Polonius is stabbed by a nervous Hamlet when he breaks the code of silence that is enjoined on audience members. He cries out. Hamlet thinks he may be ‘the King,’ and the watcher and auditor becomes actor and victim.
This border crossing takes many forms in Shakespearean drama, some of them ameliorative rather than (or as well as) dangerous. The epilogue of certain plays – As You Like It, The Tempest, Henry V – reach across the boundaries of the stage to engage the audience in the theater as empowering actors, co-conspirators, or forces of cultural memory. In Macbeth, though, the border crossing comes, significantly, at the beginning and throughout the play as well as at its close. And this is no conventional ‘induction,’ like the opening of The Taming of the Shrew or the first scene of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, settling a frame audience on the stage to observe and comment on the ensuing action.
Macbeth begins with witches. Before the inception of the play proper, before the audience is introduced to the title character or any of the Scottish nobility or soldiery, the stage is overtaken by creatures from another world. But who are these ‘witches,’ as they are usually called? Are they male? Female? Real or imaginary? Benevolent or wicked? Are they, indeed, supernatural, or they merely old Scottish ladies with a curious rhyming dialect of speech? Critics from Shakespeare’s time to ours have debated whether they are ‘English,’ ‘Scottish,’ or ‘Continental’ witches – this last category, as we will see, conventionally regarded as the most malevolent, powerful, and dangerous. In fact, only once in the actual spoken text of the play is one of them called a witch, and that is in an account of an offstage moment – the rude refusal of a sailor’s wife to share her chestnuts: ‘Anoint thee, witch,’ the rump-fed runnion cries’ (1.3-5). This injudicious act calls upon a curse upon the woman’s husband, the ‘pilot’ of a ship rather than of state.
Usually, however, the witches in Macbeth are called not ‘witches’ but ‘weird sisters.’ Wyrd is the Old English word for ‘fate,’ and these are, in a way, classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns. The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man’s life. But the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor merely historical targets of vilification and superstition: on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive psychological reality of their own.
In part the play owes its witches to King James I, first James VI of Scotland and then, succeeding Queen Elizabeth I, king of both countries. James, since 1603 the protector of Shakespeare’s company (renamed in his honor the King’s Men), was a scholar or witches and witchcraft, the author of a book called Daemonologie (1597). The play was performed in front of him and probably at his request, and the presence of witches in the play, as well as the Scottish locale and (adjusted) Scottish history, acknowledges his interests and underscores his power. James’ Daemonologie is one of several key texts on witches and their craft that would have influenced the contemporary view. The earlier Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches (1484), was, in effect, a professional manual for witch-hunting, while Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) offered an expose of witch-hunters, claiming that witchcraft did not exist (the word ‘discovery,’ here as in ‘discovery space,’ for the area at the rear of the stage, means ‘exposure’ or ‘revelation.’ It survived today in legal discourse, where ‘discovery’ pertains to the pretrial interrogation of witnesses in search of salient facts.) Continental witches, according to these various accounts, engaged in practices like cannibalism, the ritual murder of infants, and perverse sexual relations with demons (all activities, we might note in anticipation, that will be displaced onto the ‘real’ figure of Lady Macbeth). These witches are said to fly, to hold witches’ Sabbaths, and to be seriously malign and powerful. Local English and Scottish witches, by contrast, had less reach. They were often described as retaliatory, exacting retribution for wrongdoing. Their activities were part of a folk culture of superstation and mysterious agency, regional rather than national, pagan rather than Christian – and, at least to a certain extent, female rather than male.
There is another dimension to James I’s relationship to powerful or empowered women of which it may be useful to take brief note here, since we will return to it when we come to an extended discussion of Lady Macbeth. James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned in England for nearly twenty years and then executed, in 1587, for her supposed complicity in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. James, the son of one of these queens and the designated heir of the other, made only a perfunctory protest at Mary’s execution. Somewhere behind the dominant figure of King James, whose image is everywhere in Macbeth, lie the shadows of these strong female figures, ‘mothers’ and queens, with their inescapable aura and their evident power over his life, his fate, and his future.”
From G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire:
Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most profound and mature vision of evil. In the ghost and death themes of Hamlet we have something of the same quality; in the Brutus-theme of Julius Caesar we have an exactly analogous rhythm of spiritual experience; in Richard III we have a parallel history of an individual’s crime. In Macbeth, all of this, and the many other isolated poetic units of similar quality throughout Shakespeare, receive a final, perfected form. Therefore analysis of Macbeth is of profound value: but it is not easy. Much of Hamlet, and the Troilus-Othello-Lear succession culminating in Timon of Athens, can be regarded as representations of the ‘hate theme.’ We are there faced by man’s aspiring nature, unsatiated of its desire among the frailties and inconsistencies of its world. They point us to good, not evil, and their very gloom of denial is the shadow of a great assertion. They accordingly lead themselves to interpretation in terms of human thought, and their evil can be regarded as a negation of man’s positive longing. In Macbeth, we find not gloom, but blackness: the evil is not relative, but absolute. In point of imaginative profundity Macbeth is comparable alone to Antony and Cleopatra. There we have a fiery vision of paradisal consciousness; here the murk and nightmare torment of a conscious hell. This evil, being absolute and therefore alien to man, is in essence shown as inhuman and supernatural, and is mot difficult of location within any philosophical scheme. Macbeth is fantastical and imaginative beyond other tragedies. Difficulty is increased by that implicit blurring of effects, that palling darkness, that overcasts plot, technique, style. The persons of the play are themselves groping. Yet we are left with an overpowering knowledge of suffocating, conquering evil, and fixed by the basilisk eye of a nameless terror…
It is dangerous to abstract the personal history of the protagonist from his environment as a basis for interpretation. The main theme is not primarily differentiated from that of the important subsidiary persons and cannot stand alone. Rather there is a similarity, and the evil in Banquo, Macduff, Malcolm, and the enveloping atmosphere of the play, all forms so many steps by which we may approach and understand the titanic evil which grips the two protagonists. The Macbeth universe is woven in a texture of a single pattern. The whole play is one swift act of the poet’s mind, and as such must be interpreted, since the technique confronts us with separated integers of ‘character’ or incidents, but with a molten welding of thought with thought, event with event. There is an interpenetrating quality that subdues all to itself. Therefore I shall start by noticing some of the more important elements in this total imaginative effect, and thence I shall pass to the more purely human element. The story and action of the play alone will not carry us far. Here the logic of imaginative correspondence is more significant and more exact than the logic of plot.
Macbeth is a desolate and dark universe where all is befogged, baffled, constricted by the evil. Probably in no play of Shakespeare are so many questions asked. It opens with ‘When shell we three meet again? And ‘Where the place?. The second scene starts with ‘What bloody man is that?, and throughout it questions are asked of the Sergeant and Ross. This is followed by:
First Witch: Where hast thou been, sister?
Second Witch? Killing swine.
First Witch: Sister, where thou?
And Banquo’s first words on entering are: ‘How far is’t called to Forres? What are these…? Questions succeed each other quickly throughout this scene. Amazement and mystery are in the play from the start, and are reflected in continual questions…”
And finally, from Mark Van Doren:
“The brevity of ‘Macbeth’ is so much a function of its brilliance that we might lose rather than gain by turning up the lost scenes of legend. [MY NOTE: There are a few who believe that, because the play is so short, especially in comparison to the other tragedies, that somewhere along the way, scenes have been lost.] This brilliance gives us in the end somewhat less than the utmost that tragedy can give. The hero, for instance, is less valuable as a person than Hamlet, Othello, or Lear; or Antony, or Coriolanus, or Timon. We may not rejoice in his fall as Dr. Johnson says we must, yet we have known too little about him and have found too little virtue in him to experience at his death the sense of an unutterable and tragic loss made necessary by ironies beyond our understanding. He commits murder in violation of a nature which we can assume to have been noble, but we can only assume this. Macbeth has surrendered his soul before the play begins. When we first see him he is already invaded by those fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable. They will also reveal him as a great poet. But his poetry, like the poetry of the play, is to be concerned wholly with sensation and catastrophe. ‘Macbeth’ like ‘Lear’ is all end; the difference appearing in the speed with which doom rushes down, so that this rapidest of tragedies suggests whirlwinds rather than glaciers, and in the fact that terror rather than pity is the mode of the accompanying music. ‘Macbeth,’ then, is not in the fullest known sense a tragedy. But we do not need to suppose that this is because important parts of it have been lost. More of it would have had to be more of the same. And the truth is that no significant scene seems to be missing. ‘Macbeth’ is incomparably brilliant as it stands, and within its limits perfect. What it does it does with flawless force. It hurls a universe against a man, and if the universe that strikes is more impressive than the man who is stricken, great as his size and gaunt as his soul may be, there is no good reason for doubting that this is what Shakespeare wanted. The triumph of ‘Macbeth’ is the construction of a world, and nothing like it has ever been constructed in twenty-one hundred lines.”
Excited to start? I am.
Our next reading: Macbeth, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.