“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?”


Act Two, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


macbeth2Act Two:  As Macbeth moves towards Duncan’s chamber, his resolve falters as he comes across Banquo and then is troubled by strange hallucinations. Nonetheless, as Lady Macbeth waits and Duncan’s drugged guards sleep, he kills the King. Shortly afterward, Macduff arrives at the palace and discovers Duncan’s corpse. Feigning horror, Macbeth murders the guards, who Lady Macbeth has attempted to frame by smearing them with blood.  Fearing for their own lives, Duncan’s sons Donalbain and Malcolm flee – and arouse suspicion of their own involvement. Macbeth is now king:  the Witches’ prophecy has come true.

Duncan is dead.  But despite Macbeth’s best hopes, that murder isn’t by any means the “be-all and the end-all”; it is only the beginning.  “Blood,” as Macbeth will note in Act Three, “will have blood,” and the lurid vision of a dagger stained with “gouts of blood” that led him to Duncan’s chamber proves an apt symbol of what Macduff calls the “bloody-sceptred” tyrant who seized control of Scotland.  Just after the deed is done, Macbeth gazes at his blood-stained hands, imagining them polluting the entire visible world:

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.

Macbeth’s terror is more than the fear that their crime will be discovered: is it that he has unleashed forces that will ultimately destroy him. The vision of oceans stained crimson by Duncan’s assassination is too gruesomely extravagant to be true.  But in a world that seems to have fallen into darkness, a world where “Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain/Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,/Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,/Contending ‘gainst obedience as they would/Make war with mankind./’Tis said, they eat each other,” it seems that anything is possible.


From Bloom:

“Hazlitt remarked of Macbeth that ‘he is sure of nothing but the present moment.’ As the play progresses to its catastrophe, Macbeth loses even that certitude, and his apocalyptic anxieties prompt Victor Hugo’s identification of Macbeth with Nimrod, the Bible’s first hunter of men. Macbeth is worthy of the identification: his shocking vitality imbues the violence of evil with biblical force and majesty, giving us the paradox that the play seems Christian not for any benevolent expression but only insofar as its ideas of evil surpass merely naturalistic explanations. If any theology is applicable to Macbeth, then it must be the most negative of theologies, one that excludes the Incarnation. The cosmos of Macbeth, like that of Moby Dick, knows no Savior; the heath and the sea alike are great shrouds, whose dead will not be resurrected.

God is exiled from Macbeth and Moby-Dick, and from King Lear also. Exiled, not denied or slain; Macbeth rules in a cosmological emptiness where God is lost, either too far away or too far within to be summoned back. As in King Lear, so in Macbeth: the moment of creation and the moment of fall fuse into one. Nature and man fall into time, even as they are created.

No one desires Macbeth to lose its witches, because of their dramatic immediacy, yet the play’s cosmological vision renders them a little redundant.

Between what Macbeth imagines and what he does, there is only a temporal gap, in which he himself seems devoid of will. The Weird Sisters, Macbeth’s Muses, take the place of that will; we cannot imagine them appearing to Iago, or to Edmund, both geniuses of the will. They are not hollow men; Macbeth is. What happens to Macbeth is inevitable, despite his own culpability, and no other play by Shakespeare, not even the early farces, moves with such speed (as Coleridge noted). Perhaps the rapidity augments the play’s terror; there seems to be no power of the mind over the universe of death, a cosmos all but identical both with Macbeth’s phantasmagoria and with the Weird Sisters.

macbeth porterShakespeare grants little cognitive power to anyone in Macbeth, and least of all to the protagonist himself. The intellectual powers of Hamlet, Iago, and Edmund are not relevant to Macbeth and to his play. Shakespeare disperses the energies of the mind, so that no single character in Macbeth represents any particular capacity for understanding the tragedy, nor could they do better in concert. Mind is elsewhere in Macbeth; it has forsaken humans and witches alike, and lodges freestyle where it will, shifting capriciously and quickly from one corner of the sensible emptiness to another. Coleridge hated the Porter’s scene (II, iii), with its famous knocking at the gate, but Coleridge made himself deaf to the cognitive urgency of the knocking. Mind knocks, and breaks into the play, with the first and only comedy allowed in this drama. Shakespeare employs his company’s leading clown (presumably Robert Armin) to introduce a healing touch of nature where Macbeth has intimidated us with the preternatural, and with the Macbeth’s mutual phantasmagoria of murder and power:

  1   Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
  2   porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the
  3   key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there,
  4   i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d
  5   himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
  6   Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
  7   (Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other
  8    devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
  9   swear in both the scales against either scale, who com-
 10   mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could
 11   not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.
 12   (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith,
 13   here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing
 14   out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
 15   roast your goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Never
 16   at quiet! What are you? But this place is too
 17   cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further: I had
 18   thought to have let in some of all professions that go
 19   the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
 20   Anon, anon! [Opens the gate.] I pray you, remember
 21   the porter.

Cheerfully hungover, the Porter admits Macduff and Lennox through what indeed is now Hell Gate, the slaughterhouse where Macbeth has murdered the good Duncan. Shakespeare may well be grimacing at himself on ‘a farmer that hang’d himself on th’ expectation of plenty,’ since investing in grain was one of Shakespeare’s favorite risks of venture capital. The more profound humor comes in the proleptic contrast between the Porter and Macbeth. As keeper of Hell Gate, the Porter boisterously greets ‘an equivocator,’ presumably a Jesuit like Father Garnet, who asserted a right to equivocal answers so as to avoid self-incrimination in the Gunpowder Plot trial of early 1606, the year Macbeth was first performed. Historicizing Macbeth as a reaction to the Gunpowder Plot seems only a compounding of darkness with darkness, since Shakespeare always transcends commentary on his own moment in time.  [MY NOTE:  On the other hand, Garry Wills, in his book Witches & Jesuits, views the play in just that way, linking it to what he calls “a rash of Gunpowder plays in 1606.”  It’s an interesting read.]  We rather are meant to contrast the hard-drinking Porter with Macbeth himself, who will remind us of the Porter, but not until Act V Scene v, when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and Macbeth begins: ‘To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend,/That lies like truth.’ De Quincey confined his analysis of the knocking at the gate in Macbeth to the shock of the four knocks themselves, but as an acute rhetorician he should have attended more to the Porter’s subsequent dialogue with Macduff, where the porter send up forever the notion of ‘equivocation’ by expounding how alcohol provokes three things:


Marry Sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, Sir, it provokes, and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him  on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to: in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him.

Drunkenness is another equivocation, provoking lust but then denying the male his capacity for performance. Are we perhaps made to wonder whether Macbeth, like Iago, plots murderously because his sexual capacity has been impaired? If you have a proleptic imagination as intense as Macbeth’s, then your desire or ambition outruns your will, reaching the other bank, or shoal, of time all too quickly. The fierce sexual passion of the Macbeths possesses a quality of baffled intensity, possibly related to their childlessness, so that the Porter may hint at a situation that transcends his possible knowledge, but not the audience’s surmises.

Macbeth’s ferocity as a killing machine exceeds even the capacity of such great Shakespearean butchers as Aaron the Moor and Richard III, or the heroic Roman battle prowess of Antony and of Coriolanus. Iago’s possible impotence would have some relation to the humiliation of being passed over for Cassio. But if Macbeth’s manhood has been thwarted, there is no Othello for him to blame; the sexual victimization, if it exists, is self-generated by an imagination so impatient with time’s workings that it always overprepares every event. This may be an element in Lady Macbeth’s taunts, almost as if the manliness of Macbeth can be restored only by his murder of the sleeping Duncan, whom Lady Macbeth cannot slay because the good king resembles her father in his slumber. The mounting nihilism of Macbeth, which will culminate in his image of life as a tale signifying nothing, perhaps then has more affinity with Iago’s devaluation of reality than with Edmund’s cold potency.

A.C. Bradley found in Macbeth more of a ‘Sophoclean irony’ than anywhere else in Shakespeare, meaning by such irony an augmenting awareness in the audience far exceeding the protagonist’s consciousness that perpetually he is saying one thing, and meaning more than he himself understands in what he says. I agree with Bradley that Macbeth is the masterpiece of Shakespearean irony, which transcends dramatic, or Sophoclean, irony. Macbeth consistently says more than he knows, but he also imagines more than he says, so that the gap between his overt consciousness and his imaginative powers, wide to begin with, becomes extraordinary. Sexual desire, particularly in males, is likely to manifest all the vicissitudes of the drive when that abyss is so vast. This may be part of the burden of Lady Macbeth’s lament before the banquet scene dominated by Banquo’s ghost:

     Naught’s bad, 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.


macbeth guthrieThe madness of Lady Macbeth exceeds a trauma merely of guilt, her husband consistently turns from her (though never against her), once Duncan is slain. Whatever the two had intended by the mutual ‘greatness’ they had promised each other, the subtle irony of Shakespeare reduces to a pragmatic desexualization once the usurpation of the crown has been realized. There is a fearful pathos in Lady Macbeth’s cries of ‘To bed,’ in her madness, and a terrifying proleptic irony in her earlier outcry ‘Unsex me here.’ It is an understatement that no other author’s sense of human sexuality equals Shakespeare’s in scope and in precision. The terror that we experience, as audience or as readers, when we suffer Macbeth seems to me, in many ways, sexual in its nature, if only because murder increasingly becomes Macbeth’s mode of sexual expression. Unable to beget children, Macbeth slaughters them.

Though it is traditional to regard Macbeth as being uniquely terrifying among Shakespeare’s plays, it will appear eccentric that I should regard this tragedy’s fearsomeness as somehow sexual in its origins and in its dominant aspects. The violence of Macbeth doubtless impresses us more than it did the drama’s contemporary audiences. Many if not most of those who attended Macbeth also joined the crowds who thronged public executions in London, including drawings-and-quarterings as well as more civilized beheadings. The young Shakespeare, as we saw, probably heaped up outrages in his Titus Andronicus both to gratify his audience and to mock such gratification. But the barbarities of Titus Andronicus are very different from the savageries of Macbeth, which do not move us to nervous laughter.

For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),

Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel,

Which smok’d with bloody execution,

Like Valour’s minion, carv’d out his passage,

‘Till he fac’d the slave;

Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,

Till he unsem’d him from the nave to th’ chops,

And fix’d his head upon our battlements.

I cannot recall anyone else in Shakespeare who sustains a death wound from the navel all the way up to his jaw, a mode of unseaming that introduces us to Macbeth’s quite astonishing ferocity. ‘Bellona’s bridegroom,’ Macbeth is thus the husband to the war goddess, and his unseaming strokes enact his husbandly function. Devoted as he and Lady Macbeth palpably are to each other, their love has its problematic elements. Shakespeare’s sources gave him a Lady Macbeth previously married, and presumably grieving for a dead son by that marriage. The mutual passion between her and Macbeth depends on their dream of a shared ‘greatness,’ the promise of which seems to have been an element in Macbeth’s courtship, since she reminds him of it when he wavers. Her power over him, with its angry questioning of his manliness, is engendered by her evident frustration – certainly of ambition, manifestly of motherhood, possibly also of sexual fulfillment. Victor Hugo, when he placed Macbeth in the line of Nimrod, the Bible’s first ‘hunter of men,’ may have hinted that few of them have been famous as lovers. Macbeth sees himself always as a soldier, therefore not cruel but professional murderous, which allows him to maintain also a curious, personal passivity, almost more the dream than the dreamer. Famously a paragon of courage and so no coward, Macbeth nevertheless is in a perpetual state of fear. Of what? Part of the answer seems to be his fear of impotence, a dread related as much to his shared dream of greatness with Lady Macbeth.

news-macbethCritics almost always find an element of sexual violence in Macbeth’s murder of the sleeping and benign Duncan. Macbeth himself overdetermines this crucial discovery when he compares his movement toward the murder with ‘Tarquin’s ravishin strides’ on that tyrant’s way to rape the chaste Lucrece, heroine of Shakespeare’s poem. Is this a rare, self-referential moment on Shakespeare’s own part, since many in Macbeth’s audience would have recognized the dramatist’s reference to one of his nondramatic works, which was more celebrated in Shakespeare’s time than it is in ours? If it is, then Shakespeare brings his imagination very close to Macbeth’s in the moment just preceding his protagonist’s initial crime. Think how many are murdered onstage in Shakespeare, and reflect why we are not allowed to watch Macbeth’s stabbings of Duncan. The unseen nature of the butchery allows us to imagine, rather horribly, the location and number of Macbeth’s thrusts into the sleeping body of the man who is at once his cousin, his guest, his king, and symbolically his benign father. I assumed that, in Julius Caesar, Brutus’s thrust was at Caesar’s privates, enhancing the horror of the tradition that Brutus was Caesar’s natural son. The corpse of Duncan is described by Macbeth in accents that remind us of Antony’s account of the murdered Caesar, yet there is something more intimate in Macbeth’s phrasing:

     Here lay Duncan,

His silver skin lac’d with his golden blood;

And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature

For ruin’s wasteful entrance.

macbeth1Macbeth and ‘ruin’ are one, and the sexual suggestiveness in ‘breach in nature’ and ‘wasteful nature’ is very strong, and counterpoints itself against Lady Macbeth’s bitter reproaches at Macbeth’s refusal to return with the daggers, which would involve his seeing the corpse again. ‘Infirm of purpose!’ she cries out to him at first, and when she returns from planting the daggers, her imputation of his sexual failure is even more overt: ‘Your constancy/Hath left you unattended,’ another reminder this his firmness has abandoned him. But perhaps desire, except to perpetuate himself in time, has departed forever from him. He has doomed himself to be the ‘poor player,’ an overanxious actor always missing his cues. Iago and Edmund, in somewhat diverse ways, were both playwrights staging their own works, until Iago was unmasked by Emilia and Edmund received his death wound from the nameless knight, Edgar’s disguise. Though Iago and Edmund also played brilliantly in their self-devised roles, they showed their genius primarily as plotters. Macbeth plots incessantly, but cannot make the drama go as he wishes. He botches it perpetually, and grows more and more outraged that his bloodiest ideas, when accomplished, trail behind them a residuum that threatens him still. Malcolm and Donalbain, Fleance and Macduff – all flee, and their survival is for Macbeth the stuff of nightmare.

Nightmare seeks Macbeth out; that search, more than his violence, is the true plot of this most terrifying of Shakespeare’s plays. From my childhood on, I have been puzzled by the Witches, who spur the rapt Macbeth on to his sublime but guilty project. They come to him because preternaturally they know him: he is not so much theirs as they are his. This is not to deny their reality apart from him, but only to indicate again that he has more implicit power over them than they manifest in regard to him. They place nothing in his mind that is not already there. And yet they undoubtedly influence his total yielding to his own ambitious imagination. Perhaps, indeed, they are the final impetus that renders Macbeth so ambiguously passive when he confronts the phantasmagorias that Lady Macbeth says always have attended him. In that sense the Weird Sisters are close to the three Norns, or Fates, that William Blake interpreted them as being: they gaze into the seeds of time, but they also act upon those they teach to gaze with them. Together with Lady Macbeth, they persuade Macbeth to his self-abandonment, or rather they prepare Macbeth for Lady Macbeth’s greater temptation into unsanctified violence.

Surely the play inherits their cosmos, and not a Christian universe. Hecate, goddess of spells, is the deity of the night world, and though she calls Macbeth ‘a wayward son,’ his actions pragmatically make him a loyal associate of the evil sorceress. One senses, in rereading Macbeth, a greater preternatural energy within Macbeth himself than is available to Hecate or to the Weird Sisters. Our equivocal but compulsive sympathy for him is partly founded upon Shakespeare’s exclusion of any other human center of interest, except for his prematurely eclipsed wife, and partly upon our fear that his imagination is our own. Yet the largest element in our irrational sympathy ensues from Macbeth’s sublimity. Great utterance continuously breaks through his confusions, and a force neither divine nor wicked seems to choose him as the trumpet of its prophecy:

     Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his facilities so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d against

The deep damnation of his taking-off,

And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven’s Cherubins, hors’d

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

That tears shall drown the wind.

Here, as elsewhere, we do not feel that Macbeth’s proleptic eloquence is inappropriate to him; his language and his imaginings are those of a seer, which heightens the horror of his disintegration into the bloodiest of all Shakespearean tyrant-villains. Yet we wonder just how and why this great voice breaks through Macbeth’s consciousness, since clearly it comes to him unbidden. He is, we know, given to seizures; Lady Macbeth remarks, ‘My Lord is often thus,/And hath been from his youth.’ Visionary fits come upon him when and as they will, and his tendency to second sight is clearly allied both to his proleptic imaginings and to the witches’ preoccupation with him. No one else in Shakespeare is so occult, not even the hermetic magician, Prospero.

This produces an extraordinary effect upon us, since we are Macbeth, though we are pragmatically neither murderers nor mediums, and he is. Nor are we conduits for transcendent energies, for visions and voices; Macbeth is as much a natural poet as he is a natural killer. He cannot reason and compare, because images beyond reason and beyond competition overwhelm him. Shakespeare can be said to have conferred his own intelligence upon Hamlet, his capacity for more life upon Falstaff, his own wit upon Rosalind. To Macbeth, Shakespeare evidently gave over what might be called the passive element in his own imagination. We cannot judge that the author of Macbeth was victimized by his own imagination, but we hardly can avoid seeing Macbeth himself as the victim of a beyond that surmounts anything available to us. His tragic dignity depends upon his contagious sense of unknown modes of being, his awareness of powers that lie beyond Hecate and the witches but are not identical with the Christian God and His angels. These powers are the tragic sublime itself, and Macbeth, despite his own will, is so deeply at one with them that he can contaminate us with sublimity, even as the unknown forces contaminate him. Critics have never agreed as to how to name those forces; it seems to me best to agree with Nietzsche that the prejudices of morality are irrelevant to such daemons. If they terrify us by taking over this play, they also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemons.”


 And since Bloom mentioned it, this seems the perfect time to include the most interesting essay by Thomas de Quincey, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”

thomas-de-quincey“From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see _why_ it should produce such an effect.

Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else; which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as for instance, to represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his life. The reason is–that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not _appear_ a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line, and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes as it were, for not only does the man believe the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but, (what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore _quoad_ his consciousness has _not_ seen) that which he _has_ seen every day of his life. But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could _not_ produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his _debut_ on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone, “There has been absolutely nothing _doing_ since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking of.” But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered that in the first of these murders, (that of the Marrs,) the same incident (of a knocking at the door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur, which the genius of Shakspeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspeare’s suggestion as soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling in opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfaction; and my solution is this. Murder in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct, which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind, (though different in degree,) amongst all living creatures; this instinct therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on,” exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with _him_; (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,–not a sympathy[1] of pity or approbation.) In the murdered person all strife of thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him “with its petrific mace.” But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of passion,–jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,–which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.

[Footnote 1: It seems almost ludicrous to guard and explain my use of a word in a situation where it would naturally explain itself. But it has become necessary to do so, in consequence of the unscholarlike use of the word sympathy, at present so general, by which, instead of taking it in its proper sense, as the act of reproducing in our minds the feelings of another, whether for hatred, indignation, love, pity, or approbation, it is made a mere synonyme of the word _pity_; and hence, instead of saying “sympathy _with_ another,” many writers adopt the monstrous barbarism of “sympathy _for_ another.”]

In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakspeare has introduced two murderers: and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated: but, though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the tiger spirit not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by contagion from her,–yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed in both. This was to be expressed; and on its own account, as well as to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim, “the gracious Duncan,” and adequately to expound “the deep damnation of his taking off,” this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature, _i.e._, the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man,–was gone, vanished, extinct; and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the _dialogues_ and _soliloquies_ themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration; and it is to this that I now solicit the reader’s attention. If the reader has ever witnessed a wife, daughter, or sister, in a fainting fit, he may chance to have observed that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle, is _that_ in which a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life. Or, if the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolis, on the day when some great national idol was carried in funeral pomp to his grave, and chancing to walk near the course through which it passed, has felt powerfully, in the silence and desertion of the streets and in the stagnation of ordinary business, the deep interest which at that moment was possessing the heart of man,–if all at once he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of wheels rattling away from the scene, and making known that the transitory vision was dissolved, he will be aware that at no moment was his sense of the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns so full and affecting, as at that moment when the suspension ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed. All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction. Now apply this to the case in Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated–cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs–locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

O, mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers,–like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless or inert–but that, the further we press in our discoveries, the more we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident!”

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning:  More on Act Two


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3 Responses to “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand?”

  1. GGG says:

    Ok, I am on vacation and have totally cheated. On Sunday evening, we watched a version of Macbeth on the local PBS Great Performances: Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. It was really good–Macbeth as a Russian-style dictator. Creepy, bare setting in an abandoned building, it seemed.

    Anyway, it was a stripped down production that really gave the sense of the events and the setting becoming more and more claustrophobic and horrible.

    And the knocking was just as startling and effective as mentioned above. However for me it wasn’t so much the knocking of the normal world, but a moment of supernatural fear–what, who is it coming now? A ghost, more evil creatures? What world is Macbeth opening the door to? And the porter in this version was an evil sprite–not a funny interlude. Funny how the knocking can take on so many meanings!

  2. GGG says:

    It’s the version in the production in the last YouTube link you have posted (the dagger scene).

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