Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Back in Scotland, Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking and raving about the various murders. By the time Malcolm’s forces are marching on to Dunsinane, carrying branches from Birnam Wood to disguise their approach. Macbeth – convinced that the Witches have predicted his invincibility – refuses to acknowledge the threat until he hears that Lady Macbeth is dead and that Birnam Wood is, indeed moving toward him. He fights on, eventually coming face to face with Macduff (you knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?) who he learns was delivered by C-Section and thus, technically, was not of woman born. Macduff succeeds in killing him and presents his head to Malcolm, hailing him as the new King of Scotland.
It is Lady Macbeth, as the Doctor comments to a servingwoman – who first knows what she should not. And while Lady Macbeth is the first victim of that knowledge, the unexpected announcement that his wife is dead – it seems like suicide although the play leaves the verdict open – initiates one of the greatest speeches in all of Shakespeare, a speech in which Macbeth pictures himself staring into the abyss. “She should have died hereafter,” he mutters,
There would have been a time for such a word.
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.
Life is, he concludes, “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.’ Endlessly repetitive, it is also ultimately futile, a stuttering and staggering sequence of tomorrows, an empty riff on the biblical assurance that life has value as “a tale that is told.”
As the tragedy hurls towards its inevitable conclusion, the sequence of horrors Macbeth has performed – Duncan’s murder, Banquo’s death, the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children – turn decisively against him. In a bizarre spin on the very perversion of nature for which Macbeth is responsible, Birnam Wood DOES rise up against him, in the form of Malcolm’s and Macduff’s soldiers carrying branches in the hope of confusing enemy scouts. But Macbeth reserves its biggest twist for last. Confident of immortality, Macbeth vows to fight until “from my bones the flesh be hacked,” slaying Young Siward and then facing Macduff undaunted. When the pair meet in combat, Macbeth taunts, ‘Thou losest labour…I bear a charmed life” But Macduff’s reply stops him dead:
Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Macduff boasts that he was delivered via Caesarean section – a dangerous last-ditch operation in seventeenth-century England (let alone feudal Scotland), and one that almost always resulted in the death of the mother. The revelation, then, is fitting unreal (a word that that fittingly appeared for the first time in this play), and in it Macbeth recognizes a bitter irony. “Accursed be the tongue that tells me so,” he gasps,
For it hath cowed my better part of man;
And be these juggling fiends no more believed,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.
By his “better part” Macbeth must mean his courage – we know as well as he does that anything else that was good has long since disappeared. The circumstances of Macduff’s death have sentenced him to death, the Witches’ “promise” proved worthless. And like so much else in the play, Macbeth realizes that his “hope,” too, signifies absolutely nothing.
“I come back, for a last time, to the terrible awe that Macbeth provokes in us. G. Wilson Knight first juxtaposed a reflection by Lafew, the wide old nobleman of All’s Well That Ends Well, with Macbeth:
They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
Wilbur Sanders, acknowledging Wilson Knight, explores Macbeth as the Shakespearean play where most we ‘submit ourselves to an unknown fear.’ My own experience of the play is that we rightly react to it with terror, even as we respond to Hamlet with wonder. Whatever Macbeth does otherwise, it certainly does not offer us a catharsis for the terrors it evokes. Since we are compelled to internalize Macbeth, the ‘unknown fear’ linally is of ourselves. If we submit to it – and Shakespeare gives us little choice – then we follow Macbeth into a nihilism very different from the abyss-voyages of Iago and of Edmund. They are confident nihilists, secure in their self-election. Macbeth is never secure, nor are we, his unwilling cohorts; he childers, as we father, and we are the only children he has.
The most surprising observation on fear in Macbeth was also Wilson Knight’s:
‘Whilst Macbeth lives in conflict with himself there is misery, evil, fear; when, at the end, he and the other have openly identified himself with evil, he faces the world fearless: nor does he appear evil any longer.’
I think I see where Wilson Knight was aiming, but a few revisions are necessary. Macbeth’s broad progress is from proleptic horror to a sense of baffled expectations, in which a feeling of having been outraged takes the place of fear. ‘Evil’ we can set side; it is redundant, rather like calling Hitler or Stalin evil. When Macbeth is betrayed, by hallucination and foretelling, he manifests a profound and energetic outrage, like a frantic actor always fated to miss all his cues. The usurper goes on murdering, and achieves no victory over time or the self. Sometimes I wonder whether Shakespeare somehow had gotten access to the Gnostic and Manichaean fragments scattered throughout the Church Fathers, quoted by them only to be denounced, though I rather doubt that Shakespeare favored much ecclesiastical reading. Macbeth, however intensely we identify with him, is more frightening than anything he confronts, thus intimating that we ourselves may be more dreadful than anything in our own worlds. And yet Macbeth’s realm, like ours, can be a ghastly context:
Threescore and ten I can remember well;
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful, and things strange, but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
Ha, good Fahter,
Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threatens his bloody stage: by th’ clock ‘tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp
Is ‘t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
Even like the deed that’d done. On Tuesday last,
A falcon, towering in her pride of place,
Was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d.
And Duncan’s horses (a thing most strange and certain)
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.
‘Tis said, they eat each other.
They did so, to th’ amazement of mine eyes,
That look’d upon ‘t.
This is the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, yet even as the play’s opening a wounded captain admiringly says of Macbeth and Banquo: ‘they/Doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe:/Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds,/Or memorize another Golgatha,/I cannot tell –‘ What does it mean to ‘memorize another Golgotha?’ Golgotha, ‘the place of skulls,’ was Calvary, where Jesus suffered upon the cross. ‘Memorize’ here seems to mean ‘memorialize,’ and Shakespeare subtly has invoked a shocking parallel. We are at the beginning of the play, and these are still the good captains Macbeth and Banquo, patriotically fighting for Duncan and for Scotland, yet they are creating a new slaughter ground for a new Crucifixion. Graham Bradshaw aptly has described the horror of nature in Macbeth, and Robert Watson has pointed to its Gnostic affinities. Shakespeare throws us into everything that is not ourselves, not so as to induce an aesthetic revulsion in the audience, but so as to compel a choice between Macbeth and the cosmological emptiness, the kenoma of the Gnostics. We choose Macbeth perforce, and the preference is made very costly for us.
Of the aesthetic greatness of Macbeth, there can be no question. The play cannot challenge the scope and depth of Hamlet and King Lear, or the brilliant painfulness of Othello, or the world-without-end panorama of Antony and Cleopatra, and yet it is my personal favorite of the high tragedies. Shakespeare’s final strength is radical internalization, and this is his most internalized drama, played out in the guilty imagination that we share with Macbeth. No critical method that works equally well for Thomas Middleton or John Fletcher and for Shakespeare is going to illuminate Shakespeare for us. I do not know whether God created Shakespeare, but I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether startling degree. In relation to us, his perpetual audience, Shakespeare is a kind of mortal god, our instruments for measuring him break when we seek to apply them. Macbeth, as its best critics have seen, scarcely shows us that crimes against nature are repaired when a legitimate social order is restored. Nature is crime in Macbeth, but hardly in the Christian sense that calls out for nature to be redeemed by grace, or by expiation and forgiveness. As in King Lear, we have no place to go in Macbeth, there is no sanctuary available to us. Macbeth himself exceeds us, in energy and in torment, but he also represents us, and we discover him more vividly within us the more deeply we delve.”
From Van Doren:
“Duncan was everything that Macbeth is not. We saw him briefly, but the brilliance of his contrast with the thane he trusted has kept his memory beautiful throughout a play whose every other feature has been hideous. He was ‘meek’ and ‘clear’ and his mind was incapable of suspicion. The treachery of Cawdor bewildered him:
There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face.
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust
— this at the very moment when Macbeth was being brought in for showers of praise and tears of plenteous joy! For Duncan was a free spirit and could weep, a thing impossible to his murderer’s stopped heart. The word ‘love’ was native to his tongue; he used it four times within the twenty lines of his conversation with Lady Macbeth, and its clear beauty as he spoke it was reflected in the diamond he sent her by Banquo (II,i,15). As he approached Macbeth’s castle in the late afternoon the building had known its only moment of serenity and fairness. It was because Duncan could look at it and say:
This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
The speech itself was nimble, sweet, and gentle; and Banquo’s explanation was in tone:
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting marlet, does approve,
By his loved masonry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here; no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant candle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observ’d
The air is delicate.
Summer, heaven, wooing, and procreation in the delicate air – such words suited the presence of a king who when later on he was found stabbed in his bed would actually offer a fair sight to guilty eyes. His blood was not like the other blood in the play, thick and fearfully discolored. It was bright and beautiful, as no one better than Macbeth could appreciate:
Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin lac’d with his golden blood
— the silver and the gold went with the diamond, and with Duncan’s gentle senses that could smell no treachery though a whole house reeked with it. And Duncan of course could sleep. After life’s fitful fever he had been laid where nothing could touch him further (III,ii,22-6). No terrible dramas to shake him nightly, and no fears of things lest they come stalking through the world before their time in borrowed shapes.
Our memory of this contrast, much as the doings of the middle play work to muffle it, is what gives power to Malcolm and Macduff at the end.
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Scotland may seem to have become the grave of men and not their mother; death and danger may claim the whole of that bleeding country; but there is another country to the south where a good king works miracles with his touch. The rest of the world is what it always was; time goes on; events stretch out through space in their proper forms. Shakespeare again has enclosed his evil within a universe of good, his storm center within wide areas of peace. And from this outer world Malcolm and Macduff will return to heal Scotland of its ills. Their conversation in London before the pious Edward’s palace is not an interruption of the play; it is one of its essential parts, glancing forward as it does to a conclusion wherein Macduff can say, ‘The time is free,’ and wherein Malcolm can promise the deeds of justice, ‘planted newly with the time,’ will be performed ‘in measure, time, and place.’ Malcolm speaks the language of the play, but he has recovered its lost idiom. Blood will cease to flow, movement will recommence, fear will be forgotten, sleep will season every life, and the seeds of time will blossom in due order. The circle of safety which Shakespeare has drawn around his central horror is thinly drawn, but it is finely drawn and it holds.”
And from Frank Kermode:
“In his despair, Macbeth sees no way to go but forward into more crime. III.vi is a ‘choric’ comment: Lennox and ‘another Lord’ have seen through Macbeth’s lies, compare his evil deeds with ‘pious Edward,’ the ‘holy king’ of England, and fear for the state of Macduff. As Act IV begins, we have more equivocal prophecies. The Sisters summon their ‘masters,’ who allow him no comment as they warn him of Macduff. They assure him that no man born of woman can harm him (a prophecy that is of course equivocal, for it turns out that Macduff’s was a Caesarian birth – though we should also remember the earlier equivocations about manhood) and give him the false idea that Birnam Wood cannot come to Dunsinane. ‘Show his eyes, and grieve his heart,’ cry the witches, and the masters produce the Show of Kings, the Banquo line, the Stuart line, stretching out ‘to th’ crack of doom.’
The rest of the piece is now preordained. Macbeth forgets about ‘understood relations’ and turns on Time, which he will frustrate by crowning his thoughts with acts, abolishing the interval between them – ‘be it thought and done.’ No more struggles with conscience, with the prospect of judgment. Lady Macduff and her children die at once. Then follows the long and curious lull of IV .iii, where Macduff and Malcolm, in England, test one another, and there is more evidence of the virtues of the good King Edward. This is rather generally, and I think correctly, thought a blemish on the play, certainly its least-well-written scene. It comes nearest to the tone of the rest with Macduff’s response to the news of his family’s slaughter. Malcolm urges Macduff to be a man:
Malcolm: Dispute it like a man.
Macduff: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man…
O, I could play the woman with mine eyes…
if he scape,
Heaven forgive him too!
Malcolm: This tune goes manly.
These are at once remembered: ‘The night is long that never finds the day. But for Lady Macbeth, night and day are now one: she ‘watches’ while she sleeps. A little water has not cleared her of the deed of murder. It may be ‘time’ to be rid of the spot of blood, the smell of blood; useless now to reproach her husband (‘Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and afeard?’, ‘Look now to pale.’ ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’)
This superbly planned and written scene is her last. The rest of the play concerns the overthrow of Macbeth. At first he is still deceived by equivocation: ‘The spirits that know/All mortal consequences,’ have given predictions he wrongly takes to be assurances. But he is made to express his awareness of the disaster already on him: ‘I have liv’d long enough; my way of life/Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf,’ and the rewards of kingship he had sought so urgently are denied him. The Doctor cannot cure him, or his stricken land. ‘The time approaches.’ He has lost the power to feel even fear, having ‘supp’d full with horrors.’ The death of the Queen leaves him unmoved:
She should have died thereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…
It is as if he is at last confronting the mere successiveness of time, the senseless days, one after another, that end only in death, a lifeless progress, so different inspirit from the thrills of that original interim. Only now does he ‘begin/To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’ The last proof of it is Macduff, not of woman born: ‘Such a one/Am I to fear, or none.’ The news of Macduff’s birth ‘hath cow’d my better part of man’ and at last shown him that he has dealt with ‘juggling fiends/That palter with us in a double sense.’ Even in this extremity Macduff talks of ‘th’ time’ and is allowed to say ‘the time is free.’ In Malcolm’s triumphant concluding speech, the word ‘time’ occurs three times.
It is surely impossible to deny that certain words – ‘time,’ ‘man,’ ‘done’ – and certain themes – ‘ blood,’ ‘darkness’ – are the matrices of the language of Macbeth. In the period of the great tragedies these matrices appear to have been fundamental to Shakespeare’s procedures. One might guess they took possession of him as he did his preparatory reading. That they are thereafter used with conscious intention and skill seems equally certain. They are one aspect of the language of the plays that show deliberation – more, in some ways, than their plotting, which, however skillful, can sometimes be somewhat careless. In these echoing words and themes, these repetitions that are so unlike the formal repetitions of an earlier rhetoric, we come close to what were Shakespeare’s deepest interests. We cannot assign them any limited significance. All may be said to equivocate, and on their equivocal variety we impose our limited interpretations.”
And finally, from G. Wilson Knight:
“Whilst Macbeth lives in conflict with himself there is misery, evil, fear: when, at the end, he and the others have openly identified himself with evil, he faces the world fearless: nor does he appear evil any longer. The worst element of his suffering has been that secrecy and hypocrisy so often referred to throughout the play. Dark secrecy and night are in Shakespeare ever the badges of crime. But at the end Macbeth has no need for secrecy. He is no longer ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in to saucy doubts and fears.’ He has won through by excessive crime to an harmonious and honest relation with his surroundings. He has successfully symbolized the disorder of his lonely guilt-stricken soul by creating disorder in the world, and thus restores balance and harmonious contact. The mighty principle of good planted in the nature of things then asserts itself, condemns him openly, brings him peace. Daylight is brought to Macbeth, as to Scotland, by the accusing armies of Malcolm. He now knows himself to be a tyrant confessed, and wins back that integrity of soul which gives us:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf…
Here he touches a recognition deeper than fear, more potent than nightmare. The delirious dream is over. A clear daylight now disperses the imaginative dark that has eclipsed Scotland. The change is remarkable. There is now movement, surety and purpose, colour: horses ‘skirr the country round,’ banners are hung out on the castle walls, soldiers hew down the bright leaves of Birnam. There is, as it were, a paean of triumph as the Macbeth universe, having struggled darkly upward, now climbs into radiance. Though they oppose each other in fight, Macbeth and Malcolm share equally in this relief, this awakening from horror. Of a piece with this change is the fulfillment of the Weird Sister’s prophecies. In bright daylight the nightmare reality to which Macbeth has been subdued is insubstantial and transient as sleep-horrors at dawn. Their unreality is emphasized by the very fact that they are nevertheless related to natural phenomena: they are thus parasitic on reality. To these he has trusted, and they fail. But he himself is, at the last, self-reliant and courageous. The words of the Weird Sisters ring true:
Though his bark cannot be lost
Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d.
Each shattering report he receives with redoubled life-zest; and meets the fate marked out by the daylight consciousness of normal man for the nightmare reality of crime. Malcolm may talk of ‘this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen.’ We, who have felt the sickly poise over the abysmal deeps of evil, the hideous reality of the unreal, must couch our judgment in a different phrase.
The consciousness of nightmare is a consciousness of absolute evil, presenting an heightened awareness of positive significance which challenges the goldenest dreams of blissful sleep: it is positive, powerful, autonomous. Whether this be ultimate truth or not, it is what our mental experience knows: and to deny it is to deny the aristocracy of mind. The ‘sickly weal’ of Scotland is in the throes of this delirious dream, which, whilst it lasts, has every attribute of reality. Yet this evil is not a native of man’s heart: it comes from without. The Weird Sisters are objectively conceived: they are not, as are the dagger and ghost, the subjective effect of evil in the protagonist’s mind. They are, within the Macbeth universe, independent entities; and the fact that they instigate Macbeth directly and Lady Macbeth indirectly tends to assert the objectivity of evil. This, however, is purely a matter of poetic impact: the word ‘absolute’ seems a just interpretation of the imaginative reality, in so far as an immediate interpretation only is involved. Its implications in a wider system might not be satisfactory. But, whatever be the evil here, we can say that we understand something of the psychological state which gives these extraneous things of horror their reality and opportunity. And if we are loath to believe in such evil realities, we might call to mind the words of Lafeu in All’s Well That Ends Well:
They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
A profound commentary on Macbeth. [MY NOTE: As others have observed!} But, though the ultimate evil remains a mystery, analysis of the play indicates something of its relation to the mind and the actions of men.
Such analysis must be directed not to the story alone, but to the manifold correspondencies of imaginative quality extending throughout the whole play. The Macbeth vision is powerfully superlogical. Yet it is the work of interpretation to give some logical coherence to things imaginative. To do this is, it is manifestly not enough to abstract the skeleton of logical sequence which is the story of the play: that is to ignore the very quality which justifies our anxious attention. Rather, relinquishing our horizontal sight of the naked rock-line which is the story, we should, from above, view the whole as panorama, spatialized: and then map out imaginative similarities and differences, hills and vales and streams. Only to such a view does Macbeth reveal the full riches of its meaning. Interpretation must thus first receive the quality of the play in the imagination, and then proceed to translate this whole experience into a new logic which will not be confined to those superficialities of cause and effect which we think to trace in our own lives and actions, and try to impose on the persons of literature. In this way, we shall know that Macbeth shows us an evil not to be accounted for in terms of ‘will’ and ‘causality’; that it expresses its vision, not to a critical intellect, but to the responsive imagination; and, working in terms not of ‘character’ or any ethical code, but of the abysmal deeps of a spirit-world untuned to human reality, withdraws the veil from the black streams which mill that consciousness of fear symbolized in actions of blood. Macbeth is the apocalypse of evil.”
A lot to think about…whose criticism do you agree with? Do you think Act Four and Five were disappointing or do they work as Van Doren says they do? (I’m inclined to agree with him, as opposed to Kermode.) Is Macbeth “incited” by the Witches? Share your thoughts with the group!
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning: Final thoughts from Garber, Booth, and more!