“It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”


Act Five, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


To conclude Stephen Booth’s look at Macbeth from King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy:

 macbeth_rgb“I said earlier that an audience to Macbeth cannot keep itself within the category dictated by its own morality, even though its moral judgments are dictated entirely by that morality. The achievement of the play is that it enables its audience to endure the experience of such potential in itself.

By ‘experience of such potential,’ however, I do not mean – as I might seem to mean – ‘experience of recognizing such potential.’ I suggest, indeed, that the triumphant mental superiority I postulate for audiences to Macbeth is possible only because they are oblivious to the logical conflict in their responses and to their achievement tolerating its irresolution.

If audiences were led to take conscious notice of the inconsistency in their evaluations of Macbeth or of Malcolm, they would presumably set about rationalizing their situations in an effort to make their responses with one another by, for example, insisting that their thinking be governed by the indisputable precedence proper to the large, moral terms in which we must condemn Macbeth and cherish Malcolm – terms by comparison to which the transitory, local, merely theatrical terms in which Macbeth pleases and Malcolm displeases us are too petty to bother about.

Since the clash between two powerful, urgent, differently based sets of judgments remains only potential, an audience’s experience of Macbeth contains – has wrapped within its fabric – a token experience of being able to cope with conflicts comparable to those our minds cannot cope with, those that cannot be placed and managed in a single frame of reference. In Macbeth, as in the few other great tragedies that give us the special joy Macbeth gives us, our token experience of superiority to dependence on the mental machinations by which we customarily define and redefine the thus diminished elements of experience and make it manageable is particularly persuasive because it occurs in company with contemplation of a dramatize story full of events and situations that are in fact beyond the mental control of the characters they involve. The experience of Macbeth testifies to its audience’s mental capacity to survive mental challenges as demanding as the ones that overwhelm Macbeth – and overwhelm Lady Macbeth, and on a lesser scale, Macduff, Lady Macduff, and their mentally self-confident, mentally foolhardy little boy.

Perhaps the grounds for the high value I put on unobserved conflict will be clear if I introduce two lesser conflicts involved in (wrapped up within) Macbeth, conflicts comparable to our conflicting judgments on Macbeth and Malcolm only in going unobserved.

The play enables its audiences wholly to miss the glaring but invisible ludicrousness of the double standard by which Macbeth evaluates supernatural predictions. He takes those favorable to his hopes as revelations of unalterable fate; thus he announces his confidence that he is immune to danger from all persons born of woman and that he is safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. On the other hand, he assumes that he has it within his power to prevent the seed of Banquo from growing to be kings. Our minds also live comfortably with unexploited irony in the fact that Macbeth, who has reason to fear Macduff and Banquo’s children, succeeds in murdering Banquo and Macduff’s children.

Although anyone’s schoolroom experiences will suggest that the stuff of ironies has effect only as it is observed to be so, I submit that the raw materials from these two unobserved ironies do more for us by being unobserved than they would if the playwright had pointed them up and insisted that we notice them. An irony differs radically from the raw materials that compose it and are composed within it. In formulating an irony we bring its elements under control and remove most of their energy – exactly the disconcerting energy that impels us to master conflicting facts in a neat paradoxical assertion by which they take on a fixed, composite, single identity, albeit identity as an anomaly. Irony derives from collision and a collision give psychologically palpable unity to the colliding forces, which we can comprehend in relation to the point at which they collide.

Because Macbeth evokes conflicting responses that could but do not collide in our consciousnesses, and because it includes and omits to exploit logical inconsistencies in its characters’ behavior, the experience of seeing or reading Macbeth is experience of an object that is under constant pressure from within – an object full of volatile elements always ready to meet and explode.

Macbeth makes us able to sit unperturbed in the presence of mutually antipathetic facts of a sort that in ordinary experience put our minds in panic when we so much as suspect they coexist. The play can give us our unwonted tolerance for unresolved energy because, although limitless in effectively numberless dimensions, Macbeth is limited in at least as many more.

The limits – the reasons by which the play assures us that, however open-ended it may be, it is also a three-hour object whose elements so pertain to one another that it has thinglike identity, a beginning, a middle, and an end that are not arbitrary – are achieved in patterns of substantive incidentals so insistent and so profuse that our minds are emboldened to accept irresolution in the large matters that concern us and to which we devote our attention.

The events depicted in Macbeth, are not complete, not a closed unit with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Similarly, an audience’s experience of Macbeth is of truth beyond the limits of categories. That experience, which I think is what we are labeling when we use the word ‘tragedy,’ is made bearable by a vehicle, the fabric of the play, which has limits, has pattern, and is insistently man-made. The patterns of the play are made by the very elements whose disjunction takes the mind beyond the usual limits of its tolerance. Some of them I have already touched on; others have been the stuff of modern criticism for the last fifty years: things like image patterns in clothes, drink, babies, and blood; echoes of one situation in another, resemblances of characters to one another; recurrent themes; and so on.

I will, however, mention one such pattern. A good emblem for the failure of categories in Macbeth would be ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ at the end of scene i. An echo of that statement occurs as Macbeth’s first line at the beginning of scene iii: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ The paired consonantal sounds in ‘fair’ and ‘foul’ make a surprisingly sustained, complex alliterative pattern that runs across the whole play, a nonsignifying pattern in far, fear, free, file, fail, fall, fool, false, a quietly sustaining pattern that is only literally full of sound and fury and that, though it signifies nothing, helps a sane human mind experience tragedy – live with essentially unmediated truth – and survive. What Macbeth does for us – what successful dramatic tragedy does for us – is like what the word ‘tragedy’ does for real-life tragedies: it gives local habitation and a name to the most terrifying of things, ‘a deed without a name’ (IV.i.49), without denying its namelessness, its incomprehensibility, its indefinition.”


And finally, I’d like to conclude our close reading of Macbeth with one of my favorite Shakespeare critics, and a writer who deeply effected my reading of the plays:  Jan Kott.  By his reading, reading the plays through his own specific twentieth-century perspective, he opens them up, yanking them from their era, and makes them startlingly of our own.


What bloody man is that?

(Macbeth, 1,2)

MACBETH by ShakespeareThe Grand Mechanism of Richard III operates also in Macbeth, perhaps even more brutally. Having suppressed a rebellion, Macbeth is placed near the throne. He can become a king, so he must become a king. He kills the rightful sovereign. He then must kill the witnesses of the crime, and those who suspect it. He must kill the sons and friends of those he has killed. Later he must kill everybody, for everybody is against him:

Send out moe horses, skirr the country round;

Hang those that talk of fear. Give me mine armour.

In the end he will be killed himself. He has trod the whole way up and down the grand staircase of history.

The plot of Macbeth does not differ from those of the Histories. But plot summaries are deceptive. Unlike Shakespeare’s historical plays, Macbeth does not show history as the Grand Mechanism. It shows it as a nightmare. Mechanism and nightmare are different metaphors to depict the same struggle for power and the crown. But the differing metaphors reflect a difference of approach, and, even more than that, different philosophies. History, shown as a mechanism, fascinates by its very terror and inevitability. Whereas nightmare paralyses and terrifies. In Macbeth history, as well as crime, is shown through personal experience. It is a matter of decision, choice, and compulsion. Crime is committed on personal responsibility and has to be executed with one’s own hands. Macbeth murders Duncan himself.

History in Macbeth is confused the way nightmares are; and, as in a nightmare, everyone is enveloped by it. Once the mechanism has been put in motion, one is apt to be crushed by it. One wades through nightmare, which gradually rises up in one’s throat.

Says Macbeth:

    …I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

History in Macbeth is sticky and thick like a brew or blood. After a prologue with the three witches, the action proper begins with Duncan’s words:

What bloody man is that?

Everyone in this play is steeped with blood; victims as well as murders. The whole world is stained with blood. Says Duncan’s son, Donalbain:

There’s daggers in men’s smiles; the near in blood,

The nearer bloody.

Blood in Macbeth is not just a metaphor; it is real blood flowing out of murdered bodies. It leaves its stains on hands and faces, on daggers and swords.

Says Lady Macbeth:

A little water clears us of this deed.

How easy it is then!

But this blood cannot be washed off hands, faces, or daggers, Macbeth begins and ends with slaughter. There is more and more blood, everyone walks in it; it floods the stage. A production of Macbeth not evoking a picture of the world flooded with blood, would inevitably be false. There is something abstract about the Grand Mechanism. Richard’s cruelties mean death sentences. Most of them are executed off stage. In Macbeth, death, crime, murder are concrete. So is history in this play; it is concrete, palpable, physical and suffocating; it means the death-rattle, raising of the sword, thrust of the dagger. Macbeth has been called a tragedy of ambition, and a tragedy of terror. This is not true. There is only one theme in Macbeth: murder. History has been reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed.

Ambition means in this play the intention and planning of murder. Terror means the memory of murders that have been committed and fear of new crimes that are inevitable. The great and true murder, with which history begins, is the murder of a king. Then the killing has to go on, until the killer is himself killed. The new king will be the man who has killed a king. This is the pattern of Richard III and other ‘royal dramas,’ as well as of Macbeth. The huge stem-roller of history has been put in motion and crushes everybody in turn. In Macbeth, however, this murder-cycle does not possess the logic of a mechanism, but suggests rather a frighteningly growing nightmare.


What is the night?

Lady Macbeth:

Almost at odds with morning, which is which.

Most scenes take place at night; at all hours of the night, in fact: there is late night, midnight, and small hours of the dawn. Night is ever-present, invoked and recalled obtrusively – by metaphors: ‘O, never/Shall sun that morrow see!’ by means of action: servants carry torches, light them and put them out; by sudden prosaic statements of facts:

And when we have our naked frailties hid,

That suffer in exposure, let us meet…

(II, 3)

It is a night from which sleep has been banished. In no other Shakespearean tragedy is there so much talk about sleep. Macbeth has murdered sleep, and cannot sleep any more. In all Scotland no one can sleep. There is no sleep, only nightmares.

…When in swinish sleep

Their drenched natures lie as in a death…

Not only Macbeth and Lady Macbeth struggle with this uneasy sleep, which does not bring forgetfulness, but daytime thoughts of crime. It is the same sort of nightmare that torments Banquo.

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose!

Both sleep and food have been poisoned. In Macbeth’s world – the most obsessive of all worlds created by Shakespeare – murder, thoughts of murder and fear of murder pervade everything. In this tragedy there are only two great parts, but the third dramatis persona is the world. We remember the faces of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth more readily, because we see more of then than of the others. But all faces have the same grimace, expressing the same kind of fear. All bodies are just as tormented. Macbeth’s world is tight, and there is no escape. Even nature in it is nightmarishly impenetrable and close, consisting of mud and phantoms.


The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,

     …Whither are they vanish’d?


Into the air, and what seem’d corporal melted

As  breath into the wind.

Witches in Macbeth are part of the landscape and are formed of the same matter as the world. They squeak at crossroads and incite to murder. The earth shivers as if in fever, a falcon has been pecked to death in flight by an owl, horses break out of enclosures in a mad rush, fighting and biting one another. In the world of Macbeth there is no margin left for love, or friendship; not even for desire. Or rather, lust too, has been poisoned with the thought of murder. There are many dark issues between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Each great Shakespearean character has many aspects, and lends himself, or herself, to more than one interpretation. In this particular union, in which there are no children, or they have died, Lady Macbeth plays a man’s part. She demands that Macbeth commit murder as a confirmation of his manhood, almost as an act of love. In all Lady Macbeth’s speeches there returns the same obsessive theme:

     …From this time

Should I account thy love.


When you durst do it, then you were a man;…

These two are sexually obsessed with each other, and yet have suffered a great erotic defeat. But this is not the most important factor in the interpretation of the tragedy, although it may be decisive for the two principle actors’ interpretation of their parts.

There is no tragedy without awareness. Richard III is aware of the Grand Mechanism. Macbeth is aware of the nightmare. In the world upon which murder is being imposed as fate, compulsion and inner necessity, there is only one dream: of a murder that will break the murder cycle, will be the way out of nightmare, and will mean liberation. For the thought of murder that has to be committed, murder one cannot escape from, is even worse than murder itself.

Says Macbeth:

If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

It were done quickly. If th’ assassination

Could trammel up the consequence,…

…that but this blow

Might be the be-all and the end-al here,

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,

We’ld jump the life to come.

The terrorist Chen in Malraux’s Condition Humaine utters one of the most terrifying sentences written in the mid-twentieth century: ‘A man who has never killed is a virgin.’ This sentence means that killing is cognition, just as, according to the Old Testament, the sexual act is cognition; it also means that the experience of killing cannot be communicated, just as the experience of the sexual act cannot be conveyed. But this sentence means also that the act of killing changes the person who has performed it; from then on he is a different man living in a different world.

Says Macbeth after his first murder:

     …from this instant

There’s nothing serious in mortality;

All is but toys, renown and grace is dead;

The wine of life is drawn,…

Macbeth has killed in order to put himself on a level with the world in which murder potentially and actually exists. Macbeth has killed not only to become king, but to reassert himself. He has chosen between Macbeth who is afraid to kill, and Macbeth who has killed. But Macbeth who has killed is a new Macbeth. He not only knows that one can kill, but that one must kill.


….Know thou this, that men

Are as the time is. To be tender-minded

Does not become a sword.



I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats;

If it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.

The above fragment is taken from King Lear. Edmund orders assassins to hang Cordelia in prison. Murder is man’s work. What can a man do? This Nietzschean question has been put for the first time in Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth:

…Art thou afeard

To be the same in thine own act and velour

As thou art in desire?



Prithee, peace!

I dare do al that may become a man.

Who dares do more is none.

Lady Macbeth:

     What beast was’t then

That made you break this enterprise to me?

This dialogue takes place before the murder of Duncan. After the murder Macbeth will know the answer. Not only can a man kill; a man is he who kills, and only he. Just as the animal which barks and fawns is a dog. Macbeth calls the assassins and orders them to kill Banquo and his son.

First Murderer:

We are man, my liege


Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,

As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,

Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clipt

All by the name of dogs.


Second Murderer:

     We shall, my lord,

Perform what you command us.

branaugh macbethThis for Macbeth is one end of experience. It can be called the Auschwitz experience.’ A threshold has been reached past which everything is easy: ‘All is but toys;…’ but this is only part of the truth about Macbeth. Macbeth has killed the king, because he could not accept a Macbeth who would be afraid to kill a king. But Macbeth who has killed cannot accept the Macbeth who has killed. Macbeth has killed in order to get rid of a nightmare. But it is the necessity of murder that makes the nightmare. A nightmare is terrifying just because it has no end. ‘The night is long that never finds the day.’ (IV, 3) The night enveloping Macbeth is deeper and deeper. Macbeth has murdered for fear, and goes on murdering for fear. This is another part of the truth about Macbeth, but it is still not the whole truth.

In its psychology, Macbeth is, perhaps, the deepest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But Macbeth himself is not a character, at least not in the sense of what was meant by a character in the nineteenth century. Lady Macbeth is such a character. Everything in her, except craving for power, has been burnt out. She is empty, and goes on burning. She is taking her revenge for her failure as lover and mother. Lady Macbeth has no imagination; and for that reason she accepts herself from the outset, and later cannot escape from himself. Macbeth does have imagination, and from the moment of the first murder he asks himself the same sort of question that Richard III has asked himself:

     …To be thus is nothing,

But to be safely thus.

From the first scenes onwards Macbeth defines himself by negation. To himself he is not the one who is, but rather the one who is not. He is immersed in the world as if in nothingness; he exists only potentially. Macbeth chooses himself, but after every act of choice he finds himself more terrifying, and more of a stranger. ‘…al that is within him does condemn/Itself for being there.’ (V, 2) The formulas by which Macbeth tries to define himself are amazingly similar to the language of the existentialists. ‘To be’ has for Macbeth an ambiguous, or at least, double, meaning; it is a constant exasperating contradiction between existence and essence, between being ‘for itself’ and being ‘in itself.’

He says:

     …and nothing is

But what is not.

In a bad dream we are, and are not, ourselves, at the same time. We cannot accept ourselves, for to accept oneself would mean accepting nightmare for reality, to admit that there is nothing but nightmare, that night is not followed by day.

Says Macbeth after the murder of Duncan: ‘To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself.’ (II, 2) Macbeth recognizes that his existence is apparent rather than real, because he does not want to admit that the world he lives in is irrevocable. This world is to him a nightmare. For Richard ‘to be’ means to capture the crown and murder all pretenders. For Macbeth ‘to be’ means to escape, to live in another world where:

Rebellion’s head rise never…

…..and our high-plac’ed Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

The plot and the order of history in Shakespeare’s Histories and in Macbeth do not differ from each other. But Richard accepts the order of history and his part in it. Macbeth dreams about a world where there will be no more murders, and all murders have been forgotten; where the dead will have been buried in the ground once and for all, and everything will begin anew. Macbeth dreams of the end of nightmare, while sinking in it more and more. He dreams of a world without crime, while becoming enmeshed in crime more and more deeply Macbeth’s last hope is that the dead will not rise:

Lady Macbeth:

But in them Nature’s copy not eterne.


There’s comfort yet! They are assailable.

Then be thou jocund.

But the dead do rise. The appearance at the banquet of murdered Banquo’s ghost is one of the most remarkable scenes in Macbeth. Banquo’s ghost is visible to Macbeth alone. Commentators see in this scene an embodiment of Macbeth’s fear and terror. There is no ghost; he is a delusion. But Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not a psychological drama of the second half of the nineteenth century. Macbeth has dreamed of a final murder to end all murders. Now he knows: there is no such murder. This is the third and last of Macbeth’s experiences. The dead do return. ‘The sequence of time is an illusion…We fear most the past that returns.’ This aphorism by S.J. Lec has something of the atmosphere of Macbeth:

If charnel houses and our graves must send

Those that we bury back, our monuments

Shall be the maws of kites.

Macbeth, the multiple murderer, steeped in blood, could not accept the world in which murder existed. In this, perhaps, consists the gloomy greatness of this character and the true tragedy of Macbeth’s history. For a long time Macbeth did not want to accept the reality and irrevocability of nightmare, and could not reconcile himself to his part, as if it were somebody else’s. Now he knows everything. He knows that there is no escape from nightmare, which is the human fate and condition, or – in a more modern language, the human situation. There is no other.

They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly,

But bear-like I must fight the course.

(V, 7)

Before his first crime, which was the murder of Duncan, Macbeth had believed that death could come too early, or too late. ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance,/I had liv’d a blessed time;…’ Now Macbeth knows that death does not change anything, that it cannot change anything, that it is just as absurd as life. No more, no less. For the first time Macbeth is not afraid. ‘I have almost forgot the taste of fears.’ (V, 5)

There is nothing to be afraid of any more. He can accept himself at least, because he has realized that every choice is absurd, or rather, that there is no choice.

…..Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

In the opening scenes of the tragedy there is talk about the Thane of Cawdor, who had betrayed Duncan and become an ally of the King of Norway. After the suppression of rebellion he was captured and condemned to death.

…..Nothing in his life

Became him like the leaving it. He died

As one that had been studied in his death

To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d

As ‘twere a careless trifle.

The Thane of Cawdor does not appear in Macbeth. All we know of him is that he has been guilty of treason and executed. Why is his death described so emphatically and in such detail? Why did Shakespeare find it necessary? After al, his expositions are never wrong. Cawdor’s death, which opens the play, is necessary. It will be compared to Macbeth’s death. There is something Senecan and stoic about Cawdor’s cold indifference to death. Faced with utter defeat Cawdor saves what can still be saved: a noble attitude and dignity. For Macbeth attitudes are of no importance; he does not believe in human dignity any more. Macbeth has reached the limits of human experience. All he has left is contempt. The very concept of man has crumbled to pieces, and there is nothing left. The end of Macbeth, like the end of Troilus and Cressida, or King Lear, produces no catharsis. Suicide is either a protest, or an admission of guilt. Macbeth does not feel guilty, and there is nothing for him to protest about. All he can do before he dies is to drag with him into nothingness as many living beings as possible. This is the last consequence of the world’s absurdity. Macbeth is still unable to blow the world up. But he can go on murdering till the end.

Get on your nightgown…


OK.  I was originally going to end there.  But I found this reading late last night (I’m so immersed in Shakespeare), and thought it was fascinating.  From Terry Eagleton’s William Shakespeare:

“Even those who know very little about Shakespeare might be vaguely aware that his plays value social order and stability, and that they are written with an extraordinary eloquence, one metaphor breeding another in an apparently unstaunchable flow of what modern theorists might call ‘textual productivity.’ The problem is that these two aspects of Shakespeare are in potential conflict with one another. For a stability of signs – each word securely in place, each signifier (mark or sound) corresponding to its signified (or meaning) – is an integral part of any social order: settled meetings, shared definitions and regularities of grammar both reflect, and help to constitute, a well-ordered political state. Yet it is all this which Shakespeare’s flamboyant punning, troping and riddling threaten to put into question. His belief in social stability is jeopardized by the very language in which it is articulated. It would seem, then, that the very act of writing implies for Shakespeare an epistemology (or theory of knowledge) at odds with his political ideology. This is a deeply embarrassing dilemma, and it is not surprising that much of Shakespeare’s drama is devoted to figuring out strategies for resolving it.

witches 3To any unprejudiced reader – which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics – it is surely clear that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches. The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little the play itself recognizes the fact, and however much the critics may have set out to defame them. It is they who, by releasing ambitious thought in Macbeth, expose a reverence for hierarchical social order for what it is, as the pious self-deception of a society based on routine oppression and incessant warfare. The witches are exiles from that violent order, inhabiting their own sisterly community on its shadowy borderlands, refusing all truck with its tribal bickerings and military honours. It is their riddling, ambiguous speech (they ‘palter us with in a double sense’) which promises to subvert this structure: their teasing word-play infiltrates and undermines Macbeth from within, revealing in him a lack which hollows his being into desire. The witches signify a realm of non-meaning and poetic play which hovers at the work’s margins, one which has its own kind of truth; and their words to Macbeth catalyze this region of otherness and desire within himself, so that by the end of the play it has flooded up from within him to shatter and engulf his previously assured identity. In this sense the witches figure as the ‘unconscious’ of the drama, that which must be exiled and repressed as dangerous but which is always likely to return with a vengeance. That unconscious is a discourse in which meaning falters and slides, in which firm definitions are dissolved and binary oppositions eroded: fair is foul and foul is fair, nothing is but what is not. Androgynous (bearded women), multiple (three-in-one) and ‘imperfect speakers,’ the witches strike at the stable social, sexual and linguistic forms which the society of the play needs in order to survive. They perform a ‘deed without a name,’ and Macbeth’s own actions, once influenced by them, become such that ‘Tongue nor heart/Cannot conceive nor name.’ The physical fluidity of the three sisters becomes inscribed in Macbeth’s own restless desire, continually pursuing the pure being of kingship but at each step ironically unraveling that very possibility. ‘To be thus is nothing,/But to be safely thus.’ Macbeth ends up chasing an identity which continually eludes him; he becomes a floating signifier in ceaseless, doomed pursuit of an anchoring signified:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

He is reduced to a ham actor, unable to identify with his role.

As the most fertile force in the play, the witches inhabit an anarchic, richly ambiguous zone both in and out of official society: they live in their own world but intersect with Macbeth’s. They are poets, prophetesses and devotees of a female cult, radical separatists who scorn male power and lay bare the hollow sound and fury at its heart. Their words and bodies mock rigorous boundaries and make sport of fixed positions, unhinging received meanings as they dance, dissolve, and re-materalize. But official society can only ever imagine its radical ‘other’ as chaos rather than creativity, and is thus bound to define the sisters as evil. Foulness – a political order which thrives on bloodshed – believes itself fair, whereas the witches do not so much invert this opposition as deconstruct it. Macbeth himself fears the troubling of exact definitions: to be authentically human is, in his view, to be creatively constrained, fixed and framed by certain precise bonds of hierarchical allegiance. Beyond these lies the dissolute darkness of the witches into which, by murdering Duncan, he will catapult himself at a stroke. To transgress these determining bonds, for Macbeth, is to become less than human in trying to become more, a mere self-cancelling liberty:

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who cares do more is none.

To much inverts itself into nothing at all. Later Ross will speak of ‘float[ing] upon a wild and violent sea,/Each way and none,’ meaning that to move in all directions at once is to stand still.

Lady Macbeth holds the opposite view: transgression, the ceaseless surpassing of limits, is for her the very mark of the human:

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.

She herself crosses the strict divide of gender roles and cries out to be unsexed, flouting Angelo’s paternalistic advice to Isabella in Measure for Measure:

     Be that you are,

That is, a woman, if you be more, you’re none…

Like most of Shakespeare’s villains, in short, Lady Macbeth is a bourgeois individualist, for whom traditional ties of rank and kinship are less constitutive of personal identity than mere obstacles to be surmounted in the pursuit of one’s private ends. But the witches are hardly to be blamed for this, whatever Macbeth’s own jaundiced view of the matter. For one thing they live in community, not as individual entrepreneurs of the self; and unlike the Macbeths they are indifferent to political power because they have no truck with linear time, which is always, so to speak, on the side of Caesar.

The Macbeth’s impulse to transgress inhabits history: it is an endless expansion of the self in a single trajectory, an unslakable thirst for some ultimate mastery which will never come. The witches’ subversiveness moves within cyclical time, centered on dance, the moon, pre-vision and verbal repetition, inimical to linear history and its imperial themes of sexual reproduction. It is such lineage – the question of which particular male will inherit political power which they garble and confound in their address to Macbeth and Banquo, as well as in their most lethal piece of double-talk of all: ‘none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.’ Like the unconscious, the witches know no narrative, but once the creative dissolution they signify is inflected within the political system, it can always take the form of a ‘freedom’ which remains enslaved to the imperatives of power, a desire which merely reproduces, sexually and politically, the same old story and the same oppressive law. There is a style of transgression which is play and poetic non-sense, a dark carnival in which all formal values are satirized and deranged; and there is the different but related disruptiveness of bourgeois individualist appetite, which, in its ruthless drive to be all, sunders every constraint and lapses back into nothing. Such ambition is as self-undoing as the porter’s drink, provoking desire but taking away the performance: unlike the fruitful darkness of the witches, it is a nothing from which nothing can come.”


And that is it for Macbeth.  What did you all think?  If you’ve read it before, how did your reading of the play change?  If you’ve never read it…what did you think?

For me, this time around, the complete darkness permeating the play became clearer, as did the way Shakespeare uses words and language to link it all together.  I think that this time I SAW so much more than I ever had.  My favorite critics?  I love Kott, Bloom, of course, and at the last, I thought Eagleton’s take on the witches was fascinating…and made as much “sense” of them (can they ever be made sense of?) as anybody has.



My next posts:

Thursday evening/Friday morning:  Sonnet #138

Sunday evening/Monday morning:  My introduction to our next play, the one that is in my opinion the very greatest of them all, King Lear.

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1 Response to “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.”

  1. Steve Cole says:

    Love the concept of history conveyed not as logical mechanism but as nightmare – has a lot of truth and power and resonance to today. Fascinating.

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