William Shakespeare, Macbeth

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Hegel on Tragedy inspired me to revisit Macbeth. This tragedy poses a problem for Hegel’s philosophical system. In his view, tragedy should either dramatize a hero’s unknowing violation of ethical ideals (as in Oedipus the King) or a conflict between two rival ethical ideals taken to their respective extremes (as in Antigone). How can Macbeth be a great tragedy according to these criteria? Its hero, unlike Oedipus, commits his crime consciously; unlike Antigone or Creon, he stands for no ethical values anyone would endorse. Is Macbeth not simply a criminal’s sordid tale, of no general relevance to non-criminal humanity? Hegel solves the problem this way:

Macbeth is forced by his character…into the fetters of his ambitious passion. At first he hesitates, then he stretches his hand to seize the crown; he commits a murder in order to secure it, and in order to maintain it storms on through the tale of horror. This regardless tenacity, this identity of the man with himself, and the object which his own personality brings to birth is the source to him of an abiding interest. Nothing makes him budge, neither the respect for the sacredness of kingship, nor the madness of his wife, nor the rout of his vassals, nor destruction as it rushes upon him, neither divine nor human claims—he withdraws from them all into himself and persists.

Hegel argues that Macbeth’s immoveable selfhood and will, perhaps best exemplified by his dauntless lines as he strides to his final battle—

Ring the alarum-bell! Blow wind, come wrack!
At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

—mark modern tragedy’s presentation of the self-authoring and self-authorizing modern individual, who, even at the risk of destruction, advances consciousness beyond what the classical unity of ethics and personality could. Hegel doesn’t put it this way, but we might find in the regicide a prototype of the revolutionary.

I introduce this argument to quarrel with it, though it has undeniably been influential. In this Signet Classics edition of Macbeth, Hegel’s English disciple, A. C. Bradley, expands on the master in an excerpt from his Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). Bradley argues for a Macbeth to whom we might extend qualified sympathy because he has the impressionable temperament of a poet, and is therefore an admissible paradigm of the modern individual. In Harold Bloom’s popular neo-Bradleyean Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), the late critic summons Freud rather than Hegel when he diagnoses Macbeth’s murderousness as a case of misplaced potency: “Unable to beget children, Macbeth slaughters them.” Hegel, Bradley, and Bloom all presume what Hegel calls the “self-sufficiency” of Shakespearean character: the deep backgrounds and profound psyches Shakespeare intimates in his protagonists, which are absent from his sources and weak in his precursors and contemporaries.

For example, according to Shakespeare’s source for Macbeth, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, also excerpted in the Signet edition, the historical Macbeth of 11th-century Scotland had two explicit political motivations for killing Duncan: 1. he objected to Duncan’s laxness as ruler, which had led to disorder and rebellion; 2. he resented being passed over in the monarchical succession in favor of the king’s son, Malcolm, a decision on Duncan’s part that altered the extant law under which Macbeth would have been next in line for the throne.

Otherwise following Holinshed closely—albeit transfiguring his turgid prose into deathless poetry—Shakespeare dispenses with both political motives, even though this creates a hole in his plot: in the play’s first act, Macbeth and his wife seem to assume that he will automatically succeed Duncan, whereas the problem for his scheme created by Malcolm’s being the more obvious inheritor doesn’t arise until act two. There is political interest in the play, but we’ll have to find it elsewhere (about which more below).

Shakespeare replaces politics with psychology, power with sex, as the forces that impel his characters. How can we blame the critics for responding in kind? Lady Macbeth goads her husband to murder with a stream of sexual insults intimating his impotency and lack of manhood. She girds herself for crime by divesting herself of femininity, of the barest hint of maternal feeling:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

These lines do invite us to wonder when she had “given suck,” i.e., nursed an infant. Considering her elite social status, the infant must have been her own, yet we’re told by Macduff, lamenting that he can’t repay in kind Macbeth’s crime of killing his progeny, “He has no children.” And despite Lady Macbeth’s will to be “unsexed,” a tender filial feeling causes this otherwise inexorable anti-heroine to demure from killing Duncan herself: “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done ‘t.” Macbeth, for his part, describes Duncan’s murder in language that reeks of the customary Shakespearean double entendre:

Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood,
And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance…

These mentions of child and parent, these inklings of displaced and incestuous sexuality, open the drama, however narrowly, onto a more agonized “family romance,” in Freud’s phrase, than we find on the surface of the text.

With such brilliant subtleties, Shakespeare creates characters we can discuss as if they were our own friends or enemies, parents or lovers. When Bloom claims that Shakespeare “invented the human,” this nearly unprecedented literary representation of a submerged inner life, accessible to the waking consciousness only in hints and symbols, is what he has in mind.

On the other hand, how sure are we that Macbeth is different from Oedipus—and not Freud’s Oedipus as symbol of everyman’s erotic development, but Sophocles’s actual drama of ineluctable fate? How separable is Macbeth from his atmosphere and how free are his choices?

Consider a detail that every reader notices. Macbeth first appears in the play’s third scene, prior to which we hear only second-hand reports of his grisly valor in suppressing a rebellion: he is “Bellona’s bridegroom,” who “unseamed [his enemy] from the nave to th’ chops, / And fixed his head upon our battlements.” When he enters, his first line echoes the words spoken in the first scene by the Weird Sisters. “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” he says, commenting either on the changeable weather or on how bloody battle (“foul”) has led to victory (“fair”). The witches, in scene one, chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Shakespeare here winks at the audience over his hero’s head as he weaves a spell of fated words around the story.

Macbeth is not a free individual but the plaything of supernatural forces. As soon as the witches speak to him—and long before he thinks he sees the famous dagger in the second act—he begins to contemplate murder, even as his Hamlet-like vacillations in the first act testify to his puzzlement about why he has almost automatically set himself on such a course:

[W]hy do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?

The drama’s atmosphere of apocalyptic moral confusion (“fair is foul”) motivates the action; the characters’ supposed choices are features of the weather, storms called up by Hecate and her minions. Macbeth, like Oedipus, is doomed from the start, never has a chance. Incidentally, to move our psychological inquiry from devised to deviser, we might ask why Shakespeare portrays chthonic female powers (“bubbles” of “earth,” as Banquo calls the witches) erupting both in the play’s landscape and in its only major female character to overthrow morality, order, and civilization, all governed by men.

This sense of doom and destiny makes the Macbeths’ half-glimpsed and turbulent inner depths all the more poignant, since they are living out compulsions that arise as much from outside them as within. But this hardly allows them to exemplify modern consciousness as the agent of human freedom, a Hegelian role better (if not perfectly) suited to Hamlet in the Shakespearean oeuvre.

In a preface to Macbeth excerpted in the Signet edition, Samuel Johnson half reproaches and half defends the play for relying so much on the supernatural. He was writing after the age of James I, author of a tract on demonology, and before our supposedly secular epoch presided over by those modern magi, Hegel and Freud. He was writing, in other words, from the Age of Reason, and he accordingly doesn’t think a play about witches is fit entertainment or instruction for adults. He makes allowance for the superstitions reigning in the Jacobean era, however—

Thus, in the time of Shakespeare, was the doctrine of witchcraft at once established by law and by the fashion, and it became not only unpolite, but criminal, to doubt it…

—and concludes that Macbeth is meritorious for almost everything except its characterization, which he finds too “cabined, cribbed, confined” (to quote the hero’s self-assessment) by the supernal plot:

This play is deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action; but it has no nice discriminations of character, the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions, and the course of the action necessarily determines the conduct of the agents.

With Johnson, I am more impressed by Macbeth‘s apocalyptic poetry than by its characterization as such; or maybe I should say that plot, setting, and character in a world gone totally wrong are inseparable, as they were for Sophocles:

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?

Apart from the horror, there are play’s famous comic moments: the hungover porter complaining in prose as he stumbles to open the gate after Duncan’s murder, Macduff’s smart-aleck son bantering with his mother just before their slaughter, or the ambulatory pun on the witches’ misleading prophecy that is Malcolm’s and Macduff’s army disguising themselves as a forest. In such a short drama, where they stand out all the more from the surrounding seriousness, such comic passages give Macbeth an air of hysteria and hilarity, of nightmare, that shows Shakespeare’s enviable audacity. His characters may not be free, but he certainly is.

As for the play’s actual politics—not the pragmatic politics provided in Holinshed and discarded by Shakespeare, nor the revolutionary politics we can read into the drama after having hallucinated over Hegel—we certainly find a prescient portrayal of a society under tyranny. The total collapse of social trust (“There’s daggers in men’s smiles”) created by a dictator who keeps a spy in every noble house, as King Macbeth does, is evoked brilliantly—nowhere more than when Malcolm tries Macduff’s ethical character by claiming that he will prove to be a king almost as evil as Macbeth if Macduff helps him attain the throne. The obdurately good Macduff passes the test, but its necessity under tyranny is Shakespeare’s point. Another political thesis the poet argues, more subtly and in advance of its deeper exploration in Coriolanus, is that valiantly murderous soldiers like Macbeth may be a danger to the liberty of the states they serve. A state that lives by violence may be fated to die by it too.



  1. Thanks for reviewing my favorite of the tragedies after Hamlet (which I’m loving more and more each time I revisit it and think about it).

    It may have the best poetry of the four tragedies of blood, and for good reason the New Critics tended to like it. Besides Antony and Cleopatra, it’s the richest and most intense in terms of its language.

  2. Great review! Thank you and congratulations! This classic is definitely one of my favorite books.

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