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MACBETH

THETRAGEDYOFMACBETHis the great


Shakespearean play of stage superstition and
uncanniness. It has always been considered by
actors to be an unlucky play. Many will refuse to
wear costumes that have appeared in productions
of it; most, once they are acclimated to the mores
of the theater world, will not mention the play's
title, or the names of any of its characters,
onstage or in the wings or dressing rooms. They
call it, instead, The Scottish Play. Its
protagonist is the Thane; his wife, the Queen.
Accidents have befallen many casts and
productions around the world since the play was
first performed:realmurders committed onstage,
fires, falling scenery.

One actress playing Lady Macbeth decided that


the sleepwalking scene would bemore realistic if
she closed her eyes; she walked straight off the
stage and fell into the orchestra pit, seriously
injuring herself.
Why should this be? Does it have anything to do
with the play Shakespeare wrote, or is it merely
anecdotal lore, extrinsic to a legitimate
consideration of the characters and the drama?
The play is about transgression and witches,
unleashed powers that have, as theatrical events
unfold, already crossed the threshold into the
supposedly safe space of the stage.

-If 'why did this have to happen?' is tragedy's


great question, why do the evil events happen in
Macbeth? As in most Shakespearian tragedies,
the sources of evil are complex.
-When we first hear of Macbeth, before we ever
meet him, he seems to be in a single state, a
state of heroismfighting, as is characteristic of
Shakespeare's tragic protagonists at the outset of
their journeys, an external war. Brave Macbeth
he is called, and the message of his heroism is
brought to the King's camp by a captain.
-The entire scene (1.2) deserves our close notice, because
in some sense it is the first real scene of the play, and it
begins with a startling question: What bloody man is
that? These are Duncan's first words, the King's first

- The bloody man in the second scene of the


play is literally a soldier, figuratively the dead
Duncan, and ultimately also Macbeth himself, in
blood / Stepped in so far, unable to wash it from
his hand.
- To Duncan this bleeding Captain arrives with his
tale of rebellion and treason. The Captain's report
tells the tale of a victory over treason, and no
sooner is it heard than Ross appears to announce
another traitor: the Thane of Cawdor. By the
scene's end this wartime traitor, whose sins are in
plain sight, will be replaced as both Thane and
treasonous subject: What he hath lost, noble
Macbeth hath won. Lostand won. Foul and
fair. We have already heard the witches speak of

-Here at the beginning of the play a new cycle


has begun. One traitorous Thane of Cawdor
replaces another. Heroism in war becomes
ambition in peace, and the King of Scotland
appoints, unwittingly, his own murderer, his own
usurper, to a place of highest trust.
-As for a tragic flaw, Macbeth is ambitious; more
interestingly, he is abnormally imaginative and
sensitive, for a murderer.
- Far from having the poker face necessary for
keeping secret murders quiet, he shows
everything in his face. 'Why do you make such
faces?' demands his wife (3.4.66). 'Your face ... is
as a book where men,/May read strange matters',
she tells him, advising him instead to 'look like
the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't'

- He imagines murdering the King and the 'horrid


image cloth unfix [his] hair / And makes [his]
seated heart knock at his: ribs'.
-Even a hideous reality disturbs him less than do
'horrible imaginings', and although the murder is
as yet only a fantasy, it shakes his psyche to the
foundations, until he can no longer distinguish
between fantasy and reality: 'nothing is / But
what is not' (1.3.134-41)
-Lady Macbeth is less imaginative and doesn't
start suffering until after the crime; but she is
fully as sensitive as Macbeth (she is the one who
relives details of the murder nightly in her
sleepwalks and sees blood on her hands forever).
The fatal combination of lack of imaginative

-Villains are normally part of the 'outside forces'


against which a hero contends; but in this tragedy
Shakespeare collapses the villain role into the
protagonist role: the Macbeths are villains-asheroes.
-Macbeth is the clearest example of a
Shakespearian departure from Aristotle's dictum
that tragedy involves unmerited misfortune, since
the Macbeths fully deserve their misery. But by
putting them in the role of tragic heroes,
Shakespeare
seems
to
invite
us
to
sympathize with them, guilty or not.
- Unlike a murder mystery, in which we see
through the eyes of the law, here we view crime
through the criminals' eyes, with a corresponding

-Though they are criminal, we can't heap all


blame on the Macbeths: outside forces are at
work as well, in forging the evil of the play. Was
murder the Macbeths' destiny?
THE WEIRD SISTERS
- Macbethbegins with witches. Before the
inception of the play proper, before the audience
is introduced to the title character or any of the
Scottish nobility or soldiery, the stage is
overtaken by creatures from another world.
- But who are these witches, as they are usually
called? Are they male? Female? Real or
imaginary? Benevolent or wicked? Are they,

-In fact, only once in the actual spoken text of the


play is one of them called a witch, and that is in
an account of an offstage momentthe rude
refusal of a sailor's wife to share her chestnuts:
Aroynt thee, witch, the rump-fed ronyon cries
(1.3.5).
Usually, however, the witches inMacbethare
called not witches but weird sisters.
- Wyrd isthe Old English word for fate, and
these are, in a way, classical witches as well as
Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns.
- The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said
to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man's
life. But theMacbethwitches are not merely
mythological beings, nor merely historical targets

on the stage, and on the page, they have a


persuasive psychological reality of their own.
-What Shakespeare did with the weird sisters was
make them into an emblematic state of mind,
the counterpart of the ambiguous and powerful
Lady Macbeth.
- Are the witches inside or outside Macbeth?
Are they part of his consciousness, prompting him
to ambition or murderor are they some external
supernatural force?
-The nature of theater does not require an
either/or answer to this question; the success of
Shakespeare's play is in producingbothof these
effects, alternately and concurrently.
-The witches are both inside and outside the

-If the witches are causative, it is not because


they tell Macbeth what to door, in fact, because
theytell himanythingbut because they allow
him to interpret things as he wants to see them.
-They are real in the sense that they are visible
and audible onstage, unlike, for example, the
dagger that he sees before him, [t]he handle
toward my hand, or the voice that cries
Macbeth shall sleep no more' (2.2.41).
-But the stage reality of the witches is clearly
coded, by the play, as of a different order. Unlike
the voice and the dagger, the witches are seen,
heard, spoken to, and vouched for by another
onstage witness, Banquo, who provides very
much the same kind of independent assurance as

- Both Horatio and Banquo play a crucial role in


establishing a link of verisimilitude with the
audience. They arein the play's terms
ordinary people like ourselves. They are the
confidants and companions of the tragic hero.
And what they confess to seeing and hearing,
we may believe as well.
- The witches' landscape, the blasted heath,
is, typically for Shakespeare, a geographical
counterpart of the characters: a wasteland,
windswept, empty, unfruitful, uninhabited,
inhuman. It is to this wasteland that Macbeth
will choose to venture after his first
accidental meeting with them on the heath.
They are a state of mind, and their heath is a

- Thus, the appearance of the witches is


structurally analogous to the other shocking
and otherworldly events at the beginning of
Hamlet:
the
appearance
of
the ghost of old Hamlet.
- Again, as there, we have a scene of darkness,
and a mysterious, inexplicable appearance, a
voice or voices that utter prophecies, while the
speakers themselves remain shrouded in mists
and mysteries. And the witches disappear, like
old Hamlet, as soon as their tantalizing and
tempting statements are made. Stay, you
imperfect speakers, cries Macbeth (1.3.68),
using imperfect in the sense of unfinished.
- The weird sisters hint, they speak in riddles,

-Banquo, who has heard that his sons will be


kings, does not immediately go off to commit
murder to fulfill the prophecy, but Macbeth does.
In fact, like all omens and portents in
Shakespeare, the witches exist to be
interpreted. They are the essence of ambiguity,
ambiguous not only in their speech but in their
gender: You should be women, / And yet your
beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so
(1.3.4345).
- It is Banquo who speaks here, and his word
interpret is a telling one. If only Macbeth had
felt similarly forbidden to interpret.
- Furthermore, they are neither wholly of the air
nor of the earth, but rather a combination of

- Most strikingly, they speak in charms, or


magic riddles, and their language is dominated
by what in the play is called equivocation:
the equivocation of the fiend, / That lies like
truth
(5.5.4142).
-The word equivocation was much in use in
the period, since it was a technical term used
to describe the mental reservation by which
Jesuits, often suspected of treason because of
their Catholic faith, could tell untruths or
partial truths under interrogation without
breaking their word to God.

-Equivocation: ambiguity, the dangerous double


meanings of language. Macbeth, we will see, is an
equivocator in all things: a man who is split in two
directions, who commits murder to become King,
and suffers every moment once he is King.
- Fair is foul, and foul is fair, say the
witches.
In
their world, nonhuman
and
antihuman, everything is equivocalliterally
double-voiced.
- And Macbeth whose mind encompasses these
witches, so that they reflect his own appetite, his
own uncensored wish fulfillmentdeclares, the
first time we see him, in his very first words, So
foul and fair a day I have not seen (1.3.36).

- So fouland fair.His mind is already in a


condition to receive the witches and their
tempting message. His echo of them is
unconscious,
but
it
is
there.
Double, double, toil and trouble, the witches
chant.
Doubleness is everywhere, and the toil of which
the witches speak is both a trouble and a snare.
As he mulls the message of the witches he has
just heard, Macbeth performs and enacts the very
equivocation he will later rue:
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good.
If ill, Why hath it given me earnest of success

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs


Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. Macbeth1.3.129141

- There's clear evidence in the play that the


Macbeths have discussed murdering the King
before Macbeth ever met the three sisters. But
the presence of these supernatural agents in
the play still suggests a complex interaction
between human agency and a malign destiny.
- The protagonists' culture, too, offers hostile
elements: it apparently valorizes violence and
ambition over more humane values.

-Between the evil gore of murder and the


'good' gore of battle described so graphically
in the opening scenes there is a very fine line:
the latter in some ways seems merely to set the
stage for the former.
- The prominence of Lady Macbeth as coprotagonist is unusual in tragedy, normally a
male-oriented genre. She joins only two other
genuinely
powerful
female
figures
in
Shakespearian tragedies (Cleopatra in Antony
and Cleopatra and Volumnia in Coriolanus), and
all three are powerful at the expense of the man
to whom they are closest, whom they help to
ruin. Like most other female tragic figures, Lady
Macbeth loses her personal power and dies

-The play's four temptressesthree witches and


Lady Macbethhave prompted many to regard
Macbeth as a misogynistic play which ascribes
evil to a female principle; but the play
destabilizes simplistic thinking about men and
women or about 'masculine' or 'feminine'
character traits.
- Macbeth himself challengesat least initially
Lady Macbeth's definition of manliness as
innately violent, ambitious, and murderous-, he
argues that gentleness and compassion are basic
human values, not flaws of the effeminate.
-She taunts him, 'When you durst do it [commit
the murder], then you were a man', and tempts
him with the prospect of becoming, if he murders
the king, 'so much more the man' (1.7.49-51); but

-Macbeth's two tragic heroes give us special


opportunities to observe what a tragic hero is like.
The Macbeths, like other tragic heroes, possess
strongly individualized characters. Lady Macbeth
displays a unique blend of murderous toughness,
delicate squeamishness, and fear of her own
tenderness.
- Macbeth possesses a complex individuality,
suffering for a deed before he even does it,
imagining actions in such vivid pictorial detail
that it often verges on hallucination, and
speaking in highly individualized, associative
speech patterns, as in his 'tomorrow, and
tomorrow, and tomorrow' soliloquy (5.5.16-27)

Macbeth
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. 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. (5.5.16-27)

- In this speech, 'tomorrow' makes Macbeth think


of 'yesterdays', which he personifies as fools
carrying candles in a tomb, which leads to a
metaphor of life as a candle, which reminds him
of a shadow, which (because of another meaning
of 'shadow') makes him think of actors, which
reminds him of storytellers, all in the space of a
very few lines, and all imagined visually, or in
terms of soundMacbeth's senses are abnormally
vigilant.
- He carries the rhetorical figure of personification
almost to the length of hallucination, so visual is
his mode of thinking:

- a man whose imagination can turn a personified


abstraction like Pity into a 'naked new-born babe'
in a storm, or a personified abstraction like
Ambition into a spurred rider vaulting onto a
horse (1.7.21-8), may sooner or later clutch at
daggers hanging in the air.
-Typically of tragedy, the Macbeths are seen more
in their private than their public character: even
in this play of political ambition, the emphasis
falls on what ambition does to the soul more than
on what it does to the state.
-We witness here the complete unravelling of two
strong personalities. Lady Macbeth, initially the
stronger partner, who pushes her husband to
action and holds him together when he keeps

-And that sensitive man Macbeth grows


brutalized, hardened almost beyond recognition.
The man who once stared aghast at his murdered
king's blood upon his hands now confesses he
has 'almost forgot the taste of fears' (5.5.9).
- His senses, once honed (sharpened) to a razor
edge, are now so dulled he can barely respond
when he hears women shrieking in the castle:
The time has been my senses would have
cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hail
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in't. (5.5.10-13)

-But now horror is merely 'familiar' amidst his


'slaughterous thoughts'. He can hardly even
respond when he learns that the women are
crying at the death of his wife: 'She should have
died hereafter. / There would have been a time for
such a word' (5.5.16-17).
- The horror of their own deeds which destroys
their individual personalities also destroys their
marriage. The Macbeths, ironically one of the
most close-knit of Shakespeare's married couples
as the play begins, find that one of crime's
lessons is that partners can't stay together in it.
-Macbeth doesn't tell Lady Macbeth about his
plan to murder Banquo and Fleance: 'Be innocent
of the knowledge, dearest chuck, / Till thou

-Nor does he consult her on his barbaric plan to exterminate


Macduff's wife, children, and servants; we are left to infer that
she identifies with this poor murdered wife, as she murmurs in
her sleep, 'The thane of Fife had a wife. Where is she now?'
(5.1.36-7).
- In comedies, and in plays by some of Shakespeare's
contemporaries, dramatic characters do not change gradually
either they are relatively static in their behaviour, or they
undergo instantaneous character reversals such as Duke
Ferdinand's religious conversion in As You Like It.
-One of the hallmarks of Shakespearian tragedy is that
characters change over time, in believably gradual
modulations.
-Sometimes they grow, as King Lear grows from a petulant,
egomaniacal old tyrant into a humane man who worries about

the poor and whose gaze has turned outward: he dies not
justifying himself, but thinking only of Cordelia.
-Sometimes they shrink, as Othello dwindles from a
magnificent, heroic, self-possessed general into a cramped,
suspicious wife-abuser, shrivelled of soul. The Macbeths are
among those who shrink.
- Like other tragic heroes, the Macbeths suffer from isolation:
each is left alone at the moment of greatest agony. The crime
alienates the Macbeths from each other, and from the very
society they had sought the honour of leading.
- Before this happens, the two spouses together form a
complex whole, so in tune with each other (in early scenes)
that they echo each other's words and thoughts even when they
are apart.

- Lady Macbeth in soliloquy,planning Duncan's


murder, invokes night so that she will figuratively
not have to see what she is doing: Come, thick
night .. .
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,/
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark.
(1.5.48-51)

-Macbeth in soliloquy, planning Banquo's murder,


invokes night for exactly the same reason: 'Come,
reeling night,/ Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful
day' (3.2.47-8).
-These wishes are uttered in soliloquyit is
themselves the Macbeths are trying to blind. To
render their evil intentions relatively invisible to
themselves, both use euphemisms to avoid

- Even 'business' and 'deed', though having a


much higher invisibility quotient than 'murder',
are still nouns, and the Macbeths prefer
pronouns, as in the oft-repeated 'do it', or 'he is
about it' (2.2.4)the latter, uttered by Lady
Macbeth at the moment Macbeth is killing
Duncan, causes 'Macbeth' to disappear into 'he'
as well as 'murder' into 'it'; the victim disappears
entirely.
- Often a pronoun's antecedent is unspecified, as
in Lady Macbeth's opening soliloquy, which
begins Act One, Scene Five. Tellingly for their
close relationship, she begins by speaking in
Macbeth's voice, reading aloud a letter from him:
'They met me in the day of success, and I have

- Here the weird sisters' identity disappears into


two 'they's' and a 'them' (Macbeth has never
asked their names, anyway).
-As Lady Macbeth's soliloquy begins in medias res
(in the middle of events or a narrative), Macbeth
two scenes later begins a closely analogous
soliloquy in mid-meditation; like hers, it features a
pronoun whose antecedent noun has been
suppressed: 'If it were done when 'tis done, then
'twere well / It were done quickly' (1.7.1-2).
-Here again the pronoun 'it' replaces the noun
'murder', and even 'it' is contracted to "t' in "tis'
and "twere', diminishing the crime almost to
invisibility (that tiny 't') or inaudibility.

- The witches parody the Macbeths' grammar of


invisibility, their terror of naming, when Macbeth
visits them to demand 'How now, you secret,
black, and midnight hags, / What is't you do?'
- Flinging his weasle-verb 'do' and his
miniaturized ''t' in his face, they reply in Macbethspeak: 'A deed without a name' (4.1.64-5).
-In this context, it is fitting that actors'
superstitions have preserved for this play the fear
of naming something frightful: it is supposedly
bad luck, even now, to refer to 'the Scottish play'
by its true title.

-The Macbeths talk uncannily alike, even when


apart. Writing at the height of his creative
powers, Shakespeare creates speech patterns
perfectly expressive of character and situation. In
the Macbeths' language of evasion, we find two
people determined not to look squarely at what
they are doing.
-Unlike King Lear, whose characters are forced to
'see better' as the tragedy progresses (1.1.58),
Macbeth gives us protagonists who start out
seeing the situation and themselves pretty
clearly: 'I am his kinsman and his subject, /
Strong both against the deed-, then, as his host, /
Who should against his murderer shut the door, /
Not bear the knife myself' (1.7.13-16), Macbeth

-But they know their own sensitivity well enough


to realize that to go through with their ruthless
drive for power, they must commit murders with
averted face: 'Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light
see my black and deep desires; / The eye wink at
the hand; yet let that be / Which the eye fears,
when it is done, to see' (1.4.50-3).
-'To know my deed', Macbeth acknowledges,
"twere best not know myself' (2.2.71).
-Their shared language of euphemism and
evasion expresses this situation, but it also
reminds us how close they are to each other, how
perfectly in tune their two minds are. A couple
who can accurately read each other's suppressed
nouns is a very intimate couple.

- The tragic waste of the play lies not only in their


deaths, nor even in the probable loss of their
immortal souls, but also in the destruction of a
marriage, in the tragic estrangement of two lost
souls who have loved each other.