Apart from The Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, a tragedy of errors, is the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays. At only 2,107 lines it is barely half the length of Hamlet, with which it is often compared. The date of its composition is not certain, but several clues within the text suggest strongly that it was first performed in 1606, shortly after the notorious Gunpowder Plot in November of the previous year. The discussion of “equivocation” in the play would seem to be an allusion to the trial of the Jesuit, Henry Garnet, who was executed in May 1606 for his alleged complicity in the plot. In the same month, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna was fined as a Catholic recusant. It is, therefore, against this gloom-laden and doom-driven backdrop of intensified persecution that Shakespeare wrote this darkest of plays.
Considering that the latest wave of anti-Catholic persecution had been ushered in by the new Scottish king, James I, it is significant that Shakespeare should choose to write a play about a wicked Scottish king at this very time. Furthermore, although Macbeth is a real historical figure, it is surely more than mere coincidence that Mac-Beth means “son of Beth,” a barely concealed suggestion that James is continuing in the tyrannous tradition of his predecessor, Elizabeth I. Considering that Elizabeth had ordered the execution of James’ mother, Mary Stuart, the connection was a stroke of satirical genius on Shakespeare’s part.
Another stroke of satirical brilliance is provided by Shakespeare’s contrasting of the wicked Scottish king, Macbeth, with his great English contemporary and counterpart, St. Edward the Confessor. In doing so, he was highlighting the difference between the Machiavellian anti-Catholicism of contemporary England and the virtuous Catholic kings of the “merrie” English past.
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Having set the scene in which the playwright settles down to write, let’s examine the gloomy fruits of his muse.
The objective presence of the supernatural is established from the outset with the entry of the three witches. These malevolent forces are not the figment of someone else’s imagination because there is nobody else present to witness them. They are alone, and therefore they stand alone, utterly independent. We are in the real presence of evil, an evil that really exists whether we like it or not and not an evil which is merely the product of our fetid fetishes or our fevered imaginations. In its formal structure, therefore, Macbeth places us unequivocally in a supernatural cosmos, rendering implausible all materialistic interpretations of the play’s intrinsic meaning. In consequence, we can see that Macbeth is not merely serving himself in his self-serving ambition; he is serving the devil.
The presence of objectively verifiable supernatural power at the beginning of the play parallels the beginning of Hamlet and, in truth, the two plays complement each other, the one being the inversion of the other. Hamlet begins in despondency but, assisted by the benign presence of the honest Ghost who exposes the crimes of regicide, fratricide, and adultery, he grows in wisdom and forbearance until, quoting the Gospel, he is willing to lay down his life for his friends and countrymen, exorcising the “something rotten” in Denmark.
Macbeth begins in glory, being lauded and lionized for his valour in battle. But, succumbing to the malevolent presence of deceptive satanic power, he loses all sense of goodness and truth, until, forsaking the Gospel and embracing suicidal nihilism, he is willing to lay down the lives of his friends and countrymen on the altar erected to his own ambition. In the end, only his own death can exorcize the “something rotten” in Scotland.
There are other parallels between the two plays. Lady Macbeth’s desire to “pour [her] spirits” into her husband’s ear, poisoning him with words that justify her own murderous lust for power, echoes Claudius’ pouring of physical poison into the ear of Hamlet’s father, his murderous modus operandi serving as a metaphor for the way that he and other characters pour the poison of deceptive words into the ears of others. Similarly, Macbeth’s confession to himself that the diabolical plot that he has hatched with his wife merits that “our poison’d chalice” be placed “to our own lips” reminds us of the fate of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius in Hamlet.
As pride takes pride of place on the throne of Macbeth’s soul, he finds himself increasingly trapped in the narrow and narrowing confines of his own head, the self-centered god of his own contracted and constricted cosmos. As he speaks to himself in secret, divorcing himself from others, his subjective perception supersedes objective reality. His decay is, therefore, as much a decay of philosophy as it is a decay of morality. The more he thinks of himself, the less he thinks of others, and the less he thinks of others, the less he thinks of the Other, which is the truth that transcends the self.
He begins to lose his sense of reality. Sin smothers reason so that the normal function of a man’s mind, which is to seek and find the truth, is “smothered in surmise” until “nothing is but what is not.” Thus, Macbeth’s nihilism, which will come to bitter and futile fruition in the final act with his dismissal of life as “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing,” is seen to have its roots in the play’s opening act with his turning away from fides et ratio toward infidelity and irrationality.
Macbeth is thus revealed as the anti-Hamlet. Whereas Hamlet begins in the Slough of Despond, temperamentally tempted to despair, he grows in virtue throughout the play until he reaches the ripeness of Christian conversion and the readiness to accept his own death as part of God’s benign Providence: “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow…. The readiness is all.”
Whereas Hamlet ends by defying “augury,” Macbeth ends by defying everything except “augury.” Hamlet grows in faith because he grows in reason; Macbeth loses his faith because he loses his reason.
Like Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Hamlet never loses sight of the distinction between the essence of things and their accidental qualities. He concerns himself with definitions, with the meaning of things, and with the distinction between those things that essentially are and those that only seem to be. “Seems, madam?” says Hamlet to his mother. “Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” Hamlet does not make Macbeth’s fatal mistake of allowing himself to become “smothered in surmise,” nor does he succumb to Macbeth’s irrational despair of believing that life signifies nothing.
Hamlet knows that life is about what things mean, not what they seem, and that the secret of life is learning to discover the difference between the two. Whereas Hamlet knows that life is the quest for the definite amid the clouds of unknowing, Macbeth loses his head and soul in the unknowing clouds of his own sin-deceived ego. Far from seeing life as a quest, Macbeth is left with nothing but his own bitter inquest on life, “signifying nothing.”
This is the “deepest consequence” of Macbeth’s rejection of faith and reason. In losing sight of the significance of others, or the Other, he loses sight of the significance of everything else. In choosing himself above others, he is not even left with himself. He loses everything, even his own soul. He is left with the “nothing” which is nothing else but the real absence of the good that he has rejected.
Editor’s Note: This is the nineteenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image: “Macbeth and the Witches” by George Romney]