Last week I started a 10 week course on Shakespeare. I’ve read a little Shakespeare in high school, I even had to memorize lines for the Second Witch of Macbeth and recite them for the class, probably overdoing it a bit with a hump and spitting out the infamous:
“Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
But in high school, my critical reading abilities were superficial at best. (This was back when I thought a good analysis of The Great Gatsby was: “He wasn’t that great and his name wasn’t Gatsby! Mic drop.)
We've been studying Macbeth this week and I've begun to look into the themes of gender and tyranny. I have just scratched the surface in my research and so what follows is kind of scatter-shot of ideas.
One of the things I find peculiar is how despite the fact that Macbeth is a tyrant, he seems so relatable. Harold Bloom, in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations, describes him as: “a villain, indeed a monster of murderousness far surpassing the others.” (Bloom 1) And yet…assigning him culpability isn’t as simple as it should be.
In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that a tragic hero must be neither villainous nor virtuous but exist as a "character between these two extremes ...a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty." The witches, through their equivocations, create the potential for an error. There was no reason to think that the kingship would not fall into place as easily as the Thaneship of Cawdor. And as Steven Greenblatt mentioned in his introduction to Macbeth: "Virtually everyone is subject to terrible dreams and lawless fantasies...but not everyone crosses the fatal line from criminal desire to criminal act. “ (Greenblatt 2712)
Macbeth, unlike Richard III, for example, is incredibly introspective, and we witness him wrestling through what these vague auguries could mean.
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why 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? 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 smothers in surmise
And nothing is but what is not.
I would argue that the emphasis in the above passage isn’t that he has contemplated murder, but rather that he has begun to fracture, and with his new identity as Thane of Cawdor, he has been dressed not only in "borrowed robes" (1.3.108) but also in the subsequent cowardice and treachery of his predecessor.
The imagery of ill fitting clothing permeates the text and illustrates the idea that Macbeth is playacting a role that is not the right fit. The description paints a picture of a “small man enveloped in a coat too big for him” (5.2.15) while “his honors fit ill upon him like a loose and badly fitting garment belonging to someone else,” (1.3.144)
Caroline Spurgeon argues in Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us that this clothing imagery gives us a portrait of “a small ignoble man encumbered and degraded by garments unsuited to him.” (Spurgeon 326)
While Macbeth seems almost like a victim of fate, Lady Macbeth seems to be the most evil/culpable. We see no wrestling or moral oscillating, she is instantly in a place of "direst cruelty.” (1.5.41)
Come, you Spirits
That tend on mortal thought, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
That no compunctions visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
The ‘effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the funnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, “Hold, hold!”
Perhaps, in a play thematically wrestling with succession and sterility the one successful embryonic growth would be one of ambition. In a gender reversal, Macbeth is the one, “unsexed” with the seed of ambition in need of fertilization. Can we read Lady Macbeth’s incantation as a type of insemination?
Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.
Instead of the liquid of men, Lady Macbeth ‘pours’ her ‘spirits’ in his ear. And the place of implantation rather than a womb, is the mind, which will soon bring forth a brood of scorpions. (3.2.35) In any case, what we witness throughout the play is the birth of a tyrant, a birth in exchange for moral sterility. He personally murders King Duncan. He has Banquo, his closest friend and ally murdered. He has Lady Macduff and the children murdered. He has spies planted in all the castles listening for treachery..he has become a suspicious malevolent monster within a few acts, drowning in a solipsistic world where he exists as the “be all end all."
And yet…why doesn’t this seem so appalling? Have tyrants lost the ability to shock us? All of this brings questions of tyranny to the forefront and in need of a good exploration.
Here’s a quote from Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics:
“The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne?
Such a disaster, Shakespeare suggested, could not happen without widespread complicity. His plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest. Why would anyone, he asked himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving, or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?” (Greenblatt 2)
Despite feeling eerily familiar…these are all good questions to ask.
Obviously Macbeth is propelled on in some way by the witches and Lady Macbeth…but where is everyone else? How is villainy allowed to metastasize in a vacuum?
When Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches on the heath, Macbeth seems to be the picture of ambivalence. He is described as “brave Macbeth- for well he deserves that name-/Disdaining fortune with his brandished steel.” (1.2.16-17)
Macbeth as a soldier seems to have no algorithm for dealing with these weird sisters. Within their initial encounter Banquo is given descriptive lines, observing the choppy fingers and the beards, while Macbeth three times asks for verbal clarification:
Speak, if you can. What are you?
Stay you imperfect speakers tell me more.
Speak I charge you.
It seems when confronted with the immaterial, Macbeth takes a tactical pause, he needs more information to proceed. But after the news of Cawdor, he switches into a tactical analysis: Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind. Thanks for your pains. (1.3.19)
Banquo, after observation, seems to have determined on the explanation of insanity. His ‘prophecy’ makes no concrete sense and as such there is no tactical way to implement it. It seems throughout the exchange he has observed more closely an otherworldly realm beyond the corporal, observing:
But ’tis strange,
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.
And perhaps this is the problem: we fail to see the fractures and insecurities within our heroes. We miss the fragility hidden behind their armor and battle scars. How could this man of valor, this man who “disdains fortune” transform into a murdering tyrant? It’s implausibility creates a vision problem for those closest to the would be tyrant. Since Banquo doesn’t see the impending doom strobe lighting before him, he does nothing to fight against it. Granted, the window of opportunity is rather small…but there is a window.
Again Greenblatt suggests: “The tyrant, Macbeth and other plays suggest, is driven by a range of sexual anxieties: a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence, a nagging apprehension that he will not be found sufficiently attractive or powerful, a fear of failure. Hence the penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny, and the explosive violence. Hence too, the vulnerability to taunts, especially those bearing latent or explicit sexual charge.” (Greenblatt 99)
Again, fighting alongside this heroic warrior, watching him “unseem” his enemies from the “nave to the chops,” (1.2.22) how would you possibly expect a little sexual taunting to drive him to the point of regicide? Lady Macbeth says: “If you be a man” in a handful of offensive ways. Is his manhood really so at stake? The manhood of a warrior? And yet it seems as if it is.
With the suspicious and seemingly too convenient murder of King Duncan, Banquo has a choice. He could confront Macbeth..who already seems to be laying it on a little thick…or he can go along and pretend that everything is as it seems. Macbeth murders the soldiers on guard duty, the scape-goated perpetrators of the crime, in a fit of patriotic rage and passion, subsequently tying up all the loose ends. And Banquo does nothing. As Macbeth is crowned King, Banquo, whether out of cowardice or loyalty chooses to step into the imaginative world held together by the centripetal force of Macbeth’s villainy.
“Tyrannical power is more easily exercised when it appears that the old order continues to exist. The reassuring consensual structures may now be hollowed out and merely decorative, but they are all still in place, so that the bystanders, who crave psychological security and a sense of well-being, can persuade themselves that the rule of law is being upheld.” (Greenblatt 100)
This seems to be a necessary reminder to choose to see our leaders, to choose to look critically even when we’re afraid of what we might find.
All quotes from Macbeth from The Norton Shakespeare, 3rd edition, 2016.