Thursday, April 12, 2007

Week 11, Macbeth

Act-by-Act Notes on Macbeth (Will expand as time permits)

Act 1


On Shakespeare’s borrowing from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, as usual the poet plays fast and loose with his material—Duncan and Macbeth’s two reigns stretched from 1034-57, but there’s a lot of conflation when it comes to fighting against rebels and so forth. The idea of Macbeth’s being set on to the murder by his wife comes from the story of an earlier Scottish king, Duff, who was murdered by Donwald—that’s where the business of killing the chamberlains and blaming them comes from, for instance. Banquo is a very bad fellow from the outset in Holinshed, and Duncan isn’t a weak young man but a hallowed elder in the play. Some of the references to witches can be found in Holinshed—there had better be some witches, since the Scottish-born James I liked the subject of witchcraft and even wrote a book on it, entitled Daemonology. He also traced his ancestry back to Banquo and Fleance. This play speaks to James’ predilections.

Coleridge says that the value of Shakespeare’s supernaturalism is to set the excited, high-dramatic tone right away, to prepare us for Macbeth’s central deed in Act 2. He contrasts this movement with Hamlet, which starts out conversationally and moves to high rhetoric. Macbeth is among Shakespeare’s shortest, quickest-paced plays, even though it is very mature work. I chose it because of its sophistication in imagery and verse style. It’s mostly action, and not a lot of verbiage. I’ve heard that hypnotism only works because people secretly want to do the things they are supposedly commanded to do. That sounds like the correct way to describe the relationship between Macbeth and the Weird Sisters and “the dagger of the mind.” They can suggest and persuade, but they can’t make his decisions for him. The witches tell him he is Thane of Cawdor, but becoming king is contingent—Macbeth must do something to take that title. It’s up to him, and he must make a moral (or rather immoral) choice.

The supernatural is not just a prop, however—Shakespeare is, to use Coleridge’s term, an imaginative rather than simply a fanciful poet. I think we are to understand the Weird Sisters and so forth to be real, and the stage directions suggest as much. They aren’t solely a metaphor for states of mind. A poet who does more with traditional beliefs and images than put them together mechanically is imaginative—that is, he will, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge, “balance and reconcile opposite and discordant qualities,” as here Macbeth’s ambition is real, and the supernatural forces are equally real, neither canceling out the other: they correspond in a deeply meaningful way.

As for the play’s politics, I can’t see how Stephen Orgel’s comments (I used a different edition than we have in E432) can be correct given that the play was aimed at James. Why would Shakespeare deal with kingship in an almost nihilistic manner when he wanted an absolutist monarch to enjoy the play? The older, and probably more sensible, view of the play’s moral arc is that sin punishes itself inexorably, even if the interval between commission and punishment is sometimes longer than most of us would like. Macbeth makes a bad but entirely free choice, and from that point onwards his bad choice entraps him in a vicious fate. He marches in linear fashion to his death, behaving like a beast (loses his title to humanity), and dies fighting. Free will, misused, becomes the slave of fate. As Wilde said, when we act we become puppets—Shakespeare might add, “well, only when we act badly.”

Shakespeare’s plays have various ways of dealing with the consequences of tragic mistakes, with respect to the ability to act. King Lear, for example, gains insight at the expense of being able to wield power. By the end of the play, he and his daughter Cordelia are entirely at the mercy of others, so even if they have become “God’s spies,” they can’t act in the political realm anymore. But even that kind of awful insight doesn’t take down the concept of monarchy—rebellious moderns are always trying to make Shakespeare out to be a radical. He wasn’t, so far as I can tell from his plays—he held an interest in agricultural concerns around Stratford . Shakespeare was a bourgeois gentleman, loyal enough first to Elizabeth I and then to James I. He even bought a coat of arms for his father, who had always wanted one. In much the same way, the historian Christopher Hill was always making John Milton out to be a Leveler or anarchist. Milton was pro-regicide, but no Leveler. No, Macbeth follows a different pattern—once he makes his choice, he must take on the ruthlessness of the tyrant who holds his throne by injustice. Blood draws on blood until, as Macbeth says, there’s just no point in going back. He does plenty of bold things, and dies fighting. But such desperation hardly makes him a hero. Instead, he’s the puppet of actions that stem from his own perverted will.

Coleridge says the play is “pure tragedy” rather than reflective as Hamlet. Whether or not Macbeth is much of a philosopher, his language comes directly from an agonized heart. I think he spends some quality time musing about the predicament into which his own actions have put him.

Act 2


Macbeth’s initial reaction to his bloody act is one of horror: “Macbeth does murder sleep,” etc. He even has a touch of Lady Macbeth’s disease: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” Lady Macbeth has to grab the daggers from him. She’s the “man” at this point; she has been “unsexed” just as she had asked.

The Drunken Porter scene links well with the revelation of the crime. What’s the point of the Porter scene? Partly it provide comic relief after the murder and initial reaction on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Partly it’s to heighten the tension of the next scene, in which the crime meets the light of day and Macbeth has some explaining to do. But the Porter also teaches a lesson about “desire.” Ambition is like drunkenness? At first it seems like the contrast is greater since drink “provokes desire” but “takes away performance.” Macbeth the ambitious man doesn’t have much trouble acting on his ambition. But at a deeper level, he does run into trouble because he no longer controls his destiny. He “unmans” himself and becomes a violent fool; his boldest deeds are in truth passive reactions to necessity. Ultimately, then, ambition is a kind of madness, and it makes us lose free will and self-respect. We become impotent, even as we hack our way through the kingship we have wrongly won. “Seeming” is not “being,” as Sir Thomas Wyatt would remind us. The other thing about the Porter’s interruption is that it widens the frame from the selfish little circle of Macbeth and his wicked wife. The foolish old Porter couldn’t care less about the goings on at the Castle. He has his own desires, his own problems, his own wisdom. This is a variation on the strategy we find in Lear, where the King is seldom left alone with his thoughts—at least not for long. Shakespeare wants us carry us along with Macbeth’s story, but not to let us merge our identity with that of the protagonist. Drama is above all a transpersonal form of poetic art—it stages and allows for the development of great personalities, but it doesn’t let them swallow up the stage. Shakespeare is interested to show how people respond to one another, how human behavior turns upon triangulations of desire and other basic elements of our nature. We don’t get Satan’s claim that “the mind is its own place” but rather Donne’s statement that “no man is an island, entire unto himself.”

Finally, we should consider Malcolm and Donalbain. Malcolm is inexperienced, but he’s a Machiavellian in the making: there’s no way he’s going to get out of this alive unless he heads for England . He would be “the usual suspect,” and obviously, since he isn’t the murderer, he knows somebody has a powerful interest in making him out to be the murderer.

Act 3


The Polanski film version handles the transformation of Macbeth from loyal thane into murderous fiend quite well—abruptly. The play deals with the relationship between spiritual error and its material consequences. Power hates a vacuum, and Macbeth must fill up the vacuum forthwith, and become a Machiavellian. So we see a transition from the initially pensive or hesitant Macbeth to “Macbeth 2.0,” who is resolute and ruthless, a man willing to betray and strike down anyone who threatens him, or even seems to threaten him. His busy wickedness is the flip side of acedia or apathy, nothing better. The version starring Ian McKellen handles the transition with equal adroitness.

Some of the delight in this play is probably that it seems so simple. Children seem to love it for that reason, even aside from the supernatural trappings. The plot is straightforward: a nobleman achieves the throne by dishonest means, and then must follow the path of sin dictated by his need to retain power. So is the moral lesson—in Aristotelian terms, we might say that the intelligible pattern revealed or unfolded by the arrangement of incidents is the one I’ve already identified: sin is its own punishment. Neither would Shakespeare be concerned about any claims that the play isn’t very “original”—the most interesting plot-stuff (the witches’ prophecies, the moving forest, and so forth) comes straight from Holinshed’s Chronicles on Scotland . It’s tempting to fancy that Shakespeare made all that material up, but he was a busy working dramatist, and he was apparently glad to take his stories and incidents from material that was already at hand.

Some interest lies in the way Shakespeare handles the relationship between actions and rhetoric—both the words used to convince others, and the words spoken by Macbeth to explain his situation to himself. I think, however, that much of Act 3 is taken up with the immediate consequences—with the need, most of all, to gain a greater degree of security in the wake of Duncan ’s murder. That means Banquo and Fleance must go, and a couple of low-lifers with grievances must be rustled up to take care of the bloody business. Macbeth begins to suffer from evil dreams, and knows now that he must keep up a constant state of appearing to be something he isn’t: the face must become a “vizard” (46) to the heart.

Scene 4 is where Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet, taking Macbeth’s place of honor. Others see only a fit of madness that unmans the King. They don’t even know that Banquo is dead—only that he’s missing from the table. This scene directly undoes Macbeth’s attempt to play the smooth Machiavel—his behavior profoundly unsettles everyone around him; even his wife. But when he recovers, he determines to find out the worst to come by the worst means. There’s no need to hold back since he’s already deep in blood, and deeply haunted by the dark forces to which he has succumbed. Not only that, he must now act so quickly that there’s no time left to analyze beforehand. (55-56)

Act 4


When Macbeth goes to the sisters, he gets three visions that tell him to beware Macduff, that no man of woman born can harm him, and that only when Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill will he be defeated. The first two of these prophecies actually reinforce each other, as we later find out. And of course there’s the image of Banquo and his issue reigning forever in that magic mirror. Repetition is perhaps the most savage part of how sin punishes itself. This is a traditional idea: you can find it everywhere, not just in Augustine’s Confessions but in Dante, Milton, Hopkins—just about any Christian literary artist.

The third scene is where Malcolm rather oddly confesses to Macduff what an incredibly awful villain he is—we are told that next to him, Macbeth is an Angel. But this claim is ridiculous—in Holinshed, Malcolm does this only to test Macduff; here it’s made out as if he himself actually believes what he’s saying. Why so? Is it that he’s showing the proper use of speculation—to shore up one’s sense of virtue by means of rhetoric?

On page 82, Malcolm again shows his inexperience—he’s a young man filled with valorous words. As Macduff says, “he has no children,” and can’t feel the loss of them as a man should.

Act 5


The issue of repetition leads us to Lady Macbeth’s handwashing compulsion: the physical manifestation of a psychic derangement. She can’t expunge her guilt, which shows up as imaginary blood stains on her hands. What affects her in the private sphere and in purely mental terms plays out for Macbeth in the broader public sphere that makes up his life’s course. Battles and machinations are his business, but the whole thing comes down to violent betrayal.

As for Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, Macbeth and we aren’t witnessing a violation of the laws of nature—Malcolm has simply ordered that some trees be cut down and used as cover. Nature seems bizarre and uncanny to Macbeth because he himself has become profoundly unnatural. But this apparent “weirdness” in the behavior of nature serves as a way of giving him his desserts—he has betrayed his natural lord (his “father” in Jacobean political theory) and turned his marriage bond into a criminal partnership. In broad terms, the deployment of natural objects to pay Macbeth back stems from the fact that Shakespeare is working within a Christian framework where sin has deranged the entire Creation, just as it will later in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve “pluck’d, she ate, / Earth felt the wound. Nature responds as by sympathetic magic to human error, reflects it back to us if we know how to interpret it.

Finally, what about the issue of how words relate to action? Act 5 is a good place to consider that relationship. Line 88 offers what appears to be in effect a soliloquy (are the attendants standing around?), and its language is very fine: “I have lived long enough. My way of life…” The same goes for Macbeth’s analysis of his wife’s illness: “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased” (89)? And then again when he is told of her death, at 92. The play doesn’t offer us the details—the Polanski film adds the idea that she has jumped to her death. But there’s no time to dwell on the matter. Immediately thereafter the news arrives that Birnam Wood is on the move, and the final swordplay comes on rapidly, too. The Polanski film version differs here—Macbeth actually has the chance to kill Macduff and doesn’t; in the play he at first says he would rather not fight with him.

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