In ourGuide to the classicsIn the series, experts explain important works of literature.
Macbeth warns: The greatest danger to the inner life comes from the illusion that it does not exist.
"A little water cleanses us from this deed," says Lady Macbeth, thinking that the right appearance will make her right. But in doing so she betrays her inner life.
In a world where existence increasingly seems to equal self-expression, it is an example of the mistake we make when we consider the visible surface of public and social media as the place where reality unfolds, the place where we see what we are. .
Macbeth, like most of Shakespeare's plays, sets two worlds in motion: one of outer action and one of inner being. The collision of their trajectories provides the spark for the drama. The themes in Macbeth's outer world of action are violence and betrayal. The overlapping themes in his inner world are ambition and moral thinking.
By examining what holds society together and what tears it apart, the play not only condemns violence, it dramatizes its use. The play depicts both loyal and insidious violence.
In Act I, Scene One, a soldier reports that Macbeth, a Scottish general, showed bravery on the battlefield, "baring" his rebel opponent Macdonald "from ship to ass". That means he cut it in half.
Macbeth does this in loyal service to King Duncan, and usually arrives on stage spattered with blood, both his victims' and his own - blood lost in the service of his king. The military campaign serves to suppress domestic rebellions. Among the rebels is the "disloyal traitor", the Thane of Cawdor, whose title Duncan bestows on Macbeth, and who orders the execution of the traitorous clan chief.
So Macbeth's first promotion is achieved through the sanctioned violence of killing traitors. There is a fragile moment at the beginning of the play when the violence seems to have restored order.
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Macbeth's second promotion is also achieved through violence, but this time through deliberate betrayal. The witches on the moor hail him as Thane of Glamis, which he is, Thane of Cawdor, as we know from Duncan's command to be, and "King in the Hereafter".
This sets the spark to the powder keg of Macbeth's ambition. Violence is part of his repertoire and he only needs to go one step further to fulfill her prophecy.
The thought of killing the king, a thought "whose assassination is nothing short of fantastic," immediately crosses his mind. And when he arrives back at his castle, his wife, Lady Macbeth, urges him to "find the nearest way to the fulfillment of the prophecy" by stabbing King Duncan as he sleeps in their home.
Here one of the inner questions arises: who is morally responsible for what Macbeth does? Do the witches have power over him? As the architect of regicide, does Lady Macbeth bear the same guilt as Macbeth?
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External and internal dimensions
The development of her murderous plot is dramatized by Shakespeare as having external and internal dimensions. The physical world is presented as instantly destroyed by their violent action. Even before Duncan's murder is revealed, Lennox speaks of the troubled night that has passed: the chimneys have burst, strange howls and death cries have been heard in the air, and the earth has trembled and trembled.
There is dramatic irony in Macbeth's response to this poetic description of cosmic suffering: "It was a hard night."
Society is also fragmented. Duncan's sons flee Scotland. When Macbeth is crowned, there is a paranoid crisis atmosphere.
But the betrayal also resonates within, and Shakespeare constantly reminds the audience of the inner dimension. The image of a man split in two in Act 1 is a powerful symbol of the self-inflicted destruction of the Macbeth family.
Macbeth's spiritual order begins to collapse when he murders his king. With the bloody daggers in his hands, he runs out of the king's chamber and says that he heard a voice shouting: "Sleep no more!" Macbeth sleeps in the murder case.
Lady Macbeth seems to have retained her practical mindset for a while. She says, "A little water cleanses us from this deed." But this is another moment of dramatic irony. Their moral delusions are obvious.
It seems that Macbeth, with his auditory and ocular hallucinations, has the clearer moral vision. Inevitably, her sleeping mind comes into conflict with her waking consciousness: “Damn it!” She can't help but notice the blood on her hands.
The Macbeths did not foresee that their inner workings - their spirit and their functional connection with the world - would be destroyed by their outer actions. It is remarkable that these mental, physical and spiritual breakdowns are presented from the point of view of those affected.
Before killing the king, Macbeth gives a speech about ambition and shows that he has the moral judgment to avoid crime. He says he has "no incentive to thwart his intentions" and uses the metaphor of riding a horse to express that there is nothing about Duncan that would compel him to commit murder.
Macbeth, realizing that he "has but leaping ambitions," leaps over himself and falls on the other side. He foresees the disaster, but kills the king anyway.
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The twists and turns of moral thinking
Why does Shakespeare contain such contradictions?
Shakespeare understood that watching a character make or break an inner decision is fascinating. Much is at stake in Macbeth: An innocent life and the peace of a kingdom are at stake. The tension is non-stop. Lady Macbeth enters and interrupts Macbeth's musings on ambition. He has just decided not to commit the murder, and she persuades him to get involved again.
The play dramatizes the twists and turns of moral thought and the pressure of emotional compulsion on the conscience. Macbeth is wise and compassionate one moment and preparing to kill his friend the next. This challenges our tendency to see the world in black and white, populated by good and bad people.
All of Macbeth's themes—violence, betrayal, moral reasoning, conscience, and ambition—were barely on the surface of public consciousness in Shakespeare's time.
Ever since Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England in 1534, religious opposition has characterized the country's political landscape. This affected people's everyday lives and challenged their deepest inner beliefs. In 1557 you could be burned as a heretic for being a Protestant; In 1567 you could be burned as a heretic for being Catholic.
To be able to see the soul in motion, as Shakespeare enables his audience to do, was a fantasy that interrogators of both Catholic and Protestant persuasions would have appreciated.
When Shakespeare wrote "Macbeth" he was a member of the "King's Men" - a theater company directly led by a new king - James the First of England and the Sixth (you guessed it) of Scotland. What can we learn from Shakespeare writing a Scottish play for a Scottish king who is also the head of his respective business enterprise? He had to be very careful.
Shakespeare took a wise course. On the surface, his play appears somewhat topical and politically correct, but in essence it complicates the moral issues of the time.
The first thing to realize about this is that James was into the occult. In 1597 James had published a book entitleddemonologistto prove and condemn witchcraft. He had it republished in 1603, when he became King of England.
Shakespeare seems to indulge this obsession when he involves witches in his play discussing spells and making prophetic predictions.
Note, however, that Shakespeare leaves the question of their moral guilt unanswered. We wonder if King James was pleased or concerned that the supernatural element of the play explains very little about the actions of his characters. Shakespeare presents the Macbeths' lust for power as an entirely appropriate motivation for their criminal activities.
The other thing to keep in mind isthe weapons power plan. When Macbeth was first performed in 1606, England was shaken by the discovery of a nearly successful plot to blow up Parliament. If successful, the attempt would have killed the king and a large part of the country's ruling class and triggered catastrophic popular unrest.
Read more:The Gunpowder Plot: Torture and Persecution in Fact and Fiction
Gunpowder, treason and conspiracy
On November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested. A tip letter to a Member of Parliament had led to the discovery of a stash of gunpowder barrels in a basement under Parliament. Under torture, Fawkes revealed the names of his Catholic conspirators.
The revelation of the conspiracy was presented as a key moment in the Protestant nation's victory against its Catholic traitors at home, and led to increased persecution of Catholics throughout Europe.
The adage "don't waste a crisis" seems to have been heeded by James. In its own moment, the event became a black-and-white moral fable, in which treachery was eradicated and punished with violence. The traitors were tortured and publicly executed. Their bodies were literally quartered.
How did Shakespeare's play, which premiered in 1606, deal with the gunpowder plot and the cruel punishment of its perpetrators?
On the surface, Shakespeare benefited from the way the Gunpowder Plot had shocked the people of London.Firecrackers or "squibs" were used as special effects at the beginning of the playfor the "Thunder and Lightning" required in the script. One can easily imagine the first audience fuming with fear and then telling their friends to go to the next spectacular performance.
With the invention of witches, Shakespeare also depicts ambiguous, almost imaginary figures of evil that "melt together in the air". Were these the monsters that the trial of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators had created in the public imagination? Many understood the discovery of the gunpowder plot as an act of supernatural preservation by their divinely appointed ruler. A commemorative silver medal from 1605 bears the Latin inscription: "You [God], Jacob's guardian, have not slept."
To draw a parallel to this sensibility, Shakespeare borrows Banquo—a real person from the 11th century believed to be an ancestor of King James—from the historicalChronicles af Raphael Holinshed. His characterization, differing from Holinshed's, places King James associatively on the right side of the work.
Shakespeare's story of Banquo being murdered on Macbeth's orders but returning as a ghost appears to strengthen James's claim to the throne through supernatural intervention. That is, until we consider that the witches who prophesy that Banquo will be the father of kings are the same ones who predict Macbeth's ascension to the crown.
Shakespeare's play is unsettling. It offers a thought experiment. It brings out the moral ambiguities of a society whose members see others in black and white while allowing themselves shades of gray.
It is a society where betrayal is punished with sanctioned violence, but where ambition paves the way to real power through both violence and betrayal. It is the kingdom of Scotland, torn apart by rival clans. It is England in 1606, devastated by the discovery of the gunpowder plot. This is our world of constant crisis.
Crisis appeals to the human imagination because it causes the rules by which we normally act to be overturned. A crisis, as Macbeth shows, can make moral compromise appear as "the next road" to more power. It can make brutal measures seem necessary to achieve it.
Macbeth warns our age of the damage done to individuals and societies when they allow the will to power to drown out the inner voice of conscience.