Macbeth (Germ33)

Macbeth. *

The purpose of the following Essay is to demonstrate the existence of a very important error in the hitherto universally adopted interpretation of the character of Macbeth. We shall prove that a design of illegitimately obtaining the crown of Scotland had been conceived by Macbeth, and that it had been communicated by him to his wife, prior to his first meeting with the witches, who are commonly supposed to have suggested that design.

Most persons when they commence the study of the great Shaksperian dramas, already entertain concerning them a set of traditional notions, generally originated by the representations, or misrepresentations, of the theatre, afterwards to become strengthened or confirmed by desultory reading and corroborative criticism. With this class of persons it was our misfortune to rank, when we first entered upon the study of "Macbeth," fully believing that, in the character of the hero, Shakspere intended to represent a man whose general rectitude of soul is drawn on to ruin by the temptations of supernatural agents; temptations which have the effect of eliciting his latent ambition, and of misdirecting that ambition when it has been thus elicited.

As long as we continued under this idea, the impression produced upon us by "Macbeth" came far short of that sense of complete satisfaction which we were accustomed to receive from every other of the higher works of Shakspere. But, upon deeper study, the view now proposed suggested itself, and seemed to render every thing as it should be. We say that this view suggested itself, because it did not arise directly from any one of the numerous passages which can be quoted in its support; it originated in a general feeling of what seemed to be wanting to the completion of the entire effect; a circumstance which has been stated at length from the persuasion that it is of itself no mean presumption in favour of the opinion which it is the aim of this paper to establish.

Let us proceed to examine the validity of a position, which,

* It is proper to state that this article was written, and seen, exactly as it at present stands, by several literary friends of the writer, a considerable time before the appearance, in the "Westminster Review," of a Paper advocating a view of "Macbeth," similar to that which is here taken. But although the publication of the particular view was thus anticipated, nearly all the most forcible arguments for maintaining it were omitted; and the subject, mixed up, as it was, with lengthy disquisitions upon very minor topics of Shaksperian acting, &c. made no very general impression at the time.


if it deserves any attention at all, may certainly claim an investigation more than usually minute. We shall commence by giving an analysis of the first Act, wherein will be considered, successively, every passage which may appear to bear either way upon the point in question.

The inferences which we believe to be deducible from the first scene can be profitably employed only in conjunction with those to be discovered in the third. Our analysis must, therefore, be entered upon by an attempt to ascertain the true character of the impressions which it was the desire of Shakspere to convey by the second.

This scene is almost exclusively occupied with the narrations of the "bleeding Soldier," and of Rosse. These narrations are constructed with the express purpose of vividly setting forth the personal valour of Duncan's generals, "Macbeth and Banquo." Let us consider what is the maximum worth which the words of Shakspere will, at this period of the play, allow us to attribute to the moral character of the hero: -- a point, let it be observed, of first-rate importance to the present argument. We find Macbeth, in this scene, designated by various epithets, all of which, either directly or indirectly, arise from feelings of admiration created by his courageous conduct in the war in which he is supposed to have been engaged. "Brave" and "Noble Macbeth," "Bellona's Bridegroom," "Valiant Cousin," and "Worthy Gentleman," are the general titles by which he is here spoken of; but none of them afford any positive clue whatever to his moral character. Nor is any such clue supplied by the scenes in which he is presently received by the messengers of Duncan, and afterwards received and lauded by Duncan himself. Macbeth's moral character, up to the development of his criminal hopes, remains strictly negative. Hence it is difficult to fathom the meaning of those critics, (A. Schlegel at their head), who have over and over again made the ruin of Macbeth's "so many noble qualities"* the subject of their comment.

In the third scene we have the meeting of the witches, the announcement of whose intention to re-assemble upon the heath, there to meet with Macbeth, forms the certainly most obvious, though not perhaps, altogether the most important, aim of the short scene by which the tragedy is opened. An enquiry of much interest here suggests itself. Did Shakspere intend that in his tragedy of "Macbeth" the witches should figure as originators of gratuitous destruction, in direct opposition to the traditional, and

* A. Schlegel's "Lectures on Dramatic Literature." Vol. II. p. 208.


even proverbial, character of the genus? By that character such personages have been denied the possession of any influence whatever over the untainted soul. Has Shakspere in this instance retained, or has he abolished, the chief of those characteristics which have been universally attributed to the beings in question?

We think that he has retained it, and for the following reasons: Whenever Shakspere has elsewhere embodied superstitions, he has treated them as direct and unalterable facts of human nature; and this he has done because he was too profound a philosopher to be capable of regarding genuine superstition as the product of random spectra of the fancy, having absolute darkness for the prime condition of their being, instead of seeing in it rather the zodiacal light of truth, the concomitant of the uprising, and of the setting of the truth, and a partaker in its essence. Again, Shakspere has in this very play devoted a considerable space to the purpose of suggesting the self-same trait of character now under discussion, and this he appears to have done with the express intent of guarding against a mistake, the probability of the occurrence of which he foresaw, but which, for reasons connected with the construction of the play, he could not hope otherwise to obviate.

We allude to the introductory portion of the present scene. One sister, we learn, has just returned from killing swine; another breathes forth vengeance against a sailor, on account of the uncharitable act of his wife; but "his bark cannot be lost," though it may be "tempest tossed." The last words are scarcely uttered before the confabulation is interrupted by the approach of Macbeth, to whom they have as yet made no direct allusion whatever, throughout the whole of this opening passage, consisting in all of some five and twenty lines. Now this were a digression which would be a complete anomaly, having place, as it is supposed to have, at this early stage of one of the most consummate of the tragedies of Shakspere. We may be sure, therefore, that it is the chief object of these lines to impress the reader beforehand with an idea that, in the mind of Macbeth, there already exist sure foundations for that great superstructure of evil, to the erection of which, the "metaphysical aid" of the weird sisters is now to be offered. An opinion which is further supported by the reproaches of Hecate, who, afterwards, referring to what occurs in this scene, exclaims,

               "All you have done
          Hath been but for a wayward son,
          Spiteful, and wrathful, who, as others do,
          Loves for his own end, not for you."

Words which seem to relate to ends loved of Macbeth before the witches had spurred him on to their acquirement.

The fact that in the old chronicle, from which the plot of the play is taken, the machinations of the witches are not assumed to be un-gratuitous, cannot be employed as an argument against our position. In history the sisters figure in the capacity of prophets merely. There we have no previous announcement of their intention "to meet with Macbeth." But in Shakspere they are invested with all other of their superstitional attributes, in order that they may become the evil instruments of holy vengeance upon evil; of that most terrible of vengeance which punishes sin, after it has exceeded certain bounds, by deepening it.

Proceeding now with our analysis, upon the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo, the witches wind up their hurried charm. They are first perceived by Banquo. To his questions the sisters refuse to reply; but, at the command of Macbeth, they immediately speak, and forthwith utter the prophecy which seals the fate of Duncan.

Now, assuming the truth of our view, what would be the natural behaviour of Macbeth upon coming into sudden contact with beings who appear to hold intelligence of his most secret thoughts; and upon hearing those thoughts, as it were, spoken aloud in the presence of a third party? His behaviour would be precisely that which is implied by the question of Banquo.

          "Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear
           Things which do sound so fair?"
If, on the other hand, our view is not true, why, seeing that their characters are in the abstract so much alike, why does the present conduct of Macbeth differ from that of Banquo, when the witches direct their prophecies to him? Why has Shakspere altered the narrative of Holinshed, without the prospect of gaining any advantage commensurate to the licence taken in making that alteration? These are the words of the old chronicle: "This (the recontre with the witches) was reputed at the first but some vain fantastical illusion by Macbeth and Banquo, insomuch that Banquo would call Macbeth in jest king of Scotland; and Macbeth again would call him in jest likewise the father of many kings." Now it was the invariable practice of Shakspere to give facts or traditions just as he found them, whenever the introduction of those facts or traditions was not totally irreconcileable with the tone of his conception. How then (should we still receive the notion which we are now combating) are we to account for his anomalous practice in this particular case?


When the witches are about to vanish, Macbeth attempts to delay their departure, exclaiming,

          "Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
           By Sinol's death, I know I am thane of Glamis;
           But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,
           A prosperous gentleman; and, to be king           
           Stands not within the prospect of belief,
           No more than to be Cawdor.  Say, from whence
           You owe this strange intelligence?"
"To be king stands not within the prospect of belief, no more than to be Cawdor." No! it naturally stands much less within the prospect of belief. Here the mind of Macbeth, having long been accustomed to the nurture of its "royal hope," conceives that it is uttering a very suitable hyperbole of comparison. Had that mind been hitherto an honest mind the word "Cawdor" would have occupied the place of "king," "king" that of "Cawdor." Observe too the general character of this speech: Although the coincidence of the principal prophecy with his own thoughts has so strong an effect upon Macbeth as to induce him to, at once, pronounce the words of the sisters, "intelligence;" he nevertheless affects to treat that prophecy as completely secondary to the other in the strength of its claims upon his consideration. This is a piece of over-cautious hypocrisy which is fully in keeping with the tenor of his conduct throughout the rest of the tragedy.

No sooner have the witches vanished than Banquo begins to doubt whether there had been "such things there as they did speak about." This is the natural incredulity of a free mind so circumstanced. On the other hand, Macbeth, whose manner, since the first announcement of the sisters, has been that of a man in a reverie, makes no doubt whatsoever of the reality of their appearance, nor does he reply to the expressed scepticism of Banquo, but abruptly exclaims, "your children shall be kings." To this Banquo answers, "you shall be king." "And thane of Cawdor too: went it not so?" continues Macbeth. Now, what, in either case, is the condition of mind which can have given rise to this part of the dialogue? It is, we imagine, sufficiently evident that the playful words of Banquo were suggested to Shakspere by the narration of Holinshed; but how do we account for those of Macbeth, otherwise than by supposing that the question of the crown is now settled in his mind by the coincidence of the principal prediction, with the shapings of his own thoughts, and that he is at this moment occupied with the wholly unanticipated revelations, touching the thaneship of Cawdor, and the future possession of the throne by the offspring of Banquo?


Now comes the fulfilment of the first prophecy. Mark the words of these men, upon receiving the announcement of Rosse:

     "Banquo.  What! can the devil speak truth?
     Macbeth.  The thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dressme
     In borrowed robes?"
Mark how that reception is in either case precisely the reverse of that given to the prophecy itself. Here Banquo starts. But what is here done for Banquo, by the coincidence of the prophecy with the truth, has been already done for Macbeth, by the coincidence of his thought with the prophecy. Accordingly, Macbeth is calm enough to play the hypocrite, when he must otherwise have experienced surprise far greater than that of Banquo, because he is much more nearly concerned in the source of it. So far indeed from being overcome with astonishment, Macbeth still continues to dwell upon the prophecy, by which his peace of mind is afterwards constantly disturbed,

          "Do you not hope your children shall be kings,
           When those that gave the thane of Cawdor to me
           Promised no less to them?"
Banquo's reply to this question has been one of the chief sources of the interpretation, the error of which we are now endeavouring to expose. He says,

               "That, trusted home,
          Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
          Besides the thane of Cawdor.  But, 'tis strange;
          And often times, to win us to our harm,
          The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
          Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
          In deepest consequence."
Now, these words have usually been considered to afford the clue to the entire nature and extent of the supernatural influence brought into play upon the present tragedy; whereas, in truth, all that they express is a natural suspicion, called up in the mind of Banquo, by Macbeth's remarkable deportment, that such is the character of the influence which is at this moment being exerted upon the soul of the man to whom he therefore thinks proper to hint the warning they contain.

The soliloquy which immediately follows the above passage is particularly worthy of comment:

          "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 smothered in surmise, and nothing is,
           But what is not."
The early portion of this passage assuredly indicates that Macbeth regards the communications of the witches merely in the light of an invitation to the carrying out of a design pre-existent in his own mind. He thinks that the spontaneous fulfilment of the chief prophecy is in no way probable; the consummation of the lesser prophecy being held by him, but as an "earnest of success" to his own efforts in consummating the greater. From the latter portion of this soliloquy we learn the real extent to which "metaphysical aid" is implicated in bringing about the crime of Duncan's murder. It serves to assure Macbeth that that is the "nearest way" to the attainment of his wishes; -- a way to the suggestion of which he now, for the first time, "yields," because the chances of its failure have been infinitely lessened by the "earnest of success" which he has just received.

After the above soliloquy Macbeth breaks the long pause, implied in Banquo's words, "Look how our partner's rapt," by exclaiming,

          "If chance will have me king, why chance may crownme,
            Without my stir."
Which is a very logical conclusion; but one at which he would long ago have arrived, had "soliciting" meant "suggestion," as most people suppose it to have done; or at least, under those circumstances, he would have been satisfied with that conclusion, instead of immediately afterwards changing it, as we see that he has done, when he adds,

                    "Come what come may,
          Time and the hour runs through the roughest day!"
With that the third scene closes; the parties engaged in it proceeding forthwith to the palace of Duncan at Fores.

Towards the conclusion of the fourth scene, Duncan names his successor in the realm of Scotland. After this Macbeth hastily departs, to inform his wife of the king's proposed visit to their castle, at Inverness. The last words of Macbeth are the following,


          "The prince of Cumberland! -- That is a step,
          On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap.
          For in my way it lies.  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."
These lines are equally remarkable for a tone of settled assurance as to the fulfilment of the speaker's royal hope, and for an entire absence of any expression of reliance upon the power of the witches, -- the hitherto supposed originators of that hope, -- in aiding its consummation. It is particularly noticeable that Macbeth should make no reference whatever, not even in thought, (that is, in soliloquy) to any supernatural agency during the long period intervening between the fulfilment of the two prophecies. Is it probable that this would have been the case had Shakspere intended that such an agency should be understood to have been the first motive and mainspring of that deed, which, with all its accompanying struggles of conscience, he has so minutely pictured to us as having been, during that period, enacted? But besides this negative argument, we have a positive one for his non-reliance upon their promises in the fact that he attempts to outwit them by the murder of Fleance even after the fulfilment of the second prophecy.

The fifth scene opens with Lady Macbeth's perusal of her husband's narration of his interview with the witches. The order of our investigation requires the postponement of comment upon the contents of this letter. We leave it for the present, merely cautioning the reader against taking up any hasty objections to a very important clause in the enunciation of our view by reminding him that, contrary to Shakspere's custom in ordinary cases, we are made acquainted only with a portion of the missive in question. Let us then proceed to consider the soliloquy which immediately follows the perusal of this letter:

                         "I do fear thy nature.
          It is too full o' the milk of human kindness,
          To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
          Art not without ambition; but without
          The illness should attend it.  That thou wouldsthighly,
          That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false
          And yet wouldst wrongly win: thou'dst have, greatGlamis,
          That which cries this thou must do if thou have it,
          And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
          Thou wishest should be undone."

It is vividly apparent that this passage indicates a knowledge of the character it depicts, which is far too intimate to allow of its being other than a direct inference from facts connected with previous communications upon similar topics between the speaker and the writer: unless, indeed, we assume that in this instance Shakspere has notably departed from his usual principles of characterization, in having invested Lady Macbeth with an amount of philosophical acuteness, and a faculty of deduction, much beyond those pretended to by any other of the female creations of the same author.

The above passage is interrupted by the announcement of the approach of Duncan. Observe Lady Macbeth's behaviour upon receiving it. She immediately determines upon what is to be done, and all without (are we to suppose?) in any way consulting, or being aware of, the wishes or inclinations of her husband! Observe too, that neither does she appear to regard the witches' prophecies as anything more than an invitation, and holding forth of "metaphysical aid" to the carrying out of an independent project. That this should be the case in both instances vastly strengthens the argument legitimately deducible from each.

At the conclusion of the passage which called for the last remark, Macbeth, after a long and eventful period of absence, let it be recollected, enters to a wife who, we will for a moment suppose, is completely ignorant of the character of her husband's recent cogitations. These are the first words which pass between them,

     "Macbeth.                   My dearest love,
          Duncan comes here to-night.
     L. Macbeth.                 And when goes hence?
     Macbeth.  To-morrow, as he purposes.
     L. Macbeth.                 Oh! never
          Shall sun that morrow see!
          Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
          May read strange matters: -- to beguile the time,
          Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
          Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
          But be the serpent under it.  He that's coming
          Must be provided for; and you shall put
          This night's great business into my dispatch,
          Which shall to all our nights and days to come
          Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
     Macbeth.  We will speak further."
Are these words those which would naturally arise from the situation at present, by common consent, attributed to the speakers


of them? That is to say a situation in which each speaker is totally ignorant of the sentiments pre-existent in the mind of the other. Are the words, "we will speak further," those which might in nature form the whole and sole reply made by a man to his wife's completely unexpected anticipation of his own fearful purposes? If not, if few or none of these lines, thus interpreted, will satisfy the reader's feeling for common truth, does not the view which we have adopted invest them with new light, and improved, or perfected meaning?

The next scene represents the arrival of Duncan at Inverness, and contains nothing which bears either way upon the point in question. Proceeding, therefore, to the seventh and last scene of the first act we come to what we cannot but consider to be proof positive of the opinion under examination. We shall transcribe at length the portion of this scene containing that proof; having first reminded the reader that a few hours at most can have elapsed between the arrival of Macbeth, and the period at which the words, now to be quoted, are uttered.

          "Lady Macbeth.        Was the hope drunk,
           Wherein you dressed yourself?  Hath it slept since,
           And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
           At what it did so freely?  From this time,
           Such I account thy love.  Art thou afeard
           To be the same in thine own act and valour,
           As thou art in desire?  Would'st thou have that
           Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
           And live a coward in thine own esteem,
           Letting, I dare not, wait upon, I would,
           Like the poor cat in the adage?

          Macbeth.  Prithee, peace:
           I dare do all that may become a man;
           Who dares do more is none.
     Lady Macbeth.  What beast was't then
           That made you break this enterprise to me?
           When you durst do it, then you were a man,
           And to be more than what you were you would
           Be so much more the man.  Nor time nor place
           Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.
           They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
           Does unmake you.  I have given suck, and know
           How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:

           I would, while it was smiling in my face,
           Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums,
           And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
           As you have done to this."
With respect to the above lines, let us observe that, the words, "nor time nor place did then adhere," render it evident that they hold reference to something which passed before Duncan had signified his intention of visiting the castle of Macbeth. Consequently the words of Lady Macbeth can have no reference to the previous communication of any definite intention, on the part of her husband, to murder the king; because, not long before, she professes herself aware that Macbeth's nature is "too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way;" indeed, she has every reason to suppose that she herself has been the means of breaking that enterprise to him, though, in truth, the crime had already, as we have seen, suggested itself to his thought, "whose murder was as yet fantastical."

Again the whole tenor of this passage shows that it refers to verbal communication between them. But no such communication can have taken place since Macbeth's rencontre with the witches; for, besides that he is, immediately after that recontre, conducted to the presence of the king, who there signifies an intention of proceeding directly to Macbeth's castle, such a communication would have rendered the contents of the letter to Lady Macbeth completely superfluous. What then are we to conclude concerning these problematical lines? First begging the reader to bear in mind the tone of sophistry which has been observed by Schlegel to pervade, and which is indeed manifest throughout the persuasions of Lady Macbeth, we answer, that she wilfully confounds her husband's, -- probably vague and unplanned -- "enterprise" of obtaining the crown, with that "nearest way" to which she now urges him; but, at the same time, she obscurely individualizes the separate purposes in the words, "and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man."

It is a fact which is highly interesting in itself, and one which strongly impeaches the candour of the majority of Shakspere's commentators, that the impenetrable obscurity which must have pervaded the whole of this passage should never have been made the subject of remark. As far as we can remember, not a word has been said upon the matter in any one of the many superfluously explanatory editions of our dramatist's productions. Censures have been repeatedly lavished upon minor cases of obscurity, none upon this. In the former case the fault has been felt to be Shakspere's,


for it has usually existed in the expression; but in the latter the language is unexceptional, and the avowal of obscurity might imply the possibility of misapprehension or stupidity upon the part of the avower.

Probably the only considerable obstacle likely to act against the general adoption of those views will be the doubt, whether so important a feature of this consummate tragedy can have been left by Shakspere so obscurely expressed as to be capable of remaining totally unperceived during upwards of two centuries, within which period the genius of a Coleridge and of a Schlegel has been applied to its interpretation. Should this objection be brought forward, we reply, in the first place, that the objector is 'begging' his question in assuming that the feature under examination has remained totally unperceived. Coleridge by way of comment upon these words of Banquo,

          "Good sir, why do you stand, and seem to fear
          Things that do sound so fair?"
writes thus: "The general idea is all that can be required of a poet -- not a scholastic logical consistency in all the parts, so as to meet metaphysical objectors. * * * * * * * * How strictly true to nature it is, that Banquo, and not Macbeth himself, directs our notice to the effects produced in Macbeth's mind, rendered temptible by previous dalliance with ambitious thoughts." Here Coleridge denies the necessity of "logical consistency, so as to meet metaphysical objectors," although he has, throughout his criticisms upon Shakspere, endeavored, and nearly always with success, to prove the existence of that consistency; and so strongly has he felt the want of it here, that he has, in order to satisfy himself, assumed that "previous dalliance with ambitious thoughts," whose existence it has been our object to prove.

But, putting Coleridge's imperfect perception of the truth out of the question, surely nothing can be easier than to believe that for the belief in which we have so many precedents. How many beauties, lost upon Dryden, were perceived by Johnson; How many, hidden to Johnson and his cotemporaries, have been brought to light by Schlegel and by Coleridge.




Last modified 5/22/95