Macbeth is a villain …. but….


Macbeth (3)

Our likely response to the central figure might be summed up in the formula: ‘Macbeth is a villain, an agent of evil, but….’  He commits monstrous deeds and yet we cannot see him as a monster.  On the one hand we are made to feel that his death is justified, and that his enemies triumph in a righteous cause; on the other we are forced to acknowledge that he never entirely loses our sympathy.  One general explanation for this sympathy is that we can understand such a character as Macbeth and pity him because he is doing on a large scale and with more appalling consequences for himself what we can at least imagine ourselves doing in a similar kind of situation.  It is interesting to study the methods used by Shakespeare in dealing with the major technical and artistic problems posed by the materials he has to handle in Macbeth.  Given that tragedy demands our sympathetic interest in the fortunes of the hero, how was Shakespeare to command our sympathy to the end of a play whose hero degenerates from a brave, noble warrior, highly sensitive to the prompting of conscience, into a disloyal, self-seeking killer his enemies see him as?

In the early scenes he is generously endowed with the attributes of a tragic hero.  He is a man who matters in his society, having authority, passions and abilities far greater than those around him, easily earning respect and admiration.  His good qualities are repeatedly underlined in the opening scenes.  What is emphasised most of all throughout Act 1 is how difficult it is to get him to come to terms with the evil he is contemplating.  Lady Macbeth deplores his essential goodness (‘What thou wouldst highly/ That wouldst  thou holily’ I, v, 18).  He hesitates, he agonises, he decides against the murder (‘Chance may crown me ….’ I, iii, 143).  He is conscious of the moral, as well as the political, consequences of killing Duncan (I, vii, 12).  This vacillation earns our sympathy.  Again he refuses to commit the crime (‘We will proceed no further in this business…’ I, vii, 31).  It requires all Lady Macbeth’s ingenuity, her eloquence, her jibes at his manliness (‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ I, vii, 49) to make him proceed, and when he does, he is racked by guilt and terror (II, ii, 57-64).

If we approach Macbeth’s initial crime in terms of guilt and moral responsibility, we shall find that the play confuses and blurs the issues to some extent. Macbeth is made to seem the victim of ignorance and blindness.  He has had experience of many bloody executions in his career as a soldier; he cannot foresee the fatal effect on his character of murdering his way to the throne.  But two other factors tend even more strongly to confuse the moral issue.  The influence of the witches and their prophecies, however wilfully he misinterprets them, must inevitably appear to the spectator to mitigate his moral responsibility.  Almost any man, as Wayne Booth, the critic, has pointed out, ‘could be thrown off his moral balance by such supernatural confirmations’ (Shakespeare’s Tragic Villain).  The other morally confusing element is Lady Macbeth, one of whose functions in the scenes leading to the murder of Duncan is to distract her husband from weighting the moral issues involved by presenting the crime to him as a straightforward test of cowardice or courage.

It is worth noting how Shakespeare mitigates some of the worst horrors which Macbeth’s career as a murderer must inevitably involve.  What he does at all the critical moments is to dampen as much as possible the unfavourable effects on our attitude to Macbeth of the various atrocities for which he is responsible.  For example, the murder of Duncan is not directly shown, nor is it narrated by any speaker sympathetic to the dead man.  No effort is made by Shakespeare to evoke sympathy for Duncan at Macbeth’s expense.  Instead of hearing the dying cries of the old man, we hear Macbeth’s heartfelt lament at what he has done: the crime is made significant for its effect on the conscience of the criminal, whose responses after the event inevitably evoke some pity for him.

What we see enacted before our eyes is obviously far more telling in its effect than anything we are merely told.  We know that Duncan is a good man: we are told of his generosity, while Macbeth pays tribute to his kingly virtues.  But Shakespeare’s Duncan is not a character who can engage our deepest feelings.  The presentation is such that we focus our attention on Macbeth’s tortured comments on the crime, not on the sufferings of its victim.  We cannot feel the same kind of emotion for Duncan as we can for the man who can heartily envy him in his death that ‘after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well’ (III, ii, 23).  Of course, the quality of the stage-presentation of Duncan can make a difference here.  A comment of Kenneth Tynan’s on the 1962 Stratford production makes this point clear: ‘With Duncan’, he reported, ‘the production makes a bloomer long sanctified by tradition.  Since the play is a study of regicide we ought to feel that the sin Macbeth commits is something vast and mortal, not petty and sneaking.  Ageing though he is, Duncan must have about him an air of magnificence, a quality capable of inspiring awe; only thus can we appreciate the magnitude of the crime.  It should be as if Lear were assassinated.  At Stratford we get the usual saintly old dotard.  How this custom grew up I can only explain in terms of money and prestige: no actor capable of playing Duncan properly would dream of playing so small a part’ (Tynan Right and Left, 1967, p. 116).

It is true that Banquo’s murder is shown on the stage, and that he is a more clearly realised character than Duncan is.  His death is noble and his last gesture unselfish.  But again, the adverse effects of all this on our sympathy for Macbeth are minimised by Shakespeare.  The murder is committed by hirelings, and Macbeth responds to it much as he did to Duncan’s murder: we see him suffer at great length in the Banquet Scene.  We are made to feel that he is paying his share in guilt and self-torture for what he has done, that as he realises, ‘we still have judgement here’ (I, vii, 8).

His acts become progressively more revolting to our moral sense.  It is obviously more difficult for Shakespeare to retain pity for him after the killing of Macduff’s family than it was in the other cases; the presentation of the victims here is sympathetic and detailed.  But Macbeth is nowhere near the scene of the deed, and Lady Macduff’s death is closely followed by the mental collapse of Lady Macbeth. Again as Macbeth anticipated, ‘Bloody instructions being taught, return/ To plague the inventor’ (I, vii, 9).  The essential point, then, about Shakespeare’s presentation of Macbeth’s worst acts is that the perpetrator’s sufferings are made to appear almost proportionate to his crimes, and much more vivid than anything his victims undergo.

One further element in Shakespeare’s presentation must be mentioned.  We see a large and significant part of the action of the play as it is filtered through Macbeth’s consciousness.  We are taken into his mind, we share his point of view.  The play is his tragedy, not that of Duncan or Banquo or Lady Macduff.  Shakespeare gives him the best poetry of the play, and in a poetic drama this is a fact of the highest importance.  In the light of such speeches as ‘My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf…’ (V, iii, 22). Or ‘She should have died hereafter…’ (V, v, 17), one cannot help feeling at times that the worthy enemies gathering to destroy him are uninteresting and insignificant.  Still, Shakespeare has taken some precautions to ensure that these enemies do not appear totally pallid, that they are not altogether overshadowed by his grand eloquence and heroic stance.  Malcolm’s stature has been enhanced by means of the English Scene (IV, iii).  He enters impressively to the beating of drums.  He is given the last word in the play: an impressive enough speech, which does something to counteract the effect of Macbeth’s last great speeches.

Through the play also, Shakespeare uses choric scenes to provide those hostile to Macbeth with the opportunity to comment on his misdeeds.  Such scenes provide the audience with a perspective, apart from Macbeth’s own, through which to view the action.  In Act III, vi, for example, Lennox comments ironically on Macbeth’s behaviour, while the anonymous Lord contrasts the tyranny of his reign with the freedom enjoyed in England under the ‘holy king’ Edward.  It must be admitted, therefore, that Shakespeare performs a very delicate balancing act in his presentation of Macbeth.