Macbeth: From Centrality to Isolation

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When we first encounter Macbeth he is portrayed as the mighty general, the king’s enforcer-in-chief, while the play ends with his inevitable, lonely, solitary death following his doomed, albeit brave, defense of the indefensible. So, it can be said, that the major pattern of the play is Macbeth’s progressive movement from centrality to isolation.  This pattern encompasses the whole play and expresses an essential process in every tragedy: the hero must confront his destiny alone.  Macbeth’s role is that of a man who begins as the central and most admired figure of his society and ends by being totally isolated from it in his lonely fortress in Dunsinane.  His ultimate fate suggests that of a sacrificial victim.  Having caused havoc in society and broken the bonds of nature, he must be isolated and destroyed so that natural and social order can be restored again – for the time being at least!

The opening of the play focuses attention on Macbeth as the heroic object of everyone’s admiration, well earned since he is the saviour of his country.  The captain’s account of his exploits in Act I, ii and the King’s lavish praise in Act I, iv serve to establish his heroic stature and his unique status in society before his fall.  But the images used in these scenes to convey Macbeth’s prowess as a warrior have another, more disturbing, effect.  There is a frightening savagery in some of the more memorable ones: the sword ‘which smoked with bloody execution’; the bloody hero who ‘carved out his passage’ and ‘unseamed’ his enemy as if anxious to ‘bathe in reeking wounds/ Or memorise another Golgotha’ (I, ii 18-22).  These reiterated images suggest Macbeth’s natural capacity – perhaps even his relish – for destruction.  Our first picture of him as provided by the bleeding sergeant is a faithful anticipation of our last one.  The early image of the warrior carving up his enemy with a smoking sword is mirrored in the last one of the ‘dead butcher’ (V, vii, 98) whose severed head is carried on to the stage by Macduff.  Echoes and anticipations of this kind are found everywhere in Macbeth.

Before Duncan’s murder we find the two Macbeths taking the first decisive step which will isolate them from the process of normal living and break the bonds which bind them to human nature and society.  With deliberate formality, Lady Macbeth dedicates herself to the power of evil: ‘Come you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts….’ (I, v, 38).  Later, Macbeth makes a similar prayer: ‘Thou sure and firm-set earth,/ Hear not my steps…’ (II, i, 56).  His separation from God is implied in his ‘Wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”?’ (II, ii, 30).

Duncan’s murder hastens the process of Macbeth’s isolation.  Malcolm and Donalbain flee him (II, iii, 119); Banquo suspects him (III, i, 3).  Even before Banquo’s murder and the social debacle of the Banquet Scene, we have a glimpse of Macbeth estranged from his natural companions: ‘How now, my Lord!  Why do you keep alone,/ Of sorriest fancies your companions making’ (III, ii, 8-9).

The Banquet Scene (III, iv) marks a decisive stage in his alienation from his subjects.  His gradual estrangement even from Lady Macbeth has already been suggested in his failure to let her share in his plan to murder Banquo.  After her supreme efforts in the Banquet Scene she dwindles from being his ‘dearest partner of greatness’ (I, v, 10) to a passive listless, weary listener.  The last time we see him alone with her, at the end of Act III, iv, the collapse of their relationship is pathetically apparent; this is further underlined in his response to the news of her death.  The final movement of Act III, iv  has compelling visual images of Macbeth’s  separation from his subjects, who leave his feast in hasty disorder.  This is not the only abandonment: in the final scene we learn that Fleance has escaped (20), that Macduff ‘denies his person at our great bidding’ (128) and that Macbeth can depend so little on the loyalty of his followers that he must ‘keep a servant fee’d’ in all their houses (131).

The final movement of the play opens with news of growing opposition to Macbeth’s rule, and of intrigue and conspiracy against him.  Macduff has fled (IV, I, 140).  In Act V, Macbeth’s isolation is made explicit in reiterated images of abandonment and loneliness.  He articulates it in some of the greatest poetry of the play: ‘that which should accompany old age,/ As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have’ (V, iii, 24).  The Doctor would desert him if he could (V, iii, 61-2).  We are twice reminded that many of his soldiers have gone over to the enemy, first by himself (‘Were they not forced with those that should be ours,/ We might have met them dareful, beard to beard’ V, v, 5) and later by Malcolm (‘We have met with foes/ That strike beside us’ V, vii, 28).

There is an altogether appropriate image of his final isolation in his defiant ‘They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,/But bear-like I must fight the course’ (V, vii, 1).  In a 1962 Stratford production Eric Porter played Macbeth and, as J.R. Brown reports, ‘his death was that of a tired, angry, disarmed fighter: to make this clear he was killed on stage after he had been encircled by the entire army and had lost all his weapons’ (Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance, 1966, p. 185).  The transformation from leader to quarry is here complete.

 The pattern of Macbeth’s isolation, therefore, involves him in more than a progressive physical and mental detachment from other human beings.  He is an exile from the world of daylight, familiar with witches and with apparitions unseen by anybody else, making discoveries about his predicament which he can never share with others who have never dared, as he has, to plunge into darkness.


Macbeth is a villain …. but….


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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.


Macbeth: A Truly Aware Tragic Hero?


A summary of what happens in Macbeth could make the play look like an exciting crime story, but it is what happens within the hero, the development of his understanding of himself and his plight, and his sharing of this with the audience, that lifts it to a higher plane.

When the unexpected results of his actions emerge, the tragic hero questions what has happened to him, and through this questioning learns the vital truth about himself.  This brings him around to facing his destiny and completing it by his death. It is through this recognition that he reaches his tragic vision.  His error was committed in blindness; recognition involves the intrusion of the light, the acknowledgement of the blindness.  Recognition is not simply his knowledge of what has happened to him (in Macbeth’s case that he has been duped by the witches; he recognises his folly in having trusted them), but the new awareness of the unalterably fixed pattern of the miserable life he has created for himself through his deeds, accompanied by a deep sense of loss at the thought of what he has sacrificed and forsaken.  These elements are present in Macbeth’s infinitely poignant soliloquy in Act V:

          I have liv’d long enough: my way of life

          Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;

          And that which should accompany old age,

          As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

          I must not look to have; but in their stead,

          Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath

          Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

                                 V, iii, 22

Macbeth arrives at the recognition of having irrecoverably lost, through his own blind deed, the things on which his happiness on earth depended.  He discovers that he cannot arrest the process he has set in motion, and gains an insight into the workings of evil. He realises that evil isolates: his deeds have cut him off from all he treasures.  He is alone in a hell of despair, and is aware of the futility of all he has planned.  It is the fate of the tragic hero to be finally isolated from the ways of ordinary men, but it is in his isolation that he grows in stature and self-awareness, and consequently in the estimation of the audience, that he faces up to his destiny and confronts it.  For Macbeth, this means dying valiantly in battle (V, iii, 32; V, v, 52) rather than taking his own life (V, vii, 30) or running away (V, vii, 1), or being taken prisoner (V, vii, 56).  Those who like to moralise the tragic ending will find in his fate a striking illustration of the saying that ‘all they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword’ (Matthew, Ch. 26: verse 22); it is a fate ironically anticipated by him very early in the play: ‘This even-handed justice/ Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips’ (I, vii, 10).

There are various degrees of recognition in tragedy.  In some (like Othello), recognition is minimal: Othello knows what he has done and what he has lost, but learns little or nothing about himself.  In Macbeth, at the end, the hero’s recognition is considerable, but still far from complete.  He remains puzzled and baffled to the last, failing to grasp the how and why of his fate.

In his case it is interesting to notice that partial recognition comes early in the play, that disillusion sets in long before his fortunes fail: in fact it sets in when he is at the height of his worldly success.  Even before he has murdered Banquo, he can face the unthinkable prospect of having damned his soul (‘mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man’ III, i. 67). Earlier still, his sense of what he has done to himself as well as to Duncan is expressed in the richly suggestive, ‘To know my deed twere best not to know myself’ (II, ii, 72).  But if he does sense early on what is happening to him as a result of what he has done, he does not really know what kind of future is in store for him until the point at which he realises that it is as easy for him to go forward in crime as to go back.  The recognition that he cannot control the processes he has set in motion, or alter the course he has set for himself is a tragic one: ‘I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er’ (III, iv, 136).

But the exact moment when Macbeth realises he is doomed is when Macduff relates that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ta’en (V, vii, 44).  He has expressed an earlier, partial, recognition of his fate at the news that Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane (‘I pull in resolution, and begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend’ (V, v, 42).

It is the quality of his response to his destiny and the manner in which he confronts it that determines his essential worth as a tragic hero and that gives him his ultimate tragic status.  The physical death of the tragic hero is a final symbol of his recognition: of the death of his former blind and ignorant self.  Our tragic hero has paid a chilling and costly price for self-awareness.