Macbeth: Order violated, order restored….


It is impossible to read Macbeth without being impressed by its repeated emphasis on the prevalence of evil forces in the world.  From the very start of the play an atmosphere of unnatural wickedness is established by the scene which opens with the stage direction Thunder and Lightening.  Enter Three Witches and ends with the reversal of values implied in ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair/ Hover through the fog and filthy air’.  In Macbeth, Shakespeare suggests a symbolic correspondence between three kinds of order:

  • Order within the universe,
  • Order within the commonwealth,
  • Order within the human being.

The disruption of good order in the kingdom is paralleled by the disruption of nature, represented by the storm and the other portents on the night of Duncan’s murder, as well as by the appearance of the witches and of Banquo’s ghost; it has a further parallel in Lady Macbeth’s mental disintegration.  The savvy Elizabethan audiences were only too aware that portents of evil and evidence of disorder in one area were often mirrored by even greater disorders elsewhere.  The themes of unnatural doings, chaos in the natural world and universal disease are constantly suggested in the more memorable images.  Little wonder then that critics, when they come to talk about the impression created by the play, conclude that in none of the tragedies, with the possible exception of Lear, is evil presented so forcibly.  Macbeth has been described as Shakespeare’s ‘most profound and mature vision of evil’, ‘a wrestling of destruction with creation’, ‘a statement of evil’, and so forth.

If any one point is insistently made by the imagery it is that Macbeth’s revolt against lawful authority involves much more than the murder of a king and the usurpation of his throne.  The initial crime is a huge symbolic gesture.  It releases forces of universal disorder.  John Holloway talks of Macbeth’s career as one  ‘of revolt against everything in the world’ (The Story of the Night, 1961, p.61).  Once the first evil step has been taken there is no turning back: men and nature are caught up in a process which causes havoc everywhere until the evil forces have played themselves out.  Images of disease and unnatural happenings give concrete expression to the major themes.  The thought of his plan makes Macbeth’s heart knock at his ribs ‘against the use of nature’ (I, iii, 137); the dead Duncan looks like ‘a breach in nature’ (i.e. as if nature had been wounded by his death in II, iii, 95).  Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is described as a ‘great perturbation in nature’ (V, I, 9).  The murder of Duncan (‘the Lord’s anointed temple’ II, iii, 50) is explicitly and repeatedly presented as a monstrous violation of the natural order; it is committed when ‘nature seems dead’ (II, I, 50); in preparation for it Lady Macbeth invokes the aid of those murdering ministers who ‘wait on nature’s mischief’ (i.e. assist the malignant forces in nature and accompanying natural disasters: I, v, 48).  The association between Macbeth’s crime and disruption in nature is further emphasised in the comment on the odd behaviour of the elements following Duncan’s murder: ‘Tis unnatural/ Even like the deed that’s done’ (II, iv, 10).  The same kind of association between evil deeds and disorder within the individual is implied in the Doctor’s comment on Lady Macbeth’s sickness: ‘unnatural deeds/ Do breed unnatural troubles’ (V, I, 72).

The effects on his country and its people of Macbeth’s identification with evil are suggested in a series of disease images, which appear with particular frequency in the last Act.  The point made by these images is that Scotland is sick, and the cause of her disease is Macbeth’s criminal career.  Health and disease are symbolically related to moral good and evil.  Macbeth’s speech to the Doctor is an extended disease metaphor:

                   If thou couldst, doctor, sound

                   The sickness of my land, find her disease,

                   And purge it to a sound and pristine health….

                   What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug

                   Would scour these English hence?

                                                                             V, v, 50

It is in relation to this kind of speech that the descriptions of the King’s Evil (IV, iii, 141 – 159) takes on its true importance.  At the hands of the good English king, diseased souls ‘presently amend’ (IV, iii, 138).  At Macbeth’s hands, ‘good men’s lives/ Expire before flowers in their caps,/ Dying or ere they sicken’ (IV, iii, 164).  Macbeth’s cause is ‘distemper’d’ (V, ii, 15).  Malcolm is to be the physician who will heal Scotland: ‘Sovereign’ as used by Lennox means both ‘royal’ and ‘powerfully medicinal’:

          Caithness:     Meet we the medicine of the sickly weal,

                              And with him pour we, in our country’s purge,

                              Each drop of us.

          Lennox:         Or so much as it needs,

   To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.

                                                                                                V, ii, 26

The play depicts the restoration of order as well as its violation.  A whole society is disordered and sickly (‘Bleed, bleed poor country!’ Iv, iii, 32), and the order of nature has been disrupted.  Macbeth’s famous catalogue of dogs (III, I, 91) emphasises the idea of a proper order among animals as well as men; it is a fine stroke of irony on Shakespeare’s part to make the prime enemy of order concede its propriety.  The third movement of the play (which belongs to Malcolm and Macduff in the way that the first did to Duncan and the second to Banquo), shows violated nature preparing itself to put an end to the unnatural disintegration set in train by Macbeth’s acts, the process by which ‘the treasure/ Of nature’s germens tumble all together,/ Even till destruction sicken’ (IV, I, 58).  As Macbeth’s power begins to wane, supernatural aid is invoked on behalf of those who would restore the beneficent order of nature (‘the Powers above/ Put on their instruments…’ IV, iii, 231). The movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane (V, iv, 4) is a vivid emblem of the reassertion of the natural order, ‘a dumbshow of nature overturning anti-nature at the climax of the play’ (John Holloway, op. cit., p.65).

It needs to be emphasised that while Shakespeare makes extensive use of religious, even specifically Christian images and ideas throughout Macbeth (see particularly Iv, iii), this does not mean that the play reaches ‘optimistic’ conclusions about its themes, or that it was written to suggest the superiority of a Christian view of life and action.  We should restrain any tendency we may feel to treat the major characters as diagrammatic illustrations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tendencies.  Shakespeare poses too many unanswered questions for us to be able to regard Macbeth as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil; like all genuine tragedies, it maintains a balance of vision.  An element of painful mystery remains even after the fragile triumph of the official forces of good order.  This is well described by Robert Ornstein:

‘If the anguish of the damned sounds musically in the ears of the saved, then there is comfort here for some; otherwise Macbeth is the most unpleasant of the tragedies.  Though order is restored at the close, though evil is purged and Macbeth receives the gift of oblivion, there is no sense of repose or reconciliation in its final scenes’ (The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, 1960).

Order is restored, as Ornstein points out; a ‘good’ regime is to replace an evil one, but what we have seen happen in Macbeth leaves us with the feeling that destructive forces can just as easily erupt again, and with similar consequences.  It is difficult to see the closing ‘restoration’ as anything more than provisional.  The final speeches of the ‘good’ characters, with their promises of better things to come lack the emotional weight necessary to dispel the gloomy visions conjured up by the Macbeths and their allies. In the Irish political context, this is, in fact, akin to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, The Greens, etc., telling us they will right all the wrongs of the previous Fine Gael,  Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats administration.  We all know by now from bitter experience that these election promises are often made to sound very hollow in time!





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.