Posted: February 19, 2008
Editors' note: This essay inaugurates the CRB's Locus Classicus feature, in which we review good and great works of the past that continue to compel modern attention. Harry Jaffa's interpretation of Macbeth, published here for the first time, is adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College in 1974. It was the last of three memorable lectures by him on three great literary murder sagas: Camus's The Stranger, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. The complete lectures will be published by the Claremont Institute.
acbeth is a moral play par excellence. In this, it stands in stark contrast to two more recent well-known tales of murder, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus's The Stranger. In Macbeth Shakespeare presented the moral phenomena in such a way that those who respond to his art must, in some way or another, become better human beings. In Dostoevsky's and Camus's heroic criminals we see the corruption of moral consciousness characteristic of modern literature.
By the art of Camus we are led to admire his hero, Meursault; young people especially tend to identify with him. What kind of hero is Meursault? He is utterly indifferent to morality and cannot understand what others mean when they say they love other human beings. In the story, he kills a man and is sentenced to be executed, in part because he did not weep at his mother's funeral. Meursault becomes passionate in the end: but the only passion he ever experiences is the passionate revulsion against the idea of human attachment. He thinks no one had a right to expect him to weep at his mother's funeral, or for anyone else to weep at her funeral. By Camus's hero we are taught to be repelled by those who (he believes) falsely teach us that there is any foundation for human attachments, or that there is anything in the universe that is lovable. The benign indifference to the universe is the only form of the benign, of goodness itself, in the universe. To imitate the indifference of the universe to good and evil is to live life at its highest level.
In Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov we find a profound articulation of the psychology of the modern revolutionary. Raskolnikov is a more persuasive embodiment of the revolutionary hero than can be found in Proudhon, or in Marx or Lenin. The hero of Crime and Punishment is admired for his heroic suffering, and there is something stupendously powerful in Raskolnikov's suffering. We are taught to sympathize and suffer with him. We undergo (in a milder form) the torture that he undergoes as a result both of contemplating and of committing the murder. The reason his suffering is heroic is that he suffers for the sake of a suffering humanity. He becomes a kind of Christ figure. Unlike Camus's hero, Dostoevsky's hero loves passionately. What is it that he loves? Again, unlike Camus's hero, what he loves above everything is his mother. And of course he is for this reason a much more sympathetic figure, even though he commits a far more brutal crime. But his love for his mother and his sister, and his unwillingness that they suffer the degradation that he thinks circumstances are inflicting upon them, makes him a rebel against the moral order. This drives him to murder a rich pawnbroker, a hateful old woman who is a symbol not merely of a money-grubbing social order but of the Gordian knot which upholds that order. That obstacle—the prohibition of murder—stands between him and a solution of what he sees as at once his personal problem and the problem of all humanity.
The moral order that Raskolnikov violates is represented to us merely and simply as a by-product of Christianity. The ultimate sanction for the prohibition against murder would seem to be incorporated in the ministry of Jesus, which finds its most powerful expression in the story of the raising of Lazarus. The scene in Crime and Punishment in which the harlot is compelled by the murderer to read the story is one of the high points in the world's literature. In the scene, Raskolnikov rather scornfully acknowledges the ground of the morality he has violated, but to which he is in some way still committed. Of course, it is clear that he does not believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
At the end of the novel, when he is in the process of gaining some kind of redemption, he wonders whether he might some day accept the harlot Sonia's simple faith in the Gospels. The moral order is, as we said, represented to him by Christianity. And he himself is a kind of Christian hero because he shares the compassion for humanity which is presumably the motive of Jesus himself in accepting the sacrifice on the cross. Raskolnikov too suffers on a kind of cross in the tremendous catharsis he undergoes as a result of the murder. This catharsis takes the form of a series of terrible fevers. Yet he recovers. His crime is not beyond redemption. In fact, it is the necessary cause of his redemption, which would not have been possible before the murder.
Raskolnikov's guilt is uncovered by an examining magistrate who is a kind of detective. This man discovers Raskolnikov's guilt by reading Raskolnikov's essay, which is really a profession of revolutionary faith, and of the right of the hero to destroy a corrupt old order in order to build a better new one. The striking thing about this detective is not so much his cleverness in finding Raskolnikov out and bringing him within the purview of the law. What is striking is that he becomes in a way Raskolnikov's partner. Porfiry is not a minister of vindictive justice. He shows the criminal a way to escape any real penalty for his crime. His ultimate sentence is eight years of penal servitude, under conditions which hardly remind us of the Gulag. He seems to be in some kind of minimum security prison, with Sonia nearby to alleviate whatever of hardship there may be. Porfiry remits all real punishment and shows Raskolnikov the way to a new life, in which his legal punishment is as nothing compared to the suffering he already has undergone in the wake of the murder.
Raskolnikov shares with Meursault the fact that his crime leads in the end, not to a fall, but to an ascent to a higher form of consciousness, to a salvation which would not have been possible had the crime not been committed. There is moreover nothing in Raskolnikov's punishment to discourage anyone—e.g., a Lenin—who may look upon him as the prototype of the revolutionary hero. In Crime and Punishment, we see a moral consciousness resembling in decisive respects a messianic Christianity. Such reform of society as may be envisioned has nothing to do with politics, and in fact subsists upon the conviction that salvation consists in direct action—such as murdering an old woman, or a royal family. Napoleon's action in destroying the ancien régime, and replacing it with the regime of reason, executing whoever stood in the way, is the tacit model.
Morality and Politics
When we turn to Macbeth we turn to a world so different that it is hard to identify what it has in common with the worlds of Camus and Dostoevsky. Certainly Christianity is present in Macbeth as in Crime and Punishment, but it is a Christianity so different that one wonders what it shares except the name. Meursault is perfectly amoral. Whether he is a beast or a god, he is "beyond good and evil," and cannot either love or hate. The priest who tries to console Meursault as he awaits execution he regards as the ultimate alien and the ultimate enemy. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, overflows with passion, and is as intensely alive to moral distinctions as Meursault is dead to them. But Raskolnikov thinks it may be necessary to violate the moral law, perhaps even by committing murder, in order to come into possession of the human good, including the moral good.
Macbeth on the other hand is a man who feels the power of morality to the fullest extent. He does so, I suggest, because he is a political man. By a political man, I understand someone who is a vital part of a political community. For Camus's hero the political community does not exist. For Dostoevsky's hero, it exists only marginally. Raskolnikov is the model for a revolutionary, whose cause is that of all humanity. His is a polity—like the City of God—that has no borders. Patriotism is not possible however in a world polity ("world polity" is an oxymoron). Patriotism is possible only if there is a connection between one's father and the political order. (In the City of God, God the Father is the father of that city.) In Macbeth's case, patriotism has a literal meaning, as he belongs to the royal family. He murders the king, forcing the king's sons—one of whom is the confirmed heir—to flee. He becomes king—after the murder—by a process of election, but one which is limited to the royal family. When we speak of patriotism we presume a people descended from a common ancestor. The children of Israel are those descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the original fathers, the founding fathers. In the most patriotic speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln began by saying, "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation...." Now the United States, like other modern nation-states, is not a polity in the original sense of the political: the law of the Constitution makes fellow citizens of those of different ethnicities. The unity of the human race, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, in Lincoln's poetic evocation, replaces the particular ancestors of ancient polities with the nature which is the universal ancestor of all human beings.
Lincoln reminds us of the original meaning of citizenship, and invests in our citizenship something of the intensity of that original citizenship. Macbeth as he comes into sight is above all a citizen. As such, he shares responsibility for the commonwealth and, as a citizen-soldier, labors in its service. He feels keenly the honor that accompanies his heroic deeds. In serving the country by serving the king, he is keenly aware of the greatness of the honor that accompanies the person of the king. His ambition is therefore, in its origin, a by-product of his virtue. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics characterizes two of the moral virtues as embodying all the others. One of these encompassing virtues is magnanimity, and the other is legal justice. Legal justice is justice in its most comprehensive form. It is justice as seen from the perspective of the law of the ancient city. Aristotle, reflecting that perspective, says "whatever the law does not command, it forbids." In this he is in full agreement with the Mosaic law.
We today would say that "whatever the law does not forbid, it permits." One might think that the difference lies in the permissiveness of our culture. That there is such a difference is undeniable, but its sources go deeper than to our contemporary moral corruptions; and in fact, little, if any, of the difference is due to a changed or lowered conception of human well-being. Aristotle and Moses were agreed in regarding the law as emanating from God or the gods. Their polities were expanded tribal societies, insignificant in size compared to any modern nation-state. In today's polities, any attempt at such comprehensive moral tutelage as we find in the idea of law in the ancient city would result in something like Nazi or Communist tyranny. Yet the moral commands—embodied in the idea of law in the books of Moses and of Aristotle, constitute the negation of tyranny. But what Aristotle calls legal justice, not as a feature of positive law but of moral law, reminds us that we are under an obligation (even if it is no longer legally enforceable) to practice all the virtues.
Whose actions have the widest consequences and are most in need of virtue to direct them? The rulers'. Hence morality in all its dimensions can be best seen in the lives of rulers. Private men or women cannot be moral in the highest degree because they are limited in the scope of their actions. Aristotle quotes the Greek proverb, "Rule shows the man." No one ever knows with certainty how virtuous—or vicious—a man might be until he holds office and has power. Only those in power reveal their real natures. For this reason all Shakespeare's great plays are about rulers: kings and princes and dukes and military commanders. In the Roman plays, these rulers are not kings and princes but great aristocratic warriors like Coriolanus, or great heroes like Julius Caesar, or great soldiers like Mark Antony, who compete among themselves for the rule of the world. Shakespeare's preoccupation is not that of a poet living in an aristocratic age; it is the preoccupation of a moralist who would display human actions on that scale on which alone they can be said to be fully intelligible. Only in a political context can the nature of morality be thoroughly considered. One reason why the works of both Camus and Dostoevsky are deficient in their understanding of morality is their deficiency in understanding politics. Only in a political work in which political actions of the gravest kind are involved can one see the moral phenomena in their fullness.
This Bank and Shoal of Time
Macbeth, at the beginning, is a good man. He is a loyal subject, and much more than a loyal subject. He is one who has displayed courage and fidelity in the service of his king and country in a higher degree than anyone else. He is the most honored man, and the most justly honored man in the kingdom. The tragedy of Macbeth is the tragedy of his fall from that high estate. Macbeth reminds us of Milton's Satan, the most glorious of the angels of heaven, who becomes a fallen angel. We cannot understand the meaning of a fall from virtue if the fall is from a very low position, like that of Meursault. Or even that of Raskolnikov. Although he is lower middle class, Raskolnikov is very proud and thinks himself worthy of great things, but there is nothing to confirm the judgment that he is worthy of the pride he feels. In Macbeth's case we have a man who is certainly proud, but who has demonstrated on the field of battle, in the face of temptation and treachery, that his great pride is justified by his great virtue. And it is his fall that we witness. More than that, we witness the inextricable intertwining of crime and punishment. There is no tincture of salvation resulting from Macbeth's crime—only damnation.
The crime, and the punishment, of Macbeth are inseparable from that of Lady Macbeth. Her fate is not tragic in the sense that his is, because hers is not a fall from grace. She is pure evil at the outset. There is, in her mind, no reason for them not to kill the king. Her invocation of the powers of darkness, when the murder is still in contemplation, is that of a soul already lost to evil. Her punishment, in the end, is different from his, and we must consider in what way it is appropriate to their differences.
Macbeth's soliloquy in act 1, scene 7, is a dialogue with himself on the question of whether to murder the king. All the arguments are against, but one. And that one is so weak as not to merit serious consideration. Yet it will prove to be the one that will prevail, under Lady Macbeth's tutelage.
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th' inventor. This evenhanded justice
Commends th' ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked newborn babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
Enter Lady Macbeth
This soliloquy consists entirely of reasons why Macbeth ought not to murder the king. Macbeth reasons truly to a true conclusion. In so doing, he reaches the peak of his moral stature, the point at which the greatest temptation is met and overcome. It provides us, at one and the same time, the height from which the hero falls, and the mystery of why he falls, after such a clear vision of the impossibility of success and the certainty of retribution.
There are three sets of reasons given, in ascending form. The first is that the murder cannot succeed, because "evenhanded justice" will instruct others to murder the murderer. Those who take up arms against a tyrant will not, like Macbeth, be driven by naked ambition, but by the moral and political necessity to rid themselves of the incubus of tyranny.
Second is the obligation imposed by the moral order, which tells us that it is our duty to protect a kinsman, king, and guest. Implicit is the idea that Macbeth is part of a moral order, to violate which is in some sense to violate himself. Macbeth here understands himself to be, in Aristotle's sense, a social and political animal. His eventual punishment will consist, in part, in his consciousness of his separation from those who have been dear to him, and whose welfare has been intertwined with his own.
Third is the drama, illuminated by Macbeth's powerful imagination, of the moral order personified. Duncan is not only king, he has been a good king, "so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking-off." The lines which follow are perhaps the most moving in all Shakespeare, in rendering the moral order as a self-subsisting palpable reality, with infinite resources for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. They are followed by the conclusion that he has no motive to commit the murder, only his ambition, "vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself...." That is to say, it is a passion which has no justification beyond itself, a passion at war with reason—certain to be self-defeating.
The soliloquy begins by Macbeth wishing the assassination "could trammel up the consequence." By this he means that if the deed could have no further effects, he would "jump the life to come," that is, ignore the consequences after death. Macbeth believes in heaven, hell, the immortality of the soul, and future rewards and future punishment. Later in the play, when he learns that Fleance has escaped the murderers he has hired, and that Banquo's issue, not his, will occupy the throne of Scotland, he complains bitterly that he has given his "eternal jewel" to the "common enemy of man," and is getting nothing in return. He seems to have expected Satan to keep what Macbeth regarded as Satan's part of the bargain. One might say, Macbeth had to learn the hard way that Satan is not a gentleman. Macbeth does not however actually name Satan (although he does have a servant named Seyton). Nor does he name God. His punishment, as we shall see, is not in his alienation from God, but from beloved human beings.
How can such an overwhelming decision have been so quickly reversed, as it was, by the entrance of Lady Macbeth? Here we must turn to a character as extraordinary as her husband. The meaning of the play must be sought in the comparative analysis of their divergent and convergent courses. In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth is reading aloud the letter from her husband, in which he tells her of the witches' prophecies, and how, as he "stood, rapt in the wonder," missives came from the king, hailing him Thane of Cawdor. That put him—and her—instantly in mind of the greater hail, of "king that shalt be." Lady Macbeth's soliloquy, which follows, assumes without question that the promised greatness can only be brought to pass by evil means. She does not consider—as we might think she ought—whether the ascent to the throne might not happen by a natural evolution of the political process. This thought must have passed through Macbeth's mind. When he hears Duncan name Malcolm as his successor, he says to himself, "that is a step on which I must fall down or else o'erleap." He must have thought there was some legitimate path to the throne—however remote the possibility—before Malcolm was named Prince of Cumberland. The witches' prophecy did not exclude such possibility and at one point Macbeth says, "If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir." If Macbeth did not "stir" to become Thane of Cawdor, why might he not await the same dispensation to become king? Why did he not consider that the witches' prophecy was a kind of assurance that, absent other causes, chance would be obliged to make him king? Lady Macbeth will speak of him being crowned by "fate and metaphysical aid." Why do they both assume that this is a sanction for murder, and not the same sufficient cause that made him Thane of Cawdor?
Lady Macbeth drives out of mind any alternative to murder. Here is her thought-after reading the letter—on the task before her:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I 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. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries "Thus thou must do if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone." Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal.
We see that Lady Macbeth anticipates her husband's reluctance and recalcitrance. She fears his nature, which is too full of the milk of human kindness. There is a great deal about both his nature and her nature in the development of the play. She will call on the spirits of darkness to "unsex" her and to come to her woman's breasts and take her milk for gall. Milk is on the side of nature, or is nature, inasmuch as it is—for her—something that must be overcome. In perhaps the most astounding of her rejections of nature, she says
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 his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
There is, however, no evidence of such an oath by Macbeth, as she asserts him to have sworn. She repeatedly attributes to him a previous commitment to the murder, which he never made. One wonders why he does not correct her. The soliloquy above in which Macbeth debates the question of the murder in his own mind, coming firmly to a conclusion against it, would make no sense if he had taken such an oath. To whom or to what would he have sworn? A proper oath usually ends, whether explicitly or implicitly, "so help me God." But Macbeth could hardly call on God to help him commit murder. Macbeth later implies that he has given his soul to the "common enemy of man." Satan, he thought, would help him because Satan would by the murder gain possession of Macbeth's soul. But what kind of oath can Lady Macbeth have had in mind when she speaks of swearing as he has done? What could she desire that would justify her in her own mind in murdering the smiling infant at her breast? This question is all the more relevant when we bear in mind that Macbeth wished above all to found a dynasty, and Lady Macbeth would have been an indispensable means to this end. At the moment they have no living children. The thought of murdering the child she once had—which was, incidentally, male—as a means of gaining the crown, is intrinsically inconsistent with his ambition to found a dynasty.
The Moral Universe
Lady Macbeth says that Macbeth is not without ambition, but lacks the "illness should attend it." This is the only occurrence in Shakespeare of "illness" to mean "capacity for doing evil." That a capacity for evil is an evil capacity is not what Lady Macbeth intends to convey, but Shakespeare conveys it to us nonetheless. That ambition "should" be attended by release from moral restraint is a thesis much older than Machiavelli. It is explored in the greatest depth in both Plato's Republic and Gorgias, wherein Socrates maintains that the worst fate to befall a human being is not to become the victim of a tyrant—terrible as that may be—but to become a tyrant. The soul of the tyrant makes him the enemy of everyone, and the friend of none. Without friends, the life of the tyrant is barren of every good thing that might have tempted him to become a tyrant. But the actions that made him tyrant make it impossible for him safely to relinquish or abandon his tyranny. As Macbeth discovers, once he crosses the threshold of murder, he almost cannot help being driven to commit ever multiplying murders. Every step of his way, after the first murder, drives him further down that path. But he cannot turn back; he has lost the moral freedom which accompanied his first soliloquy, and he is in the grip of a remorseless and relentless necessity. His career of crime can end only in damnation both in this world and the next. The lesson of the play is the inexorable and inescapable vindictive power of the moral universe.
Callicles in the Gorgias presents the anti-Socratic thesis that underlies Lady Macbeth's commitment to tyranny and murder. This thesis looks upon morality not as natural but as against nature, as a conspiracy of the weak against the strong, a conspiracy to deprive the strong of the goods that naturally belong to them. This conspiracy begins in early life, when we are taught that sharing (i.e., justice) is good, and that seizing and possessing whatever is within our power to seize and possess is wrong. We are thus led to accept an illusory good, i.e., a reputation for justice, instead of demanding the natural good of dominance and possession. From this perspective, tyranny is the best regime according to nature. It is this understanding of natural right that informs Lady Macbeth's case for the murder. Macbeth, in which Macbeth's reasons for rejecting the murder are utterly and completely vindicated, and in which Lady Macbeth's reasons for contradicting them are utterly and completely defeated, is the very perfection of the Socratic case against the Calliclean.
Lady Macbeth says that what Macbeth "wouldst highly" he wouldst also "holily," implying that he renounces the tyrannical role praised by Callicles. She says that he would not play false, and yet would wrongly win. What does this mean? If someone will not play false, how can he wrongly win? The contradiction, as she sees it, is that he does not abandon the end, even as he recoils from the means. Her task, therefore, is to fire his passion for the end so as to overcome his repugnance for the means. She says that he fears to do what must be done, even though he would not wish it undone, if it were done. She will "chastise" with the "valor" of her tongue this weakness, this essential indecision, that impedes him from "the golden round." The idea of chastisement implies punishment for wrongdoing, and her "valor" a power for good. The moral order appears, in this speech, as an obstruction to Calliclean virtue.
All That May Become a Man
The action of the tragedy originates from the struggle at the outset between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The murder takes place only because she is victorious in that struggle. Let us consider how she succeeds. He has concluded the soliloquy presented above. She enters, and he tells her
We will proceed no further in this business.
He hath honored me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss
Not cast aside so soon.
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 valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteems't the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' th' adage?
Lady Macbeth does not even answer Macbeth's expressed desire to live in the glow of the golden opinions that are deserved tributes for heroic services to king and country. Those opinions, for which Lady Macbeth has nothing but contempt, would have been sufficient for Macbeth to live a happy life. The time will come, after he has lost them forever, when he will realize how sweet they were, and how hollow by comparison is the "mouth-honor" extorted by the tyrant. For Lady Macbeth the just rewards of virtue do not count in comparison to the "ornament of life." Macbeth replies,
I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.
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.
Macbeth says that he dares do all that may become a man, and who dares do more is none. Clearly, they have different and opposing conceptions of what constitutes a man. It was manly of him, she says, to "break this enterprise to me," once again attributing to him an initiative that is really hers. Then, she says, he was a real man, and to go forward with what he had proposed would make him even more a man. To think otherwise is to think that it was not manly, but beastly, to have considered the murder. She invokes, and rejects, the traditional moral distinction between beast, man, and God, which we find in Aristotle's Politics as well as in Locke's Second Treatise and in the Declaration of Independence.
Macbeth asks, "If we should fail?" Her reply:
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we'll not fail.
She then gives her plan to get the two chamberlains who guard the king drunk, and when
...in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
Th' unguarded Duncan? What not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?
Macbeth now forgets all his own reasoning, abandons all restraint and o'erleaps himself.
Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. Will it not be received
When we have marked with blood those sleepy two
Of his own chamber and used their very daggers,
That they have done it?
There is irony in his call for males, when it is the "valor" of her female tongue that has "chastised" his male nature, a nature that she herself has pronounced too full of the milk of human kindness! It is notable that she refers to the murder of the king as a joint enterprise, "What cannot you and I perform...," and "our great quell...." Macbeth's "Bring forth men-children only" seems certainly misplaced, since the man child here could accomplish nothing by himself. We are, however, put in mind of his overwhelming desire to found a dynasty, something that neither he nor any man can do by himself. She has already made his fidelity to the plot to kill the king fidelity to herself: "From this time, such I account thy love...." Later, when the evil consequences have begun to unfold, and he acts to shield her from what she herself has brought on, he calls her "dearest chuck." It is from within their conjugal relationship that the action of the tragedy emanates. It is his passion for his wife that overcomes the reason he otherwise so amply displays. Rejecting the murder would have alienated her; going forward with the murder meant confirming their partnership. Their bond of matrimony would prove the most powerful of the human attachments in the drama.
What are the merits of her arguments against the possibility of failure? These arguments prove in the end to be those very "bloody instructions" which Macbeth had predicted would turn back upon themselves. Her plan is to get the chamberlains who guard the king drunk, so that they cannot protect him. Their drunkenness will then be alleged as an explanation of the murder. How could anyone believe that they could commit murder when in sleep so "swinish" that their "drenched natures" would lie "as in a death"?
Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?
In the event, they fool no one. Macbeth, sensing this, returns to the scene of the crime and murders both the grooms. The killings of these poor innocents is decisive in turning opinion against him. Lady Macbeth did not, however, expect that their "griefs and clamor" would really succeed. She expected rather that no one would "dare" to openly express disbelief. Lady Macbeth tacitly assumes that when the reins of power are in their hands they can either kill or silence those who would question them. It never occurs to her that the value of the "ornament of life" depends upon how it is gained. To be a king, as distinct from a tyrant, the obedience of the subject must in some sense be voluntary, and not rest upon fear alone.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
We have sketched the causes that propelled the tragedy. At the beginning, Macbeth's strength, such as it is, lies in the clarity with which he views the moral order and understands his place within it. But his will is not equal to his reason, and her will, aided and abetted by her conjugal power, sweeps away the reason that is in him. The consequence of her victory and of the murder that follows is a transformation in the characters of both of them. As the drama proceeds, he loses the doubt and hesitation he possessed before, and becomes ever more resolute in acting out the multiplying demands of tyranny. Yet even as he loses all restraint, and all conscience, he is punished by his awareness of the goodness of the life he has foresworn. The crown is not, as Lady Macbeth had supposed, an avenue to felicity but to damnation, in this world no less than in the next. There is in the possession of the "golden round" no such consummation as Lady Macbeth assumed there would be when she urged the murder on her reluctant husband. Even as he hardens to the life of crime, she disintegrates. The change from "infirm of purpose, give me the daggers" in act 2, to "Out damned spot! Out, I say!" in act 5, represents, to the best of my knowledge, an unrivalled portrayal of a soul in torment. She had called on the powers of darkness to "unsex her," and had denied nature in its purest form, in envisioning herself as murdering the child at her breast. She had seen the image of her father in the murdered king. We see nature reclaiming its own in the suffering she is compelled to undergo. Her fate contrasts with that of her husband, who goes down fighting, still the warrior.
In the end, his passion for her and for the crown are doomed together. Her death is his ultimate defeat, since it was his partnership with her that was the ultimate cause of his rejecting his own better judgment, and risking everything rather than be rejected by her.
Seyton: The Queen, my lord, is dead.
Macbeth: She should have died hereafter,
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
It is paradoxical that this, perhaps the most memorable—and beautiful—passage in the entire drama, is a celebration of despair, of the meaninglessness of life. It is a testament to everything that Macbeth has lost, everything associated with his partnership with Lady Macbeth. Yet at the same time the magic of Shakespeare's celebration is itself a triumph over the very despair it celebrates. It is, in a sense, a vindication of Macbeth himself, a reaffirmation of the greatness of his character before the fall. His fidelity to his wife, although the cause of his fall, nonetheless reminds us of his virtue. There is a non-tyrannical element in his tyranny.
We are reminded, incidentally, that Macbeth's final soliloquy resonates with the many passages in Shakespeare depreciating, and even ridiculing, the acting profession, which was also Shakespeare's. We are also reminded that the actor is the creature of the playwright. Shakespeare was both creator and creature. The images in the souls of the audience are thrice removed from reality. Shakespeare's theater and Plato's cave are closely related. The thesis ofMacbeth is also the Socratic thesis, set forth especially in the Republic and the Gorgias, that the worst fate that can befall a human soul, far worse than becoming the victim of a tyrant, is to become a tyrant.
Our analysis has come full circle. Macbeth, like Meursault, ends with "nothing." In the case of the latter, his discovery of the nothingness of the universe and of the idiocy of morality are one and the same. Meursault's discovery is his triumph. Death has no terror for someone for whom life has no meaning, who is not attached to anything in life. The murder—or homicide—he had committed proves in the end to be the fortunate means of the only salvation possible in a dead universe. Macbeth's nothing, by way of contrast, represents the emptying of meaning from a life and world that had been filled to the uttermost with purpose and passion. Lady Macbeth had been the force driving her husband's ambition. It was she who turned his decision not to commit the murder into a decision to commit it. It was she who by the valor of her tongue chastised him into reversing himself. She did so, in part, by declaring that she would take his decision as a measure of his love. The entire tragedy is an emanation of the dynamics of their conjugal relationship. There is no greater irony than that Macbeth has to commit the murder to prove his fidelity. Yet to play her role as murderess, she calls on the spirits of darkness to "unsex" her. She calls upon the spirits, that is to say, to detach her from the nature from which she derives her conjugal power over her husband. In the end, it is that nature which revenges itself upon her, and condemns her to eternal damnation.
The message—I am tempted to call it the moral—of Macbeth, is the inexorability of the moral order. Macbeth's soliloquy in act 1 tells us with perfect clarity why the murder must fail. The action that follows bears out the truth of that soliloquy. Not only does the plot fail, but neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth is allowed one moment of enjoyment of the fruit of their crime. Their punishment begins almost immediately with the murder. The crime is therefore in every sense self-defeating. The moral order, accordingly, is more powerful than the evil spirits that Lady Macbeth called upon. The moral order, according to The Stranger or Crime and Punishment, lacks any such power. Both of these works record the declining power of morality in Western civilization, and in this sense they record the decline of the West. Yet Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address reaffirms the same power of morality as Macbeth. Perhaps that is why Lincoln said that "nothing equals Macbeth."