Written in the Spring of 2006, for Robert Blacker’s course on Shakespeare’s Dramaturgy. I would later assist Robert on a production of Macbeth that summer for Shakespeare in the Park. It was one of my earliest experiences in the difference between classroom theory and professional practice. Robert’s approach to textual analysis has greatly influenced me up to the present day. – DL
There are two narratives in Macbeth. One depicts the political landscape of feudal Scotland (and implicitly of Jacobean England); the other depicts the progressive splintering of the minds of the Macbeths, man and wife, the two protagonists of the play. Both of these narratives serve Shakespeare’s larger concern: the dramatization of a political worldview whose component elements are paranoia and moral vacuum.
The play opens and closes against a background of war. At the start of the play, King Duncan has just secured his kingship by putting down a rebellion by one of his Thanes. At the end of the play, Duncan’s son Malcolm has just reacquired control of said kingdom by putting down a similar rebellion, led by Macbeth himself. The action at the top and close of the play is similarly busy, comprised of a series of short, quick scenes. In both instances, Shakespeare alternates plotlines until they meet in a violent, clashing action. The early episode of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the Weird Sisters is juxtaposed with report of the battle in Duncan’s camp. At the end of the play, Macbeth’s isolation in Dunsinane is alternated with MacDuff, Malcolm, and the encroaching branches of Birnam Wood. In both instances, the plot strands cohere to fashion a temporary political infrastructure out of the chaos of war—Duncan retiring to the supposedly peaceful Dunsinane, Malcolm off to be crowned at Scone (along with the Earls, evidence of England’s nascent imperial reach). This cyclical repetition of violence produces an air of ambiguity, Shakespeare’s suggestion that retributive violence (an eye for an eye) is necessarily self-perpetuating, feeding on the illegitimacy that is a neccesary byproduct of the doctrine of divine right. His dramatic mission in the play, therefore, is to subversively challenge the process of kingly selection and legitimation.
Alongside this framing structure of warfare is another, supernatural one: the Three Weird Sisters. The Sisters, speakers of an evolutionary version of Puck’s rough, elemental trochaic tetrameter, appear twice in Shakespeare’s hand, often to motivate or plant the seed of malevolent action in Macbeth’s mind. (There is a third Witches’ scene including Hecate—as well as Hecate’s brief fourth appearance in the cauldron scene—that betrays textual corruption. It was not authored by Shakespeare—the language lacks distinction and the scenes serve no purpose in the action of the play, a surprising anomaly in Shakespeare’s shortest and most economic tragedy. It is not so much the comic tone of these scenes that is jarring—the Porter scene of 1.3 is thrillingly, darkly comic—as it is their complete lack of dramatic interest that diminish the scenes’ authenticity.) The Sisters, a starkly recognizable presence in a highly episodic play, constitute a sort of glue that binds the more sprawling elements Macbeth together. They are the framework through which the action develops.
The body of the play focuses on the various murders committed or ordered by Macbeth and their aftereffects. As the murders become progressively more horrific, Macbeth descends further into delusion and compulsion. Duncan and his guards are killed offstage. Banquo (Macbeth’s best friend) is killed by hired assassins in front of his oldest son onstage—although the son manages to escape. MacDuff’s Wife and young son (along with the Porter, one of the best written small parts in the show) are murdered in cold blood onstage. Finally, in a culmination of this progression. Young Siward, a boy of 17, is killed by Macbeth himself, just after Lady Macbeth has died offstage. By the play’s close, the murders keep mounting in number and horror, causing the play’s atmosphere to become thick with dread and death. Malcolm’s concluding couplet: “thanks to all at once, and to each one, / Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone,” is shocking not merely for its stilted rhyme scheme and clumsily end-stopped syllables, but for his apparent lack of remorse. Genuine feeling has been covered up by efficient bureaucratic expressions and political decorum. The start and end of the play consist of the smoothing out of the eternally inconvenient political problem of disloyalty through cold-blooded murder. Shakespeare, having allowed us to glimpse the carnage underneath the façade, renders Malcolm’s language suspect for its simplicity. The cycle of violence, covered by stopgap rule, continues. Only the names change.
Consonant with the growing horror of the play’s murders is the disturbing schism that develops over the course of the play between the Macbeths. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin the play in an extreme state of marital intimacy. Shakespeare shows them as sharing the same thoughts and desires, to an unsettling degree. When they act, it is their mutual action—the conspiring and murdering of Duncan—that unleashes the inner and outer forces which serve to drive them apart. In an instance of elegant dramaturgy, Shakespeare slyly weds the Macbeths’ relationship to the heart of the play’s political dimension, making their marriage’s dissolution a microcosm of the larger, surrounding chaos. As the action progresses, the Macbeths arrive at absolute estrangement from each other. Both of their minds devolve, but in opposite moral directions. Macbeth, who begins the play a fundamentally decent and rational human being, ends it a raving madman. Lady Macbeth is first seen gripped by murderous ambition and casting a supernatural spell, both of which turn to subsequent pangs of conscience that drive her insane.
Another recurring pattern in the play is the presence of children; more specifically, reflecting Shakespeare’s concern with succession and legitimacy, male heirs. The barren Macbeths are adrift in a veritable sea of fathers and sons, Macbeth himself is surrounded by a plethora of eldest-born male heirs: Fleance, Young Macduff, Malcolm, and Young Siward. Eight generations of Banquo’s descendants (James I’s Stuart ancestors) are even anatomized onstage in the fantastic apparition scene halfway through the play. Macbeth frantically attempts to kill all of these progeny, and he does succeed in murdering MacDuff’s son and Young Siward. As I’ve suggested, Shakespeare does not fully resolve this tension between legitimacy and usurpation, almost as if to suggest that the anxieties inherent in the ideology of divine-right succession will ultimately lead to universal war and retributive genocide.
This anxiety is most clearly apparent in the crucial scene between Malcolm and Macduff late in the action (4.3), as the latter tries to induce the former to reassert his right and drive the usurper Macbeth out of Scotland. Malcolm is surprisingly hesitant to return to war, fully articulating the dangers inherent in the doctrine of retributive violence.
When I shall tread upon the tyrant’s head,
Or wear it upon my sword, yet my poor country
Shall have more vices than it had before,
More suffer, and more sundry ways than ever,
By him that shall succeed. (4.3.45-48)
Nowhere else in the play does a character arrive at such a clear-eyed understanding of the political situation and the price of power. It is somewhat surprising to think back upon the beginning scenes of the play, which contain some of its complicated passages of exposition. Understanding of these events is of paramount importance to the interpretation of the play as a whole.
Duncan has just repressed, with the aid of Macbeth, a rebellion by the treacherous Thane of Cawdor with the help of the Norwegian King. Macbeth, not coincidentally, has been the most prized and loyal agent of the king in the field. In the play’s second scene (which feels like the first), a Captain describes Macbeth’s state-sanctioned killing of “the merciless Macdonwald”: “he unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chops, / And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.22-3). In this world, friends turn to enemies in a heartbeat, and loyalties are not worth the words used to speak them. There is no firm political ground to stand upon, and the only way of maintaining power is through an endless chain of murder. The state-justified killings that lead up to the play’s opening should be read as part of this chain, forecasting the action in this, Shakespeare’s tragedy of political paranoia and betrayal. The former Thane of Cawdor upon whom Duncan built his “absolute trust” proved just as traitor as Macbeth eventually would. After Duncan has him summarily executed, an act of retributive violence which should give us pause, the cold-blooded Malcolm is present to observe, in a famous line that could well pertain to all of the lost souls in the play, “Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it” (1.4.7-8). And so the cycle continues, and past is present in this world.
As suggested above, the fragmentation of the Macbeths’ relationship, both figuratively and literally, constitutes a profound half of the play’s structure. The two characters begin the play almost literally intertwined, sharing the same thoughts, images, and deeds. After the early climax of Duncan’s murder, the Macbeths are never as close again. Their separate motions toward isolation clearly mirror each other, suggesting the fatally dangerous consequences of their original, unnatural closeness. Most importantly, Shakespeare develops all of these themes through language, of which he has complex and virtuosic command.
The first of the two characters that we see is Macbeth, and his first lines immediately suggest the play’s equivocating themes. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” he says to Banquo in 1.3, immediately calling to mind the lines of the Weird Sisters at the end of the play’s first scene. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Like the Sisters, Macbeth is unusually capable of seeing both sides. He is most likely referring specifically to the gore of the battlefields, the war over loyalty to the king and kingdom that casts such a profound specter over both the opening and closing of the play, bookending it thematically in a progression from uncertainty to more uncertainty. But when taken in conjunction with the words of the Sisters, these lines assume a broader, philosophical meaning. Macbeth the play is characterized, not so much by pure and simple darkness (i.e. the “foul” of which Macbeth speaks) as it is by equivocation: darkness which is in sinister simultaneity with the good, the “fair.” This sense of doubleness, of irresolvable antithesis, is a recurrent rhetorical feature in the play, with repeated references to “natural” and “unnatural,” light and dark, fair and foul. The Macbeths and Sisters seem to exist in a world of shadowy, unnatural nighttime, whereas Shakespeare takes care to depict Duncan and Malcolm within the anodyne light of the day. MacDuff’s lines in 4.3 reiterate this idea in language antipodal to Macbeth’s: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, ’tis hard to reconcile.”
Although Macbeth has a poetic sensibility for the horrors caused by warfare, he is initially presented by Shakespeare as a terse man of action, uttering short sentences that cut quickly to the pragmatic heart of the matter. A key point of interpretation, one with significant consequences both for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, is the matter of when the seeds for Duncan’s murder are planted first. I believe that the blame cannot be placed upon Lady Macbeth alone, for it is in 1.3 that we first see Macbeth grapple with and succumb to the tempting prophecy posed by the Sisters. Shakespeare develops this through the increasing poetic and rhetorical complexity of Macbeth’s language.
Immediately after the Witches vanish, Macbeth has no conception of murdering Duncan. “Stay, you imperfect speakers,” he says, referring to their misshapen appearance, their erring accuracy in divination, or both. “… to be King / Stands not within the prospect of belief” (1.3.70-4). Yet after the Thanes of Rosse and Angus enter, bearing the significant news (as messengers, those conveyors of reversal, so often do in drama) of Macbeth’s promotion to Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth’s thought shifts profoundly. His language changes, and this, his first major soliloquy in the play, shows a man of few words in public but intense interior thought. The theme is again equivocating, the double appearance of this news.
Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme […]
[…] 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 murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man,
That function is smother’d in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not. […]
If Chance will have me King, why, Chance
May crown me, without my stir. (1.3.128-144)
This crucial speech sees Macbeth for the first time pondering Duncan’s murder, the power of “that suggestion” (i.e. the Witches’ prophecy) permeating his thoughts, and causing him to perceive truths that may not be actual. Although the Witches and Lady Macbeth will both play large roles in spurring Macbeth to action, the seed of murder originates with him, in this moment. The language is notable for its poetic sophistication and rhetorical ease, even as Macbeth’s thought becomes more and more troubled. The thoughts are tangled, the images “horrid,” yet they come tumbling out of his mouth easily, the sense often spilling over from the end of one line to the next.
This is partially evidence of a mature playwright. By this point in his career, Shakespeare was a less schematic and more instinctive writer. Events in Macbeth occur according to their own internal logic in time and space. The dramaturgy is episodic, and often speeches such as this materialize out of thin air to flesh out and lash together the play’s themes. In this speech, we sense political success attaching itself to murderous design, the unnaturality of that ambition, the randomness of political event in the universe, and Macbeth’s doubts as a man, all thematic concerns that will recur over and over in the play. Most prominent is Macbeth’s attitude of stark ambivalence, suspended yet again between “ill” and “good,” fair and foul. By the next scene (Macbeth’s meeting with Malcolm and Duncan), his ambivalence is already starting to erode, as he ponders getting rid of Duncan in a black aside: “That is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies” (1.4.48-9). Lady Macbeth, appearing for the first time in 1.5, will supply the final, fateful push.
In her first appearance, we see Lady Macbeth reading Macbeth’s words from a letter out loud. Our first association of her consists of a moment of verbal (and, it’s implied, mental) communion with her husband. Lady Macbeth will function prominently in this role in the first half of the play as a supplementary and augmenting force, subsuming her very being into that of her husband in order to mutually attain power. She becomes an extension of Macbeth, his will in times of self-doubt, his hands in times of action. By communing with her husband’s ambition, Lady Macbeth also communes, by extension, with the Witches, even though she never sees or meets them in the play. After reading his letter Lady Macbeth casts a witchlike spell, calling on the “Spirits that tend on mortal thougts” and beckoning them to “unsex me here.” Spookily, she seems to want to become her husband, murderous and violent in the heat of political ambition, even though he is initially reluctant and inclined toward self-doubt.
Lady Macbeth seems to view Macbeth’s humanity as a flaw. “He is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,” she says of him, a startling image that calls to mind the maternal breastmilk which we later find out she has wasted on dead children. “I have given suck,” Lady Macbeth says to a doubt-ridden Macbeth in 1.7 (after challenging his manhood),
And know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-8)
This is an odd crux, since we know from Macduff’s line later in the play (“he has no children,” 4.3.216) that the Macbeths are a childless couple. Lady Macbeth’s invocation of infanticide justifies childlessness as preferable to dishonor and lack of ambition.
The subordination of the personal and corporeal to the political and supernatural suggests the circumstances of the world that gives shape to the Macbeths’ relationship. Those who stress the healthy sex life of the Macbeths must do so after first taking into account the degree to which suffering and its aftereffects characterize their relationship prior to the beginning of the play. Macbeth has just come from the battlefield, where he secured Duncan’s kingship by bloodily murdering former friends and noblemen. Lady Macbeth has been sitting in an empty castle, devoid of children, surrounded by servants. Their relationship in the first half of the play, intensely intimate, is also competitive and interdependent. These are hardened souls in a cruel world, and their bond has been forged against a backdrop of death and instability. Accrual of power is the most important thing in this world, but not at the cost that Lady Macbeth intimates: the sacrifice of the personal. Their mutual decision to bypass the natural order of succession by murdering Duncan and the others destabilizes not just the political world of the play, but their own precarious symbiosis, ending in a shared (and separate) insanity and death.
Act 4, Scene 3
The Avenging Warrior and the Machiavel
Shakespeare introduces Macduff in a stage direction in 1.6, without lines or fanfare. It is only after the great Porter scene midway through Act 2 that he becomes a dramatic character of note. At first a terse and dutiful lord to Duncan (somewhat in the matter of Macbeth in 1.3), Macduff becomes considerably more wordy after entering Duncan’s chamber and discovering his murder. In fact, Macduff is the first character to identify the body, and his loud, emotional outbust of grief shifts the tenor of the play. Macduff’s speech is remarkable for its emotionality and lack of self-reflection, paralleling Macbeth’s more calculating and complex language of mourning in the scene, and perhaps foreshadowing his very similar outpouring of grief in 4.3, when Malcolm informs him of the murder of his wife and child. Both times, Macduff’s discoveries further the unfolding of the action. In 2.3, his cry of “O horror, horror, horror!” (65) awakens the court, scatters the Thanes, and begins the estrangement of the Macbeths. In 4.3, his at first mournful, then violent reaction to the news of his family’s death serves as the impetus for the scattered lords coming back together, and shift back into the violent action of war which begins the play. In this sense, Macduff’s discoveries are located at crucial stations in the play’s action, demarcating the shift into the play’s middle third, which is largely a private story focusing on the Macbeths, and back out again.
Unlike Macbeth, there is no textual evidence to furnish MacDuff’s reputation as a warrior. Something makes him become a warrior over the course of the play. In 2.3, he is only depicted as a loyal noble, grieving emotionally over the murder of his king. In marked contrast, Malcolm shows almost no grief for his father in the scene, either publicly or privately, just as he displays no remorse for the beheaded rebels in Act 1. Instead, his dialogue with his brother Donalbain in 2.3 betrays a marked paranoia toward all of the lords. Perhaps Malcolm views Macduff, along with the rest of Duncan’s trusted guard (he arrives in Dunsinane as part of the party conveying Duncan hence), as a threat. Certainly, the discovery of his father’s murder, coming on the heels of his unorthodox declaration of succession in the previous scene, posits a moment of radical political instability and imminent physical danger. Malcolm’s first instinct is for his own self-preservation, and Shakespeare reveals his paranoia subtly, in cryptic language.
While Macbeth and Macduff exhort emotionally following Duncan’s nature (Macbeth, characteristically, sees a “breach in nature,” whereas Macduff’s language is specifically religious—unusual in Shakespeare—witness “sacrilegious murder,” the breaking open of “the Lord’s anointed temple,” etc.), but Malcolm and Donalbain find themselves curiously silent, and worry about the political weight of their words. “Why do we hold our tongues, that most may claim this argument for ours?” (122-3) Malcolm says to his brother in an aside, sensing a political opportunity lost due to hesitancy to show outward displays of emotion. “What should be spoken here, where our fate, his in an augur-hole, may rush and seize us?” Donalbain replies, perhaps terrified, “Let’s away, our tears are not yet brewed” (123-35). For Malcolm and Donalbain, escaping allows them the chance to manufacture politically appropriate shows of grief, an opportunity to “claim this argument.” Malcolm and Donalbain belong to a different caste than Macbeth and MacDuff. They think before they speak, and are more comfortable with acting than displaying dangerously unmodulated public emotion. In 4.3, Malcolm’s ability to put on the mask will prove the key to his character.
Malcolm is one of the first characters seen in Macbeth, standing side by side with Duncan and the Bleeding Captain in 1.2 after the brief Witches scene which begins the play. In the two scenes in which he appears before Duncan’s death, he is mostly silent, speaking only to Duncan, and formally in his address when he does so. His only notable line comes when describing the execution of Cawdor:
… I have spoke
With one that saw him die, who did report
That very frankly he confesses his treasons,
Implored your highness’ pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. He died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As ’twere a careless trifle. (1.2.2-11)
Malcolm focuses on the same cluster of subjects which dominate his thoughts afterward: the proper attitude toward death, and the proper manifestation of that attitude in outward behavior.
Macbeth exits in 2.3, with the rest of the lords, on the line, “let’s briefly put on manly readiness” (2.3.135). Such outward admittance of performative behavior is anathema to Malcolm, who repeatedly shows himself as keenly sensitive to genuine and artificed behavior, as he quickly proves in his following line, “Let’s not consort with them, to show an unfelt sorrow is an office which the false man does easy” (2.3.137-8). Malcolm, outwardly cold and unfeeling, is already a sharp observer of political, public behaviors, even as his political sense of self-preservation effectively tempers much of his outward shows of feeling.
This short patch of dialogue with Donalbain is the only time we see Malcolm in a non-public situation, discussing matters of personal as well as political significance. His lines reveal a strong political intelligence, fueled by a sharp sense of the efficacy of public performance. And he is not above using the means of stealth and conspiracy to contrive a victory. In reply to Donalbain’s final line, “there’s daggers in men’s smiles” (2.3.142), which articulates with full metaphoric power the cloud of suspicion hanging over their dialogue, Malcolm reveals his twin tendencies toward self-preservation and political stealth:
This murderous shaft that’s shot
Hath not yet lighted, and our safest way
Is to avoid the aim. […] There’s warrant in that theft
Which steals itself when there’s no mercy left. (2.3.142-8, emphasis mine)
It is the last time we see Donalbain in the play, and the last time Malcolm is onstage until 4.3.
Macduff next appears in one of the “choral” scenes of 2.3, in which Macbeth is not present. The scene is mostly expository, Macduff speaking with Rosse and an Old Man. Malcolm and Donalbain have fled to England and London, their “arguments” claimed by the speech of others, and are suspected in connection to their father’s murder. Macbeth is going to crown himself king. There are also storms brewing, evidence of a further breach in nature. Macduff and Rosse exchange the news tersely, as if each is waiting for the other to make the first move. Macduff’s decision not to attend Macbeth’s coronation is the turning point of the scene and the beginning of the rebellion.
With Macduff offstage, the private story of Macbeth unfolds. Banquo’s and Macduff’s family are murdered, Macbeth’s court slowly disintegrates, and the Macbeths drift ever further apart. When Malcolm and Macduff reappear, so does the political narrative. The 4.3 scene is set in England, and though it is never described explicitly, it seems to be set in thematic opposition to the nightmarish nighttime world of Scotland. In a strange (and apt to be cut) episode halfway through the scene, a Doctor enters to describe the English King healing the sick, an action directly opposite Macbeth’s string of murders. The disease he is healing “ ’Tis called the Evil” (4.3.156), likely a reference to the plague, though the lack of detail makes the King’s benevolence appear almost allegorical. (If this was an attempt by Shakespeare at currying favor with James I, it was an odd one. As the Oxford edition notes, James was suspicious of the process of “touching” for various theological diseases, and “expressly rejected the suggestion of miracle, which Shakespeare retained” (72).
If England is portrayed as a landscape of sun-dappled benevolence, Macduff enters, dragging with him memories of the ravaged Scotland. “Let us seek out some desolate shade,” Malcolm says to him in the first lines of the scene, “and there weep our sad bosoms empty” (4.3.1-2). In the scene, Malcolm plays the role of the weak and dissipated prince, and Macduff reproaches him. “Let us rather hold fast the mortal sword,” he replies to Malcolm, choosing to emphasize the warrior’s duty. Macduff associates masculinity (an echo of Macbeth’s “let us put on manly readiness” from 1.2) with physical confrontation. Malcolm’s attitudes are opaque. It seems that neither man knew the other well previously, as the bulk of the scene’s action consists of them feeling each other out cautiously. The scene, potentially confusing and inactive, can be explained by one simple insight: Malcolm is acting, whereas MacDuff is not.