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The Meanings of MACBETH


By Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager

Macbeth, more than perhaps any of Shakespeare’s other plays, seems to have been written quickly. It feels like a feverish spurt of imagination, one almost certainly fired by a recent political crisis—the Gunpowder Plot of late 1605, a terrorist conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament that shaped the apocalyptic tenor of much Jacobean drama.

The play is unusually short—the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies by far. Written between King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, two of his lengthiest and most panoramic works, Shakespeare seems to have drafted Macbeth quickly and rushed it onto the stage. Many of the play’s odd details seem designed especially for King James—a paranoid, superstitious monarch who had published a book on demonology and who was obsessed with his own personal safety.

Despite its specific origins, however, Shakespeare’s Scottish play has proven to be a surprisingly accessible work. Throughout the 20th century, critics, politicians and artists have granted it a peculiarly prognosticatory power to predict future history. The play has been translated into widely diverse circumstances, fitted neatly to reflect concerns of different decades and domains. What is it, then, about Macbeth that makes it so suggestive and yet also so open to new interpretation?

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Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth. Photo by Tony Powell.

Few other plays display in such concentrated form the full imaginative powers of late Shakespeare: his hypnotic feel for the iambic and trochaic rhythms of the English language, his unconscious-seeming mastery of alliterative warp and weft. Above all, Macbeth offers a glimpse of the tragic themes that seemed to obsess Shakespeare—the corrupting currents of power and ambition, the inevitability of time, the toxic intimacy of husbands and wives, blood that will have blood. All of these themes can be said to equivocate, extending the play’s resonance beyond its specific context and Shakespeare’s life and times to shed insight on our own. The play constitutes its own form of “supernatural soliciting,” as Macbeth terms the Witches’ prophecy. It is endlessly rewarding to repeated study and reinterpretation and nearly impossible to reduce to straightforward meanings.

Because of its brevity, the structure of Macbeth is unusually clear. Beginning with the death of Duncan in act 2, the action charts an obsessive, repetitive pattern: Macbeth embarks upon a series of murders, preceded by scenes in which they are discussed, and followed by scenes in which the murders are announced in public. Each act ends with a scene of lords providing the perspective of the citizenry, in “choral” passages of lamentation and mourning, remarkable for their Boschian images of “a great perturbation in nature”—horses are said to eat each other, falcons hawked by mousing owls. The Thane of Ross seems to crystallize such passages in act 4, scene 2, speaking in lines that would have sounded new in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, or in America at many points in our history:

Cruel are the times, when we are traitors

And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor

From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,

But float upon a wild and violent sea.

In a classic Shakespearean pattern, each of these murders is more horrifying than the last. Children, the heirs of Macbeth’s enemies, become targets. (It is no accident that the Macbeths are a childless couple.) The choral scenes chart the dissolution of Macbeth’s fragile court, with the lords moving into exile and ultimately action, as Macbeth’s Dunsinane becomes a veritable prison. Not only does Shakespeare dramatize murderous ambition—he also captures within the play what such deeds do to those who commit them. As the Polish critic Jan Kott wrote, Macbeth takes us to the threshold of the “Auschwitz Experience”: history transfigured not into dream, but into nightmare. The middle action of the play moves in one direction—toward isolation, the death of community and personal relationships.

In a crowning touch, Shakespeare punctuates this sickly progression with banquets, those hallmarks of human community. Duncan’s offstage feast becomes Macbeth’s onstage feast (haunted by Banquo’s ghost), which becomes the Witches’ cauldron, a perverted repast of newts and toads serving up ghastly images of bloodied and crowned children. In Shakespeare, eating and drinking—Sir Toby’s cakes and ale, or Falstaff’s bottles of sack—often signify the simplest of human pleasures, nourishment and revelry. By the second half of the play, Macbeth has “supped full with horrors.” He envies the dead their peace, free from the “restless ecstasy,” the “torture of the mind” from which he now suffers.

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, however, this middle action is framed within a completely different structure. The play opens at a rapid clip, alternating the short, striking, atmospheric scenes of the Witches upon the barren heath with an equally rapid public action regarding Duncan’s Scotland in revolt. Exposition hurtles toward the audience so quickly we can barely take it in.

In the second scene a “Bleeding Captain” speaks, his short lines and jumbled syntax suggesting the man’s fresh wounds, as if he is gasping for air or verging on death itself. The nation is at war, of both civil and foreign kinds—Irish “kerns and galloglasses” flood from the west and Norway’s banners “flout the sky / And fan our people cold.” These forces are led by the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, Macdonald. The first image of Macbeth—Duncan calls him a “worthy gentleman”—is of him carving this same Macdonald “from the nave to th’ chops.”

It is worth stopping to consider: in this highly unstable landscape, this tribal world of warrior clans and chieftains, the same action that makes a man a worthy gentleman is what later makes him a murdering monster. In act 1, the Thane of Cawdor is a traitorous Scotsman named “Mac” who has his head fixed on the battlements. The same is true in act 5. If the moral trajectory of the middle three acts traces a straight line downward, the value system of acts 1 and 5 calls our attention to “Th’equivocation of the fiend / Which lies like truth.” Fair is foul, and foul is fair. The battle is both lost and won. This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good.

The play’s embodiment of this queasy back-and-forth is not Macbeth, though he is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most unusual creations: a savage killer blessed with an inner life of hallucinatory intensity and some of Shakespeare’s most poetic language. Nor is it Lady Macbeth, a formidable creature of the present tense who wills her husband to do the deed and then finds herself trapped in the past, unable to wash it away. Rather, it is those strange figures with whom Shakespeare starts the play. In a work preoccupied with time, with what Thomas de Quincey termed the “awful parenthesis” between thought and deed, the Witches equivocate between tenses, offering Macbeth the gift of future knowledge and the curse of the ignorant present. They do “a deed without a name,” their prophecies, like Shakespeare’s language itself, concealing meaning as much as they disclose it. How we choose to interpret these figures ultimately bespeaks our own tragic preoccupations as much as what they are. As the 400 years since Shakespeare’s play illustrate, we show no signs of having fully understood this play, nor having moved past the need to use it to understand the depths of our own dark purposes.

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