If Hamlet is the grandest of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is from a tragic standpoint the most sublime and the most impressive as an acting play. Nothing so terrible has been written since the Eumenides of Aeschylus, and nothing in dramatic literature--not even the slaying of Agamemnon--is depicted with such awesome intensity as the murder of Duncan. The witches are not, it is true, the divine Eumenides; they are not intended to be so; they are ignoble and vulgar instruments of hell, and the German poet who transformed them into a mixture of fates, furies and enchantresses, clothing them with tragic dignity, very ill understood their meaning.
Whether the age of Shakespeare still believed in ghosts and witches is a matter of perfect indifference for the justification of the use which, in Hamlet and Macbeth, he has made of preëxisting traditions. No superstition can be widely diffused without having a foundation in human nature; on this the poet builds; he calls up from their hidden abysses that dread of the unknown, that presage of a dark side of nature and a world of spirits, which philosophy now imagines it has altogether exploded.
These repulsive hags, from which the imagination shrinks, are here emblems of the hostile powers which operate in nature; and the repugnance of our senses is outweighed by the mental horror. With one another they discourse like women of the very lowest class; for this was the class to which they were ordinarily supposed to belong; when, however, they address Macbeth, they assume a loftier tone; their predictions, which they either themselves pronounce or allow their apparitions to deliver, have all the obscure brevity, the majestic solemnity of oracles. They are governed by an invisible spirit, or the operation of such great and dreadful events would be above their sphere. With what intent did Shakespeare assign the same place to them in his play which they occupy in the history of Macbeth as related in the old chronicles? A monstrous crime is committed; Duncan, a venerable old man, and the best of kings, is, in defenseless sleep, under the hospital's roof, murdered by his subject, whom he has loaded with honors and rewards. Natural motives alone seem inadequate, or the perpetrator must have been portrayed as a hardened villain. Shakespeare wished to exhibit a more sublime picture--an ambitious but noble hero, yielding to a deep-laid hellish temptation, and in whom all the crimes to which, in order to secure the fruits of his first crime, he is impelled by necessity, cannot altogether eradicate the stamp of native heroism. He has, therefore, given a threefold division to the guilt of that crime. The first idea comes from beings whose whole activity is guided by the lust of wickedness. The weird sisters surprise Macbeth in the moment of intoxication of victory, when his love of glory has been gratified; they cheat his eyes by exhibiting to him as the work of fate what in reality can only be accomplished by his own deed, and gain credence for all their words by the immediate filfilment of the first prediction.
The opportunity of murdering the king immediately offers; the wife of Macbeth conjures him not to let it slip; she urges him on with a fiery eloquence, which has at command all those sophisms that serve to throw a false splendor over crime. Little more than the mere execution falls to the share of Macbeth; he is driven into it, as it were, in a tumult of fascination. Repentance immediately follows, nay, even precedes the deed, and the stings of conscience leave him rest neither night nor day. But he is now fairly entangled in the snares of hell. That same Macbeth, who once as a warrior could spurn at death, now that he dreads the prospect of the life to come, clings with growing anxiety to his earthly existence the more miserable it becomes, and pitilessly removes out of the way whatever to his dark and suspicious mind seems to threaten danger. However much we may abhor his actions, we cannot altogether refuse to compassionate the state of his mind; we lament the ruin of so many noble qualities, and even in his last defense we are compelled to admire the struggle of a brave will with a cowardly conscience.
Lady Macbeth, who of all the human participators in the king's murder is the most guilty, is thrown by the terrors of her conscience into a state of incurable bodily and mental disease; she dies, unlamented even by her husband. Macbeth is still found worthy to die the death of a hero on the field of battle. The noble Macduff is allowed the satisfaction of saving his country by punishing with his own hand the tyrant who had murdered his wife and children. Banquo, by an early death, atones for his ambitious curiosity to know his glorious descendants, as he thereby has roused Macbeth's jealousy; but he preserves his mind pure from the evil suggestions of the witches; his name is blessed in his race, destined to enjoy for a long succession of ages that royal dignity which Macbeth could only hold for his own life.
In the progress of the action, this play is the reverse of Hamlet; it strides forward with amazing rapidity from the first catastrophe to the last. The precise duration of the action cannot be ascertained--years, perhaps, according to the story--but to the imagination the most crowded time appears always the shortest. Here we can hardly conceive how so much could have been compressed into so narrow a space, and not merely external events, for the very inmost recesses in the minds of the dramatic personages are laid open to us. It is as if the drags were taken from the wheels of time, and they rolled along without interruption in their descent.
The play is also of historic interest, its incidents dating back to the days of Edward the Confessor. There were sufficient materials for the drama in Holinshed's History of Scotland; but with these Shakespeare has blended another story--that of the murder of King Duff by Donwald and his wife in Donwald's castle. "The king got him into his privy chamber, only with two of his chamberlains, who, having brought him to bed, came forth again, and then fell to banqueting with Donwald and his wife, whi had prepared divers delicate dishes and sundry sorts of drinks for their supper, whereat they sat up so long, till they had charged their stomachs with such full gorges, that their heads no sooner got to the pillow but asleep they were so fast that a man might have removed the chamber over them sooner than to have awaked them out of their drunken sleep."
"Then Donwald, though he abhorred the act greatly in heart, yet through instigation of his wife he called four of his servants unto him, whom he had made privy to his wicked intent before, and framed to his purpose with large gifts, and now declaring unto them after what sort they should work the feat, they gladly obeyed his instructions, and speedily going about the murder, they enter the chamber in which the king lay a little before cock's crow, where they secretly cut his throat as he lay sleeping, without any bustling at all; and immediately by a postern gate they carried forth the dead body into the fields."
This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 14. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 34-39.
Last Edit: 4 years 10 months ago by William Shakespeare.
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