Why We Read Macbeth
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Even little children have heard of “Double, Double, toil and trouble.” Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and second shortest play, it moves on stage and page with breathtaking speed. Macbeth is a hero, he is tempted by the witches, at his wife’s urging he murders the King, he becomes accustomed to murder, his wife goes mad, he is killed—Bam! Bam! Bam! But the speed of the action is oddly balanced by introverted reflective poetry, as we discover in Macbeth’s many soliloquies what an interesting imaginative thinker Macbeth is.
Macbeth is a witch and a ghost story. The witches, “the weird sisters,” speak a magical rhymed verse, throw newts’ eyes, frog toes, dog tongues and such into a boiling cauldron, and have the ability to foretell the future. And the witches are clearly real, as both Macbeth and Banquo see and talk with them. In Macbeth we are in a strange world.
After Macbeth kills Banquo, Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth at a dinner party, freaking out Macbeth, and causing the dinner party to end before it has begun. No character besides Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, so perhaps this ghost is a hallucination. But as a reader or an audience, we have to take the ghost as a reality (even if just Macbeth’s psychic reality), for the stage directions make clear that the ghost is visible to the audience. Having only Macbeth and the audience see the ghost makes us indentify with Macbeth. And this is the strange trick of Macbeth. We see him become an evil murderer, but still we are forced into identifying with him, seeing the world with his eyes. One critic calls this effect terrifying, although the word “creepy” would do as well.
No wonder then that Macbeth is the one play with the most honored superstition attached to it. All actors know that they should never call the play by name when inside a theatre; instead they refer to “The Scottish Play.” For an actor to say “Macbeth” inside a theatre is to invite bad luck, as if those witches were still lurking somewhere, ready to be summoned. Indeed, some folks claim actual witches were annoyed when the play was first performed, not liking how they were portrayed. And so they cursed the play, which some say, has a history of accidents and injury attached to it.
But at the end of the play, the terrors and creepiness of the play disappear, and we welcome the happy ending. But we don’t know what’s happened to the witches (they never reappear, but they are not shown to be eliminated), so although good has triumphed, but know that evil still exists.
Macbeth shows that evil is real, as exemplified by the human act that everyone knows epitomizes evil: murder. Macbeth is a sensitive man and a war hero. And he becomes a murderer. If he can do so, the play seems to suggest, anyone might. The play forces the readers or audience to see the evil that lurks in their own souls.
And finally, the play offers some of the most memorable and well-known characters in all of literature. Everyone is expected to know Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches. While the other characters only come to life when played by fine actors, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the witches live in the imagination of anyone who has ever read the play.
Time in Macbeth
Time is referred to so often in Macbeth (51 times), that it is almost a character. Certainly it is a major theme.
When Macbeth first meets the witches, they say, “Hail… Thane of Glahms,” using his actual title (a thane being a Scottish nobleman, much like an earl in England). They then hail him “Thane of Cawdor,” and tell him he “shalt be King hereafter” (III.iii.48-50). Macbeth knows the Thane of Cawdor is alive and that Duncan is king. But soon the King tells Macbeth that the old Thane of Cawdor has been executed as a traitor, and that Macbeth (in reward for crushing the rebellion) will be the new Thane of Cawdor.
Macbeth says to himself, “Glahms, and Thane of Cawdor:/ The greatest is behind” (I.iii.115-16). By “the greatest,” Macbeth means the kingship, which he sees (unusually from our modern point of view) as behind him. Notice that in this old usage the future is behind! We of course think of the future as ahead of us. We see ourselves as moving through time, striding into the future, which lies ahead of us waiting for us to get there. But it makes just as much sense (if you are going to visualize time with a spatial metaphor) to assume that we are still and that time is what moves. In this case, the future is behind us, it moves into the present, then goes past us (into the past). This image also fits better with the idea of predestination, that the future is fixed behind us, will eventually come up on us, do what we will.
If the future is behind us, there is no need for us to do anything but wait. This attitude is more typical of ancient times, of classical antiquity, where it was, for example, Zeus’s will that caused all events, and oracles were regularly consulted so as to find out Zeus’s will. The modern attitude is much more inclined to free will, to making events happen and not trusting in oracles.
Macbeth does try to believe that the future (his being King) is behind him. He does try to just wait, to let time do the moving: “Come what come may,” he says, “Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (I.iii.148). And even more to the point, he says, “If Chance will have me King, why Chance may crown me/ Without my stir” (I.iii.144). Shakespeare shows Macbeth as moving between two ideas of time: from the future is behind idea, appropriate to the historically real eleventh century Macbeth, to the future is ahead idea, appropriate to Shakespeare’s era, what used to be called the Renaissance but what scholars now call the “early modern period.” Macbeth finally chooses to think of time in the modern way and stirs up what he calls his “vaulting ambition, which overleaps itself.” He marches into his future like a modern man. W. H. Auden made just this same point when he wrote, “If Macbeth had listened [to the witches] as a Greek would have listened to the Oracle, then he would have been able to sit and wait until by necessity it came to pass.” But Macbeth acts like a modern man (and thus modern audiences find it so disturbingly easy to identify with him). He cannot wait; he must act now.
Right after meeting the witches for the first time, he tries to take the old attitude towards time, telling himself to wait, but the modern impulse to act is too strong with him, even though he knows that his acting will have inevitable consequences:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the 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’ld jump the life to come. (I.vii.1-28)
By Act IV, Macbeth has become hardened to murder and loses all hesitancy about his impulsive actions. When he hears that Macduff has fled to England, he decides to murder Macduff’s family, saying, “from this moment/ The very firstlings of my heart shall be/ The firstlings of my hand” (IV.i.147-8). Lady Macbeth in her madness perhaps expresses this theme best: “To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone” (V.i.64). The truth about time is so obvious that is often goes unremarked upon. It flows only in one direction, so what’s done cannot be undone. Once you commit a murder (or break a vase) you cannot undo the action, cannot undo the consequences of your action. The tragedy for Macbeth is that he cannot go back in time, as he expresses in a typically bloody metaphor: “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.135-7) He must move forward in time towards his death.
And so when Macduff, having killed Macbeth, brings Macbeth’s head to the now King Malcolm, he says, “The time is free.” These words suggest at the central importance of time in Macbeth. Throughout the play, Shakespeare makes us feel that Macbeth has cursed time itself. Thus in the morning when the king’s murder is discovered, Macbeth says, thinking he is lying but ironically telling the truth: ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance/ I had liv’d a blessed time.” For Macbeth, the act of murder has cursed time itself. But at the end of the play, time is finally redeemed, free from evil.
The play offers such a vision of a peaceful time in Act IV, Scene I, when the witches (who like the Nordic triple goddesses the Norns connect with past, present, and future) show Macbeth the final vision of the future: eight Kings, the last with a glass (mirror) in his hand (which perhaps was first used to show Shakespeare’s King, James, the image of himself, the eighth king descended from Banquo). This vision of future kings is a promise of continuity, peace, a time in the future that is free from evil, a time represented by King James, Shakespeare’s own monarch, and the eighth king in the vision of the future the witches show Macbeth.
Equivocation and Doubleness in Macbeth
Macbeth is steeped in doubleness, the theme announced in the first scene by the witches with “Double, Double, toil and trouble,” and “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”
The most obvious fair that turns out to be foul are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who at first act like civilized, good, loyal people but turn out to be murderous, evil, and disloyal. But they act fair and so, for a while, are believed to be fair.
Interestingly there is also a long curious scene where the fair (good) pretends to be foul (evil), the exact reversal of the Macbeths’ pretence at the beginning of the play. This is the scene where Macduff comes to the English court to support Duncan’s son Malcolm, and Malcolm pretends to be as evil (or even more evil) than Macbeth. He labels himself as without any virtues whatsoever, boundlessly greedy and lecherous, a man who makes Macbeth seem in comparison “white as snow,” a man who is willing to “Pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell” (IV.iiii.97). Finally Macduff, convinced of Malcolm’s evil, renounces his plan and proclaims himself ready to return to Scotland. Only then does Malcolm reveal that he was testing Macduff, seeing whether or not he was a Macbeth spy. Malcolm shows himself here to be a clever leader, and his pragmatic cleverness shows itself in pretending to be foul when he is fair. In short he is equivocating, lying. In the real world, even the best of men (as Malcolm is) needs to be able to equivocate.
Of course people lie every day, to each other and to themselves, but the play Macbeth calls attention to these lies. Thus when Rosse comes to the English court from Scotland, Macduff asks him how Lady Macduff and his children are. Rosse answers, “Why, well,” and goes on to say, “They were well at peace, when I did leave them” (IV.iii.179). But Rosse knows that Macduff’s wife and children are all dead. What is Rosse doing? He’s equivocating (in order to postpone giving the bad news, I guess). And he is sort of telling the truth, since he believes Macduff’s family are at peace in heaven.
The scene that places the strongest emphasis on the theme of equivocation is II.iii., the Porter scene. The Porter, presumably hung-over (and presumably played by the company’s clown) hears knocking within and decides to pretend to be the Porter of Hell Gate, letting evildoers into hell. He explicitly admits various kinds of “equivocators” into hell, those who equivocated when charged with treason (as Jesuit Father Garnet recently had when accused in connection with the Gunpowder plot). Then he lets Macduff in, and he jokes about how drink is an equivocator with lechery, giving one the impetus for sexual activity but not necessarily the ability. And with Macduff’s entry into the castle, the play turns; the fair is entering to eventually vanquish the foul.
The biggest equivocators of all are the witches. They tell Macbeth he shall never be vanquished till Birnam wood come to Dunsinane. Macbeth feels safe, not knowing that the English soldiers cutting trees and carrying them before them will qualify as Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane. And they tell him “none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth.” We can understand how this prophecy makes Macbeth feel safe—but he will discover that the witches speak, as he says, “in a double sense.” The crucial word is not “woman,” but “born.” Macduff came from a woman, but he wasn’t “born,” he was delivered by Caesarian section.
The crucially important fact of Macduff having had a Caesarian section, having been born via a life-saving medical technique, suggests symbolically that death can be defeated, that life defeats death. Just as the greenness of approaching Birnam Wood signifies a renewal to the kingdom (they might have used actual tree branches on Shakespeare’s stage, evoking the greenness of renewal, the feeling of spring), so the medical miracle of a Caesarian section (where a knife used to save life, not take it) brings a note of hope. Such a medical miracle is just the opposite of murder. And how fitting that it is only a child of such a birth who can free the Kingdom from the evil murderer! It is interesting that in a play that places symbolic importance, via an equivocal double meaning, on a miraculous medical technique also frequently uses medical language and even has two doctor characters in the play.
Curing Evil in Macbeth
In 1607, shortly after Macbeth was written and first performed, Shakespeare’s older daughter Susanna married John Hall, a medical doctor who around 1600 had established a practice in Stratford-upon-Avon (you can still visit his lovely house if you go to Stratford). Shakespeare obviously knew him well, and from 1600 on more and more medical information and more and more doctors appear in Shakespeare’s plays. In Macbeth, consistent with the “double double” theme, there are two doctors, an English one and a Scottish one.
It is the English doctor who brings up the remarkable ability of England’s king to cure a disease called “the Evil” by the laying on of hands. The disease called “The King’s evil” was scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis that affects the lymph glands of the neck. King James himself claimed to have the ability to cure the king’s evil with his holy touch, and indeed Stuart monarchs (of whom James was the first) claimed this magical gift up through the time of Queen Anne (who touched the three-year old Samuel Johnson in an attempt to cure him of scrofula).
But Shakespeare usually means us to notice the pun, for the play Macbeth is really about how to cure evil, how to rid Scotland of the king’s evil, the evil king Macbeth. When Macbeth is preparing for his final battle, Shakespeare again emphasizes the theme of evil by having Macbeth call for his armor from his servant, shouting out, “Seyton!…Seyton, I say!”—the text spells it S-e-y-t-o-n, but it probably was pronounced to sound like S-a-t-a-n. (Shakespeare does a similar trick in the next play he writes, with Antony in Anotny and Cleopatra calling for his armor from a servant fittingly named Eros.)
One of the basic metaphors behind the play Macbeth (and the same metaphor is prominent in Hamlet) is that sin is a disease. Thus Macbeth’s evil need not only to be defeated in battle, but it needs to be cured. And because Macbeth is King, his evil (his sin) has infected all of Scotland. But how do you cure a land infected by evil? The soldiers coming to meet Duncan’s son Malcolm in his fight against Macbeth call Malcolm the “medicine” for their sick country, and say “with him pour we, in our countries purge,/ Each drop of us.” (V.ii.28-9). The idea is that the good soldier’s sacrificial blood, absorbed by the earth will cure the earth of its disease by acting as a purgative—that is as a laxative.
Shakespeare’s doctor son-in-law was much given to using purgatives as cures (purgatives and emetics were his most frequent prescriptions) and perhaps his medical practice inspired Shakespeare’s use of the purgative metaphor. Macbeth uses this metaphor with his doctor, saying, “If thou couldst, Doctor, cast/ The water of my land, find her disease,/ And purge it to a sound and pristine health, / I would applaud thee…What rhubarb, cyme, or purgative drug,/ Would scour these English hence?” (V.iii,50-52, 55-6), But it is not the English that need purging, it is Macbeth who is the evil that needs to be purged from the land. (Interestingly, Aristotle used this same earthy medical metaphor in describing tragedy, saying that tragedies involved “catharsis”—another medical metaphor for using a laxative— tragedy’s catharsis being kind of emotional cleansing, a feeling of having gotten rid of something we are better off without.)
In Macbeth we feel that evil is purged. So it makes sense to me that after Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was brutally murdered by the Manson family in 1969, the first film Polanski made, two years later, was Macbeth. Perhaps Polanski was trying to purge the evil he had been touched with (by Manson) by taking on Macbeth. Evil can be purged, but there is no claim that we can get rid of it forever. Thus the three witches in Macbeth, who seem to have set Macbeth down his evil path, are not destroyed. They just never reappear in the play after the beginning of Act IV, but we know they are still lurking, somewhere.
Macbeth is evil, we can all agree on that, but the remarkable experience in seeing or reading the play, is that we end up in some ways identifying with this evil hero, and his wife too—whose madness makes her suddenly sympathetic; how becomingly human and vulnerable of her to go mad after she and her husband do such deeds. But it is Macbeth’s mind and soul we really are forced to enter. Macbeth speaks about a third of the play’s lines, many of them in soliloquy. To really appreciate the power of these soliloquies, you need to see them live, spoken to you by an actor on the stage. When Macbeth looks at the audience and speaks, he makes each member of the audience in effect his psyche, his inner confidante. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the only strongly defined characters in the whole play, and we are forced identify with them, to see their dark possibilities as ours, to see how evil is a reality of the human condition, a part of our history. (If you go back far enough in time, we are all descended from murderers.) It makes sense that Macbeth, the greatest play ever written about evil, is the play that, according to theatrical tradition, must never be named backstage or in rehearsal. Actors call it “the Scottish play,” trying to avert the ill luck the uttering of the name Macbeth can bring.
Shakespeare loved theatre metaphors; he was probably the one who named his theatre the Globe. And so Macbeth says, in his great speech, “Life’s a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more” (V.v.24-6). There is, as usual in Macbeth, a double meaning here. We are meant to think of the actual actor, on the stage before us, who after his hour (or two) will be heard no more. But we are also to think of the man Macbeth, the historically real figure who acted out his allotted time on the stage of the real world and then was heard no more.
We are all players in life’s drama, and our time too will end, and we will be heard no more. Macbeth, a poor player who got cast into the evil villain role, can elicit an unwilling sympathy in a reader or an audience. Shakespeare makes us feel sorry for him. For Macbeth, as for many poor players on life’s stage, life is “a tale told by an idiot/ Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But Shakespeare’s tale wasn’t told by an idiot, and in Macbeth, there is finally a hopefulness; evil can be purged, health can be restored, good in fact can triumph. And because Shakespeare has made us identify with Macbeth, maybe we feel we have gotten rid of a little of the evil that might be lurking in the shadows of our own souls.
Macbeth is a study of evil, and as such it is also a study of good. The Scottish king-to-be Malcolm and the English King (Edward the Confessor) are presented finally to be every bit as good as Macbeth is evil. Just as there is a hell, the play suggests, so too there is a heaven; as there is evil, so too there is good.
Levels of Reality
Another important theme in Macbeth, sometimes overlooked, is that there are levels of reality in life. First of all there are the two levels of experience that most of us are well aware of: inner and outer life. Macbeth speaks so often in soliloquy that we enter into his inner life, his stream of consciousness as it were. But we also see him as he talks to others, suits his words to their expectations. Often in the same scene, especially at the beginning of the play, we made aware of the dichotomy between Macbeth’s inner vision (confused and tortured, unsure of whether to do the murder or not) and his outer life, where he acts the conventional and expected role: loyal servant of the king, a good man who has and will continue to serve his country first.
But Macbeth has an unusually active inner life, as is shown by his soliloquy shortly before the murders, where he seems to hallucinate a dagger before him:
Is this a dagger, which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:—
I have thee not, and yet I have thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling, as to sight? (II.i.33-37)
Like most of Shakespeare’s heroes, Macbeth is conscious of himself as an actor, and here he is more or less rehearsing for the murder of the king. But his imagination is so strong, the inner image becomes a reality, seen only by him and not (in most productions) by the audience. For Macbeth there is the inner world and the outer world, and both are real. And Macbeth is led to act in the outer world by the almost palpable reality of his inner world.
Later, after Macbeth has had Banquo killed, he has another even more powerful vision. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are hosting a banquet, when, according to the stage directions, “The Ghost of BANQUO enters, and sits in MACBETH’S place.” Lady Macbeth upbraids Macbeth, alluding to his past hallucination: “This is the air-drawn dagger, which, you said,/ Led you to Duncan” (III.iv.61-2) But while neither Lady Macbeth nor anyone at the table one else at the table sees Banquo’s ghost, interestingly, the audience does! Shakespeare’s theatrical strategy is to make us see Macbeth’s inner vision as a reality, to see what is a psychic reality—Macbeth does seem to be hallucinating—as another reality. We are drawn into Macbeth’s troubled inner world, into his murder’s guilty psyche.
While Macbeth seems on the verge of madness in the banquet scene, he instead grows stronger, more clearly focused on acting without hesitation in the outer world (for example, ordering the murders of Lady Macduff and her children). Instead it is Lady Macbeth (seemingly the stable sane one of the couple) who goes mad, appearing at the beginning of the fifth act accompanied by a doctor. Her explicit symptoms are always having to have a light (a candle with her) and continually rubbing her hands as if she is washing them. Clearly she is afraid of the dark (where the murder of the king took place) and wants to wash away the blood on her hands (possible in reality, but not in her psyche). And with Lady Macbeth, we are shown another pair of realities (madness and sanity).
There is no sure way to tell if the witches represent another level of reality, if they are real women who practice witchcraft or are some kind of spiritual beings. But in Act IV when they reprise their “double double” chant, Hecate appears (with three other witches), dancing and singing until Macbeth enters. Hecate is a spiritual being, a Greek Goddess, and her appearance (like Jupiter’s appearance in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), posits the reality of divine beings, the reality of powerful nonhuman spiritual/supernatural forces. Hecate is the goddess of the underworld, and so of ghosts and witches. But if there is a goddess of the underworld, in the double vision of Macbeth, we know there is also a God of the overworld, a God in heaven balancing out the evil Goddess of Hell.
Macbeth is full of references to the devil and to hell. The witches explicitly brew a “hell-broth,” the porter explicitly calls the gates of Macbeth castle the gates of hell, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suggest that when they commit the murders they are or want to be in hell, and Macbeth’s enemies regularly compare him to the devil. And the experience of evil that is the action in the play, compounded by the repeated references to hell and the devil, make the reader or audience believe in the reality of evil and even the reality of hell.
In the double world of Macbeth, however, if we are made to believe in hell, then we must necessarily believe in its opposite, heaven. And so Macbeth is finally an optimistic play: evil is defeated (if not forever), good is triumphant (with great sacrifices). And if we have seen how the Macbeths have embraced the dark side, hell and the devil, then we also must know that there is a light side, heaven and God.