Macbeth may well be the most terrifying play in the English language, though it hasn’t always been seen that way. Traditional critics, while accepting that it is a thorough-going a study of evil, believe that in the end good prevails and that there is a providential restoration of “Order” – the order Macbeth has destroyed by killing Duncan, the ‘Holy King’. Modern critics take a darker view, seeing the end as more equivocal and the play as more pessimistic.
What no one disagrees about is that our attention is fixed on Macbeth himself throughout. No Shakespearean tragedy gives so much attention to its hero. With the exception of Lady Macbeth, there is much less emphasis on the figures round the hero than there is in Hamlet or Othello. There is no sub-plot.
The story Shakespeare draws on comes from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Most of his recently preceding plays, including Hamlet, are set in highly evolved, sophisticated societies. Macbeth (like King Lear, written just before it) returns us to a historically primitive 11th century world. Take the famous 15 line opening scene where we meet the three Weird Sisters, witches who, in A.D. Nuttall’s phrase, “belong to a northern, Breugelesque world of cooking pots and greasy kitchen scraps”.
Their sinister line – “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” – is seen by many modern critics as summing up what they see as the play’s ‘view’: that there is no absolute difference between fair and foul, indeed that this is a world where there are no absolute values at all.
The witches predict Macbeth will become king. Macbeth, to ensure this comes about, then murders his predecessor, King Duncan, setting in motion a train of events which ends with his death and Malcolm accepting the throne.
Some argue that Shakespeare distorted Holinshed by depicting Duncan as old and holy and not as the weak, crafty figure who emerges from the Chronicles. The evidence points the other way. Shakespeare saw Duncan as just as crafty and weak as Holinshed did. Significantly, as we see at the start, he is the only monarch in Shakespeare not to lead his army into battle – he watches from the sidelines. And he moves very quickly after the battle to ensure that his son Malcolm is named as his successor – hardly the action of a saintly old king.
Macbeth raises disturbing questions about the nature of good and evil – suggesting that evil is the more powerful force of the two. It raises equally disturbing questions about free will. The witches predict Macbeth will become king. But is this a guide to what he should do or will it happen anyway? Macbeth seems to become, in one critic’s words, “a slave to the prophecy”, while the predictions made in the play seem to be both powerless to alter the course of events and yet to reflect faithfully a course of events which is unalterable. Macbeth, then, behaves both as if he has free will and as if he hasn’t. He draws the unnecessary conclusion from the witches’ prophecy that chance will not crown him king unless he takes action.
Crucially, we see everything through his own eyes. We witness his terrible degeneration. At the same time we see that he is the most sensitive and sympathetic character in the play (much more so than Duncan. Paradoxically, he is the only character in the play who speaks fondly of Duncan or seems to understand his virtues.)
We see through him as we see through a confidence trickster. But we also “see through” him in a different sense, seeing his world through his eyes, through his asides and soliloquies (in this play which is full of lonely talking) and through his tortured sense that “nothing is, but what is not”.
As Macbeth sinks deeper into sin, his wife goes the other way. The play shows them through two sharply contrasted arcs. When we first see Macbeth he is the saviour of Scotland but a nervous wreck. Yet after the murder he becomes steadily more ruthless. Lady Macbeth moves in the opposite direction. In one of Shakespeare’s very few portraits of marriage, she first fears that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness”, then becomes weaker, and more human, until finally dies (we assume by her own hand). And what really destroys her is not guilt or remorse over the murder but the sense of increasing estrangement within her marriage.
What’s often forgotten about Macbeth, but crucial to understanding the tragedy, is that the central figure is a Christian. It is this which makes his downfall so poignant. The world of Macbeth is a world of Christian beliefs even it if it is not, in a broader sense, a Christian world. It does not matter whether Shakespeare was a ‘believer’ in the conventional sense, as the critic Wilbur Sanders has noted. What matters is that the play is “fed at its sources by the ethics of Jesus”. Macbeth’s words in his final soliloquy are the words of a bitter, disappointed man who has been driven mad by his actions and who has killed the best part of himself. As a Christian, he cannot, in other words, both grasp the true nature of what he has done and go on living amicably with himself. His despairing words, many feel, reflect the mood of the play:
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,