The Impossible Liberty of Macbeth / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH by Shakespeare

N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a MUCH longer study on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.  This abbreviated edition is only 4,353 words long.  The original version is over 15,000 words long.  Eventually, I will publish the entire 15,000-word study.  But the time is not yet propitious to do so.–Joseph Suglia

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THE IMPOSSIBLE LIBERTY OF MACBETH

by Joseph Suglia

 

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Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth signifies nothing if it does not signify the absence of the freedom of the will.[i]  Macbeth is not free, and his commitment to evil is not a self-chosen commitment.  And if Macbeth’s commitment to evil is involuntary, and surely it is, could he even be said to be evil?  Macbeth overpowers his reluctance to kill the King of Scotland only with difficulty, much in the way that Brutus only with difficulty overcomes his reluctance to kill Julius Caesar.  Surely, no one would call Brutus “evil.”  Why, then, should anyone characterize Macbeth as “evil”?  Perhaps because one thinks of Macbeth as someone who kills for power, whereas one thinks of Brutus as someone who kills in order to prevent power from growing tyrannical.  After killing Duncan, the King of Scotland, Macbeth finds himself entangled in an ever-enmeshing net.  He is impelled to kill and kill again in order to maintain the role in which he finds himself.  Macbeth does not abrogate himself of any responsibility, as some commentators claim.  Macbeth has no responsibility.  He is blameless from the beginning of this rapidly escalatory play until the end, a play that accelerates toward its terminus without allowing the spectator or reader to catch one’s breath.

 

WHERE IT WAS, THERE I SHALL BE

Macbeth has a moral feeling for his king.  He recognizes Duncan’s decency, acknowledges with gratitude that he owes his newly anointed title of Thane of Cawdor entirely to Duncan.  Duncan lavishes praise on Macbeth, and Macbeth appears grateful for this praise.

After he kills his beloved King, Macbeth is rattled by spasms at night and by paroxysms during the day.  He is nauseated by what he did.  He is aghast at the murder that his hands committed, sickened by the deaths that he suborns.[ii]

It is an “air-drawn dagger” [III:iv] that leads Macbeth to regicide.  Led on by the floating dagger—a phosphorescent dagger in Polanski’s cinematic interpretation—Macbeth is entrained to Duncan’s bedchamber where he will murder the King and his sleepy grooms, the King’s minions, the chamberlains.  The dagger which virtualizes before him spouts blood from itself.  It is as if the metal itself contained blood vessels, blood vessels that are venesected.  The dagger is ascribed human agency and a kind of moral responsibility that is denied to Macbeth.  The handle of the dagger beckons to him: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” [II:i].  It is the dagger which commands Macbeth to kill, it is the dagger which seems to marshal Macbeth: “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use” [Ibid.].  It is not the user who wields the instrument; it is the instrument which wields the user.

The hand that takes precedence over the mind, in this play; the doing takes precedence over the doer.  Practice supersedes the practitioner; usage supersedes the user.  “What hands are here?” [II:ii], Macbeth asks in wonderment.  It is as if his own hands were disembodied, self-sufficient, and self-active:

The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see [I:iv].

“Wink at,” here, means “not to see.”  Translation: “Let the eye not see what the hand does (i.e. murder Duncan), but let the hand do what the eye is afraid of looking at.”  The hands are performing the action, which is disconnected from Macbeth’s consciousness (metonymically represented by the eye).  It is not that Macbeth is exculpating himself, not that he is absolving himself of blame, but that, the play is suggesting, he is blameless to begin with.  His own hands seem to belong to a strange executioner, not to himself.  They are not his hands, but “these hangman’s hands” [II:ii].  “Go, get some water / And wash this filthy witness from your hands” [Ibid.]: When Lady Macbeth, who thinks that guilt can be abluted away with water, utters these words, she is ignoring the stranger thought that Macbeth is fundamentally guiltless.  The dagger is doing the work, the hand is performing the action, not the I.

Hence, the play’s superabundant proliferation of hands and deeds and doings and dids:

“Hand,” “hands,” or “-handed” appears in the text thirty-seven times.

“Deed,” “deeds,” “indeed,” or “undeeded” appears in the text twenty-four times.

“Do,” “doth,” “doing,” “dost,” “done,” or “does” appears in the text 142 times.

“Did” and “didst” appear in the text forty times.

Macbeth vows (to Lady Macbeth) to kill the King: “I go, and it is done” [II:i].  He does not say, “I go to do the deed.”  The “It” supersedes the “I.”  The “It” is acting, not the “I.”[iii]  The subject is not the one who intends to do something; the action is asubjective.  The actions that are performed by Macbeth are done without the intervention of his subjective will.

Shakespeare’s play suggests the opposite: that deeds are done without a doer.  There is only a pure doing without a self.  “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself” [II:ii], Macbeth says after the deed is done.[iv]  This experience of self-estrangement is the reversal of the Delphic injunction to “Know thyself!”  The deed is depersonalized, as if the deed were done by someone else, someone other than Macbeth.  The idea to kill Duncan is someone else’s thought:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not [I:iii].

Macbeth is suggesting that it is not he who is thinking of murder; his thought has a life of its own.  He is seized by a thought that is disembodied, by a thought that shakes his individuated humanity, his “single state of man.”  The thought in his brain has supremacy over him; he does not have supremacy over this thought.  He is gripped by the thought and dominated by it.  The paradox that “nothing is, but what is not” means that absence is phenomenalized and presence turns into absence.  Nothing is (reality disappears) but what is not (the hallucinatory nightmarishness, the terrifying hallucination of the dagger).

It is as if Macbeth’s actions were governed by thoughts that have been transplanted into his mind: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, / Which must be acted, ere they may be scanned.”  To translate: “Thoughts that are not my own shall be translated into actions (‘will to hand,’ ‘must be acted’) before I will become conscious of them.”

The disembodiment of the deed from the doer: Such is the reason that all of Macbeth’s direct killings are invisible, occurring offstage, before the final act.  We do not see the killing of Duncan, and the killing of Banquo and the killing of Macduff’s wife and children are performed by mercenaries.  The effect upon the spectator or reader, whether “intentional” or “unintentional,” is that s/he will be unlikely to judge the character of Macbeth from a moral point of view.  Shakespeare is subtly exculpating Macbeth, emancipating him from responsibility, liberating him from liberty.

 

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Macbeth encounters on the heath three women who will tell him his future.  In Holinshed, Shakespeare’s sole primary source for the play, the women of the heath are either the weïrd sisters or “nymphs of feiries.”  In Shakespeare, the three women are certainly the weïrd sisters.

Weird is the favorite insult of the unintelligent-insecure and is usually applied to anyone who falls too far outside of the common herd (“You are, like, sooooooooo weiiiiiird…”).  Most English-language users have forgotten that weird originally meant “magical” and “relating to fate or destiny.”  To be “weird” etymologically means to be “fated,” to be drifting away from one’s self-chosen path by the compulsions of fate.  It is derived from the Old English word for “fate,” which is wyrd.  Scottish writers in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries used the phrase werd sisteris to describe the Fates of Ancient Greek mythology, those female divinities who determine our futures.  The phrase werd sisteris can be found in The Asloan Manuscript, an anthology of Scottish prose and verse that was assembled by John Asloan.  “The weird sisters” always means “The Fates.”  Shakespeare’s witches are the forces of fate, of moira.  To translate Holinshed into contemporary English, they are “the goddesses of destiny, imbued with the knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science because everything came to pass as they had spoken.”[v]  Everything came to pass as they had spoken: By speaking of events in the future, they bring those very things about.  The weïrd sisters generate the events that they foretell.[vi]

Macbeth is deeply impressed by the witches’ soothsaying, by their fortunetelling.  The witches make oracular pronouncements—Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor, no longer the Thane of Glamis, and then the King of Scotland.  Macbeth will remain childless, Banquo will be prolific and generate an entire dynasty.  Banquo shall “[b]ring forth men-children only…  Nothing but males” [I:vii].  Banquo’s children “shall be kings” [I:iii].  Banquo will be progenitive, producing a lineage.  He shall be “[l]esser than Macbeth, and greater… Not so happy [as Macbeth], yet much happier” [Ibid.].  In other words: Macbeth will become King, but he will not become a progenitive King.  Macbeth will become King, but he will spawn no Kings.  The witches’ oracular pronouncements impel Macbeth to kill Duncan and, later, Macduff and to suborn the murders of Banquo and Macduff’s wife and children.  Both Banquo and Macduff are generative.  Macbeth and Macduff have similar names because Macduff is the double of Macbeth.[vii]  As if to suggest what?  Macbeth is barren—as Macduff says, “He has no children” [IV:iii]—but he has no problem suborning the murder of Macduff’s children.  He has no problem slaughtering the children of his double for he bears no children of his own.  Macbeth is the sterile double of Macduff, Macduff is the fertile double of Macbeth.  Childless Macbeth kills off his child-producing double Macduff, as childed Macduff will assassinate his infertile double Macbeth.  All of this was set in motion by the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will have no sons and Banquo will be generative of a dynasty (the Roman Catholic, French-sympathizing dynasty of the Stuarts).  The regicide of Duncan—as well as the murders that were designed to cover up that regicide—was propelled by the oraculizations of the weïrd sisters.  The witches do more than read Macbeth’s future; their “great prediction[s]” [I:iii], their “prophetic greeting[s]” [Ibid.], their fatidic pronouncements create his future.  The epicene witches prophesy Macbeth’s coronation—but this prophecy means that the future has already occurred.

Notice that the first thing that Macbeth says in the play, his opening statement, is a resaying, is the mindless repetition of what the weïrd sisters have said already: Macbeth’s observation “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” [I:iii] is an echoing of the witches’ earlier paradoxical statement “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” [I:i].[viii]  Macbeth is will-less—even “his” language ventriloquizes the language of those who marionette him.  This does not mean that there is a hidden sympathism or synchronicity between the witches and Macbeth.  It means that Macbeth’s words are not his own, his desires are not his own.  His mind, as his language, is molded, shaped, formed by the witches.

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The wizardesses are chaos agents.  They form a terrorist cell that projects its gales against Macbeth, who is borne by its winds.

The witches prophesize Macbeth’s downfall by speaking through the Three Apparitions.  I will ascribe the prophetic remarks to the weïrd sisters for the purposes of convenience.

The weïrd sisters issue literal statements, and Macbeth will metaphorize them.  Macbeth metaphorizes literal statements, wrongly believing taking such statements literally would be the literalizing of metaphors.  The witches literally mean that the forest of Birnam will be deforested and reforested.  They are not speaking in hyperbole.  The witches’ statement is ambiguous only because it is straightforward—Macbeth reads the statement as hyperbole, not as a literal assertion, much as he hyperbolizes their other statement that only a man not of woman born could slaughter him (I will return to this point below).  Macbeth believes that he is safe in Dunsinane only because the witches have told him that only the deforestation and reforestation of Birnam Wood would undo him.  The witches through the Third Apparition: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” [IV:i].  Immured in his fortress, Macbeth assumes, falsely, that mobile trees are not things that could ever exist.

When they say through the Second Apparition that “none of woman born / [s]hall harm Macbeth” [IV:i], the witches intend the statement literally.  They mean that Macbeth’s killer will have been birthed by way of a Caesarian operation.  They are saying that Macbeth’s slaughterer will not have come from a birth canal; they are not intending that Macduff’s genesis was without the intervention of a mother.

Because Macduff never was expelled from a birth canal, he is able to send Macbeth down the death canal.

The emphasis, then, should be placed not upon “woman,” but upon “born.”  Macduff did indeed come from a woman; however, he was not born from a woman.  He was “from his mother’s womb / [u]ntimely ripped” [V:viii].  Macduff was from woman born, just not naturally born.  It is likely that the juggling fields know well that Macbeth will accentuate the word “woman” and not the word “born.”  And yet they mean what they say!  The weïrd sisters are not liars—everything that they say is the literal truth.  The point is that the weïrd sisters know that their words will be misinterpreted.  They make plain statements that they know will be interpreted ambiguously.

Fascinating “juggling fields… [t]hat palter with us in a double sense” [V:viii]!  The weïrd sisters make clear, literal statements, which Macbeth then either interprets metaphorically or places the emphasis on the wrong word in the sentence, thus distorting its meaning.[xiii]  Of course, it is likely that the juggling fiends know what they are doing: They know the tendency of human beings to overinterpret or to falsely embellish literal statements.  The trick of language of the weïrd sisters is not that it is opaque—the trick is that their language is limpidly transparent.

The witches have tricked Macbeth with the equivocality of their speech.  Their speech is equivocal because it means precisely what it says.  Such is the diabolism, such is the mummery of the triad of wizardesses.  Language is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing unequivocal.[xiv]

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Lady Macbeth arranges the killing of the King.  She says to her husband:

…you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come,
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom [I:v].

“Dispatch” here means “management.”  Translation: “You shall, my husband, let me govern tonight’s event (the killing of the King)—an event that shall dominate all of our nights and days in the future.”[xvi]

When her husband expresses reservations about killing the man who promoted him, who made him Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth calls her husband, in essence, a sissy: “When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more than the man” [I:vii].  In other words: “You will not become a man unless you kill the King; otherwise, you will remain a boy, perhaps a ladyboy.  And if you do it, then you will be more than just a man.”  Any hesitancy on Macbeth’s part is written off as weakness: Macbeth’s spasms, his paroxysms, his anxieties would “well become / [a] woman’s story at a winter’s fire / [a]uthorized by her grandam” [III:iv].  She is here taunting, assaulting his masculinity, undermining the presumption of his manliness.  “Are you a man?” [Ibid.], she asks him, rhetorically, after the deed is done.  She belittles her husband by questioning his masculinity, infantilizing Macbeth, for he is indeed the child of Lady Macbeth.  Lady Macbeth mothers—produces—her own husband, who would only become a man by doing her bidding.  Lady Macbeth says of her husband’s face:

Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters… [I:v].

This is an ambiguous statement.  What, precisely, does Lady Macbeth mean by strange?  Lady Macbeth might mean that her husband’s face is expressive—men may read strange matters therein.  “Strange” would mean “unsettling,” “grotesque,” “horrific.”  Men may read eerie, disturbing things in her husband’s face, things that are on Macbeth’s mind, things that should remain hidden.  Or she might mean that Macbeth’s face shows things that are foreign to his cast of mind.  “Strange,” then, would mean “alien,” “foreign,” “incommensurate,” not part of him, outside of his consciousness.  In other words, men may read things in Macbeth’s face that Macbeth is not actually thinking.  Macbeth’s face, then, would be inexpressive.  The fundamental point, for my argument, is that Lady Macbeth acts as the official interpreter of the book of Macbeth’s face.[xvii]

Despite all of her aggressiveness, so guilt-afflicted is Lady Macbeth post-deed that she becomes vegetabilized and then takes her life.  After the suicide of his wife, Macbeth does what any husband would do in the same situation.  He philosophizes.  He philosophizes in a sequence of metaleptic substitutions: “Life” becomes a “brief candle,” which becomes a “walking shadow,” which becomes a “poor player,” which becomes “a tale / [t]old by an idiot, full of sound and fury / [s]ignifying nothing” [V:v].  Metalepsis, in the rhetorical sense, is the substitution of one metonym for another.

Childless Macbeth is as a child to Lady Macbeth.  I see Macbeth’s childlessness as an abdication of the parently role and as the continuation of childlikeness.  Unable to procreate, he is infantilized.  For Macbeth is indeed a child—he is powerless, which in the deepest sense is what a child is.

 

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The play begins with a decapitation (that of Macdonald) and ends with a decapitation (that of Macbeth), suggesting that the actions that we assign to subjects are acephalic actions.  Macdonald’s “head is fixed upon [the Scottish army’s] battlements” [I:ii], and Macduff “enter[s]… with Macbeth’s head” [V:ix].  Not fortuitously, the First Apparition is a disembodied, weaponized head [IV:i], foretelling the coming beheading of Macbeth.  Decapitation is the key to understanding The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Roman Polanski’s 1971 cinematic interpretation of the play culminates in a spectacular decapitation.  I am filled with shuddering admiration for the hallucinatory lugubriousness of Polanski’s film, which is indeed a great Roman Polanski film.  However, it has to be stated: Polanski’s Macbeth is a magnificent work of cinema that has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare.

In his magisterial Daybreak: Thoughts on Moral Prejudices, Nietzsche sees in Macbeth a vigorous, daemonically attractive figure who is appealing because of his impassioned commitment to evil.  Nietzsche cosmeticizes Macbeth as a “hero-villain” or a “villain-hero” (without using these terms).

Instead of regarding Macbeth as a villain-hero or an anti-hero, as he often is, I see Macbeth as a process and the recipient of forces that are constantly acting upon him.  If there is no free will, and both the tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth suggest that there is none, there are neither villains nor even heroes, even in time of plague.  Nor is there such a thing as a Self that would be the changeless center of consciousness, as if the subject were the captain of a ship—in charge of the deeds that the body does.  The play suggests that human beings are not self-conscious agents but fleshly puppets or “walking shadow[s]” [V:v].[xix]  Drivenness is what marks Macbeth—he is not an auto-mobile, not a self-driven vehicle.  He is being driven.

Immediately after the suicide of his wife, Macbeth acknowledges that the life of the human species is temporary.  He acknowledges that the life of the human animal is nothing more than a “poor player” who “struts and frets his hour upon a stage” [V:v].  He acknowledges that human life is a “brief candle” [Ibid.] that flares up only to be extinguished.  Macbeth assumes finitude and refuses finitude at the same time.  He assumes mortality and refuses mortality.  When he says, “At least we’ll die with harness on our back” [Ibid.], Macbeth appears to be suggesting that he does not have a speckle of a scintilla of a modicum of a tincture of a jot of a hope of surviving yet rushes headlong to his death and oblivion.  He appears to be suggesting: Even though we know that we are going to die, even though we know that we are going to be forgotten (we are hurtling toward oblivion, which is forgottenness), “[a]t least we’ll die with harness on our back” [Ibid.].  This great, triumphal statement is an assertion of the human in the face of nothingness.

The play suggests that all actions are involuntary, that everything is necessary.[xx]  Macbeth is provoked to murder involuntarily, by forces beyond his control, in the same way that alcohol involuntarily provokes nose-painting, sleep, and urine [II:iii].  The acceptance of necessity is determinism, as is the short-lived stoical resignation of Lady Macbeth: “What’s done is done” [III:ii], and “What’s done, cannot be undone” [V:i].  Yes, and what will have been done will have been done.

There is no redemption or forgiveness or apology at the end of the play, only an impassioned refusal and assumption of necessity, a fighting-in-vain against necessity unto the end, “with harness on our back.”  The Tragedy of Macbeth is, relevantly, Shakespeare’s briefest tragedy.  As if to remind us of the ephemerality of life, the play itself is ephemeral.  Time is all-annihilating, the life of humankind is a “brief candle,” and Macbeth is an agent of all-annihilating time.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

[i] Date of composition: 1606, terminus post quem.

 

[ii] Macbeth is not equal to the deed that he has committed (the murder of Duncan).

 

[iii] Macbeth is deploying a similar distancing technique when he says, “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly” [I:vii].  Note that he does not say, “If I were to do it.”  The “It” takes the place of the “I.”

 

[iv] It would be unpresumptuous to say that this experience is not one of self-knowledge, but one of self-misknowledge.

 

[v] The original text of Holinshed: “These women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken.”

 

[vi] Appearances of the supernatural or of aberrant nature protrude and obtrude throughout the text of the play—a mousing owl hawking and killing a towering falcon, two horses cannibalizing each other [II:iv], the banqueting ghost of Banquo [III:iv], the apparitions of an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned, with a tree in his hand, the show of eight kings [IV:i].

 

[vii] The names are similar, fortuitously, for these are the names given in the historical record (Holinshed).  Macbeth, Macduff, and Macdonald are the three Big Macs.  There are instances of parechesis throughout the play: “banquet” and “Banquo,” “thane” and “thine,” as well as “Macbeth,” “Macduff,” and “Macdonald.”

 

[viii] The weïrd sisters often speak in paradoxes: “Greater than Macbeth, and lesser”; “When the battle’s lost, and won” [I:i].  Macbeth, whose speech imitates the speech of the witches, also occasionally speaks paradoxically: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good” [I:iii].  Malcolm, too, is paradoxical when he says: “We have met with foes / That strike beside us” [V:vii].  He might mean: “We have encountered enemies who are on our side,” perhaps alluding to the kerns (Irish guerilla soldiers), against whom the Scots fought at the beginning of the play and who might now be Scottish allies.  The entire play contains a paradoxology.

 

[ix] “I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do” gives the illusion of subjectivity.

 

[x] “I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do” is what rhetoricians call “epizeuxis”: the repetition of a word in close succession.  Epizeuxis is the least intelligent form of rhetorical repetition, but it would be unfair to blame Shakespeare for this, since the repetition is purposely mindless.  Perhaps the clearest example of epizeuxis: “No, no, no, no.”

 

[xi] Macbeth to the witches: “[Y]ou untie the winds and let them fight / Against the churches…” [IV:i].

 

[xii] “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” [I:iii].

 

[xiii] To think that words only have a metaphorical significance is to have a slender understanding of how words work.

 

[xiv] Babbling language, signifying nothing—language is a text in which the signifier supersedes the signified.

 

[xv] The original text of Holinshed: “The woords of the thrée weird sisters… greatlie incouraged him herevunto [to kill Duncan], but speciallie his wife lay sore vpon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.”

 

[xvi] And she continues: “To alter favour ever is to fear. / Leave all the rest to me” [I:v].

 

[xvii] What Lady Macbeth is saying sounds uncannily resemblant of what King Duncan says in the fourth scene of the first act: “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.”  He is alluding to the traitorous quondam Thane of Cawdor.  In a masterly feat of Shakespearean cosmic irony, the King then turns to speak to someone he misestimates: Macbeth!

 

[xix] The play subtly weakens the idea that a human being could be autogenously produced; it criticizes the myth of autogeny.  That idea is blown up into flinders.  To use the language of psychology: The play suggests that the formation of the human being could be explained by alloplasticity, not autoplasticity.  Not by the mind’s capacity for dealing with the external world, but by the mind’s capacity for being affected by the external world.

 

[xx] The play humanizes the tyrant Macbeth.  He is impelled, necessitated to kill.