Studies in Macbeth


THERE is one person in that world which Shakespeare has made known to us whose utterances are especially marked by the fine charm of true poetry. From his lips drop pearls. At the close of many of his speeches we are compelled to stop our reading to enjoy the musical, imaginative language. Our sympathy goes out instinctively to this instinctive poet. The man to whom I refer is that bloody and ever bloodier villain, the remorseless committer of murder upon murder, Macbeth.

In the tragedy of Macbeth two streams are ever flowing, — an unforced stream of exquisite poesy, and a stream of innocent blood shed by ruthless hands; and both of them find their source, their only and sufficient cause, in the soul of Macbeth. I believe that this strange contrast will help us to interpret the character of the man.

It is clear that the strains of poetry which fall from the lips of Macbeth are entirely natural. They come from the heart. The moment that he begins to make pretenses, to play a part, to say what prudence seems to dictate rather than what he feels, he passes from poetry to rhetoric. True poetry must be genuine, impassioned ; must spring from sympathy. When Macbeth depicts the appearance of the murdered Duncan, and pretends that the unexpected sight overpowered him with horror and an irresistible impulse to slay the suspected grooms, we hear these hollow phrases:

“ Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in
For ruin’s wasteful entrance : there, the mur-
Steep’d in the colours of their trade, their daggers
Unmannerly breech’d with gore : who could re-
frain, That had a heart to love, and in that heart
Courage to make’s love known ? ”

(II. iii. 117-124.)

Later in the play, Macbeth speaks to the physician concerning the illness of Lady Macbeth. Here his words come from the heart, and he says : —

“ Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous
Which weighs upon the heart? ”

(V. iii, 40-45.)

What relation does this poetical faculty of Macbeth bear to his real character ? Let us analyze his first soliloquy, and see what it teaches us (I. vii. 1— 28). He trembles before the danger to himself which attends the killing of Duncan, even though he is willing to “ jump the life to come.” Then he dwells upon the guilt of the intended murder. He is at once the kinsman, the subject, and the host of Duncan.

“ Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet - tongued,
The deep damnation of his taking-off.”

(I. vii. 10-20.)

There are eight lines more in the same strain. Surely now Macbeth will not murder Duncan ! Ah, now he surely will. He has looked fairly and fully at the crime ; but the honest impulses of his heart and the awfulness of the coming murder have been treated as materials for poetry, not as grounds for right decision and for instant action. The moment for a hearty, virtuous choice of the good is of set purpose given up to sentimentalizing, to poetizing. Such a moment will not return; and whenever his moral instincts shall again revolt against the crime, though less vigorously, utterance can be given them and their strength can be dissipated by the same process of poetizing.

Macbeth so revels in poetry, in æsthetic harmony, that these things are often more real to him than external dangers. At the close of the soliloquy in which he sees the dagger in the air, just before the murder of Duncan, he says : —

“ Now o’er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep ; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for
fear ” —

Of what? Of detection ?

— “ for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it.”

(II, i. 49-60.)

The whole situation is such an exquisite harmony of gloom, gives to the æsthetic sense of Macbeth such keen pleasure, that, even as he goes to murder Duncan, he fears that this harmony may be disturbed.

When Macbeth, at a later time, gives his wife an intimation of the intended murder of Banquo, he cannot deny himself the pleasure of accumulating about the coming crime a mass of poetic detail : —

“ Ere the bat hath flown
His cloister’d flight, ere to black Hecate’s
The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums
Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be
A deed of dreadful note.”

(III. ii. 40-44.)

The connection between words and deeds in any character is easily broken. “ ’T is a kind of good deed to say well " has been the flattering unction that has excused many a speaker from trying to live up to his own words. F. W. Robertson was often tormented by the fear lest his whole heart and life should not go with his spoken words. He knew how easily the utterance of fine words can become in any life, not a stimulus, but a soporific. Probably every successful preacher of righteousness could testify that he is constantly tempted in the most subtle ways to take an unlawful part in the world-wide division of labor by becoming, in one form or another, a sayer of the truth, and not a doer. Macbeth allows his conscience to frame his words, partly at least, in order that it may disturb him less in his guilty act.

Lady Macbeth knows not how firm the purpose of her husband is. She has heard his fine speeches ever since their wooing days, and cannot believe that they mean so little as they do in terms of action. She would fain think that the lips that have called her “ dearest chuck" have behind all their utterances the entire personality of the speaker. She knows that Macbeth has ambition, but thinks him to be without the moral “ illness ” that “ should attend it.” His profusion of fine words and sentiments misleads her. She does not know — he does not fully know — that his compassion and remorse are only imaginative, while his ambition is real. Lady Macbeth’s awful boldness appears to her to be forced upon her by the weakness of her husband. Though he first resolved upon the murder (I. iv. 50-53) and broke the enterprise to her (I. vii. 48), he is glad to play the part of the timid, frightened criminal, whose guilt is due to the master mind that controls him. Imaginary fears, a deep shrinking and shuddering of the soul in view of crime, are natural to him, and give him a strange, thrilling pleasure; while the fierce energy which his supposed remorse arouses in Lady Macbeth serves, in his view, both to throw upon her a large share of the guilt and to make the death of Duncan more certain. “ The weird sisters ” are but a personification, a dramatizing, of those dark promptings which swarm in every soul that is secretly inclined to evil. As the sentimentalist sheds tears over imaginary suffering, and is unmoved at real distress, so Macbeth shakes like a reed in the wind before the thought of a murder which “yet is but fantastical; ” and then, deliberately, in spite of a nervous sensitiveness which completely deceives his wife, and which partially deceives both Macbeth himself and the readers of the play, moves on “ towards his design.”

Like all things else, the death of his wife furnishes Macbeth a theme for poetry ; and the last pleasure that he knows, except the savage delight of battle, is the sad joy of singing an exquisite death-song to the faithful partner of his guilt. Having treated the moral realities of life, its most real things, as visionary, as mere materials for poetry, all things seem to be but parts of an unreal phantasm; and he would fain persuade himself that they are so. Having emptied life and death of every good meaning, he longs to believe that they mean nothing.

“ To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief can-
dle !
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,
Signifying nothing.”

(V. v. 19-28.)

Alas, Macbeth !


One function of the chorus in the Greek tragedies was to anticipate and announce the terrible catastrophe which hangs over some guilty soul. The voice of fate, the anger of the offended gods, the instincts of the human heart, which could not come to utterance through the characters in the drama, found in the chorus an impersonal and powerful lyric expression.

The drama of the Greeks had a lyrical origin, and made effective use of the song element, which it ever retained. But the chorus, with all its power, is foreign to the drama ; it is a non-dramatic element. The songs interrupt the action, and make it seem unreal.

There are two situations in Macbeth where an effect analogous to the most powerful utterances of the Greek chorus is secured with no sacrifice of dramatic reality. The broken moral law, the anger of Heaven, the coming doom of the guilty, find thrilling expression in the very action itself. The acting forms are men, but the voice that speaks to us is the voice of God. These two situations are the knocking at the gate after the murder of Duncan, and the sleep-walking scene.

In commenting upon the knocking at the gate, I cannot hope to add anything to the powerful essay of De Quincey which treats of this incident; but, I desire to put Into every-day language a portion of the thought which he has expressed in more philosophical form.

We have been conscious during the hurried preparations for the murder of Duncan, and the hurried conversation which follows it, that the voice of conscience has been rudely choked down. Immediately after the deed, to be sure, Macbeth gives poetical utterance to the moral war that is waging within him. Two of the sleepers in the castle have waked for a moment from uneasy slumber, and their drowsy words have stirred the conscience of Macbeth.

“ Macb. . . . I could not say ‘ Amen,’

When they did say ' God bless us ! ’

Lady M. Consider it not so deeply.

Macb. But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen ’? I had most need of blessing, and ‘ Amen’ Stuck in my throat.”

But words are things to Lady Macbeth, though they are not to her husband, and she tells him : —

“ These deeds must not be thought
After these ways ; so, it will make us mad.”

Still he continues : —

“Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no
Macbeth does murder sleep,’the innocent
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second
Chief nourisher in life’s feast, —
Lady M. What do yon mean ?
Macb Still it cried ‘ Sleep no more ! ’ to all
the house:
'Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no

(II. ii. 29-43.)

Then Lady Macbeth puts a stop to the utterances of conscience, and turns her whole attention, and in a measure his and ours, to the purely practical question, how they shall avoid detection. And now the unwelcome voice of conscience flies from the breasts which refuse to harbor it. Suddenly, through the awful darkness, there comes a summons ; the walls cry out. The thoughts, the fears, which throng the minds of the guilty pair and of the shuddering spectators find in the knocking at the gate a weird, a startling, and an adequate expression. This unexpected voice, seeming to come from no fixed place, and having no apparent cause except the tragic tension which demands it, stimulates the imagination almost beyond endurance, and heightens the tension that it appears to relieve.

Just before the knocking we have been isolated from the world, and our intellectual sympathy has been given to Macbeth and his wife. Their moral sense and ours is for the moment stifled. What voice shall call us back to the world of moral law, of humane, human living ?

The knocking at the gate is, first of all, a sharp challenge from the outer world of every-day life. The morality of that outer world is, indeed, conventional and imperfect; but the sharp contrast between the normal, every-day life of men, their common loves and hates, and the awful crime which has just taken place in the little world of Macbeth and his wife is brought home to us with a blow by the sudden sound of the knocking.

It is not only to the world of men and its standards, however, that Macbeth, his wife, and we are to be called back. Therefore no human voice can adequately challenge the guilty pair. Macbeth would put on a bold front before any man, and our intellectual sympathy would go with him. Any human words would fail to express the blackness of his guilt; but the knocking, inarticulate, impersonal, having no visible cause,—this can be the very voice of God, and it is.

There is something strangely suggestive in the rhythm of the knocking. Rhythm is the expression of all life. Our hearts beat out the rhythm of our lives. Day and night, in their alternation, make up the vast, rhythm of our universe. “ The father of rhythm,”says an old seer, “ is God.”

To the startled apprehension of Macbeth this rhythmic knocking is the throbbing of that moral life of the world which he has refused to regard. To a cold, unsympathetic reader it may seem an absurdity to say it, but. Macbeth hears vaguely in the knocking the tramp ! tramp! of those moral forces that shall not cease their march until, out of the wreck of this world, there shall arise the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. Against these forces, which must win, Macbeth has set himself. Henceforth the very " stars in their courses ” will fight against him, and he knows it. With a sudden burst of hopeless remorse, which yet is not true contrition, he cries : —

“ Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would
thou couldst!”

(II. ii. 74.)


Hudson comments as follows upon the fact that this scene, “ which is more intensely tragic than any other in Shakespeare, is all, except the closing speech, written in prose: ” —

“ I suspect that the matter is too sublime, too austerely grand, to admit of anything so artificial as the measured language of verse, even though the verse were Shakespeare’s ; and that the Poet, as from an instinct of genius, saw or felt that any attempt to heighten the effect by any such arts or charms of delivery would unbrace and impair it. . . . Is prose, then, after all, a higher form of speech than verse ? There are strains in the New Testament which no possible arts of versification could fail to belittle and discrown.” (Harvard Shakespeare.)

I cannot help feeling that these very suggestive words of the accomplished critic, so far as they respect this scene, are somewhat beside the point. Words are only a part of the language of the drama, and sometimes they are but a small part. The plays of Shakespeare, of course, were not written, primarily, to be read. It is not the diction, the literary form, of this scene which impresses us ; it is the action, and most of all the situation. It is only scattered fragments of speech that Lady Macbeth utters. Direct, artless prose, moreover, “ unbound speech,”seems to be the natural and necessary form of her utterances. Nothing else would befit the unconsciousness of slumber.

What is it that stirs us in this scene ? Who is acting ? The servant and the doctor are but spectators, like ourselves, and Lady Macbeth is locked in sleep. It is the invisible world of moral reality which is made strangely manifest before our eyes. Lady Macbeth would not reveal these guilty secrets for all the wealth of all the world, but in the awful war that is waging in her breast her will is helpless. Her feet, her hands, her lips, conspire against her. In the presence of the awful, unseen Power that controls her poor, divided self, we hush the breath and bow the head.

Albert H. Tolman.