Macbeth lies at the centre of Shakespeare’s vision of human nature, and not only in terms of the age of its protagonist. Macbeth is an over-reacher, and resembles two of Shakespeare’s most celebrated villains, Richard III and Edmund in King Lear, in his determination to make of himself more than fate has assigned to him. Such characters need to be examined as closely as those whose problems arise from the clash between their positive approach to the world and the slings and arrows of, not just outrageous fortune, but the aspirations of others too.
Unlike the vast majority of Shakespearian protagonists, and like Richard III and Edmund, Machbeth treats others, including those that trust him, as simply instruments of his own ambition. But unlike them he is also unquestionably a hero, and is characterized by a host of memorable lines that convey the universality of what he goes through, even though his precipitation of his fate is peculiar to himself. He is also unlike them, in that he does not begin as an outsider, a bastard or a younger brother apparently fated to lurk in the shadows, and challenging the established order to overcome this – like also another distinctive though less prominent Shakespearian villain, Antonio in The Tempest. Nor does he have the excuse of an Iago, disappointed in his desire for promotion.
Macbeth, unlike these, is on the ladder of deserved success. What he does then can be seen as taking to a conclusion the logic of ambition and talent. Initially propelled to this by the three witches, he is hardened in his determination by Lady Macbeth, who seems to epitomize the converse of the innocence of the leading women of the other great tragedies.
But perhaps this is only part of the story, for some of the strength of Macbeth lies in the contrast between the reactions of Macbeth and his lady to the consequences of the path they embarked on jointly. The lady simply cannot live up to her earlier grandiose pronouncements of villainy. Having declared
She cannot later live with the isolation and sense of guilt her actions have precipitated. Though it would be perverse to speak of her innocence, we realize the effort it took her to overcome her inhibitions, propelled herself by what she sees as her husband’s deserts as well as his needs.
But she is not up to it, thankfully for our sense of humanity, and her breakdown is movingly melancholic
Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?—Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.
….. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!
In contrast to this is Macbeth’s increasing commitment to the fate or rather the role he has chosen. Initially he had been full of qualms, having been spurred to the first murder by his lady –
But he then loses all inhibitions, and lays about him with a bloodthirsty vigour that is startling in its excess. Shakespeare evokes brilliantly what this does to him, first through the angst raised by his sight of Banquo’s ghost
Can such things be,
It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.
And then through the deep despair roused by his awareness of what he has come to –
All this is accompanied by increasing detachment from reality, exemplified by his return to the weird sisters and his triumphant reliance on their preposterous prophecies. When he begins to realize, not that they have tricked him, but that he has been betrayed by his own canonization of words in terms only of his own desires, his reaction is heroic, and almost admirable in its defiance –
Which is followed by the final confrontation with Macduff, who he finds is not born of woman
Macbeth. Thou losest labor.
Macduff. Despair thy charm,
Macbeth. Accursèd be that tongue that tells me so,
Macduff. Then yield thee, coward,
Macbeth. I will not yield,
Macbeth is unusual in the Shakespearian canon, because it is so thoroughly dominated by the main characters. Lady Macbeth has comparatively little to do, but she is obviously the main spring of action, and the main repository of reaction, apart from her husband. But there is no one else of consequence, and though we remember the pathos of Duncan’s end, the anguish of Banquo when he realizes what Macbeth has done and what is in store for him, the innocence of Lady Macduff and the intensity of her avenging husband, none of them come anything close in stature to the two principals. Indeed, next in line in terms of their impact on the play are the three witches, whose significance is apparent in the attention different directors give to emphasizing the crucial nature of their two interventions.
I must pay tribute here to a marvelous short film on Macbeth that was a useful tool for teaching when I was at the British Council, and I was encouraged to do much work with the English Teacher Training College at Penideniya, where Macbeth was one of the set texts. Entitled A Director’s Cut, it began with different presentations of the witches, and then went on to discuss the importance of Macbeth’s embracing of their prophecy and its consequences in the working out of the tragedy. This provided a backdrop for the programmes I would do, with Richard de Zoysa and Yolande Abeywira going up with me to read the two main parts – which was quite enough to expound the main points of the play, whereas with any other play one needed minor characters too to set things in context.
Let me conclude this assessment of the great tragedies with Macbeth’s brief lament for his lady, which leads to perhaps the saddest of all descriptions of life