Shakespeare explores the tragic consequences of ambition and human weakness in his masterful study of guilt, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Greed and shame struggle mightily for the souls of the protagonists as they submit to supernatural forces that press cruelly at the soft core of humanity. The play’s dark landscape, cast with threads of secret desires and murderous intent, with its echoes of ancient Greek drama, later became a foundation for the gothic: the art of Henry Fuseli and William Blake almost two centuries later, the dark horrors of Charles Brockton Brown and Mary Shelley to the more literal terrors of post apocalyptic literature of today.
Fate, Prophesy and the Supernatural
Hearing vengeful voices along dark corridors, in the shadows, and from the house itself the play is drenched in the supernatural. It’s in the weather, the thunder and the lightning at the beginning until the very end when the skies break; it’s in the hallucinations and visions, of floating daggers, Banquo’s ghost, of the blood imagined on the hands, and the lurking presence of the three weird sisters.
“I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murther sleep – the innocent sleep,”
(Act II, Scene ii)
Such atmosphere hauls the audience into the belly of the beast. The natural order is severed by the actions of a febrile Macbeth and the insinuations of his wife, Lady Macbeth. The chaos all around both serves to highlight the drama of the chaos, but to fuel it too, for Macbeth’s actions create further disorder, the three murders are echoes of the three witches, the visions of ghosts and blood are manifestations of his guilt.
Shakespeare explores the tortuous path of Fate in this chaos. On the one hand we are to believe the action is prophesied, that Macbeth is destined to murder the king and become king himself, but of course, he could have turned away and not allowed the supernatural musings of the hags on the heath to tease at his secret ambitions. However, as he says, “so fair and foul a day I have not seen” (Act I, scene iii) he hints at an inner turmoil that both welcomes and recoils at the ghastliness of the day, an excitement where there should be none at all, as he returns from the bloody battle at the beginning of the play.
In Elizabethan times witches and other subtle supernatural forces were feared but accepted as a wondrous, uncomfortable truth. The pursuit of religious purity in a Europe riven by brutal conflict between Catholic and Protestant wrought a superstitious mindset in a general population regularly threatened with Hell and damnation by its priests. For a Shakespearean audience the interventions of the weird sisters would have struck a horrifying familiarity, an anguish that churned in their stomachs and found its echo on stage. Shakespeare relies on this for his convincing portrayal of death and corrupted ambition.
Prophesy per se was a powerful force. The Bible, full of ‘waking dreams’, as the Almighty communicating through visions (Abraham, Jacob, Solomon etc), lends a respectability wilfully misused by Shakespeare’s weird sisters. To emphasise the otherworldliness of these forces the language itself is sclerotic and seductive, so very different from the iambic pentameter of the more ordered sections of the play. Perhaps the witches are manifestations of Macbeth’s darkest desires, perhaps he wills the prophesies to persuade himself of the purpose of Fate, but the effect is the same, chaos overwhelms him, brings him to the lip of his ambition through the dishonourable deaths, and he, and those around him, suffer the dreadful consequences. So this archetype for the gothic hero is built up and dashed down.
The monumental effect of the Macbeths’ guilt, leads in both cases to madness, and suicide on the part of Lady Macbeth. That savage acts can be performed with physical ease is demonstrated throughout the play, with battles at the beginning and the end, and the simple facts of the murders off-stage, but the endurance of them is another matter:
pre-meditated, under the sly guise of ambition Shakespeare exposes the mental fragility of the human condition, echoed in so much literature (e.g. T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’). Shakespeare’s portrayal is brutal, and bloody, and observed by the hags, as gargoyles hidden in the shadows, always present, rarely seen, but their forbidding presence amongst the wild places is a permanent reminder of the dangers hunting at the edges of our desires.
Blood and Guilt
Blood spilled is an obvious symbol of chaos, and death, (of Duncan, Lady Macbeth in Act V, Scene i, says, “who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him”), and so difficult to remove from Lady Macbeth’s hands (‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!, also Act V, Scene i ). And yet we know blood to be essential to life, in its proper place, pulsing and flowing through the body. This essential contradiction plays on the turmoil of the three witches’ invocation at the beginning of the play: ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair.’
Gender Bent out of Shape
Of course, for the Elizabethan audience the ultimate sign of disorder is the unwomanly behaviour of the females in the play, from the hideous machinations of the weird sisters, to Lady Macbeth herself. In Act I, Scene v, she beseeches the otherworldly spirits to “unsex me now”, and wary that her husband is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness.’ Soon after, she loses patience with the conscience-struck Macbeth and declares (in Act II, scene ii),
“Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers. The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil. If he do bleed,
I’ll gild the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.”
Not only does she show more determination than Macbeth, but the devilry to equate the sleeping and the dead, and the cunning to plan the blame on the grooms by smearing the blood on their faces. Such is the scale of her ambition for herself and her husband that in behaving as she thinks a man should behave she manipulates the chaotic misanthrope. She lauds a retrogressive masculinity, a violent nihilism that rages with the ‘thunder and lightening’. Contrast this at the end of Act IV, scene iii with Macduff’s mild remonstration of Malcolm that the true nature of manhood is to ‘feel it as a man.’ Here is the ‘fair’ to the Macbeth’s ‘foul’.
For the reader in search of the gothic, The Tragedy of Macbeth is drenched in the blood of intrigue, guilt and shame. The supernatural atmosphere, the wild landscapes gathered around the murders set within the narrow confines of an isolated castle, the cast of grotesqueries, ill-omen, and dire threat to the mortal soul, these all contribute to the solid gothic foundations. Unlike later, more sensational literature though Shakespeare strives to highlight the human condition, its eternal battles with temptation and depravity.
Macbeth is though, a simple male. Goaded by prophesy, encouraged and manipulated by his wife and Fate he suffers to die an early death long before his physical demise at the end of the play. He loses himself in the greed and ambition at first, then the guilt and shame that follows. His wife takes her own life at least, while poor Macbeth is buffeted by Fate, the urging of others and the weakness of his own determination. Perhaps Shakespeare challenges us to question what we would have done, how we would behaved, certainly he forces us to think about the consequences of our actions.
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Image at the head of this piece is a detail from Fuseli’s ‘Macbeth, Banquo and the Three Witches’, 1894, from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.