Shakespeare’s conception of moral order in Macbeth

Shakespeare’s conception of moral order in Macbeth

Tufts, Carol Strongin

SHAKESPEARE’S CONCEPTION OF MORAL ORDER IN MACBETH FOR all the debate over the character of Macbeth-Is he truly a tragic figure, or little more than a criminal, a butcher?-and the nature and function of the witches-Are they agents of the Devil, of Fate, or the manifestations of Macbeth’s own mind?-most critics have agreed with G. Wilson Knight’s assessment of Macbeth as “Shakespeare’s most profound and mature vision of Evil . . .” (154). That “Evil” is viewed as opposed to nature itself, to the harmony and order of the universe, the “life images” of planting, procreation, feasting, fellowship, and the serenity and beauty that Duncan and Banquo so ironically see as they enter Macbeth’s castle (Knights, 36-38; Brooks, 43-44; Speaight, 44-48). Such natural harmony, though disrupted by Macbeth’s willed choice of evil, is, according to critical consensus, restored at the end of the play with the triumph of the forces of good, for the death of “this . . . butcher and his fiend-like queen” (V. ix. 35) and Malcolm’s ascension to the throne will, again,” in the words of the unnamed Lord of the third act, “Give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights” (III. vi. 34).

Yet if Macbeth is indeed Shakespeare’s “most profound and mature vision of Evil,” that vision may be far more paradoxical and complex than has been suggested by most critical accounts, for in writing a drama in which the end is very much a mirror image of the beginning Shakespeare may be throwing into question the very nature of Nature and the kind of Moral Order which his contemporaries believed to be inherent in it; he may, in fact, be giving concrete, dramatic life to the metaphysical conception of good and evil that was part of his inheritance from the medieval scholastic philosophers. As Jan Kott has written, “Macbeth begins and ends with slaughter. There is more and more blood, everyone walks in it; it floods the stage” (87). But even more to the point, the events of the beginning and the end of the play are, in essence, the same events seen through opposite perspectives: in the beginning, through the perspective of the rightful king threatened by rebel forces; at the end, through the perspective of the usurper threatened by the forces of the rightful king. And what is most ironic is that despite the repetition of events, despite the circle of treachery and slaughter, the concluding victory of the forces on the side of moral order is seen by the victors, as it was mistakenly seen by the victors at the beginning, as the end of all slaughter since the usurpation of the rightful king with its inversion of all things good and wholesome and “natural” has been put down.

The disruption of moral order is, of course, a major element of all Shakespearean tragedy. The actual inversion of that order, however, together with its metaphysical implications, is perhaps best approached through a brief consideration of the similar inversion of order which takes place in King Lear, the play that precedes Macbeth chronologically. There is a parallel between Macbeth’s act of regicide and Lear’s division of his kingdom, the act by which natural order is turned upside down as Lear, in the words of the Fool, makes his “daughters” his “mothers” (I. iv. 172). In both plays it is through the unnatural replacement of the rightful king, whether by Lear’s own abdication of power and responsibility or by Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, that Shakespeare sets up his exploration of the problem of moral order and the human potential both for destruction and for creation, for evil and for good.

Lear’s tragedy begins when he divides his kingdom-when he, in fact, undoes it and mistakes his older daughters’ professions of love, words without content, in reality nothing, for something. At the same time he is unable to hear the something implicit in Cordelia’s “Nothing.” “Nothing will come of nothing” is Lear’s answer to Cordelia (I. i. 90), but he speaks more truly than he knows, as does Macbeth in his speech after the discovery of Duncan’s murder. For Macbeth, too, is in essence describing how nothing will come of nothing, how only nothing can proceed from the act of negation that is the murder of Duncan:

. . . for from this instant There’s nothing serious in mortality All is but toys. Renown and grace is dead, The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of.

(II. iii. 92-96)

Both Lear and Macbeth are delivering public speeches-Lear for the audience which he had hoped to impress by his daughters’ declarations of love for him and Macbeth for the audience whose suspicions of his own guilt he must allay. Yet by giving up his power and “retain[ing]” no more than “[t]he name and all th’ additions to a king” (I. i. 135-36) Lear has, in fact, exchanged something for nothing, substance for shadow, while Macbeth, by murdering Duncan to gain the crown, is attempting to create something-a kingship which is whole and secure-out of an act which will plunge him further and further into nothingness.

Macbeth and Lear are, then, essentially faced with the same dilemma: they both struggle to make something out of nothing. Yet the irony for Lear is that although he painfully comes to see the hollowness at the core of Goneril and Regan’s professed love for him as he discovers the fullness of Cordelia’s love, and although he also comes to see the emptiness of his own notion of kingship as he is able to say, “they told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (IV. vi. 104-OS), he ends in a leveled world in which, as he bends over the dead Cordelia and believes she lives, he is still trying to make something out of nothing, to see life in a corpse. Macbeth, however, begins in one sense where Lear has ended, for he already possesses the knowledge toward which Lear has had to struggle. As Robert B. Heilman has stated, “Lear explodes into injustice in the first scene, so that more than four acts are left for the drama of selfunderstanding. Macbeth, in turn, knows from the very beginning what is what, and his utterly different problem is to escape what he knows” (91). Macbeth, though he knows before the murder is committed what consequences will follow, once the decision to kill is made he tries to believe that he really can make something out of nothing-that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III. ii. 55), that safety and security for himself as king and unity for his kingdom can be created through acts of negation which themselves impose the necessity for further negation as he undoes the world around him and finally, in the most complete and profound way, undoes himself.

The problem in Macbeth, therefore, is not only the problem of defining the nature of the evil which Knight called “inhuman and supernatural, and . . . thus most difficult of location in any philosophical scheme” (154), but also the problem of accounting for the vulnerability of moral order in the face of that evil. And in terms of that vulnerability Shakespeare is again setting up a situation similar to that in King Lear. In both plays the initial act of disruption of order has taken place even before the first scene since, as is evidenced by the conversation between Gloucester and Kent which opens King Lear, the decision to divide the kingdom has already been made, while in Macbeth the rebellion of Macdonwald and the first Thane of Cawdor is already in progress.

ALTHOUGH it may be argued that in a play like Hamlet, for example, the disruption of moral order, the murder of the rightful king, has also occurred before the beginning of the play, Shakespeare takes great pains, both in the first scene and in Hamlet’s speeches about his father, to emphasize King Hamlet’s virtues as a ruler and the moral order that formerly prevailed in Denmark. In King Lear, however, as in Macbeth, the notion of a prior order existing before the beginning of the play becomes more problematic, though for different reasons. In King Lear, as D. G. James has pointed out, the first scene “cuts away from our imaginations any sense of the preceding life of Lear and his family; it makes the beginning of the play as absolute as may be; and Shakespeare gives us very little which helps to make the scene we see continuous with what had gone before” (101). Even more important, there is no indication in the play of the kind of ruler Lear has been. In light of what we have witnessed in the first scene Goneril seems not to be exaggerating when she says of her father, “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash . . .” (I. i. 295-96). Yet in Macbeth the nature of the order that has existed prior to the rebellion of Macdonwald and Cawdor becomes imbued with paradox; for Duncan has not merely been a good and “gracious” king (III. i. 65), he has been a “most sainted” one as well (IV. iii. 109). Nevertheless, it is the “most sainted” Duncan who says of the man who has attempted to usurp him

There’s no art To find the mind’s construction in the face. He was a gentleman on whom I built An absolute trust. .

(I. iv. 12-15)

and then proceeds to award that traitor’s title to the very man who is already harboring thoughts of regicide.

Thus the problem of moral order in Macbeth, as in King Lear, begins with the king himself, though, paradoxically, with a king whose goodness seems almost beyond human measure. As Macbeth himself says,

. . 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 against The deep damnation of his taking-off….

(I. vii. 16-20)

Yet “clear” as Duncan has been “in his great office” the fact is that there has already been a rebellion carried out against him, and though that rebellion has ended in the defeat of the traitorous Thane of Cawdor it has only prepared the way for the murder of the “unguarded Duncan” (I. vii. 70) by the very man he himself will name as the new Thane. Moreover, the world on which Macbeth opens is a world in which the moral order which has Duncan at its center seems already to be unraveling; for the rebellion against the rightful king would have been viewed by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as a rebellion against God and Nature. And what becomes an intriguing possibility is that this assault on moral order is not so much the result of forces challenging it from without as it is the result of a paradox within, a paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of evil as the absence of good.

In the ontological scheme of Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastic philosophers who were his disciples evil comes logically to be seen as the absence of good through the distinction made between actuality-being, or that which exists-and potentiality-the capacity for being. For Aquinas and the scholastics everything which exists is seen as part of a hierarchy of potentiality and actuality, each act possesses a potentiality for a higher actuality, ultimately ascending to God who is pure actuality, or Being itself. In this scheme certain properties, which Aquinas called “modes,” are ascribed to being: these are unity, truth, and goodness with God embodying absolute unity, absolute truth, and absolute goodness. Thus the opposite of these three modes becomes a movement away from Being itself, for as anything which exists becomes more in actuality and less in potentiality as it approaches absolute unity, truth, and goodness, so evil becomes simply the failure of potentiality (the capacity for being) to realize actuality (being itself), the failure to realize unity, truth and goodness. Or, in Aquinas’s words, it is only possible to understand evil in terms of good since

Every agent acts insofar as it is in actuality and thus perfect in some way. Now insofar as anything is evil it is not in actuality, since we call evil what is in a state of potentiality, without its proper and due act. But insofar as anything is in actuality, it is good, because this gives it perfection and entity as well as essential goodness. Hence nothing acts insofar as it is evil but everything acts insofar as it is good . . . [which is to say] only by the power of good does evil act…. (Reader 85)

To view the problem of evil in Macbeth as Shakespeare’s exploration of this paradoxical conception of good and evil is, in a sense, to see the witches who open the play as the embodiment of Aquinas’s concept of potentiality. What they prophesy is linked to the kind of choice made by the human actors who hear them, the choice either to realize, or to fail to realize actuality, being itself, as in Banquo’s decision to “stand” within “the great hand of God” (II. iii. 130), and Macbeth’s decision to murder Duncan. Thus seeming almost to be part of the battle raging around them, these witches arise from an earth soaked with blood, an earth which now has “bubbles as the water has” (I. iii. 79). And it is blood in this play which becomes the ever-present symbol of human potentiality, the “wine of life” for Scotland when it flowed through Duncan’s veins, and “this filthy witness” (II. ii. 43) when it stains the hands of Macbeth and his plunging them and Scotland into a fall away from the unity, truth, and goodness which are the modes of being itself.

IN this world where “fair” becomes “foul, and foul is fair,” so that, for Macbeth, “. . . nothing is / But what is not” (I. iii. 141-42), the first human beings we see are themselves in the process of encountering a man covered with blood and the first line spoken is the King’s question: “What bloody man is that?” (I. ii. 1). For this is the question that will resonate throughout the play as all human beings, even the King himself, come to be covered with blood, the physical manifestation of potentiality, the embodiment of the capacity for being which pours from wounds and gashes, literally undoing men and women and children, turning them from something to nothing. As Shakespeare dramatizes the scholastic conception of good and evil all the bloodletting that is at the metaphoric center of the play causes the world to collapse in on itself as Macbeth’s career becomes a representation of Augustine’s statement in The Confessions-and it was Augustine’s Neoplatonic thought which Aquinas brought into harmony with the philosophy of Aristotle-that evil, being “nothing but a privation of good . . . can continue to the point where a thing ceases to exist altogether” (Confessions 60)-to become, in effect, nothing.

The energy with which Macbeth commits his acts of negation is, then, ironically the energy which arises out of the fact of his existence itself, his capacity for being, and it is significant that Shakespeare has him die soon after he acknowledges his own emptiness in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. If evil in Macbeth is seen as the “privation” of good, Macbeth’s murder of Duncan-the act of negation by which he tries to believe that he can make something out of nothing-together with all the bloodletting that follows, ironically employs the capacity for being to undo being itself. Yet the obvious question that must be raised here, given Duncan’s perfect goodness and the moral order dependent upon it, is the same question which exists in Christian theology-that is, how the perfect goodness, whether of Duncan, the king who rules by divine right, or of God Himself, can come to be undone at all.

The traditional answer offered by Christian theology is, of course, the concept of free will, for as Walter Clyde Curry has described it, “the Christian conception of evil combines the negative element of departure from God, the absence of good, with a positive element involving the rebellion of the perverted finite will against the mandates of the infinite will” (112). Yet as Shakespeare explores the nature of good and evil in Macbeth, though he grants human responsibility in the choices made by a free will-the witches’ prophecy, after all, is subject to interpretation; it only tells Macbeth that he will be king, not that he must murder Duncanhe also presents the deeper paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of good. And that paradox rests on an implicit irony: Duncan, the embodiment of Aquinas’s three modes of being-unity, truth, and goodness-is able to see only good in others; he so fully is that he cannot conceive of what is not. Thus, to use Aquinas’s words, in this play it is indeed “only by the power of good” that “evil act[s],” for it is Duncan himself who creates the circumstances and the opportunity that permit Macbeth to carry out the murder.

Duncan has failed to see what Macbeth’s predecessor as Thane of Cawdor literally was not-“a gentleman on whom” to build “[a]n absolute trust”-and in this failure of vision, it is Duncan who, even before the opening of the play, has empowered evil to act. The irony here is a complex one, since it is not so much a matter of Duncan’s being innocent, particularly if innocence is itself seen as implying a lack of either the knowledge or experience that enables one to distinguish good from evil; rather, it is a matter of Duncan’s goodness making its own undoing possible, for it is in the inability of such complete goodness to recognize the “privation of good” in others, to see, paradoxically, “what is not,” that foul can seem to be fair and nothing can seem to be something.

Thus the “brave Macbeth” (I. ii. 16) who with his smoking sword “unseams” the enemies of the King (I. ii. 22), who wages war as if he “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” (I. ii. 39-40), is applauded for his bloody deeds by that very King who, though momentarily saved by those deeds, is himself about to be “unseamed” by this same Macbeth. Linked through Shakespeare’s imagery to Christ, Duncan, who is “gracious” (III. i. 65) and “meek” (I. vii. 17), “most sainted” (IV. iii. 109), the “Lord’s anointed temple” (II. iii. 68), ends as one of the skulls piled on the Golgotha that Macbeth will make of Scotland. And the unguardedness of which Lady Macbeth speaks as she plots Duncan’s murder goes beyond the literal drugged sleep of the grooms who should be attending him, for it is “[t]h’ unguarded Duncan” (I. vii. 70) who approaches Macbeth’s castle and breathes air that “Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses” (I. vi. 1-3) and who, together with Banquo, looks up at the battlements and sees the “procreant cradle” of the “temple-haunting martlet” (I. vi. 8 and 4). His unguardedness prevents him from seeing that all that is good here is even now coming undone-that the castle’s sweet air is streaming out, leaving the “dunnest smoke of hell” (I. v. 51), that it is the raven which now haunts the battlements (I. v. 38), as the martlet’s “procreant cradle” is emptied of all fertility and all life in a world in which a woman has called upon the “. . . spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex” her, to “Come to” her “woman’s breasts / And take” her “milk for gall” (I. v. 40-41, 47-48). In seeing only that which is good, which at the very moment that it is beheld is already in the process of pouring out, Duncan, who sees in Macbeth and his Lady a “worthy gentleman” (I. ii. 24) and a “[flair and noble hostess” (I. vi. 23), (as he has done with the first traitorous Thane of Cawdor) “[p]lants” and unwittingly “labor[s] / To make . . . full of growing” (I. iv. 28-29) not that which is good, but that which is the “privation of good”-not something, but nothing; not, again to use Aquinas’s terms, actuality, but potentiality “without its proper and due act.”

THE problem of moral order in this play, then, may be viewed as stemming from the twofold paradox inherent in the scholastic conception of good and evil and in Aquinas’s distinction between potentiality and actuality. While potentiality, the capacity for being, can generate acts which move the actor away from the unity, truth, and goodness that are actuality, or being itself, so unity, truth, and goodness, if they are perfect, seem unable to recognize their own privation in others. Duncan, as Macbeth will do after him, has seen nothing as something, though Duncan’s failure of vision is due to the complete goodness of his nature, while Macbeth’s failure of vision is an act of willed self-deception. If Duncan’s failure to see “what is not” has already opened the abyss into which Macbeth tumbles both himself and the world, Macbeth’s vision of “what is not” and his attempts to blind himself to that vision are possible because, unlike Duncan, he is not “most sainted,” not perfectly good, but, rather, like most human beings, he is good insofar as he exists, insofar as he possesses the potentiality, the capacity for being, which enables him to act at all. And, ironically, it is that potentiality which is the source of the energy which makes it possible for him to drain the unity, truth, and goodness-being itself-both from himself and from the world, causing

. . . the treasure Of Nature’s germains to tumble all together Even till destruction sicken….

(IV . i. 58-60)

Because in choosing to murder Duncan, Macbeth is, in Aquinas’s terms, failing in potentiality to realize actuality, which is to say, failing in his capacity for being to realize being itself, it is significant that his choice is made in a scene which plays on the nature of potentiality itself (I. vii.). For Macbeth and his wife that potentiality is viewed most simply as Macbeth’s ability to perform the murder of Duncan, but, on a deeper level, it is also equated with Macbeth’s manhood, his sexual potency. What Shakespeare has done in this scene is to stage a metaphorical inversion of the act of sexual union and procreation as Lady Macbeth links the issue of Duncan’s murder to Macbeth’s ability to become “so much more the man” (I. vii. 51), a concept defined for them both as much in terms of sexual potency as it is courage and daring. Given the sexual implications of her argument, what is ironic here is that Lady Macbeth has herself just demanded to be unsexed by those “spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts” (I. v. 40-41). Although she does not realize it, what she has, in fact, asked for is not so much to be made free of the tenderness and compassion of her female nature so that she may take on the ruthlessness and cruelty which she seems to regard as the province of the male, but, rather, to be made neither female, nor male, to be made, in effect, nothing. And she ends, therefore, with the perversion both of her own and her husband’s sexual energy, energy which is itself a potentiality for a higher actualitythe creation of life-as she gives birth not to new life, but to death.

Failing to realize the fallacy implicit in her demand, Lady Macbeth is able to believe that by an act of negation she and her husband can obtain that which they esteem “the ornament of life” (I. vii. 42). And she proceeds through the use of language that is implicitly sexual to taunt her husband into committing the murder, for her goal is Macbeth’s arousal to a state in which he will “bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (I. vii. 80). Thus when Macbeth expresses reluctance to proceed with the murder, Lady Macbeth’s response is:

. . . From this time Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valor As thou art in desire? . .

(I. vii. 38-41)

And when Macbeth, who has no reason to doubt his manly courage in battle answers, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” (I. vii. 47-48), it is apparent that Lady Macbeth means to imply a more specifically sexual concept of manhood as she jeers:

When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place Did then adhere, and yet you would make both. They have made themselves, and that their fitness now Does unmake you….

(I. vii. 49-54)

Although the stress here in Lady Macbeth’s seduction of her husband is on love and desire, manhood and the unmaking of manhood, the eroticism of the scene underlines two great ironies: first, that sexual energy is being employed in the service of an act of murder, and, second, that in spite of the intensity of the sexual bond between them, Macbeth and his wife have no living children. Thus Lady Macbeth’s seduction of her husband culminates in the most powerful image of all, the image which contemptuously reminds them both of what Kott has called their “great erotic defeat” (90), their childlessness, as she says,

. . I have given such and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me; I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this.

(I. vii. 54-59)

To this Macbeth can only respond by asking, “If we should fail?” (I. vii. 60), to which his now victorious wife replies, in words that still link Macbeth’s sexual potency with his ability to perform Duncan’s murder:

We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place And we’ll not fail….

(I. vii. 61-62)

Aroused now beyond all hesitation, Macbeth’s awed response, itself operating on a sexual level, is the confirmation of how successful his wife’s seduction of him has been, of how he, too, has come to view the murder as the seed which will enable them both to create new life, for he tells her:

Bring forth men-children only; For thy undaunted mettle should compose Nothing but males.

(I. vii. 72-74)

And as the murder of Duncan becomes the climax of the love-making of Lady Macbeth and her husband, what they end by “bring[ing] forth,” what they, in fact, give birth to, is not the “ornament of life” after which they have lusted, but a world of death. IN murdering Duncan, Macbeth, as Irving Ribner has pointed out, “cuts off the source of his own being, and this idea is echoed in Lady Macbeth’s `Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done it’ (II. ii. 13-14), for this line is largely choral commentary to emphasize the father symbolism with which Duncan is endowed” (150). And having cut off the source of their own being as the climax to what is, ironically, an act of love, the lovers can only find themselves more and more isolated from each other as they more and more cease to be.

Even before he kills Duncan, however, Macbeth knows that such an act must be his own undoing, since

. . . in these cases We still have judgment here, that we but teach Bloody instructions, which being taught, return To plague th’ inventor.. . .

(I. vii. 7-10)

And Macbeth has proceeded with that murder only to find himself compelled to perform more and more murders, to carry out further acts of negation in the belief that just one more will finally make him

.. perfect; Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, As broad and general as the casing air.

(III. iv. 21-23)

Yet the irony is that once Macbeth has murdered Duncan he can achieve neither perfection nor wholeness, for Macbeth can now only drain himself and the world of their very capacity for being, pouring the blood from human bodies until both he and the world begin to collapse in on themselves. Thus “nothing” is the final word of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, for whatever capacity for being is left in him must cause him to recognize how he has undone himself and the world, how he has unmade his life, reducing it to no more than

. . . a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more . . . a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

(V. v. 24-28)

What finally raises Macbeth to the level of a tragic figure is his recognition not so much of what he has done, but of what he has undone: “honor, love, obedience, troops of friends” (V. iii. 25). In his recognition that, as he says, “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun, / And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were not undone” (V. v. 49-50), he accepts that all that is now left for him is to complete his undoing.

As opposed to Duncan whose extraordinary goodness blinded him to the “privation of good” in others, Macbeth, whose goodness was neither as whole, nor as complete, has known from the start that it is possible to drain all goodness from oneself. “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself” (II. ii. 72), Macbeth has said after he has murdered Duncan, for the self he must finally come to know is that “walking shadow” glimpsed at the moment when, to refer again to Augustine, it is about to cease “to exist altogether.”

The problem of moral order that Shakespeare has been considering in the play is not resolved, however, with the defeat of Macbeth, for that defeat is only a mirror image of the rebellion with which the play has begun. Through the action of Macbeth Shakespeare has been exploring the experience of rebellion from the rebel’s point of view and has shown how Macbeth, like his predecessor as Thane of Cawdor, has come to “throw away the dearest thing he owned”-his capacity for being-“As ’twere a careless trifle” (I. iv. 8-11). Like the “merciless Macdonwald” before him, Macbeth, defeated by the forces of moral order, ends as a severed head fixed upon a pole; but though Malcolm, the new king, seems, as demonstrated by his testing of Macduff (IV. iii.), not to possess the perfect goodness manifested by the absolute trust that was his father’s undoing, his words to the new earls of Scotland are something of an echo of Duncan’s words at the beginning of the play. For as Duncan had said to Macbeth, “I have begun to plant thee and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (I. iv. 28-29), so Malcolm tells his victorious forces:

. . . What’s more to do What would be planted newly with the time . . . . . . by the grace of Grace We will perform in measure, time, and place. So thanks all at once and to each one Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.

(V. viii. 64-65, 72-75)

Yet Malcolm’s echo of Duncan’s images of planting and of his heartfelt thanks to those who have fought for him, because it recalls the beginning of the play, must also recall the witches’ prophecy that Banquo’s heirs will be kings and the fact that Fleance still lives. And if Macbeth, too, had once listened to similar words spoken by a gracious king and thought of regicide, equally unsettling here must be the absence of Donalbain, the next in line for the throne. (In his version of Macbeth Roman Polanski picked up this implication and ended his film with Donalbain’s visit to the witches). Thus Malcolm’s echo of his father’s graciousness, together with the absent Donalbain and the implications inherent in the witches’ prophecy to Banquo, points toward the possibility that Malcolm’s restoration of moral order may be only a temporary one. If in King Lear the fragility of that order has centered on the egoism and rashness of a king who himself tears it apart, in Macbeth the vulnerability of moral order resides in the ontological paradox of the scholastics: potentiality, the capacity for being, may, through human choice, undo being itself.

In Macbeth, as G. R. Elliott has stated, “Shakespeare is true to human history . . . in his conviction that we can realize the strangeness of evil only in proportion as we realize its terrific might in the world: the very fact that a thing so essentially thin and misty as evil, so air-like . . . can be so powerful is highly fantastical” (12). But what is equally “fantastical” is that perfect goodness, particularly as it is portrayed in terms of Duncan, is by its very nature so vulnerable to its own undoing. This, too, is “true to human history,” and in Macbeth, once the goodness has begun to be undone, history, as Kott has written, becomes “reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed” (87). The way in which Banquo’s heirs will come to be kings is not taken up by Shakespeare in Macbeth; it is, like all the witches’ prophecies, a matter subject to interpretation, as is the reason for Donalbain’s absence at the end of the play. Yet what Shakespeare has shown us in Macbeth is the tendency of all history to repeat itself, and in the face of that tendency the only kind of affirmation that can finally be made is one which acknowledges both sides of the scholastics’ paradox, as in Malcolm’s words to Macduff: Angels are bright still though the brightest fell; Though all things foul would wear the brow of grace, Yet grace must still look so. (IV. iii. 22-24)

Works Cited

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Brooks, Cleanth, “The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness.” The Well-Wrought Urn. New York: Reynall & Hitchcock, 1947.

The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1937.

Elliott, G. R. Dramatic Providence in Macbeth: A Study of Shakespeare’s Tragic Themes of Humanity and Grace. Princeton: Princeton: Princeton UP, 1958.

Heilman, Robert B. “`Twere Best Not Know Myself’: Othello, Lear, Macbeth.” Shakespeare 400: Essays by American Scholars on the Anniversary of the Poet’s Birth. Ed. James G. McManaway. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

James, D. G. The Dream of Learning: An Essay on the Advancement of Learning in Hamlet and King Lear. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

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