What a joy to re-read this masterpiece. It’s more tightly plotted than many of Shakespeare’s other plays, and there’s so much fantastic imagery to enjoy: birds, blackness, sleep and blood (lots of it). It has a brooding, occult atmosphere which sucks you right in.
While the play’s supernatural themes are dramatic gold, they do present the reader with a problem: if Macbeth’s actions are the result of a supernatural influences, he does not have free will and therefore cannot be blamed.
What is gripping about the play is the way in which Shakespeare keeps pulling the rug from under this interpretation to suggest that Macbeth does, in fact, have agency. Take for example, the moment when the witches reveal that ‘none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth’. His response is revealing:
Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of Fate: thou shalt not live… (Act Four, Scene One).
In other words, I’ll just make doubly sure by killing Macduff anyway. This decision smacks of a personal bloodlust and seems to reject the idea that Macbeth is wholly controlled by fate or the supernatural. The play constantly asks us: What is the source of Macbeth’s evil – is it something external or is it of his own doing?
When I was studying this play at school, I remember a lot of discussion about how far Lady Macbeth could be blamed for her husband’s evil. I am less bothered by this question today, and, in many ways, it’s a remnant of 19th-century ideas about the play (Lady Macbeth’s unmotherly impulses were especially troubling for the Victorians). In the 1980s, I remember struggling with the disappointment that Shakespeare’s strongest (almost certainly shoulder-padded) female character is a Bad Person. Yet, re-reading the play now, it’s clear that her involvement in Macbeth’s tragic downfall is minimal. In fact, she’s soon excluded from her husband’s killing sprees, and, like Portia in Julius Caesar, conveniently dies as her husband is confronted by the consequences of his actions.
But, if Lady Macbeth merely puts the tragedy in motion, who is ultimately responsible? There’s a clue at the beginning, in an exchange between Banquo and Macbeth, who have just heard the witches’ first prophecy:
Banquo: But ‘tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of Darkness tell us truths;
Macbeth: [Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial throne. (Act One, Scene Three).
While Banquo questions it, Macbeth is only hearing what he wants to hear. This exchange reminded me of Hamlet’s problem with his father’s ghost. Does Hamlet encounter his father’s spirit, come from purgatory, or is it an evil spirit who has taken on his father’s shape to damn him? These are important theological questions which Hamlet must explore, putting in place the play-within-the-play to test if Claudius is, indeed, guilty of his father’s murder.
A certain amount of doubt is a good thing, such as when Macbeth balks at killing Duncan. Lady Macbeth’s skilful persuasion sets the tragedy in motion, but there is another moment of doubt/persuasion towards the end of the play which mirrors that of the Macbeths. When Macduff goes to England to enlist Duncan’s son, Malcolm, to lead an insurrection against Macbeth, Malcolm is unsure of his leadership abilities:
I grant [Macbeth] bloody,
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name; but there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness…
Your heart falls at this immature speech; but, at the same time, he is at least human. Malcolm then worries about his avarice, until Macduff loses his temper and exclaims:
Fit to govern?
No, not to live. – O nation miserable!
With an untitled tyrant bloody-scepter’d,
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again… (Act Four, Scene Three).
Luckily, it’s the wake-up call that Malcolm needs. Meanwhile, we find Macbeth dead-eyed and completely inured to violence. He has ‘supp’d full with horrors’ and believes no man born of woman can harm him. Doubts are the difference between Malcolm and Macbeth; doubts – humility – will make Malcolm a better ruler.
It’s not until his final moments that Macbeth comes around to Banquo’s way of thinking. As Birnam Wood appears to advance towards his castle, Macbeth says:
I pull in resolution; and begin
To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend,
That lies like truth (Act Five, Scene Five).
Perhaps Banquo was right after all – perhaps he should have questioned the real motivation behind those supernatural beings. But it’s too late. The tragedy of Macbeth is that his ambition has blinded him to everything; he had lost touch with his own failings and with humanity itself.
But, as usual, Shakespeare avoids giving us easy answers. Isn’t the brutality of kingship inevitable? Look at Richard III or Henry VIII, who could give many psychopaths a run for their money. Didn’t Elizabeth I (despite her denials) do away with Mary, Queen of Scots? Didn’t Henry VI die of ‘melancholia’ (i.e., murdered by Edward IV)? And what about the Scottish kings, such as Kenneth III (killed by rivals after he tried to change the rules of succession)? History is littered by bloody deeds carried out in the name of power. And old Duncan must go at some point, so that Scotland can renew itself with a vigorous young king.
When you think about it, the most frightening thing about Macbeth is not the ‘Secret, black, and midnight hags’ – it’s the amount of blood that has been shed by real rulers and would-be rulers across history.
But whether Macbeth’s actions are down to evil spirits or personal flaws is a question that Shakespeare intentionally leaves unanswered. In the end, we decide.
You might also enjoy: Good vs. Greed: The Merchant of Venice | Macbeth at the RSC (2023) | Timon of Athens: A Man out of his Humour | Re-reading As You Like It | Folio 400: Cymbeline at the RSC | “Who will watch the watchmen?” Justice in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure | Julius Caesar: Shakespeare’s Group Biography.