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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Macbeth–Neither Noble nor Tragic


Wayne Booth writing about Macbeth in his piece Shakespeare’s Tragic Villain makes a case that Macbeth was a classical tragic hero in the Greek mold – a good and noble man who falls – and argues that Macbeth’s moral decline is Shakespeare’s illustration of classical tragedy, Christian myth, and modern sensibilities:

Our response to his destruction is compounded by three kinds of regret, only one of which is known in pre-Shakespearean tragedy.  We of course lament the fall of a great man from happiness to misery, as in classical tragedy.  To this is added what to most modern spectators is much more poignant: the pity one feels in observing the moral decline of a great man who has once known goodness.  Perhaps most influential in later history of drama and fiction, there is the even greater poignancy of observing the destruction of a highly individualized person, a person one knows and cares for.

I don’t think any one of these lenses is the right one through which to view Macbeth; and I find him more akin to the kings of the Histories, caught up in Kott’s Grand Mechanism - the inexorable and predictable cycles, accession, decline, and fall which characterize all of history.  He may be a villain, but one who has taken action to gain power; and as such he is more akin to Richard III, Edmund (‘evil villains’) and to the many other non-villainous characters who still plot and manoeuver to gain access to or retain power – Henry IV, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Antony; and the women very much caught up in palace struggles – Constance, Gertrude, Margaret, and others. Booth rejects this view and that of other critics which liken Macbeth to the “punitive tragedy [of] Richard III”.

Moreover, I find Booth’s argument very strained.  For example, he says “His crimes are…built upon our knowledge that he is not a naturally evil man, but a man who has every potential for goodness”; and that the artistry of Shakespeare who

“…has the task of trying to keep two contradictory streams moving simultaneously: the events showing Macbeth’s growing wickedness and the tide of our mounting sympathy.  In effect, each succeeding atrocity, marking another step towards depravity, must be so surrounded by contradictory circumstances or technical blandishments as to make us feel that in spite of the evidence before our eyes, Macbeth is somehow sympathetic”

Booth builds his argument of tragedy further by selecting words from the play which show Macbeth’s nobility – ‘brave…valiant…a worthy gentleman…noble Macbeth’.  He says that “the best evidence of his essential goodness is his vacillation before the murder”.  The fact that Macbeth is tormented before the prospect of his own crime is somehow an indication of his moral value which, like his “goodness”, can be degraded in his moral decline.

In keeping with my view that Macbeth is akin to the Histories and to Richard III, I don’t agree with the arguments affirming his moral goodness, his depravity, and his decline.  He was already ambitious and as bloodthirsty and as dedicated to accession to power as any other king or pretender in Shakespeare.  When he hears the Weird Sisters proclaim that he will be king, there is no compelling reason why he should then decide to kill the king.  He could have accepted the prophecy and waited until it came true; but decided that if he was destined to have it, then why not take it.   His murders of Banquo, Fleance, and the sons of Macduff are not depraved crimes as Booth would have them, but no different from Richard’s systematic murders of his brother, his nephews, and any one else standing in his way.  A much more ‘moderate’ Henry IV still had Richard II murdered in the tower.  King John wanted Arthur to be murdered to eliminate his competition.  Henry VIII cut off heads with a singularity of purpose and regularity that outdid every other English king.  Were they villains? Evil? Depraved?  No.  They were simply acting according to the rules of the game, caught within the cogs of that historical machinery fueled by human nature.  If so, then why should Macbeth either be depraved or tragic?

Another argument of Booth’s suggesting that Macbeth is more tragic and heroic and therefore more deserving of our attention and sympathy than the kings is that he was unaware of the consequences of his actions – he was a warrior and he thought that committing murder would be the same thing on an individual scale:

Macbeth knows what he is doing and does not know.  He knows the immorality of the act, but he has no conception of the effects of the act on himself or his surroundings

This is nonsense.  It does not take a philosopher or Freud to understand the difference between the two.  Shakespeare does confound the reader with the apparent contradiction of a hero’s past life and the present, but one is not an excuse for the other.  It is hard to understand how Othello, having come valorous from many battlefields having managed and led armies could be so susceptible to Iago’s insidiousness.  Antony was equally and justifiably renowned, but he lost his head with the Queen – understandable in love, but not in the affairs of state.   Booth on the other hand wants us to conflate Macbeth’s wartime experiences with his deliberation of murder, and I find that even harder to believe than Othello’s or Antony’s conversion.

Macbeth is neither tragic, nor heroic.  He is just weak like John, Henry VI, and Richard II.  His wife knows it when she says: “Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness”, and when she constantly challenges his manhood, urging him to action.  John may have been bloodthirsty but he took orders from his mother, made foolish political moves which ended in his downfall.  Henry VI foolishly opened the door to York. Richard II misunderstood the motives of Bolingbroke.  Macbeth does not have the strength of will of Richard III to pursue and retain the throne; and he slaughters his way through the landscape obsessed by the witches, his own conscience, and the taunts of his wife.  Far from being a sympathetic, tragic figure that Booth makes him out to be, he is simply a bloody but ineffectual pretender to the throne.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch writing in Shakespeare’s Workmanship also tries to fit Macbeth into the tragic Greek mold – “…the spectacle of a man not absolutely or eminently good or wise, who is brought to disaster not by sheer depravity but by some error or frailty”, what the Greeks called a tragic flaw. However, Quiller-Couch cannot fit Macbeth into this category, suggesting that he was simply weak, incompetent, craven, and miscast:

Shakespeare made this man (Macbeth), a sworn soldier, murder Duncan, his liege-lord.

He made this man, a host, murder Duncan, a guest within his gates.

He made this man, strong and hale, murder Duncan, old, weak, asleep, and defenseless.

He made this man commit murder for nothing but his own advancement.

He made this man murder Duncan, who had steadfastly advanced him hitherto, who had never been aught but trustful, and who…had that very night, as he retired, sent, in most kindly thought, the gift of a diamond to his hostess.

To sum up: instead of extenuating Macbeth’s criminality, Shakespeare doubles and redoubles it.

The attractiveness of Richard III as the perfect villain, acting within the Grand Mechanism, is is pitiless, unreflective, remorseless, and savage slaughter to the throne and beyond.  Macbeth hesitates, thinking Duncan to be a good king, Banquo his friend; and then, after deliberation does the deeds.  He is not driven to his actions by will or pure purpose – he has to be unmanned, influenced by the supernatural, and kills almost by default.   Richard III is my hero because he acts with pure will and purpose.  Henry VIII is not quite in my pantheon, although almost, because while he is singular of purpose, he does not have the psychological twists that turn Richard into a killing machine. 

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