A power-labyrinth.

Love and nationality form our two most important unifying foundations. Within each area we can behave as scoundrels or as heroes.

No crime results from Romeo's infatuation; the hero and heroine are in love with each other and the major consequence of their actions is that they themselves are struck down.

In addition to such cases we have considered plays in which the results have affected a wider community. Here too we find a self-destructive natural basis, with Titus Andronicus as the foremost example. This Roman statesman meets us in company with King Lear, when we measure them against their ability to maintain the communities in their care. Their shortcomings are still not crimes, just irresponsible behaviour, albeit with enormous cost to kin and country.

Finally we have encountered clear criminals: Richard the Third, Iago, and Queen Tamora's lover. All three interact with society around them but only by manipulating their surroundings to make them serve themselves. With no ideal of solidarity there is no limit to the heinous actions that follow.

What is Macbeth's place?

The play relates the story of a Scottish general who murders his king. Before killing his predecessor, Macbeth has gained meritorious repute and is a staunch supporter of the very same King Duncan. His last feat was to repel an attack from Norway. The protagonist has, furthermore, a close relationship with his wife. In this manner he becomes a mixture of villain, state leader, and individual with strong ties to others. — The development through the play shows us how the different components of his personality part company and go their separate ways.

Solidarity is wounded

Macbeth's first temptation is the witches' prophecy that he is to become king. But the rebel Cawdor has just been captured, and regrets his treason before he is executed. At the last moment Macbeth hesitates too, for the king is sacred, and a murder is doubly wrong when the victim is a guest. Besides, regicide is perhaps unwise if he himself wants to hold power?

Contempt and pressure from his wife nevertheless get him started, but the way this happens is revealing. When Macbeth is reluctant to kill, his wife is in principle prepared to do the deed instead, but she too is no pure-bred Iago in actual practice. Instead she incites her husband anew. The crime therefore starts as a division of labour between two cowardly partners. The wife gives the orders and takes the blame but is too squeamish to carry out the deed. The husband performs the act but on his spouse's responsibility.

The murder succeeds, but from the very first it leads to more. Finally the country is in revolt and Macbeth is killed.

Macbeth's position is special in that he is driven to ever new atrocities under his own steam; outer enemies are far less important than in the case of Lear or Titus. — What are the differences between Macbeth and Richard the Third?

Even before the murder, Macbeth is disturbed by sounds and visions. On the night of the murder he hears one of Duncan's sons cry “God bless us”. The other says “Amen”, but Macbeth, fresh from the killing, is unable to join in the boy's little reply and afterwards keeps asking why that was so. The warrior finds it impossible to smear a bit of blood on the two servants he wants to saddle with the crime, and his wife has to take over. They are both frightened when two noblemen knock on the gate to wake the king for departure. Later the usurper is pursued by more disturbing experiences. When at long last he sleeps, he dreams so horribly that the grave would be preferable.

Banquo is centrally placed in the plot. For in his haste the murderer overlooked the addition contained in the prophecy of the witches: Macbeth is to become king, but Banquo's line will continue on the throne. If the witches are right, the transfer of power will be a dead end. Therefore Macbeth plans to have two hired killers murder Banquo and his son when they arrive at the palace gates to take part in a feast to which they have been invited. But Fleance escapes, and the killer bursts into the hall of the feast with his bloody face.

The personality disintegrates

That sends the king off his head. The feast is spoiled; and when Macbeth, having conferred with Banquo's murderer, returns to the table to toast his guests, it seems to him that Banquo has taken his vacant seat. The vision disappears, but returns.

The murderer therefore discovers two unexpected consequences of what he has done: Reprehensible actions must be backed up by new reprehensible actions; but he is, on the other hand, too weak to do what is necessary to complete the plan and yet remain unaffected. While the queen finds an outlet for her bad conscience in her sleep, the king is driven into full scale schizophrenia.

Shakespeare has indicated a disturbed personality through the first three acts. Now, towards the end of act 3, the goddess of spells and magic meets with the witches and decides that they shall bring Macbeth to his end through making him even more cocksure than before: “And you all know security Is mortals' chiefest enemy.” In the fourth act this plan is realised; through a witches' sabbath Macbeth's mental disintegration is portrayed in a manner that prefigures Sartre's famous description of Nazism in
The Prisoners of Altona.

The witches prepare a concoction boiled on the basest of nature's forces. The ingredients are the poisonous and dangerous parts of the vegetable and animal kingdoms and the effect is correspondingly nasty: Macbeth is thrown back on his simplest and most crude foundations. The king has left reason and mind behind in favour of passions, emotions and sensations. In this state he is allowed to ask the witches' advice regarding his future.

First he sees an armed head, warning him against Macduff. The apparition delivers its message enigmatically, the half-crazed Macbeth being forbidden to question the messenger. The next apparition is a bloody child, pronouncing that however bold and gruesome his actions, Macbeth cannot be harmed by anyone born of woman. The circumstances surrounding his visions, as well as the prohibition against questioning the sources of the prophecies and thereby assessing their content more rationally, might have been enough to lead Macbeth to become more circumspect and make him sense the ambiguity of the advice received. But this possibility is not even considered; instead the message of the child encourages him to try to dispose of Macduff since he can seemingly do so without danger. Therefore the warning regarding Macduff in fact serves only to hasten Macbeth towards the eventual battle with Macduff, who will in time fell him. Macbeth quite overlooks the many possible interpretations of the bloody child, although it is suggestive of Banquo's young Fleance, of Macduff's little son, or even of Macduff himself, who was brought into the world by a Caesarean operation, and was therefore
not ‘born’ of woman.

Macbeth contents himself with such hard-boiled interpretations as suit him, free from every misgiving concerning the perfect uncertainty that attaches to all human assumptions. Not even the last message from the witches can alert him to reconsider the possible significance of his visions, though he is shown eight kings in a row, every one with a resemblance to Banquo!

The witches' Sabbath is first and foremost an expression of a split mind. First of all, Macbeth's derangement has developed so far that the earthbound spirits manifest themselves to him as fully perceptible, together with the visions they conjure up. The witches disappear just before the nobleman Lennox enters the stage, and the king asks Lennox if he saw the witches pass. We have, in other words, a repetition of the scene with Banquo's ghost, only this time the king no longer knows the difference between delusion and reality.

Secondly, all the dream visions are ambiguous; their manifold content being composed of horror mixed with wishful thinking. Nevertheless the disturbed monarch does not discover their unclear character. His wishes alone come to determine his interpretations, urging him on and encouraging him to put aside his fears. His naïveté is confirmed by the prohibition against asking questions, so that the king is delivered into the power of the witches' primitive animal brew.

The king is progressively locked into his disturbances. As an early synopsis of the megalomania of isolation in the mental hospitals, Macbeth ends as blind, over-confident and cruel. He feels almost like a god and acts on his every impulse with lightning speed, practically like young Romeo; while conditions in Scotland worsen day by day. As in Hitler's Germany his collaborators are executed as soon as they voice the slightest doubt.

Macbeth is, however, still aware of the way things are going. One single side of his personality is allowed to take over and separate the king from everyone else. Against this background it is easy to place his final comments. With the queen's death he has lost his last close bond to another human being, and he is tired of life and sees it as “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”. This lamentation is an apt characterisation of the corner into which the murderer has been pushed, but it is no reflection of Shakespeare's on life in general. The Macbeth who delivers this statement has long since been reduced to an exhibit of the merciless god of the theatre, and the marionette ends his life at the moment when he receives the ironic piece of information that Macduff came into the world by being ripped from his mother's womb. The regicide's irrational self-confidence collapses.

The opponent Malcolm

The ambitious couple characteristically stand torn between constructive and destructive qualities. In part Macbeth is an early Raskolnikov, with reminiscences of Ibsen's late protagonists and their ailing consciences which are always a feature, regardless of how much they seek to repress their past. This bad conscience, a necessary condition for change to the better, is strongly developed in Macbeth, but there it ends. There is nothing laudable in the motives that make him stumble. From the very first Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have insidious intentions, and resistance from outside is therefore inevitable.

Macbeth is not a tragedy in the strict sense (cf chapter 9 first section). It deals first and foremost with mental intricacies and is a shocking story of the effect of criminal behaviour on unbalanced minds that actually do have a conscience.

Shakespeare has placed the possibility of growth in a supporting character in the play. Young Malcolm is a son of the murdered King Duncan and, given the background of his previous experiences, he might easily have developed the same bitterness as Athenian Timon or Trojan Troilus. What meets us, though, is a totally different attitude.

The prince is determined to stop Macbeth's reign of terror, a task which he plans with remarkable care. When Macduff visits him in England, the prince is noncommittal, he even pretends to be a man of vice and dissipation, of a calibre to make the monstrous Macbeth seem pure as snow. Macduff refuses to believe this description; and when the prince persists, his guest objects firmly to the apparent opinions of the lawful heir to the throne. Only then has Macduff proven himself trustworthy and Malcolm can reveal his real plans. The spectators meet a new type of male character, one akin to Rosalind and Viola. Like them, Malcolm places importance on forethought and on checking the reliability of his impressions before he takes action.

The attention paid on stage to sober reflection and discernment parallels a growing understanding in the society of the time. The theatre therefore imparts knowledge.

Shakespeare's most penetrating analysis of knowledge is found in
Hamlet, which was written before several of the plays we have discussed. Since, however, this peak in Shakespeare's production reveals new complexities in the area of understanding, we have deferred consideration of it until our last section.