The Coming Age, an essay on Macbeth – part 1

The Coming Age: Macbeth and the Birth of the Modern World

an online essay by Ashok Karra, in 4 parts

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

for Jill Jeffrey, Teresa Sapp, and Nancy Ruggeri, all of whom understand Shakespeare far, far better than I do.

Note: References in parentheses are to act, scene and line, in that order.

1. When we first hear of Macbeth, he has cut Macdonwald, who had all the privileges of Fortune, to pieces (1:2, 14-15). Fortune may have seduced Macdonwald, but it cannot seduce Macbeth, who “disdains” it and seems to regard Macdonwald as far less than a worthy opponent, far less than human, perhaps, as he

ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,

Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps,

And fix’d his head upon our battlements (1:2, 21-23).

We then hear of Macbeth’s triumph over Norway, who is less benefited by Fortune, as he saw an opportunity (1:2, 31), got the aid of a traitor (1:2, 53) and had to be confronted through “self-comparisons,”

Point against point rebellious, arm ‘gainst arm

which “curbed” his “lavish spirit” and gave the Scots the victory (1:2, 56-8). The two figures of Macdonwald and Norway explain Macbeth through their contrast with him: not only does he have complete mastery over Fortune, but he has mastery over those who can make use of their opportunities. That latter category might be thought indistinguishable from the former, but the key to seeing the difference is provided by the text: while Macbeth chops one to pieces, it is almost as if the other one, Norway, self-destructs comparing himself to Macbeth. Mastery of Fortune and sheer strength of will are complementary, but is the latter necessary for the former, or is the former necessary for the latter?

We can see the distinction, and the resulting problem, in the lines used by the servant to introduce both villains. Here is 1:2, 7-9 –

Doubtful it stood;

As two spent swimmers, that do cling together

And choke their art.

The image involves pushing through water, at first with art, and then later, because of a lack of physical strength, with whatever is left. One could say that since this refers to the fight between Macbeth and Macdonwald, what allows the one swimmer to win is his strength of will. There is certainly that idea at work here, but notice, as art falls apart, what is used to propel one swimmer – the other swimmer. One has to wonder about both art and will in the face of that implication, as the art, by itself, did not seem to achieve anything, as if it were without a goal. Further, the “will” wasn’t exercised merely in terms of winning a race, but exercised for the purpose of pushing another aside, and using them to move forward. There is a dark irony about will and fortune here, I think: both involve subjugation of another, and both emerge from the failure of art to do more than enable. Perhaps all those implications, though, have to do with the location of the image: water is prior to order of any sort, after all.

The other set of lines to introduce Norway, 1:2, 25-8, expands on the significance of water:

As whence the sun ‘gins his reflection

Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,

So from that spring whence comfort seem’d to come

Discomfort swells.

Light and water stand proximate to each other, and that common location is confusing for man. One tends to confuse the clarity of light with the murkiness of water, out of all things, since peace seems to be coming from the same place that war might break from. This sounds ridiculous until one realizes that Creation, in the Bible, happens at least twice: first, there is the creation of light and the separation through firmaments in the cosmological account of Genesis 1; later, in the Noah story, there is the re-creation of the earth, which turned evil. That latter “Creation” is the destruction of the earth through water, the primordial chaos that was there at the beginning being unleashed anew.

If the issue involved with “mastering Fortune” was merely pushing through chaos as far as possible, then the issue with one’s “strength of will” seems to be involved with making sense of Creation in some small way. At the very least, regarding the latter issue, one should be able to recognize whether one is being harmed or helped. When one adds, though, to the metaphorical introduction to Macbeth’s battles the personages attached, Macdonwald and Norway, the implications we have teased out here collapse into each other. Macdonwald is beaten because he relies on Fortune, whereas Macbeth charges ahead; Norway, in being matched to the point of self-destruction by Macbeth, is a fortunate opponent for Macbeth.

We have to wonder why this distinction between mastering Fortune and having strength of will is presented to us. We know as the play progresses that Macbeth’s strength of will wavers, and as it does, he ties himself to Fortune increasingly. Finally there comes the point where Fortune runs away from him, and all he is left with is a will that takes nothing seriously, and that will serves him, ironically enough, admirably in battle. It is as if the play has come full circle to describe what fully went on in these battles. It looks like, at first glance, that Macbeth is indeed superior to these opponents. But his later failure, which will involve some degree of martial success, is contingent on him becoming like these initial opponents, a process that is started through these very victories.

If strength of will is the “spirited” element of the soul, then we can see very clearly what is being put forth. The question is whether strength of will should be used for the sake of mastering Fortune. It seems to us mere humans that strength of will in any given case is the attempt to master Fortune; hence, the conjunction of these two at the beginning of the play is our descent into the depths with Macbeth. The question is to what degree the spirited element can be separated from this “end,” and we have a hint of how that separation can take place from the contrast of the water/primordial chaos imagery, that defines the setting of these battles, with other sorts of imagery that are more evocative of divinity later.

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  1. Ashok you directed me to read this- its very good- I wonder just as an outrageous thought whether you’ve considered if this has anything Machiavellian in it- I don’t know Shakespeare’s intellectual world too much but this does seem in the virtu fortuna territory. Good article

  2. I wonder what you would think about this Jaffa essay on Macbeth — it seems to include at least some of the same thoughts (and it probably should!). Anyway, I found it interesting. Although I gotta admit — a lot of what I find on here is even better than published stuff I come across much of the time.

    It amazes me that you can pull Creation out of a passage from Macbeth and make it work so well!

  3. I always thought that there was an anti-Queen Elizabeth thread in MacBeth. She oversaw the death of Mary Queen Of Scots, whose son became King. Whereas Q. Elizabeth left no progeny to become ruler: sort of like the prophecy about Macbeth (Eliza -beth?).
    And quotes like:
    “For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)(sic)
    Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel,
    Which smoked with bloody execution,”
    “Come, you spirits
    That tend on mortal thoughts! unsex me here,
    And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
    Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
    Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
    That no compunctious visitings of nature
    Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
    The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
    And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
    Wherever in your sightless substances
    You wait on nature’s mischief!”
    Lady Macbeth, scene v

    and the Third Witch whose prophecy is:
    “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
    So all hail, Macbeth and Banquo!”

    James the King of Scotland and England after Elizabeth, was the son of the murdered Mary..
    Elizabeth feared going to hell, and was very afraid before her death.
    Pretty obvious but there it is.

  4. This is actually a very good essay concerning “Macbeth.” It’s definitely an intriguing play with many underlying themes, motifs and symbols.

    As Gracchi mentioned, I definitely wouldn’t throw any sort of Machiavellian philosophy out of the mix. Although Machiavelli’s views were more prominent in later times, the theme correlations are pretty incredible! In short, Shakespeare was definitely before his time in terms of wisdom. Shakespeare’s resume of plays is to be admired and the we certainly shouldn’t stop analyzing them just because they’re from hundreds of years ago. History always repeats itself in new and interesting ways.

    Either way, great essay. This would make any history or English professor proud to be employed at the university that has Ashok Karra as a student. :)

  5. While I agree that Shakespeare’s resume of works is to be admired, does anyone else believe that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s weaker works?

    One would think that because he was hired on as a professional writer and playwright by various dignitaries and royal family members, he would rush much of his works to accommodate everyone. What does everyone else think?

  6. In my humble opinion, as theater, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible and effective works. In terms of literature, it may not be as ornate and elaborate as The Winter’s Tale, or Cymbeline, but as far as a live performance, it is highly effective and not as difficult to make relevant, and understandable, to modern audiences as Hamlet, Lear, or the Tempest much less the histories.

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