The Coming Age: Macbeth and the Birth of the Modern World
an online essay by Ashok Karra, in 4 parts
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
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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