The Coming Age, part 2

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

an online essay by Ashok Karra

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.

2. Compare Duncan’s first line with Macbeth’s first line and even Malcolm’s first words.

Duncan (1:2, 13-5):

What bloody man is that? He can report,

As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt

The newest state.

Macbeth (1:3, 38):

So fair and foul a day I have not seen.

Malcolm: (1:2, 16-20, in response to Duncan, above):

This is the sergeant

Who like a good and hardy soldier fought

‘Gainst my captivity. Hail, brave friend!

Say to the king the knowledge of the broil

As thou didst leave it.

This is the order of the kings of Scotland that are presented to us in the play. Note Duncan’s ability to see, and his condescension towards those who are fighting for him. “The revolt [of] the newest state” seems to imply that revolts are quite a frequent thing in Duncan’s kingdom, and the fact he was invaded twice in such a short period of time should cast doubt on any assumption that Duncan’s rule is good. Later on, we will compare Duncan’s speech which awards honors, etc. after the battles in Act 1 have been concluded with Malcolm’s closing speech of the play, and there will be much to be gained from that comparison.

What is key to Macbeth’s statement is that he can see, but what he sees is confused. Whatever he sees is both good and bad at once, and good and bad both at extremes. Wellington said the only thing worse than winning a battle was losing it, and one wonders if the only thing worse than creation (which brings forth disorder as much as order) is destruction, if the only thing worse than the light we see with is the darkness that prevents even that. I should say now that it is doubtful whether Shakespeare is attempting to establish a hierarchy in this play as much as explore the ironies involved; sleep will turn out to not be the worst thing for several characters, and speech will overthrow the ability to see the truth clearly.

Malcolm’s first statement echoes his last, in the sense that in both statements, he seems to give gratitude for his restoration. This is not his second coming, but his first coming, and in his first coming, he does what his father does not, he treats a part of “rabble” (that Macbeth admits to despising later) with both thankfulness and authority (Macbeth’s statement is at 5:8, 29). He may speak falsely or confusingly later, but no matter what, his speech is always appropriate, as it is here.

The connection that is critical to draw is between seeing, speaking, and rule. Duncan may see all, but he speaks inappropriately, and rules badly. Macbeth is the ambiguous case; his seeing is problematic – it’s like he’s peering into chaos, and we will tease out the full implications of that shortly. We also spend most of the play wondering not so much about what Macbeth says, but what he has been told. His rule could be the worst that could be conceived. Beyond Duncan and Macbeth is Malcolm, who has seen more fully than Duncan, in one sense, because of his self-interest, and speaks humbly although commandingly, and comes to rule by play’s end, although it is a rule potentially threatened by Fleance. Still, Malcolm represents a point of rest of a sort, and we have to see what he does “right” compared to Duncan and Macbeth.

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  1. Well hmmm this is a bit off the topic of WS – thank you for the link – and I will retain this blogspot ( address – but was toying with the idea of since blogger will host these url’s for us free of charge – might add a little class – and you too will have a link on all that I own… now to the topic:

    MacBeth, like most of WS works details both the good and the evil that lurks in each of us. The very thing that keeps us alive (the survival urge) is the same emotion that has us kill those we love and drives us to control – because after all – it’s the power of the control over things and people. Each of course, does this in different ways and have differing degrees of sanity or insanity in their grasp.

    The thing that scares people about religious zealots is not their religious beliefs but their inhumanity to humanity, and a lack of regard for the only chance we each have to enjoy this world.

    I wonder if you have ever thought about the similarities of WS to Machievlli?

  2. Interesting strikes me that this is less Machiavellian- but the idea of Macbeth as a kind of historical exempla literature is interesting.

  3. You bring up an important aspect of Macbeth that most commentators overlook, which is the political dimension. (We tend to think of Macbeth as a morality play, I believe, because of its place in the “tragedies.” If we were more inlcined to read it with the “histories,” we couldn’t avoid the political dimension.) Duncan is a weak ruler in a dangerous world. He may be a good, even saintly, man, but so was Henry VI, who is presented as an unambiguous disaster on the throne. Duncan is a terrible judge of character, putting his faith twice in people who betray him, and he can’t even suppress rebellion and drive off invasion: he has to rely on Macbeth and Banquo to do that. Given all that, is it really any wonder that the Thanes were willing to install Macbeth with a minimum of grumbling?

    I worked with the cast of a college production of Macbeth last year, and one of the fun things we did was plot out each Thane’s journey from Duncan to Macbeth to Malcolm. Our interpretation was that many people, basically, knew the true score when Duncan was found dead–they were just willing to back the man they thought would be a strong a capable king.

    I’m doing a series on Macbeth at the moment at my own blog–I’d enjoy very much hearing your thoughts about it.

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