The Coming Age, Part 4

part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4

4. In this final part, I want to cover Malcolm’s versus Duncan’s speeches which allocate honors, discuss what the significance of the witches are, and conclude with the speech of the three beings which prophesy to Macbeth in the middle of the play. That is quite a lot, and I regret this will not be as suggestive a lecture as the previous ones.

Malcolm’s speech which ends the play is reproduced below:

We shall not spend a large expense of time

Before we reckon with your several loves,

And make us even with you. My thanes and kinsmen,

Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland

In such an honour nam’d. What’s more to do,

Which would be planted newly with the time,—

As calling home our exil’d friends abroad,

That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;

Producing forth the cruel ministers

Of this dead butcher, and his fiend-like queen,—

Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands

Took off her life;—this, and what needful else

That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,

We will perform in measure, time, and place:

So, thanks to all at once, and to each one,

Whom we invite to see us crown’d at Scone (5:8, 60-end).

In Macbeth’s speaking to Duncan in Act 1, love was directed towards the king, his state children, and the servants, in that order. Here, Malcolm acknowledges that other people are able to love different things. His use of the term “we” could imply that he has a wife, with whom he rules jointly in a sense, or that he is now formally merged with his title, as if the Crown were an office to be held and not something that was a predicate of his own being. The loves of others in the kingdom get a near immediate priority, honors are given to as many as possible, and “growth” is not something abstract, but is tied to the temporal, as is justice. Everyone can understand bringing exiles back and hanging those who butchered before. Nobleness does not merely shine forth from a fixed star, but is actively performed in “measure, time and place.” All of this sounds very positive and is in direct contrast with Duncan’s speech, so why have I spent so much time mourning Duncan?

The issue is that this order that may be more humane also rejects the divine in any meaningful sense. Malcolm we know to be a dissimulator from Act 4, scene 3, and one wonders if he can really be trusted. Barbara Riebling has argued that his performance is a virtuoso Machiavel’s performance, where one can not know his true intentions, but he is in prime condition to read others and manipulate them. While her analysis is spot-on in many ways, it is pretty clear to me that Malcolm looks ridiculous when he spends so much time saying to Macduff that he is not worthy to be king, and then reverses course at the very end. I think instead of trying to graft the qualities Machiavelli says create a strong ruler in the Prince onto Malcolm, a better approach is to see how more than merely Malcolm post-Duncan is Machiavellian, fallen from even the concept of grace: Macduff is willing to let Malcolm be king despite Malcolm’s confession of numerous vices; Banquo frets ambiguously before his death, one could wonder if he’s planning to kill both Macbeth and Duncan at one point; and the plot against Macbeth happens swiftly and surely, with the word “tyrant” being cast about very soon after his hallucination, and loyalty to the king being a precarious thing as soon as Duncan was killed. What is happening is that the world isn’t Machiavellian from the start of the play, and that some people understand that and work with it. Rather, an old order collapses because of its inherent flaws, and the characters behave differently in the face of that collapse, and some adapt well eventually, like Malcolm and Macduff.

One character whose behavior is a product of that collapse but does not adapt well is Macbeth. Riebling has rightly noted that he does not use cruelty well, as the Prince is advised to; because of his conscience, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and delays and agonizes visibly over the killing he must do. His indecision makes him unable to do all that is needed to safeguard his reign in a stroke, and so his reign becomes bloodier than it should because he retains his morality. It is only when he gives into complete and utter delusion and nihilism that he is effective to a degree. To modify what we said in the first essay about Macbeth’s power – we said it was most certainly not from Duncan’s “planting” him. That is ultimately true. But he is also a character that genuinely loves. There is a sense in which he is the death knell of the feudal order, even as he is the preserver it needs. His courage prior to the killing is based on love of a public good, and as he moves towards a private notion of love (through his ambition and Lady Macbeth), we see his “courage” founded on something a lot more base. Macbeth is a tyrant, yes, just as the many are tyrannical. Macbeth is every man by the end of the play, as he has lost everything that is noble and is literally left defending his private property in a sense.

The witches bring forth three apparitions which foretell his doom. The content of the speech, each time, is actually true, except for the spin that is put on the speech by the speakers (i.e. “fear not,” etc). What is curious about the apparitions is that the correspond to events in the play in a weird order. The last apparition – a child crowned holding a tree branch – has to refer to Malcolm, who gives the advice to make the wood move by telling his soldiers to use such brances as concealment. That is, however, the first step in Macbeth’s downfall. The second apparition – a bloody child – probably refers to Macduff, whose child was killed by Macbeth and who was the product of a C-section. The second apparition tells Macbeth no one born of woman will kill him, which is literally true, except for the gloss it gives on that “fact.” Finally, the first apparition is a severed head: Macbeth’s own, perhaps, which tells him to fear Macduff and rushes off. What is peculiar is that the last two apparitions are connected to actors that have every reason to lie to Macbeth. But how is Macbeth’s own doom presented to him by himself?

The answer has to lie in the death of any sense of the common weal. When Macbeth was first given prophesies, he was told about a role he would assume that was public. This set, on the other hand, is wholly private, concerning his welfare alone. His wife is not even mentioned by the witches, like as if she had nothing to do with the play. The downfall of Macbeth is that he is a private man who has taken on a public role he cannot handle. He is living a lie, but that lie is the idea that mastery of Fortune and any sense of Nature which might make the feudal order reflective of something higher can coexist. He’s living the lie Duncan lived, except that there is no separation between silver and gold in Macbeth, he is all silver. Riebling alludes to all of this, but I don’t think her essay – which I highly recommend and have given the citation to in the bibliography below – makes the cosmic significance of all of this clear. In not seeing Macbeth as tortured as a transitional figure, in seeing him as having done something “wrong” in not being Cesare Borgia or some other “prince,” she misses the significance of the witches.

Banquo says, in act 1, scene 3, lines 79-80 that the earth has bubbles as water. The witches are tied to primordial chaos, they are the descendants of Cain whom God purportedly destroyed when he flooded the earth. From them come thunder, lightning, and rain, which is not merely Macbeth killing Duncan and then Macbeth being killed for Malcolm’s sake, but also Malcolm being challenged by Fleance or Donalbain later. The wars will not end, for God is dead early on in Macbeth, and all men are tyrants, seeking mastery over Fortune. They can be placated, certainly, but this is the modern world that has been born, and it is literally a witches’ brew. The witches don’t disappear because they were only out to torment Macbeth; they disappear because they have set us in motion.


Riebling, Barbara. “Virtue’s Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 31, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1991), pp. 273-286

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  1. Again interesting. On Malcolm’s we is this a reference to the doctrine of the two bodies and hence the sense in which Malcolm now has a public as well as a private persona.

    As to Macbeth there is an interesting confusion well known to the early moderns there of ambition and of public interest-

    I’ll ahve to come back to this though but its very good.

  2. Addendum: One way to look at Lady Macbeth is to compare her with Lady Macduff. I believe that Lady Macbeth symbolizes love of power, which is what Macbeth is about. Lady Macduff definitely wants security, and her husband is no exception.

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