Though not written in anything so interesting as old English or Gothic, Shakespeare’s plays still suck me in, and since high school, Macbeth has consistently been my easy favorite. It’s dark, tragic, Scottish, has a ghost, and is generally overcast. Not to mention it’s a fascinating study of the psychology of sin, centuries before Crime and Punishment (another favorite work of mine).
Even Tolkien, who usually couldn’t be bothered with modern English and who seemed to think old Willy S. could have done a lot more with some of the traditions he probably had available to him, still couldn’t avoid picking at Macbeth for useful imagery. Tom Shippey notes how the march of Birnam Wood became the March of the Ents, the not-born-of-man prophecy became a prophecy about no man (but rather a woman and a hobbit), and also notes some other lines of the play (I don’t have the book handy) that JRRT seems to have taken and run with in his books.
My recent reading of Macbeth got me to thinking that perhaps part of the tragedy is how the evil done to Macbeth by the weird sisters (and for all his sin and ambition, he was still tricked and led into sin) never had a chance to fully unravel itself before Macbeth’s death. What I mean is this: Macbeth from the beginning knew the women were evil and (as Banquo counseled him) not to be listened to. Each time one of the witches’ prophecies came true in an unexpected way, this should only have been confirmed to him, and in fact he does admit this—yet psychologically he is unable to change himself as long as there is another prophecy to cling to with false hope.
Look at his reaction to Birnam Wood’s arrival at Dunsinane: He knows that his ambition is fruitless, that his line will not retain the Scottish crown (it will go to Banquo’s line), and that his doom is now at hand. But he still has that one hope that none born of man can kill him. Now, a rational person unbothered by unruly passions and unattached to the trappings of this world might suspect that this prophecy will turn around to bite him in the…well, be as untrustworthy just as the prophecy about Birnam Wood. But for whatever reason, he wasn’t ready to do that. Macbeth had to be shown to the bitter end the consequences of trusting demonic powers.
When he finally does learn the truth about Macduff, he finally fears for his life. Now what happens? Does he repent? Well, no, but perhaps he didn’t have a chance to. I mean, he’s still trying to save his life, and maybe if that threat had gone, he’d have had more time to think about his actions. Of course, then again maybe he wouldn’t have, and would just have become bitter in his exile. But I wonder if Macbeth might just have been psychologically ready to look at himself and repent once he’d had a chance to really hit rock-bottom.
We’ll never know, because his hand is forced. Macduff, now motivated by revenge for his family’s deaths, will either kill Macbeth or bring him away in chains like a Roman triumph parade, and Macbeth is forced to choose without thinking. I’m reminded of the scene in Lord of the Rings (the book) where Sam wakes up and his suspicion of Gollum pushes Gollum away, and leaves him to choose his evil side more or less permanently. Of course Sam was justified in suspecting Gollum, just as Macduff’s feelings are also understandable. Unfortunately, sometimes only going the extra mile to be virtuous and charitable—to a truly heroic extent—is what will draw out the best good of a situation.
It’s my belief that everyone, no matter how well things seem to be going for them on the outside, has to struggle with something dark in the inside, and we never know how our actions will play into that struggle—even if it’s not our fault. Lack of guilt is little consolation when you learn that you could have done extra to help a friend.
Anyway, back to Macbeth: All of this has led to two creative projects. One was simply a poem inspired by the play, that I have submitted to the Lent/Easter edition of Dappled Things. (I'll post again when it comes out.) The other, which will be longer in coming, is another collaboration with Mikaela. We enjoyed our work on The Lay of Life and Loss so much, we found ourselves planning (rather ambitiously) another whole set of songs last night, inspired by various themes, scenes, and sometimes single lines from Macbeth. The fact that Starbucks was closing is the main reason I don’t have more to say right now, but based on how our ideas were flowing last night, something interesting will most probably come of it.