Character of Life in Macbeth

The opening scenes of Macbeth present an atmosphere of darkness, violent intensity and almost supernatural foreboding. Three witches appear briefly followed by a blood-covered sergeant reporting on the progress of the war. We hear of a rebellion of some Scottish lords against King Duncan and a simultaneous invasion by the Norwegian army. The king’s forces led by Macbeth and Banquo display great heroism in combating and defeating the larger armies of their enemies. We find Scotland in a state of strife. The monarchy is threatened from within and without. Opposing forces seek to devour each other and we feel civilisation itself is threatened by the conflict. Each of these impressions contributes to an understanding of the prevailing life situation. A country is at war with itself and its neighbours. The power of the king is challenged. Both these challenges are met successfully but the sense of conflict remains. The witches reappear and we feel something more is at stake than a battle.

Let us try to identify the forces at work. The powerful challenge to Duncan’s rule is an indication that his position is weak. The rebellion of his own lords shows a society bound by the rule of the strongest, not by moral principle and the sovereignty of the king. The invasion from abroad suggests the inner conflict has weakened the whole social structure of the country and made it an inviting object for foreign conquest. The appearance of the witches is a sign that the conflict is not merely a surface disturbance but something has released deeper elements from the subconscious levels of the society or perhaps even from other planes of existence. At this point the balance of forces remains in favour of the King’s rule and social order. But even news of victory comes from a wounded soldier. “Great happiness!” is the King’s response to the news of victory, but there is more of relief than jubilation in it.

The King’s position becomes more clear as we proceed. We learn that he is a very good and just man but a weak leader. In Macbeth’s own words,

...this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels...  (I.vii.16)

To his loyal friend Macduff he is “a most sainted king.” The war appears to have been motivated simply by the temptation to seize power from a weak ruler. The King has survived not by his own strength but by that of his generals. Immediately the King rewards Macbeth with the title and privilege of Thane of Cawdor. Just how dependent Duncan is on him is expressed by Ross as he greets Macbeth on the King’s behalf:

The king hath happily received, Macbeth,

The news of thy success; and when he leads

Thy personal venture in the rebel’s fight,

His wonder and his praises do contend

Which should be thine or his. (I.iii.89)

Ross is expressing the King’s conscious or half-conscious recognition that the kingdom rests on Macbeth’s strength, not on his own power, and that, in effect, it is Macbeth’s victory.

When Macbeth and Duncan meet for the first time after the war, the King expresses his deep gratitude for his general’s services and openly states his regret that what he offers in return is insufficient recompense.

...Would thou hadst less deserved,

That the proportion both of thanks and payment

Might have been mine! only I have left to say,

More is thy due than more than all can pay. (I.iv.18)

The king’s recognition here is an awareness of life itself that the present balance of power is precarious. For if one occupying the highest station in the kingdom cannot fully repay a debt to one of lower station but instead is dependent on him for that position, then the arrangement is preserved, on the one hand merely by the force of social values and conventions upholding the sovereignty of the monarch and, on the other, by the strength of Macbeth’s loyalty and virtue. Regarding the first of these factors we have already seen that the social fabric is in a state of disruption, that rebellion and treachery have raised their heads powerfully. All indications are that Scotland at this time lacks the cohesive strength of a well-established social organisation. Crude impulses are free to express though inviting a quick response from the forces of the established order which remain dominant. To fully understand Duncan’s position we must now examine the second major determining factor, Macbeth’s character.

When we first hear of him it is “brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name” who faces the rebel hoard and “like valor’s minion carved out his passage” killing Macdonwald and who in conjunction with Banquo defeats the Norwegian army in a bath of blood and death. The impression is one of tremendous courage and power. But soon after we see him on the heath before the witches in a different temper. When they hail him as Thane of Cawdor and King to be, he reacts with fear. Banquo says:

Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear

Things that do sound so fair? (I.iii.51)

Soon we discover the answer. Macbeth is not only strong and courageous, he is also ambitious; and it seems that the witches have spoken something which stirs a deep chord of response in his being.

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs?

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical

Shakes so my single state of man that function

Is smothered in surmise... (I.iii.134)

We immediately understand that it is not the witches’ suggestion to which he yields, for they mention nothing about “murder”. It is the “black and deep desires” rising in his own mind, the desire to take by force what they say will one day be his.

It is very unlikely that Duncan consciously feared his dependence on Macbeth but it is significant and revealing that he should give to him the title of one who sided with the rebels and has just been denounced as “that most disloyal traitor the Thane of Cawdor.” Is it not a subtle perception that Macbeth will follow his example? Immediately the witches’ prediction comes to Macbeth’s mind:

Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor!

The greatest is behind.


Two truths are told,

As happy prologues to the swelling act

Of the imperial theme. (I.iii.128)

As we have seen, the position of strength is Macbeth’s, but that alone need not lead to murder. Human character does have its say. Had Macbeth possessed feelings of intense loyalty and devotion to Duncan, his enormous strength and will would have been totally at the king’s service and not capable of opposition. Instead he feels the direct pressure of life forces compelling him to action, “Forces that move according to the same plane or the same motive power as our lower vital nature.”27 His ambition is an open channel for the forces of life in the atmosphere to rush in and express themselves.

But the influence of these forces does not go unchallenged within Macbeth himself. It is not loyalty and devotion that opposes them but a sense of fright and horror arising from his own conscience in the form of “horrible imaginings”. The outer conflict of forces represented by civil strife and foreign invasion finds a correspondence in Macbeth’s inner being. The lure of ambition struggles with a primitive conscience struck by fear. This conscience acts in two ways. In the early stages of his inner struggle it expresses through his thought as a fear of being caught, “If we should fail?”, a fear of public reprobation:

We will proceed no further in this business:

He hath honor’d me of late; and I have bought

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon. (I.vii.31)

and as a fear of moral retribution by the forces of life itself:

We still have judgement here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice

Commands the ingredients of our poison’d chalice

To our own lips. (I.vii.8)

Later his conscience assumes more vivid and powerful forms in the vision of the dagger, the voice crying “Sleep no more!”, etc.

We have so far been examining some of the major forces active in the opening scenes. There remains one further element requiring our attention, the appearances of the witches and their relationship with the outer conflict of forces and the struggle within Macbeth. The witches are human beings, old women, who delight in mischievous deeds and the suffering of man. We can judge by Banquo’s response that their appearance is not a common occurrence as it may have been in earlier times, for initially he is not sure what they are:

...What are these

So withered and so wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on’t? (I.iii.39)

What we have here is not simply an experience or an intrusion of supernatural forces into human affairs though the latter of these may have an element of truth in it. Instinctive forces of destruction and evil are the common heritage of all humanity from man’s primitive past. As the power of mind over life increases, man learns to control the expression of these forces, suppresses the barbarian in himself and takes on the aspects of civilised behaviour. Still such forces survive in man’s subconscious awaiting an opportunity to emerge. In the course of social evolution, the likelihood of these eruptions is diminished as society becomes more ordered and better organised.

The occasion of war is a natural scene for the most primitive impulses of cruelty and animality to arise in man under the fear, stress and chaos of the situation. But normally the community is bound together by a common cause of self-defense against a common enemy so that the social consciousness of the group is actually intensified and disciplined while the elements of violence and destruction are directed only at the outer threat. In this case Scotland is subject at once to inner rebellion and outer invasion, conditions producing severe disruption of the social life and ones in which the inner integrity of the society is under a double threat. The result is likely to be an unleashing of all man’s most primitive instincts.

It is understandable that at such times those elements in the country in sympathy with these instinctive forces should come forth and revel in the violent intensity of their expression. This much can be said with confidence about the witches. It is certainly possible to go further and postulate that they are women possessed by beings from the vital plane seeking to express through them in order to spread disorder and destruction all over the country. But this possibility does not correspond to their actual role in the action. Their main activity is that of prophecy. We never see them acting upon life with a force beyond that of their prophecies to Macbeth. Among themselves they talk of keeping a sailor tempest-tost at sea because his wife refused them chestnuts. But it is not clear whether this is anything more than conversation. Certainly such pranks are hardly the work of very great forces nor of those capable of establishing chaos throughout the land. Still their prophecies do prove true and this suggests some link with the subtle planes. Finally there is the appearance of Hecate who is obviously not human like themselves, but the true presence of a vital being in the guise of the goddess. Still her strength and the extent of her influence over the outer action is difficult to judge.

At any rate these questions are not of primary concern to our study. The important point is that the forces of evil represented by the witches are already present in the subconscious of the society and its members and that they have been set loose in the social life, finding expression in the clash of armies. These same forces are able to find a willing agent in Macbeth not because he consciously identifies with evil or destruction but because they suggest to him a course of action that at first suits his ambition and later confirms his suspicions.

The war, the witches and Macbeth are intimately connected in the course of events. We may note that G. Wilson Knight has considered these connections in great detail but without proposing any underlying principles by which they are interrelated. The war comes as a challenge to the authority of a weak king. The ensuing violence releases deeper impulses of destruction, attractive to beings that thrive on darkness, suffering and death. Macbeth is a chief agent in the war, throwing his strength on the side of the established order. But the seed of ambition within him is fertile ground for these beings to sow further discord. The evil forces represented by the witches seek to prolong the carnage by their influence over Macbeth who is himself an active force rather than a passive instrument of other forces. Thus we can see that the causes of the events in the opening scenes are multiple and complex, and avoid the over-simplification of attributing all to a single agency such as the witches. Here we have an interaction of individual human character and will; social character and will; evil forces released from the subconscious of an individual and the society; and corresponding forces intruding from the plane of universal life. When we take into account each of these factors and evaluate its strength from the evidence at hand, the action and consequences which follow become intelligible.

We have already referred to the king’s meeting with Macbeth where he expresess his deep appreciation for courageous services rendered. Immediately following this Duncan makes a decision which proves to be fatal to him. He decides to travel that very night “From hence to Inverness” to Macbeth’s castle and he departs speaking of Macbeth as a “peerless kinsman”. This decision does not at all appear inevitable from the preceding events. It is one of those actions which critics label either as dramatic construction or chance occurrence in life. Yet when the reader examines his own feelings regarding this decision he senses that somehow it is a natural, if not inevitable, outcome of the situation. Certainly we would not admire Shakespeare as the greatest of all dramatic poets, a seer of life, if he made such a crucial incident dependent on artifice or inexplicable chance, for a good part of his genius may be attributed to his capacity to perceive and express the movements of life as they are and yet communicate to the reader that all is not “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Let us then examine further this crucial decision. Social tradition would suggest that the victorious general present himself before the king’s court and receive honours for his heroic deeds, for even in victory the general is merely a subject of the sovereign monarch. Here we find Duncan away from his court yet at some distance from the battle. He does not lead his own forces in the war which is a frequent custom of mediaeval kings, but he appears too anxious for the results to remain in his castle. He feels that the fate of his whole kingdom lies in the hands of his generals and he must be close by to the action. As we saw earlier, even after the war has ended Duncan feels his dependence on Macbeth. What expresses here is neither individual nor social character but simply power. Strength attracts, the weaker moves toward the stronger for protection. Duncan is king by convention but the real strength and power lies with Macbeth. The king’s decision is an expression of this prevailing balance of forces. Had he suspected Macbeth’s plot to kill him he could only have postponed what he had no power to prevent.

What follows afterwards up until the murder is a further working out of these same forces. The outer battle is over, the war within Macbeth increases in intensity. The forces of goodness, virtue, social order and humanity are outweighed by the insistence of evil pressing from within and without. At this point Lady Macbeth appears for a brief but crucial period. In comparison with Macbeth she is a much smaller personality with little character of her own. The forces pressing him into action find a much easier access and expression in her. She lacks his strength and organisation. When she opens to the forces of evil, the possession is total. All traces of morality and humanity are cast aside. But we cannot lay the responsibility for Duncan’s murder solely on her any more than we can attibute the war solely to the initiative of three old witches. Lady Macbeth displays openly and unreservedly the forces at work within her husband and the degraded state of the general atmosphere. The war is over but forces of darkness still walk in the land and find willing agents for their work.

Once the dreadful act is accomplished the truth of this description becomes more apparent. The forces which stirred her to an inhuman resolution and gave her the appearance of a dominating character have exhausted her limited energies. She returns to normalcy and realises what has been done. Her fainting when Duncan’s murder is discovered is probably genuine. She continues to support her husband but has lost her active role. Even now we see no signs of stricken conscience in her, only a gradually diminishing intensity which leads to disintegration of her personality, ending in madness and suicide.

It remains for us to consider the events following Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, up until his own death at the hands of Macduff. We feel in reading the play that Macbeth must suffer for his sins and we are relieved both for him and the society when he finally falls in the last scene. What is it that lends this feeling of inevitability to his death? Surely we cannot accuse Shakespeare of resorting to poetic justice or succumbing to the moral principle that evil must be punished. If he did so, we would not feel so deeply the truth of his works. Rather we must look to the conditions and forces of life itself for our explanation.

Scotland is the scene of an open conflict between forces of civilised order and primitive impulses of destruction and evil. The threat comes not from without but from within. Virtue and good in the person of the king lacks strength. In order to preserve the kingdom he must utilise forces of violence and destruction. But by the nature of action (IV) a force once released tends to increase in intensity and to multiply by repetition. To use violence for good, one must be stronger than the forces he puts into action. Otherwise those forces continue on their own initiative and fall back on the user. This happens to Duncan as he attempts to protect his country and his rule. Later it happens to Macbeth who seeks to profit by murder.

As Knight has pointed out, conflict of forces is reflected in the characters of Macduff, Malcolm and Banquo. Duncan’s murder is discovered by his loyal supporter Macduff. It is the intensity of his devotion to the king that brings him to the castle just at the time of the murder and makes him the first to see the dead body, “The Lord’s annointed temple” as he calls it. Had Macduff’s loyalty been supported by corresponding strength he could have come in time to save Duncan. But as Duncan displays goodness and virtue without sufficient power to maintain his rule, Macduff’s capacity for pure loyalty is not combined with the strength required to express it. When soon afterwards he goes to England in support of Duncan’s son Malcolm, his wife and children are left to be murdered by Macbeth. His personality lacks the energy to sustain both the commitments of his loyal heart. In expressing his loyalty to the dead king he ignores his equally great commitment to protect his family.

Macduff returns from the scene of Duncan’s murder crying “O Horror, horror, horror!” The response of the other lords is revealing. Lennox simply asks “Mean you his majesty?”, no more. The king’s sons arrive. Donalbain is silent. Malcolm says “O, by whom?” Except for Macduff there is no expression of horror, outrage or grief by those present. With the exception of Macduff and the king’s sons, all the lords attend Macbeth’s coronation and pledge him support though they have good reason to suspect he is responsible for the murder. Banquo becomes his close counsellor though he surely knows the truth. In the country at large there is no uprising against the usurper, only strange and horrible events in nature signifying a great evil in the air.

This conflict of forces is clearly seen in Banquo whose response parallels and contrasts with that of Macbeth. He is definitely moved by the witches’ prophecy of kingship for his descendents:

But that myself should be the root and father

Of many kings. If there come truth from them--

As upon thee, Macbeth, their speeches shine--

Why, by the verities on thee made good,

May they not be my oracles as well,

And set me up in hope? (III.i.5)

And he harbours a strong hope that he may gain what is promised. But, unlike Macbeth, Banquo refuses the temptation of evil to act on the prophecy.

A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose! (II.i.6)

He is willing to discuss the witches’ prophecy with Macbeth so long as his soul remains free and his loyalty to the King is preserved.

So I lose none

In seeking to augment it, but still keep

My bosom franchis’d and allegiance clear,

I shall be counsell’d. (II.i.26)

But once Macbeth is king, Banquo becomes his closest counsellor and by his silent consent is implicitly involved in the guilt. He pays for his complicity with death.

We have already noted Malcolm’s silence at news of the murder. When Macduff meets him in England to pledge allegiance to him as the rightful heir, Malcolm’s first words are:

Let us seek out some desolate shade, and there

Weep our sad bosoms empty. (IV.III.1)

The cause of his weeping is not merely his father’s death. The English king has offered ten thousand soldiers to fight against Macbeth. But will Malcolm be a better king than the tyrant Macbeth? He says rather that in comparison to him “black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow” and proceeds to spell out his own vices. Shortly after, Malcolm takes back his self-abuse, claiming himself free of the “taints and blames” he admitted a moment earlier. But we understand that his confession testifies at least to weakness and want of character, certainly not the traits required to reunite the country.

What we have found in Macduff, Banquo and Malcolm corresponds with our study of Macbeth and Duncan. Everywhere the general state of the country is mirrored by the inner conditions of its subjects. Good exists in all of them--even Macbeth was known by his countrymen to be honorable, trustworthy and loyal--side by side with weakness, incapacity or extreme egoism. The nature of these characters is a measure of the quality of the society in which they live. There is an outer form of civilisation and order but much lies below, neither assimilated nor sublimated by the force of cultural development.

We need mention only one more indication of the social life of the country. When Banquo’s ghost appears in his seat at the banquet, Macbeth says:

Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ the olden times

Ere human statute purg’d the gentle weal,

Ay, and since too, murders have been perform’d

Too terrible for the ear: the times have been,

That, when the brains were out, the man would die,

And there an end; but now they rise again,

With twenty mortal murders on their crown,

And push us from our stools.  (III.iv.76)

He says that no longer can man murder and go free as in the days before human law was organised to maintain and protect the general welfare. Today good in life does have a power to resist evil and if it cannot wholly prevent the actions of evil forces, it can at least avenge them. The channels of social character have evolved far enough to be effective in life against forces of destruction. It is this fact reflected in the words and deeds of the leading figures that reveals the inevitability of Macbeth’s fall.

Let us now trace the steps leading to his death. In the initial stages of his action, Macbeth is in a constant inner conflict between ambition and conscience while the society around him is stunned and disorganised by the ravages of war and the sudden death of their king. This inner struggle is at its height shortly before and after Duncan’s murder. We see it diminished substantially after the execution of Duncan’s two attendants and almost fully resolved with Banquo’s murder. What was initially a living act has become by sheer repetition a habit and lost its haunting intensity. Gradually, ambition, or more accurately the evil life forces expressing through it, drown out conscience and his acts take on a more violent expression. When Macbeth resolves the inner conflict he ceases to be a man, and we recall his premonition:

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who dares do more is none. (I.vii.46)

The outer movement of life corresponds with his own development. As Macbeth moves toward final commitment to the methods and fruits of evil, the lords are able to see clearly the force that confronts them, threatening the country’s existence. They begin to form an organised opposition. In the Fourth Act Macbeth again seeks out the witches for guidance, but this time Hecate, the Goddess of the underworld, is present behind the scene. No longer is he dealing with human representatives of evil, but with the pure force of evil itself and to this influence Macbeth fully responds. The slaughter of Macduff’s family is the immediate result. Simultaneously, Malcolm and Macduff gain the support of the English king and an army of 10,000 men to oppose Macbeth. We find the country organising itself for the first time, yet even here the support comes mainly from outside. Scotland itself is too racked by evil to powerfully oppose it. But its neighbour which harbours a long tradition of monarchy and civilised order feels called to help. England at this time is blessed with a king of great stature, possessing the power to cure the disease called “the evil” as well as others, uncurable by science, who solicits heaven and cures with a golden stamp “put on with holy prayers”.

He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy

And sundry blessings hang about his throne,

That speak him full of grace. (IV.iii.7)

The English king seems to be a sun of light among men opposing the evil in Scotland and we may assume that higher powers of light and truth have found through him an instrument to combat the evil abroad and preserve the civilisation from destruction.

Though this force of light appears only late in the play we understand that it is a more organised form of the light which survives in Scotland throughout the drama. This explains the fact that when Duncan and Banquo are murdered, both times their sons escape death to become kings later. The tradition of good is organised enough to protect itself through the events of life. Had this not been so, it is likely Macbeth would have survived as an evil king and his wife might have retained her sanity.

In the last act the civilised forces in Scotland join with the English army and easily defeat Macbeth’s forces who act only by compulsion.

Those he commands move only in command,

Nothing in love.  (V.ii.19)

Macduff, excited to angry intensity by his family’s murder and his own sense of guilt, is able to defeat Macbeth, the man who released that strength in him.

We have only to recall Macbeth’s pondering before the murder when he enunciates a basic principle of life:

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor; this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice

To our own lips. (I.vii.8)

It is as though Sri Aurobindo had Macbeth in mind when he wrote,

It can often be observed that when a self-assertive vital egoism goes on trampling on its way without restraint or scruple all that opposes its will or desire, it raises a mass of reactions against itself, reactions of hatred, antagonism, unease in man which may have their result now or hereafter, and still more formidable adverse reactions in universal Nature...the very forces that the ego of the strong vital man seized and bent to its purpose rebel and turn against him, those he had trampled on rise up and receive power for his downfall.1