By Kalev Pehme
Of the work of Shakespeare, no play has as an extensive elaboration of preternatural or (perhaps) supernatural beings as Macbeth. That the three witches are preternatural as opposed to supernatural means that the old crones do not come from the realm of the miraculous, although they do remain outside of the way of nature. If their reports and confrontations with human beings, notably Macbeth and Banquo, were miraculous, they would make rational sense retrospectively, as that is the character of miracles. A miracle makes sense after it happens because it comes from a clear, divine cause, while its happening has no rational prediction as men are denied access to the miraculous future, which, after all, is not predestined, but comes from the grace of a god. Unlike the numerous mentions of oracles in Shakespeare’s plays, no play provides us a more extensive delineation of the future of not only individual characters, but the future perfect of Scotland, which presumably culminates in James I, the Scottish successor to Elizabeth Regina. However we would like to make sense of the predictions of the witches, there really is no rational explanation of them as there is no true cause to which we may point as the origin of what happens. What we do know, however, is that the entire focus of the reunion of the three witches is to meet with Macbeth upon the heath. What Macbeth sees as “Prophetique” (Furness Variorum I:iii:83—sorry about the archaic spellings from now on) truly is not, if one sees prophecy to be, for example, reading the mind of god or receiving direct communication from a god even if through a pythia. Macbeth initially craves the prophetic as it would be a divine plan that he become Cawdor and king thereafter, but settles for the occult instead.
The three witches are often compared to the three fates as they are the weird or wyrd sisters, as weird as the three fates seem to be. But while the Greek fates spin out the lives of men and finally cut the thread of life, there is no real association of the weird sisters here to fate in the classical sense. Yet at the same time, there is something very fatal or fateful about them. A man’s fate, as opposed to his fortune, is that with which he born, whatever his advantages or faults, perhaps even what genes has sown by his parents and forebears. A man’s fortune is what he gains and loses in life. It may be fated that a man be poor all his life; however, it is his good fortune that he becomes wise in compensation for his fate. The conceptual confusion of terms between fate and fortune and what is preter or super to nature is essential as it emphasizes the irrational or the inability to make sense of what befalls characters and spectators. We are caught in the same bind as Banquo, a man of great integrity, who says with precise hypallage, “Or haue we eaten on the insane Root,That takes Reafon Prifoner? (I;iii: 91-2)” When there is no clear cause for what happens or for the words of the weird sisters, we are forced in the sorry situation where what we say about the characters and their interaction with the witches to be entirely conventional, i.e., a mere agreement whether codified by knaves for fools or simply to give fools a knavish security in interpretation. There is no objectivity. There is no criterion of relevance beyond itself. It the partisanship of politics internalized into a private imagination.
Insanity and tyranny have been linked for at least as far back as Plato’s Republic, Philebus, and other dialogues. The wicked imagine great pains that they believe belong to others, while not recognizing that they afflict themselves. The wicked are incorrigible by experience; They do not, paradoxically, know they suffer. They live in a dream world. And it is a dream world into which Macbeth enters after he meets with the wyrd sisters. It may be that in dreams begin responsibilities, however, at the same time, one might say that ambition, as we say often even day, is to live a dream or to realize a dream. While that may be the case, to collapse the distinction between dream and its apparent realization is truly not wise. Moreover, it is even more likely that the dream can out to be lucid, where the dreamer like a god invents all the characters and plays out their lives within himself. However, unlike the metaphysical being whose analog is the dream state, the tyrant’s dream is full of black intrusions of the mare’s hoof beats bringing bad and unwanted news when settled into secure sleep.
This fupernaturuall folliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good.
If ill? Why hath it given me earneft of fucceffe.
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cowdor,
If good? Why doe I yield to that fuggestion,
Whole horrid Image doth vnfixe my Heire,
And make my feated Heart knock at my Ribbes,
Againft the vfe of Nature? Present feares
Are leffe than horrible Imaginings:
My Thought, whole Murther yet is but fantafticall,
Shakes to me fingle ftate of Man,
That Function is fmother’d in furmife,
And nothing is, but what is not (I:iii:146-158).
Imagination is permeated by thoughts of murder. It is here that the play truly is a problem. Why does Macbeth go from Cawdor fron Glamis to murdering the king? The obvious response that any moderate man would take would be very simple: The wyrd sisters promised me Cawdor, which I received from the king. They also promise me the kingship. Let’s do nothing and see what happens. If they are right, then it is inevitable that I become king.
This notion is not lost on Macbeth, who says:
If Chance will haue me King,
Why Chance may Crowne me,
Without my ftirre (I;iii:160-162).
But Macbeth sees no inevitability in becoming king unless he acts and acting means assassinating the king. His wife shares the same view. Curiously, Macbeth puts the problem in terms of chance rather than either a divine providence or evil plan hatched by evil beings. Thus, we have to deal with fate, fortune, chance, particular providence, or occult powers at work in the world. That Macbeth puts the problem in terms of chance means that he is not completely convinced that what is at work are forces that control chance or are able to force chance to behave in some expected way, i.e., to his advantage. Yet, in Macbeth’s mind, there is clearly an inability to come to terms to what is actually moving him. There is confusion and while he wants what the sisters promise, he does not accept in his mind that they can be responsible or foreknowing what they predict.
Macbeth is a very unusual Christian, and as such the witches are not a manifestation of Jesus or of Christian goodness. If anything, they might be the manifestation of the devil. At the same time, even Banquo opines that “the Inftruments of Darkneffe tell vs Truths” (I:iii:139), and in this case the dark powers foretell a total destruction of the current regime and ultimately of the eventual establishment of a legitimate line of succession for two nations. Human access to knowledge comes from the negative as well as the positive.
Yet, it is also clear to the audience the three witches also know that Macbeth will be moved to murder. This knowledge obviates chance, as foreknowledge of future events prohibits randomness. Unlike the moderate man who is willing to wait and do nothing to get what he wants, Macbeth’s tyrannical character is fearful and it is fear that drives most political men. Macbeth fears that the “Prophetique” is not enough on its own to make him king. Tacitly, Macbeth equates the prophetic, the divine, with chance and luck, and thus he must in some way to make sure that he can overcome the random and translate that random into mechanical fulfillment. In Macbeth’s mind, he is not king. He cannot be king. He is not born royal, either conventionally or by innate character. He has no dynastic claim. He has no legitimacy, as all he is is first cousin to Duncan.
But not to have legitimacy should not make Macbeth illegitimate, theoretically speaking, but in Macbeth’s mind he is and thus conferred with only illegitimate powers, without legitimate powers to make him king. With absolutely no legitimate claim to the throne, Macbeth’s only coronation can be crowned by not only the death of the king, but the removal of his heirs as well. This seemingly insurmountable problem does not make Macbeth despair, but only with greater ambition.
Yet, the entire murder plot, hatched so quickly and hastened by the appearance of Duncan under Lady Macbeth’s “battlements” is improbable at best. Not only does Macbeth have to kill Duncan, but all the heirs and their supporters must either be discredited or killed as well so that Macbeth can ascend the throne. The absurdity of this possibility is completely buried under the way Shakespeare makes it appear that it is the most normal thing in the world that not only does Macbeth kill Duncan; not only does Lady Macbeth frame his entourage; not only does Macbeth then kill the entourage; but the entire legitimate side of the family and their supporters flee the country, giving excuse and justification for Macbeth to seize the throne with the apparent assent of the nobility. Such a thing would not happen in real life, so to speak. It happens in dreams and in fiction or when evil or preternatural forces focus their interest in a single man. But, then, are we not all the subject of some kind of divine plan that is ours alone? If, moreover, Macbeth were to take the throne because of some normal reason, then the play has no sense whatsoever. The impossible is at the root of the human condition of this play as it is at the heart of human life. The play makes sense, because the rise of Macbeth comes about totally against the natural way of things as what Macbeth does is against the natural way of things.
It also happens because somehow it is meant to happen. Everything happens for a reason is the common saying of our day, which in this case points to a concatenation of causes that of necessity is meant to destroy Macbeth and establish a legitimate line of succession to two thrones. Macbeth, by violating the natural order of things and the proper legitimacy of the political order, will not only destroy his own illegitimacy and unnatural ambition, but will restore the proper and natural order of things culminating in Banquo’s heirs enjoying kingship. Chaos cures chaos in the same way that the end of war is peace, i.e., it takes war to end war.
Yet, it is not so insane that Duncan’s sons, for example, flee. There is something amiss with Duncan’s reign. We come in media res during a rebellion aided by Vikings, where both Macbeth and Banquo distinguish themselves in battle against the rebels. Duncan’s sons are not confidant about their status in the regime. They flee. The only reason that could happen is if there is either a question of their legitimacy or because they don’t have the political support necessary among the thanes to take the throne that is legitimately that of the eldest son. Evidentially, there was some kind of consensus among the thanes to elect Macbeth king, even though there are two direct descendants who are proper heirs to the throne That the legitimate heirs flee to England must give us pause, if we consider the true history of the less-than-benign relations between Scotland and England throughout the years, even until today. However, under James I, there is a unification of England and Scotland, and Shakespeare gives it legitimacy.
Legitimacy is not a problem for moderns as it was for Shakespeare and the ancients. The moderns prefer Hobbesian absolute sovereignty and the will to power, to legitimacy, Aristotle tells us that legitimacy is conferred by a regime’s length of time on earth. This view is not as naïve as it seems, as, generally speaking, a good regime and its stability tends to last over time, except if attacked by superior alien forces. Yet, there is a problem: When a regime is established and has not had the benefit of time, how does this regime become legitimate? This problem is compounded, because it is through legitimacy that a regime is assured to continue and be maintained.
In modernity, legitimacy is conferred by someone (more of less) willingly giving the power he had to someone else. We have the absurdity, for example, of the notion that if Qaddaffi gives up power to someone else that anyone who takes over from him will be legitimate. (There is always the persistent problem of how to establish legitimacy is the overthrown refuses to bless the new government as we find, for example, in Iraq.) It was Tallyrand, the first modern man who did more to destroy the ancient notion of legitimacy, who knew precisely what legitimacy is: “The mysterious strength of legitimacy is being lost before it has not been understood. All the men of revolution reduce it to a means of preserving the power of kings, whereas it is first and foremost a requisite for the peace and happiness of the people, as well as the solid and even the only guarantee of the existence and continuance of nations. The legitimacy of kings, or rather the legitimacy of governments, is the safeguard of nations, and for this reason it is sacred…”
Had Macbeth been wiser, he would have worked most diligently to makes sure that his kingdom was secure and happy. Instead, he does everything possible to destroy the happiness of the regime. As such, he cannot establish any kind of legitimacy, and as he goes on a murderous reign of terror he destroys whatever legitimacy he may have had through his election to the throne.
Shakespeare’s radicalism, by the way, is seen in the fact that he places the legitimacy of Banquo’s line on dark forces rather than the obvious source of legitimacy, a god. In Macbeth, there is a suppressed Machiavellianism, i.e., the Machiavellian view that at the origin of any regime or any line of kings, etc. is a crime, a big crime. In this case, the origin is Macbeth’s murder of Banquo and his attempted murder of Fleance, Banquo’s son.
What is amazing about Macbeth is what a coward he is when it comes to assassinating the king. He is a warrior who has no problem of killing men on the field of battle, but when it comes to murdering the king in his sleep Macbeth’s resolve and courage wilts. Suddenly, his seeming conscience overcomes him. It can be said that Macbeth, like Hamlet, is a play of conscience. In Macbeth, there is even less churches or religious leaders and so on than there is in Hamlet. Macbeth does not blandish a rood. Yet, his cowardly conscience is very strong. It is not less a problem for Lady Macbeth as well, who in the end goes insane and ends up killing herself. The ever-perceptive Coleridge writes:
Lady Macbeth, like all in Shakespeare, is a class individualized:—of high rank, left much alone, and feeding herself with day-dreams of ambition, she mistakes the courage of fantasy for the power of bearing the consequences of the realities of guilt. Hers is a mock fortitude of a mind deluded by ambition; she shames her husband with a superhuman audacity of fancy which she cannot support, but sinks in the season of remorse, and dies in suicidal agony. Her speech: ‘Come, all you spirits That tend on moral thoughts,’ etc., is that of one who had habitually familiarized her imagination to dreadful conceptions, and was trying to do still more. Her invocations and requisitions are all the false efforts to throw the every-day substances of life into shadow, but never as yet brought into direct contact with their own correspondent realities. She evinces no womanly life, no wifely joy at the return of her husband, no pleased terror at the thought of past dangers, whilst Macbeth bursts forth naturally,—’My dearest love,’—and shrinks from the boldness with which he presents his own thoughts to him. With consummate art she at first uses as incentives the circumstances, Duncan’s coming to their house, etc., which Macbeth’s conscience would most probably have adduced to her as motives of abhorrence or repulsion.
Lady Macbeth’s imagination is that extends to the notion that she can invoke spirits to take possession of her in a most fearful supplication that is the heart of Coleridge’s analysis:
…Come you spirits,
That tend on mortall thoughts, vnfex me here,
And fill from the Crowne to the Toe, top-full
Of direft Crueltie: make thick my blood,
Stop vp th’acceffe, and paffsage to Remorfe
That no compunctious vifitings of Nature
Shake my fell purpofe, nor keepe peace between
Th’effect, and hit. Come to my Woman brefts,
And take my Milke for Gall, you murth’ring Minifters,
Where-euer, in your fightleffe fubftances,
You wait on Natures Mifchiefe. Come thick Night,
And pall thee in the dunneft of Hell,
That my keene Knife fee not the wound it makes,
Nor Heauen peepe through the Blanket of the darke,
To cry, hold, hold (I:v:43-59).
For Lady Macbeth, her ambitions can only be achieved through the dark powers of the world, i.e., through what is terribly wrong. She is incapable to seeing that her ambitions, if destined to be great, could also be achieved through legal, legitimate, and naturally proper means. This dichotomy between what is right preventing her from becoming queen and what is wrong that insures her a throne next to her husband, also is at the center of what will cause her suicide: To make a pact with dark forces is to contract with the hopelessness of the darkest part of Hell, even if such a hell does not exist. One cannot define oneself in terms of what is totally negative and still survive, even today.
What goes for Lady Macbeth is much the same for Macbeth. However, what should be noted is that although both Macbeth and his wife have pangs of conscience there is no single instance of either expressing Christian remorse or a Christian desire for forgiveness or any other Christian remedy for their guilt. In that sense, we must not be too Christian in our approach to understanding what conscience is as it that moves this man and wife. The problem clearly is that both Macbeth and his wife see what they want into totally fantastic, i.e., imaginative, way. The reality of what it is to assassinate someone who is a guest of the house and so on is something that neither Macbeth nor his wife is strong enough to face. The point is very much one that we do not believe today: Christian conscience, the desire to do what is right or according to god’s will, is a part of the soul that has a supernatural (or metaphysical) basis., rooted in a god’s cosmic structure The total lack of Christian remedy both in the prevention and penitential relief of guilt for the murder indicates that what is wrong with Macbeth and his wife is something that is not related whatsoever to a god in heaven and perhaps not even to anything in Hell. Moreover, the entire play is very unusual insofar that there is no active presence of any divine law, Christian or otherwise. When that happens normally, we would turn to politics to interpret what is before us. However, the absence of divine law is very much matched by a lack of politics. We find that King and Queen Macbeth live in what Coleridge calls “fancy,” a term which he defined in his work elsewhere, but in the context of the creative imagination:
FANCY…has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice. But equally with the ordinary memory, the Fancy must receive all of its materials ready made from association.
While the Romantic Coleridge can use this associative power to create a magical poem, “Kubla Khan,” with very little meaning, Shakespeare uses fancy and its associative power to show how detached from reality Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are. Let’s start over: Macbeth is a man whose entire social self-construction was one of a noble servant and great spiritedness, especially in warfare in defense of his king. In his mind, the king is all that is right and legitimate, not to mention a guest in his house. Macbeth and his wife need to change their characters from what they think they are to what they want to be, killers, and then royalty. The problem Macbeth faces is that in order to achieve what he must, he must do things that in effect negate what would make him a real king. At the very best at any time, the murder of Duncan only makes Macbeth a pale shadow, a poor player, of a king, rather than a true king.
Moreover, there really is nothing to give fulfillment to Macbeth as a king. What satisfies a king? The obvious is the satisfaction from ruling well, i.e., justly, i.e., for the benefit of all in the realm. Justice, as it is the common good, must apply to all (which is why, for example, will-to-power Tea Party Americans are manifestly unjust and thus have no true legitimacy). But that seems to be beyond Macbeth’s ambitions. Yet, in the alternative, as a tyrant, Macbeth could do as tyrants have done throughout the years, set down laws and institutions that benefit him alone or take any pleasures from anyone he might want. Macbeth does not have that hedonism. At the same time, it doesn’t appear that Macbeth has any governmental or governing interests. He does not seem to be interested in conquering new territories or reforming the feudal system upon which he lives, for example. He does not want to create a cult-of-personality manifested by art and architecture dedicated to himself. For a very imaginative man, Macbeth has a very limited sense of possibility for the power he and his wife have attained.
What Macbeth lusted for was an end in and of itself, an end with a title, a genus, but without any content. The only thing he starts to recognize to be important to him is the immortality that comes with the founding of a dynasty, which the wyrd sisters have bestowed on Banquo rather than to Macbeth. Banquo, whose integrity make him a bit naïve, says to himself:
Thou haft it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all
As the wayward Women promis’d, and I feare
Though playd’st moft flowly for’it: yet it was faide
It should not ftand in thy Pofterity,
But that my felfe fshould be the Roote, and Father
Of many Kings. If there come truth from them,
As vpon thee Macbeth, their Speeches fhine,
Why by the verities on thee made good,
May they not be my Oracles as well,
And fet me vp hope (III:i:3-12).
The basic truth is that promise of mortal immortality seems inherent in human beings. While a place in heaven is a good prize, the assurance of having children and children of children carrying on one’s name is something that is an essential part of human love and eros. Clearly, however, Macbeth and his wife are not as fecund as they might wish. Macbeth may tell his wife to have male children only, but there are no little princesses running around or any infants or toddlers suckling on Lady Macbeth’s paps. It is problematical whether they can have children at all.
In his impotent envy, Macbeth hires hitmen to kill Banquo, and will do so to murder Macduff, if he is around, and the Thane of Fife’s wife and children. What he finds hard to do in person, Macbeth has no problem in giving as contract work. Professional killers were not socially acceptable then, any more than they are today, except in lands corrupted by tyrants. Yet, it is not hard for Macbeth to find assassins, apparently, and he has no problem giving instructions and paying the fees. Professional killers generally fall into two categories: First, there the insane who enjoy murdering people, i.e., they enjoy the power of life and death over others and depriving others of any power of any kind. The second are those killers who do so “for the money,” so to speak, killing as a form of art. Sometimes, it hard to distinguish the two.
Nevertheless, in either case, the professional killer, as we know from experience and history, does not have a conscience of any kind when it comes to killing someone for professional reasons. There are numerous people, good family people, who have no problem killing other human beings as we know from, for example, the behavior of Nazi or Soviet concentration camp guards or exterminators. Macbeth has no problem giving contracts to kill the imagined obstacles he has in his life; however, he is unable to kill Duncan without imagined pains settling down on him. The killing of these people is acceptable as they are no more than dogs.
The appearance of Banquo’s (and possibly Duncan’s) ghost(s) at dinner is apparently seen by no one except Macbeth. What is important is not that no one else sees Banquo’s ghost; what is important is that only Macbeth sees the ghost, i.e., he sees something that he doesn’t see as a ghost, but as something real. Macbeth’s hallucinations are a necessary part of his dream-;like life, which, after all, includes witches, visions of a dagger, effluvia from a magic cauldron, and so on. Of the ghosts Macbeth sees, all are his victims. Banquo sits at his seat at the dinner table as if he were really there, except that he is a bloody mess. If Macbeth saw him as a ghost, he would know that the ghost is not real, but some kind of spirit or self-delusion. Instead, Macbeth sees him as a bloody Banquo as if in the flesh. One might say that Macbeth is only capable of dealing with reality if it is not real. At the same time, however, to deal with reality outside of reality and only in imagination means that Macbeth is isolated from the very reality he must deal with. The compete internalization of his problems means that Macbeth cannot find any solution to his problems.
It is more than mere internalization; one might say that the entire pay of Macbeth is, for the most part, a view of the world as Macbeth sees it. There are soliloquies, of course, but the structure of the play and the interaction of the characters is as if Macbeth were writing the play, not Shakespeare. We are privy to Macbeth’s private self, and we see that the public Macbeth is practically obliterated in the sense that Macbeth himself cannot separate the two. As such, Macbeth lives apart from reality, and as such denies himself any happiness or any goods. The great truth of life that Macbeth cannot face is that what is good and what is brings fulfillment to human life is not in a dream, but in real life. We can dream of many happy moments, but those dreams no matter how seemingly real are not themselves happiness. It is only when one achieves one’s ambitions and ends when awake that there is any good in life. The tragedy of Macbeth is not that he is a man who has risen high and falls because of some character flaw; no, his tragedy is that he murdered a man to become king, but once king cannot find himself awake as king, doing what kings do, everything from waging war, giving out patronage, ministering justice, and so on.
Instead, we have a Macbeth whose public actions are murders, but these acts are hidden from sight as if they were private, not public. He does not execute criminals in public; he instead assassinates the innocent in the dark. Macbeth is more at home with criminals than with good subjects. But criminals are not the people that a king wants to be admired by or loved. However, because Macbeth alienates this good subjects, those who would even support him solely out of a duty to his status, Macbeth denies himself any love from anyone, as criminals would never care for him as they know what he is, while at the same time good subjects shun him.
The suicide of Lady Macbeth comes after her sleepwalking and wanting to clean her hands of Duncan’s blood. The problem is that Queen Macbeth became a sleepwalker when she called on demons to possess her. Evil demons are not there to make life comfortable, after all. They are there to make blood appear where there is no blood. Yet, why does the Queen hang herself? The nature of her despair is facing overwhelming guilt both when awake and when asleep. But to say the Queen killed herself out of guilt means that the Queen has recognized that she was a criminal of some kind, that she had come to accept that being a public offender was so terrible that she could find no way to expiate that crime. Nevertheless, this explanation assumes that the Queen had some kind of deep respect for public morality and mores, including the prohibitions against murder, especially the murder of a guest. This explanation seems to be superficial at best. There does not seem to be any indication that the Queen truly had any sense of dishonor or disgrace or shame, which is aroused by the disgrace one feels before those she loves. Yet, it is clear that although the Queen has affection for Macbeth, it is not the kind of affection that would arouse shame before the King.
It seems more likely that the Queen kills herself, because she wants to end the horrible condition of the nightmare she is living in. She is more ashamed of Macbeth than herself, seems to be indicated by the responsibility that the Queens takes for the murders of Banquo and Lady Macduff, which are the work of her husband, not of hers. Having given up anything that is good when living in reality, the Queen has not so much nothing to live for as killing herself is the only logical step left to her life. It is a suicide where nothing is said about its consequences in terms of divine law. Unlike poor Ophelia, there is no discussion about the suicide prohibiting the Queen from a proper Christian burial or the possibility that she will not make it to heaven. The doctor’s evocations of god fall to his own admittance that:
Foule whifp’rings are abroad: vnnaturall deeds
Do breed vnnaturall troubles: infected minds
To their deafe pillows will difcharge their Secrets:
More needs fhe the Diuine, then the Phyfitians:
God, God fogiue vs all (V:1:72-76).
The Queen may need the divine; however, her act restores nature’s order.
For Macbeth, the suicide of his wife, came at a bad time, as he is not able to provide her the honors that she may have deserved, or least those that his love for her would have given. (“She fhould haue dy’de hereafter; There would haue been a time for fuch a word…” (V:i:21-22). He then launches into his great speech where he finally concludes that life is a tale told by an idiot that signifies nothing. That may be true; however, these despairing words intimate that the best course of action for himself is to kill himself. But no, Macbeth clings to the last hope given to him by the wyrd sisters, that he cannot be killed by anyone born of woman. Just before meeting Macduff on the field of battle, Macbeth says:
Why fhould I play the Roman Foole, and dye
On mine owne fword? Whiles I fee liues, the gafhes
Do better vpon them (V:viii.2-4).
The Roman suicide that Macbeth disdains is the affirmation of the Roman’s freedom in the face of losing it. Roman legionnaires, for example, preferred to fall on their swords than to be taken by Germans and then sacrificed by burning to tree gods. Roman nobles took their own lives to be the master of their own lives. Macbeth’s decision not to kill himself is based on the false hope that all men are born of woman in the same way, and hence he is immune from death as well as not losing his imagined power. The tyrant accepts this enslavement to this insanity. While one might find Macbeth’s final fight with the Thane of Fife has a noble look to it, it really is the final denial of the reality that his tyrant’s life had fled. In the end, he fights with the hope that the three weird sisters were wrong, when throughout they have been remarkably right.
Macbeth is unable to understand the witches, because he wants desperately what they seem to promise him. Many oracles, not only in Shakespeare, but going as far back as Herodotus, use amphibology and equivocating words. Shakespeare does something remarkably different: The ambiguities of the occult predictions lie in the application of words to unexpected and surprising acts and events throughout the whole of the speech. When Birnam Wood appears to be moving towards Dunsinane, Macbeth realizes in part that he has relied on predictions totally in vain:
I pull in Refolution, and begin
To doubt th’Equiuocation of the Fiend,
That lies like truth. Feare not, till Byrnane Wood
Do come toward Dunfinane (V:v:49-53).
When Macbeth discovers that Macduff was untimely ripped from his mother’s womb, Macbeth’s final hope dashed comes out:
And be thefe Iugling Fiends no more beleeu’d,
That palter with vs in a double fence,
That keepe the word of promife to our eare,
And breake it to our hope (V:viii:25-28).
For Macbeth, he has been deceived by the witches. However, it is more like he deceived himself, because he went into a dream state from which he could not escape except through death. When he says he will not fight Macduff, the final cowardice of his life is revealed. Inevitably, the way Macbeth misunderstood the predictions was the way he lived his life and why he became a tyrant and could not be a king. His private desire to be a legitimate king by the very way he chooses to be king negates any possibility for him to be king. In the end, what is remarkable, of course, is that Macbeth makes no mention of any divine beings and he does nothing to evoke any help from any god.
In the end, moreover, Shakespeare manages an incredible political feat through this play. The beauty of his language, the depth of his analysis, and so on makes Banquo’s illegitimacy legitimate not only artistically, but in actual political terms as James I of necessity has to come down through Banquo’s line no matter how seemingly distant from the original and murdered man. Another strange thing happens in Macbeth: Tyrants have the unctuous habit of evoking the fatherland or the country or the motherland and so on. Tyrants evoke patriotism as easily as Stalin did the motherland and the Church against Hitler’s Fatherland. Macbeth appears to have no particular tie even to Scotland. He does not even appeal to the “people.” In the end, Macbeth does not raise any appeals against his nothingness, his tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Macbeth not only stripped his kingship of goodness and nobility, but he detaches his kingship from the very country he is supposed to govern. His tyranny was a complete abstraction, a dream, that he desired for its own sake rather than anything from which he may have derived even the smallest amount of immortal glory.