Macbeth By Colin McGinn PERSPECTIVES
On the surface, Macbeth is a play about ambition, murder, intrigue, sorcery, ghosts, and revenge. Frequent talk of blood in the play coupled with much violent imagery engulfs Macbeth, by far the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It might seem the least cerebral of his tragic creations, the most un-philosophical – an action thriller, as we might describe it today, with supernatural chills added. .
But this would be a superficial view of the play. It is true that it contains all the elements of action and violence, spiced with the supernatural, which might excite the groundlings. The play has always been a crowd pleaser. The speeches tend to be short and pithy.
Four Philosophical Themes • the relationship between action and character; • the power of imagination; • the appearance/reality distinction; • the nature of time.
If it were done when tis doneThen ‘twere well it were done quickly I have no spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself…
“In the beginning was the deed” Goethe • The play is centrally concerned with the effects of evil actions on the soul of the perpetrator. • Macbeth does not begin the play as an evil man; indeed, he is something of a hero, and a markedly reluctant murderer.
The play is a chronicle of his moral decline. • Shakespeare has given us a portrait of the dynamics of evil – its evolution over time. • He wants us to see how evil actions, undertaken for self-interested reasons, have consequences for Macbeth.
Macbeth has a conscience. • His evil actions – stemming from simple self-advancement - are all too human.
Macbeth’s Character • The action of murdering Duncan in his sleep-cowardly and vicious as it was – irrevocably alters Macbeth’s character: he thenceforward mutates from man of honor to unprincipled blackguard. • Macbeth is self-aware: a person is aware of the acts he performs – he knows what he has done.
Self-aware, he cannot dissociate himself from his actions, no matter how hard he tries. • Macbeth cannot separate himself from the role he has chosen to play. • His character doesn’t control his actions; his actions control his character.
By choosing to perform certain actions Macbeth becomes the architect of his own identity. • He is his own creation. We are constantly directed toward human doing –not emotion, not thought – because in this drama action is where character has its origin.
“Or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation…” • Macbeth’s imagination is closely tied to his conscience. • His guilt expresses itself in the form of unwanted imaginings. • Macbeth is very fearful of discovery, and this fear mingles with his guilty conscience in his wild imaginings.
A.C. Bradley’s observation • “The soul is a thing of such inconceivable depth…that when you introduce into it, or develop in it, any change - particularly the change called evil – you can form only the vaguest idea of the reaction you will provoke. All you can be sure of is that it will not be what you expected, and that you cannot possibly escape it.”
“There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face.” • The human ability to deceive an dissemble is remarkable. • Language greatly facilitates this achievement, but our ability to control our facial expressions so as to give a misleading impression is also remarkable.
“Stars hide your fires…Let not light see my black and deep desires • Two factors that made Shakespeare especially aware of the ability to deceive: • He was an actor himself • He was living at an historical moment when concealment of the inner could be a matter of life or death – that is to say, a time of religious persecution. When a Shakespearean character compares the work to a stage, the audience of the time might nod their heads in silent agreement, knowing the amount of dissembling needed to get by.
“Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” • The past and the future are constantly mentioned, with the present a thin wafer between them. • Macbeth is always referring to “tomorrow,” as if this will provide refuge from the past and present. • He has, in effect, mortgaged the past and present to the future, but he finds that the future cannot be dissociated from the past.
“There would have been a time for such a word” • Macbeth wishes to murder time, as he has murdered so much else (his soul, his marriage, the respect of others) • He is engaged in an epic struggle with time – a struggle he definitively and predictably, loses. • The laws of time – of action, memory, and consequence – cannot be evaded.