Macbeth: A Fall Without Redemption


macbeth, Banquo and the witches on the heath by Johann Heinrich Fussli

The three “weird sisters” meet and tempt returning heroes Macbeth and Banquo.

As I watched and read Macbeth, I couldn’t help but think of Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment. Both Macbeth and the novel’s main character, Raskolnikov, delve into murder and darkness. But there are core and defining differences.

Macbeth is a play about a man who at every choice, encouraged by his wife, chooses the evil path, gives in to temptation, and seems in the end to give himself completely to darkness. The evil he chooses along the way, he would never have chosen in the beginning. Virtuous emotions felt (love for his wife) in the beginning, by the end of his journey downward, are as feeble as the evil that controls him is vibrant, destructive. He has traveled the clichéd slippery slope.

Macbeth–enticed and bullied on by his own apparently unquenchable ambition, the three “weird sisters” prophecy that he’d be king and his beloved Lady Macbeth’s (that totals four witches) insistence that he act to fulfill the prophesy–dips at first hesitantly into murder for wealth and power. Before he lowers himself into the bloody gore, he seems to have a conscience and hesitates to do the deed. His Lady sees his humanity and frets that he’ll not have the will to take the kingdom by force (i.e., murder): “I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.”

Whatever sensitivities he begins with, he loses incrementally in murdering the good King Duncan, ordering the murder of Banquo and his son (Banquo’s son survives perhaps only because in the Shakespeare’s day, it was erroneously believed that King James, new to the English throne, was a descendant of Banquo), and the slaughter of Macduff’s family—all his “pretty ones” and “their dam.”

Macbeth’s seeking out evil leads to his hopeless despair, in which he cannot even, it seems, grieve for his Lady in her suicide. His body is alive, but his soul is empty by the time he dies at the hands of one not born of woman.

Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth

Celebrated 19th and 20th century British Actress Ellen Terry portrays Lady Macbeth in 1889 painting by John Singer Sargent.

Lady Macbeth—harder than Macbeth in the beginning, able to “unsex” herself—eggs him on; but in the end it is the Lady who breaks down. Unpredictably it is the seemly conscienceless Lady Macbeth who dies a victim of internal grief of guilt, while the more timid, thoughtful Macbeth leads a desperate fight to survive. Hardened Macbeth is unwilling to kill himself as Antony did in Antony and Cleopatra. Their—the Macbeth’s—decisions open both to nightmarish guilt, but instead of confessing and repenting, the guilt festers in both till their destruction.

Macbeth is stark warning that choosing evil a bit at a time is a downward slog to destruction, unless the soul and its decisions change. There is no redirection and thus no redemption for the Macbeths. They become inhuman, creatures of the hell they have sought.

How does this relate to Crime and Punishment? Certainly the men have different motives for their murders. Raskolnikov murders almost as an intellectual exercise, yet suffers the same illness and madness of guilt as the Macbeths. However, Doestoevsky’s protagonist is not the Macbeths, and Raskolnikov is salvaged by a Christ-believing, but desperate prostitute. Raskolnikov confesses, his heart softening till he is able to repent. He is redeemed and experiences happiness as a new creature (albeit in Siberia).

I suspect that Macbeth gets to the point where his conscience has been destroyed, and he can no longer (or will not) repent, having given himself completely to his “o’erleaping” ambition, and even the witches proclaim him “something evil.” He has become, if it’s possible, beyond redemption.

Source for Macbeth was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Macbeth is a great play, perhaps the one I’ve enjoyed most to date, with its caution against choosing evil for unfettered ambition and the power of suggestion.

I give Macbeth five Bards:Five Bard Rating


Quotes I like:

Banquo: What, can the devil speak true? …Oftentimes to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths; win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.

Macbeth: Why do I yield to that suggestion whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, and make my seated heart knock at my ribs, against the use of nature?

Macbeth: Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Malcolm: Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it

Macbeth: Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires: the eye wink at the hand! Yet let that be, which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Lady Macbeth: Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition; but without the illness should attend it.

Lady Macbeth: Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; and fill me, from the crown to the toe, topfull of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse, that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between the effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers

Macbeth: The be-all and the end-all

Lady Macbeth: Art thou afeard to be the same in thine own act and valour as thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life, and live a coward in thine own esteem, letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’

Macbeth: False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Lady Macbeth: These deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad.

Lady Macbeth: A little water clears us of this deed: How easy is it then!

Macbeth: To know my deed, ’twere best not to know myself.

Macduff: Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!

Macbeth: (feigning innocence when Duncan’s death is discovered): Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant, there’s nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys: renown and grace is dead; the wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees is left this vault to brag of.

Macbeth: He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour to act in safety.

Macbeth: Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; as hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept all by the name of dogs: the valued file distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle, the housekeeper, the hunter, every one according to the gift which bounteous nature hath in him closed; whereby he does receive particular addition, from the bill that writes them all alike: and so of men.

Lady Macbeth: Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done.

Hecate: A wayward son, spiteful and wrathful; who, as others do, loves for his own ends

Witches: Double, Double toil and trouble

Witches: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

Lady Macbeth: When our actions do not, our fears do make us traitors.

Lady Macduff: I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world; where to do harm is often laudable; to do good, sometime accounted dangerous folly

Malcolm: My more-having would be as a sauce to make me hunger more

Lady Macbeth: Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him. …What, will these hands ne’er be clean?

Angus: Now does he feel his secret murders sticking on his hands; now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach; those he commands move only in command, nothing in love: now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief. Menteith: Who then shall blame his pester’d senses to recoil and start, when all that is within him does condemn itself for being there?

Macbeth: That which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

Macbeth: Cure her of that. Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart? Doctor: Therein the patient must minister to himself.

Macbeth: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Next Up: Hamlet

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply