Thursday 8 October 2015

The spiritual vision of Macbeth

1. What if nightmares, and not the waking world, were real? What if the truth of human nature were seen not in love but in madness and murder? What if the love-instinct itself were only an instrument of a deeper, murderous instinct?

2. Harry Jaffa has called Macbeth “a moral play par excellence”. No. It is not a moral but a metaphysical play. In Macbeth, nightmare and murder are elevated to the level of transcendent realities. In an otherwise excellent review of the new film, Travis LaCouter wants to draw edifying conclusions from the play’s “strong moral warning.” But that is a mistake. The only way to respond morally to the nightmare world of Macbeth would be to despair and die.

3. Macbeth is not a Christian play. Christianity understands evil as a privation of the good. Macbeth is about positive evil. Its theme is murder as a manifestation of positive evil. In the play, evil exists. It extends itself. It grows. It devours the good. It has a horrible “generative” quality (as LaCouter nicely puts it in the same review). It is not like ordinary darkness – a privation of light – but like a vacuum that can suck the light out of a room, leaving the human heart blinded and confused.

4. I think it was Harold Goddard who observed that The Tempest shows human beings in heaven, while King Lear shows them in purgatory and Macbeth shows them in hell. That is true: but the hell of Macbeth is not a Christian hell.

5. Milton’s Satan is a notoriously lovable character because his vices are so recognisably human: pride, ingratitude, a “sense of injured merit,” an incorrigible independence of spirit. He is cast into darkness but he continues to glow with a residual spiritual light, a tragic but also fundamentally charming reminder of his created status as an angel of God. The weird sisters in Macbeth are not former angels. They are not creatures fallen from grace. They are agents of a positive evil. They shine, so to speak, with an uncreated spiritual darkness. Faced with them, one would turn and run for refuge into the arms of Milton’s Satan. At least the latter is part of creation. At least he stands in some relation to God. Not so the weird sisters.

6. Lady Macbeth is the most disturbing character in literature because in her the maternal instinct and the murder instinct are united. She would sooner dash the brains out of her suckling infant than to see her husband draw back from murder at the appointed hour: and she not only feels this, but confides it to her husband. In Lady Macbeth, the instinct to destroy life is stronger than the instinct to engender it. When the Greek heroine Medea is abandoned by her husband, she avenges herself by murdering her (i.e. his) own children: she does evil for the sake of love. But it is very different with Lady Macbeth, who seems to love for the sake of evil. Forced to choose between having Medea for a mother or Lady Macbeth, I would prefer to take my chances with Medea. She has human instincts at least. Better to be killed for love than to be loved for the sake of evil.

7. Does good triumph over evil in the end? In the last act, the castle is conquered and Macbeth is justly killed. But this limited theodicy has to be set within the wider metaphysical frame. The weird sisters have prophesied Macbeth’s rise to power and have riddled his downfall. Everything happens just as they have foretold. Everything goes exactly according to plan. For all we know, the triumph of Malcolm and Macduff might be the transition to even greater evils, the next necessary step in Evil’s ineluctable advance.

8. In Shakespeare’s history plays, the endless cycle of the rise and fall of kings is shown to be meaningless: power is meaningless. In Macbeth, one perceives with horror that the cycle of power is not meaningless after all but is evidence of a cruel and malignant design, a sort of inverted providence. In King Lear, the cycle of power is seen to be redeemable: the exquisite vision of Lear and Cordelia singing like two birds in a cage as they lovingly, lazily discuss the rise and fall of the mighty. At that fleeting moment, just before Cordelia is killed and Lear dies of grief, the cycle of power is glimpsed from a redeemed perspective. It has become an affectionate plaything, material for loving conversation between a father (once a king) and a daughter (once estranged). History, in itself, is still meaningless but it has been marked by love.

9. But the redemptive vision of Lear cannot be projected on to Macbeth. In Macbeth, the cycle of power is also seen from a transcendent point of view: from the perspective of the weird sisters. Here is the real thing to fear, not that history might turn out to be meaningless but that it might turn out to be designed.

10. The redemptive vision glimpsed in King Lear is set out fully in The Tempest. If the Christian message turns out to be true, then the final truth of things will be the marriage festivities of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the eternal joy of Ariel who sings forever within the tiny folds of a flower. If Christianity is mistaken, then the best thing that could happen would be to discover that Shakespeare’s history plays were true, and that history is merely meaningless. The worst that could happen would be if Macbeth were true, and what we had mistaken for meaninglessness were actually the cunning designs of murdering spirits who toy with human lives for reasons that we can never guess – if there can be reasons in a nightmare.


Fat said...

Oh Ben
Where were you when I was doing my HSC?

Ben Myers said...

Don, in those days I was still suckling at the breast and nursing a nervous hope that my mother would not be like the ones in Greek & Elizabethan tragedies. I had enough to worry about without getting involved in high school examinations.

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