A Classical Hero in the Modern World: A Reading of Macbeth

The standard reading of Macbeth is that it is a tribute to King James I, Shakespeare’s patron. As a relatively new king to the throne of England, James was fascinated with two chief themes found in Macbeth: witchcraft and regicide. James was a prolific writer and he wrote a book on the subject of witchcraft entitled Daemonologie. Witchcraft and demonology were topics which James vehemently accepted as true. And on the topic of regicide, the infamous ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605 was fresh on the minds of all Englishmen. Macbeth touches on these two themes in important ways.

Macbeth takes place in 11th century Scotland, a pseudo-Homeric world filled with ruling Thanes who govern various regions beneath an appointed king. Geographically, the Scottish world in Macbeth is torn between a Hobbesian state of nature to the north (the invading Irish Celts) and an orderly Christian kingdom to the south (England). In addition, Norway makes an alliance with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor in rebellion. At the time, the fearsome Norsemen and their Viking longboats were the terror of Europe, especially under the leadership of Sweyn “Forkbeard” (who is mentioned in Macbeth as the current king of Norway). The Scottish world of Macbeth is a region of clashing values. Much like Hamlet and Othello, Macbeth takes place in a borderland between civilizations (pagan and Christian) as both are torn between visions for the future. In Hamlet the geographic drama is caught between Norway to the north, Denmark in the center, and an orderly Christian Europe to the south. The character of Hamlet is a Christian prince assigned to complete a Pagan task of revenge. In Othello the geography of Cyprus is caught between Christian Venice and Islamic Turkey. In the play, the character of Othello is a Turk who becomes a Christian but is forced to end his own life as a Turk. In Macbeth, the northern lands are the barbaric worlds of the Irish and Norway in contrast to England in the south -England is the monarchy toward which Scotland is striving. In all three plays, the setting is modern (in contrast to Shakespeare’s Roman Plays) and the central tension is between classical antiquity and modern Christianity. In other words, Macbeth and its counterpart plays of Hamlet and Othello explore and test the modern optimism that modern Christian culture can successfully be harmonized with the virtues of classical antiquity. Macbeth is an exploration into the great fault-line of Renaissance culture -the conflict between the classical (or pagan) world and the modern (or Christian) world.

An etching of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the Three Witches from the Holinshed Chronicles which Shakespeare used as chief inspiration

The tone of Macbeth is ominous, the mood is eerie, perhaps even evil. Three witches (or ‘weird sisters’) foretell of a dark prophecy in which what is “fair is foul, foul is fair.” The moral order is set to be upturned in Scotland. The character of Macbeth appears to us out of the fog war as a classical hero, not unlike Achilles or Heracles. He ‘disdains Fortune’ as a fierce soldier. We first encounter him being honored as “noble Macbeth” and a “worthy gentleman” and “brave Macbeth” for his brutal killings on the battlefield (he is praised for slicing the rebel, Macdonwald, in half and placing his head on a pike). Macbeth is surely a great war hero of Scotland, however by the end of the tragedy, Macbeth devolves into “the dead butcher” with “his demon-like queen” (V.8). How does Macbeth transform from a classical hero into a tyrannical villain? The answer lies in Macbeth’s evolving beliefs throughout the play, particularly his supernatural beliefs which delude him into committing a most heinous regicide.

Throughout the early parts of the play, Macbeth is contrasted with the saintly and pious King Duncan, a gentle and meek king. Duncan is the opposite of a warrior like Macbeth or a warrior-king like Henry V. In performances of Macbeth, Duncan is often clad in white like a priest, and amidst a brutal two-front war, Duncan is mostly absent from the battlefield, even as his own son, Malcolm, is captured and rescued by Macbeth. Under Duncan’s reign, Scotland has become excessively “gospeled.” Indeed, when Duncan finally arrives on the battlefield after the end of the fighting, he can hardly recognize one of his own “bloody” captains. He is better compared with his counterpart to the south, Edward “The Confessor,” an equally delicate and weak king. Aside from being a feeble leader, Duncan’s second transgression is in naming his son, Malcolm, as his successor. At the time in Scotland, kingship was based on an elective monarchy not primogeniture. The king was merely an appointed leader among equals. In naming his son as the future king, Duncan looks southward to the example of England and its monarchy as a solution to the problem of political successorship. However in highlighting this parallel between England and Scotland, Shakespeare also illuminates Scotland’s distinctness from England as a uniquely democratic monarchy. The selection of Scotland as the setting is doubly important when considering the play’s first performance was likely delivered before the court of a Scottish king on the English throne, James I, who believed himself to be a descendent of Banquo.

At the same time that Duncan’s kingship seems to be at its weakest point in the play, a dark prophecy begins to creep into the mind of Macbeth. Three ‘weird’ sisters (“weird” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “wyrd” meaning fate or destiny) also called ‘witches’ arrive delivering riddles that suggest Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor (he is also currently Thane of Glamis). The prophecy also states Macbeth will become king but it is Banquo’s seed which will spawn a line of future kings (i.e. a nod to James I). Note: the towns of Cawdor and Glamis, which Macbeth now rules over, are located approximately 130 miles apart from each other in Scotland -Cawdor in the north, and Glamis in the south. At any rate, Macbeth contemplates his prophecy. He is appointed Thane of Cawdor, in partial fulfillment of the prophecy, and as a result he quickly begins to lose faith in his own free will. Instead of making his own luck, Macbeth becomes a slave to the supernatural prophecy -“nothing is, but what is not.” Gradually, he is transformed from a soldier with limitless potential (‘disdaining Fortune’), into a hostage of Fate (“come what come may”). He also comes to believe in the idea of tyranny (in the modern sense, rather than the ancient notion of tyrannos), and his idea of tyranny informs his own practice as a tyrant (i.e. he becomes a murderer of families and children). In other words, when Macbeth begins to accept an absolute supernatural ‘be-all and end-all’ power that controls his own fate, he begins to mirror absolutism in his kingship. After committing his fateful act of regicide against Duncan, which is spurred on by his Clytemnestra-esque wife, we begin to see Macbeth’s inner struggle. The warrior’s conflict turns inward. He becomes king and the Thanes begin to abandon him. We are given glimpses of his guilt over his seekingly endless killings (particularly his murder of Banquo), and the result is akin to the Furies who plague Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Macbeth sees no end in sight to the vast numbers of people who require death to perpetuate his own kingship. And if there is the possibility of an absolute supernatural force that supersedes the strength of a warrior, then time in the present-moment becomes irrelevant. Macbeth begins obsessing over the future in the hopes of discovering revealed signs which may prove the witch’s riddles true.

Despite being a new world, filled with a conflicted classical moral system, there are still limits to politics and kingship. Political philosophy remains constant amid the conflict, as does Nature. The subversion, or perhaps perversion, of Nature is addressed in the uncomfortable relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They both desire to be manly, however their notion of manliness (or aner in contrast to anthropos) differs from one another and it is devoid of any notion of justice. Macbeth is the warrior archetype not unlike a ‘guardian’ from Plato’s Republic, but contra Polemarchus’s notion of justice in Plato’s Republic, Macbeth suddenly decides to turn his sword inward against his own kingdom. Why? In part, we see his belief in supernatural revelations as a chief cause, but also his rejection of Nature leads to his own downfall. His conception of manliness, bravery, and courage was once associated with violence against enemies on the battlefield, however the line between friends and enemies becomes blurred when he ‘dares do all that may become a man.’ His decision to become treasonous is in part spurred on by questions of his manhood, as well as his belief in the prophecy. The ‘best of men’ according to Macbeth is someone who forcibly takes whatever he wants, follows his base desires, and in so doing his friends become enemies. In short, ‘what is fair becomes foul.’ Perfect tyranny is the telos toward which Macbeth strives. Similarly, Lady Macbeth wishes to be ‘unsexed’ and made into an uncaring, villainous woman. She questions Macbeth’s manhood, as if he is not strong enough to kill Duncan, accusing him of being “…too full o’the milk of human kindness.” She pushes Macbeth to “look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” There is something decidedly unnatural about the cruelty displayed by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They have no children, though apparently Lady Macbeth has previously “given suck” to a baby (we are not offered any explanation as to what happened to this baby) and their marriage is apparently a mere political partnership. Lady Macbeth rejects her nature as a woman, and she reimagines their marriage as the truest test of courage: to murder a king and take the throne. After they begin killing all those who stand in their way, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth face what we moderns might call severe mental illness or ‘brain-sickness’ because “unnatural deeds breed unnatural troubles” -Macbeth interrupts a meal with guests because he is haunted by the ghost of Banquo, and Lady Macbeth sleepwalks through the castle with “a great perturbation in nature” while furiously rubbing her hands as if washing the blood away (the idea of “blood” and “bloodiness” is mentioned over 40 times in the play). As with many people in the modern world, characters like Macbeth and his wife spend a great deal of time lost in their own heads, deep in thought -contemplating ideas of the absolute, the eternal, the infinite (as in Macbeth’s famously nihilistic soliloquy “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” -which occurs immediately following the apparent suicide of Lady Macbeth). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seek a perfect rule without the blemish of enemies or even half-friends. However in Shakespeare, Nature is always imperfect. Tragedy strikes when modern humans attempt with great difficulty to force Nature into a kind of divine perfection via purgation of impurity (i.e. ‘be ye therefore perfect’). Hence, when the protagonist faces his inevitable downfall, Shakespeare aspires to mirror Aristotle’s idea of tragic catharsis as described in the Poetics.

Lady Macbeth sleepwalking by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1781-1784)

Macbeth is a play that explores the nature of tyranny in the modern world. Is it possible for a tyrant to take power in modernity? Contra the optimism of Renaissance England, Shakespeare suggests that a tyrant like Macbeth is indeed a dangerous possibility. As a pagan war hero dressed in the cloak of a Christian or modern king, Macbeth appears to us like Achilles only with a conscience. As time passes, Macbeth justifies killing children and families, including Macduff’s family (Macduff is called a “traitor” by one of the murderers sent to slaughter his family; meanwhile the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, are blamed for the death of the king -thus, the leaders of Scotland are so ‘gospeled’ that they have become incapable of seeing a true tyrant in Macbeth).

Perhaps in Macbeth Shakespeare offers several points of caution to the new king, James I: lessons about the nature and limits of kingship, including a certain advocacy of Aristotle’s golden mean between a meek king like Duncan and a cruel tyrant like Macbeth. Shakespeare also offers a cautionary tale against the dangers of excessive belief in the supernatural. Again and again in Shakespeare, Nature sets limits to curb human desires, but characters like Macbeth place their faith in supernatural whims. In the case of Macbeth, he embraces a supernatural belief in fateful prophecies that hold him hostage to an unfolding destiny. Time merely becomes a self-fulfilling revelation. In addition, Macbeth also persuades his wife of the prophecy (“thy letters have transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant”). By the end of the play, Macbeth believes a new prophecy that ‘none of woman born’ can harm him, and thus he views himself as an invincible superman, at least according to his interpretation of the witch’s riddles. However, the invading soldiers descend on his castle clad as the trees of Birnam forest (thus fulfilling another part of the prophecy) and Macbeth learns that his enemy, Macduff the Thane of Fife, was never technically born of a woman. Instead he was “untimely ripp’d” from his mother’s womb (i.e. he was born via a caesarean section). So Macbeth meets his fateful end according to the witch’s prophecies -he is slaughtered and decapitated offstage by Macduff (note: very few characters are actually killed onstage in the play: one being Banquo as well as Macduff’s family. Both are killed indirectly at the behest of Macbeth).

At the end of Macbeth, Scotland is cured of its particular disease with the promise of a new king Duncan’s heir, Malcolm, a non-Christian who stands in contrast to his pious father, Duncan (Malcolm gives thanks to the “grace of Grace” and promises to rule in “measure, time, and place”). Earlier in the play, in exile Malcolm hesitates at the prospect of becoming king (“a good and virtuous nature may recoil in an imperial charge”). Malcolm confesses to Macduff his uncontrollable sexual desires (“your wives, your daughters, your matrons, and your maids, could not fill up the cistern of my lust”) and he also confesses to having a deep hunger to rob the nobles of their wealth. Malcolm worries that his personal vices are worse than the rule of a tyrant, like Macbeth, because he takes no stock in virtues like Justice, Mercy, Courage, and so on. Macduff cries out that Malcolm is not fit to live, much less to govern, but in response Malcolm quickly covers over his thoughts with a praise of God and a series of lies to reassure Macduff, though Macduff claims it is difficult to “reconcile” what Malcolm has just uttered. This little interlude is deeply revealing about the character of Malcolm in contrast to his father, and perhaps foreboding about the future of Scotland. At any rate, when Malcolm becomes king he renames his thanes as “earls” to mirror the orderly monarchy of England to the south, and he calls his exiled friends abroad to come home. Macduff kills Macbeth in much the same way Macbeth once killed the rebel Macdonwald in Act I. Macbeth is killed offstage and his head is brandished by Macduff. The disease Scotland is cured of is Macbeth’s particular modern form of tyranny -a belief in absolutism, a tyranny modeled on the idea of an all-controlling and unblemished Fate or ‘destiny.’ Macbeth believes he can become omniscient like a god, and thus he becomes the worst of all evils. The danger of an all-perfect divinity is that it inspires the greatest of all evils in opposition. In order for a king to be successful in the modern world he must find an Aristotelian golden mean. He must be both gentle and pious, as well as prideful and disdaining of Fortune. In other words the city (polis) depends upon a certain degree of evil, such as the callousness of a classical soldier as in the case of Macbeth cutting another man in half -he does not merely ‘turn the other cheek’ to his enemies. He is prideful, at least at the start of the play. However, when the guardians of the city turn inward, like Macbeth, and unjustly kill the king, the city descends into tyranny. By the end of the play, Macbeth’s fortunes are terrifyingly reversed, not unlike Oedipus, and the witches are proven correct, though not in the way Macbeth expected. Extreme forms of kingship are either weak and ineffectual or else vicious and cruel. The introduction of Christianity (in contrast to Shakespeare’s Roman plays) entirely upends classical notions of political life, however it does not destroy the enduring political questions as investigated by the ancients. Instead, it exposes something deep about ourselves that is worth exploring.

Macbeth is a horrifying tragedy because it reveals deep fault-lines in our ethical standards, exposing a conflict between two different conceptions of the good (which is the prototype for a tragedy according to Hegel). At times, we celebrate aggressive impulses and admire a man for his sheer strength and power, like Macbeth as a soldier in his ability to triumph in combat over others. The greatest monument to this attitude in Western culture is Homer’s portrait of Achilles in The Iliad. At other times, we assert the need to tame aggressive impulses and brand them as evil -the most significant impediment to achieving social order. A memorable monument to this attitude in our culture is the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament, with his un-Achillean injunction to turn the other cheek. Macbeth exposes the opposition between these two ethics, one classical the other Christian. This opposition is reflected in the very conception of what it is to be a man in the play. As in the dialogue between Malcolm and Macduff, we see that the question: “What is it to be a man?” is at the heart of Macbeth, and two different answers—the pagan and the Christian—run throughout the play and are in tragic tension with one another. Macbeth is tormented by doubts about his manliness. At the same time, he feels the pull of Christianity, and the virtue of meekness, which is also held in high regard in his country. That is why, when he commits his crimes, he cannot do so with a good conscience. He is horrified by his own deeds, haunted before and after them by frightening images that he himself produces, exposing his own guilt and criminality. If Macbeth were not torn in opposite directions, his life would be much simpler. If he were fully a Christian, he would never commit the crimes he does. If he were fully a pagan, he would not be so tormented by his deeds and would proceed without hesitation. But the Macbeth Shakespeare creates is torn between two conceptions of what it is to be a man and that makes him a truly tragic figure. True tragedy does not provide us with simple moral lessons, such as “pride goes before a fall.” Unlike melodrama, which simply appeals to our conventional moral beliefs and reaffirms them, tragedy is unsettling; it disturbs us and unnerves us by revealing that our ordinary moral categories do not necessarily completely or adequately cover the full range of human possibilities. Understandably, we do not like to think about the problematic character of the human condition that Shakespeare exposes in his tragedies but it shows us a glimpse of something true about our nature.


For this reading I used the essential Arden 3rd Edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as the writings and lectures of Paul Cantor as well as Timothy Burns’s Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom (2013).

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