In his essay “Macbeth: Driven into Darkness,” the second of five essays in his collection entitled Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom, Timothy Burns tracks the distinct shift in Shakespeare’s works from “a deep sense of honor and pride in noble acts” as found in the Roman plays like Julius Caesar to the emergence of “sin and remorse” in the modern tragedies which tend to feature a fight between certain dark theological otherworldly forces of hell against angelic forces in heaven. Characters find themselves trapped in modern Christian spiritual crusade. While eleventh century Scotland is undoubtedly a far cry from ancient Rome, Burns notes that “The changes that Christianity brings to political life are, as we will see, real and far-reaching, but they do not destroy the permanent political questions. We are shown in the rule of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth the peculiar tyranny of bad or half Christians, and the eventual curing of Scotland by Malcolm, who is in contrast to his father, the pious Duncan, decidedly non-Christian” (63).
Burns pays close attention to how Shakespeare uses the Holinshed Chronicle in crafting Macbeth –which characters are omitted, and which characters are historically revised, like Banquo. He examines the traitorous Thane of Cawdor Macdonwald who was recently sliced in half and beheaded by Macbeth, an act with the gentle and meek King Duncan can hardly bear. However, “the sequel will show Duncan’s judgment to be mistaken: Macbeth, the new Thane of Cawdor, will turn out to be more treacherous than the old” (64). In Holinshed, the rebellion against Duncan is linked to his soft and tender ways. Scotland needs better leadership if it is to overcome the proclivity for rebellion and regicide among its thanes, however “Macbeth is between two worlds, pagan and Christian, driven by a guilty ambition for what he perceives to be good, but which would achievable only through doing ill” (67).
The central question is of virtue –how should someone like Macbeth maintain patriotic virtue for Scotland when his king is found utterly lacking? “The classical problem of virtue, as we saw in Julius Caesar, is that the more virtuous one is, the more one inevitably deprives others of their shared virtuous deeds. This new paradox, by contrast, [i.e. the Christian problem of virtue in Macbeth] rests on a new understanding of virtue, one with a peculiar, frank self-concern at its heart. That it should do so may seem quite surprising, inasmuch as Christianity calls for self-renunciation, over and against prideful pagan self-admiration” (69).
King Duncan embodies the distinctly modern sense of self-renunciation coupled with a focus on the prospect of a future eternal life. He and his acolytes, like Macduff, apparently renounce worldly goods in this life in the hopes of discovering holiness contra civic virtue. Macbeth’s battlefield heroics are contrasted with Duncan’s decision to name his son Malcolm as his heir –a questionable move among the warrior class like Macbeth.
As for Lady Macbeth, she desires “greatness” in the classical sense, albeit in a most confused and ugly manner, and she is disappointed in her husband who has become too “gospeled” and filled with the “milk pf human kindness,” even though she also knows that the regicide of Duncan is wrong. Her conflict comes in the desire for power which requires that she shed her grace and virtue of femininity, and according to this interpretation, she tacitly acknowledges Christianity’s promise of overcoming, by means of the purity of self-denial and sinful remorse, this “mortal” life. She, like her husband, develops a degraded notion of the faith. Still, the new modern morality seems to make men effeminate like Duncan, and women “unsexed” like Lady Macbeth, at least according to this interpretation of the play. Therefore, Lady Macbeth decides to employ the use of deception, because her drive for power consumes all. Nevertheless, Macbeth, who straddles the fence between ancient and modern hero, struggles with his own immortal soul and the prospect of divine retribution. Macbeth’s reservations about killing Duncan are overcome not by supernatural prophecy provided by the hags at the outset, but father by his unrelenting devotion to his wife, especially when she questions his courage and manliness. The preservation of his marriage overwhelms his devotion to the kingdom. The monstrosity of Lady Macbeth’s “unsexed” nature is on full display.
After the murderous deed is done, Macbeth is overcome with brainsickness and remorse –his hands cannot be washed of blood. The dark deed has been justified by a sense of the afterlife, yet that very mythological afterlife brings him deep regret. He is a man torn in two. His marriage has been preserved but the kingdom is in tatters. Should he have merely sought first the kingdom of god as theology would have it? Then, might he have simply accepted Duncan’s enfeebled rule without question? His guilty conscience exposes at once the moral impossibility of regicide of this kind in the modern world, and while this harsh, brutal, treasonous act is hideous and unnatural, it does not change the fact that Duncan was a failed king. What should a war hero do in this situation? A more modern hero might have been more focused on otherworldly concerns, while the ill-gotten mixture of ancient and modern virtues as found in the Macbeths is hopeless. There is need of a third way.
The answer comes in the character of Malcolm –a heroic figure who gradually loses his religious inclinations throughout the play after witnessing the rather pathetic nature of his father, and the vicious, half-religious behavior of Macbeth and his Lady. Macbeth fails to return to his Roman virtue and rather than ending his life with his own sword, he awaits vengeance from Macduff. With Malcolm named the new king, he pledges to return honor to Scotland “by the grace of grace” (notably, not by the grace of God as his father might have proclaimed). In the end, Malcolm provides the cure to Scotland’s sickness with the promise of a new way forward.
Burns, Timothy W. Shakespeare’s Political Wisdom. Palgrave MacMillan. New York, NY (2013).