On “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland” by Paul A. Cantor

In Part I of Paul Cantor’s “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland” (Interpretation Journal), our attention is drawn to a “seldom noticed but revealing moment” In Act III, scene i of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which Macbeth, the newly crowned king, is trying to convince a contingent of desperate men to hunt down and murder Banquo. He asks the men: “Are you so gospell’d, To pray for this good man, and for his issue…” or, in other words, Macbeth asks, “will you turn the other cheek?” Macbeth, who was recently praised as a noble warrior, expresses a certain degree of contempt for Christian forbearance, and by questioning the manhood of these men, they appropriately respond: “We are men, my liege.”

Cantor notes that Macbeth continues by asking if these men will rise above the status of mere human beings (anthropoi) so that each of them will individually become a hero in the classical sense (aner). Macbeth seems to be aware that the latter way of being is under threat in Scotland since “a new gospel is broad in the land, which teaches a Christian way of life, a gospel of peace and humility, opposed to the way of life of the warrior.” However, what are we to make of this new gospelling of Scotland? Is it such a bad thing? If it prevents tyrants like Macbeth from ruling, surely it cannot be the worst turn of events (even if it means suffering the rule of enfeebled leaders like Duncan)?

Cantor’s thesis is as follows: “Shakespeare develops the tragedy of Macbeth out of this tension between the heroic warrior’s ethic and the gospel truth. The story of Macbeth gave Shakespeare a chance to portray a world in which Christianity has penetrated and indeed changed the fabric of society, but in which some characters still think back –nostalgically is too weak a word– to the time before their nation was gospelled.” Throughout his tragedies, Shakespeare often shows us a clash of ethical alternatives, setting the action at a point of intersection where two antithetical ways of life cross. Macbeth shows us characters caught between two ways of life –old and new. In this case, we are caught between warlike paganism and saint-like Christianity. Geographically speaking, this is represented in the west and the north (the Hebrides and Norway) on the one hand, and in the south which is ruled by the delicate and enfeebled Edward the Confessor in England. Here, Cantor unfolds his compelling thesis of the “borderland” interpretation of Shakespeare’s key tragedies –as in the case of Cyprus in Othello and Denmark in Hamlet. For Macbeth, he is prevailed upon by two competing values –the heroic warrior and the humble servant, the worldly versus the otherworldly ways of life.  

In Part II of his analysis, now that the setting has been carefully laid out, Cantor turns our attention to Duncan, king of Scotland. Duncan is a pious king who looks to Edward the Confessor as his guide –he is portrayed as meek and evoking emotions like pity. He is presented as something of an anomaly in Scotland, especially in contrast to the savagery of his warlike Thanes. Duncan does not lead his men into battle, and we first meet him clutching his pearls when asking, “What bloody man is that?”

Cantor argues that Duncan’s mistake comes when he attempts to undo the elective rule of the Thanes by appointing Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, thereby ensuring his son’s hereditary inheritance of the monarchy. As is the case in other tragedies, most notably King Lear, political succession is shown to be an extremely delicate moment which can either mean the rise or the downfall of the regime. At any rate, Duncan seems unfit for a kingship over a land which is in constant warfare as described in Shakespeare’s source, Holinshed’s Chronicles. Shakespeare also explored similar contrasts between the saintly Henry VI and the warlike Richard III in one of his earliest works (and his first study of tyranny, according to Cantor). Macbeth, therefore, points us to the issues raised in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of the Wars of the Roses –“The destruction of the great aristocratic leaders in England, culminating in the carnage created by Richard III, made possible the centralizing of the English monarchy under Henry VII and the Tudor dynasty.”         

Macbeth seems to understand this phenomenon. He notices that new religious ideas have brought about “progress” in Scotland –“a process of civilizing in which the Christian spirit has tamed the barbarism of its warriors (‘humane statute’ has ‘purg’d the gentle weal’).” Shakespeare continually illuminates for us the modern view of a stark distinction between the natural and the supernatural –hence why Macbeth is utterly horrified by apparitions. We know from the works of Seneca that supernatural events occurred in classical pagan literature, and in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, we also see ghosts and apparitions appear from time to time (even though Shakespeare took great labors to reduce their prevalence), however the key distinction is “the gulf between the natural and the supernatural was not as wide or as sharply drawn in paganism. Strictly speaking, one might even say that paganism predates the genuine and full distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Allowing for a continuum between god and man, with all sorts of intermediary figures such as heroes and daimonia, paganism does not tend to separate a divine realm from a human realm in the radical way that Christianity does, with its transcendent conception of deity and hence its sense of the unbridgeable gulf between man and God. This is admittedly a complicated issue, but with all the necessary qualifications being made, it is accurate to say that Christianity is distinctly more otherworldly as a religion than classical paganism.” With this in mind, Macbeth reacts violently to the appearance of apparitions because it causes a radical shift in his temporal existence, “marking a kind of epoch.” In response to my earlier question regarding the suggested problems posed by this new form of gospelling, Cantor offers the following response: “In short, the key point in Macbeth is not the impact of Christianity per se, but the impact of Christianity on a man who has been used to thinking in pagan terms. Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the one in which supernatural forces have the most disturbing effect. The subject gave Shakespeare a chance to explore what happens to a pagan warrior wrenched out of his narrow horizons and displaced into a Christian context, with its radical divide between this world and the next.”

In Part III of his essay, Cantor examines the downfall of Macbeth’s character throughout the play. He begins the play as a model of courage and fearlessness on the battlefield (Cantor likens him to a “Scottish Achilles”). He runs into the Achilles-Agamemnon dilemma wherein a legitimate king is weaker as a military figure than one of his great warriors. However, as the plot unfolds, Macbeth is continually tormented by doubts, cast upon an endless sea of skepticism. “This strange pattern results from Macbeth’s unnerving displacement from a pagan to a Christian cosmos.” If he begins the play as a Scottish Achilles, he certainly doesn’t end the play in the same place –in this case “the hero becomes crueller as the play progresses.” To account for this, Cantor offers what might initially appear to be “an extremely perverse argument,” which is that “the transformation of Macbeth can be traced to the impact of Christianity.” This might initially seem to be counterintuitive since “a gospel of meekness ought to tame the savagery and fierceness of a warrior, not inflame it.” However, this is a complex play and a complex character that attempts to explore “what happens when a warrior retains his martial spirit, and yet allows it to be redirected or reconstituted in a new Christian context.” He remains very much a warrior, albeit deeply affected by the new religion. What Macbeth has learned is a newfound contempt for the transitoriness of pagan values and a nascent appreciation of eternity (hence why he considers falling on his sword at the play’s end to avoid disgrace, however he stops himself when acknowledging those ancient Romans were vain ‘fools’). He remains loyal to the warrior ethic while reinterpreting it through a new, inverted morality. Cantor puts it rather succinctly as follows: “In the figure of Macbeth, Shakespeare contemplates the demonic counterpart of this happy synthesis of pagan and Christian, a heroic warrior who turns tyrant in pursuit of a secularized version of the Christian Absolute.” Macbeth becomes an absolutist, dwelling upon the “be-all and the end-all” which leads him to seek refuge in a kind of safety and security that would be unheroic by classical standards.

In Part IV of his essay, Cantor sheds light on ideas about the “life to come” that have begun to pervade Macbeth’s mind, particularly when killing Duncan. The new expansion of Christian horizons changes the terms of a heroic action, he becomes “Achilles with a conscience.” For Cantor, “Shakespeare reveals a character with a richly developed psychological interior, torn by conflicting impulses and struggling with a nascent conscience.” He now has depth to his actions that previously were not as prevalent as in, say, the case of Brutus and his decision to kill Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Through his soliloquies, we can see how Macbeth is torn between the city of God and the city of man. In another age, Macbeth might have been greeted with warmth and celebration for liberating the kingdom of Scotland from its weak and unsatisfactory king, a man who is unrepresentative of his people. However, instead Macbeth is a usurping tyrant, obsessed with royal succession in the context of absolute perfection, apocalypse, and eternity. This is perhaps best expressed in Macbeth’s famous “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” soliloquy, in which he dwells deeply upon the melancholic lostness of yesterday and the unending futurism of tomorrow leading to “the last syllable of recorded history,” yet has no thought for today. “He has lost the pagan ability to take pleasure in the moment, to live happily in this world, without looking beyond its borders to eternity. This speech thus sums up all that has destroyed Macbeth’s happiness.” He is no longer “Disdaining Fortune” as when we first met him in Act I. “Ultimately Shakespeare shows that Macbeth’s nihilism is the obverse of a kind of religious faith; this world becomes worthless to him when it fails to live up to an otherworldly standard of absolute perfection.”

In Part V of this essay, Cantor expounds upon how “Macbeth comes to be governed by a demonic parody of a religious faith” which is shown by the appearance of the Weird Sisters. They represent an unnatural appearance who are the enemies of orthodox religion, however they nevertheless serve as teachers of the dangers of believing in providence. Their appearance conveys a sense that earthly events are governed by higher powers. Once Macbeth begins believing in these higher powers, he begins to act secretly himself, giving a false display of good will. He covets all the virtues of the new religion and becomes subsumed in feelings of guilt and shame –” Chafing under the constraints of a new morality, he eventually repudiates all restraints on his actions, and becomes a slave to his basest desires.”

In Part VI, we address potential disagreements of these arguments. The Weird Sisters are, after all, ambiguous and equivocal. Despite being opponents of the legitimate forces of Christianity in the play, in that they seem to point to older pagan forces in Scotland, the Weird Sisters also seem to be aligned with lading Macbeth out of the pagan world. They are representatives of the supernatural and lead him to believe in a divine providence. “In Macbeth’s case, Christianity does not, as it usually does, temper the fierceness of the pagan spirit, but paradoxically inflames it. Supplying an absolutism to Macbeth’s pagan spirit, Christianity or rather his distorted interpretation of it turns him into a crueller and more devious figure.” He becomes a demonic parody of a Christian crusading warrior, hence why the legitimate Christian characters in the play regard Macbeth as a fiend.

The tragedy of Macbeth is that no synthesis can be found between these opposing worldviews, and in its wake lies a perverted sense of tyranny and confusion –in particular distinctions between the sexes grow more concerning throughout the play. Consider, Lady Macbeth’s taunting of her husband and deriding his manhood, and similarly, Macbeth does the same for the mercenaries he implores to kill Banquo. “Far from constituting a simple, straight forward opposition in the play, the boundary between male and female is always on the verge of dissolving, creating new hybrid forms.” As an example, consider Lady Macbeth’s dark prayer to become “unsexed.”

In Part VII, Cantor suggests one final way the Weird Sisters impact Macbeth in the play –they lead him to develop a contempt and even hatred for the natural world. In doing so, Shakespeare “establishes a connection between Macbeth’s desire for the infinite and his tyrannical nature.” The tyrant is at war with himself, fighting against any limits set to his will, and since the very idea of a natural order is that there are limits set to things, Macbeth now longs for a moment wherein “Nature seems dead.” This leads him to curse “nature’s germains” and all the seeds out of which the natural world springs forth. And he murders the whole line of Macduff –including his wife and children –a profound act of evil indeed. “But there is a profound irony in Macbeth’s attack on the children of Scotland his own marriage appears to be barren, thus leaving him without the heirs he needs to perpetuate his line and hence his achievement. Even the tyrant cannot dispense with the power of nature, for he needs it to generate an heir.” Even Lady Macbeth curses her own potential to become a mother –perhaps Shakespeare suggests there is a pattern that those who curse nature will live to regret it, as nature has a way of coming back to take revenge. Nature is, broadly speaking, a generative power but a tyrant like Macbeth has embraced ideas of the supernatural over and against the dominion of nature. In the end, he finds himself defeated by nature, as the supernatural claims of the ‘man not born of woman’ merely turns out to be the result of a Caesarean section, and the miraculously moving forests turn out to be nothing more than a camouflage maneuver. Perhaps Macbeth should have avoided interpreting the prophecies altogether. “His experience with the witches’ apparitions suggests even more strongly that he would have been better off trusting what he saw with his own eyes, rather than allowing himself to be tricked into interpreting the revelations in light of his own hopes and desires.” And isn’t this the case with all claims to divine revelation? To summarize this problem Cantor offers the following: “One might sum up the Weird Sisters’ strategy this way: awakening Macbeth’s infinite desire and appealing to his dream of omnipotence, they make him long for a supernatural alliance and breed a contempt for the natural world in him. Thus they blind him to the power of nature, which eventually destroys him.” In many ways, this brutal tragedy of a Scottish warrior is also the tragedy of modernity. Cantor speculates that perhaps if Macbeth had truly found a way to translate his personal hopes for heaven on earth into a political program, or what we might call an ideology, he may well have served as the distinctively modern tyrant.   

Cantor, Paul A. “A Soldier and Afeard: Macbeth and the Gospelling of Scotland.” Interpretation Journal, Spring 1997, Vol. 24, No. 3.

Professor Cantor, one of the finest Shakespeare scholars in the United States, just recently passed away in 2022. By all accounts he was a delightful person and a beloved teacher for many years at the University of Virginia.

On a final note, Professor Cantor opened this essay with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche which may help elucidate his argument:

“I regard the bad conscience as the serious illness that [men were] bound to contract under the stress of the most fundamental change [they] ever experienced that change which occurred when [they] found [themselves] finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace. . . . Suddenly all their instincts were disvalued and “suspended.” . . . They felt unable to cope with the simplest undertakings; in this new world they no longer possessed their former guides, their regulating, unconscious and infallible drives: they were reduced to thinking, inferring, reckoning, co-ordinating cause and effect . . . they were reduced to their “consciousness.” …I believe there has never been such a feeling of misery on earth . . . and at the same time the old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their usual demands! Only it was hardly or rarely possible to humor them: as a rule they had to seek new and, as it were, subterranean gratifications.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

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