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 soldier-king like Henry V. In performances of Macbeth, Duncan is often clad in white like a priest. Amidst a brutal two-front war, Duncan is almost wholly absent from the battlefield, even as his own son Malcolm is captured by the enemy 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. Duncan is better compared with his counterpart to the south, Edward “The Confessor,” an equally delicate and weak king of England. 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 rather than 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 hereditary 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 (and therefore also of his son Fleance who narrowly survives in the play).

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 (at present he is only the Thane of Glamis). The prophecy also states Macbeth will become king but that Banquo’s seed will spawn a line of future kings (i.e. a nod to James I). Note: the towns of Cawdor and Glamis, for which Macbeth becomes the ruling Thane, 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 this 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 that 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 a string of seemingly endless savage murders (particularly his assassination of Banquo and the slaughter of Macduff’s whole family). The result is akin to the Furies who plague Orestes in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the cycle of revenge continues unabated. 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 his being-in-time in the present-moment becomes irrelevant. Macbeth begins obsessing over the future (rather than the past or present) 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 enduring amid this 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 his belief in supernatural revelations is a chief cause, but also his rejection of Nature which 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 this cruelty displayed by Macbeth and his Lady. 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 (ironically the gentlest and most pious king runs the risk of inviting an overthrow by the harshest and most savage tyrant). 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 in the branches of 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 who was never born of woman (note: very few characters are actually killed onstage in the play, exceptions include 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 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 degenerated into the worst of all evils. The danger of an all-perfect all-good 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 assassinate 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 deeper 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 (this conflict is the prototype of 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 great 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 or the most significant impediment to achieving social order. A memorable example of 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 ethical viewpoints, one classical and 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?” sits at the heart of Macbeth, and two different answers—the pagan and the Christian—run throughout the play in tragic tension with one another. Macbeth is tormented by doubts of 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. Which is why, when he commits his crimes, he does not do so with a good conscience. He is horrified by his own deeds, haunted before and after committing them by seeing 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. If he were fully a pagan, he would not be so tormented by his deeds and would instead proceed without hesitation. But the Macbeth Shakespeare creates is torn between two conceptions of what it is to be a man –and this conflict makes him a truly tragic figure. 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, tragedy is unsettling; it disturbs us and unnerves us by revealing that our ordinary moral platitudes do not necessarily completely nor adequately cover the full range of human possibilities. Understandably, we do not relish pondering the problematic character of the human condition that Shakespeare exposes in his tragedies but it nevertheless 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).

Anglo-Saxon England, Part II

With the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons a panoply of changes took effect across Britain. Old English replaced Latin as the lingua franca, the island of Britannia was renamed Aengla Land after the Angles, and perhaps most significantly, there was a political shift. The Saxons brought with them the idea of kingship by consent. That is, the Saxons selected ‘kings’ from amongst themselves, and the kings ruled with limited authority. It was not yet a monarchy familiar to modern minds but it was rulership by the consent of the governed and it was entirely foreign to a culture that carried the fresh memory of the decadent Roman Empire. The legacy of self-government from the Anglo-Saxons is still with us today.

This Anglo-Saxon epoch was captured wonderfully in the epic folk-poem, Beowulf. The hero, Beowulf, is an elected leader who becomes king, ruling for ‘fifty winters.’ Upon his death, a great pyre is built and valuables are buried in an Anglo-Saxon rites ceremony. Anthropologists of Anglo-Saxon culture were delighted when in 1939 the ceremonial practices described in Beowulf were triumphantly confirmed at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk where vast riches, likely once the possessions of a great king, were unearthed along with an entirely buried Dark Age Anglo-Saxon ship. Perhaps this king was Redwald of East Anglia. His iron helmet indicates royalty and the vast riches unearthed matched time period -including Merovingian coins dating to AD 625 (the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings built alliances with the powerful Frankish kingdom in contemporary France).

A partially reconstructed helmet found at Sutton Hoo. It was buried in AD 625 and is believed to have belonged to King Redwald of East Anglia.

Over time, Anglo-Saxon England was divided into seven chief kingdoms, sometimes referred to as the “heptarchy.” The regional names have continued to this day, like Northumbria (“north of the Humber River”), Essex (“East Saxony”), Wessex (“West Saxony”), and Sussex (“South Saxony”). Each king jockeyed for power to rule over the others as bretwalda (“Britan-Ruler”). Names like Redwald of East Anglia (mentioned above) and Offa of Mercia loom large over this period (he called himself Rex Anglorum, “King of the English”). Some consider Redwald to be the occupant of the massive ship excavated at Sutton Hoo. During his lifetime, Offa led some remarkable advances in Roman-styled coinage throughout his kingdom, and across the Channel his rule coincided with Pepin the Short’s Carolingian Revolution of the Frankish kingdom (Pepin usurped the throne in AD 751, 49 years later his son Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas morning AD 800).

With the rise of the Frankish kingdom and the decline of Offa’s family, the kingdom of Wessex arose as the dominant power in Anglo-Saxon England. In AD 827 Egbert, a former exile at Charlemagne’s court during the Offa years, returned to England and claimed the throne of Wessex. He dominated many of the surrounding kingdoms, calling himself the new Rex Anglorum. He was followed by his son Aethelwulf in AD 839, a devoutly pious man and father of five sons, including Alfred the Great (Aethelwulf took young Alfred on a trip to Rome to see the Pope -a trip that would have remarkably lasting consequences). Each of Aethelwulf’s sons then ruled in turn: Aethelbald (Aethelwulf’s second son) took the throne of Wessex in AD 858. He was in some sort of conflict with his father while Aethelwulf traveled with Alfred abroad and after his father’s death, Aethelbald later married his stepmother, causing condemnation from the church. At the time, the church in Rome had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the British Isle.

All across the isle was a religious schism. The ashes of Rome had left a Christian heritage, while the Anglo-Saxons had remained largely pagan, with many leaders claiming to descend from Woden, himself. In the 5th century, a Roman Briton St. Patrick was living somewhere on the British Isles. He was captured and enslaved by a band of marauding Irish pirates. He was forced into servitude, tending animals in Ireland but he escaped after six years only to return to the Emerald Isle and spread the faith across Ireland and Scotland, with the help of his follower, St. Columba who founded the important Abbey at Iona (a small island off the coast of western Scotland). Thus, the form of Christianity that took hold among the Celts was monastic, ascetic, and characterized by vast abbeys and monasteries, as well as sacred and ornately decorated books, like the famous Book of Kells (9th century). In parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales Christianity grew entirely apart from mainland papal authority. One unique example of the unusual character of early British Christianity is the cult of St. Alban, in honor of the martyrdom of Alban at the Romano-British city of Verumalium, today known as St. Albans.

However, this unique Christian heritage was not always entirely popular with mainstream Roman Christianity. For example, a well-educated, ascetic monk living somewhere on the British Isles named Pelagius (354-418) taught a controversial doctrine that was highly antithetical to the apostolic and Augustinian tradition, namely that humans were not fallen as a result of “original sin” and instead could achieve goodness and grace through their own free will (i.e. without divine intervention). This “Pelagian Heresy” -as it came to be known- needed to be stamped out by the church (Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius at Augustine’s behest).

In an effort to spread the ‘true faith’ Pope Gregory “The Great” sent a cohort of bishops led by a man named Augustine (not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo.) Today he is known as “Augustine of Canterbury” because his cohort reluctantly landed at Kent after expressing their wish not to continue with the mission -the British isle seemed far too dangerous a place, so the group initially landed at Gaul requesting permission to abandon the mission from the Pope, but their request was denied. With no other options, they set sail across the Channel to Kent.

The Southeastern region of Kent had recently been conquered by the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and King Aethelbald’s brother was put in charge. When Augustine and his group landed, they were met by the pagan King Aethelbert (brother of Aethelbald) who had married the Christian princess Bertha of the Franks. A pagan king and a Christian queen. Bertha brought to Kent her Frankish, Christian bishop, Luidhard, and King Aethelbert gave Bertha a little church originally from the Romano-British era called St. Martin’s to worship (she named it after Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the Merovingian family). This church is now the oldest still active church in England today. It was located just outside the capital city of Kent at Canterbury. On the ruins of this ancient church, Augustine founded the British Christian tradition (he later died before completing the construction of his prized cathedral at Canterbury which was first founded in AD 597 and then entirely rebuilt between 1070-1077 by the Normans). Initially skeptical of the newcomers, Aethelbert had Augustine confined to the island of Thanet. He consulted his advisors about the ‘magical powers’ of this new preacher, but the allure of a strengthened relationship with the Franks was too promising a prospect, thus Aethelbert allowed Augustine entry and free-reign to preach the gospel in Kent. Augustine first arrived in Canterbury clad in robes, singing the litany in Latin, while also carrying a large icon of Jesus -a scene which must have seemed magical to the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine’s preaching caught hold among the populace and he baptized thousands, including King Aethelbert, himself, who eventually converted to Christianity -much to Queen Bertha’s delight. After his conversion, Aethelbert issued a new series of laws much like the Byzantine Justinian Code.

In the coming years, the authority of the church in England was established in a series of letters between Pope Gregory and St. Augustine of Canterbury. The Pope was to be the supreme authority, but England would be self-governing for all internal matters by two archbishops -one in the north in York and the other in the south in Canterbury. This dual leadership was novel but would cause future political strife -Augustine declared himself the superior authority as the first archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine died in AD 605, and Aethelbert died nearly a decade later. Both were buried at the splendid abbey at Canterbury which was later named in the honor of “St. Augustine” (not to be confused with Canterbury Cathedral where Chaucer’s famous pilgrims ventured). In the end, church and state both found their final resting place alongside one another in the cemetery at St. Augustine’s: Augustine and his followers were buried on one side of the church, and Aethelbert, Bertha, and their successors on the other.

In the north, in AD 664, the King of Northrumbria issued a proclamation regarding the church. He made the heavy decision to side with Catholic Rome, rather than the Celtic monks. However, tensions would remain in place between north and south, Celtic and Catholic for years to come.

After the death of Aethelbert, the throne of the House of Wessex passed to Aethelred, the fourth son of Aethelwulf. His reign oversaw the violent arrival of the Vikings and their takeover of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Kent, Northumbria, and Mercia. However, Wessex had the advantage over the Vikings with minimal rivers with which the Danes could use to sail inland and pillage the many English commercial ports (including an occupation of London). Through the year AD 871, Aethelred, ever the pious Christian, waged a divinely ordained war alongside his younger brother against the invaders, including an impressive victory at Ashdown, but Aethelred caught a sickness late in the year AD 871 and he died after ruling for six years. Following Aethelred’s reign came the most consequential Anglo-Saxon king who would ever take the throne: Alfred “The Great,” the fifth son of Aethelwulf. Alfred assumed the kingship of Wessex while still in his early twenties.


For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, and Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great.

An Appeal to Common Wisdom in the Final Tale: The Parson’s Tale

The “Parson’s Tale” is the final story of The Canterbury Tales.

In the “General Prologue,” the Parson is described as a ‘good man of religion.’ He is erudite, scholarly, devout, and forgiving. The Parson believes that in order to be a good priest he must be perfect, because sheep follow their shepherd, but only if he leads by example. Above all, the Parson is a man of integrity: an essential example of Christian humility and charity. Naturally, his tale is not a fictional story (despite the Host’s request), and instead it is a perfectly honest and perfectly dreary essay -certainly not a tale that will be seriously considered as the winner in the competition.

By now, the sun is quickly setting the and group has reached the edge of a town. The Host says, “fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (17) -does this mean the Host has abandoned his initial request for each pilgrim to tell two stories on the road to Canterbury and, again, two tales on the return route? The only pilgrim who has come close enough to fulfilling his oath of telling two stories en route to Canterbury is Chaucer, himself, but only because his first tale is interrupted and abandoned.

The Host asks the Parson to tell his tale quickly, but instead we are offered a lengthy theological diatribe that ends with a plea to the reader not to blame the author if offense is found in the tales. In blending his own voice with the Parson’s, Chaucer disguises his own particular preferences against the common prejudices of his era, namely the political power of the church, despite his numerous satirical jabs at clerical overreach throughout the Tales.

The form of the “Parson’s Tale” is prose, a form which the Host has already expressed distaste for (see Chaucer’s first tale). The tale, which is hardly a tale at all, discusses the topic of Penitence and its three affects, it is Chaucer’s apologia for his rowdy and occasionally ribald, but entertaining, collection of tales. As in Plato, Chaucer ends his Tales with an appeal to conventional wisdom, while also addressing a number of recurring themes throughout the tales, such as marriage (or rather the ongoing dialogue about the nature of a successful partnership). By selecting the Parson as the final storyteller, a man who clearly practices what he preaches, coupled with the fact that his tale is unpalatable, Chaucer highlights the necessity for a certain degree of authorial untruth in telling a tale. The idea of authorship and authority (both taking their linguistic roots from the Latin auctoritas) is at the heart of the final tale.

The “Parson’s Tale” is Chaucer’s justification for poetry. What is the best way to convey a message to a group of people? A fable? A poem? A chivalric romance? A philosophic essay? As previously evidenced in the Tales, the travelers find organized theological treatises less persuasive than fables, images, stories, or narratives. Thus, Chaucer sees poetry as superior to theology.

The “Parson’s Tale” ends with a brief note from the author, Chaucer, as he proudly announces his many books and translations (like Boethius) while also professing a meek spirit of contrition and penitence. The epilogue appears to have been written close to the end of Chaucer’s life, perhaps while he dwelled in Westminster Abbey. It contains the seed of great English poetry, like Shakespeare’s Prospero as his ‘revels now are ended.’ Chaucer’s goal of both delighting and informing is now complete, though the promise of two tales apiece is left unfulfilled (perhaps not unlike the failed promise of food and entertainment to entice Socrates in Plato’s Republic).

Thus concludes my chronological reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Gone With The Wind: An American Epic of Nostalgia and Survivalism

“…tomorrow is another day.”

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

In a rare interview with the Atlanta Journal in 1936, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell described her debut (and only) novel, Gone With The Wind, as follows: “…the story of a girl named Scarlett O’Hara, who lived in Atlanta during the Civil War and the days of Reconstruction. The book isn’t strictly a book about the war, nor is it a historical novel. It’s about the effect of the Civil War on a set of characters who lived in Atlanta at that time.”

In essence, this is an accurate summary, though it is quite a terse overview for the greatest bestseller of all time. Gone With The Wind is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel that offers the essential mythology of the American South before, during, and after the Civil War, from the antebellum period to Reconstruction. While the prose in Gone With The Wind is gripping, no review of the novel would be complete without discussing the inaccurate, disappointing, and dehumanizing portrayal of black people in the novel. Throughout the book African Americans are characterized as one-dimensional simpletons who are untrustworthy, ill-educated, and in need of strong guidance from white people. Many black characters are compared to animals or children, with frequent references to “darkies” or “negroes.” The racist tone is pervasive throughout the novel and it casts a dark shadow over an otherwise compelling but extraordinarily dense novel (the original first edition published by MacMillan was 1,037 pages long).

Ironically, while on the surface the novel presents a potent cocktail of nostalgia for the antebellum South, the only characters who successfully survive the Civil War are those who look forward to a better future, not the reactionaries who look backward. Self-seeking, ignoble, and unpatriotic people are shown to be the truly strong survivors while others are cast to the wayside amidst Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia destroying farms, plantations, and railroads. Sherman’s troops eventually torch and loot the city of Atlanta -a key metropolitan juncture for the Confederacy. I had never truly grasped the tactical importance of the city of Atlanta prior to reading this novel, nor did I fully understand how small of a city Atlanta was at the time. Most of the South was rural, pastoral, and agricultural with only several small pockets of towns and cities. Atlanta was an important city primarily because of its railroad intersection connecting Georgia to the ports of Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, and therefore it was a hub of communication and trade, as well as a gathering place to care for wounded soldiers.

At any rate, the central theme of the Gone With The Wind is: survivalism. Which characters have the necessary gumption and leadership in times of extreme turmoil? Who survives the aftermath of the Civil War? And why?

Our central protagonist is Scarlett O’Hara, a frustratingly flighty, selfish, and spoiled Southern belle. She lives on her family’s vast North Georgia cotton plantation, and she comes of age right on the cusp of the Civil War, however she cares little for the war. Her days are spent mostly fretting over dresses and parties and toying with young men who might become potential suitors, like the Tarleton twins. Mitchell provides a brief but telling summary of the antebellum South when describing Scarlett’s Irishman father, Gerald O’Hara:

“He liked the South, and he soon became, in his own opinion, a Southerner. There was much about the South – and Southerners – that he would never comprehend; but, with the whole-heartedness that was his nature, he adopted its ideas and customs, as he understood them, for his own – poker and horse racing, red-hot politics and the code duello, States’ Rights and damnation to all Yankees, slavery and King Cotton, contempt for white trash and exaggerated courtesy to women. He even learned to chew tobacco. There was no need for him to acquire a good head for whiskey, he had been born with one” (62).

The Civil War is merely the setting of Gone With The Wind, but the central tension lies in Scarlett’s hidden love for her neighbor -a graceful, blonde, country gentleman named Ashley Wilkes who is betrothed to his shy but innocent, lady-like cousin, Melanie. On the other hand Scarlett is pursued by a curt and arrogant scallawag named Rhett Butler. While neither Ashley nor Rhett are particularly supportive of the war, Ashley is overwhelmed by a sense of duty to his home state when Georgia secedes, but Rhett is unimpressed by the foolhardy men of the South. In turn he is reviled by his compatriots for blockade-running and managing a seedy prostitution business. Rhett maintains neutral business activities both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line throughout the war –he notes the impossibility of victory for the South due to an extensive network of Yankee resources, technology, manufacturing, and manpower, while he characterizes the Confederacy’s call to war as Quixotic and naïve.

As the novel progresses, the war explodes amidst much enthusiasm. Scarlett hurriedly marries a young suitor named Charles Hamilton in a foolish attempt to make Ashley jealous, but her young husband Charles soon dies of a disease while en route to the warfront, leaving Scarlett pregnant and alone with a child. And despite her obligatory public displays of mourning, she moves to Atlanta and quickly begins attending parties and engaging in playful banter with the unscrupulous Rhett Butler while he is in town. She stays at her Aunt’s home along with her sister-in-law Melanie (now pregnant with Ashley’s child) and she tends to the wounded soldiers who increasingly fill the streets of Atlanta while a steady stream of Confederate forces continue to fall back. Just as Melanie goes into labor, the Union army begins their assault on the city of Atlanta. In desperation, Scarlett finds Rhett Butler who helps them escape the tumult just as Atlanta is torched to the ground. The loss of Atlanta essentially spells the end of the Confederacy -a shock to many prideful Southerners.

In the second half of the novel Scarlett quickly grows up. She returns to her family’s plantation, Tara, and becomes a survivalist -caring and providing for a postpartum Melanie, as well as her ill and depressed father (saddened by the loss of his wife), and other members of the house –including a handful of former slaves who have chosen to remain at Tara. They raise livestock, pick cotton, and grow vegetables to survive. Ever-present is the threat of Union soldiers or General Sherman’s troops storming their land, taking their possessions or else much worse. At one point, Scarlett displays her own gumption by killing a stray Union soldier who enters the house, presumably to rob and rape the women. Scarlett becomes the de facto leader of her household. However, as Reconstruction begins, the Radical Republicans take control of everything in Georgia and they begin brutally punishing former Confederate sympathizers. For those they cannot imprison they disenfranchise and raise exorbitant taxes on the old properties. With little money to spare, Scarlett travels to Atlanta to beg Rhett Butler for money only to find that he has been imprisoned. She offers herself as a mistress in exchange for money but an amused Rhett claims he has no access to his money. Meanwhile, Ashley stumbles his way to Tara after surviving a Union prison camp. With more mouths to feed, Scarlett grows desperate. By happenstance, she runs into an old acquaintance, Frank Kennedy, a gentleman from the antebellum days. Although he is betrothed to Scarlett’s neighbor, she quickly concocts a lie and marries Frank for his money, earning her the ire of her neighbors.

In order to secure herself a lasting income, Scarlett uses her husband’s money to build a lumber mill which quickly grows into a successful business despite Republican efforts to thwart Southern enterprise. The entire order of Georgia is cast aside as crime and lawlessness rules the day. However, Scarlett grows arrogant with her business and one night she rides through a notorious shantytown filled with vagrants. Two men attempt to rob her, leading a “vigilante” group to seek vengeance –the infamous Ku Klux Klan. In the chaos, Scarlett’s husband, Frank Kennedy, is killed but Rhett Butler saves Ashley Wilkes from imprisonment by providing an alibi: the men were drinking all night at a local brothel (which, as it turns out, is owned by Rhett Butler). The story checks out and Ashley is allowed to recover from his wounds.

Almost immediately after Frank’s death, Rhett Butler proposes marriage to Scarlett and in a heated passion she agrees. They honeymoon in New Orleans while spending Rhett’s vast sums of money before returning to Atlanta -to Peachtree Street- to build a house near where Scarlett stayed during the Union Army’s assault on Atlanta years earlier. Scarlett gives birth to a baby girl, much to her chagrin, and Rhett nicknames her “bonnie” because of her blue eyes -an allusion to the “bonnie blue flag,” an early flag of the Confederacy. Rhett dotes upon bonnie day and night, and he proudly takes her on carriage rides around town. One day, Scarlett visits her lumber mill where Ashley is now employed and they reminisce about the old days before the war, but while caught up in nostalgia they are spotted and the scene is mistaken for impropriety. It causes a great scandal amidst the Atlanta gentry, and Rhett Butler grows furious. He drags Scarlett to a party in order to embarrass her, and in the evening (Mitchell suggests) Rhett assaults his wife. As an aside, Gone With The Wind is filled with all manner of shameful acts that shocked early 20th century readers and continue to remain scandalous to this day. Scarlett becomes pregnant with another child, but in a fight with Rhett she lunges at him and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs, breaking her ribs and causing a miscarriage.

She flees home to Tara to recuperate with her children:

“They left the village behind and turned into the red road to Tara. A faint pink still lingered about the edges of the sky and fat feathery clouds were tinged with gold and palest green. The stillness of the country twilight came down about them as calming as a prayer. How had she ever borne it, she thought, away for all these months, away from the fresh smell of country air, the plowed earth and the sweetness of summer nights? The moist red earth smelled so good, so familiar, so friendly, she wanted to get out and scoop up a handful. The honeysuckle which draped the gullied red sides of the road in tangled greenery was piercingly fragrant as always after the rain, the sweetest perfume. Above their heads a flock of chimney swallows whirled suddenly on swift wings and now and then a rabbit scurried startled on the road, his white tail bobbing like an eiderdown powder puff. She saw with pleasure that the cotton stood well, as they passed between plowed fields were the green bushes reared themselves sturdily out of the red earth. How beautiful all this was! The soft gray mist in the swampy bottoms, the red earth and growing cotton, the sloping fields with curving green rows and the black pines rising behind everything like sable walls. How had she ever stayed in Atlanta so long?” (645-646)

However, tragedy soon strikes again. Bonnie falls in a horse-jumping accident, much like her grandfather, and the fall tragically snaps her neck. Her death cases Rhett to fall into a deep, alcoholic depression just as Melanie Wilkes becomes pregnant again, causing her already frail body to grow deathly sick. Scarlett goes to speak with her just before her death. Scarlett also speaks with Ashley and she finally realizes that she does not love him anymore. Maybe she only ever loved the idea of Ashley. In truth, Ashley is an effeminate relic of the old Southern aristocracy -incapable of caring for himself or his own business interests. Rhett Butler describes Ashley as follows:

“…Ashley Wilkes-bah! His breed is of no use or value in an upside-down world like ours. Whenever the world is up-ends, his kind is the first to perish. And why not? They don’t deserve to survive because they won’t fight – don’t know how to fight. This isn’t the first time the world’s been upside-down and it won’t be the last. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And when it does happen everyone loses everything and everyone is equal.” (Rhett Butler defaming Ashley Wilkes to Scarlett pg 719)

Scarlett runs to Rhett Butler in love and hope, but her dreams are dashed as he apparently has already moved on, uttering the book’s most famous line:

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” 

The novel ends with Scarlett finally overcoming her girlish infatuation with Ashley Wilkes, but filled with the hope of winning back the love of Rhett Butler …for “tomorrow is another day.”

The title of the novel is derived from the third stanza of an 1894 poem by English writer, Ernest Dowson. It refers to a deep loss of love that will never be regained, while ‘gone with the wind’ in the novel refers to the old antebellum Southern aristocracy, an agrarian economy of gentlemen farmers, as well as a caste system predicated on human enslavement. In summary, the wind that sweeps through Georgia decimates an entire way of life, for better or worse, and the soft romantic aristocrats of yesteryear are left behind while the hardened survivalists are the ones who endure.


The 1937 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The selection of Gone With The Wind as a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1937 was controversial. There was a growing chorus of accusations decrying racism in the novel, but the Pulitzer decision was also criticized for apparently caving to vulgar popular opinion (Gone With The Wind was a smash-hit bestseller). The Pulitzer Prize has often been forced to balance its decisions between commercial popularity and lasting literary quality.

The 1937 Novel Jury was composed of the same three people for the eighth and final year in a row: Jefferson Fletcher (Chair of Columbia University), Robert Lovett (a literary scholar), and Albert Paine (an American biographer known for his work on Mark Twain -he died later that same year in 1937). This trio would be the longest serving consecutive group to populate the Novel Jury. Apparently, in 1937 they provided a list to the Pulitzer Advisory Board of the top 6 novels recommended for the award. The two at the top of the list were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and George Santayana’s The Last Puritan. The Pulitzer Advisory Board simply unilaterally selected Gone With The Wind.

Today (as recently as 2014) Americans continue to rank Gone With The Wind among their favorite books, second only to The Bible. Nevertheless, controversies continue to plague the novel. Gone With The Wind has frequently found its way onto lists of banned books (remarkably the Nazis banned the book in Germany in the 1930s), and even as recently as 2020 an online video streaming service removed the 1939 classic film adaptation from their selection our of a fear of featuring racist content on their service (Gone With The Wind was later re-added with a detailed introduction discussing its racist content). As with many of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels on my list, reading Gone With The Wind has been strangely timely amidst continuing demands for a national conversation on race in America following the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing protests and riots.


Who Is Margaret Mitchell?
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was raised among the traditions and mythology of the old South. She grew up hearing the stories of the time before the war, as well as the difficult days of Reconstruction. Her father, Eugene Mitchell, was an attorney and a remarkable historian of the Civil War, particularly with regard to Georgia. In one of her few interviews, Margaret Mitchell recalls how her father could recite every single battle of the Atlanta campaign, the names of the commanding officers, and if they were shot and where. Her mother and brother were also amateur Civil War historians.

Margaret-Mitchell-1938

Mitchell attended Smith College for one year, but when her mother died she returned home and never finished college. In 1922, at the age of twenty-two she began working as a writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine (she was one of the first female reporters in the state of Georgia). A few years later she married John R. Marsh and left her job due to recurring injuries, including an ankle injury. Bored and restless, she began writing her epic, Gone With The Wind. Her writing style was haphazard –she typed some pages here and there while scribbling down others on handwritten notes, and various editions and pages were hidden around her house. Only a few friends close to Mitchell actually knew about the book. For nine years Mitchell continued writing and re-writing the manuscript.

One day a publishing agent for the MacMillan Company (from New York) was touring through the South hunting for new literary talent. A friend referred Mitchell, and the rest is history. After a few months of editing, Gone With The Wind went on sale on June 30, 1936 and became a national phenomenon –it was a surprising turn of events for everyone involved. The novel won the Pulitzer in 1937 amidst both celebration and controversy. When she received her congratulatory phone call for the Pulitzer, Mitchell simply continued about her evening routine: attending service at a black church. The press hunted for her all over Atlanta but they never did find her.

She was often asked if she would write another book, but Mitchell always responded that she was far too busy being the full-time author of Gone With The Wind. She was paid $50,000 for the rights to the film by David O. Selznick -a massive sum in those days- and the incredible technicolor film later won Best Picture in 1939 (read my review of the film here). Margaret Mitchell attended the premiere for the film at the Loew’s Theatre in Atlanta, alongside the mayor of Atlanta, Producer David Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and a cohort of surviving Confederate Civil War veterans. The whole city was filled with cheering crowds and parties honoring the Old South.

Despite persistent accusations of racism (in both the film and the novel) in the 1990s, it was revealed that Margaret Mitchell had anonymously funded the education of many Black/African-American medical students to attend Morehouse College throughout her lifetime. She risked her life to do so. In addition, she was outspoken about the plight of women in America – she was a flapper girl and a debutante in her 20s, as well as a tomboy. As with most writers, a greater degree of complexity lurks just beneath the surface of their works and this axiom holds true for the enigmatic and reclusive Margaret Mitchell .

In 1949, while en route to see a movie on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, a street that ironically plays an important role in Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell was struck and killed by an off duty cab driver. She was only 48 years old. Gone With The Wind was the only novel she published in her lifetime. Years later, another short romantic novella surfaced that she wrote in her teenage years and it was eventually posthumously published and entitled Lost Laysen.


Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With The Wind. Scribner, 1996.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.