The Dangers of Populism in All The King’s Men

“Mason city. To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new” (opening lines)

In an age where populist demagoguery has once again captured the hearts of the American voter, it has been illuminating for me to sit down and read the classic novel All The King’s Men, which is loosely based on the career of Huey Long, the notorious governor of Louisiana in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the story of Huey Long bears striking resemblance to our own political epoch.

About Huey Long
Huey “Kingfish” Long came from Northern Louisiana, a rural section of the state where populist resentments were strong against the more prosperous southern cities of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette. Long was a former traveling salesman, a failed businessman, and a higher education drop-out. He attended a few different colleges before being admitted to the state bar in Louisiana. As a lawyer he began litigating a series of lawsuits against big monied interests and even won a notorious Supreme Court case against the Standard Oil Company which spurred him into politics. He won a landslide victory as Governor of Louisiana in 1928 under the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown” -a phrase he borrowed from an earlier 19th century American populist, William Jennings Bryan. Long took his “kingfish” moniker from the Amos & Andy radio program.

At the time Louisiana’s infrastructure, education, literacy, poverty, and healthcare were all atrocious. Yet it was also the height of the economic expansion before the bubble was set to burst in 1929. Few people in Louisiana had felt the effects of the financial growth. At the time Louisiana was dominated by the Democratic “Old Regulars” who largely held sham elections. They echoed the familiar old “Lost Cause” narrative of the Confederacy and mainly pursued policies that favored the planter class. When Huey Long entered the scene he was a different kind of Democrat. He modeled himself on being a righteous ‘defender of the common man.’ Politically, he promoted an ambitious progressive redistribution agenda (he criticized FDR’s New Deal because it did not do enough to support the common man) and yet he also autocratically threatened assassinations and in some cases physically or verbally assaulted his political opponents. Nothing was too low brow for Huey Long. He held raucous rallies throughout the state and dealt with hecklers violently. He wore white linen suits and often relied on insult-lobbing in order to bulldoze the opposition. The mud-slinging was ceaseless. He lambasted the media which rightly criticized him for staging mass firings and promoting blatant nepotism. In response, Long created his own newspaper which was more favorable to his public image. He took a publicly neutral stance on the Ku Klux Klan, which had risen to prominence in Louisiana at the time, yet he also avoided the standard race-baiting tactics of other Southern politicians. His focus was squarely on economic concerns for the downtrodden people of Louisiana.

In his best moments, Long is fondly remembered for his massive public works projects such as the construction of Louisiana’s first highway system and the provision of free textbooks for students. In truth, his policies did a lot of good things for Louisiana’s poor and dispossessed. However, at his worst Long was a political boss whose tactics were outrageous and Machiavellian. He was impeached in the Louisiana state house for disregard of decorum and perceived dictatorial ambitions. Predictably, he decried the impeachment effort as a hoax sponsored by elites and corporations. Politically, he supported a wealth tax, a “Share Our Wealth” initiative, and he was an advocate of massive federal spending and stimulus. He issued mass firings, often erratically threatening people who disagreed with him, and he publicly argued with his own state Attorney General. He hired state convicts to raze the governor’s mansion and build a new one fashioned in the image of the White House (he hoped it would prepare him for his own future presidential ambitions). As with most populists, Huey Long was first and foremost concerned with his own pride. His impeachment, which was in part connected to his efforts to raise taxes on Standard Oil, led to a massive unruly brawl in the state house. He privately admitted fear of being convicted in the state senate but was saved thanks to a group of political allies who publicly pledged to vote “not guilty” regardless of evidence against him. Following the impeachment trial, Long aggressively campaigned against his enemies, and he continued his public rallies where he prided himself almost exclusively on the applause of the mob. His term as Governor ended when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, however he still refused to relinquish his gubernatorial powers to the Lieutenant Governor. It caused a very public stand-off and, amazingly Huey Long’s tenure ended with a minor insurrection. Does any of this sound familiar? Long’s legacy remains controversial to this day. Opinions on Huey Long vary, some ranking him among either the best or the worst governors in American history.

At the end of his term as governor Huey Long was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, he continued his highly controversial tactics, and his firebrand style of populism was even perceived as a threat to FDR. Huey Long’s career ended when he was assassinated in 1935 at the Louisiana state capital where he was attempting to gerrymander a district against a political opponent. The son-in-law of his opponent approached Huey Long and shot him point-blank in the torso. The blast killed him.

All The King’s Men
In All The King’s Men, Willie Stark is the embodiment of Huey Long. He is a bombastic reformer whose values are challenged when he begins employing morally ambiguous tactics in order to enact long-promised reforms. The fascinating contradiction is that Willie must use illicit means to gain power in the hopes of securing beneficence. Does he ultimately achieve a greater good? The novel remains somewhat elusive and it mainly examines Willie Stark’s career through a glass darkly. Lord Acton’s famous maxim comes to mind in this novel, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Throughout the novel, Willie and his minions are ruled by their own ambitions, while clinging to power in a godless world where justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.

Robert Penn Warren was always troubled by the comparisons between Huey Long and Willie Stark, but the comparison is nevertheless fitting despite there being a few minor differences. Whereas Huey Long’s political career was launched by a devastating flood, Willie Stark (a.k.a. “the boss”) is vaulted into a politics by an accident at a children’s school. Both men share a spectacular start to their respective political careers, only to find an equally devastating downfall.

The novel is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former political reporter who becomes Willie Stark’s morally conflicted right-hand man. As a good newspaperman, Jack reflects on his time with Willie Stark and he wonders –was there some underlying principle that made it all happen? Near the outset of the novel, Jack recalls Willie’s ability to speak to a crowd: “You saw the eyes bulge suddenly, as though something had happened inside him, and there was that glitter. You knew something had happened inside him, and thought, it’s coming.” In the early parts of the novel we find “the boss” stumping through a small town, connecting with ordinary people, posing for carefully constructed photo ops. We also see him berate people, harass the news media, and threaten a judge (Judge Irwin). But this is not just any judge. This particular judge supports an impeachment effort against Willie and the situation puts Jack in a compromising position –mainly because Judge Irwin is one of Jack’s childhood family friends.

Jack hails from an upper class bubble known as Burden’s Landing, a place that seems to be immune from the problems facing the state. Throughout the novel Jack offers lengthy reflections on life and family, as well as his failed attempt at a doctorate and marriage, both of which he suddenly abandons. He works for “the boss” neither for love nor money, so why does he remain? In a way, Willie Stark gives meaning to Jack’s lawless, licentious, and amoral life. When the boss asks him to dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins describing himself as a ‘historical researcher’ who hunts down anything on the good judge because “there is always something…” After considerable sleuthing, Jack discovers that early in Judge Irwin’s career, he bribed his way into a job at the electric company that pushed out an older man out who then killed himself in order to offer an insurance windfall to his sister. Jack traces this information to a letter kept by the deceased man’s sister.

Sometimes stories are started and then continued later in the novel. Examples include Jack’s childhood memories, attending graduate school (only to drop-out), his romance with a girl named Anne Stanton (which falls apart), his friendship with Anne’s brother Adam Stanton, and their father the former Governor (predecessor to Willie Stark), Jack’s attendance at law school, and his ‘perfectly adjusted’ marriage to Lois which Jack also abandons –“Good-bye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.” The background of Jack Burden unfolds in a non-linear, dream-like fashion. One of the best reflections in the novel is when Jack offers details of his ancestors’s and their role in 19th century American slavery as well as the Confederacy during the Civil War. This chapter is mostly focused on Jack’s great-uncle, Cass Mastern. In many ways, Jack Burden is still living in the great waning shadow of his ancestor, Cass Mastern.

In the end, Jack returns to the home of Judge Irwin to reveal the dirt he has discovered, but even the noble judge had forgotten his own mistakes -at least at first. Both Jack and the Judge share certain things in common. They have both lived according to their own set of morals in order to secure promising lives for themselves, however there is a certain quality of virtue in Judge Irwin that we see lacking in Jack. After Jack leaves Judge Irwin’s house, the judge shoots himself through the heart. He prefers an honorable death to the life of shame and disgrace. Shortly thereafter, Jack discovers from his mother that Judge Irwin was, in fact, his true father. Thus in an indirect way, Jack has killed his own father.

Not long after the judge’s suicide, Willie Stark is also assassinated at the State Capitol rotunda by none other than Jack’s childhood friend, Adam Stanton, who has discovered an affair between Willie Stark and his sister, Anne Stanton. All The King’s Men becomes an exploration into the nature of evil and corruption in politics –when all are guilty, none are above reproach. Thus there are remarkable dangers inherent in populist leaders. And behind every noble king is a knave (or a “hatchet man”) like Jack Burden.

Interestingly enough, I enjoyed the 1949 film version of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel more than the book itself (click here to read my review of the 1949 film). The story of the downfall of Willie Stark is dark and compelling –impressive in scope– but stylistically the novel descends from a particular Faulknerian modernist strain that can be a challenge to track for the less sophisticated reader (like myself). It contains long wandering diatribes that have a tendency to burden the reader with too much abstraction. I wanted to enjoy reading All The King’s Men far more than I actually did while reading it.


Here are some memorable quotations from the novel that should hopefully offer a glimpse of Robert Penn Warren’s verbose style:

“It [the boss’s house] looked like those farmhouses you ride by in the country in the middle of the afternoon, with the chickens under the trees and the dog asleep, and you know the only person in the house is the woman who has finished washing up the dishes and has swept the kitchen and has gone upstairs to lie down for half an hour and has pulled off her dress and kicked off her shoes and is lying there on her back on the bed in the shadowy room with her eyes closed and a strand of her hair still matted down on her forehead with the perspiration. She listens to the flies cruising around the room, then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance and she listens to the flies. That was the kind of house it was” (33).

“…maybe you cannot ever really walk away from the things you want most to walk away from” (66).

“…it is possible that fellows like Willie Stark are born outside of luck, good or bad, and luck, which is what about makes you and me what we are, doesn’t have anything to do with them, for they are what they are from the time they first kick in the womb until the end. And if that is the case, then their life history is a process of discovering what they really are, and not, as for you and me, sons of luck, a process of becoming what luck makes us” (94).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying” Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go when you grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. It was just where I went” (405-406).

“…there is innocence and a new start in the West, after all” (468).

“So by the summer of this year, 1939, we shall have left Burden’s Landing.
We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time”
(661 -closing lines).


The novel’s title is taken from “Humpty-Dumpty,” an old English nursery rhyme that can be traced to the reign of Richard III or Cardinal Wolsey in 16th century England. At any rate, the title is linked to the theme of political rise and subsequent corruption followed by a spectacular fall from grace.

The novel originated in 1936 as a play by Robert Penn Warren called Proud Flesh. In the play, the character of Willie Stark is replaced by Willie Talos (whose name is based on the brutal character of Talus in Edmund Spenser’s 1590 play, The Faerie Queene). Penn Warren called his Talos character “the pitiless servant of the knight of justice” and “the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” Ten years after the 1936 play was published, Penn Warren published All The President’s Men, his signature novel. Nearly a half century later, Noel Polk, a Southern academic, took it upon himself to create a “restored” edition of the novel in which Willie Stark is replaced with Willie Talos. The new edition caused quite a stir among literary critics. Apparently it contained significant departures in style from the original. Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates offered the following critique of the revised version:

“…the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.

That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”


The 1947 Pulitzer Prize
1947 was the last year the Pulitzer Prize category was awarded for the best “Novel.” From 1948 onward the title was changed from “Novel” to “Fiction.”

The 1947 Novel Jury was composed of three returning jurists from the previous year. The Jurists were: John Chamberlain, a memorable book reviewer who worked for a variety of publications throughout his career including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Life, Fortune, Scribner’s, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, and others. He taught Journalism at Columbia University. The other two Novel Jurists were: Maxwell S. Geismar, a Columbia alumnus and teacher at Harvard who became a famous literary critic for a variety of publications including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, The American Scholar, The Saturday Review of Books, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Encyclopedia Britannica and Compton’s Encyclopedia (he also penned a notoriously belligerent critique of Henry James). The third member of the 1947 Novel Jury was Orville Prescott, an esteemed book reviewer for The New York Times for 24 years whose tastes generally leaned toward more conservative novels (i.e. against the grain of Valdimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar). He was a highly regarded book reviewer who became a historian of the Italian Renaissance in his later life.


About Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren (1904-1989) was a fascinating Southern man of letters. He is the only writer to win a Pulitzer in the categories of both Fiction and Poetry (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice). He also won a variety of honors in his lifetime including the Bollingen Prize (a biannual poetry award issued by the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University), the Robert Frost Medal (a poetry award issued by the Poetry Society of America), Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate), the National Book Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a MacArthur Fellow, the National Medal of Arts, the three aforementioned Pulitzer Prizes, and he delivered the distinguished Jefferson Lecture in 1974 at the invitation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Robert Penn Warren was born along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. He attended Vanderbilt University and UC Berkeley. He also studied at Yale where he became a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford and receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. In his early writing career, Penn Warren was associated with the “Southern Agrarians,” a group of writers who extolled the virtues of the agrarian south but he later distanced himself from any defense of racial segregation. He openly defended the Civil Rights Movement. Penn Warren is also often associated with the “New Criticism” movement, a philosophy that encouraged careful close readings of classic texts (the movement was sadly cast into the ash heap with the advent of modern critical theory).

He taught for years at Vanderbilt University and Louisiana State University. Today his home has been converted into a museum known as the Robert Penn Warren House in Prairieville, Louisiana. He was married twice and had two children. In his later years he fled the South and lived in Vermont and Connecticut. He died of prostate cancer in 1989.


Penn Warren, Robert. All The President’s Men. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, New York, 1946 (reprinted in 1974).

Information on Huey Long was provided by several sources, including Ken Burns’s 1986 documentary entitled “Huey Long,” narrated by David McCullough and featuring interviews with a variety of people including Robert Penn Warren.

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

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).

Introduction to Macbeth

In all likelihood The Tragedie of Macbeth was first performed in 1606 at the court of King James I. Its first public performance likely occurred at the Globe Theatre in 1611 (a review of this performance was given by the sometimes misleading astrologer, Simon Forman). Macbeth was first published in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, seven years after the death of Shakespeare. In the First Folio, Macbeth follows Julius Caesar and precedes Hamlet. At the time, Shakespeare’s play company was changed from “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” into “The King’s Men” in 1603 when James acceded the throne.

Considerable scholarly work has been devoted to ‘discovering’ interpolations and revisions from the original hand of Shakespeare in Macbeth, and while it seems there have been some changes made to the play (such as Thomas Middleton’s supposed addition of Hecate), I find these arguments mostly unhelpful and uninteresting. In the same way that certain philosophical dialogues from antiquity have come down to us as Platonic despite dubious authorship, we should also consider the full breadth of literature that has come down to us as Shakespearean. A similar case should be made with respect to Homer. Too much skepticism about the Bard detracts and distracts from engaging fruitfully with his plays.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s chief source material for Macbeth comes from Raphael Holinshed’s popular Chronicles of Scotland, England, and Ireland (first published in 1577). The Chronicles was also a source for King Lear and Cymbeline, however, it was merely a source of inspiration for Macbeth, not a direct reflection on which the play is based. The Chronicles offered a dark tone and atmosphere filled with Celtic legends of superstition, betrayal, and violence that was wonderfully captured in Macbeth. We can also see glimpses of archaic views on witchcraft (i.e. the ‘weird sisters’) as found in King James’s Daemonologie and perhaps taken in part from the mythical sibyl from classical antiquity (the scene of the weird sisters may have been a latter addition). The occult plays an important role both within the story of Macbeth, as well as offstage. The play has come to be known as “the Scottish play” for fear of uttering “Macbeth” and thus bringing a curse upon the production. Rumors abound as to mysteries occurring during early productions of Macbeth.

In the Shakespearean universe, Macbeth shares a certain kinship with Richard III as both plays explore the idea of regicide, however Richard III comes to light as an unrepentant claimant to the throne, while Macbeth is plagued by Aeschylean furies over his decision to dethrone a king. While we feel a considerable distance from the cold-hearted King Richard III and his machinations, in Macbeth Shakespeare brings us deep into the mind of the murderer -so much so that we share a certain Aristotelian pity for Macbeth’s struggle. Macbeth also shares kinship with Antony and Cleopatra -in which Antony envisions a new world against the rule of his enemy, Octavius, not unlike Macbeth. The idea of witchcraft also appears in Henry VI part II. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, in contrast to Hamlet -one of Shakespeare’s longest plays.

Outside the Shakespearean cosmos, classical allusions abound in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth shares a great deal in common with Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra, as well as certain similarities with Seneca’s Medea, and also Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.


The Context
Macbeth was first performed perhaps around the year 1606 before the court of King James I, three years after his coronation (James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen who led a rebellion against her cousin Queen Elizabeth that failed and Mary was beheaded). James’s kingship represented a turning point for England -a Scottish King at the end of the Elizabethan epoch. Macbeth is a play for a post-Elizabethan England, with a Scottish king that is not divinely authorized but rather received his approval from Parliament. One of the central questions is guilt and punishment of Macbeth -was he justified in killing the king? Shakespeare apparently fused several stories from the Chronicles to form the narrative, particularly Macbeth and the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald and his wife -a conspiracy in which Banquo was an accomplice. This allusion is particularly striking because King James I considered himself a descendent of the true Banquo, though in Macbeth Banquo is far less of a villain.

The other chief historical event that was contemporaneous with Macbeth was the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a conspiracy of Catholics sought to blow up Parliament and overthrow the Protestant King James I. The idea of usurpation, mutiny, conspiracy, and high treason were fresh on the minds of many Englishmen at the time. Indeed Shakespeare, himself, may have been concerned about his own position with the nascent king. His father (John Shakespeare, a Catholic) was friends with William Catesby, father of Robert Catesby -the head conspirator in the Gunpowder plot. In a word, Shakespeare’s family was covertly Catholic in a time when Catholicism was repressed in Protestant England. Additionally, some have suggested that Shakespeare frequented “The Mermaid” tavern in London -a watering hole that was the preferred meeting place for the Gundpowder Plot conspirators.

Shakespeare’s decision to stage a Scottish play at the court of a Scottish king about treason against the Scottish crown entitled Macbeth (or “son of Beth” or Elizabeth) was a choice to highlight parallels between the two Scottish kings -especially in light of the fact that James had betrayed his Catholic mother’s rebellion and instead followed in the footsteps of the ‘tyrannical’ rulership of the late Queen Elizabeth. However, in another light Macbeth is a plea for England to unite under the new king -a reimagining of Duncan as a noble and heroic king (in reality he was a feeble king) and a somewhat empathetic portrayal of Macbeth as well as Banquo, especially considering James’s claim to inheritance from the line of Banquo. Personally, Shakespeare is elusive and I have not yet found a partisan angle one way or the other.

Perception in Aristotle’s On The Soul

Aristotle’s On The Soul (or “De Anima” as the Latins transcribed it) addresses the question of what it means to be alive. It explores the self-organization of all natural and living things, from the perspective and perception of an observer. The text is a qualified addendum to the Physics, and its corollary is a short treatise called On Memory and Recollection, part of the eight short works known as Parva Naturalia, brief writings pertaining to nature.

At first glance to the unsophisticated mind, we may look around the world and recognize a part of ourselves in nature. Living things are born, grow, reproduce, and die. How is it that our perception and our senses allow us to understand these things, by nature, things like the difference between a human being and a dog? Even if we see a human being with no arms, legs, or hair, we still have the capacity to understand that the creature we are beholding is still a human being, and not a separate species. This is the central question of eidos, which Socrates is always questioning in the Platonic dialogues. Observing nature, and the nature of living things, reminds us that we have souls. Or, perhaps, that we are souls. But the ontological questions are best addressed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

The word Aristotle uses for soul is “psuche” or “psyche.” Much can be said about this word, but in essence it refers to a creature observing nature with intellect, and observing its changes and sameness while also being-at-work and staying-itself and, at the same time, still being open to potentia, or to becoming (see the anecdote in the preceding paragraph regarding observing nature). Nature, to Aristotle, is living, organic, and it is also ordered. It has a certain logos to it. In essence, Aristotle seeks to examine the potency that perceives the world (i.e. the perceiver perceiving his own perception and its consequences).

In contrast to Descartes, Aristotle suggests (in Book I) that it would be unwise to merely trust things that are immediately “clear and distinct” to our senses, because the senses are deceptive. Instead, we should proceed from what is familiar. The moderns, following from Descartes, are doubters that knowledge can ever be attained because proceeding from common opinions is suspect to the modern mind. Most notably in his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes sits alone in a room and he fabricates an imagined world for himself, that is perfectly knowable, and that somehow corresponds to the world we live in, as well. This is attained through instruments and mathematical precision, not through the facticity of human awareness. Thus, geometry comes to prominence in Descartes’s writings. Nevertheless, the central epistemological problem persists in Descartes –what is the thinking and perceiving thing that is Descartes? He seems to suggest his own perceiving mind and God are the only two things he can be sure of. The human element of perception is minimized with the moderns via a forceful negation or naysaying of all things susceptible to doubt. They seek to find the superior, more democratically approved theory, in order to posit a world picture (excluding souls), not to explore the world as a soul perceiving other souls and natural phenomena.

In contrast, Aristotle suggests that self-discovery comes not from solitary self-examination of the senses, but rather from experience and observations of living things. At least Aristotle acknowledges the possibility of human experience. While Platonic dialogues frequently (and exoterically) ask the question ti esti or “what is it” in attaching universal names to particular things, but Aristotle is interested in how the world sorts itself out. Living things are being, and insofar as they are living, they are beings at work. And Aristotle is also concerned with what keeps these beings in order amidst nature at all. Thus, he looks for beings who are actively-at-work-staying-themselves.

Plato, in his Timaeus, offers a pleasurable myth that seriously addresses deep questions in a playful manner, rather than a rational examination of the cosmos. Elsewhere in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells Phaedrus that he much prefers myth-making and story-telling to sober and rational criticisms, because self-knowledge is better attained through myth-making.

In Aristotle’s On The Soul, he proceeds from commonly held assumptions, upward toward a glimpse at truth, or at least a deeper understanding of the nature of things. He begins with the commonly held belief that knowledge is “something beautiful and honored” (Book I, 402a), and begins with an inquiry into the soul, since the soul “is in some way the governing source of all things.” He runs through various impasses when defining the thinghood of the soul -Democritus, Pythagoras, and even Plato in his Timaeus. All these thinkers define soul by three things: motion, sense perception, and bodiliness (405b 12).

In Book II, we get Aristotle’s definition of the soul (summarized here by Joe Sachs): “The body (soma) is material for the soul (psyche or psuche) which is its invisible look (eidos) because the body has being as a potency for the being-at-work-staying-itself. The body’s thinghood that keeps it being a body at all by means of speech, is its soul. The soul constantly maintains the body as a kind of living thing that remains in its self-same category, and the soul is nutritive, as it transforms material from the natural world into perceptible and necessary ingredients to sustain the soul.” Book II, explores the varying powers of the soul, such as the nutritive, reproductive, perceptive potential and so on. The final section of On The Soul is Book III which explores several of the most important ways the soul thinks. Only now, do we see Aristotle using “clarity” and “distinctness” to explore what comes to light with greater certainty.

The past two thousand years have brought considerable criticisms of Aristotle’s notion of “soul,” though most have originated in the last two hundred years in the modern era. Typical criticisms have attempted to push Aristotle’s definition into one of two camps: pure materialism, or else Aristotle is some manner of neo-Christian “ghost in the machine” dualist (i.e. a soul-body distinction is made, which, of course, is never explicated in Aristotle’s On The Soul. He does provide one artless metaphor wherein the soul is like the captain of a ship, but this should not be taken too heavily).


For these readings I used the magnificent Joe Sachs translation of Aristotles On The Soul.