Introduction to Hamlet

The century was coming to an end. The rapidly approaching 1600s marked the end of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and consequently the twilight of the Tudors. William Shakespeare, an unknown man without a formal education from the rural town of Stratford, had exploded onto the London theatrical scene, quickly becoming a star actor and playwright virtuoso. Back in his hometown of Stratford, his ailing father, John Shakespeare, who once was a prominent landowner and magistrate, had squandered the family’s status and riches over a scandal that surely dimmed William’s hopes of ever becoming a proper gentleman. After his fall from grace, John Shakespeare remained under lock and key at home, rarely leaving even to attend church and drinking himself to the grave. He died in September 1601. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare left his wife, Anne, and fled to London where he quickly rose alongside the growing popularity of the English theatre. Anne was left alone to raise the three Shakespeare children in Stratford (including an elder daughter, Susanna, and fraternal twins: Hamnet and Judith). There has been much speculation about Shakespeare’s relationship with his family, why did he abandon his family? His last will and testament seems to indicate a distant and perhaps unpleasant relationship with his wife that likely lasted for much of his life.

The writing of Hamlet coincided roughly with the death of Shakespeare’s father, but also, and more importantly, it coincided with the untimely death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died in 1596 perhaps of the bubonic plague. Hamnet was eleven years old when he died -he was another victim of the high infant mortality rates in England at the time (about one in every three children died before the age of ten). Hamnet and his twin sister, Judith, were both named after friends and neighbors of the Shakespeares in Stratford. After the deaths in the family, Shakespeare found himself with neither a son nor a father, and his relationship with his wife appears to have collapsed. On top of that, the mood of England was dark and conspiratorial. The plague continued to spread through the country. The end of the House of Tudor meant new questions about political stability -would England return to the extraordinary violence and chaos of the Wars of the Roses? The legacy of the Reformation continued to pit ‘radical’ Protestants against ‘Papist’ Catholics -often violently. Puritanical religious fanatics would soon ban theatrical performances and many other ‘worldly entertainments’ that were labeled sinful. The infamous Gunpowder Plot was soon to strike at the heart of the monarchy, amidst other conspiracies. At the time, London had grown into a crowded and growing city where odd superstitions proliferated. The people were quick to believe odd demonic theories and they held fast to grievances and resentments (in some ways the era was not too dissimilar from our own). Within this convoluted milieu, Shakespeare began writing Hamlet. And while Hamlet surely delves into his own personal, as well as political, and philosophical questions, Shakespeare took great labors to disguise himself within his own works, not unlike his predecessor Plato and his successor Nietzsche. Unlike the insatiable Christopher Marlowe, who wound up dead on a bar room floor, or Ben Jonson, who explicitly devoted a public poem in honor of his own deceased son, Shakespeare preferred a much more subtle, mysterious, and esoteric path.

Shakespeare’s personal intentions aside, Hamlet is the essential Renaissance play. It remains comprehensive in its scope -novel and imaginative yet melancholy and ominous- its horizon is both elusive and expansive by exploring universal themes. Details about the origins of the play remain something of a mystery. Unlike Macbeth, the sources for Hamlet are likely varied -from the revenge story of Brutus (the fabled founder of Rome) to a 13th century Norse saga/Danish history (“Geno Danorum”) by Saxo Grammaticus which tells the story of “Amleth,” a vengeful prince. Some literary scholars have suggested there was an earlier ‘Hamlet’ revenge-play by Thomas Kyd called the “Ur-Hamlet.” No copies of this rumored play have survived.

Hamlet was likely first performed at either the end of the 1590s or else at the very start of the 1600s at the Globe Theatre (actually the earliest documented evidence of the play’s performance is from an amusing oceanic voyage by the ship’s crew as they docked off the coast of Africa). In addition, there are three distinct versions of Hamlet that survive today (the First Quarto, the Second Quarto, and the First Folio). Each version contains lines that are not present in the other versions. Hamlet was almost certainly written with Richard Burbage in mind. Burbage was the the leading tragic actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Globe Theatre apparently opened shortly before the first performance of Hamlet, the first performance at the Globe was likely Julius Caesar.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest and most complex play.

Reflections On Aristotle’s Prime Unmoved Mover

The summit of Aristotle’s examination of “first philosophy” occurs in Book XII of his Metaphysics. Chapters 1-5 of Book XII reiterate Aristotle’s examination into the nature of thinghood (an inquiry which had previously appeared in Aristotle’s Physics). Thinghood is a kind of whole (not a part of a whole) representing the sources as well as the causes of independent things. Thinghood delineates the world. There are three kinds of thinghood: the material which is a ‘this by coming forth into appearance’ – which is perceptible and exists in the world of motion and destruction (i.e. a human composed of skin and bones and so on). The second is the nature of a thing and the active condition into which it comes (a living human who is growing and aging and so on). Lastly, is the particular kind of thing, such as “Socrates” or “Callias.” Curiously, Aristotle does not mention the fourth of thinghood that is mentioned in the Physics: the final cause, or the controversial teleological cause (perhaps the fourth cause is discussed as the prime mover, itself, in the course of the book). Aristotle then discusses types of changes in the world (referencing his argument in the Physics) which include the material, and the two types of being: potency and being-at-work. Another is motionless such as Platonic forms or mathematics. In examining the idea of change and motion, Aristotle strives to discover one or multiple motionless origins of motion and also, therefore, time (according to Aristotle, motion and time are co-existent, which is contra Einstein).

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics as in the Physics, the world around us is the result of causes -for example, an oak tree drops an acorn, the acorn falls into the ground, it grows into a tree, and the cycle continues. However, taking into account an evolution of life over time, Aristotle wonders if the causal lineage of all things can be traced back to one central source that is the catalyst for all future causes. He says: ‘All things come into being by the motion of some prior being, such as by art or nature, or else by fortune or chance’ (1078a).

In Book XII chapter 6 of the Metaphysics the central argument of the prime mover begins. Aristotle suggests, for the sake of the argument, that both motion and time are continuous. According to a causal cosmos, however, there must be a source of motion that is being-at-work-staying-the-same, and is also ever-lasting like the stars in the sky (whose motions are considered to be everlasting by Aristotle). Aristotle believes that if we simply retrace the lines of causes it will inevitably lead back to a primary source (or perhaps multiple primary sources). However, no single human being can possibly trace all causes in a lifetime, therefore the act of retracing the causal lineage of things is fundamentally an activity of the intellect.

Aristotle poses his central question at the crux of his argument in Book XII: “For how will thing have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work?” For Aristotle, material requires a craftsman and menstrual fluid requires male seed, a revealing claim which he claims in Chapter 6. For “nothing moves at random,” but rather things are moved by force, intelligence, or something else -and what is that something else? Aristotle leaves this door open in suggesting the existence of other possibilities for the origins of motion. From here, Aristotle seems to shy away from explicitly confronting the difficult question of his inquiry and instead he points us to the problem, and then posits a certain teleology to the cosmos. Up until this point, Aristotle has offered a glimpse into the difficulties of approaching the question of being qua being.

The prime mover of all future causes initiates motion “in the manner of something loved.” Not unlike a philosopher, the prime mover is a lover of the intellect. It is a thinker contemplating thought itself which is revealed to be the cause of all being and motion. Since the prime mover is composed of thought thinking itself, it can have no knowledge of future causes or beings that have resulted from its continuous motion. The prime mover is everlasting ‘like a god’ but it is motionless and unmoved, unlike a god. The prime mover cannot have magnitude since all finitude depends on some form of magnitude and the prime mover has no finitude because it is everlasting (this discussion of magnitude is further discussed in Aristotle’s Physics). The prime mover instills one everlasting motion in the shape of a sphere, like the circular movements of the planets which are also everlasting (here in the discussion, Aristotle’s Prime Mover starts to resemble Plato’s master craftsman in the Timaeus dialogue). Like the stars and planets there are likely multiple prime unmoved movers as the movements of the wandering planets suggest the activity of thought thinking itself, as well. Thus, the planets who adorn the night sky are an imitation of the prime mover’s act or acts of intelligence that unwittingly cause the cosmos.

Aristotle concludes Book XII with comments on theology (theology is only invoked after philosophic inquiry has been fully explored). Aristotle labels the inheritance of the gods as “myths” for the “persuasion of the masses” and the clarity of the god’s role in relation to the prime mover is left ambiguous. However, Aristotle’s prime mover shares certain characteristics in common with latter monotheistic theology which is developed over many centuries after his death. Here, Aristotle ends his inquiry with a brief comment. He cites the poets (Homer) and suggests that the cosmos would be best governed by one single intelligible whole in a Parmenidean sense (in the same way that the concept of number is whole and not divisible according to ancient Greek mathematics). Aristotle cites the Iliad at the end of Book XII (“a divided sovereignty is not good; let there be one lord” Iliad Book II, 204) -a quote which is in reference to Odysseus’s reformation of the chaotic Achaeans into a well-organized army against Ilium. The “lord” being referenced by Aristotle in the Iliad is the master political leader (i.e. Odysseus) and the reference in connection to the cosmos opens the door to the possibility of a divine intellect which has not created the world, but rather confers upon things a unique, delineated thinghood (these claims will later be revised to fit with European Christian orthodoxy by Thomas Aquinas some fifteen hundred years later).

To recap, Aristotle initially began his book as an innocent inquiry into the nature of things. He then proceeded into a lengthy dialectical or conversational discussion about ontological questions. Through the investigation, Aristotle slowly dismissed certain commonly held opinions and offered a new and higher perspective on speaking about being qua being. By the end, Aristotle’s exploration concluded with several possibilities examined, particularly in regard to a possible origination of motion and time, and a commonly-held “myth” was reaffirmed at the end for the sake of what is orderly and good (similar to the form of Plato’s “Myth of Er” at the conclusion of the Republic).


For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s monumental translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

On The Idea of Home in Housekeeping

Housekeeping is a novel that celebrates the idea of the commonplace, the everyday, and the ordinary, yet somehow it is not a vulgar or an ugly work. Instead, Housekeeping brings to life the experience of solitude, oddity, and simplicity. The novel unfolds slowly, revealing the seasons of life through the eyes of Ruth, the novel’s protagonist, whose names bears allusion to the wonderful biblical fantasy book of Ruth (a personal favorite of mine from the Hebrew Bible). Of course in the Bible, Ruth becomes the grandmother of King David. In the novel, Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, are raised in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho (a town reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s upbringing in Sandpoint, Idaho). They live in a house built by their grandfather that sits beside a vast lake on an orchard. Ruth and Lucille are cared for by a succession of relatives: first their grandmother (who dies), then their babbling great-aunts, and finally their quirky and slightly unstable Aunt Sylvie. In the early chapters, we are offered glimpses into the family’s tragic past -in particular their grandfather’s suicide by driving off a nearby bridge into the lake, and their mother who also abandons the girls and commits suicide.

In Housekeeping, a complex and intriguing plot is sacrificed for lavishly adorned prose. The central image offered in the novel is a complicated mosaic that pieces together the memory and identity of the protagonist as she ‘cleaves’ to her sister and her Aunt Sylvie -‘cleaving’ or ‘clinging’ is a significant metaphor in the Book of Ruth. The novel takes us through a series of moments in Ruth’s life -her scattered upbringing, schooling, a great flood in Fingerbone, the transience of Aunt Sylvie, the angry departure of Lucille, and finally the authorities removing the girls from the care of Sylvie. In the end, Ruth and Sylvie burn down the family home and pledge to live a nomadic life on the road. For them, housekeeping has come to an end and wandering takes precedence. They run across the bridge of Fingerbone while the old family home burns -a home filled with old piled up newspapers, a moldy kitchen, and birds nesting on the second floor. Many years later (at least seven years) we are offered a reflection by Ruth. She has worked many odd-jobs in different cities around the country, from Portland and Seattle to Montana. Sometimes Ruth and Sylvie take the train as it passes through Fingerbone but they do not return home. Sylvie carries with her a newspaper clipping about the night they fled -a search party was formed but never found them. Ruth imagines the life of her sister Lucille -perhaps she has moved onto the family property in Fingerbone, or perhaps she fulfilled her childhood dream and moved to Boston.

Housekeeping contains hundreds of little stories inside it, reminiscent of great literature like John. Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The idea of ‘housekeeping’ in the novel is a meditation on the grounded-ness of people to a particular place with its own unique history and meaning. Is it possible to feel connected to a fixed place without the stability of family? The idea of a home is about something more than a place. There is a tone of haunting somberness throughout the novel, yet it is not terrifying or dreadful. Rather, it makes the novel alluring. In some ways, it is an exploration into uprootedness. Perhaps running way from home is a deep response to the experience of grief.

Marilynne Robinson originally began writing the novel as an examination of Emersonian metaphor, shortly after finishing her dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II. She wrote the novel long-hand over a period of about eighteen months (she found the sound of a typewriter distracting). While I cannot say Marilynne Robinson is my favorite novelist, her entrancing diction and penetrating prose are undeniable. Robinson’s writing contains echoes of the great American transcendentalists: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and others including Emily Dickinson -she is an American original and well-deserving of recognition.


About The 1982 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, ultimately losing to John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich (Updike’s first of two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels). The other finalist in 1982 was A Flag For Sunrise by Robert Stone, a novel about Americans drawn to Central America on the brink of revolution. The 1982 Fiction Jury consisted of: Margaret Manning (Chair), book editor for the Boston Globe and finalist for the Pulitzer in the field of Criticism in 1985; Julian Moynahan, a literary critic, novelist, and Professor of English at Rutgers University; and N. Scott Momaday, a Professor of English at Stanford University and a Native American Renaissance writer whose novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer in 1969.

Housekeeping did win the PEN/Hemingway award for best novel, and it has since been placed on a number of lists of the best novels. Of course, Robinson won the Pulitzer for her second novel Gilead (2004) -feel free to read my reflections on Gilead here. Gilead is the first in a series of novels Robinson wrote about John Ames (a sentimental Iowa pastor) and his family –Gilead was followed by Home (2008), Lila (2014), and Jack (2020). In fact, Housekeeping is Robinson’s only novel that does not focus on the John Ames saga. She has also written voluminous non-fiction essays on topics ranging from predatory fishing and deforestation, to Calvinist theology and nuclear power. In reading a variety of her interviews, particularly her delightful interview in The Paris Review in the Fall of 2008, Marilynne Robinson comes to light as an impressive intellectual force gifted with an extraordinary mind.


Quotations from Housekeeping:
“My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house , my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad , who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place” -opening lines of the novel.

“In a month those flowers would bloom. In a month all dormant life and arrested decay would begin again. In a month she would not mourn, because in that season it had never seemed to her that they were married, she and the silent Methodist Edmund who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers, and who remembered just where they grew from years to year, and who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow to help her over the steep and stony places, with a wordless and impersonal courtesy she did not resent because she had never really wished to feel married to anyone” (16-17). Grandmother’s memory of her husband after his suicide.

“So she was borne to the depths, my grandmother, into the undifferentiated past, and her comb had no more of the warmth of a hand about it than Helen of Troy’s would have” (41) -following her dream and news of her grandmother’s death.

“Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere” (62).

“She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished” (160).


Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York, Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux under Pan Book Ltd), 1981.

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

Click here to read my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

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).