“Crawling Between Earth and Heaven:” A Reading of Hamlet

Hamlet is a deeply puzzling and unsettling play. It remains elusive, alluring, cryptic, macabre, and mysterious: it is Shakespeare’s drama par excellence (contrary to T.S. Eliot’s unimpressive criticism of the play). On the surface, Hamlet is an ancient revenge story that mirrors the theatrical works of classical antiquity. However, upon closer investigation Hamlet draws upon uniquely modern qualities that are divergent from the works of Aeschylus or Sophocles. In the play, almost as if awakening from a dream, Prince Hamlet is haunted by the ghost of his father, a war hero who is also named Hamlet. The elder Hamlet’s ghost is apparently trapped in Christian Purgatory yet he is also familiar with the river Lethe and other classical markers of the underworld (in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom offers the theory that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is actually intended to represent Shakespeare, himself –a man who straddles the boundary between the ancients and moderns). The ghost further claims that he was poisoned while resting in his orchard and then usurped by his luxurious and incestuous brother, Claudius. We (the audience) are then dropped into the plot of Hamlet approximately two months later, after the death of the elder Hamlet. In that short timespan Claudius (Prince Hamlet’s Uncle) has been crowned king of Denmark and he has wedded the widowed queen, Gertrude (Prince Hamlet’s mother). Prince Hamlet has also returned home from his education in Wittenberg (Northern, Germany), but he is presently forbidden to return to school. Following the appearance of his father’s ghost, Hamlet’s righteous task is to avenge his father’s death and claim the rightful crown of Denmark for himself.

Horatio, Hamletm and The Ghost by Hnery Fuseli (1789)

First, I offer an exploration of the context and setting of the play. Hamlet’s 13th century world is a cosmopolitan hub linking Denmark with other nearby centers of commerce –France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and England. This geography in the play is crucial as it informs some of the play’s central themes. Hamlet’s homeland of Denmark is a middle kingdom of sorts, it is a borderland between opposing values (similar to the metaphorical borderland of Scotland in Macbeth or Cyprus in Othello). North of Denmark lies Norway –a heroic nation where King Hamlet once won a victory on the battlefield over the elder Fortinbras of Norway (in fact, the elder King Hamlet killed the elder King Fortinbras and now Norway is currently governed by the elder Fortinbras’s unnamed, enfeebled brother). In many respects, Fortinbras of Norway mirrors the situation facing Hamlet of Denmark. However, Norway is an old world warrior kingdom whose presence looms large over the play, perhaps one that is even comparable to Homer’s Achaea. In this respect, Norway is distinct from Denmark. On the other hand, south of Denmark on the Continent lies Paris, France and Wittenberg, Germany. Paris is a city of fashion –it is where Laertes desires to go before his father Polonius advises him to first be honest with himself: “to thine own self be true.” Paris is a city of fancy and pleasure, where young men leisurely entertain themselves and learn the skill of fencing, rather than the art of the battle-axe as in Norway. Why do all the young men of Denmark desire to visit Paris? On the flipside, the young men of Denmark attend school in Wittenberg, Germany, a city most strongly associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. It is the embodiment of the modern world, a world of students and scholarship. It is also linked with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern –the sycophantic young scholars who are friends of Hamlet. At any rate, caught between the warlike North and the modern South, Denmark represents a borderland. Norway is the fringe, it is the past; while Paris and Wittenberg represent the future. Denmark is caught between these two polarities: the old world and the new. With more open possibilities in wider world, the frustrated and restless youth of Denmark feel compelled to go elsewhere, particularly to mainland Europe which is cosmopolitan. This cosmopolitanism of the Renaissance world stands in opposition to classical notions of commitment to one single polis (i.e. patriotism). Perhaps Denmark has a patriotism dilemma. At any rate, we also learn of one other key geographic region, the distant country of England –a place where Hamlet is eventually sent to die because apparently the unnamed King of England owes Claudius a favor (we later find out that Hamlet has escaped after negotiating with pirates while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed). Curiously, Claudius decides to consult with his “wisest friends” before sending Hamlet away. Recall that Hamlet is initially sent to England as punishment for the accidental murder of Polonius (followed by subsequent strange behavior thereafter) however, Hamlet never quite makes it because he negotiates with attacking pirates for a return transport home to Denmark (notably, Hamlet negotiates rather than battling his way to freedom), and since he does not ever actually arrive in England, the country remains a distant, faraway kingdom which Shakespeare ironically associates with death. The King of England is apparently beholden to Claudius after suffering recent war losses –perhaps Denmark under the elder King Hamlet, had claimed victory England (it is somewhat reminiscent of the historic Danegold tribute). Thus, in Hamlet Shakespeare’s home country of England is portrayed as something akin to a subordinate vassal kingdom. Nevertheless, England no doubt jumps at the chance to assassinate the young prince of Denmark.

Why would Shakespeare choose Denmark, not England, as the primary setting of Hamlet? Is there something uniquely illustrative about Denmark? The Danes were once the fearsome raiders of medieval England. Their viking longboats were the terror of river towns along the Humber. However, Denmark as featured in Hamlet is no longer the expansionist regime of bygone years. Now, it struggles to be sure of itself and its own kingship is easily usurped. The contemporaneous English context of early 17th century, the culture wherein Hamlet was written, also informs the contents of the play. Prior to the rule of King James I in England, Queen Elizabeth’s court was elderly and cautious, much like Denmark in the play. It is neither aggressive nor expansionist –England was not yet a great power like France, the Hapsburgs of Spain, or the Ottoman Empire. Its complacent elderly elite class lacks thumos. This same tension between aging leadership and active young men is apparent throughout the play. The court of Denmark is elderly and there is some discussion about whether Denmark should pursue a policy of diplomacy, expansionism, or war –particularly as it pertains to Norway. The central problem of an indecisive and elderly ruling class is: what to do with all the thumotic and rivalrous young men in Denmark? How should leaders focus the energetic youth outward toward public good? The goal is to prevent young men from becoming destructive –to prevent them from seeking private revenge and personal gain. At any rate, returning to 17th century England, King James I’s mother (Mary Queen of Scots) was married to the murderer of her husband (he was murdered in his garden much like the elder Hamlet in the play). Also James I’s wife was Anne of Denmark and Norway (Denmark and Norway were united as one single country at this time). James and Anne were married in Oslo and honeymooned at Elsinore Castle (the primary setting of Hamlet). Shakespeare is thus directing the court of James I to pay attention to particular dilemmas in Hamlet that echo the challenges facing 16th and 17th century England (as well as universal questions pertaining to political philosophy).

In the same way that Denmark represents a confluence of opposing worlds, Hamlet is also the locus for a variety of tensions: classical and modern, pagan and Christian, Orthodox and Reform. In light of these tensions, Prince Hamlet is a troubled hero. He represents an exploration into (and perhaps an inversion of) the classical heroic archetype. In Hamlet, the outward battle has turned inward. Hamlet is a prince who is called upon to exact revenge on a usurper (his uncle Claudius) and claim the rightful throne of Denmark, but in a modern context he finds the classical idea of revenge deeply troubling. In a decidedly Christian world, where souls are immortal, what profit is it to kill Claudius if his soul will simply be sent to heaven or perhaps at least purgatory? Should Hamlet simply ‘turn the other cheek’ to his nemesis? Should he forgive Claudius of his transgressions? Can Denmark even be redeemed by violent upheaval? In Act III scene iii, Hamlet finds an open moment to kill Claudius. He sneaks into Claudius’s room but just before committing the deed he stops himself because Claudius is praying. Claudius is on his knees asking for divine forgiveness of his sins, and thus by killing Claudius, Hamlet would merely send Claudius’s soul straight to heaven –and in this way the modern “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Instead, Hamlet must take into account vengeance on Claudius’s soul. This is an entirely distinct concept from the vengeance Achilles exacts on Hector in Homer’s Iliad where vengeance on Hector’s body is all Achilles desires. The immortal soul, in Shakespeare, emerges as a modern concept. The great difficulty, however, is in seeing the true intent of one’s soul without ‘shuffling off this mortal coil.’ Hence, why there is so much sneaking around, hiding, and scheming in Hamlet. There is a desire to reveal what is deeply hidden (i.e. “catch the conscience of the King” when characters like the aging counsellor, Polonius, hide behind a curtain not unlike Gyges in Herodotus’s Histories). Thus, Hamlet feigns madness in order to truly conceal his own personal intentions.

At any rate, despite his inner quandary Hamlet is not a wimp (contra Goethe’s assertion). Hamlet kills nearly half the characters in the play whether directly or indirectly. He has thumos –he is a fighter and a political man. Similar to the political situation in Macbeth, in Hamlet a group of leaders led by Claudius plans to appoint Hamlet as the inheritor of the throne of Denmark but Hamlet is unsatisfied with this arrangement (“Sir, I lack advancement”). His standards of a political hero are classical, and thus he looks to Norway for courage because his home state of Denmark has lately become “rotten” and ruled by an aging gerontocracy (notice how many errors of judgment and false predictions Polonius makes in the play).

Hamlet is not a one-dimensional classical figure. He is a popular prince among the people of Denmark (hence why Claudius cannot simply have him executed). He is an unusually thoughtful hero, capable of examining things from multiple perspectives. He is not a single-minded avenger like Laertes (son of the old counsellor Polonius –note: Laertes was also the name of Odysseus’s father) and yet Hamlet is also distinct from his good friend, Horatio, who calls himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (his name is a combination of two Latin words ratio “reason” and orator or “speaker”). In many ways, Horatio is the most crucially important character in the play. He stands alongside Hamlet during the most crucial scenes in the play and he is also one of the few characters to survive to the end of the play (he tries to commit suicide but Hamlet begs him not to). Hamlet’s character is somehow split between these two figures: Laertes and Horatio. Hamlet’s tragedy is that he cannot simply embrace one or the other. He is the tragedy of modern or Renaissance man –a man who tries to be too many things all at once and becomes trapped in paralysis. The crux of Hamlet is an interrogation of the possibility of a philosopher king in a Christian/modern context (i.e. a synthesis of a theoretical and practical kingship). Shakespeare seems to offer an example of a modern heroic warrior king in Henry V, yet even King Henry V faces the problem of the church –an established religion of peace which nevertheless aggressively competes for authority with the expansionist state. The impossibility of Plato’s modern philosopher king becomes a tragic impossibility in Shakespeare. Still, there is hope in Horatio, a man with Greco-Roman virtues in the modern world who doubts the fanciful claims of modern theology (“…there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”). However, Horatio is not destined for kingship.

The great hope of the Renaissance was to synthesize two antithetical value systems: Christian and Classical. In an effort to examine this tension, Shakespeare offers us Hamlet –a very modern European, who is dropped into a Norse feudal saga with a twist: Hamlet is tasked with a supernatural quest for vengeance and requital, yet vengeance is an old world value that conflicts with the highest virtues of Denmark –meekness, humility, forgiveness and so on. Hamlet admires the classical virtues of his father, yet he is also restrained by what he has learned in Wittenberg (not least of which concerns the Protestant Reformation). He is constrained and haunted by notions of a life after death. Meanwhile, Denmark has embraced a secular court. There are no bishops or archbishops like the kind found in Shakespeare’s History plays wherein the church emerges as a troublesome political force contra the warrior kings of England. While in Hamlet the state of Denmark is not beholden to the church, Hamlet explicitly agrees with the theological doctrine that the world is fallen and sinful. This causes him to have a problem with politics. Everywhere he looks he sees corruption. He believes women are inherently corrupt –a product of ‘original sin’ and he calls Ophelia a harlot and commands her to “get thee to a nunnery!” Women are either chaste nuns or licentious whores according to Hamlet. In this way, virtue for Hamlet is akin to absolute sexual purity. Indeed, Hamlet possesses a certain type of absolutism that is not present in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. This view of virtue also causes Hamlet to despise everything around him, including his own country. Hamlet is a modern thinking man and he longs for the monastic or ascetic ideal (he embraces a Christian interpretation of a Roman appropriation of Greek things). The irony of Hamlet is that he is a modern Christian man but he is also aware of the tension between ancients and moderns, and he embraces certain Homeric virtues, as well. In fact, Homeric epithets are found throughout Hamlet (around the time of Hamlet’s first performance George Chapman had just completed the first English translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, circa the 1590s). At any rate, Hamlet finds it disgraceful that this monumental task has been left to him to restore order to his chaotic and fallen world (in The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche likens Hamlet to the Dionysian man). Hamlet’s disposition is somewhat philosophical –he resents the customs of his own people (particularly Claudius’s heavy drinking) and he despises the whole of humanity itself:

“What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in
faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how
like an angel, in apprehension how
like a god! The beauty of the world. The
paragon of animals. And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? Man
delights not me: no nor woman neither…”
(Act II scene ii -Hamlet speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

In his Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud links Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle, however in many ways the better contrast is between Shakespeare and Aeschylus. While Oedipus becomes tragically aware of his horrifying circumstance at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, Hamlet becomes aware of his situation at the beginning of the play. In a certain light, Hamlet is better understood as Shakespeare’s response to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. In Aeschylus, we find a tale about the tragic cycle of revenge. Orestes returns home from exile to avenge his father, Agamemnon, who has been murdered and usurped by Clytemnestra (Orestes’s mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Whereas in Aeschylus’s Oresteia we are offered a deus ex machina in the form of Athena delivering a trial to release Orestes from his guilt, in Hamlet no such divine being trial arrives to save the hero.

Hamlet spends a great deal of time contemplating his future actions, even though his actions will depend on a veiled illusion whether it be supernatural or not (Samuel Taylor Coleridge dismisses Hamlet as a flawed man who simply thinks too much, however this is far too simplistic an assessment). Hamlet is a man of thought who is deeply contemplating his actions (i.e. he embodies the conflict between thought and action), but the difficulty in the play is that it incorporates a vision of classical heroism (i.e. a man of action) coupled with a Christian critique of that heroism (a man of thought). His inner dilemma leads to stasis and eventually nihilism –it becomes an ontological question: ‘to be or not to be.’ Is it better to be and simply suffer at the hands of his enemies? Or else take up arms against a sea of troubles and surely die? But what is death if an afterlife merely continues on and on into the future ad infinitum? Either way Hamlet will end up in heaven, purgatory, or hell, and thus vengeance seems of little consquence. In contemplating the macabre, Hamlet notes that all men must die and disintegrate into mere “dust” –even the skull of Sir Yorick, the late court jester, has passed away and is now mostly forgotten. Despite being a man of “infinite jest” Yorick’s finitude is likened to the meaningless sophistic trappings of Osric, a current Danish courtier. All of life becomes tragic for Hamlet (he notes the beauty of something anatomical like a skull). Beauty is ugly and life is empty for Hamlet.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852

Hamlet also explores the problem of suicide. The killing of oneself also seems to plague many others in Denmark. Does Ophelia commit suicide? In Act V scene i the two gravediggers debate the merits of a Christian burial for Ophelia precisely for this reason. They decide that if she had intentionally ended her own life, then she does not deserve a Christian burial (the key question is whether she knowingly drowned herself –even while the possession of knowledge is a fluid problem throughout the play). In contrast in the classical world, suicide was sometimes the honorable thing to do (i.e. the suicide of Ajax; see Sophocles’s Ajax). However in the modern Christian world, suicide is a sin. Honor is no longer the greatest virtue. And since there is no virtue in suicide, Hamlet must find another way out of his problems. The beginning of his “to be or not to be” soliloquy is a praise of the easiness and simplicity of the Pagan world. It begins with the idea of death in the ancient world, with echoes of Socrates and Cicero. The end of life in the ancient world meant the end of everything: ‘the end of heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks the Flesh is heir to’ –but things changed in the modern world. According to popular mythology, life only truly begins after death –perchance to dream in “the undiscovered country.” The Christian notion of an afterlife is described as a ‘calamity’ by Hamlet. If life never truly ends, what is the point of the politics of revenge?

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,

The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of dispised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remember’d”
(Act III scene i)

In this way Hamlet is a play about modern reformulations of heroism. The politics of Hamlet are guided by supernatural revelation coupled with a particular conception of the afterlife. Everything in Hamlet’s world is haunted by a vision of the next world. It makes the world appear to be irredeemably corrupt. After much fatalistic deliberation, Hamlet chooses to “take up arms against a sea of troubles” in an effort to end them, knowing that he marches onward toward his own death –there is not even redemption through art for Hamlet. His play “The MouseTrap,” which is a version of The Murder of Gonzaga, is not the dramatic conclusion of the play. It merely reveals Claudius’s guilt. Instead Hamlet must end his troubles by fighting to the death in a farcical parody of a duel (fencing is a more delicate way to settle disputes than, say, a proper sword-fight). No characters die by means of violence at the conclusion. Instead, they die by trickery (i.e. poisoning). It is not a hero’s death and Denmark is not redeemed –perhaps Hamlet foresaw this fatal end coming.

Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard by Eugène Delacroix (1839)

At the conclusion, as Hamlet redeems Denmark through vengeance, Hamlet’s Denmark is contrasted with Fortinbras’s Norway. Both young men have uncles who have claimed the kingship of their respective countries. For Hamlet, the battle has turned inward on his own country, whereas Fortinbras extends outward conquering the worthless lands of Poland (against his enfeebled uncle’s demands). Fortinbras is perhaps a better example of a classical hero in the modern world. His Norwegian army has been allowed full rights to march across Danish lands toward Poland and the army of Fortinbras arrives at Elsinore just as Hamlet dies. With his dying breath Hamlet offers his “vote” for Fortinbras, his rival, to take the throne of Denmark (the message is conveyed by Horatio to Fortinbras). As is often the case in Shakespeare, the final speech in the play is delivered by the highest ranking person: in this case it is Fortinbras –a foreign man who will be the future king of Denmark (hopefully the accession will solve Denmark’s ‘rottenness’). Hamlet is given a hero’s burial by the Norwegian army, though few readers of Shakespeare will suggest that Hamlet is truly a noble hero –he is simply the tragedy of modern man, paralyzed while “crawling between earth and heaven.”

For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

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.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” Considered

In Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth we encounter Macbeth’s famous nihilistic soliloquy: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” The speech comes at a critical juncture for Macbeth in the play. All his Thanes have left him, and a united army of English and Scottish forces are advancing on his castle at Dunsinane. The English are led by Siward (whose character is based on a historical earl of Northumberland) and the Scottish are led by Macduff, Thane of Fife, whose family has recently been butchered at the behest of Macbeth. Macduff is joined by Malcolm, son of the assassinated king Duncan and heir to the Scottish throne. Up until this, point Macbeth has placed his faith in delusional supernatural prophecies -revelations which he believes have transformed him into a kind of ubermensch -exempt from death by any man ‘born of a woman.’ He remains sheltered in his castle until and unless the forests of Birnam descend upon the hilltop of Dunsinane, while also awaiting the advancing armies.

However, as Macbeth’s tragic downfall unfolds, we witness his maddening obsession with the future and at the same time he order more people killed in order to support his false understanding of fate. At the beginning Macbeth was a war hero who lived mostly in the present moment, but after receiving a dark prophecy, he begins to believe that all human actions are pre-determined by some supernatural fate. His belief turns to obsession, and his futurism stands in stark contrast to the ancient view of time as cyclical, rather than the modern view of time which is apocalyptic. Therefore, Macbeth’s nihilism grows out of a modern apocalyptic expectation. He rarely focuses on his troubles today, only on an endless forthcoming “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” For Macbeth, “today” is merely the ignorant present -in fact, today might as well be history since it has been predetermined according to the witches. With an eye for what is to come, Macbeth incessantly slaughters his allies -he sets out to kill Duncan, and then he must kill Banquo but Banquo’s son Fleance escapes, and then he must also kill Macduff’s family. His mind becomes ensconced in a philosophy of the future -a philosophy of becoming rather than being. His hope is for some future state of perfection, which is one classical characteristic of a tyrant. In Book IX of Plato’s Republic when discussing the soul of a tyrant with Glaucon, Socrates draws a distinction between a tyrant and a philosopher. According to Plato, a tyrant is a man who follows his base pleasures and is unwilling to be virtuous. When this “private tyrant” becomes empowered as a “political tyrant” the city suffers in disharmony. However, the soul of a tyrant is different from a philosopher because a philosopher is focused on the things that are (i.e. the things that have being). In Macbeth, his particular form of tyranny is characterized by a modern pursuit of a state of purity and perfection, free from threat or blemish -a desire to see the city ‘speak together as one’ rather than to encourage the various parts of the city to grow together in harmony a la Aristotle’s Politics. Perhaps there is a certain degree of modern genocidal tendencies hidden in Macbeth’s form of tyranny, as well (i.e. ‘if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off’).

At any rate, in his famous soliloquy in Act V Macbeth suddenly sees meaningless in his unending futurism. His speech comes immediately after a report from his sole remaining loyalist, Seyton (whose name mirrors “Satan”). A cry is heard and Macbeth remembers a time when he would have been afraid of horrors in the night -a normal fear for a man but not for a tyrant dabbling in dark mysticism like Macbeth. Seyton re-enters and announces the death of Lady Macbeth. She has apparently committed suicide offstage. Upon learning of her death, Macbeth is hardly sorrowful -he suggests that she would have died anyway “hereafter” at any other time “for such a word.” Her time would have come now or at another time in the future -it makes little difference to Macbeth. He launches into his famous soliloquy bemoaning the meaninglessness of life as a mere “shadow” filled with “sound and fury.” It is an apocalyptic speech which notes the “last syllable of recorded history” (i.e. an end of history in the Hegelian and Christian sense) and yet it also makes mention of the past “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death” (i.e. history is a a predetermined series of revelations that merely lead to death). Ultimately, all of life for Macbeth ultimately ‘signifies nothing.’ Mirroring the book of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity for Macbeth. Life becomes a mere “shadow” and a “poor player” or a pawn of powerful supernatural forces.

Unlike the Poet-Philosopher-King of Prospero in The Tempest, Macbeth sees no glory in human greatness -no cloud capp’d towers, no gorgeous palaces. Macbeth is not a true leader like Prospero because he has no inspiration, no poetics, no vision to guide his fulfillment of the future. His reign is purely destructive. He believes that if he can eliminate enough people who pose a threat to his regime and hopefully fulfill his future prophecy, then his kingship can become perfect. Macbeth’s struggle in his soliloquy is not with a concern that human greatness is all for nought, like Prospero, but rather his struggle is with time. He laments endless tomorrows, all of which lead to an end of history. Similarly, in the life of a single human, every yesterday merely leads to death. Life is characterized as mere theatrics, filled not with reason and beauty, but rather with animalistic noises like “sound and fury.” The frivolity of life signifies nothing and he calls for life to be snuffed out like a “brief candle.” The only way Macbeth sees a return to an ontology of being is in death.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

For this reading I used the 3rd Edition Arden of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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 Renaissance 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 –namely, 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).