Macbeth is responsible for a series of murders. He kills his king, then kills Banquo, and ends by sending thugs to slaughter defenseless Lady Macduff and her children. Remarkably, Shakespeare generates pity for him. He creates a murderer whose desires, rationalizations, hopes, and reactions are unquestionably human and uncomfortably familiar.
Macbeth’s actions exhibit a form of individualism. Medieval Scotland was, as Marjorie Garber puts it, a “legible” society, where social status could be read off clothing. When Macbeth usurps the throne of King Duncan, he dresses himself in the “borrowed robes” of kingship, but by the end of the play it’s obvious that he hasn’t grown into his clothes. His royal title hangs loose, “like a giant’s robe on a dwarfish thief.” Macbeth renders Scottish society illegible because he isn’t content to act in accord with his station. He wants to determine his station by his actions. Before he murders Duncan, clothes made the man. Macbeth ruins Scotland because he wants to be the self-clothed man. Who doesn’t?
Macbeth hosts two feasts, but both times he is an abject failure as a host. At the second, he sees the ghost of the murdered Banquo and disrupts the banquet. Though the first feast is less dramatic, it’s just as revealing. Duncan has just arrived at Dunsinane, and he and his company are enjoying a welcome dinner. Macbeth slips out of the banquet hall to contemplate murder. He hasn’t murdered anyone yet, but he’s already placed himself outside the circle of festivity. He’s already demonstrated the mentality of the murderer, exhibiting what Maynard Mack called an “obsessive, self-centered appetite that no feast can gratify.” At the end of the play, he is completely alone. Throughout, he’s possessed by a hunger that won’t be satisfied by any shared meal. Self-isolation is a first move toward murder.
Macbeth doesn’t lust for wealth, power, sex, or prestige. Macbeth recognizes that for him ambition is an end in itself: “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition.” His ambition is endless in every sense: He has no end in view beyond the desire to be king, and so his ambition is limitless. In its aimlessness, Macbeth’s is a very modern form of ambition.
In the broadest sense, Macbeth’s ambition is to murder time itself. Musing in the hall outside the feast, Macbeth expresses the fond wish, “If it were done when ’tis done.” He wants to act so decisively that it would “trammel up the consequence.” He wishes he could perform one act that would bring the end of acting, one final deed. He wants to drop a pebble into a pool without causing ripples. He finds he can’t, and instead each murder just makes it more difficult for him to stop murdering. “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far,” he says, “that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Audiences recoil from Macbeth, but he recoils from himself too. After Macbeth murders King Duncan, a knocking at the gate startles him, and Macbeth wonders, “How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?” He stares at his bloody hands as if they belonged to someone else’s body: “What hands are here?” He knows that the “multitudinous seas” can’t wash away the stain of Duncan’s blood, and later he is haunted by the ghost of Banquo. Macbeth “murder[s] sleep” and so deprives himself of that nightly “balm of hurt minds.” Almost no one hears “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” and thinks, “Well, Macbeth, you deserve it.” He does deserve it, but Shakespeare has shown us enough of Macbeth’s shocked soul and tortured conscience to convince us that he’s human.
Shakespeare is no liberal sentimentalist. He knows that evil is evil, and knows that Macbeth chooses evil. A. C. Bradley saw the play as evidence of Shakespeare’s feel for the “incalculability of evil—that in meddling with it human beings do they know not what.” We don’t know where evil will lead; we can only be sure that the result “will not be what you expected.” Macbeth dramatizes what Colin McGinn has described as the surprising character of evil.
Shakespeare humanizes Macbeth to hold him up as a mirror to nature, our nature. We pity, and fear, because we recognize that the evil that surprises us in Macbeth is our own.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author of Gratitude: An Intellectual History(Baylor, 2014), Traces of the Trinity (Baker, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), andThe End of Protestantism (Baker, forthcoming).