Recently, I’ve been diving back into one of my first loves….literature….more precisely, Shakespeare. Last night I re-read the play of the Scottish warrior king Macbeth, an extraordinary young man trapped in delusion. Set in a grim post-apocalyptic Scotland, Macbeth is said to be considered a curse on the stage and also one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays. But is it?As I read how Macbeth charged on with a machete in one hand, axe in the other, in rags, bloody…..I envisioned him to have the damaged glare of a man who has been fighting all his life. Today, I can’t help thinking of the grainy photos of so many killers in the world, and about each of us watching as violent story, after violent story unfold and how they are so often played out in front of our eyes. With our thoughts we make our worlds. As I write this, the newscaster on the TV continues to talk about Boston as if there was little left in the world to talk about. I think of Macbeth charging headlong towards his fate, showing us how our helpless way of imagining…..not just our thinking but our instantaneous envisioning, our preconscious assumptions which create the worlds we inhabit, create hells, create us.
The great literary critic Harold Bloom describes the terrible power of Macbeth’s imagination. “He is a murderer of old men, women, and children and has a particular obsession with overcoming time by murdering the future: hence his failed attempt to kill Fleance and his successful slaughter of Macduff’s children. And yet the playgoer and reader cannot resist identifying with the imagination of Macbeth. A great killing machine, Macbeth has few attributes beyond imagination to recommend him, and that imagination itself is anything but benign.” The minute the three witches tell Macbeth he will be king, he pictures slaughter. He doesn’t have the space inside to question the prophesy and his inner reaction to it…..his fellow warrior Banquo does. And for all his savage skill in battle, Macbeth lacks the inner confidence that allows Banquo to bid the weird witched peak to him, “who neither beg nor fear/Your favors nor your hate.” Macbeth is paralyzed, transfixed.
Banquo seems to have a notion of happiness based on something higher than its most primitive meaning–the ancient root of “happiness” is “hap,”as in “happenstance,” literally what happens to us. For Banquo living a happy life means being in alignment with a higher order. Indeed, Macbeth ultimately has him murdered because he fears Banquo’s inner freedom, his nobility of nature.
Isn’t it interesting that this mighty man lacks confidence, lacks will? At the start, he is terribly ambivalent…..his wife goads him into committing murder. Unlike other Shakespeare villains who delight in their wickedness, Macbeth suffers horribly from knowing that he does evil: “Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep’ –the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care….”
With every horrible deed he commits, Macbeth grows less ambivalent…..he grows less. Because he is larger than life, his diminishment is truly horrible to behold. What is confidence based on? The word breaks down to mean “with faith,” but faith in what?
Driven by his fearful and terrible delusions, Macbeth can’t know the source of Banquo’s confidence…..that maybe we are meant to participate in a greater reality…..that possibly our happiness in the primitive sense of always getting what was want. The mother root of all our delusions…..the root of all evil…..is the tendency to enthrone ourselves at the center of the universe.
“Macbeth” is awe-inspiring proof that humans are not just nouns but verbs, as we think, imagine, assume, so we become. Here is Bloom: “So rapid and foreshortened is [the] play…that we are given no leisure to confront their descent into hell as it happens. Something vital in us is bewildered by the evanescence of their better natures…” Macbeth is like someone acting out of night terrors, except that he knows what he is doing, and for a time he seems to know what it is doing to him.
But in the end, he is dead inside: “I have almost forgot the taste of fears…I have supped full with horrors…” The news that his queen is dead unleashes no wail of sorrow or regret (and he was deeply in love with this woman, he followed her to ruin!), just this chilling immortal statement of nihilism:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
We have stunning proof that living a life with meaning requires feeling. By the end of the play, under siege (the only state that feels familiar to him) Macbeth has become fully a robot, a killing machine, his heart drained of every last drop of humanity. Life means nothing to him.
Yet Shakespeare’s heroic villain ultimately achieves a terrible gravity and ferocity, a horrific majesty ….. many great critics have explored the depths and stature of Macbeth and his play far better than this lowly nun. But I know the horror is that he is no longer really alive. I came away from reading this play…..and from the news…..knowing that humanity is something that is practiced, or not, day by day.
“Watch your thoughts; they become words,” teaches Lao Tzu, the great Taoist master. “Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
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.