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Wednesday, March 5, 2008Interpretation of Macbeth
Harry Jaffa's interpretation of Macbeth:
"Macbeth is a moral play par excellence. In this, it stands in stark contrast to two more recent well-known tales of murder, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Camus's The Stranger. In Macbeth Shakespeare presented the moral phenomena in such a way that those who respond to his art must, in some way or another, become better human beings. In Dostoevsky's and Camus's heroic criminals we see the corruption of moral consciousness characteristic of modern literature.
By the art of Camus we are led to admire his hero, Meursault; young people especially tend to identify with him. What kind of hero is Meursault? He is utterly indifferent to morality and cannot understand what others mean when they say they love other human beings. In the story, he kills a man and is sentenced to be executed, in part because he did not weep at his mother's funeral. Meursault becomes passionate in the end: but the only passion he ever experiences is the passionate revulsion against the idea of human attachment. He thinks no one had a right to expect him to weep at his mother's funeral, or for anyone else to weep at her funeral. By Camus's hero we are taught to be repelled by those who (he believes) falsely teach us that there is any foundation for human attachments, or that there is anything in the universe that is lovable. The benign indifference to the universe is the only form of the benign, of goodness itself, in the universe. To imitate the indifference of the universe to good and evil is to live life at its highest level.
In Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov we find a profound articulation of the psychology of the modern revolutionary. Raskolnikov is a more persuasive embodiment of the revolutionary hero than can be found in Proudhon, or in Marx or Lenin. The hero of Crime and Punishment is admired for his heroic suffering, and there is something stupendously powerful in Raskolnikov's suffering. We are taught to sympathize and suffer with him. We undergo (in a milder form) the torture that he undergoes as a result both of contemplating and of committing the murder. The reason his suffering is heroic is that he suffers for the sake of a suffering humanity. He becomes a kind of Christ figure. Unlike Camus's hero, Dostoevsky's hero loves passionately. What is it that he loves? Again, unlike Camus's hero, what he loves above everything is his mother. And of course he is for this reason a much more sympathetic figure, even though he commits a far more brutal crime. But his love for his mother and his sister, and his unwillingness that they suffer the degradation that he thinks circumstances are inflicting upon them, makes him a rebel against the moral order. This drives him to murder a rich pawnbroker, a hateful old woman who is a symbol not merely of a money-grubbing social order but of the Gordian knot which upholds that order. That obstacle—the prohibition of murder—stands between him and a solution of what he sees as at once his personal problem and the problem of all humanity.
The moral order that Raskolnikov violates is represented to us merely and simply as a by-product of Christianity. The ultimate sanction for the prohibition against murder would seem to be incorporated in the ministry of Jesus, which finds its most powerful expression in the story of the raising of Lazarus. The scene in Crime and Punishment in which the harlot is compelled by the murderer to read the story is one of the high points in the world's literature. In the scene, Raskolnikov rather scornfully acknowledges the ground of the morality he has violated, but to which he is in some way still committed. Of course, it is clear that he does not believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
At the end of the novel, when he is in the process of gaining some kind of redemption, he wonders whether he might some day accept the harlot Sonia's simple faith in the Gospels. The moral order is, as we said, represented to him by Christianity. And he himself is a kind of Christian hero because he shares the compassion for humanity which is presumably the motive of Jesus himself in accepting the sacrifice on the cross. Raskolnikov too suffers on a kind of cross in the tremendous catharsis he undergoes as a result of the murder. This catharsis takes the form of a series of terrible fevers. Yet he recovers. His crime is not beyond redemption. In fact, it is the necessary cause of his redemption, which would not have been possible before the murder.
Raskolnikov's guilt is uncovered by an examining magistrate who is a kind of detective. This man discovers Raskolnikov's guilt by reading Raskolnikov's essay, which is really a profession of revolutionary faith, and of the right of the hero to destroy a corrupt old order in order to build a better new one. The striking thing about this detective is not so much his cleverness in finding Raskolnikov out and bringing him within the purview of the law. What is striking is that he becomes in a way Raskolnikov's partner. Porfiry is not a minister of vindictive justice. He shows the criminal a way to escape any real penalty for his crime. His ultimate sentence is eight years of penal servitude, under conditions which hardly remind us of the Gulag. He seems to be in some kind of minimum security prison, with Sonia nearby to alleviate whatever of hardship there may be. Porfiry remits all real punishment and shows Raskolnikov the way to a new life, in which his legal punishment is as nothing compared to the suffering he already has undergone in the wake of the murder.
Raskolnikov shares with Meursault the fact that his crime leads in the end, not to a fall, but to an ascent to a higher form of consciousness, to a salvation which would not have been possible had the crime not been committed. There is moreover nothing in Raskolnikov's punishment to discourage anyone—e.g., a Lenin—who may look upon him as the prototype of the revolutionary hero. In Crime and Punishment, we see a moral consciousness resembling in decisive respects a messianic Christianity. Such reform of society as may be envisioned has nothing to do with politics, and in fact subsists upon the conviction that salvation consists in direct action—such as murdering an old woman, or a royal family. Napoleon's action in destroying the ancien régime, and replacing it with the regime of reason, executing whoever stood in the way, is the tacit model.
Morality and Politics
When we turn to Macbeth we turn to a world so different that it is hard to identify what it has in common with the worlds of Camus and Dostoevsky. Certainly Christianity is present in Macbeth as in Crime and Punishment, but it is a Christianity so different that one wonders what it shares except the name. Meursault is perfectly amoral. Whether he is a beast or a god, he is "beyond good and evil," and cannot either love or hate. The priest who tries to console Meursault as he awaits execution he regards as the ultimate alien and the ultimate enemy. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, overflows with passion, and is as intensely alive to moral distinctions as Meursault is dead to them. But Raskolnikov thinks it may be necessary to violate the moral law, perhaps even by committing murder, in order to come into possession of the human good, including the moral good.
Macbeth on the other hand is a man who feels the power of morality to the fullest extent. He does so, I suggest, because he is a political man. By a political man, I understand someone who is a vital part of a political community. For Camus's hero the political community does not exist. For Dostoevsky's hero, it exists only marginally. Raskolnikov is the model for a revolutionary, whose cause is that of all humanity. His is a polity—like the City of God—that has no borders. Patriotism is not possible however in a world polity ("world polity" is an oxymoron). Patriotism is possible only if there is a connection between one's father and the political order. (In the City of God, God the Father is the father of that city.) In Macbeth's case, patriotism has a literal meaning, as he belongs to the royal family. He murders the king, forcing the king's sons—one of whom is the confirmed heir—to flee. He becomes king—after the murder—by a process of election, but one which is limited to the royal family. When we speak of patriotism we presume a people descended from a common ancestor. The children of Israel are those descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the original fathers, the founding fathers. In the most patriotic speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln began by saying, "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation...." Now the United States, like other modern nation-states, is not a polity in the original sense of the political: the law of the Constitution makes fellow citizens of those of different ethnicities. The unity of the human race, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, in Lincoln's poetic evocation, replaces the particular ancestors of ancient polities with the nature which is the universal ancestor of all human beings.
Lincoln reminds us of the original meaning of citizenship, and invests in our citizenship something of the intensity of that original citizenship. Macbeth as he comes into sight is above all a citizen. As such, he shares responsibility for the commonwealth and, as a citizen-soldier, labors in its service. He feels keenly the honor that accompanies his heroic deeds. In serving the country by serving the king, he is keenly aware of the greatness of the honor that accompanies the person of the king. His ambition is therefore, in its origin, a by-product of his virtue. Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics characterizes two of the moral virtues as embodying all the others. One of these encompassing virtues is magnanimity, and the other is legal justice. Legal justice is justice in its most comprehensive form. It is justice as seen from the perspective of the law of the ancient city. Aristotle, reflecting that perspective, says "whatever the law does not command, it forbids." In this he is in full agreement with the Mosaic law.
We today would say that "whatever the law does not forbid, it permits." One might think that the difference lies in the permissiveness of our culture. That there is such a difference is undeniable, but its sources go deeper than to our contemporary moral corruptions; and in fact, little, if any, of the difference is due to a changed or lowered conception of human well-being. Aristotle and Moses were agreed in regarding the law as emanating from God or the gods. Their polities were expanded tribal societies, insignificant in size compared to any modern nation-state. In today's polities, any attempt at such comprehensive moral tutelage as we find in the idea of law in the ancient city would result in something like Nazi or Communist tyranny. Yet the moral commands—embodied in the idea of law in the books of Moses and of Aristotle, constitute the negation of tyranny. But what Aristotle calls legal justice, not as a feature of positive law but of moral law, reminds us that we are under an obligation (even if it is no longer legally enforceable) to practice all the virtues.
Whose actions have the widest consequences and are most in need of virtue to direct them? The rulers'. Hence morality in all its dimensions can be best seen in the lives of rulers. Private men or women cannot be moral in the highest degree because they are limited in the scope of their actions. Aristotle quotes the Greek proverb, "Rule shows the man." No one ever knows with certainty how virtuous—or vicious—a man might be until he holds office and has power. Only those in power reveal their real natures. For this reason all Shakespeare's great plays are about rulers: kings and princes and dukes and military commanders. In the Roman plays, these rulers are not kings and princes but great aristocratic warriors like Coriolanus, or great heroes like Julius Caesar, or great soldiers like Mark Antony, who compete among themselves for the rule of the world. Shakespeare's preoccupation is not that of a poet living in an aristocratic age; it is the preoccupation of a moralist who would display human actions on that scale on which alone they can be said to be fully intelligible. Only in a political context can the nature of morality be thoroughly considered. One reason why the works of both Camus and Dostoevsky are deficient in their understanding of morality is their deficiency in understanding politics. Only in a political work in which political actions of the gravest kind are involved can one see the moral phenomena in their fullness.
This Bank and Shoal of Time
Macbeth, at the beginning, is a good man. He is a loyal subject, and much more than a loyal subject. He is one who has displayed courage and fidelity in the service of his king and country in a higher degree than anyone else. He is the most honored man, and the most justly honored man in the kingdom. The tragedy of Macbeth is the tragedy of his fall from that high estate. Macbeth reminds us of Milton's Satan, the most glorious of the angels of heaven, who becomes a fallen angel. We cannot understand the meaning of a fall from virtue if the fall is from a very low position, like that of Meursault. Or even that of Raskolnikov. Although he is lower middle class, Raskolnikov is very proud and thinks himself worthy of great things, but there is nothing to confirm the judgment that he is worthy of the pride he feels. In Macbeth's case we have a man who is certainly proud, but who has demonstrated on the field of battle, in the face of temptation and treachery, that his great pride is justified by his great virtue. And it is his fall that we witness. More than that, we witness the inextricable intertwining of crime and punishment. There is no tincture of salvation resulting from Macbeth's crime—only damnation.
The crime, and the punishment, of Macbeth are inseparable from that of Lady Macbeth. Her fate is not tragic in the sense that his is, because hers is not a fall from grace. She is pure evil at the outset. There is, in her mind, no reason for them not to kill the king. Her invocation of the powers of darkness, when the murder is still in contemplation, is that of a soul already lost to evil. Her punishment, in the end, is different from his, and we must consider in what way it is appropriate to their differences.
Macbeth's soliloquy in act 1, scene 7, is a dialogue with himself on the question of whether to murder the king. All the arguments are against, but one. And that one is so weak as not to merit serious consideration. Yet it will prove to be the one that will prevail, under Lady Macbeth's tutelage.
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time,
We'd jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague th' inventor. This evenhanded justice
Commends th' ingredients of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. He's here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked newborn babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other—
Enter Lady Macbeth
This soliloquy consists entirely of reasons why Macbeth ought not to murder the king. Macbeth reasons truly to a true conclusion. In so doing, he reaches the peak of his moral stature, the point at which the greatest temptation is met and overcome. It provides us, at one and the same time, the height from which the hero falls, and the mystery of why he falls, after such a clear vision of the impossibility of success and the certainty of retribution.
There are three sets of reasons given, in ascending form. The first is that the murder cannot succeed, because "evenhanded justice" will instruct others to murder the murderer. Those who take up arms against a tyrant will not, like Macbeth, be driven by naked ambition, but by the moral and political necessity to rid themselves of the incubus of tyranny.
Second is the obligation imposed by the moral order, which tells us that it is our duty to protect a kinsman, king, and guest. Implicit is the idea that Macbeth is part of a moral order, to violate which is in some sense to violate himself. Macbeth here understands himself to be, in Aristotle's sense, a social and political animal. His eventual punishment will consist, in part, in his consciousness of his separation from those who have been dear to him, and whose welfare has been intertwined with his own.
Third is the drama, illuminated by Macbeth's powerful imagination, of the moral order personified. Duncan is not only king, he has been a good king, "so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against the deep damnation of his taking-off." The lines which follow are perhaps the most moving in all Shakespeare, in rendering the moral order as a self-subsisting palpable reality, with infinite resources for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. They are followed by the conclusion that he has no motive to commit the murder, only his ambition, "vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself...." That is to say, it is a passion which has no justification beyond itself, a passion at war with reason—certain to be self-defeating.
The soliloquy begins by Macbeth wishing the assassination "could trammel up the consequence." By this he means that if the deed could have no further effects, he would "jump the life to come," that is, ignore the consequences after death. Macbeth believes in heaven, hell, the immortality of the soul, and future rewards and future punishment. Later in the play, when he learns that Fleance has escaped the murderers he has hired, and that Banquo's issue, not his, will occupy the throne of Scotland, he complains bitterly that he has given his "eternal jewel" to the "common enemy of man," and is getting nothing in return. He seems to have expected Satan to keep what Macbeth regarded as Satan's part of the bargain. One might say, Macbeth had to learn the hard way that Satan is not a gentleman. Macbeth does not however actually name Satan (although he does have a servant named Seyton). Nor does he name God. His punishment, as we shall see, is not in his alienation from God, but from beloved human beings.
How can such an overwhelming decision have been so quickly reversed, as it was, by the entrance of Lady Macbeth? Here we must turn to a character as extraordinary as her husband. The meaning of the play must be sought in the comparative analysis of their divergent and convergent courses. In act 1, scene 5, Lady Macbeth is reading aloud the letter from her husband, in which he tells her of the witches' prophecies, and how, as he "stood, rapt in the wonder," missives came from the king, hailing him Thane of Cawdor. That put him—and her—instantly in mind of the greater hail, of "king that shalt be." Lady Macbeth's soliloquy, which follows, assumes without question that the promised greatness can only be brought to pass by evil means. She does not consider—as we might think she ought—whether the ascent to the throne might not happen by a natural evolution of the political process. This thought must have passed through Macbeth's mind. When he hears Duncan name Malcolm as his successor, he says to himself, "that is a step on which I must fall down or else o'erleap." He must have thought there was some legitimate path to the throne—however remote the possibility—before Malcolm was named Prince of Cumberland. The witches' prophecy did not exclude such possibility and at one point Macbeth says, "If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me without my stir." If Macbeth did not "stir" to become Thane of Cawdor, why might he not await the same dispensation to become king? Why did he not consider that the witches' prophecy was a kind of assurance that, absent other causes, chance would be obliged to make him king? Lady Macbeth will speak of him being crowned by "fate and metaphysical aid." Why do they both assume that this is a sanction for murder, and not the same sufficient cause that made him Thane of Cawdor?
Lady Macbeth drives out of mind any alternative to murder. Here is her thought-after reading the letter—on the task before her:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature.
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou'dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries "Thus thou must do if thou have it;
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone." Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crowned withal."
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