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The Duality inherent in Macbeth

An exerpt from “One-Man Tragedy: The Duality of Character in Macbeth” by Crystal A. Sershen, NYU, September, 2009.

“Macbeth begins his play an exalted hero but rapidly spirals headlong into murder, ruin, and self-destruction. The theme of Ambition seems too easy, too small for the moral of this work, coming as it does from the playwright and poet who has imparted such timeless, humanistic truths to cultures the world over. Unwieldy in interpretation and rooted deeply in the sublime, oft produced but seldom well received, Macbeth remains largely untamed. For the play is riven with dichotomy. It envelops us in darkness and evil yet unfurls some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry. Macbeth is both brutal warrior and sensitive poet. The play’s short length and fast pace suggest stark production values. There is no hero, or, conversely, no villain. Hamlet has his Claudius, Othello his Iago, and Lear contains any number of villains. Macbeth, however, has only Macbeth. Herein lies the play’s enigma, and also its key.

The dichotomies rife within Macbeth likewise abound in Macbeth himself. He is a virtual killing machine who is perpetually in fear; a man repulsed by his own actions; loyal subject turned usurper of the throne. Brutal and sensitive – a murderer with a moral compass similar to our own – Macbeth must carry his play in a way no other Shakespearean character must. For in Macbeth, Shakespeare quite purposefully crafted a character so divided within himself as to be capable of embodying the roles of both hero and villain. This bestowing of two roles upon a single character is exclusive to Macbeth among Shakespeare’s works. While many Shakespearean characters can be termed “hero-villains,” none of them is both protagonist and antagonist solely and simultaneously, as is Macbeth.

Richard III is another case wherein one might apply the term hero-villain. Indeed, he is, like Macbeth, the sole main character of his play. While Richard is endowed with a showmanship that amuses us and his histrionics certainly carry forth the action of his play – at times even gaining our admiration – he is by no means a hero. Nor does Richard possess the duality of character and division of self that characterizes Macbeth and, in effect, creates in Macbeth a one-man tragedy.

The distinctive characteristics of a Shakespeare play often reveal its underlying meaning, for Shakespeare wove theme and substance into dramatic structure. Here we are dealing with a complex unity and duality of character – the one-man tragedy, as I have termed it – as the predominant discrete characteristic. Since we can locate theme within dramatic structure, it would follow that once we have learned how Shakespeare crafted Macbeth’s duality, we can begin to flush out the potential meaning behind it. Macbeth’s dramatic structure is so singularly focused that it conspires to fuse hero and villain together in one man. So predominant a character is Macbeth that we have nowhere else to turn; the minor characters appear to be purposely underdeveloped so that our allegiance can reside with none other than Macbeth. And the speed of the play sweeps us up, its momentum inescapable.

But it is Shakespeare’s use of the soliloquy and the aside that effects Macbeth’s duality by revealing his inner struggle and creating a bond with the audience. Our exposure to his struggle and the torment he suffers allows us to feel sympathy for Macbeth even when he commits villainous deeds. For unlike Richard, who revels in his malice, Macbeth is gravely disturbed by his propensity toward evil and despises his sins.

The dynamics of the Elizabethan stage fostered an intimate connection between the actor and spectator. With the platform extending well into the audience, which surrounded the stage on three sides, the illusive line separating player and playgoer that was drawn with the birth of the proscenium did not exist. Hence, the theatrical conventions of the soliloquy and the aside were natural opportunities for actor and spectator to join forces, often to such a marked degree that audience members held a participatory role in the play. As integral elements of Elizabethan stage dynamics, Shakespeare fine-tuned the soliloquy and aside to manipulate audience response. In Macbeth in particular, the title character’s soliloquies breed an intimacy that draws us into his inner struggle and aligns us with his point of view, encouraging and holding our sympathy. Thus, through his artful use of the Elizabethan stage conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, Shakespeare effects the duality of character in Macbeth that invites us to identify with the hero-villain and experience his plight as our own. Rather than having solved our problem, however, this would seem to add to the enigma surrounding Macbeth, for identifying with the hero-villain creates a predicament all its own – one that negates the very parameters and function of the traditional tragic form. For if the character with whom we identify is both protagonist and antagonist, we are being asked to do something that tragedy has never asked of us before: to identify with the villain. Traditionally the villain is a scapegoat of sorts, allowing the audience to identify and place evil outside itself. When hero and villain are separate characters, this is accomplished quite easily. Not so Macbeth. If we, as spectators, identify and align ourselves with Macbeth the hero, mustn’t we also identify and align ourselves with Macbeth the villain? In all fairness, the answer is no. Shakespeare easily could have released us from responsibility and made Macbeth wholly unsympathetic as the drama proceeded and his crimes were carried out. But he did not. That would have rendered an allegory about a bad man performing evil acts. This is not drama; it especially is not Shakespeare. In Macbeth, Shakespeare crafts a single character to serve as both hero and villain simultaneously, and to the very end – a vulnerable man with whom the audience can sympathize, in spite of his brutal deeds. This true hero-villain must place and identify evil within himself. Because he is repulsed by that evil – showing his morality to be similar to our own – we identify with Macbeth and must also look inward to place and identify evil there. Shakespeare thus breaks the ritual of catharsis – that golden chariot meant to whisk us away after we have endured the tragic unfolding – and leaves us with something else entirely: we dwell (this is, reside) within the play as active participants, and after it is over we dwell (that is, ponder) upon the play and our complicity as human beings capable of dark and unwholesome acts. This reversal of the tragic formula is the source of, and solution to, the enigma of Macbeth.

In composing Macbeth, Shakespeare meant to turn traditional tragedy on its head and demand that we look within to acknowledge that part of ourselves we are so loathe to see. For the exploration of darker subject matters characterized Shakespeare’s mature tragedies. This period in the playwright’s career rendered a complex portrait of the human spirit, perhaps best expressed by Saint Paul, whose writings were familiar to the Elizabethans: “For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not do, that I do.” Examining a dualism that would influence Renaissance artists and scholars for years to come, Shakespeare revolutionized Elizabethan drama and shaped theatre history by developing an “inner tragedy” of the self – a coarse and honest examination of the human will.

By exploiting Macbeth’s duality of character, Shakespeare created an inner tragedy that spiraled out of traditional tragic ritual to express the Renaissance ideal of self-examination.”

The concept of TIME in Macbeth

From Geraldo U. de Sousa’s Introduction to: “At Home in Shakespeare’s Tragedies”

“Without resolving the much-debated contradictions in the Poetics, I believe that in Shakespeare’s tragedies, scenery, in the strict sense of lived space and living space, does indeed become an integral and indispensable part of Shakespeare’s vision of the tragic experience. Dwelling places and images of places become intimately intertwined with the “passions of living.” Therefore, like Bert States, I propose to examine “scenery as our total impression of a play’s world”; States adds “We are not interested in scene design per se, as distinguished from other elements, but in seeing everything on the stage scenically: that is, as a shifting image in time and space, formed by the interplay of visual and aural events.”

From The New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Macbeth (ed. A.R. Braunmuller)

Braunmuller writing on familial succession and nature of Time in Macbeth

“As Macbeth understands the sisters words, deceptive words “That palter with us in a double sense” (5.8.20), they suggest he will gain the throne through interrupting generation, through the stopping human containuation in time, though he rarely reflects upon the corollary that he himself would or might thus lack a lineal successor. Consequently, he envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration of the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well

It were done quickly: if the 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.

For a moment, these hypothetical thoughts dissuade him:

                                                 But in these cases

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice

To our own lips.

Lady Macbeth soon ridicules (1.7.35 ff) her husband’s anxiety about the consequences of his actions and persuades him to “screw” his “courage to the sticking-place’ (1.7.60) because she has already accepted (in Act I, Scene 5) that regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.

‘Rapt by witch-inspired (or witch-encouraged) royal visions, Macbeth writes an account of his meeting that similarly inspires his wife. He serves her as the witches served him, and she responds as he did:

Thy letters have transported me beyond

This ignorant present, and I feel now

The future in the instant

This extraordinary remark, anachronistically condensing the future into the present, hints how time and human experience will be compressed and squeezed later in the play, so squeezed and compressed that the be-all will be the end-all, and time itself a syllable: Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this pretty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time. For Macbeth, repeated syllables (‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”) represent time’s slowing and, at ‘the last syllable’, time’s end…”

“If, in Macbeth, kings are fathers of son-successors and of children – subjects and if, ‘In Macbeth…. usurpation is imagined as an attack on the order of time itself’, it follows that the play must consider the impossible possibility of unpainted children because through procreation, through becoming parents, humanity ordinarily takes its revenge on time’s passing and on the inevitability of any generation’s death and every generation’s replacement by another generation also destined for death and replacement. If ‘the order of time itself’ is to be attacked, so must the order of procreation also become vulnerable and put into question. Macbeth’s need to make the moment the be-all and end-all, to condense future and hence duration into the instant, means human procreation must cease – in fact, cannot exist. Lady Macbeth’s ambitious hope (1.5.54-6) compresses the future into the instant. Her husband’s acts compress past, present, and future into one timeless, unchanging moment. Lady Macbeth’s hope and Macbeth’s acts are secular and, for the Christian audience, sacrilegious versions of the world’s end”

“Macbeth is DEEPLY interested in the nature of time – time as experienced by the person (our individual progress from life to death), time experienced by the family (an indificudal person’s perpetuation through child-bearing), time as experienced by the state (the succession of one monarch by another), and finally, and largely, time as we experience the play’s performance.”

“Dismissing his lords and ladies until evening comes and it is time for the banquet celebrating and validating his kingship, Macbeth orders:

Let every man be master of his time

Till seven at night; to make our society

The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself

Till supper-time alone.

Characteristically and disastrously, he does not acknowledge that ‘A man is master of his liberty; / Time is their Master’ (Comedy of Errors): time masters human beings (we die), but time also masters our disposition of our ‘free’ time, our liberty, our freedom of choice…”

“Macbeth is the third shortest of the plays included in the First Folio; only The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest are shorter and Julius Caesar is the only other tragedy with fewer than 3000 lines. Brief as a play, Macbeth also has many brief scenes. Traditional division produces scenes which average about 75 lines: ‘This multiplicity of scenes must be a deliberate dramatic device to give an impression of rapid and bustling action, as in Antony and Cleopatra, where scenes average ‘no more than 73 lines’. The ‘shortest scene in Macbeth have 12 and 10 lines…”

“Event and image – ‘daggers, murder, ghosts, and enchantment’ – crowd one another and subdue Enlightenment rationality.”