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may also be taken as in favour of a later date, as Shakespeare is generally considered to have written this play in 1608. There is no reason, however, why he should not have been familiar with the subject matter of the play long before writing it.
The internal evidence derived from the metre of the play cannot, of course, decide between years so close together. The number of run-on, and short and irregular lines, and the dramatic vigour of the play, merely prove it to have been written in the later middle period of the author's active life.
The arguments in favour of the theory that some parts, particularly the Hecate scenes were interpolated at a later date, are given in the chapter on the “ Source of the Play.”
The Characters of the Play.
Macbeth.— Taine, in his account of English literature, describes the play of Macbeth as the tragedy of a mania, and that mania ambition. In no other of Shakespeare's plays is the one object so plainly kept in view, and the student of Macbeth sees laid out before him the process, step by step, by which the vice of over-vaulting ambition seizes gradually upon a noble nature-at first to be strenuously resisted, then entertained, and finally to be encouraged to such an extent.as to try to overpower every hindrance to its progress, and to lead by murderous paths up to the final and awful catastrophe of disillusion and death.
In the development of this subject, Macbeth himself not only plays the leading part, but all the other characters in the play hold value only in reference to the share they play as instruments in the various deeds with which he is connected. In discussing, therefore, the characters of the play, Macbeth himself must have the predominant place.
A dissection of Macbeth's character may perhaps best be made in three parts: first, as it was before it was prompted by the predictions of the witches; secondly, as it appears in the course of his first crime—the murder of Duncan; and thirdly, as he showed himself after the crime was over, and its immediate fruits obtained.
(1) Before the predictions.—Macbeth is first pictured to us as a victorious general, meeting with the greatest bravery the enemies of his country, and seeking to gain nothing for himself
in the competition with Sweno, but everything to the general use. Reckless of himself, he has roused his men, tired after their struggle with Macdonwald, and
“Point against point rebellious, arm 'gainst arm,” has won a second victory over the Norweyan king.
Whatever ambition he possessed was the true and praiseworthy ambition of the subject, as the words of Lady Macbeth show :
"Yet I do fear thy nature;
And yet wouldst wrongly win :" although the last sentence shows that she herself had recog. nised the seeds of a more vicious ambition in her husband's mind.
(2) The first step in crime.—This more vicious ambition is awakened first by the witches' predictions of present further honours, and future kingship; and the immediate fulfilment of the former tends to strengthen Macbeth's belief in these supernatural agencies. The eternal struggle between virtue and vice now takes place. He immediately becomes lost in thought, and alternately welcomes and rejects the hopes of future majesty
“ This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good; if ill,
given me earnest of success,
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair?” He sees clearly enough, however, the loyal man's path, and knows that “if chance will have him king, why chance may crown him,” without any stir on his own part.
The evil thought lost for a time, he becomes once more the loyal gentleman, only to be re-awakened by the promotion of Malcolm, and he is at once more than half-ready to listen to the temptations of Lady Macbeth, whose first suggestions he does not brush angrily aside, but proposes to discuss further.
Away from her the better nature once more asserts itself. The honours he has gained seem for the moment to satisfy him, and the murder of the gentle Duncan will be a crime doubly heinous by the hands of a kinsman and a subject. Knowing clearly the inevitable result of his crime, and that
even-handed justice Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice To our own lips,”
he will proceed no further in the business, but is quickly lashed by the valour of Lady Macbeth's tongue into acceptance of her suggestion of murder, and of her plan of carrying it out.
The unbalanced state of his mind now begins to show itself in strange hallucinations, and the vision of the fatal dagger leads him to the crime. Horror of the deed at first shows itself, and the self-accusation of the murderer he cannot at once repress.
He is too unnerved to complete the steps necessary to hide the crime, and leaves this to his physically weaker wife. This, however, is the last of his weakness, for henceforward he becomes as profound a dissimulator as Lady Macbeth herself, and proceeds step by step up the ladder of a false ambition, careless of the cost.
In this stage of his career, therefore, we may say that a vicious ambition, nourished by a strong belief in the supernatural, and aided by circumstance, has gradually developed, under the ceaseless promptings of a loved and loving wife, equally ambitious with himself, but more unscrupulous.
(3) The effect.—Once embarked upon his course he shows now no further compunction. The promise to Banquo rankles in his mind, and Banquo and his son must be, and are,
removed. He needs now no promptings from Lady Macbeth, she must even be innocent of the knowledge of his further crimes. Banquo is murdered, but yet the dissimulating Macbeth takes every precaution to be cleared of any suspicion, and at the solemn supper pretends solicitude for Banquo's absence. The torture of his brain, however, once more brings into shape the thoughts of his mind, and for the time he trembles at the visions that he sees, but recovers as they vanish, and determines to hesitate no more.
"I am in blood Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” His trust in the supernatural leads him to the witches again, and the words they give him strengthen him in his determination. The flight of Macduff makes him resolute on his course, and impatient of every obstacle in his way. Lady Macduff and her children become at once the objects of his vengeance.
Now, however, the shadow of retribution begins to fall upon him, but he shows a bold front, encouraged by the predictions of the witches. Undeterred by the defection of his soldiers, almost untroubled by the loss of his wife, he fights gallantly against the greatest odds, and does not succumb even when the approach of Birnam wood and the news of the manner of Macduff's birth, show him that the witches have paltered with him in a double sense. Deserted by his followers, deserted by Fate itself, he shows his natural bravery even in the ignominy of his death.
In this stage, therefore, vaulting ambition, combined with implicit trust in the supernatural predictions of the witches, obtains full sway over his mind, and leaves him nothing of his former manhood save physical courage. This it is that leads him to remove callously every hindrance to his ambition, and to fight even against Fate itself.