Of the thousands of students shortly who will sit their GCSEs in English literature, as well as the multiple thousands of students from the past who already have, the vast majority will discuss the purpose of the play Macbeth as a warning against corrupted ambition, an exhortation in maintaining the natural order, an ode to an institution: the monarchy. Ostensibly, to the common eye, this encapsulates Shakespeare’s intentions aptly, but if we look deeper into the text, I think we see a play characterised by a defeatist, fatalist tone, where society is plagued by inherent malevolency, violence and an inability to extricate itself from incompetency. We don’t see a play exuding a moral voice, but a play delivering a brutal indictment of society.
It is by no accident that the most famous section of the play is Macbeth’s seriously disillusioned soliloquy: ’Out out, brief candle.’ The death of Lady Macbeth is perhaps the straw that breaks the camel‘s back, the pressures Macbeth has endured to attain his specious power, culminating in his confusion and bewilderment and despondency at how it has all turned out. But it is not so much Macbeth’s guilt ridden mind forcing his lament, it is the fact that life has turned out to be rather disappointing, and pathetic. He realises he has been mislead by the illusion of power, that he has fallen to the temptations of greed. But Macbeth could be forgiven for getting a few things mixed up. After all, the violence characterising his world his lauded, but ultimately ambiguous, and who wouldn’t want to be the top of the tree, when it is insistently advertised as being so important?
Shakespeare could easily have had the witches as fiends of Macbeth’s subconscious that equivocate and purposefully disrupt his morality, but their indubitable physical certitude verified by the more moralistic Banquo, serves to provide Shakespeare with a perspicuous opportunity to use the witches as symbols of society’s ills, and not simply of the individual. The witches are the manifestation of selfishness, greed, cruelty, all that is taboo, but nonetheless, real. They represent temptation. They are the reverberation of Original sin, personified. They are the darkness that drives the men using the youthful harlots in Blake’s ‘London’. They are what is deep inside the mouth of The Lord of the Flies. But they are also representative of a mind manacled by the inconsistencies of societal systems that are inherently flawed, of a mind that cannot escape such blight.
Shakespeare well understood this presence. The illusion of a separate, benevolent natural order, is immediately dispelled, by having the weird sisters open the play, but perhaps more critically, by the fallacious embodiment of a divine right. This is most certainly satirised with an incompetent Duncan, a fool falling for treason not once, but twice. Even if Duncan is a morally good person, he is like a lamb to the slaughter in a world such as ours, a world where the boundaries of acceptable violence are shockingly nebulous. Besides, surely Shakespeare would’ve been well aware of the inanity of the monarchy, exaggerated by James I’s ridiculousness, a man obsessed by the supernatural and delusional in his ambitions of religious piety. The acceptance of Shakespeare’s pandering to James, I think denies Shakespeare his rightful status as a genius of literature. Of course, his newly formed company relied on the King’s monetary support, but like all great artists, opportunity for satire would have been impossible to ignore.
Elisabeth Bowling superbly identifies the lack of restoration of a natural order at the play’s denouement with several pieces of undeniable evidence: Malcolm, the rightful heir, but son of a fool, provides little confidence that anything will change; the linking of words and setting from the first scene presents a cyclical narrative arc; the deferment of the greatest character in the story, Macduff, to Malcolm, is the story’s ultimate satire, highlighting the absurdity of the natural order in the denial of a man infinitely more suitable to lead the country; and most importantly, there is no resolution as to the presence and fate of the weird sisters. The natural order is not an axiomatic good.
It seems that many of the most revered works of English Literature explore similar resignation. The acute despondency the reader is left with at the end of the Lord of the Flies, with the absurdly ironic naval officer incredulous at the boys not being more organised, berating their un British like behaviour, highlights the certainty that there’s always going to be a Jack. This apathy is sharply felt at the end of reading Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, where an intensely insensitive society forges the character of Blanche, and her tormentors. It is not communal indifference to the way a society functions that destroys Blanche, but more their ignorance of there being anything wrong with it, a conclusion similarly understood by the metonymic Nick Guest in Holinghurst’s ‘In the Line of Beauty’. It is this awareness of the impossibility of change that Camu’s Mersault rebels against, but without success, in ‘The Outsider’. The list goes on.
Despite Macduff’s victory, the audience is left without hope for redemption. It is no accident that Macduff doesn’t take the reins, because it allows Shakespeare to himself equivocate with his audience, allowing only the more astute to understand that the cycle will only continue, an aporia for tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow.
This essay will be added to CLOUD 9 WRITING, a platform for students to view essays and creative writing that explore topics with depth and sophistication.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for English teaching and educational resources.