An exploration of Shakespearean tragedy: The fall of Macbeth and the synergism with Christian theology.

Note : The photo used here for this blog post is from the web.

 

Introduction :

Shakespeare’s play of Macbeth has attained several applause’s for the way Macbeth falls down as a tragic hero due to his own ambition. He eliminates King Duncan for the throne without any rationality.  Macbeth is considered as ‘the greatest of moralistic plays’ (Knight W., The Wheel of Fire)  but if one really knew the actual story of Macbeth, one maybe astonished with the Shakespeare altered several of the important historical facts of Macbeth. There is a certain Biblical echo throughout the play written by Shakespeare; as a parallel can be drawn between Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and the three weird sisters along with Adam, Eve and the serpent in Christian theology. It may be so as “Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic.” (Colstion, K. “Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin”) as Shakespeare is trying to portray a certain kind of a Christian moral here by retelling the story of Adam and Eve through the play, Macbeth.

Why is it a Christian Moral?

Firstly, a lot of historical Facts have been changed in the play of Macbeth.  For example, King Duncan wasn’t murdered by Macbeth and his “demonic wife…Macbeth, Banquo and other Scottish lords…acted…to eliminate Duncan because he had allowed law and order to deteriorate” (Smith, R). Thus, it is clear that King Duncan isn’t as ideal as he is portrayed to be in the play. There was a certain kind of motive that Shakespeare had in his mind when he had written the play of Macbeth. Holinshed has stated, “To be brief, such were the worthie doings and princelie acts of this Mackbeth in the administration of the realm, that if he had attained thereunto by rightfull means, and continued in uprightness of justice as he began, till the end of his reign, he might well have been numbered amongst the most noble princes that anywhere had reigned. He made many wholesome laws and statutes for the public weale of his subjects” (Shakespeare the Christian, pp. 159-50). Thus, Macbeth had actually been a just king and he had ruled the country for several years in peace. Shakespeare had not written Macbeth as a historical play citing facts and figures, rather it was more of a Christian based- moralistic play where Macbeth got what he deserved because he had defied and angered God by killing the king as the king represented a figure that was chosen by God during the Shakespearean era. Thus by listening to his wife and the three weird sisters, he had angered God. In Christianity, the “most common old testament sense, sin…[is] rebellion. Thus, in killing…Duncan,Macbeth is making war on reality, which flows from God.” (Colstion, K. “Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin.”) This rebellious nature of Macbeth can also be seen when he states,

“I will tomorrow,

And betimes I will, to the weird sisters.

More shall they speak :for now I am bent to know

By the worst means, the worst; for mine own good,

All causes shall give way…

Strange things I have in head , that will to hand,

Which must be acted, ere they may be scanned.” (3.4.130-4,137-8)

Through this, one can note that Macbeth is very driven by his ambition and that ambition is none other than the position of the King which rightfully belongs to Duncan in the play. Nevertheless, despite the orders that are placed by God, Macbeth decides to rebel against it and the consequences of his actions leads to his ultimate downfall.

Moreover, Macbeth also listens to the voices of the three sisters. In Christianity, Old Testament states, “There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.” (Bible, King James Version, p.24448). Thus it is clear that again, through the act of listening to the weird sisters, Macbeth – like Adam has defied God’s orders. This in itself is an act of sin. Macbeth is tempted to believe what the three weird sisters state and he isn’t oblivious that it might be an evil prophecy. This is noted when Macbeth states,

“Two truths are told

As happy prologues to the swelling act

Of the imperial theme.- I thank you gentlemen-

This supernatural soliciting

Cannot be ill ; cannot be good. If ill,

Why hath it given me earned of success,

Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.” (1.3.130-135)

Despite knowing what is good for him and what isn’t, Macbeth decides to confide about his fears to Lady Macbeth through a letter. It is interesting to note that Macbeth knows what is good for him but he still falls into temptation that leads to his downfall. Just as Adam who ate the forbidden fruit that enraged God; knowing the fact that it would displease God, eats it anyway. Macbeth knew what was in his best interest and so did Adam.

“All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” (Shakespeare,W., Sonnet 129).

Shakespeare makes a clear note of this through the play and also notes that the man knows what’s good for him and still loses his will power thereby shunning the heaven as they don’t know how to control their desires which eventually leads to their demise and paves their way to the gateway of hell. But the question still remains as to why Shakespeare portrays Macbeth as a tragic hero who falls into the allure of Lady Macbeth, therefore committing the deed. In the Arden Shakespeare, Muir restates the interpretation that is opinionated by J. C. Curry in Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns (1937) that Macbeth becomes evil the instant when Lady Macbeth formulates and strategizes a specific plan. The interpretation has a subliminal, deeper meaning and interpretation as suggested by Hooker stating that sin does not work by reasoning but it works as a habit. “Macbeth commits the sin of murder because he is a seasoned killer: his appetite is formed for violent action. Once he smells a feasible plan, he acts.” (Colstein, K. Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin).

The only fear that Macbeth has is the fear of being caught redhanded. This is evident when Macbeth states, “If we should fail?” (1.7.59) Lady Macbeth mocks at him and restates the same line. “We fail?” (1.7.60) and asks Macbeth to “…account thy love” (1.7.39). Lady Macbeth acts “like the Miltonian Eve…Macbeth’s free fall into the void of sin is in the main insufficiently motivated, which is why modern performances es­pecially emphasize the sexual and manipulative influence of Lady Macbeth.”  (Colstein,K. Macbeth and the tragedy of Sin.)

On the other hand, Lady Macbeth is tempted to be queen and sees the crown as “the ornament of life” (1.7.42). She has given into the prophecy by the three weird sisters just as Eve had given into the temptation by the serpent on the taste of the apple. This is evident in the Bible as well, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.” (Bible, King James Version, p.9).  Both Eve and Lady Macbeth saw the prophecies as an extravagant luxury to the eyes. They both had given into temptation and were ever so ready to defy God. Shakespeare has subtly hinted this fact of Christian theology through the behavior of Lady Macbeth. In addition, it is interesting to note the way Lady Macbeth persuades her husband into killing Duncan and it is only after he kills Duncan, he would be considered a Man. This is evident in the lines as stated by Lady Macbeth where she states,

“When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And to be more than you were, you would be so much more the man. (1.7.50-52).

Her behavior of persuading her husband to commit the deed can be correlated to Eve when “she took the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Bible, King James Version). This is also noted when Lady Macbeth tries to make her husband look through her perspective just like Eve when she states to him, “Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters. To beguile the time, Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, Your hand, your tongue; look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.73-78)

The concept of Serpent and asking her husband to be like the serpent has a connection with the serpent that persuades Eve and makes her look at the fruit as the blessed knowledgeable fruit of all. Just like how the serpent deceives Eve into displeasing God, Lady Macbeth also asks her husband to be a serpent and deceive the honorable King Duncan. Shakespeare did this on purpose to emphasize on the biblical teachings and this play is also considered to have “the most insistent religious language.” (Stachniewski, J., p.169). Furthermore, Lady Macbeth refers to her sexual nature a lot of times after she receives the letter from Macbeth regarding the prophecy by the three weird sisters. She states,

“Come, you Spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty!Come, to my woman’s breasts

And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers.” (1.5.40–43, 47–48)

She constantly refers to idea of having sex with the dark spirits so that they give her what she wants. She is very impressed with the very thought of being queen and wants to be crowned. She sees nothing else. Similarly Eve doesn’t see anything else besides the fruit tree, “being a tree a tree to be desired to make one wise” (Bible, King James Version). Moreover, as the play proceeds one will note that Macbeth has gone completely out of control and even Lady Macbeth is unable to stop him, especially during the moment when she asks him to stop murdering more people. This is evident when she states, “You must leave this” (3.2.37) when Macbeth states about murdering Fleance and Banquo. Lady Macbeth tries to control her husband but she can’t and Macbeth ultimately dominates her after she lures him into killing King Ducan. This can be seen as a punishment by God to Lady Macbeth just as God punished Eve and God stated, “You will want to control your husband but he will dominate you.” (Genesis 3:2). Similarly, Macbeth refuses to stop and continues to murder including Macduff’s wife and son. Moreover, the atmosphere surrounding the Garden of Eden in the background of Adam and Eve also strongly resonates in the play as well. This is noted when King Duncan states,

“This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.” (1.6.1-3)

This in itself can be viewed and characterized with the scent of Garden of Eden. Even Banquo agrees to what the King has to state and says, “…the heaven’s breath smells wooingly here.” (1.6.5). Additionally, just like in Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve feel ashamed when they realize the truth of their nakedness. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” (Bible, King James Version). The feeling of being ashamed and shameful for eating the fruit and realizing what it has costed them, the knowledge of being naked with each other can be connected with the feeling of shame and guilt that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel later on. The feeling of guilt and shame is noted within the dialogue that is exchanged between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth which goes as follows-

Macbeth

One cried, ‘God bless us, and ‘Amen’ the other,

As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.

Listening their fear, I could not say ‘Amen’

When they did say, ‘God bless us’

Lady

Consider it not so deeply (2.2.27-31)

The fact that Lady Macbeth asked Macbeth to not consider the good will of the people too deeply does signify the fact that Lady Macbeth feels just as guilty as Macbeth.

Lastly, the sins of wrong-doing is death and that’s also stated in Christian theology, “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die.” (Bible, King James Version) and this is exactly what happens with Macbeth when he tells to Seyton, “I am sick at heart… I have lived long enough” (5.3.19-22). This signifies the downfall of Macbeth here and his will to not live any longer because he defied God and the only way to redeem himself was through death. Macbeth tells this to a person named Seyton which foreshadows Satan or the serpent in the Christian theology.

Conclusion :

Thus, just as we have Adam and Eve that gave into temptation by Satan to achieve something of greater power by their disobedience to God (which ultimately led to Adam’s downfall in front of God); Macbeth and Lady Macbeth also give in to the temptation by the three weird sisters to also achieve something of a greater power, which happens to be the crown of a just King. The setting, theme, behavior of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth can help one to draw parallels to Adam and Eve presented by the Christian theology. Shakespeare tried to convey a biblical and a moralistic story through the story of Macbeth which is actually a story retold from the Bible. What we have noted here is a story of Adam and Eve retold and interwoven within the play of Macbeth thus conveying a moralistic theme of sin, evil, right, wrong and goodness by Shakespeare.

References :

Colston, Ken. “Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin.” Logos : A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 13.4 (2010): 60-95. Web.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1959. Print.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire; Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy, with Three New Essays. London: Methuen, 1965. Print.

“King James Bible.” Official King James Bible Online: Authorized King James Version (KJV). N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. London: Arden Shakespeare/Thomson Learning, 2015. Print. Third Ser

Smith, Ralph. “Macbeth and the Fall of Adam.” Theopolis Institute | Bible. Liturgy. Culture.N.p., 16 Apr. 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

“Sonnet CXXIX.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Oxquarry Books Ltd, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Stachniewski, John. “Calvinist Psychology in “Macbeth”” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988): 169-89. Web.

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