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Malcolm II., succeeded to the throne on his grandfather's death, in 1033 : he reigned only six years. MACBETH, his near relation, also a grandchild of Malcolm II., though by the mother's side, was stirred up by ambition to contest the throne with the possessor. The LADY OF MACBETH also, whose real name was Graoch, had deadly injuries to avenge on the reigning prince. She was the granddaughter of Kenneth IV., killed in 1003, fighting against Malcolm II. ; and other causes for revenge animated the mind of her who has been since painted as the sternest of women. The old annalists add some instigations of a supernatural kind to the influence of a vindictive woman over an ambitious husband. Three women, of more than human stature and beauty, appeared to MACBETH in a dream or vision, and hailed him successively by the titles of Thane of Cromarty, Thane of Moray, which the King afterwards bestowed on him, and finally by that of King of Scots ; this dream, it is said, inspired him with the seductive hopes so well expressed in the drama.
“MACBETH broke no law of hospitality in his attempt on DUNCAN's life. He attacked and slew the king at a place called Bothgowan, or the Smith's House, near Elgin, in 1039, and not, as has been supposed, in his own castle of Inverness. The act was bloody, as was the complexion of the times ; but, in very truth, the claim of MACBETH to the throne, according to the rule of Scottish succession, was better than that of DUNCAN. As a king, the tyrant so much exclaimed against was, in reality, a firm, just, and equitable prince. Apprehensions of danger from a party which MALCOLM, the eldest son of the slaughtered DUNCAN, had set on foot in Northumberland, and still maintained in Scotland, seem, in process of time, to have soured the temper of MACBETH, and rendered him
i This view is confirmed by Mr. Freeman (Norm. Conquest, ii. p. 55) All genuine Scottish tradition points to the reign of Macbeth as a period of unusual peace and prosperity in that disturbed land.”
formidable to his nobility. Against MACDUFF, in particular, the powerful Maormor of Fife, he had uttered some threats which occasioned that chief to fly from the court of Scotland. Urged by this new counsellor, SIWARD, the Danish Earl of Northumberland, invaded Scotland in the year 1054, displaying his banner in behalf of the banished MALCOLM. MACBETH engaged the foe in the neighbourhood of his celebrated castle of Dunsinane. He was defeated, but escaped from the battle, and was slain at Lumphanan in 1056."
The first account of an actual representation of Macbeth is given in Dr. Forman’s diary for the year 1610. Accordingly, we may assume that it was written at some period between 1605 and 1610. It appears to make hardly any reference to contemporary history. But there was one great crime, of less recent date, which seems to have been much on Shakspere's mind at this time. This was the murder of Henry Darnley, titular king of Scotland, in the year 1567 (when Shakspere was only three years old), which may probably, about the time of James' accession, have become better known to Englishmen in all its extraordinary and romantic details. We are therefore not surprised to see that the murder of kings, which makes up so large a part of the Stuart history, was a very prominent subject in Shakspere's later tragedies. Gervinus has directed attention to this in the case of Hamlet ; where the wife of the murdered king actually marries his assassin, just as Mary married Bothwell. So in Macbeth there seems to be more than one covert allusion to these events. For MACBETH, in Act iii. Sc. 4, complains that dead men should rise to push him from his stool ; just as Mary and Bothwell were astonished to find that the dead Darnley had more power to overthrow them than he would have had when alive. And the idea of the “naked new-born babe' crying for pity on the murdered DUNCAN in Act i. Sc. 7, strongly reminds us of the banner of the Confederates against Mary, on which was inscribed the body of a murdered man, with a child kneeling by it and uttering the words, ‘Judge and avenge my cause, O Lord !' (See the note on the passage.)
Shakspere naturally takes notice of none of the palliatiorrs of MACBETH's crime which we have quoted from Sir Walter Scott. But, with a high poetic instinct, he brings out what we may call the secondary causes for his action. One of the chief of these is the violent contrast between MACBETH, as a representative of the rude old Celtic times, and the kings of England and Scotland as types of Saxon or Saxonizing grace and refinement. The beginning of the 11th century was a time of saintly kings. Edward the Confessor in England has, according to the play, a divine spirit of prophecy, and can heal diseases by the touch of his hand. (Act iv. Sc. 3.) So DUNCAN has borne his faculties meekly, and is utterly clear in the discharge of his high duties : he is gracious and graceful ; he weeps for the very wantonness of joy ; his very horses are the
minions of their kind.' To all these qualities those of MACBETH are opposed : the usurper is a warrior of the old rough-handed type, a "bridegroom of Bellona,' a hater of English epicurism. He also contrasts with the refined and cultivated king ('Duncan of the pure breath,' as he is called by a Gaelic bard) in that he is a true Highlander ; a man of most shaping and active imagination, particularly as regards gloomy images. A night-shriek or a tale of horror would set his hair on end; he is just the man for second sight and ghost seeing. For such a temper there is no need to suppose a previous course of ambitious thought, nor even an overpowering outward temptation : the merest hint and suggestion from others is sufficient to inflame him. The idea of royalty once presented to his mind wraps it in an instant blaze of frightful imaginations : the end and the means are present with him at once ; what comes over his soul is not so much a plan for a murder, as a scaring image of what
must be done before his desire can be accomplished. Duncan is in his path and must be removed ; and for dethroned kings the grave is the only prison. ' Nor can he control or command his countenance : his face is like a book in which strange matters may be read. And thus he is a tool in the hands of his lady; whose whole thoughts, from her childlessness, are bound up in him ; who considers him worthier of the crown than DUNCAN, and is prepared to dare all in order to achieve greatness for him. In her hands he is like wax to be moulded at her pleasure : she can misguide his cloudy and bewildered mind as completely as Iago does the nobler simplicity and straightforwardness of Othello. He consents to her solicitations so far as to promise to speak further on the matter : she exaggerates the concession, and represents it as an oath of the most binding kind, which he is a coward if he breaks ; and his brain is too puzzled to refute her by the simple fact that he had not sworn. When even these persuasions fail, she strikes out a plan for concealing the murder, whose ingenuity fairly carries the dull yet imaginative man off his feet. She proposes to contrive that the blame shall fall upon the warders : and a trick, which would not draw the most obtuse inquirer off the scent, appears to MACBETH such a masterpiece of craft and inventiveness, that his scruples vanish in a kind of rapture, and he is ready for his bloody task.
From the instant when the access of religious terror which follows the deed is over, and the grooms are slain by MACBETH'S hand, the usurper begins on a new career, in which the positions of the wife and husband are inverted. He now becomes the more forward of the two to plan the crimes necessary for their joint security. At the moment when she gets so far as to hint that BANQUO'S life is ‘not eterne,' he has already made all the preparations for his murder, of which he wishes her to be ignorant : about the MACDUFFS he does not speak to her at all. Thus she feels herself no longer necessary to him
for action : and so far is he from being knit or drawn to her by the past, that, when he does cast a thought backwards, it is with a longing that he could change places with DUNCAN. Thus forced into a separate life of her own, she settles down into the blackness of despair, while he is making rapid advance towards a 'security' which defies God and man. She is haunted by dreams of DUNCAN and of the family of MACDUFF; while he regrets only that he was too late to cut off the father, as well as the wife and children. And thus the play draws towards its close; she dying by her own hand, while he is cheered almost into frankness by the prospect of bold straightforward action, to which he has been so long a stranger, and by the chance of meeting his enemies face to face; and he falls at last, not by the felon's death which he had deserved by a hundred crimes, but that of a soldier, which he would himself have chosen, if choice had been left him.
To Macbeth, as well as to the other great tragedies of Shakspere, applies the remark so profoundly made by Goethe, that Shakspere's tragic situations always spring from a conflict between the 'pretended freedom of our will and the necessary course of the whole.' MACBETH has received the assurance that he is fated to be king: he knows also that 'if chance will have him king, then chance may crown him.' Yet, like Jehu in the Book of Kings, he wilfully determines to forestall his destiny; and, as after-events 'avenge the blood of Jezreel’l upon the Israelitish king, so MACBETH also brings into being a fatal chain of consequences, each grounded and rooted in the natural course of events, as following upon his violation of an eternal law, and each plunging him in deeper crime and more irredeemable detestation. Yet how absolutely needless such a conflict was, may be seen in the most conclusive way by the contrast of the simple-hearted and honourable BANQUO ; on whom, up
1 See Hosea i. 4.