First Witch: When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch: When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch: That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch:Where the place?
Second Witch: Upon the heath.
Third Witch: There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch: I come, Grey-Malkin.
Second Witch: Padock calls!
Third Witch: Anon!
All: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
From its opening, Macbeth confronts its audience with an enormous question. Do you believe in magic? Do you have faith in black magic? Do you believe in witches and witchcraft? This is a play that sets itself in motion as a spell. It creates a world that is out to agitate and antagonise, unsettle and disturb. This is a universe where the abnormal is the norm, the paranormal making a parallel system of beliefs to the believable. It is instantaneously an attack upon the rational minds of its observers. The play Macbeth is a theatre out to rewrite all rules of dramatic engagement. It does not lull us into a series of shocks. Rather it erupts – it demands attention – it repels – it is from the outset a play of extremes, and its politics reflect that extremism. Nothing is certain in this play, not even the most accepted of divisions. All is in turmoil – in chaos – in savage conflict. The play begins with an enormous blast on a desolate space – an open space – an arena of thunder and lightning. And in this void, this emptiness, anything can happen. Any words can be spoken. Any manifestation – diabolical, divine – can take shape. All is translated into the medium of theatre itself. For this reason the witches are women of pure imagination just as they are men of entire contradiction. These masculine females, these woman-shaped men lay claim to be controllers of this destiny. Theirs is the sole power to determine fate. They dictate the laws of the land that is this play. They decide the history of its population. They create the geography of its perilous terrain. And one great irony, one terrifying truth defines the anarchy, the absolute essence of their and this world’s existence. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” That is a maxim that will reverberate through every incident of Macbeth. Its paradox will shape its patterns of loyalty and disloyalty, of love and hatred, of violence and meekness. And so it is that this most strange, most crazed of tragedies should inform the frenzy of its opening with the most patient of actions. Waiting. The three witches assemble here to wait, wait for Macbeth, wait to greet him, saying his name for the first time in the play, “There to meet with Macbeth.”
They are first to identify this figure, and for the remainder of the opening Act that process of identification will obsess the play’s plot, while simultaneously Shakespeare wrongfoots his audience and their expectations. Having created such psychic chaos, the play might be expected to demolish more planks of reason. That is precisely what does not happen. The otherworld sweeps itself away, replaced suddenly, shockingly by the rough world of military violence and political treachery. The alien place of strange tempests is given a swift identification. This is Scotland, and it is a country on the brink of destroying itself. And yet – a very important yet – the expected Armageddon will not occur. The ageing King Duncan will not be overthrown. His soldiers defeat the joint threat of the Thane of Cawdor’s treachery and the invasion of Norway’s king. The second scene of the play thrives not on the expected calamity but on the success, the double success of Scottish good fortune. Fittingly two men are responsible for this double victory, Macbeth and Banquo, Duncan’s most trusted commanders. They have saved the day. Scotland is safe – it has survived. They have ensured political security. And their loyal service will be rewarded. Macbeth himself inherits the title of the darkly disloyal Thane of Cawdor. It is an omen. In the cosmology of Macbeth omens are not of an unpredictable nature. They fulfil an identifiable function. At this stage of the plot omens undermine ideas of success, material, military, political and personal success. Each triumph is then equivocal, and the agents of equivocation in Macbeth are of course the witches.
They reappear in the third scene of the play. The wait is over. The witches do meet Banquo and Macbeth. They prophesise intriguing things – all invitations to, all indications of, power, increasing power coming to Macbeth. Their oracles to his rival are more ambiguous, but ambiguity, equivocation, irony – these are linguistic games Macbeth cannot excel at, and we do not yet know if he lacks the desire or the deviousness to learn the rules. For sure his mental and moral tactics up till now have depended on brutality rather than brains. He would be the hero, hungry for glory and recognition. The weird sisters feed that hunger with their promises of plentiful reward. And it is instantly established that Macbeth believes in their words and prophecies. His faith is credulous, and that credulity connects powerfully with the question posed at the play’s opening. Do you believe in magic, black magic, do you believe in witches? There is consequently a rapport between actor and audience, between hero and hearers, between this ambitious individual and his inquisitive observers. The hunger for information – for action – matches Macbeth’s appetite for power. There is a dependence created between his career and the plot’s suspense. What in basic terms can happen next? The future is Macbeth’s, and by reason of the witches’ fearful presence, such a future must be feared. But yet again the Act wrongfoots us, as Scene 4 seems to remove that fear, defying what might be anticipated.
Duncan bestows new titles on his brave warrior, Macbeth. Banquo receives only words of praise. The king is in the process of rewarding one soldier while denying another. Is this a mark of political naivety? Could this be instead an astute move, setting up one threat against another, neatly defusing the scene’s real potential for explosion, the bestowal on Malcolm of the title of Prince of Cumberland, now the legal, indisputable heir to Duncan’s throne. Promoting one general, ignoring another – is this a way of intensifying their competition against each other, thereby removing any bad feeling towards his eldest child? To protect family priorities Duncan risks the wrath of his hard men. Their rivalry might save his skin, but he is innocent – in so far as anyone in Scotland is innocent – to trust in their continual bonds to him and his. Their previous loyalty depended on exploiting the threat of internal and external powerful enemies, Cawdor and Norway. One is now dead, the other defeated. Circumstances in the politics of Scotland have now changed utterly. And with that change Macbeth has begun to hear another language – the language of magic, bad magic, of murder, specifically one great act of murder, regicide, the killing of the king, in Shakespeare that cataclysmic act, that crime against the state, against the soul and against the self. It can culminate in the greatest crime against the self – suicide. It is too comforting to relegate Macbeth’s disintegration into one of simple self destruction; he rejects that moral option violently in the play’s dying moments, but there is a terrifying logic only too obvious once he succumbs to the voices of the witches, speaking to him in his own whispers, telling him what he wishes to be told, sourcing his secrets in their spells, knowing he is their all, without any ambiguity on that score. “Stars, hide your fire,” he might demand, but what cannot be hidden is that he is the star, the planet whose orbit the witches desire to fix. However, there is another immense planet blazing into view, and that is Lady Macbeth.
There is a strange correspondence between two violent women in our theatres, Irish and English. Lady Macbeth first appears reading a letter, from her husband, speaking his words. In The Playboy Of The Western World the heroine, Pegeen Mike, first appears writing a letter, preparing for her wedding. This marks important intellectual achievements for each of them – one proving she can read, the other proving she can write. Pegeen will end branding her tethered lover, Christy, with a burning sod of turf, destroying herself entirely, losing surely to her grief the only Playboy of the Western World. Lady Macbeth will end in a trance, walking to her death, losing husband, kingdom, health and sanity. And each is also kept under control, Pegeen by the vicious limits of her peasant society, Lady Macbeth by something darker, the witches, their prophecies and the promise of greatest glory, the kingship of Scotland to be shared with a woman Macbeth calls “my dearest partner in greatness”. He advises her to take his secret and “lay it to her heart”. It is, however, Macbeth’s heart that she expertly dissects, laying bare a complex, contradictory diagnosis, blissfully, terrifyingly, ignorant of what such intelligence will do to their imaginative union, the psychic harmony of this marriage. In her opening scene Lady Macbeth cannot anticipate their love’s ending, so she plans, unwittingly, its ruination. That ignorance stands in deep contrast to her initial confidence, for if she immediately radiates anything, it is her ability, all-consuming ability, to convince whoever watches her of her omnipotence. Like Pegeen, her skill depends on mastering her immediate environment, and in that domesticity the power of Lady Macbeth aids and abets the achievement of the couple’s joined ambition. Their passion will climax not in the act of bringing life, but in the murder of an old man. Since the play first attracted critical comment, it has been noted how children haunt this play – dead children, bloody children, invisible children, imaginary children, dangerous children. And these phantoms are present, they are created because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth pervert their heterosexual natures to climax in the crime of killing together, a union of man with woman that truly consummates their marriage. She declares, “Your face, my lord, is a book where men / May read strange matters.” The strangest matter, the darkest love, is that husband and wife, through the stages of plotting this fatal crime of passion, become distorted mirror reflections of each other, one voicing the other’s most hidden desire as surely as Lady Macbeth voiced his words in the letter of the scene’s beginning. This woman is of masculine mettle, so masculine she claims that she would dash her baby’s brains out as it sucked on her breast, in a strange way unfathering herself as much as she is unmothering herself, the game of unsexing now taking fabulous shape. And her husband follows his wife’s initiative – he will become the passive partner, obeying her aggressive plotting. In the truest sense this is a pair deeply energised by the rules of role play, and the roles are ferocious in their reversal. This reversal of conventional behaviour is a marvellous act of love. Each turns the other on by the daring and the danger, the accuracy and knowledge of their violent fantasies, fantasies both are about to turn into stark reality, each leading the other into the temptation of their desires, inflicting what will prove to be for both the mortal wound, getting what they want.
Lady Macbeth’s greatest talent is in lying, so accomplished is she in the exercise of deadly play with Macbeth. In their house Duncan walks happily with them both, therefore, to his death, trusting their welcome. All will celebrate at a great feast, cheering the Scottish victory, the triumph of the king, the honours paid to his military men. Shakespeare denies us access to this gathering. He is saving the banquet scene until Act 3 for very sound dramatic reasons. Instead he rapidly skips his focus to after the eating and drinking and socialising, leaving Macbeth to ponder on the whys and wherefores of regicide, of murder itself.
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. But in these cases
We still have judgement here – that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And Pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, horsed
Upon the sightless curriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And fall on the other.
Macbeth unravels the strands that hold his sanity together, posing to himself a violent surge of pros and cons, relishing in the diversities of what might be the consequences of the deed imagined to be done. Pleasure is to be obtained through deferral. Macbeth revels in the complex inventions he devises, all centring on the question of will he or won’t he? The monologue in Shakespeare serves many functions and can take as many forms, but it is always in its implementation the mind trying to make sense of itself. Here Macbeth makes sense of his situation by continuing to find the right word or phrase to delay, but his is a hesitancy rather different in its action from Hamlet’s. Macbeth’s monologue creates a mind of radically distinct cast; he sets up difficulties for himself that can be rapidly demolished by the agent who, he would argue, controls his destiny, and that is Lady Macbeth. She arrives with the necessary ammunition to complete the job. She, the warrior woman, taunts Macbeth’s lack of soldierly resolve. But in their strange union where nothing is but what is not, when she accuses that he is less than a man, this only does the opposite, “but screw your courage to the sticking place / And we’ll not fail.” The brutality of her demand speaks for itself, and it is a language Macbeth uses to spur him into performing the task in hand. The first Act ends with a statement of clear intent: “I am settled and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible fear.” No more ambiguity, no more equivocation, no more engagement with the mind making sense of itself. The tactics of delay are abandoned. Duncan will die, his grooms will be blamed, his sons will run away, Donalbain to Ireland, Malcolm to England. Who will be left to be crowned King of Scotland? Macbeth. All is achievable. Or is it?
As a man, Macbeth is, and always has been, a success. His ascent to the throne might seem like confirmation of that success. But there is one thing he lacks, one obvious thing, and it is a sore lack. He has no child – he lacks an heir. Yet Lady Macbeth speaks of knowing “how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.” Has theirs not always than been a barren union? But the assertion is absolute, he has no children – Macbeth has no children. The most potent of the ghosts that wander the play spreading their chaos through this world now makes its presence, or more correctly, its absence felt in that most murderous, most despairing affirmation, “I have given suck.” The child Lady Macbeth suckles is like the dagger Macbeth will see leading him to murder Duncan. Each is as real as it is fantastical, each is real because it is fantastical to the true minds of the marriage made between this woman and man. That same marriage, those same minds do not impede such contradictions thriving in form as palpable as they can imagine. And this dagger, this child will dismember this same marriage and unhinge these minds. The most sorrowful and most cruel secret spills itself out in the passionate threats each inflicts on the other to rouse themselves into the act of killing the king. When Lady Macbeth swears she would have slaughtered her baby had she so sworn to do as Macbeth swears to kill Duncan, she wades into the darkest territory of this most dark play. He knows whereof she speaks, and her threat is like a curse that has already been passed on him, a curse that created the conditions for making the meeting with the witches so appropriate. They are not the first couple to believe so utterly in an imaginary child that not merely does it live in their eyes, it does so with such truth that it dies also if necessary at the violent hands of its warrior mother. All adds to their suffering, the suffering that began the meeting with the witches, for both have devised strategies to survive that suffering. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth create a hell for and from their own humanity, and in this hell they will perpetuate their extinction as a couple, their extinction of themselves. From the killing of Duncan onward these two are confined in the hell of their making, where they will lose everything – love, security, sanity, life. The remainder of the play charts the progress, the stages of their developing madness as it starts to infect every action, every decision. Slowly but surely the constructions they have built for themselves start to dismantle. The brilliant roles they have played with such dazzling dependence and timing start to fall apart. The sexually intense and fertile linguistic codes of attraction and attack diminish. They no longer speak in wonderful, terrifying secrets, turning the other on by the private knowledge of their experience and intrigue. In short they no longer talk to each other but begin to talk only, ultimately, at themselves. They lose the thrill of hearing their own privacy. This most intimate of marriages becomes a public arrangement. The success is over. They confront failure, and that to this high achieving pair of lovers is truly the most threatening of realities, provoking the most monstrous of solutions.
As a play Macbeth is of course a study of intrigue and treachery. It examines the dire workings, the psychopathic deviancy of a mass murderer’s mind. But its clinical examinations are constantly rooted in the simultaneous examination of a marriage in the process of disintegrating. The play thrives on shifts of focus. Love switches to hatred, passion to indifference, peace into war, the divine and diabolic meet and intermingle. The sheer sweep and energy of Macbeth himself, his savage contradictions, give to the part its uniquely uneasy sense of the self. He is a man on the make, but he is endlessly, restlessly in the process of making and unmaking himself. As Lady Macbeth announces her desire to obliterate her sex, Macbeth is in the business of obliterating his substance, so that he can achieve the status of apparition, as true and as false as any delivered by the weird sisters themselves. To the conundrum of who he is, his solution is violence, but if Oedipus blinded his own eyes in defiance of Apollo and that god’s delight in human misery, Macbeth dances to a different tune. He finds harmony in the spells of bad magic, guaranteeing that at least in purely theatrical terms his flaws do not destroy but are the saving of him, allowing him the histrionic victory over the moral superiority of Malcolm and Macduff. Ensuring Macbeth has no rival to match his lyrical excess, Shakespeare saves theatrical sympathy for his hero, a sympathy deepened by our contact with his liberating anarchy and insane courage in the face of utter defeat. This is a drama without catharsis, no purging release from pity and terror, which here are shamefully, magnificently irresistible, for Shakespeare plays mercilessly on that irresistibility, creating in Macbeth the loneliest of his characters, intensifying throughout Acts 2 and 3 his hero’s profound sense of his own isolation.
This justifies Macbeth’s plans for removing all opposition. Tyranny and dictatorship are logical stages of government through his increasing sense of his lonely self, the loneliness like a protective shield that must be brandished with more and more expert demonstration, culminating in the fierce free association of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word –
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Each image is deliberately dissociated from the one preceding and proceeding it, creating a pattern comprehensible only to the mind creating it, but rightly beginning with the declaration “She should have died hereafter” to the news that the Queen, his queen, is dead. Macbeth has long now recognised that no one can be trusted, not even – not especially ‑ his wife. In Act 3 Scene 1 he dismisses her among the general throng with three sentences of increasing cruelty. “Let every man be master of his time / Till seven at night. To make society / The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourself / Till suppertime alone. While then, God be with you.” Macbeth has so effectively erased her from the core of his life she is reduced to an image of herself, a walking shadow, a poor player, hypnotised in sleep, the great architecture of her poetry in the past now reduced to the rubble of fragmented sentences, the tale told by an idiot, the fierce flow of her power drying to a trickle barely enough to wash her hands of so much blood. She herself has grown frail before us, finally becoming daughter to the father the old man Duncan reminded her of in his ancient dreams. The supremely literate woman can no longer read herself. Her defining paralysis plays in stark contrast to how Macbeth operates through the later parts of the play. It is as if he is possessed by frenzy, as if the new prophecies of the witches in Act 4 give superhuman protection to his reign in Scotland. Yet consistently, inexorably, Macbeth’s plans for his survival are exposed as futile. In its final act the very structure of the play seems at war with itself as it speeds with extraordinary dexterity between Macbeth’s frantic defence of his kingdom and the unstoppable advance of the English, of Macduff and Malcolm into Scotland. There can be no doubting the enormity of Macbeth’s mad misrule. The butchering of Lady Macduff and her children dramatises that unflinchingly. This is murder as defined by Macbeth himself: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my head. No boasting like a fool; / This deed I’ll do, before my purpose cool.” And like a fool Macbeth absolutely identifies the dark desires of his heart with the clear thinking of his head. It is a connection that destroys him. The question is, does he know it? And to answer that it might be time to look at the whole shape of the play.
The opening scenes and acts of Macbeth have about them a magnificent sense of authorial control that manifests itself as a fearless formality, a reckless theatrical daring capable of being achieved by only the surest imaginative intelligence. This shows its purpose in a theatre of such military and sexual upheaval through the strict emphasis on the rigorous nature of cause and effect in its plotting. It is crucially important to create such narrative links, if the production of Macbeth is to realise as Shakespeare demands be realised the rapid shifts between natural and supernatural, domestic and militaristic, living and dead, Scotland and England, thereby grounding itself in practicalities and intricacies, which always render the text believable within its own terms, even in its most diabolic manifestations. Destruction is spontaneous in the theatre of Macbeth, a concrete reality, perhaps the only reality, the only constant in a universe of shattered minds and broken bodies, last registered in the description of Lady Macbeth as a fiend-like queen, who “’tis thought by self and violent hands/ Took her own life.” That “’tis thought” may plant doubt as to the method of her dying, but the suicidal woman is the emblem of her marriage, proof of her and Macbeth’s wasted lives, his dearest chuck reduced to nothing by the ruthless end of their mutual mind games. Midway through the play Lady Macbeth utters her last great cry of self-knowledge, “Nought’s had; all’s spent / When our desire is got without content. / ’Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in dubious joy.” Self-knowledge in Macbeth offers no self-protection, for the self in this play is looking for something greater than knowledge of good and evil, something stranger than love of man and woman, of bonds between subject and king. All such links are broken in the play. There are consistent attempts to tie them, to mend them and indeed by the end, with the triumphant revenge of Macduff and the successful ascent of Malcolm to the throne of Scotland, aided benevolently by his English allies, it would appear that right wins the day, anarchy is sent packing and the forces of darkness are exposed as the liars, equivocators and illusionists they proved themselves to be when they uttered their promises to Macbeth about his future. The good end happily, the bad unhappily, fulfilling the moral dictum of Miss Prism, that most stern of literary critics from The Importance Of Being Earnest. But as Wilde remind us also in that same play, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple.” And in this haunted play, never pure, never simple, one line haunts the text, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” It permeates the strange workings of the plot. It is as if these words bring the play into being, a consequence of its opening question, “When shall we three meet again?” And the striking element in the spell is that word “again”. This is a meeting, a waiting that has happened before. Is happening now. Will happen again, and again and again. The witches wait with their promise of power. Power that leads to glory. Glory that leads to guilt. Guilt that leads to grief. And with defining logic in this most mad, most wise of dramas, grief leads to death, by whatever means, chosen or decreed. That is the faith operating in Macbeth – that is the meaning of its madness, and of its magic. Our destination is always to the blasted heath. On it we may see either the grave or the crown. In Shakespeare’s play they are one and the same. So, to respect and endorse the equivocation, that ambiguity exploited so carefully, so horrifyingly here, you can say that in Macbeth, humanity defeats witchcraft, but the opposite is equally true.
Frank McGuinness is a playwright and poet who lectures in English at University College Dublin