The Message at the Heart of Macbeth

What is the message of the play? Set in starkest simplicity, it is that in a world without God, nothing lovely or good can survive.

John Martin, “Macbeth,” ca. 1820
John Martin, “Macbeth,” ca. 1820 (photo: Public Domain)

To imagine a world without God, a world awash in darkest nihilism, one has only to read Shakespeare, the sum of whose achievement no artist this side of the Greek tragedians can equal. One must look to Aeschylus and Euripides for comparable models on which to draw.  Not the Shakespeare of happy endings, of course — only the ones that end badly, the ones where everything implodes, leaving the reader with a sense of the “terror and pity” that Aristotle tells us is the stuff of high tragedy. 

But if your attention span runs a bit short, then the perfect specimen of Shakespearean despair for you will be Macbeth, the briefest and bloodiest of them all. Written in 1606, a full decade before his death, it appeared in the aftermath of a whole series of triumphant creations, including Hamlet, Othello and King Lear.

It is not only the shortest of all the plays, but quite possibly the strangest as well. The good news about it, however, is that in order to savor the experience it is not necessary that you sit down and actually read the play. Because it can be seen easily enough on the screen, which my wife and I did the other night in a spellbinding production with Denzel Washington playing the lead — a performance so searing that it may well harrow your soul.

And while I don’t ordinarily accost people on their way out of the theater, I would be greatly surprised if anyone left untouched by the experience. We certainly were. Every line of every speech kept us riveted to our seats. It was the sort of performance that causes the flesh to creep and the hair to stand on end. From first to last, the play is marked by sheer murderous mayhem, alongside mounting, unremitting despair. 

So what is the message of the play? Set in starkest simplicity, the message at the heart of Macbeth, running through every scene of the play — yes, even when the characters do not formalize the proposition — is that in a world without God nothing lovely or good can survive. No king, however noble and just, can long forbear against the depredations of one determined to set aside the commandments of God in order to kill him. The august strictures of divinity can have no standing once God is dethroned. 

Here is the essence of atheist revolt. Not a function of the intelligence telling us that there is no God, but of the will determined to live as though he really did not exist. God must be kept wholly out of our lives, totally missing from the exercise of our freedom. Once the will has succeeded in banishing God from the arena in which we live and move, the whole theater of human action and possibility, then every depravity becomes possible. What, then, is atheism? It is the outcome of man having first denied God, then affirming himself — indeed, absolutizing himself in the vacuum created by his disappearance. If there is no God, therefore, man having killed him in his heart, then there can be no limit to the wickedness unleashed by his absence. 

“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” exclaim the three witches upon the heath while awaiting their prey, the brave and noble Macbeth, whose “black and deep desires” they shall stoke with an almost satanic cleverness. Aided, to be sure, by the wickedness of a wife, urging him at every turn “to screw (his) courage to the sticking place.” A total inversion of the moral order will result, the upending of which begins the moment Macbeth decides to displace God with an idolatrous substitution of himself. The complete trust in which an innocent king had invested his noble kinsman and friend, becomes an invitation to the basest possible treachery.  

From the fallout of so foul a murder, life will become, as Macbeth himself will declaim in the last moments of his own life, even as he expresses it with an eloquence unmatched in the literature of despair, “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 / Signifying nothing.”

Luigi Giussani writes:

The very fabric of an atheistic society has never been defined better: Life would be a ‘tale’, a strange dream, an abstract discourse of an exasperated imagination, ‘told by an idiot’, and, therefore, without unity. Life would be all splintered into fragments, with no true order, with no vision beyond the immediate instant, ‘full of sound and fury’, that is to say, where the single method of relationship is violence, the illusion of possession.

Why on earth should Macbeth wish to kill the king in the first place? What is this “vaulting ambition” that drives him to so desperate, so damnable an extremity? The answer, if there be one, eludes us. Not even Shakespeare can tell us. After all, why should there be evil for any man to do? Why must man choose vice rather than virtue, the self rather than God? Who, to put it in Pauline terms, can account for the mystery of iniquity? The point is, Macbeth has given himself wholly to the cause, leaving him so despised and dishonored that by play’s end he will become like the baited bear, cornered and hacked to pieces by enemies rightly bent on his extermination.

Despised and dishonored, yes, but no less human for all that. His actions surely warrant the taking of his life in the end. But it is his life which he has forfeited, not his humanity. He must never be seen as a mere automaton of evil, scripted in advance to corruption and despair.  That is the issue, it seems to me, on which the play turns. For if Macbeth is not free to act otherwise, if he remains helpless to resist the promptings of a debased will, however goaded into doing so by vilest witches and wife, then there is no play. The choices we make are either anchored to a freedom we can never lose, or we are shorn of all responsibility for our actions.

In perhaps the best possible gloss on the meaning of Macbeth, of the pity and the terror aroused by Shakespeare’s depiction of his own pain and that inflicted by him upon others, C.S. Lewis provides this insight from The Problem of Pain, which (so far as I know) makes no reference whatsoever to the play. He has clearly in mind every human creature endowed by God with mind and will, not excluding fictional creatures like Macbeth, when he tells us:

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine Work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character. Here again we come up against what I have called the ‘intolerable complement’…it is natural for us to wish God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing for not more love but for less.

To escape God, to take flight from his intolerable compliment, humankind has drawn upon any number of devices and desires, and — who knows? — maybe the outcomes for most of us will not be the stuff of high Shakespearean tragedy. But we have all sinned, and so we remain free to refuse God’s command to sin no more. We may, each one of us, therefore, end our own stories by saying, like Macbeth at the bloody end of his: “I have supped full of horrors.”

Let us cling to God, knowing that he exists, and that his will for us is not only salvation in the next world, but true freedom in this.

Nicaraguan police place Bishop Rolando José Álvarez under house arrest Aug. 4 at the diocesan chancery in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

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