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Promo image from Macbeth


By Alexander Leggatt

Returning from victory in battle, the Scottish generals Macbeth and Banquo encounter a trio of strange women who hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and king hereafter. Who are they, what are they, how do they know what they know, and why are they greeting Macbeth this way?

We think of them as witches, but the word witch occurs only once in the dialogue, and they never use it themselves. They call themselves “the weird sisters,” and weird is a word for fate, as though they are the fates who control human lives. Yet in a later scene they refer cryptically to “our masters.” Do they serve a higher power, and if so what is that power? As to their purpose, Banquo warns Macbeth, “to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths” only to betray us in the end.

This seems clear enough; but when in a later scene Macbeth orders the witches to tell his future, he gets two riddling prophecies that offer false hope and one perfectly clear, valid warning: “Beware Macduff.” If they are trying to lure Macbeth to his doom, why the warning? The prophecies echo through the rest of the play, but the witches themselves disappear, leaving the questions they provoke unanswered.

They are just the most conspicuous embodiment of an uncanny atmosphere that haunts the drama. Something is out there, something that lives in darkness and thunder and screams in the night. Whatever it is, it does not just affect Macbeth; it attacks him. When the witches trigger the thought of murdering Duncan to become “king hereafter,” he feels his hair rising and his heart pounding. Just before the murder he has a vision of a bloodstained dagger pointing at Duncan’s bedchamber. Having done the deed, he hears a voice from nowhere that cries, “Sleep no more.” Whatever is at work, it comes to him unbidden, invading his body and his imagination.

But the power that terrifies Macbeth is a power that Lady Macbeth deliberately calls on: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” She wants her body invaded, filled with cruelty, her blood thickened, her milk turned to gall; she wants to be made inhuman to do the work she has to do. She remembers the tenderness of breastfeeding an infant; then imagines herself tearing it from her breast and dashing its brains out.

That horrific image is part of an argument: people should keep their promises. If she had promised to do such a thing, she would do it. In her confrontation with her husband we realize that the instruments of darkness are not just something out there in the night; they are also the workings of the human mind. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are not just puppets operated by supernatural forces. She reminds him that even before he met the witches they were planning to murder Duncan. They work themselves up to the deed by twisting language. Murder is a sign of manliness. When Macbeth protests, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none” Lady Macbeth retorts, “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” It is right to be a man; men kill; then killing is right.

But the horror of the deed remains, and once again language comes into the service of evil by concealing that horror. In the lead-in to the murder, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth find ways of not saying what they are going to do. Not “We’re going to kill Duncan” but “He that’s coming / Must be provided for.” When Macbeth says, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” we know what “it” is and who will do it; but the words hide that knowledge. Language has its own darkness.

Once the murder is done, and discovered, there is no more hiding. The horror of it is no longer confined to the imaginations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; it spreads out into the world. Other characters report uncanny portents: wind, earthquake, screams in the night, horses running mad and eating each other. Macbeth feared that when the deed was done it would not be done, and he was right. The witches prophesied that Banquo would be father to a line of kings; he tries to stymie that prophecy by killing Banquo and his son Fleance – in effect, killing the future. But Fleance escapes, and the murdered Banquo won’t stay dead; he haunts the man who had him killed, and we begin to share Macbeth’s terror. No one else on stage sees Banquo’s ghost; but we see it. As part of the spread of horror, we know what it is like to be Macbeth.

The man who will kill him, Macduff, is in his own way as haunted as the tyrant. Fleeing to England, he deserted his family, and Macbeth has them massacred. In the final battle, Macduff declares that if anyone else kills Macbeth, “My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.” One haunted, guilty man is killed by another. Evil has spread from Macbeth’s mind into his actions, and into the world around him; even the man who rids the world of him is tainted.

Lady Macbeth is part of the wreckage. In the early scenes, she and her husband were closely bonded. Her first entrance was reading his letter describing his encounter with the witches: his words, read in her voice. He calls her “my dearest partner of greatness.” But once he has killed Duncan the partnership breaks, as though that one deed was what their marriage was about, and now the deed is done the marriage is over. He plans the murder of Banquo on his own: “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck / Till thou applaud the deed” – a far cry from “dearest partner of greatness.” The last time we see them together on stage is in the banquet where she tries and fails to control his panic at the sight of Banquo’s ghost. But it is not the last time they are together. Sleepwalking, she talks to him compulsively as though he were there with her, re-living everything they have been through. Seemingly broken, the bond between them is for her as powerful as ever.

And while he seems to leave her behind as he goes to war, there is a sign that in the depths of his being she still matters. His despair in the final scenes goes from complaints that his own life is ruined to the bleak vision of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” in which all life is meaningless. The difference is that he has just heard of the death of Lady Macbeth. They were the instruments of darkness, drawing each other into an evil that ruined their lives and the world around them. But they were also human, and in the glimpse of the bond between them, even as he becomes a tyrant and she becomes a restless living ghost, something of that humanity remains.

Alexander Leggatt is Professor Emeritus of English at University College, University of Toronto.