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Promo image from Macbeth


By David Prosser

When Macbeth first utters the word murder, giving voice to the deed he has thus far only imagined, he admits that the thought of assassinating Duncan and taking his crown “shakes so [his] single state of man” that it has supplanted reality in his mind. “Nothing is,” he declares, “but what is not.”

In Shakespeare’s time, single had another meaning besides “sole”: it could also mean “weak” or “feeble.” Macbeth may be referring in that line to his own human frailty and susceptibility, rather than to his individuality. Nevertheless, that word single also contrasts ironically with the constant dualities that riddle the play: the ambiguities, the double meanings, the deceptive appearances, the paradoxical linking of opposites.

“When the battle’s lost and won.” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good.” “Look like th’ innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t.” “If it were done [i.e., over with], when ’tis done [i.e., committed].…” These and countless other antitheses throughout the play reflect the deadly doubleness of Macbeth’s world.

Under the fracturing pressure of that duality, any singleness, any integrity, that Macbeth might once have claimed gives way to a relentless disintegration, both for him and his wife, as darkness overwhelms its opposite. The eyes may be open, but their moral sense is shut, enabling a lauded hero of the battlefield to turn himself into a murderer of women and children.

By the end, Macbeth’s world appears to him to be a kind of waking nightmare, one in which woods may walk and a sword may be wielded by a man unborn. The logic-defying duality of his early observation that “nothing is / But what is not” now seems all too true, as the reality of what is threatens to unravel into what cannot possibly be.

David Prosser is the Stratford Festival’s Literary and Editorial Director.