Zach's Reviews > Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
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Apr 24, 09

bookshelves: shakespeare
Read in April, 2009, read count: six

a few thoughts of mine....


On Macbeth’s Ambivalence

“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, shakes so my single state of man that function is smothered in surmise, and nothing is but what is not . . . If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir” (1.3.139-42, 1.3.144-5).

Upon hearing himself greeted as the Thane of Cawdor (1.3.105), and thus having heard the devil speak true (1.3.107), Macbeth becomes lost in a rapture that undoes what he had previously thought the boundaries of life—changing life’s being into only what is not. This rapture also seems to suggest an ambivalent desire towards undoing life, an undoing of life ranging from the literal undoing of life, his own and others’, to the undoing of the significance of life. But Macbeth’s ambivalence towards undoing life, in his thought that chance should crown him without his stir, is not strong enough to dissuade him. How might Macbeth’s ambivalence help explain his undoing of life that he continues throughout the play?

Macbeth’s ambivalence towards undoing life is characterized by the abruptness of the vacillations that Macbeth goes through and the extremity to which these vacillations take him. A good example of this begins with the opening quotation. For what appears to be later the same day, or at most a few days after Macbeth declares that chance should crown him without his stir, Macbeth, while receiving praise from King Duncan, quickly perceives King Duncan’s son, the Prince of Cumberland, as an obstacle that he must face (1.4.48-50), thus abandoning his previous aim of not stirring to be crowned. From here, Macbeth reverses again and must have Lady Macbeth help him rediscover his courage for aiding himself in fulfilling the witches’ prophecy that he shall be king (1.7). Macbeth tries to leave his ambivalence behind in recognizing his need to steel himself to his course of action. Yet when Macbeth declares that he still has the initiate’s fear that lacks hard use (3.4.141-42), he has already killed King Duncan, the two servants he framed for Duncan’s murder, had Banquo murdered, and wished the same fate for Banquo’s son, Fleance. Macbeth’s ambivalence towards undoing life is emphasized here because of the extent to which he has already undone life and his lingering ambivalence with doing so. These vacillations reveal Macbeth as a whirlwind of change, unable to hold fast to a particular course of action for very long, yet nonetheless taking action.

This helps explain at least one of the functions of the vacillating, for, as Macbeth whirls between feeling guilty for what he’s done and continuing to undo life, he is able to enact his own advice, “The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be which the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.52-53)—Macbeth’s ambivalence obscures his feelings towards what he thinks and does. And it seems as if this is the very manner in which Macbeth finds himself ambivalently undoing life. In the lines that precede the opening quotation, as Macbeth tries to understand what it means to have the witches’ first prophecy come true, he sides with ambivalence in stating that it can be neither ill, nor good (1.3.131), and he is then thrown into a confusion where “nothing is but what is not” (1.3.142). The undoing of the significance, or generally presupposed meaning, of life is the manner in which Macbeth can maintain ambivalence even in action—because the action is still unclear.

As he begins to near his end, Macbeth’s vacillations begin to turn more closely upon his life, and he vacillates from claiming that he shall never fear again (5.3.10) to feeling he has lived long enough (5.3.22) to wishing the entire world undone (5.5.50) to his final vaunt that he will fight until the last (5.8.27-34). In between these is Macbeth’s harrowing conclusion that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (5.5.26-28); it seems that since he is able to treat life as a mere nothing, an idiot’s tale, Macbeth wants to conclude that life is no more than these things. Also, taken at face value, an idiot’s tale seems a practical induction for Macbeth to make after living the life he has lived because life signifying nothing would relieve him of responsibility for his undoing of life or, in the very least, remove the significance, but the noted final vaunt reveals that life did signify more than nothing to Macbeth, despite his claims and despite the fact that Macbeth’s ambivalence, as noted above, has lead to him thinking that nothing is the only thing that is. Macbeth's clinging to life, till the very end, also makes his conclusion that life is an idiot's tale appear as if it is more wishful thinking than earnest conclusion.

Macbeth’s wishful thinking brings to mind a much earlier passage, but is now given a more nuanced meaning. Shortly after killing King Duncan and the two framed servants, Macbeth gives what at first appears as only a necessary, strategic show of grief for the slain king—particularly after his recent recognition that he must play his part to ensure none in his audience detect his involvement (1.7.80-83). But in light of the idea that Macbeth is attempting to believe rather than genuinely believing that life signifies nothing, this passage, “Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from this instant, there’s nothing serious in mortality; all is but toys” (2.3.89-92), seems to suggest an additional meaning: it is an announcement of the undoing of life that Macbeth is to now begin in earnest, his idiot’s tale. In the first line and a half of this passage Macbeth admits a poignant truth: if he had died just an hour before, he really would have lived something of a blessed life—dying a recent hero, after quieting a rebellion and being praised & rewarded by the king. It is this veracity that begins the passage that lends to what follows, the claim that life is an empty toy, an intimation of a tenable cause and effect relationship—though not one that is static or remains single in direction—and it is this relationship, this ambivalence, that is echoed in chiasmus form as Macbeth struggles to conclude life as an idiot’s tale signifying nothing, but, in his final vaunt, wants nothing more than life.

Macbeth’s desire to treat life like an empty toy or an idiot’s tale can be understood as another vacillation of Macbeth’s ambivalence towards undoing life—as noted above—yet this alone does not offer insight into why Macbeth sees life this way. But as one reflects on the many vacillations that he goes through, Macbeth begins to appear as a toy, being pushed and pulled, back and forth, with the strain and frustration of a heavily used toy, and this experience helps explain why he would want to understand life, for everyone, this way—because his ambivalence is ever present, Macbeth is unable to choose singly for himself and must project his undoing of life on others.

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