Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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Ironically, the images presented to him on that occasion contain important visual clues that, if he had considered them properly, would have led him to a much fuller understanding of the ‘truths’ proclaimed to him. In particular, the ‘showing’ of a ‘ bloody child ’ that accompanies the promise that Macbeth can only be killed by one who is not ‘of woman born’ (IV.i.80) is a vital piece of information, since it strongly implies a Caesarean delivery. Macbeth’s mind, however, is held captive by what he sees and imagines, both by the ‘showings’ presented by the apparitions themselves and the images conjured up by their words. Influenced and impressed as he is by what he ‘sees’ with his eyes and in his mind, he feels no need to interpret and ponder the information he receives except in the most superficial way, and he allows his reasoning powers to be overwhelmed on an occasion when he should have been at his most cautious. The image of a child ‘not of woman born’ fascinates him with its impossibility, as does the vision of Birnam Wood rising up from the forest floor and walking magically to Dunsinane. Such mental images seduce him, so that he clings to them and the security they appear to promise, failing to recognise that the various apparitions’ revelations are actually straightforward riddles , explained by the shows presented to him on stage: the babe bloody after Caesarean Section; the crowned child (representing Malcolm, heir to Duncan) carrying a tree in his hand.

Macbeth is not alone in his fascination with such impossible mental images. Famously, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien was disappointed as a schoolboy by the failure of Birnam Wood to really move in Macbeth and, later in life, imagined the ents of The Lord of the Rings . To the kind of mind Shakespeare is portraying in the character of Macbeth, it is imagination that provides the deepest level of motivation, while thoughtful reason, represented by the person of Banquo in the early scenes of the play, is largely ignored. Macbeth’s first soliloquy makes clear verbally what the scene with the apparitions demonstrates dramatically. While his friend and fellow general has just told him that the witches’ prophecy might very well be a form of demonic entrapment, he slips hopelessly from one side to the other of the argument, wholly unable to reason clearly:

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good: (I.iii.130-1)

His mind, however, quickly settles upon the ‘horrid image’ quoted above, which the audience surmises is that of Duncan’s murder, and although the idea clearly appals him, he cannot get it out of his mind.

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William Shakespeare