Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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In a moment, Banquo will observe, ‘Look, how our partner’s rapt’ (143), and this experience of rapture – literally of being caught up and taken out of reality – is a constant feature of Macbeth’s character as Shakespeare portrays it. This man, who has just faced the possibility of his own violent death, and who has dealt out violent death to others, tells the audience that

Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man,
That function is smother’d in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not. ( Ibid . 137-143)


It is hard to imagine anything much worse than seeing a man ‘unseam’d… from the nave to th’chops’ (I.ii.22), but his auditors must take Macbeth at his word. Here is a man for whom mental images are so powerful that they are actually worse than real horrors, and, as he says, they ‘smother’ his most basic ability to think and function, turning reality, as it were, inside out.

The final line of his speech – ‘And nothing is, but what is not’ – as well as being a neat summation of Macbeth’s state of mind, is entirely typical of the antithetical nature of so much of the language of the first half of the play. The witches themselves inaugurate Macbeth ’s constant flow of antonymies with their chant of ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’ in the opening scene (11), and their words are echoed unconsciously by Macbeth himself in his first spoken line: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ (I.iii.38). The imaginative world of Macbeth is one in which brightest good can turn to blackest evil in a surprisingly short period of time: a person in whom Duncan ‘built/ An absolute trust’ (I.iv.13-4) – the original Thane of Cawdor – turns out to have been a ‘most disloyal traitor’ (I.ii.53), and then, just as remarkably, in his ‘deep repentance’ and renewed love for the king, he throws away his life ‘As ’twere a careless trifle’ (I.iv.11). In this context, the shifting nature of Macbeth’s own allegiances begins to make more sense, or at least begins to convince an audience becoming used to the play’s continual linguistic switches and reverses. The image of him as a vile ‘butcher’ in the closing lines of Act V is such a memorable one that it is easy to forget that the play opens with Duncan on his throne solely because Macbeth and Banquo have risked their lives to keep him there. Duncan may very well have seriously considered making Macbeth his heir in gratitude for his services, but the old king decides to keep the crown in his own immediate family, and his bravest and most loyal subject quickly becomes his cruellest betrayer and murderer.

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William Shakespeare