Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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It is difficult to imagine such a thing actually happening in reality, and the history of Macbeth’s usurpation as Shakespeare read of it in Holinshed’s Chronicle – and indeed in what historians know of it today – is a completely different story. Such considerations are beside the point: from the audience’s perspective, it is the play’s rhetoric , above all, that ensures that the most fair must become the most foul. Bombarded with polar opposites, we come to regard Macbeth’s sudden slide from absolute good to absolute evil not just as something possible, but as something almost inevitable.

However, in his second soliloquy, Macbeth is wavering in his purpose. By choosing to stay at Inverness Castle, Duncan has unwittingly presented his host with the perfect opportunity to murder him, and with the hour of reckoning near, Macbeth begins to have serious doubts. He starts his speech by imagining the murder done ‘quickly’ so that it will ‘trammel up the consequence… – here,/ But here, upon this bank and shoal of time’ (I.vii.1-6). This last, unusual, phrase is generally interpreted as meaning ‘in this human life’, but it makes more sense if it is taken to refer to the specific opportunity Macbeth has – at that particular time and in that place – to murder Duncan. Understood in this way, the image becomes rather more visual and compelling: the water is rising about him quickly as the tide rushes in; he must leap , whatever the consequences – he must ‘Jump the life to come’, and land safely on the further shore. Or so he hopes. Everything that is motivating Macbeth to kill Duncan at this point seems to be largely instinctive – a ‘Jump’ or leap in the dark without thought or proper consideration. He resembles Hamlet at his most ‘rapt’ – for example, just after his first encounter with his father’s ghost – but whereas Shakespeare’s earlier protagonist manages to think his way through to a relatively calm and reasoned position by the end of his eponymous play, Macbeth never does so: he jumps instinctively into the pit without any serious consideration of the alternatives. What thought he does give to his predicament is, largely, in the latter part of this second soliloquy. Here, he reasons himself round, albeit briefly, to a decision that he will ‘proceed no further in this business’ ( Ibid ., 31). Characteristically, however, his judgement is the result of some of the most passionate image creation of the whole play:

And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s Cherubins, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. – I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other – (I.vii.21-8)

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William Shakespeare