Macbeth by William Shakespeare

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The image of ‘Pity’ is one of the most extraordinary in the whole play. Like the walking trees of Birnam, it fascinates through its sheer impossibility: how could ‘a naked new-born babe’ walk into the teeth of a gale? – Yet, if we allow it to be so, then this ‘naked…babe’ suddenly becomes, in the imagination, a force of extraordinary and, indeed, unearthly power. What could possibly stop such a thing, apparently so weak, yet completely unaffected by the winds of a full-blown storm? Imaginatively, the speed and impetus of ‘the blast’ connects with the riding of the ‘Cherubins’ upon invisible currents of air, and then – continuing the image of riding – Macbeth becomes a horse about to ‘o’erleap itself’ and founder because it has ‘no spur’ to make it jump the gulf, or fence, it faces and land safely on the other side. With fine dramatic artifice, Shakespeare makes Macbeth swallow his words, leaving his final sentence incomplete. The reason for this is that his wife has entered. He is uncomfortable even thinking of such things in her presence. She is – the audience by now are well aware – the rider of this particular horse, and soon she will dig her spurs in deep. Lady Macbeth indeed provides the final motivation for her husband to become a parricide and regicide, but Shakespeare has already established that it is his imagination – together with his impulsiveness and lack of discernment – that brings about his downfall at her hands. His tendency to leap from good to evil without giving any proper consideration to his actions, leaves him far too vulnerable to the influence of a will stronger than his own – a ‘spur’ that his wife is all too ready to apply.

Lady Macbeth herself provides a fascinating contrast with her husband. Whereas his mind is dominated by his over-powering imagination, hers is most notable for her steely and determined will. Her own soliloquies in Act I, Scene v, are full of powerful and passionate imagery, but the images are subservient to her will, rather than the other way around. She imagines, in Act I, Scene vii, the very worse thing, perhaps, a mother could imagine, with the aim of demonstrating her complete triumph over herself:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d the nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this
. (I.vii.54-9, italics added)

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William Shakespeare