Pagans & Powderkegs: The Ironic Evil of Macbeth

  Pagans and Powderkegs: The Ironic Evil of Macbeth           

                            Ere the bat hath flown
                            His cloister’d flight, ere to black Hecat’s summons
                            The shard-borne beetle, with his drowsy hums,
                             Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done
                             A deed of dreadful note.

  Underlying the central themes of Macbeth-- ruthless ambition, the inherent avarice of power, supernatural evil, hidden meanings and half- truths, and the contagious nature of tyranny, there is a deeper historical subtext Shakespeare was incorporating, as surely as a storyteller will conjure ghosts around a campfire. The legacy of the mythical Scottish royal ancestor Banquo and his relationship to the England’s new King James I, a celebration of triumph over evil “terrorists” in the royal foiling of the “Gunpowder Plot” (which had very nearly done away with the entire English government) was given legendary life. As well, the ideal of Divine Providence taming the savage outlands, populated with mysterious pagans and creatures of the night, was brought to life in Shakespeare’s most supernatural tragedy.

 “They can raise storms and tempests in the air, either upon Sea or land, though not universally, but in such a particular place and prescribed bounds, as God will permit them so to trouble.”
              (King James I, Daemonology, 1597;  qtd. Nostbakken 107)
  Macbeth’s supernatural evil, repeated through time with extremely powerful magical charms and the spilling of blood, was the acting out of King James’ own ruthless Scottish heritage, cloaked in an air of Godly power and pomp.  While a plot to assassinate the leadership of England with devilish explosives had just been thwarted, within the next generation King James’ own son would become the first monarch in Europe to be tried and executed, in a revolutionary uprising (Hawkes 11). James’ own treatise on witchcraft, “Daemonology,” would be used to torture and execute tens of thousands of accused pagans, and would haunt the New World at the Salem witch trials. Under a cloak of good triumphing over evil, Macbeth actually heralds the dawn of a brutal, Machiavellian era of colonization, genocide, and industrial warfare.

  Did Shakespeare consciously cast a curse upon the English culture, or did his flair for irony unwittingly unleash the powerful forces surrounding the Macbeth legend? Recent attempts by witches in Scotland to lift the “Macbeth curse” have met with tragic ends. It seems the ghosts of this play still haunt the psyche of humankind, and refuse to be put to rest (Mysterious Incidents, FarShores).

                                               I have no spur
                                To prick the sides of my intent, but only
                                  Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself…
(1.  7.  25-27)

Both the common people and the royalty in the audience would understand and celebrate all references to James’ ancestor Banquo, the corrupting chaos of treason, and the portrayal of twisted supernatural forces. Macbeth was a cathartic therapy for the kingdom, giving life to the hopes of triumph over evil conspirators, and heralding the Divine dominion of the English culture.

   Considering that Shakespeare’s most likely source for historical reference, Raphael Holinsheds’ Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) recounts Banquo as conspiring with Macbeth in the plot to kill Duncan (whom he portrays as ineffective), and chronicles the real Macbeth as a decent monarch who reigned well for seven years until he turned on Banquo, it is very ironic, but politically expedient, of Shakespeare to turn the characters of the tragedy toward more vicious ends (Hawkes, 124).

   The most outstanding irony of Macbeth’s contorted history is that Banquo’s ghost was a figment of the Scottish imagination. Banquo was a MYTHICAL figure Scottish genealogists created to give legitimacy to the Stuart family tree (Nostbakken, 28). So as Shakespeare shows Banquo murdered by Macbeth, he is twisting Holinshed’s history by the ear, and forcing Britain to question the concept of royal lineage in general. What happens when the Divinity of the Sovereign in God’s Chain of Being becomes completely corrupted?
                                              But when the planets      
                                    In evil mixture to disorder wander,    
                                    What plagues and what portents, what mutiny!
                                    What raging of the sea, shaking of the earth!
                                    Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors
                                     Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
                                     The unity and married of calm states
                                     Quite from their fixture! O’ when degree is shak’d
                                      Which is the ladder of all high designs,
                                      The enterprise is sick.
                                                        (Trolius and Cressida, 1. 3. 95-103)

      Like America’s current “War on Terror,” at the time Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, the British monarchy was fighting it’s own war on terrorism and “evil.” Numerous attempts had been made on Queen Elizabeth’s life, and a major plot to assassinate the entire royal family with explosives, by Guy Fawkes and a conspiracy of Jesuits, had only narrowly been avoided. In James’ war on witches in Scotland, evidence of a plot by witches to drown him by stirring up storms at sea had been revealed to the public.

   In this war on evil, clear distinctions and prejudices existed in the English culture, and superstition ruled the day. Witch trials became routine under the reign of King James, and it was felt that torture and public execution were appropriate for those who dared call on supernatural forces outside of Divine providence. In short, the English culture was rife with dread, paranoia, and fear of the unknown. Shakespeare drew upon King James’ own extensive literature on the subject of evil, and used it to portray the weird sisters and Hecate as wicked manipulators of mankind.

   “They can make folks to become frenetic or Maniac, which likewise is very possible to their master to do, since they are but natural sicknesses: and so he may lay on these kinds, as well as any others. They can make spirits either to follow and trouble persons, or haunt certain houses, and affray oftentimes the inhabitants: as hath been known to be done by our Witches at this time. And likewise thay can make some to be possessed with spirits, & so to become very Demoniacs: and this last sort is very possible likewise to the Devil their Master to do, since he may easily send his own angels to trouble in what form he pleases, any whom God will permit him to use.”
                       (King James I, Daemonology, 1597;  qtd. Nostbakken 107)

  The problem with any self-righteous and irrational war against a certain class of people, based on prejudice and fear, is that innocent people are often victimized, and hatred justified, leading to atrocity. We have seen this throughout history, and at the writing of Macbeth, cruelty was the rule rather than the exception. After all, King James was the man who spawned a thousand Protestant wars in the expanding colonies, against pagans, Indians, Irish, Muslims, Catholics… and anyone who did not bow down to the Divine dominion of the British Empire. Many of these conflicts continue to this day, after having claimed millions of victims.

   Ironically, in Shakespeare’s support of this “War on Terror,” much as our current cultural war is doing, the portrayal of the evil forces actually contributed to the chaos and the influence of disorder. Every time Macbeth was performed, the Weird Sisters and Hecate unleashed potent incantations, both magically and in the public mind. The murderous intrigue of the play and the power witches held over otherwise invincible warriors was actually a promotion of evil influence. The more so-called Christians projected evil on the landscape, and subjected the accused evil-doers to unspeakable acts of “Divine Inquisition,” the more they themselves became twisted toward evil ends. King James’ treatise on demons and witches, taken in a more cynical light, should have been seen as the ultimate crafty trick of the Devil, to cause people to do murderous and immoral things to the common healers of the time.

           Macduff    What’s the disease he means?
           Malcolm                                                             ‘Tis call’d the evil.
                               A most miraculous work in this good king;
                               Which often, since my here-remain in England,
                                I have seen him do. How he solicits Heaven,
                                Himself best knows: but strangely visited people,
                                All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
                                The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
                                Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
                                To the succeeding royalty he leaves
                                The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
                                He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
                                And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
                                That speak him full of grace.
                                                                                            (4. 3.  146-159)

   This passage from Macbeth, extolling the divine virtues of the English king Edward the Confessor and referring to his practice of  “laying on of hands,” is a promotion of England’s new King James, in the context of Shakespeare’s contemporary political scene (Nostbakken, 29).  King James had recently succeeded Queen Elizabeth, and hopes were running exceedingly high for the transfer of power from the Tudors to the Stuarts, and for the uniting of all the kingdoms of Britain (Nostbakken, 27). Shakespeare, of course, being both a propagandist and and artist, seized the opportunity for popular appeal and royal approval, in soliciting favor from the new monarchy.

   Macbeth indirectly references an important prophecy about King James which had been presented in dramatic form the year before Shakespeare wrote it. The three Weird Sisters are a twisted reference to the “Three Sybils,” a Latin play which was performed for King James at Oxford in 1605, which Shakespeare likely witnessed first-hand. In the “Three Sybils” three prophetic women herald King James’ heritage and hail his supreme rule over Great Britain (Nostbakken, 30).

                               Hail thou who rulest Scotland.
                               Hail thou who rulest England.
                               Hail thou who rulest Ireland.
                               Hail thou to whom France gives tides whilst the others             
                               give lands.
                               Hail thou whom Britain, now untied though formerly
                               divided, cherishes.
                                Hail thou supreme British, Irish, Gallic Monarch.
                              (Dr. Gwinn, Tres Sibyllae, 1605; qtd. Nostbakken, 30)

   In the same year, 1605, the sinister Gunpowder Plot nearly took out the entire royal family using the alchemical potion of gunpowder, associated with the devil and witches in the popular mind, and gave England a powerful metaphor for the “evil enemy” of the Empire, much as Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been demonized after the attacks on the World Trade Towers. Shakespeare quite ironically turned the Three Sybils into his Weird Sisters, as a wrinkled reflection of the themes of treason and terror, which were haunting the kingdom outside the theatre.

   “ But will God permit these wicked instruments by the power of the Devil their master, to trouble by any of these means, any that believes in him?
     No doubt, for there are three kinds of folks whom God will permit so to be tempted or troubled; the wicked for their horrible sins, to punish them in like measure; The godly that are sleeping in any great sins or infirmities and weaknesses in faith, to waken them up the faster by such an uncouth form: and even some of the best, that their patience may be tried before the world, as JOB’S was.”
                    (King James I, Daemonology, 1597;  qtd. Nostbakken 107)

   In the history of European theatre, no play has gained such a troubled reputation as Macbeth. Since its very first performance in front of King James, it has generated superstition and curses, literally, physically, and psychologically.

"No other play has had more bad luck associated with it: coronaries,
car accidents, mysterious ailments, botched lines, and sword
wounds. The theatrical superstition is not taken lightly: even to
pronounce the play's title is considered bad dressing-room form. Its
very names is a curse....It's also considered as the height of bad
dressing-room form to quote from the play under any circumstances.
For hundreds of years it's been delicately referred to as 'The Scottish
Play' or simply 'That Play.'"

           (Norrie Epstein, The Friendly Shakespeare, qtd. Macbeth Homepage) 

  As the dramatic tradition carries Macbeth forward in time, it also carries the legendary curse of the play, which holds that nearly every traditional production stirs up so much “toil and trouble” that often people are permanently injured, psychologically disturbed, or even killed. One of the few film directors who dared to present the wicked tragedy on screen, Roman Polanski (1971), was enchanted with other manifestations of evil, in Rosemary’s Baby and the Fearless Vampire Killers, his two preceding films before the Manson family murdered his wife Sharon Tate.

  Macbeth, while purportedly a morality play about deliberately misleading language and treason, by the addition of extensive magical rituals and incantations becomes instead a Black Mass of murderous consequences. While attempting to give form to the mysterious world of the supernatural, it actually unleashes the spirits and characters which society professes to be afraid of. Similar to modern horror films, Macbeth was designed to scare the wits of the common folk and dissuade any one with treasonous intentions. Yet at the same time it gives power to the underclass and the revolutionary, showing how vulnerable the ruling class can be.

   Macbeth exposes the nightmarish and anarchic results of allowing doublespeak and half-truth, or “equivocation,” to entice and influence the future. Yet Shakespeare himself is a premier master of the double-entendre in the English language! Witness how he weaves his magical “equivocations” into the drama of Macbeth more effectively than an entire coven of witches could  have!  This is the profound irony that Shakespeare celebrates with this political tragedy, and the challenge he puts forth to our culture:  where does the “truth” lie?

     Hecate     O, well done! I commend your pains,
                        And every one shall share I’ th’gains.
                        And now about the cauldron sing,
                        Like elves and fairies in a ring,
                        Enchanting all that you put in.
     2 Witch      By the pricking of my thumbs,
                         Something wicked this way comes.—
                                                                                          (4. 1. 39-45)

     As King James’ war against witchcraft would degenerate into murderous mob behavior, the evil of Macbeth is embodied and empowered every time it is performed. What is the lesson for a ruthless society watching ruthlessness play out-- that conspiracy doesn’t pay, or that one should choose one’s allies more wisely? Would Macbeth have done much better, for example, if he had made friends with the witches, and been less afraid of the consequences? The Chain of Being appears to be very tenuous in retrospect, and Macbeth is an historical measure of how low “nobility” will go to achieve domination.

  Has humanity learned anything from “the Scottish play,” given the terrorized and barbaric state of our world, or will militaristic leaders continue to lead us down the path toward mass murder and chaos in the name of power? To kill or not to kill—that is the question.
     “We must be free or die who speak the tongue
        That Shakespeare spake.”
                                        --William Wordsworth

List of Works Cited

v  Faith Nostbakken   Understanding Macbeth: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, Greenwood Press, 1997
v  Garry Willis  Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oxford University Press, 1995
v  Terence Hawkes,Ed.  Twentieth Century Interpretations of Macbeth: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1977

Wonderplucker Accelerator                            B.Z. Bee Cascadia