Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Look Into My Heart, and You Will Sort of Understand

Shakespeare had good political reasons to set Macbeth in Scotland; he began writing the play in 1603, just as James VI of Scotland became James I of England. James was a Stuart, of course, and as Stephen Greenblatt helpfully explains in the footnotes to the Norton edition of Macbeth, Banquo, to whose descendants the weird sisters promise the throne, was mythologically the beginning of the Stuart line. So Macbeth, in a political reading, sounds a bit like the Aeneid, in that it exists to grant divine sanction to an earthly king.

But in the 17th century, Scotland was also the main hub of Presbyterianism in what would eventually be called Great Britain, and with that in mind, it’s hard not to pick up traces and hints of Calvinism in Macbeth, particularly in its intersection of divine providence, prayer, and human action and autonomy.

The events of the play are well-known—the weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be king of Scotland, and rather than wait for fate to make itself happen, Macbeth and his wife take matters into their own hands, slaughtering King Duncan and installing themselves in the castle. This works out well for awhile, until they are inevitably discovered and violently deposed.

It’s fundamentally a play about the depravity of man, a topic handled ad nauseam by Calvin in the Institutes:
Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works with Scripture calls “the works of the flesh” . . . Those who have said that original sin is “concupiscence” have used an appropriate word, if only it be added—something that most will by no means concede—that whatever is in man, from the understanding to will, from the soul even to the flesh, has been defiled and crammed with this concupiscence. (II.i.8)
Humanity must follow God’s law, and yet we are utterly powerless to do so thanks to total depravity. Thus, to do the right thing and thus to please God, we must petition God for his instruction and aid. Calvin’s great 20th-century heir, Karl Barth, goes into further detail on the topic in his little book appropriately titled Prayer:
What is to be said, what is to be done, when we are confronted with the fact that no one obeys the law perfectly, whereas the law exacts perfect obedience, and when we do not perfectly fulfill it, we do not fulfill it at all? However, we are believers, that is, people who have the beginnings of faith . . . God says to me, “Put your trust in me, believe in me.” And I go forward, I believe; but while going forward, I say, “Come to the help of my unbelief.”
All of this is, predictably enough, bound up in the doctrine of providence. Calvin suggests that while God is in control of every action, we are nevertheless responsible for the wickedness we enact. (Here is where Calvin’s theology becomes very difficult to follow, and here is where Calvin says that we have to accept this intersection as a mystery, something beyond our understanding.) Thus, while the future is always already decided, God will also change it if we petition him to guide us. (As I said, this is a really tough doctrine to get your head around.)

It’s this paradox that’s at the heart of Macbeth. The weird sisters—the play’s thematic replacement for God—predict and perhaps control the future, and when Macbeth and Banquo are hailed as the king and the father of future kings, respectively, they’re almost immediately thrown into a battle with the big black heart at the center of their souls. We see this as early as the top of Act I, Scene 7, where we find Macbeth arguing with himself over the correct action:
If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and end-all, here,
But here upon the bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (I.vii.1-7)
His better angels may not want him to do the right thing for its own sake, but they at least recognize the threat of divine punishment inherent in wicked actions. (Calvin calls this a totally legitimate reason for seeking God in Institutes II.viii.4.) But his sin is a sin of omission long before it’s a sin of commission—never in the play does he seek God’s help or guidance, and further, instead of submitting to divine providence, he attempts to take control of it.

We see this clearly much later in the play, when he hires three murderers, a clear human perversion of the three witches who reveal his fate—and then again when he picks which parts of the sisters’ final prophecies to him to believe, choosing to believe that no man of woman born will be able to kill him but ignoring for all intents and purposes, their advice to fear Macduff.

Lady Macbeth, as the traditional readings say, is even worse, not because she urges Macbeth to kill Duncan (milk of human kindness aside, he was going to do that eventually anyway, since he’s incapable of doing the right thing without divine intervention and since he doesn’t bother to seek it), but because she has no inkling that there’s a right thing to do. She’s depraved to an extent that Macbeth is not because she no longer recognizes the law of God that’s written into the world. (She’s not alone, by the way—Calvin says that none of us is capable of correctly applying general revelation.) When the hound of heaven finally catches up with her in Act V, her depravity is more than she can bear, and instead of petitioning for forgiveness, she takes matters into her own hand in the most extreme way possible.

Banquo is our model of man’s proper attitude toward his depravity. He’s given a similar prophecy to Macbeth, one that suggests that he may be able to kill the new king and occupy the throne himself. And he, too, wrestles with the dark side of his own nature. The difference, however, is that he pleads for divine aid: “Merciful powers, / Restrain in me the curséd thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose” (II.i.7-9). Thus, while he’s murdered, he’s murdered as a righteous man, one who has relied on God to overcome his depravity and one who will ostensibly be rewarded in the afterlife, not for his action, but for his lack of action.

It’s for this reason that I find Macbeth to be fundamentally different in theme and tone from Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Hamlet and King Lear. This play, best I can tell, is one of his few plays where the bad guys genuinely get it in the end with a relative minimum of innocent death. Where God was capricious in Lear and, perhaps, nonexistent in Hamlet, here he seems to have a real sense of justice, answering prayers and punishing those who are too proud to offer them.

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