Macbeth Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
famous critique based on his legendary and influential
Shakespeare notes and lectures.
MACBETH stands in contrast throughout with Hamlet;
in the manner of opening more especially. In the latter,
there is a gradual ascent from the simplest forms of
conversation to the language of impassioned intellect,yet
the intellect still remaining the seat of passion: in
the former, the invocation is at once made to the imagination
and the emotions connected therewith. Hence the movement
throughout is the most rapid of all Shakspeare's plays;
and hence also, with the exception of the disgusting
passage of the Porter (Act ii. sc. 3), which I dare
pledge myself to demonstrate to be an interpolation
of the actors, there is not, to the best of my remembrance,
a single pun or play on words in the whole drama. I
have previously given an answer to the thousand times
repeated charge against Shakspeare upon the subject
of his punning, and I here merely mention the fact of
the absence of any puns in Macbeth, as justifying a
candid doubt at least, whether even in these figures
of speech and fanciful modifications of language, Shakspeare
may not have followed rules and principles that merit
and would stand the test of philosophic examination.
And hence, also, there is an entire absence of comedy,
nay, even of irony and philosophic contemplation in
Macbeth,the play being wholly and purely tragic.
For the same cause, there are no reasonings of equivocal
morality, which would have required a more leisurely
state and a consequently greater activity of mind;no
sophistry of self-delusion,except only that previously
to the dreadful act, Macbeth mistranslates the recoilings
and ominous whispers of conscience into prudential and
selfish reasonings, and, after the deed done the terrors
of remorse into fear from external dangers, like
delirious men who run away from the phantoms of I their
own brains, or, raised by terror to rage, stab the real
object that is within their reach:whilst Lady
Macbeth merely endeavours to reconcile his and her own
sinkings of heart by anticipations of the worst, and
an. affected bravado in confronting them. In all the
rest, Macbeth's language is the grave utterance of the
very heart, conscience-sick, even to the last faintings
of moral death. It is the same in all the other characters.
The variety arises from rage, caused ever and anon by
disruption of anxious thought, and the quick transition
of fear into it.
In Hamlet and Macbeth the scene opens with superstition;
but, in each it is not merely different, but opposite.
In the first it is connected with the best and holiest
feelings; in the second with the shadowy, turbulent,
and unsanctified cravings of the individual will. Nor
is the purpose the same; in the one the object is to
excite, whilst in the other it is to mark a mind already
excited. Superstition, of one sort or another, is natural
to victorious generals; the instances are too notorious
to need mentioning. There is so much of chance in warfare,
and such vast events are connected with the acts of
a single individual,the representative, in truth,
of the efforts of myriads, and yet to the public and,
doubtless, to his own feelings, the aggregate of all,that
the proper temperament for generating or receiving superstitious
impres-sions is naturally produced. Hope, the master
element of a commanding genius, meeting with an active
and combining intellect, and an imagination of just
that degree of vividness which disquiets and impels
the soul to try to realize its images, greatly increases
the creative power of the mind; and hence the images
become a satisfying world of themselves, as is the case
in every poet and original philosopher:but hope
fully gratified, and yet, the ele-mentary basis of the
passion remaining, becomes fear;
and, indeed, the general, who must often feel, even
though he may hide it from his own consciousness, bow
large a share chance had in his successes, may very
naturally be irresolute in a new scene, where he knows
that all will depend on his own act and election.
The Weird Sisters are as true a creation of Shakspeare's,
as his Ariel and Caliban,fates, furies, and materializing
witches being the elements. They are wholly different
from any representation of witches in the contemporary
writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance
to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act immediately
on the audience. Their character consists in the imagina-tive
disconnected from the good; they are the shadowy obscure
and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, the lawless
of human nature,elemental avengers without sex
Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover thro' the fog and filthy air.
How much it were to be wished in playing Macbeth, that
an attempt should be made to introduce the flexile character-mask
of the ancient pantomime;that Flaxman would contribute
his genius to the embodying and making sensuously perceptible
that of Shakspeare!
The style and rhythm of the Captain's speeches in the.
second scene should be illustrated by reference to the
interlude in Hamlet, in which the epic is substituted
for the tragic, in order to make the latter be felt
as the real-life diction. In Macbeth, the poet's object
was to raise the mind at once to the high tragic tone,
that the audience might be ready for the precipitate
consummation of guilt in the early part of the play.
The true reason for the first appearance of the Witches
is to strike the key-note of the character of the whole
drama, as is proved by their reappearance in the third
scene, after such an order of the king's as establishes
their supernatural power of informa-tion. I say information,for
so it only is as to Glamis and Cawdor; the 'king hereafter'
was still contingent, still in Macbeth's moral
will; although, if he should yield to the temptation,
and thus forfeit his free agency, the link of cause
and effect more physico would then commence. I need
not say, that the general idea is all that can be required
from the poet,not a scholastic logical consistency
in all the parts so as to meet metaphysical objectors.
But O! how truly Shakspearian is the opening of Macbeth's
character given in the unpossessedness of Banquo's mind,
wholly present to the present object, an unsullied,
unscarified mirror!And how strictly true to nature
it is, that Banquo, and not Macbeth himself, directs
our notice to the effect produced on Macbeth's mind,
rendered temptible by previous dalliance of the fancy
with ambitious thoughts:
Good Sir, why do yon start; and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?
And then, again, still unintroitive, addresses the
I' the name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show?
Banquo's questions are those of natural curiosity,such
as a girl would put after hearing a gipsy tell her school-fellow's
fortune;all perfectly general, or rather planless.
But Macbeth, lost in thought, raises himself to speech
only by the Witches being about to depart:
Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:
and all that follows is reasoning on a problem already
discussed in his mind,on a hope which he welcomes,
and the doubts concerning the attainment of which he
wishes to have cleared up. Compare his eagerness,the
keen eye with which he has pursued the Witches' evanishing
Speak, I charge you!
with the easily satisfied mind of the self-uninterested
The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, And these
are of them:Whither are they vanished?
and then Macbeth's earnest reply,
Into the air; and what seem'd corporal, melted As
breath into the wind.'Would they had staid!
Is it too minute to notice the appropriateness of the
simile 'as breath,' &c., in a cold climate?
Still again Banquo goes on wondering like any common
Were such things here as we do speak about?
whilst Macbeth persists in recurring to the self-concerning:
Your children shall be kings.
Ban. You shall be king.
Macb. And thane of Cawdor too: went it not so?
So surely is the guilt in its germ anterior to the
supposed cause, and immediate temptation! Before he
can cool, the confirmation of the tempting half of the
prophecy arrives, and the concatenating tendency of
the imagination is fostered by the sudden coincidence:
Glamis, and thane of Cawdor:
The greatest is behind.
Oppose this to Banquo's simple surprise:
What, can the devil speak true?
Ib. Banquo's speech:
That, trusted home,
Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the thane of Cawdor.
I doubt whether 'enkindle' has not another sense than
that of 'stimulating;' I mean of 'kind' and 'kin,' as
when rabbits are said to 'kindle.' However Macbeth no
longer hears any thing ab extra:
Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.
Then in the necessity of recollecting himself
I thank you, gentlemen.
Then he relapses into himself again, and every word
of his soliloquy shows the early birth-date of his guilt.
He is all-powerful without strength; he wishes the end,
but is irresolute as to the means; conscience distinctly
warns him, and he lulls it imperfectly:
If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown
me Without my stir.
Lost in the prospective of his guilt, he turns round
alarmed lest others may suspect what is passing in his
own mind, and instantly vents the lie of ambition:
My dull brain was wrought With things forgotten;
And immediately after pours forth the promising courtesies
of a usurper in intention:
Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are register'd where every day I turn
The leaf to read them.
Ib. Macbeth's speech:
Present fears Are less than horrible imaginings.
Warburton's note, and substitution of 'feats' for 'fears.'
Mercy on this most wilful ingenuity of blundering, which,
nevertheless, was the very Warburton of Warburton his
inmost being! 'Fears,' here, are present fear-striking
objects, terrihilia. adstanfia.
Ib. sc. 4. O! the affecting beauty of the death of
Cawdor, and the presentimental speech of the king:
There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face :
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust
O worthiest cousin!
on the entrance of the deeper traitor for whom Cawdor
had made way! And here in contrast with Duncan's 'plenteous
joys,' Macbeth has nothing but the common-places of
loyalty, in which he hides himself with 'our duties.'
Note the exceeding effort of Macbeth's addresses to
the king, his reasoning on his allegiance, and then
especially when a new difficulty, the designation of
a successor, suggests a new crime. This, however, seems
the first distinct notion, as to the plan of realizing
his wishes; and here, therefore, with great propriety,
Macbeth's cowardice of his own conscience discloses
itself. I always think there is something especially
Shakspearian in Duncan's speeches throughout this scene,
such pourings forth, such abandonments, compared with
the language of vulgar dramatists, whose characters
seem to have made their speeches as the actors learn
Ib. Duncan's speech:
Sons, kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know,
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland: which honour must
Not unaccompanied, invest him only;
But signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine
On all deservers.
It is a fancy;but I can never read this and
the following speeches of Macbeth, without involuntarily
thinking of the Miltonic Messiah and Satan.
Ib. sc. 5. Macbeth is described by Lady Macbeth so
as at the same time to reveal her own character. Could
he have every thing he wanted, he would rather have
it mnocently;ignorant, as alas! how many of us
are, that he who wishes a temporal end for itself, does
in truth will the means; and hence the danger of indulging
fancies, Lady Macbeth, like all in Shakspeare, is a
class individualized:of high rank, left much alone,
and feeding herself with day-dreams of ambition, she
mistakes the courage of fantasy for the power of bearing
the consequences of the realities of guilt. Hers is
the mock fortitude of a mind deluded by ambition; she
shames her husband with a superhuman audacity of fancy
which she cannot support, but sinks in the season of
remorse, and dies in suicidal agony. Her speech:
Come, all yon spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, &c.
is that of one who had habitually familiarized her
imagina-tion to dreadful conceptions, and was trying
to do so still more. Her invocations and requisitions
are all the false efforts of a mind accustomed only
hitherto to the shadows of the imagination, vivid enough
to throw the everyday substances of life into shadow,
but never as yet brought into direct contact with their
own correspondent realities. She evinces no womanly
life, no wifely joy, at the return of her husband, no
pleased terror at the thought of his past dangers, whilst
Macbeth bursts forth naturally
My dearest love
and shrinks from the boldness with which she presents
his own thoughts to him. With consummate art she at
first uses as incentives the very circumstances, Duncan's
coming to their house, &c. which Macbeth's conscience
would most probably have adduced to her as motives of
abhorrence or repulsion. Yet Macbeth is not prepared:
We will speak further.
Ib. sc. 6. The lyrical movement with which this scene
opens, and the free and unengaged mind of Banquo, loving
nature, and rewarded in the love itself, form a highly
dramatic contrast with the laboured rhythm and hypocritical
over-much of Lady Macbeth's welcome, in which you cannot
detect a ray of personal feeling, but all is thrown
upon the 'dignities,' the general duty.
Ib. sc. 7. Macbeth's speech:
We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor'd me of late; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.
Note the inward pangs and warnings of conscience interpreted
into prudential reasonings.
Act ii. sc. i. Banquo's speech:
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers!
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts, that nature
Gives way to in repose.
The disturbance of an innocent soul by painful suspicions
of another's guilty intentions and wishes, and fear
of the cursed thoughts of sensual nature.
Ib. sc. 2. Now that the deed is done or doingnow
that the first reality commences. Lady Macbeth shrinks.
The most simple sound strikes terror, the most natural
consequences are horrible, whilst previously every thing,
however awful, appeared a mere trifle; conscience, which
before had been hidden to Macbeth in selfish and prudential
fears, now rushes in upon him in her own veritable person:
Methought I heard a voice crySleep no more!
I could not say Amen,
When they did say. God bless us!
And see the novelty given to the most familiar images
by a new state of feeling.
Ib. sc. 3. This low soliloquy of the Porter and his
few speeches afterwards, I believe to have been written
for the mob by some other hand, perhaps with Shakspeare's
consent; and that finding it take, he with the remaining
ink of a pen otherwise employed, just interpolated the
I'll devil-porter it no further : I had thought
to have let in some of all professions, that go the
primrose way to tb' everlasting bonfire.
Of the rest not one syllable has the ever-present being
Act iii. sc. 1. Compare Macbeth's mode of working on
the murderers in this place with Schiller's mistaken
scene between Butler, Devereux, and Macdonald in Wallenstein.
(Part II. act iv. sc. 2.) The comic was wholly out of
season. Shakspeare never introduces it, but when it
may react on the tragedy by harmonious contrast.
Ib. sc. 2. Macbeth's speech:
But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly.
Ever and ever mistaking the anguish of conscience for
fears of selfishness, and thus as a punishment of that
selfishness, plunging still deeper in guilt and ruin.
Ib. Macbeth's speech:
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed.
This is Macbeth's sympathy with his own feelings, and
his mistaking his wife's opposite state.
Ib. sc. 4.
Macb. It will have blood, they say; blood will have
Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak;
Augurs, and understood relations, have
By magot-pies, and choughs, and rooks, brought forth
The secret'st man of blood.
The deed is done; but Macbeth receives no comfort,
no additional security. He has by guilt torn himself
live-asunder from nature, and is, therefore, himself
in a preter-natural state: no wonder, then, that he
is inclined to superstition, and faith in the unknown
of signs and tokens, and super-human agencies.
Act iv. sc. i.
Len. 'Tis two or three, my lord, that bring you
Macduff is fled to England.
Macb. Fled to England?
The acme of the avenging conscience.
Ib. sc. 2. This scene, dreadful as it is, is still
a relief, because a variety, because domestic, and therefore
soothing, as associated with the only real pleasures
of life. The conversation between Lady Macduff and her
child heightens the pathos, and is preparatory for the
deep tragedy of their assassination. Shakspeare's fondness
for children is every where shown;in Prince Arthur,
in King John; in the sweet scene in the Winter's Tale
between Hermione and her son; nay, even in honest Evans's
examination of Mrs. Page's schoolboy. To the objection
that Shakspeare wounds the moral sense by the unsubdued,
undisguised description of the most hateful atrocitythat
he tears the feelings without mercy, and even outrages
the eye itself with scenes of insupportable horrorI,
omitting Titus Andronicus, as not genuine, and excepting
the scene of Gloster's blinding in Lear, answer boldly
in the name of Shakspeare, not guilty.
Ib. sc. 3. Malcolm's speech:
Than such a one to reign.
The moral isthe dreadful effects even on the
best minds of the soul-sickening sense of insecurity.
Ib. How admirably Macduff's grief is in harmony with
the whole play! It rends, not dissolves, the heart.
'The tune of it goes manly.' Thus is Shakspeare always
master of himself and of his subject,a genuine
Proteus:we see all things in him, as images in
a calm lake, most distinct, most accurate,only
more splendid, more glorified. This is correctness in
the only philosophical sense. But he requires your sympathy
and your submission; you must have that recipiency of
moral impression without which the purposes and ends
of the drama would be frustrated, and the absence of
which demonstrates an utter want of all imagination,
a deadness to that necessary pleasure of being innocentlyshall
I say, deluded?or rather, drawn away from ourselves
to the music of noblest thought in har-monious sounds.
Happy he, who not only in the public theatre, but in
the labours of a profession, and round the light of
his own hearth, still carries a heart so pleasure-fraught!
Alas for Macbeth! now all is inward with him; he has
no more prudential prospective reasonings. His wife,
the only being who could have had any seat in his affections,
dies; he puts on despondency, the final heart-armour
of the wretched, and would fain think every thing shadowy
and unsubstantial, as indeed all things are to those
who cannot regard them as symbols of goodness:
Out out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,