From Characters of Shakespear’s Plays

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Author: William Hazlitt  | Date: 1817

Macbeth

MACBETH and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespear’s four principal tragedies. Lear stands first for the profound intensity of the passion; Macbeth for the wildness of the imagination and the rapidity of the action; Othello for the progressive interest and powerful alternations of feeling; Hamlet for the refined developement of thought and sentiment. If the force of genius shown in each of these works is astonishing, their variety is not less so. They are like different creations of the same mind, not one of which has the slightest reference to the rest. This distinctness and originality is indeed the necessary consequence of truth and nature. Shakespear’s genius alone appeared to possess the resources of nature. He is ’your only tragedy-maker.’ His plays have the force of things upon the mind. What he represents is brought home to the bosom as a part of our experience, implanted in the memory as if we had known the places, persons, and things of which he treats. MACBETH is like a record of a preternatural and tragical event. It has the rugged severity of an old chronicle with all that the imagination of the poet can engraft upon traditional belief. The castle of Macbeth, round which ’the air smells wooingly,’ and where ’the temple-haunting martlet builds,’ has a real subsistence in the mind; the Weird Sisters meet us in person on ’the blasted heath;’ the ’air-drawn dagger’ moves slowly before our eyes; the ’gracious Duncan,’ the ’blood-boltered Banquo’ stand before us; all that passed through the mind of Macbeth passes, without the loss of a tittle, through ours. All that could actually take place, and all that is only possible to be conceived, what was said and what was done, the workings of passion, the spells of magic, are brought before us with the same absolute truth and vividness.- Shakespear excelled in the openings of his plays: that of MACBETH is the most striking of any. The wildness of the scenery, the sudden shifting of the situations and characters, the bustle, the expectations excited, are equally extraordinary. From the first entrance of the Witches and the description of them when they meet Macbeth,

-What are these

So wither’d and so wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants of th’ earth

And yet are on’t?

the mind is prepared for all that follows.

This tragedy is alike distinguished for the lofty imagination it displays, and for the tumultuous vehemence of the action; and the one is made the moving principle of the other. The overwhelming pressure of preternatural agency urges on the tide of human passion with redoubled force. Macbeth himself appears driven along by the violence of his fate like a vessel drifting before a storm: he reels to and fro like a drunken man; he staggers under the weight of his own purposes and the suggestions of others; he stands at bay with his situation; and from the superstitious awe and breathless suspense into which the communications of the Weird Sisters throw him, is hurried on with daring impatience to verify their predictions, and with impious and bloody hand to tear aside the veil which hides the uncertainty of the future. He is not equal to the struggle with fate and conscience. He now ’bends up each corporal instrument to the terrible feat;’ at other times his heart misgives him, and he is cowed and abashed by his success. ’The deed, no less than the attempt, confounds him.’ His mind is assailed by the stings of remorse, and full of ’preternatural solicitings.’ His speeches and soliloquies are dark riddles on human life, baffling solution, and entangling him in their labyrinths. In thought he is absent and perplexed, sudden and desperate in act, from a distrust of his own resolution. His energy springs from the anxiety and agitation of his mind. His blindly rushing forward on the objects of his ambition and revenge, or his recoiling from them, equally betrays the harassed state of his feelings.- This part of his character is admirably set off by being brought in connection with that of Lady Macbeth, whose obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness give her the ascendancy over her husband’s faultering virtue. She at once seizes on the opportunity that offers for the accomplishment of all their wished-for greatness, and never flinches from her object till all is over. The magnitude of her resolution almost covers the magnitude of her guilt. She is a great bad woman, whom we hate, but whom we fear more than we hate. She does not excite our loathing and abhorrence like Regan and Goneril. She is only wicked to gain a great end; and is perhaps more distinguished by her commanding wazzu presence of mind and inexorable self-will, which do not suffer her to be diverted from a bad purpose, when once formed, by weak and womanly regrets, than by the hardness of her heart or want of natural affections. The impression which her lofty determination of character makes on the mind of Macbeth is well described where he exclaims,

-Bring forth men children only;

For thy undaunted mettle should compose

Nothing but males!

Nor do the pains she is at to ’screw his courage to the sticking- place,’ the reproach to him, not to be ’lost so poorly in himself,’ the assurance that ’a little water clears them of this deed,’ show anything but her greater consistency in depravity. Her strong-nerved ambition furnishes ribs of steel to ’the sides of his intent;’ and she is herself wound up to the execution of her baneful project with the same unshrinking fortitude in crime, that in other circumstances she would probably have shewn patience in suffering. The deliberate sacrifice of all other considerations to the gaining ’for their future days and nights sole sovereign sway and masterdom,’ by the murder of Duncan, is gorgeously expressed in her invocation on hearing of ’his fatal entrance under her battlements:’-

-Come all you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here:

And fill me, from the crown to th’ toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murthering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night!

And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,

That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,

Nor heav’n peep through the blanket of the dark,

To cry, hold, hold!-

When she first hears that ’Duncan comes there to sleep,’ she is so overcome by the news, which is beyond her utmost expectations, that she answers the messenger, ’Thou’rt mad to say it:’ and on receiving her husband’s account of the predictions of the Witches, conscious of his instability of purpose, and that her presence is necessary to goad him on to the consummation of his promised greatness, she exclaims-

-Hie thee hither,

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,

And chastise with the valour of my tongue

All that impedes thee from the golden round,

Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

To have thee crowned withal.

This swelling exultation and keen spirit of triumph, this uncontroulable eagerness of anticipation, which seems to dilate her form and take possession of all her faculties, this solid, substantial flesh and blood display of passion, exhibit a striking contrast to the cold, abstracted, gratuitous, servile malignity of the Witches, who are equally instrumental in urging Macbeth to his fate for the mere love of mischief, and from a disinterested delight in deformity and cruelty. They are hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction, because they are themselves unreal, abortive, half-existences- who become sublime from their exemption from all human sympathies and contempt for all human affairs, as Lady Macbeth does by the force of passion! Her fault seems to have been an excess of that strong principle of self-interest and family aggrandisement, not amenable to the common feelings of compassion and justice, which is so marked a feature in barbarous nations and times. A passing reflection of this kind, on the resemblance of the sleeping king to her father, alone prevents her from slaying Duncan with her own hand....

MACBETH (generally speaking) is done upon a stronger and more systematic principle of contrast than any other of Shakespear’s plays. It moves upon the verge of an abyss, and is a constant struggle between life and death. The action is desperate and the reaction is dreadful. It is a huddling together of fierce extremes, a war of opposite natures which of them shall destroy the other. There is nothing but what has a violent end or violent beginnings. The lights and shades are laid on with a determined hand; the transitions from triumph to despair, from the height of terror to the repose of death, are sudden and startling; every passion brings in its fellow-contrary, and the thoughts pitch and jostle against each other as in the dark. The whole play is an unruly chaos of strange and forbidden things, where the ground rocks under our feet. Shakespear’s genius here took its full swing, and trod upon the farthest bounds of nature and passion. This circumstance will account for the abruptness and violent antitheses of the style, the throes and labour which run through the expression, and from defects will turn them into beauties. ’So fair and foul a day I have not seen,’ &c. ’Such welcome and unwelcome news together.’ ’Men’s lives are like the flowers in their caps, dying or ere they sicken.’ ’Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’ The scene before the castle-gate follows the appearance of the Witches on the heath, and is followed by a midnight murder. Duncan is cut off betimes by treason leagued with witchcraft, and Macduff is ripped untimely from his mother’s womb to avenge his death. Macbeth, after the death of Banquo, wishes for his presence in extravagant terms, ’To him and all we thirst,’ and when his ghost appears, cries out, ’Avaunt and quit my sight,’ and being gone, he is ’himself again.’ Macbeth resolves to get rid of Macduff, that ’he may sleep in spite of thunder;’ and cheers his wife on the doubtful intelligence of Banquo’s taking-off with the encouragement- ’Then be thou jocund: ere the bat has flown his cloistered flight; ere to black Hecate’s summons the shard-born beetle has rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done- a deed of dreadful note.’ In Lady Macbeth’s speech ’Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t,’ there is murder and filial piety together; and in urging him to fulfil his vengeance against the defenceless king, her thoughts spare the blood neither of infants nor old age. The description of the Witches is full of the same contradictory principle; they ’rejoice when good kings bleed,’ they are neither of the earth nor the air, but both; ’they should be women, but their beards forbid it;’ they take all the pains possible to lead Macbeth on to the height of his ambition, only to betray him ’in deeper consequence,’ and after showing him all the pomp of their art, discover their malignant delight in his disappointed hopes, by that bitter taunt, ’Why stands Macbeth thus amazedly?’ We might multiply such instances everywhere.

The leading features in the character of Macbeth are striking enough, and they form what may be thought at first only a bold, rude, Gothic outline. By comparing it with other characters of the same author we shall perceive the absolute truth and identity which is observed in the midst of the giddy whirl and rapid career of events. Macbeth in Shakespear no more loses his identity of character in the fluctuations of fortune or the storm of passion, than Macbeth in himself would have lost the identity of his person. Thus he is as distinct a being from Richard III as it is possible to imagine, though these two characters in common hands, and indeed in the hands of any other poet, would have been a repetition of the same general idea, more or less exaggerated. For both are tyrants, usurpers, murderers, both aspiring and ambitious, both courageous, cruel, treacherous. But Richard is cruel from nature and constitution. Macbeth becomes so from accidental circumstances. Richard is from his birth deformed in body and mind, and naturally incapable of good. Macbeth is full of ’the milk of human kindness,’ is frank, sociable, generous. He is tempted to the commission of guilt by golden opportunities, by the instigations of his wife, and by prophetic warnings. Fate and metaphysical aid conspire against his virtue and his loyalty. Richard on the contrary needs no prompter, but wades through a series of crimes to the height of his ambition from the ungovernable violence of his temper and a reckless love of mischief. He is never gay but in the prospect or in the success of his villainies: Macbeth is full of horror at the thoughts of the murder of Duncan, which he is with difficulty prevailed on to commit, and of remorse after its perpetration. Richard has no mixture of common humanity in his composition, no regard to kindred or posterity, he owns no fellowship with others, he is ’himself alone.’ Macbeth is not destitute of feelings of sympathy, is accessible to pity, is even made in some measure the dupe of his uxoriousness, ranks the loss of friends, of the cordial love of his followers, and of his good name, among the causes which have made him weary of life, and regrets that he has ever seized the crown by unjust means, he cannot transmit it to his posterity-

For Banquo’s issue have I fil’d my mind-

For them the gracious Duncan have I murther’d

To make them kings, the seed of Banquo kings.

In the agitation of his mind, he envies those whom he has sent to peace. ’Duncan is in his grave; after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.’ It is true, he becomes more callous as he plunges deeper in guilt, ’direness is thus rendered familiar to his slaughterous thoughts’- and he in the end anticipates his wife in the boldness and bloodiness of his enterprises, while she for want of the same stimulus of action, ’is troubled with thick-coming fancies that rob her of her rest,’ goes mad and dies. Macbeth endeavours to escape from reflection on his crimes by repelling their consequences, and banishes remorse for the past by the meditation of future mischief. This is not the principle of Richard’s cruelty, which displays the wanton malice of a fiend as much as the frailty of human passion. Macbeth is goaded on to acts of violence and retaliation by necessity; to Richard, blood is a pastime.- There are other decisive differences inherent in the two characters. Richard may be regarded as a man of the world, a plotting, hardened knave, wholly regardless of everything but his own ends, and the means to secure them.- Not so Macbeth. The superstitions of the age, the rude state of society, the local scenery and customs, all give a wildness and imaginary grandeur to his character. From the strangeness of the events that surround him, he is full of amazement and fear; and stands in doubt between the world of reality and the world of fancy. He sees sights not shewn to mortal eye, and hears unearthly music. All is tumult and disorder within and without his mind; his purposes recoil upon himself, are broken and disjointed; he is the double thrall of his passions and his evil destiny. Richard is not a character either of imagination or pathos, but of pure self-will. There is no conflict of opposite feelings in his breast. The apparitions which he sees only haunt him in his sleep; nor does he live like Macbeth in a waking dream. Macbeth has considerable energy and manliness of character; but then he is ’subject to all the skyey influences.’ He is sure of nothing but the present moment. Richard in the busy turbulence of his projects never loses his self-possession, and makes use of every circumstance that happens as an instrument of his long-reaching designs. In his last extremity we can only regard him as a wild beast taken in the toils: while we never entirely lose our concern for Macbeth; and he calls back all our sympathy by that fine close of thoughtful melancholy,

My way of life is fallen into the sear,

The yellow leaf; and that which should accompany old age,

As honour, troops of friends, I must not look to have;

But in their stead, curses not loud but deep,

Mouth-honour, breath, which the poor heart

Would fain deny, and dare not.

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Chicago: William Hazlitt, "Macbeth," From Characters of Shakespear’s Plays Original Sources, accessed December 12, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ARJGYVLQRHUW69G.

MLA: Hazlitt, William. "Macbeth." From Characters of Shakespear’s Plays, Original Sources. 12 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ARJGYVLQRHUW69G.

Harvard: Hazlitt, W, 'Macbeth' in From Characters of Shakespear’s Plays. Original Sources, retrieved 12 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ARJGYVLQRHUW69G.