Ambiguity in Shakespeare's Macbeth
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The reader is not totally at ease in William Shakespeare's tragic drama Macbeth. The play contains numerous instances which lack clear import or meaning. Let's examine these in this paper.
In his book, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, H. S. Wilson comments on the ambiguities surrounding the Weird Sisters:
Scholars have been much exercised to determine the status of the Weird Sisters; but again theirs seems to be a case like that of the Ghost of Hamlet's father: the ambiguities concerning these creatures are deliberate and meant to enhance our sense of their mystery without determining just what they are. They are something like the Norse fates in Holinshed, a good deal like ordinary English witches, and suggestive, besides, of a projection of Macbeth's ambition and his consequent fears [. . .]. (72-73)
In Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the purposeful obscurity in which Shakespeare keeps the three Witches:
The obscurity with which Shakespeare envelops their nature and powers is very probably deliberate, since he seems to intend them to body forth, in a physical presence on stage, precisely the mystery, the ambiguity, the question mark (psychological as well as metaphysical) that lies at the root of human wrong-doing, which is always both local and explicable, universal and inexplicable, like these very figures. (185-86)
In "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action" Francis Fergusson explains the irrational nature of the actions of Macbeth and his wife - a cause of ambiguity:
I do not need to remind you of the great scenes preceding the murder, in which Macbeth and his Lady pull themselves together for their desperate effort. If you think over these scenes, you will notice that the Macbeths understand the action which begins here as a competition and a stunt, against reason and against nature. Lady Macbeth fears her husband's human nature, as well as her own female nature, and therefore she fears the light of reason and the common daylight world. As for Macbeth, he knows from the first that he is engaged in an irrational stunt: "I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself / And falls on the other." In this sequence there is also the theme of outwitting or transcending time, an aspect of nature's order as we know it: catching up the consequences, jumping the life to come, and the like.
L.C. Knights in the essay "Macbeth" mentions equivocation, unreality and other possible causes of ambiguity within the play:
The equivocal nature of temptation, the commerce with phantoms consequent upon false choice, the resulting sense of unreality ("nothing is, but what is not"), which has yet such power to "smother" vital function, the unnaturalness of evil ("against the use of nature"), and the relation between disintegration in the individual ("my single state of man") and disorder in the larger social organism - all these are major themes of the play which are mirrored in the speech under consideration. (94)
The Tragedy of Macbeth opens in a desert place with thunder and lightning and three Witches who are anticipating their meeting with Macbeth, "There to meet with Macbeth." They all say together the mysterious, contradictory and ambiguous "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." King Duncan learns that "brave Macbeth" and Banquo are bravely resisting the "Norweyan banners" and the rebellious Thane of Cawdor. When these forces are vanquished, Duncan bids Ross to greet Macbeth with his new title of Thane of Cawdor. Before this happens, however, Macbeth is greeted by the witches with "hail to thee, thane of Glamis," "thane of Cawdor," and "thou shalt be king hereafter!" When Ross and Angus arrive with news of Duncan's reward ("He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor"), it is logical for Macbeth to assume that all of the weird sisters' prophecies will come true. Futilely, Banquo cautions, "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths," but Macbeth is "rapt" on the "suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs," and concludes that "chance may crown me," remaining steadfastly confident in the witches' prophecies. Is it realistic and unambiguous to consider that a fearless fighter's hair could be unfixed by the words of a trio of hags?
After the king's announcement that "We will establish our estate upon / Our eldest, Malcolm," Macbeth says, "The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step / On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap," for his scheming is seriously underway. At Inverness in Macbeth's castle, his lady, after appreciating his letter detailing the witches' prophecies, reacts with, "Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be / What thou art promised," yet she fears that her husband's nature is "too full o' the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way" - words whose meaning becomes clear in her subsequent statement: "The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements." That a delicate woman would contemplate such cold-blooded murder is irrational, and thereby causes ambiguity in the rational mind that appreciates this play.
Duncan's visit to Inverness, a one-night celebration of the victory, occasions quick plotting by the Macbeths ("If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly"), who are fully aware of the moral evil involved: "But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, / We'ld jump the life to come," and "this even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison'd chalice / To our own lips." Furthermore, Macbeth recognizes that King Duncan's "virtues / Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against / The deep damnation of his taking-off," while the captain has only "vaulting ambition" on his own side; thus he says to his wife, "We will proceed no further in this business." She responds with an accusation of cowardice, "Art thou afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valour / As thou art in desire?" Her cold cruelty stands out as she re-converts Macbeth to the murder:
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 my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7)
For Lady Macbeth to talk so cruelly, so heartlessly, is contrary to real life, and thus hard to believe, and thus ambiguous. She will make the two chamberlains drunk on wine. Macbeth is forced to recognize her total lack of maternal sensitivities: "Bring forth men-children only; / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males." On that fateful night, unexplainable things happen, which contribute to the sense of ambiguity. Banquo unexplainably has a strange sense of foreboding:
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! (2.1)
Strangely, Macbeth feels the pressure of the impending "bloody business" and thereby has a vision of the murder instrument:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1)
In Act 2, Scene 2, Lady Macbeth confesses to her husband that could not perform the murder because "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't." So Macbeth follows through with the killing. Confidently, after placing the incriminating daggers next to the sleeping chamberlains, Lady Macbeth utters the supreme ironic statement: "A little water clears us of this deed: / How easy is it, then!" Ironic statements like this perhaps contribute somewhat to the ambiguity by causing a temporary confusion for the reader.
The next morning Macduff and Lennox arrive to awaken the king. Lennox relates some additional unexplainable, strange happenings of the evening:
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3)
Macduff exits the king's chamber with screams of disbelief and horror at the stabbing death of King Duncan. Macbeth kills the chamberlains. As Macbeth goes to Scone to be "invested" in his kingly office, Ross comments that Duncan's horses have reverted unexplainably to the wild state and are biting one another - an occurrence most unnatural -- like the murder of a virtuous king.
Meanwhile the queen is lamenting the state of "doubtful joy" in which the royal couple is living. Both she and he are nightly afflicted by "terrible dreams," and his mind is "full of scorpions," so that the king thinks it "better be with the dead." They live in a very ambiguous, uncertain state.
In a park near the palance, Banquo is set upon and killed "With twenty trenched gashes on his head", but Fleance escapes. At the banquet that evening, the ghost of Banquo enters and sits in the king's place. Macbeth alone sees him and addresses him guiltily: "Thou canst not say I did it: never shake / Thy gory locks at me." The queen attempts to explain away his apparent illness by saying he has been thus troubled since his youth. When the ghost disappears, Macbeth with jolly words toasts the health and happiness of everyone; but when the spirit reappears, the king is once again agitated:
Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with! (3.4)
The uncertain, quickly obsessed state of his mind and Lady Macbeth's attempt at explanation, make for a strange and doubtful evening for everyone. Later, when the "midnight hags" utter their incantation of unclear meaning,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble. (4.1)
Macbeth hears the first apparition warn to "beware Macduff;" the second apparition say "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth;" the third apparition say that "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him;" and the "show of eight kings" along with Banquo's ghost. The prophecies are unintelligible and vague, contributing to the ambiguity.
In England, Malcolm and Macduff prepare with General Siward for regaining the lost throne. Meanwhile,at Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth's doctor observes the queen sleepwalking, seemingly washing her hands, shouting in her sleep, "Out, damned spot!" and expressing her fear: "What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?" Macbeth requests of the doctor, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased." The doctor voices the ambiguous moral nature of the queen's problem:
Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician. (5.1)
When Seyton announces, "The queen, my lord, is dead," Macbeth turns his thoughts in an unexplicit, equivocal manner to the relentless pace of ongoing time:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5)
As Siward's 10,000 men surround the highly fortified Dunsinane, the messenger announces to Macbeth that Birnam Wood is moving toward Dunsinane, causing Macbeth to hold onto the one tiny morsel of hope, "What's he / That was not born of woman? Such a one / Am I to fear, or none."
When Macduff overtakes Macbeth, the king guiltily confesses that "my soul is too much charged / With blood of thine already." Macduff discloses that "Macduff was from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd;" thus he clarifies some of the ambiguity of the drama, and thus he is able to return to Malcolm with the head of Macbeth.
Blanche Coles states in Shakespeare's Four Giants that there is a common mistake which literary critics of the play make:
Not enough stress has been laid upon Duncan's unaccountably sudden and arbitrary appointment of Malcolm to the royal succession in the very hour of Macbeth's triumph, the hour when he came to report to his King that he had successfully defended the throne from a Scottish rebel and from a foreign invader. [. . .] The insult to Macbeth (as it may appear to different minds), cannot be overemphasized. (40)
Coles offers an explanation for this ambiguity in the play:
Perhaps Shakespeare was taking for granted that his audience knew that the historian had said, "Duncan did what in him lay to defraud him [Macbeth] of all manner of titles and claims, which might in time to come pretend to the crown." Malcolm was under age, and this fact made Macbeth first heir to the throne. (40-41)
Lily B. Campbell in her volume of criticism, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion,
confesses that critics are at a loss in trying to explain the reference to "Bellona's bridegroom":
Macbeth is, indeed, "Bellona's bridegroom", though critics seem rather at a loss to know just who Bellona's bridegroom may have been. (213)
A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy illustrates one example of ambiguity resulting from the initial presentation of the character of Lady Macbeth as "inhuman":
And if she seems invincible she seems also inhuman. We find no trace of pity for the kind old king; no consciousness of the treachery and baseness of the murder; no sense of the value of the lives of the wretched men on whom the guilt is to be laid; no shrinking even from the condemnation of hatred of the world. Yet if the Lady Macbeth of these scenes were really utterly inhuman, or a 'fiend-like queen', as Malcolm calls her, the Lady Macbeth of the sleepwalking scene would be an impossibility." (338)
In his critical volume, Macbeth: a Guide to the Play, H. R. Coursen comments on the moral ambiguity involved with the opening witches' scene:
The scene introduces the atmosphere of moral ambiguity that, in particular, affects Macbeth during the opening scenes. The basic issues of the scene are as follows. What are these three Weird Sisters, and what do they look like? Unless the director is making the play a comment on the shallowness of modern politics, that is, a kind of cartoon, the Weird Sisters probably should "evok[e] tragic wonder," as Madeleine Doran notes (1941, 426). (29)
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, NH: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1957.
Coursen, H. R. Macbeth: a Guide to the Play. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Fergusson, Francis. "Macbeth as the Imitation of an Action." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
Knights, L.C. "Macbeth." Shakespeare: The Tragedies. A Collectiion of Critical Essays. Alfred Harbage, ed. Englewwod Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Macbeth. http://chemicool.com/Shakespeare/macbeth/full.html, no lin.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.