“Something something isn’t Macbeth a villain!?!?!? something something.”
This is someone’s response to my suggestion that Macbeth (and, incidentally, his wife) is one of Shakespeare’s most ‘memorable’ characters. The ‘something’s are their words.
It set me thinking … IS he a villain, or simply a victim? Can I really be an apologist for him, I asked myself?
I reached for my Arden …
First port of call, though, was to ask my other half (the non-Shakespearean). She wrote:
‘I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. Bearing in mind I’ve not read it since I was 13, so only have a vague recollection of the story, I’d say he was a weak man who did villainous things. I don’t think he’d have done them unprompted / without influence – so he’s not a natural villain – but he has to take some blame as he wasn’t forced into the actions he took. A stronger person would have followed his own nature.’
Which pretty well articulated some of my unease at labelling Macbeth as a villain – but I still had some thinking to do; I needed to get things straight in my own mind, articulate it in my own words and to my own satisfaction.
What about the characters I had named as my favourite villains: Richard III, Iago, and Aaron the Moor? What had they done? Or not done? What essential qualities did they have that Macbeth lacked? After all, they all caused death or other calamities through their actions. But then so do many other characters in the plays who I would definitely exclude from the villains club, like Brutus in Julius Caesar – despite what Dante did to him. As Antony says:
‘Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.
This was the most unkindest cut of all. (III.ii.179-181)
Misguided? Mistaken? Weak? Gullible? Certainly, but not villainous. Brutus and Macbeth, I think. Finding a suitable common denominator between my declared villains took a moment, but there is one significant one: the joy they take in their devilry, the mischief in their plotting, the celebration of their dastardly deeds.
In short, true villains have fun!
Macbeth has no fun. None at all.
Shakespeare’s Tragedies rarely begin with our Tragic Hero on stage (Richard III is an exception), but what we do generally get is some allusion to or demonstration of the Hero’s noble qualities (here, an exception might be Hamlet). I think Tragedy requires some identification with/ respect for the Hero, otherwise why should we care about his fall, or feel a complex cocktail of cathartic feelings at the end of the play that includes sorrow at the Hero’s necessary death?
By the time Macbeth has arrived on stage, Shakespeare has set him up as a man. A man’s man. Brave, patriotic, loyal and an excellent fighter – someone who can unseam the merciless Macdonald:
‘from the nave to th’ chops’ (I.ii.22)
You can almost imagine him roaring ‘Are you not entertained?’ at the assembled kerns and gallowglasses. It’s hard to blame Duncan in respecting him. Or the bloody sergeant who calls him ‘brave’ and Valour’s minion’ as he reports the battle.
But what Macbeth lacks is any robust sense of self, as others see him. His self-esteem seems incredibly brittle, especially when it comes to the opinions of women. ‘Weak’, perhaps, as my other half said. Setting the witches aside (because I want to limit this post to 1,000-ish words), let’s look at his marriage.
Somewhere in my reading over the years, and I can’t find it now, I’ve seen the Macbeths described as having the happiest marriage in Shakespeare. I wish I could find it to properly challenge the author, because I think that’s rubbish. If anyone is villainous in the play, I think it’s probably her. Macbeth seems almost pathologically keen on pleasing his wife. In a blissful marriage, I’m suggesting that he would have enjoyed surprising his Lady with the good news of his promotion (and the suggestion that he might one day be king). He’d want to see her reaction, surely. Instead, and I think it suggestive of her dominance over him, and her ambition, he dashes off a letter to her:
‘that thou mightst not lose the dues of rejoicing by being ignorant of what greatness is promised thee’ (I.v.6)
I’m prepared to accept that he might have written the letter not knowing, at that stage in the play, when he would see her again. Or he might be worried that this harridan would hear the news from someone else first. But, most significantly, ‘what greatness is promised THEE‘. Not me. Nor us. Thee.
Her response to the letter is interesting, too. She’s scornful of his nature, of being too kind, too holy, not false enough, and she summons him with an imperative:
‘Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear.’ (I.v.25-26)
Not a natural or willing villain, then, her husband. And when he demurs the regicide, citing perfectly valid reasons, she breaks that brittle self-esteem, once and for all:
‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ (I.vii.49)
My Arden also glosses ‘green and pale’ (l.37) as potentially indicative of ‘girlishness’, too. This questioning of his manliness is a nasty but effective trick, which once learned, Macbeth later reprises on Banquo’s assassins:
‘Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men’ (III.i.93)
‘Now, if you have a station in the file
Not i’th’ worst rank of manhood, say’t’ (III.i.103-104)
After all, impugning his own masculinity (and this is a play which is full of these references and definitions of the state of manhood) has set him rolling towards his doom like an avalanche. If it worked on him, it will – and does – on others.
Back to the idea, finally, of true male villains having fun. Famously, and I probably don’t need to provide examples here, Macbeth suffers at every stage of his career, from meeting those weird sisters on the heath until that appalling, darkly attractive, nihilistic consideration of life itself in the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech. Having created some respect for Macbeth at the beginning, Shakespeare therefore ensures that we suffer with him, which is why the play is emotionally satisfying at the end.
So, and I’m with my other half on this, he does some villainous deeds, but I don’t think I can call Macbeth a villain. Not necessarily weak, either. Maybe my word is ‘brittle’. I put much of the blame, most perhaps, not with the witches but with his wife. I’m with David Daniell, editor of my Arden third, when he says of Lady M:
It was her destructive pursuit of false ideals of masculinity that brought about her husband’s ruin.
Now, the question might be whether or not Lady Macbeth is a villain – a post for another time. My gut instinct is to say yes, but apply a different test to Shakespeare’s women when it comes to their villainy … stay tuned!
David Daniell (ed.), William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Arden third edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 1998)
Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason (eds.), William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Arden third edition), (Bloomsbury: London, 2015)