The Tragedy of Macbeth

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows!” These lines, accompanied by ominous laughter and music, opened the 1930s pulp fiction series-based radio program. Who knows, indeed? The Shadow knows, and apparently so does Shakespeare. In Macbeth, he explores the nature of evil in hearts and minds. Of men and women. He evokes and challenges the age-old issues of the nature of evil and whether it is an inherent or acquired taste.

I believe the latter, and Macbeth supports this view. The title character and his queen, Lady Macbeth (who notably lacks her own name, as if she is merely his appendage) illustrate that evil, like cancer, lies dormant in everyone. And like cancer, evil has the constant and imminent potential to awaken, grow, dominate, and ultimately, destroy its host. The witches, then, do not represent evil itself, as some suggest. Instead, they are the trigger or catalyst which, like cigarettes or bacon, encourage expression of certain rogue cells.

The Weird (here meaning ‘fate,’ not ‘odd’, from the Old English word wyrd,p.1314, note 32)open the play and set the tone. That the audience sees them- and before any other character – contributes to their credibility. This opening scene establishes them as more than figments of Macbeth’s imagination. These ladies, if you can call them that, are no nymphs dancing around the Maypole. They are ugly, scary hags conspiring in a dark, stormy night. This almost cliche foreshadowing hangs a black cloud over the rest of the play. Much of it takes place under cover of darkness.

In contrast, and in the next scene, Shakespeare introduces nothing inherently evil in Macbeth. We ‘meet’ him through his cousin, King Duncan’s comments: “For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name)” (I,ii,16) as he promptly promotes him to Thane of Cawdor. Unlike Iago, for example, who is evil incarnate from page one, we know Macbeth only as a loyal subject, valiant soldier, good friend, and loving husband.

So, it seems, it is the witches’ words that set the alchemy in motion to implant and ignite evil Macbeth. Shakespeare, almost as if setting up a randomized medicine trial, provides the perfect foil to Macbeth in his good friend Banquo. He hears the same prophecy but reacts very differently. He does not run off to wreak havoc like Macbeth. Instead, he reflects on their predictions with skepticism and stoicism. He recoils and questions their words. “Were such things here as we do speak about?/Or have we eaten the insane root/That takes reason prisoner?” (I,iii,83-5) He remains suspicious and points this out to his friend:

“That, trusted home,
Might yet enkindle you unto the crown,
Besides the Thane of Cawdor: But ’tis strange;
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence,-” (I,iii,120-6)

But not everyone exposed to the same carcinogen will develop cancer. Each individual’s metaphoric withches’ cauldron swirls a mixture of heredity, lifestyle, and environmental factors to determine which cells will rebel. For Macbeth, that deadly combination of nature, nurture and exposure creates the perfect storm and he combusts. Macbeth, it seems, has bitten off, chewed, and swallowed the root whole, like a child devouring a cupcake in one bite. For him, the witches words raise the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. He is a maleficent thoroughbred, off and running, blindered to what is going on around him, to the fatal finish line. En route home, impatient already, he hurtles news of his ‘good fortune’ ahead of him to his waiting Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare introduces her speaking Macbeth’s words (from his message)(I,v,1-14). She is almost like the darker part of him; the devil on his shoulder. The evil bug bites her, too, and in her haste to aid and abet in manifesting their new destiny, she knocks Jiminy Cricket off her Pinocchio’s shoulder in her wake. But her words hints that she, too, knows that this evil is a disease. In expressing her fears that Macbeth cannot realize the fate the with which the witches tempt him; she frets that he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness,” and not enough of the “illness should attend it.” (I,v,17 and 19). In fact, her later lament “Out, damn’d spot! Out I say!” (V,i,35) seems to refer as much to a menacing shadow on an Xray or MRI as to the imaginary blood stains she’s trying to erase.

Each new exposure to the carcinogens (in the form of the witches) begets more evil. Instead of seeking treatment to manage the metastases, Macbeth keeps going back to the cauldron for more smoke. The girls happily feed his addiction. Their ambiguous reassurances mask the truth they know: “something wicked this way comes.” (IV,i,45) They tell him what he wants to hear and he hides his head in the heroin high: That “none of woman born/shall harm Macbeth” (IV,i,80) and that he “Shall never vanquish’d be until/Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him.” (IV,i,92-3) As the evil alters his state he believes these conditions unlikely if not impossible, and sees himself as invincible.

Lady Macbeth, though, has already succumbed to the disease. She knows that “what’s done cannot be undone.” (V,i,68). The doctor confirms this and diagnoses her suffering, “Unnatural deeds/Do breed unnatural troubles; infected minds” (V,i,71-2) While he mourns his wife’s death, and readies to defend himself against enemies, he learns that his foe Macduff was delivered by C-section, and that the approaching troops are camouflaged in branches cut from Birnan wood. He acknowledges that the vicious cancer has consumed and vanquished him. “I am sick at heart.” (V,iii,19) He is despondent, but not repentant, in defeat:

“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’s a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing” (V,v,23-28)

And even though Macbeth killed Banquo in his cancerous quest, he lives on both as a ghost in the play and through his son, Fleance, who will, as the witches predict, be and beget kings. Their immune systems shielded them from malignancy. Macbeth’s disease has progressed too far; it requires external intervention. Macduff obliges and performs the surgery. He excises the tumor by severing Macbeth’s head and parading it around on the spear he uses as scalpel.

Macbeth illustrates that evil is a disease which lies dormant in all of us. We build immunity to it by making mindful, healthy choices and having compassion for others. Macbeth does neither. It ravages him, and many in his wake. We cannot always resist, but can simply recognize and treat the disease.

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