English · For Pupils · literature · Macbeth · Shakespeare · Teaching Ideas

Y11 Macbeth – some thoughts on a few deeper issues


I’ve been reading Harold Bloom’s The Invention of the Human – a massive book in which Bloom suggests that Shakespeare practically invented human nature. I’ve selected some statements that Bloom makes about the play. These statements (most of them anyway) might be used in the classroom as ‘provocative statements’ – give them to small groups as problem solving activities and get them to find evidence to support or contradict them.

1. “Macbeth is endowed by Shakespeare with something less than ordinary intelligence, but with [an enormous] power of fantasy”

  • What do we make of this comment? Is Macbeth lacking in intelligence? Where is the evidence for this if we are to believe Bloom?
  • He barely conceals his monomania (single-minded fixation on being King) from Banquo to the extent that within moments, Banquo is suspicious of Macbeth (“oftentime to win us to our harm…”) and by act 2 scene 1 Banquo is edgy enough to draw his sword when hearing a noise in Macbeth’s house (who is supposed to be his friend).
  • Macbeth murders Duncan at chez Macbeth. Bad mistake. But this is Shakespeare’s great skill as a playwright: use coincidence to get your protagonist into trouble but never out of it. Still, Macduff and Banquo (as well as perhaps Duncan’s sons) believe that Duncan being killed in Macbeth’s house is a bit too convenient and draws their suspicion immediately. Macbeth (to steal a line from Hamlet) protests too much and his ravings to Macduff when they ‘discover’ Duncan’s body are hardly going to endear him to the others. Lady Macbeth catches the jittery bug when she responds to Duncan’s murder: “What in our house?” Immediately, Banquo replies “too cruel anywhere”. She faints – but is this to divert attention away from them or is she truly exhausted (she has, after all, been up all night plotting and tampering with evidence)? The Macbeths’ behaviour after the discovery of Duncan’s body has aroused such suspicion that just after Macbeth is crowned King, Banquo thinks that he “played most foully” for it.
  • Bloom’s comment on Macbeth’s fantasy is easier to explain. Bloom suggests that Macbeth possesses a ‘proleptic imagination”: in other words, he thinks too much about the consequences of future actions. This is true. Think about the “two truths” speech in act 1 scene 3; the soliloquies in act 1 scene 7 and act 2 scene 1; his response to Lady Macbeth’s death is ultimately his recognition that there can be no more thoughts of the future: “she should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word”. Her death puts an end to any thinking about what might be: for death and the hereafter walk hand in hand.
  • There is another ironic moment in act 5 scene 3 when Macbeth confronts the doctor about his country’s ills. “If thou couldst, doctor, cast the water of my land, find her disease…”. Macbeth is clearly oblivious to what he is saying here: it is he that is the disease. Bloom’s comment that Macbeth has ‘less than ordinary intelligence’ again feels relevant here, for Macbeth is unable to see that he is in fact the root of the problem!

2. “We identify with Macbeth – or at least with his imagination”

Macbeth exceeds us in torment, but he also represents us, and we discover him more vividly the more deeply we delve”

  • Is this true? Can we identify with Macbeth? We sort of have to – he speaks over two thirds of the lines, so we are fully immersed in his character. When there is a knocking at the gate after they have killed Duncan, do we share in Macbeth’s fear of discovery? Alfred Hitchcock used this same trick with his great villains – we despise their actions but over the course of the drama we have become so bound up in their fates that we feel their pain and almost don’t want them to be caught.

3. “Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse”

  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Unless you’re Macbeth that is. After his disastrous banquet scene when he is visited by the ghost of Banquo, he claims to his wife that he is “in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er”. In for a penny in for a pound – there’s no turning back. What’s another dead body when he’s already killed the King and his best friend?

4.“Shakespeare presents [the Macbeths] as the happiest married couple in all his work. And they are anything but two fiends, despite their dreadful crimes and deserved catastrophes”

  • There is some contention amongst scholars about whether Lady Macbeth had been married before and whether she had any children (she says “I have given suck and know how tender it is to love the babe that milks me” yet where are their little Macbeths?). However all of this is irrelevant to our understanding of the play as we are only concerned with the play itself. Her lack of children, for a Shakespearean audience, perhaps adds to her ‘monstrosity’ and ‘explains’ her hunger for power (in their eyes, not in ours) as she lacks the maternal qualities of a woman (she said that she would dash her baby’s brains out rather than break a vow).However, would she really ‘dash’ out her baby’s brains? Is this hyperbole? Lady Macbeth is a woman in a man’s world and to get her voice heard, maybe she needs to adopt a little over-the-top attitude.
  • There are some tender lines between the two of them and she does ‘nurture him’. Bloom also says that “Until she goes mad, [Lady Macbeth] seems as much Macbeth’s mother as his wife” – just some examples (see if you can find more):

“Gentle my good lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks” – soothing his troubled mind in 3.2

“you lack the season of all natures, sleep” – comforting him after his visions of Banquo’s ghost.

5.“No other play [of Shakespeare’s] moves with such speed”

  • The play begins with the witches, cuts to a post-battle autopsy, an execution, a supernatural visitation – even before we meet Lady Macbeth. Okay, so other plays also begin with murders (Titus Andronicus opens with a particularly violent dismembering of Alarbus: “Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths/That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile/…sacrifice his flesh/Before this earthy prison of their bones”). This is gruesome but lest we forget Macbeth has carved a man in two even before we meet him!
  • By act 2 scene 2, a King is dead, as are two of his servants, and the world has gone mad. By the end of the play, scenes move so quickly that the text looks like a film script.

6. “A paragon of courage and so no coward, Macbeth nevertheless is in a perpetual state of fear”

  • He isn’t a coward – despite what Lady Macbeth says. Remember this is the man who was described as Bellona’s bridegroom – a fierce warrior – by Ross in act 1 scene 2. When he rejects his wife’s accusation of cowardice in act 1 scene 7 Macbeth says: “I dare do all that may become a man” and he’s right – look at his exploits. What Lady Macbeth asks of him is ‘more than a man’ – it is monstrous – and so his refusal is valid.
  • Once he hears of the prophecy, he is fixated on it. He becomes a monomaniac, obsessed with the crown. But it troubles him also: in act 1 scene 3 he wrestles with his conscience and his ‘seated heart knocks’ at his ribs. The pre-gothic imagery of horror continues with his hallucinatory visions – the dagger, the blood on his hands, the ghost of Banquo. The play is full of Macbeth’s fears – “how is’t with me, when every noise appals me” (2.2). Even after killing Duncan, Macbeth feels the weight of his sin. In 3.2 he envies Duncan – he is dead and no longer has to worry about earthly, king-stuff like ‘malice domestic, foreign levy’ etc. Instead, Macbeth’s mind is ‘full of scorpions’.

7. “[The witches] place nothing in Macbeth’s mind that is no already there”

  • This is the most contested statement. Would Macbeth have thought about killing Duncan if the witches hadn’t planted the seed? Are the witches merely a manifestation of Macbeth’s own deep desires? Of his outward ambitions? Would they exist if he didn’t already want to be king?
  • All they did was offer Macbeth a narrative that hadn’t yet come to pass. Think of the Greek tragedy of Oedipus. In this tale, Oedipus is told that he will marry his mother and kill his father: he does all he can to avoid this but it is his destiny. Macbeth does everything he can to make the prophecy come true. Okay, his prophecy is more appealing that Oedipus’ – no one wants to marry their mother (unless you’re Norman Bates) but still, the comparisons between the two are interesting.
  • Or is it Lady Macbeth who pushed at an open door? Was it she, ultimately, who was responsible? But this is to take away Macbeth’s freedom to act, his own independent mind.

One thought on “Y11 Macbeth – some thoughts on a few deeper issues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s