From the greatest Shakespeare scholar of our time, comes a portrait of Macbeth, one of William Shakespeare’s most complex and compelling anti-heroes—the final volume in a series of five short books about the great playwright’s most significant personalities: Falstaff, Cleopatra, Lear, Iago, Macbeth.
From the ambitious and mad titular character to his devilish wife Lady Macbeth to the moral and noble Banquo to the mysterious Three Witches, Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s more brilliantly populated plays and remains among the most widely read, performed in innovative productions set in a vast array of times and locations, from Nazi Germany to Revolutionary Cuba. Macbeth is a distinguished warrior hero, who over the course of the play, transforms into a brutal, murderous villain and pays an extraordinary price for committing an evil act. A man consumed with ambition and self-doubt, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most vital meditations on the dangerous corners of the human imagination.
Award-winning writer and beloved professor Harold Bloom investigates Macbeth’s interiority and unthinkable actions with razor-sharp insight, agility, and compassion. He also explores his own personal relationship to the character: Just as we encounter one Anna Karenina or Jay Gatsby when we are seventeen and another when we are forty, Bloom writes about his shifting understanding—over the course of his own lifetime—of this endlessly compelling figure, so that the book also becomes an extraordinarily moving argument for literature as a path to and a measure of our humanity.
Bloom is mesmerizing in the classroom, wrestling with the often tragic choices Shakespeare’s characters make. He delivers that kind of exhilarating intimacy and clarity in Macbeth, the final book in an essential series.
Macbeth CHAPTER 1 And Nothing Is, but What Is Not Nietzsche asserts, in The Dawn of Day, that “whoever thinks that Shakespeare’s theatre has a moral effect, and that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one from the evil of ambition, is in error. . . . He who is really possessed by raging ambition beholds this its image, with joy; and if the hero perishes by his passion this is precisely the sharpest spice in the hot draught of this joy.”
Shakespeare’s cognitive powers are invested more abundantly in Hamlet than in any other personality, be it Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Prospero. His proleptic and prophetic imagination possesses Macbeth, to a degree unmatched by anyone else in the dramas. Macbeth cannot keep up with his own intimations of the night world. No sooner does he envision an action than he leaps into futurity and gazes back at his initial impulse. Macbeth is a weird, an involuntary soothsayer. The Weird Sisters inevitably await him, knowing that he is, in part, their kin.
Readers quite possibly will recognize that they have elements in their imagination that are intensified in Macbeth. I think that many of us fear that we have acted on our darkest impulses before we have fully apprehended them. There is something preternatural in Macbeth. He alone in his drama is in touch with the night world of Hecate and the Weird Sisters. I will soon be eighty-eight and find myself sometimes seeing and hearing things that are not there. This does not cause alarm because it stays on the border of actual hallucinations. But Macbeth has gone across that border. For him nothing is but what is not.
The play begins with the witches entering with thunder and lightning. We see them only briefly. They chant in riddles that are antithetical:
When the battle’s lost and won.
act 1, scene 1, line 4
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
act 1, scene 1, line 9
Our first account of Macbeth conveys his astonishing ferocity:
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valour’s minion, carved out his passage,
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements.
act 1, scene 2, lines 16–23
Slicing your opponent open from crotch to jaw is characteristic of Macbeth, who is described as the husband of the war goddess, or “Bellona’s bridegroom.” After Duncan, the Scottish king, adds the title of Thane of Cawdor to Macbeth’s honors, we return to the three Witches. They accost Macbeth and his fellow captain Banquo:
Macbeth: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
Banquo: How far is’t call’d to Forres? What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’ earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you, or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
Macbeth: Speak if you can: what are you?
1 Witch: All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
2 Witch: All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
3 Witch: All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.
Banquo: Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?—I’th’ name of truth,
Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
Which outwardly ye show? My noble partner
You greet with present grace, and great prediction
Of noble having and of royal hope,
That he seems rapt withal. To me you speak not.
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.
1 Witch: Hail.
2 Witch: Hail.
3 Witch: Hail.
1 Witch: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.
2 Witch: Not so happy, yet much happier.
3 Witch: Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none:
So all hail, Macbeth, and Banquo.
1 Witch: Banquo, and Macbeth, all hail.
Macbeth: Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.
act 1, scene 3, lines 38–78
Macbeth was played before King James I, who began as King James VI of Scotland. By tradition, James I was descended from Banquo. In Shakespeare’s sources, Banquo was as guilty as Macbeth, but here he is stalwart and heroic. Finel was Macbeth’s father, while Banquo and Macbeth do not yet know of Cawdor’s treachery. An extraordinary aside marks the advent of Macbeth’s proleptic imagination:
Macbeth: [aside] Two truths are told
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.—I thank you, gentlemen.—
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good. If ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair,
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings.
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not.
act 1, scene 3, lines 129–44
The tormented grammar partly suggests Macbeth’s psychic turmoil. His murderous thought, though still a fantasy, so agitates his unaided state of man that function, or potential action, is smothered in surmise, or censored by imagination.
The motto of Macbeth, both play and person, could well be: “And nothing is, but what is not.” “Nothing” is used sixteen times in Macbeth. It is startling for me to realize that those sixteen occurrences are outweighed by thirty-four in King Lear, thirty-one in Hamlet, and twenty-six in Othello. But then, Macbeth is a ruthlessly economical tragedy of just over two thousand lines. The prominence of “nothing” in it is as salient as is the undersong of nothingness in the other three great tragedies of blood.
Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He has written more than sixty books, including Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, Falstaff: Give Me Life, The Western Canon, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and How to Read and Why. He is a MacArthur Prize fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards, including the Academy’s Gold Medal for Criticism. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
“The venerable and prolific literary scholar completes his Shakespeare's Personalities series with a lingering and deeply curious, even troubled, look at the titular character in the legendary play… Throughout, the author muses on Macbeth's ‘proleptic and prophetic imagination’ and wonders—all the way to the final paragraph—what it is about this sanguinary, murderous character that so deeply appeals to audiences… Older readers may wish this clear, concise, empathetic volume were available when they were in school.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Acclaimed critic Bloom once again plumbs the depths of a Shakespeare play to reveal new insights, this time offering a richly detailed character sketch of Macbeth. . . Bloom will shift the reader’s perceptions of a literary classic.”—Publishers Weekly