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.