by Vladimir Golstein, October 9, 2017
It is naïve to think that Macbeth is only about some “vaulting” and murderous ambition. Macbeth does not acquire the throne with the intention of controlling his subjects. In fact, in his quest to secure his rule, he strives to control the very idea of time and change. It is thus hardly surprising that when he is killed, Macduff declares: “behold, where stands/The usurper’s cursed head: THE TIME IS FREE.”
Enslaving time, means stopping its flow; it means attacking the very idea of change, and therefore destroying the agents of change: the young. Thus, Macbeth’ speciality is butchering children. He does so as he tries to achieve “security,” – which, obviously, means the elimination of rivals. But the witches do inform us that: “security is mortals’ chiefest enemy.” The quest for it is as deadly as its temporary possession. Permanence, security, they are as futile as the desire to stop the time.
Now fast forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union. That collapse meant that Russia, in fact, has re-entered time, that the country gave up its reliance on dead schemes that stifled change and innovation, that it has entered the real world, at last.
Not so with the USA, which went in the opposite direction by triumphantly declaring the END OF HISTORY. Which means the end of time, and therefore the spasmodic need of the US to maintain its “full spectrum dominance.” That was the wet dream of neocons, articulated loud and clear in their PNAC documents. This elusive dominance clearly implied the Macbeth route: the suppression of inevitable rivals, precluding any threat to the security of one’s rule. This quest for security has resulted in endless wars and bullying in search of supremacy. It has also resulted in the reign full of lies and deceptions: “ look like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” One more war or treachery to end all wars, one more step, and one is fully secure, “perfect, whole as a marble, founded as a rock.”
Likewise, instead of achieving security, Macbeth’s own quest produces endless anxiety and lack of sleep. At first, Macbeth grip on power seems secure. He treacherously kills the king, Duncan. The king’s legitimate children run away, feeling incapable of overcoming Macbeth’s skilful disassembling, which he utilized in his rise to the top and his hope to subvert time: “mock the time with fairest show, false face must hide what the false heart doth know.” Macbeth’s deceptions produce a real crisis in perception. When vice looks like virtue, how is virtue supposed to look? One of Duncan’s sons concludes: “though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, yet, Grace must still look so.” Yet, knowing how ineffective their virtuous look appears at the moment, and incapable of resisting Macbeth’s bloody and deceitful rise to power, Duncan’s children ran away from Scotland, realizing that for them, “there’s daggers in men’s smiles, the near in blood, the nearer bloody.” Indeed, Macbeth, whose name rhymes with death, obviously cannot stop. He kills to secure his power, but as the result, produces more and more resistance. “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus. Our fear is Banquo.”
History does not and cannot end. For that reason, there is always rhyming (the activity that presupposes movement and unfolding). Duncan (whom Macbeth kills) rhymes with Banquo (who was prophesied to produce future kings). Consequently, the murder of Banquo does not solve anything, as there are his children. The murder of MacDuff’s children does not solve anything as there is MacDuff. The murder of Duncan brings in the crown, but there are Duncan children on the loose. The quest for security can never be completed. That’s how Macbeth responds to the news that his rival, Banquo, is killed, but his son escaped:
MACBETH: Then comes my fit again: I had else been PERFECT,
WHOLE AS THE MARBLE, FOUNDED AS THE ROCK,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears. But Banquo’s safe?
FIRST MURDERER: Ay, my good lord: safe in a ditch he bides,
With twenty trenched gashes on his head;
The least a death to nature.
MACBETH Thanks for that: There the grown serpent lies; the worm that’s fled
Hath nature that IN TIME WILL VENOM BREED,
No teeth for the present.”
This quest for wholeness, for perfection, for the end of time cannot be sustained. Time does not end. Russia might be weakened, but China and Iran would arise, and the attempt to slow down Iran gives Russia a chance to grow.
In time, the toothless present grows into venomous future. Macbeth eventually realizes the futility of his quest: “better be with the dead, whom we, to gain our peace have sent to peace, than on the torture of the mind, to lie in restless ecstasy.“ He does not want to give up, however, so the murder spree continues: “each new morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows strike heaven on the face.” He is helped in his quest by the conniving witches, the masters of “the deed without name.” Which of course, might exist in fantasy, but not in reality; eventually, all the deeds of Macbeth are named. Instead of securing his reign, he kills his sleep, and destroys the very idea of meaningful time, that is the time that brings in changes. He is stuck in the meaningless death-like existence so that the very word, “die,” loses its meaning. What is left is the meaningless sequence of meaningless moments:
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.”
Life without any possibility of change and development obviously has no meaning: “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This sense of nothingness, for which he, in fact, killed hundreds, surely fills Macbeth with complete despair and anger at the world:
“I gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!
At least we’ll die with harness on our back.”
While he and his wife enjoy their life of despair and murder, the country groans with pain:
“Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave, where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.”
Macbeth recognizes, of course, that in his quest for security and full dominance, he went terribly wrong:
“And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not!”
Eventually, Macbeth has ostracised enough people, who then rise against him: “Macbeth is ripe for shaking, and the Powers above put on their instruments.” His last days on the throne are marked by fear and hatred that he elicits even from his followers:
“What does the tyrant?
CAITHNESS: Some say he’s mad; others that lesser hate him
Do call it valiant fury: but, for certain,
He cannot buckle his distemper’d cause
Within the belt of rule.
ANGUS: Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands;
Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach;
THOSE HE COMMANDS MOVE ONLY IN COMMAND
NOTHING IN LOVE: now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
Macbeth’s attempt to control time is crushed by time. The usurping nature of his quest is finally revealed, he is a dwarfish thief, too small for his kingly robe and for his giant ambitions. Macbeth dies, having received the following epitaph from Malcolm:
“What’s more to do, Which would be planted newly with the TIME,
As calling home our exiled friends abroad
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this DEAD BUTCHER AND HIS FIEND-LIKE QUEEN,
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life.”
It will be naïve to think that Shakespeare’s insight applies only to Scotland and to its cruel ruler. Shakespeare’s insights are timeless.
Vladimir Golstein is an associate professor of Russian Literature at Brown University.