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The Raveled Sleave of Care

Updated: May 5

MACBETH by William Shakespeare

by Elizabeth Faris



The Ghost of Banquo ~ Gustav Dore



Macbeth (1606) is William Shakespeare's incomparable double act: if we, the spectators, are to grapple with the hero and the daggers of his conscience, we must likewise be prepared to feel grudging concern for his lady at the washbasin, for the proceeds of her latent anxiety are but an echo of his more freely expressed. In portraying each of their singular reactions to a mutual act of villainy, the playwright leads us in a graphic probe through the grisly entrails of guilt.

This two-pronged approach seems apt indeed for unpicking the intricacies of this most insidious of human emotions. For what source of anxiety is more famous for provoking in the subject the urge to compartmentalize? And yet, as with any flesh wound, guilt is our ally. Its pangs are meant to alert us to the deeper, more lasting consequences of our misdeeds. We can either acknowledge them and try to deal with them constructively, or we can allow them to fester into malignancy through neglect. Such is the choice faced by the Macbeths in the wake of their decision to bypass fate and murder Duncan in order to steal his crown: in Freudian terms, where he wrestles with the cautions of conscience as a regulating function of Ego, she promptly dismisses them to the obscurity of Id.

The setting for this dive deep into the human psyche is suitably Gothic. In the dead of night, amid a ‘hurly-burly’ of thunder and lightning, three withered hags “that look not like th’inhabitants of the earth.” (I, iii, 41) are met by two Scottish thanes fresh from the field of combat. Glamis, in particular -- flushed with the accolades of his peers and bursting with his own potential -- is primed for their prediction of more of the same. So when they hail him not only by his existing title, but equally those of 'Cawdor' and 'King', he presses them hard to elaborate. It is the prophecy of his dreams, and yet even he cannot deny that "this supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good" ((I, iii, 130-131). It seems that beneath the embers of anticipation lurks a stultifying dread that any path to fruition is bound to be bloody.

Of course, it's the classic tug-of-war between a heart that wants so desperately to believe and a head that can't help but foresee the unhappy consequences. And indeed, for Macbeth it is a critical moment of reckoning. We have to wonder why, then, in his very next breath, he chooses to shirk it: “if chance will have me king, why chance may crown me/Without my stir.” (ll. 142-143) Surely this is nothing more than idle euphemism from one whose desire is soon to eclipse his better judgement. Unfortunately, any such attempt to sidestep an habitual urge to equivocate and let bolder appetites prevail will come at a cost, for half-acknowledged guilt is an active culture that breeds of its own accord. It will soon see our protagonist hopelessly ensconced.

His partner in crime, meanwhile, is of a very different species. Lady Macbeth casts a cool eye over this petri dish of accountability and deems it disadvantageous to her aims. Instead, her response to the witches' prediction is so ardently focused that one might even suspect it of being rehearsed. She shows no remorse for her flagrant greed -- no emotion whatever beyond a kind of half-contained euphoria at the prospect of vicarious power tempered by a stiff resolve not to allow her husband’s indecision to stand in its way. For she fears him to be “too full of the milk of human kindness” (I, v, 16) to snatch the reins from destiny as she has already decided he must, claiming for her part that she would sooner pluck her own babe's boneless gums from her nipple and dash its brains out (I, vii, 57-58) than allow such infirmity any purchase on herself. It's almost as if her womanly capacity for lactation with its concomitant impulse for nurturing is the very reason she would spurn it: in compensating for her suppressed desire for the agency of a man, she seems determined to deny any feminine instinct that might jeopardize her resolve. And rather than acknowledge the angst this has got to inspire, she prefers to pour the poison of her thwarted animus into her husband’s ear in the hope of bending him to her will.

Even though the impetus for such brazen behaviour hails from a part of herself effectively beyond her conscious control, it seems to lend her great clout in the eyes of her man. She, in turn, is keenly sensitive to the hypnotic effect it has on him and wields her advantage reflexively, knowing that he can't bear to think that the compunction for which he pays so dearly is, to her, mere folly. Her method then is to tease the nerve of male ego, to goad him into fearing that unmanly reticence is the one thing more insufferable than a guilty heart: "Wouldst thou have that/Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life/And live a coward in thine own esteem?" (I, vii, 41-43), thus leading him to conclude that only by emulating her can he hope to be rescued from his own self-demeaning inclinations. This is how she is able to shame and unnerve him into doing the dirty deed on behalf of them both.

In no way, however, do her motives stand up to scrutiny. They are riddled with self-deceit and contradiction. For example, it's no mere accident of gender that Macbeth wields the dagger while she hovers on the periphery, basking in the gleam of her own undaunted mettle, even as she mutters how “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t.” (II. ii. 12-13). For one so enslaved by latent impulse, “the dead are but as pictures” (II. ii. 57-58) because they remain buried deep in a place beyond conscious reconciliation. In short, for all this lady's magnificent show of self-possession, it is forever in the nature of a flame that burns too brightly, poised in each shuddering gasp for the homing call of the shadow. Indeed, it is only ever hers for the borrowing for as long as she is prepared to brandish it on behalf of its covert agenda. Meanwhile, it was always to be that, come the bleakest night of the year, the long-stifled misery that fuels the fire would rankle to the surface to discharge its torrid secrets to her deaf pillow (V, 2, 70) even as she slept.

It is a point of no return from which she will seek refuge in oblivion. Her husband, on the other hand, knows no such relief. For all his anguish around truth and self-deception, he is fundamentally a realist: it is he who has murdered “innocent sleep/Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care” (II, ii p.28) and he who is left only to envy the eternal peace he has arranged for others. He now knows beyond the shadow of doubt that avoidance is the enemy of tranquility: the only path left to him in terms of the private horror he has inflicted upon himself is to see it through to its grisly conclusion. And so, with the darkness closing fast upon him, and nothing but a monstrous self-loathing to spur him on, he takes one last stab at the witches' new predictions, choosing to interpret them in a light that, in the fullness of time, will prove a fatal blessing. After all, what are Birnam Wood and 'man not born of woman' but merciful impostors sent to relieve this profoundly tragic hero of the ultimate torment of an unconscionable existence?


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