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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: April ::
Re: Macbeth and Macduff
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0302.  Sunday, 3 April 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Luc Borot <
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        Date:   Saturday, 2 Apr 1994 15:39:25 +0100
        Subj:   Macbeth as tragedy
 
(2)     From:   Milla Riggio <
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        Date:   Saturday, 02 Apr 1994 10:34:36 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0298  Macduff and Macbeth
 
(3)     From:   Ron Macdonald <
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        Date:   Saturday, 02 Apr 1994 15:25:04 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Macbeth, Macduff
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Luc Borot <
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Date:           Saturday, 2 Apr 1994 15:39:25 +0100
Subject:        Macbeth as tragedy
 
In the Macbeth-Macduff controversy (Vol. 5, No. 0298.  Friday, 2 April 1994),
Bill Godshalk wondered what made *Macbeth* a tragedy (he writes :"I don't see
why we have to see this play as a tragedy -- if tragedy means that the
protagonist has redeeming qualities."). I would like to bring in examples of
tragedies whose heroes (-ines) are certainly not easy to define, and are not
endowed with redeeming qualities. I would say that certainly the French
classical poeticists like Boileau wouldn't have rated *Macbeth* as a tragedy
for lack of the bleeding 3 unities, but perhaps this is one more reason for
reading it as a tragedy if there are more essential qualities to tragedy.
 
If you look at Racine's *Phedre*, the protagonist has no redeeming qualities,
in *Britannicus*, who is protagonist? Nero? Britannicus? the title role in
*Andromaque* has a redeeming quality, but what shall we do of queen Athaliah in
*Athalie*? Others would bring other instances from other national literatures,
and yet these plays would never be defined as something else than tragedies.
 
In Aristotle's definition of tragedy, I'd rather look at the purgation of
passions element (katharsis) for a consensual definition; I think that
Nietzsche would be on the same line; he was a much better poeticist AND
philosopher than Malherbe, Boileau and their mates. In the aforesaid cases, as
in *Macbeth*, there IS purgation and restoration of order, not merely of
community order, but also of cosmic order.
 
To me *Macbeth* is the most efficiently tragical play by Shakespeare, as it
does involve a total disruption of what Elizabethans and Jacobeans would have
regarded at the time as God-willed cosmic harmony: regicide, usurpation,
political murder, infanticide, witchcraft at all levels of society (the old
hags and the thane's wife and queen-to-be herself), which both Bodin and James
VI of Scotland (by then James I of England) agreed to regard as the worst
threat unto the harmony of the bodie politique. Even the witches predictions
conspire with the restoration of order and harmony.
 
Would I like to have the MacBees as next-door neighbours? no, Bill but why
expell from SHAKSPER those who would accept to take the risk?
 
Yours as ever,
Luc
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Milla Riggio <
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Date:           Saturday, 02 Apr 1994 10:34:36 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0298  Macduff and Macbeth
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0298  Macduff and Macbeth
 
Regarding Macbeth, Macduff, marriage, and manhood:
 
I am prompted to write by Phyllis Rackin and William Godshalk, and though I
haven't thought this through carefully, here are two quick responses to two
different issues:  on the question of "manhood" and marriage - surely Phyllis
is right in evoking the evolving models of marriage.  Shakespeare has more than
once worked in assumptions that suggest he believes in what the social
historians call the "companionate" marriage - he gives his women choice of
mates (even when they are very young women, as in the case of Juliet and even
when the choice does not work out very well, as in the case of Desdemona -
however complicated that choice is, Sh. does not follow the source in just
making OTHELLO a moral play about disobeying daddy in these matters).  And in
JULIUS CAESAR it is clear that if the men listened to the advice of their mates
- both Portia and Calphurnia - they would have fared better.  And yes, Macbeth
and Lady Macbeth have that kind of relationship (this time, by the way, the
lady was dead -- oops, pardon the pun -- wrong!)  And I think Phyllis is right
in saying that Macduff follows a different model in leaving his wife for the
sake of the state.  And the wife feels abandoned.  All very true.  But don't
forget Macduff's mourning his wife and children:  In answer to Malcolm's cry to
"dispute it like a man," Macduff replies, "Yes, but I must feel it as a man,"
and he weeps.  This, too, is part of what manhood is all about and Macduff's
shocked grief and his ability to express that grief in tears sets him apart
from the Hotspurs of Shakespeare's world.  Even his wife's sense of abandonment
suggests that this is peculiar behavior on her husband's part.
 
And as for Macbeth's monstrosity, Bill Godshalk, well, yes, who ever thought
about defending Macbeth's BEHAVIOR.  But the play is not just about a series of
mod movie brutalities.  Much of the drama is played out in Macbeth's
conscience.  The play dramatizes over and over again the price Macbeth pays in
his consciousness of his actions, compared to which mere death - however brutal
- is a blessing.  His is the torment of the damned (and at a time when that
torment was beginning to be seen as psychological, when hell in modern parlance
was becoming "portable," transportable into the mind).  At the end of the play,
he has a chance to do what he actually knows how to do:  fight a battle.  He
has plumbed the depths and now at last he simply gets to stand and fight.  For
me, it's a much stronger moment if he does just that.  I'd probably hate to see
a whining, grovelling, cowardly end for Macbeth, but then that is simply a
director's choice.  Directors are free to make choices, and I would say that
the more important question is what leads up to this choice that makes it
believable in terms of the development of the character throughout the play.
If you lead Macbeth to that moment in some way - perhaps his fear of damnation
is so great that, despite his hatred of himself, he has a cowardly fear of the
death that will damn him eternally.  Or some such.  This ending, let's recall,
will involve skewing the text itself, and again I'd druther not see that.  But
again, that is a director's choice.
 
Best,
Milla Riggio
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ron Macdonald <
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Date:           Saturday, 02 Apr 1994 15:25:04 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Macbeth, Macduff
 
It seems to me a misrepresentation to imply that those of us who would speak
for Macbeth (note: _not_ vindicate, exonerate, or excuse him), who would try to
acknowledge the agonizing complexity of the issues the play raises, are somehow
out to glorify the kind of violence of which the hero is undoubtedly guilty.
Usurpation, regicide, and murdering the defenseless are, indeed, dire and
dreadful matters, and the play, as far as I can see, makes no attempt to render
that judgment problematic.  But it may encourage us to ponder the considerable
extent to which we prefer to think of the capacity for enormity as something
belonging exclusively to other people. Unspeakable deeds may be comfortably
cordoned off by defining them as the kind of things monsters do.  Then we have
only to paint the monster on a pole and underwrite "Here may you see the
tyrant" to maintain a clear conscience.  We glimpse something here of the great
convenience Caliban offers to those whose behavior is not exactly beyond
scrutiny.
 
It seems to me fruitless to debate whether Macduff was or was not right to
leave wife and children for the service of his country.  What the episode shows
us in this upsetting and morally unflinching play is that even deeds undertaken
for the most highminded and unimpeachable reasons may embroil the doer in
dubious and inculpating consequences.  Macduff, I think, realizes this
fleetingly in his plangent self-address concerning his butchered family:
"Sinful Macduff, / They were all strook for thee! naught that I am, / Not for
their own demerits, but for mine, / Fell slaughter on their souls"
(IV.iii.224-27).  If, a scant ten lines later, Macduff is once again referring
to Macbeth as "this fiend of Scotland," it is not despite his introspective
moment but because of it, a way of denying the unendurable moral complexity he
has glimpsed but briefly.
 
In his last conference with the Weird Sisters, Macbeth asks them, "What is't
you do?", and they reply, "A deed without a name" (IV.i.49).  All deeds are
ultimately nameless in this terrifying and, I would maintain, profoundly tragic
play in that all out attempts to name them without ambiguity are bound in some
degree to fail.  Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
 
                                   --Ron Macdonald
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