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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: March ::
Re: *Macbeth*: Prophecies and Duncan's Murder
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0196.  Friday, 10 March 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Ron Macdonald <
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        Date:   Thursday, 09 Mar 1995 11:10:41 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Prophecies in _Macbeth_
 
(2)     From:   Jean Peterson <
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        Date:   Thursday, 9 Mar 1995 17:23:38 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0184  *Mac* Murder
 
(3)     From:   Scott Shepherd <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Mar 1995 16:46:27 -0500
        Subj:   *Mac* murder
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ron Macdonald <
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Date:           Thursday, 09 Mar 1995 11:10:41 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Prophecies in _Macbeth_
 
It's interesting that Jennie Johnson (SHK 6.0184) should speak of "the Glamis
prediction" and thus recapitulate a conflation I believe Macbeth himself makes.
 In calling Macbeth Thane of Glamis, the witches are neither predicting nor
prophesying but stating the case: Macbeth is Thane of Glamis by virtue of being
his father's son and having inherited the title at his father's death.  "By
Sinel's death I know I am Thane of Glamis" (I.iii.71), he says, "But how of
Cawdor?"  And how king?  It would be nice if the kingship would fall on his
plate, to use Jennie Johnson's phrase, with the inevitability (in a society
committed to primogenitural succession) that the thaneship of Glamis has
already fallen.  Meanwhile, the thaneship of Cawdor has since fallen, but
hardly by the usual orderly succession. This thaneship is rather Macbeth's
reward for his spectacularly sanguinary service in the late rebellion.  It is
by the deeds of his own arm that he has become Thane of Cawdor, and it will be
similarly by the deed of his arm that he will become king.  But perhaps the
inevitability of the first step, his inheriting of Glamis, encourages him to
think of the next steps as inevitable as well, part of a "natural" progression.
 It's striking that in a later aside he speaks of "_Two_ truths" being told "As
happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme" (I.iii.127-29).
The first truth, after all, is only one in the very pedestrian sense of a
statement of fact.  It hardly shows that the universe is geared up to make
Macbeth king, though it's scarcely surprising that Macbeth should want to treat
it as if it did.  Shakespeare seems to have been thoroughly familiar with that
form of self-delusion in which we conflate our own desires with the will of
higher powers.  Think of Malvolio on the subject of Olivia: "I have lim'd her,
but it is Jove's doing, and Jove make me thankful!"
 
                                         --Ron Macdonald
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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jean Peterson <
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Date:           Thursday, 9 Mar 1995 17:23:38 -0500
Subject: 6.0184  *Mac* Murder
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0184  *Mac* Murder
 
To Jennie Johnson
 
>Why does Macb. leap to the conclusion that he will become King only by
>murdering Duncan? If the Glamis prediction came true without him batting an
>eyelid, why does he then TAKE action, ie. kill, to secure the second
>prediction, if the first fell on his plate?
 
Macbeth considers just this possibility--"If chance will have me King, why,
chance may crown me without my stir--" (1.3.143-4).  But it just won't happen
fast enough for that "vaulting ambition" that the prediction has set in motion!
 
Lady M. worries that the damn "milk of human kindness" in her hubby won't allow
him to "catch the nearest way"--not the ONLY way, maybe, but the one that leads
to the most immediate gratification.  Look at the play's language of speed,
haste, outrushing and overreaching--once the temptation has entered their minds
(and it doesn't take much--images of murder & mayhem evidently follow swiftly
on the heels of "Hail, Macbeth that shalt be King hereafter!")--there's no
stopping and no waiting for "time" to take its course.
 
>Why does he then presume that by killing Duncan he will become King, when
>Malcolm was pronounced hier apparent before his very eyes?
 
Actually, doesn't the declaration of Malcolm as heir seal Duncan's fate? Now MB
has two obstacles to overcome, the living king and "the step [he] must o'er
leap"--his son & heir! By framing the grooms for the murder, and killing them
before they can speak up,MB & Lady M point the blame for the crime on Malcolm &
Donaldbain--who appear to have the most to gain by offing Duncan (thus removing
all obstacles for MB!) M & D helpfully flee, which places on them the suspicion
of the crime...
 
Did MB "know" or "presume" or "intend" this to happen? There seems to me little
point in asking that question: the play tells us that this is the outcome, so I
think we must be satisfied with that.
 
Further, we find out later that MB is not as slick as he thinks--Macduff is
suspicious from go, and in act 3 scene 4, Lennox observes that Malcolm &
Donaldbain murdering Duncan is about as plausible as Fleance killing Banquo...
 
De-mystifyingly,
Jean Peterson
Bucknell University
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Shepherd <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Mar 1995 16:46:27 -0500
Subject:        *Mac* murder
 
Let me amend the look-to-the-mysteries-of-the-text writeoff that ended my last
post re Duncan's murder. There is more to be said.
 
Reassembling the question: since Macbeth recognizes that assassinating the king
is unnecessary (given the prophecy) and insufficient (given the king's two
sons) for the fulfillment of his ambition, why does he do it?
 
Of course it is the nature of prophecies in literature that they are themselves
the catalysts of their own fulfillment, traditionally with the irony that
someone acting to defy a baleful prediction precipitates the very misfortune he
seeks to avoid (eg most famously the father of Oedipus). The innovation of
Macbeth is that the protagonist acts not to prevent his foretold fate but to
encourage it--"unnecessary" only in a limited sense, since in terms of dramatic
structure the prophecy _includes_ Macbeth's response to having heard it. For a
more psychological explanation it is reductive but more or less right to say
that Macbeth is too much a man of action to let the future take care of itself.
Anyway what is clear is that the issue of necessity disappears from his
considerations after the initial determination "If chance will have me king,
why chance may crown me without my stir." This sensible assessment is
apparently not enough to put the idea out of his mind.
 
(Note the dissenting opinion of Lady Macbeth: "Thou'ldst have, great Glamis,
that which cries thus thou _must do_ if thou have it." Mere assertion of
course, but indicative of her attitude about prophecy.)
 
As for who's next in line for the throne, since the monarchy isn't hereditary
that question isn't settled before 1.4 (knowledge of Scottish political history
not required; "we will establish our estate upon our eldest Malcolm" makes the
point), and curiously Macbeth's reaction is not discouragement but improved
urgency. Certainly in this speech ("The Prince of Cumberland!" etc) there is
none of the "come what come may" resolve that ended 1.3.
 
But _whether or not to murder the king_ persists as the prime question of act
1, and if nonnecessity and insufficiency are not the things in Macbeth's way,
what is?
 
A _moral_ uneasiness is evident in the distaste for the affair continually
expressed by Macbeth, who has unseam'd men in war without disgust, but it plays
little part in his deliberations. His most conspicuous speech about the
decision ("If it were done when 'tis done..."), although it makes a brief
detour into a moral question ("He's here in double trust...not bear the knife
myself"), is otherwise entirely concerned with the _fear of consequences_; but
when Lady Macbeth confronts him he makes his argument with completely different
and less relevant objections. He says 1) he wants to enjoy his recent honors
first, 2) he wants to do what is "becoming", 3) he is afraid of failing. All of
these are actual unfeigned worries of his, but they are clearly secondary. Why
doesn't he mention the truly crucial problem which he has just identified to
himself (and to us) in soliloquy?
 
>...we but teach
>Bloody instructions, which being taught return
>To plague th'inventor.
 
Lady Macbeth's persuasions, astounding as they are, can hardly counter this
prophetic insight which he never points out to her. Her appeals, stripped of
rhetorical force, are 1) you promised you would do this so you must, 2) you are
a coward if you don't, and 3) we won't get caught. This last assertion though
remarkably unconvincing does superficially address Macbeth's unspoken chief
anxiety, and it is significant that this is what makes him "settled."
 
Thus, after clearly enumerating all sorts of reasonable arguments against it,
he agrees to do a thing which to imagine appals him, which he knows he
shouldn't do and doesn't need to do. His foremost scruples, namely anticipated
public outrage and his own exposure to assassination, he abandons upon the
flimsiest assurance, as if some men are kept from doing evil only by not having
it suggested to them emphatically enough. When in act 2 he is faced with
carrying out his reluctant resolution, his very apparatus rejects it, falling
into hallucinations, but he sternly reiterates the procedure to himself ("I go,
and it is done"), and commits the crime.
 
All this is essential to our experience of the tragedy. Macbeth's first murder
like Hamlet's inaction _must be_ inexplicable and contrary to overwhelming
opposite motivations--but in some way, to some part of our understanding, it
_makes sense_, ie it occurs to us as authentic unforeign human behavior,
perplexing and troublesome as it is. This paradox, if that's what it is, was
Shakespeare's fascination, and it is ours.
 

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