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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: January ::
Re: 3rd Murderer in Macbeth
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0021  Tuesday, 4 January 2000.

From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Monday, 03 Jan 2000 12:01:22 -0800
Subject: 11.0004 Re: 3rd Murderer in Macbeth
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0004 Re: 3rd Murderer in Macbeth

Eric Beato and John Ramsay point out, quite sensibly, that Macbeth
remains free.  I'm not contesting this.  If the idea of a freedom frozen
into fate seems paradoxical, that's because it actually is paradoxical.
Macbeth chooses to kill Duncan, yes, but he makes the same choice on
every night of every production.  Because he's a literary character, in
a play that has a script, he's fated like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern to repeat the same actions.  Though he still has choice
within the fictive world, he doesn't get to choose the fictive world
he's placed in, which represents a sort of fate, not merely in the sense
that character is fate, but in the sense that the future is already
known.  Macbeth's famous awareness might be seen as an awareness of this
fatality, even though he remains free.  This is what makes his
soliloquies so fascinating.

It's as if he exists in the past, and what he will do has already
happened, so that from a certain perspective it can't be changed, though
from another perspective, he's operating in the eternal now and can
always choose otherwise.  Boethius used a similar argument to show why
God can see the future, without limiting the freedom of sinful man to
choose the future.  More popularly, the film Twelve Monkeys has a
character who travels into the past and is repeatedly frustrated by the
fact that what has already happened can't be avoided, so while he can
decide to do something, the ultimate result of his actions are always
the same.  Trying to avert a plague, he accidentally finds himself
causing it.

Judith Craig makes a further argument that we aren't free to affect the
world of the play.  It's hard to deny this common-sense argument, but I
would like to note that references to common-sense always have a slight
air of desperation about them.  Moreover, the fact that something is in
a play isn't simply common sense.  Some people, not to mention whole
cultures, may have no concept of play-acting.  Everyone's seen a child
at a movie who weeps unconsolably for the death of a fictional
character.

Even if we were to grant the concept of play-acting, it's still not
clear why that implies that we shouldn't intervene.  Even if we aren't
watching "a scene happening spontaneously on the street when virtuous
action might make a difference" this doesn't explain why we shouldn't
try to help, albeit hopelessly.  More strongly, it doesn't explain why
we bring this "artificial play" into being by turning up and being an
attentive audience, even paying for the privilege.  Even if we grant the
impossibility of intervention-that the play ceases to be if we rush the
stage, or that at least the moment while we're being wrestled to the
ground and led off in handcuffs (exiting for a bomb threat, in someone's
else's post) isn't a part of the play-merely watching is a sort of
complicity.  Blaming Shakespeare for everything that transpires just
won't cut it.  We could always leave, but we don't.  Substituting
another play for Shakespeare's wouldn't do either, since it only
reassigns Shakespeare's portion of guilt to whoever is 'writing',
perhaps gesturally, the new play.

Without an audience, there is no play.  And without a play, Macbeth has
no fate.  Of course, he would have no freedom either, since he wouldn't
exist, but as I've tried showing earlier in this post, fate and freedom
can coexist.

None of this is to say that I have a clear sense of what sort of action
would count as ethical vis-

 

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