The following essay was originally published in Shakespearestudien. Rümelin. Stuttgart, 1866.

The dramatic treatment in Macbeth offers but small scope for realistic criticism, since from beginning to end the drama is enacted in the mythological region of hoary eld, and supernatural powers are employed, against which there can be no pragmatic criticism. This freedom the poet had of course the same right to use as had the old tragedians, or Goethe in his Iphigenia, when they transported us to the land of the old gods and legendary demi-gods. If, however, the weird sisters are not to be considered as real, as the majority of Shakespeare critics would fain persuade us, but only as the hero's visions, like the Ghosts in Richard III, merely external manifestations of mental experiences, desires and torments, then indeed the critic from the realistic point of view would have to assert himself with redoubled power, and the action of the tragedy would be utterly inconceivable. But this conception rests upon the weakest of arguments, and is opposed to every natural interpretation.

One essential point is clear--namely, that the witches foretell the future, and with an accuracy that does not fail in the very smallest particular. Of all their prophecies, only one, that he should be king, has any previous lodgement in Macbeth's breast; that the crown should descend to Banquo's children, of whom the last two should bear two-fold balls and treble sceptres, that Macduff should slay Macbeth, that Birnam's wood should come to Dunsinane, and the like, are not for a moment to be conceived of if we adopt that interpretation. These weird sisters had, in sooth, no control over Macbeth; their prophecies no more annihilated his free-will than the oracles of the Delphic god debarred Oedipus from being a free agent. That Banquo stood in a different relation to these prophecies from Macbeth, wherein this interpretation lays so much stress, does not in the least change the state of the case. Moreover, the tenor of the prophecy which referred to him was not of such a nature as called for any action on his part. It was readily conceivable, since he himself belonged to the royal family, that his descendants should wear the crown: as far as he was concerned he could neither aid nor hinder it. Clearly enough, indeed, does the poet depict his witches not as divine, creative beings, bearing sway over man, but as devilish ones, leading him into temptation and delighting in evil. That the poet must have conceived of them as creatures real and supernatural, and prescient of the future, no unprejudiced reader will have the least doubt.... A poet has an undisputed right to choose for himself the scene of his dramatic action. If he transport us to real and historic ground, then he himself must respect the laws which there bear sway, and must submit himself to the criticism which they sanction. Thus alone shall we be able to understand Shakespeare's Macbeth in all its magnificent beauty; but not if we resolve the forms, to which his imagination imparts in the realm of poetry a real existence, into vague, mongrel things of vision and convenience. Under such conditions there is little to be said against the action in Macbeth. There are, perchance, a few trifling gaps in the action; for instance, the instantaneous flight of the two Princes after Duncan's death is noticeable and not sufficiently accounted for. Also, the incentive to the murder of Banquo is not wholly satisfactory. Since Macbeth is childless, and Banquo belongs to the royal race, the thought that Banquo's descendants should be kings could convey nothing shocking nor intolerable to Macbeth; moreover, he must take the prophecy of the witches as a whole, without being permitted to bring to naught any particular item of it that he pleased. We must have recourse to the excuse that in the soliloquy where he resolves upon the murder, Macbeth contemplates the possibility of his having sons, or else, which is more likely, that the poet, who in this place also may have written from scene to scene, forgot in this passage what elsewhere he has expressly stated, that Macbeth was a childless father.

More serious difficulties occur in the character of Lady Macbeth. Her demeanor before the deed and after it appears to violate that psychological law of essential unity and consistency of character to which Shakespeare in general, although with some exception, adheres. The workings of conscience in her case are magical and demoniacal, and not psychologically conceivable. Whether or not we conceive of conscience as an innate, or as an inculcated, belief in the absolute obligation of certain rules in human life, there still remains a something in the consciousness, a quality or a force, which can work only in harmony with the law of all forces. Whenever, then, we find that the memory of a criminal act, however successful and enduring in its issues it may have been, awakens a repentance and moral detestation so consuming that for no single instant is it absent from the mind of the criminal, and that self-abhorrence leads to insanity and suicide, then we may properly assume for such a character a susceptibility to moral emotions of no common strength. Furthermore, it is conceivable that with such a susceptibility there may coexist a proneness to the blackest of crimes; for in the same breast passions and desires of a different and far more violent nature nay be harboured; but in this case it appears to us to follow of necessity that we must be made to see how, in the moment of a lawless deed, the voice of conscience is drowned, thrust down into a corner of the heart, overwhelmed by the tempest of stormy passion. But that ice-cold reasoning with which Lady Macbeth enkindles her husband to the most horrible of crimes, and sneers at the promptings of his conscience as though they were despicable, womanish weakness; the barbarous roughness with which she speaks of plucking her nipple from the boneless gums of the babe smiling in her face, and dashing its brains out; the wild strength with which, after the deed, she encourages Macbeth and spurs him on--all this appears to us unreconcileable with what we have laid down. It is not till late that the Eumenides enter into her, and like Demons from without, whereas the poet ought to have shown us how all along they were lurking in ambush at the bottom of her heart, and how the violence of their onslaught can be calculated by the long and powerful pressure to which the nobler emotions were subjected.

In the character of Macbeth, wonderfully and strikingly as he is depicted, we miss something also. Before he falls into temptation he is represented by the poet as of a noble nature, as we gather not only from his own deportment, but more clearly from the esteem in which he is held by the king and others. We have a right to expect that this better nature would reappear; after his glowing ambition had attained its end he ought to have made at least one attempt, or manifested the desire, to wear his ill-gotten crown with glory, to expiate or extenuate his crime by sovereign virtues. We could then be made to see that it by no means follows that evil must breed evil, and that Macbeth must wade on in blood in order not to fall. But from the very first meeting with the witches Macbeth appears like one possessed of all the devils of Hell, and rushes so like a madman from one crime to another, that the nobler impulses of former days never for one moment influence him. Here too, as frequently elsewhere, Shakespeare exaggerates the contrast, and the effect, at the expense of psychological truth; for, to completely subvert the fundamental basis of a character assuredly partakes, always and everywhere, of the nature of untruth. Without the idea of consistency we can conceive of no development either in nature or man.

And yet all such criticism cannot keep us from pronouncing Shakespeare's Macbeth the mightiest and most powerful of all tragedies.


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