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"Compunctious visitings": conscience as unequivocal witness in Macbeth.

FOR THREE AND A HALF CENTURIES Macbeth was held by audience, critic, and theater company alike to be a play about "good" and "evil," grace and damnation. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, when the postmodernist rhetoric of unstable signifiers and difference saturated the critical discourse of humanities departments across Europe and North America, the received moral dualism of Macbeth came under increasing attack. (1) This hermeneutic shift can be traced back to the postwar rehabilitation of Nietzsche, (2) whose radical relativization of the Judeo-Christian binary of "good" and "evil" (3) indirectly paved the way for revisionist readings of Macbeth. Displacing the "old guard" dualist readings of, say, Harold C. Goddard in 1951 ("The medieval mind, in the tradition of mythology, represented the tragic conflict, which our irreligious age is like to think of as just a strife between opposing impulses, as a struggle between devils and angels for the possession of man's soul"), or John Holloway a decade later ("In ... the combat between Macbeth and Macduff, it is made plain that [']night's black agents['] are the fallen angels, the powers of Satan himself"), were avant-garde readings such as Kott's landmark existentialist-absurdist reading of the play ("there are no bad kings or good kings ... there is only the king's situation, and the system"), or Karin S. Coddon's new historicist reading which situates the play in the immediate aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot ("Such are the historical conditions of Macbeth's production ... [that] the tragedy enacts ... the production of the traitor by the very power structure he ostensibly threatens"), or Harry Berger's socio-political recasting of the early scenes of Macbeth as a study in collective complicity ("the [pietistic restoration] view Shakespeare ascribes to the good Scots ... is a view he presents critically as self-justifying, scapegoating, and simplistic"). (4)

Nevertheless, in academia as elsewhere, fashions come and go, and under the prevailing new historicist dispensation dualist readings of Macbeth are once again on the rise. Witness R. Chris Hassel's 2001 essay on the correspondences between Shakespeare's Macbeth and the Herod of the mystery cycles, or Jonathan Gil Harris's 2007 account of how Shakespeare's use of gunpowder in the staging of Macbeth was designed to stimulate the Elizabethan audience's olfactory identification of sulphurous odours with the Stygian stench of Satan's hell. (5) Meanwhile, critics who continue to remain outside the dominant critical discourse exhibit similar dualist sympathies. Take for example Rachel Trabowitz's thesis that "Duncan's feminized masculinity embodies the sublime ideal of androgyny" in contrast to "the 'fiend-like' hermaphrodite (5.8.69) Lady Macbeth," or David-Everett Blythe's rereading of Banquo's "There's husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out" (2.1.4-5) as reflective of Banquo's "moral vision": the brilliance of heaven's stars ("candles") connoting not the frugality but rather the vigilance ("husbandry") of heavens "merciful powers" (2.1.7). (6) It is this dualist resurgence, and in particular that of the good Scot Banquo / bad Scot Macbeth, which my essay seeks to augment. Through a new close reading of key passages, conscience will once again be seen to occupy its center-stage position as the play's unequivocal moral compass upon which the Banquo-Macbeth duality is predicated.

The efficacy of conscience is the subject of a recent essay by Abraham Stoll, who avers that conscience is so equivocally and chaotically communicated in Macbeth that it "fails to produce a coherent other as a witness" and thus "to bring about repentance." Citing William Perkins's A Discourse of Conscience (1594), in which the author depicts the etymological knowing with of conscience as both a form of bearing witness and a "manner of judgement" expressed through clear logical reasoning, Stoll insists that in the case of the Macbeths conscience does neither. (7) While this is a defensible argument with regard to Lady Macbeth's psychic economy, it is open to challenge in the case of Macbeth. Admittedly, the disembodied voices by which Macbeth is assailed in act 2, scene 2, serve as unreliable witnesses to the murder just committed and so "fail to convey the judgments of conscience with clarity." (8) But a casual glance at Macbeth's famous act 1, scene 7, soliloquy, in which explicit reference is made to judgment, angels, trumpets, heaven, damnation, and "the life to come," (9) furnishes ample evidence both of a clear and unambiguous communication of conscience as a signifier of Christian eschatology and of the process of reasoning whereby conscience imparts its knowledge and exercises its judgment. (10) In the following essay, further evidence of this type of conscientious reasoning will be found to lie in other Macbeth speeches, but in the guise of Other-directed rather than self-directed judgment. It is my contention, therefore, that the knowing with of conscience, as expounded by Perkins, bears unequivocal witness in Macbeth both discursively in the form of internal dialogue masquerading as external dialogue, and objectively in the figure of Banquo as Macbeth's compunctious Other. It will also be shown to bear witness rhetorically through the metaphorical prick of conscience, writ large in the play's dominant "dagger of the mind" (2.1.38) conceit and less conspicuously in the verbal trope to stick.


At the nonrational level of Macbeth's psyche, conscience registers as "a dagger of the mind": pricks of conscience that have assumed murderous, self-mutilating proportions. Psychic counterpart to the two material daggers used to murder Duncan, this third dagger returns remorselessly and, it will be argued, remorsefully to the scene of the crime. Like the play's mysterious Third Murderer, to whom Macbeth refers in his act 3 interview with the hired assassins as "the perfect spy o'th'time" (3.1.129), the dagger of the mind bears compunctious witness to crime(s) committed. And if one is inclined to endorse the view that Macbeth himself is the Third Murderer, (11) then his presence at the murder of Banquo can plausibly be interpreted as an allegorical representation of conscience's compunction to bear witness: not just to mortal crime but, more damnably, to the mortal sin of having transgressed divine law. (12) This Catholic concept, I would argue, is implicit in Macbeth's act 1, scene 7, reference to "heaven's cherubin"--a clear indication of Catholic cosmology--"blowing] the horrid deed in every eye" (1.7.22-24), the verb blow recuperating the earlier "blow" of assassination (1.7.2-4) and forging thereby the causal link between "horrid deed" and eschatological consequence. It is also implicit in Macbeth's later apostrophic supplication to "seeling Night" to hoodwink "pitiful day" and with its "bloody and invisible hand / Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale" (3.2.46-50). By handing the murder weapon to Night, an accessory to the murder on account of having provided the assassins with the necessary cover of darkness, Macbeth attempts to hoodwink his conscience. In doing so he breaks the divine seal stamped upon "that great bond"--the wordplay of seel and seal invited by the word bond--of which alone he is fearful. Ostensibly the hereditary bond whereby Banquo's descendants, according to the witches' prophecy, will be kings, "that great bond" (note the all-important modifier here) to which Macbeth refers is the inviolable bond between man and his soul. In willfully tearing it to pieces, Macbeth effectively hands the murder weapon to his conscience, which, like a "bloody and invisible hand," bears lacerating witness to the regicidal hand that murdered not only Duncan but his own soul.

Macbeth's "dagger of the mind" conceit plays in turn upon the play's "sticking" motif: blood, the "filthy witness" (2.2.50), sticks to both the Macbeths' hands; deeds stick to the doer since deeds done cannot be undone, hence the oft-noted irony of Macbeth's pre-murder "I go, and it is done" (2.1.62) and the pained resignation of his wife's post-murder "What's done is done" (3.2.12); the elusive "Amen" and implicit forfeiture of grace sticks in Macbeth's throat and "Stop[s] up th'access and passage" to redemption, but, as we shall see, not to remorse (1.5.42); the royalty of Banquo's nature, to be discussed later in this essay, sticks in Macbeth's craw; and the compunctious dagger "stick[s] deep" (3.1.51) in the memory. "Why did you bring these daggers from the place?" expostulates Lady Macbeth, "They must lie there" (2.2.51-52), the last four words resounding with proleptic dramatic irony, for it is "there" in the mind--the "place" where all deeds are committed and memorialised--that the daggers not only lie but relentlessly reenact their bloody deed.

Lady Macbeth's seeming inability to name "the place" where the murder was committed recalls her earlier reference to "the sticking-place." Faced with her husband's intransigence in the matter of Duncan's murder she urges him to "But screw your courage to the sticking-place / And we'll not fail" (1.7.60-1)--rousing words to which she promptly adds the further reassurance that Duncan's two warders will be so surfeited with wine "That memory, the warder of the brain, / Shall be a fume [...] When in swinish sleep / Their drenched natures lie as in a death" (1.7.65-68). She is wrong on both counts. First, Macbeth's courage, having screwed itself to the mens rea (the "sticking-place" of mental determination), proceeds to impale itself upon the actus reus and remains transfixed "there" at the site/sight of its enactment/re-enactment (hence the triple pun on the kenning "sticking-place"); and second, the "drenched natures" of Duncan's chamberlains are not so soused as to prevent them from waking up directly after the murder and, upon catching a glimpse of Macbeth's bloody hands, promptly saying their prayers before falling back to sleep. This reflex of memory and ritual belongs as much to the chamberlains as it does to Macbeth, who, despite his memory being a mephitic fume of horror and revulsion and his nature being drenched in Duncan's blood, seeks God's blessing as earnestly as the men he is about to slaughter. (13)
   One cried "God bless us!" and "Amen" the other,
   As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
   List'ning their fear, I could not say "Amen"
   When they did say "God bless us"


And when his wife beseeches him to take it not so much to heart, it is with heart-wrenching pathos that he persists: "But wherefore could not I pronounce "Amen"? / I had most need of blessing and "Amen" / Stuck in my throat." (2.2.34-36) So plangent and unrestrained is his lament, so childlike his distress, dismay, and mounting fear, that the tragic epicenter of the play might be said to reside in this one word that eludes and emasculates the "brave" Macbeth. (14)

Divine retribution, it would appear, has been devastatingly swift, loading with retrospective irony Duncan's innocent protestations to Macbeth directly after the latter's spectacular success in battle: "Thou art so far before, / That swiftest wing of recompense is slow / To overtake thee" (1.4.16-18). Indeed, so far forward is Macbeth's "Vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself / And falls on th'other" (1.7.27-28) that remorse, the swiftest of all wings, overtakes him in the moments of absolute clarity after the regicide: "To know my deed, 'twere best not know my self" (2.2.76). In these monosyllabic words the knowing with of conscience is as unequivocal as it is inescapable. But if Macbeth balks at the knowledge, it is registered in the irrepressible loquacity of his inner voice, which cries with relentless and repetitive insistence "'Sleep no more: / Macbeth does murder sleep,' the innocent sleep" (2.2.38-39, emphasis added), and which in the ensuing scene bears sober and discursive witness to Macbeth's self-slaughter:
   Had I but died an hour before this chance,
   I had lived a blessed time, for from this instant,
   There's nothing serious in mortality.
   All is but toys; renown and grace is dead,
   The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
   Is left this vault to brag of.


The key word here is vault. Echoing the "vaulting ambition" alluded to above it conveys the acknowledged enormity of moral stakes. Another triple pun, vault comprises the following meanings: spring, as in the vaulting ambition against which the Captain had prophetically warned Duncan in the second scene of the play: "from that spring whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells" (1.2.27-28); burial chamber, as in the mortal frame which without "grace is dead"; and strong room, where the inviolable soul and all that is "serious in mortality" is kept.

The above-cited lines, uttered by Macbeth in the immediate aftermath of Duncans murder and taken by the assembled generals and nobles as an ad hoc funeral oration over the death of the good and gracious King, articulate in the form of a public, if veiled, confession Macbeth's heavy judgment upon the death of his own soul and his formerly "blessed" state of grace. (15) And while Duncans (perceived (16)) virtues, which Macbeth had prophesied at the end of act 1 would "plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against / The deep damnation of his taking-off" (1.7.19-20), Macbeth's own virtues were not so negligible as to silence the cries of his own conscience, which, as noted above, trumpeted with brassy insistence the deep damnation of their own taking-off. Tempering ambition with honesty ("This tyrant ... / Was once thought honest," 4.3.12-13), rectitude ("What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily" 1.5.18-19), and "th'milk of human kindness" (1.5.15), matched with the fearless temper of his loyalty and service to king and country so egregiously displayed on the battlefield, Macbeth had garnered well-deserved renown and bragging rights before his fateful decision to follow in Cawdor's treacherous footsteps and "throw away the dearest thing he owed / As 'twere a careless trifle" (1.4.10-11). Unlike Cawdor, however, whose formulaic public confession on the scaffold, as reported by Malcolm, "had been studied" (1.4.5-11), (17) Macbeth's is arguably genuine. There is also the virtue of Macbeth's remorse, couched in three identically constructed phrases and delivered by him directly after three critical moments in the downward trajectory of his soul: "Would they had stayed" (1.3.80), sighs Macbeth, upon the witches' vanishing into the foul air; "Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst." (2.2.77); and "I drink to [...] our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss. / Would he were here!" (3.4.89-91).

In the second part of Macbeth's covert confession, delivered a dozen or so lines later in response to Macduff's inquiry as to why Macbeth had felt it necessary to kill Duncan's sleeping chamberlains, the knowing with of conscience once again asserts its authority:
   Who can be wise, amazed, temp'rate, and furious,
   Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.
   Th'expedition of my violent love
   Outran the pauser, reason. Here lay Duncan,
   His silver skin laced with his golden blood
   And his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature,
   For ruin's wasteful entrance. There the murderers,
   Steeped in the colours of their trade; their daggers
   Unmannerly breeched with gore. Who could refrain,
   That had a heart to love and in that heart
   Courage to make's love known?


Concealed in the first two lines of this speech is a clever inversion, for while Macbeth justifies his murder of the chamberlains as an all-too-human, unpremeditated act of revenge, he is simultaneously reflecting upon his earlier "If it were done" soliloquy in which his cool-headed reason, as discursive handmaiden to conscience, had given him pause to consider the eschatological consequences of a cold-blooded regicide. These deliberations, in which he had been "wise" to the "even-handed justice" (1.7.10) of divine and secular law, had included a "temp'rate" appraisal of Duncan's virtues; cognizance of the fealty owed by a "loyal" subject to his King and kinsman and of the unwritten, time-honoured laws of hospitality; and a clear understanding that any man who acts in spite of this knowledge is "No man." In other words, he who spurns that faculty (reason) which distinguishes man from beast, breaches his contract with God and thereby forfeits his right to the title "man." This "breach in nature / For ruin's wasteful entrance" is manifestly Macbeth's, whose spiritual "ruin" is evidenced by the "Amen" that stuck in his throat and by his "amazed" but sober cry "This is a sorry sight" (2.2.23) when accosted by the sight of his own hands "steeped in the colours" of his murderous trade. Macbeth's self-damnation and self-recrimination are further inscribed in the conjunction of "breach" and "ruin" which rehearse in less apocalyptic tones Macduff's earlier charge that "Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope / The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence / The life o'th'building" (2.3.60-2). Most sacrilegious for Macduff on account of the king's acknowledged role as God's representative on earth, (18) but also for Macbeth insofar as the murderous theft from "The Lord's anointed Temple" connotes the desecration of his own soul precariously lodged within the corporeal tabernacle. And yet, while acknowledging that "Th'expedition of my violent love / Outran the pauser, reason," there remains within Macbeth's violent ambition-loving heart sufficient "Courage to make's love known" in the covert confession he makes to Lennox, Macduff, Ross, and Banquo.


Shakespeare commentary on Banquo is broadly divided between those who tacitly endorse (19) A. C. Bradley's portrait of him as a man who ultimately yields to evil by failing, in the regicidal aftermath, to divulge to the Scottish nobles his secret "fears and scruples" (2.3.122) concerning what he suspects is Macbeth's foul play, (20) and those who see him as a dramatic foil for Macbeth and hence as a stock "good" character in the Horatian mould. My reading falls squarely within the latter camp and takes its cue from the second scene of Macbeth. Under what appears to be an ironic stage direction "Alarum within," a bloody captain recounts to Duncan the day's broil and the changing fortunes of the King's men upon the battlefield. Asked by Duncan whether Macbeth and Banquo, after having successfully quashed the Macdonald-led rebellion, were not "dismayed" by the renewed attack of a reinforced Norwegian army, the Captain answers:
   If I say sooth, I must report they were
   As cannons over-charged with double cracks;
   So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.
   Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds
   Or memorise another Golgotha,
   I cannot tell.


Two battles are being depicted here: the surface one between Scotland and Norway and the subtextual one between the forces of good and evil. In respect of the latter, the triumph of evil over good, of which Macbeth will be a tragic example, is intimated by the allusion to Christ's Calvaric crucifixion and to the bathing in "reeking wounds" that simultaneously evokes Christs stigmata and foreshadows Macbeth's "I am in blood / Stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er" (3.4.136-38). The cracked cannons, a wordplay on the moral conflict between canon law and the forces of temptation ("the foe"), is the dramatic focus of the ensuing scene in which Macbeth and Banquo encounter the witches and subsequently suffer, at different times and in radically variant degrees, a spiritual insurrection of which the Scottish revolt and the Norwegian invasion is an allegorical representation.

The first crack in Macbeth's moral armour, a crack that will ultimately breach his manhood and separate man from hood (as in "hoodlum") and "Bellona's bridegroom" (1.2.54) from Fortune's "whore" (1.2.14-15), appears directly after the witches' prophecy. Thrice he importunes them to enlarge upon their fantastical pronouncements, and the imperative of his final plea, "Speak, I charge you," (1.3.76) betrays the "over-charged" emotion of a man whose flank is already dangerously exposed to the enemy. As Ross remarks less than a score of lines later: "He [Duncan] finds thee in the stout Norwegian ranks, / Nothing afeard of what thyself didst make, / Strange images of death" (1.3.93-95). Enticed by the witches' words into unknown, or perhaps familiar, territory (Shakespeare criticism is divided on the question of whether Macbeth had entertained treasonous thoughts prior to the witches' pronouncements (21)), where strange images of death foretell of slaughter soon to be unleashed, Macbeth finds himself surrounded by enemy forces. But unlike the fearless bravery he has so recently displayed on the battlefield, he is palpably unequal to the formidable demonic forces amassed within him. Banquo, by contrast, remains coolly indifferent to the witches' "supernatural soliciting" (1.3.129), but his equanimity proves short-lived, and by the start of act 2 cracks in his own defense likewise begin to appear:
      There's husbandry in heaven,
   Their candles are all out [...]
   A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
   And yet I would not sleep; merciful powers,
   Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
   Gives way to in repose


Similarly exposed and similarly alive to the conflicting summons from heaven and hell, Banquo offers up an earnest prayer, secure at least in the knowledge that as long as consciousness prevails his soul is proof against attack; only in the unconscious realm is his soul rendered defenseless. Well-versed ("gospelled" as Macbeth would have it at 3.1.87) in the principles of divine "husbandry," taken here in the dual sense of cultivation and household management, Banquo understands that the cultivation of man's soul requires the restraining powers of reason over the temptations of the passions, hence the need for "doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe." "Doubtful it stood," as the Captain remarks in his prologue-like speech in act 1, scene 2, until, that is, Macbeth's decisive murder of Duncan and contracted dispatch of Banquo precludes the need for either soldier to engage in further pitched battles with the enemy within.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth's squandered soul, like the chamberlains' "drenched natures lie[s] as in a death" (1.7.68). And in an ingenious piece of foreshadowing, the Porter's comic confession that the demon drink had lied "i'the very throat on me [...] yet I made a shift to cast him" (2.3.32-34) discreetly ushers in the remainder of the play in which the punch-drunk protagonist's ever-bloodier and ever-more futile shifts to cast the guilt that sticks in his craw drives the drama forward towards its inexorable conclusion. Foremost among these shifts is Macbeth's desperate bid to cast Banquo: (22)
           To be thus is nothing,
   But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo
   Stick deep, and in his royalty of nature
   Reigns that which would be feared. 'Tis much he dares,
   And to that dauntless temper of his mind,
   He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour
   To act in safety. There is none but he,
   Whose being i do fear; and under him
   My genius is rebuked.


In stark contrast to Macbeth's breached ramparts, affording "ruin's wasteful entrance," stands the impregnable moral fortress safeguarding Banquo's "royalty of nature." The spondaic feet "Reigns that" and, in the preceding line, "Stick deep" establish the emphatic opposition between the virtuous self-mastery of Banquo and the "unmann'd" (3.4.73) Macbeth who on his own admission wantonly ransomed his "eternal jewel [...] to the common Enemy of man" (3.1.69-70). Macbeth's spiritual safe/vault is empty, its priceless jewel in the crown of life carelessly bartered for "a fruitless crown" (3.1.62), a mere trifle. The thrice-repeated fear, respectively linked to the feminine endings of "Banquo" and "nature" and to the nonpareil ("none but he"--the end-stopped line rams home the point) of "him" whose royal nature rebukes Macbeth's debased nature, suggests that at the pit of Macbeth's emptiness lies the impotent (hence the weak endings) conviction that Banquo's virtuous valour (23) sets at nought ("nothing"--another feminine ending) his own valorous "genius" which had "dare[d] do all that may become a man," but having "dare[d] do more is none" (1.7.46-47, emphasis added). If my reading is correct, the punning majesty of "royalty" and "reigns" refers not simply to the royal line that Banquo will sire, but to the metaphorical royalty of the tripartite soul in which wisdom reigns over earthly desires and guides valour, Plato's Thumos, "safely" towards ends the means to which will ensure the "safety" of the soul. Indeed, it was Banquo who, immediately before the "dagger of the mind" soliloquy, had warned Macbeth that he would pursue honour solely on the understanding that "I lose none / In seeking to augment it, but still keep / My bosom franchised and allegiance clear" (2.1.26-28).

Similar warning signals had been sounded by Banquo in act 1, scene 3. Witnessing the alarum within Macbeth occasioned by the witches' all-hail to Glamis, Cawdor, and future King, Banquo becomes the "perfect spy o'the time" and exclaims:
   Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear
   Things that do sound so fair?--I'th'name of truth
   Are ye fantastical, or that indeed
   Which outwardly ye show? My noble partner
   You greet with present grace and great prediction
   Of noble having and of royal hope
   That he seems rapt withal.


The second of Banquo's questions is generally taken to be addressed to the witches but could equally be construed as a second question addressed to Macbeth. If directed at the former, whom Banquo surmises are women but whose "beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so" (1.3.44-45), why bother to invoke truth in a dialogue with figures which if not phantasms are certainly fantastical in their outward show and which he later associates with the powers of darkness ("What, can the devil speak true?" 1.3.105)? Taken as a question directed at Macbeth, Banquo's solemn invocation of truth and strident accusatory tone evoke the divine prosecutor at the bar of judgment. What Banquo demands to know is whether the horror he espies on his comrades startled face is but a fugitive trance ("Are ye fantastical?") or an outward sign of something more deeply rooted ("that indeed / Which outwardly ye show"). (24) That the latter is indeed the case is inwardly acknowledged by Macbeth, and textually indexed by repetition, towards the end of the scene when he states "My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man," 1.3.138-39, emphasis added). Repetition is further employed to draw attention to the verbs "start" and "rapt". Start occurs a further five times in Macbeth and on each occasion bar the last, when a blood-bloated Macbeth reflects upon the moribund state of his once-active conscience, is directly linked to "the blood-boltered Banquo" (4.1.122) whose gory-locked ghost and gold-crowned apparition (suggestive of a nimbus) startle Macbeth into a rapture of guilt. Rapt is another triple pun: playing on the words rapture, rupture, and raptor, it connotes the "restless ecstasy" (3.2.22) of a mind caught in the toils of temptation. Banquo reiterates the adjective rapt after registering for a second time Macbeth's visible captivation--rapture in the sense of being carried off by a predator--by what the former fears may be demonic thoughts ("Look how our partner's rapt" 1.3.141). Further proof of Banquo's solicitous fears for his rapt friend can be discerned in his hasty apology to Ross and Angus for Macbeth's conspicuous discourtesy towards them, attributing it to his "New honours [which] come upon him / Like our strange garments" (1.3.14344)--a pretext which can be construed as either willful duplicity on the part of Banquo and thus grist to the "bad Banquo" mill, or as the mark of a generous spirit wishing to give his friend and comrade the benefit of the doubt.

Banquo also appears to be present at Macbeth's interview with the two murderers, an interview which immediately follows and, I would argue, continues the "To be thus is nothing" soliloquy. In the latter soliloquy Macbeth affirms that his fears in Banquo stem from the recognition that "under him / My genius is rebuked," a recognition he elaborates upon with painful precision in what is arguably a simultaneous internal and external dialogue with the two murderers:
   [H]ave you considered of my speeches? Know, that it was he in the
   times past which held you so under fortune, which you thought had
   been our innocent self. This I made good to you in our last
   conference; passed in probation with you how you were borne in
   hand, how crossed; the instruments, who wrought with them, and all
   things else that might to half a soul and to a notion crazed say,
   "Thus did Banquo." (3.1.77-83, emphasis added) (25)

From these "speeches," colloquies of conscience, (26) Macbeth knows (the caesura lends additional emphasis) that it was not his genius, his own "innocent self," but Banquo who "in the times past" had held him securely under fortunes protective wing (witness Banquo's aforementioned attempt to gloss over Macbeth's incivility before Ross and Angus). "This I made good to you," Macbeth reproachfully reminds himself, with a poignant pun on "good" as he recollects how the good Banquo, his guardian angel, had earlier made good to him the eschatological consequences of succumbing to the darker forces of nature:
   And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
   The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
   Win us with honest trifles, to betrays
   In deepest consequence.


In these four lines Banquo had "pass'd in probation" with Macbeth the ease with which a man may be "borne in hand--duped by the witches' seeming prescience; "how cross'd--through equivocation; and "the instruments" used--the "instruments of darkness." "Thus did Banquo," concludes Macbeth, and did so, moreover, with such clarity that even "To half a soul" such as Macbeth's, and "to a notion crazed" such as regicide, Banquo's words should have hit home. "You made it known to us," echoes the First Murderer, to which Macbeth replies, "I did so, and went further" (3.1.84-85). Indeed he did. Despite so knowing--Banquo had told him, his knocking heart had told him, and he himself had told his wife "We will proceed no further in this business" (1.7.31)--he knowingly went further.

Banquo's goodness trumpets "that great bond" between man and God, and by extension between subject and sovereign: (27) that bond which Macbeth ruptured when he murdered Duncan and feels compelled to "cancel and tear to pieces" by murdering the one man ("There is none but he") who bears living witness to it. As Macbeth confesses to his hired assassins, it is on account of the "bloody distance" (3.1.115) that separates him from Banquo--the same distance that separates the damned from the blessed, the "demi-wolves" (3.1.93) from the demi-gods, and the rank defilement of manhood from the rank and file of manhood (3.1.101-2)--"That every minute of his [Banquo's] being thrusts / Against my near'st of life" (3.1.116-17). The word "thrusts" rehearses the play's central conceit and as the dagger of conscience sticks deeper into Macbeth's soul it prompts him to demand of the two cutthroats:

Do you find your patience so predominant in your nature, that you can let this go? Are you so gospelled, to pray for this good man and for his issue, whose heavy hand hath bowed you to the grave and beggared yours forever? (3.1.86-89)

Patently, Macbeth cannot let it go. His own "gospelled," now "beggared" nature buckles under Banquo's "sundry weighty" (3.1.125) virtues which, like the "sundry blessings" that hang about the English king's throne, "speak him full of grace" (4.3.160-1). Stamped with the hallmark of eternity, Banquo's bonded virtues, underwritten by God, bow Macbeth down, hence the dramatic irony of Lady Macbeth's assertion in the scene directly following Macbeth's interview with the assassins that in Banquo and Fleance "Nature's copy's not eterne" (3.2.38).

As much as Macbeth might fondly hope that with Banquo and his immortal heir removed he will be able to silence his conscience, to disinter himself from the grave of abject self-loathing in which he is currently "cabined, cribbed, confined," and like a degenerate copy of Banquo's perfect nature to become "Whole as the marble, founded as the rock," his recurrent fits of "saucy doubts and fears" (3.4.21-25) bespeak a self-entombment as solid as marble and as fixed as rock. Thus, when one of the assassins, reporting to Macbeth on the execution of his commission, confirms that the blood on his face is that of Banquo's, Macbeth's inscrutable response--"'Tis better thee without, than he within" (3.4.14)--suggests not that it is better for Banquo's blood to be on the murderer's face than in Banquo's living body, but conversely that it would be better for the murderer to be dead ("without" blood) than that the bloody deed should fester within Macbeth's tormented soul. And were Macbeth in any real doubt as to the eternal nature of Banquo's soul ("Banquo, thy soul's flight, / If it find heaven, must find it out tonight," 3.1.140-1), it will be thrust down his throat in act 4, scene 1, when the witches conjure up before him two apparitions of Banquo's divine inheritance. The first, a crowned child "That rises like the issue of a king / And wears upon his baby-brow the round / And top of sovereignty" (4.1.86-88), may well recall to Macbeth the angels he himself had envisaged prior to the murder of Duncan and who, "like a naked newborn babe / Striding the blast" (1.7.21-22), would not only trumpet Duncan's gentle virtues but the apocalyptic doom of his own blasted soul. The second, a line of eight kings with Banquo at the rear holding a mirror, symbolises the divine copy inherent in Banquo's royal nature and replicated in his royal progeny. Assaulted in this hideous hall of mirrors by inverted reflections of the "eternal jewel" he has irrevocably and eternally lost, Macbeth protests: "What, will the line stretch out to th'crack of doom?" (4.1.116).

The crack of doom, recalling the Captain's report of "cannons overcharged with double cracks" (1.2.37), brings us back to the human faultline between good and evil with which the play began. And if, at the play's end, we have witnessed the tragic spectacle of a man bathing in rank, reeking wounds inflicted by the mind's compunctious dagger, we have thereby witnessed the unequivocal knowing with of conscience that not only memorizes Golgotha but memorializes it in a mind so diseased that death alone can be relied upon to minister its "sweet oblivious antidote" (5.3.44).

Yasar University, Izmir


(1) For a detailed survey of the shift from dualist to nondualist Macbeths, both in the study and on the stage, see Nick Moschovakis, "Dualist Macbeth? Problematic Macbeth?" in his edited anthology, Macbeth: New Critical Essays (New York: Routledge, 2008), 1-72.

(2) Walter Kaufmann's seminal Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton U. Press, 1950), together with his new translations of Nietzsche's oeuvre, is rightly credited with the rehabilitation of Nietzsches thought after its mauling at the hands of Nazi propagandists and Bertrand Russell's notorious chapter on Nietzsche in his 1946 History of Western Philosophy.

(3) See in particular Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and the later Beyond Good and Evil.

(4) Harold C. Godddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (U. of Chicago Press, 1951), 2:117; John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (U. of Nebraska Press, 1961), 62; Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1966), 17, cited in Moschovakis, "Dualist Macbeth? Problematic Macbeth?" 31; Karin S. Coddon, '"Unreal Mockery': Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth," ELH 56.3 (1989): 485-501, 490; and Harry Berger Jr., "The Early Scenes of Macbeth: Preface to a New Interpretation," ELH 47.1 (1980): 1-31, 4.

(5) R. Chris Hassel Jr., '"No boasting like a fool'? Macbeth and Herod," Studies in Philology 98.2 (2001): 205-24; Jonathan Gil Harris, "The Smell of'MacBeth,"' Shakespeare Quarterly 58.4 (2007): 465-86, 475-76.

(6) Rachel Trabowitz, "'The Single State of Man': Androgyny in Macbeth and Paradise Lost Papers on Language and Literature 26.3 (1990): 305-33, 315; David-Everett Blythe, "Banquos Candles," ELH 58.4 (1991): 773-8.

(7) According to Abraham Stoll, "Macbeth's Equivocal Conscience," in Macbeth: New Critical Essays ed. Nick Moschovakis (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 132-50, the failure of conscience in Macbeth to signify as a "coherent other" is due to the doppelganger effect of conscience, which Freud, in his essay on the uncanny, problematizes as a dubious feeling of otherness and familiarity, of imagination and reality. For other Freudian readings of the "doubling" patterns in Macbeth see Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), 87-123; David Willbern, "Phantasmagoric Macbeth',' English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 520-49; and, more recently, Marina Favila, "'Mortal Thoughts' and Magical Thinking in Macbeth," Modern Philology 99.1 (2001): 1-25.

(8) Stoll, "Macbeth's Equivocal Conscience," 134.

(9) My source text for this essay is A. R. Braunmuller's Macbeth (Cambridge U. Press, 1997).

(10) The lucid deliberations contained in this soliloquy qualify Jennifer Bates's contention that "the objects of [Macbeth's] blurry deliberations are prophecies, dreams, and imaginary bodies like the floating dagger" and that Macbeth "never exits the dreamscape that makes up the fabric of the play." Countering Hegel's reading of Macbeth as a free agent, albeit one driven by "his passion of ambition," and thus entirely responsible for the crimes he commits (an argument tacitly endorsed in my essay), Bates avers that Macbeth is "not free because he is under the sway of suspicion." See Jennifer Ann Bates, Hegel and Shakespeare on Moral Imagination (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 210-14.

(11) Harold C. Goddard's subtle analysis of the Third Murderer's laconic exchanges with the hired assassins at the ambush of Banquo and Fleance furnishes compelling evidence in support of such a reading (The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 2 [U. of Chicago Press, 1951], 124-25.

(12) Maurice Hunt, "Reformation/Counter-Reformation," English Studies 86.6 (2005): 379-98, submits that "any Reformation Protestant reading of Macbeth must contend with the undercutting of this reading by an entailed consequent emphasis--hitherto unnoted--upon certain Counter-Reformation Catholic motifs" (379). One such motif, I would argue, is the forfeiture of grace.

(13) E. A. J. Honigmann's astute observation that "Macbeth differs from almost all other Shakespearian villains in expressing deeply religious convictions, not once but many times" is one that is often overlooked by commentators (Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies Revisited: The Dramatist's Manipulation of Response [Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002], 138).

(14) Hunt, "Reformantion/Counter-Reformation," 382, substantially diminishes the tragic dimensions of this scene by claiming that Macbeth's inability to say "Amen" is "a clear indicator of the absence of prevenient grace, an essential condition of the reprobate." Plausible as the predestination argument may be in historicist terms, it is highly implausible in dramaturgic terms.

(15) William O. Scott, "Macbeth's--And Our--Self-Equivocations," Shakespeare Quarterly 37.2 (1986): 160-74, condemns Macbeth's "extravagant lament" for the death of Duncan as "outrageous hypocrisy with no intention of truth" (168), but then goes on to cite Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge U. Press, 1968) who, in common with my reading, notes that "it is Macbeth's self-accusation that speaks, recognising how he has uncreated something which it is not within his powers to recall to life either in Duncan or in himself" (257-58). The emphasis I wish to place on these lines, however, is not merely Macbeth's horrified recognition but his bold irrepressible admission that he has murdered his very own soul. More generally, John Holloway, The Story of the Night, reminds us, "That rebellion against the lawful king counted as rebellion against God was a commonplace of the time" (60).

(16) Arthur Kirsch, "Macbeth's Suicide," ELH 51.2 (1984): 269-96, notes that while Duncan is perceived by the characters in the play to be "a good and rightful king, he is not evidently a strong one, and [to which] the darkened realm of ambiguous and bloody contest over which he presides at the start of the play" would seem to testify (278). Harry Berger, "The Early Scenes of MacBeth," is considerably more critical of the "good and rightful king," declaring Duncan to be no less complicit than any other character in the play in his country's "deep structural tendencies" toward "instability, conflict, sedition, and murder." Something other than Macbeth, argues Berger, is "rotten in Scotland," adducing the rebels, the Irish mercenaries, the traitors, the Norwegian foe, and the endemic bloodlust of act 1, scene 2, as sufficient proof of the inherent rot (4-5). Further signs of conflict within the Scottish polity can be discerned in Duncan's son, Malcolm, whose initial reaction to the discovery of his father's murder is deemed by Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea, to betray "a suspicious and defensive contempt ... for all the nobles" (258-59).

(17) Rebecca Lemon, "Scaffolds of Treason in Macbeth," Theater Journal 54.1 (2002): 25-43, notes that Cawdor's gallows speech as recorded by Malcolm--"very frankly he / Confess'd his treasons, implor'd your Highness' pardon, / And set forth a deep repentance" (1.4.5-7)--follows the "conventional formula of confession, apology, and prayer" (32). She also cites Steven Mullaney s The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (U. of Chicago Press, 1988), 12, illuminating comment on scaffold speeches in Measure for Measure: "scaffold confessions were culturally produced and determined manifestations of an effort ... to enter it into the repertoire of available forms of ideological control" (30-32).

(18) See my reference to John Holloway at the end of note 15. Richard S. Ide, "The Theater of the Mind: An Essay on Macbeth," ELH 42.3 (1975): 338-61, reads the "sacrilegious murder" of the "Lord's anointed Temple" as "a black parody of Christ's sacrifice" as narrated in the The Book of Common Prayer's Easter liturgy. Duncan's murder, he avers, is the culminating act in "a pattern of diabolical invocation [Lady Macbeth's unsexing appeal to the "murdering ministers"], mock Offertory [Lady Macbeth's mock homage to the liege lord, Duncan, upon his arrival at Inverness Castle], and Last Supper" (354). My emphasis, however, is on Macbeth's willful sacrifice of his soul within the "anointed temple" of his reason.

(19) I say "tacitly endorse" because these commentators invariably paraphrase the Bradleyan indictment without bothering to cite their source, presumably on the (erroneous) assumption that Banquo's silent culpability is an accepted commonplace of Shakespeare criticism.

(20) A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1919), 386-87. Julie Shields, "Fair Is Foul," The English Journal 70.3 (1991): 422-27, takes Banquo's alleged villainy so much to heart as to pronounce Fleance the bastard child of Banquo and Lady Macbeth. More recently, George Walton Williams, "'Time for such a word': Verbal Echoing in Macbeth" in Shakespare and Language, ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander (Cambridge U. Press, 2004), 240-50, finds proof of Banquo's moral deterioration in the fact that his diction echoes crucial words of the witches, for example: "Thou hast it now, King, Cawdor, Glamis, all, / As the weird women promised, and I fear / Thou played'st most foully for't" (3.1.1-3).

(21) Macbeth's line "My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten" (1.3.148-49) is often cited as proof of past treasonous thoughts, but could equally and perhaps more plausibly be read as a hasty attempt by Macbeth to conceal before Ross, Angus, and Banquo his all-too-present thoughts of regicide. A more convincing line of argument is Lady Macbeth's rebuke "Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dressed yourself" (1.7.35-36), but this too is undercut by her soliloquy at the beginning of act 1, scene 5, in which she bemoans her husband's milky nature: "What thou wouldst highly, / That wouldst thou holily" (1.5.18-19).

(22) A century ago Arthur Quiller-Couch, "The Workmanship of'Macbeth': III," The North American Review 200.709 (1914): 923-30, made a similar point, asserting that "from the moment Macbeth yields [to temptation] and apparently succeeds, Banquo, who has not yielded, becomes a living reproach to him" (926).

(23) Brian Lowrance, '"Modern Ecstasy': Macbeth and the Meaning of the Political," ELH 79.4 (2012): 823-49, reads Macbeth's "To be thus is nothing" soliloquy as an articulation of the classical ideal of heroism--a perfect union of virtus and sapienta--and of Macbeth's understanding that Banquo is "an exemplary embodiment" of such an ideal (840).

(24) Cf. Iago's derision at 1.1.67-69, of those whose "outward Action doth demonstrate / The native act, and figure of [their] heart / In Complement externe" (Othello, ed. Horace Howard Furness [Philidelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1886]).

(25) Noting that Macbeth's protracted interrogation of the hired assassins is superfluous in light of their joint declaration that they stand in no need of persuasion, John Russell Brown, Shakespeare Dancing: A Theatrical Study of the Plays (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), opines that "By continuing to persuade these 'best of cutthroats' (3.4.16) ... Macbeth reveals the extent of his own moral insecurity" (61). Brian Vickers, "Shakespeare's Hypocrites," Daedelus 108 (1979): 45-83, on the other hand, believes that the scene with the murderers is deliberately labored "to show how energy and invention are gradually deserting [Macbeth]," and proceeds to shore up this claim by noting the "remarkably detailed" account given by Macbeth to the murderers as to why he needs them to kill Banquo (61). My contention, however, is that Macbeth's lengthy interview with the cutthroats is an exercise in analytical self-scrutiny, a catalogue of self-recriminating recollection which he recounts with all the furious energy of a self-flagellating penitent.

(26) Stoll, "Macbeth's Equivocal Conscience," 141, cites C. S. Lewis on early modern conceptions of conscience: "A person cannot help thinking and speaking of himself as, and even feeling himself to be (for certain purposes), two people" (Studies in Words [Cambridge U. Press, 1996], 187).

(27) Kirsch, "Macbeth's Suicide," informs us that "Analogies among the bonds of obedience between God and man, sovereign and subject, parent and child, master and servant, and reason and passion are commonplace in the Elizabethan period" (270).
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Author:Cauchi, Francesca
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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