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Origin Stories of Fear and Tyranny: Blood and Dismemberment in Macbeth (with a Glance at the Oresteia).

"Who could exhaust the praise of this sublime work [Macbeth]? Since
The Furies of AEschylus, nothing so grand and terrible has ever been
A.W. Schlegel (1)
"Fear takes many diverse forms and Aeschylean tragedy is uniquely rich
in its power to represent fear, its symptoms, sources, objects and
consequences. Macbeth is in this sense Shakespeare's most Aeschylean
Adrian Poole (2)

Macbeth and the Oresteia both can be understood as origin stories, etiologies of important civic or national institutions: in the case of the Oresteia, the Areopagus, as well as the transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides, and their cult being located under the Areopagus (though Aeschylus places it nearer to Athena's statue); in the case of Macbeth, the feudal structure of inherited earls (and kings). As Malcolm says at the end of the play:
My thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour named. (5.9.28-30) (3)

The origin story as genre has a particular structure and temporality: "before" things were one way and then, usually after acts of horrifying violence, things change to being how they are "now." Such stories have a naturalizing force--this is how institutions or rulers are, or life is and will remain, with a suggestion that the past is irrecoverable--and yet they also allow a memory of what was with the possibility of an articulation of another story alongside the ending they present (see, for example, such varied origin stories as Ovid's etiologies of trees, birds, and flowers in Metamorphoses or Kipling's "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk"). (4)

Macbeth and the Oresteia have many similarities, and it is not surprising that one of my two epigraphs is from a great nineteenth-century German philosopher while the other is from a recent critical volume. Only recently have Shakespeare scholars returned to the question, explored with enthusiasm a century or more ago, of Shakespeare's connection to the Greeks, especially Greek tragedy. In a recent essay on the two plays together, Earl Showerman reviews a large number of scholars since Gilbert Murray in 1914 who have noted the "peculiar" formal similarities between these two tragedies in particular while nonetheless asserting the unlikelihood of any direct connection between the two. (5) Showerman lists the following as major areas of formal overlap and affinity if not allusion: (6)

* Assassinations of Duncan and Agamemnon off stage, in the Greek manner;

* Display of bloody knives after the assassination;

* Motif of bloodstained, unclean hands;

* Masculine queens capable of seductive equivocation;

* Theme of the poisoned breast;

* Sleeplessness and dream terrors requiring night lights;

* Revenge-driven ghosts;

* Fury-like chorus of Three Weird Sisters;

* Allusions to the Gorgon;

* Prophecy;

* Insanity;

* Porters;

* Messenger speeches;

* Stichomythic dialogue.

Recent work, most notably by Tanya Pollard, on the reception of and presence of Greek tragedy in sixteenth-century Europe through the framework of Greek-Latin bilingual editions has begun to change the landscape of expectation regarding Shakespeare and the Greeks. (7) Pollard has shown that many ancient Greek plays were circulating widely in accessible forms. This essay does not address the question of whether the Oresteia was a specific source for Macbeth, but it would be a mistake to explore the close analogies between the plays without recognizing the Oresteia as a part of the intellectual landscape of late sixteenth-century and early Jacobean England, especially since George Buchanan was one of the mid-century translators. I quote at some length from Pollard:
The printing of Greek plays started in Italy at the end of the
fifteenth century, in response to excitement over growing access to
Greek manuscripts and the Greek language brought by Byzantine scholars
leaving Constantinople for the West. In 1495, a Florentine press
brought out an edition of four plays by Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus,
Alcestis, and [Andromache]. Soon after, the Venetian printer Aldus
Manutius published editions of Aristophanes in 1498, Sophocles in
1502, Euripides in 1503 [and his heirs that of Aeschylus in 1518], and
other presses quickly followed suit. By 1600, there were at least 220
editions of these authors printed in Europe, of which at least 28 were
translations into vernacular European languages.
Although English engagement with Greek texts did not match that of the
Continent, the English market in Continental Greek and Latin books was
substantial. Books were imported into London across the channel from
France or down the Rhine from Basel and German cities through the Low
Countries, and sold at considerable profit through the London book
trade. Inventories of private libraries in Renaissance England show
that books printed on the Continent sometimes constituted 80 to 90 per
cent of individuals' collections, and Greek plays featured regularly
among them. Elisabeth Leedham-Green has listed 127 Greek, Latin, or
parallel-text editions of Greek plays in inventories from sixteenth-century
Cambridge (56 by Euripides, 36 by Sophocles, 29 by
Aristophanes, 4 by Aeschylus, and two collections of tragedies), and
Robert Fehrenbach and Leedham-Green show 50 editions in inventories
from sixteenth-century Oxford (19 of Euripides, 15 of Sophocles, 14 of
Aristophanes and two of Aeschylus). (8)

This essay puts forward two ideas about the similarities between these plays: first, it explores the connection between tragedy and origin story in Macbeth with a brief comparison to the Oresteia; and second, it connects this use of etiology with the employment in both plays of tropes of dismemberment, prophetic fragments, incomplete speech, and the sparagmos of metaphor in order to estimate the political impact of joining origin story to tragedy.

The Origin Story and the Temporality of the Plays

The temporality characteristic of the origin story can be said to contrast with the understanding of time expressed by the witches, those "imperfect speakers" (1.3.70) whose representations to Macbeth of partial fragments of the long sentence of history tempt the listener into thinking that the fragment is the totality. Macbeth's terrible error, in a sense, is assuming that the prophetic fragment represents the complete picture. In contrast to the incompletion of historical knowledge, the origin story transforms its ending into something more complete--a totality that tells us that the new order has left behind both the older order and the violence by which it came about. There is a political wish and desire expressed in the origin story--a wish that we are now seeing the whole story and are no longer in a fragmented prophetic state of incompleteness, imperfection, and uncertainty. The origin story as genre--which serves to bring us in Macbeth to the crowning of Malcolm and the creation of earls--conspires with Macbeth's wish to have complete, reliable knowledge. Macbeth might wish he was in a story with the kind of absolute ending typical of an etiology, but his tragic experience shows him he cannot be. Thus, the play itself is built on and dramatizes a contradiction between two modes of knowing, or, we might say, one mode of tragic knowledge and one mode of forgetting or erasure in the interests of resolution. In the case of the Oresteia, this origin story ending--the establishment of a system of justice--which demotes the female and the blood claim but also finds a place for it in new form within the Athenian polis may be made possible in part because of the geographical movement--the Eumenides does not take place in Argos.

Both the Oresteia and Macbeth contrast the lived experience of torment and fear felt by avenger and/or tyrant, represented as the result of political violence in the ongoing "imperfect" (as in the imperfect tense) and unperfected state of human politics, with the concluding vision of something stable and complete, a new order that claims to contain that violence. Macbeth, perhaps in contrast to the Oresteia, raises more questions about that final state and its capacity to be "perfected" rather than "imperfect." (9)

The problem of how to interpret the final scene of Macbeth is one to which critics frequently return. If we make sense of the violent ending of the play--Macbeth's head on a post--as an exemplary representation of the dangers of tyranny, ambition, and violent exercise of the will, we are left unable to account for the representation of a society in which political (and national) gain is brought about more generally through military might and execution. In the play this point is famously made by the circular structure of the story, which ends as it begins with a seemingly loyal supporter killing the traitor and fixing his head upon the battlements.

The Bloody Captain's report in 1.2 marks the beginning:
For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like Valour's minion, carved out his passage,
Till he faced the slave,
Which ne'er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements. (1.2.16-23)

The final scene of the play famously echoes this account of the traitor's punishment with the stage direction "Enter MACDUFF with Macbeth's head" (5.9.19 s.d.).

If we try to condemn the violent ambition of Macbeth as characteristic of the villain--someone whose violent deeds eventually anaesthetize him and render him inhuman--we are stuck rather comfortably agreeing with Malcolm at the end of the play: the play becomes the story of "this dead butcher, and his fiend-like queen" (5.9.35). The problem with this interpretation (with Malcolms and with ours if we follow him), and with the closure of the play as a whole, is that a counter-movement within the play resists this treatment of the Macbeths as uniquely evil and resists the tendency to see them as personifying and enacting an evil that does not touch the other characters. Against this cultural narrative that vindicates the society even as it condemns the player who most fulfilled that society's customs and ideals stands a different, more disturbing recognition as the forces of order reconstitute themselves under the bloody head of Macbeth, a figure for the violence they believe they have exorcised from their midst. The play shows such political violence to be the very basis of Scottish political order itself, as it was perhaps (though in a different way) of the Jacobean society in which the play was performed (with traitor's heads posted at the gates of London, or, in the case of the Earl of Gowrie, at exemplary sites around Scotland). If the tragedy extends beyond Macbeth as an individual to the world the play represents, insisting on a violent undercurrent to all the political events of the play, the play might be said to read the desire to exorcize social violence in the person of Macbeth as itself tragic (destructive, blinded, dismembering, but also politically dangerous). (10)

Moreover, Scottish political custom and history gives substantial evidence, as David Norbrook has painstakingly shown, that along with the inheritance system known as tanistry, represented by the play in the moment it is being abandoned, came a belief that if a king became a tyrant, he should be either deposed or removed by murder. The discourses of treachery and purity that Malcolm uses to sum up the play's meaning imply an inexplicable barbarity in others, a barbarity that cannot be recognized or located in the self or in the home culture, restricting any tragic recognition. In contrast, an undercurrent of the play--its alternative story to the one told by Malcolm at the end--is to show that Scottish royal claims are thoroughly colored by political violence.

If any society could be described as one in which internecine violence was a way of life, it is the Scotland of the time of Macbeth. The historical record itself insists that we not read Macbeth as a figure of unique or shocking evil. As William Carroll comments, "nine of the ten kings who preceded Macbeth had been assassinated." (11) Duncans grandfather Malcolm II, who had no son, killed many of Macbeth's kin to place his grandson on the throne. Malcolm II founded this dynasty on political murder: he killed his predecessor, Kenneth III, who was grandfather to Gruoch, the most immediate historical source for Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. He thus prevented the customary tanistic succession by murdering, among others, Findlaech, Macbeth's father. The historical Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both from northern noble families, thus had valid independent claims to the Scottish throne, strengthened by their marriage, as well as a blood feud with Duncan. (12)

To return to Macbeth's exemplary heroic act at the beginning of the play--the Bloody Captain's report of the "unseaming" of Macdonwald--we could argue in fact that the play explicitly takes place under the sign of the dismembered body part: the dissevered bloody head of the traitor invoked at the beginning of the play and literalized in its ending when MacDuff enters with Macbeth's bloody head. The opening allusion pictures Macbeths heroism as specifically residing in his military strength, exemplified in his capacity to kill and behead Macdonwald. The metaphor of "unseaming" used so shockingly implies that human beings, or men at least, are seamed: sown together of fragments or parts made into a unity suddenly no longer essential but constituted. A play which nostalgically invokes the English King as healer of the body private and politic--the successful doctor missing in Scotland is found in the English King who can heal by the laying on of hands, an idealized version of the relation of part to whole--might seem to be merely dramatizing the political commonplace that while the healthy body politic is united under its head, the traitor has no such unified body. The dismemberment of the traitor could be understood to represent literally what was already the case--he is, bodily and materially, but also politically, dissevered from his head--a Dantean contrapasso.

Macbeth has a fascination with dismemberment--with the tragic sparagmos (rending, tearing apart, dismembering) of the body material and corporate, with the rending of fictional bodies on stage, and with the rending of the body politic and of the material condition of political, ideological, and linguistic order--a sign of several unities, then, including the dramatic. This fascination with dismemberment draws on fears and fantasies (political and private) about the danger and obligation of submitting a part to the larger whole: to political authority and identity, which requires that the self be submitted to the ruler or tyrant, and to the female body that threatens to disfigure, maim, or destroy the male body. The fear that haunts the play--as opposed to the fear of the tyrants in the play--is that it may be impossible to stabilize the relation of part to whole, something necessary for linguistic and political order and meaning, without submission to a tyrant, without violence: heroic violence, political violence, tyrannical violence.

Dismemberment, Prophetic Fragments, Incomplete Speech and the Sparagmos of Metaphor

The comparable fear in the Oresteia, enacted through the terror of Orestes himself, is that dike as justice must be ripped from dike as revenge and punishment in order for the claims between male and female to be adjudicated. For, while the Oresteia is not a play that incorporates a bodily sparagmos as, we might say, the Bacchae does, the threat of the Furies is in part the threat that the terror they cause can pull the self apart until death, a dislocating of the mind and reason. The two parallel endings of Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers--the exposing of the murdered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra by Clytemnestra, and the exposing of the bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus--not only suggest the motif of the corrupted sacrifice as Froma Zeitlin demonstrated so long ago, (13) but point to a contradiction so complete in the political and religious values that we might think of it as another infamous double bind, a double bind tied up in the multiple meanings of the word dike: justice, punishment, revenge, penalty. The revenge of Orestes is necessary for cleansing the house of its pollution, and yet he himself takes on the pollution. He is both cleanser and polluted; Clytemnestra is both avenger and tyrant exposing her deed. As the plays progress, the core value of dike, which will be affirmed as Justice in the ending of the trilogy, is pulled apart and the multiple meanings clash and pull against each other in a kind of metaphorical sparagmos.

The Oresteia then, like Macbeth, tells the story of the origin of an institution but reminds us constantly of the darker underside of that story--of the rending of ideas of justice necessary to achieve an apparent resolution. (14) As Simon Goldhill writes in his essay on "The Language of Tragedy," "this fragmentation of the language of dike reverberates throughout the [tragedy] and sets before the audience the complexities of the expressions of order within the polis" and what he calls a "paradigmatic" example of "Aeschylean semantic violence" (15) in the multiple uses of the word that Orestes makes as he reveals the bodies of the two "tyrants" and begins his justification for the matricide. Though speculative, this interpretation of the rending of language captures something crucial in the metaphorical web or net of the Oresteia. Vernant claimed that "in the language of the tragic writers there is a multiplicity of different levels more or less distant from one another.... The tragic message, when understood, is precisely that there are zones of opacity and incommunicability in the words that men exchange." (16) Goldhill's view, summarizing aspects of Vernant's theory, is that it is "an essential function of tragedy to display to its audience the polyvalence of words and the often destructive misunderstandings produced between the figures of the drama." (17) Either the meanings are pulled by the characters in contrary directions, exposing the fundamental contradictions and dismembering the unity that should be present in key religious and political terms, or that sense of fragmentation is suppressed, elided, hidden, not acknowledged but present in the metaphorical dismemberment of the poetic language --in incomplete prophecies, in visions that can be expressed only in metaphor. This opacity and polyvalence can be seen as a kind of semantic pulling apart of the different meanings inherent in key political words, a dismemberment that threatens to pull the polis apart as well and which the structure of the origin story attempts to resolve.

In Macbeth, too, topoi of dismemberment abound and are connected in the imagery of the play to the code of military heroism and blood violence that marks Macbeth as a hero from the beginning. The prime metaphor may be "unseamed" because it connects the heroic code of violent masculine conquest with dismemberment. This brief glance at the Oresteia can help to highlight the structural and figurative analogies between the two plays. As a Shakespearean scholar, I hope the Shakespearean example can add something to our understanding of what happens in the Oresteia with the pulling apart of different linguistic registers being crucial to resolving the tension between Orestes and the Furies, between polis and oikos, and to the establishment of Athenian "justice." The two plays together tell us something about how tragedy reshapes the apparently completed ending of the origin story.

The body unseamed, then, is first the body of the traitor, unsewn or unsutured, culturally unmade. (18) Representing such a dismembered body onstage would seem only to reenforce the political and moral hierarchies of the play. Its seemingly traditionalist and hierarchical vision of social unity with its political understanding of Macbeths unseaming of the "traitor" at first seems to be strengthened by the association of the witches with dissevered fragments of bodies and things. But the play actually treats this metaphor more radically, by linking the witches to Macbeths heroic deed. The witches throw into their cauldron--and therefore presumably gain some of their supernatural power from--many parts of different, dead, wholes, "Poisoned entrails," and other fragments of animal and human bodies:
2 Witch: Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing
3 Witch: Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch's mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i' th' dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-delivered by a drab
Make the gruel thick and slab. (4.1.12-17; 22-32)

The witches are traitors of a sort: as marginalized, uncanny figures, their dependence on dismemberment (especially of the weak, the excluded, or the socially marginal) seems appropriate. Each example of a body part in this famous cauldron speech points to a double kind of fragmentation. The witches make this broth of powerful "trouble" out of a part (liver, finger, thumb) that points not only to the whole body once joined in life but to a now broken narrative. It is the "liver of blaspheming Jew," a fragment doubled in power by being a part of a larger story of blasphemy, which the witches are metonymically reconstituting in their pot. It is the finger not just of a baby but of a baby strangled at birth, and strangled not by any woman but by a prostitute, a "drab." Earlier in the play we heard of similar dismembered parts that seemed to point both to body and to a larger narrative somehow present in the part:
Here I have a pilot's thumb,
Wrecked as homeward he did come (1.3.28-29).

Like their prophecies to Macbeth, these are the hints of larger narratives that tempt the listener to the abyss.

The witches have a complicated and doubled relation to this topos of dismemberment, as this example suggests, and their repeated return to it in their language provides a hint of why dismemberment is not so easily avoided in a play about tyranny Since they could be said to sew or "seam" together present, past, and future (in being figures from a mythic past who act in the present by reading the future), they present a figure of totality in historical and temporal terms (a totality that is finally identified with the female, in spite of the uncertainties about the gender of the witches). Marjorie Garber among others has read the witches as the three fates, spinning and cutting the thread of life. (19) This is another way of describing the kind of totality they embody. The play presents these characters who can allude to, invoke, and perhaps embody a temporal or historical totality as drawing their powers from dismembered body parts, as if the function of the cauldron is to reconstitute from these parts a different whole, one which empowers figures excluded from the body politic and excluded from political power. The play establishes a contrast, then, between their visionary powers to see all of time--a kind of sewing together of the individual fragments--and the fragments of time they allow Macbeth to see. The means to this prophetic and proleptic vision, dismemberment and fragmented utterance, should give Macbeth pause.

This double, seemingly contradictory strategy speaks to the uncanniness of the witches--their ability to hold together the familiar and the unfamiliar (heimlich and unheimlich). The witches present to Macbeth a synecdoche of time: he sees the fragment and guesses wrongly about the whole it should point to. His embrace of this fragment nonetheless empowers him, if ironically, to seize the historical moment and to try to make it his. This ironic portrait of human agency reveals his impotence in the face of a whole that can never be fully known, and the tragic vision of this play may in part be that this is the picture it presents of human capacity for political action: it does not see very much likelihood that human beings can seize the time and make it theirs with any more vision or truth than has Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, both of whom react to the incomplete narrative in the same way.

Thus, the witches help to suggest the dangers of believing that this ideological closure typified by the ending of the origin story can be complete. They are, as Macbeth calls them, "imperfect speakers" (1.3.70), meaning principally that their utterances are incomplete--imperfect as in the imperfect tense in Romance languages and, in particular, imperfect in announcing that they are historically unfinished. Hence, their very words reinterpret speech itself as imperfect, dismembered, always a scattering of parts and not the whole. If the sentence of history or of an individual life is still unfinished, then it has no perfected meaning and perhaps no meaning at all: it might be "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing" (5.5.25-27). Moreover, if the three witches are indeed the three fates, an identification implied by the anglosaxon "wyrd" (as in "the weird sisters") meaning "fate" or "destiny," then they seem to have all played the role of Atropos, so much cutting off is evidenced in their magic. They imply that history is the agent of, or gains its power from, dismemberment.

The dismemberment enacted and represented in Macbeth kills, but it also seems to allow for a resistance to or rebellion against moral and political closure of the sort that seems to sort out the good and the evil at the end of the play. By not uttering the whole sentence of history, the witches open Macbeth to a break with his own moral values and eventually to a form of political rebellion. Macbeth punishes that rebellion, branding Macbeth as evil, but it also enacts his fantasy of dismemberment, providing a more covert textual affirmation of this very destructive power. In Macbeth, the tragic sparagmos is characterized as the destruction that undoes the self, and yet the play pictures in Macbeth an intense desire for that dismemberment, invoked by him as a kind of liberation:
Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day
And, with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. (3.2.47-51)

The "great bond" to which Macbeth refers here has a wide allusive resonance: it can refer to the bond by which Banquo (and Fleance by extension) holds his life, in which case Macbeth is kept pale at the fear of their succession; it can refer to the bond of life more generally, including that which binds Macbeth to common humanity (cancelling "that great bond" in Shakespeare often is used to describe someone about to lose his or her life); (20) and it can refer to a moral law, that which keeps Macbeth pale--that is, afraid to commit more murder. This latter interpretation is strengthened by the extended legal metaphor; a bond is a legal document, imagined here as a parchment to be cancelled and then torn. To be dismembered by the powerful figure of Night, a personification that may make Night female (following the Renaissance allegorical tradition), is here represented as a liberation that will free Macbeth from these moral limits and perhaps also from his humanity itself. The audience is not invited to take Macbeth's point of view entirely here, but the play nonetheless articulates a tragic desire for freedom from social, moral, and political constraint which we recognize as tragic self-assertion.

By holding the pilot's thumb, the witch invokes the power to cause a "wreck," a dismemberment identified as a source of the witches' power. The cutting off of the pilot's thumb can be read as an image of castration, suggesting that these many parts and fragments thereby point to a deeper terror in Macbeth: not the dismemberment of the traitor in manly battle but the dismemberment or feminization by the female. (21) This fear is of course writ large in the Oresteia where Clytemnestra, the murderous female, specifically feminizes Agamemnon with the beautiful fabrics and the domestic bath as she prepares his murder. In Macbeth, the shifting of the topos of dismemberment from Macbeth "unseaming" Macdonwald to the witches, who in a sense "unseam" Macbeth, marks one way in which the play registers its anxiety about the value given to acts of dismemberment and its implicit critique of the code of military violence that defines the official ideology.

Ending Tanistry: Macbeth as Origin Story

To look more closely at the connections and disjunction between tragic dismemberment and the origin story, this essay will turn specifically to Macbeth to outline the double effect of the genre. "My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforth be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honour named" (5.9.28-30), says Malcolm at the end of the play. The importing of this English, feudal rank and land-holding system not only marks the end of an older Scottish relation of thanes to king but the crowning of Malcolm, who had been appointed as hereditary heir by his father earlier in the play, marks (at least within the play's fiction) the end of the Scottish system of elected kingship, which alternated between differing families of thanes. (22)

Holinshed's account of how Duncan made his son heir to the throne includes a description of the Celtic practice of tanistry:
It chanced that King Duncan, having two sons by his wife which was the
daughter of Siward Earl of Northumberland, he made the elder of them
called Malcolm Prince of Cumberland, as it were thereby to appoint him
his successor in the kingdom, immediately after his decease. Macbeth,
sore troubled herewith, for that he saw by this means his hope sore
hindered (where by the old laws of the realm, the ordinance was, that
if he that should succeed, were not of able age to take the charge
upon himself, he that was next of blood unto him should be admitted),
he began to take counsel how he might usurp the kingdom by force,
having a just quarrel so to do (as he took the matter) for that Duncan
did what in him lay to defraud him of all manner of title and claim,
which he might in time to come, pretend unto the crown. (23)

Tanistry involved a complex system by which the throne was shared among related noble families, so that power was dispersed among a group of kinsmen rather than inherited through the lineal descent we associate with primogeniture. The concern behind tanistry seems to have been in part to guarantee an able leader. Thus, Holinshed writes,
This ordinance also they decreed to be observed as a lawe from thence
foorth ever after, that if the king died leaving no issue, but suche
as were under age to succeede him, then shoulde one of his nearest
Cousins, such as was thought moste moste to occupie the roome, be
chosen to raigne as king during his life, and after his deceasse the
crowne to reverte unto his predecessors issue without controversie, if
the same were ones growne up to lawful age. (24)

Duncan's rejection of this system in favor of primogeniture in act 1 is, as much as the witches' prophecy, what provokes the action of the play:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter,
The Prince of Cumberland. (1.4.37-39)

In telling of Macbeth's unhappiness with the announcement of Duncan's plans for Malcolm to inherit, Holinshed emphasizes something that is only implicit in the play. Compare "Macbeth, sore troubled herewith" with Macbeth's comment:
The Prince of Cumberland: That is a step
On which I must fall down or else o'er-leap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.48-53)

These issues return in the final scene of the play where, if we read the play through the lens given us by Malcolm, the scene depicts a Scotland progressing from an antiquated elective monarchy with its more equal (if violent) system of thanes, most of whom had a blood link to the crown, to an incipient dynastic order with its related hierarchical feudal organization of earls, all holding under and beholden to the monarch. This instituting of primogeniture represented a major shift from Scottish tradition, since from about the eighth century on, Scottish kings had been chosen from alternating aristocratic families. A. A. M. Duncan comments that under tanistry, "the king was chosen from the eligible descendants in the male line of the preceding king, his derbfine or certain family,' as wide as the first cousins in each generation back to the common great-grandfather." (25) The Scottish system of tanistry essentially alternated the monarchy between members of the southern and northern Scottish clans, helping thereby to keep the provinces united against the Hostile Danes, English, and Norwegians. Ronald Boling explains the politics this way: "Duncan belongs to the Atholl clan of the Southern Scottish coalition and was also nicknamed 'King of Cumbria.' Macbeth is the leading noble of the northern Morays. Duncan became king by violating tannistic practice, hence disrupting the geographical balance of power within Scotland." (26)

Under tanistry, the weird sisters' prophecy that Banquo would not be a king but would beget them would not have been troubling or unusual, nor would the prospect of Macbeth's reigning royally without handing the crown to his own children. (27) Boling concludes, "Tannistry fails because Macbeth, having restored it, fails to sustain it." (28) Historically, tanistry in Scotland was finally abolished by a legal decision in the reign of James I (1406-37) and the English system of primogeniture substituted.

In the final scene, traces of the older system of election coincide with the institution of a king based not on election but on inheritance. To see how the play presents a double picture, we need to consider what precisely is established in the final scene of the play. What origin do we end with? Macduff begins by presenting the head of Macbeth, and claiming that "the time is free" (5.9.21) (from tyranny, presumably). He formulates the unanimity that ostensibly allows the closure of the play with language that invokes a voice vote for the king:
I see thee compassed with thy kingdoms pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds;
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine.
Hail, King of Scotland. (5.9.22-25)

Here one voice claims to speak for many, and his salutation calls forth from the assembled nobles an echoing call of "Hail, King of Scotland." The lines imply that Macduff has thereby instituted Malcolm as king, using his invocatory words to call for Malcolm's investiture (as if he had said, "I call for Malcolm to be our king," and the others had responded by seconding and voting for that motion). He symbolizes in his words a kind of unity that we might imagine was characteristic of the elected monarchy under tanistry: his voice invokes the assembled voices which then proclaim the king. The assumption implicit in his words is that his utterance has performative power because he speaks for a community and his "desire" is to have those voices speak with him. This assumption can be based only in the idea that a version of election is still under way and that at the end of the action the nobles are being asked to sum up their understanding of what has occurred by nominating Malcolm as King.

Malcolm resists this move, however, creating instead the system of earls and implicitly rejecting their election. The reward he gives them is the anglicization of Scottish society, the undoing of the system of tanistry, and the establishment of a feudal hierarchy that, had it lasted, would have permanently unbalanced the power between northern and southern Scottish clans. He seems also in these lines to challenge the very "felicity conditions" of Macduff's utterance: "What's more to do... We will perform in measure, time and place." (5.9.30, 39) His "we" here is not the assembled group of nobles, the "pearl" of his kingdom; his "we" is not the silent unity on which Macduff depends nor the silent thoughts of the audience but the royal "we" of imperial power. (29)

Compare these speech acts to the witches' investment of Macbeth with title, "hail to thee, Thane of Glamis... hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor" (1.3.48-49), and to Ross's use of invocatory language to "name" Macbeth Thane of Cawdor:
Ross: And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine. (1.3.105-8)

Questions of the institution and investment of authority and power throughout the play suggest that the play is torn between a representation of monarchy as empowered by the surrounding nobles--as emanating from them and returning to them--and a representation of the origin of a kind of monarchy that could become a model for Jacobean absolutism. There are limits to the extent to which Macbeth can be viewed as an origin tale. In history, for one thing, the origin story told in Macbeth is undone. After Malcolm, the Scots returned to tanistry for two centuries. But if Shakespeare in Macbeth seizes on the genre of the origin tale, it may be because it enables the doubled structure of celebration of origin on one hand and a fantasy identification with what has been left behind on the other, in this case with the period before the change to Earls and an inherited monarchy. If so, the idea that the play strongly or univocally supports a Jacobean absolutism and flatters James would have to be challenged.

In the origin tale's claims of irreversibility, one often finds marks of an imperial claim to legitimate expansion of control over a land or people. In this regard, it is interesting to note hints within Macbeth that point to an anti-imperialist argument within the play's apparent flattery of James I. Thus Arthur Kinney, for instance, reads Macbeth as linking Macbeth's political ambition to that of the King in uniting the two countries. Kinney connects the lines "Two truths are told / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme" (1.3.129-31) to James Is use of the word "imperial" in his union of the two kingdoms. He quotes James's October 20, 1604 "Proclamation concerning the Kings Majesties Stile, of King of Great Britaine, &c." which speaks of "the blessed Union...of these two mightie, famous, and ancient Kingdomes of England and Scotland, under one Imperiall Crowne." (30)

If we explore the idea that the play encourages an unauthorized (authorized within the Active space of the theatre but unauthorized by Jacobean politics) fantasy exploration of a time before the current order (of primogeniture and inherited monarchy, and of James's uniting of the two kingdoms), we see the adumbrations of a complex political story in the play, a story that counters the reading of events propounded by Malcolm in his final words. This alternative story tells us not only that Macbeth the tyrant has been overthrown but that any tyrant can be overthrown; it proclaims not only a new social order but expresses in the loss of equality among thanes and election of monarchs what is lost with the passing of the old order. As David Norbrook puts it, the play "retain[s] elements of the attitude [it is] rejecting. As a regicide who was condemned equally by Buchanan and by conservatives, and yet had half-buried associations with constitutionalist traditions, Macbeth was a figure bound to evoke ambivalent responses from a Renaissance humanist. If the audience can sympathize with Macbeth even though he outrages the play's moral order, it may be because vestiges remain of a world view in which a regicide could be a noble rather than an evil act." (31)

Reading the play as an origin tale also makes possible the recognition that the evil aspect of Macbeth may be exemplary and representative of the aristocratic order of his society rather than a shocking, inexplicable aberration. In addition, to support this claim of Macbeths exemplary status, within the play itself (and not only with regard to the larger historical record) the warrior ethos that opens and closes the action reveals violence to be the means to political power. It is interesting to note that Macbeth's tyranny emerges only as he begins to assert a desire for an inherited kingship and to use his agency to establish at least the possibility of primogeniture. Here too the origin tale tells a double story in which the evil that is apparently exorcised and located comfortably in the past is revealed to be central to the new power brought about by the change the tale institutionalizes. To combine tragedy and origin tale, then, is to intensify the exposure of violence at the origin of institutions like monarchy that is characteristic of the origin tale. To say it is tragic is to say that the violence of ambition itself is shown to be the source of the political order established at the end of the play.

Finally, the audience is left to consider if "we" stand with Macduff as he invokes our voices, or if "we" are left to challenge those on stage for their blindnesses and failure to see what Macbeth has seen about the social order. The play presents to the audience this question: to which "we" do "we" belong?


If in Macbeth the origin story's formal tendency to represent the political order at the end of the play as settled and stable is disrupted by the play's repeated images of dismemberment, in the Oresteia it might seem that the opposite occurs: that the origin story (of the institutions of Athenian justice) incorporates into its movement toward its telos the moment of fragmentation as temporary and now certainly past--that the ripping apart of the different meanings of dike has resulted in the certain emergence of the non-archaic, non-barbaric justice of the polis. If my argument about the genre can be persuasively applied to this very different set of plays, however, it should suggest that the resolution is far from complete and that it brings back to memory and fantasy a kind of dangerous but powerful woman who would not find a place in the Athenian polis or democracy. In so dramatically representing the transgressive force of Clytemnestra's fury and her drive for revenge, the story allows the audience to remember that past while being protected from the threat of the transgression by the knowledge that this is not how things are "now." As Simon Goldhill writes, "Is the fear of transgressive disorder, embodied in the female, Clytemnestra, and leading to her murder, a vivid, intensely felt emotion, part of the paradox of tragic pleasure? Or is it a politicized element of the (gendered) discourse of dike enacted before the polis? I would say both, and in importantly interrelated ways." (32) The Oresteia is more celebratory perhaps because Orestes sees fully his own culpability even as he believes that his murder of his mother was just. Like Orestes, Macbeth sees fully into the violence that has overtaken him, and sees his own disintegration, while the play ends with an affirmation of a political order seemingly unable to recognize in itself the evils of tyranny and with a diminished understanding on the part of the characters (though not of the audience) of the potency of ambition and violence to shape history. In the Oresteia, in contrast, the radical contradiction between kinds of justice is made terrifyingly visible to Orestes, to the Furies, and to the audience, so that the origin story is used to make sure that memory of the roots of justice remains within the new institutions of the polis.


(1) Augustus William Schlegel, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 2nd ed., trans. John Black (London: J. Templeman and J. R. Smith, 1840), 2: 204.

(2) Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 15.

(3) All references are to William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ser. (London: Thomson Learning, 2015) and are cited parenthetically in the text.

(4) For more analysis of the genre, see Susanne Wofford, "The Politics of the Origin Tale: Virgil, Ovid, Spenser and Native American Aetiology," in Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Politics of Community, ed. Margaret Beissinger, Jane Tylus, and Susanne Wofford (University of California Press, 1999), 239-69.

(5) Earl Showerman, "Shakespeare's Greater Greek: Macbeth and Aeschylus' Oresteia", Brief Chronicles: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Authorship Studies 3 (2011): 37-70.

(6) Ibid., 42.

(7) See Tanya Pollard, "Greek Playbooks and Dramatic Forms in Early Modern England," in Forms of Early Modern Writing, ed. Allison Deutermann and Adras Kisery (Manchester University Press, 2013): 99-123 (esp. 100-102); Tanya Pollard, "What's Hecuba to Shakespeare?" Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 4 (2012): 1060-1093; and Tanya Pollard and Tania Demetriou, "Homer and Greek Tragedy in Early Modern England's Theatres: An Introduction," in "Homer and Greek Tragedy in Early Modern England's Theatres," ed. Tanya Polland and Tania Demetriou, special issue, Classical Receptions Journal 6, no. 7 (2017): 1-35, doi: 10.1093/crj/clw023.

(8) Pollard, "Greek Playbooks," 100. She cites E. S. Leedham-Green, ed., Books in Cambridge Inventories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and Robert J. Fehrenbach and E. S. Leedham-Green, eds, Private Libraries in Renaissance England: A Collection and Catalogue of Tudor and Early Stuart Book-lists (Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992-2004). Pollard also quotes the earlier study by Rudolf Hirsch, "The Printing Tradition of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes," Gutenberg Jahrbuch 39 (1964): 138-46 (Pollard, "Greek Playbooks," 100.)

(9) See Richard Halpern, Eclipse of Action: Tragedy and Political Economy (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 102-5, for a reading of the ending of the Oresteia that highlights its ambiguity and uncertainty and the way it balances two stories equally against each other: two representations of political economy that cannot be harmonized easily.

(10) A number of recent critics have begun to argue for a much more adversarial role for Macbeth. See Peter C. Herman, "Macbeth: Absolutism, the Ancient Constitution, and the Aporia of Politics," in The Law in Shakespeare, ed. Constance Jordan and Karen Cunningham (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 208-32, who claims that "the play's uncertainties reflect James I's importation of absolutism into the English polity and the resulting conflict over rival theories of sovereignty" (208). Hermann comments that "the fact that some indeterminate body 'names' Macbeth king and he has 'gone to Scone' to receive the crown sets in motion two mutually exclusive sets of legal consequences, representing equally opposed conceptions of monarchy, that derive from different ideas about a coronation: does being crowned entail the monarch's acceptance of a contract with his people or not?" (ibid., 219). See also Joseph Campana, "The Child's Two Bodies: Shakespeare, Sovereignty, and the End of Succession," ELH 81, no. 3 (2014): 811-39, for an argument that destroying the children's bodies that point to a future time reveals a crisis in the concept of sovereignty; and Rebecca Lemon, "Sovereignty and Treason in Macbeth" in Macbeth: New Critical Essays, ed. Nick Moschovakis (New York: Routledge, 2008), 73-87, esp. 73, for a survey of recent political readings.

(11) See William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Texts and Contexts, ed. William Carroll (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1999), 120.

(12) See ibid., 116-50, esp. 116-124, for Carroll's summary of the Holinshed and other histories.

(13) See Froma I. Zeitlin, "The Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice in Aeschylus' Oresteia" TAPA 96 (1965): 463-508.

(14) For the view that the Oresteia tells the story of how dike moves from meaning retribution to legal justice in the course of the plays, and for the feminist, Marxist, and other critiques of that view, see Simon Goldhill, "The Language of Appropriation," in Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 33-56, esp. 37ff.

(15) Simon Goldhill, "The Language of Tragedy: Rhetoric and Communication," in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. P. E. Easterling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 127-150, 139, 138.

(16) J. P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 42-43, quoted in Goldhill, "The Language of Tragedy," 136.

(17) Goldhill, "The Language of Tragedy," 136.

(18) For a more thorough account of this image, see my essay "The Body Unseamed," which is the introduction to Susanne L. Wofford, ed., Shakespeare's Late Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995).

(19) Marjorie Garber, "Macbeth: The Male Medusa," in Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Routledge Classics, 2010), 116-66.

(20) These first two meanings are cited in Clark and Mason, Macbeth, 214n50.

(21) In a classic, early account of Shakespeare's use of Holinshed, Jonathan Goldberg argued that "the hypermasculine world of Macbeth is the power represented in the witches; masculinity in the play is directed as an assaultive attempt to secure power, to maintain success and succession, at the expense of women." Jonathan Goldberg, "Speculations: Macbeth and Source," in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 259. See also, more recently, Amanda Bailey, "Occupy Macbeth: Masculinity and Political Masochism in Macbeth" in Violent Masculinities: Male Aggression in Early Modern Texts and Culture, ed. Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 191-212.

(22) See Oliver R. Baker: "Duncan's Thanes and Malcolms Earls: Name Dropping in Macbeth" Notes and Queries 56, no. 4 (2009), 591-595, for a historicist account that identifies the original first earls and compares them to nobles created by James I.

(23) Carroll, Macbeth: Texts and Contexts, 142.

(24) Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1587), quoted in Arthur Kinney, "Scottish History, the Union of the Crowns and the issue of Right Rule: The Case of Shakespeare's Macbeth," in Renaissance Culture in Context, ed. Jean Brink and William Gentrup (Cambridge: Scolar Press, 1993; repr., London: Routledge, 2017), 30.

(25) A. A. M. Duncan, Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1975), 45.

(26) Ronald Boling, "Tannistry, Primogeniture, and the Anglicizing of Scotland in Macbeth." Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association (PAPA) 25, no. 1 (1999): 1-14(3).

(27) Ibid., 11.

(28) Ibid.

(29) See Elizabeth Fowler, "Macbeth and the Rhetoric of Politics Forms," in Shakespeare and Scotland, ed. Willy Maley and Andrew Murphy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 67-86, for a different reading of the effect of Malcolm's changing of the "social persons" of the thanes to earls, esp. 79-82.

(30) Arthur Kinney, "Scottish History," 24.

(31) David Norbrook, "Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography," in The Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 116.

(32) Simon Goldhill, "Civic Ideology and the Problem of Difference: The Politics of Aeschylean Tragedy, Once Again," The Journal of Hellenic Studies 120 (2000): 34-56 (42).

New York University

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Author:Wofford, Susanne L.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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