What They Didn't Teach You In Poli Sci 101: Macbeth

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Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, yet I see thee still. (Act II, Scene i, lines 41—43)

If you’ve spent any time in New York City this year, you’ve seen the posters. A yellow band with the word "War" slashes across them, near the top.

They’re advertising this summer’s Theatre in the Park series. The first production, which ran during June and the first week of July, was of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The other is Bertoldt Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Before seeing the Bard’s masterwork, I read it again, as I like to do before seeing any staging of Shakespeare. And I’ve been reading the play again since seeing it.

The purpose of this essay is not to portray Macbeth as the work of a pacifist or proto-libertarian. (Indeed Shakespeare’s other works and what details we have of his life would not bear out such characterizations.) However, I think no other work can teach us more about the moral and other kinds of rot that results from aligning one’s self with aggressive military force — or, for that matter, any other form of violence.

It also teaches us that such decay is not the result of blind, dispassionate forces like those that determine the weather. Rather, Macbeth shows that destruction resulting from a lust for power and domination is the result of choices made by individual human beings, just as markets or any other social constructs are the products of decisions made individually or in aggregate. This point, I believe, is a vital component of Murray Rothbard’s writings but is too often missing in today’s discourse, even among people who identify themselves as libertarians, on the military-industrial-corporate-welfare state.

In the play, the title character, who is a general in the Scottish army, has just led a campaign that repelled an attempted invasion. Duncan, the Scottish king, orders the execution of the Thane of Cawdor, whom he suspects of treason, and gives Cawdor’s title and position to Macbeth. In essence, the Thane of Cawdor is the king’s military right hand; thus, Macbeth finds himself but once removed from the line of succession to the throne.

One can find parallels between the situation presented in the play and situations that recur in any field of endeavor in which politics (whether in the mega, macro or micro sense) comes into play. Few are the ones who would not entertain notions, however fleeting, of an ascent to the throne when presented with such a possibility. (Hey, I’m all for monarchy as long as I get to be the queen! ;-) ) In that sense, at least, Macbeth is just like most of us.

And, as most of us do at some point or another, he tells himself that his day will come: "If chance will have me King, why/Chance may crown me,/Without my stir." (I, iii, 158-160) On one hand, this passage may be seen as Macbeth’s belief in himself: something one might expect of a general fresh off a successful campaign. On the other, it indicates that while he may not yet have been ready to seize the crown by any or all means, he wouldn’t necessarily thwart evil or unethical deeds ("without my stir") that would abet his ascent to the throne.

In other words, it reveals his duplicity, which precedes his descent into evil. Many readers, viewers, critics and scholars point to the fact that Macbeth’s mtier is killing, and he was inculcated, unconsciously, with the values that go along with it. Such values can be summed up by paraphrasing Stalin: The first killing is a tragedy; the millionth is merely a statistic.

In the second act of the play, Macbeth kills Duncan, who is a guest in his castle. One can hear Macbeth’s conscience flickering away:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time, for from this instant
There is 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. (II, iii, 101—106)

As the play progresses, Macbeth has less and less compunction about killing, and by the end of the play he is so inured to death that says of his wife’s death "She should have died hereafter." (V, v, 19) His world has been reduced to rubble; he pours out his disillusionment in one of the play’s greatest passages:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in its petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all of our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (V, v, 21—30)

If that soliloquy doesn’t express a complete abasement of one’s value of life — which is what militarism and its attendant corporate/welfare state leads to — I don’t know what does. One can argue about whether or not Macbeth is, by the time he makes the above speech, capable of understanding that the horror that has unfolded around him is the consequence of a decision he made to gain, and hold on to, power by brute force. But it cannot be denied that he unleashed the forces that would lead to his own demise, at the hands of Duncan’s erstwhile ally Macduff.

The understanding Shakespeare gives us of Macbeth’s internal, as well as external, world undoubtedly humanizes him and makes him sympathetic to anyone who’s seen or read the play: We have seen people succumb to temptation, or have fallen to it ourselves. However, Shakespeare has not shirked something that Richard Russo (author of the excellent Empire Falls) has so eloquently expressed: the novelist’s (or, in Shakespeare’s case, playwright’s) imperative "to hold people accountable for their actions and the consequences of those actions." In other words, people are indeed influenced by their milieu, whatever that may be, and may make decisions based on their ignorance of the alternatives. However, circumstances and influences do not absolve people of their actions.

Shakespeare understood as much; that is the reason why he has Macbeth wrestling — however weakly — with his conscience and not offering any excuses for his deeds. That is also the reason why he constitutes Lady Macbeth as he does: While made of sterner stuff than her husband, she’s more than the frosty virago some actresses have portrayed. Indeed, it is she that holds back on killing Duncan when she’s has the opportunity to do so. Why? In his sleep, he reminded her of her father.

So, as ruthless and ambitious as she may have been, one can’t quite blame her for Macbeth’s action, as so many people have done. Nor can Macbeth’s actions be attributed to the prophecies of the witches. When Shakespeare wrote the play, he was working from Holinshed’s Chronicles. It describes the "weird sisters"; scholars have debated as to whether he was referring to witches. In any event, the most likely reason why Shakespeare made them witches is that nearly everyone in his place and time believed in the power of witchcraft.

Most of us grew up believing in the stereotype of witches as hags who cast spells on unlucky recipients. However, the role the witches play more accurately reflects what people of that time believed: These "weird sisters" are predictors of events. When Macbeth consults them in the fourth act of the play, they see a line of regal successors that resemble Banquo, another general in Macbeth’s army. In other words, none of Macbeth’s progeny will succeed him on the throne.

The witches did not, on the other hand, predict Macbeth’s actions. Had they done so, Macbeth would have merely been bound by fate. Were that the case, he would have had no needs, desires or ambitions; hence, there would have no choices to make. In other words, it would have nullified the very basis of all human interaction.

It also would have freed him from responsibility from his actions or their consequences. In the play, that would have rendered him as a character with whom audiences — whatever their place in time or society — could not identify. If Macbeth’s actions and their consequences weren’t the result of his choice to kill, there would be no tragedy: no play. And what is Macbeth, or any play that endures through the ages, but a reflection of our selves and interactions, and the consequences of our choices?

And so are those things we call markets. They are nothing more than the sum of decisions. So are regulations, wars and any other human action or institution. They are not the results of impersonal, monolithic sources, any more than the murders Macbeth commits. That point was certainly not lost on Murray Rothbard, and it shouldn’t be on us, especially during the so-called War on Terrorism. To do otherwise would leave us subsumed in the corruption and moral turpitude to which a reliance on military statism leads.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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