Not to be, but to seem, virtuous…is a formula whose utility we all discovered in the nursery. C.S. Lewis
Navigating daily life requires that we trust many different people. We trust that the driver on the other side of the yellow line will stay on his side of the road. We trust the cook staff at the restaurant where we eat. We trust pilots, doctors, accountants, Substack authors. But while we trust many different people, a good number of them strangers or acquaintances, the trust we place in our friends and advisors is more complex. It is the complex nature of such trust that Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth probes, and Shakespeare reminds us that we would do well to trust those who honor moral limits rather than pursue selfish ambition.
Our closest relationships should attain the level that Aristotle called friendships of virtue, the kind of character implied in the two and three-fold cord mentioned also in Ecclesiastes. Ideally, the one in whom we place most confidence is someone with moral character. This is not to say that he or she has no flaws and makes no mistakes; it is to say that our best ally should not be a man or woman who lacks the aptitude to discern right from wrong or the appetite to choose right instead of wrong. To that point, one should not draw unto himself or herself a companion like Lady Macbeth, for Lady Macbeth does not exercise virtue.
Lack of virtue does not mean lack of emotion or logic. Lady Macbeth is formidable, having both pathos and logos leashed in like hounds. Consequently, it is Lady Macbeth’s arguments, bereft of any accountability to moral limits, that work like dark magic upon her husband, advising him towards his tragic downfall.
Because it would be dishonest to set all the burden for Macbeth’s choices upon the shoulders of Lady Macbeth, we should first acknowledge the responsibility belonging to Macbeth for his own thoughts and actions.
The inciting incident of the play occurs in Act I when Macbeth, accompanied by his friend Banquo, meets the witches, also known as the Weird Sisters. Rather than fleeing the witches, like Joseph from Potiphar’s wife, Macbeth asks the witches to say what they are, but they hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland. The plot structure is composed so that readers know Macbeth’s bravery on the battlefield against King Duncan’s enemies has won Macbeth the title: Thane of Cawdor. However, Macbeth doesn’t know such a reward is coming his way when the witches make the pronouncement to him, and when confirmation reaches Macbeth from King Duncan, the witches gain credibility with Macbeth. Might, then, the pronouncement that he will be King of Scotland also come true, Macbeth wonders? The promise of more authority is alluring, especially to someone with ambition.
Abraham Lincoln warns against those he calls towering geniuses, who, with ambition untempered by morality, disregard the old paths and cut new paths paved by the blood of anyone opposing them and, ironically, by the blood of those who do follow them. C.S. Lewis puts forward a similar argument in his brilliant essay “The Abolition of Man,” when he advises that we be virtuous, that we be “men with chests,” having our intellect and our passions rightly abiding moral limits, and Lewis relies on this same argument to undergird his novel, That Hideous Strength.
Macbeth is ambitious. Yet he knows the witches are not to be trusted, saying, “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (Macbeth, I.3.130-131). Nevertheless, he allows his ambition to enjoy fantasies of him wearing the crown, but when King Duncan announces that Malcom, and not Macbeth, will be the next king, Macbeth lets his ambition double itself with lusty heat, saying, “The Prince of Cumberland – that is a step/ On which I must fall down or else o’erleap, / For in my way it lies. Stars, hide you fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires” (Macbeth, I.4.48-51). Macbeth knowing that the workers of darkness are poor advisors, along with his dark prayer that his “black and deep desires” will remain unseen by heaven and earth, indicates his moral aptitude, his ability to discern right from wrong. Moral aptitude implies moral responsibility. Thus, Macbeth is accountable, and his awareness of this accountability gives him reasonable pause, in which he redacts his desires to “o’erleap” Malcom and chooses not to murder King Duncan. The Thane of Cawdor refuses to cross that line and commit mayhem upon a good man and a good man’s family.
Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth to cross that line.
Again, this does not remove responsibility from Macbeth’s account. The story is a tragedy because Macbeth has a moral conscience and sees the error of his desires. And when he attempts to satisfy his ambition by committing murder, he reels from his actions, only to, like Hamlet’s uncle, refrain from repenting of his actions and facing the justice that should befall him. However, when a good word could have held back or turned Macbeth from evil in the first place, evil words compelled him towards the shadows, and those words came from Lady Macbeth.
How Lady Macbeth is introduced in the play is crucial, for it reveals her selfish ambition. After reading the letter sent to her from Macbeth, announcing the arrival of Duncan to Macbeth’s estate, Lady Macbeth comments how her husband is too kind to do what is needed to achieve one’s desires. Lady Macbeth believes that desires supersede ethics. To get what you want is all that should govern you. It is lost on her that desires and ethics are intertwined in a complex fashion, much like human beings, and must be reckoned together, for what we desire has ethical ramifications. Where Macbeth is ambitious, Lady Macbeth is more so. After criticizing her husband’s kindness, Lady Macbeth says, “The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements. / Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, / And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull / Of direst cruelty.” (Macbeth, I.5.38-43). Macbeth dabbles with instruments of darkness. Lady Macbeth communes with them.
Consequently, Lady Macbeth demonstrates what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, describes as “human love.” In that book, Bonhoeffer warns against the sophistry “human love” employs:
There is such a thing as human absorption. It appears in all the forms of conversion wherever the superior power of one person is consciously or unconsciously misused to influence profoundly and draw into his spell another individual or whole community. Here one soul operates directly upon another soul. The weak have been overcome by the strong, the resistance of the weak has broken down under the influence of another person.
Lady Macbeth pitches to Macbeth her idea for murdering King Duncan. She advises Macbeth on how to set the trap, catch the prey, nail the deed on someone else, and get away with the crime. Her chief tactic is the use of a “false face.” Put on a deceptive show, so that no one else can see your intentions. When Macbeth equivocates on the murder, Lady Macbeth rhetorically saws her man in half through emotionally supercharged and logically valid, though ethically unsound, arguments. She accuses him of breaking a promise to her. And she claims that had she made such a promise to him, she’d stop at nothing to fulfill that promise. The closest friendships, marriage being, arguably, the closest of them all, rely on trust, on the keeping of promises. Who wants to have promises made to them only to be broken? But just as Lady Macbeth refuses to distinguish between desires and ethics when it serves her will, she conflates promises and ethics to serve her will. As stated earlier, one ought to evaluate desires because desires have ethical consequences. One ought also to evaluate promises for the same reason. Lady Macbeth lets Macbeth put himself together again as a man devoted to her, and his devotion deforms him into a tyrant. Devotion to someone without moral character will cost us our soul. In fact, the soul is always at stake. Will we, then, pay out our soul to evil or to virtue? The former gives us nothing in return, and we, as Nothings, mistreat our fellow man. The latter gives us life so that we might give life to others. To that point, the name Macbeth means “Son of Life,” but by paying out their souls to evil, neither Macbeth nor Lady Macbeth add life to their world.
However, Lady Macbeth did not foresee her or her husband’s failure. She believed the will could ultimately win out, that one could keep calm and lie his or her way through life. She believed herself invincible. Such an advisor mimics those leaders who attempted a showdown against Jesus, recorded in Matthew 22:15-46. Those influential men were so stunned by their defeat because they did not consider that their defeat was even a possibility. It is sad that Lady Macbeth followed such a path. It is sad, too, that the very man she counseled into deforming his soul would pay her little to no homage when she met her end. But what praise can be given to evil when it goes to its final judgment?
Lady Macbeth can be commended for her passion and her intelligence. One might even commend Lady Macbeth for her dependability. She says she will help Macbeth commit murder, and she does. But one cannot overlook the fact that Lady Macbeth helps Macbeth: commit murder. The play reveals King Duncan to be an admirable, though flawed, man; therefore, the story of Macbeth is not about a husband and wife taking down a corrupt king. Rather, Shakespeare offers us a tragic story that shows us the inseparable connection between thought, actions, and counsel. It calls us to reflect upon our personal responsibility. Yes, Macbeth knew better. Even when the end comes for him, he refuses to repent, choosing, rather, to die in his iniquity. It also calls us to reflect upon those we look to for guidance. How might Macbeth have benefited from seeking advice from a good advisor? Perhaps Macbeth would still have given into his dark desires. The play is, after all, titled The Tragedy of Macbeth. And how many good wives, and mothers, bear in their bodies the grief etched upon them by their wayward sons and husbands? However, what might Lady Macbeth have accomplished, for her husband and for herself and for Scotland, had her rhetorical skill be disciplined by moral commitments?
We might be the captains of our own souls, as William Henley claims, but even captains have advisors, and would those advisors be men and women of moral character, for when we trust good advisors we stand a better chance at living a life that begets, rather than ruins, life.
Image credit: “Lady Macbeth” by Alfred Stevens via Wikimedia