I doubt that there could be any blog post on the subject of Halloween more important than one that says what needs saying about Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
This probably won’t be that blog post, but I’m going to try anyway.
The Three Witches—or the Weird Sisters—are spooky and creepy. Quality Halloween material. But the really creepy thing about this play is not the witches. It’s the character of Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth.
The disturbing thing about these characters is not that they murder. The disturbing thing is that they choose to murder in full possession of their wits, heedless of the eternal consequences.
For the sake of a short-lived kingdom they willfully embrace damnation. Macbeth acknowledges that he has surrendered “mine eternal jewel,” his soul. In the same speech he resolves to add murders to murders so that this infinite loss will earn him a larger finite gain (Macbeth, Act III, Scene 1).
Contrast this with the repentance of the honest sinner, Cawdor, of whom Malcom says:
very frankly he confess’d his treasons, Implored your highness’ pardon and set forth A deep repentance: nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it; he died As one that had been studied in his death To throw away the dearest thing he owed, As ’twere a careless trifle. (Macbeth, Act I, Scene 4)
Cawdor, like the repentant thief on the cross, is justly executed for his crimes; he may yet, like that thief, have a happy eternity.
Lady Macbeth, sleepwalking, laments the blood she still sees on her hands: “Out, damned spot! out, I say! . . . who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? . . .What! will these hands ne’er be clean? . . . Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh! . . . What’s done cannot be undone.” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1).
She knows that she has sinned and cannot take away her own guilt. What’s done cannot be undone. Yet, with repentance, it might be forgiven, if only she would imitate the thief on the cross and turn to the Savior. Alas, she does not: Her conclusion is not the repentant prayer of a sinner, but a pathetic surrender to her sin: “What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed.” She dies soon after.
Macbeth is a study in human nature, in the deep, deep sinfulness of man, our creepy sinfulness—insane yet not witless.
We may be inclined to think that this is merely the behavior of the rare great sinner—the tyrant, or the serial killer.
No, this is also the sin of ordinary folk, who not only sacrifice others for their own happiness, but sacrifice their own happiness for sin.
In short, Macbeth and his wife are like us.
And that alone makes experiencing Macbeth for yourself worthwhile. Some great actors have played Macbeth over the years. You can watch Patrick Stewart play Macbeth at PBS.org. I am well pleased with the Orson Welles Macbeth from 1948. And the 1961 version starring Sean Connery, who has the right sort of accent to play Macbeth, is in the public domain!
Of course, it is a play, and that’s how it’s best experienced. I encourage you to keep an eye out for performances at your local theatre or community theatre.
Dr. Mark J. Boone is a teacher and researcher in philosophy, especially the history of philosophy, primarily the ancient and medieval eras, writing his dissertation on Saint Augustine. Dr. Boone is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Forman Christian College. Mark is an occasional book reviewer for the journal Augustinian Studies and has written articles dealing with Plato, William James, theology and the arts, and religious epistemology. In some of his precious little spare time Mark makes animated cartoons based on famous speeches and dialogues in the history of philosophy, available on YouTube and Vimeo under the username TeacherofPhilosophy.