Shakespearing #30 by David Foley
“The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,” says Banquo of the weird sisters, and this disconcerting geologic claim captures the nightmare quality of Macbeth. Like a nightmare, the play inverts the relationship between the solid and the insubstantial: the world we think we know becomes shot through with terrors the more terrifying because we can’t quite name them. People who worry about the identity of the Third Murderer (“But who did bid thee join with us?”) miss the point. He’s unsettling because we don’t know who he is: he’s one of earth’s bubbles.
The play contains Shakespeare’s most famous lines about sleep, but sleep exists in tension not with sleeplessness (“Sleep no more”) but nightmare. It’s both longed for and feared. It’s not just Macbeth who “sleep[s]/In the affliction of these terrible dreams/That shake [him] nightly,” or Lady Macbeth whom sleep cannot keep pinned to her bed. Early on Banquo says, “And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers/Restrain the cursed thoughts that nature/Gives way to in repose.” Which seems to suggest that the nightmare is not one unleashed by the Macbeths, but one suffusing our lives.
This inversion—the nightmare given precedence over the real—marks a difference between Macbeth and the history plays. Like those plays, Macbeth is a story of ambition, factional rivalries, and political murder, but here political horror takes a back seat to a metaphysical one. We’re in the realm of horror: ravens and wolves and owls, ghosts and witches and cauldrons bubbling with “Tartar’s lips” and “finger of birth-strangled babe.” It’s not that this is new in Shakespeare. The night of Duncan’s murder, riven with “strange screams of death/And prophesying,” recalls the terrifying “prodigies” before Julius Caesar’s. But here the horror is so woven into the world of the play that it comes to seem the point.
It reminds me of those horror comic books that freaked me out when I was a kid, panel after panel of lank black hair, terror-bulging eyes, banshee wails (AI-EEEEE!) scrawled across blue-black clouds, trails of blood darkening to crimson in the light of a sickly moon. What fascinated and repulsed me about those comics was the sense of being trapped in an alternative universe presided over by malevolent, magical forces.
Except that Macbeth is not an alternate universe. At its center is not a gothic cartoon but a man curiously ambivalent about his own evil, consciously aware that he does evil, not in a gleeful Richard III sort of way, but in fascinated horror. Has there ever been a villain so out of love with villainy?
I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest that in these three plays, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, Shakespeare is wrestling with the problem of evil. Macbeth is the tragedy where evil comes closest to the heroic center. There’s no Iago or Edgar or Regan to play evil’s part. Even Lady Macbeth reveals that she lacks the courage of her own wickedness long before the sleepwalking scene. (She faints when Duncan’s body is discovered.) The result is a portrait of a couple helplessly in evil’s grip. More and more, Macbeth attempts to shut out contemplation, to act without thought. “From this moment/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand,” he says before ordering the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children. “But no more sights!” Their helplessness becomes our own: locked in a nightmare where evil is impervious to remorse, unable to look and unable to turn away, and at the mercy of the bubbles of the earth.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.