The Power Of Shakespeare

On July 25, 2018, Posted by , In blog, With No Comments

Shakespeare was a genius, to be sure. There is even a strong argument to be made that he was the genius of English literature or English theatre. He was not particularly strong on coming up with original plots: he preferred instead to borrow them from Holinshed, ancient mythology, or recent English history. But his good points more than compensated for that defect. His use of language leaves even the best writers breathless, wishing that they could someday be that good. The new words he coined and added to the English language alone—more than 2,000 of them—would qualify him as one of the most important builders of the tongue. And his representations of the human condition were astonishing. One particularly shining example is the character of Hamlet, whose vacillating, over-intellectualizing, self-absorbed mind was of a type that would not be seen in any other writer for centuries. Dostoevsky rediscovered this character and made him the basis for the Notes From Underground and several other books, but it was Shakespeare who developed the character first. That his works remain popular, and continue to move people, through a sometimes murky cloud of 400-year-old language, is a testament to the power and brilliance of Shakespeare’s accomplishments.

The problem with talking about Shakespeare, though, is that the fantastic mastery of the English language, the brilliant new words, and the stunning, perceptive treatment of human realities and emotions, leads some commentators to get rather emotional themselves. It is not enough that Shakespeare is, when all is said and done, the greatest genius ever to have taken up a pen in English. They insist that every word Shakespeare ever wrote was perfect and eternal, and that his writing represents not only some eternal truths, but every eternal truth, all at once. The quotation at the top of this paper is a prime example of this kind of critical comment about Shakespeare.

The problem with this sort of sweeping generalization is that it simply cannot be true. The human experience is too broad and too diverse for “man … in all his aspects” to be represented in a play. Indeed, a person might live a rich and varied life for a hundred years and not embody all the aspects of the human condition. Many people live out their lives without committing murder or plotting to overthrow their government; but murder and treachery are as much “aspects of man” as love or honour are.

However, if any playwright could “present man simultaneously in all his aspects”, it would be Shakespeare. As a test of this, we will examine “Macbeth”. On the surface, it is a relatively simple play about treachery and revenge. Are there, as the quotation at the head of this essay suggests, other levels to the play? We will explore “Macbeth” in the light of this quotation; in turn, “Macbeth” will shed some light on the quotation itself.

I. i. is a wild and woolly introduction to the play: because the Witches are not human, they have nothing to add to our exploration of man’s aspects. In I.ii., the dominant theme is one of valour and glory in battle. Macbeth is revealed as bold and warlike. The battle is going badly for King Duncan until “brave Macbeth”, fighting his way through the enemy lines, reaches the traitor Macdonwald and “[unseams] him from the nave to th’ chops,/ And fixed his head upon our battlements.” (Macbeth I. ii. 16, 22- 23) In his defeat of the Norweyans, Macbeth’s strength in battle is reinforced, but this, and the image of treachery brought up by the late Cawdor, no other aspects are revealed.

In I. iii., we meet Macbeth for the first time, and his aspect is as a fairly sympathetic character, at least to begin with. This fits with what we have heard about him in the last scene. By the end of the scene, though, we see ambition begin to appear within him, when he realizes that two of the titles the Witches had told him of, already belonged to him: “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:/ The greatest is behind.” (Macbeth I. iii. 117-118) The aspect Shakespeare presents here is how quickly a man can begin to be seduced by ambition.

I. iv. is a scene concerned with order and hierarchy in human affairs. Justice is done in Cawdor’s death, and the general tone of honour and doing what is fitting is reinforced by the general approval of the way that Cawdor died: “as one that had been studied in his death,/ To throw away the dearest thing he owed,/ As ‘twere a careless trifle.” (Macbeth I. iv. 9-11) Macbeth is a part of the hierarchy too: “The service and the loyalty I owe,/ In doing it, pays itself.” (Macbeth I. iv. 22-23) The aspect that Shakespeare presents here is a hierarchical and correct one.

We see one of the only traces of marital love in the play, in I. v. Macbeth writes a fond and familiar letter to his “dearest partner of greatness”, and in it we see a shadow of what the relationship between Macbeth and his wife might have been before the play began. (Macbeth I. v. 11) But the scene quickly turns to present another aspect of humankind: blind ambition. If Macbeth flirts with ambition when the Witches first make their prophecies of greatness, Lady Macbeth grasps it with both hands, begging the Spirits to “unsex [her] here,/ And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty!” (Macbeth I. v. 41-43)

The next scene with a powerful aspect to represent is I. vii., which gives full expression to Macbeth’s ambitious plots of treachery. Remorse is here, too, as Macbeth realises that he is Duncan’s “kinsman and subject,. Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/ Who should against his murderer shut the door.” (Macbeth I. vii. 13-15) But Lady Macbeth’s ambition gives strength to Macbeth’s treacherous thoughts, and by the end of the act he has resolved to murder Duncan.

The treachery begins to come to a head in II. i., as Macbeth takes his dagger and sets off to do the deed; there is also an element of treachery in his presenting an innocent face to his friend Banquo, while is intent on murder. In II. ii. we see more of the same, as Lady Macbeth drugs the watchmen, careless of whether they live or die. Macbeth kills Duncan, and his wife urges him on when he falters, being attacked by guilt about what he has done. But despite her accusation that he “[does] unbend [his] noble strength, to think/ So brainsickly of things”, Macbeth still ends the scene overcome with remorse over what he has done: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst!” (Macbeth II. ii. 44-45, 73)

The drunken Porter, cracking dirty jokes and generally falling about the place, presents an alcoholic aspect at the beginning of II. iii.; the latter half of the scene is concerned with fear and revulsion of murder, well expressed in Macduff’s shocked cry: “O horror! horror! horror!/ Tongue nor heart cannot conceive, nor name thee!” (Macbeth II. iii. 64-65) Macbeth also gives a good presentation of deceit, glibly expressing shock and sadness at Duncan’s fate: “Had I but died an hour before this chance,/ I had liv’d a blessed time” (Macbeth II. iii. 92-93) He then goes on to lie about the way the supposed “murtherers” died.

As Act III begins, Macbeth begins to pile treachery on top of treachery, and to plot murder on top of murder. We see the aspect of paranoia presented too: Macbeth suspects Banquo of plotting against him, and determines to do Banquo like Duncan got done: “Banquo, thy soul’s flight,/ If it find Heaven, must find it to-night.” (Macbeth III. i. 140-141) Interestingly, in the Murderers that Macbeth retains, we see an early form of Nihilism: “I am one, my Liege,’ Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world/ Hath so incens’d, that I am reckless what/ I do, to spite the world.” (Macbeth III. i. 107-109)

Throughout Act III we see the realisation of Macbeth’s treachery, as his plot is concluded and Banquo is murdered. The aspects of man that Shakespeare shows us here are mostly ones we have seen before, in Macbeth’s earlier murder of Duncan. In III. iv. we see paranoia again, as Macbeth begins to worry about the survival of Fleance: “Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect.” (Macbeth III. iv. 20) And with the entrance of Banquo’s ghost, we see, depending on how we want to interpret it, either a presentation of man’s desire to believe in the supernatural, or a presentation of how humans can be driven mad by brutal acts. Paranoia and terror are the dominant aspects of the end of the scene, as Macbeth is almost incapacitated by fear, as the ghost continues to appear.

In III. vi., we see the aspects of suspicion and revenge portrayed by Shakespeare. Lenox and his companion are restless under Macbeth’s rule, and desire to see Duncan’s son and heir placed on the Scottish throne. They suspect that Macbeth may not be blameless in Duncan’s murder, and hatch a plan to depose Macbeth. For more information go to

By this point in the play, Shakespeare has presented most of the aspects of humanity that he ever does. In IV. iii. we see a suggestion of lust in Malcolm: “there’s no bottom, none/ In my voluptuousness: your wives, your daughters,/ Your matrons, and your maids, could not fill up the cistern of my lust.” (Macbeth IV. iii. 60-63) There is self-awareness, too, in his realisation that he would not make a good king: “Nay, had I power, I should/ Pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell,/ Uproar the universal peace, confound/ All unity on earth.” (Macbeth IV. iii. 97-99)

But mostly we see more of what we have seen before: hierarchy when Malcolm submits to MacDuff, revenge when they begin to make war against Macbeth, madness in Lady Macbeth’s drop into insanity, and so on. There are many aspects of humanity that have been presented, perhaps more than one might expect from a superficially straightforward story of murder and revenge. But has the human condition been presented “simultaneously in all [its] aspects?” To choose some examples at random, is religious piety presented in Macbeth? Is altruistic charity? Is the love of a parent for a child given any real treatment? To take a look at the other side of the coin, is sexual inversion, or the urge to be cruel to animals, or marital infidelity presented?

The answer, of course, is no: they are not there because they do not need to be there. But they are “aspects of man” too. As well, Shakespeare does not present all the aspects of man simultaneously; even among the aspects he does present, he gives greater emphasis to say, treachery, than he does to lust or remorse.

Thus, it would seem that in “Macbeth”, Shakespeare does not come close to presenting “man simultaneously in all his aspects.” The play, and the statement at the top of this essay, are clearly not in agreement. What do we make of this? There are two choices: either “Macbeth” is not a very great play because it does not have enough aspects in it, or it is the criticism that is not very good, because it does not adequately describe “Macbeth”, one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramas.

None of the characters in “Macbeth” comes close to representing the full human experience, nor are they fully realised human beings. Even taken as a whole, some aspects of man are missing. But of course, some people live long lives and never become fully realised human beings, or display every aspect of man; to expect a playwright to do it in a few hours on stage is an impossible request, however brilliant that playwright is. 

Work cited:

  • William Shakespeare, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Macbeth (London: Methuen, 1953) 

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