6 Paradoxes in Macbeth – a study guide
4. “This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good”
Here we have a very illuminating statement. It is so for a number of reasons, though I will mention only two:
- Macbeth (and Banquo) certainly believes the premonitions of the witches – he (they?) acts as if there were no other way than their fate to be set by the witches (though in case of Macbeth, this is done by proxy of his wife. Macbeth is certainly sceptical of the outcome of some of these predictions, but there was little doubt in the act of murder of Duncan. The truly interesting piece is in Macbeth’s query whether believing the witches’ prediction is at all a good thing or not.1 We have to pay attention to the choice of wording here – soliciting of supernatural is not a mere acceptance, to solicit is to ask for something, to plead for its outcome. We should remember that Lady Macbeth had very little hesitation as to the process of these predictions. She did not merely accept them, but created them by acting upon them.
- While the first part of the statement is on the ill of soliciting supernatural, the second part is on the good. There is a curious rhetorical device used here – in the previous statements, Shakespeare first posits the positive aspect (fair, comfort, king) and only later the negative aspect (foul, discomfort, heir).2 It seems that Shakespeare aims to create a dichotomy of the supernatural world that is worse than the natural world. So one could go into the direction of meddling with the supernatural (including religion, superstition, witchcraft, etc.) to be of itself an unnatural act, and therefore to bring misfortune because one has accepted its effects on the natural. This is highly speculative, but there is certainly something there. There have been commentators to note that what is moral has be reversed in the play (by the first paradoxical statement nonetheless!), and I think this would follow that line of reasoning pretty well.
5. “False face must hide what the false heart doth know”3
This is a fairly simple one, though perhaps also a very beautiful and poetic one. After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and his wife (Lady Macbeth) have to consider what is to be done next. This expression is aimed to do precisely that – keep that act within (in your heart) and pretend as if it were not you. The expression on the face is thus to be juxtaposed to the expression known to the heart.
But there is, once again, a foretelling of a future event. Cf. the following exchange:
O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!
What’s the matter.
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building!
What is ‘t you say? the life?
Mean you his majesty?
There seems to be something there as to propose that the act of murder has not gone unnoticed, even though it has been neglected. The suggestion is that the audience knows that a murder was committed, of which Lennox in this passage functions as a mouthpiece. We also know that at a later moment, Lady Macbeth will not be able to hide her face and will commit suicide. Her face would literally appear on her hands, as stains of blood that had been pumped onto the surface by the heart.
6. “Fathered he is, and yet he’s fatherless”
The role of the father figure is quite significant here. We saw previously with Banquo that his role was reduced to be being a father. His actions as an autonomous being would cease soon enough, and his legacy would be only in the fact that he fathered the future kings. This is not a dismissive prophecy, but rather bestows upon the subject the greatest of the roles – he almost literally becomes the father figure (i.e. God).4
But in this particular situation, we have an exact opposite relation to the father figure. Where Banquo functions as the father figure who no longer exists in reality (he dies relatively early in the play), in this particular expression towards the end of the play we are confronted with Lady Macduff’s lament that her son has no father even though he is physically present in this natural world:
Sirrah, your father’s dead;
And what will you do now? How will you live?
As birds do, mother.
What, with worms and flies?
With what I get, I mean; and so do they.
Poor bird! thou’ldst never fear the net nor lime,
The pitfall nor the gin.
Why should I, mother? Poor birds they are not set for.
My father is not dead, for all your saying.
Get Macbeth, or get the entire collection of Shakespeare’s work, from Amazon. And, there is a whole new film starring Michael Fassbinder as Macbeth (or as I like to call him: Fassbinder the lesser – the greater being, of course, the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder).
- This is where the paradoxical statement is ‘purely ideological’ (as Zizek would say, I think) – it functions without a belief in its function. It proclaims ‘soliciting’, but whether one solicits or not, it is already accepted as true.
- I am aware that #3 doesn’t fit too well, but it fits somehow, and this is meant as a conjectural point.
- Similarly, “To know my deed ’twere best not know myself”
- Note that Banquo is at once the father (of future kings), the son (his sacrifice is necessary to guarantee future order) and the Holy Ghost (he literally appears as a ghost) – he is the embodiment of the Holy Trinity/Family.