6 Paradoxes in Macbeth – a study guide
Macbeth is known for its paradoxes and there are many of them in the play. Though I am by no means an expert in drama, and in fact my main appreciation of Shakespeare is in Hamlet (for madness) and Othello (for being an outsider with an ability to seduce). I have read most of his sonnets, and I still think them rather dull (sorry Shakespeare fans). And yet, despite these admissions, I will also admit that Macbeth rightfully puzzles the audience to this day. It dismisses the romantic sentiment that is so commonly accepted of Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliette,1 and it embraces the notion of power more than any of his other plays.
What really stands out in Macbeth is his emphasis on a strong female personality. He does not depict a submissive persona, politically empty and only deemed of emotional significance, but a strong woman. In an old-fashioned saying, Lady Macbeth is truly the ‘neck’ of her husband, turning him into various direction – or indeed, without whom Macbeth would not be able to direct himself. This is indeed what Boris Pasternak (of Doctor Zhivago – film / book) would claim, Lady Macbeth is “more resolute and consistent than he [Macbeth] is himself” (I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, p. 151).
I do not aim to recount what Macbeth is really about – I am hardly the person to do so. My intentions with this post are rather simple. I want to recount a number of paradoxical statements that appear in Macbeth. It is assumed that the reader has some familiarity with the play, though perhaps that is obvious (why look for paradoxes in the play otherwise). So this is somewhat of a study guide into the paradoxes that appear in the play, rather than a summary or an aid for a correct reading of the play. With that in mind, let us start from the very beginning.
1. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”'Fair is foul, and foul is fair' Click To Tweet
At the very beginning of Macbeth, the three witches talk among themselves. Their conversation aims to foretell how Macbeth is going to act. The notion ‘act’ is to be taken literally; and the paradoxical statement only makes sense for as long as we understand ‘act’ in that literal sense (keep this in mind for what is to follow). This is indeed to say that where the witches are the mouthpiece, Macbeth is the extension of that mouthpiece. Where words are fair, the actions are foul (and vice versa: where words are foul, actions are fair). So the witches in fact not only foretell what is going to happen to Macbeth, they ‘act’ as his mouthpiece, as the words that explain the action. While most commentators would speak of foreshadowing, my understanding is that Macbeth already takes the position that is foretold prior to the witches – it is in him, in his nature, to do so.2
So what does this paradoxical statement mean? The fair and the foul play the role of good an evil. The witches that are the mouthpiece of Macbeth’s actions are the evil that make the acts evil. This is perhaps the most difficult of the paradoxes to understand, primarily because it occurs so early in the play. One direction to go to is that Shakespeare merely aimed to posit the relativity of moral positions. Though this would be very anachronistic, it is of course very possible. A more plausible explanation is the dramatic setting – it sets the tone for the rest of the play, it invites the audience to forget that they are still in the world they think they inhabit, where moral standards are the way they are. In a sense, this very first paradoxical statement ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ invites the audience into a particular understanding of political intrigue (very much akin to ‘all is fair in love and war’). Another explanation that has taken note recently is Harris’ presentation that the ‘foul’ and the ‘fair’ are allusions to Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the parliament (cf. The Smell of ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare Quarterly 58(4): 465-86 – sorry, paywall).
2. “So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come, discomfort swells”
This statement is somewhat easier on first sight, but it is equally problematic. Upon hearing of Macdonwald’s ‘bloody execution’ by Macbeth, King Duncan and his sergeant are at first pleased. But of course this is not going to be the case at a later stage, as this event will unfold other events which will cause further problems (most notably, the king’s death).
Additionally, Macdonwald is a rebel who rose against the king (Duncan), so his death is naturally welcomed. Duncan’s rejoice is thus very understandable when he proclaims
‘O valiant cousin! worthy gentleman!’
The significance of this event is not to be misunderstood. Macbeth slowly rises (as did Macdonwald against the king) in his ranks. He assumes the role that he vanquished; getting closer, as it were, to his destiny of becoming the king as prophesised by the witches. So it is clear that this event would be the initiation of troubles to come – a paradox par excellence precisely because it is celebrated as a defeat, without a full realisation of what this defeat is going to signify in the near future.
3. “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”
There is quite some literary quibble in this particular paradox. The statement is aimed at Banquo, who is addressed by the witches and who prophesy his unfortunate fortune. Once again, Shakespeare sets the stage for future events, preparing the audience for what is to come. As they have told Macbeth that he will become king, they tell Banquo that he will not (and his descendants will). It is assumed by Shakespeare scholars that this particular foretelling is aimed more directly at the audience – the contemporary James VI (or I, depending whether you are English or Scottish) is in actuality thought to be a descendant of Banquo.
The truly curious part is why Banquo shall not be happy. There is really little indication why, after the whole debacle of Macbeth of course he should not be happy. This is precisely because he dies before the royal banquet – but it is doubtful that Shakespeare had Sisyphus in mind here. Suggestions are welcome in the comments.
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.3 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).4 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”5
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).6
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).
- Follow this link for a study guide of Romeo and Juliet.
- Though this is not part of my intentions with this post, what is the nature of being is at the foreground throughout the play. What is natural is also juxtaposed to the supernatural. These themes run through the play innumerable times.
- 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.