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bewildered senses the eternal truth, that not from fate, but from his own agency alone could spring the commission of a crime, whose very suggestion had at first filled him with horror. But even this delusion, which seemed for a time to deaden the sense of
responsibility, would have failed in its effect, had not the ferocious and sarcastic eloquence of Lady Macbeth been called in to its aid : dazzled by the splendour with which she clothes the expected issue of the deed ; indignant at the charge of cowardice, to which she artfully imputes his irresolution, and allured by the means which she has planned as a security from detection, he, at length, rushes into the
No sooner, however, has the assassination of Duncan been perpetrated, than the virtuous principles which had slumbered in the bosom of Macbeth rise up to accuse and condemn him. Consciencestricken, and recoiling with horror from the atrocity of his own deed, he becomes the victim of the most agonising remorse ; he feels deserted both by God and man, and unable even to deprecate the wrath which night and day pursues
66 I have done the deed: Did'st thou not hear a noise ?
There's one did laugh in his sleep, and one cried, Murder !
To this dread of vengeance from offended heaven, is soon added the apprehension of punishment from mankind, his keen abhorrence of his own iniquity leading him to paint, in the strongest colours, the detestation and resentment which it must have incurred from others. This fear of retaliation from his fellow-creatures, together with the awful prospect of retribution in another world, produce a complete revolution in his character; he is exhibited distrustful, treacherous, and cruel, sweeping from existence, without pity or hesitation, all whose talents, virtues, sufferings, or pretensions seem to endanger a life, of which, though hourly becoming more wretched and depraved, he anticipates the close with horror and dismay.
* Reed's Shakspeare, vol. x. pp. 110, 111, 112. 114.
To the very last, the contest is kept up with tremendous energy, between the native vigour of a brave mind, and the debilitating effects of a guilty, and, therefore, a fear-creating conscience. The lesson is, beyond every other, salutary and important, as it proves that the dominion of one perverted passion subjugates to its own depraved purposes the very principles of virtue itself; the sensibility of Macbeth to his own wickedness, giving birth to terrors which urge him on to reiterated murder, and finally to irretrievable destruction.
The management of the fable of Macbeth presents us with a remarkable instance of the profound art of Shakspeare, in condensing into one representation, and with an uninterrupted progress of the action, an extensive and closely concatenated series of events, forming a perfect cycle of influential incidents and passions, on a scale commensurate with that of nature, and for which it were in vain to look, where the unrelaxing unities of time and place have imposed their fetters on the poet. “ Let any one, for instance,” observes Schlegel,
attempt to circumscribe the gigantic picture of Macbeth's murder, his tyrannical usurpation, and final fall, within the narrow limits of the unity of time, and he will then see, that, however many of the events which Shakspeare successively exhibits before us in such dread array, he may have placed anterior to the commencement of the piece, and made the subject of after recital, he has altogether deprived it of its sublimity of import. This drama, it is true, comprehends a considerable period of time: but in the rapidity of its progress, have we leisure to calculate this? We see, as it were, the fates weaving their dark web on the bosom of time, and the storm and whirlwind of events, which impel the hero to the first daring attempt, which afterwards lead him to commit innumerable crimes to secure the fruits of it, and drive him at last, amidst numerous perils, to his destruction in the heroic combat, draw us irresistibly along with them. Such a tragical exhibition resembles the course of a comet, which, hardly visible at first, and only important to the astronomic eye, when appearing in the heaven in a nebulous distance, soon soars with an unheard of and perpetually increasing rapidity towards the central point of our system, spreading dismay among the nations of the earth, till in a moment, with its portentous tail, it overspreads the half of the firmament with flaming fire.”*
But, in fact, as hath been remarked by the same admirable critic, Macbeth, in its construction, bears a striking affinity to the celebrated trilogy of Æschylus, which included the Agamemnon, the Choephora, and the Eumenides, or Furies, pieces which were successively represented in one day. “ The object of the first is the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, on his return from Troy. In the second, Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother : facto pius et sceleratus eodem. This deed, although perpetrated from the most powerful motives, is repugnant however to natural and moral order. Orestes as a Prince was, it is true, entitled to exercise justice even on the members of his own family; but he was under the necessity of stealing in disguise into the dwelling of the tyrannical usurper of his throne, and of going to work like an assassin. The memory of his father pleads his excuse; but although Clytemnestra has deserved death, the blood of his mother still rises up in judgment against him. This is represented in the Eumenides in the form of a contention among the gods, some of whom approve of the deed of Orestes,
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. i. pp. 352, 353.
while others persecute him, till at last the divine wisdom, under the figure of Minerva, reconciles the opposite claims, establishes a peace, and puts an end to the long series of crimes and punishments which desolated the royal house of Atreus.
“ A considerable interval takes place between the period of the first and second pieces, during which Orestes grows up to manhood. The second and third are connected together immediately in the order of time. Orestes takes flight after the murder of his mother to Delphi, where we find him at the commencement of the Eumenides.
• In each of the two first pieces, there is a visible reference to the one which follows. In Agamemnon, Cassandra and the chorus prophesy, at the close, to the arrogant Clytemnestra and her paramour Ægisthus, the punishment which awaits them at the hands of Orestes. In the Choephoræ, Orestes, immediately after the execution of the deed, finds no longer any repose; the furies of his mother begin to persecute him, and he announces his resolution of taking refuge in Delphi.
6 The connection is therefore evident throughout, and we may consider the three pieces, which were connected together even in the representation, as so many acts of one great and entire drama. I mention this as a preliminary justification of Shakspeare and other modern poets, in connecting together in one representation a larger circle of human destinies, as we can produce to the critics who object to this the supposed example of the ancients.” *
To these observations of M. Schlegel, the following excellent remarks have been added by a writer in the Monthly Review :“ Shakspeare's Macbeth,” says this critic, “ bears a close resemblance to this trilogy of Æschylus, which gives, in three distinct acts, a history of the house of Agamemnon. In Macbeth, also, are three acts or deeds, distinct from each other, and separated by long intervals of time; namely, the regicide of Duncan, the murder of
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, vol. i. pp. 95, 96.
Banquo, and the fall of Macbeth ; the first serving to shew how he attained his elevation, the second how he abused it, and the third how he lost it. A chorus of supernatural beings, (the witches of Shakspeare operate like the furies of Æschylus,) in both these tragic poems, hovers over the fate of the hero; and, by impressing on the spectator the consciousness of an irresistible necessity, all the extenuation which the atrocities could admit is introduced. Criticism, in comparing the master-pieces of these master-poets, may be permitted to hesitate, but not to draw stakes. To the plot or fable of Shakspeare must be allowed the merit of possessing, in the higher degree, wholeness, connection, and ascending interest. The character of Clytemnestra may be weighed without disparagement against that of Lady Macbeth: but all the other delineations are superior in our Shakspeare; his characters are more various, more marked, more consistent, more natural, more intuitive. The style of Æschylus, if distinguished for a majestic energetic simplicity, greatly preferable to the mixt metaphors and puns of Shakspeare, has still neither the richness of thought nor the versatility of diction which we find displayed in the English tragedy.” *
The supernatural machinery of this play, which forms one of its most striking features, is founded on a species of superstition that, during the life-time of Shakspeare, prevailed in England and Scotland in an unprecedented degree. Witchcraft had attracted the attention of government under the reign of Henry the Eighth, in whose thirty-third year was enacted a Statute which adjudged all Witchcraft and Sorcery to be Felony without Benefit of Clergy; but, at the commencement of the reign of Elizabeth, the evil seems to have been greatly on the increase, for Bishop Jewel, preaching before the Queen, in 1558, tells her,—“ It may please your Grace to understand that Witches and Sorcerers within these few last years are marvelously increased within your Grace's realm. Your Grace's
* Monthly Review, vol. Ixxxi. p. 119, 120.