The Promise of Evil
by Paul Grandi
A.C. Bradley, in a series of lectures entitled Shakespearean Tragedy, reflects on the character of Banquo in Shakespeare's MacBeth, writing that "the Banquo [who is killed] is not the innocent soldier who met the Witches and daffed their prophecies aside, nor the man who prayed to be delivered from the temptation of his dreams" (386). Banquo, Bradley argues, has been corrupted. By the night of his death, "the Witches and his own ambition have conquered him. He alone of the lords knew of the prophecies, but he has said nothing of them" (385). Banquo, for all his struggles early in the play, gives in to his desire and imagines that if he allows things to take their proper course then his sons will be kings. In a sense, Banquo has acquiesced to "evil" and has suffered for it, a theme that Bradley finds central to Macbeth. He writes, "What Shakespeare perhaps felt . . . when he wrote this play, was the incalculability of evil, - that in meddling with it human beings do they know not what" (396). When examining the play, one might see Bradley's point.
Each of the characters who comes into contact with or invokes evil seems to have an idea or a plan for how things will work out. Things quickly escape them, however, and the characters find themselves victims to events and forces they no longer control. Banquo, as soon as he gives into his temptations and desires the prophecy of the witches, is struck down - an ominous omen. A more interesting example of Bradley's principle, however, would be Lady Macbeth. Her initial unnerving invocation of the evil spirits is followed by her eventual madness and death, potentially signaling to Shakespeare's audience that one cannot simply interact with evil without being fundamentally changed.
The language used by Shakespeare in Lady MacBeth's "prayer" to the dark spirits comes across, in many ways, as quite terrifying. In Lady MacBeth's introductory scene, she worries that her husband is "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" (Shakespeare 1.15.17), and so she decides that she will help steel his resolve in order to help him achieve his ambition. In order to do this, she famously invokes dark spirits. This opening behavior of Lady Macbeth shows the audience two things - one, that she supports her husband in his ambition, and two, that she needs someone to, in turn, support her and steel her resolve. Her invocation - her "call for help" - is chilling. Lady Macbeth asks those "spirits / that tend on moral thoughts" to "unsex [her] . . . / And fill [her] from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty" (1.5.47-50). To imagine a character who so easily accepts the killing of the good king Duncan for the sake of ambition, influenced by dark spirits who replace hesitance with "direst cruelty" is not pleasant.
She goes on to request the spirits to remove all feelings of remorse, to replace the milk of her breasts (think - "th' milk of human kindness") with gall, and that the dark night might hide her misdeeds so that even heaven itself will not object to her actions (1.5.50-60). Shakespeare uses this dark imagery to show his audience exactly what Lady Macbeth is doing - calling upon evil. She knows her humanity is too weak to do what needs to be done, so she asks dark spirits to change her humanity into something less than human; in short, she asks to be made, in some sense, evil.
Lady Macbeth's eventual madness, which is revealed to have no physical cause, and her death suggest that Bradley's principle is on point - evil forces are not invoked without consequences. Although Lady Macbeth tries to remain stalwart and guiltless in front of her husband, the first scene of the final act demonstrates that she is, in fact, going mad from guilt. Her famous line, "Yet here's a spot . . . Out, damned spot, out I say!" (5.1.33,37) suggests that she cannot seem to scrub all the blood off. She wakes up in the middle of the night and repeatedly washes her hands, often for up to a "quarter of an hour" (5.1.32). Later, she remarks "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?" (5.1.41-2) and then still later cries "Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. O, O, O!" (5.1.53-5). Her soul, it must be assumed, has been strengthened enough by "those spirits who tend on moral thought" to play her part in the murder, but no more.
She is left to her own repulsion and guilt - her obsessive scrubbing indicates her desire to be clean, to be free of the deed. Her soul is repulsed by her own wickedness, by the evil it has flirted with. Eventually, it becomes too much to live with, and she dies - whether from suicide or some sudden curse, the audience is not told, but the significance remains. One by one, those who interacted with evil in the play meet their doom.
Macbeth is a tragedy. It is not necessarily obsessed with death. However, it can be said that death is not this play's most tragic theme. In a way, the degradation of morality is. All of the characters who are directly involved with the prophecy of the three witches - Macbeth, Banquo, and by extension of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth - do not start out in a state of evil. They are corrupted - but they are done so by their own choice. Of their own free will they decide to engage with forces they most likely sense are beyond their control. In the case of Lady Macbeth, she specifically requests that the spirits strengthen her, that they bestow upon her the gift of cruelty and remove all remorse from her soul. The ever-absent forces of evil do grant her request - in a way.
They give her the strength she needs to exact her plan of murdering Duncan - they give her the force of will to plant the daggers and to deny the murder, and she succeeds - she and Macbeth are not (at least initially) found guilty or even accused of Duncan's murder. Lady Macbeth has "gotten away with it" - yet she does not feel at all comfortable. Bradley writes, "The soul, [Shakespeare] seems to feel, is a thing of such inconceivable depth . . . that when you introduce to it . . . any change, and particularly the change called evil, you can only form the vaguest idea of the reaction you will provoke. All you can be sure of is that it will not be what you expected and that you cannot possibly escape it" (386). It is clear that Lady Macbeth, like Banquo, knew not the forces she was engaging. She thought that she would be able to handle it, and she was not. In a sense, evil tricks her and claims her soul for death even as it claim's Duncan's through her scheme. Although no bargain takes place, Lady Macbeth accepts the promise of evil, which she interprets as the promise of power, without consideration.
As it turns out, evil does grant her power but does not remove remorse - she cannot get rid of the blood on her hands, no matter how much she washes and scrubs and laments. She avoids the suspicion of others, but she cannot escape the accusing stare of her own conscience. In this sense, Macbeth can be seen as a cautionary tale. Evil, no matter how much it appears to speak reason and to offer friendship (or in this case, power and status), will always be unmasked in the end, as a snake in the garden, telling humanity to eat the forbidden fruit that will supposedly lead to divinization but actually leads to eternal death and suffering.
Bradley, A.C. Shakepearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine, eds. The Tragedy of Macbeth. New York: Washington Square Press, 2002. Print.