Towards the end of the play of which he is protagonist, Macbeth speaks these famous lines:
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
(From V, iii)
And yet, a brief couple of scenes later, he speaks these even more famous lines:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The earlier speech is a heartfelt lament for what he is; the latter a statement of nihilism, a conviction that nothing in life really matters. And of course, the two speeches are inconsistent: for if nothing in life really matters, there is nothing for him to lament. So the actor looking for a consistency is here flummoxed: Macbeth surely cannot mean both!
And yet, I think he does: at the time he speaks each speech, he means it. Both speeches are heartfelt. So has he changed dramatically between the two speeches? It seems unlikely. The only difference is that before he utters the second speech, he receives news of his wife’s death; but the two had grown very far apart by then, and he must have been expecting this news anyway. And even if that were not the case, it is hard to see why this news should change him in such a manner.
One reason Shakespeare seems so profound a depicter of humanity is, it seems to me, that he recognises humans are bundles of contradictions. The drama in his plays is frequently within his characters as much as, or even more than, between his characters. Thus, Macbeth can at the same time lament the profound tragedy that he knows his life to be, while at the same time believe that it doesn’t matter. And instead of resolving this conflict, Shakespeare is happy to leave it as it is. Macbeth is both. This cannot be resolved.
And Macbeth himself knows this. He seems to me by far the most self-aware of all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. Even Hamlet, that most intelligent and introspective of characters, is often puzzled by his own self, asking himself questions about his own self that he cannot answer, and admitting that he does not know:
I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;
‘Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
(From III, iv)
Hamlet’s acute self-awareness is, quite frequently, an awareness that he doesn’t truly know his own self. But Macbeth knows his true self all too well. Alone amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth does not make the journey towards greater self-knowledge: this is because he has known himself perfectly from the start. His tragedy is not that he had acted from lack of self-knowledge, but, rather, he had acted knowing perfectly that his acts will damn his soul for ever; knowing perfectly that once started, there can be no going back. And yet, he is unable to stop himself. Othello’s vision had been fatally clouded as he walked into damnation, but Macbeth goes into his damnation with his eyes wide open at each step. And their sense is not shut.
Lady Macbeth, too, is a huge bundle of contradictions. Does her invocation to evil spirits to possess her an indication of her evil nature? Or an admission that she cannot truly be evil with the spirits’ possession? Why does this personification of evil in a female form herself shirk from the act of murder – and for the most sentimental of reasons?
Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.
How, indeed, can so implacably evil a woman eventually become mad with guilt?
Shakespeare never repeated himself. After the terse bleakness of Macbeth, he went immediately to the opposite extreme, and gave us the expansive and overflowing opulence of Antony and Cleopatra; here, instead of a protagonist who knows himself, he gives us a queen who, regardless of what she had been in life, mythologises herself into a great queen at death; and a once mighty soldier whose extent of acquired self-knowledge amounts to his realising that he doesn’t have the first understanding of who or what he is.
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.
It does, my lord.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…
(From IV, xiii)
Like the Macbeths, Antony and Cleopatra too are bundles of unresolved contradictions. There is, by the end, a closure in terms of plot, but never in terms of character.