Shakespeare’s bundles of contradictions

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,
Signifying nothing.

(From V,v)

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
To do’t.

(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 without 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.

(From II,ii)

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.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on December 3, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    Macbeth (or any person) can mean both if he does not fear death, expecting nothing more to come. If he only feared the process of dying then it could make sense. Like most people perhaps he doesn’t know if there is a purpose or not.
    As for Lady Macbeth, I think that the modern reader might convict Shakespeare of a sexist portrayal of woman: egging a man on through her personal ambition, not taking responsibility for her actions, feeling bad when nothing can be done, etc. etc. Shakespeare did ‘have form’, as the expression goes, after all.


    • Like most people perhaps he doesn’t know if there is a purpose or not.

      But he clearly says there isn’t. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t know: he says explicitly that it all “signifies nothing”.

      Rather than not knowing whether or not there is a purpose, Macbeth carries around in his head simultaneously two irrecocilable ideas – one, that nothing is significant; and two, the moral failure of his own life is so significant that it warrants the most heartfelt lament. It doesn’t make sense logically, but we humans are full of such contradictions, and Shakespeare is capable of depicting these contradictions more convincingly, I think, than any other author I have encountered (Tolstoy excepted).


  2. Great points as usual Himadri.

    In illustrating the contradictions within characters, Shakespeare is really illustrating reality.

    If one compiled everything that I said, no doubt one would fine lots of contradictions. I think that Nihilism is actually a good way to show this. I am not a nihilist, yet at times I have spoken like one.


    • Exactly! And when you spoke like a nihilist, while you were speaking, you weren’t being ironic, or dishonest – you were being entirely sincere. Same with me – we are all a huge bundle of contradictions. And Shakespeare is so wonderful at depicting this!

      This doesn’t mean, of course, that all characters can be al things. An actor may, if he chooses, try to depict Malvolio and warm hearted and gregarious (at least some of the time), but he will fail. What is so wonderful about Shakespeare’s depiction of contradictions within a character is that the character. despite the contradictions, emerges as a unity: it’s not simply a case of throwing in a whole lot of things that are inconsistent with each other. We could analyse very deeply to see how he achieves this unity despite the diversity, and I’m sure the analysis would be worthwhile, but, as with all greatness, there remains something there that ultimately defies analysis.


  3. Posted by jacabiya on December 5, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Greetings Himadri, I’m no expert in Shakespeare, but consider that this apparent contradiction in Macbeth’s words may be not, nor triggered by the news of his wife’s death, but a showing that he is after all a human being using a self-defense mechanism used I would say by all or most when facing ordeals: first lament life as it is followed by thinking life is nothing after all. Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2014 18:05:12 +0000 To:


    • Hello, and welcome. I am no expert either – just an amateur enthusiast! 🙂

      It’s very interesting that you speak of Macbeth’s “defence mechanism”. for, shortly after the murder of Duncan, Macbeth says the following:

      Had I but died an hour before this chance,
      I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
      There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
      All is but toys:

      Macbeth is not simulating here: I think he is being entirely sincere. Had he died an hour earlier, he would indeed have been blessed. But in that last hour, he has committed a crime so heinous that there can be no going back. And the worst thing is that he knows it. he knows the cosmic nature of what he has done. And the only way he can live with this – his “self-defence” mechanism, as it were – is to convince himself that nothing really matters, that “all is but toys”. And he does convince himself of this. But – such is the infinitely complex nature of humans – he simultaneously believes the complete opposite – that it does matter. He knows exactly what he has lost in his life, and he knows exactly how grievous a loss it is. The two opposites – the conviction that nothing matters (the self-defence mechanism, as you call it), and the belief that it matters enormously – co-exist in his mind at the same time.


  4. Posted by Martin on December 7, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    I once attempted to play the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It but was rather flummoxed by his great sense of humour having to co-exist with his melancholy. You have to try in your performance to account for his mercurial nature, a hard job for an amateur. And, of course, in life we all have such contradictions in our characters (and are accountable for our moods).


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