“‘Twere best not know myself”: Some new thoughts on Macbeth

I remember hearing Orson Welles saying in an interview once that, having written Hamlet, Shakespeare realised how difficult it was to write a tragedy with an intelligent person as protagonist; and, thereafter, his tragic protagonists – Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony, Cleopatra, Coriolanus – were all fools.

It’s an attractive idea. The journey undertaken by a Shakespearean tragic protagonist is, typically, a journey towards greater self-understanding, towards a higher level of self-awareness; and, for such a journey to be possible, the protagonist must display at the start some level at least of self-unawareness. And it is difficult convincing the audience, or the reader, that a character who starts with some level of self-unawareness can also be intelligent. To get around this problem in Hamlet, Shakespeare made his tragic prince a character of almost infinite complexity. His intelligence at the start of the play is apparent despite his failure fully to understand himself: it is apparent by his awareness of the fact. Hamlet is even to himself an enigma. And he remains so to the end: his progress through the course of the play is not towards finding an answer to all the questions that had so mystified him, but towards a state where he can be content to live with those questions remaining unanswered.

Going by Welles’ conjecture, one can understand why Shakespeare never tried anything like that again. We may sometimes be guilty of thinking that one of the attributes of genius is effortlessness – that a Shakespeare, a Rembrandt, or a Mozart, needed simply to turn up at work in the morning to knock off a masterpiece or two. I’m sure it wasn’t so: Hamlet especially seems to me to bear the mark of a tremendous effort, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, after having finished the damn thing – not once, but twice – Shakespeare had said to himself “That’s the last time I try something like that!”

But I’d guess also (and I’m only guessing, for who knows how a mind such as Shakespeare’s worked) that genius would be drawn to new challenges – that they just would not be able to help themselves. And one of the challenges Shakespeare was drawn to, I think, was to depict a tragic protagonist who is self-aware from the very beginning, who knows exactly what he is doing and where his actions will lead him. And such a protagonist, I think, is Macbeth. Here, I depart somewhat from Welles’ theory: Macbeth is no fool. At times, indeed, I think he is the most intelligent character Shakespeare ever created.

For, uniquely amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth knows precisely what he is doing. He knows precisely what the significance is of his actions, and what they will cost him. And the peculiar terror that play invokes comes from his inability, even with this knowledge, to do otherwise. In the first two acts of the play, both he and his wife present two different and contradictory fronts: she is the one determined to commit the murder, but incapable of doing the deed herself; he, on the other hand, is the one who knows the true significance of what he is about to do, and shirks at it, but is, nonetheless, able to do the deed.

What he fears is not eternal hellfire: “We’d jump the life to come,” he says. What he fears is his earthly punishment:

But in these cases
We still have judgment here

It is not that he fears being caught and executed: should that happen, Macbeth, that bravest of soldiers, would have faced execution with the same courage and equanimity as the previous Earl of Cawdor had done.No, what he fears is more subtle:

that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.

The blood he is about to shed will return to plague him; the poison he is about to administer will, in turn, poison him. Why fear hell in the life to come when hell can be equally potent in the here-and-now, upon this bank and shoal of time?

At the very start of the play, we had heard that Macbeth, the fearless warrior, had faced a traitor in battle and had “unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps”. This is not a squeamish man, not a man feared of bloodshed. It is not the physical act of killing Duncan that so terrifies him. What terrifies him is his knowledge of what he will then have to live with. Lady Macbeth does not have the imagination to foresee this: she thinks that “a little water will clear us of this deed”. So when the bloody instructions do come to plague the inventor, her unprepared mind cannot take it: it collapses under the weight.

But Macbeth knows what he must do to live with this:

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

Had he but died an hour earlier, he would indeed have lived a blessed time: he knows that to be all too true. But from now onwards, he has to live as if there were nothing serious in all mortality, that all is but toys; he has to live as if life itself didn’t matter, that it all “signifies nothing”.

Macbeth is aware at every step of what he is doing. And he is aware even of his awareness, and wishes he knew and understood less:

To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.

But he does know himself, and there, it seems to me, is his tragedy.

Shakespeare continued to try out new things in his subsequent plays. In his next tragedy, Cleopatra is a creature of “infinite variety”, and she does not so much progress from one state to another as allow what is already inside her, what is best in her, to come to the fore at the end; and Antony’s best self-awareness is the knowledge that he never did understand himself, even when he thought he did. And in his final tragedy, we have that brute unthinking hunk Coriolanus, incapable of self-awareness, or of any progress towards it.

But of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, I think it is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth whose journey through the course of the play fills me with the greatest terror. Lady Macbeth simply had not foreseen the damnation of her soul even while she was here upon this bank and shoal of time; while Macbeth can see all too clearly each step of the way, and yet is unable to act otherwise.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on November 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    Excellent piece. Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play and I think you’ve caught the nub of it here – it’s the knowledge of the guilt he’ll suffer, the fact that he’ll be unable to shake off what he’s done. Is this the first work of literature to deal with the guilt-haunted murderer, I wonder?


    • Interesting question. I suppose the Greeks posisbly got there first – in the Oresteia, Orestes is pursued by the Furies, and I suppose the Furies can be read as personificatiosn of Orestes’ guilt. But I think you may be right – no-one has delved so deeply into the workings of a guilt-oppressed mind as Shakespeare has done here.


  2. Macbeth can see all too clearly each step of the way, and yet is unable to act otherwise.

    Trollope is good at creating characters like this.


    • I really have to read a bit more Trollope. He is, I think, the only one of the major Victorian writers of whose works I have read virtually nothing.


      • I think you’ll like him a lot. I’m continually astonished at how well he understood why people behave the way they do and how they justify their behavior to themselves, and especially at how well he deals with women — I can’t think of another male Victorian novelist who not only clearly likes and respects women but treats them as fully the equals of men. My wife and I are reading through the Barsetshire novels now and greatly looking forward to the Palliser series (we’ve already met a couple of the characters who will feature in them).

  3. Posted by Stephen on November 27, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    Thank you Himadri, great and insightful post.


  4. Himadri, l think there is much to what you are saying. Today we realize that the business of war does not go as easy on the soldiers as we once thought it did. We even have names for the feelings war engenders in us. One such sensation we all know of; we call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I’ve recently spent time speaking with some individuals who have this disease.

    We tend to think it comes from being in a space where others are trying to kill us, where explosions presage chaotic death and painful injuries. Such individuals, as we all know, will respond to loud noises as if death were yet coming for them. But what I had told to me recently, is that that fear is not the whole of the problem. It is the killing of others that is at the heart of this disease. We’re it only to save ourselves, I suspect it would be a very different disease — not a disease that so often blindly lashes out. I do not know if it is the sudden loss of self-control, or the grief at how that lack of self-control expresses itself. It is probably a bit of each.

    The lines you offer, “There is nothing serious in mortality / All is but toys,” and “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself,” suggest a combination of feelings, something of both the loss and the grief. That Macbeth had been a soldier, and had killed, “unseamed him from the nave to the chaps,” and that Lady Macbeth could gain no inkling of these feelings, suggest that Macbeth’s hesitance may originate in his earlier experiences of mortality. Perhaps what he fears is unbounding that loss and grief from its special place on the field of battle.

    I really need to read the play again; it is so long since I have read it or seen it. I’d like to read it now with these thoughts in mind.

    Thanks again for a wonderfully thoughtful essay,


    • Thank you for this, Mark. I know very little – indeed, nothing – of the matters you mention, but, as so often, Shakespeare may have anticipated modern psychology. England was fighting a very bloody war in Ireland in the 1590s, and I am sure hakespeare would have had the opportunity to obserbe soldiers returned from that war.

      It strikes me also that I hve not read any critical account of this play that relates Macbeth’s thoughts and actions to his experience of the battlefield. That would be fascinating to read.


  5. Many thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking piece, Himadri. And also to Mark Dietz for those insights. Like him, I now want to read the play again with those new thoughts in mind.

    It also makes me wonder — not for the first time, of course — at the quality of the mind that could produce such gems that we turn again and again to a light that mayl help us to see new facets so many centuries later.


    • It’s one of those things … it’s easy to get tired of the adulation heaped on Shakespeare, but when one goes back to these plays, it is hard to refrain from adulation oneself. For an Anglophone lover of literature, it becomes very hard not to place Shakespeare at the centre of one’s literary consciousness.


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