Have you ever wondered if Macbeth wanted to kill his own soul? Well, the phrase does have a ring to it. And what about his wife? If killing your soul means wiping out your humanity, Lady Macbeth went at it full bottle in one of the most chilling speeches of our stage. And if we don’t think that Macbeth succeeded, it looks like his wife may have – although she had enough soul left to go mad at what she had done. In the end, Macbeth himself is reduced to a deluded chorus and his wife has collapsed trying to hold his husk together. Life for him is a tale told by an idiot that means nothing. Does, then, his evil savour of the banality that caught the eye of Hannah Arendt?
Germaine Greer made that remark about Macbeth in her book Shakespeare, A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 1986. Greer had got a Ph D at Cambridge on Shakespeare. The book is maddeningly academic at times and too abstract or remote for the series it is part of. The chapter headings are, after Life – Poetics, Ethics, Politics, Teleology and Sociology. The part on King Lear is headed ‘A vision of entropy.’ I looked up ‘entropy’ and I am no wiser; nor am I clear why the comedies come under Sociology. But when Greer speaks plainly, we can get provocative insights – as with that remark about Macbeth. Let us look at some others.
There is a fearful amount of manipulation going on in The Tempest. It goes on at many levels – even the idiot drunks get someone to work over – they get poor Caliban on the bottle. (It’s as hilarious as the scene in Die Entfuhrung.) But have you thought that at the end of the show the great manipulator may be little more than a pitiful wreck? Greer comments on the ‘doggerel’ of the Epilogue.
Prospero is now so feeble that he cannot get himself off the stage… His helplessness could not be more remorselessly conveyed. Neither Prospero nor Shakespeare is so much bidding farewell to the stage as begging to be released from it and pardoned for any evil done during his reign. The grandeur of this act of utter humility is staggering; the vein of anxiety running through the play, about the roughness of the magic, the fragility of innocence, the godlike power of the creators of illusory worlds, the irresistible tendency of man to debauchery rather than improvement, the blindness and self-indulgence of intellectuals, has cropped out, as the defrocked hierophant begs our intercession to save his soul.
(You, too, can look up ‘hierophant’ – is it a kind of ailment that leads some people to show off like this?)
When we get to Othello, we get ‘the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent.’ That seems to me to be hopelessly wide and abstract, and dangerously close to that ‘motiveless malignity’ that another critic has been unfairly rubbished for. But Greer is surely right to comment on the kind of ‘complicity’ that develops between Iago and the audience (that is expressly invited by Richard III and the Bastards) and his ‘mad inventiveness in luring Rodrigo and Cassio to their doom.’ We are reminded that like Don Giovanni, Iago is not selfish – he is prepared to spread his nastiness around.
The author is also right to observe that ‘because he is entertaining, scholars persist in finding excuses for Falstaff, forgetting perhaps that the Vice was always an ingratiating, lively and amusing fellow.’ Sir Anthony Quayle knew more about Falstaff than most, and described him as ‘frankly vicious.’
Have you noticed how much spying and deception goes on in Hamlet? It may be a play for our time – what Greer calls ‘a guided tour through a lying world.’ Elsinore looks like one big masked ball, albeit with a Stalinist air, and our hero tells us immediately that he is not there just for show or to play their games. He doesn’t want to ‘seem’ anything. He is there to bring healing to a sick nation. Must he die to do so? Is this a redemption story – like, say, Billy Budd, where we see Claggart’s ‘disdain of innocence’? After Hamlet learns of his father’s murder by the man now sleeping with his mother, does the playwright prefigure The Last Temptation of Christ?
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
The hero has forsworn personal revenge, we gather, but Greer says that ‘he goes towards his death in a Christian spirit of resignation.’ Well, he didn’t know he was going to die, but just what do we think lay behind the providence in the fall of this sparrow? If this all sounds fanciful, reflect on what my favourite critic, Tony Tanner, said in introducing the big four tragedies:
I think the problem of violence is central to tragedy and that, in some tentative sense, we can think of the tragic drama as a form of ritual sacrifice, and the tragic hero or protagonist who goes to his death as bearing some relationship to the figure of the scapegoat or surrogate victim.
In the course of her diverting discussion, Greer refers to the ‘heroic’ doubting of Hamlet and says: ‘The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience’. Well, ‘sovereignty’ has now been taken up by snake oil salesmen, who prey on the gullible, and ‘heroic’ in this context reminds me of its use by Kenneth Clark about the David of Michelangelo – another figure that I find to be frankly vicious.
Greer sees Lear as raging against the dying of the light and says that ‘King Lear becomes heroic when he is reduced to naked tramphood, tottering about the bare stage talking at cross purposes like Vladimir to Estragon…. Lear stands at the head of a line of nobodies simply struggling to survive…’ On Richard II, she refers to the famous remark of Queen Elizabeth I, ‘I am Richard, know ye not,’ and acutely observes:
He conducts his own deposition from centre stage, reducing Bolingbroke, whose heroic stature has dominated the play so far, to a Pilate figure… He dies heroically, while the erstwhile hero of the play is reduced to equivocation and cowardice by the demands of policy.
But let us go back to Macbeth, because he might be another hero for our time. Greer says of Macbeth that ‘his self-delusion is wilful’.
The consequence of his terrible deed is that now, even when he tells the truth, he has to be lying.
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv’d a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There’s nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys: renown, and grace, is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
This is Macbeth’s feigned lament for the death of Duncan: he says it hypocritically, but every word of it is true.
Well there is an awful lot of wilful self-delusion in this world now, a terrifying amount of lying, and a frontal assault on the very idea of truth. In that frightful prison called Denmark, we are not sure what state of mind Hamlet claimed to be in when he proclaimed his love for a woman, whom he would drive mad, with the words ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’ But we do know that Hamlet did, although again while feigning madness, say ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’.
That sad Danish nightmare – dreamed up by an Elizabethan playwright – now darkens the whole of the Western world. And do we see any who look fit to ‘set it right’?
And since we speak of salesmen, liars, and the death of truth, remember this – the witches sold Macbeth a pup, as dud a pup as the one that Satan sold to Eve.