Murdering Ministers: a Close Look at Shakespeare's Macbeth


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The objective of this study is to integrate everything worth knowing about Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ from four centuries of criticism and performances, stage as well as film, in a scene-by-scene close reading that provides the reader with an exhaustive knowledge of the play and answers questions that have captivated us for centuries. Did Burbage, the first Macbeth, enter on horseback? When does the idea of regicide first occur to the Macbeths? Why does Macbeth withhold part of the witches’ 33 prophecy from his wife? Is Banquo honest? Did Shakespeare believe in witchcraft? Why is the play cursed? What has happened to the baby that Lady Macbeth has given suck? Answers to this and much more come from actors, critics, and directors of countless productions since 1606.

Moreover, ‘Murdering Ministers’ is an expedition into the historical context of ‘Macbeth’: the politico-religious turmoil of Jacobean England. It is hardly a coincidence that Shakespeare’s play of regicide and witchcraft followed hard upon an assassination attempt on James I, author of a manual on black magic and how to detect it – but did the playwright mean to praise or to provoke his king with the Scottish Play? Finally, the book questions the tradition of the play as an exclusively sombre tragedy with all humour confined to the brief appearance of the porter in Act II. Macbeth is, in fact, full of hilarious dramatic irony rarely explored or exploited since the early 19th century. Although it may be a stretch to call it a comedy, there is plenty to laugh at. It wouldn’t be Shakespeare otherwise.

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In the book of Shakespeare and Violence , the aim is to locate Shakespeare’s plays nowadays to focus on them as work ‘that resonate across the centuries and take on new life and meaning in the context of our present time’. Foakes devoted for exploring contemporary events with Shakespeare’s writing and recording contemporaneous texts, considering them influential. The most ample part of the book is the ancient act of violence in Hamlet. It is expected that he looks at current scholarship, discoveries in the field of psychology and the changing palate for violence in production. The book is an analysis of language as a catalyst or pacifier of violence, or as a violent form in its own right. At a time in which we can see how rhetoric can win or lose a war.

In Foakes’s view, our natural urges slant us to violence in ways that are subject to ‘the influence of nature and nurture, the inclination to violence, to lash out, is both a part of what make up the nature of human beings, especially men, and is also culturally constructed’. One might draw back at the generality of even such a carefully qualified claim, citing the variation between individuals’ genetic programming, not to mention differences between cultures and periods, and between the various collective and individual behaviors that coexist in any complex society.

In the book of Murder and Society . Peter draws on a wide range of cross-cultural and historical material to support his point about crime and society relation. Peter Morrall looks at how the phenomenon of murder varies in motivation, cause, definition and consequences due to global situations and societal values. The official global murder rate per annum is rising toward one million. But there is no universal, cross-cultural meaning of murder that can be clinging to in any context, no matter who are the victims and who the killers. Murdering can be sanctioned by the State (the capital penalty) or by groups with a particular interest in using murder (suicide-bombers) as a tactic to achieve what are considered creditable objective not only by themselves but by other groups or States. Moreover, societies adopt their own moral hierarchies of murder depending on who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. This means that even if all killing is legally proscribed, particular types of killing are given harsher punishments than others.

Miethe and Regoeczi have analyzed diverse murder situations for different sorts of people in the USA (for example, men, women, teenagers, adults, strangers, intimates and Hispanics/Spanish). They attribute that murders committed using guns gyrate around issues of gender, race, class and urban locations. Moreover, criminological findings supports that the violence is correlated with ‘hot spot’ situations such as parking lots, bars/pubs, night clubs, accident and emergency hospital units, psychiatric acute services, drug-buying locations and shelters for the homeless.

Such an influential and universal character is seen in Thomas Hardy’s novels in the form of Egdon Heath (Wessex) or in J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea in the form of the sea. This omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient power is identified with God, with Death, Fate and human life. In Macbeth we see that this darkness is blended with the images of blood, death, destruction, fate, supernatural and evil.

While talking about the darkness in Macbeth A.C. Bradley says, Darkness, we may even say blackness, broods over this tragedy. It is remarkable that almost all the scenes which at once recur to memory take place either at night or in some dark spot. The vision of the dagger, the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, the sleep-walking of Lady Macbeth, all come in night-scenes. The Witches dance in the thick air of a storm, or, ‘black and midnight hags,’ receive Macbeth in a cavern.

The blackness of night is to the hero a thing of fear, even of horror; and that which he feels becomes the spirit of the play. The faint glimmerings of the western sky at twilight are here menacing: it is the hour when the traveller hastens to reach safety in his inn, and when Banquo rides homeward to meet his assassins; the hour when ‘light thickens,’ when ‘night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,’ when the wolf begins to howl, and the owl to scream, and withered murder steals forth to his work. Macbeth bids the stars hide their fires that his ‘black’ desires may be concealed; Lady Macbeth calls on thick night to come, palled in the dun nest smoke of hell.

We get the sight of this evil power in the beginning of the play through the line, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. This darkness is prevailing everywhere in the play and Shakespeare has introduced some agencies which force this darkness to come into action. While talking about Act of Macbeth a well-known author says, darkness in our society is indicative of evil. For example, a black cat, a dark night, and a dark place are all representative of diablerie. Authors use these symbols to explain an evil personality or setting. Shakespeare puts the imagery of darkness in Act of his play Macbeth to describe the agents of disorder. The negativity of witches, Macbeth, and Scotland are all described as dark because they represent the agents of chaos.

Through his play, Shakespeare provides a detailed and shocking depiction of the human condition as it is affected by temptation and sin. Here I will effort to reveal some of the sources of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that speak about to its moralistic themes chiefly his influences of England’s society. I do not propose that this will be an exhaustive exploration but will attempt to prove that Macbeth is a work born of a culture concerned with its relationship to God. In his introduction to Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas states, “This was no simple unified primitive world, but a dynamic and infinitely various society, where social and intellectual change had long been at work and where currents were moving in many different directions” (Thomas). Shakespeare’s England was a world of confusion and questioning. Regardless of his personal beliefs, Shakespeare’s works often reflect the changing tides of his society, both politically and morally. In Macbeth Shakespeare has colored the stage with the question of the relevance of good and evil in people’s lives, a question just as relevant today as it was in the early seventeenth century.

I will first attempt to establish the presence of moralistic themes in Macbeth, particularly through the play’s use of motifs, its scriptural allusions, and the revitalization view of witches as agents of the devil. I will also discuss some of the areas where Shakespeare diverges from the historical account of Macbeth in Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland in an effort to disagree that his changes support the presence of morality in his play. Then I will search the various beliefs about fate and free will in England and the ways in which Shakespeare reflects this question in Macbeth’s trap in self-fulfilling insight. Through this I will attempt to argue that Shakespeare’s Macbeth elevates the roll of character responsibility over the belief that humans are simply subject to the whims of supernatural forces. To support this I will put forward that Shakespeare gives a highly detailed representation of various aspects of sin. Thus, with so much emphasis on end result, Macbeth shows the dangers of entertaining temptation and conceding to sin.

In their introduction to Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics, Patrick Gray and John D. Cox explain, “Shakespeare’s perspective on morality does not emerge ex nihilo… but instead draws upon a rich variety of intellectual traditions, Christian as well as classical, even in its moments of most ardent critique” (Gray and Cox). There can be no doubt that an extensive amount of research could provide source material from a myriad of genres and institutions. Here I will explore some of the specifically religious sources for Shakespeare’s Macbeth in an attempt to establish the foundation for what he is asserting about the dangers of temptation and sin. 

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