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Diu Johnson thought it necessary to prefix to this play an apology for Shakspeare's magic;—in which he says, "A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies." He then proceeds to defend this transgression upon the ground of the credulity of the Poet's age; when "the scenes of enchantment, however they may be now ridiculed, were, both by himself and his audience, thought awful and affecting." By whom, or when, (always excepting French criticism,) these sublime conceptions were in danger of ridicule, he has not told us; and I sadly fear that this superfluous apology arose from the misgivings of the great critic's mind. Schlegel has justly remarked that, "Whether the age of Shakspeare still believed in witchcraft and ghosts, is a matter of perfect indifference for the justification of the use which, in Hamlet and Macbeth, he has made of preexisting traditions. No superstition can ever be prevalent and widely diffused through ages and nations, without having a foundation in human nature: on this foundation the Poet builds; he calls up from their hidden abysses that dread of the unknown, that presage of a dark side of nature, and a world of spirits, which philosophy now imagines it has altogether exploded. In this manner he is in some degree both the portrayer and the philosopher of a superstition; that is, not the philosopher who denies and turns into ridicule, but, which is still more difficult, who distinctly exhibits its origin to us in apparently irrational and yet natural opinions."— In another place the same admirable critic says—" Since The Furies of JSschylus, nothing so grand and terrible has ever been composed. The Witches, it is true, are not divine Eumenides, and are not intended to be so; they are ignoble and vulgar instruments of hell. They discourse with one another like women of the very lowest class; for this was the class to which witches were supposed to belong. When, however, they address Macbeth, their tone assumes more elevation; their predictions have all the obscure brevity, the majestic solemnity, by which oracles have in all times contrived to inspire mortals with reverential awe. We here see that the witches are merely instruments; they are governed by an invisible spirit, or the operation of such great and dreadful events would be above their sphere." Their agency was necessary; for natural motives alone would have seemed inadequate to effect such a change as takes place in the nature and dispositions of Macbeth. By this means the Poet "has exhibited a more sublime picture to us; an ambitious but noble hero, who yields to a deep-laid, hellish temptation; and all the crimes to which he is impelled by necessity, to secure the fruits of his first crime, cannot altogether eradicate in him the stamp of native heroism." He has, therefore, given a threefold division to the guilt of that crime. The first idea comes from that being, whose whole activity is guided by a lust of wickedness. The weird sisters surprise Macbeth in the moment of intoxication after his victory, when his love of glory has been gratified; they cheat his eyes by exhibiting to him as the work of fate, what can only in reality be accomplished by his own deed, and gain credence for their words by the immediate fulfilment of the first prediction. The opportunity for murdering the king immediately offers itself; Lady Macbeth conjures him not to let it slip; she urges him on with a fiery eloquence, which has all those sophisms at command that serve to throw a false grandeur over crime. Little more than the mere execution falls to the share of Macbeth; he is driven to it, as it were, in a state of commotion, in which his mind is bewildered. Repentance immediately follows; nay, even precedes the deed; and the stings of his conscience leave him no rest either night or day. But he is now fairly entangled in the snares of hell: it is truly frightful to behold that Macbeth, who once as a warrior could spurn at death, now that he dreads the prospect of the life to come, clinging with growing anxiety to his earthly existence, the more miserable it becomes, and pitilessly removing out of his way whatever to his dark and suspicious mind seems to threaten danger. However much we may abhor his actions, we cannot altogether refuse to sympathize with the state of his mind; we lament the ruin of so many noble qualities; and, even in his last defence, we are compelled to admire in him the struggle of a brave will with a cowardly conscience. The Poet wishes to show that the conflict of good and evil in this world can only take place by the permission of Providence, which converts the curse that individual mortals draw down on their heads, into a blessing to others. Lady Macbeth, who, of all the human beings, is the most guilty participator in the murder of the king, falls, through the horrors of her conscience, into a state of incurable bodily and mental disease; she dies, unlamented by her husband, with all the symptoms of reprobation. Macbeth is still found worthy of dying the death of a hero on the field of battle. Banquo atones for the ambitious curiosity which prompted him to wish to know his glorious descendants, by an early death, as he thereby rouses Macbeth's jealousy; but he preserved his mind pure from the bubbles of the witches; his name is blessed in his race, destined to enjoy for a long succession of ages that royal dignity which Macbeth could only hold during his own life. In the progress of the action, this piece is altogether the reverse of Hamlet; it strides forward with amazing rapidity from the first catastrophe (for Duncan's murder may be called a catastrophe) to the last. Thought, and done! is the general motto; for, as Macbeth says,
"The flighty purpose never is o'ertook,
In every feature we see a vigorous, heroic age, in the hardy North, which steels every nerve. The precise duration of the action cannot be ascertained,—years, perhaps, according to the story; but we know that to the imagination the most crowded time appears always the shortest. Here we can hardly conceive how so very much can be compressed into so narrow a space; not merely external events—the very innermost recesses of the minds of the persons of the drama are laid open to us. It is as if the drags were taken from the wheels of time, and they rolled along without interruption in their descent. Nothing can equal the power of this picture in exciting horror. We need only allude to the circumstances attending the murder of Duncan, the dagger that hovers before the eyes of Macbeth, the vision of Banquo at the feast, the madness of Lady Macbeth; what can we possibly say on the subject that will not rather weaken the impression? Such scenes stand alone, and are to be found only in this Poet; otherwise the tragic muse might exchange her mask for the head of Medusa."*
Shakspeare followed the chronicle of Holinshed, and Holinshed borrowed his narration from the Chronicles of Scotland, translated by John Bellenden, from the Latin of Hector Boethius, and first published at Edinburgh, in 1541.
"Malcolm the Second, king of Scotland, had t«r> daughters. The eldest was married to Crynin, the father of Duncan, thane of the isles, and western parts of Scotland; and on the death of Malcolm without male issue, Duncan succeeded to the throne. Malcolm's second daughter was married to Sinel, thane of Glamis, the father of Macbeth. Duncan,
* Lectures on Dramatic Literature, by A. W. Schlegel, translated by John Black, London, 1815, vol. ii. p. 200.
who married the sister of Siward, earl of Northumberland, was murdered by his cousin-german Macbeth, in the castle of Inverness, about the year 1040 or 1045. Macbeth was himself slain by Macduff, according to Boethius in 1061, according to Buchanan in 1057, at which time Edward the Confessor reigned in England.
In the reign of Duncan, Banquo having been plundered by the people of Lochaber of some of the king's revenues, which he had collected, and being dangerously wounded in the affray, the persons concerned in this outrage were summoned to appear at a certain day. But they slew the sergeant-at-arms who summoned them, and chose one Macdonwald as their captain. Macdonwald speedily collected a considerable body of forces from Ireland and the Western Isles, and in one action gained a victory over the king's army. In this battle Malcolm, a Scottish nobleman, (who was lieutenant to Duncan in Lochaber,) was slain. Afterwards Macbeth and Banquo were appointed to the command of the army; and Macdonwald, being obliged to take refuge in a castle in Lochaber, first slew his wife and children, and then himself. Macbeth, on entering the castle, finding his dead body, ordered his head to be cut off and carried to the king, at the castle of Bertha, and his body to be hung on a high tree.
At a subsequent period, in the last year of Duncan's reign, Sueno, king of Norway, landed a powerful army in Fife, for the purpose of invading Scotland. Duncan immediately assembled an army to oppose him, and gave the command of two divisions of it to Macbeth and Banquo, putting himself at the head of a third. Sueno was successful in one battle, but in a second was routed; and, after a great slaughter of his troops, he escaped with ten persons only, and fled back to Norway. Though there was an interval of time between the rebellion of Macdonwald and the invasion of Sueno, Shakspeare has woven these two actions together, and immediately after Sueno's defeat the present play commences.
It is remarkable that Buchanan has pointed out Macbeth's history as a subject for the stage. "Multa hie fabulose quidam nostrorum affingunt; sed quia fheatris aut Milesiis fabulis sunt aptiora quam historic, ea omitto." —Rerum Scot Hist IAb. vii.
Milton also enumerates the subject among those he considered well suited for tragedy, but it appears that he would have attempted to preserve the unity of time, by placing the relation of the murder of Duncan in the mouth of his ghost
Macbeth is one of the latest, and unquestionably one of the noblest efforts of Shakspeare's genius; equally impressive in the closet and on the stage, where to witness its representation has been justly pronounced "the first of all dramatic enjoyments." Malone places the date of its composition in