Macbeth and the Language of Desire

By Asa Montreaux
A.C. Bradley writes that in Macbeth, “Shakespeare’s final style appears for the first time completely formed, and the transition to this style is much more decidedly visible in Macbeth than in King Lear.” Thus we can consider this play to be a consummate one of his style that is so probing into the inner workings of our minds. The genius of Shakespeare, as Leavis notes, is ‘awe-inspiring’ because of the ‘inwardness and completeness of its humanity.’ (p. )
Macbeth allows us something experientially that we absolutely need. One might say that good books are good “because they guide, nurture, and nourish, and create a space for portentous existential questions.’ In particular Macbeth allows us to probe the very ‘broad literary humanist question of how to live in a ‘groundless world.’” (p. ..). Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth, navigate a social world of constructed values, without being given clear ethical instructions. It is up to them to construct an ethics by which they can live.
It is Shakespeare’s “last and most original play on the theme of the ambitious prince finally overthrown.” (Faokes 7). We may as Macbeth may be “able to ‘sculpt’ ourselves into whatever shape we prefer, but such images of excess are balanced by the laying down of ethical boundaries.” (..). Our identity cannot ethically come at considerable cost to other individuals. There are consequences for trying to overstep other people, ones for exploring the intention to overstep a just monarch. Lady Macbeth tries to be at the top of the social order, but in doing so goes beyond it, becoming not supra-human, but instead unhuman, monstrous.
These passions stirring inside Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are ‘God-given’, and they seem to demand some form of expression. The characters try to use language to pin-point and express the passion, or at least guide themselves to an expression of their passions. We need mark the instances when passions cloud their thoughts, threatening to burst their humanity, which we desperately need them to live up to for the sake of their social world and the sake of ours. Fear consumes them, excites them. By killing Duncan, the Macbeth’s create an atmosphere of pervasive fear, annihilating their ability to trust their friends and allies. Having betrayed “trust, Macbeth is prey to fears that others cannot be trusted. Several existential truths are told in the play about fear.” We need take note that “fear of transgressing certain boundaries is a psychological and ethical necessity, and in addition that “fear activates a desire for ethical and psychological limits.” Macbeth’s fear convinces him of his limits, makes him desire discretion, but Lady Macbeth sees the fear as an obstacle to what they want, and she tells us that there are no ethical limits.
Macbeth is distinguished as a character by his imagination, which is quite literally “an image-making capacity of frightening intensity. It is a moral imagination, in that the images it registers must vividly have to do with the moral status of Macbeth’s acts and desires. But Shakespeare gives these images a powerful histrionic setting by having Macbeth use them, much like an actor rehearsing a role, to explore and indeed discover his new emotions. He must discover what it is like to be able to commit such a crime, to have desires and proclivities and mental activity large enough to propel him into the act. And this is exactly what Macbeth, in the early scenes, discovers in himself. (146). Our cultural narratives are replete with the notion of forward motion, particularly, social mobility. What Macbeth must build himself up to is a disturbance of the social world far greater than the ascension of a new president or prime-minister. The sheer wrongness of this is immense, and its wrongness exists in Macbeth. He knows definitely that this is wrong, and in this way he must imaginatively dig deeper than ever before to uncover the poetic language, the rationalization, for his massive, destructive act. Perhaps this is why he battles with Lady Macbeth – he has to overcome the barriers within himself. He needs solitude to concentrate and produce the poetic language, the rationalization, for his massive, destructive act. Perhaps this is why he battles with Lady Macbeth – he has to overcome the barriers within himself. He needs solitude to produce the language that he does and the images and hallucinations that convince him to murder Duncan.
In the lines: Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.” The present reality is contrasted with what Macbeth is able to imagine. The latter things it is best he does not actualize in conversation with Lady Macbeth. At the limits of his moral topography, Macbeth can envision – or become capable of envisioning – a murder without anything to do with the battlefield. In fact the “psychological and mimetic process by which the actor can become a murderer has been very thoroughly laid out.” And the end of his reasoning and dialogue with his wife, Macbeth “sees the mental process he has just gone through as no more than ‘words’, that he wishes to accelerate away from his imagination by hurrying into action, but it should be noted that in his habit of speech he simply parallels his habits of thought and speech. Both verbally and politically, Macbeth’s way of dealing with the evil he discovers in himself is to recreate the Universe in its image.” (149).
And the truth is, as Charles Lamb writes, that the “characters of Shakespeare are so much the objects of meditation rather than of interest or curiosity as to their actions, that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters – Macbeth, Richard, even Iago, -- we think not so much of the crimes which they commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual activity, which prompts them to overlap those moral fences.” (Foakes 9). As Macbeth descends into criminality, madness, hell, breaking in trust from the social world around him – he and Lady Macbeth are becoming a system unto themselves: severed from the community, and trying to perch above it.
Terry Eagleton perceives two basic linguistic modes: a simple mode and an equivocal one. The simpler mode is used by the more honest and good characters like Banquo often do, or like Cordelia does. The equivocal mode is deployed by the more evil characters like Iago or Macbeth. From the play’s commencement: “Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.” Here, the inner sensation of resolution is sustained, and what we see is Macbeth giving in to a blackness which hides the reality of the crime, and hides him from detection, even by Macbeth himself. (p. …) Wilson Knight thought that Macbeth “has won through by excessive criminality to a harmonious and honest relation with his surroundings. He now knows himself to be a tyrant confessed, and wins back in this way integrity of the soul. (Foakes 10). He accepts the role of tyrant to have recognition of the merit he feels he deserves in Scotland.
Macbeth’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act one scene two is his one direct reference to ambition. The only spur to prick on his intention and by now he has talked himself out the deed. Lady Macbeth tries to convince him to do it more:
Wouldst thou have that which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,/ And live a coward in thine own esteem,/ letting “I dare not” wait upon ‘I would?’ She avoids speaking of the murder itself, but translates it into ‘a more familiar, if revolting, image of what she might have done, in dashing out the brains of her own child. For her it is a matter of Macbeth’s screwing ‘his courage to the sticking place,’ and she seems to miss a dimension present in Macbeth’s: “I dare do all that may become a man; who dares do more is none.” (..) What does it ‘become’ a man to do? (Faokes 15-16).
Lady Macbeth wants for Macbeth to do away with discretion, and be in her vision of it, more of a man. The action she asks of him violates the façade of hard but integrous soldier necessary to Macbeth’s social survival. Lady Macbeth takes his life for granted, and sees his hardness only as a tool for her vague and unfulfilled desires.
Macbeth’s reply raises a question of the limits of male action. At what point exactly should daring stop? Daring is what Macbeth “is known for, as ‘Valour’s minion’, and Lady Macbeth effectually prompts him in terms that remind him of this; she displaces his brooding on the enormity of the deed and its consequences with the renowned sense of challenge, and he goes off resolved to: ‘bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat. What limits of action, or speech can Macbeth go to without risking their social standing by any means becomes daring. Their relationship to language is like an addiction, in which they become more and more involved in their own words, their own versions of reality, until they are delusional, trapping themselves into their own death and condemnation. It raises questions of the power of the unconscious to motivate, and to shape our thought when we feel we are thinking sanely.
Faokes writes that “the dagger of the aire is terrifying, but embodies too Macbeth’s desire to achieve the deed.” (17). He follows the dagger and this curiosity, stripped of its romanticism, is not wholly good. Experimentation and an obsession with gaining knowledge and power, of finding out what is possible, can become psychopathic and more important in their deluded psyches than the sacred lived of their fellow countrymen. Creativity is promethean and like in Frankenstein powerful creations for the good are creations with a potential for massive evil:
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going. Act II scene 1, the air-drawn dagger was more ‘real.’
Shakespeare’s concern in the last three acts was to address what happens next, to show Macbeth devolving into ‘a prisoner of his own imagination,’ ‘bound into doubts and fears,’ able to achieve release from these as the appalling cost of losing his capability to care. (Faokes 27). Macbeth’s speech attempts to clutch “at the atmosphere he feels thickening around him, and within him. He tries to push into it, wade through it, and sometimes thrust out of it. He keeps registering the new entanglements, the smoothing densities his horrible imagining force upon him.” (Goldman 145).
Catherine Belsy writes of there being a split between the ‘I’ who speaks, and the ‘I’ whom I speak of. What Beneviste calls the subject of the enunciation at times of social crisis, when the mode of production is threatened or changing; this happens in the Renaissance especially… (119). The characters loss of themselves is tracked by the loss of “I”, they want retreat to solitude to maintain their individuation, and when that solitude is collapsed by madness, the “I” disappears, has no agency – will drink the witches’ disgusting potion like in Polanski’s film of the play because he has no choice any longer.
In regard to the boundaries of the self, Eagleton thinks Lady Macbeth makes a philosophical error “in failing to see that limits create rather than construct humanizing and in (encouraging) Macbeth to transgress boundaries in order to achieve what he wants… (). To ‘unsex me here’ portrays a shallow notion of gender identity, and calls into question the competence of the murderers.
Macbeth struggles to define the limits of his identity. … writes that to be authentically human in (Macbeth’s) views is to be creatively constrained, fixed and framed by certain precise bonds of hierarchical allegiance. To transgress these determining bond, for Macbeth, is to become less human in trying to become more.” In this way he fends off Lady Macbeth, but his own reasons or lack thereof he eventually gives into her. One reason could be to retain the privilege of sleeping with her, which she can withhold, and also the whole act has become sexual, involving Macbeth’s whole identity and being, involving legacy and the children of his (forfeited) future.

 Further uncertainty is present in the tension in Eagleton’s reading of both a deconstructionist sense of language as an unstable process that constitutes reality and (historical) materialist sense of physical and political reality. (125). This resembles the battlefield in the play of competing minds – competing visions of reality, which coincides somehow with a perhaps unrelated political and even ethical actuality.


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