I recently read Macbeth—twice—in case I ever decide to watch Joel Coen’s film version. Half way through I was surprised to find how much it mirrors Hamlet in its theme of conscience battling with action. The main difference is that, while Hamlet struggles internally–and endlessly–over the ramifications of righting a wrong he is unsure of, Macbeth debates with both his wife and his own conscience about whether to commit a manifest crime.
Consider, for example, the “If it were done” speech, from Macbeth:
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; 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.
Compared with this, from Hamlet:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
Similarly, the “dagger” speech in Macbeth–which is one we can also imagine Hamlet making–ends with, “Whiles I threat, he lives / Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” In other words, Stop talking about it and just do it, which is an epiphany it took Hamlet nearly an entire play to come up with, by saying, of death, “If it be not now, yet it will come.”
In Macbeth, Shakespeare also externalizes some of Hamlet’s inner debate in the figure of Lady Macbeth. In Hamlet, when Hamlet says, “Thus conscience does make coward of us all,” it comes at a moment of serious self-reflection. Lady Macbeth hurls the same dart at her husband, but as a taunt:
Art though afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? 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,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage?
At another point in the play, just after Duncan’s murder, Macbeth echoes the guilty Claudius. Here’s the latter, in Hamlet, attempting to pray:
What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees….
One cried, “God bless us” and, “Amen,” the other;
As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands.
Listening their fear, I could not say “Amen,”
When they did say say, “God bless us”…
But wherefore could not I pronounce “Amen”?
I had most need of blessing, and “Amen”
Stuck in my throat.
On the one hand, a struggle over whether to do right, and on the other, a struggle over whether to do wrong. The problem with Macbeth, though–one which makes me feel the play is a bit flat and rushed–is the ease with which Macbeth appears to get over each hurdle of conscience. As much as I like to complain that Hamlet never stops talking, and as much as I want to cheer when Laertes boldly vows to “cut his throat i’ the church”–finally, a man of action!–I wish Macbeth had more of an inner life, or at least put up more of a fight before rushing off to the slaughter.
Coming up in the next post: “Macbeth is Hamlet without God.”