[ocr errors]

of hospitality, which have always been held sacred by the Celts. He killed him in battle at a spot near Elgin, called Bothgowanan -the Smith's Dwelling, the smith or armourer being in those days a man of high importance. The following is Lord Hailes's summary of the history of Macbeth :

'In 1034, Duncan succeeded his grandfather Malcolm. In 1039 he was assassinated by Macbeth. By his wife, the sister of Siward, Earl of Northumberland, he left two sons, Malcolm, surnamed Canmore [great head), and Donald, surnamed Bane (white or fair). Macbeth expelled the sons of Duncan, and usurped the Scottish throne. Malcolm sought refuge in Cumberland, Donald in the Hebrides.

When Edward the Confessor succeeded to the crown of England (1043), Earl Siward placed Malcolm under his protection. Malcolm remained long at court, an honourable and neglected exile. The partisans of Malcolm often attempted to procure his restoration, but their efforts, feeble and illconcerted, only served to establish the dominion of the usurper. At length Macduff, Thane of Fife, excited a formidable revolt in Scotland, while Siward, with the approbation of his sovereign, led the Northum. brians to the aid of his nephew Malcolm. He lived not to see the event of his generous enterprise. Macbeth retreated to the fastnesses of the north, and protracted the war. His people forsook his standard. Malcolm attacked him at Lumphanan, in Aberdeenshire : abandoned by his few remaining followers, Macbeth fell, 5th December 1056.'

4. Shakespeare, who took what he wanted wherever he found it, uses every hint that Holinshed gives him. Holinshed says that Lady Macbeth was a woman 'very ambitious, burning in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen;' and tells us how the same night after, at supper, Banquho jested with him and said: “Now, Makbeth, thou hast obteined those things which the two former sisters prophesied ; there remaineth onelie for thee to purchase that which the third said should come to passe. These and other suggestions of the chronicler, Shakespeare freely avails himself of. A second story in Holinshed has, however, also been incorporated in the play by Shakespeare. This is the story of the murder of King Duff by Donwald, captain of the castle of Forres. The arrival of the king at the castle with the pleasant seat,' the distribution of presents among the officers, the purposed intoxication of the chamberlains, the killing of them by Donwald in a pretended frenzy of loyalty, but really that he might effectively stop their mouths as witnesses—all these incidents are related by Holinshed of the murder of King Duff, but all transferred by Shakespeare to the story of Macbeth. In Holinshed, Banquo is represented as a consenting party to the

murder of Duncan; but Shakespeare employs him as he employed the Earl of Kent in King Lear, to present a picture of truth, loyalty, and resistance to temptation, in strong contrast with the first indifference to good and evil shewn by Macbeth-an indifference which is succeeded by the hardened practice of crime and every kind of treachery.

5. The story of the drama is the story of a man who yielded to evil thoughts from within, and evil suggestions from without, and who gradually, after the first yielding, found himself compelled to further and greater crimes. Shakespeare generally, in his tragedies, proceeds by the method of contrast. Thus, in King Lear, the two fathers, King Lear and Gloster, find the same misfortunes and misery in their children, and both meet an end similar in character. In this play, the two characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth illustrate and throw light upon each other. Macbeth is hesitating and a coward at first ; but, being in,' he goes through every crime that seems to him to be necessary to sustain his ill-gotten power. Lady Macbeth is ambitious-- is a woman of slight physical frame (she speaks of her little hand), but of strong will. She has made up her mind to have the crown; and, having willed the end, she accepts the necessary

But her whole internal existence falls into ruins : day and night she is without free or quiet life-she is possessed by the thought of what she has done ; and, at night especially, when the will has gone to sleep, the consciousness of her deed drags her to her feet, compels her to walk with sightless eyeballs through the palace, and to wash unceasingly the hands which

the multitudinous seas' could not cleanse. She dies of that utter collapse of the nervous system which is called 'a broken heart.' She has given her whole life for that which she can neither hold nor enjoy. Macbeth has long envied the dead whom he sent into silence; but he dies, like a soldier, on the battlefield, and • with harness on his back. He fights, however, as a wild beast fights, without the smallest hope of victory; and the last combat is in reality an execution. He is worried to death, like a bear at the stake (see V. vii. 1). Professor Dowden * says, with his usual power and insight : His courage becomes a desperate rage. We are in pain till the horrible necessity is accomplished.' Both of the chief personages have a conscience; and this conscience kills Lady Macbeth, while it goads the unrepenting

Shakespeare-His Mind and Art, page 256. Among the thousands of books on Shakespeare, this is most probably by far the best.


usurper into further crime. Neither of them knew themselves. They thought the murder of Duncan was merely a bridge to carry them across from nobility to royalty. But the assassination could not "trammel up the consequence ;' it was, on the very contrary, a living seed which produced fruit of misery an hundredfold. Before Macbeth dies, his life has become utterly hollow and objectless ; it has become a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,' but completely empty of significance.' 'A huge ennui pursues crime,' says Mr Dowden.

6. The true reason for the first appearance of the witches,' says Coleridge, 'is to strike the key-note of the character of the whole drama. That key-note is that evil, for the time, has obtained the mastery ; and that it, like disease in the physical body, must work itself out in the social body. Fair is foul' to the witches, and “foul is fair ;' and these weird sisters represent those powers of evil which have a real existence in society, and which are frequently powerful enough to subdue the individual will. "The history of the race,' says Mr Dowden, and the social medium in which we live and breathe, have created forces of good and evil, which are independent of the will of each individual man and

The sins of past centuries taint the atmosphere of to-day. We move through the world subject to accumulated forces of evil and of good outside ourselves.' The remaining characters of the play are comparatively insignificant. Banquo is the moral foil to Macbeth. He prays that any evil thoughts which visit his mind may be restrained, and have no power over him; and, though his life is sacrificed, his soul remains loyal and good.

7. The critics are agreed in ranking Macbeth among the greatest, if not as the very greatest, of Shakespeare's works. Mr


Hallam says:

'The majority of readers, I believe, assign to Macbeth, which seems to have been written about 1606, the pre-eminence among the works of Shakespeare; many, however, would rather nanie Othello, and a few might prefer Lear to either. The great epic drama, as the first may be called, deserves, in my own judgment, the post it has attained, as being, in the language of Drake," the greatest effort of our author's genius, the most sublime and impressive drama which the world has ever beheld.”

Schlegel has an excellent analysis of the play, from which the following extracts are made :

'Repentance immediately follows, nay, even precedes the deed, and the stings of conscience leave him rest neither night nor day. But he is now

In the pro

fairly entangled in the snares of hell; truly frightful it is to behold that same 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 the way whatever to his dark and suspicious mind seems to threaten danger. However much we may abhor his actions, we cannot altogether refuse to compassionate 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 the struggle of a brave will with a cowardly conscience. We might believe that we witness in this tragedy the overruling destiny of the ancients represented in perfect accordance with their ideas : the whole originates in a supernatural influence, to which the subsequent events seem inevitably linked. Moreover, we even find here the same ambiguous oracles which, by their literal fulfilment, deceive those who confide in them. Yet it may be easily shewn that the poet has, in his work, displayed more enlightened views. He wishes to shew 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. gress 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,

Unless the deed go with it." In every feature we see an energetic 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 could ever have been compressed into so narrow a space; not merely external events—the very inmost recesses in the minds of the dramatic personages 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 this picture in its power to excite terror. 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 possibly be said on the subject that will not rather weaken the impression they naturally leave? 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.

An attempt has been made in these new editions to interpret Shakespeare by the aid of Shakespeare himself. The Method of Comparison has been constantly employed; and the language used by him in one place has been compared with the language used in other places in similar circumstances—as well as with older English and with newer English. The text has been as carefully and as thoroughly annotated as the text of any Greek or Latin classic.

The first purpose in this elaborate annotation is of course the full working out of Shakespeare's meaning. The Editor has in all circumstances taken as much pains with this as if he had been making out the difficult and obscure terms of a will in which he himself was personally interested; and he submits that this thorough excavation of the meaning of a really profound thinker is one of the very best kinds of training that a boy or girl can receive at school. This is to read the very mind of Shakespeare, and to weave his thoughts into the fibre of one's own mental constitution. And always new rewards come to the careful reader-in the shape of new meanings, recognition of thoughts he had before missed, of relations between the characters that had hitherto escaped him. For reading Shakespeare is just like examining Nature; there are no hollownesses, there is no scamped work, for Shakespeare is as patiently exact and as first-hand as Nature herself.

Besides this thorough working-out of Shakespeare's meaning, advantage has been taken of the opportunity to teach his English-to make each play an introduction to the ENGLISH OF SHAKESPEARE. For this purpose, copious collections of similar phrases have been gathered from other plays; his idioms have been dwelt upon; bis peculiar use of words; his style and his rhythm. Some teachers may consider that too many instances are given; but, in teaching, as in everything else, the old French saying is true : Assez n'y a, s'il trop n'y a. The teacher need not require each pupil to give him all the instances collected. If each gives one or two, it will probably be enough; and, among them all, it is certain that one or two will stick in the

memory. It is probable that, for those pupils who do not study either Greek or Latin, this close examination of every word and phrase in the text of Shakespeare will be the best substitute that can be found for the study of the ancient classics.

It were much to be hoped that Shakespeare should become more and more of a national study; and that every boy and girl in England should have a thorough knowledge of at least one play of Shakespeare before they leave school. It would be one of the best lessons in human life-without the chance of a polluting or degrading experience. It would also have the effect of bringing back into the too pale and formal English of modern times a large number of pithy and vigorous phrases, which would help to develop as well as to reflect vigour in the characters of the readers. Shakespeare used the English language with more power than any writer that ever lived-he made it do more and say more than it had ever done-he made it speak in a more original way; and his combinations of words are perpetual provocations and invitations to originality and to newness of insight.

A more complete attempt has been made in Macbeth and in The Tempest than in the previous plays to work out the development of the passion and the tragic elements; but much has been still left to the Teacher.


« VorigeDoorgaan »