There is a later drama of Shakespeare's, a drama which comes between
"Othello" and "Lear," and belongs, therefore, to the topmost height of
the poet's achievement, whose principal character is Hamlet, Hamlet over
again, with every peculiarity and every fault; a Hamlet, too, entangled
in an action which is utterly unsuited to his nature. Surely if this
statement can be proved, it will be admitted by all competent judges
that the identity of Hamlet and his creator has been established. For
Shakespeare must have painted this second Hamlet unconsciously. Think of
it. In totally new circumstances the poet speaks with Hamlet's voice in
Hamlet's words. The only possible explanation is that he is speaking
from his own heart, and for that reason is unaware of the mistake. The
drama I refer to is "Macbeth." No one, so far as I know, has yet thought
of showing that there is any likeness between the character of Hamlet
and that of Macbeth, much less identity; nevertheless, it seems to me
easy to prove that Macbeth, "the rugged Macbeth," as Hazlitt and Brandes
call him, is merely our gentle irresolute, humanist, philosopher Hamlet
masquerading in galligaskins as a Scottish thane.
Let us take the first appearance of Macbeth, and we are forced to remark
at once that he acts and speaks exactly as Hamlet in like circumstances
would act and speak. The honest but slow Banquo is amazed when Macbeth
starts and seems to fear the fair promises of the witches; he does not
see what the nimble Hamlet-intellect has seen in a flash--the dread
means by which alone the promises can be brought to fulfilment. As soon
as Macbeth is hailed "Thane of Cawdor" Banquo warns him, but Macbeth, in
spite of the presence of others, falls at once, as Hamlet surely would
have fallen, into a soliloquy: a thing, considering the circumstances,
most false to general human nature, for what he says must excite
Banquo's suspicion, and is only true to the Hamlet-mind, that in and out
of season loses itself in meditation. The soliloquy, too, is startlingly
characteristic of Hamlet. After giving expression to the merely natural
uplifting of his hope, Macbeth begins to weigh the for and against like
"This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good; if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image ...
Is smothered in surmise and nothing is
But what is not,----"
When Banquo draws attention to him as "rapt," Macbeth still goes on
talking to himself, for at length he has found arguments against action:
"If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me,
Without my stir,"--
all in the true Hamlet vein. At the end of the act, Macbeth when
excusing himself to his companions becomes the student of Wittenberg in
proper person. The courteous kindliness of the words is almost as
characteristic as the bookish illustration:
"Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are registered where every day I turn
The leaf to read them."
If this is not Hamlet's very tone, manner and phrase, then individuality
of nature has no peculiar voice.
I have laid such stress upon this, the first scene in which Macbeth
appears, because the first appearance is by far the most important for
the purpose of establishing the main outlines of a character; first
impressions in a drama being exceedingly difficult to modify and almost
impossible to change.
Macbeth, however, acts Hamlet from one end of the play to the other; and
Lady Macbeth's first appearance (a personage almost as important to the
drama as Macbeth himself) is used by Shakespeare to confirm this view of
Macbeth's character. After reading her husband's letter almost her first
"Yet do I fear thy nature.
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way."
What is this but a more perfect expression of Hamlet's nature than
Hamlet himself gives? Hamlet declares bitterly that he is "pigeon
livered," and lacks "gall to make oppression bitter"; he says to
Laertes, "I loved you ever," and to his mother:
"I must be cruel only to be kind,"
and she tells the King that he wept for Polonius' death. But the best
phrase for his gentle-heartedness is what Lady Macbeth gives here: he is
"too full o' the milk of human kindness." The words are as true of the
Scottish chieftain as of the Wittenberg student; in heart they are one
and the same person.
Though excited to action by his wife, Macbeth's last words in this scene
are to postpone decision. "We will speak further," he says, whereupon
the woman takes the lead, warns him to dissemble, and adds, "leave all
the rest to me." Macbeth's doubting, irresolution, and dislike of action
could hardly be more forcibly portrayed.
The seventh scene of the first act begins with another long soliloquy by
Macbeth, and this soliloquy shows us not only Hamlet's irresolution and
untimely love of meditation, but also the peculiar pendulum-swing of
"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. . . . ."
Is not this the same soul which also in a soliloquy questions
fate?--"Whether 'tis better in the mind...."
Macbeth, too, has Hamlet's peculiar and exquisite intellectual
fairness--a quality, be it remarked in passing, seldom found in a
ruthless murderer. He sees even the King's good points:
...... "this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off."
Is it not like Hamlet to be able to condemn himself in this way
beforehand? Macbeth ends this soliloquy with words which come from the
inmost of Hamlet's heart:
"I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on the other."
Hamlet, too, has no spur to prick the sides of his intent, and Hamlet,
too, would be sure to see how apt ambition is to overleap itself, and so
would blunt the sting of the desire. This monologue alone should have
been sufficient to reveal to all critics the essential identity of
Hamlet and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, too, tells us that Macbeth left the
supper table where he was entertaining the King, in order to indulge
himself in this long monologue, and when he hears that his absence has
excited comment, that he has been asked for even by the King, he does
not attempt to excuse his strange conduct, he merely says, "We will
proceed no further in this business," showing in true Hamlet fashion how
resolution has been "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." In
fact, as his wife says to him, he lets "'I dare not' wait upon 'I would'
like the poor cat i' the adage." Even when whipped to action by Lady
Macbeth's preternatural eagerness, he asks:
"If we should fail?"
whereupon she tells him to screw his courage to the sticking place, and
describes the deed itself. Infected by her masculine resolution, Macbeth
at length consents to what he calls the "terrible feat." The word
"terrible" here is surely more characteristic of the humane
poet-thinker than of the chieftain-murderer. Even at this crisis, too,
of his fate Macbeth cannot cheat himself; like Hamlet he is compelled to
see himself as he is:
"False face must hide what the false heart doth know."
I have now considered nearly every word used by Macbeth in this first
act: I have neither picked passages nor omitted anything that might make
against my argument; yet every impartial reader must acknowledge that
Hamlet is far more clearly sketched in this first act of "Macbeth" than
in the first act of "Hamlet." Macbeth appears in it as an irresolute
dreamer, courteous, and gentle-hearted, of perfect intellectual fairness
and bookish phrase; and in especial his love of thought and dislike of
action are insisted upon again and again.
In spite of the fact that the second act is one chiefly of incident,
filled indeed with the murder and its discovery, Shakespeare uses
Macbeth as the mouthpiece of his marvellous lyrical faculty as freely as
he uses Hamlet. A greater singer even than Romeo, Hamlet is a poet by
nature, and turns every possible occasion to account, charming the ear
with subtle harmonies. With a father's murder to avenge, he postpones
action and sings to himself of life and death and the undiscovered
country in words of such magical spirit-beauty that they can be compared
to nothing in the world's literature save perhaps to the last chapter of
Ecclesiastes. From the beginning to the end of the drama Hamlet is a
great lyric poet, and this supreme personal gift is so natural to him
that it is hardly mentioned by the critics. This gift, however, is
possessed by Macbeth in at least equal degree and excites just as little
notice. It is credible that Shakespeare used the drama sometimes as a
means of reaching the highest lyrical utterance.
Without pressing this point further let us now take up the second act of
the play. Banquo and Fleance enter; Macbeth has a few words with them;
they depart, and after giving a servant an order, Macbeth begins another
long soliloquy. He thinks he sees a dagger before him, and immediately
falls to philosophizing:
"Come let me clutch thee:--
I have thee not and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet in form as palpable
|As that which
||now I draw....
||* * *
|Mine eyes are
||made the fools o' the other
|Or else worth
||all the rest: I see
|And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood
|Which was not
What is all this but an illustration of Hamlet's assertion:
"There is nothing either good or bad
But thinking makes it so."
Just too as Hamlet swings on his mental balance, so that it is still a
debated question among academic critics whether his madness was feigned
or real, so here Shakespeare shows us how Macbeth loses his foothold on
reality and falls into the void.
The lyrical effusion that follows is not very successful, and probably
on that account Macbeth breaks off abruptly:
"Whiles I threat he lives,
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives,"
which is, of course, precisely Hamlet's complaint:
"This is most brave;
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words."
After this Lady Macbeth enters, and the murder is committed, and now
wrought to the highest tension Macbeth must speak from the depths of his
nature with perfect sincerity. Will he exult, as the ambitious man
would, at having taken successfully the longest step towards his goal?
Or will he, like a prudent man, do his utmost to hide the traces of his
crime, and hatch plans to cast suspicion on others? It is Lady Macbeth
who plays this part; she tells Macbeth to "get some water,"
"And wash this filthy witness from your hand,"
while he, brainsick, rehearses past fears and shows himself the
sensitive poet-dreamer inclined to piety: here is the incredible scene:
"<i>Lady M.</i> There are two lodged together.
<i>Macb</i>. 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 'God bless us.'
<i>Lady M</i>. Consider it not so deeply.
<i>Macb</i>. But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'?
I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen'
Stuck in my throat."
This religious tinge colouring the weakness of self-pity is to be found
again and again in "Hamlet"; Hamlet, too, is religious-minded; he begs
Ophelia to remember his sins in her orisons. When he first sees his
father's ghost he cries:
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us,"
and when the ghost leaves him his word is, "I'll go pray." This new
trait, most intimate and distinctive, is therefore the most conclusive
proof of the identity of the two characters. The whole passage in the
mouth of a murderer is utterly unexpected and out of place; no wonder
Lady Macbeth exclaims:
"These deeds must not be thought
After these ways: so, it will make us mad."
But nothing can restrain Macbeth; he gives rein to his poetic
imagination, and breaks out in an exquisite lyric, a lyric which has
hardly any closer relation to the circumstances than its truth to
"Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,'--the innocent sleep:
Sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,"
and so forth--the poet in love with his own imaginings.
Again Lady Macbeth tries to bring him back to a sense of reality; tells
him his thinking unbends his strength, and finally urges him to take the
daggers back and
The sleepy grooms with the blood."
But Macbeth's nerve is gone; he is physically broken now as well as
mentally o'erwrought; he cries:
I am afraid to think what I have done.
Look on't again I dare not."
All this is exquisitely characteristic of the nervous student who has
been screwed up to a feat beyond his strength, "a terrible feat," and
who has broken down over it, but the words are altogether absurd in the
mouth of an ambitious, half-barbarous chieftain.
His wife chides him as fanciful, childish--"infirm of purpose,"--she'll
put the daggers back herself; but nothing can hearten Macbeth; every
household noise sets his heart thumping:
"Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me when every noise appals me?"
His mind rocks; he even imagines he is being tortured:
"What hands are here? Ha!
They pluck out my eyes."
And then he swings into another incomparable lyric:
"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red."
There is a great deal of the poet-neuropath and very little of the
murderer for ambition's sake in this lyrical hysteria. No wonder Lady
Macbeth declares she would be ashamed "to wear a heart so white." It is
all Hamlet over again, Hamlet wrought up to a higher pitch of intensity.
And here it should be remembered that "Macbeth" was written three years
after "Hamlet" and probably just before "Lear"; one would therefore
expect a greater intensity and a deeper pessimism in Macbeth than in
The character-drawing in the next scene is necessarily slight. The
discovery of the murder impels every one save the protagonist to action,
but Macbeth finds time even at the climax of excitement to coin
Hamlet-words that can never be forgotten:
"There's nothing serious in mortality;"
and the description of Duncan:
"His silver skin laced with his golden blood"
--as sugar'd sweet as any line in the sonnets, and here completely out
In these first two acts the character of Macbeth is outlined so firmly
that no after-touches can efface the impression.
Now comes a period in the drama in which deed follows so fast upon deed,
that there is scarcely any opportunity for characterization. To the
casual view Macbeth seems almost to change his nature, passing from
murder to murder quickly if not easily. He not only arranges for
Banquo's assassination, but leaves Lady Macbeth innocent of the
knowledge. The explanation of this seeming change of character is at
hand. Shakespeare took the history of Macbeth from Holinshed's
Chronicle, and there it is recorded that Macbeth murdered Banquo and
many others, as well as Macduff's wife and children. Holinshed makes
Duncan have "too much of clemencie," and Macbeth "too much of crueltie."
Macbeth's actions correspond with his nature in Holinshed; but
Shakespeare first made Macbeth in his own image--gentle, bookish and
irresolute--and then found himself fettered by the historical fact that
Macbeth murdered Banquo and the rest. He was therefore forced to explain
in some way or other why his Macbeth strode from crime to crime. It must
be noted as most characteristic of gentle Shakespeare that even when
confronted with this difficulty he did not think of lending Macbeth any
tinge of cruelty, harshness, or ambition. His Macbeth commits murder for
the same reason that the timorous deer fights--out of fear.
"To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep, and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be feared":
"There is none but he
Whose being I do fear":...
This proves, as nothing else could prove, the all-pervading, attaching
kindness of Shakespeare's nature. Again and again Lady Macbeth saves the
situation and tries to shame her husband into stern resolve, but in
vain; he's "quite unmann'd in folly."
Had Macbeth been made ambitious, as the commentators assume, there would
have been a sufficient motive for his later actions. But ambition is
foreign to the Shakespeare-Hamlet nature, so the poet does not employ
it. Again and again he returns to the explanation that the timid grow
dangerous when "frighted out of fear." Macbeth says:
"But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly."
In passing I may remark that Hamlet, too, complains of "bad dreams."
In deep Hamlet melancholy, Macbeth now begins to contrast his state with
"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst: nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further."
Lady Macbeth begs him to sleek o'er his rugged looks, be bright and
jovial. He promises obedience; but soon falls into the dark mood again
and predicts "a deed of dreadful note." Naturally his wife questions
him, and he replies:
"Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pityful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale."
No other motive for murder is possible to Shakespeare-Macbeth but fear.
Banquo is murdered, but still Macbeth cries:
"I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears."
The scene with the ghost of Banquo follows, where-in Macbeth again shows
the nervous imaginative Hamlet nature. His next speech is mere
reflection, and again Hamlet might have framed it:
That when the brains were out the man would die
And there an end": ...
But while fear may be an adequate motive for Banquo's murder, it can
hardly explain the murder of Macduff's wife and children. Shakespeare
feels this, too, and therefore finds other reasons natural enough; but
the first of these reasons, "his own good," is not especially
characteristic of Macbeth, and the second, while perhaps characteristic,
is absurdly inadequate: men don't murder out of tediousness:
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
[Footnote 1: It seems to me probable that Shakespeare, unable to find an
adequate motive for murder, borrowed this one from "Richard III." Richard
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin"--
This is an explanation following the fact rather than a cause producing
it--an explanation, moreover, which may be true in the case of a
fiendlike Richard, but is not true of a Macbeth.]
Take it all in all, this latter reason is as poor a motive for
cold-blooded murder as was ever given, and Shakespeare again feels this,
for he brings in the witches once more to predict safety to Macbeth and
adjure him to be "bloody, bold and resolute." When they have thus
screwed his courage to the sticking place as his wife did before,
Macbeth resolves on Macduff's murder, but he immediately recurs to the
old explanation; he does not do it for his "own good" nor because
"returning is tedious "; he does it
"That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder."
It is fair to say that Shakespeare's Macbeth is so gentle-kind, that he
can find no motive in himself for murder, save fear. The words
Shakespeare puts into Hubert's mouth in "King John" are really his own
"Within this bosom never enter'd yet
The dreadful motion of a murderous thought."
The murders take place and the silly scenes in England between Malcolm
and Macduff follow, and then come Lady Macbeth's illness, and the
characteristic end. The servant tells Macbeth of the approach of the
English force, and he begins the wonderful monologue:
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not."
Truly this is a strange murderer who longs for "troops of friends," and
who at the last push of fate can find in himself kindness enough towards
others to sympathize with the "poor heart." All this is pure Hamlet; one
might better say, pure Shakespeare.
We are next led into the field with Malcolm and Macduff, and immediately
back to the castle again. While the women break into cries, Macbeth
soliloquizes in the very spirit of bookish Hamlet:
"I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't."
The whole passage, and especially the "dismal treatise," recalls the
Wittenberg student with a magic of representment.
The death of the Queen is announced, and wrings from Macbeth a speech
full of despairing pessimism, a bitterer mood than ever Hamlet knew; a
speech, moreover, that shows the student as well as the incomparable
"She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.--
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth's philosophy, like Hamlet's, ends in utter doubt, in a passion
of contempt for life, deeper than anything in Dante. The word "syllable"
in this lyric outburst is as characteristic as the "dismal treatise" in
the previous one, and more characteristic still of Hamlet is the
likening of life to "a poor player."
The messenger tells Macbeth that Birnam Wood has begun to move, and he
sees that the witches have cheated him. He can only say, as Hamlet might
"I 'gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone.--
Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind! Come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back."
And later he cries:
"They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course."
This seems to me intensely characteristic of Hamlet; the brutal side of
action was never more contemptuously described, and Macbeth's next
soliloquy makes the identity apparent to every one; it is in the true
"Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword?"
[Footnote 1: About the year 1600 Shakespeare seems to have steeped
himself in Plutarch. For the next five or six years, whenever he thinks
of suicide, the Roman way of looking at it occurs to him. Having made up
his mind to kill himself, Laertes cries:
"I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,"
and, in like case, Cleopatra talks of dying "after the high Roman
Macbeth then meets Macduff, and there follows the confession of pity and
remorse, which must be compared to the gentle-kindness with which Hamlet
treats Laertes and Romeo treats Paris. Macbeth says to Macduff:
"Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already."
Then comes the "something desperate" in him that Hamlet boasted of--and
Here we have every characteristic of Hamlet without exception, The
crying difference of situation only brings out the essential identity of
the two characters. The two portraits are of the same person and
finished to the finger-tips. The slight shades of difference between
Macbeth and Hamlet only strengthen our contention that both are
portraits of the poet; for the differences are manifestly changes in the
same character, and changes due merely to age. Just as Romeo is younger
than Hamlet, showing passion where Hamlet shows thought, so Macbeth is
older than Hamlet; in Macbeth the melancholy has grown deeper, the tone
more pessimistic, and the heart gentler. [Footnote: Immediately after
the publication of these first two essays, Sir Henry Irving seized the
opportunity and lectured before a distinguished audience on the
character of Macbeth. He gave it as his opinion that "Shakespeare has
presented Macbeth as one of the most blood-thirsty, most hypocritical
villains in his long gallery of men, instinct with the virtues and vices
of their kind (<i>sic</i>)." Sir Henry Irving also took the occasion to
praise the simile of pity:
"And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast."
This ridiculous fustian seemed to him "very beautiful." All this was
perfectly gratuitous: no one needed to be informed that a man might have
merit as an actor and yet be without any understanding of psychology or
any taste in letters.] I venture, therefore, to assert that the portrait
we find in Romeo and Jaques first, and then in Hamlet, and afterwards in
Macbeth, is the portrait of Shakespeare himself, and we can trace his
personal development through these three stages.