Shakespeare's Workmanship: Crafting a Sympathetic Macbeth
From Notes on Shakespeare's workmanship by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. New York: H. Holt and Company.
Before we follow his genius in coming to grips with it, let us realize the importance as well as the magnitude of
that difficulty. "Tragedy [says Aristotle] is the imitation of an action: and an action implies personal agents,
who necessarily possess certain qualities both of character and thought. It is these that determine the qualities of
actions themselves : these — thought and character — are the two natural causes from which actions spring: on these
causes, again, all success or failure depends."1
But it comes to this: The success or failure of a tragedy depends on what sort of person we represent,
and principally, of course, on what sort of person we make our chief tragic figure, our protagonist. Everything depends really on our protagonist: and it was his true critical insight that directed Dr. Bradley, examining
the substance of Shakespearian tragedy, to lead off with these words:
Such a tragedy brings before us a considerable number of
persons (many more than the persons in a Greek play, unless the
members of the Chorus are reckoned among them); but it is preeminently the story of one person, the 'hero,' or at most of two, the 'hero' and 'heroine.' Moreover, it is only in the love-tragedies,
Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, that the heroine is as much the centre of the action as the hero. The rest, including Macbeth, are single stars. So that, having noticed the peculiarity of these two dramas, we may henceforth, for the sake of brevity, ignore it, and may speak of the tragic story as being concerned
primarily with one person.
So, it makes no difference to this essential of tragedy whether we write our play for an audience of Athenians
or of Londoners gathered in the Globe Theatre, Southwark: whether we crowd our dramatis personae or
are content with a cast of three or four. There must be one central figure (or at most two), and on this figure,
as the story unfolds itself, we must concentrate the spectators' emotions of pity or terror, or both.
Now, I must, for handiness, quote Aristotle again, because he lays down very succinctly some rules concerning this 'hero' or protagonist, or central figure (call him what we will — I shall use the word 'hero' merely because it is the shortest). But let us understand that though these so-called 'rules' of Aristotle are marvelously enforced — though their wisdom is marvelously confirmed — by Dr. Bradley's examination of the 'rules' which Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously,
obeyed, they do no more than turn into precept, with reasons given, certain inductions drawn by Aristotle from
the approved masterpieces of his time. There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare had ever heard of them;
rather, there is good reason to suppose that he had not.
But Aristotle says this concerning the hero, or protagonist, of tragic drama, and Shakespeare's practice at
every point supports him: —
(1) A Tragedy must not be the spectacle of a perfectly good
man brought from prosperity to adversity. For this merely shocks
(2) Nor, of course, must it be that of a bad man passing from
adversity to prosperity: for that is not tragedy at all, but the
perversion of tragedy, and revolts the moral sense.
(3) Nor, again, should it exhibit the downfall of an utter villain: since pity is aroused by undeserved misfortunes, terror by misfortunes befalling a man like ourselves.
(4) There remains, then, as the only proper subject for Tragedy,
the spectacle of a man not absolutely or eminently good or wise who
is brought to disaster not by sheer depravity but by some error or
(5) Lastly, this man must be highly renowned and prosperous — an Oedipus, a Thyestes, or some other illustrious person.
Before dealing with the others, let us get this last rule out of the way; for, to begin with, it presents no
difficulty in Macbeth, since in the original — in Holinshed's Chronicles — Macbeth is an illustrious warrior who
makes himself a king; and moreover the rule is patently a secondary one, of artistic expediency rather than of
artistic right or wrong. It amounts but to this, that the more eminent we make our persons in Tragedy,
the more evident we make the disaster — the dizzier the height, the longer way to fall, and the greater shock
on our audience's mind.
Dr. Bradley goes further, and remarks, "The pangs of despised love and the anguish
of remorse, we say, are the same in a peasant and a prince: but (not to insist that they cannot be so when
the prince is really a prince) the story of the prince, the triumvir, or the general, has a greatness and dignity of
its own. His fate affects the welfare of a whole; and when he falls suddenly from the height of earthly greatness to the dust, his fall produces a sense of contrast, of the powerlessness of man, and of the omnipotence — perhaps the caprice — of Fortune or Fate, which no tale of private life can possibly rival."
In this wider view Dr. Bradley may be right, though some modern dramatists would disagree with him. But we are dealing more humbly with Shakespeare as a workman; and for our purpose it is more economical, as well as sufficient, to say that downfall from a high eminence is more spectacular than downfall from a low one; that Shakespeare, who knew most of the tricks of his art, knew this as well as ever did Aristotle, and that those who adduce to us Shakespeare's constant selection of kings and princes for his
dramatis personae as evidence of his having been a
'snob,' might as triumphantly prove it snobbish in a Greek tragedian to write of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, or of Cadmus and Harmonia, because
The gods had to their marriage come,
And at the banquet all the Muses sang.
But, touching the other and more essential rules laid down by Aristotle, let me, — very fearfully, knowing how
temerarious it is, how impudent, to offer to condense so great and close a thinker, — suggest that, after all, they
work down into one: — that a hero of Tragic Drama must, whatever else he miss, engage our sympathy; that, however gross his error or grievous his frailty, it must not exclude our feeling that he is a man like ourselves; that, sitting in the audience, we must know in our hearts that what is befalling him might conceivably in the circumstances have befallen us, and say in our hearts, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
I think, anticipating a little, I can drive this point home by a single illustration. When the ghost of Banquo
seats itself at that dreadful supper, who sees it? It is not the company. Not even Lady Macbeth. Whom does
it accuse? Not the company, and, again, not even Lady Macbeth. Those who see it are Macbeth and you and I.
Those into whom it strikes terror are Macbeth and you and I. Those whom it accuses are Macbeth and you and
I. And what it accuses is what, of Macbeth, you and I are hiding in our own breasts.
So, if this be granted, I come back upon the capital
difficulty that faced Shakespeare as an artist.
(1) It was not to make Macbeth a grandiose or a conspicuous figure. He was already that in the Chronicle.
(2) It was not to clothe him in something to illude
us with the appearance of real greatness. Shakespeare, with his command of majestic poetical speech, had that
in his work-bag surely enough, and knew it. When a writer can make an imaginary person talk like this: —
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 —
I say, when a man knows he can make his Macbeth talk like that, he needs not distrust his power to drape his
Macbeth in an illusion of greatness. Moreover, Shakespeare — artist that he was — had other tricks up his
sleeve to convince us of Macbeth's greatness. One of these I hope to discuss in a subsequent chapter.
But (here lies the crux) how could he make us sympathize with him — make us, sitting or standing in the
Globe Theatre some time (say) in the year 1610, feel that Macbeth was even such a man as you or I? He was a
murderer, and a murderer for his private profit — a combination which does not appeal to most of us, to unlock
the flood-gates of sympathy, or indeed (I hope) as striking home upon any private and pardonable frailty. The
Chronicle does, indeed, allow just one loop-hole for pardon. It hints that Duncan, nominating his boy to succeed him, thereby cut off Macbeth from a reasonable hope
of the crown, which he thereupon (and not until then)
by process of murder usurped, "having," says Holinshed,
"a juste quarrell so to do (as he took the mater)."
Did Shakespeare use that one hint; enlarge that loophole? He did not.
The more I study Shakespeare as an artist, the more I worship the splendid audacity of what he did, just here,
in this play.
Instead of using a paltry chance to condone Macbeth's guilt, he seized on it and plunged it threefold deeper, so
that it might verily
the multitudinous seas incarnadine.
Think of it:—
He made this man, a sworn soldier, murder Duncan,
He made this man, a host, murder Duncan, a guest
within his gates.
He made this man, strong and hale, murder Duncan,
old, weak, asleep and defenseless.
He made this man commit murder for nothing but his
He made this man murder Duncan, who had steadily advanced him hitherto, who had never been aught but
trustful, and who (that no detail of reproach might be wanting) had that very night, as he retired, sent, in most
kindly thought, the gift of a diamond to his hostess.
To sum up: instead of extenuating Macbeth's criminality, Shakespeare doubles and redoubles it. Deliberately this magnificent artist locks every door on condonation, plunges the guilt deep as hell, and then — tucks
up his sleeves.
There was once another man, called John Milton, a Cambridge man of Christ's College; and, as most
of us know, he once thought of rewriting this very story of Macbeth. The evidence that he thought of it —
the entry in Milton's handwriting — may be examined in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Milton did not eventually write a play on the story of Macbeth. Eventually he preferred to write an epic upon
the Fall of Man, and of that poem critics have been found to say that Satan, "enemy of mankind," is in fact the
hero and the personage that most claims our sympathy.
Now (still bearing in mind how the subject of Macbeth attracted Milton) let us open Paradise Lost at Book IV
upon the soliloquy of Satan, which between lines 32-113 admittedly holds the clou of the poem:
O! thou that, with surpassing glory crown'd —
Still thinking of Shakespeare and of Milton — of Satan
and of Macbeth — let us ponder every line: but especially these: —
Lifted up so high,
I 'sdain'd subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude.
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe:
Forgetful what from him I still receiv'd;
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharg'd. . . .
And yet more especially this: —
Farewell, remorse! All good to me is lost:
Evil, be thou my good.
1. I quote from Butcher's rendering, which gives the sense clearly
enough; though, actually, Aristotle's language is simpler, and for
"thought" I should substitute "understanding" as a translation of [the Greek].
How to cite this article:
Quiller-Couch, Arthur Thomas, Sir. Notes on Shakespeare's workmanship. New York, H. Holt and Company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethworkmanship.html >.