"Macbeth" as 'a Tragedy with a Happy Ending'


Many years ago I found I had to give a lecture on the Kurasawa film of Macbeth, and hurriedly turned to my files to see what notes or essay drafts I had made about the play. I was disconcerted to find none. I had never taught or written about the play before. My reasons for avoiding it, when I belatedly recalled them, had been numerous. First, I had not liked the play because it seemed so gloomy in tone and it was often performed in semi-darkness: Bradley says "almost all the scenes which at once recur to the memory take place at night or in some dark spot" (Riverside, 1307). No one has ever found the play simply amusing at any point; even the "comic" porter is usually held (since De Quincey wrote about it) to make the horror worse by his untimely grotesqueries. My deeper feeling of resistance was fueled by a sense of history, perhaps based on my Scottish ancestry. According to all historians Macbeth was one of Scotland's longer-lived and more successful kings (1034-57), while his wife Gruoch was one of the most gifted women in Scottish history, a wonderful example of that prowess and status of Celtic women that gave them exceptional significance in the determining of the royal succession. The supposedly smart question "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" was asked by L. C. Knights in mockery of A. C. Bradley's instinct to treat Shakespeare's characters as approximating to the historical human beings who inspire many of Shakespeare's sources. This approach has remained that of most actors of all periods in rehearsing such a play. In fact, the short answer to Knights is easy and confirms the play's text ("I have given suck" [1.7.54]): she had at least one child, Lulach, who succeeded Macbeth as king by a line of descent through his mother, not via King Macbeth, who was not his father. Moreover, Duncan was a misguided king historically, as still seen in the play, when he violates the matrilinear succession of the Scots monarchy by adopting primogeniture as the basis for making his immature son his heir. This non-linear procedure for choice of Scottish kings, via the election of heirs from matured maternal relatives, was designed to avoid the dangerous English use of primogeniture as it applied to youthful English heirs, which produced the erratic reigns of Richard II, Henry VI, Edward V, and Edward VIII. Kermode notes that "It was wrong of Duncan, an elective monarch, to proclaim Malcolm his heir" (Riverside, 1308).

So why does Shakespeare rewrite history so drastically? Presumably to flatter the descendant of Macbeth's rival Banquo, King James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England, thus establishing an intermittently maintained Scottish hegemony there down to the present Scottish-dominated Labour Government (2009—but a Cameron followed them!). Shakespeare probably heard of the success of the Banquo play Tres Sibyllae (Three Prophetesses) in flattering King James on his visit to Oxford in 1605, for the city was a staging point for Shakespeare's commute to London (William Davenant sometimes claimed he was not only the playwright's godson, but born his natural one by the beautiful and talented wife of an Oxford inn-keeper). In defending the newly fashionable genre of tragicomedy, Cinthio sees the kind of skewing of history that occurs in Macbeth as a proper pursuit of audience satisfaction characteristic of popular drama:

While the historian is obliged to write only of deeds and actions that are true and as they really happened, the poet presents things not as they are but as they should be, that they may serve to instruct his readers about life. And this is why, though the poets may write of ancient affairs, they nonetheless seek to harmonize them with their own customs and their own age, introducing things unlike those of ancient times and suitable to their own.
(Gilbert, 270)

This argument may serve as a rationalization of Shakespeare's adjustment of Scottish history to suit the tastes of James I, of his court, and therefore, from mere necessity, to instruct his subjects (nowadays we might call such distortion "spin"). The simultaneous suppression of the anti-Scottish play Edward III, in the writing of which Shakespeare may have had a part, is evidence that such adjustments served to "harmonize" the theatre and its audiences with the powers that be.

However, Macbeth has always also had a very bad reputation in the theatre because its violent scenes have occasioned numerous fatal accidents among its actors, who still superstitiously refuse even to pronounce its name to avert ill omen. The play is often compared to Richard III because it matches on stage many of the gruesome episodes which are described in the earlier play: the murder of King Henry VI with that of King Duncan, and the killing of children such as the Princes in the Tower with that of the children of Macduff. Both plays climax in an onstage duel in which the wicked usurper is killed by a virtuous opponent, after each usurper's tormented wife has already died off-stage in misery for her sins. Generically, neither play meets Aristotle's ideal qualities for tragedy: instead of a great man penalized excessively for some error, both Richard and Macbeth are deliberate regicides and calculating mass murderers, who die totally unredeemed and without audience sympathy. In this they meet the criteria for what Aristotle considers an inferior form of tragedy in which wicked characters meet their just deserts and their societies achieve happiness via new, wiser rulers who survive climactic battles unscathed: Richmond and Malcolm. Thus both plays meet the technical specifications of Cinthio for tragedies with a happy ending: "in this sort of play often for the greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills" (Gilbert, 257).

Most plays in this mode share devices to further please the audience, which are associated with the genre of tragicomedy, and that may encourage us to see Macbeth in a different light from the gloom in which its staging is normally shrouded. For example, Lope de Vega makes these specifications about the use of deception:

To trick with the truth is a device which has seemed good . . . Equivocal speech and the uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd, for it thinks that it alone understands what the other person is saying. Subjects concerned with honor are the best, since they move everyone forcefully. . . . So it must be seen to that if an actor is portraying a traitor, he is so hateful to everybody that what he wants is not sold to him, and that the crowd flees when it encounters him.
(Gilbert, 547)

This might be applied very usefully to production of the opening scenes and later development of Macbeth. We know from their ghastly brew in 1.3.1-37 that the witches are wicked, so that we can readily judge Macbeth to be unwise to take them seriously, even after he is made Thane of Cawdor, as they prophesied, for "to trick with the truth" is an old device of the devil. Banquo perceives this risk when he wonders whether they "have eaten of the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner" (1.3.84-5). The audience will feel encouraged to feel superior in that it can already avoid Macbeth's misjudgment, for Castelvetro describes just such self-satisfying experience convincingly: "The deception of someone pleases us excessively, then, and delights us to laugh with pleasure. . . for it appears to those who are not deceived, when they see others deceived that they are themselves better and that they surpass them in that quality namely reason" (Gilbert, 312).

Surely performance of Macbeth must ensure this alienation of the spectators from Macbeth's initial deluded point of view, if the play is to give them continued satisfaction. The point was made almost too powerfully in a recent touring production by the Mull Theatre (directed by Alasdair McCrone, 2008) when they produced the play with six actors, casting only one witch (tripled by mirrors) and using the actor playing the witch for every other minor part. Thereby we were continually reminded of the witches' reinforcement of the Macbeths' consistent misjudgments. The resulting audience attitude to Macbeth was much more distanced than usual and nearer to Lope's prediction of an audience's relaxed confidence in judging evil: we know that Macbeth is simply wrong from the start. If Lope and Cinthio are right about the drama of their time, then Kermode is wrong when he attempts to reverse this pattern of hostile audience response which their audience psychology implies must occur at the start of Macbeth. Kermode asserts "Macbeth's humanity is therefore represented as a condition we share" (Riverside, 1309). His only argument for our empathy with Macbeth is that we enjoy his "poetry" with its mixed metaphors that Samuel Johnson ridiculed, and whose ominous character even Jan Kott considered ghastly. There is thus no procedure in the initial appearance of the character of Macbeth which invites us to share his point of view, as we almost involuntarily do with that of Richard of Gloucester in Richard III. From the very start Richard addresses us directly, without warning; and he is smarter and more amusing than the many corrupt characters he deceives and destroys, just what they deserve. As Richard says of his executions, "for this, amongst the rest, was I ordained" (3 Henry VI, 5.6.58). Queen Margaret confirms that he is God's scourge for the guilty English:

O upright, just and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother's body. . . .
Richard yet lives, hell's black intelligencer,
Only reserv'd their factor to buy souls
And send them thither.
(4.4.55-57; 70-73)

Macbeth has no such providential role, however involuntary: throughout he kills the innocent and virtuous. And his wife convincingly argues that the only reason for his hesitation in evil is lack of nerve.

So what might hold our attention during such a relentlessly downward trajectory? There has to be some device to attract our interest or curiosity, and Cinthio suggests just what it may be in terms of Renaissance popular theatre practice:

This holding of the spectator in suspense ought to be so managed by the poet that it is not always hidden in clouds, but the action goes on unrolling the plot in such a way that the spectator sees himself conducted to the end, but it is uncertain how the play is coming out. And in this sort of play often for greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness in the drama have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ill.
(Gilbert, 257)

The play closely matches these prescriptions, because the witches' prophecies contain enough truth to deceive Macbeth, but do not wholly inform the audience of the way in which they shall be realized to the letter, yet to Macbeth's disadvantage. The most famous example of this is the prophecy "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him" (4.1.92-4). This is one of those classic fairy-story phrases which its naïve victims believe are simply alternatives for the word "never" but which the wiser hearers always anticipate excitedly will be realized by some fascinating twist of meaning. This sense of superior awareness and anticipation of the Macbeths' unperceived doom must be considered the essential audience appeal of much of the action of the play. There is always a frisson in the audience when they hear that Birnam Wood is on its way and they know why and Macbeth does not. Visually it is one of the great moments in Kurasawa's film, because for a moment it really looks as if the forces of Nature herself are spontaneously rising up against the tyrant, until one sees that the soldiers are holding up boughs to camouflage their numbers and approach.

There are many other such spectacular moments for spectators to achieve delighted realization of the Macbeths' doom. Probably the most memorable is the nervous breakdown of Lady Macbeth in the famous scene of her compulsive hand-washing, to clean away the remembered blood of Duncan. This obsession is something which Shakespeare has deftly anticipated in details which a clever spectator will have enjoyed picking up from quite early on. Before the murder she betrays symptoms of the same loss of confidence that worries her in her husband: "Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done't" (2.2.12-3). Another delicate touch is when she seemingly faints (2.3.18-125) allowing the alert spectator to debate the issue of whether she feigns excessive distress, or is already showing symptoms of having outrun her own resolution, which seems confirmed by the recurrent breakdown later. Her husband gives us equal opportunities to trace the progressive self-destruction of the evil, including the loss of competence in carrying the murder weapons away with him, and the incapacity to correct that error. Macbeth's visions of the dagger and the ghost of Banquo at the dinner table are other exciting clues to the pending disintegration of Macbeth's resilience. The audience is established as the jury validating the fate of the Macbeths in their perception of the psychological penalties of evil. It seems to me that this state of mind, a god-like perception of the hand of fate, is something a director skilled in the techniques of Renaissance drama would deliberately heighten, rather than trap the spectators in a sickening self-identification with the Macbeths that Kermode tries to elicit against the grain of the play. It is Brecht's alienation-effect rather than Freud's self-projection which provides the nearest modern analogue to the "affect" intended by tragedy with a happy ending. Misreading of the play as a pure Aristotelian tragedy results in mere depression, not the substantial happiness that Cinthio aims for in resolving a tragedy with a double ending. Curiously enough, Macbeth's massacre of Macduff's family strengthens this satisfaction in his destruction by showing how inhumane he has become, to which can be added his relative indifference to his own wife's death in the famous speech which displays his complete loss of purpose:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps on this petty pace from day to day,
Until 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,
Signifying nothing.

In principle this speech should be depressing in its nihilism, but as a reflection of the psychological penalty exacted for Macbeth's crimes it must give satisfaction to the Renaissance audiences' moral sense, as postulated by Cinthio and Lope de Vega. Moreover, one can see that Shakespeare once again deliberately destroys any empathy for the subjective state of Macbeth's mind by reminding us that his persona is not real, but just a mere actor's pretence.

One other scene gains in function by application of the criterion of enhancing audience suspense so favored by our Renaissance masters: the notorious scene between Malcolm and Macduff in which Malcolm affects to be even more evil than Macbeth (4.3). This episode has several functions, but the primary one is suspense—for a moment the audience is deliberately frightened into thinking it will not shortly enjoy the triumph of good over evil, but merely see the clash of two comparably wicked leaders. Once this misleading impression of Malcolm has been reassuringly corrected, the audience can confidently resume its observation of the plot's progression to the triumph of good, having firmly identified its representative on stage. Only if we believe that an improbable audience identification with Macbeth is the real focus of empathy in this play can we believe this scene is irrelevant (as seemingly do those directors who omit it).

There remain two key concerns about the ending of the play which tell us a lot about the mature Shakespeare. In Richard III Richard momentarily comes close to repentance, a startling effect in a character who has been identified with the devil, but certainly the kind of temporary reversal of expectation which Lope insists on sustaining to the last moment in a performance. In Macbeth's case this reversal of expectation is more sustained and plausible than Richard's moment of insight. First Macbeth confesses to Macduff that he feels the destruction of his family is sufficient brutality without adding the killing of its head: "Of all men I have avoided thee. / But get thee back, my soul is too much charg'd / With blood of thine already" (5.7.4-6). This moment of moral awareness expands further when he learns the witches' prophecy of his invulnerability does not protect him from Macduff:

Accursed be that tongue that tells me so.
For it hath cow'd my better part of man!
And be these juggling fiends no more believ'd,
That palter with us in a double sense,
That keep the word of promise to our ear,
And break it to our hope.

There is great emotional power in attributing the ultimate understanding of the moral issue of the whole play to its greatest villain. This is a discovery akin to Edmund's last-minute repentance of his villainies at the end of King Lear, which surprises the audience (not to mention many directors and critics) with a sense of the potentialities of human reform in the face of all expectation.

To have the villain about to be punished for his crimes admit his errors is a great reinforcement of audience satisfaction at the ending of a "happy tragedy." Even so there may be overkill at least to a modern audience in the stage direction near the end of the play's last scene: "Enter Macduff with Macbeth's head" (5.9.19). Elizabethan spectators who crossed London Bridge would have just seen traitors' heads on its walls, so they might not be too shocked to have a corpse's head as a prop, but in almost every modern production I have seen the effect has backfired, including the protracted death of Macbeth in Kurasawa's film, a macabre riddling of his body with arrows which invariably provoked laughter from my students over many decades. Even in this final matter our Renaissance mentors seem to have the right audience sense, as Castelvetro shows:

Because of the difficulty of representing actions and making them verisimilar, dramas do not represent on the stage murders and other things that it is difficult to represent with dignity, and it is proper that they should be done off stage and then narrated by a messenger. . . for experience has shown that such cruelty and horror cannot be shown in action and that when shown they make the audience rather laugh than weep and that they produce the effect not of tragedy but of comedy.
(Gilbert, 309)

Despite the killing of Duncan offstage, Macbeth errs in these circumstances rather frequently, less perhaps with the death of Banquo at night, but most grossly with the deaths of Macduff's family, and also to a degree by this showing of a facsimile of Macbeth's head moments after he has been on stage, invariably ensuring modern audience's overt disbelief in its artistic plausibility. This crude effect makes the ending of the play too similar to that early extravaganza so popular with enthusiasts for improbable horror, Titus Andronicus. Early and late in his career Shakespeare sometimes strays from his norm of acceptable challenge to expectation. In this case he requires the audience either to identify with a monster or to savor a consistently hostile attitude to the play's principal characters, nether of which is a very positive experience, hence the stress of the play in performance.


Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. 1974; 1997. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.


Charles Spencer's review of Cheek by Jowl's production of Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre in London (Daily Telegraph, March 26, 2010) illustrates some of the issues raised above. He begins by noting the unsatisfactory nature of the play in most performances: "The problem that confronts any director of Macbeth is that the play almost always works better in the mind's eye than it does on the stage." He cites one production: "Rupert Gold recently solved the problem by presenting the play, thrillingly, as a Stalinist nightmare with a succession of jolting coups de théatre that kept the audience in a constant state of nervous anxiety. For once the play truly terrified." Spencer contrasts this approach to the director's in the reviewed production: "Declan Donnellan opts for extreme simplicity in his new production for Cheek by Jowl, presenting the play with the fluidity of a dark dream." However, Spencer concludes that this consistency becomes boring: "By the close one experiences not pity and terror, but mere relief that it is all over."

It appears that, from this reviewer's point of view, the ideal audience impact of Macbeth is "a constant state of nervous anxiety." This condition hardly seems to fit any normal idea of entertainment, except for devotees of bungee jumping. However, it does match Aristotle's goal of inducing "pity and fear" so that, if these feelings are what the play should provoke, it is understandable why Macbeth is preferably read privately in book form, because it frequently defies successful performance, thus inviting such repudiation by actors that they refuse even to pronounce its title.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond