directly from the journals of chet (with mild expurgation):
the inspiration to read it (Macbeth) came from the nyrb article on the play written by stephen greenblatt, I think. commending to our imaginations the anecdote of meeting bill clinton and him reciting, prodigiously, several lines, and then, in an instance, encapsulating the character of macbeth in less than tenwords: a man with ambition for an object inadequate.
which I cannot say, my small mind being so provincial and narrow, I fully fathom. that is, what si this supposed object? is it unfettered power? is it the kingship? it seems not to be the latter. since we see nothing of macbeth’s skills in governing. in fact, the governship and the weal of the people is spoke of in mere clauses, but not as a subject. thus, it must be power.
is it an object inadequate to ambition (suffer me this poor recollection of his actual words)? power is not honor. it is not dependent upon others. but power is acquired through honor, through service, through aptitude, and through violence. if it is acquired at all. but does macbeth pine for power? he seeks the title, but he knows that he will never be worthy of it. and he knows that his ambition is not sufficient to make it his.
macbeth, upon reflection unprovoked, knows that his ambition is not enough. he gives way to it only through the demand of his wife, who mocks his manhood (1.7.40ff), as well as her invocation of what I presume (through the interpretation of the film “Men of Respect” (1991)) is an abortion he demanded. his debt to her demands this deed.
but there is also the element of time. “time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (1.4.151). this passage, which I first appropriated as a gesture to the fact that even the horrible things which confront us will eventually pass, is, as I know see, a reference to the fate that frees humans of responsibility. and time is repeatedly invoked, as necessary to be beguiled, as free from tyranny, as the unending night which day seeks. to this is appended macbeth’s guilty visions in which the future treason appears. thus he sees a dagger and later his friend banquo.
it is curious, particularly, how the sight separates itself from the other senses (2.2.38-49). this happens with lady macbeth when her sight assails her with an indelible blood, and when the birnam woods arrives in dunsinane. of course, I can not fail to think of toshiro mifune’s incipient madness at seeing the walking trees. nature uproots itself.
even malcolm knows that his vengeance will never qualify him for the office he wants to retake. he knows that taking this office through violence immediately disqualifies one for it. as does macbeth, before he is forced by the lady to do it, when he sees that noone will recognize him in their grief for duncan.
to me, all that happens which is important occurs in the first act. there we have macbeth’s meditations on the deed. lady macbeth comments on her husband, who bears the ambition but lacks its accompanying illness (1.5.18). that is, his will cannot follow through his desire. and she implies, in conversation with him, that the desire is but the deed itself. that illness is a will given wholly to its desires? that illness is an insensitivity to humanity: “I fear thy nature;/it is too ful o’th’milk of human kindness.” this line bedevils me: “What thou wouldst highly, that thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false, and yet would wrongly win.” the highest desires are akin to the divine, but not at the gain of violation, and yet if not by violation would never be properly acquired? that power’s only gain is through violation?
that macbeth is overcome by guilt is not surprising, as he was uncertain before the act. he knows that the act can never be successful. “If th’assination 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” (1.7.2-7). if the act is successful and overleaps its means, then we would have paradise, have obtained heaven. even if the means were overlooked “we still hafve judgmne here, that we but teach bloody instructions,” insofar as all accession would be necessitated through violation. once we have acted in treason, we cannot ever bear a law against it. we have initiated a violence that will necessarily unseat each.
treasonous acts create breakage in the spatiotemporal continuum: “nor time nor place did then adhere, and yet you would make both” (1.7.51-2). but this aspect reminds me that while regimes are overtaken by treason, they reset time and give themselves the law. that is, that il duce recreated time, like napoleon, like hitler. the gesture is for the sake of setting the past apart. for institutionally forgiving one’s actions. time is really the problem for all such agents. they must upset it in order to act. lady macbeth, welcoming her husband, newly thane of cawdor home, speaks of this confusion: “thy letters have transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant” (1.5.54-6).