Pasternak on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky
My friend, Brendan King, who has contributed regularly to the print edition of StAR has forwarded me this fine piece by Boris Pasternak on the similarities between Macbeth and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.
From "I Remember: Sketches for an Autobiography," By Boris Pasternak. Translated by Manya Harari, 1959. Pages 150-152.
Macbeth might well be called Crime and Punishment. All the time I was translating it, I was haunted by its likeness to Dostoevsky’s novel.
Planning the murder of Banquo, Macbeth tells his hired murderers:
Your spirits shine through you. Within this hour at most
I will advise you where to plant yourselves,
Acquaint you with the perfect spy o’ the time,
The moment on’t; for ‘t must be done tonight,
And something from the palace…
A little further on, in the third scene of the third act, the murderers, lying in ambush for Banquo, watch the guests arriving through the park.
Then t’is he; the rest
That are within the note of expectation
Already are in the court.
His horses go about.
Almost a mile: but he does usually--
So all men do -- from hence to the palace gate
Make it their walk…
Murder is a desperate, dangerous business. Everything must be thought out, every possibility must be foreseen. Both Shakespeare and Dostoevsky endow their heroes with their own foresight and imagination, their own capacities in timeliness, detail, and precision. Both the novel and the play have the sharp heightened realism of detection and of detective fiction; the cautious wariness of the policeman who looks over his shoulder as often as the criminal himself.
Neither Macbeth or Raskolnikov is a born criminal or a villain by nature. They are turned into criminals by faulty rationalizations, by deductions from false premises.
In one case, the impetus is given by the prophecy of the witches who set the vanity of Macbeth ablaze. In the other, it comes from the extreme nihilistic proposition that, if there is no God, everything is allowed, and therefore a murder is in no way different from any other human act.
Of the two, Macbeth feels particularly safe from retribution. Who could threaten him? A forest walking across a plain? A man not born of woman? -- Such things don’t exist, they are blatant absurdities. And what, in any case, has he to fear from justice once he has seized kingly power and become the only source of law? It all seems so clear and logical! What could be more simple and obvious? And so the crimes follow in quick succession -- many crimes over a long time -- until the forest suddenly moves and sets out on its way and an avenger comes who is not born of woman.
Incidentally, about Lady Macbeth -- coolness and will power are not her predominant qualities. I think that what is strongest in her is something more generally feminine. She is one of those active, insistent wives, a woman who is her husband’s helper, his support, for whom her husband’s interests are her own and who takes his plans on faith once and for all. She neither discusses them nor judges nor selects among them. To reason, to doubt, to make plans -- that’s her husband’s business, its his lookout. She’s his executive, more resolute and consistent than he is himself. Miscalculating her strength, she assumes the excessive burden and is destroyed, not by conscience, but by spiritual exhaustion, sadness, and fatigue.