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Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin

Ken Colston on Macbeth and what the play shows us about the nature and effects of sin.

Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin


Ken Colstion

Originally printed in Logos  - A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture -13:4 fall 2010.  Re-published by permission.

“But those who commit sin are the enemies of their own lives.” Tobit 12:10

William Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic. Sev­eral scholars have recently revived this old claim using some of the following circumstantial (and controversial) evidence: 1) Shake­speare’s first biographer, an Anglican, said that Shakespeare “dyed a Papyst”; 2) Shakespeare’s father signed a last will and testament pledging allegiance to the Roman faith; 3) a Roman Catholic priest married Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway; 4) the Elizabethan gov­ernment identified Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna as a recusant; 5) Shakespeare worked as a tutor for a prominent recusant family; 6) Shakespeare’s grammar school employed three Catholic teach­ers; 7) Shakespeare had prominent recusant friends; 8) Shakespeare bought a London property that had tunnels for hiding Catholics; 9) Shakespeare’s mother came from a recusant family; yes, and her name was Mary.1

In fact, Shakespeare’s religious affiliation will probably never be known for certain, but his religious beliefs are not quite so opaque.

They exist right before the reader’s eyes in the plain sense of texts that didn’t have to be disguised because his age, though riven to the point of war by bitter sectarian divisions, was, in comparison to our own secular thinking, generally Christian. When Reformed theology differed from Roman Catholic tradition, Shakespeare was unafraid to mention the contentious traditional view (for example, in Hamlet, the Catholic belief in purgatory and sacramentals such as holy water throughout the corpus), but in general he emerges as a not very disguised Christian author in the tradition of Dante and Chaucer, recognizable to both Augustinians who emphasize the corruption of the will and Thomists who emphasize the freedom of grace. As a result, for today’s secular West, he can be read easily as the modest orthodox champion of a confident religious position making a serious counter-proposal to a deeply rooted nihilist welt­anschauung.

Examples abound throughout his plays, but perhaps the clearest is Shakespeare’s classic treatment of sin in Macbeth. Sin, not crime, is the subject of Macbeth. Crime is the transgression of human law, which is itself, to some modern readers, the arbitrary manipulation of the empowered to maintain power; thus, crime is a mere power struggle. On the other hand, sin is the upsetting of the natural and divine order, which are rational and good. Crime has only gam­bits, mistakes, and regrets. Sin is identified by trepidation and guilt, which involve respect for the divine and the right.

Macbeth’s adversaries do not prosecute and sentence him for high crimes and misdemeanors; he is hunted down and killed as a sinful blight on the body politic. The first crime is complete early in the second act, but the sinfulness of that one crime alone lingers as a momentous issue until the end of the play. Unless one accepts sin as perversion of reality, the soul as the battleground of good and evil, and society as a correlative and consequence of that personal war, Macbeth the usurper will seem wimpish and distracted even before the murder of Duncan, and Macbeth the play will lose interest with the disappearance of the Weird Sisters and Lady Macbeth (as it does for many secular readers). Unless one accepts sin as the obstacle to human fulfillment, Macbeth seems a fearful and clumsy risk taker who looks behind and ahead way too often and who talks and thinks way too much.

In other words, for modern secularized readers untrained or un­interested in Christian categories, Macbeth’s guilt is a fatal aesthetic impediment, while for Shakespeare it forms the center of dramatic gravity, slowing and yet also driving the rising and especially the falling action as Macbeth hesitates to kill Duncan, then kills both Duncan and Banquo impetuously and recklessly, and later sees dag­gers, ghosts, and visions of the future. Such readers rarely pause to ask themselves why Macbeth himself pauses or why he acts ter­ribly after pausing so little and in defiance of the conclusions of those pauses. We do not feel his guilt because we no longer think about sin. Our ordinary world is a scarred place where one kills, is killed, or dies anyway. We mistakenly think that this was Shake­speare’s world, too, and so Macbeth fascinates us for a little while but ultimately bores us, like a gangster thriller that doesn’t have nearly enough kicks. We understand amoral games, which are about power, but we do not appreciate moral wars about good and evil.

What Sin Is: Some Preliminary Definitions

Macbeth is of course not a treatise of moral theology, but its pre­sentation of sin is classic. Many questions about the play can be an­swered by its orthodox assumptions and inferences about the nature of sin. In fact, key preliminary notions about sin are crucial to un­derstanding the first scenes of the play.

First, sin is demonic parody, setting up a mockery of the good that it opposes. It does not merely emanate from the subjective state of a sinner. In the Catholic philosophic tradition, evil is a pri­vation of good. Charlotte Spivack has shown that the traditional response in medieval and Renaissance literary forms (particularly drama) to evil as privation was laughter.2 Shakespeare had no doubt great fun giving the three witches the entire first scene of the play to themselves unmediated by characters in the play, unlike the ghost of Banquo later (seen only by Macbeth) or the ghost of Hamlet’s father (witnessed at first by Hamlet’s friends). The witches, while strange and marginal, are as objectively present as Duncan and his retinue. These latter royal characters join the cat-and-toad ladies’ scene al­ready in progress. The witches are not grafted by visions onto a court masque but appear exclusively to the audience first (before, in scene 3, they appear also to Banquo and Macbeth) in order to make their reality independent of the witnesses of battle-worn vic­tims of traumatic stress syndrome. Sin as moral evil, therefore, does not merely reside in the ill-intentioned, private will; it is out there, on stage, before our own eyes, and it has, for our wayward hearts and minds, appeal through its attractive rhyming glamour.

Thus, far from being, as some critics contend, spurious at worst and pointless at best, these first twelve lines are crucial to establish­ing the second point about the nature of sin in its alliance with evil: it negates the good. This postulate seems obvious, but Shakespeare’s presentation is clever, and the corollaries are often lost on modern secular readers. Shakespeare presents the three witches as a parody of the Trinity, the expression of sin’s opposite, the triad of love, as he will later provide Macbeth with three murderers for Banquo and Fleance. They speak in trochees, obverting the iambs of the other characters, and in tetrameter, one foot short of pentameter. While sin is not merely a subjective reality, as moral evil it is a privation and a negative and therefore it lacks full ontological independence. The witches turn the good upside down: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (1.1.11).3 If sin is the negative of the good, then it follows that the two will struggle. War is the infinite plane of good and evil, of love and sin: “When the hurly-burly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won.” Before he has made his first entrance, Macbeth thus moves from physical to metaphysical struggle.

Third, in one of the most common Old Testament senses, sin means rebellion—in Hebrew, pesha. Man rejects God by rejecting His order.4 Thus, in killing his lord, Duncan, Macbeth is making war on reality, which flows from God. This claim is not at all to insist that Shakespeare proposed an extreme version of the divine right of kings, for the play itself will justify the good Malcolm and Macduff’s own successful rebellion against the “butcher” Macbeth (5.9.35), but it is to argue that Shakespeare connects sin as rebellion to the dramatic oppositions already at work in the play. Sin as rebellion is in the foreground of the play and in the back story before it infects Macbeth. The good king Duncan is defending his crown against the “revolt” of the “rebel” Macdonwald, whom Macbeth, a merciless dog of war, unseams “from the nave to the chops” without shak­ing his hand or bidding him farewell (1.2.9ff). The Captain then aligns Macbeth with “justice” as well as “valour” in this battle of right against rebellion. Macbeth and Banquo then defend their lord like Christian warriors; they “doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe” to “memorize another Golgotha” (1.2.39, 41). The analogy is not com­plete, but bloody Macbeth is forcefully likened to bloody Christ. At the same time, Macbeth’s victim is also compared to Christ. Sin leads us away from God; sin is an offense against God.

The Captain’s description of Macbeth as an ill-mannered and ex­cessive war beast introduces the fourth theme of sin as vicious habit. Macbeth is made for war, not peace, and confronts the paradox that Plato saw in his Republic’s warrior-guardians. Thumos (“spiritedness”) is the soldier’s characteristic virtue, whereas logos (“reason”) must rule the philosopher-king. At the same time, sin is a constant in the world, and war is the very condition of life. How much chance does even-tempered leadership therefore have? Macbeth’s violence is, in Joseph Pieper’s suggestive and Aristotelian phrase about sin, a “freely chosen compulsion.”5 As we shall see, vicious habit clouds Macbeth’s will. It blinds him to his own action, which, rocked be­tween pleading conscience and vile habituation, is herky-jerky.

Fifth, from the earliest moments of the play, original sin, the sinful habit of our species, is at work, and Macbeth cannot be held responsible for the play’s ugly backdrop. He did not invent the witches or suborn the rebels. He once stood for the good, albeit excessively. Macbeth’s subsequent ascensus ad Inferos is so swift and unmitigated that it is important to note at the beginning his condi­tion of solidarity with right, however brief, in order for us, unlike most readers, to see that his story is, like that of the first and of all sinners, a fall. Depravity by sin is not total. It is merely omnipres­ent. This ubiquity of sin, this ongoing permanent structure of sin into which Macbeth is thrust, this civil war in Scotland, is original sin. However much Macbeth is responsible for his actual sin, he nevertheless deserved a better world. This recognition that original sin weakens an innocent soul—that sinners are, as it were, respon­sible victims—is perhaps not only why God can forgive sinners but also why Shakespeare makes us care for wicked Macbeth. In act 3, scene 4, Macbeth, distracted during the feast by Banquo’s ghost, characterizes the primordial state of man prior to human law as murderous: “Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time/Ere human statute purg’d the gentle weal” (3.4.7475). Paradise is so distant that the longest look back reveals nothing but bloodshed.

The Absurdity of Sin: Sin as Violation of the Natural Law

Above all, most consequentially for us, sin takes us away from the joy of being human persons. While it pretends to give us what we seem to want, in fact it disturbs our inclination for goodness, fouls the fair, destroys the present, poisons the future, rebels against our better nature, shakes our undivided humanity, and puts dreams in the place of reality. We are made in such a way as to sense its deceit, and so we cannot enjoy ill-gotten gains. Macbeth’s tragic grandeur is in knowing from start to finish how sin damages his manhood. Sin does not merely undermine divine rules; it ruins us as creatures. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin in a way that Macbeth will demonstrate: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as an ‘ut­terance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’”6 Thus, as the Catechism continues, sin engenders vice, which destroys man (1865). The Catechism of the Council of Trent, which began to be promulgated in 1566 in Shakespeare’s infancy but not translated into English until 1675, emphasized, following Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologiae (1.2, q. 93 ff) that the Decalogue is the sum­mary of the natural law written in the hearts of all men.7

Most modern secular readers hold, on the other hand, that sin is the breaking of conventional, arbitrary rules that vary from culture to culture and that spoil our fun by prohibiting harmless natural desires; sin cannot destroy us as long as we do not obsess over it. Many believing modern readers have a surprisingly similar view: sin is a violation of a divine command that is, if not arbitrary, beyond human reason. Shakespeare, however, demurs as a deeply orthodox Christian thinker in the tradition of the Catholic Dante. He shows a pair of sinners utterly ruined in this life by failing to follow rules that make sense for the kind of beings that they are.

Unlike Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, however, all of whom are obsessive in their desire, Macbeth doesn’t have his whole heart in “vaulting ambition,” the one motive that he admits for his sinful action. He kills for something he doesn’t really want. If he has the desiderium (desiring the sinful) for the crown, he lacks, unlike his wife, the gaudium (dwelling complacently on past sins) and the de­lecta morosa (pleasure in sinful thinking).8 In his first early soliloquy (1.7.128), he admits that if he could kill without fear of reprisals in this world he would murder:

If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well

It were done quickly: if th’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 (1.7.17)

He understands, however, that sinners suffer, almost reflexively, in the here and now from the evil that they do:

—But in these cases

We still have judgment here; that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor: this even-handed Justice

Commends th’ingredience of our poison’d chalice

To our own lips (1.7.812)

“Judgment” is the controlling key word of the entire soliloquy, which, with its difficult subjunctives (“were” three times) and secre­tive sibilants, has the character of a careful confessor’s moral theol­ogy responding to a penitent’s fearful conscience. Shakespeare may be conflating the particular judgment (mentioned in the Tridentine Catechism) of every man at death into “judgment here;” he cer­tainly invokes the general judgment of the living and dead at the end of the soliloquy. He then goes on to further the case against mur­dering Duncan: he is the King’s kinsman, his subject, and his host (1314); the King himself would be an especially innocent victim (“meek” and “clear,” 1718); the result would be “deep damnation” announced by “trumpet-tongued” angels at the Last Judgment (20) and witnessed by Cherubim and perhaps the triumphant merciful Christ in Sistine Chapel glory: “Pity, like a naked new-born babe/Striding the blast” (2122). With irony and paradox, Shakespeare has Macbeth personify not Christ the Judge but Christ the Merciful (“Pity”). The innocence of the Christ child suggests Duncan’s inno­cence and Macbeth’s contrasting black intentions. At the same time, Macbeth is under no delusion that his intention can be justified be­fore the Pitying One, who, though a “new-born babe,” is strong and confident (“striding the blast”). Against this case, Macbeth places his sole weak motive for murder, “vaulting ambition,” in a humorous metaphor of a horseman who falls down while trying to leap onto his horse in a ceremonial contest:

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on th’other. (ll.2528)

Shakespeare’s bawdy (“jump the life to come” may play on an agrari­an meaning as animal intercourse—“sauter” in French—and “prick” suggests the concupiscence behind sin) and the broken, incomplete thought mesh with his masterful deployment of classic theology to show a Macbeth hyperaware of the dire consequences and ridicu­lous motivation of his grave action, which he does not savor as his wife does, who interrupts him to defy his reasoned conclusion not to murder with a specific modus operandi for murder. Sin does not, at least not at first, fool or overwhelm human reason, which ad­mires the real good more than it relishes the apparent good.

Shakespeare creates a character whose actions are inconsistent with his motivations. Macbeth lurches, hesitates, rushes in, and botches the job by keeping the evidence in his hand. He knows he does wrong; he does not want to be king at such a price; above all, he is not in control of himself. . He is inauthentic precisely because he is not fooled. When Malcolm is made the Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth is clear about the evil jealousy in his heart:

Let not light see my black and deep desires;

The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,

Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see. (1.4.5153)

Proleptic thought (thought that gets ahead of the words), the very modality of Macbeth’s early cogitations, is not rationalization or justification or any manner of moral obfuscation, but anticipatory guilt and the projective voice of conscience. Lady Macbeth is not confused, either, for she calls upon the dark powers to dry up in her the source of conscience and her very created humanity: “Stop up th’access and passage to remorse;/ That no compunctious visitings of Nature/Shake my fell purpose” (1.5.4446).  In both expressions of conscience above, the famous “milk of human kindness” (which Lady Macbeth claims is “too full” in her husband’s “nature” 1.5.1617) flows not from biblical command or divine decree but from the rational order, the “stars” and “Nature.” Conscience knocks well before the deed, the crime, is done; it beats in our hearts. The audience in fact witnesses the traitor Cawdor’s natural-law repentance right before Macbeth’s first appearance to Duncan. Malcolm reports the execution second-hand:

very frankly he confess’d his treasons,

Implored your Highness’ pardon, and set forth

A deep repentance. Nothing in his life

Became him like the leaving it: he died

As one that had been studied in his death,

To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d

As ’twere a careless trifle. (1.4.511)

“Deep,” used above to qualify “repentance” and “desires,” repeat­ed by Macbeth in his “If it ‘twere done” soliloquy to modify “dam­nation,” locates conscience in the recesses of our being rather than on the surface of our acquired social character. The penitent Caw­dor prefigures the guilt-ridden Macbeth, who will recognize later that he has thrown away his own “precious jewel” to the “common Enemy of man” (3.1.6768.). To underscore this ironic foreshad­owing, Macbeth enters just as Duncan says of Cawdor, “He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust” (1.4.1516). From the earliest moments, the call of conscience, both before and after the deed, is “trumpet-tongued.” Why does man sin when it repels and nags him more than he enjoys it? This is the cloudy tragedy of sin: we fall knowing exactly what we do but not why we do it. Macbeth’s sin of ambition doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t add up; it is real but not primary or rational. It is an ugly mystery.

Paul’s formulation of this mystery is classic: “For I do not do the good I desire, but rather the evil I do not desire . . . For in my inmost self I delight in God’s law; but I see another law in my mem­bers battling against the law that my mind acknowledges and mak­ing me captive to the law of sin that is in my members” (Rom 7:19, 22). Shakespeare may have remembered his favorite Ovid’s equally famous line: “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor : ‘I see better things and I approve; worse things I follow’” (Metamorphoses 7.2021). Aristotle’s practical syllogism explained this paradox of seeing the good but not willing it by arguing that the mind posits a first real and healthy good, then sees a second apparent but unhealthy good, and then finally, in weakness, forgets the first and wills the second. 9 Shakespeare’s presentation of this absurdity is even more extreme: Macbeth has no extraordinary taste for the crown but kills for it.

Peter Milward, the British Jesuit Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Shakespeare may have gotten his scholastic natural-law theol­ogy from the Anglican Richard Hooker, whose Laws of Ecclesastical Polity, published in 1594, put the propensity for evil doing in an insufficiently “diligent Reason,” in the “hastiness of our Wills pre­venting the more considerate advice of sound Reason,” and in the “custom of evil” that makes the “heart obdurate.” Hooker asserts, “For there was never sin committed, wherein a less good was not preferred before a greater, and that willfully; which cannot be done without the singular disgrace of Nature, and the utter disturbance of that divine order, whereby the pre-eminence of chiefest accep­tation is by the best things worthily challenged.” Milward applies these reflections to Macbeth’s own musings on his sin, which he understands as “self-abuse” stemming from the “initiate fear that wants hard use” (1.3.34). Hooker accepts the classic scholastic identification of sin as “contra Naturam, contra Rationem, and con­tra Deum,” and Macbeth’s own rational faculty is clear enough, Mil­ward agrees, to recognize his self-deception. Shakespeare presents no extreme Lutheran or Calvinist view of reason so damaged and darkened by the effects of original sin as to be incapable of choice or moral lucidity.10

Shakespeare will not let us think, therefore, that our jarring inner inconsistencies lessen our culpability; conscience is clearer, more ob­sessive, more rational than sin. Shakespeare establishes the freedom of Macbeth’s act, while acknowledging the dark influences—his wife, the witches—on his behavior. His hesitations and cold-blooded premeditation make it clear that passion doesn’t occlude intellect. If Calvinists and Lutherans ever denied the freedom of the will, Shake­speare shows which side of the theological war he is on. Yet he is here more Augustinian than Thomistic in his emphasis on depravity and de-emphasis on grace. Macbeth’s sin is grave and involves full knowledge and full consent of the will. Shakespeare shows through Macbeth’s infected language that sin is absurd in the sense that, to use the technical language of Thomas, even a dulled sensible appe­tite, with clearly stated concupiscible passions (for the goods of fe­alty and attraction to innocence, for example), overcome by fatigued irascible passions for power and sexual attraction, can lead the im­paired rational will to rule against the malformed intellect.11 This incoherence can be called disordered precisely because it presumes a natural order; Shakespeare’s rhetorical treatment, wherein Mac­beth’s language sees further than it says and yields conclusions that run contrary to action, deliberately expresses the absurd behavior of his protagonist without himself succumbing to category confusion.

At the same time, no strong fault line in the concept of sin sep­arates Catholics from Protestants as it does, for example, in the belief in purgatory or the sacraments. Shakespeare simply leans to the more Catholic understanding of an impaired but still free will following natural law instead of the more Protestant understanding of a corrupted and more determined will struggling to hear the divine command.12 Unlike modern nihilists, however, his thought is imbued entirely by the category of sin.

Macbeth’s reference to his “single state of man” brings up another modern confusion about sin that Shakespeare does not possess. We inherit sin as actors in the human story, but illuminating conscience has also been built into our human nature. Unlike many modern readers, who hold that evil is natural to our humanity, Shakespeare aligns himself with classical Catholic thought that we were not cre­ated for sin but rather have acquired it by ourselves through origi­nal sin. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth will later argue this point only somewhat obliquely. When she calls him a coward, he claims that sin is not a mark of manhood: “I dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do more, is none” (1.7.4547).

She repeats the accusation of cowardice sarcastically even though she has already acknowledged in her own soliloquy that conscience inheres in our created humanity:

What beast was’t then,

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And, to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man (1.7.4751)

Macbeth will repeat these lines later to Banquo’s ghost: “What man dare, I dare” (3.4.98). Macduff will echo them later when he cries at the news of Macbeth’s slaughter of his wife and children. Malcolm urges him to “dispute” or struggle against his tears “like a man,” but Macduff responds, “I shall do so;/But I must first feel it like a man” (4.3.219221). Compassion, which is the appetite of conscience, also distinguishes our humanity. While sin grips us, it does not define us. Our essence is good. Shakespeare is no Calvin­ist, however dark his heroes may be, and yet he shows sin to be absurd by describing it as irrational but willful, clear to conscience but mysterious to consciousness.

Adam and Eve and Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

The fall of Macbeth gently recalls the fall of Adam, which contrib­utes to the explanation of why Macbeth sins when his moral reason­ing is so clearly opposed to sin. Every sin recapitulates the first sin as an overreaching decline from grace. In Genesis 3, the serpent and Eve suborn Adam to disobey; the woman has the more culpable ambition; a childless couple becomes one in sin and loses paradise; compromised sexuality lurks in the shadows; fertility is cursed. Shakespeare’s story roughly follows these selected elements of the biblical pattern. The witches treacherously promise greatness and later invulnerability as the serpent falsely promises divinity and im­mortality. Lady Macbeth is relentless (“screw your courage to the sticking place” 1.7.61) in her delictio of Duncan’s crown as “the or­nament of life” (1.7.42) as Eve regards the tree as “good to eat” and a “delight to the eyes” (Gn 3:6). Adam, on the other hand, simply eats without expressing desire, and Macbeth is horrified, both be­fore and after, by his deed. Shame at nakedness overtakes Adam and Eve (Gn 3:7). Lady Macbeth refers strangely several times to her sexuality as she calls upon the dark powers in her soliloquy:

. . . Come, you Spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty!

. . . Come, to my woman’s breasts

And take my milk for gall, you murth’ring ministers

(1.5.4043, 4748)

And as she urges her husband on to sin in the next scene:

. . . I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dashed the brains out (1.7.5458)

Guilty sexuality is intermingled with sin as in Sonnet 129: “An ex­pense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action.” Moreover, Lady Macbeth trades her fecundity for sin in the lines above, and Macbeth declares that her “undaunted mettle” should “bring forth men-children only” (1.7.7374) as God curses Eve as a punishment for her sin in Genesis 3:16 by greatly increasing her pain in child­bearing. Finally, while bloody Scotland is a far cry from Eden, Duncan and Banquo remark on the innocent peace and heavenly air—the state of original justice—of Macbeth’s castle when they arrive:

Duncan: This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.

Banquo: This guest of summer

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,

By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath

Smells wooingly here (1.4.16)

These lines convey the goodness of the world that will be shattered by sin.

Macbeth’s first great soliloquy (1.7.128) has introduced the paradox of sin. First, he is remarkably clear that he is not trading eternal bliss for temporal happiness: “But in these cases, we still have judgment here (78).” Murder brings no present good in ex­change for his immortal soul. If it did, there would be no hesita­tion about “jumping” or risking the life to come. (“Jumping” also connects later with the metaphors of “leaping” and “vaulting” at the end of the soliloquy and emphasizes the untethered movement of sin and, since it o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other” (2728), with the notion of “sin” in the Greek “hamartia” as “missing the mark.”) Justice is “even-handed”: that is, it acts both later in the afterlife and now in the shadows of life. It diminishes us now, and it settles up with us later. It “commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice to our own lips.” In the busy preparations for Duncan’s feast men­tioned in the scene’s stage directions, which is a parody of the Lord’s banquet, Macbeth drinks what he pours. Throughout the speech he uses the royal “we,” which presumptive usage shows how deeply his will has been infected. Peter Saccio understands “chalice” and “host” to refer almost unconsciously to the Eucharist; Duncan’s banquet will be his last supper.13 Macbeth is decidedly not arguing that he is trading a present good for a later good; he knows that murder will bring him immediate harm.

In fact, Macbeth makes several strong arguments against the murder. To the two reasons already adduced, that sin punishes us both now and later, Duncan’s person itself claims four reasons for being spared: he is Macbeth’s blood relative, his lord, his guest, and his moral superior. This last claim occupies fully one third of the soliloquy. Macbeth makes no assertion that Scotland will be bet­ter off without Duncan’s rule; rather, Duncan’s meekness (recall­ing the virtue of the first Beatitude and opposing Macbeth’s own “vaulting ambition”) and unstained dutifulness (“clear” and “office,” which contains the meaning of “duty” in officium) “will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against/The deep damnation of his taking off” (1920). Open-eyed and undeceived, Macbeth knows fully the weakness of his case and the depth of its consequences before the di­vine tribunal at the Last Judgment. When Lady Macbeth interrupts the soliloquy, Macbeth tells her decisively that he has accepted the logic against the crime: “We will proceed no further in this bloody business” (31). He adds two more objections: killing Duncan, who has honored Macbeth with a new title, would be an act of especial ingratitude; moreover, Macbeth’s reputation, at a high mark from “golden opinions from all sorts of people,” might suffer (3233). Glory, in other words, is on the side of goodness.

Why, then, with no goods to be obtained by murder (“o’er leaps itself and falls on the other”) and eight goods to be lost, does Mac­beth agree to the sinful deed within fifty lines by the end of the scene and act? In the Arden Shakespeare, Muir repeats the explanation of­fered by J. C. Curry in Shakespeare’s Philosophical Patterns (1937) that Macbeth assents to evil as soon as Lady Macbeth develops a specific plan, albeit a weak one.14 This explanation masks the deeper expla­nation suggested by Hooker: that sin operates not by reason but by habit; it lurks in the irrational appetite. Macbeth commits the sin of murder because he is a seasoned killer: his appetite is formed for violent action. Once he smells a feasible plan, he acts. His only remaining objection is fear of failure; he asks her, “If we should fail?” (59) Lady Macbeth taunts him to prove himself no “coward” (43) and appeals to his “love” (39), acting like the Miltonian Eve. Habit mostly (the habit of killing) and passion to a small extent (the al­lure and accusation of his manipulative wife) overcome Macbeth’s reason, but Macbeth’s free fall into the void of sin is in the main insufficiently motivated, which is why modern performances es­pecially emphasize the sexual and manipulative influence of Lady Macbeth. That Shakespeare needed to add the additional motivation of the desire to prove himself courageous before his strong-willed life shows that Shakespeare was aware that Macbeth had stacked the deck against his sinfulness.

Sin is thus absurd; only virtue makes sense. What makes the ad­dict destroy his body and his life for pleasure that he knows from intimate experience will be momentary and later painful? What makes man throw away unmitigated paradise for the taste of the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? Why did Judas kill his beloved teacher for silver and then hang himself upon being paid? (Milward identifies in Macbeth’s “’twere well it were done quickly” an allusion to Christ’s remark to Satan upon entering into Judas at the Last Supper in John 13:27, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”)15 When we can answer these questions, we will under­stand Macbeth’s absurd leap into immediate hell. He kills Duncan simply because he can and it has become his second nature as a fallen creature to do so.

The Dantean Effects of Sin: Sin As Its Own Punishment

When Lady Macbeth has plied Duncan’s bodyguard’s with wine, she rings a bell, as Macbeth has instructed, that his “drink is ready” (2.1.31), and this evil tintinnabulation, which signals that “the ingre­dience of [his] poisoned chalice” have been consecrated, causes Mac­beth to reflect that this “knell . . . summons” Duncan “to Heaven, or to Hell” (2.1.6364). He is too intelligent and conscious of his own evil intentions not to recognize that in fact Duncan’s knell, a parody of the Eucharist, represents his own eschatological summons.

Thus, hearing Macduff knocking at the gate after Duncan’s mur­der, he believes that he is already damned to hell: “To know my deed, ‘twere best not know myself. [Knock]/ Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst!” (1.2.7172). The Porter’s sev­eral references to Hell, therefore, express Macbeth’s fatalistic con­clusions about his own soul: “Porter of Hell Gate, i’th’name of Bel­zebub, I’th’other devil’s name, equivocate to heaven, too cold for Hell, devil-porter” (2.3.121). In the Catholic tradition, mortal sin and damnation are not, however, to be confused. Damnation to hell classically occurs at the particular judgment for the already dead or at the general judgment at the Second Coming for the still living. Mortal sin is man’s; judgment is God’s. At the same time, Shake­speare shows that the effects of sin do not wait for damnation.

Almost immediately after Macbeth settles on the plan to murder Duncan at the end of act 1, the first effect of sin appears dramati­cally. Sin blurs the vision. As we have witnessed, it involves faulty seeing, putting an apparent good ahead of a real good, misconstru­ing the way things are, being blind to reality. Conversely, the pure of heart shall see God (Mt 5:8). Before settling on his decision to do evil, Macbeth had seen clearly the claims against murder but had not connected those claims to a moral conclusion. He saw things that were there, but he turned from them. At the beginning of act 2, however, he is beginning to see things that aren’t there. The first of these is the dagger. In soliloquy, he reaches toward “a dagger of the mind,” but he says, “I have thee not, and yet I see it still” (2.1.35). His “eyes are made the fools o’th’other senses/Or else worth all the rest” (4445). That this dagger is in fact imaginary and not a prop on stage, perhaps the murder weapon, is made plain by the fact that Macbeth sees “gouts of blood” on its “blade, and dudgeon” (46) when no blood has yet been shed. Macbeth’s ocular degeneration moves swiftly. In the first act, the witches whoappear and suddenly disap­pear to him are confirmed by the audience and Banquo; in act 2, alone on stage, he imagines a bloody dagger but realizes that “there’s no such thing” but that it has been “informed” by “the bloody busi­ness” of his intention (2.1.4748); in act 3, he sees Banquo’s ghost, which neither his wife nor his guests notice, and this sight remains for sixty-five lines. In the forest alone with the witches in act 4, scene 1, Macbeth sees the strangest, most grotesque visions. These are not ghosts from a guilty conscience or words of a covetous hope but rather prophetic apparitions of a fearful imagination: the armed head of Macduff’s opposition, the bloody child of Macduff’s violent Caesarean birth, the crowned child with a tree representing Mal­colm’s surreptitious insurrection at Dunsinane, and the eight kings in Banquo’s wake. Lenox, who wanders into the forest, does not see even the Weird Sisters (4.1.136), and Macbeth, though he has him­self sought them as prophets of the truth, doubts their veracity and damns those, like himself, who would trust them (139). He has thus come to disbelieve his own eyes when they do not confirm his evil will. These visions proceed from Macbeth’s metathesized sinfulness. Without question, a spiritual, not a physical blindness assails him. Later in the play, the good English king, Edward the Confessor, who is, with Malcolm and Macduff, Macbeth’s virtuous foil and antago­nist, is said to possess the miraculous gift of curing the “wretched souls” of the ”evil,”vil,’” the eye disease scrofula, alluded to in a pro­longed passage that obviously points to a contrast with Macbeth’s malignant blindness to virtue (4.3.140159).

Lady Macbeth also goes blind with guilt. At the beginning of act 5, she walks with a taper “continually,” for, although her eyes are open, “their sense is shut” (5.1.2123). “Hell,” she raves a little like Tom o’Bedlam, “is murky” (34). Like Pontius Pilate, she washes her hands for “a quarter of an hour” (28), but says they will not be clean (41). She has known and spoken what she should not have (4446). Her doctor recognizes that her condition is spiritual, not physical: “More needs she the divine than the physician./God, God forgive us all” (7172). His last prayer for all humanity reminds us of our collective and universal sinfulness. Blindness clouds us all.

This human sinfulness worsens the human inability of seeing God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Guilt and “lust of the eyes” (1 Jn 2:16, in Greek, epithumia ophthalmon) distort our vision. Christ healed the blind and restored the gift of healthy sight (Mt 9, Mk 8, Jn 9). Of course, in the account in John, Jesus explicitly denies that the man was born blind as a punishment for his or his parents’ sin. In Matthew 6:22, however, Jesus brings together healthy sight with righteousness: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” Thus, a distinc­tion between physical blindness as a punishment for sin and spiritual blindness as a condition of sin must be made. The opposite of sinful seeing in the world is the Beatific Vision, the happy contemplation of God. Macbeth loses sight progressively and is surrounded in­creasingly by darkness.16

Secondly, sin murders sleep. The sleep of babes is proverbially sound because they are proverbially innocent. God calls the righ­teous to his sabbath rest (Heb 4, Ps 94, the invitatory psalm of the Divine Office). Anxious St. Augustine famously found his rest in God (Confessions, 1.1.). Guilt, the busyness of sin, the fear of failure to accomplish a wrong action (which bears more psychological angst than does the fear of failure to accomplish a just action), the fear of scandal—all these factors burden the mind. As the first conse­quence, bodily insomnia ravages the soul. Much of the action of the play is done by characters who are awake late at night; night owls, both literal (2.2.4) and figurative, who confuse day and night, people the stage: “A falcon, towering in her pride of place,/Was by a mous­ing owl hawk’d at, and kill’d.” (2.4.1213) Banquo (2.1.69), Mac­beth (2.2.3435, 3.4.140), Lady Macbeth (5.3.39), and the Porter (2.3.2728) all express, implicitly or explicitly, trouble sleeping as a result of the mortal sins of meditated or actual violence and of over­-indulgence in drink. Most of Scotland is up late in this play planning murders, wassailing, answering late-night knocks, plotting rebellion, waylaying travelers at daybreak, and ministering to the sick.

Sin’s damage does not remain within the individual soul. Shake­speare makes no Protestant distinction between public and private. The morning after the murder Lenox reveals that the natural order has been singularly upset both before and while Macbeth’s wicked act would have occurred:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,

Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,

Lamentings heard i’th’air; strange screams of death,

And, prophesyings with accents terrible

Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,

New hatch’d to th’woeful time, the obscure bird

Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth

Was feverous, and did shake. (2.3.5459)

This is no mere Deuteronomic commonplace or primitive supersti­tious topos that natural calamity reflects divine displeasure. Murder most foul has tilted the cosmos, and this primordial sin inspires the rhetorical ideas for much of the rest of the scene and drives the dramatic surges for much of the rest of the play. The Catechism of Trent, prepared especially for the parish priest of Shakespeare’s day (though forbidden in Shakespeare’s England), taught that murder not only offends God but undoes His works and violates nature:

The murderer is the worst enemy of his species, and consequently of nature. To the utmost of his power he destroys the universal work of God by the destruction of man, since God declares that He created all things for man’s sake. Nay, as it is forbidden in Genesis to take human life, because God created man to his own image and likeness, he who makes away with God’s image offers great injury to God, and almost seems to lay violent hands on God Himself! (Emphasis mine.)

Such a teaching is behind Rosse’s comment to the venerable “Old Man,” addressed as “good Father,” in the scene following the one in which the murder occurs:

Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,

Threatens his bloody stage: by th’clock this day,

And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.

Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,

That darkness does the face of earth entomb,

When living light should kiss it? (2.5.59)

It is as if this one primordial sin has knocked the heavenly bodies loose from the forces holding them in place, and day has become night. Rosse continues the thought by reporting that the natural world has indeed been turned upside down: an owl has killed a hunting falcon, and Duncan’s horses have gone mad and “eat each other” (1018). To Rosse’s emphatic question “How goes the world, Sir, now?” Macduff, as if the answer were not plain enough in how the world has been moved, responds sarcastically, “Why, see you not?” (21). If chaos theory has revealed the vectors of a butterfly’s flutter on the world’s weather, traditional theology knew the cos­mic fallout from a single sin. In destroying creature and creation, sin thwarts the divine creative will; the turning of the cosmos is thus not a punishment so much as an effect of sin. Shakespeare’s occlud­ed sun, wailing bird, fighting horses, and whirling winds are poetic figures for the harm that sin does to creation. Macbeth’s sin puts Scotland on the road to ruin: regicide leads to usurpation, counter-rebellion, civil war, and regicide again. The Catholic tradition has long denounced the murder of an innocent person as a sin that cries out to the heavens for justice.

Sin has sunk Scotland so low that men cannot even speak their minds. In act 3, scene 4, Lenox and a Lord do not dare broach their mutual abhorrence of Macbeth’s malignant rule for some forty lines. Trust even within parties is slow to form. Lenox finally acknowl­edges their thoughts. Only God can deliver Scotland from iniquity:

. . . Some holy Angel

Fly to the court of England, and unfold

His message ere he come, that a swift blessing

May soon return to this our suffering country

Under a hand accurs’d! (3.4.4649)

Macduff laments his stricken country and vows to save it from the sins that offend heaven:

Let us rather

Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men

Bestride our downfall birthdom. Each new morn,

New widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows

Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds

As if it felt with Scotland, and yell’d out

Like syllables of dolour. (4.3.28)

The stain in Macbeth’s soul results in a holy war for the soul of Scot­land. The war between the virtuous rebels and the bloody tyrant is a war between good and evil to make the world right again. Shake­speare takes pains to establish the virtue of Malcolm as a righteous heir to the throne and of Edward as a virtuous ally, and Malcolm himself humbly details his own unworthiness as Macduff catalogs his qualities. The audience must be readied for Macbeth’s successor. Indeed, in the course of the scene, Malcolm first accuses himself of voluptuousness (4.3.61), lust (63), and avarice (67) and claims that he lacks such “king-becoming graces/As Justice, Verity, Temp’rance, Stableness,/Bounty, Perseverance, Mercy, Lowliness,/Devotion, Patience, Courage, Fortitude (9194); then, as if by confessing them he has been absolved, abjures the “taints and blames” that he has laid upon himself (123125) and even professes virginity (126). If sin has caused this war, holiness will prevail.

One man’s sin can infect an entire kingdom perhaps because one sin quickly metathesizes into many sins. Paragraph 1865 of the 1994 Catechism under the title “The Proliferation of Sin” puts the point this way, “Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repeti­tion of the same acts.” Macbeth is soon materially guilty of breaking all ten commandments: the first, by giving credence to soothsayers and fortune-tellers; the second and fourth, by forswearing his oath to serve Duncan and by not honoring his king, his earthly father; the third, by not resting from labor; the fifth, by murdering on many counts; the seventh, by stealing the crown and keeping it from its rightful heirs; the eighth, by lying; the ninth, by coveting the crown. Only the sixth and tenth, not committing adultery and not covet­ing the neighbor’s wife, are not violated, but Macbeth is certainly concupiscent and unfaithful as a subject. Once he kills Duncan, he never hesitates to murder again: Duncan, then the two grooms, then Banquo and his son, then Macduff’s family. Sin proliferates and degenerates as in Genesis. Just a few verses after Cain murders Abel, mankind becomes a murderous species. Five generations after Cain, Lamech kills twice (Gn 4:23) and by Genesis 6:5 God sees that the wickedness of man is great on earth.

Shakespeare does not telescope away from Macbeth without re­turning to his interior. Kingdoms come and go, but souls are eternal. The greatest damage is to Macbeth’s eternal jewel, his loving soul, which is given over to isolation and despair. Sin destroys love. Mac­beth and Lady Macbeth, to be sure, are partners in crime from the first moments of the play, communicating by secret letter before we see them on stage together, but their closeness quickly disintegrates. The amazed husband shares the witches’ promising prophecies with his beloved alter ego in a posted letter that arrives home before he does, and they collaborate intimately in the details of the murder. Some readers and directors even take her sexual language (which in fact is more maternal) of “unsex me here” (1.5.41) and “woman’s breasts” (47) just after reading his letter to his “dearest partner in greatness” as suggestions that Lady Macbeth seduces her husband off stage into overcoming his scruples. However twentieth-century that may be, the affection and closeness of this childless couple is clear.
They exit together into the night at the end of scenes four times (1.5, 1.7, 2.2, 3.4). He shares his burning desire with her; she suborns him, plans for him, covers for him; he, in turn, spares her the knowl­edge of Banquo’s murder. Even at the end of the scene featuring the public embarrassment of speaking to Banquo’s ghost, when she has sought vainly to protect his honor, they go off, this time clearly, to bed together: “Come, we’ll to sleep.” This last intimacy is also the last time they are consciously together. On stage only once again together at the beginning of act 5, Lady Macbeth never recognizes her husband and exits at the end of scene 1 conspicuously with her chambermaid instead of with her husband. When Seyton tells him of her death in scene 5, his resigned response is “She should have died hereafter:/There would have been a time for such a word” (1718). Unlike Macduff, who feels his wife’s loss “like a man,” Macbeth cold­ly knows that his wife’s soul has been lost to the hereafter for some time already; as though she has been a corpse for some time, and tomorrow is as good a time to bury her as yesterday.

Macbeth has not only lost his wife’s love but also Banquo’s friendship, Macduff’s loyalty, and all of Scotland’s fealty. Alone with him and his evil self is Seyton, sounded like the Prince of Darkness. Whereas love unites us with others, sin isolates us and leads us to despair, which lies at the end of the path started by absurdity. Mac­beth has no doubt felt the sentiment of meaninglessness long before he voices it at the news of his despairing wife’s death, which we learn from Malcolm at the end of the play was a suicide (5.4.3637). Thus, Macbeth could also be speaking for his hopeless wife:

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,

Signifying nothing. (5.5.1928)

Despair is not mere hopelessness. It is a living nothingness, spiri­tual death, the starting point and destiny of all sin, which moves in a circle, the circle known also as a zero. Dorothy Sayers, agreeing substantively with Aquinas (Summa theologiae 2, a. 2, q. 35), identi­fies despair with acedia, inadequately translated as “sloth.” In her essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” she shows how despair disguises itself as all the other capital sins: “In the world [acedia] calls itself tolerance; but in hell it is called despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for.” All sin, she continues to claim, is a disguise for despair:

It is one of the favorite tricks of this sin to dissemble itself under cover of a whiffling activity of the body. We think that if we are busily rushing about and doing things, we cannot be suffering from sloth. And besides, violent activity seems to offer an escape from sloth. So the other sins hasten to provide a cloak for sloth. . . . Covetousness rakes us out of bed at an early hour in order that we may put pep and hustle into our business. . . . Wrath provides (very ingeniously) the argument that the only fitting activity in a world so full of evildoers and evil demons is to curse loudly and incessantly. . . . But these are all disguises for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of acedia.

Sayers’ psychological insights merely update Aquinas, who follows Gregory the Great, that acedia, the mortal sin of “sorrow in the divine Good about which charity rejoices” when it is consummated by the consent of reason, is also a capital vice because it has “daugh­ters,” in its case, six: “malice, spite, faint-heartedness, despair, slug­gishness in regard to the commandments, wandering of the mind after unlawful things.” Dante puts the suicides lower in inferno than he does murderers, and acedia is lower on his mountain of purga­tory than is lust.17

The Macbeths’ restlessness, violence, and covetousness have been signs of the despair that leads to their suicides (hers clear, his ambiguous). Shakespeare had signaled that the Porter had opened the gate into this hell on earth for the Macbeths in act 2, but it is a destination that they have created, as it were, with their own journey. If despair is the destiny of sin, superbia or pride, Sayers writes, is the “head and origin of all sin . . . the sin of trying to be as God.” Lady Macbeth has had the desire for “greatness,” the carriage and manner of a grande dame, from the beginning of the play. In ac­cusing Macbeth of not having this “sickness,” she convicts herself of the same malady. Macbeth acquires it in the course of the play. In believing himself invulnerable except when the earth moves or when one not of woman born assails him, he believes himself to be divine. Benedict XVI teaches, man ends up nothing in thinking himself everything. The lines “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and to­morrow,” far from being Shakespeare’s own intellectual position in his total world-view, express rather a particular character’s spiritual pathology that follows classic Catholic diagnosis. The nihilistic read­ing gets these lines and so much else wrong, and the old-fashioned Christian interpretation was never hidden.

Macbeth, Beloved of God, Most in Need of His Mercy

Isn’t Macbeth, however, one long accelerating descent into hell? The hard-fought mad ascent of Lear into supernatural gift love is a far cry from Macbeth’s megalomaniac free fall into the black hole of self-loathing. While he may hesitate in killing Duncan more than his wife does, he never seeks pardon or demonstrates true contrition for his other crimes. Banquo’s ghost disturbs him perhaps less as a macbeth and the tragedy of sin phantom of his guilt than as a obstacle to his corrupt will: it appears to live when Macbeth had ordered his friend murdered, and it sits in Macbeth’s place. Macbeth wishes that the knocking at the gate could wake Duncan, but he never looks back on the murder of Macduff’s wife and “babes.” He would seem the very picture of the unrepen­tant sinner, of evil incarnate, of the self-damnation of lovelessness. As Shakespeare has made Macbeth the archetypal sinner, it would seem that he has made also a case that tests the suspension of human judgment. If we cannot judge Macbeth, whom can we judge?

Aquinas’s God may love the better things more (Summa theolo­giae 1, a. 20, q. 4), but Luke’s God has a special affinity for the lost sheep and the prodigal son (Lk 15 and 16). Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Lk 5:37). His mercy is infinite, and man’s wickedness is thankfully finite. The Catechism of Trent taught the radical mercy of the Church itself: “No crime, however heinous, can be committed or even conceived which the Church has not power to forgive, just as there is no sinner, however abandoned, however depraved, who should not confidently hope for pardon, provided he sincerely repent of his past transgressions.” Of course, Macbeth never explicitly repents, but death-bed contri­tion would be dramatically unacceptable and implausible. Shake­speare is too much of an artist for last-minute conversions, but his heart is also too large to judge, as Malcolm does, the Macbeths as nothing but a butcher and a fiend.

In order to see Macbeth as a man, a human sinner, as God and Shakespeare see him, it is necessary to look at two famous funda­mental definitions of sin from Augustine. First, sin is “something done, said, or thought against the law of eternity” (Augustine, Contra Faustum, 22.27: factum, dictum, vel concupitum contra legem aetemani). Second, it is a “turning from God, a turning toward the creature” (De Libero Arbitrio, 2.53: aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam).18 From these definitions, sin has a final meaning of not merely being contra naturam and contra rationem but ultimately contra Deum (These are titles of chapters in Joseph Pieper’s The Concept of Sin.) As such, against God, it is his business. Sin is an aversion from him against the eternal law and a conversion toward the creature. Conversely, then, repentance would be a conversion toward him.

G. Wilson Knight, in his essay “Macbeth and the Metaphysic of Evil,” locates Macbeth’s final triumph as a soul in peace for having overcome its conflict against evil. The disorder in the world hav­ing been created by the disorder in his soul, “the mighty principle of good planted in the nature of things then asserts itself.” At the end of Macbeth there are “balance, harmonious contact, integrity of soul.”19 Macbeth has been able to achieve this stasis because he has supped full with horrors and overcome all fear (5.5.10).

Such a victory, however, is a full acceptance of sin. Knight paints a portrait of Macbeth’s complacent damnation. In his account, there is no turn back to God, only a resignation with the status quo of evil in the heart of Macbeth. Goodness, the just cause of Malcolm, comes transcendentally, outside and despite Macbeth, with no co­operation but with passive acceptance. The idea has a New Age, Gnostic, or liberal Protestant tinge of relativism and subjectivism: the content of Macbeth’s sinfulness is ignored, and the important thing is Macbeth’s inner peace, not the evil that he has done.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, is no relativist. Macbeth may not be redeemed, but he does not give up his conflict with sin and sin remains a concrete act of specific evil. Macbeth’s turning toward evil was never total, for he never tries to justify his actions and in fact admits the evil pointedly in act 1, scene 7. In act 5, scene 7, at the nadir of his despair, he turns—or to use words that express slight movement at the risk of sounding trivial, twitches or inclines or even smiles—toward goodness. After the loss of his wife and his statement of despair, while still believing himself an invincible im­mortal and rejecting suicide, he yet cautions Macduff: “But get thee back, my soul is too much charg’d/With blood of thine already” (56). However slight, however impetuous, this momentary com­passion for an enemy facing, he thinks, an invincible foe represents a turn toward God. It is of course not a renunciation of evil, and as Macduff attacks he does not throw down his arms, but it is a human act that proceeds from a will that is not entirely ruined and contains a mustard seed of love of neighbor. Macduff then reveals that he was “from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d,” and Macbeth’s intel­lect is enlightened:

Accursed be the 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.—I’ll not fight with thee. (1622)

There is now more than a twitch of conversion here. There is a pulling away from Satan, his evil works, and the glamour of evil; a repudiation of unjust violence; a denunciation of equivocation; a return to the hope available in the divine life; a final posture of hu­man humility in the face of divine majesty; and most of all, a flight from the idolatry of fortune-telling. The Catechism of Trent writes, “Against [the First commandment] all those sin who . . . give credit to dreams, fortune-telling, and such illusions; those who, despairing of salvation, trust not in the goodness of God.” We are at the other end of the theological spectrum of salvation from John Calvin’s doctrine of “double predestination” in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction.” The Fatima Prayer expresses this radical love of the most hardened sinner with the formulation, “lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.” This conception of the infinitely merciful heart of God can offend Jews and Muslims who rather em­phasize God’s justice. It is one of the most radically Catholic notions in Shakespeare’s theology, that he is able to imagine, if not the actual salvation of all, at least the potential salvation of the wicked. He can see the last facet of divinity in Macbeth’s lost eternal jewel.

In response to Macbeth’s surprising generosity in the wake of the nihilistic despair of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” Macduff calls him coward and threatens him with subjection, and Macbeth resists enslavement by an enemy, having been created for freedom, not for the slavery of sin:

Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,

And thou oppos’d, being of no woman born,

Yet I will try the last: before my body

I throw my warlike shield: lay on, Macduff,

And damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!” (3034)

Macbeth here opposes the prophecies of the evil will and throws himself up as a bodily sacrifice of the divine will. If Lady Macbeth dies by suicide, is it too much to claim that he cooperates in a gra­tuitous surprising act of martyrdom? It is noteworthy that Shake­speare chooses the word “shield” rather than “sword” as a metonymy for Macbeth’s last battle, which is not an assault on a unprepared enemy but a defensive struggle with a worthy adversary held in lov­ing honor to whom, like Christ, he offers his “body.”

Far from being a soul frozen in actionless despair, Macbeth as­cends into the light of activity. Despite his terrible knowledge that his prophecy does not protect him, he neither runs away from the divine avenger nor gives up the struggle of life. By nature a fighter, he tries the last and throws his warlike shield before his body, finding the mean between cowardice and brutality. He has not abandoned his allegiance to martial values: in his last sentence he claims that damnation comes from cowardice. At the same time, he has turned toward mercy and respect for the other. He sees more clearly the truth in things.

By contrast, Macbeth in his earlier slaughter of young Siward was merciless. Siward identifies him with Satan twice (5.7.68), and Macbeth scoffs at the fallen mortal and boasts of his own super-hu­manity: “Thou wast born of woman:/But swords I laugh at, weapons laugh to scorn,/Brandish’d by man that’s of a woman born” (1113). Muir notes here an allusion to Job 14:1 and to the Burial Service in The Book of Common Prayer: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble” (RSV). Blind to the suffering of humanity, Macbeth is also asserting his own divinity. The phrase has had a bibli­cal subtext from the forest scene in act 4 when the bloody child, the second apparition, uses it first to seduce Macbeth with a false prom­ise of invincibility: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.7981). Jesus uses the phrase in Matthew 11:11 to make a con­trast between the inferiority of the greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist, to the “least in the kingdom.” Job had used it to assert the inherence of suffering in the human condition. Just after the second apparition uses this phrase, the third apparition, a crowned child, an unmistakable reference to the Infant King of Kings often depicted in medieval and Renaissance art, arrives in thunder, wearing “upon his baby brow the round/And top of sovereignty?” (8889). Macbeth is blind to the opposition to evil by the sovereignty of God, who has in Jesus consented to being born of woman.

It is Macbeth’s suffering, the suffering of a man born of woman, which accounts for this metanoia from hubris to humility: suffer­ing for which he himself is responsible, but suffering nonetheless. Macbeth’s nobility consists in part in recognizing this suffering but not yielding to it. He faces and expresses despair, but, unlike his wife, continues to act as he calls upon his servant Seyton. (Muir sur­prisingly discounts this identification with Satan, but nothing seems clearer that Macbeth’s alliance with the Prince of Darkness):

I am sick at heart,

When I behold—Seyton, I say!—This push

Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.

I have liv’d long enough: my way of life

Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow life;

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.

Seyton! (5.3.1929)

Since medicine will not help the diseased soul of his wife, he’ll “throw physic to the dogs” (46); he’ll none of it. He arms himself. Although he is numb to the mournful cries of women (5.5.910), he fights like a baited bear (5.7.1112).

Scotland has been absolved and saved if Macbeth has not. In the last scene, Macduff recognizes the “kingdom’s pearl” (22) in the crown of Malcolm, who represents the will of God, triumphing “by the grace of Grace. (38)” Macbeth’s own “eternal jewel,” his soul, may not have been given over entirely to the “common enemy of man.” (3.1.6768) Instead, he may have made a humble move of cooperation with divine grace. This sudden indwelling of mercy, this surprising turn toward the good, has no explanation except in the Christian tradition as a mysterious conferring of grace. The Cat­echism of Trent, in its explanation of the “Communion of Saints” in the Creed section and following Thomas (ST, 2, 2ae, a. 128) teaches that “graces gratuitously given” can be extended “even to the wick­ed.” Trent includes in such graces the charisms (prophecy, teaching, healing, and so on) but does not restrict them to the charisms. More precisely, this divine communication can occur outside of the sacra­ments: Aquinas’s subcategories include prevenient grace, which is a stimulation to goodness that precedes an act of goodness; subse­quent grace, which helps the good act in progress; and persevering grace, which brings the act to its end. Thus, Macbeth’s moral twitch might be labeled prevenient grace and his sacrificial finale might be an example of subsequent and persevering grace.20 Of course, nothing in the lines or elsewhere in the play confirms explicitly that Shakespeare was thinking of these specific scholastic field identifica­tion markings, as commonly known as they might have been, when he was meditating on Macbeth’s farewell actions and last words, but a spiritual master can glimpse the mysterious but palpable move­ments of God by his working understanding of the heart and soul of man displayed in his imagined characters and informed by the general catechism and popular Christian story. Shakespeare’s psy­chology was not modern but ultimately orthodox Christian, which is to say a medieval version of classical psychology: the origin of human behavior is not merely toward the end or good of survival or pleasure or power but also toward other goods and good itself.

Macbeth may not have damned himself. Unlike his wife, he has confessed his sin in several places; she has held it deep within and washed her hands of her guilt to no avail. His constitutional supe­riority and perseverance can be due only to his frank confrontation and clear-eyed accounting of personal evil. Perhaps through Mac­beth’s self-examination Shakespeare was unconsciously lamenting the lost sacrament of confession in the Reformation (the Twenty-Fifth of Cranmer’s Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England allows for only two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). If this goes too far, the discrepancy between the fates of the Macbeths argues at least for Shakespeare’s own understanding that articulated if not auricular moral examen is a requirement for spiritual integrity.

Malcolm, sure of his righteousness like the complacent Pharisee of Luke 18, boasts of divine right and scorns the Macbeths (5.9.3539). Macbeth, of course, like Lear, has no awareness of grace’s pur­chase on him. He is merely open to it; he sees more clearly; he is no longer acting absurdly against his better nature and deliber­ate reason but now moving humbly in accordance with them; his eyes, like those of the sinful tax collector, are cast down in shame but turned toward mercy as he faces Macduff. Macbeth, in his self-inflicted emptiness, falls into destitution, unlike the virtuous older brother of the Prodigal Son and the friends who have not suffered like Job, and this profound sinner may even be touched at the end by the God who wishes to fill and to give rest.


1. The arguments reassembled since 2000 are notably presented by, among others, the Catholics Joseph Pearce, Father Peter Milward, SJ, Claire Asquith, and Father David Beauregard and by the secular biographers Michael Wood, Ian Wilson, and Anthony Holden.

2. Charlotte Spivack, The Comedy of Evil on Shakespeare’s Stage (London, Cranbury NJ: Associated University Presses, 1978).

3. I employ the numbering and refer frequently to the commentary of the excellent Arden Macbeth edited by Kenneth Muir, 1950, reprinted 2005.

4. William May, An Introduction to Moral Theology, Second Edition (Huntington: Our Sun­day Visitor, 2003) 186.

5. Pieper, The Concept of Sin (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, [1977] 2001).

6. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1849 (United States Catholic Confer­ence, 1994). The paragraph cites Augustine’s Contra Faustum 22: PL 42, 418 and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, First Part of Second Part, q 71, a. 6.

7. “How the Third Differs From the Other Commandments,” Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566 Roman Catechism translated into English in 1923 by McHugh and Calon).

8. “Sin,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (New Advent On Line Version of 1917 Edition).

9. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII, 1147a23–b5.

10. Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1973), 139140.

11. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1.2, a. 23.

12. Carl Braaten, “Protestants and Natural Law,” First Things January 1992. Braaten cites John T. McNeil’s view that Luther and Calvin rejected natural law in their rejection of scholasticism and Aristotle.

13. Peter Saccio, “Musing on Murder,” Lecture 35 of William Shakespeare: Comedies, His­tories, and Tragedies, (Chantilly, Virginia: The Teaching Company).

14. Muir, The Arden Shakespeare (New York: Methuen, 1986).

15. Milward, 99.

16. Some of these reflections are borrowed from a 2004 Pastoral Letter by the Bishop of Arlington, Paul Loverde, “Bought With the Price: Pornography and the Attack on the Living Temple of God.”)

17. Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian (New York: Macmillan, 1978 [1969]), 176.

18. Both citations appear in May, Moral Theology, 208.

19. Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen, 1949), 156.

20. The Catechism of Trent cites Thomas’s questions on grace, ST 1, 2, 109114.