Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

Counsel in "Macbeth"

Counsel in Macbeth

The voices that are heeded and ignored in Macbeth
Donald L. Renfrew MD

Counsel in Macbeth

The Problem
In Act 5 Macbeth, despairing of any goodness and purpose in life, delivers his most memorable speech.
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.

The animating sentiment of this speech is that of the Columbine killers1 and philosopher David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. A few lines later, Macbeth summarizes his thesis and chooses, instead of suicide2, “death by cop” (5,5):
I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone –
Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!
At least we’ll die with harness on our back.

What brings the king to such a state, where he agrees with high school shooters or morbid contemporary philosophers? One key to understanding Macbeth’s fall is to note that he also agrees with Goerthe’s Mephistopheles:
I am the spirit who negates
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish, wretchedly.
It were better nothing would begin!
Thus everything that your terms sin,
Destruction, evil represent –
That is my proper element.

In addition to the title character, there’s another fallen character mentioned in Macbeth. Malcolm, when he is sounding out Macduff’s faithfulness (4,3), notes:
Angels are still bright, though the brightest fell.

What were kings to the Elizabethan audience of Shakespeare? Many rulers were held in high esteem, and with good reason. Properly functioning royal rulers stood in for God, as Shakespeare illustrates in 4.3 where King Edward heals the sick, has the gift of prophesy, and possesses additional unspecified “sundry blessings”:
[Citizens are afflicted with a disease which] ‘Tis called the evil.
A most miraculous work in this good king,
Which often since my here-remain in England
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows, but strangely visited people,
All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers. And, ‘tis spoken
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.

Elizabethans knew that their rulers were human, but they hoped – and prayed – that their own royal leader would “channel the Almighty” and act as God. In Genesis, God brings habitable order into being from chaos, and pronounces creation “good”, that is, better to have been than to not have been.
How did Macbeth get where he is in Act 5? It is the downstream result of a hasty decision made not in the heat of battle, but in the afterglow. Macbeth’s first thought, upon being told by the witches that he is to be king, is to murder Duncan. We know this because of Banquo’s observation (1.3):
Good sir, why do you start; and seem to fear
Things that do sound so fair?

Macbeth indicates what he has in mind later in the same scene:
. . .why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair [?]

Why does Macbeth immediately think of murdering Duncan upon hearing that he will be king? Consider the circumstances: he has just come from not one but two bouts of brutal hand-to-hand combat (described by the wounded Captain in 1.2). The survivor of two battles, still hot and bloody from the fray, would naturally think of murder. Macbeth himself notes that someone emotionally charged might hastily pursue violence when he explains why he kills Duncan’s guards3 (2.3):
Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.
Th’ expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason.

While Macbeth’s first impulse upon hearing the witches’ declaration is to murder Duncan, he realizes immediately that this may not be necessary (1,3):
If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir

If Macbeth knows he has at least two options (action and inaction), how does he choose between the two? It seems he wants to discuss the issue with his fellow soldier Banquo, as within a few lines of realizing that he does not necessarily have to kill Duncan to become king he tells Banquo:
Think upon what has chanced, and, at more time
The interim having weighed it, let us speak
Our free hearts to each other.

We presume this discussion did not ensue, for Macbeth’s next discussion of the matter is with Lady Macbeth. In 1.5 she reads a letter from Macbeth recounting his meeting with the witches, and she immediately thinks that Macbeth should murder Duncan (“the nearest way” to become king), but she worries that he will be “too full of the milk of human kindness” to do the job. Lady Macbeth implores the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to fill her with cruelty. Once Macbeth arrives, Lady Macbeth counsels him to kill Duncan, but Macbeth demurs, saying at the end of 1.5 “We will speak further.”
In 1.7 Macbeth provides several reasons not to murder Duncan. When Lady Macbeth interrupts, he tells her “We will proceed no further in this business.” She then challenges his honesty, his consistency, his bravery and his manhood (capped by the image of her pulling a baby from her breast and dashing the baby’s brains out). She also provides a concrete plan for the murder, at which point Macbeth (reluctantly?) agrees:
I am settled, and bend up
Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat.

Even though he has committed to this course of action, however, Macbeth has second thoughts, and in 2.1 asks Banquo for the second time to speak with him about the witches’ prophecies.
Where did Macbeth go wrong? Was it in listening to his wife? Was it in failure to listen to Banquo? He knows he should not listen to her, and it seems likely that he should have listened to him. But he does not avail himself of the opportunity to speak with Banquo. Who else could he have spoken with?
There’s one Being Macbeth did not consult, as shown in 2.2, immediately after his second and third murders. Duncan’s guards wake just before Macbeth kills them, say prayers, and then fall back to sleep. Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth (1,2):
One cried 'God bless us!' and 'Amen' the other;
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
Listening their fear, I could not say 'Amen,'
When they did say 'God bless us!'

Lady Macbeth (that font of great advice) tells Macbeth “Consider it not so deeply.” To emphasize the point, Macbeth continues:
But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'?
I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen'
Stuck in my throat.

Should Macbeth have prayed before he killed Duncan? Would he have killed the guards, killed Banquo, killed Macduff’s wife, children, and servants, and ruined his country if he had prayed beforehand?
Macbeth does not seek the counsel of God. He’s still listening to Lady Macbeth when he despairs of an inability to pray (say “Amen”). And he never does seek the counsel of God. Whose council does he seek? In Act 4, he purposefully seeks out the witches, the personification of malevolence in the universe.
Does Macbeth talk to anyone else on his road to despair? Who is he talking to when he gives his most famous speech?
Seyton. Say it out loud if you don’t get the point.
If one of the many messages in the play is that Macbeth should have sought God’s counsel, are there mentions or depictions of prayer in Macbeth?
There are 16 occurrences of the words “pray” or “prayer” in the play. Most of these are the use of the word “pray” as a synonym for “ask” (for example, in 1.3 where Banquo asks to speak with Ross and Angus by saying “Cousins, a word, I pray you”). For a complete list, see the Appendix.
There are at least four depictions of prayer (seeking counsel of a superhuman entity) which do not use the word “pray” or “prayer” in the text. First, in the first scene of Lady Macbeth (1.5, after she reads Macbeth’s letter and has immediately decided that she needs to push him into regicide), she implores the witches she has just learned of in the letter:
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! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! 

Of course, this sort of prayer is the opposite of what should be done.
Second, and in distinction to Lady Macbeth, Duncan’s wife is described to Malcom (her son) by Macduff as (4,3):
. . . the queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she lived. 

Third, Macbeth follows his wife rather than the queen, when he chooses to consult the witches in 3,4.
We will return to the fourth depiction of prayer later.
Macbeth’s failure is not in having (again, in the afterglow of repeated bloody hand-to-hand combat) an initial thought of murdering Duncan. It is in avoiding counsel with Banquo and with choosing instead counsel with Lady Macbeth (who explicitly prays to evil spirits), and (even more) his failure to pray to God (rather than the witches). What are the consequences of this bad decision?
Once Macbeth has made the decision to murder Duncan, as Macbeth himself notes in 3.2 “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill”; in 3.4 “Blood will have blood”, and
By the worse means, the worst. For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

The sequence of actions Macbeth undertakes escalate from reluctant murder of Duncan performed after being talked into it by Lady Macbeth, to murder of Banquo done without prior knowledge of Lady Macbeth, to placing informants in all the households of the kingdom, to murdering Macduff’s wife, children, and household servants. Macduff says, even before he finds out about his personal catastrophe (4,3),
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 yelled out
Like syllable of dolour.

The country itself suffers from Macbeth’s sins (4,3)
I think our country sinks beneath the yoke.
It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.

Meanwhile, Macbeth, who once had his hair unfixed at the thought of his murder of Duncan (1,3), forgets “the taste of fears” (5,5):
The time has been my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in ‘t. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me.

Only after the fact do we learn that the shriek is that of Lady Macbeth, dying.
As noted above, by Act 5, Macbeth contemplates suicide, feels that all is senseless, and that the universe would have been better off to have never been.

The Solution
We can all see that Macbeth makes a series of bad decisions resulting in his tragedy, and that these decisions are brought about in large part by failure to consult with those he should, and consulting with those he should not. Is there a better model to follow in the story?
While it might be thought that Duncan or Duncan’s son Malcolm are the antithesis of Macbeth, this is not the case: Duncan and Malcolm are rightful Kings, and Macbeth is not. The true antithesis of Macbeth is Macduff.
The names are virtually the same: “Mac” followed by a voiced stop and an unvoiced fricative, both formed in the front of the mouth. They are both Thanes. The first scene with their wives (neither named as other than “Lady Mac[]”) finds them absent: Lady Macbeth awaits Macbeth’s arrival; Lady Macduff learns Macduff has fled the country. Lady Macbeth finds her husband lacking: he is “too full of the milk of human kindness” and insufficiently masculine. Lady Macduff finds her husband lacking: he “wants the natural touch” and is insufficiently masculine. We first encounter Macbeth (with Banquo) when he speaks with the witches (the interface between our world and hell); we first encounter Macduff (with Lennox) when he speaks with the Porter (in comic relief, acting the part of the porter of hell-gate). Macbeth is the last man to see Duncan alive, while Macduff is the first one to see him dead4.
If Macbeth takes counsel with the witches and his wife, where does Macduff take counsel? Is the counsel Macduff receives better than that received by Macbeth?
Macduff asks the Porter whether he was up late, and then, in response to the Porters answer that he was up late drinking and that drinking provokes three things, what those are5.
Macduff then asks Macbeth “Is the king stirring, worthy thane?” and Macbeth lies to him, saying “Not yet” which implies that Duncan is still alive, although Macbeth has already killed him.
Later in the scene, after Macbeth kills the guards before they can be questioned, Macduff asks of Macbeth is “Wherefore did you so?” and Macbeth lies again:
Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man:
The expedition my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason. 

We next see Macduff in 4.3, where he seeks the counsel of Malcolm. Malcolm lies to him repeatedly regarding his own nature, to test Macduff’s loyalty. Macduff proves his honesty by listening to all of Malcolm’s lies and then telling him that he’s not only not fit to be king, but that he is not fit to live. A doctor enters and Macduff learns of King Edward’s holy status (see above).
Next, Macduff seeks the counsel of Ross, who lies to him repeatedly regarding his family’s murder:
How does my wife?
Why, well.
And all my children?
Well too.
The tyrant has not batter'd at their peace?
No; they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.

Ross later tells him Macduff the truth: that Macbeth has murdered his family. Macduff makes Ross confirm, repeatedly, that this is the truth (and little wonder, since Macduff is having a hard time getting the truth from anyone). Ross tells Macduff to “dispute it [his family’s murder] like a man”, that is, to take vengeance upon Macbeth, to which Macduff agrees but adds “But I must also feel it like a man.” These lines recall the multiple times Macbeth’s manhood is alluded to by Lady Macbeth, including when challenging Macbeth’s back-tracking regarding their agreed upon murder of King Duncan, and, later, when Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet after arranging for his murder. One point of this recall is to emphasize that both Macbeth and Macduff are men, although they react in contrasting ways to their plights.
At the end of Act 4, we have the fourth depiction of prayer (mentioned above):
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now!
Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief
Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.
O, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword's length set him; if he 'scape,
Heaven forgive him too!
This tune goes manly.
Come, go we to the king; our power is ready;
Our lack is nothing but our leave; Macbeth
Is ripe for shaking, and the powers above
Put on their instruments. Receive what cheer you may:
The night is long that never finds the day.

In this passage, Macduff uses the word “heaven” four times in twelve lines, and explicitly notes that he is fallen (“sinful Macduff”). Substituting the word “God” for “heaven” makes it clear that this is a prayer.
Macduff acknowledges his own fallen state and indeed blames his problems (loss of castle, title, and family) on his own sin and not on Macbeth (or God). He calls for his family’s rest, in an explicit Christian fashion. He asks God for the opportunity to directly challenge Macbeth, but, in what must be one of the most remarkable yet overlooked lines of the play, Macduff (despite his complete justification and desire to kill Macbeth) acknowledges that God is in charge: “. . . if he [Macbeth] escape, Heaven forgive him too.” In other words, Macduff says “Your will be done, O Lord.” Malcolm seconds Macduff’s prayer and also asks for divine assistance (“the powers above/Put on their instruments”).
Macduff’s few lines between his discussions with Malcolm and Ross and his encounter with Macbeth has him telling Malcolm and Siward it’s time to stop talking and get to work as soldiers (5.4) and calling all to battle (5.6).
The encounter between Macbeth and Macduff must have been much more dramatic for those who were wondering how Macduff was going to kill Macbeth given the witches’ promises and not yet knowing that Macduff was delivered by caesarian section. Macduff is not interested in talking to Macbeth, only in killing him. Macduff’s final words, as he holds the severed head of Macbeth in front of the new King Malcolm, are those of a servant of the king, not the king himself:
Hail, king! for so thou art: behold, where stands
The usurper's cursed head: the time is free:
I see thee compass'd with thy kingdom's pearl,
That speak my salutation in their minds;
Whose voices I desire aloud with mine:
Hail, King of Scotland!

On one hand, we have Macbeth, who makes a hasty decision after battle to kill the king and take his crown, and who takes counsel from those he should not (Lady Macbeth, the witches) and not from those he should (Banquo, God). He goes from careful consideration of his acts, to acting first and thinking about it later in 3.4:
Strange things I have in head, that will to hand;
Which must be acted ere they may be scann'd.
And again in 4,1:
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. 

Macbeth has chosen to follow his own first impulses and work in his self-interest.
On the other hand, we have Macduff, who gets worse counsel than Macbeth, being repeatedly lied to by everyone (the porter, Macbeth, Malcolm, and Ross). He turns to heaven for the appropriate course and follows St. Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing” (Thessalonians 5:17). Unlike Macbeth, who by the end of the play is acting on instinct, Macduff is a soldier doing a soldier’s duty (directly to his king, indirectly to God). While Macduff has sacrificed much in the process, he is in the end a hero who has delivered Scotland from the evil Macbeth.


Act, Scene Context and Text of Macbeth Comment
1 1,3 Macbeth and Banquo have just been told by Ross that Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawdor in fulfillment of the witches’ prophecy. Banquo says (to all three?): “Cousins, a word, I pray you.” Macbeth breaks off from the other three and delivers to asides to the audience. In this circumstance, “pray” is simply a figure of speech. Note, however, that Macbeth does not respond to prayer while the other two characters do.
2 2,2 Macbeth cannot say “amen” to the prayer of Duncan’s guards. See above.
3 2,3 The Porter, a comic relief character, says “Anon, anon! I pray you, remember the porter.” A figure of speech, with the prayer addressed to the one (Macduff, unbeknownst to the Porter) knocking at the door of Macbeth’s castle.
4 3,1
Macbeth is providing motivation and instruction to the two murderers he later sends to kill Banquo. This is apparently the second such meeting, and Macbeth is telling the First Murderer that Banquo is the cause of his misery and states that he should not forgive Banquo:
Do you find
Your patience so predominant in your nature
That you can let this go? Are you so gospell'd
To pray for this good man and for his issue,
Whose heavy hand hath bow'd you to the grave
And beggar'd yours for ever?
Macbeth tells the First Murderer that he should not pray. If the First Murderer had prayed, perhaps he would not have killed Banquo (paralleling Macbeth’s situation: if Macbeth had prayed, perhaps he would not have killed Duncan.
5 3,1 (again) Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to at least look like he’s having a good time at the banquet, to which Macbeth replies “So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you.” Macbeth prays to/of Lady Macbeth (the wrong counsellor).
6 3,1 (again) Lady Macbeth tells those gathered at the banquet, disturbed at Macbeth’s reaction to Banquo’s ghost, to stay seated: “. . . pray you, keep seat.” A figure of speech rather than a true prayer.
7 3,1 (again) Macbeth tells those gathered at the banquet to sit still after Banquo’s ghost vanishes: “Pray you, sit still.” Again, a figure of speech rather than a true prayer.
8 3,1 (again) Lady Macbeth asks Ross not to speak to Macbeth following Macbeth’s seeing Banquo’s ghost: “I pray you, speak not; he grows worse and worse.” Again, a figure of speech.
9 3,5 Lennox and a Lord discuss Macbeth’s treachery (the first time in the play we know that others know of this), and the Lord indicates that Macduff “Is gone to pray the holy king [Edward].” Macduff is going to pray to King Edward (God’s stand-in), in distinction to Macbeth who fails to pray.
10 3.5 (again) Lord says in the same conversation “I’ll send my prayers with him” meaning the “holy angel” that Lennox has said should “fly to the court of England” to tell Macduff of Scotland’s misery. A Lord prays for Macduff. How can Macduff fail?
11 4,1 Ross has come to warn Lady Macduff of Macbeth’s plans to kill Macduff and his household; Ross says: “I pray you, school yourself”. A figure of speech.
12 4,1 (again) Macduff’s son, with his dying breath, tells his mother to flee the murderers sent to kill them both: “Run away, I pray you!” A figure of speech.
13 4,3 Malcolm and Macduff discuss the state of affairs in Scotland under Macbeth’s tyrannical rule and Malcolm is assessing which side Macduff is on. Malcom says “I pray you, let not my jealousies be your dishonors” meaning “I beg you, don’t take my suspicions as an insult” (the translation offered by No Fear Shakespeare. A figure of speech.
14 4,3 (again) Malcolm asks a Doctor (who just entered the scene) regarding the king’s whereabouts: “Comes the king forth, I pray you?” A figure of speech.
15 4,3 (again) King Edward prays for the sick. See above.
16 5,1 Gentlewoman (an attendant of Lady Macbeth) seconds the Doctor’s wish that all go well: “Pray God it be, sir.” An automatic response of the pious (?).

1 As noted by Jordan Peterson in 12 Rules for Life, one of the duo says: “Nothing means anything anymore” and “I say ‘KILL ALL MANKIND’. No one should survive.”
2 He contemplates “the Roman option” a few scenes later, and rejects it.
3 The fact that he is lying as to his motivations by this point does not belie the truth of what he says or of the acceptance of his assertion by those who hear it.
4 Of course, the first person to see the King dead after Macbeth is Lady Macbeth, but to her the dead are “but as pictures”.
5 The answer is nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Three predictions that parallel the witches’ that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor, that Macbeth will be king, and that Banquo will sire kings?