Myth and the 'Now' Part Ten: Macbeth and the Echoes of Myth


We saw in a recent article in this series that the powerful images and motifs of Myth could be found in different forms in what Northrop Frye called Romance, the genre of legends and tales of heroes and demigods. Examining the Matter of Britain, we detected quite easily the presence of most of the great archetypes - the Wise Old Figure, the Comic Companion, the Emerging Warrior, the Aware Protagonist, the Submerging Female, the Shadow Protagonist and the Antagonist - partaking of adventures under different names: Merlin, Lancelot, Arthur, Guinevere, Mordred and Morgana Le Fay, with only the Comic Companion missing, at least until T. H. White and Disney came along and retold the stories.

In our diagram of Frye’s modes - a diagram that we have changed from one of linear historical progression to a series of concentric circles, with Myth at the heart - the next circle moving out from Romance is what Frye called High Mimesis, a grand name betokening those stories of kings and other leaders which come to us most memorably in the form of Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Histories. Here, as Frye outlined, instead of a tale telling us about demigods and super-heroes, as in the Arthur stories, we hear about the rise and fall of ‘real’ political figures: Shakespeare’s kings are for the most part based on real kings who actually reigned. Of course, they are not portrayed in what we could consider ‘realistic’ ways: Shakespeare took earlier historical chronicles, which were themselves embellished and anecdotal, and added, developed or tweaked fictitious elements to create interesting dramas. He did not intend to create documentaries; he was a playwright and a master author.

And that is the point: High Mimesis, as we glimpse it through Shakespeare’s plays, was another form of fiction, and as such drew its power from the same source as Romance: Myth.

To show you what this means, let’s take a close look at Macbeth.

For most of us, the plot is familiar. Amidst thunder and lightning, three witches decide that their next meeting shall be with Macbeth, a Scottish warrior-general who has just defeated the allied invasion forces of Norway and Ireland, led by the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. As they wander onto a heath, Macbeth and his lieutenant Banquo encounter the three witches who prophecy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, and ‘King hereafter’, before they vanish - just as another thane, Ross, arrives and informs Macbeth of something that the audience already knows at that point - that King Duncan has bestowed upon Macbeth the title Thane of Cawdor as a reward for his efforts in defending Scotland. Macbeth begins to ponder how he might become king after all.

Duncan welcomes and praises Macbeth and Banquo, declaring that he will spend the night at Macbeth's castle at Inverness; Macbeth sends a message ahead to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her about the witches' prophecies. She suffers none of her husband's vacillation, overriding all of his objections and successfully persuading him to kill the king that night in their own home.

While Duncan is asleep, Macbeth overcomes his doubts and hallucinations - he sees a dagger floating in front of him, guiding the way to the king - and stabs his guest. He is so shaken that Lady Macbeth has to follow through and frame Duncan's sleeping servants for the murder by placing bloody daggers on them.

Early the next morning, the darkly comic porter opens the gate to Macduff, the loyal Thane of Fife, and Macbeth leads him to the king's chamber, where Macduff discovers Duncan's body. Soon afterwards Macbeth murders the guards to prevent them from professing their innocence, claiming he did so in a fit of anger. Duncan's sons Malcolm and Donalbain then flee to England and Ireland, and Macbeth assumes the throne as the new King of Scotland.

Deeply uneasy despite his success, Macbeth becomes suspicious of everyone, including his best friend Banquo whom the witches prophesied would be the father of kings. Macbeth arranges to have him and his son Fleance murdered - assassins succeed in killing Banquo, but Fleance escapes. At a banquet that evening, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost enter and sit in Macbeth's place. Macbeth causes panic by raging at what to the guests is an empty chair, and a desperate Lady Macbeth is unable to prevent widespread concern over Macbeth’s apparent insanity from breaking up what was supposed to be a joyous occasion.

Growing more and more mentally restless, Macbeth visits the three witches who, in answer to his questions, summon horrible apparitions, each of which offers predictions and further prophecies: an armoured head tells him to beware of Macduff; a bloody child tells him that no one born of a woman shall be able to harm him; and a crowned child holding a tree, states that Macbeth will be safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. As all men are born of women and forests cannot move, this puts Macbeth at ease. But when he is told that Macduff has fled to England, Macbeth orders Macduff's castle to be seized, and sends murderers to slaughter Macduff's wife and children.

Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth, tormented by guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed, is witnessed sleepwalking and bemoaning the murders of Duncan, Lady Macduff, and Banquo, as she attempts to wash off imaginary bloodstains from her hands.

In England, Macduff, learning of the death of his wife and family, vows revenge and joins with the rightful heir to Scotland’s throne, Malcolm, and an army raised with the support of the Scottish nobles. Malcolm leads the army, along with Macduff and Englishmen against Macbeth in Dunsinane Castle. As they pass through Birnam Wood, the soldiers are ordered to cut down and carry tree limbs to camouflage their numbers. Lady Macbeth kills herself, causing Macbeth to sink into despair, reflecting on the brevity and meaninglessness of life. Still certain that the witches' prophecies guarantee his invincibility, he is struck with fear when he learns that the English army is advancing on Dunsinane shielded with boughs cut from Birnam Wood, in apparent fulfilment of one of the prophecies.

The play ends with a battle between Macbeth and Macduff, whose declaration that he was ‘from his mother's womb/Untimely ripp’d' (V.8.15–16), (i.e. born by Caesarean section) and is therefore technically not ‘of woman born’ finally brings Macbeth to realise that he has misinterpreted the witches' words. Though doomed, he continues to fight; Macduff kills and beheads him, thus fulfilling the remaining prophecy.

Although Malcolm, and not Fleance, is then placed on the throne, the witches' prophecy concerning Banquo (‘Thou shalt get kings’) was known to the audience of Shakespeare's time to be true: James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) was supposedly a Banquo’s descendant.

Astute readers will note the echoes of Myth and Romance here, including the three witches resemblance to the three Norse Norns, controllers of Fate; the killing of a king; the suggestion of a moving forest and supernatural invincibility. But the play bridges the chasm between Romance and the Low Mimetic modes: none of what is suggested as supernatural turns out to be so, except for the mystery of the witches’ foreknowledge of it. Characters are not superhuman, but mortal; the world is revealed to be grim and harshly real rather than full of magic.

As for the Seven Archetypes, they are all present and performing their roles as they have done in Myth and Romance, given that we are in a Tragedy: a wise (but powerless) old man tells of doom; a grimly comic porter jokes about Hell; the emerging warrior Malcolm comes to his throne from the shadows; the protagonist Macbeth, instead of rising to greatness as in an Epic tale, is pulled down the wrong path by the submerging and hollow female companion, and becomes a Shadow Protagonist, making consistently flawed decisions before ending up bereft of all hope and dead. If Myth gives us the two poles of darkness and light, and then moves into a narrative form as these archetypes arrange themselves around one pole or the other (as we have seen), then Macbeth is about going into orbit around darkness.

Macbeth rekindles something of the strangeness of Myth too with its motifs and images: bearded witches, bloodied children, moving woods, men ‘not born of woman’. Shapes emerge from the darkness but never quite make it into the light. But we can clearly see that, in this High Mimetic mode, there has been a motion away from the eerie and inexplicable motions of the mythic and the colourful but supernatural tapestry of the romantic epic towards something else. Great warriors who speak in iambic pentameter and let us see inside their minds through soliloquys are different creatures to the strange gods of myth or the super-heroic knights of legend - they are that much closer to the ‘person in the street’, in a sense.

In examining the Low Mimetic, we will see whether our thesis holds true: do stories of ‘ordinary folk’ as outlined in 19th century novels also resonate with the same motifs and archetypes as the myth we think lies at their core?

Stay tuned.

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