Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth


Alan Cumming as Hamlet

Hamlet and Macbeth are the Shakespeare plays with the most northerly settings. Elsinore in Denmark, where Hamlet is set, lies pretty much on the same latitude as the Perthshire countryside where much of the action in Macbeth takes place, and there’s been a lot of toing and froing between the countries through history. In the original story that lies behind the tragedy of Hamlet – the tale of Amleth, Prince of Denmark, as told by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum – the Hamlet figure marries the Queen of Scotland and uses her forces to help him defeat the armies of the King of Britain. In Shakespeare’s time, the Scottish king James VI – later James I of England – married Princess Anne of Denmark in 1589, and by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in about 1600 it would have been widely assumed that this Scottish-Danish couple would be the next King and Queen of Shakespeare’s country. What would an English playwright have known about Scotland and Denmark, I wonder?


Alan Cumming as Macbeth

One thing both countries had in common was an abundance of wonders (events, objects, creatures or people whose emotional impact is far greater, for a while at least, than our capacity or will to explain them). Saxo Grammaticus said that Denmark was originally a land populated by giants, who can still be found in the ‘rugged inaccessible wastelands’ of his own time, and whose powers include being able to vanish at will and reappear in a different place, rather like the ghost in Hamlet (‘’Tis here – ’Tis here – ’Tis gone’, [1.1.141-2]).[1] Witches and magic abound there, and the land itself is deadly, full of poisonous springs, treacherous crevasses and fire that can burn water. The same was thought to be true of Scotland; there were wonders everywhere, most of them dangerous. When he visited the country in the fifteenth century, Aeneas Piccolomini – later Pope Pius II – wanted only to see one of these wonders, the barnacle geese that grow on trees along the shoreline, which he’d heard about from some medieval scholar: Albertus Magnus, maybe, or Vincent of Beauvais. In a play by one of Shakespeare’s early rivals, Robert Greene, called The Scottish History of James IV (c. 1592), Scotland is full of fairies – including Oberon, who may have given his name to the King of Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The English pamphlet News from Scotland (1591) fills Scotland instead with witches, some of whom hatched diabolical plots against the young King James VI in the 1580s, and were tried and executed under the watchful eye of James himself. Later James acknowledged the presence of witches in his homeland in his tract Daemonologie (1597), which explains how they prey on the ‘viciated’ imaginations of their Scottish clients. Apparently they’re particularly prevalent in the Hebrides, and it seems that the Clan Chiefs of Mull and Skye were given to consulting wise women before undertaking major expeditions – though they didn’t always heed their advice. Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart was murdered by a man called the Black Dwarf or Fairy on Islay after failing to pay attention to the warnings of a witch; that was in 1598, eight years or so before Macbeth was written.[2] It’s nice to think Shakespeare might have heard of his death, though there’s no evidence for it as yet.


Danish Giants, by Arthur Rackham

According to Saxo Grammaticus, the inhabitants of the icy northlands have had to acquire phenomenal powers to cope with the wonders that surround them. Amleth is a trickster figure with what are hinted to be magical abilities, and Saxo agrees with the Roman historian Tacitus that northerners in general are braver, stronger, cleverer and better behaved than the corrupt population of the Mediterranean. Having said this, the story of Amleth is unremittingly violent, with far more ‘carnal, bloody and unnatural acts’ than there are in Shakespeare’s play. Meanwhile the chronicles of Scotland to which Shakespeare had access are simply packed with murderous episodes – hardly a king of the country seems to have died safely in his bed. The prospect of getting James VI of Scotland as an English monarch – along with his Danish queen – may well have seemed a deeply uncomfortable one to Shakespeare and his friends and relatives, given the association of both countries with murder and magic.


The Witches, by Henry Fuseli

Shakespeare feeds this sense of discomfort in both Hamlet and Macbeth by opening the action of each play with a major supernatural incident: the appearance at a time of political turbulence of a ghost and a coven of witches, each of whom (both the ghost and the witches) can appear and disappear at will, like the Danish giants, and each of whom casts a long, long shadow over the play that follows. Shakespeare further feeds the unsettling effect by his frequent use in both plays of the adjective ‘strange’, which means ‘wonder’ and ‘foreign’, and thus combines two attitudes associated by the English with the Danes and the Scots. The ghost and the witches are deeply ambiguous; nobody quite knows what to think of them or where they come from; and their ambiguity infects their countries like a virus, leading Hamlet and Macbeth to reconsider not only who they are and what they are capable of, but the possible ways of thinking about and acting on the lands they live in and the people they interact with. I’d like to consider in this post how the supernatural wonders that trigger the action in each play continue to resonate through the rest of the narrative, and how they transform the plays’ protagonists themselves into northern wonders – just as the wonders of Denmark, according to Saxo Grammaticus, made heroes and magicians of the ancient Danes.


The Ghost, by William Blake

The opening of Hamlet is all about a crisis of identity. It’s a collective crisis, not an individual one: the guards on the walls of Elsinore castle are clearly nervous, shouting questions at passers by and expressing anxiety over whether or not what they say, and what they claim to have seen, will be believed by their social superiors. The play opens with the words ‘Who’s there?’, and it could be said that this is the question that continues to be asked until the play’s last scene. How do we know who anyone is, how can we tell what’s happening inside their heads, inside their beating hearts, inside their souls, whatever those are? It’s a standard question for guards to ask, of course – are you friend or enemy, ‘Stand and unfold yourself’, as one man puts it [1.1.2] – but it’s prompted in the guards on this particular night by something they’ve witnessed. Modern audiences would call what the men have seen a ‘ghost’, and they might go further and give the ghost a name: the spirit of Hamlet’s father, the recently deceased King of Denmark. But the guards themselves are not so sure – no one calls the apparition a ghost until Hamlet does so in the play’s fifth scene. They call it ‘this thing’, and the scholar Horatio, who hasn’t yet seen the apparition and doesn’t believe in ghosts, is clear that it’s not even that: ‘Horatio says ’tis nothing but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him / Touching this dreaded sight’ [1.1.23-5]. For him it’s no more than a figment, a dream, a symptom, perhaps, of excessive drinking. And even when the ghost appears in front of his eyes, at the very moment when the guard Bernardo is describing it – so that his words effectively materialize in front of the listeners – Horatio and the other witnesses are extraordinarily careful about how they describe it. The apparition comes ‘In the same figure, like the King that’s dead’, they say cagily [1.1.41]. A figure is something that stands for something else, a sign pointing to a thing rather than the thing itself; and later the witnesses describe it in an even more evasive way. ‘What art thou,’ Horatio asks it directly, ‘that usurp’st this time of night / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march?’ [1.1.46-8]. The word ‘usurp’st’ here suggests one reason why they’re being so careful: a usurper is a person who seizes the throne by illegal means – a dangerous thing to talk about – and talking about a recently dead monarch, too, could have been seen by his paranoid successor as usurping the right to interfere with politics, which under a monarchy is the prerogative of the king and his closest advisers. So the men say that what they have seen is in the shape of the king, thus protecting themselves from accusations of treason. Their carefulness may signal to the audience – like their nerviness in the opening lines – that the land they live in isn’t a bastion of liberty; it’s a place where you watch your words if you don’t want to get into trouble; a complicated place to live in, like any dictatorship or dystopia.

There’s another reason why the men are reluctant to say that the apparition is for sure the old King’s ghost; and this is religion. Like Scotland, the Denmark of Shakespeare’s time was Protestant – though of a different order of Protestantism from the Scottish one, since the Danes followed the teachings of Luther while the Scots followed the severer doctrines of Calvin. Of course neither the historical Amleth nor the historical Macbeth lived in Protestant countries, but most members of Shakespeare’s audience would have brought Protestant sensibilities to the theatre, and for Protestants ghosts just aren’t possible. Protestants believe that when the body dies the soul dies with it, and that both body and soul will be resurrected only at the last judgment. For Catholics, by contrast, the soul is separated from the body at death and for the most part goes to a place of temporary punishment called purgatory, where sins are purged from it – as the name suggests – in preparation for its eventual removal to Heaven. For a Protestant, then – and hence for many in Shakespeare’s audience – the apparition simply can’t be a ghost, and can only be an illusion, or an evil spirit, a devil, a fallen angel (there aren’t any good spirits wandering the earth in Protestant doctrine). For a Catholic it can be a ghost – and of course that’s how the apparition describes itself when Hamlet finally confronts it. But it could also be an evil spirit, a devil, or a blessed angel sent from heaven in human form; you can never tell. Hamlet chooses to believe that it’s his father – but he’s fully aware of the other options:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. [1.3.40-5]

This is an act of belief that is also an act of will, of deliberate choice – and a dangerous one; if Hamlet is wrong his soul is in danger of damnation, as Horatio warns him. And the consciousness of all the characters in these early scenes, Hamlet, Horatio, Bernardo and all the rest, that they don’t really know what the ghost is, becomes, in the course of the play, a general sense that nobody knows who anyone is, not really; that proof to sustain belief is something incredibly hard to come by; and that belief is always dangerous, because to believe a lie can lead to ruination and death, if you’re not very careful.


The Ghost, by Henry Fuseli

Even if the ghost is a ghost it brings further problems with it. First, it embodies or at least makes visible the fact that human beings are not simple creatures. They’re made up of two distinct elements, body and soul, and what’s good for the former may not be so good for the latter. Second, if what the ghost says is true then it reveals something Hamlet has always suspected: that the current King of Denmark, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, isn’t who he claims to be, King of Denmark. Or rather, he is but he shouldn’t be, since he got the title by murdering his brother, the true king, Hamlet’s father. And he’s not the reasonable, balanced man he presents himself as when we first meet him: he’s an adulterer who poisoned a man because he fancied his wife and lusted after his power. Claudius has substituted himself for his brother in the marriage bed and on the throne, and the true King of Denmark should ideally be old Hamlet – and if not him, then his son, young Hamlet the Dane. Another substitution, then, should take place to put right the injustice committed by Claudius. But how to effect that substitution? By the same act of murder that made Claudius both a king and an assassin? That would make Hamlet a king and an assassin, too, effectively continuing the cycle of violence and rooting it in Danish history. Let no one tell you Hamlet’s choice is easy, or that he delays the inevitable with unnecessary fussing. He’s got real problems, and the ghost is the source of them.

When Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius while the king is praying, it’s because of the binary nature of the human being: under the circumstances the king’s body will die but his soul will go to heaven, or so the prince believes. ‘Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge,’ he tells himself, and puts his sword away [3.3.78]. He means he’ll be doing the king a favour by killing him at this particular moment, when his soul is knocking at heaven’s door in an act of religious supplication. The audience knows, of course, that it wouldn’t in fact have been such a favour – the king is not praying properly, so his soul would have gone to hell or purgatory; but Hamlet doesn’t. The ghost, if it’s really a ghost with good intentions, makes revenge necessary; but it also makes it next to impossible to accomplish that revenge, because it reminds us that we know next to nothing about the state of one another’s souls. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ Hamlet says in his famous soliloquy [2.1.56]. ‘To be’ is to be multiple things at once, a person with a body, a soul, a social role, a network of relationships, a past, a future – and sometimes we might well feel tempted to abandon this condition, given the difficulties that attend it. But ‘not to be’ is equally complicated, since we can dream in so many different ways about the ‘undiscovered country’ beyond death – as the Reformation demonstrated. Thanks, ghost, the prince might be saying in this soliloquy. You’ve dumped on me all the issues that sparked off the religious wars of the sixteenth century.

Shakespeare Quartos Project

The ghost also means that Hamlet’s own identity is deeply questionable. The play is called The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; and every element in the second part of this title is problematic. Hamlet’s name, for instance. The ghost reminds him that he shares this name with his dead father, which is what sets him up as the appropriate revenger for his father’s murder – he can’t escape the obligation, as he could perhaps if his name were Sid or Keith. His title of ‘Prince’ is problematic, too, because any revenge he undertakes needs to take cognizance of the wellbeing of the country to whose throne he is heir apparent. This makes the method of dealing with his uncle’s crime extremely important, since dispensing justice appropriately is part of a prince’s job. As for Denmark; well, it’s contested territory, as the ghost again reminds him. His father’s apparition is wearing the same armour he wore when he fought in single combat against the King of Norway. The fight ended with old Hamlet’s victory, which according to the terms of the duel meant that Norway legally forfeited part of its dominions to the Danish crown. And this highlights another reason for the jumpiness of the guards at the beginning of the play. Denmark is in a state of emergency, because the young successor to the dead King of Norway, Fortinbras, is heading towards the country at the head of an army, determined to win back the part of his lands his father lost when he lost the duel. Hamlet, then, when he speaks to the ghost, discovers just how complicated it is to be Hamlet, to be a prince, to be a Dane. No wonder he chooses to hide his confusion by pretending to be mad. His madness isn’t a screen for his true identity; it’s a means of providing a front for his very real doubt over who he is.

Of course, this doubt on Hamlet’s part also makes it extremely difficult for anyone else to know who he is; and this proves maddening to his friends, his enemies, and his family. Much of the first three acts of the play is taken up with the King and his chief adviser, old Polonius, trying vainly to work out what’s going on in Hamlet’s mind – what has triggered his strange behavior, what his plans are, whether he’s really mad or just pretending. They set traps for him, encouraging Ophelia to accept his courtship – after first telling her she should reject it – so that they can see for themselves whether or not he is mad for love, as Polonius believes, or for some other reason. The ghost has already shown us, however, that seeing or witnessing something is not the same as believing it; this all depends on your philosophical or religious position. And it soon turns out that the problem of knowing people’s minds is as complicated when it comes to people who are not insane, or acting insane, as it is of madmen. Within the first few scenes of the play we see Ophelia’s brother Laertes telling her not to believe what Hamlet tells her about being in love. His reason for saying so is that Hamlet is not just a person but also an instrument of the state; as a prince he can’t decide for himself who he will marry, so anything he says that may suggest otherwise must be taken as an error, or wishful thinking, or an outright lie. Later we see Polonius sending a spy after his son Laertes as he heads back to Paris, unconvinced that the young man will behave as he has promised he will when he reaches the French capital. For Polonius, who is an experienced politician, it stands to reason that what you say can bear no relation to what you mean or to what you intend. To find out the truth about someone, even your son – to lay the grounds for something about them you can really believe in – you have to lie and plot; he encourages the spy to tell outrageous fibs about Laertes’ behavior, and pay close attention to people’s reactions to these fibs. If they say I know what you mean, I’ve seen him do exactly what you describe – gamble, sleep around, get into fights, take drugs and so on – then Polonius thinks that his spy can begin to build up an accurate picture of the young man’s true identity. In his world, words are always a screen for some hidden agenda. Add this to the already vexed question of how many roles a man can have – as a social figure, a member of a family, a desiring animal, a spiritual being, a man, a woman – and the question of how you attain belief or trust in anyone becomes unanswerable, unless you’re prepared to rely on your faith in what they tell you, make the decision to take their word for it that they are indeed who they claim to be.

It’s complicated. And all attempts to make things simple invariably fail. Laertes tells Ophelia that this is particularly the case with women. No matter how well she behaves, he tells her – no matter how simply good she is in her personal conduct – she must also make sure there can be no suspicion that she is misbehaving, or that she would misbehave if she could only get the chance:

Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes;
The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed;
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent. [1.3.38-42]

In other words, Ophelia can easily find herself infected by other people’s views of her, and will also find that it’s next to impossible to shake off their ungrounded suspicions once they’ve taken root. Her only way to ‘scape’ the ‘calumnious strokes’ of slander or gossip is to avoid conversation with Prince Hamlet altogether; and old Polonius reiterates these warnings a few lines later. Later still, of course, Polonius reverses this advice and encourages her to meet with Hamlet so he can spy on him. Here’s another complication: people in Denmark are inconsistent, especially politicians. Before sending his spy after Laertes, the old man gives his son a set of precepts or rules to live by: ‘to thine own self be true,’ he tells him, ‘And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man’ [1.3.78-80]. But which self should he be true to? There are so many.

Those unfortunate college buddies of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, also try to simplify things when they are sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. With would-be cunning words they try to prize from him some hint as to his attitude to his uncle, the King of Denmark – and in the process prove themselves false friends at the same time as they prove themselves true subjects of the monarch. Hamlet sees through their efforts and is outraged. He makes Guildenstern try to play the recorder, and when he can’t, points out triumphantly how much more ridiculous it is to think that Guildenstern could ‘play’ a man like Hamlet, ‘pluck out the heart of his mystery’ [3.2.357], when the prince is so much more complicated than a musical instrument.

Yet Hamlet, too, tries to simplify the man he has set himself to spy on, his uncle Claudius. Again and again he attempts to reduce him to a stage villain: ‘Bloody, bawdy villain!’ he calls him at one point; ‘Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!’ [2.2.575-6] – and the word ‘kindless’ here seeks to divorce him altogether not just from Hamlet’s family – his kind – and from all feelings of kindness – but from that complicated species, man-kind itself. But of course this doesn’t work; Claudius remains irrevocably multiple. He’s Hamlet’s uncle and Hamlet’s mother’s lover as well as a killer, and can’t be dismissed so easily. Later Hamlet tries to make him into a villain in his mother Gertrude’s eyes, showing her portraits of his father and his uncle, old Hamlet and Claudius, and drawing distinctions between them on the basis of classical mythology: ‘Look here upon this picture and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers’ [3.4.53-4]. Old Hamlet, he claims, resembles Hyperion, the Greek god of the sun, while Claudius looks like one of the lecherous goat-footed demigods of the woods, a satyr – or a ‘mildewed ear / Blasting his wholesome brother’ [3.4.64-5] (this is a nasty joke, since it’s into his brother’s ear that Claudius poured the poison which killed him). But this attempt too doesn’t really work. Claudius still behaves like a king in public, and expresses affection for Gertrude in private, preventing the audience as well as Hamlet from dismissing him as a monster. It’s not until Claudius is publicly behaving as a monster in the final duel scene that Hamlet finds the means to kill him – and he can only do it if he doesn’t think too deeply about it.

king-hamlets-ghostMost complicated of all, perhaps, as an idea that the ghost brings with it, is the question of whether it’s generated by the minds of the people who see it. It could be a product of the nerviness in Denmark at a time of imminent war with Norway, or of a sudden change of government, or of a collective sense of embarrassment at the very rapid remarriage of the old king’s wife to his younger brother. Or it could have been something summoned by Prince Hamlet, rather as the devil Mephistopheles was summoned by Faustus in Marlowe’s play – not through magic but as a side-effect of the Doctor’s blasphemous language and impious thoughts, as Marlowe tells us. As we’ve seen, Horatio thinks at first that the apparition is a product of the soldiers’ ‘fantasy’, their disordered imagination; he’s only convinced of its existence when he sees it, at which point he describes it as a thing that ‘harrows me with fear and wonder’ [1.1.44], and later a ‘marvel’ [1.2.195]. When Hamlet sees it, by contrast, he takes it as the embodiment of something he’s been thinking about since the moment of his father’s death: ‘O my prophetic soul!’ he exclaims [1.4.40], as the spirit tells the story of old Hamlet’s murder, and one gets the impression that the whole story is simply the reenactment of a scenario Hamlet devised for himself on the day his uncle’s marriage to his mother was announced.[3] This is why he so readily makes the choice to take what the ghost has said as true – because it conforms in every detail with what he suspected; and this is why he promises to erase all other thoughts and memories from his mind but those that tend to support the phantom’s testimony.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

The process turns Hamlet into something very like a ghost: inscrutable, out of order, often deeply scary. When Ophelia sees him for the first time after his meeting with the apparition she describes him as the phantom’s double:

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors. [2.1.81-4]

The ghost has here made a ghost of Hamlet; and Hamlet goes on to ‘make a ghost’ of several more people before the end of the play, as he threatened to do when he first met the apparition [1.4.85]. He fills the performance, in fact, with the wonders and strangenesses he was imagining when we first met him in his black suit among the merry-makers at his mother’s wedding. And when he’s dead, Horatio describes the scene the prince has helped to stage – a court full of bodies – as a place of wonders: ‘What is it you would see?’ he asks the astonished Fortinbras, ‘If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search’ [5.2.354-5]. If Hamlet’s mind helped produce the ghost, by whatever means, then it also helped to produce the astonishing theatre of northern excesses that his Norwegian neighbour wanders into at the end of the play.

Hamlet, as I said, was probably written in 1600, three years before James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne. He probably wrote Macbeth in 1606, three years afterwards; a neat symmetry when we’re looking at the plays side by side. For the later tragedy he drew on James’s pamphlet about witches, Daemonologie, for inspiration, and made the power of witches over men’s imaginings the trigger for tragedy.

 maxresdefaultThe chief power or wonder performed by the witches in Macbeth is that of prophecy or ‘strange intelligence’ [1.3.76] – predicting the future. In this they aren’t far removed from Hamlet the Dane, whose prophetic soul imagined the whole story of his father’s murder before he heard it. The witches, too, predict what is in effect murder. They tell Macbeth that he will be Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor, and these prophecies come true more or less at once; and they also prophesy that he will be ‘King hereafter’ [1.3.50], a prediction that would seem to have little chance of coming true at all at the time it’s uttered. As a result of this lack of likelihood that their prophecy will be fulfilled – as a result of its very improbability – the witches feed Macbeth’s imagination both with an idea (the idea of being king) and with the kind of logic that will impel him to body forth his ‘horrible imaginings’ of the path to kingship, to make them real. The witches give Macbeth a language whereby to express what he thought impossible, in very much the same way as the ghost gives Hamlet an image whereby to confirm what he thought quite likely – that his father was murdered. And the language the witches utter resonates through the rest of the play in much the same way as the ghost generates more ghosts in the earlier tragedy.

The language of the witches is a logic of reversal, of the world turned inside out and upside down. In the play’s first scene, the witches utter this logic in a famous phrase that captures their philosophy in a nutshell. For them, they say, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ [1.1.10], because they take pleasure in things other people find nasty or frightening. A short time later, Macbeth echoes their phrase on his first appearance: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’ [1.3.38]. He says this because he has just emerged from a battle where the ‘Strange images of death’ made by his sword [1.3.97] have brought him victory and promotion – fair things (from his point of view) arising from foul bloodshed. The witches’ prophecy that he will be king confirms that such a reversal of the world’s values can work in his favour, since the foul treachery and death of the Thane of Cawdor has the fair result of elevating Macbeth to the traitor’s lands and title. And this result, in its turn, stimulates Macbeth’s fantasies of kingship to the extent that non-existent things take precedence over real ones, so that for him ‘nothing is but what is not’ [1.3.141]. The particular ‘nothing’ that interests him – the thing that is not yet – is the image of himself as monarch; and this image occurs to him, when he thinks of it, with such intensity that it has the same effect as the apparition has on those who see it in Elsinore:

[…] why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature? [1.3.134-7]

At this point in the play Macbeth becomes a prophet, already haunted by the man he will kill, the old King of Scotland whose faithful servant he has been in the recent wars. Like Hamlet, Macbeth has a prophetic soul, and like Hamlet he seeks to make his visions of the future true through his own actions.

From this moment in the play the Thane of Cawdor lives, by his own choice, in a world of marvels – the Scotland of the English chronicler Holinshed, which is a place of bloodshed as well as of wonder. In this country, women can become ‘unsexed’ [1.4.38], as Lady Macbeth is when she makes herself into what is effectively a fourth witch, as a means of furthering her husband’s prospects; a man can ‘look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under it’ [1.4.62-3]; invisible daggers can materialize and incite their owners to regicide; horses eat each other in horror at their owner’s assassination; dead men and sleeping women walk by night; adults condone the wholesale slaughter of babies and children. Macbeth dies, too, in a flurry of wonders, where forests transplant themselves, friends turn into enemies, and men are not born of women, in defiance of nature. The ‘juggling fiends’, as he calls the witches [5.8.19], have conjured up in his mind so many kinds of reversal that his story becomes at last one long reversal, ‘A tale / Told by an idiot […] signifying nothing’ [5.5.26-8].


St John writes the Book of Revelation, by Hieronymus Bosch

All these things Macbeth predicts in the early scenes of the play, so that he too becomes, in effect, a member of the witches’ coven. Like a prophetic witch, he knows from the first that killing the king will ‘teach / Bloody instructions’ to other men [1.7.8-9], making it possible for them to imagine killing the killer – even after he’s been crowned in the victim’s place – since he has proved with his own hands that kings are mortal. Macbeth, then, can foretell his own assassination from the moment he decides to assassinate Duncan. His vision of his death takes the form of an image that recalls the most celebrated set of prophecies in the Bible, the Book of Revelation:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast […]
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. [1.7.21-5]

The picture conjured up in his passage is that of the child in Revelation Chapter 12, who is borne by the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ and immediately snatched up to heaven to protect him from the fearful Dragon who is waiting to devour him. This child returns in Chapter 19 in the form of Christ riding on a white horse. By this stage his eyes shoot out flames and his robe is dipped in blood, while his sword and his rod of iron wreak a terrible vengeance on those who have ruled unjustly in his place: ‘the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies’. For Macbeth, by contrast, the vengeful Christ-figure is still an infant, as he was when he was first snatched up to heaven after his birth; and his youthfulness predicts – or perhaps ensures – that Macbeth’s violence will be particularly visited on the very young: on MacDuff’s children, young Siward in the final battle, Banquo’s son Fleance (though the last of these escapes). His eagerness to kill off the young – like the archetypal biblical tyrant, King Herod, who slaughtered the innocents in an effort to kill off Christ – is part of his attempt to prevent the prophecies of the witches, and more importantly his own prophecy of his death at the hands of his subjects, from coming true. To this end he tries to anticipate his prophetic thoughts, to catch them before they get out of hand, by acting on them as soon as they occur to him. A few scenes after his speech about ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe’, Macbeth tells us that from now on ‘The very firstlings of my heart’ will be ‘The firstlings of my hand’ [4.1.147-8] – that is, he will put his murderous ideas into action at once, as soon as they are conceived. But the attempt to stem the tide of self-fulfilling prophecies is doomed to failure, as any Jacobean spectator would have known it was when Macbeth conjured up an echo of that most infallible prophecy of all, the Book of Revelation. In the same speech the new King of Scotland tells us that ‘Time’ itself ‘anticipates my dread exploits’ [4.1.144], since the people he is thinking of killing put themselves beyond his reach as if his plans for them have been broadcast by the vividness of his ‘horrible imaginings’. MacDuff has fled to England, and his response is to kill off the future generation – MacDuff’s children – as a substitute for killing MacDuff himself. This in its turn prompts MacDuff to avenge himself on Macbeth, bringing about the very eventuality Macbeth was trying to avoid. From the moment he starts to prophesy, the Scot is locked in a cycle of inevitability, unable to turn aside from the course he mapped out for himself in his head after meeting the witches.


Isuzu Yamada as ‘Lady Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Prophecy is particularly at home in Calvinist countries, where predestination is a given, since for Calvinists God has foreknown everything since before the beginning of time, and human choice is therefore more or less an illusion. As I said earlier, Calvinism didn’t exist in Macbeth’s historical period – the eleventh century – since Calvin himself had not yet been born. So Macbeth’s willingness to believe himself predestined could be said to be another prediction, foretelling Scotland’s Calvinist future as well as his own ‘life to come’. And his gift of prophecy could also be said to be something all Calvinists had in common in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Though not prophets themselves, they were deeply familiar with the concept that their every exploit had been anticipated; predictions of what was to come would therefore not have seemed surprising to them, and a prophecy about a person didn’t make them exceptional. By the end of the play, Macbeth anticipates this attitude. He has come to believe that the art of prophecy has nothing wonderful about it, and that the sameness of successive days and years makes the future endlessly predictable. When his wife dies, for instance, he has little more to say than what Gertrude said to Hamlet about his father’s death: it is common, or dead ordinary, to die:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day […]
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. [5.5.19-23]

Since death will be everyone’s end, in other words, all human beings – not just Calvinists – are in some sense prophets, and prophecy itself is one of the tricks played by the cruel supernatural powers that love to toy with us, since it is useless to the people who have it, a mere imaginative trap.

Yet for all his apparent cynicism, Macbeth continues to believe he can evade his fate, thanks largely I think to the impossibility of the witches’ prophecies being fulfilled. What man was ever born without the help of a woman? Since when have woods walked from place to place? The answer, of course, is since the language of reversal and impossibility – the language of wonder – was unleashed by the witches at the start of the play, and since Macbeth helped to spread that language and the wonders it describes through his country, Scotland. The fact that this is so, and that the witches have tricked him, comes as a tremendous shock to the half-mad tyrant in the final scene, despite the fact that he has always known them to be ‘juggling fiends’ – and has always known, thanks to his own logic, how his story would end. And for the play’s audiences, the progress of his disenchantment – which has the ghastly inevitability of a nightmare, yet is chock full of linguistic and imaginative surprises – has always been the most potent and shocking of theatrical wonders.


Toshiro Mifune as ‘Macbeth’ in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Thanks to Hamlet and Macbeth, we in the twenty-first century know we still live in an age of wonders. There are more things in our heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any philosophy; astonishing things being generated every moment by our minds, our words, our actions, and by the physical and metaphysical spaces beyond us. There are giants, ghosts, witches, assassins, prophets and pygmies in our collective cultural imagination. And there are monsters too, sometimes indistinguishable from heroes. These monsters – the hyper-imaginative, hyper-playful Hamlet and the clear-eyed murderer Macbeth – are the biggest wonders Shakespeare bequeathed us, and it’s them rather than the ghosts and witches we go to see, when we seek out the plays in which they appear.

[1] See Andrew Hadfield, ‘The Idea of North’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1 (2009), http://www.northernrenaissance.org/the-idea-of-the-northandrew-hadfield/

[2] For details, see Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Murder Under Trust: The Crimes and Death of Sir Lachlan Mor Maclean of Duart, 1558-1598 (1999).

[3] See also 1.2.184-5, where Hamlet says – before he’s even heard of the ghost – ‘methinks I see my father […] In my mind’s eye, Horatio’.

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