Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin

Article excerpt

  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) Shake-speare'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. (1) Yes, and her name was Mary.

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. …

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