Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Compunctious Visitings": Conscience as Unequivocal Witness in Macbeth

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Compunctious Visitings": Conscience as Unequivocal Witness in Macbeth

Article excerpt

FOR THREE AND A HALF CENTURIES Macbeth was held by audience, critic, and theater company alike to be a play about "good" and "evil," grace and damnation. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, when the postmodernist rhetoric of unstable signifiers and difference saturated the critical discourse of humanities departments across Europe and North America, the received moral dualism of Macbeth came under increasing attack. (1) This hermeneutic shift can be traced back to the postwar rehabilitation of Nietzsche, (2) whose radical relativization of the Judeo-Christian binary of "good" and "evil" (3) indirectly paved the way for revisionist readings of Macbeth. Displacing the "old guard" dualist readings of, say, Harold C. Goddard in 1951 ("The medieval mind, in the tradition of mythology, represented the tragic conflict, which our irreligious age is like to think of as just a strife between opposing impulses, as a struggle between devils and angels for the possession of man's soul"), or John Holloway a decade later ("In ... the combat between Macbeth and Macduff, it is made plain that [']night's black agents['] are the fallen angels, the powers of Satan himself"), were avant-garde readings such as Kott's landmark existentialist-absurdist reading of the play ("there are no bad kings or good kings ... there is only the king's situation, and the system"), or Karin S. Coddon's new historicist reading which situates the play in the immediate aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot ("Such are the historical conditions of Macbeth's production ... [that] the tragedy enacts ... the production of the traitor by the very power structure he ostensibly threatens"), or Harry Berger's socio-political recasting of the early scenes of Macbeth as a study in collective complicity ("the [pietistic restoration] view Shakespeare ascribes to the good Scots ... is a view he presents critically as self-justifying, scapegoating, and simplistic"). (4)

Nevertheless, in academia as elsewhere, fashions come and go, and under the prevailing new historicist dispensation dualist readings of Macbeth are once again on the rise. Witness R. Chris Hassel's 2001 essay on the correspondences between Shakespeare's Macbeth and the Herod of the mystery cycles, or Jonathan Gil Harris's 2007 account of how Shakespeare's use of gunpowder in the staging of Macbeth was designed to stimulate the Elizabethan audience's olfactory identification of sulphurous odours with the Stygian stench of Satan's hell. (5) Meanwhile, critics who continue to remain outside the dominant critical discourse exhibit similar dualist sympathies. Take for example Rachel Trabowitz's thesis that "Duncan's feminized masculinity embodies the sublime ideal of androgyny" in contrast to "the 'fiend-like' hermaphrodite (5.8.69) Lady Macbeth," or David-Everett Blythe's rereading of Banquo's "There's husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out" (2.1.4-5) as reflective of Banquo's "moral vision": the brilliance of heaven's stars ("candles") connoting not the frugality but rather the vigilance ("husbandry") of heavens "merciful powers" (2.1.7). (6) It is this dualist resurgence, and in particular that of the good Scot Banquo / bad Scot Macbeth, which my essay seeks to augment. Through a new close reading of key passages, conscience will once again be seen to occupy its center-stage position as the play's unequivocal moral compass upon which the Banquo-Macbeth duality is predicated.

The efficacy of conscience is the subject of a recent essay by Abraham Stoll, who avers that conscience is so equivocally and chaotically communicated in Macbeth that it "fails to produce a coherent other as a witness" and thus "to bring about repentance." Citing William Perkins's A Discourse of Conscience (1594), in which the author depicts the etymological knowing with of conscience as both a form of bearing witness and a "manner of judgement" expressed through clear logical reasoning, Stoll insists that in the case of the Macbeths conscience does neither. …

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