Blind Rage and Absolute Corruption: Reflections on Macbeth

image of blood red hands and title Macbeth

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Attributed to the nineteenth century historian Lord Acton, this insight was particularly aimed at monarchical systems where the ruler was believed to be there by divine authority and therefore could do no wrong. Like some of the more despotic Roman emperors, Shakespeare’s Scottish Thane Macbeth seems to have become drunk on his own self-image and the power of kingly status. Once in the grip of it, the thirst for more power drove him to ever more bloody and heartless slaughter. And like many corrupt regimes, once the public realised they were under the rule of a tyrant it was too late to depose him. Fear was the order of the day.

Shakespeare was a genius. His understanding of human psychology is timeless, yet forever being re-discovered and Macbeth, the play, is particularly incisive. As the tale intimates, the loss of their young son triggered the slide of Lord and Lady Macbeth into a state of emotional numbness wherein the seeds of a desperate quest for validation and position could take root and fester; almost a state of grief gone awry.

We know that grief can manifest in many forms and that anger is one of them. Yet while anger is a common human emotion built to protect us, no-one would condone a power-crazed killing spree. It is, in my view, the pathological nature of Macbeth’s anger that scares us so much and that creates the dark mood of the play, with all the superstition and ritual that have surrounded it. image of face with black side versus white side Blind rage coupled with the knowledge that he has damned himself seem to drive Macbeth into a state of complete disregard for the humanity around him, perhaps even denial of their suffering. Jung would no doubt say he was in the grip of a sinister, destructive shadow archetype.

But the puzzle remains as to why and how Macbeth’s reign of terror escalated to such a degree. We hear for instance his initial thoughts of ambition and regicide, then his second thoughts pulling back from the awfulness of it – yet the influence of the witches’ predictions and Lady Macbeth’s goading are the focus of some debate. Was he channelled into his dreadful path, to carry out a self-fulfilling prophecy sparked off by the witches’ proclamations, or was the naked ambition there from before? Was he manipulated by Lady Macbeth to re-ignite his notion to murder the king, or did she just fan the flames that were already there?

Here’s an extract from my daughter Dearbhlá’s GCSE coursework of a few years ago, regarding

The Witches and Macbeth

‘The witches seem to predict that Macbeth will do something awful and the world will be thrown into chaos but when we meet Macbeth we see quite quickly that his thoughts have already been dwelling on his own political rank. They tell him he will be king and after they leave he states,

“Stay, you imperfect speakers! Tell me more!”

Murderous ambition is already present in his mind so the witches cannot be seen to have caused it, though they help to bring it to the surface. Even Macbeth himself starts to talk like the witches in another aside:

“This supernatural soliciting;

Cannot be ill, cannot be good.”….

….“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man

That function is smothered in surmise,

And nothing is but what it is not.”

Macbeth is “rapt” according to Banquo, and mesmerised by what the witches have said but this could be because it has opened up ideas and plans already in his head. So again the witches are part of the backdrop but not the entire cause of all the chaos and horror in the play. If the witches do have a bigger plan to destroy Scotland, Macbeth is a willing pawn in their game. Even more sinister is his wife Lady Macbeth who as we will also see later encourages and even browbeats him into actually murdering King Duncan.

While the witches have created the atmosphere and kick-started the core themes of the play, it is the main characters of Macbeth and his wife who think the ambitious thoughts and do the evil deeds….

There is a sense that the witches’ predictions are coming true. It could just be that this was bound to happen and they are commentators, dramatising the events with an enchanted presence. But Macbeth may not have actually committed the murders without the witches’ confirmation that he would become king. They do, therefore, influence the development of the chaotic, terrifying plot, alongside Macbeth and his wife.’  [Dearbhlá McDonnell 2012]

As many literature students will attest, the theme of the play is terror; fear of what the next moment will bring. The witches and Lady Macbeth serve to intensify the emotion of the play and act as vehicles for the darkness erupting from the main character, Macbeth. So, on to the reason for my choice of subject today – I went to see the film yesterday evening with my daughter Caitríona at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast.

We both felt it was brilliant, if horrifying. There are many difficult scenes of violence and carnage which do, however, create the frightening historical, social and personal context perfectly. Every aspect of the film, from cast to colour palette, does justice to The Bard’s most risky and perhaps most perceptive work. Humans are strong but also weak; have the potential for good and for evil; create and destroy. Given a conglomeration of random events and developmental circumstances, anyone’s life can turn into a perfect storm of chaos. This is the lesson we must take from Macbeth.

Without checks and balances, human nature is corruptible.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Citations for images:

http://www.blurb.com/b/589370-macbeth

http://www.wisdompills.com/2014/09/04/collective-unconscious-archetypes-comprise/

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Buried by the Shadow: Lessons from Baudelaire

Having just read a piece of historical fiction called Black Venus by James MacManus, I have been left at once saddened, uplifted, more informed about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and perhaps also a little wiser on the work of shadow energies in our lives. In the midst of public horror and ridicule, this gifted but tormented artist had the courage to face and describe the human shadow through its many manifestations in his personal life (much like James Joyce would do a century later). It is this window of identification and therefore the sense that we are not alone in our experiences that is, I believe, one of the massive attributes of literature, indeed all forms of expression. These ideas are also tied in with my current interests in creativity and mental health recovery and promotion, as well as with previous musings on the role of the shadow within a Jungian approach to personal maturation.

That literature and Jungian ideas overlap is inevitable. Jung emphasised the symbolic nature of human thought and imagination, as did Baudelaire and Manet. A muse was often a source of both inspiration and projection for the artist, a dynamic that may well be present in all our lives – who hasn’t ever had a hero or a guru or some other personified source of inspiration and motivation?

 

But to truly move onwards in  the hero’s journey of our life course, it is essential to incorporate and balance all the archetypal energies, of which the dark shadow is only one. The self-acceptance required remains elusive and unthinkable still for many of us and therefore while we might take the necessary step of acknowledging the shadow’s terrifying existence in ourselves, we must also avoid disowning and projecting it, or conversely, allowing it to swallow and destroy us. I fear that Baudelaire may have been devoured by his own shadow, a force he projected into his muses and possibly detected in himself but was unable to fully accept with compassion and therefore was ultimately unable to constructively channel it.

Like many before and since, Baudelaire went relatively unappreciated in his own time but is now recognised for his visionary genius and his initiation (with the painter Manet) of a whole new world of symbolism, modernist literature and the impressionist artistic oeuvre. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the groundbreaking modernist work The Wastelandcited Baudelaire as having paved the way for him and as the inspiration behind his poetry.

While the nihilism of these writers might be something of a blind alley if taken alone, and for many an all-too-shocking description of human nature, they did at least move towards a more authentic insight into that nature, if ultimately a too-pessimistic and destructive one. From  more recent work on the shadow as being both dark and light, we can embrace the shadow as having something to teach us, as gifting us with the potential for liberation and motivation, while living alongside the inherent potential danger.

It is unclear whether or not Baudelaire reached a level of self acceptance and accommodation. Certainly by all accounts he struggled and suffered but also experienced episodes of joy and happiness  in his life. I suspect we are all dancing a similar dance and can only hope that through literature, compassion, empathy and all the many forms of self-expression we can find, we can each give and take encouragement with our fellow journey-makers. Whether or not we manage to face, own and constructively channel our own shadow aspect is possibly the chief deciding factor of our mental health and well-being, perhaps even one of the  core tasks of our lives.

The novel Black Venus  by James MacManus is and excellent read by the way (follow the link at the start of this post).

My book is available now in the UK, USA and on Palgrave and Amazon sites:

Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014)

 

images: Top: Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

and Second image is T.S.Eliot photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

 

 

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