L. C. Knights, "Macbeth as a Dramatic Poem"
Macbeth is a statement of evil. I use the word ‘statement’ (unsatisfactory as it is) in order to stress those qualities that are 'non-dramatic'. lt also happens to be poetry, which means that the apprehension of the whole can be obtained from a lively attention to the parts, whether they have an immediate bearing on the main action or ‘illustrate character’, or not. Two main themes, which can only be separated for the purpose of analysis, are blended in the play—the themes of the reversal of values and of unnatural disorder. And closely related to each is a third theme, that of the deceitful appearance, and consequent doubt, uncertainty, and confusion.
Each theme is stated in the first act. The first scene, every word of which will bear the closest scrutiny, strikes one dominant chord:
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air. I.i.9f
It is worth remarking that ‘hurley-burley’ implies more than ‘the tumult of sedition or insurrection’. Both it and ‘When the battle’s lost and won’ suggest the kind of metaphysical pitch-and-toss that is about to be played with good and evil. At the same time we hear the undertone of uncertainty: the scene opens with a question, and the second line suggests a region where the elements are disintegrated as they never are in nature; thunder and lightning are disjoined, and offered as alternatives. We should notice also that the scene expresses the same movement as the play as a whole: the general crystallizes into the immediate particular (‘Where the place?’ – ‘Upon the Heath.’ – ‘There to meet wich Macbeth.’) and then dissolves again into the general presentment of hideous gloom. All is done with the greatest speed, economy, and precision.
The second scene is full of images of confusion. It is a general principle in the work of Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries that when A is made to describe X, a minor character or event, the description is not merely immediately applicable to X, it helps to determine the way in which our whole rcsponse shall develop. This is rather crudely recognized when we say that certain lines ‘create the atmosphere’ of the play. Shakespeare’s power is seen in the way in which details of this kind develop, check, or provide a commentary upon the main interests that he has aroused. In the present scene the description
- Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art - I.ii.7ff.
applies not only to the battle but to the ambiguity of Macbeth’s future fortunes. The impression conveyed is not only one of violence but of unnatural violence (‘to bathe in reeking wounds’) and of a kind of nightmare gigantism -
Where the Norweyan banners flout the sky
And fan our people cold. I.ii.50f.
Questions on the text
1 Name and explain the main themes that L. C. Knights mentions in the first paragraph.
2 Comment on the term ‘hurley-burley’ in Macbeth.
3 What example does Knights use in order to illustrate unnatural disorder?
Would you recommend a friend of yours to read Macbeth? Explain.