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Integrity in Macbeth: The Search for the "Single State of Man"
Richard Horwich
Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3. (Summer, 1978), pp. 365-373.
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Fri Nov 2 21:44:20 2007
Integrity in Macbeth:
The Search for the
"Single State of Man"
in those of Shakespeare's plays that deal with questions of
sovereignty, for various political, moral, and thematic conflicts to find their
dramatic representation in the personal struggle between two men. One thinks,
in this connection, of Richard I1 and Bolingbroke, Hal and Hotspur, Richmond and Richard 111, Antony and Octavius Caesar, and, of course, Hamlet
and Claudius. To be sure, such distinct polarizing is not inevitable-the
assassination of Julius Caesar and the usurpation of Prospero's dukedom, to
take examples almost at random, are both accomplished by groups of conspirators, rather than by single opponents. Still, the traditional contest between
agonist and antagonist is so central to the Western dramatic tradition that it
may be considered a norm of sorts. It is often instructive, therefore, to notice
where Shakespeare departs fromit, and to ask what function such departures
Such a question arises with regard to Macbeth, for the forces which oppose
Macbeth are under joint leadership: it is Malcolm who represents royal legitimacy in Scotland, but it is Macduff who defends it by confronting and killing
the tyrant. Like Malcolm, Macduff has lost a family to Macbeth, and like him
he is a patriot; if their roles are not actually redundant, then, they overlap
somewhat, and, purely in terms of dramatic expediency, it is hard to see why
Malcolm should not have assumed them both, with Macduff disappearing
from the play altogether.
Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that the historical figure of Macduff was
too well known for him to have been left out of the story. Since the events
treated by the play had a good deal of bearing upon the establishment of the
royal family that occupied the throne at the time the play was written, moreover, Shakespeare may have felt it advisable to follow the source with some
fidelity. The play itself offers us another explanation of Macduffs function,
however, one which begins to emerge during the curious scene in which
Malcolm tests Macduff by confessing to a series of monstrous crimes in order
to determine, by his responses, what Macduff s true nature is.
Macduff listens to chilling accounts of Malcolm's "lust" and "avarice," but
is willing to overlook them. "All these are portable, / W i t h other graces
weigh'd," he says.' But when Malcolm admits that he would "confound / All
unity on earth," Macduff can temporize no longer:
' Kenneth Muir, ed., The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1951), IV. iii. 89-90. All
quotations from the play are taken from this edition.
RICHARD HORWICH, Associate Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY),
has published several articles on Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
0 Scotland! Scotland!
Mal. If such a one be fit to govern, speak:
I am as I have spoken.
Fit to govern?
No, not to live. . . .
(IV. iii. 100-104)
This is the response for which Malcolm has been waiting; he now retrieves his
confessions, revealing then1 to be part of an elaborate test of Macduff, one
designed to demonstrate not Macduffs personal loyalty to Malcolm, but a
quality opposite to that. Malcolm praises Macduffs indignation as "a noble
passion, /Child of integrity" (IV. iii. 114-15). If integrity is taken to mean a
devotion to moral principle rather than to personalities or private ends, it
would appear that one of Macduffs roles at this point in the play is to
exemplify a disinterested concern for justice (news of the slaughter of his family
by Macbeth has not yet reached him), in contrast to Malcolm, whose reasons
for hating Macbeth are anything but disinterested.
However, this view of Macduff s character may make more problems for us
than it solves; to see him as a man of integrity in the play as a whole is difficult,
for there are grounds on which it has been argued that Macduffs integrity is
seriously open to question. Robert Ornstein states the case concisely:
Macduff . . . displays a curious worldliness in his interview with Malcolm. Of
course he finally passes the test which Malcolm offers, he is finally revolted by
Malcolm's self-portrait of vice; yet how much, how very much of vice will Macduff
accept in a sovereign before his stomach turns.=
Yet Malcolm is not wrong to call our attention to Macduff s "integrity," for
in another and more literal sense of the term, integrity is one of the central
preoccupations of the play. A sense of wholeness, completeness, or coherence
has from the first represented the ideal but unattainable condition both of
Scotland and of most of its inhabitants. The function of Macduff as part of the
opposition to Macbeth is firmly connected with this form of integrity, for it is
what Macduff possesses and what Macbeth, more than anyone else, lacks.
From the beginning, the mere fantasies of murder induce in Macbeth a
psychic dissociation, which he expresses in the following terms:
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man, That function is smother'd in surmise, And nothing is, but what is not. (I. iii. 139-42)
Herbert Grierson suggests indivisible as a synonym for ~ i n g l eand
, ~ most of the
play's recent commentators have joined him in conceiving of Macbeth's life
after Duncan's murder as a quest to recapture that state of indivisibility-as a
search for "wholeness,"' as an exorcism of the psychological "discontinuity"
"he Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1960), p. 233.
Quoted in Muir, p. 21 n.
'Terence Eagleton, Shakespeare and Society (New York: Schocken, 1967), p. 131.
that plagues him,5 or as an attempt to heal "that dichotomy between intellect
and action which is to sunder his nature into two warring en ti tie^."^
Equally important, the disharmonies of which Macbeth complains are not
restricted to his own consciousness. When he remarks to Banquo, "So foul and
fair a day I have not seen" (I. iii. 38), he is merely echoing what is in effect the
central and controlling paradox of the play's world, announced by the witches
moments before: "Fair is foul, and foul is ,fairM (I. i. 11). These warring
dissonances, which are a feature of perception and expression shared by many
of the play's characters, help define the condition of Scotland and its inhabitants, a condition seen throughout as a kind of stalemate brought about by
the conflict of equally forceful opposites. Macbeth describes the night as being
"Almost at odds with morning, which is which" (111, iv. 126); a captain compares the doubtful outcome of a battle t o "two spent swimmers, that do cling
together / And choke their art" (I. ii. 8-9); the Porter characterizes lechery as
a thing that drink both "provokes, and unprovokes" (11, iii. 29). All the
play's "multitudinous antitheses"' cancel each other out, emphasizing what is
paralyzing and self-defeating in human experience and suggesting an ultimate
state of entropy toward which everything tends, a state reflected in the very
syntax of many of the play's most famous speeches: "Therefore, much drink
may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it
sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes
him stand to, and not stand to. . . . (11. iii. 31-35).
In the context thus provided, it is difficult to believe Macbeth's claim that his
own character-or that of other men-is by nature homogeneous and consistent. "Who can be wise, amaz'd, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral,
in a moment? N o man," he insists after having killed (presumably on rash
impulse) the grooms outside Duncan's chamber (11, iii. 108-9). But by this
point in the play we are well aware that such inconsistency is an established
feature of human nature here. The consistency Macbeth claims for himself and
others is merely wishful-a desire to regain that "single state of man" which is
both a condition of mental equilibrium and a symbol of the lost order which
must be restored to Scotland.
It is Macbeth's preoccupation with the order and homogeneity of his own
character which provides Lady Macbeth with the means of tempting him to the
assassination. Aware that it is a preoccupation which, however common,
disturbs Macbeth with a peculiar intensity, she takes advantage of his susceptibility by accusing him (metaphorically) of displaying a discontinuous personality:
Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress'd yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now, to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?
(I. vii. 35-38)
And she sometimes greets him, as d o the witches, by several different names at
once-as, for instance, "Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor!" (I, v. 54).
D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor,
1956). D. 155.
~ a i b a r aL. Parker, "Macbeth: The Great Illusion," Sewanee Review, 78 (1970), 476-77. ' Muir, p, xxxiii. 368
It is not surprising, therefore, that she is able to tempt him to the murder
primarily by promising that the crime will restore to him precisely that unified
sensibility which fantasies of the murder have destroyed:
Art thou afeard
T o be the same in thine own act and valour,
As thou art in desire? Would'st thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' th'adage?
(I. vii. 39-45)
Given the breadth and variety of possibilities latent in human character in
this play, and the malleability of human character, it should in no way surprise
us to discover that Macbeth. in order to ~ e r f o r mthe assassination. must alter
his personality by alienating his faculties from one another, no matter how
such an action threatens his pursuit of "the single state of man." "The eye wink
at the hand; yet let that be, / Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see"
(I, iv. 52-53), he encourages himself. Kenneth Muir has observed that Macbeth here regards his hand as having "an independent existence of its own";8
actually, Macbeth goes even further, not merely fragmenting but willfully
polarizing his character, setting his hand and his eye in conflict with each other.
These organs, respectively, represent the outer and the inner man-the active,
worldly, logical component of his personality, and the ethical and emotional
sensibilities that are diametrically opposed to it. Throughout the play, for both
Macbeth and Ladv Macbeth. the sheer horror of the murder continuallv
overwhelms all rational consideration of its efficacy:
What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to accompt?-Yet
who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
(V. i. 36-39)
A radical disjunction is thus introduced into the very course of Macbeth's
life; his past and his present have little in common with each other. T o have
been a paragon of loyalty and service, and to metamorphose, with terrifying
suddenness, into an arch-traitor is to render one's life incoherent and therefore
incomprehensible, as he wistfully notes:
Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality;
All is but toys. . . .
(11. iii. 91-94)
"Nothing serious in mortality" is a way-station between Macbeth's earlier
presentiment that the murder would make reality and illusion indistinguishable
from one another ("Whatever is, is not") and his ultimate conception of life as
"a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing"
(V. v. 26-28). Seriousness, significance, reality itself-all are defined for Mace
Ibid., p. xxxi.
beth by order and coherence, and he is increasingly hard put to function
without them.
It is vital that we attend to Macbeth's preoccupation with internal coherence, and to the terminology and manner in which he characteristically expresses it. Macbeth seldom speaks of his life in terms of the conventional
opposition of good and evil; he experiences the conflict within him less as a
moral problem than as a psychological and physical one, and thus the absolutes of his personality are more concretely presented than the necessarily
abstract language of ethical discourse would permit.
This is not to say that we are unable to speak of Macbeth's "morality," but
only that we should do so in the terms provided for us by Macbeth himself; to
substitute other terms may cause us to misread what is crucial. A case in point
is D . A. Traversi's argument that Macbeth discovers, after Banquo's death,
"that his real wish is to retrace his steps, to recover an original state of
finds this wish expressed in
innocence, but that . . . he cannot do ~ 0 . Traversi
the following speech of Macbeth's:
I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
(111. iv. 135-37)
A close look at the metaphor reveals that, far from yearning for "an original
state of innocence" (presumably embodied in "wade no more" and "returning"), Macbeth is precisely balanced between the two opposing courses of
action. What Macbeth desires is not his "original state of innocence" but his
"single state of man," and he thinks that he can as readily recover this state by
embracing further evil as by repenting. T o restore unity to his character,
Macbeth needs simply to be one thing or the other-either covered with blood
or washed clean-but not a spotty combination of the two.
Unity of character is not a moral attribute; monsters may possess it as easily
as saints. We cannot ignore the moral implications of Macbeth's choice, but we
obscure his character if we insist upon seeing him as a moralist rather than as a
man searching for psychic relief in whatever form avails itself to him. How far
he is from craving "innocence" we may discern from the fact that his choice is
to wade further into blood, rather than to retrace his steps, by dispatching the
murderers to M a c d u f s castle. If the memory of Duncan's blood tortures
Macbeth, he believes that it may be submerged and blotted out by the blood of
countless new victims-until at last, as Macduff laments, "Each new morn, /
New widows howl, new orphans cry . . ." (IV. iii. 4-5).
Macbeth's behavior is best seen as that of an absolutist, a man for whom no
compromises, accommodations, or half-measures are possible. This is not a
new idea; B. L. Reid remarked some time ago that the play "deals with
absolutes, the fullest moral absolutes available in the kindgom of this world."10
But we should be aware that such absolutism is a kind of moral rigidity, and
that moral rigidity is invariably fatal in tragedy, however awe-inspiring the
Traversi, p. 174. "Macbeth and the Play of Absolutes," Sewanee Review, 73 (1965), 19 370
spectacle of that fatality may be. In Euripides' Hippolytus, for instance, the
tragic hero is destroyed because, in strict conformity with his code of principles, he ignores the wisdom of the Chorus, whose advice is to make obeisances to the goddess Aphrodite whether he reveres her or not. This is typical,
even conventional advice; choruses always counsel moderation, conciliation,
and flexibility. But these are qualities foreign to the absolutist Macbeth, a man
incapable of heeding such counsel were it offered him.
It is likely that Malcolm, as well, would fail to appreciate such advice, for
Malcolm, politically an alternative to Macbeth, bears a remarkable resemblance to him in temperament. The crimes he confesses to in the testing scene
are, as L. C . Knights has pointed out, Macbeth's own," particularly his desire
to "confound / All unity on earth"; indeed, the disunity of Malcolm's own
personality is in evidence throughout the scene, and is largely responsible for
its incoherent quality. When, for example, Malcolm retrieves his confession
and boasts of his truthfulness, he does so in the course of admitting to a lie. As
a consequence, his claim to "innocence," with which he means to allay Macduffs anxieties, has much the opposite effect-perhaps because that innocence
sounds more like an avoidance of experience and knowledge than a freedom
from guilt:
I am yet
Unknown to woman; never was forsworn;
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own;
At no time broke my faith: would not betray
The Devil to his fellow; and delight
N o less in truth, than life: my first false speaking
Was this upon myself.
(IV. iii. 125-31)
Traversi feels that Malcolm "reveals himself as a truly dedicated man,"12 but
in a play so filled with terrible discoveries of self made through bitter experience, Malcolm's insistence upon his virginity, sexual and otherwise, is not as
reassuring as it is intended to be. His scornful dismissal of Macbeth and Lady
Macbeth in the last speech of the play should not surprise us, for if he regards
those dark impulses to which Macbeth surrend,ered as "strangers to my nature" (IV, iii. 125), how can he know what it is to struggle against them? B. L.
Reid, who admires Malcolm, is nonetheless compelled to admit that "it is not
easy to forgive his contemptuous reference to 'this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen.' For that is only literal truth, not complex enough to be wholly
true."13 The fact that Malcolm seems incapable of understanding complex
truths does not augur well for the prospects of renewed harmony and order in
Malcolm's recantation leaves Macduff literally speechless, though not with
admiration: "Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, / 'Tis hard to
reconcile" (IV. iii. 137-38), he replies after Malcolm, having finished his recita"Explorations (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), p. 28. Traversi, p. 176. Reid, p. 41. la
37 1
tion, inquires into the causes of Macduff s meditative silence. "Welcome and
unwelcome things at once" is a phrase that connects Malcolm, the innocent
who displays a hitherto-unsuspected capacity for cunning and duplicity, with
the paradoxes which have characterized Scotland and Macbeth throughout the
play. Macduff is understandably happy to discover that Malcolm is not the
lecherous, avaricious anarchist he has confessed to being, but he is at the same
time understandably offended by the manipulative way in which Malcolm has
tested him. For Macduff, as Roy Walker puts it, "the opposites are not merely
hard but impossible to reconcile."'"
Thus Malcolm may be seen as, potentially, a Macbeth in embryo-a man
who, insisting upon perfection in his own behavior in an imperfect world, may
fall as Macbeth did. Reid praises Malcolm for "the simplicity with which he
describes his own young chastity and innocence," a simplicity which "creates
another lovely absolute, the polar opposite of Macbeth's weary and ramified
criminality."15 But in this play, polar opposites have a way of turning into each
other, and a man who has never lied, never coveted, never desired is less a
human being than a figure of alleg~ry'~-a conventional "man of snow," like
Angelo in Measure for Measure or Malheureux in Marston's The Dutch
Courtesan. When temptation, as it always does, at last seeks such figures out,
their fall from grace is violent and complete, like that of Macbeth. Whatever
else absolutism may be in this play, it is not "lovely."
But Macduff, in contrast to both Malcolm and Macbeth, does embody the
flexibility that both of them lack. To be the play's representative of this human
quality is Macduff s role; it will make him not a tragic hero, actual or potential,
but a survivor, in a country whose survival is in question. It is precisely because
of his willingness to accommodate his principles to the exigencies of a hostile
universe that he is the hope of Scotland. Ornstein is correct in asserting that
Macduffs tolerance for vice, both in himself and in others, is high, but he is
wrong to condemn him for it: had Macbeth been better able to tolerate the
violent impulses he discovered within himself, they might have remained there.
This is not to argue that Macduffs willingness to compromise, to accept
human imperfection, is per se an admirable quality; Ornstein justifiably reproaches him with allowing his defenseless family to be slaughtered while he is
safe in England." But the alternative to Macduffs flexibility is not only
suicidal (as in Hippolytus) but homicidal as well: Macbeth's devotion to an
ideal of ethical conduct is such that, as we have seen, if he cannot be a saint, he
must transform himself into a devil, one murder begetting a host of others.
Men like Macduff represent a human alternative to a morality that deals in
inhuman absolutes. If we look at the passage in which Macduff receives the
" The
Time is Free (London: Andrew Dakers Ltd., 1949), p. 163.
Reid, p. 41.
l e It is becoming a commonplace of Shakespearean criticism that, in Maurice Charney's words,
"It is sometimes necessary t o assume an absolute degree of good or evil in a Shakespearean
character . . and to allow for abrupt shifts in character that violate logical progression" (How to
Read Shakespeare [New York: McGraw-Hill, 19711, p. 75). But this convention, which certainly
applies to an Iago or a Desdemona, does not apply to Malcolm, since another character, within the
frame of the action, calls our attention to the inconsistencies of Malcolm's character by announcing his inability to accept them.
l7 Ornstein, p. 233.
news of the murder of his family, we perceive the essential difference between
his character and Malcolm's: where Malcolm insists upon a simple and unilateral response-"Dispute it like a man"-Macduff
explains that manhood is
not the simple, single thing Malcolm believes it to be: "I shall do so: / But I
must also feel it as a man," he replies (IV. iii. 220-21).
Macduff is presented as a man of many parts. He is both a father and a
soldier; he can weep and revenge; he is a man "not of woman born," and yet
the most human character of all. Unlike Macbeth, however, he is not afflicted
with sensations of psychic conflict, or turned into a moral schizophrenic; he is
composed of disparate elements, but he synthesizes them, accepting weakness
along with strength, error with truth. He alone possesses the "single state of
integrated personality, the most meaningful form integrity can
assume in the play. Macduff s integrity is not, as might be thought, in opposition to the flexibility of his character; on the contrary, these two seemingly
antithetical qualities are united in him. He retains the "single state of man"
because he is in every real sense a man, and demands no more of himself than
that he should be one. His character is a fusion, a complementing of opposites,
and not, like Macbeth's, a wilderness of paradox.
When, shortly before his death, Macbeth succeeds in homogenizing himself
at last, he does so by achieving a state of singleness which has little to do with
being a man; he rids his n.ature of its last vestiges of moral sensitivity, and
consequently of its capacity to experience horror:
I have almost forgot the taste of fears. The time has been, my senses would have cool'd T o hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse, and stir, As life were in't. I have supp'd full with horrors: Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, Cannot once start me. (V. V. 9-15)
It is almost inevitable that life, as we subsequently discover, has become an
absurdity for him. Whether precisely the same fate awaits Malcolm neither
Shakespeare nor Holinshed tells us, but the broad implications are clear.
Traversi sees Malcolm at the end of the play as "a king . . . to whom the loyalty
of free men is properly due, and from whom royal bounty may again be
expected to flow,"18 but anyone familiar with the facts of Scottish history,
as Shakespeare's audience undoubtedly was, knows that royal bounty did not
flow from Malcolm or his successors for very long. The witches' prophecy
concerning the disposition of the throne was destined to come true; it was to be
Banquo's issue, the Stuart line, which would ultimately prevail.
Many scholars have proposed the view that the play was written as a
compliment to James I, the reigning Stuart monarch. If that is so, the apparently celebrative quality of the last speeches is undercut by the inherent
suggestion that at least one more convulsion will occur in Scotland before, in
Macduffs words, "the time is free" (V. ix. 21). Certainly that inference has
Traversi, p. 181
been drawn by some of the play's modern adaptors and directors: Eugene
Ionesco's Macbett, for example, ends with "Macol" delivering, verbatim, the
long speech in which Shakespeare's Malcolm confesses his desire to "confound
all unity on earthu-but without any subsequent retraction, so that the audience is left with the unmistakable conviction of Macol's intent to continue
Macbeth's tyranny.18 And Roman Polanski, in his 1972 film of Macbeth,
inserted at the conclusion a wordless scene in which Donalbain seeks out the
witches, presumably to discover whether he, like Macbeth before him, is
destined to wrest the throne from its present occupant.
So, imply Ionesco and Polanski, with the inauguration of Malcolm it may all
begin again. And this implication-together with the clouds that surround the
historical figure of Malcolm, and his many similarities to Macbeth-ought to
be more than sufficient to explain why the man who stands truly in opposition
to Macbeth-morally, psychologically, and in terms of the play's structure-is
not the Prince but the older, surer, and far more sympathetic Macduff.
Translated by Charles Marowitz (New York: Grove Press, 1973), pp. 104-5.