Arts - Winter 2009

Cauldron Bubble

Macbeth minus its supernatural elements could not have mattered so much to Lincoln and Dr. Johnson—and should not matter to us

By Edwin M. Yoder Jr. | December 1, 2008


It was an iconic moment in the history of the presidency: The tall, long-limbed man, dressed in the black Brooks Brothers suit in which he would be shot a few days later, gazes sadly at the ruins of Richmond and, for a time, walks its nearly deserted streets. The time is early April 1865, and Robert E. Lee’s surrender is expected shortly. Hearing that his friend Secretary of State William H. Seward has been injured in a carriage accident, Abraham Lincoln cuts short his visit to the Rebel capital and boards the River Queen for the return voyage to Washington. In his company is a young French aristocrat, the Marquis de Chambrun, who would leave a vivid sketch of the melancholy president. After a brooding silence, Lincoln took out his copy of Shakespeare and began to read passages from his favorite play, Macbeth.

A century and a half earlier—the year was 1711—a sickly two-year-old English child, suffering from a tubercular disease that has left him with a damaged optic nerve and deafness in one ear, is taken by his anxious mother from Lichfield to London, his sickness disgusting some fellow passengers in the stagecoach. He is carried a few days later to St. James’s Palace.  After a service of Christian worship, he is brought forward with others to be touched by a bejeweled and hooded woman whose appearance he believes, years later, he vaguely recalls. She is Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, three years from her own death, the last to exercise on English soil the mystic power of “touching” for the King’s Evil, a power believed to be conferred by the ancient ceremony of anointing. The frail child is the future Dr. Samuel Johnson, the “Great Cham” of literature, who suffers from the King’s Evil, scrofula, a disfiguring disease of the lymph glands of the neck and shoulders, having contracted the contagion as an infant by nursing the infected milk of a wet nurse.

What links these two scenes, so distant from one another and so many years apart? It is a common interest in Macbeth, which Lincoln regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Lincoln often carried his worn copy of the play with him to the telegraph office, where he frequently sought the latest battle reports. Of the play, he wrote in a fan letter to the actor James Hackett: “Nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.” When, in the 1750s, Dr. Johnson projected his signal edition of Shakespeare, it was Macbeth—a play “deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions, and solemnity, grandeur, and variety of its action” he later wrote—which he chose as a sample subject for submission to his prospective publisher.

Here, unfortunately, biographical certainty ends and speculation necessarily begins. But speculation about the intense identification of two great souls with this famous play is far from idle. Was it perhaps the subject of assassination? That seems unlikely, notwithstanding what we know of Lincoln’s premonitions of his own death by an assassin’s hand. Two contemporaneous plays, Hamlet and Julius Caesar, suggest that assassination was among Shakespeare’s preoccupations at the time. More adventurously, we may conjecture that it was the drama’s solid setting in the supernatural (or metaphysical) that drew their interest. Both Lincoln and Dr. Johnson enjoyed that special intuitive dimension with which some rare spirits are gifted; and Macbeth, all but uniquely in the Shakespearean canon, must have called out to it.

If that is the link, what would Lincoln or Dr. Johnson make of the liberties that some directors take with the play these days—and for that matter have taken from the outset? According to A. R. Braunmuller, editor of the New Cambridge Macbeth, from the reopening of the playhouses at the Restoration (1660) forward, the play “has been often revised, reimagined and adapted to other media . . . travestied, burlesqued, used as a starting point for satire, and employed in political cartoons and commercial advertising.” Perhaps, then, it isn’t so surprising that, to the hypothetical “Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark,” we must now add the phenomenon of “Macbeth without the supernatural.” A recent production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Rupert Goold, with Patrick Stewart playing the usurping thane, suggests that exotic experiments are not merely welcomed but relished—even when Macbeth is portrayed as a Stalinist hoodlum who casually munches a sandwich as he plots murder and treats Banquo’s ghost as a joke. As the critic Stephen Greenblatt writes (The New York Review of Books, July 17, 2008) “Shakespeare . . . deliberately situated [Macbeth] in a queasy betwixt-and-between world, where the metaphysical forces . . . were simultaneously affirmed and negated. . . . [But] like most modern stagings of the play, Goold’s production wants as little to do with this . . . world as possible. . . . In this Macbeth there are no convincing intimations of the demonic, the predestined, the sacred, the damned.” Greenblatt notes a comparable “shriveling of the metaphysical” in a recent New York production of Verdi’s opera. The critic describes the setting and iconography of this contemporary Macbeth as that of the recently collapsed totalitarian world, unrelieved by any contrast with more benign environments, where polities are indeed prisons, where crucial actions take place in busy kitchens and freight elevators, and where terror is taken for granted as a routine instrument of statecraft.

Some distinctions must be drawn if we are to grasp the essential barrenness of a totalitarian Macbeth. It isn’t a matter, merely, of “interpretation.” In his textual variety, Shakespeare invites variant readings and settings. Indeed, if all the themes and facts in the plays were clear, there would be less contention about who controls the destiny of Macbeth and his wife. And we would miss the long-lasting disputes about the hesitancy of Hamlet (“a man who could not make up his mind,” according to Olivier’s voice-over in the classic 1948 film), to say nothing of the “motiveless malignity” of Iago. But it is one thing to interpret within the four corners of the text and another to strip from the play all eerie overtones that fail to fit a flippant and determinedly secular age. A further distinction must be drawn between modernist conceptions of the play and the playgoer’s perfectly natural skepticism about its mysterious elements. In his notes on Macbeth, Dr. Johnson, writing in the mid-18th century, found it necessary to warn that

a poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, be banished from the theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales . . . ; but . . . Shakespeare was in no danger of such censures, since he only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage, and was far from overburdening the credulity of his audience.

Dr. Johnson’s warning seems, at a glance,  uncharacteristically Whiggish, alien to his familiar Tory sensibility. It implies that the 18th-century conception of “Nature” has illuminated for all time the difference between faith and credulity, belief and superstition. But since his own larger judgment was that the play was grand, solemn, and plausible, Dr. Johnson’s words ring a bit odd. The great critic and editor was, we know, a church-and-crown man of natural reverence, and it is difficult to believe that he intended to scant the supernatural agency that is the thematic heart of the drama as Shakespeare wrote it. Metaphysical mystery (and ambiguity) is the chief propellant of the play, as essential to its tension and metaphor as it is in Hamlet, which in many ways is its metaphysical companion piece. Hamlet fears that the specter claiming to be the ghost of his father and crying for vengeance may be a demonic impostor; and as he berates his mother as a poor judge of husbands in the closet scene, he alone sees its presence. The ghost of the murdered Banquo is likewise visible only to Macbeth in the banquet scene, as is the airborne dagger that draws him earlier toward his rendezvous with murder. Here, as throughout the play, Shakespeare allows for the possibility of hallucination—or what psychologists would call projection:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? . . .
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppresséd brain?

It is at once naïve and condescending to believe that Shakespeare, the supreme realist, would fail to exploit every such ambiguity by way of deepening the personality of his murderer, torn between conscience and vaulting ambition. “Reality,” whatever that is, is in tension and friction with “illusion” here. With his unfailing dramatic instinct, Shakespeare refuses to dismiss this tension or resolve it by way of a facile either/or formula. The world he creates is not a binary universe, in which clear distinctions, untrue to life as we know it, are unmistakable. Macbeth’s haunted mind may present a metaphysical puzzle. But for dramatic purposes, the supernatural questions also constitute a larger problem in poetics—which is to say that the task of actors and directors is to render believable the story that the playwright tells, not to purge it of what present-day playgoers may find incredible.

Given the state of the single text of Macbeth (in the 1623 Folio, presumed by scholars to have been printed from a promptbook), it has been speculated that some lines may be missing—or may have been “compressed” away by Shakespeare himself to shorten an original text for a performance at court. (James I, it seems, had a short attention span.) Opinion is very much divided. But it isn’t clear, for instance, when and how the idea of regicide insinuated itself into Macbeth’s mind. Lady Macbeth’s taunting remarks about his manhood in their first scene together seem to glance back to an earlier time in which Macbeth spoke of his ambition with clearer resolve. That resolve seems to predate the exciting prophecy of the Weird Sisters, who in any case say nothing when they accost Macbeth and Banquo on the heath concerning the means, fair or foul, by which Macbeth is to become “king hereafter.” But however or whenever the idea seized him, his foul purpose is radically sharpened by the forecast of the witches, intensifying whatever ambition lurks in his mind. If causation is at issue—and the supernatural ambiance demands its careful consideration—how is the paradox to be resolved? Is Macbeth, as seems essential for a tragic hero, free to choose between his compunctions and his ambition? Do the witches merely whet a preexisting ambition to a lethal edge, acting as accessories before the fact? Or is Macbeth somehow fated by their supernatural foresight to act as he does? We can’t make sense of the play as Shakespeare wrote it unless we grapple with the metaphysics of futurity. “Shrivel the metaphysical” and that way lies banality, of no more dramatic interest than a drive-by shooting.

Macbeth imagines a world in which there is a discernible relationship between the natural and the unnatural, between royal legitimacy on the one hand and usurpation on the other. The distinction is proclaimed at the outset, in the lines Banquo speaks about Macbeth’s country seat, to which Duncan is coming as kinsman and honored guest:

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. . . .
Where they most breed and haunt,
. . . the air is delicate.

But the audience is well aware that Lady Macbeth has less-benevolent birds in mind:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements

and has summoned to her aid demons of “direst cruelty.” There is good reason to believe that Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience, around about 1606, would have shuddered at her sinister invocation of nether spirits. In homage to the supposed expertise in “demonology” that the Scottish king had brought with him to England three years earlier, it had been made unlawful on pain of death to “use any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit.” (“Vanity and credulity,” Dr. Johnson comments in his notes, “co-operated” in favor of the passage of the new law.)

As rational beings, we may resist the emphatic antitheses between natural and unnatural that lie at the heart of the play, even as we may question the rituals discussed in James George Frazer’s Golden Bough of causal connections between the corruption of the ruler and the damnation of the realm. But there can be no true Macbeth without this vital interplay. The connection lingers, if only in sedimentary form, in Western ideas of social organization and legitimacy, for instance in biblical tales in which nations and tribes are divinely penalized for the wicked acts of their rulers. Or in Oedipus Rex, the most striking classical instance, the plague descends on Thebes because the king, in his hubris, has offended divine proscriptions. Whatever the psychic sources of this ancient belief, it is powerful and persistent; and it is at the heart of what befalls Scotland after the impious murder of Duncan. The problem in poetics is to make it believable; and the material for doing so is ample— not least in the conversation in the second act between Ross and an otherwise unnamed Old Man with a memory of better times:

Old Man:
This sore night
Hath trifled former knowings. . . .
’Tis unnatural,
Even like the deed that’s done. On Tuesday last
A falcon towering in her pride of place
Was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.

And Duncan’s horses—a thing most strange and certain—
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ’gainst obedience, as they would make
War with mankind.

Old Man:
’Tis said they eat each other.

They did so, to th’ amazement of mine eyes.

In a world of such prodigies, a polity cursed and unsettled by the murder of a king is no great wonder.

That said, we must return to Lincoln’s and Dr. Johnson’s attachment to the play. One factor, if only one, certainly connects the Civil War president with the play’s principal theme—soaring ambition. William Herndon, Lincoln’s early biographer and former law partner, described Lincoln’s ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”

Like Macbeth, Lincoln made fateful choices that released forces he could not control and forced him to reckon with the cost of power and bloodshed. It would hardly be strange if, on the return voyage of the River Queen from Richmond to Washington, his thoughts turned to the restful tranquility of the dead. “Mr. Lincoln,” Chambrun recalled, “remained absorbed in thought and pursued his meditation long after the quickened speed had removed the lugubrious scene [of the ruins of Richmond] from our sight.” It was shortly afterward that Lincoln read to his fellow passengers from Macbeth’s envious meditation on Duncan’s peace. The connection is suggestive:

Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave:
After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst: nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

By Chambrun’s account, Lincoln observed, regarding those lines, that Shakespeare had shown uncanny insight into the mind of a murderer. But his unspoken reflections surely ran deeper. Lincoln was not a self-righteous man, and he was well aware of the traps of human pride. Perhaps he did not shrink from a surprising comparison. Perhaps he glimpsed a kindred spirit in the tormented Macbeth who survives Duncan and envies his victim’s eternal rest. By contrast, Shakespeare’s Macbeth anticipates some modern power politicians in craving the satisfaction of his ambition without accountability for the means. The thane of Glamis is introduced as a military hero who has saved Duncan’s kingdom from rebellion, but who no sooner hears the witches’ prophecy than he begins to debate with himself how he might assassinate his king and kinsman without suffering psychological and spiritual consequences. If only he could “scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,” commit the act in darkness, he would be spared brooding, and his treacherous act would not “murder sleep.” There was no such evasiveness in Lincoln. He confronted and explained his tragic choices, in his addresses and in dispatches to his often disappointing military commanders. His matchless Second Inaugural Address, moreover, shows Lincoln’s disposition to place the fratricide of the Civil War in a nonjudgmental context, suffused with a spiritual fatalism of biblical provenance. Perhaps he felt the fraternity of a figure of comparable intellect who likewise grapples, without shallow moralizing, with the tragic choices entailed by the exercise of power.

Samuel Johnson, our other witness to the powerful effect of Macbeth, was a noted editor and critic of Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth must have been of particular interest because of what had happened to Johnson in infancy. In the play, the royal touch is significantly cited in a little-noticed passage that is often cut because of a misconception that it is marginal to the themes of the drama. Malcolm’s flight, as son and heir of the assassinated King Duncan, takes him to England and to the court of St. Edward the Confessor, whose powers of holy prophecy offer a contrast with the mischievous predictions of the Weird Sisters:

Ay, sir: there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure; their malady convinces
The great assay of art, but at his touch,
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,
They presently amend. . . .

What’s the disease he means?

’Tis called the Evil.
A most miraculous work in this good king,
Which often since my here-remain in England
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven
Himself best knows, but strangely visited people
All swoll’n and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers, and ’tis spoken
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction. With this strange virtue,
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne
That speak him full of grace.

So far as I am aware, this historical connection has not been noticed before, although it must have been of great, even if subconscious, importance to Dr. Johnson. “Historical scholarship tells us,” writes Harold Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951), “that here Shakespeare turns aside from his play to pay a compliment to King James. Doubtless he does pay such a compliment. But that he turns aside . . . is not so certain. . . . Here is explicitly announced the contra-theme to the main subject of the play . . . human traffic with infernal spirits. . . . Nothing could be less of a digression.” In fact, it is known that James I, who imported a protestant skepticism from his native Scotland, was skeptical of the “touching” ritual and reluctant to exercise it, though he did so on occasion.

But here is the vital question: Did Dr. Johnson, in his contemplation of the play, recall his mother’s attempt to avail him of that “healing benediction,” as it had descended in popular belief from the Confessor to Queen Anne? It is difficult to believe that he ever forgot it, whatever his conclusion about its efficacy. His lengthy note on “enchantment,” mentioned above, suggests a skepticism that would be natural in an Enlightenment sensibility. And his chronicler Boswell, as usual, is astringent: “[Johnson’s] mother yielding to the superstitious notion, which it is wonderful to think prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion which our king encouraged . . . carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. . . .  Johnson used to talk of this very frankly. . . . This touch, however, was without any effect.”

We may wonder how Boswell could be so dogmatically certain about the effect or lack of it. But whatever the medical result, it must have been a signal event in Johnson’s life—one that accorded with his own reverence for what Boswell dismisses as a “superstitious notion.” The French historian Marc Bloch was sufficiently interested in the royal touch to write a fascinating history of it as practiced in England and France, Les Rois thaumaturge (1923), translated later as The Royal Touch: Monarchy and Miracles in France and England. Bloch, the master historian, was less doctrinaire than Boswell. He noted that in most uses the touch was exercised in a ritual conforming to notions of Christian healing, not magic. And he speculates that whatever benefits may have followed, they would not be unfamiliar to an age schooled in modern ideas of the psychosomatic, where physical healing can sometimes result from emotional and mental therapy. “The kings,” he writes in his final critical evaluation of the royal touch, “were unconscious Charcots,” that is, forerunners of Freud’s most famous teacher.

One antithesis that marks Macbeth thematically is that between the Confessor’s power of holy healing and the resistance of the “mind diseased” by guilt and insomnia that ultimately drags down both Macbeth and his wife—him to nihilism, her to despair and suicide. Lady Macbeth, initially brazen, asexual, and ruthless, develops a childish fear of the dark and cannot sleep without a lighted candle at her bedside, the candle that she carries about in her nocturnal perambulations. Her special illusion is the permanent blood­­­stains on her hands—as indelible, to recall that other ill-fated Shakespear­ean monarch Richard II, as the balm that can’t be washed from the brow of an anointed king. “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,” the doctor is asked, and pluck out “a rooted sorrow”? He returns the obvious reply that the healing Lady Macbeth needs is not of the earth:

Unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all!

The play as Shakespeare wrote it takes place within an enchanted world beyond ordinary sense perceptions. The doctor’s anguished exclamation offers a final clue to that world and the power of a Macbeth with its metaphysical framework unimpaired—and, accordingly, to its centrality in the lives of Lincoln and Johnson.

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