A decade ago, the psychiatrist Peter Kramer published a book called Listening to Prozac, which claimed that our understanding of neurochemistry was so advanced that we would soon be able to design—and no doubt to vary—our personalities according to our tastes. Henceforth there would be no more angst. He based his prediction upon the case histories of people given the supposed wonder drug who not merely recovered from depression but emerged with new, improved personalities.

Yet the prescription of the drug (and others like it) to millions of people has not noticeably reduced the sum total of human misery or the perplexity of life. A golden age of felicity has not arrived: and the promise of a pill for every ill remains, as it always will, unfulfilled.

Anyone who had read his Shakespeare would not have been surprised by this disappointment. When Macbeth asks a physician:

Canst thou not minister to a
     mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a
     rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles
     of the brain,
And with some sweet
     oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom
     of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

The physician replies laconically: “Therein the patient / Must minister to himself.”

Every day, several patients ask me Macbeth’s question with regard to themselves—in less elevated language, to be sure—and they expect a positive answer: but four centuries before neurochemistry was even thought of, and before any of the touted advances in neurosciences that allegedly gave us a new and better understanding of ourselves, Shakespeare knew something that we are increasingly loath to acknowledge. There is no technical fix for the problems of humanity.

Those problems, he knew, are ineradicably rooted in our nature; and he atomized that nature with a characteristic genius never since equaled: which is why every time we moderns consult his works, we come away with a deeper insight into the heart of our own mystery.

Take as a test case Macbeth, the shortest of his tragedies. The play is a study of ambition, the evil to which ambition leads when unrestrained by ethical inhibition, and the logic of evil once an evil course has been embarked upon. The ambition and the evil are part of man’s nature. All that is necessary to understand the play, therefore, is to be human: and if we attend to it closely, we shall have a deeper appreciation of its subject matter than if we read all the philosophy, sociology, criminology, and biology of the past two centuries. Statistics will not lead us to enlightenment about ourselves, any more than the elucidation of the human genome will render Shakespeare redundant. Those who think that an understanding of the double helix is the same as an understanding of ourselves are not only prey to an illusion but are stunting themselves as human beings, condemning themselves not to an advance in self-understanding but to a positive retrogression.

Modern experience has been said to render Shakespeare irrelevant. In The Gulag Archipelago, for example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarks that Shakespeare’s evildoers, Macbeth notably among them, stop short at a mere dozen corpses because they have no ideology. By the sanguinary standards of the twentieth century’s totalitarian despots, in other words, Shakespeare’s characters are but petty criminals, for (says Solzhenitsyn) it is ideology that “gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.” Since all subject matter shrinks to triviality when compared to the cataclysms of the Holocaust and the Gulag, it follows that a tragedy such as Macbeth is of limited relevance to our recent history.

Solzhenitsyn was not alone in this view: indeed, one Russian poet wrote a cycle of sonnets from the Gulag, in which he referred disparagingly to Shakespeare’s tragedies as “mere trumpery”—a phrase he repeated many times as a refrain to underline the unprecedented nature of Soviet evil. Just as the German philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno said that after Auschwitz there could be no more poetry, so the Russians said that after the Gulag there could be no more Macbeth.

They were mistaken. Massacre and genocide have not always been accompanied by an ideology: were the Mongol hordes ideological, and was the ethnic conflict in Rwanda and Burundi ideological? And I have little doubt from my medical practice that radical evil can exist on a large scale without the sanction of an official ideology. Many a man is the Macbeth of his own little world, and the measurement of evil is not the same as a body count.

The Russians’ remarks suggest a reading of Macbeth that takes the raw plot and the number of deaths as the play’s most significant aspects—the kind of interpretation one might expect of a literal-minded person who had seen the play acted upon the stage but had not studied the text very closely. Even on the number of deaths, Solzhenitsyn—one of the last century’s great experts on evil, after all—was not quite accurate, for there are more people killed than those whose deaths occur, or are recounted, upon the stage. When Macduff goes to sound out Malcolm, the legitimate heir to the throne who has fled to England, about leading an attempt to overthrow Macbeth, he underscores that reality:

     each new morn,
New widows howl, new
     orphans cry, new sorrows
Strike heaven in the face.

Shakespeare makes plain that something like totalitarian terror reigns as a direct result of Macbeth’s thirst for power: an atmosphere one might have expected Solzhenitsyn to recognize instantly. Comparatively early in Macbeth’s reign, before his evil is clear to everyone, Lennox says:

And the right-valiant Banquo
     walked too late,
Whom you may say, if’t
     please you, Fleance killed,
For Fleance fled. Men
     must not walk too late.

Dictatorships traditionally ascribe political murders to people who have fled the scene to escape being murdered too. If they weren’t guilty, goes the charge, why did they run away? Lennox’s words exactly capture the bitter irony of those impotently caught up in such a dictatorship.

Macbeth boasts that he has spies in the households of potential enemies: an ever-expanding class, of course, with each passing murder: “There’s not a one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d.” Neither spying nor fear were the inventions of Solzhenitsyn’s accursed twentieth century, and tyranny is no new invention. It proceeds from the human soul itself.

Shakespeare no less than Solzhenitsyn understood the role of agents provocateur and entrapment in tyrannies. When Macduff first seeks Malcolm’s assistance, Malcolm denies that he is a suitable figurehead for opposition to Macbeth because he has so many vices himself. Where evil reigns, it is best to pretend to be evil oneself. When finally he is convinced that Macduff is sincere, however, he retracts his self-denigration and explains why he has lied in this peculiar fashion:

     Devilish Macbeth
By many of these trains hath
     sought to win me
Into his power, and modest
     wisdom plucks me
From over-credulous

When Macduff asks the Thane of Ross, “Stands Scotland where it did?” he replies:

     Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself.
     It cannot
Be called our mother, but our
     grave, where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is
     seen once to smile;
Where sighs, and groans, and
     shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked . . . .

Did this really ring no bells during the Soviet era?

Again, when Malcolm addresses the commanders who are about to do decisive battle with Macbeth’s forces, he says:

Cousins, I hope the days are
     near at hand
That chambers will be safe.

He doesn’t say “our chambers,” the chambers of a small clique of aristocratic malcontents, disgruntled at Macbeth’s rule: he says “chambers” in general. And was it not characteristic of the totalitarian regimes, imbued with an ideology, to which Solzhenitsyn refers, that citizens were not safe, even in the privacy of their own homes and bedrooms, to speak their own minds: in other words, that chambers were not safe? As Shakespeare knew, rule without consent entails terror, ideology or not.

Solzhenitsyn was quite right that Macbeth has no ideology. Macbeth is motivated in equal measure by ambition and by the fear of appearing weak and small in the eyes of his wife. By stripping him of any philosophical or political justification (real or imagined) for his acts—for example, by not having him assert that the king whom he supplants is a bad one deserving of overthrow; by not letting him pretend even for a moment that he acts for the good of his country and people—Shakespeare goes straight to the heart of human evil considered sub specie aeternitatis. Shakespeare is interested in the essentials of human nature, not the accidentals of human history, though, of course, he knows that every man must live at a particular time and place. Indeed, the play refers obliquely to the current historical situation: for example, Banquo was believed to have been an ancestor of James I, and therefore the scene in which the witches tell Banquo that he will be the progenitor of many kings, though no king himself, was a form of flattery of the reigning monarch. But such topical significance is of interest mainly to pedants. If Macbeth were but an elaborate attempt to legitimize Jacobean rule, it is hardly credible that it should have been translated into Zulu (in which language I once saw it performed) and that it should have meant a great deal to a Zulu audience. Macbeth stands witness to the universality of great literature.

It is characteristic of Shakespeare’s genius that he should have emptied Macbeth not only of ideological reasons for his actions, but also of psychological ones, apart from those that spring solely from universal human nature. Macbeth is no stage villain, if I may put it thus: he is no Richard III, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world scarce half made up,” whose physical deformity parallels, indeed plausibly explains, his moral deformity. On the contrary, Macbeth is a hero, a valiant soldier in a good cause, bravely and loyally saving the realm of good king Duncan (“O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman,” exclaims the King, when he hears of Macbeth’s exploits on the battlefield against the forces of his enemies). He is no psychopath or sociopath. He is a normal man, endowed with a nature no worse than ours: which is why, of course, he stands as a chilling example to us all.

Nor is he the victim of injustice or ingratitude that might extenuate, though not excuse, his later crimes. He has nothing to complain of: quite the reverse, for he is fortunate in his aristocratic birth, and he is more than generously rewarded by the king for his military services. Greeting Macbeth for the first time after his victories, Duncan says:

The sin of my ingratitude
     even now
Was heavy on me. Thou art
     so far before,
That swiftest wing of
     recompense is slow
To overtake thee. Would thou
     hadst less deserved,
That the proportion both of
     thanks and payment
Might have been mine. Only I
     have left to say,
More is thy due than more
     than all can pay.

Macbeth can hardly claim to be undervalued by Duncan—but he kills him nonetheless.

He cannot complain of his domestic or economic circumstances, either. When Duncan later arrives at Macbeth’s castle, he remarks upon its beauty and tranquillity:

This castle hath a pleasant
     seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly
     recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

What more than Macbeth already has when he starts on his road to ruin could a man want?

Macbeth says as much. He specifically recognizes that he has no motive for his future crimes but a lust for power that comes entirely from within:

     I have no spur
To prick the side of my
     intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which
     o’erleaps itself.

This motivation is in specific contrast with the two murderers whom he employs to kill Banquo. By the time they appear on stage, Macbeth has already poured poison in their ears, informing them (falsely, of course) that Banquo is the author of all their woes:

This I made good to you in our last conference; passed in probation with you how you were borne in hand, how crossed, the instruments, who wrought with them, and all things else that might to half a soul and to a notion crazed say, “Thus did Banquo.”

The two murderers are only too eager to hear that they have an enemy responsible for all their disappointments. They are resentment personified, archetypes of men with grudges against the world, who—unlike Macbeth—are thereby predisposed to evil. The Second Murderer says:

     I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and
     buffets of the world
Hath so incensed that I am
     reckless what I do
To spite the world.

The First Murderer then adds:

     And I another
So weary with disasters,
     tugged with fortune,
That I would set my life on
     any chance
To mend it or be rid on’t.

Superficially, then, they have a reason, if not a justification, for their heinous deeds. We do not know, of course, whether their disappointments and setbacks are real or imaginary, self-inflicted or undeserved, and it doesn’t matter: Shakespeare gives us to understand that their self-pity—and by extension all self-pity, including our own—is dangerous, permitting evil in the name of restitution.

Macbeth, however, is not a resentful man; he never complains of ill-treatment. So while resentment is a cause of man’s evil, it is not the sole or fundamental cause. Macbeth is led to evil by his ambition: and because we all live in society, in which jockeying for position and power is inevitable, we all understand him from within. Macbeth is us without the moral scruples.

By depriving Macbeth of any particular predilection for evil that is not common to all men, and by denying him every possible circumstance that might justify or occasion his actions, Shakespeare excavates down to the line between good and evil that runs through every human heart, to use a phrase from The Gulag Archipelago that contradicts Solzhenitsyn’s faintly dismissive estimate of Shakepeare’s evil characters. He writes: “Gradually it was disclosed to me [in the Gulag] that the line separating good from evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” And it is Shakespeare who shows us this line.

But he does more. He shows us not only how easily that line is crossed, even by someone without an excuse or a special propensity to do so, but what the consequences are of crossing it. And in showing us that the line is always there, easily and disastrously crossed, Shakespeare destroys the utopian illusion that social arrangements can be made so perfect that men will no longer have to strive to be good. Original sin—that is to say, the sin of having been born with human nature that contains within it the temptation to evil—will always make a mockery of attempts at perfection based upon manipulation of the environment. The prevention of evil will always require more than desirable social arrangements: it will forever require personal self-control and the conscious limitation of appetites.

Macbeth is ambitious before the opening of the play. That is why he is startled when the three witches greet him as Thane of Cawdor and future king of Scotland: they echo his secret thoughts. But he has so far kept his ambition under ethical control (as Lady Macbeth puts it, “Thou wouldst be great / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness [malevolence] should attend it”), and even after his meeting with the witches he ponders, like a Marxist wondering whether or not the historical inevitability of the triumph of the revolution requires his participation:

If chance will have me king,
     why chance may crown me
Without my stir.

As Russian Marxists needed their Lenin, so Macbeth needs his Lady Macbeth. Decisive during the simplicities of battle, without her he would forever be a waverer in the complexities of peace: more Hamlet, indeed, than Macbeth.

The tool that Lady Macbeth uses to galvanize her husband into action is humiliation. She humiliates him into doing what he knows to be wrong, just as many of my patients who take heroin started to take it because they were afraid to seem weak in the eyes of their associates. Macbeth loves and respects his wife (“my dearest partner in greatness,” he calls her), but Lady Macbeth perverts his love—and his essential, ineradicable, and often laudable human desire to be respected and loved by the person one respects and loves—to the purposes of evil. The lesson is that any powerful emotion or desire, however virtuous in many circumstances, can be turned to evil purposes if it escapes ethical control.

For Shakespeare, human nature has the potential for both good and evil, depending upon the decisions we make. Macbeth is ambitious, true: but not only is ambition, in the sense of a desire for the just approbation of one’s fellow men a good quality, but Macbeth is not so ambitious that nothing else matters. His ambition for approbation sets bounds and limits to his ambition, so to speak. Lady Macbeth recognizes her husband’s reflexive scrupulousness:

     Yet I do fear thy nature,
It is too full o’th’milk of
     human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

She must curdle the milk, make Macbeth abjure his good qualities, if he is to act as she wishes.

But paradoxically she, who is usually taken to represent the acme of evil, is not by nature altogether evil herself, but only evil potentially—in other words, evil by choice. She recognizes the need to suppress the potential for good in her own nature if she is to obey the promptings of ambition:

     Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts,
     unsex me here
And fill me from the crown
     to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick
     my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage
     to remorse
That no compunctious
     visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose.

No more chilling evocation of the willing choice of evil exists in all literature than Lady Macbeth’s famous renunciation of maternal feeling for the sake of power:

     I have given suck and know
How tender ‘tis to love
     the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling
     in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from
     his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out,
     had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

And yet the point remains: the true psychopath has not in the first place the compunctious visitings whose passage needs to be stopped up. Most men and women must suppress the good within them to be evil; just as, to be good, they must suppress the evil. There is no final victory of one or the other.

Indeed, Lady Macbeth’s tragedy is that she so gravely underestimates the strength of the good within her. Eventually it takes its revenge upon her, for she “by self and violent hands / Took off her life.”

Her psychological error is to imagine that the good within her could simply be ignored without consequences. After she and Macbeth have covered themselves in blood by the murder of Duncan and the two chamberlains, she says: “Retire we to our chamber; / A little water clears us of this deed.” How many of my patients think that they can behave unscrupulously without a penalty to be paid!

The shallowness of Lady Macbeth’s idea of exculpation stands revealed—completely and piercingly—in the sleepwalking scene, in which she acknowledges that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” A little water will wash away the blood but not the sin and the guilt.

Macbeth succumbs to Lady Macbeth’s taunting. One is reminded of the famous
experiments that Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist, described in his book Obedience to Authority. In these experiments, researchers, using mere words, induced ordinary people—like Macbeth, without any special propensity to evil—to administer what they believed to be dangerous electric shocks to complete strangers.
But Shakespeare is not so crude as to believe that social pressure is always bad. On the contrary, our desire to see ourselves favorably reflected in the esteem of others is the source of honor and other worthy qualities. For example, when Macduff replies to Malcolm’s suggestion that they simply bemoan their fate as victims of Macbeth, he says:

     Let us rather
Hold fast the mortal sword
     and like good men
Bestride our down-fall’n

Good men, he suggests, are engaged upon a common enterprise, strengthened by values they hold in common. When Siward hears that his son has been killed in the final battle to overthrow Macbeth, he says:

Why then, God’s soldier
     be he;
Had I as many sons as I
     have hairs
I would not wish them a
     fairer death.

Without the social virtues of honor and obedience to duty, Young Siward might have fled and saved his skin: as, indeed, would everyone else, leaving Macbeth still in power. And it is the fact of his death having been a worthwhile sacrifice that gives it meaning, and that meaning places a limit to the father’s grief.

Macbeth is aware throughout the play that what he does is morally wrong: he never claims (as do so many modern relativists) that fair is foul and foul is fair. He thus single-handedly refutes the Platonic theory of evil as ignorance of the good. Unlike his wife, he never deceives himself that a little water can clear them of their deeds. On the contrary, as soon as he has murdered Duncan, he knows that he is irredeemably compromised:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean
     wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No: this
     my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas
Making the green one red.

And so he at once regrets what he has done: as he says when he hears knocking at the outer gate after the murder: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst.”

He knows that Macbeth shall sleep no more. He has committed himself to such a treadmill by his initial act of evil that he comes to envy his own victims:

     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.

Time’s arrow flies in one direction only. On several occasions, Macbeth makes reference to the unchangeability of what has already been done: a disconcerting thought when incontinent public confession is all the rage, as if mere words automatically undid harm and made bad good. Evil, once committed, has an inescapable logic of its own, as Macbeth famously discovers:

     I am in blood
Stepped in so far that should I
     wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as
     to go o’er.

Macbeth utters the key line in the play, when his wife is taunting him into killing Duncan:

     Wouldst 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

And he replies:

     Prithee, peace.
I dare do all that may become
     a man;
Who dares do more is none.

In other words, there is a boundary that, once crossed, deprives a man of his full humanity. Boundaries are what keep us human, and they are not lightly to be crossed. That is why the admiration of the transgressive in art is so deeply frivolous. And it is why Britain’s most notorious murderess, Myra Hindley, who has just died, properly stayed in prison until the end. She and her associate, Ian Brady, tortured and murdered several children on a whim in the first half of the 1960s, and she devoted much of her life in prison to campaigning for her own release. She had changed, she insisted; she had paid her debt to society long ago.

But life is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping. No number of years in prison can be equivalent to the torture and killing of children: if it were, the term could be served in advance and the person who served it would be entitled to commit his crimes on his release. Hindley’s victims were dead and could not be resurrected; she could not undo what she had done.

Macbeth warns us to preserve our humanity by accepting limitations to our actions. As Macduff says to Malcolm, when the latter presents himself as a heartless libertine:

     Boundless intemperance
In nature is a tyranny.

Only if we obey rules—the rules that count—can we be free.

Photo by Dickson Lee/South China Morning Post via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next