I had to pass through London recently, and took advantage of the layover to see a stunning new performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A cruel story, of course. You probably remember it merely as a tale about the murderous ambition of the title character and his wife, and their ultimate destruction. But this particular production brought home to me something else that I think Shakespeare was wrestling with – that has also become an acute problem for us.
One reason we read great books is because they preserve many things, things often invisible within our current culture. The most famous passage in Macbeth comes towards the end, before Macbeth’s defeat by forces sent from England to Scotland by the pious King Edward the Confessor. Lady Macbeth has just killed herself in despair over her guilt. Her husband’s reaction seems philosophical, but he’s really descended into a kind of ultimate indifference:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The first two lines are usually overlooked, which, in modern terms, say: oh well, she would have died at some point anyway. I recommend listening to Ian McKellen (later, on film, AKA Gandalf) reading and his exposition of this passage.
What comes through quite forcefully here is a certain view – of everything. A view now quite common in our culture: that the whole of our universe, what Christians think of as God’s Creation, is a meaningless spectacle.
When Stephen Hawking died a few weeks ago, it was reported that he believed our universe would ultimately dissipate – and has no ultimate meaning anyway.
At New Year’s this year, Neil deGrasse Tyson – our celebrity astronomer – once again displayed his trademark combination of scientific showmanship with human obtuseness, saying that January 1 is “of no astronomical significance.”
In that sort of “astronomical” perspective, nothing – human or inhuman – is of any significance.
It’s no small matter that such views have penetrated deep into our society. Even Jean-Paul Sartre, for most of his life an atheist and acolyte of the Absurd, towards his end, remarked: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”
His longtime companion Simone de Beauvoir and the Parisian intelligentsia were scandalized. Because that cuts directly across the Hawking/Tyson/early-Sartre view: who we are and what we do is indeed of “astronomical significance.”
I was struck in the current performance of Macbeth by how he arrives at seeing the world as “a tale told by an idiot.” In the beginning, he’s a brave and successful warrior, loyal to king and comrades, much honored for it by the mild and good Scottish King Duncan. It’s the three “weird sisters,” witches or elemental spirits (who occupy the whole first scene), who tempt him into breaking his rough warrior’s ethos to murder the king and seize power.
Lady Macbeth is ahead of him in seeing what must be done. Macbeth tells her: “I dare do all that may become a man;/Who dares do more is none.” He senses that stepping outside of the universal moral order, in a radical way, is to become inhuman.
Lady Macbeth responds:
I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it.
It takes an “illness,” a deep departure from who and what we really are, to “be great” in that sense.
So they set out on a murder spree that they think will bring happiness. But only leads to deeper crimes – and guilt. It’s not enough to possess power; you must also possess it securely, says Macbeth, and so potential rivals – and their children – must die.
But even guilt and power are not the end, though; such deep evil, unrepented, ultimately results in the nihilism of “a tale told by an idiot.”
It may seem a stretch to connect this will to power with the “illness” of scientific materialism, but I wonder. At the beginning of modern science, we bracketed purpose and meaning in order to see more clearly the workings of the impersonal parts of nature. And to gain power over the world “for the relief of man’s estate.” (Francis Bacon)
I’m an old physics student – still follow scientific developments (and like everyone am amazed by technology) – but over the years I’ve come to believe that there’s a devil’s bargain in several of the ways this has played out. Like Macbeth, many of us have moved from seeking power for human purposes to thinking that our subsequent knowledge reveals that there is no real purpose in the world.
We know that young people abandon religion now for two reasons. Easier sex, to be sure. But also because they believe that “science” has made belief in God impossible – and, therefore, in a meaningless world, we just make up our own meaning.
This phenomenon has become so common that we tend to overlook what a dehumanizing path it is from regarding our lives and actions as something of real significance to this “impartial” view.
But at least the choice of allegiances is now clear. A strictly secular “humanism” is a temporary way station. If the world is a tale told by an idiot, there’s nothing in it to stop our descent into nihilism – or the murderous will to power.
The only thing that will stop it is something of astronomical – and more than astronomical – significance. But where today is our Edward the Confessor?
*Image: Edward the Confessor between Edmund the Martyr and John the Baptist (with Richard II kneeling). This is the left panel of the Wilton Diptych, artist unknown, c. 1395-99 [National Gallery, London]