Take Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Of all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Macbeth pushes the limits furthest. Hungry for power and security, he not only oversteps the moral law via murder, but he breaks the very bonds of nature in his devotion to sorcery, soothsaying and the preternatural. Much of the play is about Lord and Lady Macbeth attempting to circumvent time itself, to make immediate that which is distant, to know the future in the present and to avoid all of the natural consequences of their acts.
And they largely get what they desire - which is to say they enter a world that is something other than natural. They lose the ability to sleep, to reason; they inherit the hallucinations of tortured conscience. Toward the end, when Macbeth laments ...
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
... he sees that the natural consequences of life - the ordinary judgment of a life naturally lived - are denied him. He does not have the typical and natural benefits of an old man who has lived a full life. He has instead inherited nothing but anxieties and torments. He is in hell, a living hell. Macbeth rebels against the elemental truths of existence, and in return nature itself rebels against him. "'Tis unnatural," notes an Old Man earlier in the play, commenting on darkness at mid-day, owls eating hawks and horses running wild, "'Tis unnatural, even like the deed that's done."
"The deed that's done" is murder, regicide, the killing of a house guest, a kind of parricide, the breaking of the Commandments, and the breaking up of the natural order. It is a deed that "murders sleep" and ensures barrenness and sterility for the killers, while promising fecundity at least to one of their victims.
And it's always amazed me the way this play is structured. Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth - that charming couple - have arranged the murder of King Duncan and even of Banquo to give themselves a plausible "deniability". The official explanation is that the children of the victims are to blame, and that seems reasonable enough. But a switch occurs in the play almost naturally and unnoticeably. Before you know it, everybody in Scotland knows Macbeth is guilty, and while publicly giving a nod to the Official Explanation, the rest of society knows darned good and well what's really going on. Soon even the pretense ends and Macbeth is rather openly hated.
And eventually, almost naturally, a force is raised. Or perhaps the forces are raised. The consequential, judgment, the limits of the framework of being - these forces close in, and the Macbeths, by the nature of their sins, reap what they have sown.
But as this force is being raised, one scene has always stuck out for me like a sore thumb. The play proceeds at a rapid clip until - clunk - we hit Act IV, Scene iii - Malcom and Macduff. This odd scene seems out of place, particularly considering the flow of the action, until you realize that it's central to the theme.
In this scene, Macduff has gone to England to inspire Duncan's son Malcom, the rightful heir to the throne that Macbeth has usurped. He has gone to inspire him to muster his courage and lead an invasion of Scotland to set right the time. But Maclom seemingly won't be swayed. Malcom tells Macduff that he's not the man for the job. Malcom argues that he (Malcom) can't be king because of a number of personal shortcomings.
"I have far too much lust and desire nothing but sex," Malcom laments.
"There's plenty of women in Scotland who'll go along with you there," Macduff replies.
"I'm so greedy for money that I'll snatch lands and riches from everyone I can on the slightest pretext," Malcom avers.
"Well, we're a pretty rich country and you'll have plenty of time before you fully despoil us," Macduff retorts (a line which either Obama or Romney could use against each other in the next presidential debate). "And anyway," he continues, "such vices will be overlooked, as long as they're mixed in with your virtues."
"But I have none!" exclaims Malcom. He gets specific ...
the king-becoming graces,"In other words, I'm just like Macbeth!"
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them, but abound
In the division of each several crime,
Acting it many ways. Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.
And Macduff has heard enough. He swears off Malcom and bemoans the sorry state of Scotland. "O my breast, thy hope ends here!" Macduff exclaims.
"Wait a bit! I was only testing you!" says Malcom.
And then a Doctor enters and starts talking about the holy king of England, who cures the sick with prayers and his sanctified touch.
With this strange virtue,Malcom explains.
He hath a heavenly gift of prophecy,
And sundry blessings hang about his throne,
That speak him full of grace.
And then Ross comes in and tells Macduff that Macbeth has killed his family and things pick up and get interesting again.
An odd little interlude, interrupting the action and frustrating the plot. Right?
Well, no. This interlude is central to the theme, and if played well could show the central theme of the play.
For if indeed Malcom were as wicked as he claims, and if indeed he lacked the virtues he lists (virtues which too easily go tripping over the tongue or the page, but which are all the essence of Christian life, and are the "king becoming graces"), he would indeed be another Macbeth. But he is not. Indeed, removing the pretence, Malcom reveals his true self ...
I am yet
Unknown to woman, [he's chaste] never was forsworn [he keeps his word],
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own [he's not greedy],
At no time broke my faith [he's loyal], would not betray
The devil to his fellow and delight
No less in truth than life [he's loyal and honest]: my first false speaking
Was this upon myself [if an actor plays this right, we can by now believe it]: what I am truly,
Is thine and my poor country's to command
And it is immediately after this that we hear tell - seemingly out of left field - of a saintly king of England, so holy that he has the gift of healing, so holy that his subjects "speak him full of grace".
The King of England, then, is a kind of Mary, "full of grace", an intercessor who passes on to his subjects the grace of God that heals them.
How different both Maclom and the English King are from Macbeth! How different from Queen Elizabeth and from the totalitarian mobsters of her court, who, like Macbeth, jumped the bounds of nature and brought a horrid judgment down upon their own fair land, by oppressing the Church and usurping Christ's own kingdom - and by denigrating her who is "full of grace" in the process.
For the play Macbeth is not the nihilistic jewel that modern critics claim. The character Macbeth reaches a kind of nadir of nihilism, most profoundly and beautifully expressed in the "out brief candle" speech; but the play transcends the tragic hero's sins. The play is about the effects of sin; and the inherent nature of being that surrounds and contains and corrects sin. The play is about God.
Thus the play needs to show us Malcom, who pretends falsely to have the makings of a false king, but then truly reveals himself to have the makings of a true one; it needs to show us as well, in the doctor's and in Malcom's description, the offstage king, the king who heals his subjects, this Christ-like or at least Marian figure, who models for us the One True King in Whose way all other kings must tread.
For off this path, away from this Way, time itself leads "fools the way to dusty death" - and worse. As the Macbeths show us, "the way to dusty death" is not the way they are on; they are on a far more terrifying way.
They are on the high road to hell.
So the next time you're really tempted to sin and you think sin is no big deal - read Macbeth.
For my audio performance of Macbeth for the Ignatius Critical Edition Series, click here.