Macbeth as a Poetic Drama
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a poetic drama. Poetic drama is not a drama written in verse only. In a poetic drama, poetry is organic with drama. Poetry is not merely a medium, but it reveals the finer shades of characters and themes which cannot be grasped by prose. Macbeth is a poetic conception – his inner life is more important than outer action. In a poetic play, we seek to grasp the quality of a man’s life, by an imaginative effort through his words, images and poetry and we grasp the stage life of a play through the plot, characters and the words. Edwin Muir is wrong in his assertion:
‘Every character in a poetic play may speak poetry, but this poetry does not necessarily reflect their poetic dispositions – it is merely a medium.’
He further says that Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act I, Scene VI impresses his horror of the deed on the audience, but if we pretend that this poetic imagery is a proof that Macbeth has a powerful imagination, we are confusing real life with drama. He means that poetry is part of the general poetic design of the play, But it cannot be denied that the poetry that the bloody sergeant speaks in scene ii, Act I is different from the poetry of Macbeth. The sergeant utters bombastic language because in attempting to attain grandeur, he achieves grandiosity-it reveals the nature of the sergeant.
- Macbeth 55 Important Questions and Answers
Macbeth’s poetic speeches suggest the sub-conscious. His soliloquy in Act I, Scene vii reveals his fear of human isolation, the judgment of human heart. His poetry alone suggests his ambivalent moral sense – he is an unredeemable sinner but his poetic imagination shows his full and concrete grasp of what is happening to him. This tension and conflict can be conveyed only by his poetry. Other characters speak poetry as a medium – to give information, to convey their reactions and responses to external events. Lady Macbeth in one soliloquy – ‘Naught’s had, all’s spent’ reveals the depth of desolation. But Macbeth expresses his severe isolation in a more vibrant and magnificent poetry:
“My way of life is fall’n into the sear and yellow leaf ……. As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends/I must not look to have”.
There is no denying the fact that poetry is used to distinguish characters. Shakespeare’s artistry lies in convincing us that his characters are real and in getting us involved with them. Poetic tragedy creates a kind of tension between feeling and action, between our emotional involvement in a specific situation and our rational contemplation of its meaning Abercrombie speaks of the poetic imagination of Macbeth. He quotes Macbeth’s words in the last act when he hears of his wife’s death and comments:
“We see not only what he feels, but the personality that feels it, and in the very act of proclaiming that life is a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing, personal life announces its virtue and superbly signifies itself”.
This speech is a superb piece of self-portrayal. Logically it shows the last stage of corruption caused by evil, and yet as Santayana says ‘Macbeth is divinely human here’.
L. C. Knights in his essay, ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ interprets Macbeth as a dramatic poem. Themes of reversal of values and of unnatural disorder and deceitful appearance are blended in the play and they can be better understood by the images, words, descriptions and expressions of the play. As for example, he reads meanings in the expression. ‘when the battle’s lost and won’. It suggests the kind of metaphysical pitch-and-toss that is about to be played with good and evil. The description :
“Doubtful it stood/As two spent swimmers that do cling together / And choke their art …”
applies not only to the battle but to the ambiguity of Macbeth’s future fortunes. The words used in Act I, scene iv suggest the natural order which is shortly to be violated.
It stresses natural relationships ‘children’, ‘servants’, sons, kinsmen, honourable bonds and the political order ‘liege’, ‘thanes’, ‘service’, ‘duty’, ‘royalty’, ‘fortune’, ‘honour’. Human love is linked to the natural order of organic growth by images of husbandry. Thus the play is full of suggestions and evocative power. Images like the ‘blood’, ‘sleep’, ‘dress’, darkness’, ‘hell’, ‘hand and eye’, repeated in the play carry the wide ranging suggestions of guilt, conscience, scruples etc. As in poetry, the drama is rich with imaginative qualities and far-reaching suggestions. The poetry of the play consists in the enchantment of atmosphere, the mystery of the supernatural and the beauty of style.
Macbeth’s speeches are glorious poetry. “To-morrow and to-morrow” soliloquy shows the height and depth of poetic conception and utterance. The lines in his soliloquy ‘And pity, like a naked new-born babe striding the blast or heaven’s cherubin horsed/upon the sightless couriers of the air/shall blow the horrid deed in every eye/that tears shall drawn the wind’-testify to the complexity and intensity of poetic imagery which express the Macbeth’s fear of moral isolation and of the judgement of human heart. Lines like, “My way of life is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf”, or “Duncan is in his grave, After life’s fretful fever/He sleeps well’ are eloquent with poetry and passion.
That great poetry is simple, sensuous and passionate’ is evidenced in these simple but emotion-packed lines. Dover Wilson gives a number of passages to show the great poetry in Macbeth: ‘Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ is a distillation of all that Blake wrote of innocence and experience. The lines “This my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine/Making the green one red” offer an angel view of the whole ocean-girdled globe. The effect of home-bred English alternating with ‘togaed words in the ‘high Roman fashion’ is startling. It suggests the tempest-tossed soul of the speaker, and at the same time pictures the wallowing waste of the ocean very vividly.