For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.
Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.
So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:
All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)
The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.
And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.
Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?
Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?
If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)
Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.
Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.
Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:
. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)
Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:
Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)
In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.
Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:
The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3
The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.
But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:
. . . 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 nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . . (1.5.38 – 46)
Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:
The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped. (2.3.91 – 92)
Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.
The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)
Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6 For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:
The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7
In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.
In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)
These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)
Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:
. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10
The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.
When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends
Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)
By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.
These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.
Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:
“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13
It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15
But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.
The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16
At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:
The queen, my lord, is dead.
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
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)
It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.
Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.
None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:
It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17
As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.
If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.
If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297. ↩
- Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play. ↩
- Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62. ↩
- Id. at 63. ↩
- Id. at 62. ↩
- Id. at 13. ↩
- Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207. ↩
- Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46. ↩
- 5.3.15-16 ↩
- Niebuhr, supra, at 25. ↩
- Id. at 26. ↩
- The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions? ↩
- Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.” ↩
- Berman, supra, at 49. ↩
- Niebuhr, supra, at 6. ↩
- Id. at 8. ↩
- Id. at 14. ↩