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Danish power. Edward received Malcolm with most friendly entertainment, but Donalbain passed over into Ireland, where he was tenderly cherished by the King of that land.
Macbeth, after the departure of Duncan's sons, used great liberality towards the nobles of the realm, thereby to win their favour; and, when he saw that no man went about to trouble him, he set his whole endeavour to maintain justice, and to punish all enormities and abuses which had chanced through the feeble administration of Duncan. He continued governing the realm for the space of ten years in equal justice : but this was but a counterfeit zeal, to purchase thereby the favour of the people. Shortly after, he began to show what he was, practising cruelty instead of equity. For the prick of conscience caused him ever to fear, lest he should be served with the same cup as he had ministered to his predecessor. The words, also, of the Weird Sisters would not out of his mind; which, as they promised him the kingdom, did likewise promise it at the same time to the posterity of Banquo. He therefore desired Banquo and his son named Fleance to come to a supper that he had prepared for them ; but hired certain murderers to meet them without the palace as they returned to their lodgings, and there to slay them. Yet it chanced, by the benefit of the dark night, that, though the father was slain, the son escaped that danger; and afterwards, having some inkling how his life was sought no less than his father's, to avoid further peril he fled into Wales.
After the slaughter of Banquo, nothing prospered with Macbeth. For every man began to doubt his own life, and durst hardly appear in the King's presence: and as there were many that stood in fear of him, so likewise stood he in fear of many, in such sort that he began to make those away whom he thought most able to work him any displeasure. At length he found such sweetness in putting his nobles to death, that his thirst after blood might nowise be satisfied. For, first, they were rid out of the way whom he feared; then, his coffers were enriched by their goods, whereby he might the better maintain a guard of armed men about him, to defend his person from them whom he had in any suspicion.
Holinshed also relates, at considerable length, the interview between Macduff and Malcolm at the English Court, setting forth the particulars of their talk in the same order, and partly in the same words, as we have them in the Poet's text.
As before remarked, the original copy prints Macbeth in the division of Tragedies. Yet the foregoing sketch shows its frame-work to be in great part made of historic material. For this cause, several modern editors have taken it out of
Histories ; an order clearly and entirely wrong. Hamlet, also, and King Lear have something of an historical basis, though not so much as Macbeth. But in all three the historical matter is so merged in the form and transfigured with the spirit of Tragedy, as to put it wellnigh out of thought to class them as histories, since this is subjecting them to wrong tests, and implies the right to censure them for not being what they were never meant to be. They are tragedies, and nothing else. So, it appears, the Poet himself called them; and in the use of words “ he knew his cue without a prompter.” Historic truth was not his aim, nor any part of his aim, in the construction of them ; and whatever of history they contain is used not at all as forming or guiding the plot, but merely as subserving it. So that they are to be viewed simply as works of art; and the only proper question respecting them is, whether and how far they have that truth to Nature, that organic proportion and self-consistency, which the laws of Art require.
Every one ripely conversant with Shakespeare's manner, and thoroughly at home in his idiom of thought and language, must, I think, have at least a dim sense, if not a clear perception, of disharmony and incongruity in certain portions of this tragedy. Many years ago I had something of this feeling; but, as the whole play was then universally ascribed to Shakespeare, I did not dare to trust such feeling: I sought, and of course easily found, refuge from it in the thought, that Shakespeare, even in his wisest days, was not wise at all hours, and that in his highest hours he had occasional moments of nodding, as Homer is said to have ; and that, in his serene carelessness, or perhaps in his calm assurance, or fame, both his genius and his taste indulged themselves now and then in rather emphatic lapses.
The feeling in question was first moved by the wide contrast between what comes from the Witches, in Act i., scene 3, before the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo, and what comes from the Weird Sisters after that entrance. The difference is not merely one of degree, but of kind; a difference as broad and as pronounced as that between a tadpole and an eagle. In the former case, they are neither more nor less than the coarse, foul old-woman witches of ancient superstition ; creatures actuated by the worst and lowest human motives and passions, envy, malice, and spite ; killing swine, sailing in sieves, assuming the forms of rats without tails, dealing in the thumbs of wrecked pilots, and riding through the air on broomsticks. Their aspect and behaviour are in the last degree commonplace and vulgar; there is nothing even respectable about them ; all is of the earth earthy. In the latter case, they are my'sterious and supernatural beings, unearthly and terrible, such as we may well conceive “ the Goddesses of Destiny" to be: their very aspect at once strikes the beholder with dread and awe: they do not come and go, they appear and vanish ; bubbling up, as it were, through the ground from the lower world, in something of a human shape, to breathe the contagion of Hell upon a soul which they know to be secretly in sympathy with them, and inwardly attempered to their purposes. Surely every one who reads that scene, with his thoughts about him, must catch at least some glimpses of this wide discrepancy.
Thomas Middleton has a play called The Witch, wherein are delineated with considerable skill the vulgar hags of old superstition, whose delight it was to 6 raise jars, jealousies, strifes, and heart-burning disagreements, like a thick scurf o'er life.” The relation between Middleton's piece and Shakespeare's tragedy is an interesting theme indeed, but too long for presentation here ; and the former is referred to as not unaptly introducing the peculiar and subordinate use which the Poet makes of the old witchcraft lore in the delineation and the machinery of his Weird Sisters. I say the use that he makes of that lore ; for the cauldron - scene, in the fourth Act, is unquestionably Shakespeare's work; all, I mean, except those parts where Hecate figures. But the witchcraft language and machinery there drawn upon is penetrated with a soul-appalling efficacy, and dominated by a potency of terror, such as old witchcraft never dreamed of.
In sorting the materials out of which the Weird Sisters weave their incantations, and compound their “hell
gathered and condensed the popular belief of his time. Ben Jonson, whose mind dwelt more in the circumstantial, and who spun his poetry much more out of the local and particular, made a grand showing from the same source in his Masque of Queens. But his powers did not permit, nor did his purpose require, him to select and dispose of his materials so as to cause any thing like the mixed impression of the terrible and the grotesque, which is here conveyed. Shakespeare so spins his incantations as to cast a spell upon the mind, and engage its acquiescence in what he represents.
From the subordinate part old witchcraft plays in some portions of the work which are Shakespeare's, and still more, perhaps, from the exclusive part it plays in some portions which are not Shakespeare's, criticism for a long time almost, if not altogether, identified the Weird Sisters with the vulgar old-woman witches of popular belief. It was reserved for the better critics of our century to set this matter right. 66 The Weird Sisters,” says Coleridge, “ are as true a creation of Shakespeare's as his Ariel and Caliban ; fates, furies, and materializing witches being the elements. They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice, to act immediately on the audience.” Charles Lamb, also, speaks to the same purpose, having the witches of Rowley and Dekker in his eye. “ They are,” says he, “ the plain, traditional, old-woman witches of our ancestors, — poor, deformed, and ignorant, the terror of villages, — themselves amenable to a justice. That should be a hardy sheriff, with the power of the country at his heels, that should lay hands on the Weird Sisters. They are of another jurisdiction.” All which, I believe, sufficiently clears the way for what seems to me a right statement of the matter in hand.
The old witches of superstition were foul, ugly, mischievous beings, generally actuated by vulgar envy or hate ; not so much wicked as mean, and more apt to excite disgust than to inspire terror or awe; who could inflict injury, but not guilt; and could work men's temporal ruin, but not win them to work their own spiritual ruin. The Weird Sisters are cast in quite another mould, and are beholden to those old witches for little if any thing more than the drapery of the representation. Resembling old women, save that they have long beards, they bubble up in human shape, but own no human relations; are without age, or sex, or kin ; without birth or death; passionless and motiveless. A combination of the terrible and the grotesque, unlike the Furies of the Greek Drama they are petrific, not to the senses, but to the thoughts. At first, indeed, on merely looking at them, we can scarce help laughing, so uncouth and grotesque is their appearance; but afterwards, on looking into them, we find them terrible beyond description : and the more we look, the more terrible do they become;