MACBETH AND MODERN TOTALITARIANISM
M. RAMA KRISHNA, M. A.
Sir C. R. Reddi College, Eluru.
All great literary works are immortal, in the sense, that they are of eternal interest and applicability. Human nature is always fascinating and, surprisingly enough, it has remained almost un-changed. The desires that prod, the passions that move and the emotions that rouse man, have remained the same from times immemorial. Great classics, being studies of human nature at different times, from different angles and under different stresses and circumstances, always hold our interest. Time never withers them and custom does not stale their infinite variety. Every generation that studied them, saw itself and its problems in them. In the same way, the more we, the moderns, read them, the more interesting we find them and the greater seems to be their applicability to modern times.
While rereading Shakespeare’s Macbeth sometime ago I was surprised at the striking similarity in many aspects, between Macbeth and the more recent manifestations of totalitarianism. In his rise and fall there is an uncanny resemblance between him and modern dictators like Hitler, though there are some differences in character.
Even a casual reader of the drama cannot but feel the tremendous psychological impact the prophecies of the witches make on Macbeth and his wife. By making him feel that his becoming the king is inevitable, something that is fated or pre-destined, the witches thoroughly weaken his power to resist temptation to murder Duncan and usurp the throne. Not being the king’s son, he can come to power only by murder, by treason. He himself clearly recognises that to covet the throne is to be ready to commit treason. The witches predictions make his wife’s resolution to make him king by hook or crook doubly strong and she scolds and nags him into killing Duncan. Thus, the feeling that he is fated to be the king of Scotland makes him mentally prepared to commit all the crimes necessary for being so. That is why he yields so early to his wife’s persuasion. Strangely enough, this belief in the inevitability of their success is the most important part of the psychological make up of modern totalitarians. The Nazis believed in the inevitable victory of the Herrenvolk, the German Master Race, over the rest of humanity and hoped to establish the Thousand Years Reich. To communists also, their success is something that is inevitable, an inescapable process of history opposed only by the ignorant or the selfish. The fanatic devotion to party and the iron discipline of the totalitarians, which make them extremely efficient and successful, at least in the short run, are the direct results of their belief in the inevitability of their success. The actual crime in Macbeth, the murder of an unsuspecting old man by the very man he trusts and admires most, has all the horrible unscrupulousness of a modern political assassination like, for example, that of Trotsky by the Soviet agent who won his affection and trust. But to me, the most modern aspect of the crime is the intense anxiety on the part of the criminal to escape the odium or his action. With anxious sensitiveness to public opinion a quality he shares with modern dictators, Macbeth tries to shift the guilt of his crime to the unfortunate chamberlains and through them to the sons of Duncan themselves. But success in that is as little as that or Hitler’s attempt to convince people that his opponents were responsible for the Reichstag fire. Later on he is very particular that Banques should be murdered at a distance from his palace, so that people might think that he was killed by some robbers and do not associate him with the crime.
The change that comes in the character of Macbeth is the perfect illustration of the saying that “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” His own treachery makes him suspect the only person who shares his secret and the only person, who, barring Lady Macbeth, can rightly be called his accomplice, an accomplice after the event, an indirect, passive accomplice who is ready to pocket his loyalty, sense of justice and pride and serve him. Macbeth suspects him of the desire to supplant or succeed him. To a tyrant suspicion is guilt and so he gets Banquo assassinated. Not only Macbeth, but Hitler, and Stalin also felt that
“To be thus is nothing.
But to be safely thus.”
The success of every totalitarian revolution or coup of modern times has invariably been followed by struggle among the revolutionaries either for power or for the retention of power. The struggle between Stalin and Trotsky belongs to the first category while the various bloody purges of Hitler and Stalin belong to the second. Macbeth who has to be almost forced by Lady Macbeth to kill Duncan kills the chamberlains without any prodding from her. Afterwards he himself plots and gets executed the murder of Banquo, deliberately keeping her in complete ignorance of the whole affair. After Banquo’s death, he grows so blood-thirsty that he massacres even innocent women and children like Lady Macduff and her children, much to the horror of Lady Macbeth. Thus at first he is an unwilling murderer, then a murderer on the Spur of the moment, then a crafty, deep-plotting murderer and finally a raging homicidal maniac. We find similar development in the lives of modern dictators also. As they grow older and older they suffer from more and more severe forms of homicidal mania. Their purges grow wider and wider in scope and they order massacres for trivial reasons. The millions of Jews burnt to death simply because they were Jews and the thousands of Germans shot dead under Hitler’s orders simply because they were not enthusiastic enough in their war effort were victims of such mania. Stalin too, in his time, was guilty of mass-massacres like the massacre of the Volga Germans. Only his death stopped him from conducting a gigantic purge which he started with accusation against the Kremlin doctors in particular and against the Jews in general. Malcolm says of Macbeth
“I grant him bloody,
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin
That has a name.”
If we remember that the word “luxurious” meant lustful in Shakespeare’s days, the total degradation of Macbeth will be clear. Can we imagine Macbeth, the devoted husband, being “luxurious” prior to his assumption of power? The other adjectives in the above lines are applicable to all dictators of our times from the mighty Hitler and Stalin to the puny Battista and Du Chevalier.
Ross describes the terrible condition of Macbeth’s Scotland to Macduff.
“Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave;
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy: the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’ed for whom; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.
The general atmosphere of terror and consequent demoralisation and dehumanisation of the people we inevitably find under despotism cannot be described better. The people are so utterly defenceless and terror-stricken that shaking with fear, they cow down before the soldiers of the usurper. They are so afraid of the despot that like frightened hares, all they want is to lie low, to be as inconspicuous as possible. They are afraid to know themselves. Their country is not their mother, but their grave. The line “where nothing, but who knows nothing, is once seen to smile” is particularly significant. It means that under Macbeth only those who are poor, mean, uneducated and ignorant, that is, the lowest strata of society, the poor peasants and the manual workers only, are ever seen to be happy. It also means that the upper classes are so ruthlessly oppressed by Macbeth that they are always woe-begone. It is the upper and the upper middle classes of a country that provide it with political and social leadership. That is why they are always the first victims of the tyrant, native or foreign. Reducing them to abject submission is the first thing he does to prevent the possibility of powerful opponents rising against him. Stalin’s treatment of the professional classes in Baltic countries and the East European countries after their conquest, China’s treatment of the Tibetan lamas and Hitler’s treatment or the intelligentsia of the Occupied Europe are eloquent testimonies to the modernity of Macbeth’s tyranny.
The most sickening thing about despotism is the dehumanisation of people under it. Man is a social animal, and sharing the joys and sorrows of his neighbour is his most natural quality. But, according to Ross, in Scotland under Macbeth, “sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air made, not marked.” That Macbeth also, like the modern despots, had a number of sadistic followers who, like Eichman, were only too willing and enthusiastic to torture and murder people under his orders, is clear from the words of Malcolm at the end of the battle. He says that “producing forth”, that is dragging out of hiding, the cruel officers of Macbeth is one of his immediate tasks. When the henchmen of Macbeth come unexpectedly and torture men suspected to be the opponents of the tyrant, their shrieks and the cries of their families are heard by their neighbours. But nobody dares to come to them lest the wrath of the Despot should fall on him also. Let us study for example, the behaviour of Ross in Scene II, Act IV. The Thane of Ross, a nobleman brought up in traditions of chivalry and honour, knows fully well that the wife and children of Macduff are marked persons. He has heard rumours about their impending destruction under Macbeth’s orders. He is a relation of Lady Macduff and a friend of Macduff. Yet he merely utters a few words of empty consolation to Lady Macduff and her children and goes away leaving them to their fate, in order to save his own skin. He never offers protection to them. People develop a kind of inhuman detachment from the sufferings of their friends and neighbours in their anxiety to save themselves. Death becomes so common that it cannot rouse anybody’s curiosity. People hear the knell, but are too terrified and apathetic to question for whom it tolls. In the words of Ross, they are terrified by wild rumours and “float upon a wild and violent sea, each way and move.” Not knowing when their turn is going to come, they float in an ocean of vague fear and chilling doubt and are agitated by waves of terror. Being denied the truth, and not knowing facts, they give undue credence to wild rumours. The prophetic vision of Shakespeare! How startlingly similar are Macbeth’s Scotland, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia! When we read the words of Ross, are not we reminded of people’s apathy in modern totalitarian states, their pathetic belief in rumours and their refusal on account of their terror to react in the face of sudden arrests and torture in secret chambers, of their friends and relations? In these countries also men die suddenly and unexpectedly as described by Ross. In them also “good men’s lives expire before the flowers in their caps.”
Shakespeare makes Macbeth maintain an efficient spy organisation. Macbeth boasts to his wife that in the houses of all the lords of Scotland he has spies. He says, “There is not a one of them but in his house I keep a servant fee’d.” Thus, Shakespeare had anticipated even the Gestapo and the N. K. V. D. of the modern dictators. Like them Macbeth puts spies on his subordinates. He sends a specially trustworthy spy to see that the murderers carry out the assassination of Banquo as instructed. The means adopted by Macbeth to silence his opponents in exile are startlingly modern. First of all he discredits them, as when he accuses Malcolm and Donalbain of killing their own father. Finding that not much useful, he tries to decoy them into coming to Scotland and falling into his hands. Malcolm tells Macduff that “Devilish Macbeth” has sought to win him into his power by sending a number of his own agents disguised as Malcolm’s supporters. This practice is quite common in modern times when every batch of refugees from any dictatorship is bound to contain some false refugees sent out by the country’s government to spy on the real ones. It is said that a number of Chinese epics entered India pretending to be Tibetan refugees. Thus the more we study Macbeth, the more we are struck with wonder at Shakespeare’s imaginative genius in prognosticating the character and practices of the modern dictators in the Tyrant of Scotland.
One peculiar trait Hitler shared with Macbeth. It is belief in supernatural revelation. Belief in his destiny, as declared by the witches, sets Macbeth on his career of crime, by making him kill Duncan. Their predictions concerning Banquo aDd Macduff make him murder Banquo and massacre Macduff’s family. Belief in their predictions assuring him invincibility and invulnerability, makes him feel secure enough to let loose his tyranny on the people of Scotland. That alienates his subordinates and the thanes and leads to his downfall. In the same way, it is his belief in his special destiny that gave Hitler his megalomaniacal self-confidence. He considered himself to be the greatest architect, statesman and military strategist the world ever saw. That self-confidence led him to his amazing victories as well as his astonishing blunders. His belief in astrology and necromancy are too well-known to require any detailed description.
The last days of Hitler and Macbeth are surprisingly similar. What a lot of similarity is there in situation, temper, thoughts and fears between the Scottish usurper in the Castle at Dunsinane and the German Fuehrer in his underground bunker in Berlin! Both are at the end of their tether. Both see the ruin of their unbridled power and both fear the approaching end. Macbeth spits contempt at his servants and flares up in anger at their timidity. At a white- faced servant who brings news of the approaching enemy, he exclaims,
‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?”
He advises him to prick his face and “over-red” his fear and dismisses him curtly with the words. “Take thy face hence.” He threatens to hang the servant who brings him news of the Birnam–wood marching to Dunsinane. In the same way Hitler used to rant and rave at the persons who informed him of German defeats. Macbeth expresses his determination to fight till his death and orders the faithful Seyton
“Send out more horses: skirr (search) the country round;
Hang those that talk of fear.”
Hitler also fought to the very end of his resources. To the very last he was expecting some miracle to happen and extricate him from his unenviable position. He went on issuing orders to already destroyed divisions to hold fast and defend Berlin. He also, like Macbeth, ordered his subordinates to “hang those that talk of rear.” Under his orders hundreds of Germans were shot dead after summary trials by Nazi fanatics during the last few days of the Second World War on charges of defeatism and lack of will to resist the enemy. During the last days of his life, as disgraceful defeat stared at him, Hitler too, for all his bluff and bluster, at least in some moments of sanity must have thought like Macbeth that
“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,
Though we do not have any authentic account of the last days of Stalin, I can say with perfect confidence that the great Red Czar, suffering from senility, suspicious of everybody around him, surrounded by timid sycophants who shook with terror whenever he looked at them and haunted by the ghosts of his comrades he killed, must have thought, as he lay dying, in this way, like Macbeth
“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.
While fighting with Macduff, Macbeth learns that Macduff was not born of his mother, but was cut out or her body after her death. His supreme confidence in his invulnerability disappears immediately. He feels so utterly demoralised that he refuses to fight with Macduff. Then Macduff says,
“Then yield thee, coward,
And live to be the show and gaze o’ the time:
Well have thee, as our rarer monsters are,
Painted upon a pole, and underwrit,
‘Here may you see the tyrant’.”
That means, Macduff threatens to put him in a cage and exhibit him to the public as unnatural animals are exhibited. At once Macbeth decides that death is preferable to such shameful public exhibition and challenges Macduff to fight on and dies while fighting. In his book “The Last days of Hitler,” Professor Trevor Roper tells us that the greatest fear of Hitler in those days was that he would fall alive into the hands of the Russians. He used to say often and often that they would put him in a cage and exhibit him as a monster. To avoid such shameful public exposure to the scorn and contempt of his enemies, he committed suicide. He ordered his personal servants that they should, after his death, drench his body in petrol and burn it. The Russians when they entered Berlin, found only the charred remnants of his body. Thus, when we read certain passages in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, especially those which describe Macbeth’s tyranny, they appear so modern that we have to remind ourselves constantly that we are reading a sixteenth century dramatist’s account of an eleventh century Scottish tyrant. The inspiration to Macbeth’s coup, the manner of his getting rid of his rivals, his despotic rule, spy system, his final pessimism and the motive for his ultimate death are so strikingly similar to what we find in the lives of modern dictators that we are aghast at the uncanny resemblance and wonder whether it can be merely accidental.
In fact, the resemblance is not accidental. A great dramatist’s imagination is bound to be, not only vivid, but logical and based on reality also. The career and character of Macbeth are the natural and logical, almost inevitable, evolution of his qualities, acting and reacting on the political conditions of his time. A man of intense ambition, efficiency and popularity, if he has the necessary confidence in himself, and is indifferent to the other worldly consequences of his actions, when the political conditions are favourable, that is when the governmental authority is weak, is bound to make an attempt to seize power, especially when he believes himself to be the man of destiny fated to rule the country. The attempt, which is unconstitutional in the case of Macbeth by necessity, for he lived in a monarchy, is so by choice in the case of the modern dictators. The attempt, if successful, will cause a peculiar psychological change in the ruler. Having come to power by force and guile he feels that the first thing he should do is to prevent others from doing the same and supplanting him. He tries to make his position secure by removing, by killing or exiling all those that are capable of offering alternative leadership. There are bound to be among them, not only his political opponents, but his erstwhile friends possessing varying degrees of popularity. Killing or exiling them produces unpopularity which the ruler tries to control by the use of brute force and an efficient system of spying. That again makes him more unpopular. The process goes on until be loses his previous popularity completely and remains in authority only on account of his grip over the army and the internal security forces. Then, if he is defeated in a war, the collapse of his power will be total and sudden. Such a person who has once enjoyed great power and prestige once, is more likely to commit suicide rather than fall alive into the hands of his enemies, risking exposure to shame and humiliation. Thus, almost all the incidents in the drama are the logical development of Macbeth’s character and situation. When Shakespeare chose the story of an ambitious Scottish general who murdered his king under certain political conditions, the character and career of Macbeth, proceeded inexorably from it. Now, the modern dictators like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin possessed the qualities possessed by Macbeth–ambition, sense of destiny or historical mission, utter contempt for religious or ethical considerations, efficiency, ruthlessness and popularity. The political conditions of modern society like those in the days of Macbeth permitted the free play of their qualities and talents. So their characters and careers developed closely resembling the characters and career of Macbeth. The great similarity between Macbeth and the modern dictators is an eloquent proof that Shakespeare thoroughly understood the basic human instincts and qualities and the laws of human nature which never change. They have their own logic and continue their inexorable operation at all times. It is this deep knowledge of humanity that makes Shakespeare’s characters, in spite of their striking individuality, eternal types, as easy to be round in the twentieth century as in his own days. While writing for his age, he wrote for all ages and every age can see itself in his works.