New Historicist Criticism: Macbeth and the Power
Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetic style and skilful characterization, Macbeth is revealed as little more than a petty tyrant. Like Machiavelli’s Prince, Macbeth seeks power as an end in itself and sees any means as justified provided it helps him achieve his goal. It is a standard image of power: an individual, or small group, occupying a position of authority from which he (seldom she) attempts to force his will upon others. Today’s equivalent of a feudal monarch is the power-hungry politician, the cult leader, or the ruthless business tycoon.
But the new historicist conception of power is different; rather than being a top-down affair that originates from a specific place or individual, power comes from all around us, it permeates us, and it influences us in many subtle and different ways. This idea of decentralized power, heavily indebted to post-structuralist philosophy (see Derrida and Foucault), is sometimes difficult to understand because it seems to have an intangible, mystical quality.
Power appears to operate and maintain itself on its own, without any identifiable individual actually working the control levers. This new historicist notion of power is evident in Macbeth in the way in which Macbeth’s apparent subversion of authority culminates in the re-establishment of that same type of authority under Malcolm.
A ruthless king is replaced with another king, a less ruthless one, perhaps, but that is due to Malcolm’s benevolent disposition, not to any reform of the monarchy. Similarly, the subversion of the play’s moral order is contained, and the old order reaffirmed, by the righteous response to that subversion. In other words, what we see at the beginning of the play–an established monarch and the strong Christian values that legitimize his sovereignty–is the same as what we see at the end of the play, only now the monarchy and its supporting values are even more firmly entrenched thanks to the temporary disruption. It is almost as if some outside force carefully orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing power structures. Consider, for example, a military leader who becomes afraid of the peace that undermines his position in society. In response to his insecurity, he creates in people’s minds the fear of an impending enemy–whether real or imaginary, it doesn’t matter. As a consequence of their new feelings of insecurity, people desire that their leader remain in power and even increase his power so that he can better defend them from their new II enemy. II The more evil and threatening our enemies are made to appear, the more we believe our own aggressive response to them is justified, and the more we see our leaders as our valiant protectors (Zinn,Declarations of Independence 260-61,266).
Military or political power is strengthened, not weakened, when it has some kind of threatening subversion of contain ( Greenblatt 62-65). The important point about the new historicist notion of power, however, is that it is not necessary for anyone to orchestrate this strengthening of authority. Duncan certainly doesn’t plan to be murdered in order that the crown will be more secure on Malcolm’s head after he deposes Macbeth. The witches can be interpreted as manipulating events, but there is nothing to indicate that they are motivated by a concern to increase the power and authority of the Scottish crown. It is not necessary to believe in conspiracy theories to explain how power perpetuates itself; the circular and indirect, rather than top-down, way in which power operates in society is enough to ensure that it is maintained and its authority reinforced. The theater illustrates this point in that the Renaissance theater–its subject matter, spectacle, emphasis on role-playing–drew its energy from the life of the court and the affairs of state–their ceremony, royal pageants and progresses, the spectacle of public executions (Greenblatt 11-16).
In return, the theater helped legitimate the existing state structures by emphasizing, for example, the superior position in society of the aristocracy and royalty. These are the class of people, the theater repeatedly showed its audience, who deserve to have their stories told on stage, while common people are not worthy subjects for serious drama and are usually represented as fools or scoundrels. Revealing the inherently theatrical aspects of the court and affairs of state runs the risk of undermining their authority–if people on stage can play at being Kings and Queens, lords and ladies, then there is always the possibility that the audience will suspect that real Kings and Queens, lords and ladies, are just ordinary people who are playing a role and do not actually deserve their position of wealth and privilege. But the very existence of the theater helped keep the threat of rebellion under control by providing people with a legitimate, though restricted, place to express otherwise unacceptable ideas and behavior (Mullaney 8-9). Within the walls of the theater, it is acceptable to mock the actor playing a king, but never the king himself; it is acceptable to contemplate the murder of a theatrical monarch, but never a real one.
Macbeth deals with the murder of a king, but Shakespeare turns that potentially subversive subject into support for his king, James I. Queen Elizabeth died without a direct heir, and a – power vacuum is a recipe for domestic turmoil or even war. The consequences of Macbeth’s regicide and tyranny illustrate the kinds of disruption that were prevented by the peaceful ascension to the throne of James, son of Mary, Queen of Scots. The “good king” of England ( 4.3 .147) who gives Malcolm sanctuary and supports his cause as the rightful successor to the Scottish crown is an indirect reference to James I. Macbeth is about treason and murder, but Malcolm’s description of the noble king (147-59), and the stark contrast between him and Macbeth, reinforces the idea that good subjects should see their king as their benefactor and protector. Shakespeare was not coerced into flattering his king. There was official censorship in his time, but it is unlikely that he needed anyone to tell him what he could or could not write; he knew the types of stories that were acceptable to authority and desirable to his paying public.
Whether or not Shakespeare felt constrained by these limitations, or even consciously recognized them, is not the point; the point is that he worked within a set of conventions and conditions which relied upon and reinforced the governing power relations of his time, and so there was no need for him to be manipulated by a government censor looking over his shoulder. If Shakespeare had not known the boundaries of the acceptable, or had not conformed to the demands of power, he would never have become a successful playwright.
According to new historicism, our own relationship to power is similar to that of Shakespeare’s: we collaborate with the power that controls us. Without necessarily realizing what we are doing, we help create and sustain it, thus reducing the need for authority figures to remind us what to do or think. Once we accept the cultural limitations imposed on our thought and behavior, once we believe that the limits of the permissible are the extent of the possible, then we happily police ourselves. .
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