The Natural Order of Things in Macbeth
In 1603, James I became both king and patron of the King’s Men, William Shakespeare’s company formerly known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. James I was obsessed primarily with two things: witchcraft and murder. He feared that people, usually witches, were conspiring against him to steal his crown. Macbeth, which premiered around 1606, is rumored to have been a gift for King James and plays on his fears of assassination and witches. The assassination of a King was considered sacrilegious because, at that time, Kingship was thought to have been a gift given to someone directly from God. To kill the King, therefore, would be to go against God’s word. Macbeth’s use of procreation imagery in the form of birth, fertility, and children represents the play’s fascination with what is considered a “natural” or divine right to rule. His continuous efforts to go against this nature foreshadows his later death by “unnatural” causes. By analyzing the use of metaphors and similes comparing the Scottish crown to family life in Macbeth, I will show that the play uses the discussion of nature and the unnatural to foreshadow the ending of the play. These issues of nature as they pertain to the right to rule are important because the intervention of nature in the fight for the throne ultimately leads to Macbeth’s downfall. I will look at Act 1, scene 7 and Act 2, scenes 3 and 4 to focus on the similes used to compare the murder of King Duncan to baby and birth imagery. I will then look at Act 3, scene 1 to discuss the metaphors used to relate fertility to Macbeth’s fear of losing his crown. Finally, I will relate these fears to the factors leading to his death in Act 5.
Macbeth’s guilty usurpation of the Scottish crown manifests itself in baby imagery and is used to describe the environment’s response to him murdering King Duncan. While he does eventually kill King Duncan, he initially goes through a period of hesitation and fickleness. During a soliloquy where he weighs the reasons for and against committing regicide, he states,
And Pity, like a naked newborn babe
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. (1.7.21-25)
The ‘newborn babe’ evokes images of infants. However, ‘heaven’s cherubim’ also connotes this imagery as cherubs are often depicted as healthy, innocent children. This use of faultless creatures combined with his own description of the murder being a ‘horrid deed’ gives the impression that he feels guilty about what he was doing. This is because, historically, a kingdom passes from father to son; upon birth, a child inherits the future rights to a crown. Macbeth contemplates upsetting that tradition by murdering King Duncan. Here, these babies personify Pity as it speaks against the murder of the king through their informative actions. They act as the image of condemnation of the murder. The literal image of natural succession to the throne, the young child who would supposedly be next in line, speaks out against the murder. The fact that Macbeth thinks of this as he considers killing Duncan indicates that he understands that killing the King is wrong in the sense that he is defying nature. The use of baby and birth similes as they pertain to the wrongfulness of Macbeth’s actions evident in this passage magnify themselves in Macbeth’s language even after killing King Duncan.
Macbeth applies similes to his speech to compare murder to an abnormal birth of a baby which demonstrates the unnatural aspect of regicide. When a baby is born, it typically comes out head first. Occasionally, the baby will come out feet or buttocks first, in the breech position, and many doctors will then perform a caesarian section. Not only is a caesarian section completely unnatural in that the body cannot perform it without the aid of doctors, but the way the baby is poised is a literal inversion of the natural process. Macbeth evokes the imagery of this inversion by saying, “… his gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature” (2.3.110) upon seeing King Duncan’s corpse. Macbeth has just killed the King. The position of kingship was considered sacred, a divine right someone was born into. Macbeth’s use of the phrase ‘breach in nature’ implies that he knows killing King Duncan goes against the natural order of the world. The wordplay of the words ‘breech’ and ‘breach’ implies that regicide is an inversion not unlike that of a breech or caesarian section birth. The night of Duncan’s death, the King’s horses were said to have, “turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, …. [and] ate each other” (2.4.16-19). Macbeth’s act of homicide turns the natural world, in a sense, upside down. What he feared earlier–the condemnation of and revolt over the act by nature–rings true. Animals commit cannibalism, one of the only universal taboos for all creatures. This ‘breach in nature’ did more than just give Macbeth the crown, but upset nature in such a visible way that Macbeth still uses procreation imagery to describe his precarious situation.
Macbeth utilizes fertility imagery to contrast his lack of children to Banquo’s prophecy from the witches which shows his underlying fear of losing his stolen crown. After becoming king, Macbeth is still not satisfied. He laments his position stating, “ Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown/ And put a barren scepter in my grip” (3.1.61-2). Macbeth evokes images of fertility by using phrases like ‘barren scepter’ and ‘fruitless crown’ and thereby associates himself with a lack of natural offspring, the absence of fertility, and a perversion of natural succession. Following the earlier logic that a “natural” or rightful kingship flows from father to son, Macbeth’s lack of children symbolizes his position of a wrongful usurper. Without any children of his own, the crown will leave his family line at his death. His insecurity over his crown and lack of children culminate in his hatred and fear of Banquo as he remarks that “the seeds of Banquo [will be] Kings” (3.1.70). Seeds here are a euphemism for both Banquo’s sperm and his offspring. Macbeth receives the crown by unnatural means, murder and not by family line, and he fears that Banquo’s lineage will take it from him by natural or rightful means–by being born into it. He is bitter that Banquo’s future sons have the right to the crown that he feels guilty for taking. Macbeth is so fixated on Banquo’s ‘seeds’ and his fertility because he lacks it himself. This constant fixation by Macbeth on his precarious and unrightful position renders him unable to think logically in a way that would prevent his fears from coming to fruition.
Macbeth’s inner thoughts on his “unnatural” ascension to the throne manifest themselves in a death by “unnatural” means. With the knowledge that Banquo’s sons may have natural lineage allowing them to be king, Macbeth seeks out the weird sisters again to ask them his future. In response, they say, “None of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth”(4.1.82-3), lulling him into a false sense of security. Logically, there is not a single person on this earth who can be alive without being born from a woman. It makes biological sense, even then. It would be therefore unnatural and impossible for Macbeth to be murdered as all people are naturally women born. However, he should understand that unnatural things can and do happen. Having committed regicide and understanding the implications of it as shown in many of his comments and the response of the horses, it is clear that the balance of nature is and can be upset. Macbeth should not have been surprised when Macduff tells him that “[Macduff] was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped” (5.7.15-16). Macduff’s birth can be considered unnatural because of the fact that he was not born vaginally and that his birth required medical assistance. Therefore, Macduff was not ‘of woman born’, a perversion of nature itself. Ironically enough, this perversion of nature manages to restore the natural order of Scotland by murdering the usurper Macbeth. Therefore, by unnatural means, Macbeth was killed. Nature will always right itself no matter the mode it takes to do so.
In the mindset of this play, there is a right way to be born and to assume power. To be born “right”, one must be born vaginally and in the correct head-first position. To assume power, one should be born doubly correct–into an already ruling family and born in the way described just now. To be born by caesarian section or through a breech birth is unnatural. To be a King not because your father passed it to you is unnatural. To be a King and have no children is unnatural. This constant return to birth, family, and fertility in language emphasizes the focus of nature and order in this play. This is significant because Macbeth’s lamentations and demise point to the idea that there is more than just a natural way to come into this world or to rule, there is a natural order to life. This order is innate. Macbeth is born and inherently knows that he should not kill the King because it upsets this order. Even horses not present at the scene of the crime know that and respond violently. However, even though the balance of nature can be upset, the world will inevitably revolt in such a way that restores this natural order as seen in Macbeth.
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