Harold Bloom’s essay on Macbeth includes the kind of penetrating insights that make Bloom the great Shakespearean scholar that he is, but it also includes his typical and intense anti-Christian bias.
“If Lear was pre-Christian, then Macbeth is weirdly post-Christian. There are, as we have seen, Christian intimations that haunt the pagans of Lear, though to no purpose or effect. Despite some desperate allusions by several of the characters, Macbeth allows no relevance to Christian revelation. . . . Macbeth’s tragedy, like Hamlet’s, Lear’s, and Othello’s, is so universal that a strictly Christian context is inadequate to it.”[i]
How “universal” and “Christian” could in some way be incompatible is beyond comprehension, unless one has some very strange ideas about Christian faith. Christianity declares itself to be universal — “Make all the nations my disciples!” — and teaches doctrines that can never be anything less than universal — “All have sinned and fail to manifest the glory of God.” “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” In fact, Christianity — in fundamental contrast with the other two Abrahamic faiths — is uniquely able to be universal precisely because of its doctrine of the Trinity: the One and the Many are equally ultimate in the Christian God. Therefore also, every aspect of the created one and many can find ultimate harmonious expression in the fulfilment of God’s plan that all things become one in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
The human race in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teaching is one because we are all descended from the first pair, Adam and Eve. In the Christian doctrine of the Fall, especially, the universal impact of Adam’s sin finds its deepest expression in the depravity of the whole race. Since no tragedy can be more universal than Adam’s Fall, it is natural that a tragedy like Macbeth which alludes constantly to the story of Genesis 3 should also be “universal” in its own way.
We have seen in previous essays that Shakespeare sets the scene for the murder of Duncan in a Garden-of-Eden-like castle and presents us with a man and woman who have been tempted by devils to become like gods by murdering the reigning king. When they accomplish the deed, Macbeth hears a voice crying out that he has murdered sleep itself, thus immediately encountering an unanticipated consequence of his sin, as Adam did in the Garden. Then, they repeatedly hear sounds that terrify them till finally they run away to their chamber and change clothes to cover their guilt and hide from the judge that is knocking at the gate.
This is a rich web of Biblical allusions that constitute the first part of Macbeth as a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. Shakespeare does not just point to the various aspects of the Biblical story; he uses the Biblical story to reconstruct the history of Scotland’s Macbeth into a parable-like repetition of the story of the Fall.
But the story of the Fall in the Bible does not end like a Shakespearean tragedy. Adam repents, as can be seen in Genesis 3:20, where Adam names his wife Eve — the mother of all living — in response to the promise of salvation included in the judgement pronounced upon Satan in Genesis 3:15. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden, but they are not left naked and ashamed. God Himself clothes them with the skins of the animal who died in their place (Genesis 3:21) to fulfil the curse, “in the day you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Macbeth, however, does not repent. Instead, he multiplies his sin by attempting to kill the man he fears will inherit the throne after him: Banquo and his son, Fleance. This recalls another Biblical story, one that in the Bible is linked to the story of Adam: the story of Israel’s first king, Saul. We need to briefly consider three questions. How is the story of Saul linked to Adam? Would Shakespeare have noticed the relationship? How does an allusion to Saul inform our reading of the play?
The link between the story of Saul and that of Adam lies on the surface for an educated reader of the Bible. Every new leader is an Adam in some sense. In the book of Genesis, Noah and Abraham are clearly identified as new Adams through repetition of the commission given to Adam in their stories (Genesis 9:1 ff.; 12:1ff.; etc.). The new Adam theme clearly defined in Noah and Abraham becomes an undercurrent for the rest of Scripture, finding its ultimate fulfilment, of course, in Christ, the Last Adam.
Saul, the first king of Israel, the first leader of Israel in a new era of kings, can only be seen in the “new Adam” framework. And in case anyone should miss the obvious, the story of Saul as king begins with his confrontation with an Ammonite king Nahash — the same Hebrew word that is used for the serpent/dragon in Genesis 3. Saul is a new Adam who begins his kingship by confronting the serpent/dragon.
Now, the notes in the Geneva Bible, apparently Shakespeare’s favorite version, do not explicitly call attention to the typology of Adam in king Saul. But Hanibal Hamlin offers an extended discussion of the practice of allusion in Shakespeare’s day and the prominence of typology in sermons.[ii] The fact that morality plays lie in the background of Elizabethan Drama[iii] also suggests that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were much more attentive to literary typology than modern readers.
That Shakespeare did notice the relationship between Saul and Adam is seen both in subtle and explicit allusions to the story of Saul. The explicit allusion is seen when Macbeth takes the initiative to visit the witches to get advice. He determines to do so in Act III, Scene 4 and then actually visits them the next time he appears on stage in Act 4, Scene 1. Just as Saul is distressed at the message from Samuel granted through the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:20), Macbeth is overwhelmed by the final word from the three sisters (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 112 ff.). Again, just as the witch of Endor offers food to strengthen Saul (1 Samuel 28:22-25), so the three weird sisters seek to comfort and encourage Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 125-32).
There is a subtle, but relatively clear literary link to the story of Saul in the expression used to describe the death of king Duncan. In Act II, Scene 3, lines 65 ff., MacDuff exclaims:
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building!
The expression “Lord’s anointed” to refer to the king of Israel is used 9 times in the Geneva Bible — seven times of Saul and twice of David. Of course, the irony here is that the “Saul” of Macbeth is the one who killed the “Lord’s anointed” in contrast to David who repeatedly refused to take the throne by violence. Using this key expression makes a clear link to the Biblical history in the book of Samuel and ironically alludes to the story of David and Saul just before the story of Saul becomes the paradigm for the rest of Macbeth.
In Act III, Scene 1, Macbeth soliloquizes about the instability of his kingdom so long as Banquo is alive since the “sisters” promised him “a line of kings” but gave Macbeth a “fruitless crown.” Macbeth determines to fight against this. Though there are no strong verbal links, the situation is exactly the same as Saul’s in 1 Samuel 20:31 when he speaks to Jonathan.
For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth,
you shall not be established, nor your kingdom.
Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.
Saul knows that prophecy gives the kingdom to David, but he determines to fight against God and keep the kingdom for his son. Though Macbeth is only rejecting the word of the demonic sisters, the idea that he rejects what is appointed for him by whatever means he can is parallel to Saul. Interestingly, though Macbeth has no children, he complains, “no son of mine succeeding,” as if Shakespeare is adding the phrase so that we can see the parallel to Saul more clearly.
If what I have argued it is true — that Macbeth alludes both to the story of Adam’s fall and to the story of Saul’s insanely murderous attempt to keep the throne — what is the significance of the play? People in Shakespeare’s day and before saw plays and knew stories that depicted the fall of man, his repentance, and salvation. They also knew stories of men who lost their souls. Stories like Macbeth served as a warning, for Macbeth expressed his loss in words that pointed to Jesus’ warning:
mine eternal jewel
Given to the common enemy of man
What if a man gained the whole world and lost his own soul? Or what will a man give for his soul?
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.
[i] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 518-519.
[ii] Hannibal Hamlin, The Bible in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 77-123.
[iii] Hardin Craig, “Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama” in Shakespeare Quarterly 1:2 (1950): 64-72.