Macbeth and Nihilism

When it comes to the interpretation of Shakespeare, Harold Bloom is my favorite enemy. His writing is brilliant, his knowledge of things Shakespearean encyclopedic, and the insights he offers may puzzle, startle, or amaze, but they always educate. How then can he be an enemy? Because his anti-Christian bias is omnipresent and blatant. It is as if Bloom dedicated himself to transform Shakespeare and his modern audience into skeptical nihilists in his own image.

Bloom’s comments on Macbeth illustrate the reasons for my equally deep admiration and antipathy: “Why are we are unable to resist identifying with Macbeth? He so dominates his play that we have nowhere else to turn. . . . Since Macbeth speaks fully a third of the drama’s lines, and Lady Macbeth’s role is truncated, Shakespeare’s design upon us is manifest. We are to journey inward to Macbeth’s heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit.”

An equally striking insight appears in the next paragraph: “The sublimity of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is overwhelming: they are persuasive and valuable personalities, profoundly in love with one another. Indeed, with surpassing irony Shakespeare presents them as the happiest married couple in all his work.”

I have some reservations about simply saying “Amen!” to the last sentence. After all, at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio and Kate seem to have found something real. The Merchant of Venice ends with two hopeful couples who devote themselves anew to a life of love and trust, and another younger less tested pair of lovers. Much Ado About Nothing resurrects love from death and promises a bright future for Claudio and Hero. The fact that their marriage is parallel to that of Beatrice and Benedick suggests the same for those unlikely partners. Very much against Bloom, I am inclined to believe that even Bertam and Helena in All’s Well that End’s Well will share a life that ends well.

But Bloom’s interpretation of these plays blinds him to the possibility of happy couples in any of them, so his comment on Macbeth works perfectly well in his overall interpretation of Shakespeare. Of Much Ado, for example, he wrote, “What is the definition of love in Much Ado About Nothing? The prime answer is there in the title: Love is much ado about nothing. What binds and will hold Beatrice and Benedick together is their mutual knowledge and acceptance of this benign nihilism.”

That is hardly the way I read the play, but setting aside all such objections for now and returning to Macbeth: What if we take it as Shakespeare’s “design” to drag us into the depths of Macbeth’s heart of darkness? What if we accept the idea that initially at least Macbeth and his Lady are “profoundly in love”? Where does this lead us? What is Shakespeare doing?

Bloom’s answer in a word is “nihilism.” If Shakespeare had been able to refer to Nietzsche and Freud as often as Bloom does, there might have been something to this answer. Of course, Bloom denies that he is suggesting that “Shakespeare himself was a gnostic, or a nihilist, or a Neitzschean vitalist three centuries before Nietzsche.” But then he adds, “But as a dramatist, he is just as much all or any of those as he is a Christian.” Bloom adds, “What notoriously dominates this play, more than any other in Shakespeare, is time, time that is not the Christian mercy of eternity, but devouring time, death nihilistically regarded as finality.”

Bloom seems to believe that Macbeth’s most famous speech reveals Shakespeare’s worldview, or at least his fear of what the world might really be. Macbeth’s response to the news of Lady Macbeth’s suicide “concentrates his play and his world.”

She should have died hereafter

There would have been time for such a word —

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!

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,

Signifying nothing. [V.v. 17-28]

In expounding this, Bloom writes the following, “Macbeth has the authority to speak for his play and his world, as for his self. In Macbeth’s time there is no hereafter, in any world. And yet this is the suicide of his wife that has just been reported to him. Grief, in any sense we could apprehend, is not expressed by him. Instead of an elegy for Queen Macbeth, we hear a nihilistic death march, or rather a creeping of fools, of universal victims.”

In the abstract, of course, it is not impossible for Shakespeare to have written a play communicating such profound despair, telling his audience that life is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. It is not impossible for a man of his age to have anticipated Nietzsche and Freud — not to mention Harold Bloom.

What Bloom entirely — and I believe intentionally — neglects in his exposition is any discussion of Shakespeare’s biblical allusions. Though Bloom tells us over and over that Macbeth’s world is not a Christian world and that Macbeth’s tragedy cannot be comprehended within the framework of a Christian perspective, he offers no explanation as to why Shakespeare alluded to the Bible so often in Macbeth and no thoughts on the particular allusions Shakespeare made.

What Shakespeare’s audience would have noted — and I am sure Bloom noted them also — are frequent allusions to the most basic story of the Bible: the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There are many more allusions to the story of Genesis 3 than Naseeb Shaheen lists, though they are not all couched in the language of Scripture. From the beginning of the play to the discovery of Duncan’s murder in Act 2, Scene 3, Shakespeare refers to the story of Genesis 3 so constantly that a biblically literate audience would feel themselves in the presence of another Adam and Eve.

This was not an isolated dramatic phenomenon. It was common in the Middle Ages to stage plays depicting biblical stories, and the Fall of Adam and Eve was, if not foremost among them, certainly not peripheral. For Shakespeare to allude to the story of the Fall so profusely would have confronted his audience with the horror of Macbeth’s darkness more than Bloom has uncovered.

Though the murderous Macbeth’s dominance of the play does indeed overwhelm us with the darkness of death, a modern playgoer can leave the theatre and its images cheerfully behind. There is only nowhere else to turn as long as we are in front of the stage. For viewers in Shakespeare’s day, it was different. They had been confronted with a meditation on mankind’s Fall into sin. Macbeth is Adam and they are his children. It is the dark heart of their father and ours that is depicted on the stage and since they and we are his children, we know that such a heart is in us also, not merely through the power of the drama before us, but because the drama draws us in through the biblical story and confronts us with fallen humanity’s sinfulness. In Macbeth, Shakespeare holds up the mirror to the inner darkness we inherited from Adam and does not let us look away.

In the next article, I will show how Shakespeare uses biblical allusion to bring us with Macbeth into the Garden of Eden and draw us with him into sin. I will also introduce an equally important allusion to another biblical story that is necessary to bring Macbeth to its completion, an allusion that is more subtle, though I believe biblically literate viewers in Shakespeare’s day would not have missed it.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.