From Garden to Gate of Hell
July 16, 2015

In my previous essay on Macbeth, I pointed out that Shakespeare rewrote Scottish history to construct a play which points to Adam’s Fall — a man and a woman tempted by devils to steal the throne and become like gods. It is hard to imagine anyone in Shakespeare’s day missing the allusion, but in our day it is not uncommon for scholars to completely deny it. Perhaps a few more details will help those who may find themselves confused by modern/postmodern scholarship.

Of course, literary allusion can be, and often is, subtle. An allusion to the story of the Fall in the Garden does not have to contain all or even many of the details of the original story. That is not the way allusion works. Very few details, a few words or a phrase, are often enough to create a link between two stories. In the case of Macbeth, Shakespeare has actually supplied us with numerous details that combine to make the allusion to the Fall of Adam the very heart of what is happening in the first two acts of Macbeth.

At this point, it might help to remind ourselves about some of the details in the Biblical story that might be easily alluded to in order to establish a literary link. We have already seen that the three witches function like the serpent in the Garden tempting Macbeth and his lady with their lying promise. The parallel between sitting on the throne as king and queen with being “like god” is also obvious.

The Biblical story has a number of other details that should be easy to connect with. For example, there is the sound of God in the Garden, the attempt to hide from God, the detail about clothing, the expulsion from the Garden, and the curse. Other details could be cited, but if Shakespeare is pointing to all of these, the allusion to the story of the Fall should be apparent. I believe that I can show that Shakespeare has drawn links with each of these details, making Macbeth’s fall like a new fall of mankind which functions as a meditation on Adam’s fall and a warning to Shakespeare’s audience about the seriousness and danger of sin.

In this essay I examine one of the most startling and largest of the literary links between Macbeth and the Biblical story. Shakespeare links Macbeth’s castle to the Garden of Eden through a set of subtle allusions that begin with Duncan’s visit to Macbeth’s castle, after Macbeth has courageously led King Duncan’s men to great victory. In Scene 6 of the first Act, as the king and Banquo approach the fortress, their conversation sets the stage for the ensuing action.

DUNCAN: This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air

Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself

Unto our gentle senses.

BANQUO: This guest of summer,

The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,

By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath

Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,

Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird

Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:

Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,

The air is delicate (1.6.1-9).[i]

In our day, castles are irrelevant except for historical interest, but they were the strongest form of military defense in the ancient world and still in the medieval world of Macbeth. We might expect, therefore, for Banquo to depict the castle as impregnable or immense, with a massive moat, towering walls, and a glorious gate. Instead, he talks about sweet air and birds. What happened?

The language here is calculated to create a picture of a castle that is both like a garden and a temple. The garden is suggested in two ways. First, we are led to imagine something garden-like through multiple expressions about the air, which “nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses,” even “heaven’s breath” that “smell’s wooingly.” Second, Banquo waxes lyrical about the abundant martlets which have made Macbeth’s castle their “pendent bed and procreant cradle.” What was supposed to be a fortress has become so garden-like that the air is delicate and the birds have made it’s every frieze and buttress their domicile and breeding ground.

In all of this, there is at least a faint echo of the language of the Song of Solomon and its picture of the bride as a sweet smelling garden.

The comparison to the temple is explicit, though brief, in the expression, “the temple-haunting martlet.” The language is pregnant, bringing together both garden and temple allusions. The entirety of the short conversation above points to the temple in a larger way as well, for Shakespeare is here alluding to Psalm 84, verses 1 and 3, as Naseeb Shaheen also notes.[ii]

How lovely is Your tabernacle,

O LORD of hosts!

Even the sparrow has found a home,

And the swallow a nest for herself,

Where she may lay her young—

Even Your altars, O LORD of hosts,

My King and my God.

By pointing to Psalm 84 and its rejoicing in the beauty of the tabernacle, Shakespeare draws his audience’s attention to the Biblical symbolism of the tabernacle and the temple, which were both symbolic replicas of the Garden of Eden. The fulfilment of Biblical temple symbolism is found in the New Jerusalem, a garden city that constitutes the new and final temple.

Since the English church in Shakespeare’s day sang Psalms daily, Shakespeare’s frequent allusions to the the Anglican Psalter would have been easily noticed by church goers in his audience — the vast majority in an age which punished Sunday absence. Both Psalm 84 and the symbolic chain that links Eden with the climactic Heavenly Jerusalem were well-known.

Thus, if we were biblically literate Englishmen of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, watching or reading the play for the first time, we would probably have noted the allusion to Psalm 84, and might have been shocked that Shakespeare had virtually staged Duncan’s murder in the Garden of Eden — a powerful image of the seriousness of Macbeth’s sin and a meditation on Adam’s!

But what happens after the Fall? Could Macbeth be expelled from his own castle? It might have been possible to construct the story in some fashion to accomplish that, but Shakespeare does something much more compelling. He transfigures the castle itself.

When Duncan entered Macbeth’s fortress, it was Eden-like. The morning after his murder, when MacDuff — Macbeth’s future judge — comes knocking at the castle gate, the porter, still a little drunk from the previous night’s revelry, shouts his answer in the first words of Act 2, Scene 3.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a

man were porter of hell-gate, he should have

old turning the key.

Knock, knock, knock!

Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub? (2.3.1-4)

Instead of Macbeth being banished from his Eden-like castle because of his sin, the heavenly, garden-like fortress itself metamorphosed into hell. Heaven’s breath was blasted to hellish stench. Fair is foul indeed! After the porter’s first words transformed paradise into everlasting prison, his each inebriated response to the continued knocking spoke of final judgement, hell, and the devil.

The allusion to Eden is clear enough, though subtle. Transforming Eden into Hell makes Macbeth’s expulsion from God’s presence final and complete. What Shakespeare has done with Macbeth’s castle is a brilliant reworking of the Garden motif and a powerful picture of the what happened when Adam sinned, or perhaps better, what would have happened had Adam remained unrepentant in sin.

In subsequent essays I will show how Shakespeare connects Macbeth to other details in the Genesis story of the Fall. I also hope to show that in a Protestant and Biblical culture like the England of Shakespeare’s day, the story of the Fall retained its historical, theological, and Biblically profound significance, so that meditating on the Fall through other stories provided entertainment that was edifying, however haunting it may also be.

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.

[i] References to Macbeth in this essay use numbering from The Arden Shakespeare, Macbeth, edited by Kenneth Muir (London: Meuthen, 1951).

[ii] Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeares Plays (Newark, DE: University of Delaware, 1999), p. 625.

Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.