Manhood and the ‘milk of human kindness’ in Macbeth

Manhood and the ‘milk of human kindness’ in Macbeth

The tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the question of what it means to be a man, argues Kiernan Ryan.

‘I pray you remember the porter’ (2.3.20–21)

Macbeth is the tragedy of a man torn apart and destroyed by the conflicting conceptions of masculinity at war within him. But it’s also a tragedy that glimpses beyond that conflict the prospect of humanity’s liberation from the destructive male fantasies that still plague it and threaten its survival.

In case the play’s obsession with manhood escapes us, Shakespeare enlists that scurrilous wise fool the Porter to bring it into focus. In the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder and its traumatic impact on Macbeth, as the dreadful knocking at the gate subsides, the self-styled ‘porter of Hell Gate’ (2.3.2) treats Macduff to an incongruous comic lecture on the fate booze has in store for the sexually aroused male:

Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand too; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him. (2.3.29–36)

But on closer inspection the Porter’s lewd gag turns out to be anything but incongruous. What it provides, in the guise of light relief from the tension of the preceding scenes, is a vulgar comic version of Macbeth’s tragic plight. In a sly plebeian parody of the play’s ‘imperial theme’ (1.3.129) Macbeth’s disabling agonies of conscience before and after killing his king are reduced to the embarrassment of impotent lust. This covert caricature of Macbeth’s ‘Thriftless ambition’ (2.4.28), which fails to be satisfied by regicide, as a failure to translate desire into deed by maintaining an erection, pinpoints what’s ultimately at stake in this tragedy: male power and masculinity itself.

Macbeth’s Porter

Macbeth’s Porter

Amvrosi Buchma as the Fool/Porter in Les Kurbas’s 1924 Macbeth at the Berezil Theatre in Ukraine.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © Museum of Theatre and Cinema, Ukraine.
Held by© Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

It’s no accident, moreover, that the words ‘equivocator’ and ‘equivocate’, on which the Porter harps, are echoed on the brink of doom by Macbeth, as he beholds Birnam Wood marching, unbelievably, towards him and begins ‘To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth’ (5.5.42–43). That echo recalls the disparaging context in which the Porter uses these words to caricature his master’s predicament. But it also links the Porter to the Weird Sisters, the source of the fiendish equivocation that dupes Macbeth. And they prove equally adept at underscoring the crucial part played by gender in forging his fate.

The Trial of Henry Garnet, 1606

The Trial of Henry Garnet, 1606

The Jesuit priest Henry Garnet discusses equivocation at his trial for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms The printed text is Public Domain.
The hand drawn illustration is Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

‘Secret, black, and midnight hags’

When Macbeth and Banquo first encounter ‘these juggling fiends’ that ‘palter with us in a double sense, / That keep the word of promise to our ear / And break it to our hope’ (5.8.19–22), Banquo is struck by their unearthly, androgynous appearance: ‘You should be women, / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so’ (1.3.45–47). Unfortunately, few productions of Macbeth have portrayed the three witches as they were plainly meant to be portrayed, because few productions have grasped the significance of their androgyny. The effect of their embodying on stage a sexual identity which is neither male nor female but physically ambiguous should be to highlight, by their stark visual contrast with the virile warrior Macbeth, the rigid gender role by which he is fatally ‘cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in’ (3.4.23).

But it’s not just the androgyny of the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags’ (4.1.48) that throws the masculine contours of Macbeth’s tragedy into relief. It’s also the uncanny way they anticipate his aspirations and anxieties, which are the products of the martial culture that moulded him. It’s important to stress that Macbeth’s fate is not dictated by the witches. None of the malign spells cast by the bearded handmaids of Hecat, as they dance round their bubbling cauldron with its gruesome ingredients, has any power over Macbeth. The Weird Sisters ‘can look into the seeds of time’ (1.3.58) and foretell his future in deceitful language, whose full meaning emerges only in retrospect. But they can’t compel Macbeth to do anything. Shakespeare makes that clear from the outset, when the grim trio greets Macbeth with titles he has yet to acquire, and Banquo sees him ‘start, and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair’, and then become strangely ‘rapt withal’ (1.3.51–2, 57). Before the scene is over, Macbeth’s first soliloquy leaves us in no doubt that what has startled and struck fear into him is the witches’ open voicing of the ‘black and deep desires’ (1.4.51) already brewing secretly in his heart. Like the spirits that Lady Macbeth commands in the next scene to ‘unsex’ her and purge her of compassion, the witches ‘tend on mortal thoughts’ (1.5.41; my emphasis): they serve the evil thoughts they find in mortal minds, they don’t plant them there.

Photograph of the witches in Barry Kyle's production of Macbeth, 1983

Photograph of the witches in Barry Kyle's production of Macbeth, 1983

Katy Behean, Josette Simon, Lesley Sharp as the witches with Bob Peck as Macbeth in the RSC’s 1983 production of Macbeth.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © Donald Cooper / Photostage

‘All that may become a man’

The Weird Sisters collude with the Porter to focus our attention on the violently opposed models of manhood fighting for control of Macbeth’s heart and mind. But even without their help the play’s constant wrestling with the nature of masculinity, and with what being a man demands, would be hard to miss. When Lady Macbeth begs the forces of darkness to ‘unsex’ her, it’s because she wants to be drained of the tender, nurturing qualities conventionally regarded as feminine, and filled ‘from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty!’ (1.5.42–43), so as to be equal to the lethal man’s work that lies before them. ‘We are men, my liege’, protest the murderers hired to slay Banquo, when Macbeth questions their commitment to the deed. ‘Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men,’ retorts Macbeth, ‘As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs . . . are clept / All by the name of dogs’; and he keeps testing their calibre until he’s satisfied that they belong ‘Not i’ th’ worst rank of manhood’ (3.1.90–94, 102). The contrast with the later, moving exchange between Malcolm and Macduff, when the latter learns that his wife and children have been slaughtered by Macbeth’s henchmen, could scarcely be sharper. ‘What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam, / At one fell swoop?’ Macduff asks. ‘Dispute it like a man’, urges Malcolm. ‘I shall do so’, replies Macduff, ‘But I must also feel it as a man’ (4.3.218–21).

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

'Exile all foolish Female fear': Seneca’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Public Domain

It’s the running battle between the Macbeths, however, that puts the key to the tragedy beyond question. It begins in the electrifying last scene of Act 1, when Lady Macbeth sneers at her husband’s reluctance to proceed with Duncan’s murder, casting doubt on his courage and virility. ‘I dare do all that may become a man. / Who dares do more is none’, Macbeth declares. To which Lady Macbeth responds:

What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. (1.7.46–51)

Lady Macbeth emerges victorious from this opening skirmish, and Macbeth applauds her exemplary resolution in the same terms as their argument: ‘Bring forth men-children only! / For thy undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males’ (1.7.72–74). But the same quarrel flares up again when the ghost of Banquo appears to the horrified Macbeth as he hosts a royal banquet. ‘Are you a man?’ demands Lady Macbeth, oblivious of the spectre and appalled by her newly crowned husband’s public fit of terror: ‘What, quite unmanned in folly?’ (3.4.57, 72). Macbeth eventually recovers his nerve, directly echoing their earlier dispute as he insists ‘What man dare, I dare’, and at last succeeds in banishing the ghost that threatened to make him seem ‘The baby of a girl’ (3.4.98, 105). ‘Why, so’, he sighs with relief as the phantom vanishes, ‘being gone, / I am a man again’ (3.4.106–7).

‘Pity, like a naked new-born babe’

What is Shakespeare’s dramatizing through this debate about manliness? It’s the deadly antagonism between Macbeth’s feudal obligations as a nobleman to his king, ‘The Lord’s anointed temple’, whose ‘Most sacrilegious murder’ will make ‘a breach in nature’ (2.3.67–8, 113), and the ruthless demands of ‘vaulting ambition’ (1.7.27), which find such a formidable advocate in his wife. Macbeth finally succumbs to those demands and embraces the creed of selfish individualism to which most societies remain in thrall: ‘For mine own good / All causes shall give way’ (3.4.134–35). To conform to his wife’s masculine ideal and be the kind of man who seizes outright everything he wants, whatever it takes and whatever the consequences, he assassinates the monarch to whom he has pledged absolute allegiance. But Macbeth’s tragedy does not lie in the fact that by so doing he has violated the sacred and secular laws of feudal society. If that were the case, the play would boil down in the end to a politically orthodox morality play, depicting the just fate that awaits regicidal tyrants, and leaving us satisfied that ‘this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’ (5.9.35) got exactly what they deserved. The reason why it doesn’t boil down to that, and why we’re left feeling something more complex and profound, is that Macbeth’s tragedy lies in his betrayal of the new kind of man that murder awakens within him, and that he might well have become, had he dwelt in another time and in another kind of world.

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Lady Macbeth fears her husband is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’.

View images from this item  (21)

Usage terms Public Domain

Lady Macbeth reveals the source of the potential self her husband harbours, when she voices her fear that Macbeth is not the stuff of which callous killers are made, because he is ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way’ (1.5.17). The phrase ‘th’ milk of human kindness’, in its full early modern meaning, denotes a benign, compassionate attitude to one’s fellow human beings, and an awareness of the obligations that follow from feeling kinship with one’s kind. This ideal finds its most vivid expression in the stunning soliloquy in which Macbeth reviews the arguments against murdering Duncan. None of the standard moral objections or prospects of retribution are strong enough to deter him. The only thing that stops him in his tracks is his terror lest

pity, like a naked new-born 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)

What’s so striking is that Macbeth is daunted not by the fact that his victim is his divinely ordained king, but by his dread of incurring the apocalyptic wrath of ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe’. Nor is that any wonder, given his being ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ and thus innately disposed to feel pity himself. For the image of vulnerable infancy evoked by Macbeth enshrines a fundamental moral code which overrides all others. It’s a moral code whose power lies in the knowledge that the claims of other human beings on one’s kindness are as incontestable and compelling as those of ‘a naked new-born babe’, regardless of its gender, race or rank.

‘Blood will have blood’

Hence Macbeth’s immediate fear after murdering Duncan is not that he now bears the guilt of regicide, of having betrayed ‘The service and the loyalty’ that he owed his sovereign’s ‘throne and state’ (1.4.22, 25) as ‘his kinsman and his subject’ (1.7.13). He’s terrified by the thought that he ‘hath murdered sleep’ (2.2.39), which Lady Macbeth calls ‘the season of all natures’ (3.4.140), because by destroying the release from anguish that sleep offers all human beings, he has severed himself from humanity. Hence, too, the obsession of both Macbeth and his wife with having shed blood – not the royal blood of the monarch as such, but the vital fluid that flows through the veins of kings and commoners alike, and which exerts its own moral authority, irrespective of the rank of the person whose blood has been spilled: ‘It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood’ (3.4.121). When the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth recalls Duncan, as she frantically strives to wash her hands clean of their crime, his royalty has been wiped from her mind as irrelevant, because it’s not the fact that he was royal that matters: ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ (5.1.39–40; my emphasis).

The prophetic moral vision implicit in such potent imagery ̶ a vision rooted in what human beings have in common rather than what sets them at each other’s throats ̶ still awaits in our blood-stained world a future in which it can find a home. In the meantime it affords us the true measure of Macbeth, whose crime was to assassinate the king, but whose tragedy was that he killed one of his own kind and wound up butchering his way to oblivion, despite the human kindness in his heart.

  • Kiernan Ryan
  • Kiernan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015) and the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015). His next book, Shakespearean Tragedy, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.