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Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased.

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain ;

And, with some sweet oblivious antidote,

Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart ?
No, her disease transcends the therapeutic skill of
mortal man. No medicine in the world can

Purge her disease to a sound and pristine health,
for in her breast burn the fires of Hell lit by the hand of
a pitiless remorse ; in her distracted brain rise the
phantoms of the murdered dead which have for ever
robbed her of sleep, and destroyed her frail life.

" The death of Macbeth, fighting bravely to the end
with the harness on his back, is Elysium compared with
the Gehenna fires of unnamed dread, amid which Lady
Macbeth passes into Silence !

" The deaths of these two great personages reach the
highest plane of tragic terror achieved in the literature
of the world. The remorse fires of Hell literally burned
her reason away."*

* Smeaton : " Life of Shakespeare,"


" It is the Queen/' writes Dowden, " and not her
husband who is slain by conscience/'

There is nothing in all literature more affecting in its
pathos than those words of hers which bespeak the
anguished mind and the broken heart.


In her consort, Macbeth, there is pictured to us in

lurid illumination the horrors of a guilt-stricken

conscience scourging the offender with whips and

scorpions, and making the murderer his own executioner.

When the suggestion of murder is first present to his

mind we hear even then, amid the tumult of his contending

thoughts, the ominous whispers of his alarmed conscience:

Why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs

Against the use of nature ? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings :

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical

Shakes so my single state of man that function

Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is

But what is not.

But he heeds them not. As Coleridge remarks,

" conscience distinctly warns him, but he lulls it

imperfectly " :

If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.
Again in Macbeth 's speech :

We will proceed no further in this business :
He hath honoured me of late ; and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

He betrays a twinge of conscience, a restraining power,,
but which he culpably interpreted into prudential
reasons. He juggles with conscience, and by plausible
sophistry deludes himself into a false security, by
attributing to " chance " the power to crown him king,

G 2


He tries to persuade himself that a blind fatalism will
pave his way to the throne " without his stir/ 1 He
dallies with the Tempter until, in spite of twinges of
conscience and spasms of fear, the evil thought becomes
the wish, and the wish the murderous purpose, till,
goaded on by the juggling prophecy of the witches, and
the inflexible determination of his wife, he commits
the abhorrent, irrevocable deed, whose accomplishment
thereafter destroys for ever his peace of mind, and
ruthlessly rushes him on with daring impetuosity to
his final doom.

Here is sin in its inception.

f No sooner does he enter on the path of crime than
conscience dogs his every step. This mighty voice of
his conscience, stifled by a powerful will, yields to his
daring, but it is still acting and resisting to the last

The deed of murder being now a fixed purpose in his
mind, his burning brain is filled with terrible phantoms.
Before the actual commission of the crime, as he gropes
his way through the darkness of the night to the fatal
chamber, he sees in the grim horror of affrighted sense
an " air-drawn dagger " floating in the lurid light
before his eyes, its blade and dudgeon stained with
" gouts of blood " the bodiless creation of remorse
and fear.

Then, the deed done, a terrible remorse seizes him.
" Like the trumpet-tongue of an accusing angel it beats
on his heated brain and freezes it with horror," as he
returns to his partner in crime, the air reverberating
with the hollow voices of the sleeping grooms :
Me thought I heard a voice cry, " Sleep no more I
Macbeth doth murder sleep," the innocent sleep ;
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course.
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
Still it cried, Sleep no more I To all the house.


Then, above the wild beating of his heart, he hears
aloud the pronouncement of his doom,

Glamis hath murdered sleep ; and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more ; Macbeth shall sleep no more.
Hell for him has begun. Haggard and tottering, he
returns from the fatal chamber his soul so shaken with
ghastly horror at the sight of his bloody " hangman's
hands/' that they pluck out his eyes ; and to wash
them would dye blood-red the multitudinous seas.

Listen, as confronted with the awful ghastliness of
his crime, he piteously exclaims,

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand ? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnardine
Making the green one red.

He has murdered king Duncan ; he has grasped the
coveted crown ; and still amid the glare and glitter
and glamour of lights and flowers and music, and
women in festive attire, he sees the ghost the
shadow of his blood-stained conscience.

Yes, at the Banquet, the Nemesis of his guilt conjures
up before him the phantoms of the dead, at the sight
of which even the valiant Macbeth is shaken with a
terrified sense of nervous horror. Bold as a man, and
valiant as a warrior, yet now he is terror-stricken and
appalled at the terrible vision of Banquo's gory head.
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble : or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword :
If trembling I inhabit them, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, terrible shadow 1
Unreal mockery, hence !

" And when the pleasure has been tasted, and is gone,
and nothing is left of the crime but the ruin it has
wrought, then, too, the Furies take their seats upon the
midnight pillow."

Here is the Nemesis of Sin.

Upon him has fallen the curse of a criminal desire,
criminally fulfilled, and for which he can find no healing


balm ; only mental anguish, bitter disillusionment,
unutterable and infidel despair, until there falls upon
his life the curtain of the final retributive and moral

How agonizing is the anguish of the heart from out
whose depths is wrung the passionate utterance of
despair :

Better be with the dead

Whom we to gain our peace have sent to peace
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy.
Here is the disillusionment of sin.
Macbeth has murdered sleep, and with it all faith and
Ihope. Life to him is now meaningless, and the future
[wrapped in impenetrable gloom. He finds, too late,
I that he has been tricked by

The equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth.

It is the picture of a man plunged into Hadean depths
of infidel despair ; but God is not in the picture. Almost
the last voice from his weary and sin-tortured soul is
that in which he " blots out all thought of a future
life, because he dare not ponder it."

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.
Here is the despair of the infidel.
As an analysis of human character, Macbeth is the
most wonderful thing Shakespeare ever wrote.

" The progress of Macbeth in crime," wrote Thomas

Campbell, "is an unparalleled lecture in ethical anatomy."

Nowhere, outside Greek drama, do we find painted

in such painfully lurid colours, nor depicted with such


tragic intensity, the retributive workings of the inexorable
law of the moral world, that

Even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of the poisoned chalice

To our own lips.


Hamlet's was a nature which needed a personal centre
in which faith and affection could unite. He lost the
former which involved the loss of the latter, hence the
life-weariness in which his soul found expression. And
as the soul in its yearnings reaches out through the
human to the Divine, so Hamlet sought in the reflex
images of the Divine for what was of highest intrinsic
worth and dignity. On man he had reposed his faith,
which, when it had lost its hold, clung with a yet firmer
tenacity to the Divine.

The religion of Hamlet consists in a devout belief in
God, and as a necessary sequence, in God's vicegerent
the conscience, whose monitions he felt himself con-
strained to obey. In his spiritual conflicts he makes
reiterated appeals to it, as the Supreme Tribunal and the
Final Court of Appeal in all matters of human conduct,
and as that which alone takes cognizance of acts on
ethical grounds.

And it is of the utmost significance, as illustrating the
intention of Shakespeare, that these reiterated appeals
to the moral sense are among the final and illuminating
touches of the Poet.

The risible workings of conscience in the mind of
Hamlet are sufficiently obvious throughout the play.
For instance, in his first soliloquy, when contemplating
suicide as a welcome means of escape from his life-
weariness, the deterrent force is God's " canon 'gainst
self -slaughter " :


O, that this too too solid flesh would melt.
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.

Here is a noble vindication of the power of conscience
asserting a Divine law which demands obedience, and,
by obeying which, Hamlet achieved a moral victory.

In Macbeth, we hear the same voice asserting its right
of appeal against the criminal suggestion projected into
his mind, but it is stifled by the supremacy of a dominant
passion to which Macbeth fell a victim.

Again, at the end of the Second Act, conscience
raises in his mind the suspicion, that the spirit he had
seen might be none other than the devil himself luring
him on to destruction by the subtle suggestion of revenge :
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil : and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape ; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits)
Abuses me to damn me.

What a faithful transcript from human life ! Our
spiritual adversary often approaches us as an angel
of light, the better to beguile, and at a time when the
soul is specially susceptible to temptation. Such a
parallel we find in the Divine Life.

Again, in the soliloquy, " To be, or not to be," what is
it but the secret voice of that inner monitor that domin-
ates Hamlet's will, and operates to stay his hand from vol-
untarily launching him into the boundless Unknown ?
But that the dread of something after death
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all ;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.


Yet, strangely enough, Hamlet has been accused here
of " degrading conscience into identity with the dread
of something after death."

But, is it not the preventive function of conscience to
inspire with a feeling of dread when contemplating an
action which would involve a breach of Divine law ?
Bishop Butler, at least, thought so, identifying conscience
with a " presentiment of what is to be, hereafter."

Hamlet interrogates the human spirit in its still
place of judgment, and he gives its verdict with a sigh
of reluctance :

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.

Moreover, if as he confesses, he has " cause and will
and strength and means " to accomplish the deed of
revenge, what dominates all these to the neglect of the
'* dread command " ? Is it, he asks,

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event ?
If, ex hypothesi, it be the latter, could Shakespeare
have put into more precise language the nature of that
moral faculty of reflection, whose tendency is to restrain
from wrong-doing, and to arrest the erring step ?

Notwithstanding, some of the greatest commentators
have taken Hamlet to task not for thinking too little,
but too much, thus " crippling the power of action."
Assuming the irresolution theory, they find a plausible
explanation of Hamlet's non-fulfilment of the obligation
of revenge, not in mental inertness, but in too great
mental activity. They tell us that he " procrastinates
from thought " ; that he has a "calculating consideration
that cripples the power of action " ; or, that he has
" an excess of the reflective tendency." And because
the decision of Hamlet's mind, consequent upon his
" thinking too precisely upon the event," leads him to
repudiate the temptation involved in the command to
kill, he is unjustly described as " irresolute," and around


this doctrine of " irresolution " they weave the most
elaborate metaphysical theories.

" The craven scruple " the conscience that is the
primary cause of his irresolution. That is the deterrent
force operating in his mind against " self -slaughter " ;
that causes his sworn resolve to grow faint from an
imbecility of purpose ; that raises in his mind the
suspicion that the ghost-story may be forced upon his
credulity by the devil to drive him to a deed of despera-
tion ; that calls for a confirmation of the play, for evil
spirits may have abused him to damn him ; and that
begets the apathy of oblivion.

In his conscience lies the origin of those doubts and
perplexities in the matter of revenge, and renders him
a coward. And, yet, Hamlet was no coward. We
repudiate the imputation of cowardice, both moral and
physical. For instance, on the platform, in the presence
of the Ghost, while his companions are " distilled almost
to jelly with the act of fear/' his each petty artery is as
hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve. " I do not set my
life at a pin's fee," he exclaims, " and for my soul what
can it do to that being a thing immortal as itself ? "

What, then, restrained him, when " examples gross
as earth " exhorted him ; when filial love cried out for
revenge ?

It was the power of conscience which steadfastly
refused to contemplate the killing of the King, as
incompatible with his stern moral sense of duty, and was
swift to repel any invasion of its domain.

The terrible impulsion to evil by the suggested
assassination of his uncle, under the guise of filial duty,
was that which gave rise in his soul to the fierce conflict
between the antagonistic forces of good and evil.

The key to the solution of Hamlet's life and conduct
is to be found in the inscrutable depths of every soul,
in those undying instincts of the spirit of man the
conscience in obedience to whose behests Hamlet


rose triumphant over those spiritual forces within, which
traitorously conspired with outward circumstances to
betray him.


That monster of iniquity, Richard III., ascended the
throne steeped in human blood. Men, women and
children were alike ruthlessly slaughtered for the
attainment of his ignoble and bloody ends. He has a
passionate scorn of men, a cynical contempt of human life.
He therefore pauses at no obstacle to achieve a purpose,
and at no result, however revolting, does he ever relent.
Behind his deformed and withered body there is
such a daemonic intensity of will and intellect as to render
him at once an appalling and sublime figure.

With sardonic humour he mocks at the grim irony
of Nature which has so deformed and mis-shapen his
body as to make him the scorn and derision of his
enemies, and to provoke the very dogs to bark as he
halts by them.

The thought, like an irritant poison in his veins,
inflames his blood with the vindictive passion of
revenging himself upon the injustice of Nature by
proving himself a villain. His deformity he will hence-
forth use as a weapon to goad him on in his career of
villainy :

I that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph ;
I that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them ;
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time
Unless to see my shadow in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity :


And therefore since I cannot prove a lover.
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

He is supreme in his daemonic power of dissimilation.
He is a consummate actor, united to which his plastic
and commanding intellect amply suffice for his rapid
transitions in personating whether saint or sinner,
statesman or soldier, lover or hypocrite. And to such
a height does he carry the art of dissimulation that, in
body and soul a devil, he can when occasion demands,
appear like an angel of light.

" In hypocrisy," says Schlegel, " he is particularly
fond of using religious forms, as if actuated by a desire
of profaning in the service of Hell the religion whose
blessings he had inwardly abjured."

He is an incarnate Devil. And so vividly outstanding
are the diabolical outlines of his character as portrayed
by Shakespeare, that it is ingeniously suggested by
Drake that they must have furnished Milton with many
of the striking features of his own Satanic portrait.

Yet, devil though he be in human form, immersed as
is his whole soul in guilt of deepest dye, he cannot
Btifle within him the upbraidings of conscience. Trumpet-
tongued, they proclaimed aloud to Heaven his iniquities,
and smote his brain with scorpion strokes.

Richard, despite his colossal power of intellect, his
diabolical ingenuity and his supreme disdain of the
moral law, is impotent to lay the ghosts of the murdered
dead, which Nemesis conjures up before him in that
moral Gehenna into which he had guiltily plunged

The ghosts of Prince Edward, Henry IV., Clarence,
Rivers, Vaughan, Grey, Hastings, Edward V., and the
Duke of York (the two young princes), his wife, Lady
Anne, and Buckingham, are the admonitions of his own
guilty conscience.


Each night they turn his courage into cowardice a
superstitious dread, which wholly unmans him till the
day dawn, and Richard is himself again.

" He has a fierce joy/' says Dowden, " and he is an
intense believer in the creed of Hell. And, therefore, he
is strong. He inverts the moral order of things, and tries
to live in this inverted system. He does not succeed :
he dashes himself to pieces against the laws of the world
which he has outraged/'*

The truly terrible, awe-inspiring scene in the play is
not the death of Richard, but the tent scene, when his
own conscience calls up before him the vision of his
crimes, and for a brief space the curtain of the soul
is lifted, and we shrink in horror from the vision of
that inward Hell which every doer of evil carries within
his breast ; and the fire of whose torment no outward
thing can avail to quench or to allay.

In his tent, on the eve of battle, he is arraigned before

the bar of retributive justice. Confronted with the

phantom forms of those he has murdered, he exclaims :

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me I

* * *

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues
And every tongue brings in a several tale
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree.
Murder, stern murder in the dir'st degree ;
All several sins, all us'd in each degree
Throng to the bar, crying all Guilty ! Guilty !
It is the last night of his life. He is alone in his tent.
Throwing himself upon his couch, he tries to sleep.
But, like Macbeth, he, too, has murdered sleep ! The
load of conscious guilt lies too heavy upon his soul.
Spectral visions of the murdered dead rise before him,
lurid and fiendlike, to torture his frenzied brain.
Within him burn the fires of hell which he himself had

* " Shakespeare : His Mind and Art."


kindled, until, affrighted by a merciless remorse, he
springs from his couch stricken with a superstitious
dread, and cries out :
Shadows to-night

Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard,
Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiere
Armed in proof, and led by shallow Richmond.
He who had contemptuously boasted that he never
" shed remorseful tear/' is now awed into abject terror,
as he stands convicted before the bar of a guilty con-
science. It is the vivid picture of a man seen writhing
in Hadean depths in the agony of remorse. His mental
anguish is betrayed by the cold fearful drops which
stand on his trembling flesh.

What is all this other than the power of conscience
which is ineradicable from the human soul ?


The same retributive power of conscience haunts the
spirit and disturbs the rest of Henry IV., outwardly
successful though he is even to the end.

It is immediately after Richard's death that conscience,
roused from its lethargic slumber, hung like a Nemesis
over his head.

With what bitterness of anguish he looks back upon
the tragedy that has closed the life of Richard whose
deposition and death demand atonement. Under the
stimulus of remorse he is impelled to make a Crusade
to the Holy Land, largely to expiate the once-suggested
deed of bloodshed :

I protest my soul is full of woe,

That blood should sprinkle me to make it grow :

Come, mourn with me for that I do lament

And put on sullen black incontinent :

I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land

To wash this blood from off my guilty hand.


Fain would he persuade himself that his elevation to
the throne was blameless :

That necessity so bowed the state
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.
But by no such plausible sophistry, or self-delusion,
can he allay the disquieting thoughts which afflict his
mind. He cannot thus lightly juggle with the moral

And when, in the evening of his life, success comes
in the conquest of his enemies, how pathetic is his
lament :

Will fortune never come with both hands full,
But write her fair words still in foulest letters ?
His strength is worn out in the struggle ; and in the
final scene with his son there is forced from his dying
lips the long-withheld confession of wrong-doing.

The retributive anguish of remorse intensifies as
death draws near. Conscience revives in him the
memory of former days when, with blood-stained
hands, he seized the crown, and which now he would
fain forget but cannot. It forces upon him the
apprehension that all his misfortunes are a merited
punishment from the Hand of God.

In his last moments, with the death-dew upon his
brow, he is arraigned before the bar of conscience. No
juggling then. In the unutterable bitterness of his
soul he exclaims :

God knows, my son,

By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown ; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
And with his dying breath he pleads forgiveness :
How came 1 by the crown, O God forgive.

And, thus, instances might be multiplied in which
Shakespeare, true to the inexorable law of man's moral
nature, vividly paints for us with the matchless skill
of his transcendent genius the power and terror of


" Reason and conscience," writes Gervinus, " are to

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Online LibraryHarold FordShakespeare: his ethical teaching .. → online text (page 7 of 8)