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Macbeth, Act Four: Scene One  
 
 

Macbeth

The brevity of "Macbeth" is so much a function of its brilliance that we might lose rather than gain by turning up the lost scenes of legend. This brilliance gives us in the end somewhat less than the utmost tragedy can give. The hero, for instance, is less valuable as a person than Hamlet, Othello, or Lear; or Anthony, or Coriolanus, or Timon. We may not rejoice in his fall as Dr. Johnson says we must, yet we have known too little about him and have found to little virtue in him to experience at his death the sense of an unutterable and tragic loss made necessary by ironies beyond our understanding. He commits murder in violation of nature which we can assume to have been noble, but we can only assume this. Macbeth has surrendered his soul before the play begins. When we first see him he is already invaded by those fears which are to render him vicious and which are finally to make him abominable. They also reveal him as a great poet. But his poetry, like the poetry of the play, is to be concerned wholly with sensation and catastrophe. "Macbeth" like "Lear" is all end; the difference appearing in the speed with which doom rushes down, so that this rapidest of tragedies suggest whirlwinds rather than glaciers, and in the fact that terror rather than pity is the mode of the accompanying music. "Macbeth," then, is not in the fullest known sense a tragedy. But we do not need to suppose that this is because important parts of it have been lost. More of it would have had to be more of the same. And the truth is that no significant scene seems to be missing. "Macbeth" is incomparably brilliant as it stands, and within its limits perfect. What it does it does with flawless force. It hurls a universe against a man, and if the universe that strikes is more impressive than the man who is stricken, great as his size and gaunt as his soul may be, there is good reason for the doubting that this is what Shakespeare intended. The triumph of "Macbeth" is the construction of a world, and nothing like it has ever been constructed in twenty-one hundred lines.  Pp.216-217 from "Shakespeare" by Mark Van Doren ISBN: 1-59017-168-3


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