In the first part of this article I consider some existential themes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I suggest that the play’s first scene constitutes a working assumption, which proves true as the tragedy progresses and as Macbeth falls from the pedestal of the incomparable hero into a moral and existential abyss. Seen from the ontological perspective of philosophers like Hegel, Kierkegaard and Heidegger, Macbeth appears to lack not only free will but also a central condition of existence: the experience of guilt. In the second part of the article I attempt to detect echoes of Shakespeare’s personal existential concerns in the play. Based on testimonials by poets who have been using writing as remedy for trauma, I support the hypothesis that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth while grieving the loss of his only son. Transforming his pain and guilt into creativity, Shakespeare struggles with life from an “active nihilistic” position, as opposed to Macbeth’s moral nihilism.

Key-words: guilt, value system, un-gedacht, Freud, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, ontological, trauma, Hamnet, Lady Macduff


I became interested inthe psychological element in Shakespeare’s Macbeth almost one year ago, when I was invited to co-author an essay with the given title «Guilt breeds ghosts» for the printed program of a Greek National Opera production of Verdi’s Macbeth[1]. Despite our joined efforts to manage the material gathered from a brief research in the related literature, on the one hand, and our own considerations, on the other, my co-author and I came up with a significantly longer text than what had been asked from us. As we were writing for the general public, our thoughts were somewhat loosely structured and articulated. Later, having decided that Macbeth calls for a more elaborate study, I realized it was necessary for me to separate these entwined lines of thought and to choose one or two as my study’s primary focus. This proved quite a difficult task, as there is a significant number of excellent essays, studies and dissertations on Macbeth that offer numerous deep and appealing readings. In the end I chose to focus on two levels of reading, and as a consequence this essay is divided in two parts. In the first part I offer some thoughts on the existential themes of the play. In the second part I attempt to trace the connection of some of the play’s existential elements with Shakespeare himself.


Brief summary of the tragedy:

On their way back after having heroically defeated the enemies of the Scottish king, Macbeth and his co-warrior Banquo meet three witches who utter a set of prophecies – culminating in the prophecy that Macbeth will be king and Banquo the father of kings. Witnessing two of these forecasts come true, Macbeth starts envisioning himself as king. When King Duncan asks Macbeth to accommodate him and his entourage in his castle, Macbeth murders him in his sleep, casting suspicions for the crime on the king’s attendants, whom he subsequently kills in feigned retribution. The king’s sons flee, fearful for their lives, and Macbeth is crowned King of Scotland. Having no children, the thought that Banquo’s descendants will inherit the throne disturbs his peace. He sends two murderers to kill Banquo and his son, but the son manages to escape alive. More and more suspicious and terrified, Macbeth summons the witches to learn about his future. Hearing that he will not die unless he is struck by a man who was not born of a woman and that he will be king until Birnam Wood comes alive and attacks his castle, Macbeth is reassured. However, the vision of the endless line of kings who will be Banquo’s descendants exasperates him. His desperate efforts to prevent this isolate him even from Lady Macbeth, who had initially been his fervent supporter and accomplice. Eventually Lady Macbeth sinks into madness and dies, as for Macbeth, he fights like a beast, even after he has witnessed “Birnam Wood” rise and approach his castle and heard Macduff admit he was not born of a woman. The play ends as Macduff exhibits the tyrant’s head and proclaims the new king of Scotland.

Macbeth has an international reputation for being a cursed play bringing bad luck to everyone involved in it. There is a common superstition among actors that, if they mention the name “Macbeth” off stage, they run serious physical danger, perhaps even risk their lives. Consequently, whoever mentions “Macbeth” must then perform a series of cleansing rituals[2]. Nevertheless, throughout the last 5 centuries many companies have relied on this play as  guarantee for a full house. What is it then with the rise and fall of the Macbeth couple that attracts large audiences to this tragedy? Is it a primary collective fear for supernatural powers, is it a common concern for the futility of ambition, or a secret satisfaction at the demise of the powerful? Could all of the above converge into an explanation of a larger and deeper scale[3]?



Part One

We could plan a murder, or

                                                              Start a religion.

Jim Morrison, The American Night


The strophe articulated by the Three Witches in the beginning of the play sets the moral framework of the tragedy in two spell-like lines: Fair is foul and foul is fair/ Hover through the fog and filthy air (1,1,10-11). Fair (good, just, moral) is equated to foul (corrupt, horrendous, morbid) and out of this moral nihilism[4] emerges the play’s existential context: humans hover in the universe without a compass, like in a thick fog, “thrown into a world that lacks inherent meaning”[5]. The two lines function as a working assumption which is validated after five atrocious Acts in one of the most famous excerpts of English literature that concludes: life… is a tale/told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing (5,5,19-28)[6]. Life is nothing more than a senseless sequence of contrived struggles. Macbeth now rages in wild protest against this lack of meaning, but it is too late.[7]

Macbeth is preceeded on stage by messengers who report his vehemence and ferocity in battle and express their excessive admiration and awe.[8] They compare him to an eagle and a lion, to an overloaded cannon and refer to him as husband of the goddess of war.[9] At his entrance King Duncan addresses him in a warm speech full of gratitude.[10] Thus the audience witnesses Macbeth start as an incomparable hero only to watch him progressively sink in inextricable despair and defeat. His ascent to the throne and his apparent triumph not only fail to dispel for the spectators the impression of his defeat, but rather enforce it.[11] Fawkner (1990) discerns here an example of Hegel’s notion that the “Master”, who receives infinite dialectic recognition, is led to an existential impasse. What more is left for him to expect, after having reached the heyday of respect and admiration from simple soldiers, peers and superiors?[12]

In contrast to his hawkish general, King Duncan appears to possess a value system where trust and affection for people prevail. He even admits that he had an excellent opinion for the previous Thane of Cawdor, who later proved a ruthless traitor.[13] Based on his values Duncan sometimes assigns a “wrong” meaning to people’s acts and behaviours; in fact his death comes as a side-effect of his trustfulness. Macbeth however shows no contempt for the King at any moment. He refers to him as gracious Duncan and envies him even in his death: Better be with the dead, /Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace/ … Duncan is in his grave/ After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well/… nothing can touch him further. (3,2,19-26)

Despite the Witches’ prophecy goading him, Macbeth retains some scintillations of morality for as long as he continues to serve a virtuous master. Lady Macbeth points it out in her soliloquy: yet do I fear thy nature;/ It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way…/ what thou wouldst highly,/ That wouldst thou holily; (1,5,17-22) Having a few minutes ago heard of Macbeth’s ferocious slaughter of traitor MacDonwald, we tend to link the milk of human kindness to the King’s generosity in regard to Macbeth; in fact Duncan misses no opportunity to excessively commend him, whether in his presence or in his absence. Indeed the king’s gentleness temporarily disarms Macbeth. What’s more, Macbeth’s duty to the king is of vital psychological importance, it provides a meaning for his existence and a purpose for his life – however temporary. Behind the hypocritical humility in Macbeth’s words: The service and the loyalty I owe,/ In doing it, pays itself (1, 4, 22-23), resonates an accurate existential statement.

American psychiatrist Allen Wheelis (1999) describes an incident that guided him to reflect on the human need to discover a purpose in life. Whenever he took a stroll with his dog, as soon as he bentdown to lift a twig, his dog stood in front of him eagerly waiting for his master to throw the twig, so that he could run and fetch it. The dog immediately sensed a mission and committed himself to fulfilling it. As with dogs, says Wheelis, humans also need to serve some mission that transcends themselves.[14]
Similarly to Allen Wheelis’ always eager dog, Macbeth is driven by external willpowers: the King’s, the Witches’, his wife’s.[15] The way the Three Witches greet him is very charasteristic:

First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter! (1,3,48-50)

The Witches’ words offer Macbeth a threefold identity, rendered even more appealing through their enthusiastic exclamations. It seems reasonable to assume that, after such a glorifying reception, Duncan’s greeting O worthiest cousin in the next scene cannot satisfy Macbeth any more. The king defines Macbeth only in relation to himself, in fact a few lines later he deprives him of any sense of self-worth, when he says: I have begun to plant thee, and will labour/ To make thee full of growing [1,4,28-29]. We begin to suspect the vitalelement contained for Macbeth in the Witches’ prophecy. It seems, however, very possible that without his wife’s exhortations, deprecations and manipulation[16] Macbeth would not have been able to overcome his fears and hesitations and commit the crime.

At this point I would like to mention Freud’s very interesting thought that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth function as two sides of a psychic conflict, a perspective based on the observation that often in his plays Shakespeare divides a character in two dramatis personae[17]. We witness Macbeth and his wife complement each other in a cross-shaped structure: after Duncan’s murder Macbeth appears with blood on his hands, while in the 5th Act it is Lady Macbeth who rubs her hands fiercely fearing the blood will never go away; in the first acts Macbeth bemoans his loss of sleep, in the end it is Lady Macbeth who sleepwalks; Lady Macbeth accuses her husband of being soft and cowardly, but it is she herself who cannot kill sleeping Duncan, because he reminds her of her father; Macbeth finds life devoid of every significance, yet it is Lady Macbeth who commits suicide[18]. In other words, as Macbeth sinks into perfect loss of feeling and humanity, Lady Macbeth surfaces toward emotion, awareness and horror.

In Heidegger’s terms Macbeth has still a long way to go to find his authentic self; instead of acting, i.e. instead of moving towards death according to a personal inner compass, he re-acts, he lives in response to external willpowers[19]. He compares himself to a horse who needs a spur to goad it. In no way can he view himself as a free man, creator of his own world[20]. This could possibly explain why Macbeth committed the first crime, a murder that would be absolutely unjustifiable, improper and absurd as a product of free will[21]. Farmer (2014) emphasizes that, by killing the king, Macbeth in essence devalues royalty, depriving it of its meaning before it even becomes his. In Act 1, scene 7, Macbeth sounds puzzled by himself and by the fact that he is planning a murder, despite being aware of the gravity of the crime and of the inevitable fall awaiting the murderer. I have no spur/ to prick the sides of my intent, but only/ Vaulting ambition (1,7,25-27), he concludes. What Macbeth himself refers to as “vaulting ambition”, sounds very similar to what Schopenhauer names “the blind will to live”[22]. Trapped between this blind will and its derivative, existential guilt[23], Macbeth writhes in agony from one scene of the tragedy to the other.

Kierkegaard saw in the Macbeth couple an excellent example of the “sickness unto death”[24] and in this tragedy an impressive illustration of “conscience in progress”[25]. On various dates in his diaries he has noted thoughts relating to the main characters of the play. In two of his major works, The concept of anxiety (1844) and The sickness unto death (1848) Kierkegaard is preoccupied with the lines Macbeth utters in response to the discovery of the King’s corpse: Had I but died an hour before this chance,/ I had lived a blessed time;… / The wine of life is drawn… (2,3,89-94)[26] From this moment on it will be impossible for Macbeth to fully live in the present. For him existence will be nothing more but a perpetual remembrance of the past, a continuous alertness. Macbeth shall sleep no more[27] he says (2,2,41). From this point on he will he regret not innocence, but the time he was still able to feel guilt[28] – Kierkegaard also conceived guilt as central to existence. It is worthy noting that Lady Macbeth follows the inverse course; although in her famous speech Come, you spirits,/…unsex me here,/ And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/ Of direst cruelty! (1,5,41 ff.) she manages to block out regrets, in her sleepwalking scene four Acts later guilt springs out, almost like an innate property: Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the/ perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little/ hand (5,1,54-56).

From the ontological perspective Macbeth, despite believing that he is able to conquer everything, doesn’t truly “exist”[29]. The authentic mode of existence proves a lot more difficult than death[30]. Thus in the play the death of the two perpetrators, first that of Lady Macbeth and then her husband’s, is dealt with in an extraordinarily brief manner. The announcement of Lady Macbeth’s death takes no more than one and a half lines: Wherefore was that cry?/ The Queen, my Lord, is dead (5,5,15-16). As for Macbeth himself, despite the courage he displays before Macduff, he is briskly executed offstage and his head is brought in on a pole, again with a dismissive one and a half lines[31].

But Shakespeare’s observations are not exhausted on the ontological level. He also investigates the social and political dimensions of a phenomenon that afflicted his world but also greatly afflicts today’s world: People who rush to achieve ever higher social status – accumulation of wealth and power, political offices – are motivated by an unbridled and sterile[32] vehemence. A vehemence compounded by the absence of a solid value system that would provide their existence with structure and meaning, and by the lack of emotional peace. The only way for them to bear life is to emotionally insulate themselves and to obtain release through acts of destruction often leading to the devastation of whole nations and states: Alas, poor country!/ Almost afraid to know itself…/ where nothing,/ But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;…/ where violent sorrow seems/ A modern ecstasy; (4,3,166-173)


Part two

The poem is the record of a movement from perception to vision.

Poetic form is the pattern of that movement through space and time.

The deep image is the content of vision emerging in the poem.

The vehicle of movement is imagination.

The condition of movement is freedom.

Jerome Rothenberg

Of all of Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth is the shortest and yet the one that unfolds at the most blistering pace. Scenes filled with dark emotions, passions and crimes forcefully follow one another[33]. With its brisk, panting tempo Macbeth seems to have been born from a pressing and painful poetic labour[34]. Question: Is it possible to detect the experience that haunted Shakespeare and found its way into this bloodstained story?[35]

In all of Shakespeare’s writings, from his sonnets to his comedies and from his historical dramas to his tragedies, his existential perspective is evident. People who know nothing specific about his works, are aware that Shakespeare is the author of the famous line: To be or not to be. Question number two: Is it legitimate to assume that this line from Hamlet had a deep personal meaning for its author?

T.S. Eliot compares the poet’s mind to a receptacle seizing and storing numberless emotions, phrases, images, until all the elements that can constitute a new compound are present together.[36] This process serves a necessary mental function, specifies Joyce Carol Oates: the poet/writer can only contemplate unspeakable painful emotions, by transposing them into “strategies of words”[37].  And American poet Wesley McNair gives a valuable testimonial for writing as remedy for trauma: “I found a saying dark enough, and full enough, for the experience I once had, and as a result, I was able to dispel some of my trauma’s darkness.”[38]

  Macbeth is certainly full of “dark enough sayings”. Reversing McNair’s phrasing we could reasonably assume the tragedy was written by Shakespeare as an attempt to alleviate trauma. Kierkegaard was probably the first to note that a critical step for the emotional management of trauma is the breaking off of the “terrible silence”: “Even though the word were terrible, even though it were a Shakespeare, a Byron, or a Shelley who breaks the silence, the word always retains its redeeming power, because all the despair and all the horror of evil expressed in a word are not as terrible as silence…”[39]

Thanks to Shakespeare’s biographers[40] we know that the poet’s only son Hamnet died at the age of 11 from the plague, while his father was possibly on tour. In fact, for the sake of his artistic career, Shakespeare had left the family home at Stratford, when Hamnet was still a baby. Shakespeare was based in London and only occasionally visited the family[41]. In 17th century England a man who died leaving behind no male offspring was considered heirless; and in Shakespeare’s last will the importance the poet attached to male descendants is obvious[42].

Heidegger spoke of the “un-thought” element (un-gedacht) contained in a text as a latent presence[43]. I suggest that the “un-thought” element in Macbeth is Shakespeare’s trauma caused by Hamnet’s death and by the poet/father’s accompanying guilt.

In the four years  following his son’s death, Shakespeare wrote his brightest comedies. That must have been the period of “terrible silence” surrounding the traumatic event. In the next five years, however, he plunged into the writing of his most tragic plays, Hamlet[44]Macbeth and King Lear.  Macbeth was written around the tenth anniversary of Hamnet’s death; by then Shakespeare would have been confronted with the certainty that he was not going to have another son[45].

Macbeth is also heirless. Perhaps if he had children his existence would not suffer from complete absence of meaning. An heir would provide at least an illusion of immortality. Envy for Banquo’s descendants fills Macbeth with rage. Having committed the first murders to access the throne, he now plans to destroy whole families – Banquo and his son, Macduff’s wife and children.

Immediately before the murder of Macduff’s family the play’s tempo appears to slow down significantly. Time seems to expand and the dramatist focuses microscopically on an ostensibly irrelevant issue: that of the responsibility of a father who is away from home. Lady Macduff expresses her anger for her husband’s absence, although she has been made aware that he is hiding, afraid for his life; she accuses him of lacking paternal instinct: He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren,/ The most diminutive of birds, will fight,/ Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.(4,2,6-11)

Macduff’s son, a boy on the threshold of puberty, responds to his mother’s anxious and angry comments with charming intelligence. A tender attachment pervades their exchange:

LADY MACDUFF: Sirrah, your father’s dead;/ And what will you do now? How will you live?

Son: As birds do, mother. …/ My father is not dead, for all your saying.

LADY MACDUFF: Yes, he is dead; how wilt thou do for a father?

Son: Nay, how will you do for a husband?

LADY MACDUFF: Why, I can buy me twenty at any market.

Son: Then you’ll buy ’em to sell again.

LADY MACDUFF: Thou speak’st with all thy wit: and yet, i’ faith,/ With wit enough for thee.…/ Now, God help thee, poor monkey!/ But how wilt thou do for a father?

Son: If he were dead, you’ld weep for/ him: if you would not, it were a good sign/ that I should quickly have a new father.

         LADY MACDUFF: Poor prattler, how thou talk’st! (4,2,30-63)

The mother unrelentingly emphasizes the father’s absence. Her rigid insistence to blame him brings to mind Shakespeare’s own wife and her conceivable complaints[46]. The boy, in contrast, responds in a cheerful and carefree manner, producing an impression of solidarity to his father. Tragically a couple of lines later he will be fatally hit by Macbeth’s assassins, as he is defending his father’s honour, who is not there to protect him. In the next scene Macduff, shocked by the loss of his family, especially his children, blames himself: Sinful Macduff,/ They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,/ Not for their own demerits, but for mine,/ Fell slaughter on their souls. (4,3,224-227)

Cavell (2003) suggests that the basic question pervading the tragedy is “whether we can see what we make happen and tell its difference from what happens to us”.[47] It is reasonable to suspect that Shakespeare would have been tormented by a similar and very specific question: was his son’s death an accident that could not have been prevented in the context of a plague epidemic, or did he bear personal responsibility for it owing to his absence from home?

An answer to this question is of course impossible. But Shakespeare, being an active nihilist[48], manages to transform his pain and guilt into creativity. Although Macbeth’s famous lines on life’s lack of meaning,

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

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. (5,5,19-28)

sound like a statement of the poet’s depressive viewpoint, sharing these painful feelings with his main character (and, virtually, with his audience) can be assumed to have enhanced Shakespeare’s resilience.

Shakespeare will live another ten years[49], but his poetic career will be three years shorter[50. Comparing the above lines from Macbeth to the last lines ever written by the bard[51], it seems that in this seven-year interval Shakespeare succeeded in accepting both the finiteness of existence and the imperfections of human nature:

O you heavenly charmers,

What things you make of us! For what we lack

We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still

Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful

For that which is, and with you leave dispute

That are above our question. Let’s go off,

And bear us like the time.[52]



[1] Our essay was about Shakespeare’s original text, whereas the libretto of Verdi’s opera is an adaptation by Francesco Maria Piave.

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scottish_Play. On another level Fawkner (1990), p. 207 suggests: “Not only actors but also critics have felt the need to protect themselves against what should not have been revealed. Also to the critic the play might seem to say: ‘you have known what you should not.’”

[3] De Quincey (1823) states “O mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other men, simply and merely great works of art, but are also like the phenomena of nature…”

[4] I find Belliotti’s distinction of six forms of nihilism very enlightening: existential, skeptical, anarchistic, epistemological, moral, passive and active nihilism. Belliotti (2001), p. 31 ff.

[5] Yalom (2003) p. 24. The idea that man finds himself thrown into the cosmos (Geworfenheit) belongs to Heidegger.

[6] Belliotti (2001) quotes these lines and comments: “A person could still feel grave disproportion between effort invested in life and what life is and offers.”

[7] Belliotti (2001), p. 31: “Human beings give meaning to their existence not by eliminating the absurd, for that is impossible, but by refusing to yield meekly to its effects.”

[8] “For brave Macbeth… with his brandish’d steel/ which smok’d with bloody execution/ carv’d out his passage…/till he unseam’d him from th’ nave to th’ chaps”. (1,2,16-22)

[9] 1,1,35-36, 55.

[10] 1,4,14-21. Its final lines are: Only I have left to say,/ More is thy due than more than all can pay.

[11] Many contrasting or contradictory phrases continually suggesting the other side of the same thing contribute to this effect: triumph/loss, ascent/fall. As early as the 4th line of the tragedy the 2nd Witch answers the 1st Witch’s question Where shall we three meet again…? with the line When the battle’s lost and won. And very soon after his fist appearance on stage Macbeth reflects: And nothing is than what is not.

[12] “… the ‘master’ quickly exhausts the energy of his own golden identity…” , Fawkner(1990) p. 9. Cf. Macbeth’s own words (1, 7, 33): and I have bought / Golden opinions from all sorts of people.

[13] He was a gentleman on whom I built/ an absolute trust. (1,4,13-14)

[14] In Yalom (2003), p. 26.

[15] Thus, after his hesitation in Act 1, Scene 1, it only takes Lady Macbeth’s angry contemptuous reaction to put him back to the path of crime (1,7,35 ff.). From now on “heroic” Macbeth appears more and more terrified until his infuriation and exasperation in the end of the play.

[16] Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with a very effective paradox: emphasizing at first his masculinity and then by questioning it, see 1,7,39-41 and 49-51.

[17] Freud (1916), 322-323. See also Palfrey (2013), 101: “Indeed Kierkegaard treats husband and wife almost as one. … Lady Macbeth… is … at one with her husband, a twinned consciousness that he [Kierkegaard] understands as a limit-case of existential probation, terror and bad faith.”

[18] …his fiend-like queen,/ Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands/ Took off her life; (5,8, 70-72)

[19] Wheeler (2014).

[20] Cf. Yalom (1980), p. 8-9.

[21] Macbeth is planning to murder a good and virtuous king, sweet-mannered and just, generous and trusting, a man related to him by blood, whom he hosts under his own roof (1,7,12-20).

[22] Singh (2007), p. 89.

[23] Cf. Schopenhauer’s words: “If… this existence is a kind of false step or wrong path, it it is the work of an originally blind will… then the act perpetuating that existence must appear precisely as in fact it does” , i.e. interwoven with guilt. The quotation is found inSingh (2007), p. 89.

[24] Palfrey (2013), pp. 101-102, fn. 23: “… the entire book [Sickness unto Death] can seem to be one long commentary upon Shakespeare’s ‘sick at heart’ protagonist… Indeed the book culminates in a section, ‘The continuance of sin’, … which can be read as a poetic ‘riff’ upon Macbeth’s ‘internal intensification’ of despair.”

[25] Palfrey( 2013), σ. 100: “Kirkegaard reads Macbeth… as far more of a poem of consciousness-in-process than a stage drama.”

[26] According to Palfrey (2013), p. 102, these lines appealed very much to Kierkegaard for their sensitivity to the psychic load, for their knowledge of the inescapable desire of the self both for worldly fulfilment and eternal truth and for their irony, being at the same time a public lie and a private truth.

[27]  Macbeth’s obsessive preoccupation with the loss of sleep extends to around 10 lines: Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep’…/ Still it cried ‘Sleep no more!’ to all the house:/ ‘Glamis hath murder’d sleep, and therefore Cawdor/ Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.’

[28] I have almost forgot the taste of fears… /Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,/ cannot once start me (5,5,9-15). See also Palfrey (2013),  p. 109.

[29] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 253 in Palfrey (2013),  p. 109.

[30] Cf. Ernest Hemingway’s letter to his parents, after his serious injury during World War I, in Dieguez (2011), p. 94:“Dying is a very simple thing, I’ve looked at death and really I know. If I should have died it would have been very easy for me. Quite the easiest thing I ever did.”

[31] Behold, where stands/ The usurper’s cursed head, are the words of Macduff as he enters the stage holding the pole with Macbeth’s head on it. (5,8,54-55)

[32] For the theme of sterility in Macbeth see Part 2 of this article.

[33] Smith (2013), chapter “Speed, anticipation and fulfilment”, p. 97 ff. A very insightful observation is the one on p. 99: “We [the audience], like Macbeth, are hungry for the satisfaction of the plot being fulfilled: our narrative pleasure and his ambition seek the same end.”

[34]  Poetry and its power seem to come “from a fierce need for life, a manic attempt to survive in adverse, extremely adverse – experientially, at least – circumstances. Zervas (2012)

[35] Cf. Freud (1916): “We must, I think, give up any hope of penetrating the triple layer of obscurity into which the bad preservation of the text, the unknown intention of the dramatist, and the hidden purport of the legend have become condensed. But I should not subscribe to the objection that investigations like these are idle in face of the powerful effect which the tragedy has upon the spectator.”

[36] Eliot (1921).

[37] Oates (1998), pp. 162-169.

[38] McNair (1998),p. 157.

[39] Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, p. 132 in Palfrey (2013),  p.108.

[40] Greenblatt (2004), Ακρόυντ (2010).

[41] Wells et al. (1997), p.90.

[42] Ackroyd (2010), p. 590.

[43] Kakolyris (2006).

[44] Note the similarity of the names‘Hamlet’ and ‘Hamnet’.

[45] Greenblatt (2004), σ. 289-290. Wood (2003) , σ. 166 : “Within the next year or two [after his son’s death] a change gradually came about not only in Shakespeare’s themes but also in his way of writing, in his language and imagery… This was not only a personal tragedy but a powerful intimation of mortality.” And Curtis (1997) p.137, considers Macbeth more sharply pessimistic than King Lear.

[46] Lady Macduff sounds proud for her son but harshly criticises her husband. See Ackroyd (2010), p. 115: Shakespeare was 8 years younger than his wife, an age difference even more significant in those times and consistent with a stern attitude on her part. Also Duncan-Jones (2001), p. 83, for a hypothesis on Shakespeare’s related self-criticism: “What did [Shakespeare] … have to leave to his own son, except empty fame and an empty name?”

[47] Cavell (2003), p. 223

[48] Belliotti (2001), σ. 31: “Active nihilism accepts inherent cosmic purposelessness as the springboard to creative possibilities.”

[49] Shakespeare will die on his 53rd birthday.

[50] Ackroyd (2010), p. 580.

[51] Ackroyd (2010)

[52] The two noble kinsmen  (5,4,154-160).



Bibliographical references

Adelman, Janet (1996), “Born of Woman: Fantasies of Maternal Power in Macbeth”, in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, Shirley Nelson Garner & Madelon Sprengnether (eds.), Indiana University Press, 105-134

Belliotti, Raymond A. (2001), What is the meaning of human life, Rodopi, Amsterdam

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