Trinity Sunday ~ Macbeth Sermon 2015
Today is Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the Three-in-one nature of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While it may be truthfully said that we do that every Sunday, today is traditionally a day for deep exposition of scripture, and profound theological reflection. Which is why in many parishes today, the curate gets to preach. However, it’s my turn today, so I intend to ignore the Trinity completely.
Instead I want to talk about Macbeth.
A couple of weeks ago we had a triumphant performance of Handel’s Messiah – one of the greatest works of music ever written, and a great joy to hear it under this roof. Well now – this week – hot on its heels - will come another amazing achievement: as the Drama Group present Macbeth - one of the greatest plays ever written. It’s probably Shakespeare’s most famous and best known play, combining fact and fiction in a blend which raises questions about the supernatural, about witchcraft, about ambition, loyalty, honour, evil and betrayal.
Macbeth is a tragedy.
Tragedies were not invented by Shakespeare, they emerge from Greek Drama, where the word tragedy literally translated means ‘the song of a goat!’ Tragedies were by far the most popular form of drama in ancient Greece, because they focused on the Hero: the Tragic Hero. In Greek tragedy, there was a sense that the hero was not like you and me - the hero had to be a King, or great man or woman. And tragedies were all about how they fell - invariably from a great height.
The greater the hero, the greater the fall.
Tragedy gained its acceptance and respectability at the hands of no less than Aristotle, who wrote a treatise on tragedy in which he explains that the reason we like tragedies is because we experience what he called catharsis when the hero not only meets, but understands his fate.
When Romeo and Juliet kill themselves; when Othello discovers that Desdemona has not been unfaithful, when St. Peter realises that Jesus has predicted that he will deny him - these are all moments of catharsis, moments of deep emotion for these characters, and they affect us, giving us a strange sense of dramatic satisfaction and closure. The realisation that occurs is the awareness of what is called the tragic flaw. Everyone, great men too, has a weakness, something which spurs them on, but which ultimately trips them up, causing them to come crashing to the floor, bringing down their world around them. Traits such as pride, jealousy, fear, or procrastination have all been classic tragic flaws.
In Macbeth’s case, it is ambition.
Such is the colour of tragedy - a great man, a fatal flaw and a catharsis - the moment of realisation prior to collapse.
Macbeth then, is a classic case.
So Macbeth is not a History play, it is a Tragedy, but there is some history to consider nevertheless. Macbeth was King of the Scots between 1040 and 1057. He was originally the great steward of Moray, when Duncan was King of Scotland. Scottish tradition had come up with a very unusual way of sharing the kingship from one generation to the next: there were two royal families who alternated. The family who were not in charge of Scotland were put in charge of the sub-kingdom of Strathclyde. But this system broke down in the 970s, causing a feud between to two families. Suffice it to say that Macbeth was from one family, and Duncan was from the other. Duncan’s son was called Malcolm (as in the play), and Malcolm did succeed Macbeth, thus returning the crown to that family once more.
Macbeth did kill Duncan in 1040, in battle, when he was attacked by him. Macbeth ruled all of Scotland until 1054, when Siward, a Northumbrian Earl invaded, in order to install Malcolm as King. Macbeth was killed some three years later, at the battle of Lumphanan.
It is worth noting that Macbeth was regarded as a legitimate king of Scotland for fourteen years, and that the whole business is classic feudal stuff - two families at odds, killing each other for the crown.
Various chroniclers, on whom Shakespeare drew, notably Hollinshead, have largely created the mythical, tyrannical Macbeth who is famous today, and whose fictional, tragic story has distorted the events of history.
I’ll not spoil the plot here of course - you either know it or you don't, and either way, come and see it next weekend!
No play is written without a reason or agenda.
Some of these reasons behind Macbeth are still relevant today, others less so. For example, Macbeth’s killing of Duncan raised questions about the divine right of Kings. The notion that the King is God’s anointed ruler, is something of which we even hold a residue today. The Archbishop of Canterbury crowns our monarch, and Paul, in the letter to the Romans, chapter 13, suggests that rulers are appointed by God. Regicide - the killing of a King - is thus particularly woeful.
Macbeth is reluctant:
Besides, this Duncan
hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
so clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet tongued, against
the deep damnation of his taking off; (1.VII 16-20)
There are also issues about witchcraft, a subject in which King James was particularly interested. The witches - agents of the supernatural - lure a good man to treason, murder, vaulting ambition and self-destruction. Shakespeare’s was the age of witchcraft trials, the senseless execution of old women who kept cats, and of deep superstition. A contemporary issue, yes, but not one which has died out. The occult is still popular, and has caused some terrible crimes and the abuse of children is linked to it still. The message here, as well as pandering to a strange fascination in the subject is - dabble here at your peril. We might wonder exactly why the witches tell Macbeth anything in the first place. As Banquo puts it, seeing the problem immediately, which will yet cause his own death:
And oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
in deepest consequence. (1.III 122-126)
Do they predict the evil truth, or make it so?
A bit of both perhaps.
Macbeth’s ambition, and the murder of Duncan would probably not have happened had they not met on the fateful heath. Banquo’s murder is a direct consequence of their words. Macbeth’s tragic fall can be charted in terms of a slide into superstitious belief in fate. Less dramatically, it is something we can all be led into - whether having special lottery numbers, or consulting mediums to contact the dead. It can be very dangerous with serious implications for other people.
Another topical point to the sixteenth century is that of Scotland. Perhaps it still is, less than 12 months since an independence vote when we find the Scottish Nationalists now to be the third party in parliament!
James 1st, from the family of Stuart, was also James VIth of Scotland. Banquo is allegedly an ancestor of the Stuarts, and this sympathetic portrait of Banquo as a martyr to goodness was no doubt intended to flatter the King of newly unified Scotland and England.
There is also the question of honour.
Macbeth is an honourable man, who makes bad. He fights well in battle - the injured sergeant at the beginning tells us of his virtues, how he faced the enemy like a man, brave Macbeth. Duncan also praises the sergeant, saying:
So well thy words become thee as thy wounds;
They smack of honour both (1.II 44-45).
This is mirrored at the end of the play, when Siward’s son is killed in battle, but with wounds to his front denoting bravery and honour. Honour is restored, normal nature returns after this period of unnatural desires and events.
Macbeth is all about ambition.
He knows that it is is his fatal flaw, and Shakespeare puts these words into his mouth very early on:
I have no spur
to prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
and falls on the other. (1.VII 25-28)
The horseman imagery is straight from battle, Macbeth is only spurred on to kill Duncan, by the desire to have power and greatness.
But in doing so Macbeth betrays himself, betrays his honour and his name, all because he wants one thing, which he ultimately despises, concluding it was not worth it, and that even life itself is an act on the stage, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Macbeth summons some final strength for the final battle, but when he is killed, we feel not only that justice is done, but that really there was no other option for him. He had everything, but it cost him everything, and life had no further meaning.
There is a book, by Rabbi Harold Kushner called When all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough. Macbeth should have read that book. But that of course is the problem that lottery winners, leaders and our local diamond thieves alike experience, and we do sometimes, to the extent that if we want something and get it, we soon want something else.
Everything is never enough.
Lucky are we, perhaps, who cannot have everything, because there is room then for a little ambition, a little hope, and a purpose in life. Being ambitious needn’t be wrong, it’s just overleaping ambition that demands and gets fulfilment at the expense of others, that is damaging, to individuals and society.
Macbeth is also a traitor – a betrayer.
As such he stands with Judas. He betrays himself, his friends and his King. Duncan has been very good to him, and trusts him when under his roof, only to be cruelly and bloodily murdered in his sleep. Macbeth murders sleep. To kill someone when they are asleep is ultimately cowardly, for they stand no chance at all.
And of course, Macbeth is a traitor to Banquo, his friend and fellow soldier.
Moved to cowardly murder to protect his own line over Banquo’s (even though Macbeth has no children), Macbeth’s assassination of Banquo seems pointless as well as treacherous. So low will he stoop. It is one thing, as Jesus said, to lay down your life for a friend - quite another to lay down your friend’s life for your own ambitious purposes.
There is much much more in Macbeth of course.
There are resonances of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Saul and Jonathan – the play is a rich tapestry of spiritual and moral meaning. Perhaps I have reminded you of parts, perhaps you are now inspired to come and see it this weekend. Meanwhile, for your reflection, consider whether you are ambitious at all, and to what extent has your ambition governed your actions, and to what effect? When you got what you wanted, how did it feel? And how does it feel now, perhaps years later?
Sometimes what you want is right, and its lovely when it happens. Give thanks for that - not everyone is blessed with simple desires, simply gained. Others are bowed down with ambition, pride and go-gettedness.
Or if you didn’t get what you wanted, did it really matter? Perhaps it did really matter - think about that. And do you have a fatal flaw? - a weakness which could yet bring you down - a flaw which can hurt and damage others, your friends, family, yourself. Look into the eyes of Macbeth - an honourable man turned evil. What do you see of yourself reflected in the mirror held in his ambitious, treacherous, frightened hands?
For we are all sinners – we all fall short of the glory of God.
And yet, and yet, as today’s famous gospel lines pit it:
‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
To whom be all praise, honour and majesty now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 31/05/15