Jean-Paul Sartre and Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Jean-Paul Sartre is an atheist philosopher who has recently been labeled as the “Apostle of Absurdity” in a series of articles called  “Pillars of Unbelief” by Peter Kreeft, a professor of Philosophy at Boston College.  In his articles, Kreeft outlines the dangerous impact of six modern thinkers on contemporary culture.  Sartre’s name qualifies to be in this list, and rightly so. 

Sartre’s version of atheism is called Existentialism because it sees life as the outcome of choices made by each individual in accordance with his will.  Sartre goes a little further than most 19th century atheists.  For atheists such as Marx, Nietzsche and Strauss, the concept of God has a looming presence somewhere in the background despite all efforts done to suppress it.  This is clearly manifested in the manner in which they conceptualize humanity.  Throughout their writings, human beings are endowed with a preset nature that leaves the reader pondering, ‘if God does not exist, where does this nature come from?’

Sartre seeks to distance himself further from the Christian mindset, which has overwhelmingly enveloped the western culture for centuries, and resolves to answer this question with the famous phrase, “existence precedes essence.”  Since God the Creator does not exist, human beings are not a platonic projection of a preconceived and predefined blueprint.  Instead, they gain essence or nature through their will, which is manifested by the choices they make in this life.  Prior to their birth, human beings do not have a nature or essence. Their nature is only developed gradually and progressively by their choices after they are born. Sartre defines a threefold doctrine that is a result of this worldview. 

Human beings are in constant “anguish” due to the “profound responsibility” that accompanies every decision (Sartre 390).  When deciding on something, each person is a “legislator deciding for the whole of mankind” (Sartre 392).  His actions constitute a template for the rest of humanity. Therefore, he bears the liability and blame for the consequences of his decisions.

Human beings are in a state of “abandonment” (Sartre 392). God’s omission necessarily implies that man is left to his own devices. This means that man is left to himself to construct a code of ethics because there is no God who issues or decrees precise definitions of good and evil.  All things are “permitted if God does not exist” (Sartre 392). This concept is exceptionally significant because its ramifications are prevalent in the moral code of contemporary ethics.

Finally, due to the limited “possibilities,” a human being is bound to fall into despair (Sartre 393). There is no God to save or to intervene in any given situation, and the outcome of each action is limited to the few possible outcomes that must follow the action.  Hence, there is no hope to expect something beyond these possibilities. It follows that human beings are in a constant state of despair. 

The application of this worldview turns reality into a horrifying experience that leaves its subscribers in a state of constant grief, dismay and struggle.  Shakespeare’s character Macbeth is a testament to this fact.  As the play begins, Macbeth is a faithful soldier in the service of his country and his king. On his way back home from the battle, Macbeth is accompanied by Banquo, another brave and loyal soldier who fights by Macbeth’s side and assists Macbeth in securing victory for Scotland against the Norwegian transgressors and Scottish traitors. Macbeth’s initial success stirs him into lofty ambitions and grand designs.  Three witches appear to him and stir his ambitions further by suggesting that he will be the King of Scotland. Macbeth takes this for a prophecy that must be fulfilled in one way or another.  He begins to harbour a murderous “thought” in his mind for which, up till now, the “horrid image” of murder is “fantastical” (I.iii.136, 140).  He plans to murder the king and take his throne. At this point, Macbeth’s religious beliefs, at least his creedal affiliations (as opposed to his sanctity, see the Catholic doctrine of Justification), are not atheistic. This is clearly demonstrated in his constant references to Christian concepts such as “heaven’s cherubin,” a Christian angelic rank, or Judgment in “life to come” (I.vii.7, 22).  He makes these references when he is pondering the nature of his ambition.  His murderous intention is temporarily thwarted for several reasons among which his religious fear of eternal damnation is listed as the first deterrent. 

Macbeth’s wife, Lady Macbeth, bullies him into committing the murder and usurping the throne of Scotland.  After King Duncan’s murder, Macbeth’s character changes drastically.  He finds himself degenerating into a bloodthirsty murderer who is willing to cut his friends’ throats and slaughter his cousins’ families.  Perhaps without even realizing it, he gradually sheds his Christian morality and begins to discover the true nature of his belief system.  There is no clear indication as to when exactly this takes place before his famous Aside, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” (V.v.19).  However, in this speech, Macbeth shows that he has completely deserted his Christians beliefs. Here is the speech in its entirety.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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.
(Patrick Steward’s performance of this speech)

Setyon, Macbeth’s armour bearer, brings Macbeth the news of his wife’s passing. Macbeth responds to this news with purported indifference; he says that she would have died sooner or later.  The lines that follow depict Macbeth’s new perspective in life.  Finally, Macbeth is in touch with an inner reality; his worldview is more Sartrean than it is Christian. Under this alleged indifference, Macbeth feels the sting of his wife’s death, and all the “anguish” that accompanies the bereavement of a life’s companion is masked under a dismissive attitude. Not only is Macbeth responsible for his wife’s death, but also for his own ruin as well as his kingdom’s descent into civil war. Considering the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the tremendous “anguish” that Macbeth feels, he chooses not to face the consequences of his actions. Rather, he reacts with a dismissive speech about the meaninglessness of life.

The speech begins with a monotonous description of time, “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.” Macbeth sees time as a cyclical motion whereby a repetitive and meaningless routine is constantly recurring.  Nothing in life is meaningful for Macbeth because all human actions are inconsequential.  Life after death is no longer of any significance. This can only signify that Macbeth’s belief in God, regardless of its authenticity, has finally subsided, and he sees life as a short time lived here on earth.  While alive for a short time, Macbeth feels “abandoned,” forsaken, forgotten and forlorn.  This notion is further solidified when he sees all his thanes and noblemen leaving him and “mingl[ing] with the English epicures” (V.iii.8).  Of course, he feels deserted and estranged because God is no longer a real force and an existent Being for him.  Instead of living in fellowship, grace, and consolation of God, Macbeth feels alone, alienated and “abandoned.” As a result of God’s absence, Macbeth turns to his own constructions of good and evil. He legislates his own code of ethics.  Morality for him becomes a personal endeavour He feels that there is nothing wrong with a “false face” hiding “what the false heart doth know” (I.vii.82).  Nor is there anything wrong with “things” that are “bad begun” being sustained and made “strong” by further “ill” (III.ii.55).  Macbeth’s distorted sense of right and wrong is a direct result of not having a measuring stick to guide and steer him towards the right path that is untainted by his own crooked whims, biases and persuasions. Self-aggrandizement and selfish ambition are the driving force, or the supreme ruler in his life.  Of course, this supreme ruler, the god, which has become the new object of worship for Macbeth, stands in direct contrast with the Supreme Ruler, God the Creator and Author of all morality. In either case, Macbeth, just like everyone else, is bound to worship someone or something. Rejection of God means another god will creep in and take control of people’s lives.  In this case, Macbeth’s ardent desire for the throne and the power that comes along with it has become the god, which has gained his total devotion, veneration and worship. 

All thanes and noblemen desert Macbeth and join Malcolm. Macbeth fortifies the castle at Dunsinane Hill and awaits Malcolm’s advancing forces.  The possible outcomes at this point are limited. Malcolm’s “push” will either “cheer” Macbeth, in which case Macbeth will rule over Scotland tyrannically and with an iron fist, or it will “disseat” him, bringing death along with it (V.iii.20, 21).  For Macbeth, it is either death or a life that is empty of “honour, love, obedience and troops of friends” (V.iii.25).  The number of limited possibilities excludes divine involvement or a miraculous intervention by God to save Macbeth or offer him a safe exist out of this dire situation.  This is precisely why Macbeth falls into “despair” and feels that life is not worth living; it would not make a difference for him if the “candle” were to be put “out.” Macbeth clearly feels Sartre’s sense of despair. 

Now that Macbeth has consciously adopted Sartre’s views, he looks at life and describes it using four metaphors.  First, it is a “brief candle,” because it does not last for a long time. Life is short because there is no eternity to prolong it and make it worthwhile.  Due to its brevity, life is not worth living, and extinguishing this life would not make a difference. Note the sense of despair and hopelessness in this life that is lived far from God.  The second metaphor compares life to a “walking shadow” because there is nothing authentic in this life.  A shadow is not an authentic and a real object. It is weak, fickle and erratic. All these traits make a shadow unimportant or insignificant.  Life is just a “shadow” because it is insignificant.  Third, Macbeth compares life to a “poor player” who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” After that, he is “heard no more.” Again, the “hour” signifies the brevity of life. The performance of this “player” is incomprehensible and senseless.  Finally, life is compared to a “tale” that is told by an “idiot” whose speech is incoherent and unintelligible.  All his passions and enthusiasms are “sound and fury,” which signify “nothing.”  The stark contrast between Macbeth’s character in the beginning of the play and his character in the end demonstrates clearly the dangers in the Sartrean worldview.  Macbeth is no longer the loyal servant of Scotland who is full of vigour and life. He has completely abandoned God, and along with God, all desire to live a life of service and sacrifice. 

The development of Macbeth’s character demonstrates a movement from a Christian worldview to a Sartrean way of life.  It is not a coincidence that Macbeth ends up lonely, miserable and dead.  Often, experts are quick to point out the absurd violence in this play.  This violence denotes the sense of pain and depravity a human being suffers in his denial of God’s existence. During the battle against Macdonwald the rebel, Macbeth advances through the ranks and “unseam[s]” him from his “nave” to his “chaps” (I.ii.22).  In the final scene, Macduff walks in a room where the rest of Scotland’s nobility are gathered while carrying Macbeth’s head in his hands.  The visual imagery is that of a surgery being conducted. Cutting a person open and purging him from any devotion to God the Creator is a painful process, and will only result in a dreadful conclusion. Sartre’s atheistic views are extremely dangerous, and their consequences will only slice the belly of humanity open and decapitate it, rendering it miserable, hopeless and dead.

Works Cited
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Atheistic Humanism.” Issues in Religion 2. Ed. Allie Frazier. Blemont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1975. 388-394. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, 2006. Print.


Popular posts from this blog

Biblical Proof of Mary’s Immaculate Conception I

الأخ وحيد بخصوص الاخوة الكذبة

Biblical Proof of Mary’s Immaculate Conception II