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The Politics of Aloofness in "Macbeth"
Author(s): JONATHAN BALDO
Source: English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 26, No. 3, Monarchs (AUTUMN 1996), pp. 531-560
Published by: Wiley
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43447533
Accessed: 01-06-2016 19:56 UTC
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JONATHAN BALDO

The Politics of Aloofness in Macbeth

There is the same method through all the world in general. All things come
to their height by degrees; there they stay the least of time; then they decline
as they rose.

- Owen Felthamr Resolves, XLIX
The King our Soveraigne is lawfully and lineally descended . . . and that by
so long a continued line of lawfull descent, as therein he exceedeth all the
Kings that the world now knoweth.

- The Lord Chancellor, 1608

Jonathan abeth and King James as follows: in the pageants that were an

Jonathan important
important
abeth and Goldberg part King
part
of Jamesof
both sumsboth
as monarchs'monarchs'
up follows: the contrasting in"symbolics
"symbolics the pageants stylesof
of of power,"
power,"
that Queen were "Eliz"Eliz- Eliz- an
abeth played at being a part," whereas "James played at being apart,
separate."1 Displaying "an unmovingness even as he moved through
London," James departed dramatically from the style of his predecessor,
who "offered a show of love in her first display before the people in her

procession through London in 1558/9," and who generally "provided a
mirror of the people s hopes and wishes in her attentiveness to the
pageants, in pressing the English Bible to her bosom after kissing it, in
seemingly spontaneous responses to the words said to her" (pp. 29-32).
By contrast with the Queen who played according to script, as it were,
"James stood aloof; for him to see was enough" (p. 31). In Macbeth
James's elected style of aloofness, imitating "the style of gods," is reflected in the disquieting quietude of Malcolm and in a multitude of
other forms of aloofness. "Aloofness" is an exceptionally complex trope
in the play, and it appears to be the winning style of kingship.
I. Jonathan Goldberg, James land the Politics of Literature (1983; rpt. Stanford, 1989), p. 31.

S3!

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$32 English Literary Renaissance
James's aloofness is intimately tied to his doctrine of legitimism.
Succeeding a childless virgin and coming from Scotland, James empha-

sized lineage in his speech to his first Parliament,2 a strategy, I shall
argue, that produces "aloofness" in many forms. Claiming to trace his
ancestry to the first king of Scotland, Fergus I of the 4th century B.C.,
James believed and caused others to believe that he held the throne of
England by "birthright and lineal descent." In his 1607 address to Parliament, James insisted that the "Kings descent [should be] mainteined,
and the heritage of the succession and Monarchie, which hath bene a
Kingdome, to which I am in descent, three hundred yeeres before
CHRIST."3 He also expressed the hope that his royal line would rule
England "to the end of the world," a wish echoed in Macbeth s glum
response to the Show of Kings, "What, will the line stretch out to th'
crack of doom?" (4.1. 13 2). 4

For Elizabeth it would have been impolitic to draw too much attention to lineal succession, one of the primary motifs of Macbeth , since a
whiff of illegitimacy surrounded her reign from the beginning. Elizabeth cultivated a theatrical style of kingship, in which her legitimacy
was continually reaffirmed not by aloofness but by her theatricality, her

participation in shows of force and of love. As Goldberg maintains,
"The queens legitimacy, the law that justifies her power, is the inheritance from Henry VIII of the show of force and the ability to display the
actuality of power when the show failed to work" (p. 28). Shakespeare's

Elizabethan history plays and tragedies echo her theatrical displays of
power as well as the interrupted and distinctly unlineal successions
characteristic of her family's history. By contrast, Macbeth shares James's
trope of power, lineal succession, and the aloofness that was its natural
issue. His aloofness is refracted and shown in several parts in Macbeth :

those of Banquo, Macduff, the witches, and especially Malcolm. Not
only does he succeed to the throne at the end of the play, but his
eventual succession is mirrored by many other speeches and situations
2. In his opening speech to his first English Parliament, James insisted that a king who
inherits the throne through lawful succession could not be dispossessed. Parliament responded
by declaring him "as being lineally, jusdy and lawfully, next and sole Heir of the Blood Royal of
this Realm." In The Trew Law of Free Monarchies he had written that the people owe allegiance
not merely to the present king but to "his lawfull heires and posterity, the lineall succession of

crowns being begun among the people of God, and happily continued in diuers christian

common- wealths."

3. Charles H. Mcllwain, ed., The Political Works of James I (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), p. 300.
4. All citations from Macbeth refer to the recent Oxford Shakespeare edition, ed. Nicholas

Brooke (Oxford, 1990).

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Jonathan Baldo 533
in which he appears in a general way sovereign over the successive. A
mastery over succession from a position separate and apart from it takes

many forms: to name just a few, Malcolm s embodiment of a stable,
universal paradigm of kingship; the witches' foreknowledge of events;
the symbolic exemption of Macduff, the man not born of woman, from
biological succession; and in its most explicitly political form, Banquo s

founding of a line of kings to which he does not properly belong.
Malcolm s mastery over seriality of various kinds, analogous to that of
his playwright as well as of the weird sisters, Banquo, and Macduff, sets
him apart from Macbeth, who is a prisoner of interminable successions
that have no exterior, no end, and therefore no meaning.5 A transcendence of sequential articulation is an essential part of the formula for
political success in this play. Because it is independent of successions of
various kinds, Malcolm s success seems infinitely repeatable, in a succes-

sion that stretches to infinity in the Show of Kings: seems, because
linear, sequential order is challenged by the stuttering and cyclical prog-

ress of speech, action, and, in one of the play s visions of it, history

itself.6

Although the line was James's favored image for the history of his
house and of the countries he governed, it was not the dominant way of

conceiving history in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Partly as an
inheritance from classical historians, cyclical conceptions of history
predominated in the Tudor and early Stuart eras.7 The understanding
of history as either a single cycle or a series of repeatable cycles received
some competition from a degenerative model of history as a continuous
5. Barbara Everett writes that Lady Macbeth sacrifices "to Macbeth s success his succession their hope of children." She usefully discusses shifts in the meaning of "success" as well, in Young
Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies (Oxford, 1989), pp. 96, 104.

6. See "Shakespeare's Art of Preparation," in Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeare's Dramatic Art
(London, 1 971), pp. 1-95.
7. See the valuable discussion by Achsah Guibbory, The Map of Time: Seventeenth- Century
English Literature and Ideas of Pattern in History (Urbana, 1986). On the cyclical de casibus pattern

in Tudor history writing, see F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Cal., 1967),
pp. 15fr. On the cyclical form of most Stuart historical writing, see D. R. Woolf s recent The
Idea of History in Early Stuart England (Toronto, 1990), pp. 3 if.

Maijorie Garber has much to say about circular temporal patterns in " 'What Past is Prologue': Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays," in Renaissance Genres: Essays
on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Lewalski, Harvard English Studies 14 (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), pp. 301-31. Sigurd Burckhardt discusses rings and circular form in The
Merchant of Venice in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 210-1 1. Mark Rose discusses

the "full circle technique" in Hamlet in his Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass., 1972),
pp. 58-60, 124. On the palindromic structure of Hamlet, see James R. Siemon's discussion in
Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley, 1985).

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534 English Literary Renaissance
and irreversible decline, a view that also had ample classical precedents.
A third conception, according to which history marked a steady prog-

ress or upward movement, began to emerge later in the seventeenth
century.8

The cyclical model of history, the dominant one for Renaissance
England, was subject to a variety of interpretations. Thus, for Raleigh
the cyclical pattern of rise and fall evident in all the great kingdoms was

providentially ordained, the doleful evidence of "GODS judgments
upon the greater and greatest."9 For others, like Hakewill and Browne,

the cyclical order of history was to be celebrated as evidence of the
perfection of God, commonly described as a circle whose center is
everywhere and circumference nowhere.10 A cyclical view of history
was sometimes put forth to attack the competing idea of history as
inevitable and universal decay. In short, in cyclical accounts of history

the accent could fall on the inevitability of either degeneration or
regeneration.
In spite of this inherent flexibility in the view of history as a cycle(s),

such a view was potentially threatening to a monarch who wished his
line to rule in England "to the end of the world." It is telling that during
the Interregnum, the republican James Harrington alluded to the cycli-

cal view of history to explain the demise of the Stuart dynasty: "the
dissolution of the late Monarchy was as natural as the death of a man"u In
addition, the history of Scotland, including the reigns of both Macbeth

and Malcolm, seemed particularly well-suited to a cyclical interpretation, replete as it was with the pattern of coup and countercoup, seeming evidence of Fortune's wheel at work.12 As Sir Christopher Piggot,
8. See the discussion in Guibbory, pp. 5ff. James's preference seems to have been "none of the
above." Scottish conservatives like James tended to emphasize "the timeless order underlying all
mutation and transience." Arthur H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of

James VI (Edinburgh, 1979), p. 46. (Cited in David Norbrook, "Macbeth and the Politics of
Historiography," in The Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth- Century

England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker [Berkeley, 1987], p. 99.) What Shakespeare does
with various kinds of circular movement in Macbeth, it seems to me, is to make them appear to
support the absolutist faith in timeless order, although, like everything else in the play, they
equivocate, and may also (or instead) suggest something like the opposite of an order immune
from mutation and transience.

9. Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, sig. A2v.

10. See Guibbory, pp. I2ff.
1 1 . Cited in Guibbory, p. 1 1 .

12. In what must have seemed a subversive treatment of the Show of Kings, Sir Henry
Beerbohm Tree "turned his figures on a giant wheel where, in visual metaphor, each rose to the
highest before giving way to his successor" (Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth [Berkeley,
1978], p. 523), apparently giving the lie to the promise of an endless lineage promised by the Show,

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Jonathan Baldo 535
an English member of Parliament, said in 1605, the Scots "have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these two hundred years."13
The Scottish historiographical tradition was intensely disliked by James
for its record of an elective element in the Scottish monarchy as well as

its frequent advancement of the idea of limited monarchy, as David
Norbrook has recently detailed.14 For those in Shakespeare's audience
who knew that Malcolm turned tyrant and was subsequently deposed,
following a familiar pattern in the history of the Scottish monarchy,
the image of future Scottish and English history as an unbroken, peaceful, and infinite line of descent must have seemed a skewed prophecy
indeed. To those spectators, the shape of history (including Stuart history) might have been better approximated not by the rigorously se-

quential Jacobean line,15 but by the grotesque antic rounds of the
witches, like the one that follows on the heels of the Show, or the
circularity of their order of speech. In addition, as a force for producing

doubling and repetition, cyclicism in Macbeth becomes linked with
and substituting an endless series of cycles more in the spirit of Macbeth 's "Tomorrow" speech. It
is entirely possible that the visual impact of the Show of Kings as it was originally staged may have

been predominantly cyclical. As Nicholas Brooke notes in his recent Oxford Shakespeare edition
of the play (1990), "There is no need for eight actors if they move round backstage and re-enter
with different emblems (depending on the structure of the theatre)" (p. 176).
13. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957-75), v. 7,
pp. 428-29. Needless to say Piggot and James were not on the best of terms; in his 1607 speech
to Parliament, James said of his native Scotland, "I know there are many Piggots amongst them, I

meane a number of seditious and discontented particular persons, as must be in all Commonwealths" (Mcllwain, p. 301).
14. See Norbrook, p. 92. Buchanan, whose well-known history James suppressed in Scotland and forbade to the published in England, argued that hereditary kingship produced instability, and preferred an elective system of kingship. James of course made precisely the reverse

argument, attributing instability to elective monarchy. Buchanan s attack on primogeniture
instanced a long span of Scottish history, including the reigns of Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcolm, "as illustrating the relative merits of elective and hereditary kingship" (Norbrook, p. 88).
15. The rigorous line of descent imagined for England and Scotland seems to me mirrored
by the plot of Macbeth, in many ways seemingly the most rigorously successive or sequential of
any of Shakespeare s tragedies. Seemingly, for the rigor of the plays causality is largely apparent.

Reading reveals many fissures and inconsistencies in the play s sequences that viewing would
not. See Brian Richardson, " 'Hours Dreadful and Things Strange': Inversions of Chronology
and Causality in Macbeth, " Philological Quarterly 68 (1989), 283-94, for a discussion of "unnatural
arrangements of narrative time" and "distortions of causality" in the play. See Harry Berger, Jr.,

"Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth," Genre 15 (1982), 49-79,
for a brilliant discussion of other ways in which the play as text functions as a critique of the play

as performance. My reading as a whole is consistent with Bergers argument, insofar as the
deficiencies of Malcolm's success(ion) are mostly revealed through reading, although not exclusively, given Malcolm's relatively weak theatrical presence. A performance of Macbeth might

very well appear to tow the Jacobean line, while a reading of the play could seem highly

subversive of it.

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536 English Literary Renaissance
things disruptive of political order: equivocation, duplicity, opposition,
conflict, and the repeated, cyclical rise and fall of monarchs and dynasties. The Show of Kings, with its incorporation of that important in-

strument of doubling, the mirror, appears to subdue the potentially
subversive sense of history as a series of repetitions and cyclical returns

by incorporating them with the dominant figure of the line. What
could easily be construed as an image of poli tical instability and deterioration, cyclical form, is, in the Show of Kings, reinterpreted as a sign of
political stability and thereby made to serve the interests of the absolute
state wishing to perpetuate itself to the end of the world.
But the Show of Kings is not the plays last word on future Scottish
and English history. It is succeeded by two ironizing commentaries, one
visual and one verbal, both of which begin to let the image of the circle

slip from the control of a lineal and successive order: the grotesquely
mannered antic round of the witches following the Show, and Macbeth s "Tomorrow" speech, whose power as a critical gloss on the Show
of Kings has been inadequately appreciated. Both revive the spectre of a
predominantly cyclical and repetitive view of history, and prophesy that
Malcolm's success, like the success of the Stuart dynasty as a whole, may
be brief as a candle16: further, that the Jacobean formula for how to
succeed in kingship - aloofness - is as replete with equivocation as anything in the play.
II

Malcolm's Jacobean aloofness has been readily apparent to readers and
audiences alike, but certain rhetorical forms of aloofness are more distant, as it were, harder to tease out into the open. After being hailed
King of Scotland, Malcolm proclaims,
1 6. The predominant take on the politics of Macbeth has been, until recently, that the play in

many ways flatters Shakespeare's monarch and patron. See Herbert N. Paul, The Royal Play of
" Macbeth " (Cambridge, Mass., 1950); and, more recently, George Walton Williams " Macbeth :
Kingjamess Play," South Atlantic Review, vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 1982), 12-21. More recently there
has begun what may very well become a trend to read the play in opposition to the Jacobean
line. See, in addition to the articles by Norbrook and Berger already cited, Michael Hawkins,
"History, politics, and Macbeth in Focus on Macbeth, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1982),
pp. 155-88; and Alan Sinfield, " Macbeth : history, ideology and intellectuals," Critical Quarterly,
vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (spring-summer, 1986), 63-77. Sinfield notes that the dominant tendency has
been to read Macbeth in a Jamesian way as "attempting to render coherent and persuasive the
ideology of the Absolutist State" (p. 66). Such readings, according to Sinfield, often proceed
from the mistaken assumption that "other views of State ideology were impossible for Shakespeare and his contemporaries," a view that Sinfield contests largely with the aid of George
Buchanan's writings.

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Jonathan Baldo 537
We shall not spend a large expense of time,
Before we reckon with your several loves,

And make us even with you. My Thanes and kinsmen,
Henceforth be Earls; the first that ever Scotland
In such an honour nam'd. Whats more to do,
Which would be planted newly with the time, As calling home our exiTd friends abroad,
That fled the snares of watchful tyranny;
Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher, and his fiend-like Queen,
Who, as 'tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life; - this, and what needful else

That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure, time, and place,
So thanks to all at once, and to each one,

Whom we invite to see us crown 'd at Scone. (5.9.26-41)

By the measure of Macbeth and other Shakespearean protagonists, it is
certainly an understated, untheatrical first performance for this new

monarch. The self-consciously epoch-making speech declares the first
earls of Scotland, but its real mastery lies elsewhere. It establishes control over the domain that eludes Macbeth: the various successions of
moments, events, stages of a life, and stages of a discourse. The speech
begins with present business: the establishment of earls,17 what J. L.
Austin would term a performative utterance which allows not so much
as a gap between intention and action, or in other words the condition
which a desperate Macbeth aims for when he says, "And even now, /To
crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done" (4. 1 .148-49), of
his intent to surprise Macduff's castle. It then proceeds in orderly and
linear fashion to two pieces of specific and imminent future business,
then to unspecified and more distantly future action ("And what need-

ful else ...").

This orderly movement through three broad segments of time,
propped up by the organicist metaphor "Which would be planted
17. On ways in which the Scottish historiographical tradition was critical of Malcolms
establishing the first earls, thereby multiplying distinctions of rank where there had once been

equality among the nobility, see Norbrook, pp. 78-116, especially p. 86. It is entirely possible
that this climactic action of the play and inaugural act of Malcolm s realm would have been taken

at least by some members of Shakespeare s audience as a sign of historical decline, not a revitaliz-

ing beginning. On Shakespeare's possible knowledge of Scottish history, see Elizabeth Nielsen,
"Macbeth": The Nemesis of the Post-Shakespearean Actor," Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965),

!93-99- For a skeptical response to Nielsen, see Michael Hawkins, "History, Politics, and
Macbeth" in Focus on "Macbeth" , ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1981), n. 21.

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538 English Literary Renaissance
newly with the time," opposes the spirit of Macbeth s speech by which
he rejects all sense of the sequential and the consequential. In spite of his

rejection of (con) sequence Macbeth makes a powerful bid for consequentiality, and threatens to make Malcolm's apparent command of
sequence and consequence seem a squeaky postscript rather than a
culmination.

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!
Lifes 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. (5.5.17-28)

Macbeth begins by noting an incongruity within the succession of
events: something is out of sequence, namely the news of his wife's
death.18 Furthermore, rather than conveying an orderly succession of
three dimensions of time, Macbeth describes the collapse of three temporal dimensions into an idiot's stammer of one, repeated three times:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow." His speech may actually reverse the natural sequence of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, if

one allows that "day to day" may serve as an appropriately elusive
reference to the most elusive dimension of time ("to day," the present),

separating those "to-morrows" from the last dimension of time to be
mentioned, "all our yesterdays." The speech features both a regressive,
inverted sequence ("To-morrow ... to day . . . yesterdays"), as well as a
sequence collapsed into repetition.19 In two ways, therefore, Macbeth 's

speech subverts a linear order and succession of the kind captured in
Malcolm's closing lines. Having lost all sense of the sequential, Macbeth
18. Alternately, 11. 17-18 may be taken to signify that position within a sequence is arbitrary.

"She should have died hereafter" may be taken to mean that if not now, she would have died
sometime. Whenever reported, the news of her death would have been equally meaningless,
and the placement of her death within a sequence of events is completely arbitrary.
19. Roland Barthes writes of sequence and repetition as the two principal ways 01 torm- or
structure-making. See "Introduction to the Structural Study of Narrative," in Image -Music- Text,

ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), p. 124.

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