FROM my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point
in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to
the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I
never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the
murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however
obstinately I endeavoured with my understanding to comprehend this,
for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any
attention to his understanding, when it stands in opposition to any
other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and
indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most
to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to
nothing else, which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical
purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that I might produce,
I will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoever, who is not previously
prepared for the demand by a knowledge of the perspective, to draw in
the rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws
of that science; as, for instance, to represent the effect of two
walls standing at right angles to each other, or the appearance of the
houses on each side of a street, as seen by a person looking down the
street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless the person has
happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists produce these
effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest approximation
to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day of his
life. The reason is- that he allows his understanding to overrule his
eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the
laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is
known and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear
a horizontal line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular,
less than a right angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses
were all tumbling down together. Accordingly, he makes the line of his
houses a horizontal line, and fails, of course, to produce the effect
demanded. Here, then, is one instance out of many, in which not only
the understanding is allowed to overrule the eyes, but where the
understanding is positively allowed to obliterate the eyes, as it
were; for not only does the man believe the evidence of his
understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but (what is
monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such
evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad
his consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day
of his life.

But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish
no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce
any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said
positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better;
I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until
further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At length, in 1812,
Mr. Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway, and
executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a
brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must
observe, that in one respect they have had an ill effect, by making
the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and
dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All
other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur
once said to me in a querulous tone, ‘There has been absolutely
nothing doing since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking
of.’ But this is wrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be
great artists, and born with the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will
be remembered, that in the first of these murders (that of the Marrs),
the same incident (of a knocking at the door) soon after the work of
extermination was complete, did actually occur, which the genius of
Shakespeare has invented; and all good judges, and the most eminent
dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakespeare’s suggestion, as
soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh proof that I
was right in relying on my own feeling, in opposition to my
understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length
I solved it to my own satisfaction, and my solution is this. Murder,
in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case
of the murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror;
and for this reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the
natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct
which, as being indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation,
is the same in kind (though different in degree) amongst all living
creatures: this instinct, therefore, because it annihilates all
distinctions, and degrades the greatest of men to the level of ‘the
poor beetle that we tread on’, exhibits human nature in its most
abject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit
the purposes of the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the
interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with him (of course
I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which we enter into
his feelings, and are made to understand them,- not a sympathy of pity
or approbation *002 ). In the murdered person, all strife of thought,
all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one
overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him ‘with its
petrific mace’. But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will
condescend to, there must be raging some great storm of
passion- jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred- which will create a
hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.

In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and
teeming faculty of creation, Shakspere has introduced two murderers:
and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated: but,
though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the
tiger spirit not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by
contagion from her,- yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt
of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed
in both. This was to be expressed; and on its own account, as well as
to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature
of their victim, ‘the gracious Duncan,’ and adequately to expound ‘the
deep damnation of his taking off’, this was to be expressed with
peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature,
i.e. the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of
all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man- was gone,
vanished, extinct, and that the fiendish nature had taken its place.
And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the dialogues
and soliloquies themselves, so it is finally consummated by the
expedient under consideration; and it is to this that I now solicit
the reader’s attention. If the reader has ever witnessed a wife,
daughter, or sister in a fainting fit, he may chance to have observed
that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle is that in
which a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended
life. Or, if the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolis, on
the day when some great national idol was carried in funeral pomp to
his grave, and chancing to walk near the course through which it
passed, has felt powerfully in the silence and desertion of the
streets, and in the stagnation of ordinary business, the deep interest
which at that moment was possessing the heart of man- if all at once
he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of
wheels rattling away from the scene, and making known that the
transitory vision was dissolved, he will be aware that at no moment
was his sense of the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human
concerns so full and affecting, as at that moment when the suspension
ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed. All
action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made
apprehensible, by reaction. Now apply this to the case in Macbeth.
Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart, and the
entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the
region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are
transfigured: Lady Macbeth is ‘unsexed;’ Macbeth has forgot that he
was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the
world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed
and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world
must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder must be
insulated- cut off by an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and
succession of human affairs- locked up and sequestered in some deep
recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is
suddenly arrested- laid asleep- tranced- racked into a dread
armistice; time must be annihilated; relation to things without
abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and
suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is
done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of
darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at
the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has
commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses
of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the
goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly
sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

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,
like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and
snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied
with entire submission of our own faculties, and in the perfect faith
that in them there can be no too much or too little, nothing useless
or inert- but that, the farther we press in our discoveries, the more
we shall see proofs of design and self-supporting arrangement where
the careless eye had seen nothing but accident!



*001 First published in The London Magazine, October 1823.
*002 It seems almost ludicrous to guard and explain my use of a
word, in a situation where it would naturally explain itself. But it
has become necessary to do so, in consequence of the unscholarlike
use of the word sympathy, at present so general, by which, instead of
taking it in its proper sense, as the act of reproducing in our minds
the feelings of another, whether for hatred, indignation, love, pity,
or approbation, it is made a mere synonyme of the word pity; and
hence, instead of saying ‘sympathy with another, many writers adopt
the monstrous barbarism of ‘sympathy for another.