I started teaching Macbeth three weeks ago in my English class. It has been a couple of years since I taught the play. We’ve gotten through the opening and the murder of Duncan, and yesterday we read the aftermath scene, where Old Man, Ross, and Macduff discuss what happened and what is to become of Scotland.
A few of my students asked me “Why did the people go along with this? Its clear that Macbeth did it.” I explained that it wasn’t as clear as they thought, with the guards dead and Malcolm and Donalbain fled, Macbeth can spin whatever story he wants. They didn’t get that, Macbeth is guilty, the evidence is there, they should ask questions, get at the truth, not make him King. So I said “Think about the majority of people in Scotland, from the Thanes down to the peasants. What will change with Macbeth as king? Will there be more war, more famine, more trouble? One king is as good as the next. The Thanes keep their power, Scotland moves on much as it always does. If people think there will be no change individually to their lives, most won’t be bothered to find out the truth. They might have a bad feeling about the situation, or maybe suspect, but to actually risk their lives, risk a civil war over the crown, it just wasn’t worth it. They are willing to accept the official “Truth” because that was what was easiest and safest.”
Besides, Macbeth is a war hero. He saved Scotland from the Viking horde. On the battlefield there was no stopping him, and he used his powers to help Scotland be safe and free from the rule of tyranny. Why would this man turn around and murder the king? So while everyone has their doubts, and questions, and suspicions, in the end they all accepted the “Truth” Macbeth gave because they wanted to think the best of him, they wanted to believe he would keep them save.
But the same skills that make you a great general, don’t necessarily make you a great king. The same traits that make you a great warrior – aggression, determination, hard-headedness, a drive to achieve your goal no matter what gets in your way, can make for a terrible, tyrannical king who runs with no vision and an iron fist. It is not a given, but it is a possibility, and the people of Scotland ended up betting on the wrong horse.
I remember at the end of Macbeth, when their hero king has now killed his best friend, put the wife and children of a perceived enemy to the sword, and terrorized the land, he tells his subordinate Seyton “Hang any that speak of fear” (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 3), as he is shut in his castle, surrounded by people that support him because they are afraid or because they are paid to do so. Cut off from reality, a mad king with a dead wife who wonders in the end how it all went so wrong.
All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. The people of Scotland were probably good men and women, who just wanted to live their lives in peace. They saw what happened to their last king but chose to believe otherwise, and they paid the price.
Shakespeare told us something in Macbeth about human nature, the need to seek power in some, the lengths one will go to serve ambition. But I think the most important lesson is that none of this would have been possible without the compliance of the people of Scotland, the willful ignorance of the court, and the fleeing of Malcolm. Had any of these groups stood up and questioned what happened, it would have been a very different play.