One evening an old Apache told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.

“One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is the Spirit – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

It is very often an issue in Shakespeare’s plays. It deals with order and degree: each thing in the Universe has a place in a scale of things. It is more than a political doctrine: it implies a metaphysical organization of the Universe, which is also linked with theology. We can”t find an exponent of this doctrine, it is everywhere at the back of people’s minds. It is a world picture in the collective unconscious consciousness.

Disorder is the equivalent of the original chaos (as opposed to cosmos). God sustains the world as ordered, holding everything into place: he did not create it once and for all.

Order is the means by which you can judge disorder. The notion of sin also intervenes, at several levels (in the Bible…) :

  1. Revolt of the Bad Angels with Satan
  2. Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden
  3. Murder of Abel by Cain

It constitutes frames of references for the Elizabethan. Sin is the reason for chaos and disorder. The ordering of the world is very complex and means a very specific organization. Every thing has a place, even the slightest one. They conceived the world as a scale, an infinite ladder with infinite degrees: each thing is both superior and inferior to something else. It is a hierarchical order of things, known as “The Great Chain of Beings”. One can notice that only Hell escapes this ladder.

Great Chain of Beings

Man has all the possibilities of the earthly existences (he forms a microcosm in the macrocosm of the Universe). The inanimate class nourishes the vegetative class that nourishes… and so on. Man aspires to the spiritual class. It is very closely linked: the bottom of one class is connected with the top of another class. It is a system of infinite diversity and unity of the Universe.

There is a primate in each class :

  • Birds: eagle
  • Trees: oak
  • Elements: fire
  • Man: King
  • Stars: sun
  • Values: justice
  • Body: head

Man is close to animals in sensuality and to angels in understanding: he is a nodal. For the Elizabethan, man was really himself when he was social. That is why morals and politics were far more important at that time than science. Man is between Matter and Nature. It is a source of internal conflict because he is always trying to bridge the cosmic gap (to reconcile) the angel and the beast within him.

Macbeth is representative of the human condition but Richard is definitely evil. This brings us to make the difference between being amoral and being immoral. Someone who is amoral does not have a moral because he does not know what moral is. On the contrary, someone immoral knows exactly what is moral but chooses to turn his back to it. Richard is definitely immoral.

For the Elizabethans, Nature and Creation had done things for the best. That is why Richard accuses Nature and puts the blame on the Creation for being deformed. If he had accepted his rank in the order of things, he would have been Ok. The order of things -the Cosmos- is also based on a series of correspondences between the several levels of beings.

  • heavenly order: God
  • macrocosm: World, Nature (“sub-lunar level”)
  • the state: body politic
  • the body: body natural

Each element at a certain level has another correspondence in another level. In Richard III, Richard the Tyrant (state) is a cripple (body) and at the beginning, the King is sick because the State is sick. In Macbeth, there is an eclipse after Duncan’s death.

The main problem is the question of Evil. How can Evil be possible in a perfect world ? Man yielded to the temptation of Evil and sinned. God allowed havoc as a punishment for man’s sins. Man is the only creature who was given freedom of will and the choice of his own actions. He chose transgression and brought about Evil. Havoc happened because of man but it was also part of God’s plans. Everything is determined by God for the Elizabethans. In the end, we realize that transgressors are always punished by God, whereas they were successful in the beginning.

In fact, this was not the Elizabethans” picture but the Middle Ages” one. In the 16th and 17th century, this world vision has already been questioned by several thinkers and especially by Machiavel, who believed neither in law and order nor in man’s basic goodness. One one hand, man was capable of understanding what was good (Erected Wit) but on the other hand, there was evil temptation (Infected Will).

For Machiavel, man is basically prone to Evil and disorder is the natural state of man, not the exception. Man is not idealistic but completely cynical. Machiavel said that through will and determination, man could reach power. The success story of Richard is the mere illustration of The Prince.

Richard’s role is that of the Scourge of God. From the start he is determined by God but does not realize it. In the end, a machiavellian success is always part of God’s success. See the Wheel of Fortune, ruled by Providence and therefore by God.

I. The Vice

The Vice was the favourite character in medieval morality plays. He is both an intriguer and a deceiver. He creates laughter and engages the audience’s sympathy in a conspirational relationship.

Richard generates a special relation between word and deed. He tells the audience what he is going to do, then does it, and finally recalls what he did: his soliloquies and asides create a feeling of conspiracy.

The Vice was also a figure of carnival, who fights the established authority and embodies the audience’s anti-authoritarian impulses. He is an outlet for the people’s frustration.

II. A Monster

Shakespeare has added a physical deformity to the character of Richard because Richard was not a hunchback.

In fact, at that time, deformed people were said to be willing to take revenge against Nature: because they cannot change their lot, they want to bring people down.

Another reason is that showing fairground attractions on stage was a trick often used by Shakespeare to incite people to see his plays. A character both deformed and mobile was a very scary monster.

Macbeth was written by Shakespeare between 1603 and 1606, between Caesar and Hamlet. It is the story of a murderer and usurper, like Richard III or Claudius (Hamlet) from crime to crime to achieve security. Macbeth is a villain but a more humanized character compared to Richard.

Macbeth is a noble and gifted man. He chooses treachery and crime, knows them for what they are and is totally aware he is doing evil. Evil is concentrated in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are influenced by the Weird Sisters.

The play examines the possibilities of evil and centres on the villain-hero. We find good only in secondary characters like Duncan or Malcolm. Macduff is the righteous character. Macbeth is a tyrant (Cf Richard III) and Malcolm will be the good king (Cf Richmond).

The supernatural powers are represented by the Weird Sisters and Hecate, standing for the side of evil (disorder) and by the King of England, standing for the side of good (order). The symbolism is obvious: it is light versus darkness, angels Vs devils and heaven Vs hell.

The character of Macbeth is interesting because he is fully conscious of the horror of his deeds. Indeed, we learn in the beginning of his soliloquies that he knows very well what is good: in Act I, sc2, l.13, there is an enumeration of all reasons why he should not kill Duncan. Macbeth is tortured between his erected wit and his infected will.

Macbeth is the story of the temptation of a good man by witches. It is comparable to Adam and Eve with the Serpent. Lady Macbeth is the one who is really tempted.

There is also a sort of philosophical issue: Macbeth is a brave soldier but a moral coward too: he is a brutal murderer feeling guilty. It is a moral dimension that does not exist in Richard III.

The play is therefore more subtle since we find the presence of evil in the virtuous and of good in the wicked. It is not a manichean word: “our life is a mingled yarn, good and evil together” (All’s Well that Ends Well).

The Thane of Cawdor is a traitor and he dies in I,4. But we learn that even the wicked can have virtue through repentance. It announces the other side.

The fundamental moral issue is that evil is made possible because of man’s free will. Moral damnation is possible because man has understanding and can make the difference between good and evil.

Awareness and clairvoyance make moral judgements possible. Macbeth is perfectly aware and morally conscious. The tragedy lies all in both being aware and being courageous -it is the fate of the tragic hero.

Macbeth is not a manichean vision of man. Richard III is the villain as hero but Macbeth is the hero who becomes a villain.

The emphasis is on the process of turning evil. Hence, it is fundamental that, from the start, Macbeth should be presented as a hero: “for brave Macbeth” (I, 2, 16).

At first, he is a very brave soldier but he is ambitious and wants to satisfy his wife who is even more ambitious. He will seize the opportunity to get the crown. But he made a misjudgment between temporal good (crown) and eternal good (heaven). Macbeth has awareness but his judgement is weak: he is very much influenced by his wife.

Shakespeare decided to show the steps by which a noble man is made to his damnation, to depict a man lured by evil. The more evil Macbeth is, the more isolated he becomes.

Shakespeare could not show a devil at the time of the Renaissance (for it was considered as comical at that time) so he showed witches instead, who were human beings that had given their souls to the Devil).

Witches are not naturally evil. They have to become evil, just like Macbeth. Like Parcae, the three sisters are weaving human destiny. They represent fate and humans who have become evil. They know the past, govern the present and can foresee the future.

They appear at the beginning, announce Macbeth’s rise and finally his fall: mainly at strategic moments. They only tempt Macbeth because he is ambitious and responsible. Ambition and his wife’s influence will lead him to murder Duncan. Everything is motivated by fear.

The ultimate evil is always a child murderer. Banquo is killed because he represented a living reproach for Macbeth: Banquo did not yield to temptation and remained loyal. It is a vicious circle for Macbeth: after murdering Duncan, he has to murder Banquo. Macbeth’s solitude increases with the number of crimes.

The recurrent idea in Macbeth is that the more you fall into evil, the less free you are. Indeed, Macbeth has less and less choice. He has to do evil and he feels less and less guilty by doing so. Guilt was good because it showed him the difference between good and evil. Macbeth’s will is infected.

Lady Macbeth is less aware of this difference between good and evil. At the end, when consciousness comes back to her, she tries to wash her hands during her sleep, just like Pontius Pilate. It is interesting to notice that sleepwalking was a sign of possession by the Devil in Shakespeare’s times.

Boondock Saints[Enter Connor, Murphy and Il Duce into the court room – armed. They make the mobster kneel in front of the audience.]

Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) : Now you will receive us !
Murphy (Norman Reedus) : We do not ask for your poor, or your hungry.
Connor : We do not want your tired and sick.
Murphy : It is your corrupt we claim.
Connor : It is your evil that will be sought by us.
Murphy : With every breath, we shall hunt them down.
Connor : Each day we will spill their blood, ’til it rains down from the skies !
Murphy : Do not kill. Do not rape. Do not steal. These are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.
Connor : These are not polite suggestions, these are codes of behaviour, and those of you that ignore them will pay the dearest cost.
Murphy : There are varying degrees of evil. We urge you lesser forms of filth, not to push the bounds and cross over, into true corruption, into our domain.
Connor : For if you do, one day you will look behind you and you will see we three, and on that day you will reap it !
Murphy : And we will send you to whatever god you wish.

Connor, Murphy, Il Duce (Billy Connolly) : And shepherds we shall be, for thee my Lord for thee, Power hath descended forth from thy hand, that our feet may swiftly carry out thy command, we shall flow a river forth to thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be.

Il Duce : In nomine patris…
Connor : … et filii…
[All cock their guns]
Murphy : … et spiritus sancti.

– From The Boondock Saints