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Missing Lady Macbeth’s Sickness unto Death
Kierkegaard’s Allusions to Macbeth for Concepts of Sin, Gender, and Despair
Wendy M. Bustamante
Missing Lady Macbeth’s Sickness unto Death
Kierkegaard’s Allusions to Macbeth for Concepts of Sin, Gender, and Despair
My argument is for what can be gathered from the lack of attention paid to Lady Macbeth
in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death. Twice in Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death,
lines delivered by Macbeth are described by Anti-Climacus as “psychologically masterful,” inasmuch as they convey what Anti-Climacus identifies as a distinctly masculine expression (or mode) of despair, as opposed to the feminine mode of despair. Since Macbeth is meaningfully discussed as a “psychologically masterful” depiction of despair, it seems Lady Macbeth ought to be considered a meaningful illustration of feminine despair, but she is not explicitly discussed. I suspect Anti-Climacus neglects Lady Macbeth because of his own feminine despair in weakness, and therefore lack of reflection and despair over the earthly. My goal, then, is twofold. I wish to first, illuminate the striking neglect of Lady Macbeth in the work and second, discuss the symptomatic resonances of despair involved in such a surprising and suspicious neglect for the feminine.
In addition to explicit references to lines from Macbeth, I suggest a general and ongoing allusion to the tragedy with regard to sin and despair. According to Anti-Climacus, “Despair is the Sickness unto Death.”1 It is related to the eternal and absolutely attached to the God-relation in a Christian. Reference to God-relations are intermittently scattered throughout the tragedy of Macbeth. The ideal king in the tragedy of Macbeth is not Macbeth, but rather, the king who is referenced amidst a political conversation between Macduff and Malcolm as the good King whose stamp could miraculously cure a disease called “The Evil.”2 What was so remarkable 1 Kierkegaard, Sören. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. NJ: 1983., 13.
2 Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions. London: 2005. IV.3. [140-160].
Bustamante 1 about this King was his relation to the divine. He could call upon the heavens to cure poor, sick souls. Macbeth is not that kind of King, and in fact, he calls upon witches to aid him with their prophecy. It is during this conversation between Macduff and Malcolm that the first doctor enters the performance. This doctor presents himself rather spontaneously to inform Malcolm of the great healing being performed by the King’s touch because, “sanctity hath Heaven given his hand.”3 In response to Macduff’s inquiry about the disease, Malcolm informs him that the disease is called “The Evil”4 and that the King solicits Heaven in some inscrutable way. This is a stark contrast to Macbeth, whom Malcolm and Macduff are plotting to kill during the conversation. The King is said to have the “heavenly gift of prophecy”5 whereas Macbeth seeks prophecy from beings more closely aligned with Hell. The next time a doctor enters the performance, the doctor is diagnosing Lady Macbeth with a spiritual illness which leads to her self-inflicted death.
Having observed an episode of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and tormented shouts about the murkiness of hell and her inexpiable guilt as she attempts to wash an imagined spot from her hands, the doctor concludes, Foul whisp’rings are abroad: unnatural deeds Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.
More needs she the divine than the physician.
-God, God forgive us all! – Look after her, Remove from her the means of all annoyance, And still keep eyes upon her. So, good night.
My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak.6 3 Ibid.
4 Most likely a reference to King Edward the Confessor and “The King’s Evil” or “Scrofula” which is referred to today as a form of tuberculosis. The cure for the “The King’s Evil” was said to be “The Royal Touch.” 5 Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions. London: 2005. IV,3. .
6 Ibid., V, I. [61-70].
Climacus describes in his analysis of despair. Lady Macbeth is in despair of the forgiveness of her sins, the cleansing aspect. Her unnatural troubles, such as her sleepwalking, is a sign of her infected mind and the cause of the infection was, for her, sins, or unnatural deeds. She was complicit in the murder of the King before her husband. She had told her husband while awake, “what’s done, is done”7 and while asleep she continues the conversation by saying to her imagined husband, “What’s done, cannot be undone.”8 Her husband is in despair over what has been done. She assures him that this is worthless because it cannot be undone. She, on the other hand, sees that the blood from what has been done remains, and despairs because it will not wash away, cleansed by the purity of forgiveness. From the doctor she is prescribed, as are we all, forgiveness from God.
Anti-Climacus explicitly references Macbeth twice within his discussion of sin. The first mentioning is to illustrate that the state of sin is far worse than particular sin9 and, in fact, the sin—the continuance of sin—is the state of sin. This is where Shakespeare’s lines are deemed psychologically masterful and Anti-Climacus quotes, “Works arising in sin gain strength and power through sin.”10 This is Anti-Climacus’ translation from the German in Schlegel’s Shakespeare’s Werke. The original line in English is, “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.”11 This line occurs in a discussion between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tells her husband not to be in such despair over a deed that has no remedy and Macbeth tells her, “We have scorched the snake, not killed it,”12 and goes on to discuss the ways in which the 7 Ibid., III, 2. .
8 Ibid., V, 1. [57-58].
9 Kierkegaard, Sören. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. NJ: 1983., 106.
11 Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions. London: 2005. IV, 3. .
12 Ibid., III, 2. .
of the introduction to The Sickness unto Death, wherein the sickness unto death is described as undoubtedly worse than death.
Anti-Climacus suggests that the intensity of despair is transparent to consciousness of itself, “The ever increasing intensity of despair depends upon the degree of consciousness or is proportionate to its increase: the greater the degree of consciousness, the more intensive the despair.”14 Despair in its lowest degree of consciousness is either ignorant of being despair or ignorant of being a self and an eternal self.15 An individual that is ignorant of being in despair does not experience despair in as much intensity as an individual who is conscious about being in despair. Similarly, an individual that believes in spiritlessness (remains ignorant about the capacity for all human beings to become the eternal spiritual synthesis of mind and body) does not experience despair with as much awareness or intensity.16 Deliverance from despair remains as available to the ignorant as to the conscious, but the ignorant will have to become conscious in order to get closer to deliverance, and will then experience increased intensity.17 Two kinds of despair are exhibited by individuals who are conscious of despair and the eternal aspect of their selves and, “The one form is, so to speak, feminine despair, the other, masculine despair.”18 The feminine form of despair is, “in despair not to will to be oneself: despair in weakness.”19 The masculine despair is, “in despair to will to be oneself: defiance.”20 13 Ibid., [20-30].
14 Kierkegaard, Sören. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. NJ: 1983., 43.
15 Ibid., 44.
16 Ibid., 43-4.
17 Ibid., 44.
18 Ibid., 49.
20 Ibid., 67.
“the opposites are only relative”21 because no despair is entirely free of either defiance or weakness. There will be weakness found in despair in defiance and defiance found in despair in weakness.22 The clarification about these relative opposites comes immediately before the specification that one form is feminine and the other is masculine. The specification is also accompanied by a similar clarification about women and men with regard to these two forms of despair. This specification takes place in a footnote where Anti-Climacus stresses that he is, “far from denying that women may have forms of masculine despair and, conversely, that men may have forms of feminine despair, but these are exceptions.”23 The subtle ambiguity of the relatively opposite forms of despair is acknowledged, but their distinction remains for the purpose of exploration into the nature of despair. The two forms represent ideals, “And of course the ideal is also a rarity, and only ideally is this distinction between masculine and feminine despair altogether true.”24 Only rarely would despair take the sole form of masculine or feminine. This simply reinforces the clarification that despair is never without weakness or defiance, but the form of despair in defiance is structured mainly through its defiance and the form of despair in weakness is carved out by its weakness.
Despair in weakness is despair “in despair not to will to be oneself”25 and comes in multiple forms. The first of these forms is, “despair over the earthly or over something earthly.”26 This kind of despair comes from without, rather than within. It is despair guided by external factors and not from self-reflection. It is other-regarding despair felt by a passive self.
21 Ibid., 49.
22 It is tempting to go so far as to suggest that Anti-Climacus provides the notion of the two relatively opposite forms as mirroring each other because of his use of the word “reflection” when he explains, “To call this form despair in weakness already casts a reflection on the second form,” Ibid.
23 Ibid, 49.
26 Ibid., 50.
The lack of mediation is the lack of qualitative reflection or lack of reflection at all. The lack of reflection keeps the person in this form of despair from being conscious of what despair really is.
Rather, a person in this kind of despair ascribes despair to the external rather than the eternal. It is a step further than unconscious despair because the despair is acknowledged, but this does not mean the despair is correctly understood, “So he28 despairs—that is, in a strange reversal and in complete mystification about himself, he calls it despairing.”29 He is not entirely ignorant of the eternal, but he fails to recognize that “to despair is to lose the eternal”30 and instead believes despair results from external loss. He speaks of these external losses in the language of luck and fate. He despairs from what appears to him to be bad luck or an unfortunate fate. He despairs immediately in his connection with the outside world, with others and with things, but does not relate to his despair from within. Lady Macbeth seems worth looking at in this kind of feminine despair. Only sub-consciously does Lady Macbeth exhibit internal strife. Consciously, she is constantly concerned about nothing more than externalities. Everything she does seems to be done as if she’s playing a game with the people and pieces in front of her. When Macbeth is killing Duncan, she isn’t reflecting upon her decision; she’s narrating what she believes is happening based on the brewing of the storm and the screeching of the owl.31 Depending on the extent to which reflection is missing and the closeness to pure immediacy, this form of despair can be at best despair not to will to be oneself. It can be even lower than that if one is actually in despair to be a self and even lower still if one wishes to 27 Ibid.
28 The “he” referred to here is “The man of immediacy.” Though Anti-Climacus formerly mentioned in a footnote that men rarely exhibit the feminine form of despair, he calls someone suffering from despair over the earthly the man of immediacy. Ibid., 51.
31 Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Wordsworth Editions. London: 2005. II, 1. [1-8].
consciousness as a result of more or less reflection. Despair not to will to be oneself is immediacy with some reflection, but the lower forms exhibit little to no reflection at all. The man or woman in despair not to will to be oneself understands, from this slightly greater capacity for reflection, that he or she can lose external things without losing the self.33 They would get close to understanding despair, but fail to move away from externalities. They might recognize that the self is separate from the external world, giving them a minor awareness of the self as something eternal, but fail to recognize that despair is separate from the external world and therefore continues to understand it as bound up with external losses. This form of despair fails to turn inward with regard to despair. It is conscious despair, but the person in this form of despair turns outward to try to understand it. It’s more difficult to position Lady Macbeth in terms of degree of consciousness and reflection, but she seems to be pretty low on the spectrum since she only exhibits her despair subconsciously. It isn’t even clear if she kills herself consciously or subconsciously. She does, however, seem to fit well with the description of that type of feminine despair which is over the earthly.
Those in despair over the earthly harbor an ill regard toward turning inward. They think that, “to be concerned about one’s soul and to will to be spirit seems to be a waste of time in the world, indeed, an indefensible waste of time that ought to be punished by civil law if possible.”34 Since despair is, in this case, associated with concerns over the earthly, concerns about unearthly matters like soul and spirit seem unimportant. Someone with this kind of regard for the soul and spirit are likely to turn away if ever they begin to turn inward since they prize the earthly and do not find such things looking inward. Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, “what’s done, is done” 32 Kierkegaard, Sören. The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. NJ: 1983., 52-3.
33 Ibid., 55.
34 Ibid., 57.