Who’s Afraid Of Banquo’s Ghost? Fear is perhaps one of the most primal and basic human emotions. In many instances it is because of a reaction to this emotion that humans are able to make crucial decisions to their survival. In the ancestral environment, a proper response to fear or the fight or flight reflex often made the difference between life and death. Those humans foolhardy enough to tease the sabretooth tiger to impress the ladies may have made their point a few times, but quite often they ended up as a tasty meal. Clearly, fear is then an useful thing for evolution to pass along to following generations. Yet modern fear is so much more complex and convoluted than that of ancient man. Even in the times of the middle ages where Macbeth takes place, the subtle compound nature of what people could fear and to what degree is staggering in comparison. At its most basic level, fear is useful because it can help the individual to survive situations by making them aware of inherent risks in their current situation.
In the play, fear -or its conspicuous absence- are pivotal in helping to determine how characters are going to behave and what courses of action they will follow. However, due to the more elaborate nature of social roles, the proper course of action is no longer as simple as merely avoiding the sabretooth. In the play, Macbeth’s fear is particularly noteworthy because of its relation to his state of mind. The more overcome he is by fear, the less stable and more neurotic he becomes. Prior to killing Duncan the vision of a floating dagger begins to unnerve him, particularly when he sees on [the] blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood (Act 2 Scn 1 Ln 46) which he realizes is related to his pending murder of the king.
But the apprehension he has fails to make him reconsider his actions and instead serve to cement his resolve to go through with his plan of killing Duncan. Once his decision is made, he wishes that the sure and firm-set earth, Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear Thy very stones prate of my whereabout (Act 2 Scn1 Ln 56-58). Macbeth’s concern at this point has been somewhat attenuated and indeed subdued well enough to allow him to commit the deed. However, his speech after the fact confirms that he has not accepted the murder completely and now is beginning to have second thoughts about what he has done. Indeed, he is afraid to think what I have done, Look on’t again I dare not.
(2:2 50-51) What he expresses is not necessarily regret about killing Duncan, but indeed fear at the very strong possibility that it will catch up to him. Fear now has reduced him to inability and throughout his ranting becomes dependent on Lady Macbeth to clean his hands and steer him away from the knocking. She remarks to him Your constancy has left you unattended (2:2 67-68) and has to shepherd him back to their quarters. Curiously, it is Macbeth’s capacity for fear and to a lesser degree regret over what he has done which makes him ultimately human. He is a flawed villain because he fails to really achieve true wickedness. In her piece General Macbeth, Mary McCarthy disagrees with the notion that Macbeth is wracked with guilt and indeed writes that the perception of him as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself.
Macbeth has no conscience (McCarthy 160). She argues that his main concern is to avoid serious self-recrimination about his past actions and to get a good night’s sleep (ibid). While it may sound somewhat cynical to think of the character in this way, it certainly is possible. A lot of the ambivalence in this play comes precisely because of how Macbeth can be construed as being genuinely sorry and remorseful for anything he’s done or whether he’s merely concerned and upset about what it has cost him. The emotional toll of killing Duncan was very high for him as his reaction showed, and likewise the toll of having Banquo murdered must also have been a large one. Yet the difference here is that he does not have much in the way of doubt about arranging for Banquo and Fleance to be disposed of.
Now that he is king, he can dispatch the two murderers to do the deed for him. He explains that while he could With barefaced power sweep him from my sight And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not (3:1 118-120). While he is correct in assessing that merely ordering Banquo’s death in the open is not an option because of the other Lords, it is because he fears a loss of allegiance from his men. Surely, Macbeth is aware of the suspicions that must still be about the court of Duncan’s murder and his sudden rise to power and does not wish to jeopardize his tenuous hold on the throne. Yet, there is nothing but resolve and determination in his voice when instructing the murderers. Is he truly emboldened by his recent successes or is he actually presenting a front for the murderers and the audience as well? The very contrast between his near complete lack of apprehension prior to Banquo’s murder and his wild vision at the banquet scene surely are related. Macbeth may not be showing any indication of his guilty conscience on a level he’s actually aware of but it certainly all comes up to the surface at the banquet scene.
He progresses from misapprehension, to alarm, and ultimately sheer terror in a matter of minutes. He tries to justify that he wasn’t the one who killed Banquo thou canst not say I did it. Never shake Thy gory locks at me (3:4 51-52). Curiously he first exculpates himself from the deed by stressing that he was actually removed from its execution. While not taking direct part in the murder of Banquo allowed Macbeth to keep his hands clean this time around, it also has weakened him severely precisely because of his obliqueness in the deed.
Inversely to his participation in it, the fear and guilt he feels is compounded in the matter of Banquo because he has not taken any part in it and has felt resolve only insofar as it entailed giving a briefing to a couple of hired goons. The way he avidly asks for detailed information from the Murderer reflects concern about something he probably should have handled himself. Upon hearing of Fleance’s escape he suddenly goes weak at the knees: Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect .. .now I am cabined, cribbed, confided, bound in To saucy doubts and fears. (3:4 22-26) We can see here that the questioning and hesitation he felt prior to killing Duncan is still here present in this instance after all.
He is most concerned with the escaped Fleance because it now appears that the witches’ prediction that Banquo’s children will be kings might still happen. The twenty trenched gashes on his head still fresh Macbeth’s mind become part of the emotional aggregate of his conception of Banquo. His gory locks are seen by Macbeth because he knows how Banquo was killed and Shakespeare lets us know that he knows. In many productions such as the Trevor Nunn version for television, the ghost’s appearance is skipped altogether and the effect is a climactic one. Instead of identifying with his fear and alarm and seeing the shock of running away from Banquo’s pale and bloody corpse as in the Polanski film, we are instead privy only to Macbeth’s reaction to what in reality only he can see.
We see the action from the perspective of the lords and Lady Macbeth. If fear is indeed a mechanism capable of maintaining an individual at bay from certain risks and dangers, why didn’t Macbeth’s alarm bells go off at an earlier time? We see that he is unable to clear himself of Banquo’s murder and even if we take the skeptic view that for him having a good conscience is seen by him in terms of bodily hygiene (McCarthy 161), then it has failed in his case. The problem here is that forced internalization of his fear and the stress of maintaining decorum in the environment of the court has finally gotten to Macbeth. He only reveals this in asides and soliloquies but never to anyone, not even his wife whom he keeps unaware of the plot to kill Banquo. In Act 3 Scene 1, he says that his fears about Banquo stick deep and that it is his being I do fear (3:1 54-55).
It is not fear of discovery at this point which rankles him so, but the fear that all his dirty deeds will have been for naught. With no son of mine succeeding and Banquo being hailed father to a line of kings, Macbeth’s ultimate fear is that all the risks taken and all the hard work done to obtain the crown will be fruitless if he cannot hold on to it. He has clearly chosen that if he cannot have his lineage inherit the throne, then neither will Banquo’s seed be kings. By seeking to challenge and change the prophecy, Macbeth wants to justify everything he has done up to this point. When he discovers that Fleance has survived the ambush the full weight and inevitability of his ultimate defeat comes upon him at once.
The pressure makes him crack at the banquet because the consequences of Fleance’s escape become clear: his accomplishments will be disposable because they will lack any permanence. What Macbeth’s fear failed to warn him earlier now comes back in full force. The dread which fills him at the banquet is due to the reminder by the ‘ghost’ that ordained actions will happen despite his handiwork. His terror is not merely the specter of a friend he had murdered in cold blood, nor is just the dawning that he might be found out at this time and have his tapestry unravel. The ultimate fear which his mind represents as Banquo’s ghost is that he will lose it all completely and utterly. He is afraid that Ross and the rest of the Lords will see through his deception, that Fleance will one day be king, and that he has indeed soiled himself for the benefit of others.
It is above all, this absolute vanquishment of his actions and the complete worthlessness of his travails which devastates him so. Shakespeare uses this pivotal moment in the play to show us that it really can only be all downhill from here. We know despite the witches’ ambiguous prophecies how this will all turn out; we realize that blood will have blood. Fear in this case comes too late for Macbeth because he has gone too far and has no avenues of escape available. Unlike Malcolm and Macduff, he cannot escape to England even if he has nothing to leave behind.
He cannot undo the murders in any way nor come clean without losing his head in the process. He is trapped with no way out. It is at this point of desperation where someone like Anton Chekov might end the play: Macbeth is terrified, because the jig is up. Shakespeare.