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  • The Moral Thinking of Macbeth
  • J. Gregory Keller

In her article, "Thinking and Moral Considerations," Hannah Arendt provides a provocative approach to the question of evil by suggesting that banal evil—the most common kind—may arise directly from thoughtlessness.1 If that is so, thinking may provide an antidote to evil. Learning to think would then offer the individual and society protection against the dangers of thoughtless evil. She further suggests that thinking may clear the way for a form of judging that "when the chips are down" may turn people toward right rather than wrong, beauty rather than ugliness. In this essay I address her claim by noting an example of apparently thoughtless evil, the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, and by showing how this event clarifies Arendt's thesis, including both its weaknesses and its strengths. The use of Macbeth will amount to a sketch of certain features of the play particularly relevant to this ethical issue, followed by an analysis of ways Arendt's thesis connects with the murder of Duncan.2

Arendt, in fact, makes passing reference to a connection between Eichmann (her paradigm of banal evil) and Macbeth. She briefly connects the thoughtless evil actions of Eichmann to three characters from Shakespeare: Iago, Macbeth, and Richard III.3 Her claim is that, unlike them, Eichmann is not wicked, merely deficient in thought. We will see in my comments below, however, that Macbeth may be more like than unlike Eichmann, at least in the ease with which he is persuaded that the evil deed is obviously the right one.

Briefly, Macbeth receives a prediction that he will be king, which prepares him to respond to the suggestion of Lady Macbeth that he take matters into his own hands by murdering King Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth struggles with his "conscience" but finally does the [End Page 41] deed. Afterwards he is haunted by a voice that cries, "Sleep no more; Macbeth hath murdered sleep."

Following an analysis of Macbeth's thinking and judging in Macbeth, particularly in Act I, Scene VII, I will discuss thinking and judging as Arendt conceives them and suggest an extension of her description that further attends to the needs of acting in human community. The question I intend to address through the thinking of Macbeth is: Does thinking make an ethical difference or does it fall short, at least in the case of Macbeth, of motivating to the good, even when, as Arendt would say, the chips are down?

The analysis of Macbeth's thinking can set aside but must not forget that this particular act of thinking operates within a dramatic context; that is, that it moves into our discourse by way of a tale told. This seems to set it apart from the events of everyday experience that we might otherwise look to for an understanding of ethical thinking. Yet upon further examination we discover a hidden similarity between Macbeth's dramatic situation and everyday life. The everyday incidents that we might take as examples of ethical thinking also come to us as a tale told. For if we listen to someone describing thinking that has taken place or if we recount an experience of thinking we observed or took part in, we operate in the context of recounting, of telling a tale—with appropriate dramatic movement, form, and content, which makes of the instance an example of thinking rather than merely an unpunctuated stream of consciousness.

We must be aware of the function of the dramatist's art in the speeches of Macbeth, but also in more ordinary instances of ethical thinking. One difference from our ordinary experience of thinking that we might expect in the analysis of Macbeth would be the effect of knowing the conclusion of the tale—that, despite whatever thinking goes on, the deed is done; yet that too is a common element in the telling and retelling of the stories of everyday life. The tales of everyday life are told in part for the way in which they expose a particular movement of living, a sequence of thinking, acting, and judging that we have come to prize or fear, that relates as...


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