Macbeth’s Last Words

José Benardete, “Macbeth’s Last Words,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, 1, no. 1 (1970): 6375


Last words, one supposes, have always been felt to be especially poignant. At any rate, “they say the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention.” Although Macbeth is denied a death speech proper, he is given what comes as close as possible to being one, and it is only fitting that in his very last words he speaks expressly of damnation. That Macbeth is damned, cannot be doubted from almost any theological standpoint. The reference to damnation is, however, so exiguous and indeed so oblique that we can understand why David Garrick should have wished to enlarge upon it. Playing Macbeth, Garrick chose to expire with the following lines composed by himself:

. . .my soul is clog’d with blood— 
I cannot rise! I dare not ask for mercy— 
It is too late, he drags me down; I sink,
I sink, — my soul is lost forever! — Oh! — Oh!

Here is a death speech proper, in operatic style, in which Macbeth is seen to be writhing in the full consciousness of his own eternal damnation. Far be it from me to censure the great actor for wishing to milk the scene of all its dramatic potential. It is enough to observe that in the present instance it is the Elizabethan poet, and actor, Shakespeare who exercises the kind of cultivated self-restraint upon which the Augustans and post-Augustans were to pride themselves at his expense.

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