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Shakespeare Macbeth borrowed robes

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Day is night

 By clock, ‘tis day,

            And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.

Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,

            That darkness does the face of earth entomb,

            When living light should kiss it? (II.iv)

Shakespeare’s words capture something of the experience of witnesses of 9/11 when the terrorist attacks turned day into night as the thick clouds of debris from the fallen towers across Manhattan.

Contemporary terrorism has seemed ready to target civilian deaths from Beslan primary school pupils to Boston marathon runners, to Norwegian youth to Turkish peace activists to Pakistani children and families in a park. Such terrorist attacks resonate with Macbeth’s ‘War with mankind’ (II.iv). The outrage generated by the deliberate targeting of civilians built international political consensus around the War on Terror.

At the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Centre bombings a sentiment was expressed of wanting to remember the dead, but draw a line and move on from the dictates of the War on Terror. Indeed the New York mayor Michael Bloomberg quoted Shakespeare’s Macbeth to express this sentiment, ‘Let us not measure our sorrow by their worth, for then it will have no end’ (Act IV).

Yet a decade and a half on from the twin towers’ horrific collapse, the War on Terror conjures up other images from Macbeth, accompanied by cries, ‘That would be howled out in the desert air,/ Where hearing should not latch them.’ (IV.iii). Macbeth’s self-denunciation, ‘Glamis hath murdered sleep’ (II.ii) is all too relevant. For what else did Staff Sergeant Robert Bales do but murder sleep, when he woke and murdered sixteen Kandahar villagers, nine children, four women and three men in March 2012. The appalling killings resemble Macbeth’s murder of Macduff’s family and servants, rather than righteous vengeance against Macbeth’s reign of terror. The grieving Macduff’s demand ‘What concern they?/ The general cause?’ (IV.iii) could be uttered by surviving family and villagers. Again witnesses could agree with Ross, ‘No mind that’s honest/ But in it shares some woe, though the main part/ Pertain to you alone.’ (IV.iii).

The horrific Kandahar massacre captures a sense of rottenness in the War on Terror, where it seems, ‘Each new morn/ New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows /Strike heaven on the face’ (IV.iii). We are far from those heady days of Autumn 2001 when the coalition forces, along with the BBC, saw themselves as liberators of Kabul and rescuers from tyranny (Simpson, BBC, 13 November 2001).

We can draw on Shakespeare’s Macbeth to consider Western failure to secure victory in the war on terror, notwithstanding initial military and political success.

Overleaping time

Macbeth is animated by the witches’ prophesies and becoming ‘king hereafter’ (I.iii). But Duncan’s election of Malcolm as his successor is an obstacle. So Macbeth envisages violently overleaping time:

                        That is a step

            On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,

            For in my way it lies. (I.iv).

Lady Macbeth is impatient with, ‘This ignorant present’ (I.ii). Instead she feels, ‘The future in the instant’ (I.ii). Lady Macbeth has already imagined them ‘transported’ to the ‘all-hail hereafter’ of the witches’ prophesies (I.v), and suppresses Macbeth’s wavering over seizing the crown. She counter-poses one night’s work as against a vision of ‘all our nights and days to come’, where they will enjoy ‘sovereign sway and masterdom’ (I.v). Lady Macbeth fears that while he desires the future, he does not want to take the implied step. Tellingly we do not see his actions in the present, but only as a tempting future act and as a done deed. Macbeth disclaims the present, and only sees his deed in the future or the past.

Macbeth knows he cannot entirely escape the present, even as he tries to overleap time. ‘If were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well/ it were done quickly’ (I.vii). If only he could just do the deed quickly, then perhaps he could escape its evil nature. Even disregarding the unknown realm of eternal judgement, Macbeth anticipates others will seek to do like to him:

We still have judgement here, that we but teach,

Bloody instruction, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor. (I.vii).

Overleaping time, Macbeth sees not his ultimate victory, but his ultimate defeat. As such, Macbeth finds the witches’ prophesies prove, ‘Fair is foul, foul is fair’ (I.i).

Equivocating prophesy and unnatural time

Macbeth overleaps time only to tie himself to the witches’ equivocal prophesies, and his own downfall. The problem of equivocating knowledge is presented by the Porter’s worldly wise speech on alcohol’s equivocation (II.iii), He graphically outlines how drink, ‘provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery’ (II.iii). While alcohol makes Lady Macbeth bold, it proves problematic for her judgement in fuelling her imagination against reality.

The witches’ prophesies prove similarly equivocal. The witches’ prophesies excite Macbeth’s desire for advancement and its fulfilment. What is important is not simply the witches’ prophesies, but responses to them. Banquo is tempted by their visions, but warns:

                        To win us to our harm,

            The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles to betray’s

In deepest consequence (I.iii).

Conversely, Macbeth emphasises the positive character of the witches’ prophesies, and suppresses their equivocal character, ‘Two truths are told, /As happy prologues to the swelling act/ Of the imperial theme’ (I.iii). Only in Act V does the besieged Macbeth seriously confront that he should, ‘begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend /That lies like truth’ (V.v). Nevertheless, even in the first encounter, Macbeth has described the witches as ‘you imperfect speakers’ and has been told about becoming king, but not any his succession (I.iii). Yet he has persisted in clinging to the prophesies and instead of seeking to recover his soul and retrieve some moral purpose, Macbeth goes on to plan more murders ‘Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.’ (III.ii).

Be-all and end-all

Macbeth hoped that the murder would be a unique act without negative consequence:

If th’ assassination

            Could trammel up the consequence, and catch

            With his surcease success, that but this blow

            Might be the be-all and the end-all (I.vii). 

Macbeth’s rule is founded in violation of bonds of trust and requires ever watchful alertness against threat.

To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus. (III.i).

Their sovereignty remains insecure:

We have scorched the snake, not killed it.

            She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice

           Remains in danger of her former tooth. (III.ii).

Macbeth is ready to destroy heaven and earth to keep the throne ‘let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer (III.ii). Macbeth seeks to quell his own fear through exercising terror and surveillance, but he already knows that he cannot secure sleep this way. Macbeth hoped by becoming sovereign to enjoy a glorious golden life, but instead finds himself more immersed in the bloody murder which founded his rule.

Macbeth’s ruthlessness has been identified with Machiavelli’s Prince. However, Macbeth is a strong man of action in war, but finds it one thing to seize power, and quite another to rule. Macbeth lacks Machiavellian political virtues and is repeatedly shown as not fitting political robes. He remains awkward in his borrowed or rather stolen robes. Indicatively Macbeth appears reluctant to use the term ‘king’, not just the term ‘murder’. He never masters the non-military political dimensions of sovereign authority, and appears only able to act in negative military terms of eliminating potential threats – however remote. Indeed Macbeth’s tyrannous reign is exacerbated by his failure to develop an understanding of his political role.

Symbolically we see Macbeth in the final act abandoning his political robes for his armour and returning to his former status and framework of meaning – that of warrior’s honour. But his military prowess has been shorn of virtue as he has alienated himself from others. Thus in death, he is denounced as a ‘murderous butcher’. Such failure to translate from the military to the political or the domestic is behind the downfall of other tragic protagonists such as Coriolanus. And if Macbeth becomes fearless towards the end, it seems linked to return to his familiar warrior role and armour. Macbeth’s efforts to overleap time’s tyranny lead him to become a tyrant, and failing to overcome time’s tyranny or his weak tyrannical rule, Macbeth ultimately seeks to escape into oblivion.

 ‘Lost and won’ in the War on Terror

Many allusions to Macbeth have been made in the course of the War on Terror. Initial parallels were made between Macbeth and the political targets of Western forces such as the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But in the decade that has followed the war on terror, increasingly critical parallels have been drawn between Macbeth and US President George Bush, and also British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Scathing critical internet commentary commonly refers to ‘Macbush’ or ‘Macblair’. Bush’s art hobby and his paintings of himself in the shower or bath have attracted comparisons with the Macbeths’ attempt to wash away their deeds.

The equivocal language of militarism is a popular theme. Just as Macbeth sought to distance himself from responsibility for his bloody deeds through equivocal language so Western officials used equivocal language to deny torture as torture, or otherwise circumvent the application of international or national laws to Guantanamo detainees. Parallels may be found between Macbeth’s efforts to divorce himself from his deeds temporally and physically, and attribute them to a cosmic ‘bloody and invisible hand’, and the policies of rendition or drone warfare, whereby the West has sought to distance itself from its lethal violence. Such fastidiousness combined with belief in one’s exceptional destiny encourages a cavalier attitude towards the engendered violence.

The Macbeth tragedy suggests that military success is inadequate to ground successful and sustainable regime change. Cries of liberation and victory and planned withdrawals have become a recurring feature of the long War on Terror. The West sought to overleap the problem of winning by setting a date for victory, that is, a timetable beyond events on the ground. A failure of political understanding and vision is evident in the global war on terror, most obviously where the fixed pursuit of military invasion against Afghanistan or Iraq trumped the pursuit of political approaches and seriously back-fired.

The Afghan campaign has become one of longest modern wars that western states have pursued. The March 2012 massacre in Afghanistan again raised serious questions of the political purpose and ethics of the war on terror. Back in Autumn 2001, western military forces proclaimed the liberation of Kabul and imminent victory against the Taliban. The March 2012 killings join those of the tortured Abu Ghraib prisoners and others undermining ideals of a pristine war with ‘non-negotiable demands of human dignity’ (NSS, 2002, p. vi). Even if the killings have been officially condemned as individual crimes, rather than sanctioned actions, they have raised questions again over Western counterterrorism’s moral and political direction. What were the coalition forces doing in Afghanistan? How were they combating terrorism? Or had they become agents of terror themselves? The March 2012 killings themselves came at a point when coalition forces were again signalling that they were planning to withdraw formally from Afghanistan as they had in Iraq. The assassination of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan had allowed President Obama to declare temporary victory. US commentary has compared Bin Laden’s terrorism to the tyrant Macbeth’s reign of terror, and his assassination to Macbeth’s and therefore a time of victory and liberation. Bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 was hoped to represent a turning point and exit out of the gridlock of the war on terror.

Yet such victories had been declared before in the war on terror and proven hollow. Just as Macbeth’s killing of Duncan or Banquo proved inadequate to secure his reign, so eliminating Bin Laden has not won political security. Western attempts to overleap time exacerbated their incoherent strategies. So while western politicians have set arbitrary dates for the end of their military campaigns and we have witnessed the formal timetabled withdrawal of troops even as the gains of these long military campaigns on the ground look insecure. Thus the western forces declared the formal end of their Afghan combat mission in 2014, leaving a feuding national unity government whose politicians barely daring to venture out from their security compounds to govern, and around thirty percent of the country controlled by the Taliban.

The problem of winning has not been overcome by individual targets, artificial indicators and timetabled dates. A crisis of broader international security and development has haunted the war on terror. External interventions may engender regime change, yet destabilise societies further leading to more destructive insecurity, rather than democracy, peace and prosperity. We are far from the global dreams of universal prosperity and freedom that the West offered the world in the 1940s and 1950s in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. Instead we have had successive retreats from the 1970s’ basic needs to 1980s’ structural adjustment to the 1990s’ human security agenda fusing human rights and selective basic needs to the 2010s’ resilience governance seeking populations adapt to insecurity.  So while there has been vast spending, international aid is no longer attached to international visions imagining Afghanistan enjoying a technical revolution transforming people’s lives and materially catching up with the advanced post-industrial societies and enjoying similar standards of living.

The tensions and impasses of the failed interventions and international governance are embodied in the securitised green zones and fortified aid compounds as described by the academic and former Oxfam official Mark Duffield (Duffield, 2012). Thus the precarious international presence resembles an archipelago of fortified compounds connected by roads travelled along in armed conveys – archipelagos where swathes of land and populations effectively become terra incognito – known virtually through remote mapping, actuarial risk analysis or social media. Even the so-called green zones themselves are not immune and continue to experience internal attacks.

Given the persistent insecurity and conflict experienced by Afghans, it is unsurprising that they are now among the largest groups of refugees and migrants abandoning Afghanistan and seeking to build a future abroad. Meanwhile Western governments, even as they are still managing the failures of earlier military campaigns, have been tempted to seek out new military interventions from Libya to Yemen.

Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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