Friday, July 20, 2012

Love Lost: Regret


Sometimes love, the subject of several recent posts, ends, and its loss produces powerful passages in literature. With this post, we begin a tour of poignant passages inspired by love’s loss, the first from Macbeth, a noble, valued servant and soldier who descends into depravity and despair.

Macbeth’s first love appears to be selfless. He dares death and greatness to defend king and country, pushing himself into the heart of combat where he hacks in half the enemy and wins recognition as well as promotion from King Duncan. Macbeth has saved Scotland from oppression.

But returning from the battlefield, Macbeth’s dark narcissistic love crawls into the light when three witches hint to Macbeth that his ambition to be king may actually be his destiny. Macbeth sends a letter ahead to his wife, advising her of the witches’ prophecy and that King Duncan will grace their estate with an overnight visit.

Lady Macbeth professes to love Macbeth, but her love is not selfless; it is secondary to her first love: power. She thinks little of her husband’s resolve or courage, surprising the audience who is by now fully acquainted with both in Macbeth’s character after his performance on the field of battle. The Lady believes more in her own resolve and courage, especially when wielding power over her husband, and she berates him into plotting Duncan’s murder.

Honor flickers briefly within Macbeth. He changes his mind, explaining to his wife that fate has brought him to a fortunate place and fate may continue to favor him by putting a crown upon his head if only he waits for destiny to unfold. Lady Macbeth, however, belittles him, declaring him too full of the milk of human kindness. She wants to seize the chance that Chance has provided in spite of Macbeth’s reservations. He knows that he cannot turn back from treason and treachery, that he will be a suspect if Duncan dies in his home, and that he will have committed the most heinous crime: patricide. He will have killed the king God ordained, the father of Scotland, and the man for whom Macbeth should be willing to lose his own life. A strike against God, king, and country will condemn Macbeth to eternal damnation even if he enjoys a few days of power and privilege on earth.

But Macbeth is not strong enough to live by his own convictions or experience. He succumbs to Lady Macbeth’s designs and slaughters Duncan in a most cowardly fashion: while the man sleeps. Next, Macbeth slaughters Duncan’s guards who might have stirred up doubt about their own guilt, leaving others to speculate about Macbeth’s role in Duncan’s death. Since Lady Macbeth did not conceive of the guards’ deaths and did not authorize such initiative, she realizes that she has misjudged her husband. Worse, she has misjudged herself and overestimated her own courage. She simply cannot live with her crimes and cannot rest with the burdens of guilt and fear upon her. She goes mad and kills herself.

Upon hearing the news, Macbeth speaks the speech of regret, love lost, of a soul stripped of all its humanity. He says:


    She should have died hereafter;
    There would have been a time for such a word.
    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

Macbeth acknowledges the loss of his wife and mentions, in passing, that he wishes she’d died later, at a time when he could pause in order to mourn for her, but Macbeth and his castle are under siege. An army marches on to defeat him and reclaim Scotland from bloodied hands.

Soul-stained and weary, Macbeth also acknowledges how fleeting life is, but worse, he admits that his life is without purpose. Life, Macbeth says, is a straight-line march to death, a transformation from flame to ash. A man’s life burns out even as he protests. A man rants, raves; he raises his fist against his inexorable end, grasping for some purpose, some legacy, but in the end, he says nothing of substance, he is nothing of substance. He is so insubstantial that he passes from memory.

Macbeth is regret. He slaughtered his promise when he let his heart of darkness thrive. He loved and lost honor, duty, and wife.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” the film, Scotland, PA (2001), a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Identify the characters who replace love with regret, then explain their downfall.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analogy, a tale, or series of metaphors (or similes) making regret real for the reader. I hope I succeeded in the passage below, a tribute to my dear chocolate Lab whom I named Macduff:

            I tried to step over that great chocolate Lab without alarming him, but alarm him, I did. He rose up, as any gentleman would, to clear the path for me, and I careened to the floor, first cracking my knees on the hard, cold tile, amid shattered glass and ice water. When my body came to rest, I lay testing my limbs for snapped bone and seeping blood. Finding none, I looked for him and found him, horrified, frozen. I called to him, and he threw himself against me, his large, square head close to my heart. He seemed to beg that I forgive him, but I already had. Would that he were here now. Would that I could console him and recover him to live longer. Would that his great heart could reside somewhere other than in memory alone.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Macbeth’s story is both tortuous and torturous.

Allow me to repeat that statement: Macbeth’s story is both tortuous and tortuRous.

Almost identical words--except, of course, the second word has two R’s in it.

The first word, tortuous--spelled with one R--describes plots or storylines or even pathways up a hill. It means a story or route that twists back upon itself, one that is complex. Macbeth’s story reveals a man once brave and loyal, but his own ambition and evil nature twist him into someone unrecognizable, a villain and monster.

The second word, torturous--spelled with two R’s--describes a state of pain and suffering. Scotland suffers under the tyrant Macbeth. Lady Macbeth suffers under the weight of her own guilt. Macbeth suffers in the knowledge that his life has come to nothing. In another speech that defines and describes regret, he says:

. . .my way of life
    Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
    And that which should accompany old age,
    As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
    I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
    Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
    Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. (Act 5, Scene 3)