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ON THE KNOCKING AT THE GATE IN 'MACBETH'

by Thomas De Quincey

On the Knocking at the Gate

FROM my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point inMacbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gatewhich succeeds to the murder ofDuncanproduced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. Theeffect wasthat it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and adepth of solemnity; yethowever obstinately I endeavoured with my understandingto comprehend thisfor many years I never could see why it should produce suchan effect.

Here I pause for one momentto exhort the reader never to pay any attentionto his understandingwhen it stands in opposition to any other faculty of hismind. The mere understandinghowever useful and indispensableis the meanestfaculty in the human mindand the most to be distrusted; and yet the greatmajority of people trust to nothing elsewhich may do for ordinary lifebutnot for philosophical purposes. Of this out of ten thousand instances that Imight produceI will cite one. Ask of any person whatsoeverwho is notpreviously prepared for the demand by a knowledge of the perspectiveto draw inthe rudest way the commonest appearance which depends upon the laws of thatscience; asfor instanceto represent the effect of two walls standing atright angles to each otheror the appearance of the houses on each side of astreetas seen by a person looking down the street from one extremity. Now inall casesunless the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is thatartists produce these effectshe will be utterly unable to make the smallestapproximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day ofhis life. The reason is- that he allows his understanding to overrule his eyes.His understandingwhich includes no intuitive knowledge of the laws of visioncan furnish him with no reason why a line which is known and can be proved to bea horizontal lineshould not appear a horizontal line; a line that made anyangle with the perpendicularless than a right anglewould seem to him toindicate that his houses were all tumbling down together. Accordinglyhe makesthe line of his houses a horizontal lineand failsof courseto produce theeffect demanded. Herethenis one instance out of manyin which not only theunderstanding is allowed to overrule the eyesbut where the understanding ispositively allowed to obliterate the eyesas it were; for not only does the manbelieve the evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyesbut(what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave suchevidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad hisconsciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his life.

But to return from this digressionmy understanding could furnish no reasonwhy the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effectdirect orreflected. In factmy understanding said positively that it could not produceany effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to theproblem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it. At lengthin1812Mr. Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highwayandexecuted those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliantand undying reputation. On which murdersby the wayI must observethat inone respect they have had an ill effectby making the connoisseur in murdervery fastidious in his tasteand dissatisfied by anything that has been sincedone in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; andas an amateur once said to me in a querulous tone'There has been absolutelynothing doing since his timeor nothing that's worth speaking of.' But this iswrong; for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artistsand bornwith the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be rememberedthat in the first ofthese murders (that of the Marrs)the same incident (of a knocking at the door)soon after the work of extermination was completedid actually occurwhich thegenius of Shakespeare has invented; and all good judgesand the most eminentdilettantiacknowledged the felicity of Shakespeare's suggestionas soon as itwas actually realized. Herethenwas a fresh proof that I was right in relyingon my own feelingin opposition to my understanding; and I again set myself tostudy the problem; at length I solved it to my own satisfactionand my solutionis this. Murderin ordinary caseswhere the sympathy is wholly directed to thecase of the murdered personis an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and forthis reasonthat it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural butignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct whichas beingindispensable to the primal law of self-preservationis the same in kind (thoughdifferent in degree) amongst all living creatures: this instinctthereforebecause it annihilates all distinctionsand degrades the greatest of men to thelevel of 'the poor beetle that we tread on'exhibits human nature in its mostabject and humiliating attitude. Such an attitude would little suit the purposesof the poet. What then must he do? He must throw the interest on the murderer.Our sympathy must be with him (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehensionasympathy by which we enter into his feelingsand are made to understand them-not a sympathy of pity or approbation *002 ). In the murdered personall strifeof thoughtall flux and reflux of passion and of purposeare crushed by oneoverwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him 'with its petrificmace'. But in the murderersuch a murderer as a poet will condescend totheremust be raging some great storm of passion- jealousyambitionvengeancehatred- which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.

In Macbethfor the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming facultyof creationShakspere has introduced two murderers: andas usual in his handsthey are remarkably discriminated: butthough in Macbeth the strife of mind isgreater than in his wifethe tiger spirit not so awakeand his feelings caughtchiefly by contagion from her- yetas both were finally involved in the guiltof murderthe murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed in both.This was to be expressed; and on its own accountas well as to make it a moreproportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim'thegracious Duncan' and adequately to expound 'the deep damnation of his takingoff'this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feelthat the human naturei.e. the divine nature of love and mercyspread throughthe hearts of all creaturesand seldom utterly withdrawn from man- was gonevanishedextinctand that the fiendish nature had taken its place. Andasthis effect is marvellously accomplished in the dialogues and soliloquiesthemselvesso it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration;and it is to this that I now solicit the reader's attention. If the reader hasever witnessed a wifedaughteror sister in a fainting fithe may chance tohave observed that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle is that inwhich a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life. Orif the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolison the day when somegreat national idol was carried in funeral pomp to his graveand chancing towalk near the course through which it passedhas felt powerfully in the silenceand desertion of the streetsand in the stagnation of ordinary businessthedeep interest which at that moment was possessing the heart of man- if all atonce he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of wheelsrattling away from the sceneand making known that the transitory vision wasdissolvedhe will be aware that at no moment was his sense of the completesuspension and pause in ordinary human concerns so full and affectingas atthat moment when the suspension ceasesand the goings-on of human life aresuddenly resumed. All action in any direction is best expoundedmeasuredandmade apprehensibleby reaction. Now apply this to the case in Macbeth. HereasI have saidthe retiring of the human heartand the entrance of the fiendishheart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stept in; and themurderers are taken out of the region of human thingshuman purposeshumandesires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is 'unsexed;' Macbeth has forgotthat he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and theworld of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and madepalpable? In order that a new world may step inthis world must for a timedisappear. The murderersand the murder must be insulated- cut off by animmeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs- lockedup and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the worldof ordinary life is suddenly arrested- laid asleep- tranced- racked into a dreadarmistice; time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; andall must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthlypassion. Hence it isthat when the deed is donewhen the work of darkness isperfectthen the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds:the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reactionhas commenced; the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses oflife are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on ofthe world in which we livefirst makes us profoundly sensible of the awfulparenthesis that had suspended them.

O mighty poet! Thy works are not as those of other mensimply and merelygreat works of art; but are also like the phenomena of naturelike the sun andthe seathe stars and the flowers; like frost and snowrain and dewhail-storm and thunderwhich are to be studied with entire submission of ourown facultiesand in the perfect faith that in them there can be no too much ortoo littlenothing useless or inert- but thatthe farther we press in ourdiscoveriesthe more we shall see proofs of design and self-supportingarrangement where the careless eye had seen nothing but accident!

THE END

Footnotes

*001 First published in The London MagazineOctober 1823.

*002 It seems almost ludicrous to guard and explain my use of a wordin asituation where it would naturally explain itself. But it has become necessaryto do soin consequence of the unscholarlike use of the word sympathyatpresent so generalby whichinstead of taking it in its proper senseas theact of reproducing in our minds the feelings of anotherwhether for hatredindignationlovepityor approbationit is made a mere synonyme of the wordpity; and henceinstead of saying 'sympathy with anothermany writers adoptthe monstrous barbarism of 'sympathy for another.