MacBEARth: Eyes, Bears, Entertainment and the Fates in Shakespeare's Scottish Play
The writing was on the wall for poor old Macbeth from the second he killed King Duncan!
That of course is completely obvious - regicide is hardly going to go unpunished - especially in a play written to dissuade dissenters of James I (the patron of Shakespeare’s troupe of actors). However, what is fascinating is that there is a clue to his downfall and his true ‘role’ in the story given to the audience immediately after he has killed the king.
In Act II Scene ii, Macbeth says, ‘Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”. I discuss the reference to Neptune and the oedipal echoes on my Shakespeare page. However, it seems only fitting that in a play that revels in duplicitous behaviour, there is a second meaning squirrelled within the quote.
In Act V Scene vii, Macbeth states “They have me tied to a stake. I can't run away. I have to stand and fight, like a bear”. This is a reference to the bear-baiting that took place in the theatres of the South Bank, often in the same venues that would hold performances of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd et al. It would not have been unusual for a pleasure-seeker to see a bear being torn apart in the morning and a man exit, pursued by a bear in The Winter’s Tale on the same day.
Bear-baiting was a very cruel form of entertainment. Evidence of the bear’s suffering can be seen at the Rose theatre. This venue has the femur of a bear - complete with the marks of teeth and claws made by the dogs that attacked and killed it still clearly visible. The poor animal was chained to a stake and was set upon by dogs until one ‘side’ was victorious. To sway the ‘sport’ further into the favour of the dogs, the bears would sometimes have their eyes removed. This both enraged and disorientated the bear when the dogs attacked, making for a much longer and more unpredictable spectacle.
With this treatment in mind, when Macbeth talks about his own eyes being removed by ‘they’, we can see that perhaps subconsciously he knows that he has been chained to a stake in the middle of the round and his demise is just sick sport for us all to watch as he is attacked by his conscience, Lady Macbeth, the witches, fate, McDuff and the invading Anglo-Scots army.
His last act as ‘the bear’ is to realise that there is no breaking away from the chain that has tethered him to his fate. His job now is to die for our amusement. In some interpretations it is at this moment when Macbeth finally makes peace with his place in the universe.
Once you accept that Macbeth is ‘the bear’ tethered to the spot, it is not hard to view that “chain” as a thread with Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos standing by, with full control of when this ‘sport’ will start, what will happen and how long it will last.
Poor Macbeth – he never had a chance.