Guest Post: “The Limits of Empathy; or Macbeth Is An Asshole” by Brian Staveley
We have a very special guest post for you all today. Please join us in welcoming author Brian Staveley to the BiblioSanctum to talk about a very interesting subject — writing characters that do bad things!
Brian’s new book The Providence of Fire is the second novel of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne; be sure to check out the BiblioSanctum review of this excellent sequel if you haven’t already. This series is not to be missed.
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THE LIMITS OF EMPATHY; OR MACBETH IS AN ASSHOLE
by Brian Staveley
I’ve seen, read, or taught Shakespeare’s Macbeth over twenty times, which is odd, considering I really can’t stand the play. Partly I’ve gone back to it so many times because it was deemed (for reasons I still can’t understand) a necessary part of a young person’s education in the school where I taught. Partly I keep seeing and reading it because it’s, you know, a great play. Everyone thinks so except for me, and I keep wondering if I’ve gotten any smarter. So far, no luck.
On the face of it, my antipathy to the Scottish Play is odd, even to me. After all, Macbeth has witches, curses, murders, battles, riddles, prophecy, and ghosts. It’s pretty hard to really fuck up when you’ve got witches, curses, murders, battles, riddles, prophecy, and ghosts. It’s fantasy, which means that I ought to like it.
And yet, I find the play almost unreadable, more so each time I come back to it. My problem hinges on Macbeth himself, and to a lesser extent his wife. It’s a literary staple that characters at the center of a tragedy are flawed (the word Aristotle used for this flaw was hamartia, a term translators of the New Testament often render into English as sin): Oedipus has his pride (or his stubbornness or his anger, depending on the commentator); Lear his pride; Othello his jealousy. The list is as long as tragedy itself.
The standard reading of Macbeth insists that the corrosive flaw running through both Macbeth and his wife is their ambition. Without the ambition, we are told, they would be decent people: courageous, loving, entertaining at a dinner party, the kind of couple with whom you might want to drink another bottle of wine, even after the meal is over. And yet, every time I read it, that single factor, that overwhelming ambition, so far outstrips every other aspect of their personalities, that I lose all ability to sympathize, or empathize, or perform any emotional action the root of which is pathos.
The problem with the Macbeths is not simply that they are ambitious. The problem is that they are fucking assholes.
They possess none of the virtues that redeem other evil literary characters. They are humorless, selfish, nasty to each other (despite the persistent critical claim that they are one of the happiest couples in Shakespeare, a claim based largely on the fact that Macbeth actually confides in his wife and has a pet name for her), and astoundingly willing to start murdering good people, a few overwrought soliloquys aside. I start out the play wanting to see the two of them dead, and then it’s just a long slow slog through the murder of bunch of people, themselves not particularly likeable, (the notable exceptions being Lady Macduff and her son, who are on stage just long enough to get killed).
This starts to worry me when my own characters start making decisions that are more and more… let’s call them unpleasant. One the one hand, I don’t want to write about a bunch of flawless guardians of all that’s good. On the other hand, I don’t want to shatter the reader’s empathy. I don’t want to turn the Malkeenians into the Macbeths.
My main characters do some bad things in The Providence of Fire, some really bad things, and as I was writing, I kept wondering, Is this too much? Is this?
Jaime Lannister threw a kid out a window, but he’s loyal, strong, brave, hard-working. Satan in Paradise Lost is, well, Satan – but he’s resolute, bold, and extremely eloquent. It’s tempting to think of the whole affair as a simple balancing act: the good against the bad, a murdered father on one side of the scale, a thousand rescued kittens on the other. In fact, as I started writing this essay, that’s what I had in mind.
Six hundred words in, however, I’m not sure that it’s that simple. Macbeth, after all, is plenty brave. He’s even vaguely introspective. It’s not simply that his good and evil don’t cancel out, it’s that I can’t relate to his evil. He never really explains why he wants to be king, never articulates what void he’s trying to fill, what creeping fear he’s trying to keep at bay. We know why Jaime Lannister does what he does – he tells us as he chucks Bran out the window: “The things I do for love.” It’s a glib comment, but it’s not untrue. Macbeth never says anything quite like it.
After months of fretting, this is my take-away. I hope my characters are complex, nuanced people, men and women built of conviction and contradiction. I think there is good in them, but my real hope is that when they act badly, the reader will look at their decisions, wince, then nod in recognition.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to beat this drum too loudly, Macbeth is one of the most famous plays of all time, and I’m certainly not getting any smarter.
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BRIAN STAVELEY is a teacher and writer. He has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling. BStaveley.wordpress.com. @BrianStaveley. Facebook. Goodreads.