Hunter, Robert. Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments.
Athens, Georgia: U of Georgia P, 1976.

Thesis: At the opening of his introduction, Hunter writes:

This book presents a hypothesis which it does not try to prove. It assumes that a necessary (though far from sufficient) cause for the ability of the Elizabethans to write great tragedy was the impact on their minds of some of the more striking ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin believe that our wills are not free. They also believe that the majority of us will spend our eternities in hell. This combination of beliefs leads to a concept of the human condition and the divine nature that, to say the least, takes some thinking about, and such thinking by both playwright and audience helped, I suggest, to make tragedy a possible form in Shakespeare's time. The divine justice which punishes man who has no freedom of choice must be called mysterious if it is not to be called monstrous and the spectacle of the destruction even of a Richard III or a Macbeth in the context of a Calvinist universe must evoke some pity along with a great deal of terror.  (1)
However, Hunter is far from claiming that Shakespeare adopted these Protestant ideas. At the end of his introduction he delivers his general conclustions:
What I have written is not, it seems to me, a study of Shakespeare's Christianity or of the Christianity of Shakespeare's art. What it has turned out to be is a study of Shakespeare's negative capability. The mysteries which Shakespeare confronts in these plays remain mysteries when the plays are over and are, if anything, more profoundly disquieting than they were before his imaginative considerations of them. The tragedies seem to me consistently to provide us with questions rather than answers and what they inspire in their beholders is, I think more likely to be doubt than faith.  (2)
In Hunter's chapter on Macbeth, the most substantial part begins with a consideration of the nature of the images that arise in Macbeth's mind — such as the thought which makes Macbeth's hair stand on end, the bloody knife, and the voice which cries "sleep no more." Hunter says, "The origin of these psychic phenomena may be natural or supernatural" (168), and he adds that Macbeth may or may not be able to control them. Thus there are four possible ways to look at Macbeth's relationship to God's judgment:
Macbeth may be criminal, or insane, or self-damned, or reprobate [predestined to damnation]. If the source of his horrid images is within his own mind and within the control of his will, then he is a morally responsible criminal who freely conceives of and executes his crimes. If the source is within his own mind, but outside the control of his will, then he is a madman whose diseased psyche presents him with hallucinations so powerful that they force him to action. If the source is supernatural but his will is free and strong enough to drive the phenomena from his consciousness, then he is "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" [as Milton described Adam in Paradise Lost] and he damns himself by choosing to permit the domination of the powers of evil over him. If the source is supernatural and his will is not free, then Macbeth is one of the Calvinist reprobate whom God has damned from eternity and abandoned to the powers of evil.  (168)
After this, Hunter reviews the evidence for seeing Macbeth in each of these four ways, but he concludes that "the various suggested causes of the protagonist's tragic destruction coexist in perfect equilibrium" (181). In other words, Macbeth is a criminal, and a madman, and a self-damned sinner, and a reprobate damned from eternity. Therefore, because all possibilities are equally possible, God's providence is mysterious, or — to use a harsher term — meaningless. Hunter comments, "Life in the world as Macbeth knows it signifies nothing," and since we in the audience experience the world as Macbeth does, "what the play shows us is that, experienced from within, by its victim and instrument, the providential pattern signifies nothing" (182).

Bottom Line: Chilling.

   Author: Philip Weller
   Last Modified: 1 Oct. 2003