Whitaker, Virgil K. The Mirror up to Nature:
The Technique of Shakespeare's Tragedies. San Marino, California: The Huntington Library, 1965.

Thesis: Here is Whitaker's statement of the "fundamental thesis" of his study:

It is, quite simply, that Shakespeare was at one with his dramatic contemporaries. Even in his greatest plays their habits of workmanship appear, and we will understand him better if we first recognize the implications of this fact and then ask why, and in what ways, he differed from his fellows and surpassed them. I believe, as do many of my colleagues, that Shakespeare was a profoundly thoughtful man, familiar with the standard learning of his day; but I have discovered, as I have lectured throughout the country on viewpoints I was developing, that this view of Shakespeare and especially the attempt to interpret his works in traditional Christian terms still need to be argued to an extent I would not have anticipated. I am also convinced that Shakespeare believed ideas have consequences and that he felt obliged, more than any of his contemporaries, to square his plays with his moral and philosophic assumptions. How he did so becomes one approach to a study of his technique as a writer of tragedies. (vii)
Whitaker's first two chapters survey the background of Elizabethan tragic practice and theory. The third chapter makes the point that although Shakespeare's early tragedies "exemplified standard forms of tragedy," they "had in common two characteristics that set them apart from contemporary plays: their much superior dramatic structure and their tending systematically to relate the particular action to a larger background, whether the designs of Providence or the nature of kingship" (133).

In his fourth chapter, Whitaker presents his ideas about the characteristics of Shakespeare's later tragedies. Whitaker says that Shakespeare found his path to great tragedy when he wrote Julius Caesar, in which Brutus appears as Shakespeare's first true tragic hero, one "whose hamartia was a moral error grounded in pride that made him responsible for the collapse of his party and his own death" (134).

In Whitaker's opinion, "Moral error" is the key to everything. He says that in Shakespeare's best tragedies "the hero is confronted with a crucial temptation to choose a lesser or apparent good, which is being urged upon him by his own appetite, and by one or more human beings who have their own reasons for wishing him to choose falsely" (141). This plot pattern, Whitaker says, is "essentially a way of dramatizing in terms of a specific exemplum and realistic characters the psychomachia of Christian tradition that had also been basic to the morality plays" (142).

The medieval morality plays were lessons in sin and salvation, featuring allegorical characters such as Everyman, Death, Good Deeds, and Repentance. Whitaker asserts that Shakespeare's characters are also meant to teach lessons. The protagonist has the greatest "capacity for good or evil," and his "fatal moral act [is] central to the action of the play" (157). The other characters represent forces that push the protagonist towards sin or salvation. In addition, Shakespeare's characters provide commentary of the kind that we might expect from the Chorus in a Greek tragedy. Whitaker writes, "All the main characters and all the supporting expository characters are endowed with an understanding of moral principles, an ability to analyze action, and an extraordinary insight into the hero's nature" (158). Thus Shakespeare is able to write exciting, realistic drama while at the same time teaching the lessons of Christianity.

Macbeth as a Shining Example: Whitaker thoroughly approves of King Lear and Macbeth; of King Lear because is a "genuinely Christian tragedy of redemption" (240), and of Macbeth because it a "tragedy of damnation" which shows "the laws of nature and of God which Macbeth violated and the extent of his spiritual tragedy in this world as a preparation for his ultimate tragedy to come" (275). Whitaker's method is to link everything — character, theme, and dramatic structure — to doctrines which were common in Shakespeare's time. For example, look at this paragraph about Macbeth's character:

In the opening scene of the play Macbeth shows courage in the presence of the enemy and equally rational terror in the presence of murder; toward the end he oscillates between rashness and terror. His behavior is grounded in the Aristotelian concept of bravery as the rational norm between cowardice and rashness. To risk one's life to preserve one's country is rational and brave; to jeopardize one's immortal soul for any earthly gain whatever is irrational and foolhardy — more than becomes a man. To trust in the promises of witches is foolish rashness; to attempt surrender to a man whose wife and children one has murdered is so unwise as to be pure cowardice. Then to fight wildly, when all other hope is gone, is the rashness of despair, not the courage of reason. Macbeth's incapacity to act rationally in situations demanding courage is of a piece with his loss of moral understanding. It is part of his penalty for violating the laws of his own human nature. It is, in fact, one more example of the theological-psychological principle which operates throughout the last half of the play and to which repeated allusions have been made — namely, the chain of sin, in which each false choice of an apparent good makes easier the reason's acquiescence in another, so that blood will have blood.  (275)
Evaluation: Whitaker's opinion that Macbeth is a tragedy of damnation is shared by other scholars, but he goes into more detail than anyone else. All that detail makes for sound scholarship and a lot of dull reading.

Bottom Line: The preacher makes his point perfectly clear.