The Esoterism of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The Doctrine of the Gunas

“According to the hindu doctrine there are three gunas or constituent qualities, which, in its primordial indifferentiation, are in perfect equilibrium; every manifestation or modification of substance represents a rupture of this equilibrium, and all beings, in their various states of manifestation, participate in varying degrees in the three gunas, in indefinitely varying proportions.”1

It must be noted at this point that it is not the actual killing that is the supreme conflict, since Macbeth is a general in Duncan’s service and we must expect that in holding such an office death is an everyday occurrence; ordering soldiers to kill other soldiers is something a general must be capable of handling. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth actually murders Duncan’s servants, – in order to prevent them from pleading their innocence concerning the murder – on whom Macbeth have the intention to put the blame.
The very heart of the entire play, however, is the killing of the righteous king; not only because of Duncan’s legitimacy to the throne based on blood heredity but rather from the aspect of what kind of material a righteous king should be made of in order to have a rightful claim to the throne according to universal law.
As René Guénon explains, the three gunas are: Sattva, the ascending tendency; Rajas, the expansive impulse and Tamas, the downward tendency.

If we were to consider Macbeth as a historical document, then, I would perhaps say that these kings in question here have an outward striving tendency instead of an upward and downward tendency, thus making them warrior-kings, but then again there would be no conflict of opposite forces that would make any sense at all in a theatre play and definitely not a play which is regarded as a masterpiece.
Therefore Macbeth represents the downward tendency, tamas, and king Duncan represent sattva, the ascending tendency. Therein lies the conflict and the opposition between the two kings, who have two different inner natures, way of acting and different positions within a divine universal hierarchy. It must be noted, however, that the old age of Duncan indicates that the light in his character has become somewhat weakened and this indicates a time when dark forces can take root, because “the cause of the obscuring of light is not due to the triumph of darkness, but rather to the fact that darkness prevails only the moment light dims itself.”2 We also know that according to the prophesy of the witches, Banco, also a general in Duncan’s service, will be the progenitor of kings. The lineage of Duncan will therefore eventually be broken forever.

By equalizing the different inner qualities of the kings according to the three gunas, and in so doing making them meaningless duplicates, the whole natural balance and harmony of the actual piece of art is disturbed. If the exoteric structure is altered, the three other meanings, as explained earlier, is lost or at least are being made unavailable to the audience. When the wind creates ripples on the surface of the water, the reflection of the sun is distorted. In the case of Verdi’s opera, the quality of the music is what will make the difference between a catastrophe and a success, which is the case in the Gothenburg production.

“Of the three levels in the hierarchy of the universe, the subhuman witches personify Hell, and they have been drawn up to the human plane by the evil in Macbeth’s soul.3 They “read his heart” and it is the darkness in his soul, the inner impurities, that brings forth their invocation, thus revealing the nature of his fate according to his inner nature.
It is evident from scene 7 in the first act in the play that Macbeth and his wife have already planned the murder of the king. When Macbeth momentarily hesitates to execute the murder, she says:

“Nor time, nor place did then adhere and yet you would make both:
they have made themselves, and that their fitness now does unmake you.”

The parallel between the three witches and the Norns in the Edda of the Nordic tradition has been discussed before concerning the play and the parallel cannot be passed in silence. In various traditions we encounter parallel analogous symbols and in the Nordic tradition the witches are the three Norns: Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. They are the guardians of Yggdrasil, the world ash tree and they are the ones who spin the threads4 of fate and natures of men beneath it. They also protect the roots of the tree with the draught of immortality.5

“Thence comes maidens who knew much Three form the hall beneath the Tree One was named Origin, the second, Becoming These two fashioned the third, Debt.” (Voluspa, 20).

Since the Norns are said to represent the past, present and the future, the Trimūrti or triple manifestation of the universal order in Hinduism also comes to mind, in the forms of Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva; Creator, Preserver and Destroyer (Transformer). Perhaps their most interesting equivalence to the nordic Norns, are each of their Saktī (productive will) – feminine consorts – and they are: Sarasvatī, Lakshmī and Parvati.

“Since Buddhi [the higher intellect], like everything that proceeds from the potentialities of Prakriti [undifferentiated primordial substance, which is feminine, the passive principle], participates in the three gunas… it is regarded as as ternary, and, in the sphere of universal Existence, it is identified with the divine Trimurti…”6

The various differences of soul, spirit and body in man is according to the will of the cosmic intelligence, the reflected image of Brahma [the Good One].

This means that the supreme reason for displaying the three witches as emerging from the underworld, is to indicate the downward tendency, the interior impure quality of Macbeth’s soul and the path he has chosen in his current life.

  1. Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, R. Guénon []
  2. Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, Julius Evola, from the website Evola As He Is. []
  3. The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, Martin Lings. []
  4. In the literal meaning the word guna means ‘cord’. []
  5. Mjöd of the Scandinavians, the Vedic Soma, the Ambrosia of the Greeks or the Amrita of the Hindus []
  6. Man and his Becoming According to the Vedanta, René Guénon. []
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