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On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth by Andrew Hart
May 27, 2008, 2:19 pm
Filed under: literature

By Thomas De Quincey

From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in
Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the
murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could
account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar
awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored
with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.

Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any
attention to his understanding when it stands in opposition to any
other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and
indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to
be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else;
which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes. Of this
out of ten thousand instances that I might produce, I will cite one. Ask of
any person whatsoever, who is not previously prepared for the demand by
a knowledge of perspective, to draw in the rudest way the commonest
appearance which depends upon the laws of that science; as for instance, to
represent the effect of two walls standing at right angles to each other,
or the appearance of the houses on each side of a street, as seen by a
person looking down the street from one extremity. Now in all cases, unless
the person has happened to observe in pictures how it is that artists
produce these effects, he will be utterly unable to make the smallest
approximation to it. Yet why? For he has actually seen the effect every day
of his life. The reason is–that he allows his understanding to overrule
his eyes. His understanding, which includes no intuitive knowledge of the
laws of vision, can furnish him with no reason why a line which is known
and can be proved to be a horizontal line, should not appear a horizontal
line; a line that made any angle with the perpendicular less than a right
angle, would seem to him to indicate that his houses were all tumbling down
together. Accordingly he makes the line of his houses a horizontal line,
and fails of course to produce the effect demanded. Here then is one
instance out of many, in which not only the understanding is allowed to
overrule the eyes, but where the understanding is positively allowed to
obliterate the eyes as it were, for not only does the man believe the
evidence of his understanding in opposition to that of his eyes, but,
(what is monstrous!) the idiot is not aware that his eyes ever gave such
evidence. He does not know that he has seen (and therefore quoad his
consciousness has not seen) that which he has seen every day of his
life. But to return from this digression, my understanding could furnish no
reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect,
direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it
could not produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and
I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me
to solve it. At length, in 1812, Mr. Williams made his début on the stage
of Ratcliffe Highway, and executed those unparalleled murders which have
procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders,
by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill
effect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste,
and dissatisfied by anything that has been since done in that line. All
other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his; and, as an amateur once
said to me in a querulous tone, “There has been absolutely nothing doing
since his time, or nothing that’s worth speaking of.” But this is wrong;
for it is unreasonable to expect all men to be great artists, and born with
the genius of Mr. Williams. Now it will be remembered that in the first of
these murders, (that of the Marrs,) the same incident (of a knocking at the
door soon after the work of extermination was complete) did actually occur,
which the genius of Shakspeare has invented; and all good judges, and
the most eminent dilettanti, acknowledged the felicity of Shakspeare’s
suggestion as soon as it was actually realized. Here, then, was a fresh
proof that I was right in relying on my own feeling in opposition to my
understanding; and I again set myself to study the problem; at length
I solved it to my own satisfaction; and my solution is this. Murder in
ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the
murdered person, is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this
reason, that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but
ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life; an instinct, which, as being
indispensable to the primal law of self-preservation, is the same in kind,
(though different in degree,) amongst all living creatures; this instinct
therefore, because it annihilates all distinctions, and degrades the
greatest of men to the level of “the poor beetle that we tread on,”
exhibits human nature in its most abject and humiliating attitude. Such an
attitude would little suit the purposes of the poet. What then must he
do? He must throw the interest on the murderer. Our sympathy must be with
him; (of course I mean a sympathy of comprehension, a sympathy by which
we enter into his feelings, and are made to understand them,–not a
sympathy of pity or approbation.) In the murdered person all strife of
thought, all flux and reflux of passion and of purpose, are crushed by one
overwhelming panic; the fear of instant death smites him “with its petrific
mace.” But in the murderer, such a murderer as a poet will condescend to,
there must be raging some great storm of passion,–jealousy, ambition,
vengeance, hatred,–which will create a hell within him; and into this hell
we are to look.

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