Shakespeare And The Dangerous Power Of Ego

Shakespeare 2

April 23rd is said to be Shakespeare’s birthday. Not sure when you last touched down in Shakespeare’s amazing world of exquisite language, intriguing plots, and penetrating insight into the human condition, but Shakespeare is surely one of the towering figures in all of literature.

I happen to have just finished rereading  Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Macbeth, you may remember, is slowly sucked into the maelstrom of his own overcharged ego. This is a play about the dangers of the ego, that tendency we all have to focus on ourselves, sometimes at great cost to ourselves and others. Macbeth tries to resist these temptations for a time but is finally consumed by that monster that threatens to bring down all leaders. The ego, for Shakespeare, is clearly dangerous, exceedingly tempting, voracious in the end.

As the play begins, Macbeth is a rising star in the kingdom. He has had successes on the battlefield. People begin to praise him. He is also called a man “full o’ th’  milk of human kindness.” How could this good man, we ask, be so seduced by the need to become the biggest man in the kingdom?

Of course there are the mysterious witches that open the play—unfortunately they call Macbeth “King.” Whoa, that gets Macbeth to thinking. Could he actually become king? Is this a prediction from this odd spirit-world? Of course Macbeth’s ego is fed constantly by the equally ambitious Lady Macbeth. She too wants to become the big lady of the kingdom.

The only problem is that the gentle and decent Duncan is still king. Something has to give if Macbeth will ever achieve this dream. And so the intricate plot gets rolling. We watch in amazement as Macbeth, and the viciously scheming Lady Macbeth, discard any remaining reservations about killing the king.  We witness here one of the most excruciating, nuanced rationalizations you will ever hear.

Surely, Lady Macbeth tells the would-be king, you shall be

What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature.

It is too full o’ th’  milk of human kindness

To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,

Art not without ambition, but without

The illness should attend it. . . . Hie thee hither,

That I may pour my spirits in thine ear

And chastise with the valor of my tongue

All that impedes thee from the golden round

Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

To have thee crowned withal.

She’s not fully certain he’s got what it takes, the gall, the drive, the “illness” it takes to become so ruthless. But she is determined to convince him. This is called feeding the ego. Macbeth wrestles hard with his own reservations, but finally is overcome by his own ambition, that corrosive power of the ego. He catches the “illness” that brings such destruction in the kingdom, with so many people hurt along the way.

As everything begins completely to unravel, we get one of the great speeches in all of Shakespeare’s writing.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

No happy conclusion when the ego takes over. This is what we get when unbridled ambition overwhelms decency and respect and goodness. This is what happens when a self-giving ethos is turned upside-down into a world of self-serving. Shakespeare saw clearly that the culture of his time stood at a crossroads of massive change. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the individual began to be placed at the center of the universe, all meaning began to be drained out of the human story: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more”; “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” These lines anticipate the grand nihilism of Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, where we find this same profound nothingness at the center of everything. That’s what happens when the ego is elevated center stage.

Surely there must be more than that. Surely we can cultivate in ourselves  “th’  milk of human kindness” as a counterweight to the power of the ego.  Surely we can resist the seduction of ambition, especially when it seeks the destruction of others. Surely, as we too stand at the crossroads of culture once again, we can heed the warning. When it is all about us, it is all about nothing.