On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth by Thomas de Quincey (1823)

  • I was always puzzled about the knocking at the gate in Macbeth right after Duncan’s murder. But I never knew why.
    • It reflected back on the murder with an awfulness & solemnity… but why?
  • Don’t pay attention to your understanding when it opposes any other mental faculties.
    • Understanding, however useful & indispensable, is the poorest faculty & most to be mistrusted.
      • Most people trust nothing else. That may be fine in ordinary life but not in philosophy.
  • For example – Ask anyone who doesn’t really understand visual perspective to draw something that would depend on laws of science. E.g. – the effect of 2 walls coming together at right angles, or the appearance of houses on both sides of a street by a person walking down it.
    • Unless that person has seen in pictures how artists produce these effects, he won’t be able to do it himself.
    • Why? He sees it everyday of his life…
      • The reason is that his understanding overrules his eyes.
      • His understanding has no intuitive knowledge of the laws of vision & it can’t give him a reason why a horizontal line won’t look horizontal, or why a line making any angle with the perpendicular at less than a right angle would make the houses looking they’ll fall on each other.
      • So he makes the line of houses horizontal & fails to produce an effect of perspective.
        • Not only does the understanding overrule the eyes, it obliterates them because he isn’t aware of his eyes never saw it that way. He doesn’t know what he’s seen every day of his life.
  • So, as to why my understanding never gave a reason why the knocking at the gate should produce any effect, directed or reflected.
    • My understanding said it couldn’t produce any effect. But I know that it did. So I held on to the problem until I could make sense of it.
    • In 1812, John Williams committed murders on the Ratcliffe Highway. These murders made all other crime look downright innocent. In fact someone said to me there’s never been anything like it to speak of.
      • But that’s not right. The first set of murders, of the Marr family, the same thing happened that Shakespeare created – a knocking of a door after the murders.
      • This was proof that my instincts were right to rely on my feeling & not understanding. It restarted my investigation of the problem, which I was able to solve…
  • Murder, in most cases, where sympathy is totally directed at the victim, is an incident of coarse & vulgar horror because it puts the interest exclusively on the natural instinct we have to stay alive.
    • This instinct is indispensable to self-preservation in all living creatures. It annihilates all distinctions & degrades even the greatest of men to the level of a beetle being stepped on & exhibits human nature in its most abject & humiliating attitude.
      • This attitude doesn’t suit the purposes of the poet. The poet wants to put his sympathy of the murderer – not make you feel pity but to put us into his shoes.
        • Meanwhile the victim’s last thoughts, passions & purposes are crushed by overwhelming panic. The fear of death gets to him.
      • But in the murder, there must be a raging storm of passion – jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred. These create a sort of hell inside him that the poet wants us to look into.
  • In Macbeth, Shakespeare has created 2 murderers.
    • In Macbeth, the strife of mind is greater but he caught the desire to murder from his wife. But since they are both guilty of the murder, the murderous mind of necessity are presumed to be in both.
      • The unoffending nature of the victim, “gracious Duncan”, makes the murder seem worse.
      • In them, we are made to feel that human nature – divine nature of love & mercy had gone & vanished, & the fiendish nature took its place. We see the dialogues & soliloquies established this fact throughout the play.
        • If you’ve ever seen a wife, daughter or sister faint, the most affecting moment in such a spectacle is where a sigh & stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life.
        • Or if you’ve ever been in a large city on a day when a huge national figure was carried in a funeral procession to his grave, you’ll feel the silence & deserted streets & the halt of ordinary business. The sound of rattling wheels breaks up the silence but makes you realize that at no point were you aware of the complete suspension of life until it had finally resumed.
        • All action in any direction is best expressed & measured by reaction.
    • As far as Macbeth is concerned, we see the human heart disappear & the fiendish heart replace it. The murderers step into another world, away from human things, purposes & desires. They are transfigured.
      • Lady Macbeth is “unsexed”.
      • Macbeth forgot that he was born of a woman.
        • Both are conformed to the image of devils & that world is revealed.
        • For this to happen, time must disappear. The murderers must be insulated & cut off from human affairs & be locked up in a deep recess.
        • We have to sense that the world of ordinary life is suddenly stopped & time must be annihilated.
        • So, when the deed is done, the world of darkness is perfect & it passes away like a pageantry in the clouds.
    • The knocking at the gate is heard & lets it be known audibly that the reaction has begun. The human has made its reflux on the fiendish. The pulses of life are beating again & the work reestablishes the world’s activities we live in. We are jolted back into time by the banging on the gate. & we are aware of the suspension that happened.
  • Shakespeare’s works are well beyond others’ & are like phenomena of nature to be studied with complete submission of our faculties. There’s much in them & we’ll see nothing was put in there by accident.

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