Macbeth and the Moral Universe

Adapted from a lecture delivered at Hillsdale College in 1974. Claremont Review of Books, Winter 2007/08.


Macbeth is a moral play par excellence. In this, it stands in stark contrast to two more recent well-known tales of murder, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Camus’s The Stranger. In Macbeth Shakespeare presented the moral phenomena in such a way that those who respond to his art must, in some way or another, become better human beings. In Dostoevsky’s and Camus’s heroic criminals we see the corruption of moral consciousness characteristic of modern literature.

By the art of Camus we are led to admire his hero, Meursault; young people especially tend to identify with him. What kind of hero is Meursault? He is utterly indifferent to morality and cannot understand what others mean when they say they love other human beings. In the story, he kills a man and is sentenced to be executed, in part because he did not weep at his mother’s funeral. Meursault becomes passionate in the end: but the only passion he ever experiences is the passionate revulsion against the idea of human attachment. He thinks no one had a right to expect him to weep at his mother’s funeral, or for anyone else to weep at her funeral. By Camus’s hero we are taught to be repelled by those who (he believes) falsely teach us that there is any foundation for human attachments, or that there is anything in the universe that is lovable. The benign indifference to the universe is the only form of the benign, of goodness itself, in the universe. To imitate the indifference of the universe to good and evil is to live life at its highest level.

Claremont Review of Books