Epicures and God in “Macbeth”

Composed probably in 1606, Shakespeare’s use of the word “epicure” in [amazon_link id=”0198324006″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Macbeth[/amazon_link] is particularly interesting because at that time, “epicure” was considered “archaic” that is, rare in the early 1600s present-day usage. The meaning of Shakespeare’s “epicure” is taken from the philosophy of an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.) An “epicure” is a person that disbelieves in God (the divine government of the world,) and in an afterlife spent in either Heaven or Hell; this is also a person who recognizes no religious motives for conduct.

Although [amazon_link id=”0520264711″ target=”_blank” ]Epicureanism[/amazon_link] has been commonly misunderstood to advocate the rampant pursuit of pleasure, what Epicurus was really after was the absence of pain (both physical and mental, i.e., suffering,) essentially a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. Pleasure and pain were ultimately, for Epicurus, the basis for the moral distinction between good and bad.

In Act V, Scene III, Macbeth tells his attendants and the Doctor of Physic:

Bring me no more reports. Let them fly all.
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? The spirits that know
All mortal consequences have pronounced me thus:
‘Fear not, Macbeth; no man that’s born of woman
Shall e’er have power upon thee.’ Then fly, false thanes,
And mingle with the English epicures.
The mind I sway by and the heart I bear
Shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear. (1 – 10)*

Macbeth questions the loyalty of his men when he calls them “false thanes.” He is saying that anyone who does not believe in his right to govern should leave his service for Scotland and join the English troops; Macbeth sees Englishmen as being amoral and sacrilegious (the deviation of or from anything held sacred) because they do not respect or honor the Scottish to rule themselves. (The English historically challenged Scottish rule for centuries.) In addition, Macbeth’s speech reflects the common knowledge that when the English troops encountered poor weather conditions, typically during the winter months, even when in the middle of a battle-siege, they simply packed-up and went home. Therefore, even though Macbeth knows that there are 10, 000 English troops advancing toward him, he shows no fear. He does not take the English troops seriously and figures that his disloyal men will be in like company if they join the English who typically abandon their war campaigns.

Loyalty to the King is seen as sacred, because without that loyalty, the King cannot be sure of his power to rule. This power was believed to come directly from God – “[amazon_link id=”158477570X” target=”_blank” ]The Divine Right of Kings[/amazon_link].” The Divine Right of Kings is a political and religious doctrine of royal absolutism, which asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. The King is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm, including (in the view of some, especially in Protestant countries) the Church. According to this doctrine, since only God can judge an unjust King, the King can do no wrong. The doctrine implies that any attempt to depose the King or to restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act.

Such doctrines are, in the English-speaking world, largely associated with the [amazon_link id=”038534077X” target=”_blank” ]House of Tudor[/amazon_link] (King Henry VIII & his daughter Elizabeth I) and the early [amazon_link id=”0520228006″ target=”_blank” ]House of Stuart[/amazon_link] in Britain and the theology of the Caroline divines who held their tenure at the pleasure of [amazon_link id=”0345450469″ target=”_blank” ]James I of England[/amazon_link] (VI of Scotland), [amazon_link id=”1405859032″ target=”_blank” ]Charles I[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0140264655″ target=”_blank” ]Charles II[/amazon_link].

“Shortly after James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne, in 1603, he gave his patronage to Shakespeare’s company; [amazon_link id=”0415051487″ target=”_blank” ]The Lord Chamberlain’s Men[/amazon_link] became [amazon_link id=”0812242963″ target=”_blank” ]The King’s Men[/amazon_link], entering into a special relationship with their sovereign. James regarded the virtuous and noble Banquo, Macbeth’s comrade at the start of the action, as his direct ancestor…” (969)*

Macbeth labeling the English as “epicures,” is a direct reference to their pursuing warm winter quarters at home, which essentially is seeking pleasure, is it not? Therefore, Macbeth criticizes the English for being both sacrilegious and cowardly pleasure seekers when labeling them as epicures.

*[amazon_link id=”0199267170″ target=”_blank” ]The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd Edition[/amazon_link] edited by John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells © Oxford University Press 1986, 2005.


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