In the film The Dark Knight, Director Christopher Nolan includes a character that embodies a phrase. That character is Two-Face and the phrase is “there are two sides to every coin.” The embodiment is rather obvious, but the lesson is well-taken, and the saying seems to hold true. There usually are at least two sides to every issue, and every concept.
Over the past school quarter I’ve read two books that seem show two sides of the same coin. I’d like to look at how Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, and Beowulf, by an unknown author, embody two sides of the concept of stoicism.
Before I go any further, though, it might be helpful to define what I mean by stoicism. Merriam-Webster defines stoicism as, “the quality or behavior of a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” I mean something slightly different by the term, but I can’t think of another word to describe what I’m trying to get at. When I use the term stoicism in this post, I’m referring to two things primarily. The first is a staunch and unwavering–stoic, if you will–commitment to one’s actions, despite any adverse consequences. The second is a commitment to some sort of fatalism, some sort of acceptance that what happens will happen and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
So how exactly do Macbeth and Beowulf display this?
For Macbeth, the first part of the definition becomes obvious near the beginning of the story. When we first see Macbeth, he is loyal to the king. Even after he hears the witches’ prophecy, he still remains loyal. But then, after his wife pushes him over the edge and convinces him to kill the king, he never second-guesses that decision. Sure, after he kills the king he feels guilt for it, but he is unwave
ring in his commitment to what he has done. He stands by it, even though he knows it is wrong. This is an interesting twist in his character. One might think that Macbeth, who seems loyal at first, would at the very least constantly regret what he’s done. But he doesn’t. Does he feel guilty? Sure. But it didn’t seem to me that there’s much, if any, regret.
The fatalism comes in a rather interesting way. The obvious first appearance of fatalism is the witches’ prophecy. Macbeth treats it as a non-negotiable. He doesn’t seem to think that there’s anything he can do to stop it, but that it will happen, regardless of his actions. All his wife convinces him to do is speed up the inevitable.
But more fascinating to me is what happens after he kills the king. In his besieged castle, Macbeth is urged to flee, but he refuses. Why? Put simply, because he thinks that what will happen will happen. Macbeth says:
I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane’; and now a wood comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
If this which he avouches does appear,
There is no flying hence nor tarrying here.
It seems like a fatalistic sentiment, but a slightly less obvious instance fatalism comes in earlier in that scene.
She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
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.
Macbeth is here speaking of Lady Macbeth’s death, but it’s of great interest to me how he puts it. The first line, “she would have died hereafter” followed by a monologue on the inevitability of death must be considered in our discussion of fatalism.
To sum up what appears to be said about stoicism in Macbeth, Macbeth’s staunch commitment to his actions lead to his ultimate demise. In addition, it seems like they seal the audience’s opinion of the character. We might have forgiven him if he had been so riddled with guilt he wasn’t able to operate, and ultimately repented. But there’s none of that. Sure there’s guilt, but he is committed to his actions. The fatalism seems to actually be one of the causes of his death. Perhaps he would have lived, at least a bit longer, if he had fled from his castle.
We’ll come back to Macbeth in a second, but I want to look at Beowulf. This one’s easier, but presents the other side of the coin to Macbeth’s rather tragic approach to stoicism. Beowulf is stoic in his commitment in a much better way. At least, it is looked upon more favorably in the book.
When Beowulf arrives in Hrothgar’s land he is irrevocably determined to kill the monsters or die trying. Before all three of the fights in the book, he expresses his fierce determination and unwavering resolve. He will do what he will do, regardless of any opposing forces. It’s far more obvious than in Macbeth, but still provides what I believe to be an important part to this discussion.
The fatalism is slightly less pronounced in Beowulf, but to me it definitely seems to be there. At multiple points in the story Beowulf speaks of how his battles are predetermined, to an extent. He’s going to fight as hard as he can, but he doesn’t seem to think that the outcome is ultimately up to him. It’s a subtle sort of fatalism that might not even be worthy of the name, but it’s similar to Macbeth’s.
So what’s the point? The point is simply this: I found it fascinating how these two stories provided the opposite views on this issue of stoicism. Macbeth shows the dark side–the staunch commitment to his actions ensures his total descent into evil, and his fatalistic beliefs appear to be one of the causes of his death. Beowulf gives us a better view of the first part of stoicism. His stoic approach to his battles inspires hope in his friends, and seems courageous to us. The fatalism seems to be neutral in the story–not commented upon one way or the other.
Thus, we see two sides to commitment, and two sides to fatalism. We see how unwavering commitment can destroy, and how it can be courageous. We see how fatalism can also destroy, and how it can simply be accepted and lived with. Whether or not the authors intended these themes to be present in their story, I couldn’t help but notice the way they apparently unintentionally play off each other in regards to this theme. It’s not a mind-blowing thought by any stretch of the imagination, but it stood out to me as I read these works.