What is Evil?

I know. If this were a graded project, I’d be failing. But every time I start to write, I come up with a different idea. So I stopped for a bit to let my thoughts settle. This is one subject that has kept coming up over and over, so hopefully it sticks.

How do we define evil? In truth, evil, like good, is one of those words often defined by an opposite, such as light/dark or tall/short. Such words and concepts are dependent each other and on the context in which they are used. The common definition of evil is dependent on our culture and personal mores. My or your evil might differ slightly from someone else’s evil, or, when compared, it may be far fetched.

I bring this before you because in a few days we will recognize the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Certainly, our culture and the majority of cultures around the world define the tragedy of 9/11 as an act of pure evil. Thousands of innocent people died, people of various religions and cultures and races, all for someone else’s idiom. However, the men who planned and performed the attack believed THEY were right. They believed they were striking a blow at a country that has done more to degrade the moral center of the world than any other. In their minds, they were doing God’s work by killing those who do not embrace the “correct way.” How is their belief any different from those of our ancestors who spent generations fighting in the Crusades, killing innocent people as well as armed combatants, all in the name of religious conviction? So, I ask again: How do we define evil?

What of wars in general? America refused to enter WW I until it was apparent to a majority of the American populace that the European conflagration really was a matter of “national security,“ and WW II not until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We were willing to allow others to fight what we now see as an ultimate evil, sacrificing their lives and homes in the process. We became involved only when our own military installations, both in Hawaii and in the Philippines, were bombed, and the national motive was in no small part revenge. Even here, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an act designed to cripple the U.S. forces in the Pacific, was done in the name of what the Japanese thought was “right.” They believed it was their manifest destiny to conquer the Pacific world. Their ideas of superiority were no different from those of American settlers who slaughtered thousands of Native Americans in the name of a manifest destiny. This country was not ours when we arrived. We conquered, we displaced, we murdered. Is this not evil? How were our ancestors any different?

We also dropped the worst of modern weapons on Japan in order to end the war, arguing that it would be better for hundreds of thousands of civilians to die than millions counted among our soldiers, Japanese soldiers, and Japanese civilians. That debate continues as one of the great moral conundrums of our age. But is the loss of millions truly more evil than the loss of hundreds of thousands? Is one soldier’s life worth any more than a civilian? Are two lives worth more than a single one? So again, what is evil?

Like all greats in the humanist disciplines, Shakespeare never offers an answer to such large and philosophical queries. Instead, he merely expands the questions. In Macbeth, he gives us not an evil incarnate to oppose a hero, but rather a descent into evil that should be pitied. He argues and justifies his descent into evil, just as we have often done with our own descent.

Macbeth begins as the archetypal hero. He has just conquered a traitor, that is, treason against a king, a sin worse than any other in Shakespeare’s time. While returning from the battlefield, unaware of his newly earned title, he encounters three witches who make predictions regarding his current and future titles. Macbeth scoffs at these sisters until he receives news that he is now “Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.055), just as the sisters predicted. Our Western minds, molded by centuries of teachings that witches are a form of evil, are quick to judge the grotesque women as the focus of evil in the play. However, the witches never perform a single act of evil. To the contrary, they merely make predictions, and Macbeth responds with murder and a plot against those who stand in his way. Macbeth, who began in the image of a hero, is revealed in possession of an evil mind seizes on murder as a solution, despite his initial declaration, “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-144).

Other critics argue that Lady Macbeth is the epitome of true evil within the play. After all, it is she who first places the thought of murdering the king in her doting husband’s head. Yet, her burgeoning guilt eventually drives her to insanity and suicide. We find Lady Macbeth so compelling because we so easily resonate with her guilt. The purest evil is little troubled with guilt. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth with which we are left is that of a tortured soul, rubbing her hands, madly demanding,

Out, damned spot! out, I say!—One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.—Hell is murky!—Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power
to account?—Yet who would have thought the old
man to have had so much blood in him?

The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?—
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O! (5.1.35-40, 42-45, 50-52).

Lady Macbeth’s hallucination-filled rambling comment not only on the deeds of the Macbeths, but also on her extreme guilt in their aftermath. Is she evil incarnate? Or is she merely a weak soul overcome by evil and left to be pitied?

Cultural differences across the globe make narrow definitions of evil impossible. I’m reminded of the climax of Boondock Saints, where Murphy declares, “Do not kill, do not rape, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.” However, even these crimes are not embraced by every faith as evil. In fact, within some cultures, murder and rape are used to punish what some perceive as worse sins. So can we, as a human race, truly embrace any singular definition of evil? And if we can, can we also acknowledge our own evil as well as the evil of others?

Our Supreme Court might argue that, like porn, we cannot define evil, but we know it when we see it. By that reasoning, Macbeth is truly evil, and Shakespeare forces us to witness a good man’s descent into evil. And, as evil as Macbeth and Lady M become, it can also be argued that Banquo is equally evil. After all, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” However, for all three, they receive what we might call their just desserts. Is such a conclusion our answer to evil? Or should we conquer it with pity and compassion instead? Is that possible?

Let us apply the view of a descent to evil towards the hijackers of 9/11. We label these men as evil. Yet, they were seduced by words and rhetoric of zealots in their own religion. They laid their own lives and the lives of thousands of innocents on the altar of the rhetoric of their leaders. Does their memory deserve condemnation or pity?

Perhaps the answer is both. History is filled with leaders whose gift of blarney inspires others to commit evil acts. These doers of evil become mere marionettes of their silver-tongued leaders. Perchance, we should strive for a condemnation of their acts and leaders while simultaneously reacting to these poor puppets with compassion and pity for their downfall. After all, Shakespeare ends Macbeth with a mixture of grotesque celebration and dismissal of the evil when, while seeing Macbeth’s head displayed, Malcolm declares he “shall not spend a large expense of time” on Macbeth’s actions before embracing his loyal countrymen in grateful arms.


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