Stripped of Shakespeare's poetic style and skilful characterization, Macbeth is revealed as little
more than a petty tyrant. Like Machiavelli's Prince, Macbeth seeks power as an end in itself and
sees any means as justified provided it helps him achieve his goal. It is a standard image of power: an individual, or small group, occupying a position of authority from which he (seldom she) attempts to force his will upon others. Today's equivalent of a feudal monarch is the power-hungry politician, the cult leader, or the ruthless business tycoon. But the new historicist conception of power is different; rather than being a top-down affair that originates from a specific place or individual, power comes from all around us, it permeates us, and it influences us in many subtle and different ways. This idea of decentralized power, heavily indebted to post-structuralist philosophy (see Derrida and Foucault), is sometimes difficult to understand because it seems to have an intangible, mystical quality. Power appears to operate and maintain itself on its own, without any identifiable individual actually working the control levers.
This new historicist notion of power is evident in Macbeth in the way in which Macbeth's apparent subversion of authority culminates in the re-establishment of that same type of authority under Malcolm. A ruthless king is replaced with another king, a less ruthless one, perhaps, but that is due to Malcolm's benevolent disposition, not to any reform of the monarchy. Similarly, the subversion of the play's moral order is contained, and the old order reaffirmed, by the righteous response to that subversion. In other words, what we see at the beginning of the play--an established monarch and the strong Christian values that legitimize his sovereignty--is the same as what we see at the end of the play, only now the monarchy and its supporting values are even more firmly entrenched thanks to the temporary disruption.
It is almost as if some outside force carefully orchestrates events in order to strengthen the existing power structures. Consider, for example, a military leader who becomes afraid of the peace that undermines his position in society. In response to his insecurity, he creates in people's minds the fear of an impending enemy--whether real or imaginary, it doesn't matter.
As a consequence of their new feelings of insecurity, people desire that their leader remain in
power and even increase his power so that he can better defend them from their new II enemy. II
The more evil and threatening our enemies are made to appear, the more we believe our own
aggressive response to them is justified, and the more we see our leaders as our valiant protectors
(Zinn,Declarations of Independence 260-61,266). Military or political power is strengthened, not
weakened, when it has some kind of threatening subversion of contain ( Greenblatt 62-65).
The important point about the new historicist notion of power, however, is that it is not...