Macbeth and the Oxymoron of Christian Tragedy


Later today, as part of my day off, I’m going to see one of my favorite Shakespearean plays take life on the big screen: Macbeth.  It’s playing at one of DC’s “artsy” theaters, the Landmark E Street Cinema.  Macbeth… sometimes known in the theater as, “the Scottish Play,” due to a myth that the play is cursed… is the story of a man who wanted too much.  At the instigation of his own appetites, egged on by his iconic wife -the infamous Lady Macbeth- the main character seizes the throne of Scotland, only to be overthrown by his fellow nobles.  In the end everyone dies, completing one Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedies.  That’s one mark of a tragedy, everyone dies.  Another is that you’re usually rooting for the (anti)hero by the end of the play, opera, film, what have you.  Villainous as he is, you almost want Macbeth to win, if only because he’s worked so hard for it.  Likewise, my favorite movie trilogy of all time, The Godfather.  In Mario Puzo’s legendary drama, Michael Corleone strives mightily to protect his family, albeit by criminal means.  The tragic irony is that in the end his crimeskill the very family he so wanted to save.

Why is tragedy an enduring and appealing part of the western tradition?  I think, because of empathy.  To various degrees all of us have seen our best efforts come to failure, our brightest intentions soiled in the execution.  Our hearts are moved with pity for those characters in whom we see something of ourselves… even if the thing we see is the sad working of our fallen nature.  Christ’s heart was likewise, “moved with pity,” as he saw us as “sheep without a shepherd.” (cf Mt. 9:36).  In his humanity, Jesus is totally able to empathize with us, just as we do with our favorite literary characters.  In his divinity, Christ does what we can never do; he saves us.  We’ll come back to this…

Also appealing about tragedy is this: in the end, the slates are wiped totally clean; everybody dies… except one or two lesser characters who remain to tell the tale and [hopefully] learn from it (think Fortinbras in Hamlet, Henry Richmond in Richard III).  While this leaves us sad, it is also – in a sense – symmetrical… the totality of destruction means a new beginning.

This raises an interesting question: Is there such a thing as Christian tragedy?  Or is it an oxymoron? In tragedy, everyone dies and the slate is wiped clean… but in Christian understanding Christ can save a justified soul, even in death.  Everyone can die, and yet, not die.  Consider Jean Anouilh’s play, Becket (famously brought to life in the 1964 film of the same title).  Thomas Becket, virtuous archbishop of Canterbury is martyred by his once-friend, King Henry II who, though he remains king has damned himself.  But thanks to Christ, Becket becomes a martyr-saint… and Henry has a chance to do penance to redeem himself.  Christ snatches triumph from tragedy… there’s a new slate, but it’s filled with life not death.  So, is there such a thing as Christian tragedy?

Insofar as refusing the mercy of God is the only unforgivable sin (cf. Mk 3:29), I suppose so, but for the most part that’s it… an author has to divorce his/her characters from all substantial contact with God in order to guarantee real tragedy.  Again, think of our friend Michael Corleone: In the much maligned Godfather III he goes to confession but refuses to change… and just to hammer the point home, the archbishop says, “your sins could be forgiven, but I know you don’t believe this.”  The only way for the saga to end in real tragedy is for him to overtly deny the possibility of his own salvation in Christ.

It makes sense, really… not just Biblically, but from a literary point of view.  Tragedy comes to us from the pagan Greeks.  It is renewed in the western canon by renaissance authors who – though Christian – were conscientiously resuscitating Greco-Roman culture.  The only way to really kill EVERYONE is to distance them from Christian thought.

What’s the upshot of all of this?  In this  year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis, we see the absolute beauty of the Church’s Christian faith… that as long as we hold on to Christ, real tragedy is banished by him who conquers death for us.  Look at tragedy through eyes of faith and you’ll realize the magnitude of the gift Christ gives his faithful each and every day.