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  • Peter C. Kaemingk

A brief meditation on Shakespeare’s coinage of the word “gospelled”

Shakespeare’s invention of the word “gospelled” (3.1.88) is more than just a play on language. We get introduced to it as an accusation to the murderers in Macbeth who are initially unwilling to kill Banquo. Blaming their reluctancy to kill upon the gospel suggests that Christianity has formed a new conscience. In other words, the word “gospelled” portrays a belief that Christian teachings such as “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV) have been more than words on paper, they’ve changed people’s behavior. This short essay will evaluate this ‘new conscience.’

If we look at how Macbeth uses the word, we can see that it obstructs one from doing what is necessary. “Gospelled” seems to be directly correlated to meekness. This meekness prevents one from harming others for an arguably reasonable end. From Macbeth’s perspective, the death of Banquo and Fleance is necessary to perpetuate his (family’s) rule. Moreover, Macbeth knows what happened to the previous king. King Duncan became a victim of treason primarily because he ruled by a ‘gospel of love’ mentality. Hence, it seems altogether understandable that Macbeth believes that a king should deviate from this Christian teaching that inspires love and condemns fear.

By criticizing Christianity in this way, Macbeth seems to touch upon a problem that Christianity presents in relation to politics. In politics, one of the main goals is to preserve law and order. The preservation of that good is a requirement on which the other fruits of society rely. However, to maintain law and order despite the whims of the people, fear is necessary. For it is “much safer to be feared than loved…[F]or love is held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you.” (The Prince, XVII)

Christianity puts much emphasis on ‘acting with love,’ so much so that one is required to “love [their] enemies.” This doctrine may prevent one from undertaking measures necessary to promote the “common benefit of humanity.”[1] Macbeth seems to understand this injurious element of Christian culture, demonstrated by the way he uses essential teachings of Christianity as an insult. The question remains if this is a fair criticism of Christianity and if Christianity can justify the ‘essential use of fear’ that politics requires. In Macbeth, it seems that Christianity cannot and that Macbeth’s criticism is very apt. For it was Macbeth’s warlike virtues that secured him the title Thane of Cawdor. At the same time, Macbeth’s Christian morality seems to be the cause of his inability to be at peace with his past. Hence, it appears that the Scottish political system has not evolved to be compatible with its practiced religion in the time of the play. One might even argue that this feudal system could benefit from a return to paganism.

One the other hand, the disharmony of Christianity and feudality may cause a movement towards another political system. Since the two are incompatible, one must bend to the other. When looking at world history, we could make the argument that Christianity has won and forced the feudal system to change into a democracy. However, though it is perhaps not as harmful to be “gospelled” in a democracy, it is hard to imagine that any government can abide by only love.

[1] An allusion to Machiavelli’s motivation for writing the Discourses on Livy (see preface to Book I).

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