OKONKWO AND MACBETH: UNLIKELY BED FELLOWS

A QUICK AND PERSONAL BACKGROUND

It had been fifty-five long years coming, but Chinua Achebe finally spoke to me. It is the equivalent of a grandfather gathering his progeny and his progeny’s progeny round his death bed just before giving up the ghost. Now, for the better part of those fifty-five years, Achebe couldn’t have spoken to me: the woman who bore me in her thirties is only herself a few years better than fifty-five. And my initial encounters with Achebe bore no special significance for me; Things Fall Apart was just a book. I came across Things Fall Apart as an inquisitive nine-year old devouring the several tomes of wisdom and inanity in my father’s study. At that age (and even now), I read because I couldn’t possibly not read. If it was a book my young attention span could hold, I would finish it, and God knows I have finished quite a lot in the short while I have sojourned this Earth. Novels gave me the same satisfaction a good quickie would give sexual partners – enjoyable but fleeting and the details soon to be forgotten; an emorgasm. A few years later, I received No Longer at Ease as a prize for academic endeavour in junior secondary school and consequently quickied it. All I remembered of Things Fall Apart was that there was a man named Okonkwo and he caused quite the bother; all I remember of No Longer At Ease is the fine young man that adorned the cover of my copy, a pictorial representation of Obi. And of Anthills of the Savannah, I am as knowledgeable as I am of astrology or of rocket science, to borrow a cliché, even though I read it. My father knows I am a reader. Therefore, I can imagine his chagrin when he would ask me about specific action sequences in Things Fall Apart and all he would get as reply was a blank stare and a slow side-to-side nod. As recently as 2006, in my first year studying Microbiology at Ife, I bought Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, read it and consequently passed it on to my father, who incidentally has not returned it as we speak. I do not recall the tiniest detail of that book now, except that it was set in a university community amidst the turbulence of the Civil War’s chaos.

Recently though, my keen interest in literature has congealed into a strong yearning, a yearning that now causes me to pore over in careful detail what I merely perused casually, and to find meaning for myself, if any.

This, however, is not about my father or Chinua Achebe or even me. This is about creation.

According to the Bible, God carefully and wondrously fashioned clay into a hollowness. Then He breathed Life into the clay and it became whole; Man. If you believe in that kind of thing, Man then, is God’s magnum opus (and if the Bible is anything to go by, regrettably so). And writers, most especially of the ilk of Achebe and Shakespeare, possess this God-like ability to mold from the blank page and ink – digital or physical – and breathe life into beings that we end up relating and consociating with. Okonkwo was Achebe’s greatest creation; Macbeth was one of Shakespeare’s greatest clay beings brought to life, even if he had help from Raphael Holinshed’s history of Kiltland (Scotland).

 WHY DO THIS?

What I aim to do with this analysis is to show how two men, completely removed from each other in background, circumstance and geography, find some similarity in their perception by peers, the motivations buried deep in their souls, and the tragedy of their greatest mistakes. We begin.

UNCANNY CHARACTER SEMBLANCES IN OKONKWO AND MACBETH

PEER PERCEPTION

Macbeth was well known in all of Scotland and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. Hear a captain of Duncan’s army give an account of Macbeth’s success to Duncan:

CAPTAIN:        […] And Fortune, on his damned quarrel smiling,
            Showed like a rebel’s whore. But all’s too weak;
            For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name),
            Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,
            Which smoked with bloody execution,
            Like valor’s minion, carved out his passage
            Till he faced the slave;
            Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him,
            Till he unseathed him from the nave to th’ chops
            And fixed his head upon our battlements.
                                    –    1.2.16-25

This could as well have been a warrior in Umuofia regaling the people of Umuofia with tales about Okonkwo’s exploit in a just-concluded war with Isike. Okonkwo’s reputation was so much larger than life that he could also be referred to as “valor’s minion” who disdained Fortune. And in that precolonial Igbo world Achebe transported us into, it would not have been out of place if we had sat among the people as this star-struck warrior had told us that Okonkwo had faced an opposing warrior “unseathed from him from the nave to th’ chops”.

THE SECRET STIMULUS OF PROTAGONISTS

Why was Okonkwo the way he was? Achebe provides us an answer in Chapter Two of Things Fall Apart:

Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these.  It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title.

Chris Anyokwu, in his essay, “Fifty Years on: Problematizing the Heroic Ideal in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, has this to say on the subject of Okonkwo’s motivation:

Fear is the chink in Okonkwo’s armour and his so-called “achievements” are all efforts at papering over the cracks (14).

 Macbeth’s motivation is not as elaborate as Okonkwo’s deep-rooted fear of being regarded as weak, of being regarded as a woman in man’s garb, as his father was. Perhaps it was, but we are constrained by how much Shakespeare does not dive into Macbeth’s emotional history, in direct contrast with what Achebe does with Okonkwo. However, we will still see that Macbeth’s motivation is quite similar, at least on the surface, to Okonkwo’s. Lady Macbeth is a crucial key here. It is she who beats Macbeth into submission, forcing him into a confrontation with his fear. Lady Macbeth, having firsthand and full knowledge of her noble husband’s weaknesses, sets out her stall early, after she receives Macbeth’s letter.

LADY MACBETH:        Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
            What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
            It is too full o’ th’ milk of  human kindness
            To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
            Art not without ambition, but without
            The illness that should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,
            That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false
            And yet wouldst wrongly win. Thou’d’st have, great Glamis,
            That which cries “Thus thou must do,” if thou have it,
            And that which rather thou dost fear to do,
            Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee thither,
            That I may pour my spirits in thine ear
            And chastise with the valor of my tongue
            All that impedes thee from the golden round,
            Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
            To have thee crowned withal.
                                    –    1.5.15-33

Lady Macbeth describes a man who nurses inordinate ambition – triggered by the machinations of The Weird Sisters – deep within his soul, but whose ambition is tempered by his need to have things done the right and good way. She describes a model moral man, a man “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness.” Lady Macbeth realizes that she must pour her significantly more evil “spirits” into Macbeth, through his ears, so he can finally vault the obstacle his “moral” nature places in his path to high office.

MACBETH:         […] He’s here in double trust:
            First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
            Strong both against the deed; then as his host,
            Who should against his murderer shut the door,
            Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan
            Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
            So clear in his great office, that his virtues
            Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
            The deep damnation of his taking-off;
            .
            .
            .
            […] I have no spur
            To prick the sides of my intent, but only
            Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
            And falls on th’ other –
                                    –    1.7.12–

In this famous soliloquy, Macbeth has outlined the reasons why he should not kill Duncan for his crown. First: He is Duncan’s kinsman. Second: Duncan is a guest in his castle. Next: There is not even a moral rod to tie a murder to seeing as Duncan “hath been so clear in his great office”. Therefore, to vault these lofty obstacles, something drastic needed to have happened. This drastic measure comes in the shape of complete emasculation by Lady Macbeth. It is important to note that women in this time were expected to be subservient to men, and not to surpass men in testicular fortitude. A man in this society is one who will take the action needed to lay hands on his heart’s desire. A man is not a man who sits by and watches as a woman bests him in the ability to take strong action. In her essay – Macbeth: A Modern Perspective – Susan Snyder throws more light on how this lack of testicular fortitude is surmounted.

We never see Macbeth vow to kill Duncan, but in Lady Macbeth’s mind just his broaching the subject has become a commitment. With graphic horror she fantasizes how she would tear her nursing baby from her breast and dash its brains out if she had sworn as she says her husband did.

Lady Macbeth throws down a gauntlet – if you are a man, show me your manliness because I can show you mine, even if I have ovaries instead of testes. Thus, Macbeth’s fear: of being seen as weaker than his marital affiliate, by this very marital consort herself. The fear drives him to lengths we are well familiar with.

 THE KILLINGS OF IKEMEFUNA AND DUNCAN

That man calls you kinsman. Do not bear a hand in his death.

What Ezeudu, Umuofia’s oldest man tells Okonkwo is actually this: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death (45).” You can imagine Macbeth’s conscience pulling Macbeth to one side and uttering the opening paragraph of this section to him sotto voce. Macbeth’s conscience does in fact engage him, but it is delivered in typical Shakespearean profundity, of language and message – in the famous soliloquy already quoted in this essay – instead of the quiet profundity of Achebe’s Spartan language. The brashness and cold-bloodedness of Ikemefuna’s slaying is contrasted by the reason put forth by Achebe for Okonkwo’s action.

Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak (2008, 49).

It is an interesting coincidence that in both works, the victims of the knife (and the matchet) both reposed trust in their eventual murderers. Before Ikemefuna is cut down crudely, he runs to the man he calls father after an initial attempt to scythe him down ends up in just the pot of wine on his head being cut down. “My father, they have killed me!” he cries before he is silenced forever by trust. If Shakespeare had gone into the gritty details of Duncan’s murder, we might have found, for instance, that Duncan would have expressed surprise at Macbeth’s presence in his room and as the first blow lands, of incomprehension of the strange turn of events – a kinsman host attacking him.

If trust were absent, Ikemefuna could have simply taken his own fate into his own hands by bolting into the bush, instead of running into Okonkwo’s cutlass. Duncan would perhaps have never blessed Macbeth’s castle with his presence had trust been absent from the equation between both men.

For both men, the motivation is fear, on one level. And this fear, for both men, tests the very fabric of their manhood, and therefore draws drastic corollaries from both of them in their unique contexts. One man is afraid of being regarded as his father had; the other of being bested by his spouse in manliness. On another level, both men aspire to the highest echelon of society – kingship for Macbeth; relevance – that his father never managed – for Okonkwo.

It is also interesting to note the reaction of both protagonists – one tragic; the other not quite after committing what is their gravest blunders. To Lady Macbeth he says upon her suggestion that he go back to Duncan’s chamber to deposit the instrument of murder and of course implicate the king’s nullified guards: “I’ll go no more/I am afraid to think what I have done/Look on ‘t again I dare not” (2.2.65-67). And later he adds: “To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself” (2.2.93). Okonkwo is less articulate (2008, 7, 48). What he lacks in articulation he shows. In Chapter Eight of Things Fall Apart, Achebe supplies us with Okonkwo’s reaction.

Okonkwo did not taste any food for two days after the death of Ikemefuna. He drank palm-wine from morning till night, and his eyes were red and fierce like the eyes of a rat when it was caught by the tail and dashed against the floor (2008, 50).

Whilst we are not told that Okonkwo had any misgivings about what he was about to do after choosing to ignore Ezeudu’s terse wisdom (2008, 45), we may feel justified to assume that he harboured such misgivings given his reaction after the event. This reaction may have come as a surprise to us, since we know Okonkwo not to harbour or tolerate emotional expression, except of course this expression was anger. In Macbeth’s case, we are very well introduced to the conflict he underwent before arriving at a decision to kill Duncan. Therefore, we can immediately understand his post-homicide plight.

Both men are sucked into the spiral of their demise quickly after these events.

SOURCES

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Pearson Education Ltd., 2008

Anyokwu, Chris. “Fifty Years on: Problematizing the Heroic Ideal in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart” California Linguistic Notes, Volume XXXIV, no. 1, University of Lagos, Nigeria. 2009

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Washington: The Washington Square Press, 1992.

Snyder, Susan. Macbeth: A Modern Perspective in W. Shakespeare Macbeth. Washington: The Washington Square Press, 1992.

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One thought on “OKONKWO AND MACBETH: UNLIKELY BED FELLOWS

  1. First of all, why am I the first to comment on a piece as brilliant as this.

    Now my comment, just to say (like I hinted in the intro) that this is a very brilliant piece. The way you compared “Things fall apart” and “Macbeth” here and brought out their similarities is sure to get a student who embarks on this as his final year thesis in the university an A.

    Keep it coming!

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