On dying well

In Act 1 of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, we learn that the Thane of Cawdor sided with the Norwegians in a military conflict against Scotland and pays the ultimate price for his treason: death. Malcolm, the son of King Duncan, relays an account of the traitor’s dying to his father:

My liege,
They are not yet come back. But I have spoke
With one that saw him die: who did report
That very frankly he confess’d his treasons,
Implored your highness’ pardon and set forth
A deep repentance: nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d,
As ’twere a careless trifle.

What interests me is how Cawdor dies, which reveals his “undaunted mettle,” not that he dies, which is an ineluctable fact of human mortality. Consider the manner of his dying, involving three parts: he “confess’d his treasons,” “Implored [his] highness’ pardon,” and “set forth / A deep repentance.” Even though he was a “most disloyal traitor,” Cawdor dies like Peter rather than Judas, both of whom betrayed Christ but the former reconciled himself to the king whereas the later remained an enemy.

Confession is the starting-point of reconciliation. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Cawdor admits that his rebellion was wrong. While he does not obtain mercy from the sword of the executioner, he may obtain mercy from the memory of the king, who will recollect that Cawdor pled final allegiance to the crown. Confession and forgiveness are linked, as 1 John 1:9 makes unmistakably clear: “If we confess our sins, [Jesus Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Duncan censures himself for building an “absolute trust” upon a man who appeared to be a “gentleman,” but we can surmise, without distortion of the text, that he is likely to pardon a man who asks for his pardon, even if it is the private pardon of the heart rather than the public pardon of the state. Repentance is the final part of Cawdor’s dying. The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoia (μετάνοια), which literally means “a change of mind” or “afterthought.” Cawdor has turned away from the Norwegians, whom he assisted in the rebellion, and turned toward the Scottish, whom deserve his dying loyalty. The language of turning is used in Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out.” Without turning, Cawdor would die a damned traitor. By turning again, he dies a penitential traitor. And that is a distinction with a difference, even an eternal difference as the the lives of Peter and Judas illustrate.

“Nothing in his life,” Malcolm reports, “Became him like the leaving it; he died / As one that had been studied in his death / To throw away the dearest thing he ow’d, / As ’twere a careless trifle.” This obituary carries an implication for the reader. Life is not a “careless trifle,” but the manner of dying can make it appear “as ’twere a careless trifle” because the man who exits life with a clear conscience about his right-relatedness to the king does not hold onto to his “mortal coil” as a coveted possession; he releases the gift of life to the Giver with the hope of being summoned to the royal court for eternity.


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