Macbeth’s “Distempered Cause” and Donald Trump

Shakespeare must have been an impulse ridden young man for his characters often wrestle with the issue of self-control, best illustrated with his description of Macbeth being unable to “buckle his distempered cause within the belt of rule.”  This image is that of a corpulent man trying unsuccessfully to fasten a buckle around his protruding belly.  It brings to my mind, the corpulent Oliver Hardy, of “Laurel and Hardy” comedy team from the early 20th century, comically attempting to fasten his belt.  Shakespeare presented Macbeth as deeply flawed, not merely in attitude and behavior, but deep down in the heart in the depths of his “cause,” or heart/will.  Macbeth’s inability to control his impulses, leading to murderous intent, stemmed from something that had gone awry deeply in his soul.  He was, to borrow a description from Ranier Rilke, “The toy of some great pain.”

This Shakespearean observation of Macbeth has been on my mind often recently as I’ve watched Donald Trump unravel before our eyes and watch his Republican Party stand by haplessly, not having had the courage in their own collective heart to intervene when they could have.  Trump presents such a vivid picture of psychopathology and it has been amusing, and sad, to watch his cohorts attempt at various times in the past year to rein him in.  But when one’s “cause” is so deeply “distempered” or diseased, there is no reining it in.

Trump is still living out of what we clinicians call “the terrible two’s” when the world is one’s oyster.  Usually one’s familial and social context will provide limits so that the child will come to see that the world is not his to exploit for his own ends, but is a domain that requires cooperation.  And surrendering to this external demand is excruciating to a nascent ego but most of us manage to endure the pain,  learning to appreciate the value of trading immediate gratification for the deferred variety.  Trump’s family indulged him, and so did his political “family” early in this campaign.  One of his 16 competitors in the primary season, Senator Lindsey Graham, noted onetime in retrospect, “We all cowered in the corner of the stage” before Trump’s onslaught of bullying behavior.  The “willfulness” that Trump demonstrates has made him wealthy but at the expense of a lot of people.  A strong-willed person, with just a modicum of self-restraint, can be very successful in about any area of life.  Will, or the exercise thereof, is very important but it can lead to one’s downfall.

Shakespeare is probably one of the most wonderful discoveries of my life.  He knew the human heart and vividly illustrated its beauty and its foibles in his plays and sonnets.  And it is very revealing that until my mid-thirties, I could not understand him and actually loathed him!  His wisdom fell on deaf ears.  At that point in my life I was only beginning to emerge from the darkness of “having ears to hear, but hearing not; having eyes to see but seeing not.”


5 thoughts on “Macbeth’s “Distempered Cause” and Donald Trump

  1. Sue Coppernoll

    Beautifully written, full of compassion and wisdom. Best essay I’ve seen – among dozens – relating to our being witnesses to a tragic playout of Wounded Wilfulness.
    Thank you, Brother Lew


  2. Anonymous

    I write from Canada and have watched CNN with interest in what the candidates for your president had to say about why they should be elected president and for the entertainment provided by Mr. Trump.
    This summer while travelling to Heathrow airport to return to Canada the Muslim taxi driver made a statement that I found startling. “The Americans should pay more attention to the terrorists they have in their own country. They sell guns and then shoot each other. A birthday gift for them is a gun.”
    Your comparison with Mr. Trump’s character and one of Shakespeare’s characters shows that “the flawed character” is still evident today in Mr. Trump.
    As a person living outside your country, I,
    like the taxi driver working in England
    make some observations. The Republican party voted for the candidate for the presidency that they deserve. To name two situations. The lack of wisdom and common sense around gun control leaves me incredulous. Obama Care, isn’t this what a great nation does is care for the poorest of the poor? As an observer it seems to me that if you showed Republicans the Moon and a Democrat said this is the moon the Republicans would say no it is the sun.
    I think Mr. Trump has given the Republicans a chance to examine themselves as individuals and as a party and in this his flawed character is exactly what they needed.” Making America Great Again” could begin with their own party.
    I feel very fortunate to be alive today to see that there is very possibly going to be a female president of the U.S.A. I am disappointed that her fellow candidate for presidency isn’t more worthy of her character and her intellect.
    Sincerely and with prayers,
    Bonnie Roberts
    Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada


    1. literarylew Post author

      Thanks Bonnie. My country is providing a spectacle right now. I think that all of our collective ugliness has been given birth and we can’t ignore it. Oh, but then we can too! I hope men and women of courage and spiritual valour will take on the mantle that Obama has worn and guide us through this mess. But, always, according to Shakespeare, “There is Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”. Thanks for your thoughtful response.


  3. Anonymous

    I agree with the above. It is beautifully written. It reminds me of what Patrick Oliver said at a recent workshop I attended. He said it was not so much what we do but how we do it. He distinguished between wilfulness and willingness. We may think we have the best intentions but when we push something in our wilfulness, it causes so much pain. Willingness on the other hand allows space for something new to emerge.



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