Wishes and Witches in Samuel and Shakespeare

On August 30, 2020, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, the director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, delivered a seminar, “Wishes and Witches in Samuel and Shakespeare.” The seminar was the first of a series of discussions for the Straus Center’s Wilf Straus Scholars, who, this year, along with the Beren Straus Scholars, will be studying the Bible’s influence on the works of playwright William Shakespeare.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s seminar focused on Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Bible’s portrayal of King Saul in the book of I Samuel. The discussion commenced with an overview of some similarities between the stories of Saul and Macbeth: Both portray kings hungry for power who seek to kill their counterparts for the sake of securing the throne, contain witches who prophesy about the kings’ future and underscore the kings’ inner turmoil.

However, Rabbi Soloveichik argued that Macbeth should also be understood in light of a different biblical monarch, King David. It is David, not Saul, who serves as the ultimate foil for Macbeth. Both characters were prophetically chosen to ascend to the throne. However, their responses to that calling could not be more different from each other. Macbeth, despite no evidence of threat against him, schemes to commit regicide with his wife. In contrast, even after surviving numerous assassination attempts waged against him by Saul, David refuses to murder his king even when presented with the opportunity.

What separates David from Macbeth? Why didn’t David kill Saul in order to secure his rightful place as king? Rabbi Soloveichik suggested that the demise of Macbeth is contrasted with David’s rise, highlighting a key difference between Greek and Jewish statesmanship. Macbeth is the paradigm of a Greek hero; his military strength and success grant him power. However, he is never satisfied with what he has, and that thirst for power turned out to be his Achilles’ heel. When power is unbridled and purely a measure of physical strength, it is bound to devolve into a typical nihilistic Greek tragedy.

In contrast, “David’s fittingness for majesty lies in his humility,” explained Rabbi Soloveichik. David’s refusal to commit regicide is a result of, as the text implies, his faithful loyalty to God’s word, which designated Saul as the king of Israel. Through prophecy, David knew he was to become king, but he also knew that God would arrange his rise to the throne in a way other than murdering Saul. David’s faith was not a purely passive reliance on God, as evident of his military and personal victories, but his success was far from Machiavellian. It was with faith and a deep respect of God’s will, coupled with a sense of personal autonomy and mission, that led to his coronation.

Together, the stories of King David and Macbeth give us a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be a Jewish leader.

“Saul and David in the cave of En-Gedi” (Willem de Poorter, 1608-1688)