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Screwtaping Shakespeare

If you aren’t a Shakespeare fan, don’t worry; I’m not judging you. And I promise I’m going to try not to do a dense, academic analysis that scratches my ego and helps nobody. Rather, I want to pull out and analyze a line from the play that I find particularly insightful for the Christian life, even four centuries later.

I don’t have space for much plot summary beyond basic details, so I’ll be succinct and trust in your ability to use Google if you want to know more. As a further disclaimer, I don’t hold myself responsible if I spoil the plot for you. You’ve had 411 years to get around to reading the thing, so I think the statute of limitations on spoiler alerts is well past.

Macbeth is a story of tragedy resulting from a man yielding to his fleshly craving for power. Three witches tell this guy, Macbeth, that he is destined to become king, so Macbeth murders the current king in order to hurry the process. It ends poorly and Macbeth goes mad, is overthrown, and is killed. Before all this happens, though, Macbeth receives a warning about the witches’ prophecy from his best friend Banquo that ends up foreshadowing the rest of the play. As readers, we can appreciate it as a helpful summation of some of Satan’s oldest temptation tactics.

Act I Scene III
But ‘tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.

Think of this line like a Shakespearian Screwtape Letter, highlighting the enemy’s tactics so that we can see through it when it happens to us.

Let’s break this down. The first thing Banquo correctly identifies is the goal of Satan and his minions: “to win us to our harm.” Peter tells us that Satan1 is actively looking for people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Yahweh and His people have enemies, and it’s important that we acknowledge that our battle is not of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Working against us constantly are the “instruments of darkness.”

Banquo then explains to us a common method Satan uses to destroy us: he appeals to our desires but obscures the consequences of chasing them. In some ways, this is the essence of sin: attempting to get what you want by flouting God’s desired plan and system.

Satan tells us “honest trifles.” He’s truthful about the possible gain of certain sinful actions, but he doesn’t tell us the whole story. The incredible destruction sin can cause is the real story of sin, but his temptations rave about only what we can get from sin. In light of the whole story, the details that Satan tells us really are only “honest trifles”: small bits of vaguely relevant truth that are ripped out of context in order to deceive.

“Trifle” ends up being a potent and multifaceted word choice here. Notice also the skillful comparison he creates with it. The thing that evil offers becomes only a “trifle”—some gain that is trivial, silly, or small—while what we really get is “deepest consequence.” While the word consequence holds little actual consequence in our current social vocabulary, “deepest consequence” suggests something more existential, more destructive, more bitter, and more skin-crawlingly shameful. By setting these two terms, “trifle” and “consequence,” in opposition, Banquo shows how objectively silly it is to pay so much for something so small. And, in doing so, he suggests two important realizations:

  1. How foolish men and women can be when the things we really want are at stake.
  2. The consequences of fulfilling a desire outside God’s ordained system far outweigh the gain of the thing we want.

We see this further illustrated in Macbeth’s eventual madness. Attaining the crown that the witches dangled in front of him cost him everything and, in the remaining wreckage of his life and mind, the crown meant nothing.

This temptation tactic is particularly evident with sex. God has given us a sexual desire and a means to fulfill it in marriage. But Satan asks us “Why wait? Why settle? Sex is great and it’s everywhere.” He doesn’t warn us about the consequences of sex outside of God’s design, consequences that make the pleasure of getting what you want not worth the pain it causes (1 Corinthians 6:18).

In concluding, let me try to rephrase Banquo in a more modern way: Satan and his demons want only to destroy us, and they bring this about through temptation that promises us the possible gain of sin without telling us the price we will pay for the sin. The main goal of temptation is that we would gain the world at the price of our soul.

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Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader, leading people into worship in a variety of venues, including our modern worship service and student ministry gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart Alli.


1 Note: I don’t believe Satan is omnipresent and it seems more likely that his demons are doing much of the work of temptation. But in some ways, it’s easier to just say Satan. So when I say “Satan” I’m using it as a collective representative of him and/or his minions, supposing an applicable biblical text (such as 1 Peter 5) doesn’t specify otherwise.

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