Shakespeare’s plays introduce us to the idea that tyranny is “a perpetual political and human problem rather than a historical curiosity” (McGrail 1). This suggests that the play is only a representation of the real political world around the globe, whether it is in England during Shakespeare’s time or in pre-Indonesian era. With this is mind, it is interesting to note the many similarities between Macbeth, which is just a play, and the legend of Ken Arok during Singosari kingdom in the twelfth century.
To begin with, let us take a brief look at the legend of Ken Arok. The legend is found in Pararaton, a chronicle of kings, which was written in the 15th century. Ken Arok was the first king of Singosari in 1222, the founder of Rajasa dynasty, which represents the lineage of the kings of Singosari and Majapahit. Majapahit itself was the first powerful Javanese kingdom whose influence spread around what is nowadays Indonesia. The story of Ken Arok is a mixture of fantasy and reality <http://www.jawapalace.org/kenarok.html>. This online source will be the reference used in the discussion of the legend, unless mentioned otherwise. To most Indonesian students, Ken Arok is a well-known tragedy of a usurper that remains to be told in history classes. In relation to political situation in Indonesia, he represents a real Machiavelist in Indonesian government. Commenting on the never-ending political instability in Indonesia, Christianto Wibisono, a well-known Indonesian political analyst even uses the term ‘Ken Arokism’ instead of Machiavelism in his criticism of wicked politicians whom he blames being responsible for high rate of corruption <http://www.indomedia.com/bpost/9901/25/ekbis/ekbis7.htm>.
The many similarities between Macbeth and Ken Arok start from the prophetic events that drive them to gain power. Both are told about the prophecy or vision of their future sovereignity. Both pursue their power in an illegitimate way, by killing the true ruler. Both stories involve the taking of several lives. Both also need scapegoats to hide their crime. Both have to see their power taken over by the true heir and meet their fate in death.
In terms of their reaction to the events prophesying their future power, Macbeth and Ken Arok represent those people who choose to conduct evil deeds to fulfill their ambition. Macbeth is at first a noble fellow. It is not until he listens to evil suggestion that he changes into a brutish and selfish seeker of power and status.
First witch : “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.
Second witch : All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.
Third witch : All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter! (1.3. 46-48).
Meanwhile, Banquo gets a better prophecy. The third witch says, “Thou shalt get kings, though thou shall be none” (1.3. 65).
Macbeth’s noble nature is shown as he has mixed feeling about the prophecy.
“This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill, / Why hath it given me earnest of success, … If good, why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair …Against the use of nature…If chance will make me king, why, chance may crown me / Without my stir” (1.3. 129-136, 143).
While Macbeth is basically a noble man, Ken Arok is as notorious as he can be. Raised by a thief, Ken Arok is predestined to be a king and the father of kings. In other words, he is luckier than Macbeth in that he possesses both the prophecy of Macbeth and Banquo. It is told that three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Syiva claim to be his father. Interestingly enough, Ken Arok identifies himself with Syiva, the god of destruction. There are various stories about the prophecy. One prevailing belief is that Ken Dedes, the wife of Tunggul Ametung, the king of Tumapel, a small kingdom where Ken Arok works as a guard, possesses an aura of wisdom and power, and whoever marries her will be a king and the father of kings.
Can we mix prophecy and truth? Those who believe in the prophecy may have found some truth in it, and use the truth to justify their means. Banquo realizes the danger of believing in the prophecy. “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.” (1.3.121-24). However, Macbeth falls into the temptation. For Macbeth’s promotion to occur, the current king, Duncan, would have to be kicked out. Macbeth also understands that his crime will not end with Duncan’s death. The matter now is whether one is willing to control his mind to resist the temptation or is ready to bear greater risk for the sake of his goal. Macbeth belongs to the latter category. “If th’assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success: that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all, here, / But here upon this bank and shoal of time, / We’d jump the life to come” (1.7. 2-7).
In terms of the illegitimate way Macbeth gains his power, he can be considered a tyrant, as Macduff defines it. “Bleed, bleed, poor country! /Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure, For goodness dare not check thee! wear thou thy wrongs; The title is affeer’d! Fare thee well, Lord: / I would not be the villain that thou think’st / For the whole space that’s in the tyrant’s grasp, And the rich East to boot” (4.3. 32-37). Malcolm’s definition of tyranny is clearer in that Macbeth’s virtues have given way to abusive power. “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongue, / Was once thought honest…A good and virtuous name may recoil / In an imperial charge” (4.3. 12-13, 20).
McGrail argues that Macbeth does not really fit in Malcom’s description of tyranny. His desire is only simple, he wants to be loved and be honored (37). It is not really correct. Although his desire may be as simple as that, the path he takes shows that he is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve his ambition. His demand to have his question answered by the three witches proves his determination.
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches, though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down,
Though castle topple on their warder’s heads,
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations, though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together
Even till destruction sickens, answer me
To what I ask you. (4.1. 68-76).
Ken Arok shares Macbeth strong determination. To him, it is apparent that marrying Ken Dedes would open the possibility of gaining the power. As Macbeth does, he also needs to get rid of the true ruler. Here is the most famous part of the legend. First, he has to kill Tunggul Ametung. He then orders a keris, Javanese double-edged sword, to Mpu Gandring, a keris master. At the appointed time, the keris is not finished yet. Enraged, Ken Arok kills Mpu Gandring with the unfinished keris. Just before he dies, Mpu Gandring curses Ken Arok that the keris will take seven lives of kings, including Ken Arok himself. In Javanese history, the keris is known as Keris Mpu Gandring.
Different from Macbeth who is controlled by Lady Macbeth, Ken Arok is an expert in political strategy. He has a fellow soldier, Kebo Ijo, as the scapegoat. He lends the keris to Kebo Ijo, who proudly shows the keris in public so that everybody thinks he is the owner. One night, Ken Arok steals the keris and kills Tunggul Ametung, leaving the keris in Tunggul Ametung’s body. The rest is clear; Kebo Ijo is prosecuted while Ken Arok picks the ripe fruit. He becomes the king of Tumapel and marries Ken Dedes.
The existence of scapegoat seems to be significant in clearing the path to power. Here we find another difference between Ken Arok and Macbeth. It is never told whether Ken Arok actually suffers from guilt. He carefully plans to put Kebo Ijo as the scapegoat to clear his path without any suspicion. Meanwhile, Macbeth needs scapegoats not only to cover his crime of murdering Duncan, but also to be free from guilty feelings. He does not really plan on killing the guards, but Lady Macbeth warns him of his awkwardness that might reveal his crime. Because Macbeth worships his self-esteem and selfish rights and desires, he eventually forgets his virtue. Macbeth tells the others that he has killed the guards of Duncan’s chamber. “O, yet I do repent me of my fury / That I did kill them” (2.3. 103).
That power is abusive is clear as Macbeth wants to prevent Banquo from having his prophecy put into reality. Macbeth wants his descendants, rather than Banquo’s, to be kings. The only way is to get rid of Banquo.
Then, prophet-like, / They hailed him father to a line of kings. / Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,…No son of mine succeeding. If’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind…Given to the common enemy of man / To make them kings, the seeds of Banquo kings. / Rather than so, come fate into the list / And champion me to th’ utterance” (3.1. 60-73).
Banquo’s murder triggers Macbeth’s guilt, yet does not prevent him from taking more life to maintain his throne. The murder of innocent family of Macduff shows that Macbeth puts the security of his reign over honor. He is a Machiavellist, in that he fits to Machiavelli’s political strategy which states that security should be put first in cases in which security is in conflict with honor (Viroli 91).
While the successive killing puts Banquo as the third victim with the motive of preventing his prophecy to happen, the successive murder in the legend of Ken Arok is the realization of Mpu Gandring’s curse. This is a story of never-ending revenge that accompanies Ken Arok’s story of success and imperialism. History mentions that he annexed the neighboring kingdom and established a new one, the kingdom of Singosari in 1222. This new kingdom would later produce kings of Majapahit, the most powerful Javanese kingdom in the 13th century. The legend tells that the keris takes Ken Arok’s life in the hands of Tunggul Ametung’s son, Anusapati. Then, Ken Arok’s son’s revenge follows, and so on. After taking so many lives, Ranggawuni, Anusapati’s son, who murdered Tohjaya, Ken Arok’s son, realizes that the keris has brought and will bring more chaos and death. So it is thrown away to Java sea, and becomes a dragon.
Both Macbeth and Ken Arok are Machiavellists, and both are defeated by the legitimate power. Anusapati, the true heir of Tunggul Ametung, gains his sovereignity after taking revenge of his father’s death. Malcolm gains the throne he deserves as the true heir of Duncan with the help of Macduff. Macduff himself has his own motive of revenge as well as his intention to fight against a tyrant when he slains Macbeth. “Then yield thee, coward, / And live to be the show and gaze o’th’ time. / We’ll have thee as our rarer monster, Painted upon a pole, and underwrit / ‘Here may you see the tyrant” (5.11. 24-27).
Macduff’s speech suggests that Macbeth serves as an example of tyranny to the world. This works for Ken Arok too. While many interpretations state that the legend of Ken Arok and Ken Dedes is a mere fiction, it is actually a reflection of the mindsets and ideological contestations in Indonesia. The era of Singasari and Majapahit marks the end of Hinduism in East Java and witnesses the beginning of Islamic era in Javanese history. These can be regarded as palimpsests of Indonesian history, which have continued to give shape and colour to Indonesian cultural and political life to date. Pramudya Ananta Toer, an internationally-recognized Indonesian author, yet the victim of severe political discrimination at home, has a troubling view of the first two presidents of Indonesia. In his writing “My Apologies, in the name of Experience”, translated by Alex G. Bardsley, he puts Ken Arok in the body of Suharto, the second president of Indonesia who ruled for thirty two years, and Mpu Gandring was incarnated in the body of Sukarno, the first president <http://www.radix.net/~bardsley/apolog.html>.
However, Barbara Reibling argues that Macbeth is not really a Machiavelli’s ideal prince. His biggest flaw is his reluctance to have a total commitment to “the course of wrongdoings, besides his inability to dissimulate” (280). The problem with her interpretation is that she intends to say whether one is an ideal Machiavellist, whereas the concept of Machiavelli itself entails a room for wrongdoings. It is clear that that a Machiavelli should be willing to be a real evil, with no guilt at all. Maurizio Viroli points out that, for Machiavelli, a good citizen should be prepared to do evil, or what is considered to be evil, to save the country. Yet, his writings also imply “the willingness to grand deeds, and even to waste one’s life, one’s soul” (8). Riebling’s case is right in proving Macbeth as a normal human being with conscience, her strict use of Machiavellian standards is debatable. Judging from his strength, courage, and willingness to commit evil, I would argue that Macbeth is a Machiavellist. He understands that power is abusive, knows what is good and evil, but chooses evil anyway. That is why he deserves the destruction at the end of the play. I agree with Macduff and Christianto Wibisono that Macbeth and Ken Arok are examples of dirty politicians, and that the world should learn from their fate in order that we can play a clean government.
“Adu Domba demi Status Quo.” www.indomedia.com/bpost/9901/25/ekbis/ekbis7.htm. 18 April 2003.
Ananta Toer, Pramudya. “My Apologies, in the Name of Experience.” November 1991. 18 April 2003. <http://www.radix.net/~bardsley/apolog.html>.
“Ken Arok.” 18 April 2003. <http://www.jawapalace.org/kenarok.html>.
McGrail, Mary Ann. Tyranny in Shakespeare. Lanham: Lexington, 2001.
Riebling, Barbara. “Virtues’s Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 31 (1991): 273-87.
Viroli, Maurizio. Machiavelli. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.