In Macbeth, Shakespeare depicts the tragic consequences of Macbeth’s lust for power. Whilst initially an honourable and loyal soldier, and full of the “milk of human kindness”, Macbeth’s “vaulting” ambition to become King leads to the murder of the honourable King Duncan. Whilst Shakespeare depicts Macbeth’s “deep and dark desires” as sinister, he also draws upon the historical context to portray the witches as “instruments of darkness” and Macbeth as the victim of their “hurly burly”. Together with Lady Macbeth’s “cloak of evil” these forces conspire to disturb Macbeth’s moral equilibrium.
Typically, Shakespeare ambiguously suggests that all three main protagonists, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches, contribute to the tragedy. However, at the same time, he leaves it up to the audience to determine how much blame they would apportion to each. It is important to analyse carefully the interplay of the main protagonists and their attitudes to ambition and conscience.
What is the role of fate?
Shakespeare presents Macbeth as if he were at the mercy of the forces of evil. The witches target Macbeth for their “hurly burly” and are determined to wreak moral confusion. (They are planning to meet Macbeth “upon the heath”, when the “battle’s lost and won”).
The witches appear to have considerable supernatural power and their strength is reinforced through the sequential order of the events. The witches greet Macbeth before Ross and Angus and therefore Macbeth invests a great deal of trust in their prophecies and refers to them later as the “perfectest report”. Indeed, to Elizabethan audiences, there would have been no doubt that the witches had the power to play moral havoc. Their undisputed power is revealed in their capacity to quell storms and make life miserable for the ship captains. The first witch boasts, “Here, I have a pilot’s thumb, Wreck’d as homeward he did come”. (Shakespeare typically employs dramatic irony: the audience is informed of the King’s decision to promote Macbeth before he does.)
The role of the witches: the “instruments of darkness”
Once the physical battle against Norway has been “lost and won” (during which Macbeth acts so honourably that he accrues another title), the witches target another battle scene—Macbeth’s moral values. They predict moral confusion stating, “fair is foul, and foul is fair”. Soon after their encounter Macbeth echoes their ambiguity when he, too states, that their prophecies “cannot be ill, cannot be good”. They cannot be entirely harmful because they commenced “in a truth”; Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. Also, the fact that Shakespeare positions the witches as if they are the harbingers of great news, gives them credibility. Nevertheless Macbeth is uneasy. If their news is good, why, he wonders, is he full of fearful or “horrible imaginings”. Fearfully and strangely, he is aware that his “heart knock(s) at my ribs against the use of nature”. Why is he scared of evil thoughts?
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Murky business: “nothing is but what is not”
Echoing the witches’ “fair is foul” and “foul is fair” predictions, Macbeth wonders that “nothing is But what is not”.
Again, Shakespeare appears to be drawing upon the political landscape, that came to the fore in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. (See below). It is the concept of “equivocation” or mental reservation. Macbeth mentions as such in the final part of the play: “I pull in resolution, and begin/ To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend/ That lies like truth” (5.5.42-4). (See “mental reservation” below.)
According to Shapiro, by 1606 when Shakespeare was writing the play, playgoers would have recognise the universal meaning of equivocation with its anti-Catholic associations. “It was now taken to mean concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another” (179). This is a world where honest exchange becomes difficult. One lone conspirator remained from the Gunpowder Plot. Francis Tesham was brought to trial and key evidence was his “A Treatise on Equivocation” – essentially a manual teaching Catholics how to lie under oath. (See below.)
Macbeth seems obsessed or overtaken by the irrational suggestion “whose horrid image doth unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs”. (Already, Shakespeare shows the irrational basis of Macbeth’s ambition.)
Macbeth is so captivated that he automatically believes that King Duncan ought to name him as his successor. He is mortified when he discovers that Malcolm will be heir, Prince of Cumberland. He states, using the same description as he later applies to his ambition, that that is a step “on which I must fall down, or else o’er-leap/ For in my way it lies/ Stars, hide your fires! Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (Once again, notice how Macbeth’s ambition is related to his irrational “deep and dark desires”. The audience must ask, why should the “eye wink at the hand”. What is Macbeth starting to imagine and starting to hide?)
Once they have planted the seed, the witches seem to hypnotise Macbeth or paralyse his ability to think clearly and morally; as Banquo aptly recognises, Macbeth is eating on the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner”. Moreover, Macbeth seems to interpret their prophecies as a “promise”. He later writes to Lady Macbeth that he has “learned by the perfectest report” that he has been “promised” “greatness”. (Lady Macbeth will later seize upon this fanciful obsession in order to continue their “hurly burly”) and he appears completely captivated by their power.
Lady Macbeth appears more calculating in her use of evil to manipulate Macbeth; she fills herself with “direst cruelty” and deliberately aims to stop the “passage to remorse”.
What is the role of free will?
Whilst Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a victim of the witches, Macbeth never completely loses the capacity to make his own choices. Despite the witches’ power, Shakespeare does not exonerate Macbeth; rather he opens up a space of responsibility and control which becomes apparent through Macbeth’s moral reflections in various asides and soliloquies.
Furthermore, Shakespeare constructs parallel characters such as Banquo and Macbeth who are linked through the witches’ prophecies. Significantly the witches greet both the kinsmen on the heath. Macbeth appears to become overly engrossed in the witches and interprets their prophecies as a sign of destiny – a “promise”. Contrastingly, Banquo, who incidentally has less to gain than Macbeth, questions the witches; he recognises their tendency towards deception and thereby impugns Macbeth’s response. Banquo implies that Macbeth is too quick to place his trust in unworthy sources.
Comparison with Banquo:
Shakespeare characterises Banquo as morally incorruptible. He is a thane in whose “royalty of nature reigns that which would be fear’d”. Unlike Macbeth, he refuses to surrender his “eternal jewel” to the “common enemy of man” and predicts that the witches will continue to deceive and unhinge Macbeth. This comparison proves that it is possible to resist the witches and maintain one’s honour. He warns against being deceived by the “instruments of darkness”. (Morally, Banquo appears sure of himself. (“The instruments of darkness tell us truths/Win us with honest trifles to betray’s In Deepest consequence”.)
Is Macbeth a tragic hero?
Macbeth is tragic in the sense that he predicts his downfall but cannot control his ambition. He is also tragic in the sense that, as a fine and noble soldier, he becomes corrupted. As a tyrant, he becomes steeped in blood for evil purposes.
However, Macbeth differs from the ancient Greek tragic hero. Aristotle’s tragic hero is someone who commits an “act of injustice” either through ignorance or from a conviction that some greater good will be served. He is unaware of his moral shortcomings; he acts out of his good intentions and benefits from a greater awareness of self.
Macbeth is plagued by contradictory thoughts: his ambition is fascinated by his role in the “swelling act”, but he also knows that he must act honourably.
Macbeth is not a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s definition of the ancient Greek hero. Macbeth is aware of his flaw — his uncontrollable desire for power fuelled by his ambition. He knows that he will “murder” sleep and betray his honour.
Shakespeare depicts Macbeth as a person who is morally astute, honourable and loyal. Fearing his dishonourable intentions, and his “horrible imaginings” Macbeth concludes, “if chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir”.
In this aside, Macbeth appears determined, in all good conscience, to bury his “black and deep desires”.
Macbeth recognizes that “bloody instructions which being taught return to plague th’inventor”. He is constantly aware of his deception and the hypocritical nature of his musings. (“False face must hide what the false heart doth know”.) (Ironically, Macbeth parallels the Thane of Cawdor upon whom King Duncan invested his trust and faith. The king states, “there’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face”.
Even before he greets Lady Macbeth, Macbeth reveals his capacity for deception owing to the fact that King Duncan did not appoint him as successor. He states, “let not light see my deep and dark desires.” As a result, the prophecies set in train the nightmarish sequence of events. In addition, although Lady Macbeth appears to be guiding and manipulating Macbeth and appears as another “instrument of darkness”, Macbeth is morally astute.
Macbeth is also aware that he is not serving the “greater good”. Shakespeare expressly characterizes King Duncan as a king for whom the angels plead (“his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d against The deep damnation of his taking-off”;) and Macbeth humbly recognizes that there is no reason to kill Duncan; rather he should be protecting him honourably. He tries to resist and informs Lady Macbeth that “we will proceed no further in this business”.
Macbeth’s moral reflections
Macbeth is aware of the consequences of his evil actions, and foolishly overrides his better judgement. His conscience alerts him to the evil nature of the “deed”; he is aware of the “even-handed justice” or “judgement” which instructs people about good and evil. He knows that every action has consequences and one day they will return to haunt the perpetrator. Philosophically, he also knows that “bloody instructions return to plague th’inventor”. In other words, evil deeds set an immoral example and position the perpetrator as a target of retaliatory violence. He also knows that if a person commits an immoral crime it gives other people reason to use violence against you. Hence, he is understandably suspicious and becomes increasingly paranoid.
According to Shapiro, Shakespeare draws upon Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, and reflects even more deeply upon “Harsnett’s exploration of the ways in which the human capacity for evil was falsely, if at times convincingly, located in the diabolic”. (Shapiro: 216)
Macbeth’s conscience works on many levels; he identifies the following reasons against usurping the throne. (See one of his major soliloquies: Act 1, Scene 7. AS Shapiro notes, “few soliloquies have ever captured a feverish mind at work or traced an arc of a character’s moral crisis more memorably”. Shapiro: 36).
Notice throughout this soliloquy how Macbeth downplays in euphemistic terms the “damnation of his taking off” and Duncan’s possible “surcease”. Does this suggest that on a deeper level Macbeth’s irrational thoughts are already contradicting his fine and noble predictions and judgements?
Perhaps, on one level, Macbeth downplays the horrific nature of the deed precisely because he is both fascinated and repulsed by the “horrible imaginings” that consume and overwhelm him.
Ultimately, Macbeth’s tragedy is that he does not follow the dictates of his conscience but yields to his “overleaping ambition”.
“Horrible imaginings”: the dagger and the ghost
Shakespeare depicts Macbeth in an acute struggle with his burning ambition and “horrible imaginings” from the time the witches planted the seed. Macbeth is enthralled and urges these “imperfect speakers” to “tell me more” about the “strange intelligence” and “prophetic greeting”. Shortly afterwards, in an aside, he speculates upon the “horrid image” that “unfix my hair And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, Against the use of nature”. These violent tremblings that he also likens to “horrible imaginings” will continue to “unseat” and corrupt his mind, and contrast starkly to Lady Macbeth’s image of a man who is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness”.
Shakespeare uses both Macbeth’s double vision of dagger and Banquo’s ghost to foreground his “horrible imaginings” that arise as a result of his finely-tuned conscience. Whilst his hallucinations are presented as a “disease” of the mind, it is perhaps no coincidence that Macbeth hallucinates the dagger “which I see before me” after he has taken leave of the incorruptible Banquo who swears that his “allegiance (is) clear” – unlike Macbeth’s. Macbeth senses that the dagger “is a false creation Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain” which increasingly becomes over-heated as the death knell strikes for Duncan. Macbeth notes, “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still” which echoes his previous doubts and premonition: “nothing is but what is not”.
After the murderer’s confirmation that Banquo has been killed, Macbeth hallucinates the ghost of his former rival who appears to be sitting “in Macbeth’s place”. Macbeth has just been notified of the news of Fleance’s flight and he announces to the gathered crowd his regret that Banquo is not in attendance. Lennox ushers Macbeth to the empty seat, but in his “fit”, Macbeth sees the ghost and vows that he is looking upon “that Which might appal the devil”. Lady Macbeth again draws attention to a disease, “these imposters to true fear”, that were also present previously when the “air-drawn dagger” unhinged and “unmanned” him. She believes that his doubts reveal a complete lack of control that reflects an effeminate mind.
Shakespeare presents Macbeth as an ambitious character and suggests through his portrayal that his desire to be King drives and shapes his behaviour and sets him up for a terrible fall. As Lady Macbeth says ‘art not without ambition”. The witches fuel his “burning desire” and he is curious to know more.
However, the fact that his ambition immediately causes considerable mental anguish born of “black and deep desires” suggests in this case, that Shakespeare focuses on the undesirable aspects of an unfettered (unchecked) lust for power. Once again, according to Lady Macbeth, “art not without ambition, but without the Illness should attend it”. Shakespeare seems therefore to suggest that as far as the Macbeths are concerned, ambition is a dark and evil force and is thus used synonymously throughout the play as a lust for power. As a result, Macbeth becomes blinded and consumed by his “horrible imaginings”.
Macbeth is aware that his ambition is excessive, uncontrollable and irrational. Twice Shakespeare describes his ambition as “o’erleaping” , which presents a picture of Macbeth as captivated and even hostage to an uncontrollable (“o’erleaping”) desire that both fascinates and terrifies him. In one of Macbeth’s most important soliloquies he outlines the reasons against killing Duncan and concedes that only his “vaulting ambition” provides the “spur”. Also when he considers the “step” and appointment of the Prince of Cumberland as Duncan’s heir, he again states that “this is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap”.
So we could argue that it is because of his “overleaping” ambition that Macbeth places too much trust in the witches. Earlier, he mused about his “horrible imaginings” also born of the pursuit of power.
(Remember that Macbeth believes that they have “earnest of success” and refers to the prophecies as “perfectest report”.) Sensing his ambition, the witches are able to play their “hurly burly” and create moral confusion. They hover through the “filthy air” so that what is “fair” is “foul”. This use of antithesis clearly shows the extent to which they have corrupted Macbeth, precisely because of his fascination and horror. Unlike Banquo, Macbeth is willing and capable of eating on the “insane root” which so repels Banquo.
(Given King Duncan’s status as a good king, there is no honourable motive for the crime.)
Lady Macbeth is equally motivated by ambition and is prepared to cloak herself in evil so as to achieve “greatness” for both of them. She interprets Macbeth’s comments about the prophecies in the Letter written as a “promise” or a contract that must be seized at all cost. Unlike Macbeth, she does not anticipate that she will be plagued by her conscience. Rather, she belittles his nobility of character and manhood believing that he should practice mind over matter and take what he believes is rightfully his. (“Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour/As thou art in desire?”) To her, conscience is “brainsickly”; it is child’s play (“tis the eye of childhood”). She convinces him that a “little water clears us of this deed” and that only the “infirm of purpose” would dare hesitate as Macbeth does. (Never mind as she confesses when Macbeth is sent to murder the guards and the King, that she would have done the “deed”; “had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had don’t”. )
Lady Macbeth’s moral reflections:
- She interprets the witches’ pact as a promise: (“and shalt be what thou art promis’d”)
- She believes that it is dishonourable to break a promise that he has “sworn”: She would have plucked a baby from her breast and “dash’d the brains out” had she made a promise such as Macbeth did. This implies a capacity for evil.
- To her, courage is mind over matter. She believes that he should not let his conscience interfere with his plans to become king. Conscience is “brainsickly”. It can be subdued by the figurative washing of the hands.
- Her idea of courage (manliness). Lady Macbeth mocks Macbeth in ways that call into question his manhood.
- She believes that if you are ambitious then it is a sign of courage and strength to realize your dreams even if you have to commit a crime to achieve your goal. (“Wouldst thou … live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’ Like the cat I’ the adage”. The proverb is: ‘the cat would eat fish but would not wet her feet’.)
- She compares him with the “poor cat in th’adage”. (Shakespeare deliberately uses this proverb to highlight her fascination with a strong mind; she believes that the cat could not achieve the object of its desire because it was unable to conquer its fear. This comparison suggests that Macbeth wants to become king, but is afraid of committing a bloody deed. For Lady Macbeth, conscience can be tamed; it is a matter of “manly” strength of mind; a matter of burying one’s fears through brute force.)
- Hence the images of water: “a little water clears us of this deed”; responding to his sense of horror after the deed, she continues to ridicule him; “but I shame To wear a heart so white”.
As Macbeth predicts, murder spreads poison and evil, and brings him face to face with damnation. He recognizes after murdering King Duncan that he has “murdered” sleep and hallucinates the daggers after he kills Banquo. As he struggles with his conscience, he believes that if needs to keep killing in order to desensitize himself to the guilt and pain. He realizes that “My strange and self abuse/Is the initiate fear, that wants hard use, We are yet but young in deed.”
Later, their roles are reversed. Lady Macbeth belatedly becomes aware of the consequences of brutality that they have, as “partners in greatness”, unleashed. She struggles to wash the blood from her hands. Ironically, she becomes more affected by pangs of conscience than Macbeth. Perhaps she comes to realise that cats instinctively and naturally grasp for the “fish”, and that, contrastingly, it is immoral for Macbeth to grasp the object of his illicit passion. On the other hand, Macbeth is the one who seeks to bury his fears through “hard use” as she earlier cautioned.
“She should have died hereafter”
Does Macbeth show remorse as he reflects upon the desperate consequences of his actions after Lady Macbeth’s death?
Thus, a time for philosophical reflection as Macbeth reflects upon the futility of life, the inevitability of death and the fact that time will always triumph. Time is metaphorically compared with a “brief candle” and life as but a “walking shadow”. Human beings are figuratively depicted as “players” who are acting on the stage of life for a brief time in between eternity. As the individual “struts and frets his hour upon the stage”, he is subject to the relentlessness of time: the onslaught of “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”. Towit, death makes a mockery of life and one’s own story becomes but a tale “told by an idiot”. That it signifies “nothing” reveals Macbeth’s frustration, but does it also provide some sort of rationalisation or justification for his evil deeds, that, perhaps, amount to nothing in the grand play?
The expression of futility also occurs after the recognition of his brutality and callousness; Macbeth realises he has become insensitive to the pain of others. “I have supp’d full with horrors/Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts/ Cannot one start me.”
Macbeth’s eventual tragedy as he becomes the “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” is that he has sacrificed so much for so little; that he foreshadowed his demise but was incapable of controlling his brutal Nietzschean will to power.
Some notes on the religious and political context from James Shapiro’s excellent book, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber and Faber: London, 2015.
In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) contemporaries found themselves searching for the ultimate source of such a hellish crime. A failed assassination attempt against King James 1 of England in 1605, known as the Gunpowder Plot, reflected unsettled political and religious times, as the Protestant faith replaced Catholicism.
With regards to the scale of the threatened destruction, some believed the plotters were demons. Lancelot Andrewes delivered a sermon one year later claiming that such evil could not have originated in the minds of men. It had been “propounded by Satan”. The young John Milton’s poem on the Gunpowder Plot focuses on evil’s satanic origins.
However, as Shapiro notes, “in refusing easy explanations for what possesses people to do evil things, Shakespeare wrote a play well suited to its times”. (219) Read the summary: The political and religious context: The Gunpowder Plot
Germaine Greer notes (Q&A, ABC, 5th September 2016)
“She (Lady Macbeth) is powerless. She absolutely is powerless… The person who causes Duncan to be killed is Macbeth. His problem is that he is what keeps the Crown in power, and the thought comes into his head that maybe he should actually have the power. Once he’s had that thought – and this is a thing that Shakespeare deals with all the time – ”If I have thought of committing a crime, is it as if I’d already committed it? Am I already guilty?” And this is Macbeth’s mistake . . . Macbeth is a powerful soldier. And he’s actually operated on a huge scale. No hero in Shakespeare is built up in that way. Before you even see him on the stage, you’ve been told what the massive size is of this man. You know, he’s given a kind of planetary environment to exist in. He is an enormous hero. He also has the finest moral sensibility of anyone in Scotland. And this is what brings him down. Nobody is more aware of the awfulness of his crime than Macbeth. He can’t forgive himself. I mean, it is the most extraordinary, wonderful contradiction that this great man should commit this terrible crime and destroy himself.”
JOHN BELL says: “I disagree with Germaine on that Lady Macbeth element. I think Macbeth hasn’t got the guts, at the beginning, to go through with this thing. And she’s the one who really primes him up. She has many resourceful ways of getting him in there and making him do it, then she cleans up. I think what she lacks is imagination. She can’t see the consequences. Macbeth sees them very clearly. He knows he’s going straight to hell. But, too bad. He wants what he wants now. She can’t imagine what the future might be. “Let’s just have it, and everything will be OK.” It’s a lack of imagination that’s her problem, I think.” (Q&A, ABC, 5th September 2016)
- See Our Macbeth – Study Page
- See my favourite list of quotes.
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Dr Jennifer Minter, Macbeth (English Works 2016), www.englishworks.com.au