With Macbeth, Shakespeare has crafted a character that falls under immense pressures from various sources. These opposing forces create internal conflict with Macbeth as he is torn between right and wrong, ambition and loyalty. Shakespeare has engineered this internal strife as a means to highlight the theme of right versus wrong in this work.
As a general and great soldier, Macbeth has a developed sense of duty. Throughout the course of the play, he retains this duty, but to whom he is obligated shifts. Before the witches influence his thinking early in the play, Macbeth is duty-bound as a warrior to his king, Duncan. He fights fearlessly for Duncan and claims many victories in his name. Once the witches plant the seed of ambition in Macbeth, he begins to stray from Duncan. He becomes interested in his actions toward his own benefit, as opposed to the benefit of Duncan and his people.
The final swing in Macbeth’s duties places him at the whim of his wife, Lady Macbeth. She wants him to become the powerful King, thus making her his comparably powerful Queen. Macbeth feels duty bound to please his wife, and by this her encouragement is amplified. During this transition of Macbeth’s loyalty, Macbeth’s conscience torments him relentlessly. This reveals that there must be some good deep down in Macbeth’s heart, even after he has committed so many acts of evil.
Another crux of Macbeth’s torn directions is his wants for loyalty competing with his ambitious wants. Again, as a soldier, he has an embossed sense of loyalty toward Duncan. But that crown would look awfully great with Macbeth’s new kilt. After much influence from the witches and his wife, Macbeth buckles under the pressure and his ambition conquers his loyalty. With a few fell strikes of a dagger, Macbeth’s conscience is forever warped to taunt him.
As should be evident, Macbeth is a character of strikingly immense internal conflict. This stress may even be the root of his hallucinations of men he has wronged. Either way, his conscience drives him mad and his downfall may be partly attributed to it.
During the key soliloquy before he commits the deed, it becomes evident that Macbeth’s conscience works on many levels.
In his key soliloquy before he commits the evil deed, Macbeth contemplates its treacherous nature. He recognizes that the murder of King Duncan will have implications that are likely to disrupt his moral equilibrium and undermine his honour. Throughout the passage he uses numerous euphemisms such as “tis”, “this blow”, “the deed” to downplay the horror of the deed and yet, ironically, the more he tries to soften the deed, the more he becomes aware of just how disgraceful it is. He contemplates the deed from a variety of perspectives and finds that it is simply impossible to “jump the life to come” and to “trammel up the consequences”. He also recognizes that from a moral perspective “bloody instructions, which being taught … return to plague the inventor”. In this regard, he foreshadows his own paranoid delusions in the wake of the immoral example he sets. He also knows that he will become a target of retaliatory violence and “sleep” will forever elude him.
Religious: he knows that the killer is damned for eternity (we cannot “jump the life to come”)
Disruption to the natural order:
- Shakespeare typically shows that immoral deeds are a disruption to the natural order as symbolized by weather elements: “the “sightless couriers of the air, shall blow the horrid deed in ever eye, that tears shall drown the wind”. Hence pity, horror and disgust.
Philosophically/ethical views on vengeance:
- Evil deeds have consequences; His conscience will haunt him and disrupt his peace of mind
- The killer sets an immoral example for others to imitate; he becomes the target of violence
Virtues of the King: Duncan’s good qualities plead loudly
Kinship and loyalty: you don’t kill your king or relatives
Hospitality: a host does not kill his guest
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 murder; he is fully 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.
Macbeth knows that he should not commit evil deeds, because his conscience will torment him. Not to mention, he knows Duncan has a fine reputation and is a noble and popular king. His death will provide the impetus for revenge upon the murderer. Despite all this, Macbeth still wields the dagger. (It is against God’s will to kill a cousin or family member.)
- “golden opinions”/ Duncan is a fine King
- His conscience alarms him and he becomes afraid of his evil thoughts. His “deep and dark desires” are a constant source of torment to him … His guilty thoughts are exacerbated by the thought that he should be protecting the king and his cousin, Duncan, not “bear(ing) the knife myself”.
- The language in Macbeth’s soliloquys reflect his anguish. Images of heaven and angels describe King Duncan’s reign, wherein “his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet tongued against the deep damnation of his taking-off”.
- Use of figurative language and euphemisms to downplay the horror.
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.
Because Macbeth struggles with his conscience, he believes that if he keeps killing he will become desensitized 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.” 125/57
- He is particularly alarmed and shamed by Banquo, because he also witnessed the prophecies. He knows that Banquo takes a principled stance and would not compromise his nobility as he has done. He also is angry that he has committed the deed indirectly for Banquo’s sons.
- AT the end, his life appears futile and meaningless to him because he has sacrificed his nobility and humanity. He has become so desensitized that he no longer feels any compassion and the night shrieks no longer arouse him.
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 does not anticipate that she will be plagued by her conscience. She belittles Macbeth’s nobility of character believing that he should show mind over matter and take what he believes is rightfully his. To her, conscience is “brainsickly” and is child’s play. 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.
She refers to the adage of the cat to suggest that the only thing stopping Macbeth is his fear of blood. (The cat would eat the fish but is afraid of getting wet.) However, ironically she also states that she would have committed the evil deed herself, except that the King resembled her father.
However, after she becomes aware of the violence and brutality that Macbeth has caused she realizes that he has been destroyed by his actions, and she feels extremely guilty. She no longer can wash her hands.
The images associated with ambition are those that relate to Macbeth’s lack of control, which makes him wary and anxious. We are aware of his “o’leaping” ambition which is mentioned twice. There is a sense that it is uncontrollable, menacing, irrational. (I have no “spur to prick”). His ambition is associated with “dark and deep desires”, which must be averted, thwarted, hidden. Hence Macbeth’s vulnerability.
Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a very ambitious character and suggests through his portrayal that his desire to be king drives and shapes his behavior. It is his ambition that makes him vulnerable to the witches and to Lady Macbeth. Evidently both the witches and Lady Macbeth recognize his ambition, as Lady Macbeth says ‘art not without ambition”, and the witches captivate him, He is filled with a “burning desire” to know more about the prophecies. However, ambition immediately causes a great deal of conflict in his mind because it also fuels evil thoughts and “imaginings” and fuels his “black and deep desires”.
Macbeth is also aware that his ambition is excessive and perhaps uncontrollable. Twice Shakespeare describes his ambition as “o’erleaping” , which presents a picture of Mc as captivated and even hostage to his uncontrollable sense of ambition…. It appears as a force that fascinates and terrifies him because he cannot control or contain it. In one of Macbeth’s most important soliloquys 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”. Shakespeare positions the audience to see that Macbeth’s ambition is excessive and perhaps jumping too high as a horse.
Compare his reaction to the witches with Banquo’s: Banquo states that they “win us with honest trifles to betray’s in deepest consequence”.
Shakespeare highlights through the character of Macbeth the futility of life if lived in a greedy and vain manner. He sacrifices so much for so little. At the beginning…. he ruins this for a crown. But he soon becomes embittered because he realizes that all was done in vain. He did not have an heir (the sol. about Banquo). The dominant reading is certainly that Macbeth’s ruthless ambition has cost him dearly…
Shakespeare tends to impress upon readers that Macbeth’s life has become futile because he did not follow his conscience. He predicted that he would lose his peace of mind and that’s exactly what happened. He paid a high price for following his ambition and pandering to his ruthless desire for power.
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