Essay: Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: July 16, 2019
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  • Shakespeare's Macbeth
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Throughout time Man has attempted to subvert the natural order to fulfill the desire for ascendancy. Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, explores the concept and the interplay of external and internal forces on one’s actions. While some might argue external forces were the main cause of Macbeth’s rise and fall, it was ultimately Macbeth’s troubled conscience, internal conflict, and hamartia that led to his demise. In addition, The Witches and Lady Macbeth were undoubtedly external forces who influenced Macbeth’s internal drive and personal decisions. However, overall, Macbeth’s downfall was primarily his own fault as he personally attempted to subvert the ‘Great Chain of Being’ because of his overly ambitious nature.

Macbeth’s degradation was primarily due to his own culpability as he used The Witches prophecies to seek higher status in the ‘Great Chain of Being’, instead of accepting the natural order. Macbeth’s curiosity for The Witches is evident from the start, when he questions ‘Speak if you can: what are you?’ (I.iii.45). This dialogue is the first indication of his hamartia. In this exchange Banquo’s reaction contradicts Macbeth’s; in this way Banquo represents the alternative character that Macbeth could have been. Banquo portrays the voice of reason as he dismisses The Witches foresights. However, Macbeth uses the prophecies to fuel his internal drive. When Macbeth seeks out The Witches for the second time, he commands them, ‘How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! / What is’t you do?’ (IV.i.46-47). This line of dialogue demonstrates Macbeth’s profound ambition as he fails to comprehend that there is no equivocation with fate. The words ‘secret’, ‘black’, and ‘midnight’ not only refer to The Witches but also reflect Macbeth’s own evil nature and foreshadow his psychological devolution. Although The Witches engage with Macbeth, it is his uncontrolled ambition that leads him to misunderstand their apparitions and he continues to make unethical decisions.

Macbeth’s obsession with power and his extreme ambition drives him to the point of insanity. The paradox and oxymoron ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ (I.i.12) spoken by The Witches, describes morality and hints at how one’s perspective might interpret something as ‘fair’ but may be viewed as ‘foul’ of another. Shakespeare employs this to emphasise how man’s inherent evil can be amplified by external forces and lead to downfall. This device presages the act of regicide and demonstrates how The Witches plant a seed in Macbeth’s mind, tempting his internal desires. The Witches did prophecise that Macbeth would become King, nevertheless, they did not instruct Macbeth to kill King Duncan in order to assume the throne. Rather, Macbeth’s perspective of reality is distorted and his misinterpretation of the prophecies drive him to commit regicide. Furthermore, when Macbeth says, ‘My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function’ (I.iii.138-139) he demonstrates his conflict between the moral implications of The Witches’ prophecies and the act of evil he is about to commit. However, Macbeth eventually dismisses his moral conscious and schemes to kill Duncan. In his soliloquy, Macbeth expresses ‘I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself/ And falls on th’other’(I.vii.27-28). This imagery and personification describes Macbeth’s ambition and shows his strong desire to become king, and that he is prepared to face the consequences. Thus, Macbeth’s intense ambition is the primary justification of his rise and fall. Conceivably, if his desire to become king had not been so strong, regicide may not have occurred.

Macbeth’s self-conscious judgement was blinded by hubris and his hamartia which consequently led to his utter degradation. Lady Macbeth, however, is an example of an external force that encourages Macbeth. She defies the conventions of womanhood and uses her own ambition to influence him. There is no doubt that Lady Macbeth is an external force that impacts Macbeth’s consciousness and ambition; she encourages him to do unethical acts. Despite Lady Macbeth’s influence, Macbeth ultimately chooses to engage because of his inclination for power. For example, ‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know.’ (I.vii.82) demonstrates Macbeth’s guilty conscience and shows both his verisimilitude and duplicity. Macbeth, clearly nagged with self-confliction, performs a soliloquy (I.vii) and his repetition of words such as ‘if, but, here and done’ reiterate his conscious attempt to avert the ‘Great Chain of Being’. This scene is a ‘tipping point’ where Macbeth rationalises his thoughts, appearing to be incapable of sinning. Whilst Macbeth had the opportunity to escape the planned regicide he eventually complies and says, ‘I am settled and bend up’ (I.vii.79). Thus, to some degree Lady Macbeth is an influence on her husband. However, in the end, Macbeth’s own ruthlessness, ambition and naive character prevent him from thinking rationally, and these are essentially the reasons for his rise and fall.

To conclude, Macbeth embodies a tragic hero whose rise and fall are primarily due to his internal flaws of extreme ambition and his susceptibility to influence. Macbeth himself desires the Scottish Crown and his unchecked ambition and his corruption of power ultimately lead him to act in destructive ways. At the same time The Witches and Lady Macbeth are external forces that encourage Macbeth in his actions. Thus, all of these forces contribute to his rise and fall.

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