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Essay: Macbeth’s downfall is due to both nature and nurture

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: July 16, 2019*
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  • Tags: Macbeth essays Shakespeare essays
  • Macbeth’s downfall is due to both nature and nurture
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The nature versus nurture debate is one of the oldest issues within psychology. Nature refers to factors such as genes and heredity that influence one’s behavior. Nurture refers to all the environmental characteristics that impact who we are, including our childhood experiences, how we were raised and the culture we were raised in. Some philosophers such as Plato and Descartes believed that certain things are inborn or that they occur naturally regardless of environmental factors. Both of them suggested that human characteristics are from evolution and individual differences are due to a unique change in one’s genetic code. Other well known philosophers such as John Locke believed in something known as the tabula rasa, which is the belief that the mind is a blank slate at birth and how you think comes from your learned experiences throughout life. From this perspective, psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that appear through childhood are a result of learning. In the play Macbeth, Shakespeare shows that despite the external factors that influence Macbeth’s bad decisions, it’s Macbeth’s own character flaws that lead to his downfall.

Regardless of the impact of others, Macbeth’s ambition was the largest factor which contributed to him committing crimes, and ultimately leading to his downfall. However, Macbeth’s ambition was not a gene that was passed down from previous generations, he acquired the trait after he received the witches three prophecies in act 1 scene 3. Sometimes, as related to the nature vs. nurture debate, personality traits are obtained overtime due to certain environmental factors. It was not until Macbeth learned of his prophecies from the witches that he became ambitious. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, then Thane of Cawdor and eventually king. The first two prophecies come with no effort. “If change will have me king, why change may crown me.” Macbeth was named Thane of Cawdor for his achievements on the battlefield. Macbeth was striving so hard to become king that he forgot about his morals. Sometimes, people became so wrapped up in something they want that they forget what is right from what is wrong. In this case, Macbeth did whatever he needed to do to become king. In order to become king, Macbeth had to commit murders and unnecessary crimes, all because he wanted the authority. The trait of ambition relates to nurture rather than nature. Since Macbeth was not born ambitious, it does not make sense to say that he is ambitious only because of heredity. Macbeth is driven to act in a sense that will eventually name him king, therefore his personality is controlled by nurture, signifying that how Macbeth thinks comes from his learned experiences (his prophecies from the witch).

The murder of King Duncan was one of the most crucial crimes committed by Macbeth. Macbeth was driven by external factors to murder King Duncan. He commits murder because it is the only way he could become king. Macbeth was driven to kill Duncan by his abundance of ambition and his wife. Lady Macbeth told Macbeth that the only way he would be able to become king is if he killed King Duncan. In scene 2 Lady Macbeth said, “What beast was’t then that made you break this enterprise to me?” (Shakespeare pg. 55) Lady Macbeth says this to Macbeth to guilt him into killing Duncan. Since Macbeth is full of ambition, this was a risk he was willing to take. Macbeth drugged the two guards in front of Duncan’s bedroom door. Once the guards were passed out, Macbeth walked into Duncan’s room and killed him with a dagger. Macbeth was not born knowing that he was going to end up killing Duncan in order to become king. He only realized after the witches talked to him that he would need to murder to gain the throne. If this was related to the nature theory, he would be born this way. It is not like Macbeth had a serious psychological disorder all of his life. Macbeth murdered King Duncan when he realized that it was his only option if he wanted to become king. Sometimes, we do crazy things to get what we want (even though it should never get that crazy).

Human nature should not be overseen when it comes to Macbeth’s downfall. As humans, we strive to become as powerful as we can. The more superiority we obtain, the better off we are. Macbeth is so focused on being king that his instinct tell him he must do whatever he needs to do to become king. In psychology, there is something known as the incentive theory of motivation. The incentive theory is one of the major theories that suggests behavior is motivated by desire for reinforcement. Each person is born with instincts which drive them to accomplish a goal. It is apparent that Macbeth’s instincts are what lead him to reach his goal of becoming king. It is understandable why people see Macbeth’s downfall as related to nature. Every human is born with instincts. We are born with motivation to succeed and accomplish goals, therefore, making this pertain to the nature side of the debate rather than nurture.

Since nature refers to factors such as genes and heredity that influence one’s behavior, it is nature to feel guilty after committing a crime. Immediately after Macbeth kills King Duncan, he knows right away that what he did was wrong. A rush of guilt takes over Macbeth and he talks about how he feels so remorseful to the point where he is unable to sleep at night. At the beginning of act three, Macbeth is granted three new prophecies from the witches. Macbeth lets these new prophecies dictate his life just like he previously did with the original three prophecies in act one. Later on, in act 4, Macbeth has a dream that Banquo’s son kills him. Macbeth shows signs of paranoia which shows that humans feel guilty and begin to let their emotions get the best of them. The witches predicted that Banquo will not be king, but he will father a line of kings. Macbeth felt threatened by this and the idea of anyone but him being king was unacceptable. Worried about the prediction preoccupied Macbeth and this is what led to his downfall. Instead of thinking about what a successful king needs to do, Macbeth spends all of his time worrying about who might take over the throne. It is in Macbeth’s nature to worry about being overthrown due to the fact that it took so much for him to be King.

John Locke’s idea of the mind being a blank slate at birth is evident in Macbeth since most of Macbeth’s motives are due to his ambition to becoming king. Lady Macbeth is one of the most nurturing characters. She is a major influence on Macbeth’s decisions. At first Macbeth thinks that he is going to be crowned king by chance. Lady Macbeth says to him, if you are going to be king, you need to man up. From the beginning, she does not think that Macbeth is going to be a powerful leader since he does not have the guts. She says that in order to become king you have to kill Duncan. The only way to become king was to get rid of the current one. Macbeth goes along with this plan for a while and later stops and thinks about whether or not the plan really is a good idea. Lady Macbeth starts to talk about his manliness and says that he needs to man up and do what he said he would. “What beast was ’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me? When you durst do it, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man. Nor time nor place did then adhere, and yet you would make both. They have made themselves, and that their fitness now does unmake you.” (Shakespeare pg. 43) Lady Macbeth is basically saying, if you weren’t a man, what were you when you told me you would kill King Duncan in the first place? She think that if Macbeth goes one step further by doing what he dared to do before, he’ll be that much more the man.

It is not a surprise when Macbeth is killed in Shakespeare’s tragic Macbeth, since he is so prone to disaster. The audience is shocked when they realize that Macbeth’s downfall is not only due to the nurturing of Lady Macbeth and the witches but to his own human nature. The controversial nature versus nurture debate has become one of the most studied philosophical disputes. It is important to realize that it is not necessarily nature or nurture that make us who we are, but both. In Macbeth it is quite obvious that Macbeth has his own human nature and beliefs while still being nurtured by the witches and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s ambition is directly related to the prophecies given to him in act 1. All philosophers and psychologists have a reason for saying that they believe the nature side over the nurture side or vice versa. Some people are born how they are due to a long line on that trait in heredity, for example maybe someone with a psychological disorder have it because it was passed down to the from a previous generation. On the other hand, you could say that the person had the psychological disorder because they were raised in a bad environment, with fighting parents in an inner city. All of these are contributions to someone’s personality traits but they do not make it up entirely. Macbeth’s downfall is due to both nature and nurture equally.

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