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Essay: Moral Boundaries In Macbeth

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 6 minutes
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  • Published: June 11, 2021*
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  • Words: 1,750 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)
  • Tags: Macbeth essays Shakespeare essays
  • Moral Boundaries In Macbeth
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Ambition is in every individual’s innate nature as one constantly looks for ways to become more powerful and increase their social and economic status. In Macbeth, author William Shakespeare explores the extreme lengths one will go to achieve their ambitions against moral and societal limitations and the resulting tragic impacts on them and their surroundings. Shakespeare utilizes imagery and symbolism to elevate and reinforce the constant feelings of guilt and ambition felt by the characters which ultimately leads to their downfall. Through blood, the crown, and the dagger, this play illustrates the destructive impact on one’s conscience when their ambition is pursued without moral boundaries.

Blood is imagery and a symbol that is utilized throughout all of Macbeth and has been shown to be closely tied to the recurrent motif of ambition and guilt often displayed by the main characters. Soon after committing murder against King Duncan, Macbeth shows signs of guilt and regret for his immoral actions as a result of his unquenchable ambition. He says “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red.” (Shakespeare II, ii, 77-80). The powerful imagery in this scene reveals much of Macbeth’s internal struggle to cope with his guilt. He implies that his deed, the blood on his hand, is as permanent as the mark on his conscience; even all water in the sea would not wash his hands clean as his sin is so great such that instead it would stain the sea red. It is evident that Macbeth has very quickly realized the severity of his action and how the weight of his sin will follow him for the remains of his life and hereafter. Moreover, during the middle of the play Macbeth is haunted by the crime he has committed. He says “And with thy bloody and invisible hand/Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond/Which keeps me pale!” (Shakespeare III, ii, 53-55). This quote shows how Macbeth feels obligated to mask his feelings of guilt to prevent other characters from becoming even more suspicious of him. The imagery of blood on Macbeth’s hand symbolises and shows how tortured and affected he is, and how he is slowly losing his rational hold on his mind and slipping into insanity. The words “bloody and invisible hand” can also be seen as an oxymoron which portrays the theme of appearance versus reality with the invisible hand being innocence and blood being guilt. Lastly, towards the end of the play Lady Macbeth is seen also showing signs of guilt and regret for the crimes she has committed. She says in the end of the play “Out damned spot! Out, I say!One; two: why, then,/ ‘tis time to do’t. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! A/ soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows/it, when none can call our power to account? Yet/who would have thought the old man to have had so/much blood in him?”(Shakespeare V, i, 32-36). Here, Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking in Macbeth’s castle, and the strong imagery of blood symbolizes her guilt and its lasting stain that she subconsciously is unable to move past. In addition, she attempts to wash her hands of the blood repeatedly following the murder; although the physical mark of her immoral deed is gone, the mark on her psyche is ever-present and growing. In conclusion, the imagery and symbolism of blood throughout the play clearly reinforces and elevates the feelings of guilt in the character that it affects.

The crown is a powerful symbol used throughout the play as it reinforces the characters feelings of ambition and guilt throughout the play. The role of the crown and its meaning in the play’s 11th century Scotland setting ultimately lead to Macbeth’s downfall because of his thirst for power and his ambition to promote his title. At the start of the play, the witches chant “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!/All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!/All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!” (Shakespeare I, iii, 51-53). Macbeth is a respected Thane who has proven his loyalty to King Duncan by defeating the King of Norway and Macdonwald. However, despite this victory, Macbeth is easily manipulated by the three witches as they plant the seeds of temptation in his mind. The witches use the imagery of the crown in their prophecy to urge Macbeth towards his ambitions which he succumbs to in his hunger for power. Furthermore, the crown’s symbolism as the pinnacle of the social ladder strengthens the machiavellian side of Lady Macbeth which prompts her to abandon her virtue and support the murder of the King. She says “Hie thee hither,/That I may pour my spirits in thine ear/And chastise with the valor of my tongue/All that impedes thee from the golden round,/Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/to have thee crowned withal” (Shakespeare I, v, 27-32). To Lady Macbeth, the crown is the visual culmination of the power she strives to attain, and such is her ambition for it that she allows herself to cross all moral bounds to achieve it. She appears to justify her malicious intent against King Duncan as “ fate and metaphysical aid doth seem/to have [Macbeth] crowned withal”. Ironically, the witches are actually controlling fate by using Macbeth’s ambition for the crown against him. Lastly, the symbolism of the crown leads Macbeth to commit yet another dishonorable act. He says “We have scorched the snake, not killed it./She’ll close and be herself whilst our poor malice/Remains in danger of her former tooth./But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,” (Shakespeare III, ii, 15-19). In this statement, Macbeth refers to Banquo’s increasing suspicions and how he must kill him before Banquo attacks first. Through Macbeth’s immoral path to the crown and his newfound status, his moral principles are severely weakened such that he is pursuing yet another senseless crime. In conclusion, the influential symbolism and imagery of the crown throughout the play clearly reinforces and drives the ambition in the characters that it touches.

The imagery and symbolism of the dagger is used throughout the play as, it elevates and reinforces the guilt and ambition within the characters throughout the play. The strong symbolism of the dagger in the play leads Macbeth to the start of his downfall. He states, “When we have marked with blood those sleepy two/Of his own chamber and used their very daggers,/That they have done ’t?” (Shakespeare I, vii, 75-78). During the planning of Duncan’s death Macbeth makes regular attempts to back out and maintain his spotless honor and dignity as a loyal Thane of the King. The dagger symbolize death and subsequent guilt which overtake Macbeth’s thoughts at the moment when he discusses Duncan’s demise; he is already feeling guilty for the mere speculation of committing regicide. Moreover, the intimidating imagery of the dagger elevates Macbeth’s feelings of guilt. Before murdering Duncan, he says, “Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,/And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,/Which was not so before. There’s no such thing./It is the bloody business which informs/Thus to mine eyes.” (Shakespeare II, i, 46-50). Macbeth experience a moral crises where the hallucination of a bloody dagger embodies his guilty conscience and serves as a subconscious warning from within that there will be no return from knowingly committing this murder. Macbeth is horrified by this yet notes that his ramblings are wearing away his courage to follow through on his goal, “ Whiles I threat, he lives./Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” (Shakespeare II, i, 61-62). In the end his infatuation with his ambition is more dominant it overpowers his need for honor and loyalty. Lastly, the murder weapon is a vessel of Macbeth’s guilt. It is a constant reminder of the crime that he has committed, and it follows him wherever he goes, whether be in his dreams or in reality; he is unable to escape his guilty subconscious. Macbeth never again takes up a weapon against another after his murder of the King due to his self-reproach and the heavy weight of his guilt placed on the weapon. In distancing himself from and denying his guilt, he acts like a tyrant without honor, until his end when he picks up a sword and rather than fleeing with the rest of his men decides to take one last stand and fight with honor up until his death. This can be seen as his acceptance of the guilt he tried so hard to deny, ultimately leading to his imminent downfall. In conclusion the menacing and tragic symbolism of the dagger is shown to elevate and reinforce the ambition and guilty conscience within the characters.

In conclusion, the play Macbeth portrays how imagery and symbolism are used to demonstrate the devastating and tragic effect of unchecked desires within the main characters. The symbols’ embodiment of ambition and guilt influences the main character’s course towards their downfall. The imagery of blood demonstrates the irreparable impact of Macbeth’s deed on his conscience by constantly tormenting him and leading him to insanity. Though the crown provided Macbeth and Lady Macbeth a brief sense of accomplishment and success, the burden of the crown became too much to cope with and changed the course of their lives for the worse. The imagery and symbolism of the dagger illustrated how Macbeth’s immoral quest to achieve his ambition left a devastating mark on his psyche, with his hallucinations and troubled state of mind he was in a constant state of hesitation and doubt leading to his downfall. Ultimately, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were lead to their tragic deaths as a result of their unchecked ambition and subsequent overpowering guilt. With a dramatic flare, Shakespeare suggests that it is perhaps that there is no ambition or personal desire worth the price of corruption undertaken to achieve it.

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