Thesis: Through his complexity as a character, Macbeth brings the drama to life and defines the innate evilness that results from the lust for power in William Shakespeare's blood-filled tragedy Macbeth.
I. The Character of Macbeth
A. Thirst for power
1. Success in battle
2. Witches' prophesy
B. Rise to Power
1. Duncan's murder
a. pressure by Lady Macbeth
b. Macbeth's fear and struggle
2. Tyrannical reign
C. Macbeth's decline
1. Banquo's murder
3. Death of Macbeth
D. Character traits
1. Physical courage
2. Moral weakness
4. Soliloquies (asides)
II. Motif of Blood
A. Physical blood
1. In battle
2. In murder
3. On the hands of Macbeth
B. Visions of blood
1. Macbeth's hallucinations
2. Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking
C. Blood as a symbol
III. Struggle for Power
A. Macbeth's yearning for power
1. Title of Thane
2. Murder of Duncan
B. Lady Macbeth's need for power
1. Over light
2. Over her husband
3. Over herself
C. Power as a central theme
Conclusion: Throughout his gory tragedy, William Shakespeare uses the complex character of Macbeth to draw emotional realities to the idea of ultimate power through violence. In the continual fray of bloodshed, both life-like and hallucinogenic, Shakespeare is able to portray the dangers of attempting to control one's own destiny. By the close of the play, a central theme of the lust for power, whether it be in the present or in the form of a legacy, is identifiable and understandable. No matter the time period and no matter the language, William Shakespeare's Macbeth is easily understood in the context of one short phrase--Macbeth: the man, the terror, the power.
Macbeth: the Man, the Terror, the Power
Macbeth, one of William Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, tells the tale of Macbeth, a brave and fearful Scottish general who attempts to control his own destiny. Macbeth's ambitions spawn from a prophecy told by three witches that he shall one day become King of Scotland. Following the prophecy, Macbeth murders King Duncan in association with the careful planning on behalf of his wife, Lady Macbeth. As he rises to the throne, Macbeth yearns for the greater power of bestowing upon Scotland a line of kings bearing his name. Macbeth's prowess turns to violence as the play becomes no less than a bloodbath. Through his complexity as a character, Macbeth brings the drama to life and defines the innate evilness that results from the lust for power in William Shakespeare's blood-filled tragedy Macbeth.
As the first act begins, Macbeth is being hailed as a war-hero for his defeat of the enemy Macdonwald. "He unseamed him from the nave to the chops, and fixed his head upon our battlements" (Shakespeare 1.2.22-23) reports a Sergeant in the Scottish army. Upon hearing the news, King Duncan decrees that Macbeth shall be known as Thane of Cawdor. While returning home from battle, Macbeth, unaware of his new title, and his friend Banquo come upon three witches who are "hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction...unreal, abortive, half-existences..." (Hazlitt 172). These witches, who are also known as the Weird Sisters, deliver a prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo: "Macbeth! Hail to thee thane of Glamis...thane of Cawdor...that shalt be king hereafter" (Shakespeare 1.3.48-50) and "[to Banquo] Lesser than Macbeth, and greater. Not so happy, yet much happier. Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none" (1.3.65-67). The pair walk away puzzled at the witches' words. Macbeth, however, soon learns that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, partially fulfilling the prophecy.
When Lady Macbeth learns of her husband's new title and prophesied destiny in Macbeth's letter to her, "she at once seizes on the opportunity that offers for the accomplishment of all their wishes--for greatness, and never flinches from her object till all is over" (Hazlitt 171). Though Macbeth wishes to be king, he does not share his wife's enthusiastic appraisal. Lady Macbeth's "obdurate strength of will and masculine firmness gives her the ascendancy over her husband's faltering virtue" (171). This faltering virtue is comprised of Macbeth's inner fears of the consequences of murdering the king. Here is demonstrated the complexity of Macbeth's character. "While Macbeth longs for the crown, his spirit and humanity beg him not to undertake Lady Macbeth's murderous propositions" (Brooks 158). However strong his fears, Macbeth's desire for kingship outweighs any anxiety he feels toward his crimes. Thus, the prophecy proclaimed by the Weird Sisters becomes Macbeth's stimulus for murdering King Duncan. Subsequently, Macbeth's path of terror and bloodshed spawns from the same prophesy (Brooks 160). Such a stimulus demonstrates Macbeth's great ambition and determination for murdering King Duncan.
Through the murder of Duncan, Macbeth comes to power in rule over all of Scotland. The new king, however, is described as anything but kind: "Macbeth, murderer of Duncan, and Macbeth, tyrant of Scotland, shows his loathsome ambitions through his reign of terror and murder" (Goddard 7). After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth stands at the peak of his power; "What the rest of the play then offers in Macbeth's character is an uneven but continuing retrogression from the earlier full awareness to a condition in which all faculties are attenuated to a male and murderous courage, noble and admirable only as a beast of prey is noble and admirable" (Mack 70). In his thirst for power, Macbeth wishes to control fate, against the prophesy of the Weird Sisters, and decides to murder Banquo, for Macbeth desires to be the one to establish a dynasty (Brooks 161). After overseeing the murder of his friend and comrade, Macbeth soon realizes that he "has sacrificed his otherworldly hopes for worldly glory, only to find that he has no one to whom he may bequeath his costly acquisition" (Watson 166). With no heirs and no comrades with which to share his throne, Macbeth gradually begins to travel down a path of misery and self-destruction.
As if by some strange twist of fate, Macbeth, in his decline, begins to experience bouts of Insomnia. "The deed of murder drives Macbeth back to a frenzy of psychic division" (Mack 72), and the king soon finds himself unable to "escape his nightmares either by sleeping or by waking" (Watson 147). Perhaps Macbeth's sleeplessness can be attributed to his murder of sleep upon Duncan. "At last Macbeth realizes that he is indeed slipping below even 'the worst rank of manhood,' to a bestial level of 'demi-wolves' and 'hounds'" (Goddard 21). With his lowest hour at hand, the only wisps of hope to which Macbeth clings are the surefire prophecies of the Weird Sisters.
In his final act of digression, Macbeth visits the witches once more in an attempt to lean of his fate. "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him" (Shakespeare 4.1.92-94) the apparition tells him. Once again Macbeth fails to perceive the literal as well as the figurative meaning of a phrase, a phrase that subsequently becomes all too prophetic. "Macbeth's lack of faith in the natural cycles...leads to a rash observation that unwittingly invites his death at the hands of Malcolm's forces" (Watson 164). Macbeth views the witches' prophesy as impossible; that is, until he sees clubs and shields made of wood from Birnam trees advancing on his castle. "Macbeth has so thoroughly drained himself of internal significance that he must be dealt with in the way he deal with Macdonwald: he will have to be unseamed from the nave to the chops" (Mack 84). Such is true, as Macbeth meets his end with his head on a pike.
Throughout the tragedy, Macbeth is presented as a character of physical courage and moral weakness. By his physical courage, Macbeth is seen as a valiant war-hero with high aspirations. He is said to be "a tyrant, usurper, murderer...aspiring, ambitious, courageous, cruel, and treacherous" (Hazlitt 173). The defining aspect of Macbeth's physical courage comes in his murder of King Duncan. As the character of Macbeth ascends to power, his energy flows from the "anxiety and agitation of his mind" (Hazlitt 171). Though his energy is high, Macbeth is also a man of moral weakness, demonstrated primarily by his inner fears of the crimes which he commits. "Macbeth is full of horror at the thoughts of the murder of Duncan, which he is with difficulty prevailed on to commit, and of remorse after its perpetration" (Hazlitt 175). As Macbeth was once thought to be an upstanding protector of Scotland, he has seemingly become a coward and a man of weakened, perhaps nonexistent, morals.
Upon closer examination of Macbeth's character, Shakespeare reveals this tragic hero as a man of determination: determined to create a powerful and lasting reign. "The dramatist grants high individuality only to Macbeth, and by doing so makes us confront what it is that we find so very attractive in the very bloody villain" (Bloom 2). A major factor in Macbeth's individuality is his determination throughout the play. In the beginning, he is determined to become king and will stop at nothing. As the drama progresses, Macbeth becomes determined to control fate, which causes him to turn toward a path of tyranny and murder out of "sheer personal ambition" (Brooks 161). "Bloody tyrant though he be, Macbeth remains the unsurpassed representation of imagination gone beyond limits, into the abyss of our emptiness" (Bloom 4). Justly said, Macbeth's determination and complexity as a character travels beyond the normal imagination of the human mind into a deep and endless abyss.
A final and perplexing aspect of Macbeth's character are his asides, or soliloquies. Shakespeare uses Macbeth's soliloquies to present his inner emotions and fears. "His speeches and soliloquies are dark riddles on human life, baffling solutions, and entangling him in their labyrinths" (Hazlitt 171). Perhaps Macbeth's and Shakespeare's most revealing and most famous soliloquy comes soon after the murder of King Duncan, while Macbeth appears in a state of hysteria:
Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes!
Will all great Neptune's ocean was this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
By expressing his thoughts and fears through asides, Macbeth's character offers insight not provided other characters by Shakespeare. Such a level of depth and complexity lends to the idea that Macbeth truly is one of Shakespeare's most exciting and most insightful characters.
In the development of Macbeth as a character and the play of Macbeth as a whole, William Shakespeare uses numerous recurring motifs to enhance Macbeth's passion for power. Perhaps the most significant and most effectual motif is that of blood. Throughout the drama, Macbeth desires power, and in order to attain that power, desires blood. From the appearance of the bloody sergeant in the second scene to the closing images of Macbeth's bloody head on a pike, the tragedy offers continual visions of blood both physical and symbolic. The first signs of physical blood appear in the aforementioned battle scene, where Macbeth's sword is said to be "smoked with bloody execution" (Shakespeare 1.2.18). The signs of physical blood soon switch from battle to batter in Macbeth's murder of King Duncan. "The subject of the play is murder, and the prevalence of blood ensures that we shall never forget the physical realities in metaphysical overtones" (Muir 166). Through much blood is shed in the murders of Duncan and his two guards, the most significant and most abundant blood appears on the hands of the murderer himself: Macbeth. "The physical blood and grime of the thing is as awful to the gentle natures of Macbeth and his wife as is the horror of the crime itself..." (Chapman 153). As Macbeth comes to the realization of his crimes by gazing upon his bloody hands, Lady Macbeth orders him to "wash this filthy witness from you hand" and states that "a little water clears us of this deed" (Shakespeare 2.2.47, 67). Macbeth, however, knows that though the physical blood may be cleansed, the truly symbolic blood remains: "...once his hands are dyed in blood, he hardly cares to withdraw them" (Hazlitt 174). Thus meaning, after Macbeth successfully murders Duncan, he feels little if no remorse for the future murders which he commits so casually.
As blood presents itself in a physical form, also present in the tale of Macbeth are multiple visions of blood. First are Macbeth's foreshadowing visions of "gouts of blood" and "the bloody business which informs thus to mine eyes" (Shakespeare 2.1.46, 48-49), a precursor to Duncan's murder. As his rampage continues, Macbeth, before the murder of Banquo, "invokes the 'bloody and invisible hand' of the night" (Muir 165). Yet another hallucination is delivered to Macbeth by the witches in which he sees a vision in the form of a "bloody child who advises Macbeth to be 'bloody, bold, and resolute'" (Muir 165). Though Macbeth is not the only character who suffers from these visions of blood; Lady Macbeth, in her guilt, encounters the horrors of sleepwalking. "The blood runs from the old man's body unendingly. She washes her hands over and over. Such a circle is madness. Lady Macbeth is caught in it. She prefers death" (Goddard 30). Lady Macbeth, in her sleepwalking, attempts in vain to "remove the 'damned spot' from her hands" (Muir 165). Lady Macbeth's eventual suicide spawns not from sleeplessness, but from the chaotic visions of blood attributed to her sleeplessness.
While Shakespeare uses physical blood and visions of blood to portray the violence and horrors of Macbeth, much more significant are the premonitions of blood as symbols of evil, murder, and reality. Macbeth "directs his will to evil and bloodshed, toward something that of its very nature makes for chaos and the abnegation of meaning" (Knights 103). Whenever blood is present, evil works are carried out. Most often, this evil presents itself in the form of murder. Could the symbol of blood be a driving force behind Macbeth's series of slayings? "...The same fears which had tended to hold him back from murder now urge him on to double and treble murders, until slaughter and bloodshed, almost reckless, become the habits of his reign" (Hazlitt 174). Blood, as a symbol of evil and murder, also symbolizes the reality of Macbeth's horrific deeds. "It is the bloodshed which encompasses Macbeth to feel the guilt and agony that is the crime of murder" (Knights 101). Whether blood is shown in its physical form, as a hallucination, or used as symbolic representations of evil, murder, and reality, Shakespeare nonetheless exploits the use of blood to assist in evoking images of horror and terror in his fateful drama.
Although the recurring motif of blood is used to develop further the captivating tragedy, also helpful is the thematic element of the struggle for power. "Macbeth defines a particular kind of evil--the evil that results from a lust for power" (Knights 93). Power, in all its forms, is sought after by numerous characters in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Even as he receives his new title of Thane of Cawdor in the play's opening, Macbeth yearns for more power. In lieu of the Weird Sisters' prophesy of Macbeth's increasing power, the future king also wishes to gain power in controlling fate. "It is in terms of destructive and self-destructive energies that Macbeth's power lust is defined" (Knights 99). Thus, Macbeth uses his destructive energies to gain power as king by killing Duncan, and at the same time directs his self-destructive energies toward controlling fate against the omniscient witches by demanding that they reveal his full life's path. These self-destructive energies are eventually the ones which spawn Macbeth's downfall, defeat, and death.
In addition to the character development of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's character also expresses an unnatural need for power: power over not only the light of day and her husband, but power over herself as well. "Lady Macbeth provokes an ambitious violation in an aspiration to sovereignty over those nights and days...(she) quickly concludes that she must eradicate the vision daylight permits" (Watson 140). Lady Macbeth wishes for power over the daylight as well as power over husband so that the murder of Duncan may transpire according to plan. Moreover, Lady Macbeth wishes herself to be "unsexed" in hopes that she could potentially commit the homicide herself (Shakespeare 1.5.40). By forcing her husband to kill the king however, Lady Macbeth fails to realize that though Macbeth may be king, she has ultimate power and control over him.
Siting power as a theme in the play, Shakespeare obviously uses this lust for power to mold his twisted tale into a timeless tragedy. Is power not the motive in Macbeth's initial murder of King Duncan? Power seemingly becomes the instigator for Macbeth's continual reign of terror as well. These same lusts for power are vindictively evident throughout all of history. Power, evil as it may be, binds the tale of Macbeth to reality--however fictitious Shakespeare intended it (Knights 98). The lust for power, then, is quickly identified as a central and unifying theme upon which the drama draws its very basis.
Throughout his gory tragedy, William Shakespeare uses the complex character of Macbeth to draw emotional realities to the idea of ultimate power through violence. In the continual fray of bloodshed, both life-like and hallucinogenic, Shakespeare is able to portray the dangers of attempting to control one's own destiny. By the close of the play, a central theme of the lust for power, whether it be in the present or in the form of a legacy, is identifiable and understandable. No matter the time period and no matter the language, William Shakespeare's Macbeth is easily understood in the context of one short phrase--Macbeth: the man, the terror, the power.
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