William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Introduction to Shakespearean Tragedy
William Shakespeare has worn the crown of the greatest dramatist of the world for many decades. Shakespeare used his words to bring characters to life; characters that lived within a common reader, from regalities like kings, princes, queens; vices like murderers and drunkards, to common men like mindless fools and court jesters. He meticulouslyembroidered these characters into his diverse but truly life-like plots that entranced people far and wide.
Shakespeare’svaried subjects and plots clearly indicate his knowledge of happenings around him and the working of governmental statutes. Shakespeare amalgamated actual history with his imagination and changed minute details of historical events; this produced a yet more interesting drama. The Tragedy of Macbethis no exception to it. King James, after the death of Queen Elizabeth, patronized Shakespeare’s company under his name; Shakespeare then transformed Holinshed’s Scottish, English and Irish chronicles (Bradley, 1968) for dramatic and political reasons in a way that instead of exhibiting Banquo as the man who helped murder Duncan he complimented King James’ ancestors by presenting Banquo in Macbethas a noble man who refused to help in Macbeth’s evil plans (Bradley, 1968; McAlindon, 1991).
Macbeth was written during the period of Renaissance in 1606 and published a few years later in 1623 (Litcharts Macbeth, n.d.) but its immense action and thrill has still not left the hearts and minds of people.Macbeth was the last of four great Shakespearean tragedies: King Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. Shakespeare’s tragedies had a unique artistic and poetical essence associated with them that was lacking in the norms of his time. Shakespeare considered tragedy as one of the greatest paradoxes of life that encumbered disappointment, lost hopes and most importantly unexpected turns of fate.
Shakespearean Tragedy revolves around aprotagonist (Wilson and Harold, 1957). Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth are all central figures or more precisely the tragic heroes of their respective dramas.Shakespeare sets his plays around a central hero who although being a man of high rank suffers from a moral flaw in his personality that eventually leads to his downfall.Fate and evilinterfere with the hero’s life and negate all forces of goodcompelling him to commit misdoings and make wrong decisions that eventually result in his downfall (Wilson and Harold, 1957). The essence of Shakespearean tragedy lies in the sense of tragedy that is aroused in the reader by his interaction with the vividly human characters that Shakespeare sketches.The expression of tragedy through soliloquyincludes the reader in the plot itself (Chandler, n.d.). Tragedies by Shakespeare contain an element of hope antagonized by the sense of thwartedambition and frustration. Death is the ultimate fate and an embodiment of defeat for all protagonists in Shakespearean tragedy (Chandler, n.d.).
The Tragedy ofMacbeth — the Plot
The Tragedy of Macbeth, set in Scotland and England in the 11th century, is about the struggle for power staged in the hands of ruthless politics and supernatural powers.Norwegians invade Scotland with the help of Scottish rebels. However, Scotland and its ruler, KingDuncan, are defended by their faithful followers. Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is among those people who devotedly fight off the invaders. Once the battle is over Macbeth and his friend, Banquo, meet the three witches who give the prophecy of Macbeth replacing the Thane of Cawdor and being king of Scotland one day. The men deny the prophecies of the witches but then come to know that the actual Thane of Cawdor is a Norwegian traitor and his post has been rewarded toMacbeth. Macbeth on seeing the prophecies coming true becomes ambitious and dreams about gaining the crown by killing King Duncan. However, he is reluctant. The same day, King Duncan declares that his son, Malcolm, will be his heir.King Duncan goes to Macbeth’s castle of Iverness to celebrate.
Macbeth writes a letter to his wife, Lady Macbeth, explaining the prophecy.Lady Macbeth is far more preparedfor evil than Macbeth. She knows about King Duncan’s expected arrival and plans to snatch the crown for her husband the same night. King Duncan is killed by the couple but somehow they succeed in framing the guards outside King Duncan’s room. Another thane, Macduff, discovers that the King is dead. Considering it a political assault, King Duncan’s sons flee away thinking that they will be the next target which puts them on the suspect list too.Macbeth becomes the King.
Banquo is suspicious of Macbeth as he is knows about the witches and their prophecy. On the other hand, Macbeth is threatened by Banquo as his descendants are supposed to be holders of the crown too according to the witches’ prophecy. Macbeth is blinded by his ambition and he orders to haveBanquoand his son, Fleance, murdered on their way to the feast he had thrown. However, Fleance escapes. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at the feast. His behavior and the untimely death of Banquomakes all the thanes suspicious of him. Macduff also leaves Scotland and joins Malcolm, King Duncans’s son, in his effort to make an army against Macbeth.
Macbeth again meets the three witches to know about his future. He is told that no man born from the womb of a woman can defeat him and he shall hold the crown untilBirnamWood marches towards the castle of Dunsinane.Since, the fulfillment of the two conditions of Macbeth’s downfall was apparently impossible, Macbeth grows even more haughty and cruel as he thinks he’s indomitable. Yet, to strengthen his hold onthe crown Macbeth plans to have Mac duff’s family dead. When Mac duff comes to know of his loss he vows revenge.
The English and Scottish now form an army against Macbeth under the rule of Malcolm and march towards the castle of Duns inane with branches of trees of Birnam woods in their hands. Lady Macbeth loses her mind due to the guilt in her heart; she sleep-walks and hallucinates blood stains on her hand. As Macbeth prepares to fight back the army of Malcolm, he comes to know of Lady Macbeth’s death. Macbeth is stiffened by the news and realizes the futility of his actions and although Malcolm’s forces take over the castle, Macbeth keeps on fighting with the confidence that no man born of a woman’s womb can kill him. However, the story takes an unanticipated turn as Mac duff reveals that he was not born from the womb of his mother in the natural way, instead he was “untimely ripped” from it and attacks Macbeth. Macbeth faces his obvious death with original bravery but is killed. The reign of terror and tyranny attributed to Macbeth is ended when Macduff emerges with Macbeth’s severed head at the end of the play.
Malcolm is given his rightful place as the Scottish King and peace is restored to Scotland.
A Critical Review of Macbeth
(a) Characters that Came to Life
The Tragedy of Macbeth is beautifully structured around vivid characters that become a part of the reader’s being and come to life just as he reads.The plot revolves around King Duncan, the ruler whose throne is the cause of all distress; Macbeth, the tragically ambitious hero; Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife; Banquo, Macbeth’s noble friend and an influential person; and the weird sisters, three witches whose prophecies are the reason of Macbeth’s battle with fate.
Macbeth is a nobleman from Scotland and the Thane of Glamis who is highly reputed in the King’s court as the play starts. After the battle with Englishmen, Macbeth is even promoted to the rank of Thane of Cawdor in reward to his valor and courage in the battlefield.He is valiant, principled and faithful to the ruler. It is obvious that through life his ambitions brought him to great levels of respect and lordship but when he hears the prophecy of his being the King of Scotland one day, his extreme desire to live this prophecy transforms his once commendable ambition to repugnant lust for power (Elliott, 1960). He is so blinded by his foaming wishes that his nobility and honor change to violence and tyranny without arousing his conscience at all. His indifference to everything but power and throne eventually leads to his downfall. The interesting thing about this character is that with the help of this character, Shakespeare moves through his play with the debate between good and bad. Initially, Macbeth is reluctant is executing his plan against King Duncan and his past bravery shows that it was not because he was afraid of the consequences but only because he knew it would bring failure and turmoil on him in the end. Still, Macbeth chose to fulfill his fiery desire to pursue power no matter what the result may be.
(ii) Lady Macbeth
Havingcompatibilitywith Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is a woman of strength, but her strength does not lie in her moral character; when she heard about her prospects of becoming the Queen of Scotland, she was not at all reluctant about killing the King. Her character also portrays haughtiness in her personality as she conveniently challenged her husband’s manliness on seeing his reluctance to commit the murder.She declares that a man who snatches what he desires is actually a true man. Lady Macbeth burdens herself by seducing his husband into committing the murder afterall. Although, initially she has the strength and potential to deal with the task of abetting in a murder and thinks she will be able to forget all about it once she becomes the Scottish Queen but eventually conscience overpowers her vices. She dies of guilt and anguish.
Like Macbeth, Banquo, is also a nobleman of Scotland and a general in rank.To some extent through Banquo and Macbeth, the writer has offered a comparison of choices made by men in similar circumstances. When Macbeth was foretold of his rule on Scotland, so was Banquo made aware that his descendants would one day be wearing the crown. Like Macbeth, Banquo is a man of high rank and status and hence of an ambitious nature. However, he considers the honor of his king, country and individuality foremost and suppressed his selfish agendas.Further comparison reveals that Macbeth and Banquowere a part of the same secret i.e., of knowing their fate and Macbeth had also tried to seduce Banquo to be a part of his evil plan. Furthermore, Banquo’s descendants are meant to be the heirs of the throne. These facts make Banquo nothing but a threat for Macbeth and a walking sign of the right path that Macbeth rejected due to his lust. Hatred again takes over and Macbeth kills Banquo while his son escapes during the assault.
Even after his murder Banquo remains an important character of the play in the form of the Ghost of Banquo. The Ghost of Banquostarts haunting Macbeth during the same time interval in which the murder takes place. Macbeth’s fear of the ghost and his turmoil is an indication of the extreme guilt that he faces on becoming his contorted form.
(iv) the Three Witches
They have also been titled the Weird Sisters in the play. The three witchesare capable of predicting the future for people as they have supernatural powers. However, disseminating the knowledge among concerned people is their own choice. If they know the fate of a person; logic states that they should also be able to see the means by which that particular fate shall be fulfilled. They revealed only half the truth about future to people, precisely the brightest part, which could lure them into wanting their goal sooner than possible (Litcharts Macbeth, n.d.). This actually leaves the reader with the notion that the ultimate fate might be pre-determined but how a person reaches that fate is completely dependent on his nature and choices. For instance, would Macbeth still win the throne if he had not strived so meaninglessly for it? The point to consider here is that the witches did not persuade Macbeth and Banquo to follow their respective choices; what they revealed to them brought chaos and anarchy by the men’s own inclinations.
(v) Macduff and Lady Macduff
Macduff is the Thane of Fife and hence a nobleman of high rank. This character is opposing in personality and traits to that of Macbeth. Where Macbeth is overly ambitious, Macduffis a man of rules and dictation who puts his nation and ruler before everything else, even family. Macduff is not fond of Macbeth from the beginning so suspects him when King Duncan and Banquo are killed. Macduffis compelled to rebel against Macbeth after the latter becomes king so as a warning Macbeth hires an assassin to kill all of Macduff’s family. Macduff remains somewhat passive in the gist of the play but loss of his family triggers extreme vengeance and hatred in his heart. His fight becomes personal.
Lady Macduff is not a prominent character in the play. She is the mother of Macduff’s children but still is not able to convince him regarding his personal duties to his family. Lady Macduff argues Macduff over his decision of leaving Scotland to join Malcolm’s army in England so he could rebel against the new King Macbeth but to no avail.
Malcolm is the prince of Scotland and the elder of two sons of its rightful King, King Duncan. At the start of the play, when KingDuncan is murdered, Malcolm appears to be an immature and weak youngster who cowardly left the country to protect himself from his father’s enemies.As time passes, Malcolm gains the maturity well suited to him as a prince. Shakespeare beautifullyillustrates his comeback in the finale of this play. Malcolm strives to set up an English army against Macbeth; soon after, Macduff also joins him in the feat.The throne that Macbeth snatched from King Duncan was over thrown by Malcolm’s army.
The peace of Scotland is restored as the natural order of things is relieved with the death of Macbeth and crowing of Malcolm as the King.
(vii) Other Characters
Some other characters include King Duncan; the King of Scotland; Fleance, Banquo’s young son; Lennox, Ross and Angus; three Scottish noblemen; Donalbain, Malcolm’s younger brother and King Duncan’s son; and King Edward, the saintly king of England; etc.
(B) Macbeth as a Thematic Unit
The Tragedy of Macbeth is the most daring experiment on expressing tragedy that emergeswhen evil from sinful human endeavors seduces man into making a corrupt moral choice. Macbeth in set up on a concrete structure thatgives out a statement through itsthemes (LitchartsMacbeth, n.d.): Ultimate power in the world ismorality or the constant struggle between good and evil where the latter destroys all order in the world. Anything detrimental, unfruitful orweakeningin a character or plot is the carrier of evil. It annihilates. When evil diminishes the good residing inthe hero, he cannot exist anymore and balance has to be restored by his death (Chandler, n.d.).Macbeth presents these elements through the fights for the Scottish throne.Blind ambition; gory violence, combination of nature (fate), unnatural means and the supernatural; and the debate over true essence of manhood form the thematic basis behind this great play by Shakespeare.
The main tragic hero of Macbeth, i.e., Macbeth himself and his wife, Lady Macbeth, are undeniably blinded by ambition to achieve what they have been made to fantasize about after the prophecy of the three witches (Stallybrass, 1982). Both of them want to have power in their hands and are ready to sacrifice their morals for it but their conscience remains alive. Macbeth’s faithfulness towards King Duncan against the Norwegians before the prophecy explains his true nature as good man of morals. However, he is overwhelmed by the greed of throne that he knows has been written in his fate and become a murderer instead. An analysis of other characters that were in the same circumstance of achieving power like Banquo – who was prophesized to be the ancestor of rulers of Scottish Kingdom – or Macduff – who has equal prospects of wearing the crown — reveals that it was dependent solely on Macbeth whether he chose to allow his ambition to run amok by freeing it from any moral or communal conscience or not.Banquo and Macduff wanted to be rulers too but they checked their ambition. Hence, ambitions, if allowed to go astray, are not destined to be fulfilled anymore and eventually transform into monsters that destroy anything that comes in their way (Litcharts Macbeth, n.d.).
Macbeth starts in the time of a war with killing of men, women and children and it ends with the decapitation of its tragic hero, Macbeth.When Macbeth murdered King Duncan to obtain his throne, he not only pushed himself in a situation that demanded more killing but also compelled others like Macduff, whose family Macbeth killed, to carry on with this ruthless game. Through Macbeth, the writer has made an excellent point:Every violent act is like a stimulant for its own race; one vicious act leads to the next one and the cycle continues until nothing is left behind.
Macbeth and Banquo are told about their fates; a question arises here in the readers mind: now that they know about their fate, would they be able to play around it? Banquo on hearing the prophecy takes no action at all. Macbeth, on the other hand, strikes off a chain reaction by hasting to fulfill his fateby killing King Duncan. He did attain what was prophesized but through unnatural way that disrupted the naturalchain of events. Macbeth brought himself to ruin by fighting faith.Shakespeare has meticulously built a bridge between the natural and political worlds. He has sketched tremendous natural calamities like incredible storms, earthquakes, animals going wild when Macbeth disrupts nature by killing King Duncan. These unnatural events have been shown to have arisen because of Macbeth and his wife’s attempt to manipulate nature by seizing the throne. The disasters are a shadow of the warping that has occurred in their souls due to blind ambition.
Lastly, the play leaves a question levitating for the reader. Does taking what a man desires for by force and ambition is true manhood or restraining himself and his desires is true manhood-in different circumstances, the reader is given opportunities to debate over this idea through different characters and their notions. For instance, Lady Macbeth thinks that Macbeth won’t be ‘strong enough’ when he initially decided not to kill King Duncan. On the contrary, Banquo thought that it was the best use of his morality and persona to not help Macbeth in his evil ideas. Macbeth is being debated over to be a man by his wife if he gave in to his desires while Banquo argues for his own manhood by suppressing his desires.
(C) Symbolism Used in Macbeth
Shakespeare used symbolism to express his thematic statements. Visions and hallucinations of Macbeth start whenhe blindly kills for his ambition.The reader is left to deal with the problem regarding the originality of what Macbeth feels or sees; is it just his guilt turning into wild imagination or he is really being haunted? The situation is not made clear by the writer in the play itself. Macbeth envisions a dagger floating in mid-air in front of him or sees Banquo’s ghost in broad daylight when any other person cannot. An analysis of the psychology of Macbeth at this point of the play indicates the consequences that disruption of nature has on his mind. Macbeth, who was once a man of virtuous ambition, fights against his true nature. Macbeth is shown to be in a state of battle with himselfthrough this chain of guilt-generated hallucinations: his distinctive honor against his wild ambitions.
As the end draws near Lady Macbeth and Macbeth wonder if they will ever be able to remove the stains of blood from their hands. Of course, there is no physical blood on their hands and the writer actually portrays the ultimate culpability now creeping into their thoughts. Alas! They cannot turn back the hands of the clock. This also portrays that death, murder and vices of all kinds are executed in a few moments but the stains of anguish and sorrow that they may carve on hearts of people remain behind forever and can never be removed. The stains of blood — or precisely guilt — can never be washed off from the couple’s hands.
A person sleeps when his mind is at peace and no anguish prevails in his heart. Shakespeare has used this human trait as a symbol of peace, purity and innocence. When Macbeth murders King Duncan, he fantasizes to have heard a voice say “Macbeth does murder sleep “and this is exactly what Macbeth’s horrendous action leads to. The guilt of this murder takes away the peace of his life while his wife literally loses her sleep and starts sleep-walking. Macbeth is now haunted by his evil-doings for the rest of his life.
Macbeth’s outrageouschain of cruel murders is followedby a numberof unnatural occurrences in the natural realm. Thunder and lightning accompany the appearance of the three witchesand terrible storms rage on the night that King Duncan is murdered.These violationsof the natural order are a symbol of corruption in peoples’ moral and political values.
(D) Language of Macbeth
Shakespeare’s language can intimidate new readers due to the rather uncommon use of poetical verse and vocabulary. For most, now, his style of writing is nothing but archaic which makes reading Shakespearean pieces a monotonous task. However, every word that Shakespeare writes has its own dramatic essence hidden in it.The three important aspects of Shakespeare’s writing in general and Macbeth in particular are his unique sentences, manipulation of words and poetical verse attributed to his tragic characters (Goddard and Howard, 1951).
In all languages, in order for a sentence to produce its right meaning, each word has to be placed in proper order and sequence.Word position is the basic machinery of a sentence’s efficiency in conveying its meaning.Readers of Macbeth will find unfamiliar word arrangements, a common Shakespearean style, very confusing or somehow difficult to grasp. Macbeth is a poetic drama by Shakespeare; to maintain a poetic rhythm throughout the play word arrangements keep shifting away from the norm. Unlike the conventional rules of English language, in which structure of a sentence follows order of subject, verb and finally an object, Shakespeareplaces the verb before the subject. For example, the readers of Macbethwould come across inverted word arrangement in sentence like “Does he” instead of “He does.” Inversions in sentences like these should not be wearisome as reader can understand this typeof passages clearly by re-arranging to conventional English.Using the same rare structure, he giveshis character a new dimension or adds an element of suspense to it.
As one readsMacbeth, he will encounter redundant words too, also a particular writing trait of Shakespeare, and current words but with unexpected meanings. He has used word manipulations like metaphors, similes, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, allusion, and puns (Goddard and Howard, 1951). Fleance, after his escape from the assault by Macbeth becomes a threat to him and is described as a serpent. A comparison of Fleance has been done with a serpent in a way that he isreplaced by a serpent on basis of commonattributes, here it is hatred expected from a poisonous serpent. This is called metaphor. Similescompare entities or concepts while using the words “like” or “as.”
Finally, Macbeth is written in the form of rhymed verses.Shakespeare chooses blank verse for his characters of noble birth. He knits along the plot of the play with extremelylavish lines in verse that daunts even the most sophisticated of readers.
For 400 years, readers have found it greatly satisfying to engross themselves in the fantasizing world of tragedy, evil and ruthlessness of Macbeth that ends with the victory of goodness and peace. Just as being a spectator of a performance of a Shakespearean play is exciting;enacting the play in one’s ownmind’s imagination by bringing to life Macbeth’s indomitable characters and revisiting lines to enrich the sense of the action will enhance one’s appreciation ofShakespeare’s extraordinary literary and dramatic skills in Macbeth.The language in Macbeth has implied stage action, word choice, sentence structure, and wordplay.
Bradley, a.C. Shakespeare: Macbeth: A Casebook (J. Wain Ed.). London: MacMillan. (1968).
Chandler, D. The Essence of Shakespearean Tragedy.Retrieved from http://www.lcurve.org/writings/Tragedy.htm. May 2, 2013.
Elliott, G.R., & Shakespeare, W. Dramatic providence in Macbeth: Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1960).
Goddard, H.C. The meaning of Shakespeare (Vol. 2): University of Chicago Press. (1951).
Litcharts. Macbeth. Retrieved from http://www.litcharts.com/files/pdf/printer/macbeth-LitChart.pdf. May 2, 2013
McAlindon, T. (1991).Shakespeare’s tragic cosmos: UK: Cambridge University Press.
Stallybrass, P. Macbeth and witchcraft, Focus on Macbeth: (J. Russell Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge&Kegan Paul. (1982).
Wilson, H.S. On the design of Shakespearian tragedy: Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (1957).
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